Angels in the Bible



Angels in today's philosophical and theological climate are a difficult subject to engage with, for a number of reasons:

  • In a world where scientific reason, rationality and investigation have primacy, angels, asspirit beings can neither be examined nor proved to exist (or not), are an uncomfortable concept. 

  • In a world where ethics and morality are seen as the highest virtues, as opposed to a distinctly spiritual and supernatural faith, one does not need angels to be moral or ethical. They are superfluous. 

  • Historically, Christian theology has often developed speculative complex understandings of angels and their ministry which has arguably not only obscured the Gospel of grace and redemption in Christ, but has simply looked bizarre to observers on the outside. 

  • Yet in direct reaction to this, Christian theology has also often tried to erase them from the map of faith. Angelology, more than most areas of theology, has lived on the extremes, being driven by reaction and counter-reaction. 

  • Angels are what odd New-Agers believe in and follow, often to the exclusion of a belief in God Himself. 

However, as this article will argue, angels are important, not only as part of normative Biblical world-view, but also in and of themselves as servants of the Living God sent to minister to the People of God. A full Biblical faith needs angels within it, but they need to be placed rightly on the map.

This article falls into two parts: First a brief historical overview, expanding on what I have said above. Second, a look at angels and their place within Scripture and a Biblical world view. I have done it this way around for a reason. As with all theology, one enters any discussion with preconceived ideas and biases. This is particularly so when looking at angels, so I begin with history in order to challenge the reader to examine their existing ideas on angels, and to ask why they hold them. With this done, hopefully, theological and spiritual eyes will be less 'cluttered' as the Biblical texts themselves are then examined.

1. Historical overview1

Starting with Scripture, the early Christians were faced with a Bible of Old and New Testaments which throughout cite angels and the angelic nearly 300 times, which doubles if one considers that the name Lord of Hosts is the most widely used name of God in the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation angels are apparent, and angelic ministry was seen as, if not common, certainly possible within the Christian life. 2

Under the influence of Greek philosophies (especially Neo-Platonism) from about the third century onward came the growth of speculative theologies, where God was viewed as both increasingly distant and at the top of a hierarchical universe, and so in need of intermediaries. Theologians began to discuss how angels fitted into this view, but it was Pseudo Dionysius (c. 6th century) who devised the classic Ninefold (3×3) View, which took the popular imagination by storm and became the norm in how to view angels. At the top of the hierarchy were Cherubim, Seraphim and Thrones; next came Dominions, Virtues and Power; at the bottom were Principalities, Archangels and Angels. God worked down this hierarchy in order to bring blessings to the world.

Thomas Aquinas (d. 1275) (along with other scholastic thinkers) added a tight and intensely argued theological framework to Dionysius' more spiritual wonderings, and his work has become normative for much of Catholicism since. 3 Much popular Catholic spirituality from this time put a strong emphasis on the Guardian Angel who usually dealt directly with you, prayed for you, protected you and sustained you, since Christ and God were considered too distant to do this directly themselves. 4

The Reformation reaction to this was clear and strong (16-17th centuries). Angels clearly existed, but there was only one Saviour and Mediator, and that was Christ. Angels and the angelic got (wrongly) placed in the category Cult of the Saints and Mary, and rejected as a normal or necessary part of Christian belief. Calvin, for example, believed that studying angels was dangerous and would mislead anyone who didOne therefore confessed angels existed and then ignored them.

Alongside this attitude that angels were best to ignore, grew the early enlightenment critique of angels and the supernatural in general. As already described, the base demand that only that which can be examined, investigated and dissected could be trusted, made not only the angelic a difficulty but supernatural faith as a whole. This Enlightenment thinking became the seed bed for the liberal theological traditions' increasing rejection of the angelic (along with ideas like the Incarnation, Resurrection, Virgin Birth and miracles.) During the 19th and 20th centuries the idea of angels became increasingly polarized and difficult to engage with. 5 FD Strauss (c.1860) wrote:

'(Events) which were formerly thought to be wrought by God himself through the ministering angels, we now are able to explain by natural causes; so that belief in angels is without a link by which it can attach itself to rightly apprehended modern ideas; and it exists only as a lifeless tradition… If it be true that God is immanent in the world, precisely on that account is the intervention of angels rendered superfluous.'

