How divine appearances and the angel of YHWH can illuminate
the meaning of “the form of God” and shed light on Jesus’ prayers

Jason Dulle

God is spirit. He is immaterial and invisible. And yet, God has made Himself visible to human beings in a variety of ways. The most obvious example of this is the incarnation. Jesus is the eternal God made visible in human existence (John 1:18; 14:9; 2 Corinthians 4:4-6; Colossians 1:15; 2:9; Hebrews 1:3). The incarnation was not the first time God made Himself visible to humans, however. While we often think of God doing so through theophanies like the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), the pillar of fire and smoke (Exodus 13:20-22), a cloud (Exodus 34:5-6), Job’s whirlwind (Job 38:1), and the glory cloud (Exodus 40:34; 1 Kings 8:11; 2 Chronicles 5:14; Ezekiel 10:4), God appeared more often in a human-like form.

This article will explore the OT references to God’s human-like appearances, as well as lay out a case for identifying the angel of YHWH as a visible form of YHWH Himself. Then, I will show how these divine appearances help us to understand what Paul meant when he said the pre-incarnate Jesus “existed in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6), as well as provide an analogy for the communication we observe between the Father and Son in the NT.

Visible Appearances of YHWH in the OT

The clearest example of YHWH appearing in a human-like form is found in Genesis 18:

1 And the LORD appeared to him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O LORD, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the treewhile I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves…. Then he [Abraham] took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. … 20 Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” 22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. … 33 And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.[1]

Not only does the text explicitly say YHWH appeared to Abraham, but He appeared to him in the form of a human being. This form was not ephemeral, visionary, or immaterial. YHWH appeared as an ordinary human being. Abraham could wash His feet and stand with Him under the tree. YHWH could even eat the food Abraham had prepared for Him.  

YHWH also appeared to Jacob in visible form in a dream (Genesis 28):

10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 

YHWH is described as standing above the ladder. An immaterial, invisible, omnipresent being is not localized, and thus could not be said to be above the ladder, yet alone standing above it. As a spirit, YHWH does not have legs capable of standing. And yet Jacob saw YHWH with legs. He saw a visible, human-like image of YHWH. [2]

YHWH appeared in visible form to Samuel as well (1 Samuel 3):

1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. … The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.
Then the LORD called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. … 10 And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” … 19 And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD. 21 And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.

Notice that the “word of YHWH” is equated with “visions.” Apparently, when God spoke, He did not do so through a mere audible voice. He did so through a visionary experience. The prophets didn’t just hear something from YHWH, but they saw something as well. What exactly did they see? If Samuel’s experience is any indication, they saw a visible, human-like form speaking to them. When Samuel responded to YHWH’s call, the text says “the LORD came and stood.” An immaterial, omnipresent being does not “stand” anywhere. “Standing” implies both locality and visibility. YHWH appeared to Samuel in a form that had legs capable of standing, apparently similar to what Jacob saw.

Whether YHWH appeared in a solid, physical form like He did to Abraham cannot be ascertained from the details of this text, but YHWH was clearly visible to Samuel in some human-like form. If there is any doubt regarding this, verse 21 makes it clear that Samuel’s first encounter with YHWH was an encounter with a visible form because the author says YHWH appeared to Samuel “again” at Shiloh. He couldn’t appear again if He hadn’t appeared before, and an appearance implies visibility.

Next, YHWH appeared in visible form to the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1):

4 Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” … Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me….

Jeremiah says the word of YHWH “came” to him. This could be understood either as an auditory or visionary experience. Verse nine, however, makes it clear that this was a visionary experience. When I say “visionary,” I do not mean it was immaterial. The description of what YHWH did to Jeremiah in verse nine makes it clear that Jeremiah encountered a physical, human-like appearance of YHWH. YHWH is said to have hands, and He used these hands to touch Jeremiah’s mouth. Sounds can’t touch you. Immaterial images cannot touch you. In this instance, YHWH appeared in physical form resembling a human being.

We can also infer a visionary appearance of YHWH to Micaiah the prophet in 1 Kings 22:

19 And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left20 and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 23 Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you.”

