The angel of the Lord is an enigmatic figure who appears in numerous passages throughout the Old Testament. This angel is often believed to be the second member of the Trinity—Jesus Christ himself.

In the Old Testament, the Bible often blurs the line between the angel of the Lord and God, sometimes calling the angel God outright. At other times, the angel of the Lord is clearly distinct from God.

So are these pre-New Testament references to the Trinity? Who is the angel of the Lord?

Jesus in the Old Testament

One of the most persuasive arguments for Scripture’s legitimacy is the fact that as the story progresses, it sheds light on what came before. Throughout the New Testament, we’re introduced to principles and concepts that illuminate passages that weren’t entirely clear or obvious.

This happens in the form of theophanies—physical manifestations of God that we can now recognize as being Jesus. The Old Testament’s angel of the Lord is a perfect example of a theophany. When you begin to look closer at this biblical figure, you recognize three crucial truths that identify this character as Jesus:

  1. He is identified as God.
  2. He is distinct from God.
  3. He fulfills many of the roles and ministries we recognize in Jesus.

Let’s take a closer look at this enigmatic figure. But first, let’s respond to a couple of questions you might have.

Aren’t angels created beings?!

When we hear the word “angels,” we tend to fall back on the image of winged beings. We’re conditioned to think of angels as an order of beings created by God—and in a lot of instances, that’s probably accurate. The biblical seraphim (Isaiah 6) and cherubim (Exodus 25:20) would fall in this category.

But that’s not the angelic standard. The Hebrew word translated as angel is malakh, and it simply means “messenger.”

Sure. Some angels are created beings with wings, but that’s not the norm. More often than not, angels look just like you and me. When we think of them as messengers or envoys, we realize that almost anyone could technically be an angel.

Fun fact: There are actually eight types of angels and demons in the Bible.

Isn’t there an angel of the Lord in the New Testament?

God has plenty of messengers throughout Scripture. Anyone of them could be called “an angel of the Lord.” Angels of the Lord appeared in the New Testament to Joseph (Matthew 1:20) and Peter (Acts 12:7). But that’s not the same messenger we’re talking about here.

The messenger that plays tour guide to John in Revelation isn’t the angel of the Lord from the Old Testament. As we’ll see in a moment, the Old Testament’s angel of the Lord accepted worship, but look at what the angel of the Lord in Revelation says to John:  

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed me these things. But he said to me, “Do not do that. I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book. Worship God” (Revelation 22:8–9, NASB).

Let’s examine what’s unique about the angel of the Lord. We’ll do a quick overview of some biblical character’s interactions with the angel, and follow it up with a cheat-sheet recap of clues we pick up about the angel’s identity from each exchange.

Hagar and the angel of the Lord (Genesis 16:8–14)

When God’s promise of a child to the aging Abram and Sarai doesn’t happen as quickly as they think it should, Sarai suggests that maybe it’s God’s will that they have a child via her maid, Hagar. Abram agrees, and Hagar gets pregnant. Afterward, Sarai becomes jealous and mistreats her maid.

The angel of the Lord finds Hagar by a spring in the desert, and they have the following exchange:

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.” Then the angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority.” Moreover, the angel of the Lord said to her, “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count” (Genesis 16:8–10)

It’s interesting to note that this messenger of God gives Hagar a promise based on his own authority. He tells her, “I will multiply your descendants.”

After uttering more prophetic—and let’s face it, omniscient—promises about her child (verse 12), we see Hagar’s response to the exchange.

Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God who sees”; for she said, “Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?” Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered (Genesis 16:13–14).

Hagar recognizes that she’s speaking to divinity and is even surprised that she’s allowed to live after seeing him. As a testimony to this experience, she named the spring “the well of the living one who sees me.”

Cheat sheet:

  • Omniscience: Tells Hagar the future of her descendants
  • Omnipotence: Promises to make a specific future occur
  • Recognized as God: Hagar calls the angel “a God who sees”
  • Correlation with Christ: This exchange has a familiar tenderness to it that we recognize from Jesus’ comforting presence in the gospels. Like the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11), Hagar has been misused, and the angel comes alongside her in a sympathetic and understanding way.