Not only does God’s direct action on earth make angels superfluous, but human knowledge can explain everything anyway, so on this level one just doesn’t need angels in one’s theology or world view. Around 100yrs later, this thinking had been crystalised by people like Rudolph Bultmann (d. 1976):

'It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discover­ies, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.'

Bultmann’s point is simple. Post-enlightenment human advancement makes the existence of angels impossible to accept. Technological progress exposes spiritual realities for what they are; illogical, irrational, and thus non-existent – a favourite argument of various New Atheists. In direct contrast Karl Barth (d. 1968) said:

'A world without angels would be a world without wonder. A theology without angels is theology without mystery, and if our theology cannot accommodate the mystery of (heaven and the angels), in the end it will fail to accommodate God.'

Angels face us squarely with the fact of a true living transcendent spirit reality – The Creed’s 'Seen and Unseen'. And if one struggles with the basic idea of spirit beings in a spiritual realm doing spiritual things in a spiritual way, in the end one will struggle with the basic idea of God.

In the post-modern world, though, this intense rationalistic reductionism has been exposed for what it is, a sterile and hope-less world view, which has led to the growth of a renewed search for spiritual meaning. This found a footing in the New Age movement. Angels are serious business! However, the movement unhooks angels from Biblical revelation, bringing spirituality without God, without Christ and without any Christian anchors.

Angels are part of a normative Biblical worldview. They are one of the 'good' things God created and saw in Genesis 1. However, as the Biblical story so often attests, humanity has an incredible ability to misread, misunderstand misapply truth. Angels and the angelic have suffered from this. However, when rightly seen and understood, they are part of God's rich creation which to thank Him.

2. Angels In The Wider Biblical Picture

Biblically, while there is much information concerning what angels are and do, it needs to be recognised that there is also a wide range of issues and questions which, historically, the church has asked about angels that Scripture pointedly does not address or answer, nor even seem particularly interested in. This has become the root of the speculative theologies mentioned earlier. As much as possible, what is presented next will stay as close as possible to what the Biblical text says, and not stray far from this. Many theological theories exist to fill those gaps, but I will not discuss those here.

Angels are found in Old and New Testaments (pre and post Incarnation), and in every form of Biblical literature. In Hebrew, angel ('Malawk') has the sense of a messenger of God, or a representative, or 'one sent from Him' (c.f. iyr / qadowsh / qaddiysh). This is paralleled by 'angellos' in Greek.

Angels are beings created by God, 6 but the specific place or mechanics of this are never discussed. As created beings, they are not God, refuse worship and should not be worshipped. 7They were created in huge numbers, and are regularly called 'hosts' – in fact the most cited name of God in Scripture is 'Lord of Hosts' (nearly 300 references)8 Similarly, the existence of demons suggests that some of these angels fell. 9

It is also clear that the whole universe, which includes the angelic realm, is redeemed by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. 10 How this applies to humanity is well defined with regard to the incarnation, but how this is applied to angels is not – especially when it appears that demons are not redeemed.

Angels are spirit beings (described as light, fire, wind and spirit). 11 They cannot be in more than one place at a time, but it appears many can inhabit small spaces. 12

Angels, like humans, are personalities since they have personal names (e.g. Gabriel and Michael). They can appear in human form, or in a form that is identifiably angelic, or in forms which are difficult for the human mind to process, but they can also appear in a form which fails to be recognised by humans. 13

Angels have vast knowledge, beyond that of humans, but limited by God. 14 They have an undefined form of speech and language, but can speak the various languages of humankind, and can discern between good and evil. 15 Angels desire to know more of God, and it is through the church here on earth, that God enables them to learn more of Himself. Angels are also holy, obedient, yet since they were able to fall they have moral faculty and choice which can be abused. 16

Angels have similarities to humans (as created beings), but also differ too. Language, relationality, morality, spirituality and rationality are common to both groups, and in the Resurrection we will become 'like the angels' (isangelloi). 17 While the immediate context of this verse primarily relates to marriage relationships and makes plain that angels do not have the same relationships as human and do not marry, it might also be further understood in terms of the nature of an angelic-like body (we do not become angels, but our resurrection bodies will be like the angelic bodies), and/or morally, spiritually and intellectually, and/or immortally, but it is not detailed.

