Do you believe in angels? If so, you’re hardly alone. According to a 2005 study conducted by Baylor University, something like half of all Americans believe in angels, and a surprising number of respondents expressed a belief in personal “guardian” angels that intervene to keep us safe.
In the first chapter of Hebrews, the writer describes Jesus as superior to the angels. After citing a collection of Bible verses to emphasize this point, the author describes angels as “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). At the close of the book of Hebrews, the author suggests that one of the motivations for Christian love to “strangers” is that by doing so “some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). So we actually see a significant overlap between popular belief about angels and the first-century world.
But what more can we say about angels? Let’s take some time today to unpack this a bit further.
While beliefs about angels appear to be longstanding, there was a period in the mid-1990’s when their popularity really peaked. We’d moved on from the self-esteem movement of the 1980’s to invest in personal spirituality. TV shows like Touched by an Angel only revealed one avenue that we yearned to explore: connecting with the spiritual world through the world of angels.
In 1993, an article in Newsweek magazine reports:
“[T]hose who see angels, talk to them, and put others in touch with them are prized guests on television and radio talk shows. Need inspiration? There are workshops that will assist you in identifying early angel experiences or in unleashing your ‘inner angel.’ Tired of the same old spirit guide? New Age channelers will connect you with Michael the Archangel. Have trouble recognizing the angels among us? Join an angel focus group.” (“Angels: Hark! America’s Latest Search for Spiritual Meaning Has a Halo Effect.” Newsweek, Dec. 27, 1993, 52-53)
But why angels? I mean, if you want to be “spiritual,” why not connect with God directly? I think we can cite several reasons.
First, God seems distant. And if you come near him at all, you risk being judged. He’s like the distant angry stepfather. Angels seem like the cool aunt or the cleaning lady that you get along with even when Dad gets upset about your report card.
Second, angels have a universal appeal. They appear in many forms of religions—Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, to name a few. So angels are a way of being spiritual in a way that doesn’t exclude or offend anyone.
Finally, angels—in our minds—are all about comfort, especially in the face of suffering and death. I’m thinking of Sarah McLaughlin’s song in which she sings: “in the arms of an angel, may you find comfort here.”
Let’s not be too hard on the modern world; even the characters of the Bible express some confused beliefs about angels. In the book of Acts, Peter is delivered from prison. But his closest family and friends believe him dead. So when he knocks on the door, they don’t know what to think. “Maybe it’s his angel,” one of them speculates (Acts 12:15)—does this reflect some early belief that each person has a “guardian angel” that looks like them?
Belief in angels has always been around, and angels are recorded in the earliest beliefs of ancient civilizations. God’s first followers—and I’m talking like 2000 B.C.—inhabited a world that believed in some sort of “council of gods.” Spiritual beings were sort of everywhere. But as the Jewish religion developed, a clearer understanding emerged of a separation between the one true God and the angels that served him.
The Bible mentions angels roughly 350 times—in 33 of its 66 books. Both the Hebrew word (malakh) and Greek word (angelos) means “messenger,” though we only see this term used of angels.
Yet despite all these references, we have few texts that really helps us understand who they are and what they do. So much of our understanding comes from surveying the whole story of scripture and making a few observations.
- They were created by God. God eternally exists; no one created him. Yet at some undisclosed point in history, God created an untold number of angels (Deuteronomy 33:2; Psalm 69:17; Hebrews 12:22; Jude 14; Revelation 5:11). Did this happen only once? That is, does God ever create more angels? The Bible doesn’t say. But we can be sure that God created angels. So while it may be comforting to think that a loved one was taken because “God needed another angel,” people don’t turn into angels when they die. Rather, they enter God’s presence for either judgment or for entrance into eternal joy.
- They look nothing like their pictures. Most art tends to show angels as chubby infants or—perhaps more often—women with feathery wings and a halo. But the Bible usually describes angels as adult men. So telling your wife she has the “face of an angel” might not be the wisest idea. There are two exceptions we might note, however. First, Zechariah 5:9 describes two-winged females, though the word “angel” is never used. Just who these creatures are is never specified. Second, when Isaiah has a vision of God’s throne room, he sees a collection of six-winged creatures called seraphim that hover around the throne praising God (Isaiah 6). However, these creatures seem specifically assigned to heavenly worship, not earthly service.
- They’re highly organized. Apparently not all angels have equal roles—1 Thessalonians 4:16 tells us of the reality of “archangels.” Michael is an archangel (Jude 9) and “one of the chief princes” (Daniel 10:13), a title that seems to have some relationship to Israel. Gabriel is the principle messenger both before and after the birth of Jesus (Daniel 8:16; Luke 1:18).
- They’re highly purposeful. Angels seem to have a range of duties. They exist for heavenly worship and service (Psalm 103:20-21; 148:1; Isaiah 6:2-6; Daniel 7:9-10; Revelation 4:6-5:12); to carry out God’s judgment (Genesis 19:13; Exodus 13; 2 Samuel 24:16; 2 Kings 19:35; Matthew 13:39; 25:31; Acts 12:21-23; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9); and to communicate with and guide God’s followers (Genesis 16:11; 18:9; Judges 13:3; Matthew 2:13; 4:11; Luke 22:43).
- Yes; there are guardian angels (sort of). Scripture affirms that there are angels that watch over and protect human beings (Hebrews 1:14; Daniel 6:22; 10:13, 20; Psalm 34:7; 91:11). But whether this means that there’s an angel assigned to each of us (like Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life) has more to do with human imagination than scripture. Still, we also see angels intimately involved with death and the afterlife (Luke 16:22; 2 Kings 2:11-12; Acts 6:51; Jude 9). Testimonies abound of Christians who experience the presence of angels ushering them into heaven. While we don’t want to place undue weight on human experience, such testimonies are a possible, biblical, though not necessarily normative experience.
We can go deeper, of course—to say nothing of the fact that Satan and his demons are fallen angels—but this helps to give us a general sense of what angels exactly are and what they do
USE IN HEBREWS
So why is the writer of Hebrews using angels so frequently? Because his first century world needed to hear and understand that Jesus stood superior to the angels.
Our world’s longing for connection to the spiritual world represents an opportunity to further the conversation. In 2005, Peter Steinfels, religion reported for the New York Times, wrote that our world was not just becoming postmodern or post-Christian, but postsecular. What does that mean? In a secular world, there was a clear division between heaven and earth. But in a postsecular world, there is no such division. Heaven invades earth. Spirituality permeates all of existence.
When Jesus began to call his first followers, he promised that they “will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus came to erase the division between heaven and earth. You wish to be spiritual? Then look to Jesus. You wish to connect with God? Then look to Jesus. That’s the point of the early part of Hebrews. And that’s why we need a vision of Jesus that goes beyond our usual conceptions of personal spirituality, and expands our minds into a broader and more joyous kingdom.