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

Read Part 1 of “The angel of the LORD in the New Testament

Acts 7:30-36

As Stephen continues his defense before the Sanhedrin, he recalls Exodus 3, where Moses encounters both Yahweh and the angel of the LORD in the burning bush:

After forty years had passed, an angel [the angel of the LORD] appeared to him [Moses] in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight. As he was approaching to look at it, the voice of the Lord came: I am the God of your ancestors ​— ​the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look.

The Lord said to him: Take off the sandals from your feet, because the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. And now, come, I will send you to Egypt. 

This Moses, whom they rejected when they said, Who appointed you a ruler and a judge? ​— ​this one God sent as a ruler and a deliverer through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out and performed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years.

Acts 7:30-36; cf. Exod. 3:2-15

As we explored earlier, Moses’ experience at the burning bush involves both the LORD and the angel of the LORD, each of whom claims the divine name. Stephen’s purpose in directing the members of the Sanhedrin back to Exodus 3 is to show them that just as the Israelites rebelled against Yahweh’s chosen leader (Moses) in ancient times, they are repeating the error by rejecting Yahweh himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – the very one who spoke to Moses from the burning bush.

The angel of the LORD is unlike any other messenger, since the essence of Yahweh dwells in him. Thus, the angel anticipates an Israelite belief in a Godhead – the view that God comprises more than one person, each of whom is identified as the presence of Yahweh. That’s why Jewish theologians prior to the New Testament era, observing texts like Exodus 3, developed a theology of two Yahwehs – one visible and the other invisible – or two powers in heaven.

Acts 7:37-38

We should note one other reference to the angel of the LORD in Stephen’s sermon: “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites: God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers and sisters. He is the one who was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angelwho spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors” (Acts 7:37-38, emphasis added).

Stephen directs his listeners to Deuteronomy 18:15-16, in which Moses reveals Yahweh’s plan to send a future prophet who must be obeyed. Some Muslims believe Moses is preparing the people for the coming of Muhammad, but Stephen makes it clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of this ancient promise. Peter also alludes to this passage in building his case for Jesus as the prophesied Messiah (Acts 3:22). 

Further, Stephen reminds his listeners that Moses was with the angel of the LORD on Mount Sinai, also called Horeb. When was this? It’s likely Stephen is referring to the angel of the LORD’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush, an event to which he already has alluded (Acts 7:30, 35). This occurs at the base of Mount Sinai (Exod. 3:1-2). 

But perhaps Stephen also includes Moses’ extended time on Mount Sinai as he receives the Ten Commandments from Yahweh, while the Israelites grow increasingly impatient at the foot of the mountain and ultimately cast gods of gold to worship (Exod. 19-32). No doubt, Stephen draws parallels between Moses and Jesus. Both serve as mediators. Both are sent by Yahweh to deliver Israel. Both perform confirming miracles. Yet both are rejected by the very people they came to save. And just as God punishes the Israelites for their stiff-necked rebellion at Horeb, Christ brings national judgment down on Israel for the people’s rejection of their Messiah. 

Even so, there is no record of the angel of the LORD appearing during the giving of the law. Yahweh does promise to send an angel who bears his name – a clear reference to the angel of the LORD (Exod. 23:20-23). And Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders see the God of Israel on Mount Sinai and enjoy a covenant meal with him (Exod. 24:9-11). But beyond that, the text is silent regarding the angel of the LORD, or any other angels for that matter, with respect to the giving of the law. 

Perhaps, then, Stephen’s reference to the angel only extends to Moses’ meeting with the angel of the LORD at the burning bush. But as William Larkin points out, the New Testament and Jewish tradition speak of the law as given through or in the presence of angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2; Deut. 33:2 LXX; Pesiqta Rabbati 21:7). Most certainly, this could include the angel of the LORD.

In other words, as Yahweh descends in smoke and fire to meet Moses on Mount Sinai, a second Yahweh figure, the angel of the LORD, is present as well. This angel, the preincarnate Christ, establishes the law that serves as our guardian until the Son of God comes in human flesh to pay our sin debt, thus justifying us by faith and making us sons and daughters of God (Gal. 3:24-26). 

Stephen, a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), boldly reminds the religious leaders of his day of many encounters between the angel of the LORD and important Old Testament figures. By implication, this divine angel is none other than the eternal Son of God, who takes on human flesh as the God-Man, only to face rejection by the very people he came to save (John 1:11).

Romans 10:9-13 (cf. Joel 2:32)

The apostle Paul deftly links the New Testament confession of “Jesus is Lord” with Old Testament prophetic declarations concerning Yahweh. In Romans 10, we read:

If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame, since there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord of all richly blesses all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (emphasis added).  

