Interest in angels has been prevalent throughout human history. Angels are found in the writings and artwork of religions and cultures the world over.
Today, many are likewise fascinated with angels. In December 2011 an Associated Press-GfK poll revealed that 77 percent of Americans believe angels are real. Yet accompanying this widespread acceptance are disparate views of what angels are and why they exist.
Some think people become angels after they die. Some believe everyone has a guardian angel. Some think there are male, female and even baby angels.
Separating truth from error
With so many varying ideas about angels, where can we go for answers? God’s revealed Word—the Holy Bible—is the only accurate source of information about these spirit beings.
Angels are mentioned in at least 34 books of the Bible. So we have been given a large body of information to help us understand what they do and God’s purpose for creating them.
Who or what are angels?
The word angel in the New Testament comes from the Greek word aggelos, which simply means “messenger.” The equivalent Hebrew word in the Old Testament, mal'ak, has the same meaning.
God created angels (Psalms 33:6; 148:2-5). They exist in the nonphysical, spirit realm and are called “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14). God’s faithful angels are called holy and elect (Matthew 25:31; 1 Timothy 5:21).
Angels are described as being “greater in power and might” than humans (2 Peter 2:11). Considering this point, the psalmist says of man, “For You have made him a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5). But in the world to come, humans who become part of the Kingdom of God will have authority over the angels (1 Corinthians 6:3; Hebrews 2:5-8).
The purpose for angels
Why did God create angels? As ministering (serving) spirits, they are dutiful servants carrying out all God gives them to perform (Psalm 103:20-21). In various scriptures, we see them serving at God’s throne (Daniel 7:10) and offering up praises to God (Ezekiel 3:12; Luke 2:13-14).
God at times uses His angels to execute His righteous judgments in bringing destruction; at other times they are charged with protecting God’s faithful people (Psalms 34:7; 91:11). Angels take great interest in God’s unfolding plan of salvation, longing to look into the things revealed to God’s prophets (1 Peter 1:12; Ephesians 3:10). They express joy when someone repents before God (Luke 15:10).
An overarching responsibility placed on the angels is to continually aid human beings who are in the process of inheriting salvation (Hebrews 1:14).
The vast numbers of angels
God has created vast numbers of angels, referring to them as the “army of the LORD” and the “host of heaven” (Joshua 5:14; 1 Kings 22:19). Angels were created before human beings and were present at the creation of the world. At the creation they “sang together and … shouted for joy” (Job 38:7).
We are not told how many angels there are, but the Bible indicates they number into the millions (Daniel 7:10; Revelation 5:11). Jesus said He was able to ask God to send Him more than 12 legions of angels if necessary (Matthew 26:53). A Roman legion consisted of 6,000 soldiers.
Of all the angels that exist, the Bible mentions only three angels of high rank. Two of them, Gabriel and Michael, are found in the book of Daniel (Daniel 9:21; 10:13). The one referred to as “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14:12 was also a highly exalted angel who became Satan (Luke 10:18). (Abaddon and Apollyon, Hebrew and Greek names meaning Destruction and Destroyer in Revelation 9:11, are believed to be additional names for Lucifer.)
God’s holy angels are intelligent, free moral agents who demonstrated their loyalty to God when Lucifer was encouraging angels to follow him. After Lucifer eventually persuaded perhaps one-third of the angels to follow him, he mounted a mutinous rebellion against God and His throne in heaven (Ezekiel 28:15; Revelation 12:3-4).
Angels to operate largely unnoticed
The Bible does not reveal many details about the individual personalities of angels. Perhaps this is because it is not important for us to know at this period of history, and perhaps this is to dissuade people from the tendency some have to worship angels.
The apostle Paul mentions the idolatrous practice of worshipping angels (Colossians 2:18) and warns us of false teachers who promote this (verse 8).
Righteous angels do not accept worship. When the apostle John, overwhelmed at the sight of a powerful spiritual being, started to worship, the angel told him, “See that you do not do that! … Worship God!” (Revelation 19:10; 22:8-9).
Angelic ranks and types
God’s Word reveals that angels have differing levels of responsibility and honor.
The majority of biblical references to angelic encounters with humans show angels appearing in the form of a man. They don’t appear in these encounters with wings. This explains how some humans have “unwittingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).
In vision the prophet Isaiah saw another class of angels called seraphim. He described them as six-winged angels that were standing above God’s throne (Isaiah 6:2). The apostle John saw in a vision “four living creatures,” each having six wings and a different appearance (Revelation 4:6-8).
The prophet Ezekiel described another class of angels called cherubim. Each one has four faces and four wings (Ezekiel 1:6, 10; 10:20-21). Lucifer was an exalted cherub before he and one-third of the angels were cast out of heaven when they failed to keep their proper domain (Isaiah 14:12; Ezekiel 28:14; Luke 10:18; Jude 1:6; Revelation 12:4). These fallen angels are called demons.