Hierarchy and organisation. It is clear that the angelic world is in some form of hierarchy – there are angels and arch-angels. Similarly, it seems clear there are a number of groupings within the angelic world (for example, seraphim and cherubim, the list in Colossians 1:16, plus numerous other names, all of which come under the broad category 'angel') and that they are described as a court which stands around God. 18 However, beyond this there is a stark absence of information on the specifics. Nevertheless, the angelic world is hierarchically organised under God and by God.

There is also the enigmatic Angel of The Lord. The subject is too large to examine here, but simply, the evidence seems to suggest that he is identified with God because he is worshipped, and that when he speaks his words are attributed to God Himself; indeed he is sometimes even identified as God directly. 19)

Angels serve God and work within heaven, and the world and visible creation. (We will look at their work on earth next.) In heaven angels have numerous roles. First is worship and adoration. They stand round the throne of God worshipping. They declare the goodness and worship the works of God. They also wait on God for Him to send them on missions to the earth, including judgement. 20

Finally is their role at Second Coming. The archangel will blow the trumpet of God, and assisting Christ, help Him with the reaping and gathering, the separation of the wheat and the chaff, and weeding out of evil-doers. Angels have the ability to see into the souls of humans and know whether they are of Christ or not, and then sift them for Christ. 21

3. Angels & Ministry: Hebrews 1:14 and 'leitourgika' 22

Discussing angelic ministry begins with Heb 1:14:

Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

The key word in this verse is 'minister'. This word for ministering is unique in NT and rare in contemporary literature (Gk: leitourgika). When talking about Christ or human ministry a different but related word is used. Christians are the Royal Priesthood which reflects Christ’s Priesthood (Heb 10:11; Acts 13:2; Rom 15:27), but for angels this word is different and unique – even a little strange. The writer wants to makes a point. It is the word that in the Greek OT described the holy ministering vessels or items used in Temple worship. They are items which the Priest uses to make the Temple work – robes, bowls, tongs for handling the burnt offerings, as well as monetary gifts towards running the Temple. (Ex 31:10, 39:1; Num 4:12, 26, 7:5; 2 Chr 24:14). Hence, leitourgika are: what Priests use to help the Temple run smoothly.

When we move this idea into the NT and Book of Hebrews, a picture emerges. The One Great High Priest is Jesus Christ, and the Temple (of the Holy Spirit) are Christians. Therefore, crudely, angels are what Jesus uses to help Christians 'run smoothly'.

Angels are Jesus' servants (tools, even) who are one way which He uses to practically help run/maintain/protect the Temple of the Holy Spirit, which is His Church. Angels are not priests, Jesus is; and angels do not inhabit us, the Holy Spirit does this. But Jesus uses angels to help the Temple of the Spirit 'run as smoothly as possible'.

Jesus Uses Angels To Help Us, Temples of the Holy Spirit

To fully expound the whole of Heb 1:14 is beyond the scope of this article, but an amplified translation would say:

'Are not angels, special, sacred priestly vessels, set apart for holy use, used by the one High Priest and God, Jesus Christ, to serve and minister to, physically and spiritually, those, who through salvation wrought by Christ alone, are in his church now, and those who will be brought into his church in times to come?'

How do they minister? In many ways, which will be described next, but all are Christ focused and Christ centred. Angels point us to Jesus and help keep us safe in our walk with Christ.

Before giving a few examples of specific ministry God uses angels for, one caveat needs to be made clear. One must let God be God. God can choose how He wants to work, and sometimes He will use His angels and sometimes not. Considering Elijah, four times he was hungry and God fed him. Once by a widow’s generosity; once by a miracle of flour and oil; once by ravens; once by an angel. God is creative in how He works. Sometimes God will use an angel. More often than not, God will want to use one of His people. Angels are one of the ways the Creator is creative in how He works with His Creation.

