Angels, from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o’er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation’s story,
Now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!
(James Montgomery (1771-1854)
This verse of the familiar Christmas carol “Angels From the Realms of Glory” is drawn from Luke’s account of angels announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds watching over their sheep at night (Luke 2:8-14) and illustrates one activity of angels, bringing God’s messages to people.
My family and I have just finished reading Chapter 19, “Angels,” of Wayne Gruden’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994) in our family Bible-reading time. Here I’ll share some of what we learned from our reading and of what I learned from other sources in preparing for our family reading. I’ll consider the nature and work of angels, our relationship to them, and practical uses of the doctrine of angels.
The Nature of Angels
Angels are spiritual beings created by God to serve as attendants and messengers for Him. Since they are spirits (Hebrews 1:14), they don’t have physical bodies (Luke 24:39). Therefore they can’t be seen by us unless they take on a bodily form so that we can see them or God gives us a special ability to see them (see Numbers 22:31 and 2 Kings 6:17).
Like humans, angels are personal beings who can be interacted with and moral creatures who can be characterized as good or evil. They have superhuman knowledge but are not omniscient, both being suggested or indicated by Jesus in Matthew 24:36, “But concerning that day and hour [the day of his return] no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (ESV; all Bible passages quoted are from the ESV). Similarly they have superhuman power but are not omnipotent, both being illustrated in the account of Satan’s testing of Job in Job 1-2. Their travelling from one place to another, as in Daniel 10:12-14, shows that they are not omnipresent.
The Bible refers to three other types of heavenly beings–cherubim, seraphim, and “living creatures.” Cherubim are referred to in several places between Genesis 3:24 and Hebrews 9:5; seraphim in Isaiah 6:2-7; and “living creatures” in Ezekiel 1: 5-25 and Revelation 4:6-8. It is uncertain whether they are special types of angels or are heavenly beings distinct from angels. In Ezekiel 10:15, 20-22 the “living creatures” of Ezekiel 1 seem to be identified as cherubim and so they may not be distinct from them.
The Bible indicates that there are an amazingly large number of angels; for example, Revelation 5:11 describes them as numbering “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands.” The Bible also indicates that there is rank and order among them, Michael’s being called an archangel in Jude 9. The only angel besides Michael who is given a name in the Bible is Gabriel, who carried messages from God to Daniel (Daniel 8:16; 9:21) and to Zechariah and Mary (Luke 1:19, 26-27). Some speculate that he is also an archangel.
Some passages in the Old Testament refer to “the angel of the Lord” in a way that suggests that he is God Himself in human form. For example, “Then the angel of God said to me in a dream, ‘Jacob…I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me'” (Genesis 31:11, 13) and “The angel of the LORD appeared to him [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush…and he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'” (Exodus 3:2, 6). However there are also passages where God and the angel of the Lord are distinguished. For example, God speaks to the angel of the Lord in 2 Samuel 24:16 and the angel of the Lord speaks to God in Zechariah 1:12. The three main theories of who the angel of the Lord is are: (1) an angel with a special commission, (2) God Himself temporarily visible in human form, and (3) Jesus Christ, making a preincarnate appearance.
The Work of Angels
In his Christian Theology Millard J. Erickson (see Bibliography below) describes these five activities of angels:
1. They continually praise and glorify God.
2. The reveal and communicate God’s message to humans.
3. They minister to believers.
4. They execute judgment on the enemies of God.
5. They will be involved in the second coming.
I haven’t given Biblical examples of angels’ performing these activities because there are so many of them. If anybody reading this post wants examples, ask in a Reply to this post and I’ll give some.
Some people think that each person or at least each believer has an individual guardian angel. Support for this idea is found in Matthew 18:10, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones [children or believers]. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is heaven,” and Acts 12:15, “She [the servant girl who answered the door and recognized Peter’s voice after he was freed from prison by an angel] kept insisting that it was so [that Peter was at the gate], and they kept saying, ‘It is his angel!'” However the “little ones” angels could be angels assigned to watch over them as a group, and the reply to the servant girl just points to a belief of those gathered in the house. Thus the evidence is insufficient to demonstrate that each person or each believer has a guardian angel.
Our Relationship to Angels
I enjoyed watching the Touched by an Angel series when it originally appeared and still occasionally watch repeat showings of episodes from it on VISION TV. It shows angels serving God by ministering to us in our daily lives. The Bible indicates the same thing in such passages as Psalms 91:11-12, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in your ways. On their hands they will bera you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone,” and Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” We should be aware of and thankful to God for angels’ participating in our daily lives.
However the Bible also gives cautions regarding our relationship to angels. Grudem elaborates on these two cautions:
– Beware of receiving false doctrine from angels. Paul warns the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).
– Do not worship, pray to, or seek angels. God is the only one whom we should worship or pray to.
Practical Uses of the Doctrine of Angels
In his Systematic Theology Augustus Hopkins Strong (see Bibliography below) lists these uses of the doctrine of angels:
1. It gives us an increased appreciation of God’s greatness to think of the multitude of unfallen beings who executed His purposes before we appeared.
2. It strengthens our faith in God to know that beings of such high rank are appointed to minister to us.
3. It teaches us humility that beings with knowledge and power so much greater than ours gladly perform services on our behalf.
4. It helps us in our struggle against sin to know that angels are near, observing our wrong doing if we fail and sustaining us if we resist temptation.
5. It enlarges our conception of the possibilities of our future existence to think of how angels praise and serve God unceasingly in Heaven.
Most of my Bible dictionaries/encyclopedias and systematic theology textbooks have good articles/chapters on the topics of this and my next post, good angels (this post) and evil angels (next week’s post). Before beginning my study of angels, I browsed all of those articles/chapters and selected a few to read carefully and to consult in our family reading of Chapters 19 and 20 of Grudem’s Systematic Theology and in my preparing the two posts here on angels. These are the ones which I selected:
– Baker, Carolyn Denise, and Frank D. Macchia. “Created Spirit Beings.” Systematic Theology. Edited by Stanley M. Horton. Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1994. Pages 179-213.
– Erickson, Millard J. “God’s Special Agents: Angels.” Christian Theology. Third Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2013. Pages 403-420.
– Strong, Augustus Hopkins. “Good and Evil Angels.” Systematic Theology. Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1907. Pages 443-464.
– Thiessen, Henry Clarence. “Angelology.” Lectures in Systematic Theology. Revised by Vernon D. Doerksen. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979. Pages 133-148.