Tagged: preincarnate Christ

Closing thoughts on the Angel of the LORD

Throughout this study, we have surveyed dozens of appearances, as well as possible appearances, of the angel of the LORD in Scripture. And we’ve tried to show how the person and work of this divine messenger foreshadow the coming Messiah. In short, we have labeled these appearances Christophanies, or appearances of the preincarnate Christ. 

But you may wonder: If the angel of the LORD really is Jesus, why doesn’t the Bible just say so? We clearly see God the Father at work in the Old Testament. And the Holy Spirit is personally active in creation and human history throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well. So why are the alleged manifestations of the preincarnate Christ shrouded in mystery?

The short answer is: To keep Satan in the dark with respect to the triune God’s work of redemption. While there are some four hundred prophecies, appearances, or foreshadowings of Christ in the Old Testament, each one serves as a tiny piece of a very complex puzzle.

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Why Jesus is not an angel

The Epistle to the Hebrews clearly distinguishes between Jesus and created spirit beings – or angels, as we commonly use the term. Jesus cannot be an angel in this respect (although he is the “angel,” or messenger, of the Lord in his preincarnate existence) because he is superior to angels. Hebrews 1 argues that no angel could ever qualify to be the Son of God. Consider the epistle’s first four verses:

Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son. God has appointed him heir of all things and made the universe through him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. So he became superior to the angels, just as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs. 

Heb. 1:1-4

Note several statements in these verses that demonstrate the superiority of Christ over angels. First, Jesus is God’s unique Son – the uncreated Creator who stands above other sons of God such as heavenly creatures, the Israelites, and followers of Jesus whom the Father adopts as his children. 

Second, the Father has appointed Jesus heir of all things – a promise never given to created spirit beings but offered to Christians, who are coheirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). 

Third, Jesus is the agent of creation – the one through whom God made the universe. Nothing exists apart from him (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16-17). No angel may make this claim. When the writer of Hebrews says God made the universe “through him,” he does not mean Jesus is a secondary cause of creation; rather, Jesus is the agent through whom the triune God made everything. 

The word translated “universe” is aionas, which means more than the material world (kosmos). It may be rendered “ages,” and it means Jesus is responsible for the existence of time, space, energy, matter – and even the unseen spiritual realm. 

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

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Galatians 4:14

Paul expresses deep concern for the Galatians, whom he fears are on the cusp of falling back into the false doctrine of salvation by works. He then reminds them how tenderly they cared for him when he fell ill, perhaps as a result of injuries from his stoning in Lystra (cf. Acts 14:19), malaria contracted in the lowlands of southern Asia Minor (cf. Acts 13:13-14), his divinely sent “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7), or some other ailment.

Galatians 4:14 reads: “You did not despise or reject me though my physical condition was a trial for you. On the contrary, you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus himself” (emphasis added).

Paul is not equating an angel of God with Jesus. That is, he’s not using parallelism to say an angel and Jesus are the same person. Rather, he’s gratefully acknowledging the compassionate treatment the Galatians afforded him in his illness. They received Paul as God’s own messenger, worthy of the highest respect. Further, Paul commends them for bestowing on him the same treatment they would have afforded Jesus if he had come to them in the flesh.

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

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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.

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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. 

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