Who Are Angels, and What Do They Do?

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Angels—everyone loves angels. They fly around protecting people in danger, and they are warm and fuzzy, helping people feel loved. Do I really need to understand this term? I already know what angels are and how to get them to work in my life—don’t I? Actually, our familiarity with angels is one of the challenges; it is hard to separate what popular culture tells us about them and what Scripture reveals. It may surprise you to know that these two theological delivery systems differ greatly when it comes to angels, so let’s look together at the theology of angels, what theologians refer to as Angelology.

Angels are created, spiritual beings who do not have physical bodies but are able to make judgments and possess intelligence. The Hebrew word malak and the Greek word aggelos point to the idea of a messenger. As created spiritual beings they have not existed eternally (Neh. 9:6; Ps. 148:2, 5). They are part of the “invisible” things God created (Col. 1:16).

When were they created? The Bible does not address that directly, but they may have been created on the first day, after the creation of heaven (Gen. 1:1; Job 38:4–7). So, if you are sitting in a coffee shop and your friend asks where you think angels come from, a good answer would be they were a special creation of God that occurred before the creation of humans (Gen. 1:1a; 2:1; John 1:3).

Angels are not corporeal, which means they don’t have bodies the same way we as humans do. An Ecumenical Council that met in Nicaea in 784, however, declared angels have bodies of ether or light, pointing to Matthew 28:3 and Luke 2:9 for their support. A later Council, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, contradicted the earlier one and declared that angels are incorporeal and do not have bodies like we do (Ps. 104:4; Heb. 1:14). This is the prevailing understanding today, one that suggests they are simply spiritual beings. Angels are, however, real individual beings who are finite and spatial. It is just that their relationship to the space-time continuum is different from ours—sort of like Doctor Who but without the Tardis (Luke 8:30; Eph. 6:12).

Angels have personalities; they are able to make judgments and possess intellectual knowledge (cf. Matt. 24:36; Gal. 3:16). They offer intelligent worship to God and possess emotions, too (Ps. 148:2; Luke 15:10). They are moral beings who know right from wrong and possess a will and, in the future, will be punished or rewarded for their actions (2 Tim. 2:26; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). They have superhuman wisdom and strength but are not omniscient or omnipotent since they act in response to God’s Word (Matt. 24:36; 2 Sam. 14:20; 1 Peter 1:12; Ps. 103:20; 2 Peter 2:11). Ultimately, angels are subservient to Christ; they are referred to as “his mighty angels” (2 Thess. 1:7 esv; cf. 1 Peter 3:22; Col. 2:10). That can give us confidence as we wonder about our possible engagement with them.

As we mentioned earlier, popular culture delivers its own theology of angel-ness. So, here are a few details to consider the next time you watch a movie with angels as part of the storyline. There is no explicit reference confirming that angels as a whole are winged (but see the Seraphim in Isaiah 6:2, 6). Logically, then, it is not a necessary inference for all angels. Nor is there any definitive reference in regard to the belief that at birth each person is given a personal guardian angel that serves as their protector as they live (see Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 for the two verses often misused for this view). While the scriptural support for personal guardian angels is lacking, there is strong scriptural witness in relation to their ministry in general (Heb. 1:14; Ps. 34:7). Angels do not have gender per se and are not able to procreate with humans (Matt. 22:28–30); there is no propagation among them, they do not die, and thus their numbers do not increase or decrease (Luke 20:34–36). This then also suggests that stories like Clarence’s in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the proverbial “when a bell rings an angel gets its wings,” while enjoyable to watch, aren’t supported scripturally. What becomes obvious is that the vast array of movies, television shows, books, and video games do not provide trustworthy information on the biblical purpose of angels and how we should relate to them. Let’s conclude with addressing those two points: (a) angels’ purpose and (b) our relation to them.

There are five overall purposes for angels. First, they were created to glorify God: “Praise him, all his angels; Praise him, all his hosts!” (Ps. 148:2 ESV), Second, their purpose is to serve God: “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16 NASB). Third, they are designed to learn God’s wisdom and grace: “so that the multifaceted wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10 NASB). Fourth, they are tasked with reflecting God’s attributes: “And one called out to another and said: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” (Isa. 6:3 NASB). Finally, in relation to us, their purpose is to minister to God’s elect: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to provide service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14 NASB).

So, if these are their purposes, how are we to relate to angels in a practical way? Obviously not the way popular culture suggests, though being aware of these depictions is a great way to open up spiritual conversations and be able to share a more theologically chastened understanding. First, we are not to venerate angels (Matt. 4:10). Second, we should always beware of fallen angels (2 Cor. 11:14). Third, we ought to respect their service to God (2 Peter 2:10). Fourth, we must entertain strangers in a spirit of hospitality, as if they were angels (Heb. 13:2). Finally, we should be mindful that angels also observe us (1 Peter 1:12).

For Further Reading:

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