Micaiah had a visionary experience of God’s divine council. While this was a visionary experience, if what Micaiah saw resembles spiritual realities, then there is a visible throne in heaven of YHWH and someone sitting on that throne who is visible to the host of heaven. The person on the throne has a locality. The host of heaven can be located to His right and left, and spirits can stand before Him. While it’s possible that this vision contained symbolic imagery rather than a window into the heavenly realm, I find it reasonable to think that it was a realistic portrayal of the heavenly realm. After all, if God chooses to appear in visible form to His earthly creatures, it should not surprise us to find Him appearing in some sort of visible form to His heavenly creatures as well.    

Now that we have established a pattern of God appearing to people in a human-like form in the OT, let’s look at a couple of additional pericopes that many have assumed to be figures of speech rather than genuine divine appearances.

8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:8-9)

YHWH is said to be “walking” in the garden. Adam and Eve could even hear Him doing so. Out of fear that He would see them naked, they hid from Him. While many theologians interpret YHWH’s “walking” metaphorically or anthropomorphically, they do so largely because they know God is immaterial and omnipresent, having no body. While it’s true that God is omnipresent and immaterial, that in itself does not require that we understand God’s walking in the garden to be metaphorical or anthropomorphic.

God could have chosen to manifest Himself to Adam and Eve in a human form just as He did to Abraham in Genesis 18. Not only is this the most straightforward interpretation of Genesis 3:8, but it also makes sense of Adam and Eve’s response. Many have pointed out how silly it was for Adam and Eve to try to hide themselves from an immaterial, omnipresent being, but this assumes that Adam and Eve experienced God as an immaterial, omnipresent being. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe God regularly appeared to them in a visible, human form. If so, their response makes perfect sense. They were trying to hide themselves from God’s visible form because they heard Him approaching in the garden.

The second disputed appearance of YHWH is found in Exodus 31:18

And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

While many have taken the finger of God to be a metaphor for God’s supernatural literary activity, given what we’ve learned above regarding God’s many visible appearances, it’s not unreasonable to think that YHWH appeared in a visible form to Moses on the mountain and physically engraved the Ten Commandments in stone with His finger.

The Angel of YHWH

The mysterious “angel of YHWH” character in the OT has engendered a lot of debate. Some believe he is YHWH Himself in visible form because he often speaks the words of YHWH in the first person. Others note that there are instances in which the angel of YHWH is clearly distinguished form YHWH, and thus conclude that He is an angelic emissary for YHWH who delivers messages on YHWH’s behalf (speaking for YHWH in the first-person in the same way human prophets do).

Which perspective is right? I have long been ambivalent regarding the question, but leaned toward the angelic emissary view. Recently, however, my leaning has shifted toward the idea that the angel of YHWH is a visible appearance of YHWH Himself.

The most interesting passages related to this debate are those in which the angel is both identified as and distinguished from YHWH. Consider Genesis 16:

The angel of the LORD found her [Hagar] by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” … 10 The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction. … 13 So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”

The speaker is identified as the angel of YHWH, but He speaks as YHWH in the first person when he says “I will surely multiply your offspring.” He goes on, however, to speak of YHWH in the third person when he says “the LORD has listened to your affliction,” thereby distinguishing himself from YHWH. Speaking of YHWH in the third person would seem to prove that the angel was not YHWH, but we actually see YHWH speaking of Himself in the third person in other passages. In Exodus 34, at the second engraving of the stone tablets, the text says “The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…’” (Exodus 24:5-6). YHWH is identified as the speaker, and yet we are told that YHWH proclaimed the name of YHWH. YHWH spoke of Himself in the third person. After worshipping YHWH, Moses responded to Him by saying, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord [adonai], please let the Lord [adonai] go in the midst of us…” (v. 9). He addresses YHWH as Lord, asking the Lord to let the Lord lead the nation. But isn’t the Lord the Lord? How can there be two Lords? I would argue that Moses was making a distinction between YHWH invisible and YHWH visible. He was asking invisible YHWH invisible to send visible YHWH to lead the nation, just as YHWH had promised (Exodus 23:20-22).

To complicate matters more, the narrator identifies the angel as YHWH when he says Hagar “called the name of YHWH who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing.’” He did not say it was an angel that spoke to her, but YHWH Himself. Those holding to the emissary view could explain this by saying Hagar was not identifying the angel as YHWH, but merely recognizing that YHWH spoke to her through the angel. That is a possibility, but her response more closely aligns with the divine appearance view.

