The Christmas season is a time to reflect on great themes relating to the incarnation:
- The coming of Christ into the world
- The second Person of the Trinity taking on true and permanent human form
- The sacrifice of Christ at Calvary which necessitated the incarnation
- The great redemption which the Son of God accomplished through His sacrifice
- The Presence of God among men—which has far-reaching implications for believers
All of these strands meet at the manger of Bethlehem. The coming of Christ to earth to accomplish deliverances did not actually begin at His birth. In reality, He came to earth many times previously and left clear and unmistakeable evidence of His Presence.
These appearances of Christ in the Old Testament are found in what is known as the “Angel of the Lord” passages. The word “angel” in the language of both the Old and New Testaments doesn’t necessarily mean “angel” as in the angels in heaven—it has as its essential meaning “messenger” or “one who is sent/dispatched” (cf. Rev. 2:1, etc.). Christ is featured in John’s gospel as the “Sent One” (John 5:23, 24, 36, 37; 6:29, 39, etc.).
Appearance to Hagar (Genesis 16:7-13)
The first explicit reference to Christ on earth appearing as the “Angel/Messenger of the Lord” is in Genesis 16:7-13, when He appeared to Hagar in her time of helplessness. He sees and knows all (Gen. 16:11, 13), has compassion on the plight of those in distress (Gen. 16:7), gives commands (Gen. 16:9), knows the future (Gen. 16:10-12), and is fully God (Gen. 16:13).
Appearance to Moses in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3)
When God spoke to Moses in the burning bush, it was actually the Second Person of the Trinity, the “Angel/Messenger of the Lord” who appeared (Ex. 3:2). The interchange of the speaker’s names are a clear proof for the deity of Christ: “Angel of the LORD” (v. 2), “When Yahweh (the LORD) saw that he turned aside to look (= God’s localized presence on earth), God called to him from the midst of the bush” (Ex. 3:4).
In this appearance, Christ revealed to Moses a chain of events that were to result in Israel’s greatest redemption in the Old Testament: the Passover and deliverance from Egypt. In this passage Christ is seen as: the Holy One (3:5), the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 3:6), the one who sees and knows our sorrows (Ex. 3:7, 9), a Savior (Ex. 3:8), the one who sends us as His representatives to do His will (Ex. 3:10), the one who promises great reward (Ex. 3:8), and the the one who orchestrates human history to accomplish His irresistible decrees (Ex. 3:18-22).
Appearance to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15)
Just before the conquest of Jericho, the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joshua to reveal Himself as the real commander of Israel’s armies. Christ, in the next chapter, enacted a spectacular victory against Jericho and helped Joshua to see the unseen power behind Israel’s success. Christ appeared as a man (Josh. 5:13)—so much so that Joshua had no idea that this was a heavenly visitor. He carried on a conversation with him (evidently the Angel of the Lord dressed in typical fashion and spoke Joshua’s language perfectly), but had a sword in His hand. He identified Himself as the “captain of the host (angelic armies) of the Lord” (Josh. 5:14). He then concluded with a statement similar to that which He made to Moses in the burning bush: “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy” (Josh. 5:15).
Appearance to Gideon (Judges 6)
Shortly before Israel’s battle against Midian, the Angel of the Lord again came and appeared to Gideon. He “came and sat” — which means he came in the appearance of a man and was able to sit under an oak tree (Judges 6:11). He promised deliverance (Judges 6:16) through His presence (“Immanuel” - “God with us”). He accepted Gideon’s sacrifice (Judges. 6:21) and evoked a sense of awe from Gideon (Judges 6:22).
Appearance to Samson’s Parents (Judges 13)
Here He once again took on the appearance of human form (Judges 13:10-11), but displayed an appearance of splendor (Judges 13:6).
As He had promised a son to Sarah, He also predicted a son to Samson’s parents (Judges 13:5). He was to be obeyed (Judges 13:13). When asked His name, he replied “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful (or “full of awe/wonder” —related to “Wonderful Counselor” in Isaiah 9:6), which can only be said of God’s Name. He then ascended in the flame of the sacrifice on the altar, identifying with the sacrifice bridging earth and heaven (Judges 13:20). Samson’s parents acknowledged His deity when they exclaimed, “We will surely die, for we have seen God” (Judges 13:22). To see Christ as the Old Testament “Angel of the Lord” was to see God Himself—the Second Person of the Trinity.
Heavenly Courtroom Vision: Israel’s Cleansing and Restoration (Zechariah 3)
In this vision, the Angel of the Lord opposes Satan (Zech. 3:1-2), acts as an Intercessor/Advocate, removes transgressions, justifies, and clothes His people with a declared righteousness (a pictorial representation of Paul’s teaching of justification in Romans and Galatians)—Zech. 3:3-5.
He is the “Angel” who redeems from all evil (Gen. 48:16), who protects, who must be obeyed, who shares God’s Name, and pardons transgressions (Ex. 23:20-23).
In the great nativity passage, Micah 5:2, it is said of Christ that “His goings forth (= being sent from heaven on behalf of God the Father) are from long ago…” This refers to Christ’s being dispatched by the Father to come to earth as the Angel of the Lord to deliver and accomplish God’s purposes for His people.
The incarnation of Christ was the culmination of his Angel of the Lord visitations. When He came as the Angel of the Lord, Jesus only appeared as a man. At the incarnation, however, He took on true and permanent human form.
The deliverance He accomplished at Calvary would be greater than the deliverance of Hagar from distress, of Israel from Egypt, and of Gideon’s army from the Midianites. As the God-Man, Christ would now save His people from their sins, insure His enduring presence (Immanuel, “God with us”), and give us promises and power to live the Christian life.
The concept of God dwelling with man underlies all of the Angel of the Lord appearances. The incarnation is the fullest expression of this great truth. Recall the words of the great Christmas hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”:
Veiled in flesh, the God-Head see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King
What do these “Angel of the Lord” passages mean to us today?
They are a powerful apologetic for the truthfulness of the Christian faith. Their very presence defies natural explanation. They are miraculous in nature, and should inspire awe and wonder, just as the Angel of the Lord did in His Person.
They show that God was preparing His people for the idea of God becoming a Man, dwelling among His people, and accomplishing His purposes (redemption, blessing, victory) for them. They were previews of Christ’s future work in the New Testament age. Those who studied these passages carefully could understand that one day God would come as a man to secure a supreme deliverance.
The Angel of the Lord taught Old Testament believers that His power was behind their power. He sends and commissions us to do His work as He gives us strength, direction, and ability. His work is our work.
Tracing the footprints of the Messiah in the Old Testament is a blessed and rewarding study. Through it we note that Christ’s work in times past paved the way for His full and final redemptive work on the cross. Gazing at the Person behind these passages we are brought nigh to the face of the Lord Jesus whom we love.
We praise You, Lord Jesus Christ, that You graciously and obediently came from heaven to accomplish God’s purposes on earth. We give You thanks that You took on human form, and as the God-Man redeemed Your people, and intercede for Your people here and now. We look for Your coming again as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah to bring to completion Your victory over sin, death, and evil. Lord Jesus, come quickly! Amen.