I know a family in St. Joseph, Missouri that was burned out of their rural home. It happened in the middle of a cold winter night. The family found itself outside in the chilly air wearing whatever each one had grabbed on the way out. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a pickup truck pulled up, and a young man jumped out and handed the shivering husband a pair of insulated overalls. As fast as he had gotten out, he hopped back into his truck and drove off.
Not a word was spoken, and he was never seen again. Many months later in a grocery store a young man approached the wife and mother of this family. He said, “You probably don’t remember me, but on the night your house burned down, I gave your husband a pair of overalls.” He was undoubtedly taken back when the woman clenched her fists, thrust them in a downward motion, and said, “I never wanted to meet you!” I’m sure this wasn’t the grateful response he had anticipated. When he asked why she had never wanted to meet him, she explained: “Because all this time, I wanted to believe it was an angel that had delivered those overalls!”
Perhaps that’s the way it is with us. We want to believe in angels. After all, both the old and new testaments speak of angels. Jesus Himself spoke of angels. But it would sure help if we could meet one.
Angelology is an important subject to our Christian faith. Karl Barth, who has written extensively on every matter of Biblical doctrine, once called the subject of angels “the most remarkable and difficult of all.” Perhaps that was part of the reason I was tempted to skip over it. But more importantly is the fact that truths about God are not dependent upon whether angels exist. Too much can be made of angels. Angels play a frequent role in scripture, but God is not changed by them, nor is His plan of salvation dependent upon angels. On the other hand, they are agents of God’s activity, so to neglect them would not seem quite right either. Even the history of the Christian church reflects this vacillation and sometimes alternating overemphasis and neglect.
Currently, our culture has quite an interest in angels. I see them in gift stores — often sold as a kind of divine good luck charm. I see them in greeting cards and on bumpers stickers with phrases like: “Don’t drive faster than your angel can fly.” There are books on angels and websites, too. This is all well and good, except that the fascination with something so vaguely treated in scripture can easily result in misconceptions. More than misconceptions, it can result in unbiblical and, therefore, misleading beliefs. These can damage one’s spiritual life and Christian development.
One of the easiest Halloween costumes to conjure up at the last minute is an angel, right? All you do is slap a set of wings on the back of your preschooler and “presto!” you have an angel. Unless of course they’re multi-colored wings and then maybe you have a butterfly. But, popular mythology not withstanding, the bible does not teach that angels have wings. That assumption is based on two things. One is the description of Seraphim and Cherubim — two special classes of heavenly beings who are described as having wings. The other basis for the winged assumption is two passages in scripture that refer to angels flying (
The greatest risk from the hype of angelic marketing is that people will be led to replace their trust in God with faith in angels. I mean, who needs God when you can have Roma Downing by your side at all times? The problem, of course, is that angels are not gods. They are God’s agents — God’s messengers. Angels are given limited focused abilities by God to complete specific assignments. They intervene in people’s lives and in the affairs of earth, but only as God directs. They are not miniature Holy Spirits; they are not saviors; they are not our guides; they are not the ones who answer our prayers. The only activity an angel can undertake is what God directs.
So, what are angels? Do they look like and operate like the politically correct bunch on “Touched by an Angel”? Are they fairy-like creatures like Peter’s Pan’s little friend, Tinkerbell? Perhaps they are more contemporary — like John Travolta’s chair smoking, womanizing version of Michael the Archangel.
In scripture, the word “angel” in Hebrew is the word malek. In Greek it is angelos. Both mean messenger. An angel speaks a message from God for a particular situation or, as an agent of God, an angel carries out a particular mission assigned by God. Angels are God’s envoys. They are basically God’s errand boys. Whether that errand is to bring a message in a particular situation or to carry out a task as assigned by God at a particular time. It is important to distinguish angels from other spiritual beings, most importantly from the members of the trinity.
Angels are creatures created by God. Martin Luther defined angels as “spiritual creatures created by God without a body for the service of Christendom and of the Church.”
The good news is that they’ve inherited something much more glorious. The Bible says we are co-heirs with Christ, receiving the fullness and abundance of His Kingdom, because He wills to give it to us. Angels are of a different order from human beings, deceased or living. The scriptures teach that angels do not marry; they do nor reproduce; they do not die. Angels share intimate fellowship with God in heaven. Their greatest likenesses to human beings are two: They are created, and they have the freedom to rebel. We’ll treat the matter of angelic rebellion in a moment, but first let’s look at some biblical examples of God’s use of angels as messengers.
We know that God created all things visible and invisible. Angels are among those things created by God which are invisible to us. They are pure spirits. Though they can take the form of humans or even flames or wind, they do not have material bodies. From our vantage point they seem to occupy a higher place because they dwell in the celestial realm and are privy to the council of God. But Hebrews says that one day we will judge angels. And it is not for angels that Jesus died, but for human beings. And it is not us who are created to serve angels, but angels created to serve us. So, in reality, in the heavenly realm, the human creature outranks the angelic creature.
