A special angel

Following is another in a series of excerpts from What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the LORD, released by High Street Press.

Of all the angels we encounter in Scripture, one stands apart from the rest. In his many Old Testament appearances, he alone speaks for God as God. He alone bears the divine name. He alone is all-knowing and all-powerful. He alone breaks into the natural realm in a variety of disguises: a flame in a thorn bush, a sword-wielding warrior, a voice from a pillar of cloud and fire; a king riding a heavenly chariot-throne. 

He is divine, yet he talks face-to-face with selected people, from a female Gentile runaway slave to a young prophet in his bed. He delivers. He destroys. He brings messages. He forgives sins. He is malak YHWH, the angel of the LORD.

This messenger is above all others. He is eternal and uncreated. He appears or is mentioned dozens of times in the Old Testament, but never in the same sense in the New Testament – except for references to the Book of Exodus in Acts 7 and Jude 5. Among other names, he is called “the angel of the LORD,” “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 for himself.

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 a manifestation of Yahweh – a theophany, derived from the Greek words theos (God) and pheino (to appear) – or a Christophany, an appearance of the Son of God prior to the Incarnation.

That final view – the angel of the LORD as the preincarnate Christ – is the position we are pursuing in this study. It is the view of many leading evangelical scholars. For example, Norman Geisler notes:

The Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament serves the same role as does Christ in the New Testament (Isa. 63:7-10). Once the Son came in permanent incarnate form (John 1:1, 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.

The Doctrine of Angels & Demons

Put another way, the angel of the LORD is the Logos, the divine Word, the image of the invisible God who manifests himself as God in human flesh (John 1:1, 14). But why does Jesus appear in angelic/human form prior to his earthly ministry?

In his Institutes, John Calvin offers this explanation: “For though He (Christ) was not yet clothed with flesh, He came down, so to speak, as an intermediary in order to approach believers more intimately. Therefore, this closer intercourse gave Him the name of angel.”

And in All the Angels of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer comments, “The eternal Son … anticipated His incarnation and appears for the purpose of sustaining the faith and hope of His people, and of keeping before their minds the great redemption which was to take place in the fullness of time.” 

Collaboration within the Godhead

Just as the Holy Spirit is active on 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. 

Think of it this way: We see God the Father clearly and consistently engaged in human history throughout the Old Testament. We also see the Holy Spirit create, speak, inspire, and empower across the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. So, if God is triune – one being in three co-equal, co-eternal persons – we might naturally wonder what Jesus is doing prior to the Incarnation. Is he simply observing the work of the Father and the Holy Spirit? Is he biding his time in heaven until the “fullness of time” comes (Gal. 4:4)? 

Hardly. Jesus is alive and active from eternity past. With the Father and the Spirit, he creates all things (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). He is el gibbor, or “Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6), at work in the world. He sits on a throne that is “forever and ever” (Ps. 45:6-7; Heb. 1:8-9). He approaches the Ancient of Days with the clouds of heaven (Dan. 7:13-14; cf. Mark 14:61-62). He rules over God’s angels, who are his angels (Matt. 13:41; Luke 12:8-9). He has a kingdom, which is God’s kingdom (Matt. 19:23-24; John 18:36). He forgives sin and clothes people in righteousness (Zech. 3:4). 

Further, he is the Word – the Logos, the expression of divine power and wisdom (John 1:1). He is life – from the Greek zoe, which refers to spiritual life as opposed to the Greek bios, which describes physical life (John 1:4). He is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20). He is “the First and the Last, and the Living One” who is “alive forever and ever” (Rev. 1:17-18). He is “before all things, and by him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). He is the spiritual rock who followed the ancient Israelites through the desert and from which they drank (1 Cor. 10:4). 

And as we see in the posts ahead, the preincarnate Christ does much more. When we see the angel of the LORDas Jesus prior to his taking on flesh, it opens a window for us into the life and labors of the eternal Son of God. We see Jesus taking an active interest in the affairs of human beings and their world long before he steps out of the portals of heaven to take on flesh and live among us. 

