In my last post, I noted briefly about the Angel of the Lord coming to Zachariah. For a long time, I have wondered just who this Angel really was, and why He only appeared in the Old Testament. Is He just an angelic being, or is He something more? And if He is more than a mere angel, why doesn’t the Bible tell us His name? Or does it? It takes some careful consideration and cross-referencing of passages, but the Bible does not leave us having to guess about the identity of this Being.
To start off with, we need to look at what the Angel of the Lord says. One of the first times we see Him is in reference to Hagar, appearing to her twice in the wilderness and prophesying about Ishmael’s future. In the first encounter, “The Angel of the Lord said to her, ‘I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count’” (Genesis 16:10). A similar promise is made over fourteen years later. The Angel of the Lord told Hagar that Ishmael would become the father of a people: “I will make a great nation of him” (Genesis 21:18). In both cases, He is not quoting God; He is speaking of Himself. These promises are very unique, especially when viewed in reference to God’s earlier promise to Abram. The Lord told Abram, “I will make you a great nation” and as many as the stars in the sky, “so shall your descendants be” (Genesis 12:2; 15:5). Both of these promises were made by the Lord Himself. Psalm 22:9, Psalm 127:3, Isaiah 44:2, and Isaiah 66:9 teach that God is the one who controls the womb, so the promise of increasing descendants is a way of talking that is unique to the Lord. There are other examples of this, but we see that the Angel of the Lord talks as if He is God. Interesting.
Yet the Angel of the Lord not only speaks as if He is God, but He is called God. This next point can first be seen in the account of Abraham’s testing with Isaac. The Lord God had told Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, and sacrifice him. In faith, Abraham did everything to prepare for that act and was even raising the knife to slay his son, yet “The Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven” and stopped him (Genesis 22:11). What the Angel says is extremely significant: “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (Genesis 22:12 italics added). He used “God” and “Me” interchangeably, signifying that they were the same. This can also be seen in the account of Balaam and his donkey. We first read that “God was angry because he was going,” but then the Angel of the Lord confronts Balaam and says, “Your way was contrary to me” (Numbers 22:22, 32). The Angel of the Lord saw Himself as God and freely revealed that fact to people.
Besides the Angel of the Lord’s own testimony, we also have that of Jacob. At the end of his life, Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons and says, “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads” (Genesis 48:15-16). “God” and “the angel” are used as synonyms by this patriarch, adding further evidence to the Angel’s words.
One final aspect to consider is that the Angel of the Lord acts in ways that God alone does. He charged Balaam, “You shall speak only the word I tell you” (Numbers 22:35). We learn from Deuteronomy 13 that a prophet who spoke without the Word of the Lord was to be killed, and Jeremiah is told by the Lord that the prophets who speak on their own initiative lead Israel astray and break His heart (Jeremiah 23:9-16). The Angel of the Lord clearly showed that He had divine authority to tell Balaam what to speak and to prophesy, something God alone could do.
So, we see that the Angel of the Lord spoke as God only speaks, He calls Himself and is called God, and He acts in ways God alone acts. From these passages and others like them, it can be seen that the Angel of the Lord is God Himself. But one part still remains—is He the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit?
For that, we have to turn to the book of Zachariah. In chapter three, the prophet records a vision he was shown by the Lord—
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel. He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” Again he said to him, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.”
This is an incredible picture of salvation, and it is filled with facts that show us who the Angel of the Lord actually is. It is hinted that the Angel is the Lord by the rebuke that Satan receives. It can be debated about which Person of the Trinity “the Lord” refers to who does the rebuking, but the words of the rebuke seem to point to the fact that it is Christ who is speaking. This is also seen by the fact that the Angel stands to oppose Satan and defend Joshua the priest. Christ is our “Advocate with the Father,” and He “intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1). And pulling from what we noted earlier, when we consider that the Holy Spirit does not appear in a body to humans and that no man has seen God, we are left by process of elimination with the fact that this angel is Christ (John 1:18; 1 Timothy 6:14).
But more than all of that is the words of the Angel of the Lord in verse 4—“See, I have taken your iniquity away from you.” The filthy garments Joshua wears symbolize all our righteous deeds, which can never obtain salvation for us (Isaiah 64:6). Christ, the promised Redeemer, is the One who “bore the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12). Acts 4:12 tells us that “there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” And Jesus Himself said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Paul writes that in Christ, “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7).
From this passage in Zachariah, we see the Angel of the Lord acting as Christ in three areas: as Lord, as Intercessor for believers, and as Savior. Taking this along with our earlier conclusions, we can conclude that this Angel is Jesus Christ in His pre-incarnate state.
Now we may wonder, why is He called an “Angel” if He is really God Himself? Well, this is because Christ was appearing as a Spirit-being and not in flesh. Also, Jesus’ name had not been revealed in the Old Testament, and referring to Him as Messiah during His appearances as the Angel of the Lord would have been to distract from His purposes at those events. Although this may sound like a strange concept, I did not just pull this out of thin air. The Scriptural evidence is there, and I have also heard a few pastors mention this fact as well. In addition, Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie goes in to great depth about this subject.
So in summary, the Angel of the Lord is God because of how He speaks, what He refers to Himself as, and because of what He does. These activities all display His deity. Furthermore, those activities are the same ones we discover in the New Testament that are performed by Jesus, so we know that this Being is Christ Himself. Since He only appears this way before He took on flesh, we only find the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament. The Lord Jesus Christ has always been confronting, interceding for, and saving those who will trust in Him, regardless of which Testament they lived in.