Was Jesus the “angel of the Lord” who warned Joseph?

Q.  We were looking at the Christmas story in Matthew and noticed that Joseph was warned to go to Egypt by the “angel of the Lord.”  Now I know many contend that the “angel of the Lord” in the OT refers to a pre-incarnation Jesus.  And, Matthew is very tuned in to the OT.  So…..does this mean that Jesus warned Joseph?  I am guessing there is a Greek/Hebrew explanation for this.

I think there are a few reasons why it’s probably not actually Jesus, in the person of the “angel of the Lord,” warning Joseph in the Christmas story:

(1)  First, the text should probably be translated “an angel of the Lord” rather than “the angel of the Lord.”  Most contemporary English translations read this way, “an angel,” although some translations say “the angel.”  (For the Greek/Hebrew specifics, see the bottom of this post.)

(2)  Also, in Matthew this angel always appears in a dream.  In the First Testament the angel of the Lord tends to appear in person.  (Notice how, when an angel appears to Jacob in a dream, the phrase is “the angel of God” rather than “the angel of the Lord.”)

(3)  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 this.

So for these reasons I wouldn’t say that Jesus is warning Joseph to protect Jesus!

I hope you and your family had a merry Christmas.  And as the story of the flight into Egypt reminds us that Jesus became a refugee shortly after he was born, let us remember all those in our world today who are refugees with our help and prayers.

Giotto, “The Flight Into Egypt”

Specifics regarding translation:  Each of the three times the phrase occurs in the Joseph narrative (when the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife; when the angel warns him to flee from Bethlehem; and when the angel tells him to return to Israel), “angel” appears in the nominative case in Greek with no article, which generally means an indefinite noun rather than a definite one, thus “an angel of the Lord.”  By contrast, the phrase in the First Testament for these theophanies is definite, “the angel of the Lord,” because “angel” is in the construct state and dependent on YHWH, which as a proper name is always definite and so makes “angel” definite as well.  If a Greek writer wanted to express in Greek that the noun was definite, using an article would be the clearest way to do this, but no article is present.

What’s the difference between mental illnesses and demonic possession?

Q. What is the difference between mental illnesses and demonic possession? I read the post on your blog about whether the “evil spirit from the Lord” that tormented Saul was “an actual spirit-being” or “a dark and foreboding disposition of the human spirit,” and I’m hoping you can expand on that distinction.  I’ve read in Acts about the girl who was possessed and could predict things until Paul cast the demon out. Is one sign of possession the ability to do supernatural things like that?

Let me say first, in light of the recent discussion on this blog of “metaphysical naturalism” and its denial of the supernatural, that I do believe, according to the Bible, that there are supernatural evil beings who seek to oppress people and keep them from turning to God and experiencing the life that God offers.  Anyone who doesn’t share this belief will not find your question, or my answer, meaningful, and so it probably would not be worth their time to read any further.

Second, also by way of background, I think it’s important to observe that the Bible itself distinguishes between mental illness and demonic possession.  It’s not the case that the biblical writers simply assumed that everything we would recognize today as mental illness was caused by demons.

For example, when Matthew describes the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry, he tells how “people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases . . . and he healed them.” Among those Jesus healed, Matthew says, were the seleniazomenoi and the daimonizomenoi.

The first term, seleniazomenoi, comes from the Greek term for “moon,” selene, and it can be translated literally as “moon-struck.”  The English equivalent is “lunatic,” and that is how many English Bibles translate the term.  Some translate it as “epileptic” instead, but I think it does refer to people with mental illnesses, which were thought in the ancient world to be caused by the influence of the moon.

The second term, daimonizomenoi, means to be oppressed by a daimon or demon, which the New Testament writers understand to be an evil spirit.  It’s important to note that they don’t actually use the term “possessed,” although they do depict Jesus and the apostles casting demons out of people, as if these had occupied and controlled them.

So then what is the essential distinction between mental illness and demonic oppression?  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament offers a helpful insight into this, in its article on daimon.  It says that in the case of demonic oppression, “What is at issue is not merely sickness but a destruction and distortion of the divine likeness of man according to creation. The centre of personality, the volitional and active ego, is impaired by alien powers which seek to ruin the man and sometimes drive him to self-destruction.”