Abraham and the angel of the Lord (Genesis 22:11–12)

The next time we see the angel, Abraham and Isaac are on their way up Mount Moriah to make a sacrifice. Isaac doesn’t know that he is going to be the sacrifice. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham his heading up the mountain to show his obedience.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (Genesis 22:11–12)

Remember, God is the one that asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. When the angel stops him, he acknowledges Abraham’s compliance by referring to God in the first person: “you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

Cheat sheet

  • Identifies as God: The angel links himself as the God who commanded Abraham’s sacrifice.

Jacob and the angel of the Lord (Genesis 31:13)

Abraham’s grandson Jacob was traveling and stopped for an evening to rest. While he was sleeping, he had his famous dream about the ladder (Genesis 28:12). During this dream, God spoke to Jacob and told him that the land he was lying on would be given to his descendants. Those ancestors would be abundant, and they would be a blessing to the rest of the world (verses 13–14).

When Jacob awoke the next morning, he put up a pillar of remembrance and called the place Bethel, meaning “the house of God.”

Many years later, Jacob has married the two daughters of an unscrupulous man named Laban. After suffering much at Laban’s hand, Jacob finds himself being cheated out of livestock. In another vision, the angel of God appears to Jacob to help remedy the situation. In the midst of that conversation, the angel says something very curious.

“I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; now arise, leave this land, and return to the land of your birth.” (Genesis 31:13).

The angel identifies himself as God—the very God that spoke to Jacob all those years ago, who he memorialized with an altar.

Cheat sheet

  • Identifies as God: The angel describes himself as the God who previously interacted with Jacob.

Moses and the angel of the Lord (Exodus 3)

After killing an Egyptian for mistreating Jewish slaves, Moses fled and took up a whole new life as a shepherd and husband. One day while pasturing his father-in-law’s flock, he had a profound experience with the angel of the Lord.

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. So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.”

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.” 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.” 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 (Exodus 3:1–6).

If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss the fact that it’s the angel of the Lord that appears to Moses in the bush. After all, it only mentions the word angel once. Throughout the rest of the exchange, we’re told that Moses is speaking to God.

In fact, it’s during this exchange that God’s name is revealed:

Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13–14).

If Exodus 3 was the only biblical proof that there was something fishy going on with the “angel of the Lord,” it would be enough. It’s possible that the angel is operating here as God’s receptionist, grabbing Moses’ attention and then following it up with a “please hold for the almighty God.” But that’s not very likely (especially with all the other evidence available).

To really grasp the implications of this passage, it’s good to read the entire chapter.

Cheat sheet

  • Identifies as God: If we weren’t told at the beginning this was an angel, we wouldn’t even know it. The rest of the narrative shows Moses speaking to God.
  • Recognized as God: Moses turns his face away because he is afraid to look upon God (verse 6).
  • Demands worship: The angel tells Moses to remove his shoes because the ground in the angel’s presence is holy.
  • Omniscience: The angel tells Moses he has heard the cries of the afflicted in Egypt (verse 7).
  • Omnipotence: The angel’s message is that he will use Moses to deliver his people. Throughout the exchange, the angel promises to display his power to Egypt.
  • Omnipresence: When Moses expresses doubt, the angel promises to be with him (verse 12).
  • Immutability: When the angel reveals the name of God as “I AM,” it signifies God’s timeless and unchangeable nature.
  • Correlation with Christ: Here we see the angel of the Lord demonstrating a characteristic we recognize from Jesus’ ministry. He is empowering Moses to release his people from bondage (Luke 4:16–21).

The angel of the Lord as protector (Exodus 14:19–20)

The Israelites might have escaped Egypt, but they’re still incredibly vulnerable. In Exodus 13, we’re told:

The Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people (Exodus 13:21–22).

As Pharaoh changes his mind and comes after the Israelites, we see God’s strategy shift from leading Israel to standing guard between Egypt’s army and Israel. Only this time, the identity of the protector changes:

The angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night (Exodus 14:19–20, emphasis added).

The pillars of cloud and fire that had been leading the Israelites were linked to the Lord, but then it’s identified with the angel of the Lord. This is another clear example where the two identities are used interchangeably.

Cheat sheet

  • Identified as God: At one moment the guiding phenomenon is linked to God, and later identified as the angel of the Lord.

The angel of the Lord and Balaam (Numbers 22:22–35)

Balaam was an unfaithful prophet who used God’s power to make money as a soothsayer to Balak, the king of Moab. To Balaam’s credit, where Balak wanted him to curse the Israelites, Balaam continually pronounced God’s words of blessing over them.

