Was Jesus the “angel of the Lord” who appeared to the shepherds?

Thomas Cole, “The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds,” 1834

Q. While reading the Christmas story in Luke, I noticed for the first time that “the glory of the Lord” came from “the angel of the Lord.” I had always assumed that this angel was an ordinary one, but God does not share His glory, so perhaps this was a theophany, as at the burning bush, where the “angel of the Lord” appeared. The glory was not from an ordinary angel, but from God.

In some online commentaries it is suggested that the burning-bush angel was an apparition of the pre-incarnate Christ. But it would seem odd or impossible for the angel of the Lord in Luke to be Christ, if he was at that very same time wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.  What are your thoughts about this? I would say that if the angel of the Lord is a theophany, then it could be the Father or the Spirit as an apparition of God in both cases. I also like that in both accounts, the angel of the Lord appears to shepherds…major turning points in God’s relationship with man.

A very similar question is asked in this post about an episode a little later in the Christmas story: “Was Jesus the “angel of the Lord” who warned Joseph?” The questioner in that case also noted that “many contend that the ‘angel of the Lord’ in the OT refers to a pre-incarnation Jesus.” It’s the same kind of situation: Jesus is already on the scene, as a baby, so how can he also be the angel who appears with a divine message?

Much of what I said in response to that question applies to the situation you’re asking about as well:

• The text should probably be translated “an angel of the Lord” rather than “the angel of the Lord.” So it’s not the same figure encountered in the Old Testament. (The earlier blog post gives the specifics as to why the Greek and Hebrew should be translated “an angel” in these accounts in the gospels but “the angel” in the Old Testament.)

• While some interpreters do believe that the “angel of the Lord” in the First Testament is a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Jesus, I think it’s better to consider it more generally a “theophany,” that is, an appearance of God in human form, without being any more specific than that.

It is true that the shepherds say, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” But I think we can easily understand this to mean “which the Lord has made known to us by sending an angel to tell us,” rather than, “which the Lord has made known to us in person” (in the figure of “the angel of the Lord”).

Also, the fact that the “glory of the Lord” shone around the shepherds when the angel appeared doesn’t necessarily mean that the angel had this glory personally because it was the angel was the Lord. Rather, the Lord sent both his angel and his glory to convey the announcement.

I do like the parallel you draw between this angel in Luke appearing to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus and “the angel of the Lord” appearing to a shepherd (Moses) at the burning bush. In both cases humanity was crying out for and expecting a deliverer, and the announcement of deliverance was made to humble, hard-working representatives of humanity. (Although in the case of the burning bush, the announcement was made to a shepherd that he would be the deliverer!)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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