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!)

What became of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus?

Q. What became of Mary Magdalene and Mary the Virgin Mother of God? I hear some people say that Jesus married Magdalene. And did Jesus take them into heaven?

Let me start with Mary Magdalene. We learn some important things about her in the gospels. Luke tells us that during the Galilean part of Jesus’ ministry, he “traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”

This shows us that, for one thing, Mary must have been wealthy; she may have been a member of the upper class, like the highly-placed Joanna. Her name suggests that she was from Magdala, which in biblical times was a prosperous and influential city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Clearly Jesus delivered her from severe spiritual oppression. The fact that she traveled with him afterwards means that she would have gotten to know him well and heard much of his teaching. The gospels also record that she traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus and the disciples, that she witnessed his crucifixion, and that she was the first person to see him after he rose from the dead and  proclaim his resurrection.

We get no further information about Mary Magdalene from the Bible after the end of the gospels, but early traditions suggest that she was able to use her social position to share the gospel in the highest circles of Roman society, including with the emperor himself. Some traditions also suggest that she went to live in Ephesus for the last part of her life, in one version of the story as a companion to the Virgin Mary. But we can’t be certain about these details.

There is no evidence from the Bible or from history that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever married. Rather, it’s quite possible that Mary had a wealthy husband back in Magdala who supported her ministry to Jesus, the way Chuza seems to have been supportive of Joanna.

By the way, there is also no evidence that Mary Magdalene was ever a prostitute, even though that is another a popular belief about her. The belief seems to come from a confusion between her and Mary of Bethany, and between that other Mary and the unnamed “sinful woman” whom Luke describes as anointing Jesus. But the biblical text does not even identify this “sinful woman” specifically as a prostitute. The first recorded reference to this notion about Mary Magdalene is in a sermon given by Pope Gregory I towards the end of the sixth century. So we should acknowledge that this is a late and unreliable tradition.

Rather, Mary is honored in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions as “the apostle to the apostles” because she brought the news of Jesus’ resurrection to them. The Eastern churches also refer to her by a title that means “equal to the apostles.” So she should be seen as someone who had a transforming and liberating encounter with Jesus and who consecrated her wealth and position afterwards to advance his cause.

As for Mary the mother of Jesus, we do hear a little bit more about her in the Bible after the gospels. We learn in the gospels themselves that she was from Nazareth in Galilee and that God sent the angel Gabriel to tell her that even though she was a virgin, she was going to become the mother of the Messiah. Some Christians believe that she and Joseph then had other children after Jesus, while other Christians believe that Mary always remained a virgin. I discuss those different perspectives in this post.

Luke tells us that Mary reflected carefully on what the angel told her and on the early events of Jesus’ life, but that during his Galilean ministry, she and his other relatives actually tried to restrain his work because at that time they didn’t understand it. However, Mary must have come to understand better soon afterwards, because she traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus, and she stood at the cross to offer support and sympathy as he was giving his life for the world.

After the end of the gospels, we learn from the book of Acts that Mary was among the followers of Jesus who remained in Jerusalem after his death, resurrection, and ascension and who were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. There are many traditions about her life after that, but most of them come from centuries later and we can’t depend on them. Perhaps one of the most probable ones is the early tradition that she and Mary Magdalene later went to live in Ephesus. This makes sense because at the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of the apostle John, and we know that John later went to live in Ephesus.

But at least some biblical interpreters would say that we see Mary one more time in the Bible. In the book of Revelation there’s a vision of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” The woman goes into labor and gives birth to a son. The images in Revelation typically have multiple resonances, and in this case the woman seems to represent both Israel, the source of the Messiah (the image is reminiscent of Joseph’s dream in Genesis about Jacob and the twelve tribes), and the church, since the woman’s “other children” are “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.” But just as biblical typology often begins with Israel, compresses into Jesus, and then expands into the church (for example, the idea that Israel is God’s “firstborn,” then that in Jesus God brought his “firstborn” into the world, and finally that Jesus’ followers are the “church of the firstborn”), so this mother image may begin with Israel, compress into Mary as the mother of Jesus, and then expand into the church.

In that case—to address the final part of your question—when we also hear in Revelation that the woman and her child were “snatched up to God and to his throne,” we may see in this a reference to Mary being taken up into heaven. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that Mary was actually taken up into heaven bodily, without experiencing physical death. But I think that all Christians would agree that, one way or another, after her life on earth she joined Jesus there, and that Mary Magdalene did as well. And they would have both heard as they arrived, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”

This stained-glass window depicting Mary’s joyful entrance into heaven is reminiscent of the vision in Revelation about the woman and the sun, moon, and stars.

Why did God say that He was pleased with Jesus at his baptism?

