The topic of our October “Deep Dive” at Faith Church Beecher was “What Does the Bible Say About Angels?” While the video recording of that night is available online (you can find it here), I wanted to share some highlights. There are many depictions of angels in popular culture (with some of those depictions in holiday movies) as well as the reference to angels that we see in the Christmas story, thus, it seems a good time to make sure that our understanding of angels comes from the Bible as opposed to other sources.
Overview of References to Angels in the Bible
Since the Bible is not a systematic theology textbook, but rather the unfolding story of God’s activity in saving people, we learn about angels through the way they appear and are described in this story. Therefore, our understanding of angels is going to be limited; although we may have questions not addressed in the Bible, presumably those aspects are not essential for what we need to know about God and how He wants us to live.
Many terms are used to describe these beings. The most common word in the Old Testament is a word that means “messenger”; the Greek word we see in the New Testament (and is just transliterated into the English word “angel”) also means “messenger.” Both of these words can also describe human messengers, so the word refers less to what angels are and more about what they do. They are messengers of God, in particular, messengers to humans. Other terms that are used to describe these beings are “sons of God” (Job 1:6; 2; Psalm 29:1; 89:6), “holy ones” (Psalm 89:5, 7), “watchers” (Daniel 4:13, 17, 23; this refers to them as supervisors in governing the world), “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” (Colossians 1:16; Ephesians 1:21), and “heavenly hosts” (Luke 2:13).
What the Bible Says About the Nature of Angels
When we examine all the references to angels, we discover that they are personal, spiritual beings created by God who have intelligence, emotions, and will – with some angels continuing to serve God and other angels having fallen (what are called demons).
The Bible shows these beings are created by God (Colossians 1:16; also see Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 148:2, 5); they are not pre-existent or eternal like God and are part of the created universe (some of which is seen – like our world – and some of which is unseen – the spiritual realm). The Bible does not make clear when this happened in relation to the creation of the world, though there are hints it would precede, as they are said to rejoice when God created the world. The fact that they are distinct creations rules out the belief many people have that good people become angels when they die. Angels and humans are two different types of created beings. When God created angels, He made more of them than we could count, as there are “myriads of myriads” of angels (see Deuteronomy 33:2; Psalm 68:17; Daniel 7:10; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 5:11).
Because the Bible mentions a couple of angels by name (Michael in Daniel 10:13, 21; Jude 9; Revelation 12:7-8 and Gabriel in Luke 1:19, 26-27; Daniel 8:16, 21), it seems reasonable to believe that each angel has a name. Names of other angels appear in sources outside the Bible that may reflect the names of other angels, though we cannot view these names as being accurate since those works are not authoritative and given by God, but indicate that angels with names were common. Michael is called an “archangel” (Jude 9) and a “prince” (“one of chief princes” in Daniel 10:13, a “great prince” in Daniel 12:1) and is said to fight with “his angels” (Revelation 12:7), so there seems to be various orders and types of angels found – Michael may not be the only “archangel” (there is a reference to an archangel in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 but it is not said if it is Michael). However, Scripture does not reveal much about the nature of such organization and their relationship to each other. The nine types of angels placed in three different groups in the 5th century work by Pseudo-Dionysius seems speculative and goes beyond what Scripture says, so one should not view it as either definite or authoritative. While Michael and Gabriel are names commonly given to males, the Bible does not appear that angels have a gender. They are neither male or female and do not procreate (see Matthew 22:30; Luke 20:34-36), meaning that the number of angels created by tGod are the number of angels that exist.
Angels are personal beings because they possess intelligence (Matthew 8:29; 2 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Peter 1:12), show emotion (Luke 2:13; James 2:19; Revelation 12:17), and exercise will (Luke 8:28-31; 2 Timothy 2:26; Jude 6). They are also spiritual beings (Hebrews 1:14) and thus without true physical bodies, though they can take on bodily form as seen in various places in Scripture (see e.g, Hebrews 13:2; Matthew 28:5; Genesis 18:2-19:22; John 20:14-14; Acts 12:7-10; Daniel 10). Because they are spiritual, we can’t see them unless God decides to make them visible as He does in places like Numbers 22:31, 2 Kings 6:17, and Luke 2:13. Their spiritual nature, though, does not mean that they can be everywhere or at multiple places at the same time, as seen in Daniel 10:12-14. The presence of a “legion” of demons in one person (see Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39) indicates they can occupy the same place. While limited in terms of their knowledge (see Matthew 24:36), it is greater knowledge than humans (Mark 13:32); they also are stronger than humans, as shown in their titles as powers and mighty ones (Psalm 103:20) as well as passages that speak of their powerful activity (Matthew 28:2; Acts 12:7-11; 2 Peter 2:11). It appears that angels do not die (Luke 20:36), as the righteous angels will be in God’s presence forever and the wicked angels will endure eternal punishment (see Matthew 25:41); they will face judgment, with believers as the ones who judge them (1 Corinthians 6:3).