A similar phenomenon is observed in Genesis 22:

10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” … 15 And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

The angel refers to “God” in the third person (v. 12), distinguishing himself from God. He said “now I know that you fear God,” not “now I know that you fear me.” This would appear to be a clear indication that the angel of YHWH is personally distinct from YHWH. However, in the same breath, he goes on to say “seeing that you have not withheld your son…from me.” In saying this, the angel identifies himself as YHWH since it was YHWH who told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. From that point on, the angel speaks in the first person as if he is YHWH himself, referring to Himself as “myself” and “my voice.”

Something similar is going on in Genesis 31:

11 Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ 12 And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.’”

According to the angel, he is the God that met Jacob at Bethel and the one to whom Jacob made a vow. If you look at the story in Genesis 28:10-22, it was YHWH that appeared to Jacob in his dream, and it was to YHWH that Jacob made his vow. Was the angel that appeared to Jacob in Genesis 31 the same figure that appeared to Jacob on top of the ladder in Genesis 28? It appears so, however, it is also possible that the angel is merely YHWH’s emissary speaking YHWH’s words in the first person on behalf of YHWH in the same manner that human prophets do.

The angel also appeared to Moses in Exodus 3:

2 And the angel of the LORD appeared to him [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” … And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings…. 10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” … 13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. … 19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. 

The angel of YHWH is identified as YHWH (“when the LORD saw that he turned aside…) and God (“God called to him out of the bush”). The one speaking to Moses said his name was “I AM,” claimed the children of Israel were His people, and claimed to be the one who was going to afflict Egypt with plagues. These were acts of YHWH, and thus it would appear that Moses was speaking to YHWH Himself.

Moses did not just see the fire, but an image within the fire. Verse six implies this by saying Moses was afraid to look at God. The NT explicitly affirms this in Acts 7:30 and 35 when it says Moses saw an angel in the fire (and angels have a human-like appearance).

The angel of YHWH is also identified with YHWH when he appeared to Balaam in Numbers 22:

22 But God's anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. … Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” … 31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me.

The text says YHWH opened the mouth of the donkey. It’s not clear whether we are meant to understand this as an act of the angel or as an act of YHWH from heaven. If the former, then the text would be identifying the angel of YHWH as YHWH. If the latter, then the angel would be distinguished from YHWH in heaven.

What is clear from the text is that the angel of YHWH speaks as if he is YHWH. He tells Balaam that his ways are “perverse before me.” Whose holiness did Balaam offend? Was it that of an angel, or that of YHWH? Only God’s holiness can be offended by sin, and thus it appears that the angel of YHWH is YHWH himself. Once again, however, this could be equally explained on the emissary view as the angel speaking YHWH’s words on behalf of YHWH in the first person just as human prophets do.

In 2 Kings 1:3-4, the angel appears to be distinct from YHWH and merely speaking YHWH’s words on His behalf – similar to a prophet.

3 But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, "Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, 'Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? 4 Now therefore thus says the LORD, You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.'" So Elijah went. (See also Zechariah 3:7)

Not only does the angel speak of “God” as if He were someone distinct from the angel, but he prefaces his message with “thus says YHWH” just like the prophets do.

The angel of YHWH appeared to all of Israel after the conquest of Canaan (Judges 2):

1 Now the angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice.

Who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt? YHWH (Deuteronomy 4:35-38; Joshua 24:17-18). Who swore to give Canaan to their fathers? YHWH? Who promised to never break his covenant? YHWH. Whose voice did the Israelites disobey? YHWH’s. Either the angel of YHWH is YHWH, or he is speaking in the first person as if he were YHWH.

One might counter that YHWH said He was going to appoint an angel to lead the children out of Egypt. We read of this in Exodus 23:20-22:

20 Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. 22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.

The text makes a clear distinction between YHWH and this angel. YHWH speaks of the angel in the third person (“him,” “his voice”). This would seem to make it clear that the angel is not YHWH, but merely an emissary acting on behalf of YHWH. However, YHWH said “my name is in him.” What does that mean? In Hebrew thinking, a name can represents one’s authority, presence, person, power, or ownership. In this particular instance, to say YHWH’s name is in the angel is best explained as meaning YHWH’s presence is in the angel. To see why, let’s look at Deuteronomy 12:1,4-5 and 11:

1 These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. … 4 You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way. 5 But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, … 11 then to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the LORD.