In other words, we can think of someone with a mental illness driving a car but having trouble finding their way through thick fog and drizzle.  Someone oppressed by a demon, on the other hand, is having to wrestle with the demon for control of the steering wheel to stay on the road.

This volitional aspect of demonic oppression is also seen in the way that many, thought not all, who suffer from it may have “opened the door” in some way by choosing to become involved in the occult.  (Or they may have exposed family members by doing this.)

The girl you mention in the book of Acts who could tell fortunes illustrates another distinction: demonic oppression may be characterized by the demons doing supernatural or superhuman things through the person affected.  Another biblical example is the man described in the gospels as “Legion,” who “had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.”

A final observation I would make is based once again on an insight from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  After confirming the observation that “in the NT not all sicknesses are attributed to demons,” it continues, “Nevertheless, it may be said that the existence of sickness in this world belongs to the character of the [present age] of which Satan is the prince.”  In other words, we suffer from illnesses, including mental illnesses, because the creation has not yet been redeemed from its bondage to evil, sin, and decay.

That being the case, we may rightly suspect that an evil influence is at work to aggravate a mental illness.  Even when it is not a situation of outright demonic oppression or possession, there could be demonic harassment. Throughout the centuries, in fact, many outstanding Christian leaders, writers, artists, and so forth have struggled with depression and similar mental illnesses.  Beyond the natural medical causes, there may well have been spiritual opposition designed to discourage and disable these people from fulfilling their God-given vocations.  Both the natural and the supernatural dimensions need to be kept in mind.  But spiritual opposition is not, in and of itself, demonic possession.

In conclusion, from a pastoral perspective (I was a pastor for over 20 years), I would encourage a person (or their family and friends, on their behalf) to seek spiritual deliverance from demonic oppression through the help of mature, reputable, qualified Christian leaders in cases where a sharp internal conflict of the will is evident (i.e. something “makes” the person do unpleasant and uncharacteristic things that they don’t want to do), where the person’s health and life has repeatedly been put at risk (like the boy described in the gospels whom a demon often tried to throw into the fire or into the water), and where superhuman phenomena are present.  These are not infallible indications, and each one individually could have a different explanation, so in-person, real-time discernment by experienced and spiritually mature advisors is required.

On the other hand, I would encourage a person to seek counseling and treatment for mental illness if they experience persistent symptoms such as depression, anxiety, confusion, troubling or irrational thoughts, etc.  Particularly if the person can’t just “shake it off,” they should get professional help and be open to the benefits of therapy and medication.  But I also believe that spiritual resources such as prayer and community support are vital for relief from mental illness and that they can make a big difference in the lives of those who suffer from it.

Those who are delivered from spiritual oppression or who find God’s grace to cope with mental illnesses are  able to offer encouragement to many others through the gifts God has given them.  To give just one example, Joseph Scriven wrote the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” out of his experience of long struggle with depression.  I hope and pray that any who read this post and recognize that they need help from God will find it through the loving community of God’s people and so become a blessing to others in the same way.

Did God really send an evil spirit to torment Saul?

In First Samuel it says that God sent an evil spirit to Saul to torment him.  I know what it’s like to go through depression and anxiety, and I don’t understand why God would do that to him. (Other places in the Bible mention similar occurrences of God sending evil:   Isaiah 45:7, Judges 9:23, and Jeremiah 6:19, among others.)

Interpreters differ about what this expression means precisely.  Some say that the so-called “evil spirit from the LORD” is an actual spirit-being that God allowed to trouble Saul as a punishment for his disobedience.  God is not the author of evil and does not tolerate evil in his presence, so if this is the correct interpretation, we shouldn’t think of God having evil spirits waiting around to do his bidding.  Rather, the spirit would be “from God” in the sense that its freedom to trouble Saul was a judgment from God.

But this is not the only way to understand the expression.  The Hebrew word that describes a spirit-being, ruach, can also be applied to the human spirit.  We see the supernatural meaning in Eliphaz’s opening speech in the book of Job, “A spirit glided past my face, and the hair on my body stood on end.”  We see the natural, human meaning in Psalm 51, “Create in me a pure heart . . . and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

In addition, the Hebrew word often translated as “evil” means more generally “bad” or “harmful.” It’s the word used, for example, when Job says, “Shall we receive good from God, and not trouble?” (NIV). Some versions translate this as “evil,” but I don’t think that’s correct, since God is not the source of evil.  In the other passages you mentioned, the NIV translates this term as “disaster” (Isaiah and Jeremiah) and “animosity” (Judges), which I think fairly captures the sense—not “evil.”