But the fact that Balaam kept interacting with Balak’s elders—and even wanted to pronounce a curse on Israel to earn some extra coin (Deuteronomy 23:3–6)—made Balaam a terrible prophet whose main concern was “the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15–16).

On a trip to visit Balak, God intervened:

But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding on his donkey and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand, the donkey turned off from the way and went into the field; but Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back into the way. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path of the vineyards, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side.

While we often see the angel of the Lord speaking as God—and being recognized as such, we can clearly see a distinction being made between God and the angel of the Lord. We can potentially see this contrast as a pre-New Testament clue to the Trinity.

The donkey is aware of the angel’s presence, but Balaam is not. Unable to get around the divine obstacle, the donkey lays down. And in his anger to get the donkey to move, Balaam begins striking the donkey.

God opens the mouth of the donkey and immediately the frustrated animal begins chewing out the prophet, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” (Numbers 22:28–30).

God immediately opens Balaam’s eyes so he can see what’s going on:

Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground. The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me. But the donkey saw me and turned aside from me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, I would surely have killed you just now, and let her live’ (Numbers 22:31–33).

As we’ve seen in past examples, the angel takes Balaam’s disobedience personally. He doesn’t merely speak on God’s behalf; he says, “your way was contrary to me” (verse 32). To add an extra layer of autonomy and authority to the discussion, the angel says that he planned to kill the prophet if things had gone another way.

Cheat sheet

  • Distinct from God: Here we see both God and the angel of the Lord as separate agents in the same story.
  • Identified as God: The angel identifies Balaam’s sin as a personal affront.
  • Sovereignty: The angel talks about potentially taking Balaam’s life, but it doesn’t appear to be an order. The comment is delivered in a way that indicates the angel’s own authority.  

The angel of the Lord confronts Israel (Judges 2:1–5)

Judges is a book that chronicles Israel’s tendency toward rebellion. Right out of the gate, the angel of the Lord rebukes the wayward nation:

Now the angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land which I have sworn to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you, and as for you, you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed Me; what is this you have done?  

Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they will become as thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.’” When the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the sons of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. So they named that place Bochim; and there they sacrificed to the Lord (Judges 2:1–5).

Notice the angel of the Lord points to himself as the one who delivered Israel from the Egyptians, is the keeper of Israel’s covenant, and requires obedience. As a consequence of their insubordination, the angel informs the Hebrew nation that he’s withdrawing his protection from them.

Cheat sheet

  • Identifies as God: Throughout this passage, the angel takes credit for things the entire biblical witness associates with God.

The angel of the Lord commissions Samson (Judges 13)

Before the mighty Samson was born, the angel of the Lord came to Manoah and his wife to inform them that their son would deliver Israel from the Philistines. He first appeared to Manoah’s wife, and she described him to her husband as looking like a man, but having the appearance of an (awesome) angel of God (Judges 13:6).

So despite the fact that this messenger doesn’t have wings, there is something in the angel’s appearance and authority that indicates that he’s more than human. After an intense experience (seriously, you just need to read the whole thing), Manoah tells his wife, “We will surely die, for we have seen God” (verse 22).

At one point during their exchange, Manoah asked the angel for his name. The angel replied, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” The word the angel used for wonderful is closely related to the word Isaiah uses to describe the coming Messiah:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;

And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Eternal Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6, emphasis added).

Cheat sheet

  • Sovereignty: The angel informs Manoah and his wife how he plans to use Samson.
  • Identified as God: Monoah recognizes that they have seen God (verse 22).
  • Accepts worship: When Manoah offers to sacrifice a goat to the angel, the angel tells him to sacrifice it to the Lord. But the author of Judges tells us that the angel only said that because Manoah didn’t understand who he was talking to (verses 15–16). When it’s all over and Manoah is worried about being killed for seeing God, his wife tells him “If the Lord had desired to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands . . .” (verse 23).
  • Correlation with Christ: The angel of the Lord refuses to give Manoah his name because it is wonderful (or incomprehensible), which seems to hint to his identity as Wonderful, Counselor, and Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6).

The angel of the Lord and David’s disobedience (1 Chronicles 21)

First Chronicles 21 tells us that Satan influenced David to number Israel. It seems that David wanted to celebrate in the strength of his army. In his anger, the Lord allows David to choose from three equally terrifying judgments: three years of famine, three months of being overrun by enemies, or three days of pestilence and destruction in Israel. David chose the latter (1 Chronicles 21:11–13).

