The Spirit World: Angels
The term “angels” refers to spiritual beings who were created by God before the world was created for the purposes of worshipping him and accomplishing his will. Angels were given the ability to choose whether to follow God’s will and to obey his commands, and a certain faction followed Satan in his rebellion against the Lord. In the New Testament, these rebellious angels are referred to most commonly as “demons” or “unclean spirits.” Most angels, however, chose to follow God and obey his commands.
This article summarizes the main Old and New Testament teachings regarding angels who did not rebel with Satan. It examines some of the characteristics of angels, demonstrating that they are spiritual in nature, that they are righteous and blameless, that they are mighty and powerful, and that they possess an abundance of wisdom. It then turns to examine some of the roles angels play in Scripture, including offering worship to God, serving as messengers from God to humans, assisting in accomplishing God’s redemptive purposes, helping and protecting God’s people, and executing God’s judgment.
The Nature of Angels
Angels are spiritual in nature.
Angels are supernatural spiritual beings created by God (Neh 9:6) who can move between heaven and earth (Gen 28:12; cf. John 1:51). Usually they are invisible to human beings, but they can make themselves known either in a form that is indistinguishable from that of humans (Gen 19:1–5; Judg 13:3, 6, 8, 10–11, 16, 21; Heb 13:2) or as glorious heavenly beings (Matt 28:3; cf. Luke 2:9; 2Cor 11:14). However, they differ from humans in that they do not marry or procreate, nor do they experience death (Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35–36). One notable passage in this regard is 2 Kings 6:16–17, where the king of Aram sent “a strong force” to surround the city where Elisha was staying, so that Elisha’s servant was afraid (2Kgs 6:13–15). Then in verse 17, Elisha prayed, “‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”
Angels are righteous and blameless.
The angels who refused to follow Satan are also righteous and blameless in character. One helpful passage in this regard is 1 Samuel 29:8–9a: “And David said to Achish, ‘But what have I done? What have you found in your servant from the day I entered your service until now, that I may not go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?’ And Achish answered David and said, ‘I know that you are as blameless in my sight as an angel of God.’” This simile (i.e., blameless as an angel) clearly indicates that the angels of God were viewed as possessing righteous character which led naturally to blameless behavior. This is consistent with the New Testament passages that refer to “the holy angels” (Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; Rev 14:10).
Angels are mighty and powerful.
Certainly Psalm 103:20 strongly suggests that angels are far more powerful than humans: “Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word.” They are also described in Scripture as “principalities and powers,” terms that suggest power and might. In addition, in 2 Peter 2:10b–11 the apostle informs his readers that false teachers were “bold and arrogant” in heaping abuse on celestial beings, in spite of the fact that “even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful,” would not do that. They recognize that judgment comes from the Lord.
Angels possess an abundance of wisdom.
Certain passages in Scripture imply that angels have a measure of wisdom, especially in discerning good and evil, that is beyond that of human beings. In 2 Samuel 14, Joab attempts to repair the relationship between David and his third son, Absalom. In order to accomplish this, Joab enlists the help of “a wise woman” from Tekoa and sends her to David. After telling a fictional story in hopes of moving the king to bring back his banished son, she says to David in verse 17, “…May the word of my lord the king secure my inheritance, for my lord the king is like an angel of God in discerning good and evil.” This understanding is consistent with another reference to the wisdom of angels that is found in 2 Samuel 14:20.
The Roles Angels Play in God’s Plan for Humanity
Angels offer worship to God.
Angels regularly offer worship to God in the heavenly realms, but on one occasion a group of shepherds were given a glimpse of the heavenly chorus of praise offered by the angelic host (Luke 2:13–14). As Luke wrote, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’” This fulfills the psalmist’s call in Psalm 148:2: “Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts.” This glimpse of angelic worship is only a foretaste of the glorious praise that is described in the Book of Revelation. In Revelation 5:11–12, John describes a spectacular scene: “Angels numbering ten thousand times ten thousand encircle the throne, and in a loud voice they call out, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’” Then, in Revelation 5:13–14, John writes, “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power for ever and ever!’ The four living creatures said, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.”
Angels serve as messengers from God to humans.
