According to Revelation 1:1-2, God sent “his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.” The confusion here, however, is that Jesus Himself is the first character we see appear to John.
Or is this confusing? After all, there was an angel in the Old Testament known as “the Angel of the LORD” that seemed very different from the other angels in the Bible. God said, “my name is in him” (Ex 23:21), and time and time again we find that angel act with authority. Every time he shows up he seems to talk as though he is God—something that an angel (whose job is essentially to deliver a message) isn’t supposed to do.
Furthering his authority is the fact that when Joshua met him he “fell on his face to the earth and worshiped” (Josh 5:14), and we have no note of the angel correcting him. Yet when John tries to worship an angel in Revelation, the angel sternly corrects him saying, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God” (Rev 19:10).
This is puzzling indeed. The Angel of the LORD and God seem so interchangeable in the passages where he shows up that it can be a bit confusing. He is an important figure—so important that he’s even there when God meets Moses for the first time in the story of the burning bush. We often miss it, but we are actually informed that “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Ex 3:2).
Because of what the Bible seems to be communicating, scholars have reached four different conclusions about the Angel of the LORD. He could be:
1. An appearance of the preincarnate Christ.
2. A hypostasis of Yahweh or a manifestation of a divine attribute.
3. A human or angelic messenger representing Yahweh.
4. A theophany of Yahweh Himself. (1)
Each position seems theologically valid, though I have to admit that the first option, that, “He may be the Logos, a kind of temporary preincarnation of the second person of the Trinity…. is certainly the most tempting to the mind” (2). Adding to the intrigue of this idea is the fact that, as theology professor Louis Goldberg points out, “In the New Testament, there is no mention of the angel of the Lord; the Messiah himself is this person” (3).
That is, unless John was trying to communicate something that the early Church might have already been suspecting: That Jesus and the Angel of the LORD are one and the same. If that’s the case, then a narrative that blurs the line between Jesus and His angel would be intentional. And it may be possible. In Michael Heiser’s judgment,
the only instance where the New Testament writer may have the angel of Yahweh (who was Yahweh) in view is Rev 1. If this is the case, then John identifies the risen Christ with the angel. This would be expected, given the identification of the angel of Yahweh with Yahweh in the Old Testament and the use of that identification by New Testament writers to link Jesus and Yahweh…. The point of Rev 1 would be to identify this angel…. with the later human Jesus…. The problem with this identification is Rev 22:16, where it is apparently Jesus (vs. God the Father) who sent the angel to John. However, this verse could merely be another way to co-identify Jesus and God. In any event, an explicit reference to “the angel of the Lord” does not occur in Revelation. (4)
Since Heiser has studied this topic more than most, I’ll try not to solidify any other possibilities in Revelation of the Angel of the LORD, but I will throw them out there; for it seems there are a few more times throughout the book where an angel gets blurred with Jesus.
In Revelation 1:16, Jesus’ “face was like the sun shining in full strength”, while in Revelation 10:1, another angel has a face “like the sun” (perhaps this is just what a glorified being looks like?). This angel is also holding a scroll in his hand, which Jesus-the-lamb might have just broke the seals off of; he’s also wrapped in a cloud and has legs like pillars of fire, which are both symbols of God’s presence; and he has a voice of a lion, which is a creature Jesus was likened to not long ago in Revelation.
Another angel took a censer of prayers “and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth,” which blends a possible reference of Jesus’ statement in Luke 12:49—“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!”
Towards the end of Revelation we also have “an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit” (Rev 20:1). But Jesus Himself was pictured as having “the keys of Death and Hades” in Revelation 1:18.
I also can’t help but wonder if Jesus’ reference to giving His people his “own new name” in Revelation 3:12 is a reference to the Angel of the LORD’s hidden name. For the Angel of the LORD hides his name from Jacob when he wrestles with him in Genesis 32:22-32 (cf. Hosea 12:3-4) and when he talks with Samson’s parents (Judges 13:17-18).
There are plenty of ways to read all of this, for Revelation is a confusing book in the first place that seems to lose track of chronology and implement random intermissions and retell stories in new lights. Therefore, I do not advocate that these must be images of Jesus as the Angel of the LORD. I only propose that if John already had the two blended in his mind at the beginning of Revelation, that He may be continuing to blur the lines between Jesus and His angel throughout the rest of it.
Some of this post is a reworked excerpt of chapter 1 of my book, The Rush and the Rest.
The Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser
(1) Speliopoulos, Elke B., and Douglas Mangum. “Angel of Yahweh.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Editor John D. Barry et al. Bellingham, Lexham Press, 2016.
(2) Wilson, John Macartney. “Angel.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Chicago, The Howard-Severance Company, 1915, p. 134.
(3) Goldberg, Louis. “Angel of the Lord.” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids, Baker Book House Company, 1996, p. 23.
(4) Heiser, Michael S. Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018. Print.