by Rose E. Adle
Angels must be some of the most misunderstood creatures in existence. And while it’s probably unfair to blame everything on Hallmark and Hollywood, they have played a large part in causing the confusion.
Cutesy cards pretty well miss the mark. (Your best friend might help you out a lot, but that doesn’t make her an angel sent from above.) Inspirational movies are similarly unconcerned about what Scripture teaches. (I don’t care what you’ve heard. An angel does not require a ringing bell to grow wings.)
If there’s any time of year that makes us even more susceptible to angel confusion, it’s Christmastime. Sometimes even our carols can be puzzling. For example, if the angels were singing so sweetly o’er the plains, why were the shepherds first filled with fear (Luke 2:9)? And those tasty cut-out angel cookies? They probably look nothing like the real deal. Have you ever seen one with six wings (Is. 6:2)?
So, in the true spirit of Christmas, why not take a look at the true nature and identity of angels? The word angel actually just means “messenger.” In fact, Scripture sometimes applies the word to human beings who deliver divine messages (like the clergy of today). Malachi 2:7; 3:1 and Matt. 11:10 provide evidence of this. However, most assume that the word angel refers to the entireclass of those spirits that we picture with halos andwings. We’ll go with that.
Angels are created beings. Genesis doesn’t sayexactly when, but it’s safe to say it was sometimebetween Day 1—when it all got started—and Day6—when it all got done. Angels are not animals, andthey are not human. They are spiritual, not physical(Heb. 1:7). They are mighty, but they don’t possessdivine characteristics like omniscience, omnipotence,or omnipresence. Angels remain angels for all eternity, and humans remain humans for all eternity.(That means no human will become an angel afterdying, another common misconception, even among Christians.) Scripture contains information about countless angels, but only a few are known by name.
The first is actually known by several names: the devil, the prince of the power of the air, the accuser, Beelzebub, the father of lies, the serpent, the god of this age, the dragon. Call him what you will, Satan is a dark angel. This is another critical scriptural truth: some angels are good, and some are bad . . . very, very bad (though not created that way). The evil angels are those that sinned way back in the beginning. They have sealed their fate. There’s no turning back for them (2 Peter 2:4). Though we can’t pinpoint the moment of their falling into sin, it was sometime before humanity’s fall. We know this because it was actually the chief of the fallen angels, Satan, who tempted Adam and Eve in the garden.
Evil angels, also known as evil spirits or demons, are spoken of throughout Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. The devil tempted our Lord in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1). Scripture describes demons possessing various people, causing sickness and afflictions, and engaging in combat against good angels (Rev. 12:7–8).
Some even know Scripture and can manipulate it to further their diabolic cause (Gen. 3:1; Matt. 4:6). Satan can masquerade as an “angel of light” when it suits him (2 Cor. 11:14). Evil angels are primarily concerned with one thing: destroying the relationship between God and humanity, chiefly by destroying faith. This sounds scary, and, in fact, it is.
But here’s the good news: evil angels are subject to God’s authority. They can’t do anything without God’s knowledge and permission. This means that even the most evil angel, Satan himself, cannot separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38–39). And ultimately, the fallen angels will get what they have coming. Scripture teaches that an everlasting fire has been prepared for Satan and his evil hench-angels (Matt. 25:41).
Enough about the bad angels. What about the good guys? Holy angels are the ones that didn’t sin way back in the beginning. They are in blissful communion with God for all eternity. They praise Him around the clock (Ps. 148:2). And they rejoice when sinners repent (Luke 15:10). God uses these holy angels to serve His people. In Scripture, they perform a few different functions. First, they worship and praise God. But beyond that, they also deliver divine messages and guard and protect the Church (all believers).
Scripture is full of messenger angels. The first such angel called by name is Gabriel. He appeared to the prophet Daniel (Dan. 8–9) to interpret a vision and to bring an answer to prayer. This isn’t what Gabriel’s best known for though.
Some 500 years later, he starred as the angel that we all know and love from the Christmas pageants. Gabriel approached Zechariah in the temple and proclaimed the unlikely conception of Christ’s forerunner, John the Baptist. Gabriel also visited the mother of our Lord. As is the case with pretty much every angel appearance, the first thing he says to her is the same thing he said to Zechariah: “Do not be afraid.” This doesn’t mean he’s a bad, scary angel. It means he’s a good, scary angel.
That’s right; even the good ones are frightening when they reveal themselves to humans. They are incredibly strong. They can’t help but intimidate, even when they’re on a mission from God for the good of humanity.
Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will bear the Son of God. Then there’s a long string of divine pronouncements. Shepherds in the field hear an angelic announcement and hurry off to see God in the flesh, a babe in Bethlehem. Some other messenger angels make sure the right people are in the right places at the right times. An angel appears to the Wise Men and warns them not to return to King Herod. And another angel comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take the infant Lord to Egypt to keep him safe from the wrath of jealous Herod.
Every turn of the Christmas narrative involves messages being pronounced by angels. It’s really no surprise. Christ coming in the flesh had to have been a bewildering thing, certainly one that required explanation. Francis Pieper points out that, “[Angels] proclaim the conception, the birth, the resurrection, [and] the return of Christ (Luke 1:26; 2:11; 24:5ff; Acts 1:10ff)” (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 1:507.) From the annunciation to the ascension, angels were present to explain to human beings exactly what was going on and why it was all so important.
But Christmas isn’t the only time of year that the church should be thinking about angels. On Sept. 29, many churches celebrate the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Michael is the only other angel known by name. He is described as an archangel (Rev. 9). On Daniel’s behalf, Michael contended against the princes of Persia and Greece—presumed to be fallen angels (Dan. 10). He also fights with Satan himself in spiritual battles (Rev. 12).
Aside from fighting the evil angels and delivering heavenly messages, there’s another level of angel activity occurring. Angels act to protect us (thus the common phrase “guardian angel”). There are many examples of angels defending and protecting humans in Scripture. An angel prevented the lions from eating Daniel in the den (Dan. 6:22). Angels and a flaming sword were posted outside of the Garden of Eden to prevent humans from re-entering the former paradise to their own detriment (Gen. 3:24). A figure who is assumed to have been an angel joined Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:25). And on one surprising occasion, the Lord opened the eyes of a young man so that he could actually see all the horses and chariots of fire who were present to defend Elisha (2 Kings 6:19).
Angels’ work was not limited to biblical times though. They’re still around today (Heb. 13:2). Ordinarily we can’t see them acting on our behalf, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Angels accompany believers—throughout all of life—from the little ones (Matt. 18:10) to the dying (Luke 16:22).
Angels even join us in worship every Sunday. They are the topic of some of our finest hymns (LSB 521, 522, 523, etc.). And during the singing of the Sanctus, we join our voices with the saints who’ve gone before us and with the entire heavenly host (Is. 6:3). Like us, the angels of the Lord also love to hear the proclamation of the Gospel, which was spoken by the prophets and is now preached by faithful pastors (1 Peter 1:12; Eph. 3:10).
So whether it’s Christmas Day or the Feast Day of St. Michael or any other day of the Church Year, praise and thank God for His holy angels. They guard us in all our ways (Ps. 91:11) and protect us from the power of the devil (Rev. 12:7–8). The angels in Hallmark and Hollywood are okay, but the ones in Scripture are heavenly.
About the Author: Deaconess Rose E. Adle is a member of the LCMS Board for International Mission and a member of Saint John Lutheran Church, Secor, Ill.