So the actual meaning of the phrase about Saul could be “a bad spirit from the LORD,” signifying not an actual spirit-being, but rather a dark and foreboding disposition of the human spirit, reflecting the break in Saul’s relationship with God.

A couple of times earlier in Samuel-Kings, we read that “the Spirit of God came powerfully on Saul”—once when Samuel anointed him king, and once when he was inspired to deliver the Israelites from an enemy.  Now, unfortunately, we hear that “the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul.”  Once the Spirit’s presence had been experienced, its absence would be keenly felt.  This may be sufficient to explain Saul’s dark moods.

On balance, in my opinion, the first meaning—a spirit-being—seems more likely, given the parallelism in the narrative:  “The Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.”

But whatever this evil or bad spirit was, and however active a role God had in sending it, we need to recognize that God was also gracious to Saul in arranging for David to come to his court and relieve him through music, through a servant who happened to have seen “a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre.”

God allowed Saul the privilege of hearing one of the most gifted musicians in ancient Israel play his lyre and perhaps sing early versions of what became some of the psalms.  When David did this, Saul “would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave.”  God mercifully tempered the judgment with relief, allowing Saul back into his presence through the worship music he providentially made possible at his court.

I hope that any who experience depression and anxiety today will find this same relief in seeking and finding God’s presence, whether through music, the beauty of creation, the encouragement of God’s word, or some similar means.

Erasmus Quellinus, “Saul Listening to David Playing the Harp”

A conversation about “Why did God create Satan?”


The following exchange with a reader of this post is shared with permission.

I read your post about “Why did God create Satan?” and I like your comparison to the question about whether God can create a rock so big He can’t move it. That part of the post is understandable.  But I still don’t see why omniscience isn’t lessened by a lack of knowledge of the outcome of an event or a decision.  And even if God truly didn’t know that His greatest angel would turn against Him, why wouldn’t he just squash Satan like a bug after he did rebel?  He’s going to be punished in the end, so why let him cause so much trouble on the earth in the meantime?  

The following illustration might help explain what I mean when I say that it’s not a failure of omniscience not to know what cannot be known.

Someone might say, “I know all of my division tables.”  So another person tests them:

“What’s 35 divided by 7?”
“Very good.”

“What’s 12 divided by 4?”
“Very good.”

“What’s 6 divided by 0?”
“There’s no answer to that question, because division by 0 is impossible.”
“Then you don’t really know your division tables.”

Actually, the person does know their tables.  It’s not a failure for them not to know what can’t be known.

Does that make sense?

Your example about division by zero seems just like the impossibly big rock scenario.  I don’t see how these logical fallacies apply to the concept of omniscience.  These situations could never happen anyway.  They can only be thought up. 

If you mean that God created us, including the angels, with the ability to think and make decisions without His knowledge, and now, because of this, it becomes one of the impossible things for anyone to do, I think I understand your point.  I just think God would have this ability.
There is still one more point:  Why doesn’t God destroy Satan now because of his incessant meddling?  Why must God wait until the end of the ages? 

You have understood what I was trying to say:  I do believe that that God created intelligent beings, including humans and angels, with the ability to think and make decisions so freely that He wouldn’t know in advance what they were going to decide, and that, because of this, knowing these outcomes in advance becomes one of the things that are impossible for anyone to do.  Of course someone might believe something else, but because I believe this, I don’t think God knowingly created a being, Satan, who would inevitably cause massive destruction and evil on a planet-wide scale.

As for why Satan hasn’t already been judged, like human individuals and civilizations that have done great evil, I honestly don’t know.  I can’t really come up with a scenario where this is better for us than having Satan dealt with already.  But from what I do know of the character of God, by faith I consider this mystery consistent with an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God.

OK, I do get your point now.  But I’ll have to work on the all-knowing, but creating “non-readable” creatures concept. 

I’d have no problem with these exchanges being posted on the blog.  Others may have the same questions, and I agree with what you do in your book studies: the brontosaurus-sized elephants in the room need to be acknowledged sooner rather than later.