Many examples of this role are found in both the Old and the New Testaments, which is not surprising given the fact that the Hebrew term that is translated “angel” is mal’ak, which etymologically refers to a messenger. One important passage in this regard is found in the narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Just as Abraham was about to slay his son in obedience to God’s command, “…the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, stopping him from killing Isaac (Gen 22:11–12). Then, in Genesis 22:15–18, the angel of the Lord reiterates what was said in Genesis 22:12, namely his promise that Abraham will be blessed and that through his offspring “all nations on earth will be blessed.”
Other examples of angels fulfilling this role include angels urging Lot and his family to flee the city of Sodom (Gen 19:12–13), encouraging Hagar regarding her son (Gen 21:17), sending Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (Exod 3:1–4:17), promising to send an angel before them to drive out the current occupants of the promised land (Exod 33:2), and ordering Gad to tell David to build an altar to the Lord (1Chr 21:18–19).
In the New Testament, angels also fulfill this role. For example, in Matthew 1:20 Joseph is told not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. In Matthew 2:13, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and instructs him to take Mary and Jesus and escape to Egypt. Then, in Matthew 2:19–20 an angel appears in a dream to Joseph, telling him to take his wife and child and return to the land of Israel. Also, in Luke’s gospel an angel is sent to Zechariah to announce John’s coming birth (Luke 1:11–17), and later the angel Gabriel is sent to announce Jesus’s upcoming birth (Luke 1:26–38). Once Jesus was born, an angel announced his birth to a group of shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks near Bethlehem (Luke 2:8–12), and then “a great company of the heavenly host” appeared and gave glory to God (Luke 2:13–14). Luke 24:23 also informs us that after the women visited the tomb and found that Jesus’s body was gone, they saw a vision of angels, “who said he was alive.”
Angels assist in accomplishing God’s redemptive purposes.
This role is frequently played by angels in both the Old and the New Testaments. One example from the narratives about the patriarchs (Gen 24:1–67) has to do with acquiring a wife for Isaac from his country, namely Mesopotamia. Abraham was confident of success due to his faith in God and told his servant in Genesis 24:7 (cf. Gen 24:40) that God “…will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there.” When his servant arrived in Abraham’s country, and specifically in the town of Nahor, he prayed, asking God to give him success (24:12). After using a simple test, it was clear to Abraham’s servant and to the members of Rebekah’s family that “This is from the Lord” (24:50). While nothing further is mentioned about the angel referred to by Abraham, he clearly believed that this angel was involved in making his journey a success.
Another example of this role is mentioned in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:38 (cf. Acts 7:53; Gal 3:19), this time in relation to the giving of the law through Moses: “He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.” As the apostle Paul stated it in Galatians 3:19, “The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator.” It is undeniable that the giving of the law was an important event when it comes to God’s redemptive purposes, and angels clearly played a significant role at this point in salvation history.
Other examples of the activities of angels to further God’s redemptive purposes are present in Scripture, including sending an angel before God’s people to drive out the current inhabitants of the promised land (Exod 33:2). Also important is Isaiah’s statement, “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (63:9).
One final example of an angel furthering God’s redemptive purposes is found in Acts 10:3–8 (cf. Acts 10:30–33), where an angel speaks to Cornelius in a vision and instructs him to send men to bring back Peter from Joppa. This intervention by the angel in question opens the way for Gentiles to hear the gospel and to receive the Holy Spirit without circumcision and keeping the law of Moses. All this led, ultimately, to the decision that was made at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Without these events and the decision that was made at the council, the spread of the gospel among Gentiles would have been drastically reduced.
Angels help and protect God’s people.
This role is clearly identified in Genesis 48:15–16, where, in Israel’s blessing of Joseph and his sons, he speaks of “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has delivered me from all harm.” In the end the angel acted as he did so that God’s purposes could be accomplished in and through Joseph and his sons.
