There are several Biblical references to the "Angel Of the Lord". This often means a particular archangel who acts as God's stunt double, to avoid the damage God's full presence does to created beings. But some ancient parts of the Jewish and Christian traditions report that in several instances the writers wrote 'angel' as a pious way to avoid using God's name. When they wrote "The Angel of the Lord", they sometimes meant "God". This substitution makes no problems for the book of Judges, such as when God speaks with Gideon. Yet, using "Angel Of the Lord" this way takes the edge off of one of the Bible's most powerful moments: Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, where the "I" is clearly God and not an angel. Perhaps it's best to view such happenings the way the prophet Hosea saw Jacob's wrestling match: Jacob was both wrestling with the unnamed 'man' Hosea calls an angel and at the same time was contending with God. How? God knows.
Angels and Demons
As Christians over the years have told it, angels have their counterparts on the 'dark side': demons. They're often identified with the 'fallen angels'. (Keep this in mind whenever you read about either one. It helps us to understand the Plot.) Much of what's true of a divine angel can be flipped and said of a demon. They are alike, but differ in key ways. Their usual work is ordinary, not epic. Demons have no message of their own to tell, they only have lies meant to undermine God's message. Since they no longer have their natural purpose, the demons' very existence is twisted up and broken. Demons are not messengers, but saboteurs. Satan is generally pictured as peer to the archangels such as Michael and Gabriel. It is written that Satan can even come disguised as an angel of light. Demons can come pretending to be an angel, but unlike angels, they try to puff you up or divert you from Jesus or Scripture, sometimes even proclaiming a new doctrine or a new "move of God". Or, a demon will whip up your doubts until they blaze like a firestorm in your head. And a demon would seize almost any opportunity to rank themselves higher. We're called upon to test them to see if they're from God. You can discern that by their continuity with the purposes of God as shown in the New Testament, and most notably in their subjection to Jesus Christ.
Angels vs. Spirit Guides
Angels are a very different thing from the so-called 'spirit guides'. The idea of being guided by your own personal contact in the spirit-realm keeps re-appearing in the often-surreal worlds of the rich and of people in entertainment. Angelsdon't try to run your life, they just do what they're sent to do and then slip back into the background. You don't go looking for angelic help; they'll come in God's good timing, not yours. No formula can call them, no prayer to them can summon them (prayers go to God alone, who sends them). Angels serve, nothing more. 'Spirit guides' keep coming back whether you want them there or not. Their 'guidance' becomes steering and then manipulation. They demand attention, trying to change you into their image. 'Spirit guides' want you to be dependent on them. Like all those on the 'dark side', they long to be in charge. It's best not to mess with such spirit-guides, but if you already have, please ask God to send them away, and find prayer partners to bear this struggle with you. Who knows, God may send a real angel to roust out the spirit guides.
If there are such things as ghosts, they would be deceased humans. Angels and demons never were humans.
People from many times and cultures (even those who are not Christian, Jewish, Mormon, or Moslem) insist that angels have another task: that of being a guardian for specific people. The philosopher Philo described their protective role.
The Bible shows angels as protectors, in the role we call "guardian angels". Both Psalm 34 and also Psalm 91 speak of it, and there's also the angels for each of the Asia Minor churches in Revelation. The prophet Daniel credited an angel for helping him survive the lion's den, and another was the "fourth man" seen in the fire with the three young men. Jesus speaks of children as having their own angels. When Peter was jailed, the people at the house of the mother of John Mark thought their servant was seeing Peter's assigned angel at the doorway, when it was really Peter who had just escaped, thanks to help from an angel. Whether the jail-breaking angel really was 'assigned' to Peter (as they thought) or just to the task is not said, but they seemed to expect the angel to look like Peter. Thomas Aquinas insisted that God gave everyone their own guardian or protective angel. In their guardian roles, angels are in no way dainty, Precious Moments-like creampuffs. The ancient imagery is that of flaming swords and insurmountable strength. Today, it could just as well be images of laser swords and photon grenades. In an emergency role, guardian angels can be like a divinely-sent first responder. They can be the fiercest of warriors and the swiftest of rescuers, and angelic determination knows no bounds. After all, they're on a mission. From God.
Angels for Groups
There are some writers (like Walter Wink, in his *Powers* books on institutional and societal evil; or Peter Wagner in his writings about territorial demons) who have done a lot of hard thinking about the way the Bible itself sometimes acts as if there are angels and demons working on societies, institutions, group identities, and neighborhoods. Humans do not usually act alone or in a vacuum or from the outside; they work with other humans and act upon others collectively. Touch on it lightly, and it's "team spirit". With a stronger focus, it becomes a group ethos, character or identity. Cast the net larger and move it deeper, and it becomes a sense of neighborhood, or an ethnic heritage, or a national or religious identity. Each such group can be said to have its own 'spirit', one which is unlike any other group or any one person in it. There might be more to this way of talking than meets the eye, and the use of the term 'spirit' may be more than an accident. And there may be a divine envoy-angel standing guard of that group and its 'spirit'.
