Since the beginning of the United Church of God, we have believed and taught that the One who interacted with people during the Old Testament period as God on behalf of God the Father was the divine Being who was later born in the flesh as Jesus Christ. What is the scriptural foundation from which we draw this belief?
A primary reason is that Scripture repeatedly tells us that no one has seen God the Father at any time. For example, the apostle John makes this quite clear in John 1:18: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (verse 18).
John had just explained in this chapter that he was a personal eyewitness of “the Word” who became flesh as Jesus Christ, so this cannot refer to Him. The “God” whom no one has ever seen at any time thus has to be referring to the Father.
Notice also that John says that Jesus Christ “declared” the Father. Other versions translate this as “made him known” (New International Version, English Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version) or “reveal[ed] Him” (Green’s Literal Translation).
Now, if God the Father was known to the Israelites as God during the Old Testament period, why would Jesus need to make Him known? That doesn’t make sense. There’s no need to reveal the Father if the Father was already known when Jesus came.
John repeats this exact same statement in one of his epistles: “No one has seen God at any time” (1 John 4:12).
We also see two such explicit statements from Jesus Christ Himself . Notice John 5:37: “And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form ” (emphasis added throughout).
And just to be clear, Jesus again says that no one has ever seen the Father in John 6:46: “ No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father ” (New International Version). Here Jesus plainly says that no one has seen the Father except the One who is from God—referring to Himself. He alone has seen the Father. No human being has ever seen the Father.
The Biblical Record of People Who Saw God
But in the books of the Old Testament period we see that a number of people did see God. They include:
- Abraham (Genesis 12:7: 15:1; 18:1).
- Isaac (Genesis 26:2, 24).
- Jacob (Genesis 28:13; 32:30; 35:9-10).
- Moses (Exodus 3:6; 33:11, 21-23).
- Moses, Aaron and the 70 elders of Israel (Exodus 24:9-11).
- Joshua (Joshua 6:2).
- Gideon (Judges 6:14).
Nearly all of these are described as face-to-face encounters. Two are specifically described as visions, including one of these encounters with Abraham and one with Jacob. But in addition to those visions, Abraham and Jacob had face-to-face encounters with God also—during which Abraham ate a meal with God and Jacob wrestled with God.
In these various encounters, the “God” who appeared and spoke with these individuals is identified as “God” ( Elohim ), “the LORD” ( YHWH or Yahweh ), “the God of Israel,” “the God of your fathers,” “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” “God Almighty” ( El Shaddai ), “the word of the LORD,” “the Angel of the LORD,” “I AM WHO I AM” and “I AM.”
How Do We Reconcile “No One Has Seen God at Any Time” With the Many Individuals Who Saw God?
Earlier we saw multiple statements from the apostle John and from Jesus Christ Himself that no one has seen the Father at any time. So who did these individuals see when they saw God? The only way we can make sense of this is to understand that no man had seen God the Father at any time.
What they saw as recorded in these many passages, and at other times when God appeared to individuals, was the Word who was God (John 1:1), the One who was born in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. With this understanding, which has been the belief of the Church of God for decades, there is no contradiction. We know that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
What Scripture reveals is that Jesus was the One who interacted with the patriarchs and prophets and the people of Israel as the LORD or God on behalf of the Father. They never saw the Father, but only the Word or Spokesman of God, who came to reveal the Father.
Various scriptural passages show that the God who communicated with them was the Messenger of another who was also God. Still, the One who became the Father was not generally known to the Israelites.
“What Scripture reveals is that Jesus was the One who interacted with the patriarchs and prophets and the people of Israel as the LORD or God on behalf of the Father.”
Again, the One who appeared and spoke to people as God was the One who became Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself clearly said this, and the people who heard Him knew that was exactly what He meant. Notice this in John 8:57-58, where Jesus was in a heated debate with some of the Jews who opposed Him, and He said that Abraham rejoiced to see His day.
“Then the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM .’”
Here Jesus specifically told them of His divine identity—that He existed before Abraham, and then that He was the God who had interacted with people during the Old Testament period. Who did He specifically claim to be?
We find the answer in Exodus 3:13-14, where God appeared to Moses at the burning bush and told Moses that He would deliver the Israelites out of their Egyptian slavery.