There are angelic beings referred to as the “twenty-four elders” (Revelation 4:4; 11:16; 19:4). They are dressed in white, and each wears a gold crown.
We also read of angels that are described as appearing like horses (2 Kings 2:11; 2 Kings 6:15-17; Zechariah 6:1-6). And the Bible reveals that seven angels continually move through the earth to observe and report back to God (2 Chronicles 16:9; Revelation 5:6).
We see that God created the angelic realm with considerable variety. Some appear in human form. Some—the cherubim—have four wings and four faces of a man, lion, ox and eagle. Some—the seraphim—have six wings. And sometimes angels are associated with horses and chariots (2 Kings 6:15-17). Psalm 68:17 says, “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of thousands.”
Other biblical titles for angels
In addition to being called God’s ministering spirits, angels are called both “sons of God” and “morning stars” (Job 1:6, 38:7; Revelation 1:20; 12:4). Angels are sometimes referred to as “sons of God” to show their origins since they were created by Him. See Hebrews 12:9 where God is called the “Father of spirits.”
The title “sons of God” is also attributed to human beings (Hosea 1:10). The context of a passage reveals whether it is referring to angels or humans. In Genesis 6:1-4, for instance, “sons of God” refers to men—not angels—taking wives of whom they pleased in ancient times.
In the New Testament the same title, “sons of God,” is given to spirit-begotten Christians (Romans 8:14; Galatians 3:26). In the resurrection those faithful people who have become part of God’s Kingdom will, like angels, have spirit bodies (Daniel 12:3; Luke 20:36; Philippians 3:20-21).
When angels appeared to people outside of a dream or vision, they came in the appearance of a man. In this manner angels spoke face-to-face with God’s faithful servants, including Abraham (Genesis 18:2), Lot (Genesis 19:15), Jacob (Genesis 32:1), David (2 Samuel 24:17), Peter (Acts 12:7), Paul (Acts 27:23), Mary (Luke 1:28), a group of shepherds (Luke 2:13), the women at Christ’s tomb (Matthew 28:2-5) and numerous others (Hebrews 13:2).
On other occasions, angels appeared in dreams or visions (Genesis 28:12; Matthew 1:20; Acts 10:3). Those encounters were just as vivid and real as if the person were fully awake and holding a conversation with the angel (Acts 12:9).
Are angels male or female?
Biblical writers sometimes refer to angels as “men” and always describe them as having a male form (Genesis 18:2; Daniel 8:15; 10:18); but angels do not have gender like humans, and they neither marry nor reproduce (Matthew 22:30).
Angels in the Bible are never described as females or infants. Unfortunately, these ideas about angels arose in Greek and Roman mythology.
Angels are never described as having extraordinary physical features or manner of dress, with one exception. Witnesses often described angels as having bright white or shining garments or having radiant light accompanying their presence (Luke 24:4; Acts 12:7). Their majestic and brilliant appearance often caused witnesses to tremble in fear. In a number of cases the angel would seek to calm their fear, telling them not to be afraid (Daniel 10:11-12; Luke 2:9-10).
In Matthew 18:10 we read of angels watching over God’s “little ones”—meaning those who become childlike in Christ (verses 3-4). While angels are charged with protecting God’s faithful people on earth (Psalms 34:7; 91:11), the popular concept of a specific guardian angel being assigned to every individual—whether he or she follows Christ or not—is not supported in the Bible. God is able to send angels to aid anyone on earth at any time, as He works out His plan of salvation for humanity.
Beware deceptive angels!
Satan, under the disguise of an angel of light, is actually the father of lies (John 8:44; 2 Corinthians 11:14). His demons also pose as righteous angels in order to deceive many (1 Timothy 4:1).
Evil men also do this, as Paul noted: “Therefore it is no great thing if his [Satan’s] ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11:15). Stories abound claiming angel sightings. Unfortunately, many of these may be fraudulent experiences that will likely play into Satan’s global deception in the near future (2 Thessalonians 2:9-10; Galatians 1:8; Revelation 13:14).
Christians are to be on guard against religious error. If we continue to grow in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:9-10) and in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18), we will be better equipped to recognize religious deceptions Paul called “deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).
Angels’ future role
Some of the future roles for angels have been revealed to us in God’s Word. God’s holy angels are prophesied to accompany Jesus Christ during His triumphant return to earth (Matthew 16:27; 25:31). They will also assist Christ in separating the righteous from the wicked (Matthew 13:39, 41, 49).
Although man has been made a little lower than the angels for now (Psalm 8:5), in the Kingdom of God, faithful people will become spirit like the angels (Matthew 22:30) and will be given authority over all of God’s creation, including the angels (Daniel 7:27).
In a letter that discusses our duty to make good judgments in this life, the apostle Paul said, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).
Angels as “fellow servants”
Angels were created to be God’s servants, messengers and representatives in His universe-ruling government. Angels are commissioned to minister to the Spirit-begotten children of God as “fellow servants” of those who are His spiritual heirs (Hebrews 1:14; Revelation 19:10).
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