That’s why it could be said in Deuteronomy 4:37 that YHWH “brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power….” YHWH’s presence was in the angel. How? Because the angel was YHWH’s visible form.

If this were not clear enough, Jude identified Jesus as the angel of YHWH who led the children out of Egypt:

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. (Jude 5)

This is a reference to Exodus 23:20-23 and Judges 2:1-2 that we quoted earlier. If Jesus is personally identified with the angel of YHWH, and Jesus is YHWH, then the angel must be YHWH as well.

The passage that, for me, definitively settles the question of the identity of the angel of YHWH is Genesis 48:3 and 15-16:

3 Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me….  15 Then he blessed Joseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,
16 the Angel who has delivered me from all harm —may he bless these boys.” (NIV)

First, Jacob says God Almighty appeared to him at Luz. He is referring back to his encounter in Genesis 28:12-15. That text is very clear that it was YHWH who appeared to Jacob (v. 13). Later, however, Jacob had another dream in which “the angel of God” spoke to him (Genesis 31:11). In this dream, the angel tells Jacob “I am the God of Bethel [Luz], where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me.” Who did Jacob set up a pillar for? Who did he make a vow to? It was YHWH, which means the angel of God is YHWH.

In verses 15 and 16, Jacob gives a blessing to Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. In this blessing, Jacob identifies the one who will bless the boys via a triad of descriptions: (1) He is the God of Abraham and Isaac; (2) He is the God who shepherded Jacob throughout his life; (3) He is the angel who redeemed Jacob from evil. Jacob is clearly juxtaposing “God” with the “angel.” We know Joseph did not have two beings in mind because the verb “bless” in verse 16 is grammatically singular. Joseph envisioned one being blessing these boys, and that being was both God and the angel. There can be no question, then, that for Jacob, his God – and the God of his forefathers – is also the angel of YHWH. Since an angel who merely speaks for God could never be personally identified with God, the angel of YHWH must be more than a mere emissary for YHWH. The angel of YHWH must be YHWH Himself in a human-like form.

Jesus was the Form of God

Understanding that God possessed a visible form prior to the incarnation can help us understand what Paul means when he speaks of Jesus existing “in the form of God” prior to the incarnation. Let’s look at the larger context:

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

While exhorting the Philippian believers to exhibit humility and selflessness, Paul pointed to Jesus as their example par excellence. Although Jesus started from a lofty position in “the form of God,” He took on a lower station by taking on the form of a human servant. He lowered Himself further by submitting to death – even the worst form of death: crucifixion. As a result of His humility and obedience, God exalted Jesus to a higher station such that He will serve as judge of all mankind.

Most interpreters agree that Paul begins with Jesus’ pre-incarnate state as God. It’s notable, however, that Paul did not say “though Jesus was God,” but rather “though he was in the form of God.” He made a distinction between “God” and the “form of God,” evidenced by the fact that he went on to say Jesus had “equality with God” in this pre-incarnate state. The notion of “equality” requires a comparison of two or more distinct entities. It would not make sense to speak of Jesus having equality with God unless Jesus and God are distinct in some real way. Being equal with God surely implies that the form of God is just as divine as God; nevertheless, some sort of distinction between God and the form of God remains. [3]

This has long troubled Oneness believers because it fits much better with a Trinitarian view of God than a Oneness view. Trinitarian theology is based on the idea that God exists eternally in three distinct divine persons, so a text that makes a pre-incarnate distinction between Jesus and God (the Father) fully accords with Trinitarian expectations. In contrast, Oneness theology affirms that God is a single person. We also affirm that Jesus pre-existed the incarnation, but He did so as the one, undifferentiated divine person, YHWH. [4] So if the Bible affirms a distinction between Father and Son prior to the incarnation, Oneness theology would be falsified.

Does Philippians 2:6 falsify Oneness theology, then? No. While the text is making some sort of pre-incarnate distinction between Jesus and God, we need to understand the nature of that distinction. To falsify Oneness theology, one would have to demonstrate that the distinction is personal in nature. I would argue that there is nothing in the text to justify this assumption. It would have to be read into the text from an already developed Trinitarian theology. The text simply makes a distinction between God and His pre-incarnate form. The key to understanding the nature of this pre-incarnate distinction, then, is to identify what “the form (morphe) of God” refers to.

