The angel of the LORD in the New Testament

If the angel of the LORD is the preincarnate Christ, as we have argued throughout this study, then a dramatic transition takes place in the Incarnation. The prophesied Messiah, whose “origin is from antiquity” (Mic. 5:2), no longer appears in flaming thorn bushes, pillars of cloud and fire, or briefly as a man. Rather, the eternal Son of God comes permanently as the God-Man, adding sinless humanity to his deity through the miracle of the virgin birth. 

Jesus of Nazareth is completely human. He spends nine months in Mary’s womb, is born naturally, grows to maturity, eats, drinks, sleeps, experiences human emotions, suffers pain, and dies. Yet, he never sacrifices his deity, although at times he chooses not to exercise all the divine attributes available to him. As one who had to be “like his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in matters pertaining to God,” he is uniquely qualified to pay our sin debt (Heb. 2:17). 

In his physical resurrection, Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). That is, he is the first to rise from the dead in a glorified body – an invincible body no longer subject to pain, sickness, aging, or death. And then he ascends to the Father in heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him (Heb. 1:3; 1 Pet. 3:22). Because of all this, followers of Jesus look forward to the day when we see him as he is and become like him (1 John 3:2). 

But what does the New Testament have to say about the angel of the LORD? If his role in the Old Testament is, at least in part, to prefigure his future incarnation and earthly ministry, then we would not expect to see Jesus in any form other than human after his conception in the virgin Mary’s womb. And that’s exactly what the pages of the New Testament reveal. 

While it is not impossible for the omnipresent Son of God to appear in various forms, even while in his mother’s womb and after his ascension into heaven, we never see the angel of the LORD in the New Testament. There are, however, several New Testament passages that subtly identify Jesus as the Old Testament’s angel of the LORD. 

Jude 5

Let’s begin with Jude 5, which reads: “Now I want to remind you, although you came to know all these things once and for all, that Jesus saved a people out of Egypt and later destroyed those who did not believe …” (emphasis added).

Jude credits Jesus with delivering the Israelites from Egypt and destroying Israel’s enemies. This verse links us to Exodus 23, in which Yahweh issues promises and warnings to the Israelites:

I am going to send an angel before you to protect you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to him. Do not defy him, because he will not forgive your acts of rebellion, for my name is in him. But if you will carefully obey him and do everything I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. For my angel will go before you and bring you to the land of the Amorites, Hethites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out (emphasis added).

Exod. 23:20-23

As we noted earlier, the divine name – that is, the very presence of Yahweh – is in the angel of the LORD. This one-of-a-kind messenger is the divine agent of deliverance for the children of Israel. Thousands of years later, Jude identifies the angel of the LORD as Jesus. 

We should note that some ancient manuscripts do not read “Jesus” in Jude 5, but rather “LORD” or “God.” Even so, scholars like Bruce Metzger and Michael Heiser insist that “Jesus” is most likely original. Jude, no doubt, understands the angel of the LORD to be the preincarnate Christ.

John 17

Jesus’ high-priestly prayer also is instructive. In John 17, Jesus describes himself several times as the one who was given the name of the Father and who manifests that name to the people of God. Note the following verses, particularly the words and phrases italicized for emphasis:

[Jesus] have revealed your [Father’s] name to the people you gave me from the world. They were yours, you gave them to me, and they have kept your word (v. 6).

Holy Father, protect them by your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, was protecting them by your name that you have given me (vv. 11-12).

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you (vv. 20-21).

I made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them (v. 26).

John 17:6-26

Jesus states that he has been given the name of the Father (v. 11), and that the Father is in him (v. 21). The stunning truth of these declarations becomes clear against the backdrop of the Old Testament, in which the name represents the essence of Yahweh. Just as the name – the very presence of Yahweh – is in the angel of the LORD, it also resides in Jesus of Nazareth, the Word who became flesh (John 1:14). Further, John’s references to Jesus as the Word draw on several Old Testament passages that allude to Yahweh’s earthly presence as the word (cf. Gen. 15:1; 1 Sam. 3:21; see The Word of the LORD Appears).

As Michael Heiser notes:

Here John casts Jesus as the embodied Name, who, as the incarnate Yahweh, came to reveal that Name, God himself, to humanity. Jesus, in other words, did not teach anyone God’s name; they knew the name already from the Old Testament. Rather, he was God come to humankind.

The Bible Unfiltered

So, just as the Name – that is, the divine presence – of Yahweh is in the angel of the LORD in Old Testament times (Exod. 23:20-23), the Name also resides in the incarnate Son of God.

Acts 5:40-42

In the same way Old Testament authors use the Name to refer to Yahweh, some New Testament writers, in addition to John, use the Name as a title for Jesus. One example is Acts 5:40-42:

After they called in the apostles and had them flogged, they ordered them not to speak in the nameof Jesus and released them. Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be treated shamefully on behalf of the Name. Every day in the temple, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

Acts 5:40-42, emphasis added

While this passage is not an explicit reference to the angel of the LORD, it links the divine name of the angel of the LORD to Jesus (cf. Exod. 23:20-23).

Acts 7:2-3

Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin, which results in his martyrdom, points the Israelite leaders back to encounters between the angel of the LORD and key Old Testament figures. Consider Acts 7:2-3: “Brothers and fathers,” he replied, “listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, and said to him: Leave your country and relatives, and come to the land that I will show you.”  

Note that Stephen says God appeared to Abraham. This takes us back to Genesis 12 and Yahweh’s first visit with the father of the Israelites, known at this time as Abram. Genesis 12:1 tells us simply, “The LORD said to Abram ….” Instructions to leave his land and his family follow, along with God’s promise to make Abram into a great nation and to bless all clans on earth through him (Gen. 12:1-3).

After Abram leaves Haran and travels to Shechem in the land of Canaan, we read: “The LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him” (Gen. 12:7, emphasis added). 

How does the LORD appear to Abram? We are not told in Genesis 12. However, the LORD comes to Abram in Genesis 15 as “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” to establish a covenant with him. The angel of the LORD then appears to Abram’s servant Hagar in Genesis 16, presumably in human form. God Almighty appears to Abram in Genesis 17 to establish the covenant sign of circumcision, and to change both Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah; again, he most likely manifests himself in human form. And the LORD appears as a man, along with two other divine messengers, in Genesis 18 to partake in a covenant meal with Abraham and Sarah. 

In all of these instances, we see a visible manifestation of Yahweh. Stephen’s point in mentioning the LORD’s appearance to Abraham is to draw the Israelite leaders’ attention to the sovereign hand of God in their nation’s history. Since no one may see the full display of God’s glory and survive (Exod. 33:20), Yahweh often veils himself in clouds, smoke, fire, or other elements. But he comes most intimately and personally in the angel of the LORD.

Next: The angel of the LORD in the New Testament (continued)

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.