Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Angels: Angel of the Lord)

Old Testament Appearances

Characteristics of Deity


New Testament Correlation

The Old Testament Hebrew word mal’akh and the New Testament Greek word angelos can both generally be translated “messenger,” “envoy,” or “ambassador” when referring to task or function. The messenger can be human in nature, such as the messengers of Jacob (Gen. 32:3, 6), the messengers of John the Baptist (Luke 7:24), or the messengers of Christ (Luke 9:52). Frequently, the messenger is a nonhuman, supernatural, created being, usually referred to as an “angel” (2 Chron. 32:21; Matt. 1:20, 24).

The phrase “angel of the Lord,” appears only in the Old Testament, never the New Testament, and refers to a unique, one-of-a-kind envoy. Even “the angel of the Lord” in Matthew 1:24 indicates a created angelic being of no extraordinary significance since this text uses the definite article to point back to Matthew 1:20, which reads, “an angel of the Lord.” In Acts 7:30–35, Stephen quotes Exodus 3:1–10, which refers to the historical appearance of the angel whom Isaiah identifies as “the angel of his presence” (Isa. 63:9).

This special person is mentioned in the Old Testament by multiple titles:

       1.    “the angel of the Lord” (Gen. 16:7)

       2.    “the angel of God” (Gen. 21:17)

       3.    “his angel” (Gen. 24:7, 40)

       4.    “my angel” (Ex. 23:23)

       5.    “the angel of his presence” (Isa. 63:9)

       6.    “the messenger of the covenant” (Mal. 3:1)

With these general observations serving as background, this ultimate question demands an answer: Who is the mystery angel of the Old Testament? At least four possible identities have been offered over the centuries: (1) an “angel” from heaven, possibly the archangel Michael; (2) Melchizedek; (3) the Lord (Yahweh) himself (a theophany); or (4) a christophany or huiophany (from Gk. huios, “son”)—that is, a preincarnate appearance on earth by the Lord Jesus Christ. In order to determine which one of these possibilities is the correct identity, several lines of biblical evidence must be presented. After that, a conclusive identification will be offered.

Old Testament Appearances

The Hebrew noun for “angel”/“messenger” appears about 213 times in the Old Testament. In about 90 uses, mostly in the Historical Books, it refers to “the angel of the Lord.” This phrase first occurs in Genesis 16:7 and continues to the final use in Malachi 3:1, appearing in sixteen of the thirty-nine Old Testament books. At other times, only “angel” is used, and then the identity is not quite as certain (Dan. 3:28; 6:22). Frequently, human messengers are in view (about 50 percent of the time). Table 8.9 provides a representative sample of “the angel of the Lord” encounters or mentions.

Characteristics of Deity

The “angel of the Lord” exhibits qualities that can only be associated with deity:

       1.    The “angel of the Lord” claims a divine nature (Ex. 3:2–5; Judg. 13:17–18).

       2.    The “angel of the Lord” displays divine attributes (Ex. 23:21; 33:14; Isa. 63:9).

       3.    Scripture equates the “angel of the Lord” with the Lord (Yahweh), even with God (Gen. 16:11–13; 22:9–18; 32:24–30; see Gen. 48:15–16; Ex. 3:2–6; 13:21–22 [compared with 14:19]; 32:34; 33:2; Num. 22:35 [compared with 23:5]; Judg. 6:11–16; 13:21–23; Hos. 12:4).

       4.    Yet the Lord (Yahweh) and the “angel of the Lord” are not the same person. For instance, the Lord sends the angel (Ex. 23:20–23). At other times, the “angel of the Lord” speaks to the Lord (Zech. 1:12), and the Lord answers the angel (Zech. 1:13).

       5.    The “angel of the Lord” is the chief protector of Israel (Ex. 14:19–20; 23:20–23; Josh. 5:13–15; Pss. 34:7; 35:5–6).