Rom. 10:9-13

Verse 13 is a quotation of Joel 2:32, which reads, “Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved .…” Since the name and Yahweh are interchangeable in Israelite theology, trusting in the name of Yahweh means trusting in Yahweh himself. In the same way, calling on “the name of the Lord” is confessing Jesus as Yahweh. Once again, the name links Yahweh, the angel of the LORD, and Jesus.

Other New Testament references

New Testament references to the angel of the LORD are sparse. Further, the writers tie these references to Old Testament events, such as Abram’s call out of Ur, Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, and the angel of the LORD’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. As Norman Geisler points out, “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.”

So, let’s close this portion of our study by looking at several New Testament references to angels that sometimes are mistaken for the angel of the LORD. We should note that Jesus, the eternal and omnipresent Son of God, could have appeared as the angel of the LORD even while in Mary’s womb, during his earthly ministry, or after ascending into heaven and sitting down at the right hand of the Father. But the New Testament offers no convincing evidence that Jesus assumes any form other than his permanent human body after the Incarnation – or ever will again.

Matthew 1:18-25

The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit. So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.

But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us.”

When Joseph woke up, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her but did not have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. And he named him Jesus.

Matt. 1:18-25, emphasis added

Most English translations say “an angel of the Lord” appears to Joseph (v. 20). The King James Version renders it “the angel of the Lord.” However, the Greek lacks a definite article, so “an angel” is preferred. 

Matthew does not identify the angel by name, but perhaps that’s because his emphasis is not on the angel but on the angel’s message about the child growing in Mary’s womb. The Holy Spirit is the agent of the Incarnation. Joseph and Mary are to name the boy Jesus, which means “Salvation” or “God is Savior.” This miraculous conception in a virgin’s womb fulfills Old Testament prophecies, specifically Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore, the LORD himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.” 

That’s why Joseph should take heart. God is coming to tabernacle – that is, to pitch his tent – with people (John 1:14). And in so doing, the LORD identifies with lost humanity, endures our common temptations (yet emerges sinless), suffers outrageous indignities (including utter rejection by his own people), and dies to save us from our sins. 

That the angel speaks of Jesus in the third person is further evidence we are not witnessing an encounter with the angel of the LORD. Finally, Matthew’s reference to “the Lord’s angel” (v. 24) simply lets us know this is the same messenger who appeared earlier in Joseph’s dream.

Matthew 2:13

The King James Version renders this verse: “And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him” (emphasis added).

Other English translations say “an angel.” Once again, the definite article is absent in the Greek. Possibly, this is the same angel who appears to Joseph in Matthew 1. In Matthew 2:19-20 (KJV), an angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream, telling him it’s now safe to return with his family to Israel. It’s possible the four angelic appearances to Joseph in Matthew 1 and 2 are from the same angel, although he is not named in any of the passages.

Matthew 28:2

The King James Version reads: “And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lorddescended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it” (emphasis added).

Once again, the KJV stands nearly alone in translating the Greek “the angel of the Lord.” The Geneva Bible also has “the angel” descending. And the Contemporary English Version renders it, “the Lord’s angel.” Most other English translations record the descent of “an angel.” 

This angel tells the first visitors to arrive at the tomb that Jesus has risen from the dead. He speaks of Jesus in the third person, tells the women to report the empty tomb to the disciples, and directs them to seek Jesus in Galilee, for he is going ahead of them. No doubt, this angel is not the same angel of the LORD who appears as the preincarnate Christ throughout the Old Testament.

Luke 2:9

The King James Version reads: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid” (emphasis added).

The Geneva Bible says “the Angel of the Lord came upon them,” but modern translations almost universally agree the visitor is “an angel.” This could be Gabriel, for his message is similar to the message given to Zacharias in Luke 1, where Gabriel is named (v. 19), as well as to Mary (v. 26). 

While this angel basks in the surrounding glory of the Lord, he is not the angel of the LORD, for he announces the birth of “the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Finally, a great company of the heavenly host (or heavenly army) appears with the angel, praising God. Then, Luke records that “the angels” left the shepherds, the speaking angel presumably among the departing group. The shepherds decide to seek the newborn king in Bethlehem, based on what “the Lord has made known to us.” In other words, they understand the angel to be a messenger of the Lord, but not the Lord himself.

Acts 5:19

The apostles perform many signs and wonders, including miraculous healings, and thus lead many to faith in Christ. The crowds being drawn to Jerusalem stir up jealousy among the high priest and Sadducees, who arrest the apostles and throw them into prison. 

The KJV picks up the story: “But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth, and said, Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life” (emphasis added).

