When I first wrote about angels in 1997, I wrote to help people honestly probe their own questions about them. Back then, people were mostly trying to make sense of angel traditions and reports of angels guarding and rescuing people. They were hoping to learn about not only divine angels, but also the God who cares enough to send such envoys to humans. (Touched By An Angel gently took this hope to TV.) They were asking, "Why angels?" Yes, there was angel kitsch and trivia. Yes, a few people wrote of angel wars. But there was a refreshing openness and lightheartedness toward the possibility of angels who may well be pretty much as the Biblical writers described them.
But the questions are different today. Today, the world is abuzz with novels and films and 'experts' on TV and the Net and in video games. They use bizarre ideas and imagery to portray what angels do in violent epic battles of spiritual warfare, with the universe at stake. And this has stuck in the public's mind. "Could these things possibly be as the writers say?", they ask. The global recession has stripped away the most outlandish kitsch, and down-to-earth concerns have taken their place. Also, a new generation of intellectual materialists dismisses the entire realm of the supernatural, abolishing anything else that's not provably active in the material world. They don't ask, "Why angels?" or even "If angels?". They rule them out from the start, and often think that even entertaining the very idea is unworthy of a healthy intellect.
This site is here to help guide you through your own processes of sorting out angels and other matters of faith, by teaching the Christian faith's view(s) of these matters in a very un-official way. I ask myself, and God, the same questions you do. And I know for sure that I don't really know for sure. Yet I honestly believe in the supernatural. Not as the superstitious do, as something that either controls us or can be manipulated by us, but I believe in it nonetheless. And I'm convinced that it underlies all that is. Angels are an important part of that. Through understanding their place, we can better understand ours.
Today's view of the supernatural is being shaped by media people who don't care enough to handle it truthfully. Instead of angels as a real outreach from a real God, there usually isn't a real God in the picture. In these stories, it's as if angels exist for their own reasons, have no real message, and were envoys for themselves. They're written up like gussied-up space aliens, who in turn are just tricked-up projections of ourselves at our most selfish. Our spiritual instincts get misdirected. Could it be as they say? Not really.
Do we need to believe that angels exist? No. The much more important thing is to believe in the God who is said to send them. Many Christians, whether rationalist Protestants, ex-Catholics, or some of the emerging-churchers, see them as being merely symbolic, just a story-teller's way of telling the story. I myself am convinced they're quite wrong on that, or at least on the 'just' or 'mere' part of it. But I can't prove that. I haven't (knowingly) met one. I don't need actual mal'akim to make sense of God, the Bible, Christianity, the world, or my life. You can live as Christian as anyone else and not believe in angels. They're not specifically mentioned in the Creeds, and only briefly in worship services. When Jesus said what the core matters of the faith are, belief in angels was not mentioned. In brief, angels are not a bare-bones requirement of Christian belief.
But, if angels do exist, and if they do deal with us in any way, then for the sake of being real we must account for them. And, whether we do or don't, that's fine with the angels. Their concern is not what humans think of them, but to get done what God sent them to do.
What are angels? Lord knows. Many tasks have been assigned to them in Jewish and Christian tradition, in folklore and folk theology. People have been guessing at it for 4000 years, probably longer. One helpful view is that angels are sent by God to bring the truth, especially the big truths, to specific people in critical situations. The biggest truth (the one that Jesus Christ was living, dying proof of) is that God is with us and for us, and an angel is sent here as a part of that. God's message can be a warning, or be a comfort in times of danger and fear. There's more going on than the careless eye can see, so God's messenger points it out. Since God is way too much for us to take, the messenger is sent in God's stead, like a diplomatic envoy. What happens then is between humans and the Lord. God chose this way (among other ways) to keep in touch with us and not be a far-off Deist god.
Angels are from the unseen in the "all that is, seen and unseen" that the Nicene Creed says the Father created. They don't decay or die, since they are spiritual beings. They exist to praise God and to bear the message and task for which God sends them, including to us humans. They can think and hold conversations, and they have their own identity. And they appear to people of all religions, even those of no religion at all, when God wants them to listen. We can't prove angels exist, any more than we can prove God exists; they are, after all, spiritual beings and don't fit into material-world rules. Not all religious folks believe in angels (for instance, the Jewish Sadducees, and many modernist Christians). But all over the world, those who have a strong sense of spirituality tend to believe God sends supernatural envoys and heralds, and they sometimes experience their presence. Thus there are many angel reports from India, Malaysia, and other Asian countries. That's no surprise, since God loves them, too.
