By David Timms
Angels have hit the big-time in the past few decades—not spiritually speaking, but in terms of television, movies, websites, gift cards, and trinkets. According to a 1993 Gallup Poll, 73 percent of Americans said they believed in angels. A year later, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story titled, “Long Unemployed, Guardian Angels Are Pressed Into Service.” Then the film industry catapulted angels into the limelight as never before.
After Michael Landon’s popular TV series, Highway to Heaven (1984-1989), came another TV series, Touched by an Angel (1993-2004). Then Hollywood—and some of their biggest stars—jumped onto the bandwagon. John Travolta played the archangel Michael in Michael (1996). The remake of The Preacher’s Wife (1996) had Denzel Washington acting the part of an angel. Nicolas Cage joined the fray in City of Angels (1998). And Matt Damon and Ben Affleck starred as a couple of tough angels in Dogma (1999). That was just the tip of the star-studded iceberg.
Why have angels grabbed our hearts and wallets? What has stirred up, in the words of William Webber, this “angelmania”? We can’t seem to get enough of them. Webber notes that only eight books on angels were printed in the 20th century prior to 1990. That changed dramatically. During the 1990s more than 300 books on angels appeared, and the tide has remained high ever since.
Is it possible that angels seem safer than God? They offer much, demand little, and seem to satisfy the spiritual curiosity of many people. We all warm to the idea of a special guardian in a dangerous world.
Unfortunately, many of us draw our conclusions about angels from watching talk-show hosts on television or movies in the theaters. But what does the Bible have to say about angels and their role in our lives today?
Dispelling Some Myths
Contrary to popular belief, angels are not human beings who have died and get to come back and either “earn their wings” or “help out.” The Bible teaches that God created the angels as angels (Colossians 1:16). When Jesus said we would be “like the angels” (Mark 12:25; Luke 20:36) he did not mean we would become angels.
Angels do not know everything. Jesus said concerning the end of time that no one knows the day or the hour, “not even the angels of heaven” (Matthew 24:36). They know what they see and what the Father tells them, but they have limitations.
Angels do not save our souls for eternity, and therefore ought not be worshipped by us. The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus is “much better than the angels” (Hebrews 1:4 New American Standard Bible). Their role is to “render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). They should not attract our worship.
Angels do not graduate from one level to the next (as far as we know). The Bible does not indicate that God created cherubs who mature into seraphs and eventually earn their way up to the rank of archangel. As best we can tell, angels have a defined status within which they remain.
Not all angels have wings. In fact, they can be mistaken for men. Hebrews 13:2 tells us some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Abraham certainly did. He thought his dinner guests were ordinary men at first (Genesis 18). Might that change our view of hospitality?
Angels are not always gentle, safe, friendly beings. According to 2 Kings 19:35, an “angel of death” slaughtered 185,000 Assyrians. Acts 12:23 tells us an angel of the Lord struck down Herod “and he was eaten by worms and died.” In Revelation 16, angels inflict plagues on the enemies of God. They have great power.
Only two angels are specifically named in the Bible—Michael the archangel (Jude 1:9; Revelation 12:7) and Gabriel the messenger (Luke 1:19, 26). And we can only be sure of two classes of angels—cherubs (cherubim in Hebrew; see Exodus 25:18-21) and seraphs (seraphim in Hebrew; see Isaiah 6:2). What these angels do remains largely a mystery. We can only say they exist to serve the will and purposes of God.
None of this, of course, tells us a great deal at all about angels. Our popular beliefs don’t seem to align very closely with the Bible. What then can we say about angels, with confidence?
What the Bible Does Say
Angels (the word simply means, “messengers”) seem to serve in a small range of ways.
First, they deliver messages. In Abraham’s experience, they appeared as ordinary men and had an apparently ordinary conversation to communicate a message from God. Centuries later, when Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she would bear the Son of God, he appeared to her face-to-face and addressed her in a regular conversation. However, when an angel appeared to Joseph (Mary’s husband), he did so in a dream (Matthew 1:20). The mode of delivery varied, but angels regularly delivered messages.
Second, angels protect the people of God. When Daniel was cast into a lion’s den, “God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths” so that they didn’t harm Daniel (Daniel 6:22). Jesus perhaps alludes to the concept of a “guardian angel” when he called over a child and said to the disciples, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you, that their angels in heaven continually behold the face of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). Does each child, and perhaps each person, have an “angel in Heaven”? Possibly so. That’s a comforting thought.
Third, angels minister to our needs—perhaps in ways we don’t always realize. The Old Testament patriarch Jacob spoke about “the Angel who has delivered me from all harm” (Genesis 48:16, New International Version). Mark tells us that when Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, “he was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him” (Mark 1:13, NASB). It sounds like a protective detail! But the angelic ministry had even wider scope. In Genesis 24:7, Abraham declared to his servant (who was sent out to find a wife for Isaac), “[God] will send His angel before you.” The angel would handle the matchmaking!
Finally, angels execute the judgment of God. They’ve done their share of killing in the past. And they’ll do more in the future. Revelation 9:15 speaks about four angels whom God will release to kill a third of all mankind when God is finally ready to pass judgment on the world. That’s not something we’ll want to see.
Our Response to Angels
One danger we face in our culture is that the proliferation of angel paraphernalia might lull us into thinking angels are not real. We might think they belong to the realm of Harry Potter, not Everytown, USA. But the Bible does not suggest they have flown the coop or abandoned their role in this world. They are not the product of a religiously zealous imagination. They truly exist.
On the other hand, all angels remain subject to the authority of Christ. He is head over all things. So, we worship him, not them. Historically, people have grown so infatuated with angels they have lost their focus on Jesus. How odd, that we would think more about the messenger than the King who sends them.
We don’t pray to angels. But we thank God that his angels, at his bidding, remain active among us. They continue to serve us and protect us, though the Holy Spirit himself is the one who leads us.
David Timms teaches at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.
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