Q. Why was God pleased with Jesus at his baptism? What had Jesus done at that point? Jesus had only been baptized, he had not started his ministry, but the heavens opened and God said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

I don’t think we should completely rule out the possibility that God the Father was saying that He was pleased with who Jesus had become to that point in his earthly life. Luke tells us that in Jesus’ youth and young adulthood, he grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people.” So the Father could have been expressing His pleasure in Jesus’ godly character and spiritual maturity; Jesus had prepared well for the ministry he was just about to begin.

However, it’s important to realize that the language of being “pleased with” someone is actually the language of choice or selection in the Greek of the New Testament and the Septuagint (a  Greek translation of the Old Testament that was widely used in the time of Jesus and the apostles). For example, there’s actually an extra psalm in the Septuagint. It’s considered Psalm 151 and it’s attributed to David, although its authorship is actually uncertain. But in it, the character of David describes how he became king. He says that the Lord’s messenger (that is, Samuel) “took me from my father’s sheep and anointed me with his anointing oil.” He adds, “My brothers were handsome and tall, but the Lord was not pleased with them.” This doesn’t mean that that the Lord didn’t like them. Rather, David is saying, “The Lord didn’t choose them instead of me.”

And so we should understand that when the Father says  He is “well pleased” with Jesus at his baptism, He means in the same way, “This is the one I have chosen to be my Messiah.” As Gottlob Schrenk writes in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “What is meant is God’s decree of election, namely, the election of the Son, which includes his mission and His appointment to the kingly office of Messiah.”

We find confirmation of this understanding later in the gospel of Matthew when the Father’s declaration at Jesus’ baptism is echoed in a quotation from the book of Isaiah:

Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.

Here the idea of being delighted in (i.e. having someone pleased with you) is used in exact parallel with the idea of being “chosen.” We also see again that the use of this phrase is accompanied by the gift of the Spirit for mission, just as in the case of Jesus’ baptism.

So while the Father was no doubt pleased by the way Jesus had matured into godly character in preparation for his ministry, the phrase “with him I am well pleased” actually indicates how God has chosen Jesus to be the Messiah.

“The Baptism of Jesus” by Brojoe Joseph, a Christian artist in India. Paul Neeley comments about this image: “The place in the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized by his cousin became, for a short time, a very holy place , a very sacred space. So it seems fitting that a Christian artist of India would include the visual element of the mandala to visually ‘establish a sacred place.’ It’s almost as if the sky itself brightened with more intense beauty, and this baptismal foretaste of ‘being born again into newness of life’ is seen, at the scene, by those who have eyes to see the spiritual landscape. Further, the mandalas behind Jesus and the Holy Spirit dove are reminiscent of halos, albeit halos that are enormous and brightly colored. I think that these halos also have a role in visually ‘establishing a sacred place.'” https://tmblr.co/ZVz2Ix2Gx2YNa

How old was Jesus when his parents brought him back from Egypt?

Q. How old was Jesus when his parents brought him back from Egypt?

In my post entitled “How long did Jesus live in Egypt?” I suggest that his family went to that country “no more than two years after Jesus was born” and that all told “the journey to Egypt lasted no more than two years, and perhaps as little as a few weeks or months.” So Jesus would have been between two and four years old when his parents brought him back from Egypt.

Did Jesus once live in the “land of Goshen”?

A reader has submitted the following question, which I take to refer to my post entitled Where Did Jesus Live in Egypt?

Q. Could it have been in the land of Goshen, where the descendants of Joseph and the sons of Jacob settled?

I argue in that other post that Joseph, Mary and Jesus most likely settled in the city of Alexandria when they fled to Egypt to escape from King Herod. That city was founded by Alexander the Great many centuries after Moses, but it actually lies within the territory that is traditionally associated with the land of Goshen, in the Nile delta. So you’re suggesting a very interesting connection!

Did Jesus have any earthly brothers?

Q. Did Jesus have any earthly brothers? Near the beginning of the book of Acts there’s a reference to “Mary the mother of Jesus and . . . his brothers.” I went on to browse online and got nothing concrete. Some say it is referring to brothers by faith while others have their own theories. Some even mentioned that Judas was Jesus’s real brother. Thank you in advance for your answer.

Thank you for your question. I hope that this earlier post will help answer it.

 

Paul says he met “James, the Lord’s brother”; was this man Jesus’s actual brother?

Q. Paul writes in Galatians that he met “James, the Lord’s brother.” Do you think this man was Jesus’s actual brother, or was he a former disciple or relative, who may have been considered “as close as a brother”?

Protestants and Catholics answer this question differently. (The man in question is sometimes called “James the Just” to distinguish him from two of Jesus’s disciples, James the son of Zebedee—”James the Greater” or “Elder”—and James the son of Alphaeus—”James the Lesser” or “Younger.”)

Protestants consider James the Just to have been an actual brother of Jesus based on the description of what happened in Nazareth when Jesus taught in the synagogue there. The people responded, ““Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” Since the offended crowds begin by naming Jesus’ (presumed) father and his mother, Protestants feel it is natural to understand the references to his “brothers” and “sisters” also as biological.