Once again, nearly all English translations render it “an angel of the Lord” or “an angel from the Lord.” This angelic rescue is similar to the one we see in Acts 12. Also, keep in mind that the apostles spent roughly three years with Jesus. If he were to return as the angel of the LORD, they would have recognized him, yet the text records no familiarity between the men and this angel.

Acts 8:26

Philip the evangelist has been preaching and performing miracles in Samaria. After the apostles Peter and John travel to that city to affirm Philip’s ministry and convey the Holy Spirit to new believers by the laying on of hands, they rebuke Simon the sorcerer for offering to purchase the same authority. 

Luke, the author of Acts, then returns to Philip’s story: “And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert” (Acts 8:26 KJV, emphasis added).

As in previous examples, nearly all English translations tell us “an angel of the Lord” speaks to Philip, directing him southward to an encounter with an Ethiopian high official. There is no reason to assume this is the voice of anyone other than an angel. However, once the angel sends Philip on his mission, the Holy Spirit takes over the task of directing Philip. In verse 29, the Spirit instructs Philip to approach the chariot in which the official is seated, reading aloud from Isaiah. And in verse 39, after the Ethiopian’s conversion and baptism, the Spirit of the Lord carries Philip away.

Acts 12:6-17

Luke records the thrilling rescue of Peter from prison at the hand of an angel:

When Herod was about to bring him out for trial, that very night Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while the sentries in front of the door guarded the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. Striking Peter on the side, he woke him up and said, “Quick, get up!” And the chains fell off his wrists. “Get dressed,” the angel told him, “and put on your sandals.” And he did. “Wrap your cloak around you,” he told him, “and follow me.” So he went out and followed, and he did not know that what the angel did was really happening, but he thought he was seeing a vision. After they passed the first and second guards, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened to them by itself. They went outside and passed one street, and suddenly the angel left him.

When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s grasp and from all that the Jewish people expected.” As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had assembled and were praying. He knocked at the door of the outer gate, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer. She recognized Peter’s voice, and because of her joy, she did not open the gate but ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the outer gate.

“You’re out of your mind!” they told her. But she kept insisting that it was true, and they said, “It’s his angel.” Peter, however, kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were amazed.

Motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. “Tell these things to James and the brothers,” he said, and he left and went to another place.

Acts 12:6-17, emphasis added

Once again, since the Greek lacks a definite article, most English translations say “an angel of the Lord” appears (v. 7), while the KJV renders it “the angel of the Lord.” References to “the angel” (vv. 8, 9, 10) and to “his [the Lord’s] angel” (v. 11) let us know God has sent a single messenger to deliver Peter from prison. 

This is the second time an angel of the Lord comes to Peter’s rescue. In Acts 5:17-21, the high priest and the Sadducees arrest the apostles and throw them into the public jail. But during the night, an angel opens the doors of their cells, brings them out and instructs them to return to the temple to “tell the people all about this life,” a command they obey at daybreak. 

There is no reason to conclude the angel in either passage is the angel of the LORD. Both angels rescue one or more apostles from prison and deliver instructions to them. Peter identifies the angel in Acts 12 as a messenger the Lord has sent, not as the Lord himself. While both angels open the prison doors, and while a shining light accompanies the angel in Peter’s case, their ministries are consistent with those of other angelic and human messengers sent by God.

Acts 12:23

The people of Tyre and Sidon are seeking peace with King Herod and come to Caesarea to hear him speak. Arrayed in royal robes and seated on his throne, Herod waxes eloquent. The people shout, “It’s the voice of a god and not of a man!” (Acts 12:22). 

The KJV records what happens next: “And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost” (v. 23, emphasis added).

As in previous examples, the consensus of English translations renders it “an angel of the Lord.” While the angel of the LORD in the Old Testament sometimes appears as the destroyer – killing 185,000 Assyrians in a single night, for example – God often sends created spirit beings to execute his judgment, as he seems to do here.

Acts 27:23

The apostle Paul is on an Alexandrian ship headed for Rome when the crew sails into a tempest that threatens everyone’s lives. Despite their best efforts, the passengers and crew reach a point of despair so that all hope is lost. But Paul stands in the midst of the despondent seamen and declares:

And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, Saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me (Acts 27:22-25 KJV, emphasis added).

Most English translations say “an angel of God.” Today’s Living Bible renders it, “For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me.” This makes it clear the angel is not a second Yahweh figure. Further, it helps us understand that Paul belongs to and serves God, not the angel God has sent to deliver a message of hope. 

Finally, we should note that Paul met the resurrected Christ in person and spent considerable time with him (Acts 9:3-6; Gal. 1:11-12). Surely, if Jesus had appeared in the night to Paul as a divine messenger, the apostle would have noted it.

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

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.