To answer the question “Are there any Old Testament appearances of Jesus?” the straight answer is “No”.
If there were appearances of Jesus in the Old Testament then that would mean that, among other things, the family tree of Jesus from Eve via Abraham, David, and finally Mary simply is not true. It would also mean that “conceived” (Luke 2:21), “grew in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52), “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), etc., and most importantly of all died and “was dead” (Revelation 1:18), are also not true. All these outward acts are simply a pre-existent heavenly being acting human; and therefore in modern terminology ‘fake’. But Jesus is not fake; he had a human mother, he himself was “a man sent from God” (in his own words, John 8:4). Jesus was truly “conceived” meaning exactly that, was tempted “in every point” as his brothers, did in every sense “die”, and he too needed to be raised by his Father, God.
The purpose of this answer is not to repeat the reasons why Jesus did not exist before his birth. There are already several other answers on this website, including:
* What does Jesus mean by “see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before” (John 6:62)?
* What does it mean that Jesus “emptied himself”? (Phil.2:6-9)
* What does “coming forth from ancient days” mean? (Micah 5:2)
* Did God exist before he was born to Mary?
* Please explain John 17:5 “glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
A more complete answer is found in Alan Hayward’s booklet Did Jesus really come down from heaven?
Evangelical Trinitarians with a very literal understanding of the Trinity often have a very literal understanding of the idea that the “Three Persons” of the Trinity are “co-eternal”. That is the idea that “God the Son” existed from before Genesis 1:1 as an actual being. To support this Evangelical Trinitarians look for Jesus in the Old Testament in the most simplistic ways. Admittedly theirs is a populist understanding of the Trinity, and it would be a mistake to the think that Anglican writers, for example, had the same simplistic view, but this approach to “pre-existence” is the prevalent view among Evangelical pastors and their congregations.
A typical example is found in a 2017 post on the Patheos blog by the former pastor of the Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Mark Driscoll, entitled “Jesus in the Old Testament, Part 4: Christophanies”:
This is the fourth part in a series on how the Bible is all about Jesus. Jesus as the eternally existing Son of God, the second member of the Trinity, is demonstrated through his various cameo appearances throughout the Old Testament, what theologians call Christophanies—kind of like a divine “Where’s Waldo?”
In the book of Genesis we observe a couple of Christophanies. First, in Genesis 18, Abraham has a conversation with a man who is God. That’s Jesus. Basically Jesus shows up, hangs out with Abraham, and discusses details about the fate of Sodom. Second, in Genesis 32:22–32, Jacob gets in an all-night, UFC-style wrestling match with somebody. Though this man never reveals his name to Jacob, Jacob’s all-night wrestling match appears to have been with Jesus. (Mark Driscoll, on Patheos, March 8, 2017)
Driscoll’s reference to ‘Where’s Waldo?’ is the US title of the popular British children’s picture puzzle book ‘Where’s Wally?’, where the infant reader has to find the character Waldo (Wally) hidden in the pictures. So in the examples above the leader of the three angels who appears to Abraham at the oak trees of Mamre before the destruction of Sodom is Jesus. The angel who wrestles with Jacob and gives him the name Isra-el is also Jesus.
The third example Driscoll cites is the angelic fourth figure “like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25) appearing in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Among Evangelicals seeking “Christophanies” this one is probably the most popular of all the suggestions. (despite the fact that Daniel 3:28 clearly says that the man was an “angel”.)
The fourth example Driscoll picks is the vision of God’s throne room in Isaiah 6:5 as a reference point of the Gospel writer John’s comment “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” (Although John 12:41 is actually referring to “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.” John 12:40, which is Isaiah 6:10, not Isaiah 6:5).
Driscoll’s fourth example is somewhat uncommon, but the other three would find a place in any Evangelical ‘Where’s Waldo?’ book.
Other popular proposed “Christophanies” include; God waking in the garden of Eden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8), Melchizedek the human king priest of Salem who brings bread and wine to Abraham (Genesis 14:18), the angel in the burning bush to Moses (Exodus 3:2, Acts 7:30), the archangel “commander of the army of the LORD” who appears to Joshua before the fall of Jericho (Joshua 5:14), and the angel on the banks of the Tigris (Daniel 10:5). And so on.
