Who is the angel of the LORD?

This is the 19th in a series of articles on the Trinity, excerpted from “What Every Christian Should Know About the Trinity,” available through Amazon and other booksellers.

Identified as Yahweh and yet distinct from Him, “the angel of the LORD” appears numerous times throughout the Old Testament. This messenger is above all others. He is called “commander of the LORD’s army,” “the God of Abraham,” “Judge,” and “I AM WHO I AM” – a name only the one true God ever claims.

Who is this awe-inspiring messenger? Ancient Jews believed him to be a special angel, the highest revelation of the unseen God. Similarly, Roman Catholics generally regard the angel of the LORD as an angelic representative of God, as do some Protestants. Many evangelicals, however, consider him either as a manifestation of Yahweh – a theophany, derived from the Greek words theos (God) and pheino (to appear) – or as the preincarnate Son of God, a Christophany, the Lord Jesus.

We should note that the Hebrew word malak and the Greek term angelos, translated “angel,” mean “messenger.” While angels in Scripture normally are spirit beings of higher intelligence and power than humans, there are times when the term refers to human messengers, or to the Son of God. The context helps us determine the correct application.

Norman Geisler writes, “Jesus Christ appears in the Old Testament in His preincarnate state as ‘the Angel [Messenger] of the Lord’ … Once the Son (Christ) came in permanent incarnate form (John 1:14), never again does the Angel of the Lord appear. Angels appear, but no angel that is worshiped or claims to be God ever appears again. The Father and Holy Spirit never appear as a man. Hence, Jesus Christ, as a person, eternally existed and appeared as a man before His virginal conception on earth.”

Just as the Holy Spirit is active on the earth prior to the Day of Pentecost, so Jesus works collaboratively with the Father and the Spirit to bring a divine word, direction, and deliverance prior to His conception in a virgin’s womb.

Key appearances

The angel of the LORD’s appearances span the days from Abraham to Zechariah. A sampling:

To Hagar (Gen. 16:7-13). Banished from Abraham’s tent, Hagar is alone in the wilderness when the angel of the LORD appears to her and says, “I will greatly multiply your offspring, and they will be too many to count.” Hagar recognizes the uniqueness of this angel, who claims the power of creation and knows the future. She names the one who speaks to her El-roi (God Sees Me) and asks, “[I]n this place have I actually seen the one who sees me?”

To Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). The angel, identified as “the LORD,” appears with two others at Abraham’s tent and declares, “I will certainly come back to you in about a year’s time, and your wife Sarah will have a son! … Is anything impossible for the LORD?” (vv. 10, 14). The same divine messenger pronounces blessings for Abraham at the offering up of Isaac (Genesis 22).

To Moses (Exodus 3). Exiled from the Egyptian court, Moses keeps his father-in-law’s flock in the desert near Mt. Horeb. A thorn tree bursts into flame, yet it is not consumed. The angel of the LORD says from the bush, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6). Moses hides his face because he is afraid to look at God. On this historic occasion, God reveals His name as “I AM WHO I AM” (v. 14), the eternal, unchanging one.

It’s fascinating to read how this divine being is identified as “the angel of the LORD,” “the LORD,” “God,” “the God of your father,” “I AM WHO I AM,” and “I AM.”

To Isaiah and Ezekiel (Isa. 6:1-13; Ezek. 1:1-28). Christ comes to both prophets as the revealer of God. Both Isaiah and Ezekiel are granted special manifestations of Yahweh and His glory at the time of their formal calls to the prophetic office. Isaiah sees “the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne” (Isa. 6:1). The seraphim call Him “the LORD of Armies” whose glory “fills the whole earth” (v. 3), and Isaiah confesses, “my eyes have seen the King” (v. 5). Later, the apostle John tells us that Isaiah beheld Christ and His glory (John 12:37-41).

Ezekiel sees “visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1) that begin with a whirlwind, a huge cloud with erupting fire, and four living creatures who dart back and forth like flashes of lightning, moving wherever the Spirit directs. At last, a voice is heard above the expanse. A throne appears, with “someone who looked like a human,” with an amber gleam encased in fire, and brilliant light all around Him (v. 27). Ezekiel can only say, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the LORD’s glory. When I saw it, I fell facedown …” (v. 28).

As Fred Dickason concludes, “The Angel of Jehovah, then, according to all the evidence, seems to be the preincarnate Son. His appearances evidence His eternal existence.”

Next: The deity of Christ in the New Testament