“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”[Colossians 1:16]
The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most complex and transcendent concepts within the Christian faith. We believe in the One True God who eternally exists in three distinct Persons within the Godhead — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
While it is apparent that the LORD has chosen to progressively reveal the majesty of His divine nature to His people — culminating with the Incarnation of God the Son, Jesus Christ — the concept of the Trinity is not a purely “Christian” doctrine, as many Jewish scholars suggest. While most Talmudic Jews insist that the LORD is one (singular) in a strict monotheistic sense, the Hebrew Scriptures actually reveal something entirely different.
The Old Testament is full of language that implies a divine plurality when speaking of the nature of the LORD, where the oneness of God is not denied but it is revealed in three distinct Persons. Many misunderstand the doctrine of the Trinity by applying the following equation.
1+1+1 = 3
This misapplication leads both Jews and Muslims to accuse Christians of polytheism, or the worship of three different Gods, but a better mathematical formula can be used to help convey the Biblical concept of the Trinity.
Just as multiplication is exponentially more complex than addition, so the concept of the Trinity is more complex than strict monotheism. In other words, God is one but He is not a singularity. He is a triunity. He is not static. He is dynamic. He is not simplistic, but rather He is infinitely complex and compounded in His nature. He is One God in Three Persons. I will not pretend to grasp all of it, nor should I. Yet I believe it with full conviction because it is what the Scripture teaches, and no man could every conceive of such an idea on his own.
To discover how the Old Testament portrays the complexity and plurality of God’s triune nature, it would help to begin with “the Angel of the LORD.”
The angel of the LORD is first revealed in Genesis 16, as He appears to Hagar in the wilderness. This is the first of many manifestations of the angel of the LORD in the Old Testament, and the nature of these encounters leaves me convinced that this is no ordinary angel.
Encounters with the Angel of the LORD
In Hebrew the angel of the LORD literally means “the messenger of Yahweh,” and in some cases this divine messenger is called “the angel of God (Elohim)” [see Genesis 21:17]. As we will see, there seems to be a purposeful distinction made in the Hebrew language by using the definite article “the” angel of the LORD, as opposed to just “an” angel or angels.
When “the” angel of the LORD shows up in Scripture, several interesting things happen. First, He speaks as if He is God, but at the same time He distinguishes Himself from Yahweh. Second, those who encounter Him believe and behave as if they have just encountered God Himself.
Let’s look at a few examples.
The Angel of the LORD and Hagar
In Genesis 16 the angel of the LORD appears to Hagar and promises her things that only God can do, such as multiplying her descendants.
The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.”[Genesis 16:10]
Yet in the very next verse, the angel of LORD speaks of Yahweh (the LORD) in third person, which clearly makes a distinction between Him and Yahweh. [Genesis 16:11]
Finally, Hagar’s response is telling. She obviously saw the angel of the LORD in human form and believed that she had spoken to God.
She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”[Genesis 16:13]
The Angel of the LORD and Abraham
Abraham’s encounter with the LORD in Genesis 18-19 is unique, and although the exact title “angel of the LORD” is not used, there is good reason to believe that this is the same Person who revealed Himself to Hagar. Genesis 18:1 says the LORD “appeared” to Abraham in physical form, along with two angels. Abraham clearly distinguishes the LORD from the two angels and bows down to Him before inviting them to stay and refresh themselves with a meal.
The LORD speaks as only God would. He says that He is the One who is about to destroy Sodom and that He is the One who has chosen Abraham to be blessing to all nations [see Genesis 12:1-3]. He also speaks of Yahweh in the third person [Genesis 18:14,19], which would be quite strange unless He were distinct from Yahweh. Again, we have the LORD appearing in physical form and speaking of the LORD as an entirely different Person.
The next time Abraham encounters the angel of the LORD it is on Mount Moriah with his beloved son Isaac. This time the angel of the LORD calls out to Abraham from heaven to stop him from following through with the sacrifice of his son. Interestingly, the angel of the LORD speaks of God in third person again, but also clearly refers to Himself as God — the One who will bless Abraham.
“But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”[Genesis 22:11-12]
The Angel of the LORD and Jacob
Jacob had a dream in Haran where he saw “angels of God ascending and descending” on a stairway to heaven. Then he sees the LORD in physical form standing above the stairway, and says, “surely the LORD is in this place.” [Genesis 28:10-17]
Later in Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with a man until daybreak, but he quickly discovers that this is no ordinary man. This is the angel of the LORD.
So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”[Genesis 32:30]
The Angel of the LORD and Moses
Moses encounters the angel of the LORD appearing in physical form from within the burning bush and on Mount Sinai [Exodus 33:17-23]. Once again, the angel of the LORD clearly is God but is also distinct from God.
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.“[Exodus 3:2-6]
Without attempting to compile an exhaustive list, I must only mention a few more encounters with the angel of the LORD.
Joshua meets the Commander of the LORD’s army, having His sword drawn for battle [Joshua 5:13-15]. Just before Joshua dies, the same angel of the LORD meets with the whole house of Israel to rebuke them for their disobedience [Judges 2:1-4].
The angel of the LORD appears to Gideon and calls him to deliver Israel [Judges 6:11-24], and Gideon is overcome in God’s presence.
Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the LORD. And Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord GOD! For now I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.”[Judges 6:22]
Samson’s parents had an encounter with the angel of the LORD [Judges 13] and reacted in a similar manner, saying, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” [Judges 13:22]
The Angel of the LORD aND Jesus
It is clear that nearly every Old Testament encounter with the Angel of the LORD was a visible, physical encounter with God Himself. It is also clear that the Angel of the LORD is distinct from God but also expresses the same power and speaks with the same authority as God.
So if the LORD is one, how do we explain this counterintuitive concept?
Fortunately, the New Testament brings everything into clear focus with the incarnation and personal revelation of God in human form — the Lord Jesus Christ. It is interesting to note that while the New Testament has much to say about God’s angels — His messengers — it does not specifically mention “the” Angel of the LORD.
That is because the Angel of the LORD is God the Son — Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul says that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God,” and that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” [Colossians 1:15, 19]
What this means is that each and every time the Immortal, Invisible, Eternal God and Creator of the universe appears in physical form, it is God the Son. God the Father is an invisible spirit. God the Holy Spirit is an invisible spirit. But God the Son, Jesus Christ, is the image of the Invisible God.
Jesus is the Eternal Word who became flesh [John 1:14] — God in human form — and He is the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact representation of His nature.” [Hebrews 1:3]
Every encounter with the Angel of the LORD in the Old Testament was an encounter with God the Son appearing in physical form, revealing the Invisible God to mankind. This is also known as a Christophany or Theophany, which is a physical manifestation of Jesus Christ prior to His being born of woman in the fullness of time [Galatians 4:4].
So the concept of the Trinity was already well established in the Old Testament and further solidified in the New Testament. There is only One True God who eternally exists in three distinct Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.”[John 14:7-9]
Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father …”