One final note about the nature of angels is the common perception that angels have wings. Some angelic beings are said to have wings, but these figures do not have only two wings, as the cherubim are said to have four wings in Ezekiel 41:18-19 and the seraphim of Isaiah 6:1-4 have six. A couple of passages reference angels flying (Daniel 9:21; Revelation 14:6), which might imply (but not require) them to have wings. Thus, the winged nature of angels is not certain and certainly not something the Bible stresses about angels when they appear in Scripture.
What the Bible Says About the Activities of the Angels
While humans are often very interested in what angels are like, the Bible discusses more about what they do. They praise and worship God day and night (Psalm 148:1-2; Isaiah 6:3; Luke 2:14; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 5:11-12; 7:11; 8:1-4) and rejoice in what God does (Job 38:6-7; Luke 15:10). Their duty is to serve God (Psalm 103:20; Revelation 22:9), and they appear before God (Job 1:6; 2:1). God calls for them to do various things, including being instruments of God’s judgments (Revelation 7:1; 8:2), which could involve killing people (2 Samuel 24:16-17; 2 Kings 19:35; 2 Chronicles 32:21; Acts 12:23; Psalm 78:48). He also sends them out in answer to prayer (Acts 12:5-10), with their work intervening on behalf of God’s people (Daniel 6:22; Acts 5:19-20) and winning people to Christ (Acts 8:26; 10:3). As agents in a spiritual war (Daniel 10:13; Revelation 12:7-9), they encourage believers in times of danger (Acts 27:23-24; Daniel 10:18-21; Luke 22:43) and also give and interpret God’s messages (Luke 1:1-11; Acts 8:26; Acts 10:3-6; 12:6-11; 27:23-24; Daniel 4, 8), including the Law (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2).. They are also said to be watching and observing Christian order, work, and suffering (1 Corinthians 4:9; 11:10; Ephesians 3:10; 1 Peter 1:12). A couple of their duties are to care for the righteous at the time of death (Luke 16:22) and accompany Jesus when he returns (Matthew 16:27; Luke 9:26; 2 Thess 1:7). Above all, we should remember that angels are “all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14) and that “it is not angels that [God] helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16); these beings are servants of God who worship Him and help us.
A common belief in popular culture is that each person has a “guardian angel,” assigned to them. Is that something the Bible tells us? We see descriptions of angels protecting people (Psalm 34:7; 91:11-12) and there are references to the angels of “little ones” (Matthew 18:10) and “Peter’s angel” (Acts 12:15), but examination of those texts does not make clear that each person has a particular angel. (The reference to Peter’s angel is not from God or an authoritative teaching, but rather someone’s thought when they see him after he had been in jail. It just shows that some people had a belief in a connection between angels and people.) In addition to not being clearly taught in Scripture, there might be some logical issues with the idea of each person having a “guardian angel.” For example, when someone dies, does their angel retire…or are they reassigned? It seems best to view angels as protecting people without getting too specific about how it actually works.
My goal in writing this is to make sure that our beliefs about angels come from the Bible, as opposed to what we may see in the movies or even hear from particular Christian teachers. The Bible is our guide and has everything in it that we need to know and believe to live the life that God has designed for us. As I explored angels in the Bible, I realized this is another one of those topics that we are called to avoid the extremes — not to think too much about them and get distracted, but also not to ignore them and miss out on what God wants us to remember about their work in our lives. When we focus too much on angels, we can be distracted from faithful Christian living (see Colossians 2:18-19) and even deceived by Satan since “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), but if we forget about angels, we overlook the reality of the spiritual world that interacts in our world (see 2 Kings 6:16-20). Let us remember the words of Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
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