After 70,000 Israelite males fell to illness, God sent the angel of the Lord to destroy Jerusalem, but at the last moment called off the destruction (verse 15). David in seeing the angel of the Lord with his sword drawn over Jerusalem, repented and begged for God to take his wrath out on David’s household and not on Israel.

The angel of the Lord commanded David to build an altar on the threshing floor of a Jebusite named Ornan. So David negotiated a fair price for the site, built the altar, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. When he had done this, God commanded the angel of the Lord to sheath his sword (verses 18–27).

In this story, we see the angel of the Lord executing God’s judgment. This is in keeping with some of the language and imagery of the New Testament regarding Jesus. In Revelation 19, we see Jesus returning as the earth’s judge. And Jesus himself says that the Father doesn’t judge anyone, but that judgment belongs to the Son (John 5:22).

Cheat sheet

  • Correlation with Christ: The angel of the Lord executes judgment over Jerusalem—a role associated with Jesus.

The angel of the Lord and Zechariah (Zechariah 1:12, 3:4)

Zechariah’s prophecies give us the clearest picture of the angel of the Lord operating in a way we normally associate with Jesus.

The book begins by spelling out God’s frustration with Israel. Zechariah experiences a vision of the angel of the Lord, and at one point, the angel speaks to heaven, “O Lord of hosts, how long will You have no compassion for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which You have been indignant these seventy years?” (Zechariah 1:12)

Here we see the angel of the Lord operating as an intermediary between God and his rebellious people. This is the role that Jesus plays. As Paul tells Timothy, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

In Zechariah’s third chapter, we see this scene:

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?”

Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel. He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” Again he said to him, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.” Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments, while the angel of the Lord was standing by.

And the angel of the Lord admonished Joshua, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘If you will walk in My ways and if you will perform My service, then you will also govern My house and also have charge of My courts, and I will grant you free access among these who are standing here (Zechariah 3:1–7).

If there is a more perfect image of Christ’s ministry in the Old Testament, I don’t know what it is. Here we see the angel of the Lord standing between Satan’s accusations and Joshua the high priest. Then the angel takes away Joshua’s iniquity, which is symbolized by filthy garments.

The prophet Isaiah uses the same metaphor when he says, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6a). It’s Jesus whose righteousness replaces our inequity, and this is expressed with a similar metaphor in Revelation:

He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels (Revelation 3:5, emphasis added).

Cheat sheet

  • Correlation with Christ: Zechariah portrays the angel of the Lord as a mediator for Israel, an opponent of Satan, and a purifier of the righteous. These are all ministries associated with Jesus in the New Testament.

Is the angel of the Lord Jesus?

This is just a smattering of encounters with the angel of the Lord. But it’s fairly evident that these are actually stories of pre-incarnate encounters with Jesus. They feature all the hallmarks of the second person in the Trinity.

The angel of the Lord is God

  • He speaks of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as obedience to him (Genesis 22:12).
  • The angel identifies himself to Moses as “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).
  • After his experience with the angel, Manoah is afraid that he won’t live after looking upon God (Judges 13:22).

The angel of the Lord is distinct from God

  • The angel shows up with Balaam in response to God’s anger (Numbers 22:22).
  • God dispatches the angel of the Lord to carry out justice (1 Chronicles 21)
  • The angel entreats God on behalf of Israel (Zechariah 1:12).

The angel of the Lord carried out work associated with Christ

  • The angel displays the same kind of comfort with Hagar that we associate with Jesus (Genesis 16:7–14).
  • The angel is a deliverer from bondage in Egypt, just as Jesus delivers people from physical and spiritual shackles in the New Testament (Exodus 3:8).
  • The angel removes the stain of the high priests sin similar to Christ’s ministry to us. (Zechariah 3:4).

Stories of the pre-incarnate Christ

It’s no wonder that early church fathers like Tertullian and Justin Martyr recognized these encounters as glimpses of the timeless Christ. And it’s revelations like these—ones that come in retrospect—that give the Bible a sense of coherence and trustworthiness.

If the Trinity is true and Jesus is a member of the godhead, you would expect to see him at work throughout the story of Israel told in the Old Testament. And as it turns out, you do. Jesus is at work as the angel of God, carrying out a very similar ministry that we recognize in his incarnation!