Whenever the name “angel” is mentioned, does this refer only to one of the created heavenly beings we picture in our minds; one of God’s messengers sent to this world to carry out His will? Or could it refer to someone else?
This article does not purport to be exhaustive on this subject but will offer some explanations that should satisfy a reasonable person who is searching for the truth on this.
While the word angel appears in the Bible approximately 200 times, for the purpose of this article we shall focus on the phrase, “the angel of the Lord”, “Angel of the Lord” or even “an angel of the Lord”.
The first time the phrase “the Angel of the Lord” appears in Scripture is when the angel of the Lord encounters Hagar in the wilderness in Genesis 16. The text recalls that she “gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me’” (Genesis 16:13).
The next significant encounter is at the time when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac, at God’s command. At this critical moment, verse 11 of Genesis 22 records, “But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ to which Abraham replied, ‘Here I am’. The Angel of the Lord went on to say, ‘Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son (i.e. of promise) from Me’” (italics added). Here we see that a divine being identifies Himself with “the Angel of the Lord”.
Another instance where “the Angel of the Lord” is clearly seen to be a member of the Godhead is found in Genesis 31:11-13. Here, Jacob introduces “the Angel of God” in his statement to Rachel and Leah, quoting the One who spoke to him, who goes on to say just two verses later, “I am the God of Bethel where you anointed the pillar.”
It is Jacob again in Genesis 48:16 in his final blessing to Joseph who says, “The Angel who has redeemed me from all evil.” While there is a secular sense in which the word redeemed is used, the “redemption” that Jacob refers to is obviously more than what a human could provide.
The next occasion when the phrase “the Angel of the Lord” is used is reported in Exodus 3, when Moses was shepherding Jethro’s flock near the mountain known as Horeb, i.e. Sinai. Verse two states, “And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire.” There is an ambiguity here as to who is referred to until we read verse four: “So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him . . . ” (Exodus 3:2-22). This clearly indicates the “Angel of the Lord” as one of the divine beings.
Fast forward now to the exodus of Israel from Egypt where, in providing divine guidance for God’s people, we read in Exodus 14:19, “And the Angel of God who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them.” This “Angel” is clarified in a previous passage, chapter 13, verse 21: “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night.”
A little later in the Exodus record we find that God the Father, in speaking to Moses, states in chapter 23, and from verse 20: “Behold, I send an Angel before you to keep you in the way . . . Beware of Him and obey his voice . . . for He will not pardon your transgressions; for My name is in Him.” As it is only God’s prerogative to forgive sins, the Father appears to be referring to the angel as a member of the Godhead. A little later, just prior to moving the encampment from Sinai, God assured Moses, “Behold My Angel shall go before you” and at the same time He promised punishment for those who had sinned in bowing to the golden calf.
In the experience of Balaam with the princes of Moab who bribed him to curse Israel, God clearly told His wayward prophet that, “Only the word which I speak to you—that you shall do” (Numbers 22:20). So when Balaam, contrary to God’s instruction, had mounted his donkey and was on his way to curse Israel (as the princes of Moab had hoped), the Angel of the Lord confronted him along the way (verses 22,24,27,31,32,34) and in reiterating the instruction Balaam had already received, said, “only the word that I speak to you, that you shall speak” (verse 35). This verse is thus linked with verse 20, clearly showing that the Angel of the Lord is a member of the Godhead.
Centuries later we find another reference to “the Angel of the Lord”, this time in Zechariah 3:1-5: “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to oppose him.” This statement is followed in the very next verse that states: “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan!’” So we see here that “the Lord” is equated with “the Angel of the Lord”. Three more references are made to “the Angel of the Lord” in this chapter.
Finally, Stephen, in his magnificent statement to the religious leaders before he was stoned to death, refers to Moses meeting God when he says, “And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai.”
So while we find that God’s ”regular army of angels” are one of the major ways God communicates with us and achieves His will in the great plan of salvation for the human race, there are very special times when “the Angel of the Lord”—i.e. Christ the Saviour—is the One who is involved. How honoured we should be that all heaven, in fact, is expending their energies to achieve our salvation, and that Christ, the “captain of their salvation” (Hebrews 2:10, KJV), has been among us. Yes, the Word of God to us, through an angel or through the Angel, should be very precious to us.
William Ackland is retired in Cooranbong (NSW) and has written six books.