Obviously while He was on earth, from cradle to grave, we have accounts of His physical presence and actions. But what of His pre-incarnate presence – what prompted Him to manifest Himself on certain occasions in pre-Bethlehem days?
Interestingly, a survey of the appearances of the Angel of the Lord reveals that the circumstances resulting in His earthly visits are similar to those that would have evoked His care and compassion while incarnate here on earth. He appears to individuals in need, providing water to a thirsty Hagar and providing her with hope concerning her son Ishmael (Genesis 16 & 21). He delivers Isaac from the altar of sacrifice by providing a substitute offering (Genesis 22). He delivers a nation out of Egypt (Exodus) and ensures its blessing at the hand of the false prophet Balaam (Numbers 22-24). He provides protection and leadership to a nation seeking to possess the promised land in the days of Joshua.
These manifestations of His interest in the beginnings of the nation of Israel are mirrored by His care for them under judgement and exile. Individuals like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew His presence in preservation when they expressed their loyalty to God in the midst of great personal danger (Daniel 3,6). The fledgling post-exilic community interests of the nation were taken up by Him as recorded by the prophet Zechariah in the visions he received.
This kind of care for the needy and the oppressed are indicative of His character. He is the Servant of Jehovah who will not snuff out the smoking flax (Isaiah 42). His incarnate ministry was no different. The miracles of healing, feeding and deliverance were entirely consistent with His historic activity on earth. Furthermore, the advocacy He displayed against the unrighteous actions of the Jewish leadership evidenced in His earthly ministry was consistent with the indictments He passed on the nation in Old Testament times. The tempered judgements dispensed by the Lord in the time of the judges alongside the Angel of the Lord’s commission of deliverers like Gideon and Samson, and the condemnation of David for his sin in taking the census coupled with the gracious deliverance of Jerusalem, bear witness to the fact that even in the time of Law, grace and truth were being carried out by one who would come to be known as Jesus Christ (cp. John 1:17).
A synthesis of His appearances yields at least three motifs – wilderness, fire and sword. We can draw comfort from these symbols of His pre-incarnate activity. When we find ourselves in wilderness conditions, thirsty, lonely and scared, we can take heart that He is not far away. Hagar received her water (Genesis 16), Elijah found out about 7,000 others, and all were emboldened to persevere because of His presence with them (1 Kings 19). In fiery conditions of oppression, we are reminded that he will see us through safely to the other side (Isaiah 43). Whether the oppressors are Egyptian, Midianite, Philistine or Babylonian, the lesson is clear that all the fire does is set the captives free (Daniel 3). Finally, we should be emboldened that divine justice is at work. He has a sword and He knows how to use it to protect His own and to defeat the enemy. 185,000 men were despatched in one night outside the walls of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19)!
It is very easy for us to look at the life of Christ in the Gospel narratives and conclude that following His ascension to glory He is no longer near us. We have a mental picture of Him sitting at the right hand side of God statically waiting for the word to call His people home and we seem to have Scripture for this (Hebrews 1:4; 10:12-13). However, I don’t think this is exactly what the Hebrew writer was getting at, nor do I think this is the perception we should have. The Hebrew writer’s emphasis was the once-for-all finality of His sacrifice, the fact that His priesthood is not marked by continual activity in the expiation of sin.
Therefore, there is no need to think that He is inactive in relation to our needs and concerns. Even His Upper Room teaching concerning His departure and the subsequent arrival of the Holy Spirit would confirm that this is not the case. The Holy Spirit was to be another like Him who would bind His followers together and be the means of connecting them to Him in heaven. The narrative of Acts shows the intimate connection between the activities on earth and the risen Christ in heaven. He is the one orchestrating the evangelistic enterprise and it is in His name that souls are being saved and miracles performed.
All this to say that just as He was present in the Old Testament for those who were in need, recognized or unrecognized as such, we can be confident in His abiding presence and interest in our own situations and circumstances. Indeed, as Paul recognized, it is “his energy” (Colossians 1:29 ESV) that is at work within us as we labour for Him.
He is truly Emmanuel – “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).