While scripture sometimes refers to angels metaphorically as stars or princes, flames or winds, angels most often take the appearance of men. The angel who appeared to Daniel appeared in the form of a man. The two angels who came to Abraham’s brother-in-law Lot in Sodom had the appearance of men. The angel who spoke to the women searching for Jesus’ body after His resurrection appeared so much like a man that the women mistook him for the gardener. When Peter was let out of prison by an angel and went to a home where believers were gathered in prayer, some concluded that who Rhoda saw at the door wasn’t Peter but his angel. In fact
To cite one of many incidents in which God’s angels appeared as human beings to rescue God’s people, during the Mau Mau uprisings in East Africa in 1956, a band of roving Mau Maus came to the village of Lauri, surrounded it, and killed every inhabitant, including women and children – three hundred people in all. Not more than three miles away was the Rift Valley Academy, a private boarding school where missionary children were being educated while their parents worked elsewhere. Immediately after the carnage at Lauri, the Mau Maus headed with their spears, clubs, torches and bows to the school, bent on doing the same there. But as they began to advance on the school with lit torches, shouting and cursing as they drew nearer, when they were close enough to throw a spear, they suddenly stopped and then began to retreat, soon running into the jungle. By the time the army arrived, they had to search in the jungle in order to capture the fleeing Mau Mau raiders.
At their trial, the Mau Mau leader was asked by the judge, “On this night did you kill the inhabitants of Lauri?”
He replied, “Yes.”
And “Was it your intent to do the same at the Rift Valley Academy?”
“Well then,” asked the judge, “why did you not complete the mission? Why didn’t you attack the school?”
The leader, who had never read the Bible and never heard the gospel, replied, “We were on our way to attack and destroy all the people at the school. But as we came closer, all of a sudden between us and the school there were many huge men, dressed in white with flaming swords. We became afraid and we ran to hide!” (James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (story recounted by Veteran missionary Morris Plotts) Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988, p. 29)
If you want to get personal about angels, you might be interested to know that there are only two angels referred to by name in the Bible: Michael and Gabriel. Michael is described in
Since we’re being up close and personal about angels, we might as well treat the question of whether we each have our very own, individual guardian angels. There is a Greek proverb which states: “There stands an angel by every man as soon as he is born to guide him through the mystery of life” (Christian Reader, Vol. 34). It’s a comforting thought, but I’m afraid it isn’t supported by scripture. Again, the risk of such a concept is its temptation to trust in an angel rather than in God. Scripture knows nothing of individual guardian angels.
There are two passages often used to suggest that we have them. One goes back again to Peter’s escape from prison and some concluding that it was his angel whom Rhoda saw at the door. The inference being that scripture refers to it as his personal angel which served as advance doorman for him. The other passage is
I mentioned earlier that I would get back to something, and that is one of the similarities that angels have in common with human beings. That commonality is free will. This brings us to the two kinds of angels mentioned in Scripture — the good and the bad. Scripture refers to these good and bad celestial beings as angels and demons. Demons are evil angels who joined Satan before the creation of the world when he attempted to usurp the place of God in heaven. In Isaiah’s reference to the event (
“How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, T will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.” “Morning Star”, translated, Lucifer. John also writes of this incident and its consequences in Revelation 12:3-4 when he says: “(there appeared) … an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth.”
Satan is the Chief of demons. As opposed to dualism, the belief in two eternal and opposing powers, scripture teaches that Satan is not eternal, but created; not equal to God but under God’s sovereignty. In other words, Satan can only do what God allows him to do. Though he is allowed influence on the earth, he is defeated already. And Christ’s resurrection from the dead means that Satan cannot even finally kill those whom God has redeemed. John goes on to say:
“And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down — that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”
After 72 men whom Jesus had sent out had come back ecstatic that even demons obeyed the commands they made in Jesus name, Jesus responded, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” He then went on to tell them of the authority that He (Jesus) had been given over evil in the world.
So, demons are the one third who rebelled with Lucifer and were cast out of heaven for the attempted coup. In contrast to these demonic angels, two-thirds of the spiritual beings remain in heaven with God the Father and are obedient to Him. These are the celestial beings we normally associate with angels — the angels of the Lord.
The choice by Satan and his angels to rebel against God was a once-and-for-all decision. Angels are now forever angels, and demons are forever demons. As Hebrews states, redemption in Christ is for human beings, not angels,
Now the whole matter of angels calls into question God’s sovereignty. If God has so many angels at His disposal, then why do bad things still happen to good people? I think the answer to that question lies in the fact that angels do the work of God according to the sovereignty of God, and not according to our idea of what ought to be done.
All of the disciples except Judas and John died martyrs’ deaths, yet God did not fail them. They have their reward today for their lives faithfully lived. I would like to say that we can call on angels and ask them to protect loved ones in each and every circumstance. But from what I read in scripture, angels don’t listen to us; they listen to God. Angels do God’s bidding not ours. So we trust in them to do their part in God’s work, just as we trust in gravity to do it’s part in God’s creation, even if we don’t fully understand how it works.
Angels will always remain a bit mysterious to us because we don’t see them. And because of that, you may even think it naive to believe in angels, much less in demons. It sounds about like believing in fairies and the boogie man. But both the Old and New Testaments take for granted the existence of angels, and Jesus referred to them as real. I think in matters of faith it is a pretty good rule of thumb that if both testaments and Jesus regard something as true, we do well to believe it, too.
The bottom line remains, however, that we don’t trust in angels. We trust in God. We can take confidence, as did Elisha, that God has an army of holy angels ready to dispatch. But when Jesus spoke His last words, charging the disciples to go into all the world, He didn’t say, “and lo My angels will be with you always.” No, He said He would be with them always. And He will be with us, always. He is our hope and the object of our faith. We trust not in angels, but in Him.