3.1 Angels and Strengthening

Angels can give strength to humans. Jesus in Gethsemane is facing the most difficult of questions (Lk 22:43). He is alone, His disciples are all asleep, and he is sweating blood in anguish. The Father sends an angel to strengthen (eniskuon) Him. This is a rare word (only twice in the NT). Luke only uses it one other time, in Acts 9:19. Paul has not eaten for 3 days, and is weak. He then eats and is physically strengthened by the food. This word does not mean mental encouragement and is not the word Luke uses earlier where Peter is called to strengthen his fellow disciples (22:32). It means that one has no bodily strength, and then (through eating – an external agent becoming internalised) gains energy and strength for one’s muscles and body. It is a physical word (cf. Dan 8:18), the literal impartation of physical strength when one is physically weak, maybe when one is ill, run down, or just tired from a long day. When one needs strength, strength to pray, God’s angel can provide it. Angels can give one strength to receive what God wants to give, and do.

3.2 Prayer

It is important to note that humans must not pray to angels. There are Christian traditions which, for want of a better word, pray to angels or ask angels to intercede for them on various issues, but this is not wise. There are two main reasons for this:

(i) There is no Biblical warrant for it. Prayer is an activity directed solely to God, nobody else. One might see it as a logical extension from some Biblical evidence, but Scripture neither invites nor leads us to take that extra step.

(ii) More importantly, it is questionable that angels would listen to our prayers anyway. Angels see the face of the Father (Matt 18:10). Like Jesus, who only did what He saw the Father doing, so angels in a council around the Father always see the face of the Father. In this case they get perfect direction from Him. Why then, should such holy and intelligent creatures listen to us? If one has a choice of getting perfect guidance and wisdom from God, or listening to flawed, short-sighted human prayers, who would one listen to? Angels only listen to God.

Yet, angels are engaged in prayer alongside us. Human and angelic incense are offered as one in Rev 8:3-4 – we are one in this work of God. We tire of prayer. We don’t know what to pray. Angels always see the face of the Father (Matt 18:10), and by seeing His face they know better than us what we need. Angels pray for us just as our friends do, but just as you do not pray to other humans who pray, we do not pray to angels. This is pointed to by Job 33:23-28.

The words are spoken by Elihu, the one who, after 32 chapters of the others missing the point, orientated the whole discussion back to God. For this reason, he was the only one of Job’s friends not condemned by God. Elihu said.

'If there be for him an angel, a mediator, one of the thousand, to declare to man what is right for him, and (the angel) is merciful to him, and says (to God): "Deliver him from going down into the pit; I have found a ransom; let his flesh become fresh with youth; let him return to the days of his youthful vigour."'

The picture is of an angel observing somebody in distress and pleading to God on their behalf, and with New Testament glasses on seems to remind God of Christ's death (ransom), 23 and prays for physical restoration. What then happens?

Then the man prays to God, and God accepts him; he sees God’s face with a shout of joy, and God restores to (the man) his righteousness. He sings before men and says: 'I sinned and perverted what was right, and it was not repaid to me. (God) has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit, and my life shall look upon the light.'

It is important that the man turns to God, not the angel. Angels always direct people to God, never to themselves. The person prays to God and finds acceptance, joy, and righteousness from God. The angel intercedes, God hears this and acts to turn the person's heart, and once the person is focused on God, the angel leaves the scene. The outcome is the man's confession and repentance, and the renewal of the individual’s spiritual prayer life and walk with God, not reliance on the angel. However, angelic prayers are powerful and effective on our behalf.

3.3 Sustaining

Angels can also sustain and protect us during life’s journey. This is most clearly shown in the life of Elijah. In 1 Kgs 19:1–8, Elijah had just defeated the prophets of Baal, yet when faced with Jezebel’s threats he runs into the wilderness. In the midst of his depression and wanting to end his life, an angel came twice (v5, 7). Elijah was provided with food and water by the angel for a journey to the Mount of God, he was strengthened, but the angel also touched him. (Heb: naga: LXX root: apto).

