is a heavenly messenger who either delivers a message to humans, carries out God's will, praises God, or guards God's throne.
Bible Terms The term “angel” is derived from the Greek word angelos which means “messenger.” Angelos and the Hebrew equivalent, malak (which also means “messenger”), are the two most common terms used to describe this class of beings in the Bible. In general, in texts where an angel appears, his task is to convey the message or do the will of the God who sent him. Since the focus of the text is on the message, the messenger is rarely described in detail.
Another set of terms used to describe angels focuses not on angels as mediators between God and persons, but on God's heavenly entourage. Terms such as “sons of God,” “holy ones,” and “heavenly host” seem to focus on angels as celestial beings. As such, these variously worship God, attend God's throne, or comprise God's army. These terms are used typically in contexts emphasizing the grandeur, power, and/or acts of God.
A third category of heavenly beings is that of winged angels. Cherubim and seraphim make their most memorable appearances in the visions of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:4-28;
Ezekiel 10:3-22) and Isaiah (Ezekiel 6:2-6). Cherubim function primarily as guards or attendants to the divine throne. Seraphim appear only in Isaiah's vision and there attend God's throne and voice praises. All three categories present us with heavenly beings in service to God. The text may focus on the service done or on the God served but rarely on the servants themselves. As a result we are left with a multitude of questions about the angelic host. Many of the most common questions asked about angels have no clear answers in Scripture. The nature of the angelic host is at best hinted at indirectly.
Angelic Hierarchy Some scholars suggest that a heavenly “host” (i.e. “army”) must have order and that references to archangels (1 Thessalonians 4:16;
Jude 1:9) and a special class of angels which has intimate fellowship with God such as the seraphim of
Isaiah 6:2-6, indicate that angels are organized in a rigidly fixed rank system. Some authors even attempt to list their ranks and duties.
Pseudo-Dionysius, a writer before A.D. 500 who claimed to be Dionysius the Areopagite of
Acts 17:34, produced a ranking of angels. His schema was later adopted by Thomas Aquinas and was not seriously challenged until the Protestant Reformation. According to Dionysius, the angels are arranged in three ranks, each rank having three groups. The highest rank (seraphim, cherubim, and “thrones”) is closest to the deity. The second rank is made up of “dominions,” “powers,” and “authorities.” The lowest rank has the most direct contact with humanity. They are “principalities,” archhyangels, and angels.
Dionysius' highly speculative schema (or any like it) is flawed in several ways. Some of the entities named (“powers,” “dominions,” “principalities”) are not clearly identified in the Bible as angels at all. Others (cherubim and archangels) are never compared to one another in terms of rank. Perhaps most importantly, a schema which envisions the better angels communing with God and the lesser ones ministering to humanity has no foundation in the Bible. Scripture presents ministry as one of the most blessed of activities and God himself directly involved with humanity. Any hierarchy which serves to separate God from humanity by interposing a series of lesser beings should be suspect.
Angelic Appearance The appearance of angels varies. Only cherubim and seraphim are represented with wings. Often in the Old Testament angels appear as ordinary men. Sometimes, however, their uniqueness is evident as they do things or appear in a fashion clearly non-human (Genesis 16:7-11;
John 20:12). The brilliant white appearance common to the New Testament angel is not a feature of the Old Testament image.
Creation of Angels Angels are created beings. Only God is eternal. But when God created angels the Bible never reveals. If the “us” in
Genesis 1:26 is a reference to God's angelic court, then the angels are simply present at the creation; their origin is not explained.
Guardian Angels Jesus' comment in
Matthew 18:10 and some passages which assign protective roles to angels (for example, Michael, angelic prince over Israel,
Daniel 12:1; angels of specific churches in
Revelation 2-3) imply that a heavenly counterpart represents each person in heaven. This evidence is commonly used to assert that each individual has a “guardian” angel assigned to him or her by God. The term, “guardian angel,” however, is not biblical, and the idea is at best only implied in these passages.
The difficulty observable in answering these and many other common questions is obvious. The cause of the difficulty is the assumption that Scripture reveals a complete angelology and if all the passages concerning angels are pieced together the complete picture will be revealed. A careful survey of the biblical text, however, reveals that no such fully delineated angelology is present.
Old Testament Each of the various types of literature in the Old Testament has its own concerns, and angels appear in the texts in ways appropriate to each. Those books which narrate the great acts of God (Gen., Ex., Num., Judg., 1 and 2 Sam. and 1 and 2 Kings) contain numerous references to angels. In these books, especially at key points, God reveals Himself and acts on behalf of His people. Sometimes He does this directly, sometimes in the person of an angel. Often the distinction between God's action and the angel's is blurred to the point that they seem synonymous (Genesis 19:13,Genesis 19:24;
Exodus 3:2,Exodus 3:4).
The angel's function as messenger or agent of God is acted out in terms of proclamation: revealing the will of God and/or announcing key events (Genesis 19:1-22;
Judges 13:2-23); protection: ensuring the well-being or survival of God's people (Exodus 14:19-20;
1 Kings 19:1-8); and punishment: enforcing the wrath of God on the wicked among the Jews and the Gentiles (Genesis 19:12-13;
2 Samuel 24:17;
2 Kings 19:35). In addition, some passages reflect popular ideas about angels (2 Samuel 14:17,2 Samuel 14:20) which the text records but does not necessarily affirm.
In the books of the prophets, angels rarely are mentioned. The most prominent exceptions are the heavenly visions of Isaiah and Zechariah. The reason for the absence is most likely that God is conceived as acting directly in relation to His people, and the messengers of God in these books are the prophets themselves.
The books of poetry and wisdom are expressions directed from humanity toward God or from a person(s) to other persons. Thus it is not surprising that angels (who figure in God to humanity communication) play a very small role in these books.
New Testament Much of the pattern observed in the Old Testament is repeated in the New. The majority of references to angelic activity are in the narrative books (the Gospels and Acts). The epistles include only some brief references to angels; several books do not mention them specifically at all. Hebrews with its lengthy contrast between Jesus and the angels is exceptional (Hebrews 1:3-2:16). The Apocalypse of John in its visionary nature, apocalyptic style, and reference to angels is comparable to parts of Daniel, Zechariah, and Isaiah.
The basic tasks of proclamation, protection, and punishment are again the focus (Matthew 1:20-24;
Acts 12:7-11) while references to the nature of angels are very brief.
What is perhaps most remarkable is what the New Testament texts do not say about angels. The interbiblical period, under Persian and Greek influences, had seen an explosion of speculation about angels. Angels (or comparable spiritual beings) in detailed hierarchies came to be understood by many as necessary mediators between God and humanity. Knowing the names, ranks, and how to manipulate these lesser spiritual beings enabled one to gain blessings in this life and attain the level of the divine in the next.
The New Testament texts contain no developed angelic hierarchy and do not present angels as semi-independent lesser gods. Angels are not used to explain the existence of evil, nor are they needed as intermediaries or as agents of revelation. See Cherubim; Demons; Seraphim.