Catholics, however, believe as an essential matter of their faith that Mary was a virgin her entire life. This means that she could have had no other children besides Jesus (and of course that he came from a virgin conception). So over the centuries, beginning as early as the 300s, various theologians and biblical scholars have offered other interpretations of this passage. Some have suggested, for example, that the word adelphos, usually translated “brother,” could also mean “cousin.” The gospel of John reports that at the cross of Jesus, “his mother’s sister” stood next to his mother Mary. Some have suggested that it’s the children of this sister who are listed in the passage about Nazareth. Others have suggested that they may be the children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

Whatever the explanation, biblical scholars do agree that the man Paul says he met in Jerusalem is the same man described in this account of Jesus teaching in Nazareth. He became the leader of the followers of Jesus in that city and he wrote the biblical book of James. In that book, he describes himself simply as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He considered this servanthood the most important thing about his own identity, not any “family connection” he might have had with Jesus, just as the apostle John recognized that the most important thing about himself was that he was a “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

So let us make Jesus’ love for us and our service to him our takeaway from this question, come to an informed conclusion in our own minds about the question itself, and be respectful of the beliefs of others.

A traditional icon of James the Just
A traditional icon of James the Just

Where did Jesus live in Egypt?

Q. Where did Jesus live in Egypt? Did they travel there on foot and how long did it take them to travel to Egypt?

A Dec. 13, 2016 comment on my post “How long did Jesus live in Egypt?” reports a visit to a home in Cairo that was supposedly the one in which the baby Jesus lived with his parents. This is, of course, possible. But I believe that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would most likely have traveled to Alexandria for safety. There was a large Jewish colony in that city, and I even suspect that they had extended family or friends-of-friends who helped them settle there. But this is all speculative. The Bible simply reports that they went to Egypt, and we must rely on varying traditions for any further information.

The distance from Jerusalem to Alexandria is a little over 300 miles. In the time of Jesus, a “day’s journey” was considered to be about 20 miles. Assuming the family left from somewhere in Judea, it would have taken a little over two weeks for them to reach Alexandria (particularly considering that they were traveling with a young child).

Abu Serga (Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church) in Cairo, traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus rested at the end of their journey to Egypt.
Abu Serga (Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church) in Cairo, traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus rested at the end of their journey to Egypt.

Why would Jesus have been tempted to worship Satan?

Q. When Satan took Jesus up the the heights and promised him the world if he would fall down and worship him…why would Jesus have been tempted to worship Satan?

Philip Augustin Immelraet,
Philip Augustin Immelraet, “The Temptation of Christ,” 1663

We do usually think of “temptation” as what happens when our desire for something becomes so irresistible that we’re inclined to make some moral compromise to get that thing. That picture does apply to the other two temptations that the devil offered Jesus, though it doesn’t quite apply to the one you’re asking about. (The temptation of Jesus by Satan is described near the beginning of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

We can understand, for example, how Jesus would have had a strong desire for food after fasting for 40 days in the wilderness. Ordinarily there’s no compromise involved in satisfying a legitimate physical need within the limits of moderation. But in this case Jesus had been called to an extended time of fasting so that he could consider the implications of the voice he’d just heard at his baptism, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He was called, in other words, to reflect on the nature of his calling to be the Messiah, which most interpreters say was confirmed definitively for him by this voice at his baptism. So it would have been a compromise to break that fast prematurely just because he was hungry, or just to prove that he had God’s favor. (“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread,” the devil had said.)

Similarly, leaping off the highest point of the temple and landing safely on the ground might actually have been something that appealed to Jesus. He was a 30-year-old single man and we can well imagine that he might have gone in for extreme sports! It would be like bungee jumping, with the assurance of God’s power of deliverance providing the same confidence and security as a bungee cord. However, Jesus recognized that it would have been improper to put himself in danger just to prove that God would protect him. We are supposed to do our part to care for ourselves, and we’re supposed to trust in God by faith, without needing proof of God’s care when we’re not in any real danger.

But the third temptation was different. Jesus wouldn’t have found it desirable to worship Satan. So what the devil actually tried to tempt him with was power over all the kingdoms of the world. “Just think of all the good you could do if you had that power,” was the subtle lure. Satan’s pitch was that worshiping him would simply be a “necessary evil,” a means to a desirable end. The fallacy, of course, is that if we compromise to get into a position of power, then we’re compromised once we get there, so we can’t do the good we intended. This would certainly have been the case for Jesus if he’d tried to get power by literally selling his soul to the devil.

So the takeaway is that we aren’t always “tempted” by things that seem desirable, attractive, or alluring. Sometimes unpleasant things “tempt” us because we think of them as a means to an end. But God always has a better means to any legitimate end, a means that doesn’t require moral compromise.