This word for 'touched' has a broad meaning, either soft or hard. However, when it is applied to angels the word never has the harsher sense. Its occurrences in 1 and 2 Kings speak of the cherubim’s wing touching the Temple, and when the dead man touched the bones of Elijah, coming alive again (1 Kgs 6:27; 2 Kgs 13:21). It is the touch (which strengthens) that gently raises and encourages Daniel from the floor after he has collapsed (Dan 8:18, 10:10, 16, 18). It is the touch God gives people to give them gifts, strength or comfort; God touched Jeremiah’s mouth to allow him to preach, and the angel touched Isaiah’s lips with the coal to cleanse him (Jer 1:9; Isa 6:7). It is the touch that Jesus gave to heal the leper in Matt 8:3.

The touch here is one of comfort, strengthening and reassurance. The angel provided for Elijah in his isolation, both physically and emotionally, so he could face the 40 day journey to meet with God who would renew his faith.

Angels can be sent to sustain people as they journey through life to God, and ensure they do not feel alone and isolated, open to temptation or attack.

3.4 Protection

That angels protect people can perhaps be taken as read. In Ps 91:11-13, angels are said to operate under God's command, not alone and apart from Him, and guard people in all your ways. God commands angels to protect us, as part of the divine order and direction for those God loves. All your ways includes lifting one up, protecting one from physical danger, protecting from lions, cobras and the serpent, which echoes fighting evil forces and demons (c.f. Luke 10:18-19; Rev 12). Similarly, Psalm 35:4-7 says that angels drive away, actively remove, evil people.

This snap-shot raises two questions:

First is the idea that people have their own guardian angels. Some passages indicate an individualised ministry by using the pronouns 'his' or 'their' angel, but these terms are only clearly used in Acts 12:15 and Matt 18:10. This idea could further be supported by indications of the closeness of angels and humans as a single heavenly society, and that both are called elect.24 Further, Rev 1:20 talks of the seven churches having seven angels, and Michael is said to have a special role protecting Israel, which could be developed into there being guardian angels for churches and nations. However, it can be argued that this protection is general and does not demand a specific angel for a specific person/situation. An angel will come and help as God promises, but it might simply be the nearest one at hand. Individual Guardian Angels are neither affirmed nor rejected by the evidence of Scripture. It is possible, but neither demanded nor discussed.

Second is the question of when things go wrong. Where is angelic protection then? Answer is similar to the question of suffering and God. If God is all powerful and loving, why is there pain? There is no simple answer. That God sends his angels to support and help us is plain. However, if we look at Gethsemane, the angel gave strength to Jesus to walk to the Cross. Jesus had already said He had legions of angels to get Him out of any trouble. However the angel did not do this, but strengthened Him to walk the road to and through the Cross. The angel did not extricate Jesus from the situation, but strengthened Him to endure through it. We are sometimes called to walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, not round it. God promises to be with us in the Valley, and sometimes he may also send his angels as well.

3.5 Guiding

That angels bring messages, guide, and give wisdom is a common Biblical theme – Mary, Joseph, Daniel to name but three.25 However, what is also fascinating is how angels are involved in specifically guiding people to Jesus, and promoting the Gospel. For example, Rev 14:6 speaks of an angel proclaiming 'the eternal gospel to the world.' This is best shown, though, in Acts. All seven angelic appearances, implicitly or explicitly, uphold Christ’s commission: 'You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.' (Acts 1:8).

After Christ ascended, two angels told the Disciples: 'Why do you stand looking into heaven?' In other words, 'Get on with it!' Angels helped drive the early mission of the church to places and people to which the disciples may not have wanted to go, however angels never usurped the work of the disciples and never preached themselves.

  • After freeing John & Peter from jail, an angel told them to go back to the Temple, to the Jews, and preach life. (5:17-21) 

  • An angel told Philip to go to the God-fearing eunuch, who was going out of Jerusalem. Most likely, he not only was one of the non-Jewish converts of the diaspora, but also one who due to being a eunuch was excluded from the Temple (8:26). 