The Greek morphe refers to the visible appearance of something. It’s the way something appears to others. It can refer to a bodily form (Isaiah 44:13 LXX; Mark 16:12) or to the appearance of one’s face (Daniel 3:9; 7:28 LXX). Regardless of the context, it refers to something visible to others. To say Jesus existed in the form of God prior to the incarnation implies that God had a visible form prior to the incarnation. What form could this be? I would argue that it’s the form by which God appeared to various individuals in the OT. [5] While God only appeared to humans via this form on rare occasions, He always maintained such a form. It was the form by which YHWH appeared to the angelic beings in heaven. Because He always appeared in such a form, however, a distinction could be and was made between YHWH and his visible form. That’s why Jesus, whom Paul identifies with God’s form, is both distinguished from God and yet equated with God. He is distinguished from God because there is a distinction between God and His visible form, and yet He is equal to God because that form is embodied by none other than YHWH Himself.

According to Paul, God gave up His divine form to take on a human form in the incarnation. That means God has always had an enduring, visible appearance – both before and after the incarnation. Both looked human, but His incarnate form didn’t just look human, but was truly human.

In summary, YHWH was both visible and invisible in the OT. He remains so in the NT. He has simply exchanged His human-like form for a genuinely human one. He did not trade deity for humanity in the process. He remains fully God. Jesus is God made visible in a real human existence. The Father is that same God as He continues to exist invisible in heaven.

Jesus’ Prayers

Understanding that YHWH had an enduring form in the OT not only sheds light on Philippians 2:6, but also on the communication we see between the Father and Son in the NT – particularly Jesus’ prayers.

Prayer is a form of communication, and genuine communication requires two or more participants. A single person cannot communicate with himself (those who do are deemed “crazy”). This presents a problem for Oneness theology because it maintains both (1) the singularity of God’s person and (2) the genuineness of Jesus’ prayers. The two affirmations seem to be in conflict. There are three possible solutions:

None of these options are viable or desirable.

In contrast, Trinitarian theology holds that God is a tri-personal being. Jesus’ prayers can easily be explained as one divine person praying to another. As such, Trinitarian theology has a leg up on Oneness theology. I have argued elsewhere (here and here), however, that this apparent superiority of the Trinitarian explanation is just that – apparent. Jesus’ prayers would only be evidence for the presence of two divine persons if Jesus’ prayers originated from His deity, but divine persons have no need of prayer. Only humans do. Jesus’ prayers can only be explained in light of Jesus’ humanity, not His deity. He prayed because He had a human nature and human mind.

I would argue that while communication normally involves the participation of two distinct persons, such is not required. All that is required for genuine communication is the presence of two distinct minds. This may sound like a distinction without a difference because, normally, there is one mind for every one person and vice-versa, such that “two minds” is tantamount to “two persons.” However, there is one exception to this general rule. There is one person who has two distinct minds: God. Let me explain.

All persons have minds. Indeed, one could argue that persons are minds. The kind of mind a person has, however, is determined by their nature. Angelic persons have an angelic nature, and thus have an angelic mind. Human persons have a human nature, and thus have a human mind. God has a divine nature, and thus a divine mind. But God did something that no other person has ever done – He acquired a second nature. In the incarnation, God assumed a human nature all the while retaining His divine nature. He went from being a single person with a single nature to a single person with two natures. Since the kind of mind one has is determined by their nature, and God has two distinct natures, it follows that God has two distinct minds: one divine, one human. He has a divine mind in virtue of His divine nature, and a human mind in virtue of His human nature.

While God is a single person, possessing two minds allows Him to function in a way that is similar to two distinct persons. Through His divine nature, YHWH is always conscious of Himself and functions in a divine way (“Father”). Through His human nature, YHWH is also conscious of Himself and functions in a human way (“Jesus, Son”).

There is a genuine psychological distinction between God’s divine and human minds rooted in the genuine ontological distinction between His two natures. Since the way God is conscious of Himself as God (Father) is psychologically distinct from the way God is conscious of Himself as man (Son), this not only allows for, but necessitates genuine communication between God’s two modes of existence. As a genuine human being with a genuine human psychology, Jesus had the capacity for, and need of prayer as do all human beings. It might be said that the man whom God came to be was in relationship with the God from whom He came to be.