In fact new claims for Christophanies are made for almost every manifestation of God in the Old Testament. This is particularly the case for Oneness Pentecostals (UPCI) and Arian groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses who care constantly search for evidence of Jesus existing before his mother. S0 any passage with a manifestation of God can be argued to be Jesus by those who are looking for Jesus before birth and don’t accept that God manifested through angels. Here’s another example from Ezekiel:
26 Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. 27 I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. 28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking. (Ezekiel 1:26-28 ESV)
As we can see the passage clearly identifies the vision as being a likeness or manifestation of the Lord, YHWH, therefore an angel.
Although popular today, these ideas aren’t totally new. Cromwell’s chaplain the Puritan theologian John Owen (1616–1683) was a proponent of very literal appearances of Jesus in the Old Testament. Origen and Luther both suggested literal Christophanies in their writing.
But not Augustine
Having listed above the modern evangelical enthusiasm for the “Where’s Jesus?” approach to finding a pre-existent Jesus the Old Testament, it’s worth noting that this is not orthodox, or at least Augustinian, Trinitarianism. On this see Keith E. Johnson Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment Augustine opposed the idea of taking Old Testament theophanies through angels as Christophanies. Augustine obviously strongly taught the pre-existence of God the Son, which is still not what the Bible teaches, but at least he did not do so in terms of the kind of appearances listed above.
Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses
Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, not being Trinitarian, do not have open to them the option of Augustine’s approach to preexistence and adopt the highly literal ‘Where’s Waldo?’ approach of Evangelicals. But with a twist: Because SDAs and JWs cannot accept the theophanies where angels appear and speak as messengers (which is what ‘angel’ means) of YHWH, therefore their interpretation is focussed on archangels; and namely the archangel Michael. Although Michael never actually appears in the Bible and is read by most commentators on the visions of Daniel 10-12 and Revelation 12 as purely symbolic figure, SDAs and JWs take the existence of a distinct specific ‘Michael’ archangel literally, and consider this archangel to have been Jesus before he entered the womb of Mary.
Variants of SDA and JW interpretations can also be found among some Seventh Day (Sabbatarian) and Messianic Arian believers, although more often as individuals on the Internet than in any physical building.
Historically these views are a product of the preexistence of Christ taught in Arianism (see The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, 2018, p.26 etc.), as advanced by William Whiston, Isaac Newton’s successor at Cambridge, and translator of Josephus.
The New Testament writer’s views on Christ in the Old Testament
It is an important theme throughout the New Testament that the Old Testament looks forward to Jesus. One of the things that Jesus did with his disciples in the 40 days after the resurrection was that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27). Peter goes further and states:
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. (1 Peter 1:10-11)
The Old Testament obviously has prophecies about Jesus, and that is what Peter is referring to above. The New Testament also treats the sacrifices and the tabernacle as shadows of the things that were to come; of which the reality is found in Christ (Colossians 2:17 and Hebrews 10:1).
The New Testament also clearly equates several Old Testament figures as ‘types’ or ‘patterns’ of Christ. The most evident being Adam, who is named as a ‘type’ of Christ. “a pattern of the one to come” (Romans 5:14), but others including Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David (the subject of multiple ‘Messianic’ psalms), Hezekiah (the likely original subject of the Emmanuel prophecy) and others.
Among these types one of the most striking types is Jacob, he who wrestled with the angel. While the ‘Where’s Waldo’ approach to Genesis 32:22-31 sees Jacob wrestling with a pre-birth Jesus, instead per the alternative approach based on Paul’s ‘patterns’ where the readers sees Christ foreshadowed in the lives of the great men and women of the Old Testament, the reader would look for Jesus in Jacob, not for Jesus in the angel.
This is a very big subject, and requires more reading than can be provided here. A starter introduction would include the booklet Christ in the Old Testament by Harry Tennant.