Have you ever thought about what Jesus was up to before the incarnation, before Christ came as an infant?
For millennia, theologians have marveled at what it means that Jesus has eternally existed as the Lord, Yahweh, the God of Israel. This is part of the larger revelation of the Trinity, and without getting lost in the discussion, the Old Testament is full of examples of what are known as “theophanies.” A theophany was a time when the Lord revealed Himself to people in various forms both glorious and ordinary. It is an appearance of God in a form recognizable to us. In the case of Joshua 5:13-15, the majority of the early church commentators saw this majestic warrior as an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ.
13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
15 The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15, NIV)
While there isn’t an absolute consensus among scholars, there is a convincing case to see this as no angel, but as a theophany. Moses in Exodus 3 and Joshua in Joshua 5 both have an encounter with Yahweh (the “LORD”) that starts out with something obscure and perplexing. Moses first saw a burning bush that was ablaze without being consumed by the flame and the text makes it clear that it was absolutely Yahweh, who met with Moses during his “holy ground” moment, as is clear in the passage below.
2 And the angel of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush, and he looked, and there was the bush burning with fire, but the bush was not being consumed. 3 And Moses said, “Let me turn aside and see this great sight. Why does the bush not burn up?” 4 And Yahweh saw that he turned aside to see, and God called to him from the midst of the bush, and he said, “Moses, Moses.” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 And he said, “You must not come near to here. Take off your sandals from on your feet, because the place on which you are standing, it is holy ground.” 6 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 because he was afraid of looking at God. (Exodus 3:2-6, LEB)
In fact, Jude 1:5 casually asserts that it was Jesus (the pre-incarnate Lord of course) who “saved the people out of the land of Egypt.” Moses’ whole experience with Yahweh was an interaction with Jesus, before Jesus was ever known as Jesus.
Years later, returning to Joshua’s story, Joshua sees an impressive being with a sword drawn, ready for war, and then upon hearing the figure speak Joshua knew it was Yahweh, for he had heard Yahweh’s voice before. He recognized the voice of his Lord. And he falls on his face in worship before his Lord. Like his mentor, Moses, Joshua had his own “holy ground” moment in which he met his maker through a theophany.
The same God that was in the burning bush was standing before Joshua and said the same thing as was said to Moses (“take off your sandals”).
Joshua then offers worship to this heavenly warrior. If this position is wrong and this being is merely an angel, then this is the first (and only time) in the whole Bible that an angel actually receives worship from a human without correcting him, whereas angels always tell humans to not worship them but to worship God. Yet in Joshua 5 the heavenly warrior commander accepts the worship given to Him and offers Joshua a “holy ground moment” all his own.
And if you keep reading into the first few verses of Joshua 6 (which is a continuation of this conversation) the text switches it over to clearly being Yahweh. Joshua 6:2, “Yahweh said to Joshua… ” It seems to be clear. And who better to be called the commander of Yahweh’s army than Yahweh Himself? The pre-incarnate Christ interacted with Moses and Joshua.
So, what was Jesus doing before coming as an infant? He was leading the Israelites through the various ages and stages of redemptive history.