Think about it: This divine messenger reveals the face of God (Gen. 32:30) and bears Yahweh’s name (Exod. 23:21). His presence is synonymous with Yahweh’s presence (Exod. 32:34; 33:14; Isa. 63:9). He appears as a manifestation of Yahweh and yet is distinct from him. 

If the triune God exists from all eternity, and if the persons of the Godhead work collaboratively in creation, redemption, and restoration – as Scripture teaches – then it is beneficial for us to search for Jesus, not only in a virgin’s womb in the opening pages of the Gospels, but in ancient Mesopotamia, the backside of the wilderness, the visions of heaven’s throne room, and many other places.

Old Testament appearances by the angel of the LORD help us better understand the Trinity; show us that all three persons of the Godhead are active throughout human history; and allow us, at special times, to catch a veiled glimpse of the one who says we cannot see his glory and live (Exod. 33:20).

Michael Heiser, a leading scholar of ancient Semitic languages, writes this about the angel of the LORD: 

This figure is actually Yahweh himself in the visible form of a man. Consequently, the angel of Yahweh is central to the concept of a Godhead (God being more than one person, each person being the same and not ontologically greater or lesser). This concept is at the heart of the ancient Jewish teaching that the Hebrew Bible bore witness to two Yahweh figures – “two powers” in heaven, one invisible and the other visible. 


Heiser further notes:

Judaism before the first century, the time of Jesus, knew this teaching. That’s why ancient Jewish theology once embraced two Yahweh figures (the “two powers”). But once this teaching came to involve the risen Jesus of Nazareth, Judaism could no longer tolerate it. 

The Unseen Realm

Other views

We should note, however, that some Christian scholars come to a different conclusion. They argue that the Old Testament sometimes speaks of the angel of the LORD as if he were the LORD because he is acting as Yahweh’s representative. For example, Ben Witherington writes:

The angel of the Lord is just that – an angel. The angel of the Lord is a special representative or messenger of God to God’s people, and according to the ancient concept of agency, he could be considered to be the Lord who sent him, and was to be treated as if he were the one who sent him.

Bible Q&A: Does the Bible Define the Trinity?

Rene Lopez agrees, writing, “The evidence adduced from grammar, linguistic distinction, ANE [Ancient Near East] custom, and Scripture all points to understanding this angel as a representative of God rather than a theophany.”

W. G. MacDonald argues that viewing this angel as a theophany undercuts Christology: 

The argument for the angel-Christ proves too much, finding Jesus retroactively in every nameless angel the Lord sent. It also falls prey to the Arian arguments for creaturism and essential subordinationism. Additionally, it places the most serious docetic question marks after the incarnation. 

Christology and ‘The Angel of the Lord’

This critique needs some unpacking. First, MacDonald’s warning against reading Jesus back into every Old Testament reference to angels is well taken. Clearly, many messengers in the Hebrew Scriptures, whether spirit beings or human beings, could not possibly be identified as the preincarnate Christ.

Next, by “Arian arguments,” MacDonald refers to the fourth-century heretic Arius, who taught Jesus was a lesser divine being, one who was created. This places Jesus in a subordinate position relative to God by his very nature as a finite being. And by “docetic question marks,” MacDonald points to the first-century error of Docetism, which affirmed Christ’s deity but insisted that he only seemed (from the Greek dokein, “to seem”) to be human, thus denying the Incarnation.