The ancients couldn't picture anything in the 'pure' world of heaven as being female or neuter, so they called them mostly what they felt was greatest - male. Maybe we're getting over such a narrow vision. Angels are often pictured as having feathered wings. The ancients believed the angels flew, so they portrayed it through the only means of flying they knew: the feathered wings of a bird. I suspect this image comes in handy. They don't need wings to fly (they're supernatural beings), but wings of what would be the necessary size inspire awe in us ground-bound material-types.
Where big things are happening, angels are there. The ginormous event of God's coming to us started off with a peasant girl from Galilee talking with the archangel Gabriel. Herald angels sang to a bunch of field-working shepherds on the day Christ was born, and many thousands of us try to sound like that angel choir each Christmas. Angel choirs abound, and will be singing strongly when the Kingdom arrives in full. When Mary Magdalene peered into Jesus' tomb on that first Easter, she saw two angels, one sitting at each end where Jesus' body was laid. Just as an archangel set up the first coming of Christ, so an archangel will mark the final return of Christ. Thus, Christianity's two main holy days, Easter and Christmas, are marked out from the start by angels.
Humans tend to get freaky when an angel shows up. We often quiver in fear or fall down in awe. Not to say they're ho-hum, but angels themselves are not really that big a deal. We're more important than they are. Angels are servants, acting on Someone Else's authority, while we humans make our own decisions, and are responsible to discern God's ways by what the Lord has given us. God made us, not angels, in the image of God. Jesus makes His followers, not angels or even archangels, into God's heirs. Angels go by what they know: they personally live in God's great presence and receive God's command. We are made to walk not by sight, but by faith. We're told not to worship angels in Colossians 2:18. (Indeed, any real angel will urge you not to worship them, but to worship God.) Nor are we to pray to them, though, like the others in the divine realm, they are praying along with us and in our favor. The apostle Paul even says that, in the end, we will judge angels, not the other way around.
The angels revel in being in God's presence. How much more will it be so for creatures like us who bear God's image, once the Kingdom comes in full! What's much more important than us or the angel is the One for whom they are acting. The author of the letter to the Hebrews (in chapter 1) takes pains to point out that however awesome you may think angels are, Jesus is far more important.
Angels are not there to be meddling fix-its, but our helpers in responding to the truth. Angels may guide us in the way God wants us to go in a specific situation, sometimes calling us to take a specific action. We can just blow them off, but people usually find themselves responding instantly with some amount of trust, comfort, or awe. Angels can celebrate and have joy, and presumably have other emotions as well. They don't negotiate unless God tells them to. By sticking to God's given task instead of asserting themselves, they are good examples of humility.
Scripture shows that angels have another fierce task: when God passes judgement on injustice, they're often the ones who enforcing the sentence. An angel on this sort of mission executed the first-born of Egypt, leading to the Exile. The usual image shows them with flaming swords, but the Bible shows how they can execute judgement in other ways as well. When carrying out a sentence, angels are more like a strike force than envoys. You won't find them doing this on a Christmas card!
"Angel" in Biblical Hebrew is mal'ak . Its main meaning is "messenger", which matches most well with the announcer-herald angels of the Christmas scene. It's the same name given to the prophetic book of the last of the Prophets. The book's author has no name, just the title of Messenger. He could've been the editor who gathered the Prophetic books together so his people could remember and prepare for what was to come. Some angel-fans think Malachi is an angel, but the book's content and its presence among the Prophets make it certain that Malachi is a human messenger, a prophet. In Islam, Mohammed is called "the prophet" and "messenger of God", but is clearly not in any way an angel. In Greek, the root angelos is found in ev-angelos, the gospel or 'good message'.
