The Angel of the LORD

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A multitude of passages in the Bible refer to the “angel of the Lord.” The Lord’s angel is seen doing His work in all kinds of situations and with all kinds of people. Both the Old and New Testaments contain references to the “angel of the Lord.” This work includes comforting (as in Gen. 16:7), instructing (as in Exo. 3:2), punishing (as in 1 Chron. 21:16), rebuking (as in Judges 2:1), rescuing (as in Acts 12:7), and various other duties under the banner of God’s angels being whatever God needs them to be (Heb. 1:7) and “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.” (Heb. 1:14)

In the text of both Old and New Testaments the phrase “angel of the Lord” is a combination of two words. The word angel means messenger and the word Lord stands for the name of God (YHWH in Hebrew, Yahweh or Jehovah). The phrase “angel of the Lord” generally does not have a definite article associated with it in either Hebrew or Greek, but most English Bibles, including the King James version, often refer to “the” angel of the Lord. There is nothing in the original language to promote the idea that the phrase “angel of the Lord” in its many uses refers to a single individual, one specific entity, as though it were a title or a name. Nor is there anything in the language to suggest that the expression is anything other than literal, a phrase describing an angel, a created being, in the service of God — an angel belonging to and representing God. On the other hand there are emphatic statements in scripture that Jesus, the son of God and son of man, does not and never did have that nature, which we will consider further along.

It is worth some emphasis that neither the Greek New Testament nor the Greek (Septuagint) version of the Old Testament include the Greek definite article when referring to the “angel of the Lord.” English translations from the Septuagint usually refer instead to “an angel of the Lord,” as do most New Testament references in English.

Remember that the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament was the Bible of the early disciples of Jesus, that when the apostles quoted scripture in speeches or in writing they generally quoted from the Septuagint. Thus the phrasing in the Greek language is very important to understanding how this topic was treated by the apostles, the Holy Spirit, and the early church.

Consider the following:

  1. Gen 16:7 The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. (NIV)

    1. This is the first reference to “the angel of the LORD.” In the Greek Bible (Septuagint) the phrase is rendered “aggelos kuriou” (angel of the Lord) and is translated “an angel of the Lord” in Brenton’s English translation of the Septuagint (as well as in the Jewish Publication Society’s English translation of the Hebrew text, Tanakh). The same Greek phrase is used throughout the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew expression.

  2. Exod 3:2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. (NIV)

    1. This is perhaps the “classic” reference to “the angel of the LORD.” It is rendered by the same phrase in Greek as is referred to in IA above, and is also rendered “an angel of the Lord” in various English translations that attempt to be literal.

    2. Acts 7:30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. (NIV)

      1. Stephen, in his famous defense before the Sanhedrin, referred to the events with Moses and the angel at the bush. Most scholars and most translators render the passage as above in the NIV, “an angel” appeared to Moses. The King James follows the Western Greek text of the New Testament and says, “And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sinai an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush.” (Acts 7:30, KJV) Note that while the King James includes the expression “of the Lord” (again, the same Greek word combination mentioned in IA above) it follows the sense of the Greek that it was “an” angel. And consider Stephen’s further references to the angel who dealt with Moses at the bush and elsewhere.

    3. Acts 7:35 “This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, `Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. (NIV)

      1. Note that Stephen says Moses was sent by God through the angel who appeared. The angel was not God (neither Father nor Son), but God sent Moses through the angel.

    4. Acts 7:37 “This is that Moses who told the Israelites, `God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.’ 38 He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us. (NIV)

      1. The pronoun’s “he” and “him” in verse 38 refer to Moses, who spoke of a prophet “like me” being raised up. His message was received from “the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai.” Both Moses’ account and the New Testament are emphatic on the point that God’s voice to Moses and his appearances for Moses and Israel were through a created medium, through angels (see for example Ex. 3:2, 14:19, 23:20, 23:23, 32:34, 33:2, 33:5w/12,14w/Isa. 63:9, Num. 20:16, Gal. 3:19, Heb. 2:2).

    5. Acts 7:52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him– 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” (NIV)

      1. Again, Stephen makes the point that the law was put into effect “through angels” while he himself had a message of the “Righteous One” which the law put into effect through angels was to prepare for. Stephen, in a theme like that developed in Hebrews 1-2, says that angels (including the angel at the burning bush) had delivered God’s message about the coming of a unique individual, the Righteous One. Stephen did not imply, or even leave room for, an identification of the Righteous One with an angel of the Lord. In Stephen’s language, the angel at the burning bush was an angel, one of the angels through whom the law was put into effect, one of the angels through whom God spoke to Moses.

    6. Heb 1:1-6 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? 6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” (NIV)

      1. Hebrews, like Stephen, makes the case that something fundamentally different has happened with the coming of Jesus. Previously, God spoke to mankind through some medium, but now, and clearly for the first time, he has spoken directly in this world by his Son. In these verses and those that follow the writer of Hebrews pulls numerous quotes from the Old Testament to make his case that Jesus is not an angel, was not an angel delivering God’s message in the past, but is himself divine and over all angels, including those who delivered the messages in the past, including “the angel of the Lord.” Jesus has done something new by actually coming into the world and delivering God’s message and doing God’s work. The required answer to the rhetorical question in Heb. 1:5 is, “to no angel whatsoever.” The Son is fundamentally different than those beings called angels (see also Heb. 2:16), he is not of their nature, but is of the nature of God and always has been (see also Phil. 2:6ff and Col. 1:15ff, John 1:1ff).