Another significant example of this role is also found in the Old Testament, where God sent an angel to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (Num 20:16) and to protect them as they were about to cross the Red Sea. At that point God commanded Moses to part the sea so the people could cross through on dry ground (Exod 14:15–18), and the narrative describes what happened next:
Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. (Exod. 14:19–20a)
The purpose of the movement described in verses 19–20a is clear; it kept the armies of Egypt away from the people of Israel so that they had time to cross through the Red Sea without being attacked from the rear. However, not only did “the angel of God” go behind his people, but the Lord also sent “an angel” ahead of his people. He described the angel’s mission to the people in Exodus 23:20 (cf. Exod 33:2) as follows: “to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.” However, God also warned them to submit to the angel’s leading and to walk in obedience:
Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. (23:21–23; cf. 33:2)
By protecting God’s people, the angel was furthering God’s redemptive program, and the people were instructed to follow him because God’s “Name”—his presence and by implication, his authority—is with the angel.
Two additional examples of this role are present in the accounts of Balaam, both when “the angel of the Lord” stood in the road to oppose him” (Num 22:22a), and in Numbers 22:35 (cf. Num 22:38) when he told Balaam to “speak only what I tell you.” These actions certainly help and protect God’s people from Balaam’s curses. Another specific example of God sending his angel to protect and deliver his servants can be seen in the example of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Dan 3:28; 6:22).
Angels execute God’s judgment.
Obedience to God’s commands is critical as is emphasized in Exodus 32. Following the incident in which Israel sinned by constructing and worshipping the golden calf, we read in Exodus 32:33–34:
The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”
Although the angel was ready to protect God’s people from their enemies, he was not there to protect them from the consequences of their own sin and unfaithfulness to the covenant. If they desired to experience the blessings promised in Deuteronomy, they needed to follow the directions of the angel who was assigned to protect them and to lead them into the promised land.
The actions of angels to execute God’s judgment are mentioned explicitly as well in 2 Samuel 24:15–16 (cf. 1Chr 21:12), where the Lord sent a plague on Israel as punishment for David’s sin of counting his fighting men. However, his purpose was to punish them for their sin, not to destroy them. As it says in verse 16, “When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, ‘Enough!’”
Other examples of angels fulfilling this role are numerous. A significant text that refers to God’s judgment by means of angels is 2 Kings 19:35, “That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp” (cf. 2Chr 32:21; Isa 37:36). Also, in Psalm 35:5–6, the psalmist is referring to those among God’s people who were seeking David’s life when he writes, “May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away; may their paths be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.” Also important is Psalm 78:49, which refers in context to God’s unleashing his wrath and indignation on the unrighteous in Israel, all by the hand of “a company of destroying angels.”
All the examples surveyed above involve the execution of judgments within history. One should also consider the role angels play in the eschatological judgment. In the Parable of the Sower, for example, Jesus’s explanation in Matthew 13:39 makes it clear that “the harvesters are angels.” At the end of the age, we read in Matthew 13:41, “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.” This “harvesting” leads to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” for evildoers (13:42), while in verse 43 it is promised that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Other relevant passages include Matthew 13:49, 16:27, 24:31, 25:3–46, Mark 8:38, and Luke 12:8. One thing, however, is clear: what brings joy to the angels is when a sinner repents and puts his or her faith in Christ (Luke 15:10), responding in line with God’s missional purposes and brings glory to his name.
The following is a list of suggested resources for further growth in understanding the scriptural teachings regarding “Angels”
- Graham A. Cole, Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan and Demons. A solid study of the biblical teachings regarding Angels, Satan and Demons as well as some practical issues, with chapters 2 and 3 being the most helpful on the topic of angels.
- Duane A. Garrett, Angels and the New Spirituality. The first two chapters of this book are the most helpful on the topic of angels. The book is well-written, scripturally based and seeks to contrast the Bible’s teachings on the topic of angels to various “spiritual” ideologies that have been common for quite some time.
- Wayne Grudem, “Angels in the Bible: What do we Actually Know about Them?” Grudem’s discussion is surprisingly rich and helpful for a blog article on this topic. It is well-written, easy to read, and practical in nature, while also been solidly rooted in Scripture.
- Stephen F. Noll, Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness. Noll’s book is well-researched, solidly biblical and somewhat academic in nature. Chapters 1–4 and 7–8 are quite relevant to the topic of angels. A full review of the work is available online in Themelios.
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