Following is an excerpt from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the LORD, released by High Street Press.
The female donkey sees him first: an ominous, sword-wielding figure appearing right in front of her. Startled, she veers off the path and into a field, prompting her rider to strike her in anger. Next, the mysterious swordsman cuts off the donkey’s escape route. Panicked, she presses against a stone wall, jamming her rider’s foot. A second beating ensues. After a third confrontation with the swordsman, the donkey crouches in surrender.
That does it. The rider, a mercenary prophet named Balaam, beats the donkey mercilessly – until the donkey speaks: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”
The prophet replies, “You have made me look like a fool. If I had a sword in my hand, I’d kill you now!”
At last, Balaam’s eyes are opened and he sees what his donkey has seen all along: a divine person, called the angel of the LORD, standing in the path with a drawn sword in his hand. The prophet prostrates himself in worship before the angel, confesses his sin, and receives further instructions.
Numbers 22 records this strange scene involving a prophet for hire, a sword-brandishing angel, and yes, a talking donkey. In fact, we may be so charmed by the loquacious beast of burden that we overlook the angelic intruder. Who is the angel of the LORD?
We encounter this curious figure dozens of times in the Old Testament. He is first identified during an appearance to Hagar in Genesis 16 and makes his final entrance in Malachi 3, coming in judgment to the temple. He appears or is mentioned in more than fifty Old Testament passages but is limited to Old Testament references in the New Testament books of Acts and Jude.
Witnesses describe him variously as an angel, a man, a voice from heaven, a flame within a thorn bush, a divine presence in a pillar of fire and cloud, or in other ways. He is depicted as standing, or seated on a heavenly throne, or riding the clouds of heaven, or even wielding a sword.
He comforts, encourages, delivers, wrestles, rebukes, instructs, prophesies, and destroys. He instills fear and infuses courage in the hearts of those he encounters.
Old Testament writers record his many names: the angel of the LORD; commander of the LORD’s army; El-roi (God sees me); the angel of God; the destroyer; the God of the Hebrews; the LORD of Armies; the angel of God’s presence; I AM WHO I AM; King; LORD; Judge; the LORD’s glory; the LORD you seek; and others.
Ancient Jews believed this awe-inspiring figure to be a special angel, the highest revelation of the unseen God. Similarly, Roman Catholics generally regard him as an angelic representative of God, as do many Protestants.
Evangelicals tend to honor him either as a theophany or a Christophany. The term theophany comes from the Greek words theos (God) and pheino (to appear). In other words, a theophany is a manifestation of God in the natural world – normally in a visible sense, but sometimes as a voice or in a vision. A Christophany is narrower in its application, signifying an appearance of Jesus prior to the Incarnation. That is the position this study seeks to support as most biblically faithful.
Jesus Before Bethlehem
While Old Testament writers do not specifically identify the angel of the LORD as Jesus, the Son of God, or Messiah – for reasons that become clear as we work through this study – they describe his appearances in ways that lay the groundwork for the Incarnation. Put another way, the angel of the LORD is Jesus before Bethlehem.
Yes, opinions vary as to the identity of this special messenger, but they should not divide followers of Jesus. Our understanding of the angel of the LORD – whether as the preincarnate Christ, a theophany, or a created spirit being – is a lesser doctrine. That is, our views about the identity of the angel of the LORD do not cross the threshold into the realm of non-negotiable doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, or justification by faith. So, Christians may disagree about the identity of this messenger without calling one another heretics or clamoring for denominational councils.
At the same time, we must be careful not to minimize the importance of the biblical texts that reveal this fascinating figure and describe his work. If he is a powerful, created angel, he speaks for Yahweh and does business on earth as Yahweh’s agent. If he is a temporary manifestation of God – a theophany – he enables us to have brief, and glorious, glimpses into the wonders of our sovereign creator.
If he is Jesus, then he is eternal, divine, all-powerful, and all-knowing, sharing the divine name and engaging in his work on earth as a glorious preview of the Incarnation – the day the eternal Son of God added sinless humanity to his deity via the miracle of the virgin birth. These are not mere beliefs, easily dismissed in the same way we talk about which hymnals to use or whether it’s okay to worship with a praise band rather than a pipe organ.
The position of this study is that the angel of the LORD is none other than the preincarnate Christ. We hope to demonstrate this through a careful study of the biblical texts. If we are wrong, we do no harm to Christ, who is eternal and co-equal with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Further, we do no harm to the doctrines of Christ, such as his virgin birth, sinless life as the God-Man, sacrificial and substitutionary death on the cross, physical resurrection from the dead, and imminent personal, physical, and glorious return.
One criticism of our position is that if we describe Jesus before Bethlehem as an angel, it makes us vulnerable to charges of Arianism, the ancient heresy identifying the Son of God as a lesser, created divine being. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses embrace this view, claiming Jehovah created Jesus as Michael the archangel, who later was transformed into Jesus the man, and finally rose spiritually from the dead as an exalted spirit being – a Michael the archangel 2.0. They further malign the eternal Son of God in other ways. But we should not allow ancient heresies or modern-day false teachings about Jesus to prevent us from seeking to rightly divide the word of truth, even when it proves challenging.
Further, as we see in future posts, the Hebrew and Greek words translated “angel” simply mean messenger and may be applied to humans, created spirit beings, and even the preincarnate Christ. The context helps us determine which character is in the writer’s view.
So, we encourage you to embark on this study with a determination to let the Scriptures speak for themselves. The Word of God should always be the pure waters from which we draw our doctrines, not the other way around. And when these true teachings prove challenging to our creeds and denominational statements of faith, we should have the courage to conform our doctrines to Scripture rather than bend God’s Word to fit our beliefs – no matter how sincerely held they may be.
Next: A brief primer on angels