But this raises a question: can we always tell this difference, even when we find 'messenger' in the Bible or the traditions? Angels are definitely not humans, especially not dead humans who 'earn wings'. (This idea was not invented by Frank Capra for Clarence in "It's A Wonderful Life". Its roots go back at least as far as *The Martyrdom of Polycarp*, 1:39, early 2nd century AD, and probably even further back.) As spirit-beings, angels don't even have food or sex or marriage, or make baby angels, at least not as humans would recognize it. They're pictured as having earth-type gender and earth-type body forms, mainly so we can relate to them better. Such forms might also translate some aspect of their personality.
It's a fine line
between the main task of a malak and the main task of a prophet, an evangelist, or a poet or storyteller, or anyone else who brings us a divine truth that's hard for us to take. The Christmas "herald
angels" of Jesus' birth and resurrection were certainly supernatural. But sometimes it's not as clear. Their main task is to tell a truth which communicates God's will to some person(s),
leaving the results to the people who hear it and the Holy Spirit at work
among them. Since Christians are all given the charge of spreading the good
report on Jesus Christ to others who don't know or understand, then in a
way every Christian and every Christian church is a 'messenger', a
mal'ak. Not in the sense of a divine
being, nor a substitute for them, but as the human bearer of good
news from God. Paul picks up this theme when He calls the Corinthian Christians
"our letter" and "a letter of Christ". One drawback: when their plans are ruined by the news, people tend to take it out on the messenger, and a divine messenger can make a better getaway than a human one.
rise back to the heavenlies above
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 said "The Angel of the Lord", they sometimes meant "God". This substitution makes no problems for the book of Judges. But 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 contending with God and wrestling with the unnamed 'man' Hosea calls an angel. How? God knows.
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'. Most of what's said about divine angels can be flipped around and said of demons. (Keep this in mind whenever you read about either one. It helps us to understand the Plot.) For both, their work is most often ordinary, not epic. Angels and demons are alike, but differ in very important ways. 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. They're 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 angels, 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 they seize most 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 are a very different thing from 'spirit guides'. Angels don'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 one; 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, manipulating and steering, demanding 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 want to be in charge. It's best not to mess with such spirit-frauds, but if you 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.
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 speaks of angels as protectors, but doesn't say all that much more about the role of these "guardian angels". Psalm 34 and 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 an angel was the "fourth man" seen in the fire with the three young men. Jesus speaks of
children as having their own angels.
The people at John Mark's mother's house
thought their servant was seeing Peter's assigned angel at the doorway,
when it was really Peter who had just escaped jail, 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 bombs. 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, take wing to top!
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, 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 than meets the eye, and the use of the term 'spirit' may be more than an accident. And there may be a divine angel standing guard of that group and its 'spirit'.
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 such angels down to a collective human
function. The Bible refuses to do that, instead stressing that the group
is changed by God's work - sometimes with the help of angels - through persons
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
Not all spiritual beings are envoys for dealing with humans. 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 categorized 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, not on earth, 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're likely some different kind of thing. There may be many other heavenly beings.
The other supernatural beings probably live just for the sake of praising God. Some say they watch over different created worlds. But we don't really know. Speculation has run rampant for thousands of years. Spirit-beings were found all over the popular religious writings of Jesus' time. In the days of Maimonides, Jewish thinkers also developed angelologies, though belief in angels was not (and is not) seen as being important to the Jewish faith. Even today, the Internet is full of talk about supposed angels with names that are made up to sound biblical. Some people ask "who are the angels?", by name, yet aside from the Biblical archangels it's all guesswork. Speculation can be fun, but it tends to divert our imagination away from real people and their real-life situations.
The main Roman Catholic angel tradition goes back to Pseudo-Dionysius's book *The Celestial Hierarchy* in the fifth century. He 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. 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 which may or may not include living humans and institutions, and which may or may not be good or godly.) Thomas Aquinas put his 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, yet in those days students were often required to know them 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:
Oh, about Satan: he's a whole 'nother bag, for another discussion.
(1) Have you ever met a supernatural messenger or envoy?
(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.)
(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's burden 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?
A stray thought : If we may at any time be entertaining angels, I wonder -- how entertaining do the they find us to be?
take wing to the start
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|ver.: 12 July 2012.|
Angels - Divine Envoys. Copyright © 1997-2012 by Robert Longman.
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