In Exodus 33:20, the LORD (Yahweh) tells Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.” Scripture makes this point several times. And, yet, those who see God, somehow, still remain alive and are surprised by it! For example, after such an experience, Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, said, “Have I really seen God and lived to tell about it?” (Genesis 16:13)
Yet, if someone cannot see the LORD, God, Yahweh, and live, and yet people are seeing Yahweh and not dying, who then are they seeing? The Old Testament helps us to understand this phenomenon by often using several distinct titles for revelation of God that people see: the Angel of the LORD (Yahweh), the Name of the LORD, the Glory of LORD, or the Word of LORD.
In the New Testament, Jesus lets us know that He was active and working in the Old Testament. He said, speaking to His fellow Jews:
You study the Scriptures, because you think that in them you will find eternal life. It is these same scriptures that testify about me…. Don’t think that I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, in whom you have placed your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe my words? [John 5:39, 45-47]
Later, the post-resurrected Jesus was speaking to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. This is what Luke tells us of this conversation: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures [the Old Testament] concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
In Exodus 23, the LORD (Yahweh) told Moses:
I will send an angel ahead of you to protect you as you journey and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice. Do not defy him, for my name is in him, and he will not pardon such rebellion. But if you listen to his voice and do everything I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. [Exodus 23: 20-22]
Note that the angel has the name of the LORD, Yahweh. And one cannot separate the name Yahweh from the reality of Yahweh; thus, he is also Yahweh. We know this to be true because this angel has the power to absolve and retain sin as well as the ability to speak as Yahweh.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul speaks of Christ being present with Israel as they traveled through the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. Paul refers to Christ as the “spiritual Rock”: “They [the Old Testament people of Israel] all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from a spiritual rock that went with then, and that rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:3-4)
And so when we read in the Old Testament about “the angel of the LORD,” we should first think of the pre-incarnate Christ, not an angelic being.
Knowing this, we see the pre-incarnate Christ appear to:
- Hagar as a man (Genesis 16:7),
- Abraham, as one of three visitors (18:1-2) or as a voice from heaven (22:11),
- Joshua, as the commander of God’s army (Joshua 5: 13-15), and
- Balaam, as an angel with a drawn sword (Numbers 22:31).
In Exodus 3, Moses uses “angel of the LORD,” “God,” and “Lord” interchangeably to describe who came to him in the burning bush. This lets us know that “angel of the LORD” refers to God revealing himself in a special way, not simply an angelic being.
1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” The word “angel” means messenger. In Exodus 3, we find the pre-incarnate Christ mediating between God the Father and Moses, bringing to him God the Father’s message.
Cyril of Alexandria (376-444 AD), when writing about Moses and the burning bush, said this: “Every place where Christ might be is holy.”