What in the world was Jesus doing before Bethlehem? 

We are taught to look for Christ in the Old Testament, and we will literally find Him in the stories, if we are looking with the right point of view.

What in the world was Jesus doing before Bethlehem?

When “the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground”, who was it exactly that breathed into the man’s “nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7 ESV)? Well, you say, that’s simple – God did! And you would be right, but can we be more precise? It is so easy for our minds to think of God in chronological segments – to believe in the Trinity, but be functionally modalistic (that is, not seeing three distinct persons working together but rather three “modes” or forms of activity being carried out in different periods of time). We then think of the Old Testament as being the realm of God the Father, the New Testament as being the realm of God the Son, and our current time as that of God the Spirit.

But this isnt the case. All three Persons of the Godhead have been intimately interested in mankind and Gods purpose throughout human history. The different Persons of the Trinity are active in the Old Testament, even if they are not as explicitly delineated as they are with the lens of New Testament revelation. Orthodox Christianity rejects the concept that Jesus came into existence in Bethlehem.

If this is true, and I believe it is, where was He before? A quick study of a concordance shows that references to the Spirit of God are littered throughout the Old Testament, but references to the Son are much harder to come by. So was He present in the Old Testament? Was He the One who formed Adam and presented him with Eve? This will be the topic of this series of study – surely He wasn’t absent from the happenings of mankind prior to His physical arrival on planet earth! 

NT proof of Christ’s OT activity

To begin our investigation, we will turn to explicit New Testament references of the Lord Jesus Christ’s presence in Old Testament stories. The Christological passages of John 1 and Colossians 1 make it clear that He was integral to the creation of the universe, for example, “without Him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3 ESV). The difficult passage in 1 Peter 3:19 presents the possibility that Christ was present and interested in the preaching of Noah prior to the flood.

Moving forward in human history, we are taught by Jude that it was “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt” (Jude 5 ESV). Then Paul, in his letter to Corinth, declares that the source of water in the wilderness during the journey from Egypt to Canaan was “the spiritual Rock . . . Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4 ESV). John, as he reflects in his Gospel upon the unbelief of the Jewish nation at the close of the Lord’s public ministry, makes it clear that it was Jesus whom Isaiah saw in the temple in Isaiah 6: “Isaiah . . . saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41 ESV).

This selection of passages, from a variety of writers, covering events recorded in both the Law and the Prophets, bear witness to the activity of Christ throughout the Old Testament.

NT proof that Christ is the expression of Deity

Since it is clear from the passages already quoted that God the Son was active in the Old Testament, a further point may be pressed. John 1 tells us that “no one has ever seen God” (v.18 ESV), while John 4:24 records that “God is spirit” (ESV). These Scriptures are clear, and easily understood. God cannot be observed, nor has been observed, by men in their physical state.

But how do we square this with the many Old Testament men and women who had interactions with God? To take one example, “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24 ESV). Some may argue that this walking was metaphorical, perhaps wishing to explain Moses’ face-to-face interactions (Numbers 12) in a similar way. Before long, however, explaining the language employed to describe these incidents as merely metaphorical becomes untenable, for Abraham served the LORD a meal and had a lengthy conversation with Him (Genesis 18).

How is this apparent contradiction resolved? The clue is in the first verse considered from John 1:18, which follows up the statement that no one has ever seen God with the declaration that it is “the only God, who is at the Father’s side”, who makes Him known. At first glance, it is often assumed that this only applies to the Incarnation, that is, when Jesus came into the world He made the Father known.

 But why wouldn’t that apply for all time? Is there any evidence that Jesus (I use His personal name here as I struggle to know how to refer to Him in the OT – the Son, perhaps?) has always been the expression, physical or otherwise, of God? Further New Testament descriptions of the Son would bear this out. Paul refers to Him as the image of God in various places (Colossians 1; 2 Corinthians 4) with the implication in the usage that He is the visible and physical expression of all that God inherently is.

 Tellingly, in Philippians 2, He is said to be, prior to entering the world, “in the form of God” (v.6). The Greek word for form, morphe, is the word from which our English word morphology is derived. It is the shape, the appearance, the expression of something. The implication is clear: the pre-incarnate Son was, even then, the expression of God. 

No wonder, then, the hint of exasperation in the words of the Lord Jesus, as He responds to Philip’s desire to be shown the Father in John 14. “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me? . . . Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (v.9 ESV). Our conclusion is this: our knowledge of God the Father will always be, as it has always been, mediated through the Person of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

 Characteristics of Christ’s OT appearings

Having established the legitimacy of looking for the Son (Jesus) in the Old Testament because He was “there”, how do we go about looking for Him in the Old Testament stories? The first step is determining whether or not the character in question is actually God. For example, there are many incidents in the Old Testament that feature the appearance of the "Angel of the LORD". The first appearing of this Angel is to Hagar and results in her coining a title for this heavenly caregiver as “The-God-who-sees” (Genesis 16:13). Reading these “Angel of the LORD” stories reveals that often those interacting with this "Angel" acknowledge Him as God, so we can conclude that this person is the pre-incarnate Son and, further, that this form is a favourite manifestation of Him in Old Testament Scripture.

This doesn’t exclude the fact that He can be referred to directly as the LORD (Jehovah) (by Abraham in Genesis 18) and even, in the case of Psalm 110, as Lord (Adonai). Therefore, in the interactions between deity and humanity in the Old Testament stories, watch for the humans recognizing (sometimes after the event) that they have been in the physical presence of God Himself, and realize that these were pre-incarnate appearances of Christ.

As we conclude this opening article, we return to the opening questions. So, who breathed into Adam the breath of life? Who found Adam and Eve in their fig leaves? Who offered their sacrifice? Who walked with Enoch? God, yes, but the more precise answer must be the Person we know as our Lord Jesus! Isn’t that thrilling? Doesn’t this realization make the interactions between God and man all the more poignant as we consider His involvement in Eden, even as He recognized the ultimate outcomes of sin for the world and Himself personally?

Jesus has ever been the Great Revealer of God to Creation, even if the complete revelation was kept for His manifestation in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16). Further articles will seek to explore some observations that can be made from these Christophanies – literally “appearings of Christ” – in the Old Testament, with the hope that our appreciation and apprehension of the Lord Jesus might be enriched as a result. We are taught to look for Christ in the Old Testament, and we will literally find Him in the stories, if we are looking with the right point of view.