  • An angel told Cornelius, a gentile member of the hated occupiers, to speak to Peter, who would give him the gospel (10:3-7).  

  • After persecution, an angel freed Peter from jail (12:7-11), and further protected the expansion of the church by killing Herod (12:23) 

  • In the midst of a storm an angel appeared and declared to Paul that he would stand in Nero’s palace (27:21-26), and by inference his getting to Rome meant the ends of the earth, since this was, for the ancient world, the hub. 

Angels will always point people to Jesus and his gospel, as opposed to many 'new-age' angels who seem to point people anywhere but Christ.

3.6 Reconciling

One final point is to ask what happens when we are in sin? Do angels abandon us? The answer to this appears in the great and holy vision of God in Isaiah 6.

One sees that God is both holy and the source of both holiness and reconciliation, and the angels worship and declare this truth out loud. There is no other source of reconciliation other than that found in Christ. In response to Isaiah's realisation of his sinfulness, an angel is sent with a coal and as the coal is touched to Isaiah's lips, the angel declares God's forgiveness. The angel is the vehicle which God uses to pronounce forgiveness, just as Christians can be. By touch and declaration, the angel pronounces the truth of cleansing over Isaiah. God can use His angels to pronounce the truth of His forgiveness over His people.

What happens next is also worth considering. God calls out 'Whom shall I send?' and Isaiah responds to God’s call. God and Isaiah then start talking. The angel falls completely out of the story and God is central. The heart of the angel is to see Isaiah and God talking, and once this is done, the angel has no role and leaves the scene – permanently. Angels rejoice over every sinner repenting. They do not abandon people, but obey and work with God to restore them to Him. Simply, angels do the will of God and serve Him and His purposes. If God does not abandon us when we are dead in our sin, neither would His angelic servants.

3.7 Angels And The Holy Spirit

One common question raised about this understanding of angels is that the ministry just described, in many ways, mirrors what the Holy Spirit does. It needs to be made clear that angels are not a synonym for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is fully and properly God, and the third person of the eternal Triune Godhead. Angels are creations of God, and not God. However, angels as holy spiritual beings, who act in direct obedience to the will of God, can 'look' like the Spirit in action. In the same way that as humans do the will of Christ they look like Christ and grow into the image of Christ but are not Christ, so with angels. Only the Holy Spirit regenerates the fallen human nature, and brings adoption into God's family; only the Spirit gives God's spiritual gifts; it is the Spirit who grows spiritual fruit in the believer. Angels do none of these, and they should never be confused with the Spirit.

Select Bibliography

Primary Source

Macy J. In The Shadow Of His Wings (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011) – A good Biblical description of the practical and pastoral ministry of angels on earth.

Secondary Sources

Alder M.J., The Angels And Us (New York: MacMillan, 1982) – Good on the philosophical basis of angelology.

Angel A., Angels: Ancient Whispers Of Another World (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012) – Good on the Jewish milieu behind the Biblical texts, and angelic ministry in heaven.

Danielou J., The Angels And Their Mission (Texas: Newman Press, 1957) – Good on the Patristic developments in angelology.

Graham B., Angels (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1986) – A good description of much mainstream Protestant belief.

Mother Alexandra, The Holy Angels (Minnesota: Light & Life Pub., 1987) – A good description of Eastern Orthodox belief.

Noll S.F., Angels Of Light, Powers Of Darkness (Downer's Grove: IVP, 1998) – A more theological exploration of angelology.

Parente P., The Angels (Illinois: Tan Books, 1994) – A good description of Roman Catholic belief.

Williams P., The Case For Angels (Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 2002) – Good on the philosophical basis of angelology against more liberal theologies.

Picture of Jonathan Macy

Jonathan Macy

Jonathan Macy is curate of St John's Plumstead in London, England. He is author of In the Shadow of his Wings: The Pastoral Ministry of Angels (Lutterworth Press, 2011).
Picture of Jonathan Macy

Jonathan Macy

Jonathan Macy is curate of St John's Plumstead in London, England. He is author of In the Shadow of his Wings: The Pastoral Ministry of Angels (Lutterworth Press, 2011).