Fifty three times the term “the angel of the Lord” is used in the Bible(1); first used in Genesis 16:7 and the last and only New Testament use was in Matthew 1:24. This meaning of term differs from “an angel of the Lord” which appears 11 times and is widely considered to be any angel sent by God.
Context is King
While Elvis was the king of rock and roll, reading a verse in context of the surrounding verses is the “king” of understanding scripture. So, let’s look at a few of these verses in context. The first use of this term is in Genesis 16:7 and it is used 3 more times in the following 4 verses:
7 Now the angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. 8 He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from and where are you going?” And she said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.” 9 Then the angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority.” 10 Moreover, the angel of the Lord said to her, I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.” 11 The angel of the Lord said to her further,
“Behold, you are with child,
And you will bear a son;
And you shall call his name Ishmael,
Because the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
Then, in verse 13, Hagar said “she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, You are a God who sees”. So, did Hagar think this was just an angel?
Another clear example is in the description of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3:2-6. :
2 The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. 3 So Moses said, I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.”4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then He said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said also, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
So while Hagar called to “the angel of the Lord” as Lord and God, to Moses the “angel of the Lord” clearly self-identified as “I am the God of your father…”
A final slightly different example is from God speaking to Moses , starting with the 10 commandments Exodus 20 and then describing how to lead the children of Israel through the desert in Exodus 23:20-21:
20 “Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. 21 Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him.
While in this example “the angel of the Lord” is not used, it is clear that this angel has God’s name in him and can do something only God can do; forgive transgressions or sin.
In some verses “the angel of the Lord” seems to be distinguished from God but taken in the context of the entire Bible, the identity of “the angel of the Lord” appears to be the pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus, the Son of God. When John the Baptist spoke in John 1:15: “This was He of whom I said, He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.”it can be interpreted as additional evidence of a pre-incarnate Jesus.
p.s. This is not an essential belief of the faith and there are other views of “the angel of the Lord” that are Biblical. I personally would not “go to the mat” on my view of this.
(1) all Bible verse are from the New American Standard Bible.
For further reading:
Wayne Grudem , Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994) page 401
Walter Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, (IVP Academic, 1996) http://www.ivpress.com/title/exc/1423-8c.php