Who are the angels?
What does the Bible really tell us?
By Stephen J. Binz
Science tells us that our eyes can see only a small slice of the total reality that is around us. Other electromagnetic waves are no different from light except that our eyes cannot detect them. Similarly, there are more sounds in the world than can be detected with the human ear.
Likewise, because of God’s revelation, we know more about reality than we could discover on our own. The revelation of God tells us that God’s creation includes not only the physical Earth and its living creatures, but also a whole world of invisible creation. In faith we know that God created the heavens and the earth, things that are seen and unseen. The world is filled not only with material creation, but also with the invisible reality of angels. We cannot hear all the sounds that fill our world, yet the message and song of the angels fills the universe. We cannot see all the reality that fills our world, but we know that we are surrounded by ministering spirits who have been sent forth to serve God (Hebrews 1:14).
When angels appear in the biblical stories, it is usually at the point of deepest mystery, when the wonder of God touches the lives of people most profoundly. Like a spotlight shining on stage at the key moments, the appearance of the angels highlights the meaning and magnificence of God’s action among his people.
Ministers of the Living God
As presented in the Bible, the angels always call attention to God and to God’s will for humanity. They point beyond themselves to the one who sends them. They never do anything on their own, but only what God wants and assigns them to do. Like the moon, they do not shine their own light; those who see them are always aware of the greater light they reflect. In relationship to humanity, the angels serve as mediators, messengers, guardians, and guides.
Contrary to popular thought today, the appearance of an angel is not an event marked by sentimental sweetness and happiness. The biblical characters always demonstrated a respectful fear when an angel appeared. They knew that angels did not come to make life more serene, cheerful, and contented; usually they turned life upside down. The angels always do more than simply manifest their presence. They demonstrate God’s power and often point people’s lives in a different direction.
The Mission of God’s Angels
Among the many functions of the angels in the Israelite and Christian traditions, their role as intermediaries is crucial. They are constantly crossing the divide between God and humanity, bridging the gulf between heaven and Earth. Because they are in direct touch with God, angels reveal God in their very essence. They help people on Earth to perceive divine power in the world and prepare them for ever-deeper experiences of God and ultimately for union with God.
There was a strong conviction in ancient Israel that human beings were not capable of having an unmediated encounter with God. Expressing the dangers of a divine encounter, God said to Moses, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). So encounters between God and human beings in the Bible often involve the mediation of angels. Through angels, God is present, though not directly. The fiery angel speaking to Moses from the bush joined the divine world to the material Earth. God’s voice is heard, his power is felt, his presence is real, but in a way that our humanity can begin to comprehend.
Angels are God?
The Old Testament speaks of “the Angel of the Lord” (58 times) and of “the Angel of God” (10 times.) But very often, these phrases seem to have been used by biblical writers in place of the unpronounceable name of God (YHWH), which it was considered disrespectful to utter. In other words, these two very special angels are God in person.
The ladder envisioned by Jacob, the stairway connecting heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending, symbolizes the Old Testament mediation of angels. They bring the saving power of God to humanity and invite individuals to step over the boundaries of the material world into the limitless world of God. In the world of ancient Israel, the fiery seraphim and cherubim were known as guardian figures of God’s heavenly throne, preventing full access to God’s presence, hiding God’s glory with their protective wings. Yet in the New Testament the angels’ mediation is overshadowed by the perfect mediation of Jesus Christ. As both divine and human, his very being is the presence of God in the world and the perfect expression of humanity joined to God. Superior to the angels and adored by them, Christ breaks the boundaries that prevent access to God and opens wide the passage to heaven. As sharers in the mediation of Christ, the angels serve Him and facilitate God’s mission of bringing salvation to all people through Him.
As bearers of God’s word and will, the angelic messengers appear at strategic points in the history of salvation. Often their message is in the form of a birth announcement, heralding new possibility into the lives of people who had begun to lose hope. At other times, their message is a commission to lead God’s people. The angel comes not only to communicate a message but also to offer tangible assurance that God is continually present with the one He calls. At still other times, the angels announce divine help to God’s people and offer instructions that move God’s saving plan to a new stage in history.
A further aspect of the mission of God’s angels is their service as guardians of God’s people. The Israelites experienced the protective care of God on their perilous trek through the wilderness and in the establishment of their place as a nation in the Promised Land. But they also experienced God’s personal and individual care as shown in the angels’ protection of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, of Isaac in the testing of Abraham on the mountain, of the three young men in the fiery furnace of Babylon and Daniel in the lion’s den, of Tobias along his journey, and of Peter in his prison cell.
The Bible offers credible evidence of individual guardian angels for each person, offering not a substitute for God’s loving presence, but a manifestation of it. Like God, the angels care about each individual person. As Jesus tells us, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). Jesus urges us to take care of God’s lowly people, “for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). The personal ministry of guardian angels is an extension of God’s unbroken attention toward us: guiding us, protecting us, rescuing us, and ultimately bringing us to everlasting life.
But even though we experience intimacy with God through the mission of his angels, we cannot tell the good news of angels without also admitting the bad news. Though created by God as good in their nature, angels were given a will to choose how they would respond to their Creator. Some chose to reject God and his reign, becoming adversaries of God’s kingdom. Those who chose to rebel became adversaries of God’s saving will for humanity and spend their angelic energies tempting humanity to reject God’s loving plan. Though Jesus spent his ministry breaking the powers of evil in the world and freeing people from demonic bondage, even Jesus was tempted by the devil. His saving death and Resurrection conquered the powers of Satan, but the final implementation of that victory awaits Christ’s glorious coming at the end of time. Meanwhile we struggle with a deceptive enemy, disguised as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), prowling like a lion (1 Peter 5:8). Yet we remain steadfast in faith and joyful in hope, knowing that the war is won though the struggle continues. The power of evil is defeated; the influence of Satan is limited and his days are numbered (Revelation 12:12).
Though some angels have rebelled, the vast majority of God’s angels will accompany Christ at his glorious coming. And they will gather the faithful into God’s eternal kingdom (Matthew 24:31; 25:31). In the Book of Revelation, angels fill the visions, interpreting God’s final will for humanity and guiding the progress of events leading up to the completion of God’s creation in the new and eternal Jerusalem. CD
This article is reprinted from Threshold Bible Study: Angels of God by Stephen J. Binz (Twenty-third Publications).Angels are God’s messengers
Angels as individual heavenly beings are latecomers in the Old Testament. What can be called “angelology” (doctrine on angels) developed only late after the Exile under the influence mainly of Persian and Hellenistic cultures and mythologies.
The Hebrew word for “angel” is mal’akh, whose basic meaning is the same at its Greek equivalent aggelos, or messenger. Before anything else, the concept of angels implies two things: 1) angels don’t exist by themselves and for themselves: they are someone’s (mostly God’s) messengers to a community or to individuals: 2) angels have a message to deliver: The focus should be on the message, not on the messengers or on their physical appearance.
Walter Vogels, God’s Word Today