Are biblical christophanies real?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: I've heard Christians use passages where God is being seen in the Old Testament as Christ but the New Testament gives us further explanation stating that it was an angel. (For example, Stephan believed it was an angel that spoke from the burning bush and Hosea believed Jacob wrestled with an angel). How would you reconcile that? 

Answer: I have reviewed the scriptures centered on Genesis 32:24–25, Hosea 12:4 and Acts 7:30 (which seem to be your references), and let me say at the outset that I am sympathetic with your complaint — and I will be pleased to discuss the issues with you. To do so, however, we must talk about the “-ophanies.”

For purposes of this discussion let us understand an angelophany to be an appearance of an angel in the Bible, a theophany to be an appearance of God in the Old Testament, and a Christophany to be an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ in the Old Testament (OT) — but here’s the problem: whereas both angelophanies and  theophanies are biblically common and easy to document, Christophanies are speculative; people must assign the identity of Christ to an “-ophany” where his presence is not at all clear. They are, therefore, by nature, interpretive, and in my opinion, these are more manufactured entities than they are revealed ones.

As you can tell, I am not one of the commentators who subscribe to Christophanies. So let me share the four main reasons why I take this stand.

First, the biblical language alone never warrants identifying a passage as a Christophany (— and if it did, those passages would be flown from the rafters!) What I mean by this is, to interpret a passage as a Christophany, one must add concepts that are external to the OT… and that’s a big problem for me. I believe very strongly that God used standard communications practices in his word, and as such, he would never design communication that would fail without some prerequisite knowledge… but a knowledge which his primary audience did not (and could not) have… and the OT Jews knew nothing of Jesus Christ.

Now, if God performed the miracle of injecting super-biblical-knowledge-of-the-future-Jesus-Christ into his OT reader’s minds, then they might see the occasional Christophany… but what then of language. Why bother with words at all if the rules are so arbitrary as to be circumvented? In fact, God would be perpetrating fraud with a bait-and-switch like that! Therefore, (and out of respect for the language that God gave us) I must aver that the Bible’s words alone do not warrant identifying any passage as a Christophany; a Christophany is an eisegetical construct.

Second, the concept of a pre-incarnate Christ does nothing to help the Church — not like the OT types do for the New Testament (NT) antitypes. (Types and antitypes are literary symbols that are fine-tuned for the Bible. They act the same way as the symbolic vehicle and tenor do in common literature.) Since the Church is all about Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we expect the NT to connect with the OT Christophanies more assuredly if they existed — like the book of Hebrews connects the OT sacrifices to Jesus Christ? But none like these can be found.

“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:11–12, NIV)

Third, injecting Jesus into the OT would not inform the Jews… it would only confuse them. Since I work under the assumption that God wrote his word to communicate — and not to obfuscate — why would he introduce such a difficult concept to a people under monotheistic training … a people who could not wrap their minds around Jesus even when the time was right?

“And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables….Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:22–29, NIV)

Fourth, theophanies do not foreshadow the incarnate Christ — not biblically anyway. Whether or not Christophanies actually exist, it is often said that the many theophanies foreshadow the incarnate Christ — and I will grant that as a point of literature… because God does indeed use literature! But I do not equate this literary foreshadowing with the biblical foreshadowing that connects the two testaments. The literary foreshadowing is a mere revelatory whisper whereas the biblical one is a loud shout. Hear them roar.

These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
(Colossians 2:17, NIV, emphasis mine)

They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” (Hebrews 8:5, NIV, emphasis mine)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (Hebrews 10:1, NIV, emphasis mine)

My point with these verses is that even the theophanies (which are the Rock of Gibraltar compared to the maybe-yes/maybe-no of the Christophanies) do not point to the Christ declaratively — not like the Law does. The OT sacrificial system demonstrates solid connections between the testaments, whereas the theophanies do so only as literature, and since the Bible does not connect the theophanies from the OT to the Church as it does the Law to Jesus, we should stop treating them as if it does. So, if we do this to the theophanies which surely exist, how much more should we do it to the Christophanies which are merely speculative…. and which would be redundant to the well-established types even if they did exist.

As to your question then, people like me (and we are many) have nothing to “reconcile.” It is the people who do subscribe to Christophanies who must reconcile their belief — and many people whom I respect deeply hold this view.

The late Dr. John Walvoord of Dallas Theological Seminary said,

“It is safe to assume that every visible manifestation of God in bodily form in the Old Testament is to be identified with the Lord Jesus Christ.” (p54, Jesus Christ Our Lord, The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1969)

That is a very strong statement in favor of Christophanies — and from a strong and accomplished Christian man! But this does not stop non-credentialed-little-me from disagreeing with him. By way of comparison, Got Questions Ministries takes a more neutral stance — allowing for the possibility of Christophany without supporting it directly.

While there are no indisputable Christophanies in the Old Testament, every theophany wherein God takes on human form foreshadows the incarnation, where God took the form of a man to live among us as Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).


This demonstrates an important point in this discussion: the very fact that we may be convinced one way or the other and still be orthodox Christians tells us that this is a secondary issue — not one we take to the mat. Now, every concept in the Bible is important… but not every concept is a deal-breaker. If we uphold the redemption of humankind through the person of Jesus Christ, the minor issues can remain in play.

Think about this: Would Jesus’ either appearing or not appearing as the pre-incarnate Christ in the OT somehow kill salvation? No. So, perhaps those who subscribe to Christophanies may someday convince you that they exist, or perhaps I have convinced you that they cannot be reconciled. But under either truth, God’s program will persist.

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