Who or what is the angel of the Lord in the Bible?
There has been much debate regarding the identity of the angel of the Lord in the Bible. At times, Scripture refers to the "angels of the Lord" or "an angel of the Lord." However, on other occasions "the angel of Lord" speaks as God Himself. Who is the angel of the Lord on these occasions?
Some refer to such appearances as a Christophany (pre-incarnate appearance of Christ) or a theophany (appearance of God in human form). Those who hold this view emphasize that the angel of the Lord speaks as God, identifies Himself as God, and has the same responsibilities as God. Passages in which this is the case include Genesis 16:7-12; 21:17-18; 22:11-18; Exodus 3:2; Judges 2:1-4; 5:23; 6:11-24; 13:3-22; 2 Samuel 24:16, and Zechariah 1:12; and 12:8. In some of these appearances, those present claimed they had seen the Lord.
Further evidence for this view is often offered by suggesting the term "the angel of the Lord" no longer occurs after the birth of Jesus in human form. However, the appearance of the angel in Matthew 1 to Joseph may show a flaw in this claim. In Matthew 1:24 we read, "When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him." This was after he was told, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit" (v. 20). How could Jesus be the "angel of the Lord" speaking to Joseph and also be in the womb of Mary at the same time?
The other main view regarding the "angel of the Lord" passage understands these appearances as angelic appearances in which an angel speaks on God's behalf. In the ancient world, the messenger of a king held equal status with the king himself. His word was equal to the king's word. One could rightly say, "The king said," even if only the messenger had spoken the words. This also alleviates the problem with people "seeing God" since the Bible elsewhere says, "No one has ever seen God" (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12). The primary problem with this view is that those who said they had "seen the Lord" were either mistaken or viewed seeing God's messenger (the angel) as equal with seeing God.
Either interpretation is possible based on the available biblical evidence. Regardless of the view, these cases involved a clear message from God that was supernatural, important for hearers to obey, and ultimately came from God (either directly or indirectly). The angel of the Lord involves many important biblical accounts regarding God's people that show the need for their dependence upon Him, God's care for His people, and His provision to meet human needs.
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