Monday, February 20, 2017

Concerning Angels

Hebrews 13:2 tells us, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.

Considering that we never know when we are in the company of angels, it is fitting that we learn more about these heavenly guests!

Many people would probably be surprised to find that much of what we think we know about angels actually comes from sources outside of the Bible.  Paintings, books, cartoons, and movies have shaped the popular perception of angels, rather than study of Scripture.

The appearance, temperament, and tasks of angels is just a few of many Biblical truths that would likely shock those in a secular understanding, but even seasoned students of the Bible might find themselves surprised by this topic.

Christians themselves sometimes have great misconceptions when it comes to angels!  For example, one might think that there’s not to say about angels, that there’s just a limited amount of Scripture dedicated to them, or that angels are more of an Old Testament subject.

However, a further study reveals that angels are actually brought up in the Bible in almost 300 instances, with 108 mentions occurring in the Old Testament and 187 mentions in the New Testament!  It turns out we can actually gather a great deal of understanding about these beings!

The Appearance of Angels

When someone brings up the topic of angels, a few different mental images probably come to mind.  We might envision harps and halos.  Perhaps we think of an adorable cupid-like figure, a chubby baby with tiny wings.  Or maybe we envision a beautiful woman arrayed in glowing, flowing white robes.

Halos are never mentioned in the Bible.  Harps are mentioned once (in Revelation 14:2 – but the reference may actually be a description of the unique singing voices of angels).  Interestingly, Jesus taught that angels are without gender.

Matthew 22:29-30  Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven…”

So what do angels actually look like?  It turns out, the various angels described in the Bible might actually be kind of terrifying to behold in real life.  In fact, most people who encountered angels in the Bible fell flat on their face in terror.

The first angel mentioned in the Bible was the Cherub* with a flaming sword (Genesis 3:24) assigned to guard the Garden of Eden once Adam and Eve were sent away by God.  Cherubim – the subgroup of angels most commonly depicted as flying babies in secular media – aren’t actually as docile… or even the least bit cute.

Ezekiel details the frightening visage of Cherubim as seen in one of his prophecies.

Ezekiel 1:4-14  Then I looked, and behold, a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like the color of burnished bronze. The hands of a man were under their wings on their four sides; and each of the four had faces and wings. Their wings touched one another. The creatures did not turn when they went, but each one went straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces. Their wings stretched upward; two wings of each one touched one another, and two covered their bodies. And each one went straight forward; they went wherever the spirit wanted to go, and they did not turn when they went.  As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches going back and forth among the living creatures. The fire was bright, and out of the fire went lightning.  And the living creatures ran back and forth, in appearance like a flash of lightning.

An artist's depiction of a Cherub

This account seems to be but an approximation attempting to describe the indescribable, using worldly terms to define something otherworldly in nature.

Other angels are just as strange and imposing.  Seraphim** – “burning ones” or “nobles” in Hebrew – are another class of angels described in the Bible described by the prophet Isaiah who had seen them in a vision of God in the Temple.

Isaiah 6:1-7  In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said:  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!”  And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.  So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged.”

An artist's depiction of a Seraph

Most of the time however, it is written that we would be unaware of an encounter with an angel in their true form (Hebrews 13:2).  Typically angels are invisible to mankind or come in the guise of humans as we see in the accounts with Balaam (Number 22:31-39) and Abraham (Genesis 18) for example.

What are Angels?

Despite the abundance of knowledge to be found in Scripture concerning angels, there’s certainly an aura of mystery that surrounds them.  In some ways they are like mankind and in other ways they are completely different.  Despite their heavenly heritage, it would be a mistake to think of angels as being comparable to God.

Colossians 1:16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.

Angels are spiritual entities created by God, possibly existing before the creation of the Universe (there is no mention of them recorded in Genesis 1 where most of the created things are mentioned by name).

Like humans, they are sentient beings with free will.

Unlike humans, angels are not wholly physical but they are not without bodies.  They are described as spiritual, metaphysical creatures with “celestial bodies”.

1 Corinthians 15:39-40 All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of animals, another of fish, and another of birds.  There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

Being heavenly inhabitants, it’s easy to think of angels as sharing characteristics with God.  However, this is not the case at all; God is a completely different being with His own totally unique characteristics.    

Angels are Heavenly, but not Eternal.  God is called everlasting because He has no beginning or ending.  He exists beyond time.  Since angels – like all other creatures – were created by God, they have a beginning.  Now, like humans, they may very well endure into eternity, but they cannot be considered eternal in the same sense as God.

Angels are Spiritual, but not Infallible.  It’s easy to think of angels as being completely righteous beings like God, but it is important to remember that angels do have free will, and are therefore fallible.  Like mankind, they can choose to whether serve God or not.  The most infamous of angels is the fallen Satan who led a rebellion against God.  Therefore we read that some angels actually can’t be trusted.

Galatians 1:8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.

