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.
Yahweh breaks into the physical realm in many ways through what are known as theophanies. He appears in human form, or cloaked in dark clouds, or as a rider on a chariot-throne. But sometimes he simply speaks – that is, one or more persons on earth hear God’s voice.
For example, God tells Noah he is about to destroy the earth (Gen. 6:13). The LORD proclaims divine judgment on King Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4:31). And at Jesus’ baptism, the Father declares from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11).
Further, the word of the LORD or the word of God comes to divinely appointed prophets dozens of times throughout the Old Testament. They receive God’s message and proclaim it as:
… an expansion of a living personality, who in this case is Yahweh Himself; and it has the power which only that uniquely powerful personality can give it…. The word of Yahweh, like the word of man, is a release of the power of the personality which utters it. He who receives the word is invaded by the personality of the speaker; when the speaker is Yahweh, the transforming influence of the word exceeds the influence of any human speech.John L. McKenzie, The Word of God in the Old Testament
But occasionally in the Old Testament, God shows up, not with a word, but as the word. These are known as Christophanies, or appearances of the preincarnate Christ. Often, he appears as the angel of the LORD, who is the focus of our study. Sometimes, however, Old Testament writers call him the word of the LORD. We should take note of this.
The Word and Abram
Consider, for example, God’s encounters with Abram. Beginning in Genesis 12:1, the LORD speaks to Abram. He tells Abram to leave his home and go to a land he’s never seen before. God promises to make Abram into a great nation, to bless him, to make his name great, and to bless all clans on earth through him. We tend to think God speaks to Abram from heaven, or in dreams and visions – and at times the LORD does come to his chosen servant that way.
However, something even more profound takes place. Yahweh appears to Abram as a man and speaks face-to-face with him. We get a hint of this in Genesis 12:6-7. Abram obediently travels to Canaan, and as he passes through to Shechem, the LORD appears to Abram and speaks to him.
Later, in Genesis 15, Yahweh appears again, this time in a vision. What’s more, he is called “the word of the LORD” (v. 1). This is more than a voice, for in verse 5 the word of the LORD takes Abram outside and instructs him to look at the sky and count the stars to make the point that Abram’s offspring would be uncountable.
The LORD appears to Abram on other occasions, including Genesis 17, where he changes Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah and gives them the covenant sign of circumcision; and in Genesis 18, where he appears as a man with two angelic visitors at Abraham’s tent. He also appears as a man to Isaac, the promised son of Abraham (Gen. 26:1-5), and to Isaac’s son Jacob (Gen. 28:10-22; 31:11-12; 32:24-30).
The Word and Samuel
The word of the LORD as a way of expressing God in human form shows up in other, sometimes unexpected, places. In 1 Samuel 3, we’re told that in these days the word of the LORD is rare and prophetic visions are not widespread (v. 1). Yet the boy Samuel hears a voice calling to him in the night. He thinks it’s the priest Eli, with whom Samuel lives. “Here I am; you called me,” the boy tells the priest (v. 5).
“I didn’t call,” Eli replies. “Go back and lie down” (v. 5).
Samuel again hears his name, and again he makes his way to the place in the temple where Eli is bedded down for the night. “I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replies. “Go back and lie down” (v. 6).
When Samuel hears his name a third time and reports to Eli, the priest figures out it’s the LORD calling the boy. So he tells Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening’” (v. 9). Samuel returns to his bed.
What happens next is dramatic: “The LORD came, stood there, and called as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’” (v. 10). In other words, the word of the LORD appears in human form to the boy. We know this because at the end of the chapter we’re told, “The LORD continued to appear in Shiloh, because there he revealed himself to Samuel by his word” (v. 21).
The Word and Jeremiah
Jeremiah is another prophet to whom the word of the LORD appears in human form. We are told the word of the LORD comes to Jeremiah in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, as well as at other times (Jer. 1:2-3). The word of the LORD comes to Jeremiah and tells him:
I chose you before I formed you in the womb; I set you apart before you were born. I appointed you a prophet to the nations…. Do not say, ‘I am only a youth,’ for you will go to everyone I send you to and speak whatever I tell you. Do not be afraid of anyone, for I will be with you to rescue you. This is the LORD’s declaration (vv. 5, 7-8).
Immediately following these instructions, we read:
Then the LORD reached out his hand, touched my mouth, and told me: I have now filled your mouth with my words. See, I have appointed you today over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant (vv. 9-10, emphasis added).
Filtering the divine presence
Appearances of God as a man form a pattern throughout the Old Testament. Why is this so? For starters, Yahweh is nothing like us. No human being can see the true essence of God and survive. Many Old Testament characters who encounter Christophanies expect to die as a result. Certainly, Jacob does (Gen. 32:30). The Israelites are shocked that Moses is still alive after his face-to-face visit with Yahweh (Deut. 5:24). And the angel of the LORD must assure Gideon he’s going to be all right after seeing the LORD in person (Judg. 6:22-24).
The reason these and other Old Testament figures survive is because “God filtered his presence through something the human mind could process – a fire, a cloud, and more often than many Christians realize, a man,” according to Michael Heiser.
In his classic book on the Trinity, Edward Bickersteth links the many appearances of the word of the LORD to Jesus:
Who, I ask, was this mysterious being? The Angel, or Sent One: he whom the Lord calls “my presence;” the visible similitude of Jehovah: an Angel of whom the Lord says, “Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him?” This one could not be distinctively the Father, for no man hath seen him at any time, or can see him and live. But he who appeared is declared to be Jehovah and God. Are we not compelled to acknowledge that he was the Divine Word, the Son, the brightness of the Father’s glory, the express image of his person? Therefore the Word is Jehovah God.The Trinity: The Classic Study of Biblical Trinitarianism
The truth of the eternal Word existing as the preincarnate Christ becomes abundantly clear in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John, which begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1-2). John adds, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (v. 14). In his first epistle, John declares the word of life – “the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us” (1 John 1:1-2).
A first-century Jew reading these lines would think back to Yahweh, coming as the word of the LORD. This same word has now arrived in human flesh. Jesus makes this clear when he tells the religious leaders that Abraham rejoiced to see his day. Then he stuns his listeners with these words: “Truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:56-58). Such a bold statement of deity incites the Jews to pick up stones to throw at him (v. 59).
While the focus of this study is the angel of the LORD, it’s important to keep in mind that he’s also the eternal Word. And when the Word (or word) of the LORD comes to Old Testament figures, we should take special note of the times he appears in human form.
As McKenzie further notes, “In Jesus Christ is fulfilled the word as a distinct being; as a dynamic creative entity; as that which gives form and intelligibility to the reality which it signifies; as the self-revelation of God; as a point of personal encounter between God and man.”
Next: First appearances