The Bible is packed full of mysteries. Some mysteries exist because those of us who peer into the scriptures only do so with casual glances rather than deep, reflective gazes. These mysteries are brought about by our lack of understanding and not a lack of revelation. Then there are mysteries that are intended by God to be so, and no amount of study will uncover what God does not intend to unveil.
The angel of the LORD is one such mystery. On one hand, his true identity is not explicitly revealed, but on the other hand, the modern reader steps into his presence and asks, “Is this who I think it is?” Our Creator obviously loves a good mystery because this one seems to be intended. So, who is this angel of the LORD and what does his presence and work say to the follower of Jesus Christ?
The Angel of the LORD in the Bible
The angel of the LORD first shows up in Scripture in Genesis 16 where Hagar, Sarai’s servant, has fled in response to Sarai’s harshness and cruelty. Following being driven away by Sarai, Hagar finds herself by a spring of water in the wilderness where the Bible says, “The angel of the LORD found her” (Genesis 16:7). The conversation which follows is radically revealing, as the angel of the LORD questions, commands, promises, and foretells Hagar’s future in such a way that his identity comes into focus.
This particular account concludes with Hagar’s response to the angel of the LORD, where we are told “she called on the name of the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who looks after me’” (Genesis 16:13). Though we are told that it is the angel of the LORD who sees and speaks to Hagar by the water, when she speaks and identifies the angel, she calls him “the LORD,” thereby acknowledging that the angel is, in fact, the LORD himself.
She does not address him as an angel at all but rather as the “God of seeing” (Genesis 16:13). What might seem mysterious to us at first doesn’t seem to have been a mystery to Hagar at all. Instead, Hagar is so confident that she has heard from God that she is willing to risk whatever the potential fall-out might be to return to Abram and Sarai.
The angel of the LORD is obviously no ordinary angel if there is such a thing. Angels are described as messengers sent by God who do his bidding on his behalf. But the angel of the LORD clearly does not speak as a mere representative of God but as God, himself.
Despite the reality that we live in a sin-cursed, fallen world that has in every sense been separated from its Creator, there are special occasions in which heaven and earth meet once again for a brief moment. The presence of the angel of the LORD seems to represent a glimpse at the restored heaven and earth when all things are made new and man once again stands in God’s presence.
Another biblical example shines even greater light on the identity of the angel of the LORD quite literally in the account of the burning bush. While Moses was keeping watch over Jethro’s sheep the Bible says, “The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Exodus 3:2). As the story continues, we discover that when Moses turned aside to investigate the burning bush, the LORD saw him and called out to Moses.
But when the one speaking from the bush is identified, we find that it is “God calling to him” (Exodus 3:4). It is undeniable that Hagar and Moses are encountering the same person in each of their respective experiences. Both are getting a glimpse of the overlapping of heaven and earth in the revelation of our Creator as the angel of the LORD.
But these are not isolated accounts, and they will not be the last we see of the angel of the LORD. Moses and all of Israel will soon discover in the wilderness that they have not been abandoned by their God. “The LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.” (Exodus 13:21).
It is impossible to read this account of the fiery presence of the LORD and not call to mind the echoes of the angel of the LORD passages. But what theological significance can be made from the appearances of the angel of the LORD, and are there contemporary applications that can be drawn from these particular mysterious passages?
The Nature of the Angel of the LORD
There is a word which we often use to describe the exalted nature of God, and it is the word, transcendence. This word simply means that our Creator and King is higher in every way to everything every day. This is the idea that resounds through the Psalms in such acclamations as, “I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High” (Psalm 9:2) and “He built his sanctuary like the high heavens” (Psalm 78:69).
The Psalmist not only grasps the transcendence of God better than anyone, but the Psalter, as a collection, becomes a declaration for the lofty nature of God in proclamations such as, “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high?” (Psalm 113:4-5).
The transcendence of the LORD passages reminds us that creation consists of two separate dimensions of heaven and earth that originally were created as one complete world but succumbed to a tragic demise at the time of man’s rebellion. This rupture will be welded together at the coming of our King, but for now, its restoration is merely foreshadowed by the episodic breaking in of God’s glory.
These are the moments when the unapproachable God steps from his space into our physical dimension to pursue us and to recalibrate our clouded, earthly eyes so that we might glimpse his majesty if only for a moment. The angel of the LORD, in essence, provides a small window through which we peer through from this world to see the glory that awaits us in the world to come.
In the New Testament, there are no explicit references to “the angel of the LORD” though there are many references in general to “an angel of the Lord.” But just because his presence is not announced in the same manner as the Old Testament, it does not mean that he is not just as near as he has ever been.
One day, Jesus instructed Peter, James, and John to accompany him on a hike up a mountain which is reminiscent of Moses’s own trek up Mt. Sinai to meet with God. Upon reaching the pinnacle of the mountain, the Bible says that Jesus was “transfigured before them and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3-4).
Once again, in the person of Jesus Christ, the window is cracked open and the light of heaven breaks in as the two dimensions are rejoined, if only for a moment. This is not the first time the Triune God has pierced the darkness and drawn near to broken humanity, and it will not be the last.
What Does This Mean?
Like a 45-second movie trailer that only whets the appetite for the full-length version, the appearances of the angel of the LORD point to the greater glories yet to come when the new heavens and earth will be renewed and made one once again, and Christ himself will “tabernacle among us” (John 1:14) in all of his glory.
The appearances of the angel of the LORD are the manifestations of God himself condescending to come to us and inviting us to experience a foretaste of the world that awaits us at his coming. Like Hagar in her isolation and Moses who carried the weight of deliverance on his shoulders, our faith and hope can be renewed as we encounter the Living God as he comes to us in our broken world.
The appearance of the angel of the LORD signaled that God would one day come in all of his glory and make all things new. “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14) has been the Creator’s intention from Eden, and one day what privileged human eyes have seen only on occasion will break forth in permanent eternal destiny.
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Dr. Rick Kirby, along with his wife and children, lives in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer for organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Erskine Theological Seminary. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in India, Romania, Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffee. You can find other works by Kirby at www.rickkirby.org.