There is a doctrine within Christianity that teaches that many references to “the angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament refer to pre-incarnate Jesus.
This doctrine developed because of a misunderstanding of the power, authority, and position which God has given angels. For example, in Genesis the Angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar in the desert. Her response was to call the angel God himself:
So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” (Gen 16:13) (ESV)
The Adam Clarke commentary says:
This last clause of the verse is very obscure and is rendered differently by all the versions. The general sense taken out of it is this, That Hagar was now convinced that God himself had appeared unto her, and was surprised to find that, notwithstanding this, she was still permitted to live; for it is generally supposed that if God appeared to any, they must be consumed by his glories. This is frequently alluded to in the sacred writings.
The NIV says:
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.”
The Good News Bible says:
Hagar asked herself, “Have I really seen God and lived to tell about it?” So she called the LORD, who had spoken to her, “A God Who Sees.”
You can see the differences in translation, but they all say that she had seen God. In another place the angel is said to have the power to forgive sin, which only God can do:
“Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.” (Exodus 23:20-21) (ESV)
Neither of those passages refer to Jesus in the form of an Angel, but before I explain those passages, let’s take a look at the appearance of Gabriel to Zachariah. Gabriel told him he was going to have a son, even though his wife was old. But Zachariah did not believe him:
The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God. And I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things happen, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their season.” (MEV)
Notice that he refers to his position as standing in the presence of God, and how he was sent by God. Then he said, “because you did not believe my words.” But were the words his, or God’s? It is apparent that they were the words of God, even though he clearly said, “my words.”
They are messengers of God, therefore, when they act or when they speak, it is as if God himself were acting or speaking. Angels are connected spiritually directly to God, so they do not speak of their own authority, but they always say what God wants them to say.
So Zachariah did not doubt the angel, he doubted God, and Gabriel had the authority to judge him and pronounce a sentence upon him. Gabriel did not say, God sent me to tell you, and he did not say, God told me to pronounce judgment upon you. He just did it as God’s representative. To disbelieve the angel was to disbelieve God, so it was as if God himself had appeared.
We humans have something similar which is called “power of attorney.” If I were to give POA to you, then you would be able to write checks to buy land, pay employees, sell property, and do anything that I could do, as if you were me. That is the type of power and authority that angels from God have.
Now, specifically to the story of Hagar, if it was really the pre-incarnate Jesus who had appeared, then it could be said that she had really seen God. But Jesus said that no one has ever seen God, as a spiritual being; Jesus being in human flesh when he said it. Therefore, the angel of the Lord could not have been God the Son in spirit, because God the Son is God, and no one has seen God in spirit form.
The other example is the same as with the appearance of Gabriel. By saying, “my name is in him,” God was NOT saying that the angel was a member of the Godhead, but merely that the angel had the power and authority to act on God’s behalf.
There is not a shortage of angels in heaven that required Jesus to appear numerous times. And how is it that the term angel of the Lord also appears in the New Testament, even when Jesus was here on Earth??