The view shared by Witherington, Lopez, and MacDonald, as well as many others, is known as the agency view, which sees the angel of the LORD acting on behalf of God with God’s authority vested in him. However, if the agency view is correct, we would expect to see the Old Testament prophets, who spoke as God’s agents, speak as God. But this never happens. Rather, the prophets typically introduce their messages with words to this effect: “Thus says the LORD …”

Duane Garrett, in Angels and the New Spirituality, points out that the New Testament uses the term angel of the LORD a number of times (Matt. 1:20, 24; 2:13, 19; 28:2; Luke 1:11; 2:9; Acts 5:19; 8:26; 12:7, 23). Yet none of these passages suggests the angel in question is divine. Further, the angel never speaks of himself as God. Garrett asks:

If it was legitimate for an angel to do this in the Old Testament, why not in the New Testament? The most reasonable explanation is that in the Old Testament, the Logos alone, and not the angels, took on the identity of God. After the Logos became incarnate as Jesus Christ, any appearance he made would not be in the form of an angel but as the risen Christ. 

Even so, MacDonald’s caution against undercutting Christology is well taken. If we are not careful how we study the angel of the LORD, we may be inclined to conclude that Jesus is everlasting but not eternal; a created being through whom all other things came to be; a god who is lesser in power and knowledge than Yahweh; or a shapeshifter who never really becomes human, even though he breaks into the natural realm in curious disguises. 

Further, MacDonald’s caution about “finding Jesus retroactively in every nameless angel the Lord has sent” is a valid caution for our study. While we examine several Bible passages that could be references to the preincarnate Christ, we intend to focus primarily on verses that explicitly name the angel of the LORD. And we intend to be less dogmatic about other references. Differing opinions about the identity of the angel of the LORD fall into the category of so-called third-order, or lesser, doctrines. 

With these cautions in mind, we should allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves. As God reveals himself and his divine attributes in the Bible’s pages, we should read his word with the confidence of adopted children who trust our Abba to tell us the truth. Heresies like Arianism and Docetism are dangerous and pervasive, but they emerged from the minds of false teachers who twisted the Scriptures rather than rightly divided them. 

Satan has sown tares in Christ’s wheat fields from the very beginning. His specialty is counterfeiting God’s truths, and he is quite good at what he does. However, this should urge us to study the Scriptures more carefully, gleaning its precious truths while recognizing the dangers of false doctrines. 

Why study the angel of the LORD?

Before moving on, we should consider several reasons to pursue a study of the angel of the LORD.

First, we should examine the angel of the LORD because he leaps off the pages of Scripture. He appears dozens of times in the Old Testament, and at crucial moments. For example, he announces to Abraham and Sarah the future birth of Isaac, through whom all the earth’s clans are blessed (Gen. 18). He finds Moses in the wilderness and sends him back to Egypt as the Israelites’ deliverer (Exod. 3-4). And he slays the Assyrian army in a single night, rescuing Jerusalem from the slow death of a lengthy siege (2 Kings 19; Isa. 37). These are significant events in which the angel of the LORD plays a decisive role.

Second, the angel of the LORD is closely identified with Yahweh and even shares the divine name. His appearances provide early evidence of the Trinity. They show the existence of two Yahweh figures who may be distinguished but not separated.

Third, the angel of the LORD shows us what the Son of God is doing prior to the Incarnation. As Christians, we should understand Jesus is the eternal Son of God. We know from the New Testament he is the creator of all things – meaning he, the Father, and the Holy Spirit worked together to call everything into existence. We see the Father and the Holy Spirit active throughout the Old Testament. So, we may rightly ask: Where is Jesus between creation and the Incarnation? What is he doing? What can we discover about his role in heaven, and his ministry on earth, prior to coming in the flesh?

Finally, a study of the angel of the LORD helps us develop a biblically faithful doctrine of Christ, which enables us to identify and counter false doctrines of Jesus. For example, the fourth-century heretic Arius taught that Jesus was a lesser divine being whom God created. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe essentially the same false doctrine today, identifying this being as Michael the archangel, whom Jehovah later recreates as Jesus the man, and who rises from the dead, not in the flesh, but as a glorified spirit being.

Knowing more about angels, and specifically about the angel of the LORD, also helps us understand the different ways the word angel is applied in Scripture.

Next: Introducing the angel of the LORD