Over the past few weeks I’ve heard a number of times the view that when Isaiah saw the vision in the temple (recorded in Isaiah 6), it was Jesus he saw. This idea is based on John 12:41. Now, there’s no nice way to say this: statements like that are theologically illiterate. They make me worry about what people are being taught in church. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, of a virgin named Mary – that is surely basic to the Christian creed. Before that Jesus didn’t exist. The logos did – the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God – but Jesus didn’t. In the words of the Confession:
The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. (WCF 8:2)
It is the incarnation of the logos, the addition to the nature of the logos of a human nature (a human body and soul) that brings Jesus the person into being. The logos has an eternal divine nature, and so has always existed. But the logos is not Jesus. The name Jesus (or Yeshua, as Jesus’ family and friends would have called him – Joshua to you and me) was given to him at his birth. Jesus is a human being. Jesus did not exist before his birth. Isaiah did not see Jesus in the temple.
Only marginally better, but in my opinion usually misunderstood, is the term ‘the pre-incarnate Christ’. Some may argue that what Isaiah saw in his vision was the pre-incarnate Christ. But again, Christ – or Messiah – is a title bestowed upon a human being. It is not a title of the logos, it is a title of Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah. The logos is not the Messiah. The terms ‘pre-incarnate Jesus’, or ‘pre-incarnate Messiah’ might be used to mean the logos, but are somewhat misleading, if not given careful definition. There can be no simple identification of the logos as the pre-incarnate Jesus, or the pre-incarnate Messiah. There was a pre-incarnate logos – and that expresses the most important point, and therefore is the term which ought to be used. A whole mythology has grown up about where Jesus (or Christ) can be found in the OT – standing on the banks of the Jordan with Joshua, wrestling with Jacob, sitting in Abraham’s tent. Even if we allow that the logos is meant, it is far from clear that the logos could be manifest in isolation from the Trinity (apart from in the person of Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God).
Why does all this matter? Some would say that it is needless theological precision. I beg to differ. Too many Christians believe that Jesus has always existed. That, in a nutshell, is a denial of the incarnation. If Jesus is actually a spiritual being who slotted into a human ‘shell’, then he is not actually human (it’s the old Apollinarian heresy). To cut to the chase, you can see the theological fallout from this mistake in the effective silence about resurrection, and about the worth of embodied human existence, and in the almost ubiquitous impression that Christians give that we are solely looking forward to a spiritual existence in heaven. If a pre-existent Jesus wrapped himself in a human ‘shell’, then logically Jesus can be raised without that ‘shell’ and still be Jesus. Which perhaps explains why many Christians haven’t really taken on board that the resurrected Jesus has a human bones-and-flesh body now. The incarnation is the affirmation of human existence – God’s statement of intent to redeem it, body and soul. John wrote: the logos became flesh; not Jesus became flesh.
Anyway, back to John 12. The only option that is available is that Isaiah saw the logos in the temple, but that’s not what John 12:41 says. The claim that John 12:41 says that Isaiah saw Jesus in the temple is just not true. The Gospel quotes first from Isaiah 53, a passage about the Servant of the Lord. Then from Isaiah 6, the vision in the temple. Both quotations are used to show that the unbelief of the people in Isaiah’s day is fulfilled in their rejection of Jesus the Messiah. These ‘things’ Isaiah said (that’s Isaiah 53 as well as Isaiah 6) because he ‘saw his glory and spoke of him’. That just means that Isaiah foresaw the glory of the Messiah’s day (in the Servant Songs and in Isaiah 7, 8, 9, which follow closely on the temple vision) and that his words are fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah’s life. So, the assumption that the words ‘saw his glory’ refer to the temple vision has very little basis! In addition, there is only a tenuous textual connection: although the Septuagint of Isaiah 6:1 refers to the glory of the Lord in the temple, John’s citation from Isaiah 6 is closer to the Hebrew text, which does not mention God’s glory in 6:1. In the Hebrew text of the temple vision in Isaiah 6, the only reference to glory, on the lips of the angelic beings who speak of the glory of God which fills the whole earth.[Note: this post was originally posted in June 2012, and slightly modified in March 2016 to acknowledge the LXX reference to glory in Isaiah 6:1].