Angels are Wise, but not All-knowing.  We may think of angels may be privy to information withheld from mankind.  This may be the case as they have the benefit of residing Heaven, but humanity has had knowledge revealed to them by the Holy Spirit that angels weren't previously aware of.  Additionally, we see that God keeps some knowledge to himself.  Therefore, angels are are far from omniscient.

1 Peter 1:12  To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into.

Matthew 24:36  But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.

Angels are Swift, but not Omnipresent.  We know that God’s presence is universal, His spirit spans all of creation and cannot be contained (1 Kings 8:27, Isaiah 66:1).  Angels, however fast they may be with their movements likened to lightning cannot be “two places at once”.  In every mention of angels appearing on Earth, their manifestation appears to be localized and limited to one location.

Angels are not All-powerful.  While they have powers over mankind, their strength pales in comparison to the power of our omnipotent, almighty God.  We know that most angels are subservient to God.

Psalm 103:20 Bless the Lord, you His angels, Who excel in strength, who do His word, Heeding the voice of His word.

A Warning against Angel Worship

Since we see that angels are lesser beings than God, it is important to note that angel worship is a form of false worship that would be unacceptable to God!  We can not lift any created thing above the Creator!

Romans 1:24-25  Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Colossians 2:18  Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind...

What is the Role of Angels?

Popular depictions in various media would have us thinking that angels mainly spend their time hanging out around Heaven singing in choirs.  While there is some evidence that angels do engage in such activities (Revelation 14:2-3, Luke 2:13-14), they actually are quite active in the Earthly realm.  In Hebrews 1:13-14 angels are described as “ministering spirits” and at various points in Biblical history, angels have taken on a number of roles.

Angels Reveal God’s Will.  The Greek word “angelos” and the Hebrew word “malak” are both more or less translated as “messenger.”  In fact, there are some instances, these words occasionally refer to prophets or other human messengers (Haggai 1:13; Malachi 2:7, 3:1).  Most of the time, however, these words refer to angels.  Certainly, this is in keeping with what we see angels doing in Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments.

We can read of angels providing revelations to Daniel by the Archangel Gabriel, an angel appeared in the dreams of Joseph to notify him of Jesus’ coming birth in first two chapters of Matthew, “an angel of God” brought instructions Cornelius in Acts 10:1-6 that led to his salvation, and Philip was led to preach to the Ethiopian by “an angel of the Lord” in Acts 8.  While it's unclear if this is a present activity of angels, it’s abundantly clear that, at least in the past, angels have been actively involved in revealing God’s will.

Angels Protect God’s People.  Throughout the Bible, angels have taken on the role of protectors.  In the Old Testament angels provided miraculous protection of Israel.  Today it seems that angels offer spiritual protection to the saints.

Psalm 34:4-7  I sought the Lord, and He heard me, And delivered me from all my fears.  They looked to Him and were radiant, And their faces were not ashamed. This poor man cried out, and the Lord heard him, And saved him out of all his troubles.  The angel of the Lord encamps all around those who fear Him, And delivers them.

Psalm 91:11-12 For He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.

While we do read of angels serving as defenders in some unseen fashion, it is a bit of a leap to go as far as to say all of humanity is assigned a personal “guardian angel” that protects them from all harm as we know all to well that saints get sick, are persecuted, and die in spite of angelic protection.

Angels Execute God’s Judgement.  In the spiritual realm we read of how angels fought against Satan and his demons, ultimately casting them out of Heaven.

Revelation 12:7-9 And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

But angels have also been tasked with executing God’s judgement on Earth.  The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 and the punishment of Israel with pestilence in 2 Samuel 24 were both carried out by angels.

In the future, angels will continue playing a role in this area.   On the Judgement Day angels will accompany Jesus when He returns (Matthew 16:27, 25:31; 2 Thessalonians 1:7) and it will be the angels who gather the wicked on that day.

Matthew 13:41-42 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Angels Accompany the Righteous Dead.  On the positive side, as they await the Judgement Day angels are kept busy with the receiving of “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23) and taking them into Paradise as we see in the account of the rich man and Lazarus.

Luke 16:22 So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried.

Angels Praise and Worship God.    Finally, angels are praising and worshiping God in Heaven in glorious scenes such as those found in Revelation.

Revelation 5:11-14 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!” And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: “Blessing and honor and glory and power Be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb, forever and ever!” Then the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.

Angels and Our Salvation

I hope that this has been a beneficial study that has revealed some insights concerning a very deep topic.  Certainly, this is just scratching the surface on the subject of angels.  In a future lesson I hope to discuss a few more topics concerning angels.

But before we conclude this lesson, I’d like to turn our attention to the matter of salvation.

It should be encouraging to us to know that angels are concerned with our salvation.

Luke 15:10  Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

All the more reason that we heed the Word revealed by God!

Hebrews 2:1-4  Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?

* Cherub is the singular form, Cherubim is the plural
** Seraph is the singular form, Seraphim is the plural