Is this strange? Yes, but so is the incarnation. There is simply no analogue to this in human experience because no creature has ever had two natures. God alone has two natures, and this allows Him to do things and experience things that no creature can. Only He can be two things at once, and function in two distinct ways simultaneously. 

What does any of this have to do with the visible appearances of YHWH? There are a couple of interesting pericopes that are similar to, and can shed light on the Father-Son communication in the NT. The first is Judges 6:

12 Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah … and said to [Gideon], “The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor.” 13 And Gideon said to him, “Please, my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? … 14 And the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” … 16 … “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” 17 And he said to him…please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay till you return.” 19 So Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour…and brought them to him….  21 … And the angel of the LORD vanished from his sight. 22 Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the LORD. And Gideon said, “Alas, O LORD God! For now I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.23 But the LORD said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” 24 Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD.

The angel of YHWH is clearly identified as YHWH. Verse 12 says it is the “angel of YHWH” who is visible to Gideon and sitting under a tree. Then, in verse 14, it says “the LORD” turned to Gideon. The action of “turning” requires a body. Whose body turned toward Gideon? Presumably it is the angel of YHWH that was sitting under the tree. That means the angel of YHWH is being identified as YHWH Himself. The messenger even goes on to speak in the first person as if he were YHWH (“I” in verses 14 and 16).

What’s interesting about this text is that it shows YHWH speaking from two distinct modes of being. YHWH speaks to Gideon via his angelic form in the beginning of the pericope, but in verse 21, the angel vanishes from Gideon’s sight. Then, Gideon directs his speech toward YHWH in heaven, and YHWH responds by assuring Gideon that he will not die. YHWH visible and YHWH invisible are both speaking in the same scene.

This is analogous to the NT. Just as the single person, YHWH, is able to speak from two different modes of being in the OT (His transcendent mode of being in heaven and His immanent mode of being on earth via His visible form), He does the same in the NT. The Father (YHWH invisible in the heavens) speaks, and the Son speaks (YHWH visible on earth), even in the same scene (Matthew 3:13-17; 17:1-5; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36).

This OT pericope is not analogous to Jesus’ prayers, however, since YHWH visible and YHWH invisible were not directing their speech to each other, but rather to some third party. The next pericope we’ll look at, however, provides a closer analogy.

In 2 Samuel 24 we find the account of God’s judgment on David for having conducted a census:

16 And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the LORD was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 17 Then David spoke to the LORD when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father's house.”

The person who was destroying Jerusalem is identified as the “angel of YHWH” (v. 16). Unlike other passages we have examined, this text does not go on to explicitly identify the angel as YHWH Himself. However, other passages have established the identity of the angel, and thus we can legitimately assume that the angel who was destroying Jerusalem was YHWH Himself in visible form.

What’s interesting about this account is that YHWH invisible speaks to YHWH visible and tells him to stop killing the people. Did you catch that? YHWH in heaven communicates to YHWH on earth. It’s the same person (YHWH), but that one person is communicating from one mode of His existence to the other mode of His existence. So while Judges 6 reveals that YHWH invisible and YHWH visible could both speak to a third party in the same scene, 2 Samuel 24 reveals that YHWH invisible could even speak to YHWH visible.

This gets us closer to the NT communication between the Father and Son, but admittedly, it’s not entirely analogous to Jesus’ prayers because the direction of communication is reversed. Jesus’ prayers to the Father are an example of visible YHWH communicating with invisible YHWH, whereas 2 Samuel 24 is an example of invisible YHWH communicating with visible YHWH. Be that as it may, 2 Samuel 24 provides an analogy to Jesus’ prayers to the degree that it demonstrates the intelligibility of YHWH speaking to YHWH from one mode of existence to the other.

If YHWH in heaven could communicate with YHWH on earth in the OT, we should not be surprised to see YHWH doing the same in the NT. [6] YHWH invisible (Father) spoke to YHWH visible (Son), and YHWH visible (Son) spoke directly to YHWH invisible (Father). As strange as it may seem for YHWH to speak to YHWH, when we recognize that He is doing so from different modes of being, the strangeness becomes more understandable. This is particularly true for the NT because YHWH isn’t just appearing in some visible form, but permanently takes on human nature itself, such that He is able to both be human and function as any ordinary human being would. Now, God experiences Himself as both God and as man simultaneously. He has both a divine mind and a human mind that are metaphysically and psychologically distinct from the other, allowing God to be conscious of Himself as both God and man simultaneously in two distinct modes of existence. Communication between God’s two modes of existence is not only understandable, but expected.