  3. Matt 1:20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (NIV)

    1. This passage and several that follow show that the expression “angel of the Lord” was still in use in New Testament times. Remember from 1 above that the Greek phrase is the same in both the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, which the apostles quote from in the New Testament, and in the New Testament writings. When Matthew says “an angel of the Lord” appeared to Joseph, it is exactly the same words as those found in Exodus 3:2 or those other passages of the Greek Old Testament that the apostles taught from and the early church read. In terms of the Greek language and Jewish tradition Matthew described the angel who appeared to announce the birth of Jesus just as Moses described the angel he dealt with and Abraham dealt with and so forth. The same is true in each of the following passages. There is no distinction in the language of Matthew or Luke or Stephen between the angelic beings they mention and the angelic beings described in the Old Testament as “angel of the LORD.”

    2. Matt 2:13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (NIV)

      1. The angel of the Lord announced the birth of Jesus to Joseph, and in Jesus’ infancy warned Joseph to flee Egypt. Clearly Matthew (and the Holy Spirit) did not think “angel of the Lord” referred to Jesus. When Jesus is in the womb and in the world the angel of the Lord delivers the Lord’s message.

    3. Matt 28:2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. (NIV)

      1. Again, in Matthew’s language, an angel of the Lord is there at the resurrection, but the resurrected one is no angel. The angels of the Lord serve the resurrected one.

    4. Luke 1:11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense…. 19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. (NIV)

      1. The angel of the Lord who appeared to Zechariah to announce John’s birth had a name. He was Gabriel. This is the same work the angel of the Lord did in Judges 13 when Samson’s birth was announced.

    5. Luke 2:9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (NIV)

      1. In Luke’s writing, as in Matthew’s, beings appearing in association with the announcement of Jesus’ birth are referred to by the phrase “angel of the Lord.”

    6. The following three instances are examples of Luke continuing to use the phrase “angel of the Lord” to describe servants the Lord sent to work in this world after Jesus had been raised and glorified. Jesus was on the throne, and there was still work for the angel(s) of the Lord among his people. Jesus himself sends forth such angels (Rev. 1:1 for example).

      1. Acts 5:19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. (NIV)

      2. Acts 8:26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road– the desert road– that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (NIV)

      3. Acts 12:7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. (NIV)

  4. Zech 3:1-2 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. 2 The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” (NIV)

    1. Zechariah uses the phrase “angel of the LORD” six times. In Zechariah 3:1-2 he describes an incident in which the angel of the LORD confronts Satan over Joshua the high priest. The incident and his words to Satan are just like that described in Jude 9 and a reference in 2 Peter 2:11, in which angels, including Michael the archangel, are careful about accusing Satan or heavenly beings, but instead say, “the Lord rebuke you!” When the LORD speaks through angels it is truly his message, it is the LORD’s word, but the medium (angel) is really there, and the angel of the LORD behaved as an angel in confronting Satan, behaved exactly as Michael did. Jesus never dealt with Satan in this way but instead said, “away from me Satan” (Matt. 4:10) or “Out of my sight, Satan” (Matt. 16:23) and he definitely brought accusations against Satan, even while he was a man and “lower than the angels” (Hebrews 2:9). The angel of the LORD Zechariah was watching was a being like Michael, not the Son of God.

      1. In this passage in Zechariah 3 the angel of the LORD speaks for God and uses Joshua as a symbol of the coming priest, Jesus, who will deal with sin. It is Joshua who stands for Jesus, not the angelic messenger. And the angel, speaking for the LORD, says “I am going to bring my servant, the Branch.” As in other prophecies (Isa. 7, 11, 53) the branch is Jesus. The angel speaks of his coming in the third person, he himself is not the Branch.

      2. Elsewhere in Zechariah, angel of the LORD seems to be a descriptive phrase referring to more than one individual at the same time. In Zech. 1:11, the angel of the LORD seems to be the “man among the myrtle trees” while in 1:12-14, the angel of the LORD who complains and is answered and delivers God’s message seems to be the angel talking to Zechariah.

  5. Ps 103:20 Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will.

    Ps 148:1-2 Praise the LORD. Praise the LORD from the heavens, praise him in the heights above. 2 Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his heavenly hosts. (NIV)

    1. The grammatical structure of the verses from Psalms presented above would indicate that there are hosts of angels who are angels “of the LORD.” In both Psalms the antecedent for “his” is LORD, and the possessive form of the pronoun is the same as that of the word “LORD” in the various prose passages of scripture cited. The Psalmists said, “Praise the LORD, you angels of his” and “Praise the LORD… all angels of his…” The structure says that there are many angels of the LORD and that they are all to praise him–but there is only one Jesus, not an angel, who is the son of God.

  6. Isa 40:10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. (NIV)

    1. In the Old Testament Jesus the savior is sometimes clearly identified with the name Jehovah (YHWH, rendered LORD in most English Bibles). He is not the angel of the LORD, because the name LORD itself applies to his eternal, divine nature. He wears the “family” name. He came with power (Acts 10:38), he is the shepherd Isaiah foretold (John 11:11), his reward is with him (Rev. 22:12), he is the Sovereign LORD.

  7. Heb 9:26 Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (NIV)

    1. Hebrews says that Jesus appeared once for all at the end of the ages. This is emphatic language to say that Jesus has entered the world exactly once so far and, as in verse 28, will appear one more time, a second time. Jesus has been manifested (the word in the New American Standard) once, he will return once. Jesus has not previously appeared (been manifested) as a man or an angel, but has appeared once for all (similar language and structure to Jude 3, the faith once for all entrusted to the saints). He has not previously been a priest (Heb. 9:24-25, 7:27) or offered other sacrifices. He has not previously entered the world. He will appear one more time, the second time, the final time.

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