My friend Glen has been doing a series on Jesus in the Old Testament, not just Jesus, but the Trinity in the Old Testament. There’s no doubt that ontologically the God of the Old Testament is the same God we find in Jesus in the New Testament. But epistemologically I do not believe that Abraham or any of the patriarchs knew Yahweh in the same way that the Apostles knew him in Christ. I believe Abraham looked forward to the promised Messiah, the one who would fulfill the covenant found in Genesis 12. This brings us to the issue of this post, and that is to take a look at how Glen interprets John 8: 54-56. Let me cite this passage, and then I will quote Glen on this particular pericope.
Jesus answered, if I glorify myself, my glory is nothing; it is my father who glorifies me, of whom you say, he is our God; 55 and you have not come to know him, but I know him; and if I say that I do not know him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.
Short answer to the Abraham question is – John 8:54-56. Abraham looked forward to seeing Christ’s day, saw it, and was glad. I think the Jews correctly understand Jesus’ claim to be that He actually met Abraham (you’re not yet 50… implication: you’d have to be 2000!). So according to Jesus, Abraham hoped to see Jesus and then did and was very happy about it. This is the thing Abraham did which Jesus wished these Jews would do (John 8:39). I don’t think that you can retrospectively award to Abraham a meeting with Jesus. If Jesus says they met then they met.
But Leon Morris has a different take on how we should understand the rabbis understanding on this particular passage relative to Abraham. Morris says:
We should think of yet another rabbinic interpretation, this time of Genesis 24: 1, where the new international version tells us that Abraham “was now old and well advanced in years.” More literally this last expression means “gone into the days,” and our translators have simply said this in the way English speakers would naturally express it. But it is possible to understand “gone into the days” in more ways than one, and the rabbis took it to mean that Abraham, being an inspired man, was able to go in thought through all the days up to the coming of the Messiah. Once again we may feel compelled to conclude that this is not exegesis. This is not what the passage means. The rabbinic interpretation tells us little about the meaning of Genesis, but much about the way the rabbis thought.
But it helps us to see the force of what Jesus was saying to the Jews. They had brought up Abraham. Very well, let us think about Abraham, Jesus is saying. From their understanding of a number of passages the Jews were ready to say that Abraham rejoiced. Jesus is saying that Abraham’s joy was real enough, and that it concerned the Messiah, as Jewish tradition held. The things that were taking place before his opponent’s very eyes were the things at which Abraham rejoiced. He looked for the coming of God’s Messiah and it was this that made him happy. But God’s Messiah was now before them; if they really accepted what Abraham was saying, they would rejoice with him at the presence of the Messiah. (Leon Morris, “Expository Reflections on the Gospel of John,” 342-43)
Morris clarifies what the rabbis would have been thinking relative to Abraham’s prophetic forethought; and that is, that he looked forward to the fulfillment that Jesus was for these rabbis, and the world. Leon goes on and clarifies further in regards to the rabbis response: *. . . you are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?*. Morris argues that Jesus would have understood the rabbinic understanding to be the source of their confusion (the one I just quoted above); but that Jesus does not try to explain how this may have been, except to jump to the fact, quite abruptly, that he is the “I Am” of Exodus 3: 15.
I think it is reading too much into this passage to conclude what Glen has relative to Abraham actually seeing the Messiah in a pre-incarnate form. Clearly, the context of John is referring to the messianic hope that Abraham proleptically apprehended as *My day* finding its fulfillment in our context in John. It just doesn’t make sense, to me, to think that Jesus was referring to some past event in Abraham’s lifetime–given the rabbinic understanding, and the proleptic language we find Jesus using (i.e. my day) relative to Abraham’s rejoicing. [Let me clarify one thing, I do realize that we most likely have a christophony in Genesis 18, and that the angel of Yahweh is most likely the second person of the Trinity–but I do not think that contextually John 8 is referring to anything else but Abraham’s hope and confidence that Yahweh would make his promise good–thus Abraham rejoiced at this prospect]
One more point of clarification, I do believe that the Old Testament is very Trinitarian in shape. And that we do not have a different God, ontologically, in the Old Testament from the New Testament. And I also do not think that we have a different mediator between God and man in the Old Testament from the New Testament. I just do not think in the economy of God’s unfolding salvation history, that the Old Testament patriarchs epistemologically understood Yahweh as Trinity–at least in the New Testament way. Are there moments, foreshadowings of Yahweh as triune? Certainly. But until Jesus comes [John 1:18] those old testament shadows are not clarified nor given substance until Deus incarnandus (God incarnate) shows up. There is more to say, but I must stop …