The human-like appearances of YHWH in the OT, including His appearances as the angel of YHWH, help us understand what Paul meant when he said Jesus existed “in the form of God” prior to the incarnation. He was identifying Jesus as the YHWH’s visible image in the OT, similar to Jude’s identification of Jesus as the angel of YHWH who led the Israelites in the wilderness.

These divine appearances also provide an analogue to the Father-Son communication in the NT. We see a distinction between YHWH’s invisible and visible modes of existence, and yet YHWH visible is still identified as the one and only YHWH. YHWH was active in both His invisible and visible modes simultaneously. Invisible YHWH could even communicate with visible YHWH, illustrating the possibility of communication between two modes of YHWH’s existence.

This phenomena is similar to what we see in the NT. Invisible YHWH (Father) communicated with visible YHWH (Son) and vice versa, even though the Father and Son are both YHWH. In the same way we would not say YHWH was talking to Himself in the OT, we should not think YHWH was talking to Himself in the NT. Jesus’ prayers, and the Father-Son communication generally, is due to God’s assumption of a human nature in the incarnation. When God became a man, He assumed a human nature, allowing Him to be a human being and function as a human being, including a genuine human psychology. In Jesus, YHWH is conscious of Himself as a human being. He has the mental life of a human being. In such a state, communication with the Father is not only possible, but expected.

1. All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. 

2. YHWH appeared in visible form to Jacob at least 3 times (Genesis 26:2,24; 28:13), and possibly five, if the angel of YHWH is a visible manifestation of YHWH Himself (Genesis 31:11-13; 32:34-30).

3. The point Paul is trying to make by saying Jesus had “equality with God” is that Jesus’ deity is identical to God’s, and that is only possible if Jesus is God.

4. Oneness theology does not deny that there is a real distinction between the Father and Son, but it does deny that the distinction is (1) eternal and (2) rooted in the divine being. Oneness theology affirms that the Father-Son distinction began at the incarnation when God assumed a human nature. The distinction is not grounded within God’s being, but between God’s divine existence and human existence (made possibly by God’s assumption of human nature).

5. Even if you are not persuaded that the angel of YHWH is YHWH Himself, my argument still follows because there are plenty of visible, human-like appearances of YHWH in the OT wholly apart from the angel of YHWH appearances.

6. While we often think of Jesus’ prayers in terms of regular a back-and-forth communication between Jesus and the Father, this is a rarity in the NT. We have many recorded prayers of Jesus (Matthew 26:39-40; 27:46; Mark 14:34-39; 15:34; Luke 22:41-42; 23:34,46; John 11:41-42; 12:28; 17) as well as many instances in which Jesus is said to have prayed (Matthew 14:19,23; 26:26; Mark 1:35; 6:41,46; 14:22; Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:16,18,29; 11:1; 21:45; 22:17,32; 24:30; John 6:11,15), but only one – or possibly two – show the Father responding to Jesus in turn.

The one clear example of the Father’s response to Jesus’ prayer is in Luke 3:21-22. Jesus is said to have been praying when He was baptized by John, and the Father responded by saying “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

The other possible example of the Father responding to Jesus’ prayer is found in John 12:28. Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify your name.” The Father responded by saying “I have glorified it, and will glorify it.” While the Father’s response would appear to be directed at Jesus, Jesus’ response brings this conclusion into question. He told the crowd, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine” (v. 30). Does that mean the Father’s speech, while in response to Jesus’ prayer, was directed to the crowd? Or could it have been directed to both Jesus and the crowd? It could be either, but the crowd’s response to the Father’s speech is cause to question the manner in which the voice was for their sake. John tells us that some interpreted the voice to be thunder, while others said an angel had spoken to Jesus (v. 29). Some didn’t even think it was a voice, while others didn’t think it came from the Father – and apparently did not know what was said. If they were ignorant of the source and/or content of the message, in what way could the voice have been for their sake? Perhaps it is best to conclude that Father’s speech was directed to Jesus, but was also for the sake of the crown in some sense (although the purpose is not clear). If this conclusion is correct, then there are only two instances of interactive communication between the Father and Son, and each only consisted of a single-line response from the Father – not a dialogue like we might expect.

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