Not A Figure of Speech
In Revelation chap.s 1-6, each of the churches of Asia Minor are said to have an envoy-angel. Jesus is speaking to those envoys, and through them is sending a message to those churches. Could each church's angel be the guardian of that church's 'spirit', its collective ('as-a-group') identity, since it is their collective character God is talking about? The book of Daniel mentions angels for nations. It's not wise to make a habit of reducing them down to a collective human function. The Bible refuses to do that, instead stressing that the group itself is changed by God's work - sometimes with the help of angels - through humans who are working for the group's sake. (Besides, any real angel probably wouldn't like being abstracted any more than you do.) Yet sometimes, such abstraction helps us to better understand what they're doing. Cloud 9: robes, flight lessons, Christmas choirs, top of page
Are There Other Supernatural Beings?
Not all spiritual beings are envoys for dealing with those like us who aren't heavenly beings. The Bible speaks of an array of supernatural beings in heaven with God, such as cherubim and seraphim. In the Middle-Ages angelologies, they were treated in the same framework as angels, even though in the Bible they do not act as God's envoys. In Isaiah's vision of the heavenly royal hall, the Seraphim are the court guards serving God. They interact with Isaiah because he is in the divine court, and because God wants to forgive Isaiah's sin right there and then. Cherubim are anything but 'cherubic' chubby toddlers. They were portrayed in the Temple days as having features of an eagle, a bull, a lion, and a human. We're told nothing much about them and since they have no dealings with us and do not protect us like guardian angels, they may be some different kind of thing entirely. There may be many other kinds of heavenly beings.
Speculating on the Unknown
The other supernatural beings probably live just for the sake of praising God. Speculation has run rampant for thousands of years, with all sorts of patterns and schemes to describe their realm. Some say they watch over different created worlds. But we don't really know. Spirit-beings were found all over the popular religious writings of Jesus' time. In the days of Moses Maimonides, Jewish thinkers also developed angelologies, though belief in angels was not (and is not) seen as being critical to the Jewish faith. (For example, just like in most of Christianity, Jews don't pray to the mal'akim or make pleas to them to act on anyone's behalf.) Even today, the Internet is full of talk about supposed angels with names that are made up to sound vaguely biblical. Some people ask "who are the angels?", by name, yet aside from the Biblical archangels it's all guesswork. Speculation is fun, but it tends to divert our imagination toward entertainment or superstition and away from applying ourselves to real people and their real-life situations.
The main Roman Catholic angel tradition goes back to the fifth century and Pseudo-Dionysius' study on angels, *The Celestial Hierarchy*. His angelology describes a nine-fold order for supernatural beings, from highest to lowest: Seraphs, Cherubs, Thrones; Dominions, Virtues, Powers; Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. The order was designed mostly for reasons of politics and philosophy, and made to resemble various levels of the servants of kings and emperors of his day. They matched neither the Bible nor the reports of angel experiences by the faithful. (The apostle Paul used some of these terms, not as ranks of supernatural servants of God, but as groupings that may or may not include living humans and institutions, and which may or may not be good or godly.) Thomas Aquinas put his own spin on Pseudo-Dionysius' order in his *Summa Theologica*, spelling out what each order did. Other medieval Catholic writers spun out even further into incredible detail. Reading those medieval angelologies is a form of mental torture. It may have been half in jest to speak of how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. (Answer: all of them, because they transcend time and space.) Yet in those days students were often required to know the angelologies thoroughly - often to the neglect of important matters like learning how to love people well. But you don't have to know the structure of the heavenly realm to trust and follow Jesus Christ.
The truth is, the realm of divine angels is simply beyond us. Several key things hold true from this maze of angel studies:
Each and every person is known to God and is under God's loving care, even if they don't (or don't yet) believe in Christ. Indeed, God is active in all of creation, working to bring about God's Kingdom.
(1) Have you ever met a supernatural messenger or envoy?
Why was it there?
What did you learn from it? And what have you done with that knowledge?
(2) When you heard someone speak about meeting an angel, did you think they were weird? What else may have come to mind?
(3) When have you been the bearer of God's message to someone? (If you're studying this with a group, share this with the group.)
Were you aware of what you were doing?
How did that person react to you?
If you were rejected, how did you handle it, and how did it feel?
(4) What do you think one of these divine messengers go through when humans reject its message ?
And what might this tell us about God'sburden for us?
(5) If you believe that angels exist and act in our world, what does that mean for how you look at your life? Or how you live your life?
(6a) What image do you think of when you see angels portrayed at Christmas? What are your reactions to them?
(6b) Read the pre-Christmas account of Zacharias' encounter with Gabriel, Luke 1:5-25. How was that different from Mary's encounter, Luke 1:26-38?
An 'angelic' Dare: Maybe you know someone in your ordinary course of life who claims to have met an actual angel. What did they say it was like? (When really meeting one, the mind is often reaching for some way to describe it -- or is so busy with an extreme situation that it doesn't have the time to reach for descriptions.) What did the messenger/angel say or do? What did the person learn from the angel or the meeting?