       6.    The “angel of the Lord” possesses the name of “the Lord” (Ex. 3:14; Judg. 13:17–18; see Isa. 9:6).

       7.    The “angel of the Lord” receives worship (Ex. 3:5; Josh. 5:15; Judg. 13:20).

       8.    The “angel of the Lord” forgives sin (Gen. 48:16; Ex. 23:21).

Table 8.9 “The Angel of the Lord” in Scripture

People  Passages  
Hagar  Gen. 16:7–14; 21:17  
Abraham  Gen. 22:11–18  
Eliezer  Gen. 24:7, 40  
Jacob  Gen. 31:11–13; 32:22–32 (see Gen. 48:15–16; Hos. 12:3–4)  
Moses  Ex. 3:1–7 (see Acts 7:30–35); Ex. 12:23 (“the destroyer,” cf. Heb. 11:28); Ex. 14:19–20 (see Num. 20:16); Ex. 23:20–23 (see Isa. 63:9)  
Balaam  Num. 22:22–35  
Joshua  Josh. 5:13–15 (see Ex. 3:5); Judg. 2:1–4  
Gideon  Judg. 6:11–18  
Manoah and his wife  Judg. 13:2–22  
David  2 Sam. 24:16–17; 1 Chron. 21:15–18, 27  
Elijah  1 Kings 19:4–8; 2 Kings 1:3–4, 15–16  
Hezekiah  2 Kings 19:35 (see 2 Chron. 32:21; Isa. 37:36)  
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego  Dan. 3:25, 28  
Daniel  Dan. 6:22  
Zechariah  Zech. 1:11–12; 3:1–10  
Malachi  Mal. 3:1  


The “angel of the Lord” has been identified by some as a special, created angel who is unnamed in the biblical record. In the writings of the apostolic fathers (ca. AD 150), the “angel of the Lord” is sometimes identified as Michael the archangel. Later commentators occasionally followed suit. However, no created angel, even an archangel, ever possessed the traits of deity previously noted from the biblical record; thus, the angel view must be disqualified.

An infrequently encountered proposal suggests that the Old Testament “angel of the Lord” is the king of Salem, Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18), the mysterious high priest in whose order the Lord Jesus Christ is said to follow (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17). This idea presupposes that Melchizedek is the preincarnate Christ, which is easily dismissed because there is no substantial biblical evidence in support of this notion. Melchizedek, the historical king of Salem in the time of Abraham, could not have been Christ, who then later became a high priest after the order of himself.

Another possibility might be that the “angel of the Lord” is a self-manifestation of the Lord (Yahweh) himself—that is, a true theophany. While this approach recognizes the divine attributes of the angel, it does not account for the evidence of at least two personages in many of the biblical accounts—the “angel of the Lord” and “the Lord”—which is in perfect harmony with the triune composition of the Godhead (God the Father, Eph. 1:3–6; God the Son, Eph. 1:7–12; and God the Holy Spirit, Eph. 1:13–14).

The only identification of the “angel of the Lord” that satisfies all the characteristics in the biblical record is the preincarnate appearance (a christophany or huiophany) of the second person of the triune Godhead, the eternal Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not surprising, then, that the earliest identifications of the “angel of the Lord” were that of a christophany.

New Testament Correlation

The Old Testament “preincarnate Christ” view matches precisely with the New Testament explanation of God’s eternal Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. First, by taking the name of “the Lord” (Gen. 16:11–13; 22:9–18), the “angel of the Lord” claims to be an eternal being. Eternality was the very assertion made by the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1; 8:58; 17:5).

Second, Christ claimed to be God, and Scripture states that he is indeed God (John 1:1; 5:18; 10:33; 2 Pet. 1:1; 1 John 5:20). This assertion harmonizes with the deity of the “angel of the Lord” (Ex. 3:2–6; Judg. 13:17–18).

Third, by claiming deity (Ex. 3:2–6; Judg. 13:17–18) and being an individual other than “the Lord” (Ex. 23:20–23; Isa. 6:1, 8 [with John 12:41–42]; Zech. 1:12–13), the “angel of the Lord” asserts that more than one person can be God. Only Christ, the second person of the triune Godhead, could make such a declaration, which corresponds perfectly with the triunity of God (Matt. 28:19; Mark 1:9–11; John 15:26; 2 Cor. 13:14).

Fourth, in his New Testament incarnation (as in his Old Testament preincarnate appearances), Christ fulfilled his responsibility to provide a revelation and explanation of God the Father that would otherwise have been beyond human comprehension (John 1:18; 10:30; 12:45; 14:7, 9; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15, 19; 2:9; Heb. 1:3).

Thus, the attributes and activities of the Old Testament “angel of the Lord” compare perfectly with those of the New Testament incarnate Christ. In terms of Christ’s eternality, deity, triunity, and responsibility, the biblical evidence overwhelmingly confirms that the “angel of the Lord” episodes in the Old Testament unquestionably involved the preincarnate Lord Jesus Christ.[1]

[1] MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 719–722). Crossway.