“Then Moses said to God, ‘Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they say to me, “What is His name?” what shall I say to them?’ And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’”
And 15 centuries later, who did Jesus say He was? Going back to what we just read in John 8:58, “Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’”
And notice what happened immediately after Jesus said these words: “ Then they took up stones to throw at Him ; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by” (John 8:59).
The Jews who heard Jesus say these words knew exactly what Jesus meant—that He was claiming to be the “I AM” who had interacted with Moses. And how did they react? They immediately took up stones to stone Him to death for claiming to be God.
New Testament Writers Applied Prophecies of “the Lord” to Jesus Christ
Let’s notice a prophecy in Isaiah 8:13-14, which reads: “The LORD of hosts, Him you shall hallow; let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. He will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel . . .”
This prophecy foretold that “the Lord of hosts” would be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. So whom did the title or name “the LORD of hosts” refer to? We find the answer in 1 Peter 2:7-8: “To you who believe, He [Jesus Christ] is precious; but to those who are disobedient, [He is] . . . ‘ a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense .’”
Peter here tells us that “the Lord of hosts” in whom this prophecy was fulfilled is Jesus Christ . The apostle Paul applies several Old Testament passages about the Lord, Yahweh , to Jesus Christ. For example, Joel 2:32 says, “And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved .” In Romans 10:9-13 Paul applies this to Jesus Christ: “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved . . . For ‘ whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved .’”
“[In] 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 Paul clearly tells us that the God who directly accompanied Israel during the Exodus was the Being who became Jesus Christ.”
And in a prophecy that is so obvious that we tend to read right over it, Isaiah 40:3 foretold the coming of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” This is a prophecy of John the Baptist. But for whom was he to prepare the way? It tells us here plainly. John was to prepare the way for “the LORD,” for Yahweh . How was this prophecy fulfilled? Read Matthew 3:3:
John was to prepare the way for the coming of whom? The coming of Yahweh . And who was the Yahweh John prepared the way for? Jesus Christ .
Jesus Christ—“the Rock” of the Old Testament
We’ll conclude with one more example that identifies Jesus Christ as “the Rock” who accompanied Israel at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. Notice 1 Corinthians 10:1-4: “Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ .”
Here Paul clearly tells us that the God who directly accompanied Israel during the Exodus was the Being who became Jesus Christ. But why did Paul use the unusual term “Rock” to apply to Jesus Christ? Clearly he was pointing to the miracle of water coming from the rock (Numbers 20:11), but notice Moses’ repeated references to God as “the Rock” in Deuteronomy 32:
“ He is the Rock , His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
“He [Jeshurun, another name for Israel] . . . abandoned the God who made him and rejected the Rock his Savior ” (Deuteronomy 32:15).
“You deserted the Rock , who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18).
“How could one man chase a thousand, or two put ten thousand to flight, unless their Rock had sold them, unless the LORD had given them up? For their rock is not like our Rock , as even our enemies concede” (Deuteronomy 32:30-31).
Paul, an expert in the Old Testament Scriptures, seems to have had at least some of these other references to Israel’s “Rock” in mind when he identified Israel’s “Rock” as Jesus Christ.
These are not all the scriptures pertinent to this subject, but they are enough to abundantly demonstrate why the United Church of God believes and teaches that the One who interacted with human beings in the Old Testament period as God on behalf of the Father was the One we know today as Jesus Christ.
This is why we state in our booklet Fundamental Beliefs of the United Church of God : “The Old Testament focuses on the God of Israel, who identifies Himself as ‘I AM’ and ‘the LORD God . . . of Abraham, . . . of Isaac, and . . . of Jacob’ (Exodus 3:14-15) . . . In John 8:58, Christ refers to Himself as ‘I Am.’ Thus, the One the Israelites knew as God, who delivered them from Egypt and accompanied them in the wilderness, was later known in the New Testament as Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). The existence of the One whom Christ referred to as ‘the Father’ was not well understood by many before Christ’s coming—though He is sometimes specifically referred to in the Old Testament” (2009, p. 5).
Reprinted with permission. Published by United Church of God, an International Association, P.O. Box 541027, Cincinnati, OH 45254-1027. © 2019 United Church of God. https://www.ucg.org/members/united-news/who-was-jesus-christ-before-his-human-birth