Familiar stories. Two of the approximately 300 direct or
indirect references in scripture to angels. That is a lot of
talk about angels. Lots MORE talk in the world. Best seller
lists regularly have popular titles about angels; book stores
have whole sections devoted to angels. On TV Patty Duke hosted
an NBC special called "Angels: The Mysterious Messengers."
Michael Landon starred for five years as an angel sent to earth
to assist mortals in "Highway to Heaven," and CBS currently has
one in the same vein on Saturday nights' called "Touched by an
Angel." Hillary Clinton has a gold angel pin she wears on days
she needs help (1). Lots of interest.
According to a Time Magazine/CNN poll, 69% of American
adults believe in the existence of angels; 46% believe they have
their own Guardian Angel (2); almost one-third (32%) say they
have, at one time or another, personally felt an angelic presence
in their life (3). If there is such a thing as a universal idea,
one that cuts across cultures and religions, common through the
centuries, it is this belief in angels. Not only do Christians,
Jews, and Muslims (the monotheistic religions) have angels, but
Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism do too; winged figures appear
in primitive Sumerian carvings, Egyptian tombs and Assyrian
reliefs. Angels litter the metaphysical landscape from ancient
times to the present.
What should we make of angels? Billy Graham was asked the question a couple of years ago in an interview and answered like this:
Angels belong to a uniquely different dimension of creation we can scarcely comprehend. God has given angels higher knowledge, power and mobility than we. They are God's messengers [and] ministering spirits, whose chief business is to carry out God's orders in the world. God has given them an ambassadorial charge, designated and empowered them as holy deputies. Angels speak. They appear and reappear...(4)What does the Bible say about angels? (5) First of all, the term: "angel" is derived from the Greek word angelos which means "messenger." Angelos and the Hebrew equivalent, malak (which also means "messenger" [the book of Malachi = My Messenger]), are the two most common terms used to describe this class of beings. In general, in texts where an angel appears, the task is to convey the message or do something on behalf of God. Since the focus of the text is on the message, the messenger is rarely described in detail. Thus, the divine emissary may or may not be some sort of supernatural being.
Another set of terms used to describe angels focuses not on
angels as mediators between God and us, but on God's heavenly
entourage. Terms such as "sons of God," "holy ones," and
"heavenly host" seem to focus on angels as CELESTIAL beings. As
such, these variously worship God, attend God's throne, or
comprise God's army. These terms are used typically in contexts
emphasizing the grandeur, power, and/or mighty acts of God.
A third category of heavenly beings is that of winged
angels. Cherubim and seraphim make their most memorable
appearances in the visions of Ezekiel (1:4-28; 10:3-22) and
Isaiah (6:2-6). Cherubim function primarily as guards or
attendants to the divine throne. They were placed as armed
guards at the entrance to the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve
were banished (and those cute cuddly pictures of chubby little
cherubs does NOT reflect the Biblical image). Seraphim appear
only in Isaiah's vision and there attend God's throne and offer
praises. All three categories present us with heavenly beings in
service to God. The text may focus on the service done or on the
God served but rarely on the servants themselves. As a result we
are left with a multitude of questions about the angelic host.
Some scholars suggest that a heavenly "host" (i.e. "army")
must have order and that references to archangels (I Thess. 4:16;
Jude 9) and a special class of angels which has intimate
fellowship with God such as the seraphim of Isaiah 6:2-6,
indicate that angels are organized in a rigidly fixed rank
system. In the early Middle Ages, a writer who claimed to be
Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34), took that idea and
produced a ranking of angels. His schema was later adopted by
Thomas Aquinas and was not seriously challenged until the
Protestant Reformation. According to Dionysius, the angels are
arranged in three ranks, each rank having three groups or
"choirs." The highest rank (seraphim, cherubim, and "thrones")
is closest to God. The second rank is made up of "dominions,"
"powers," and "authorities." The lowest rank - "principalities,"
archangels, and angels - has the most direct contact with
Intriguing. Also flawed...in several ways. For example,
some of the entities named ("powers," "dominions,"
"principalities") are not clearly identified in the Bible as
angels at all. Others (cherubim and archangels) are never
compared to one another in terms of rank. Perhaps most
importantly, a pecking order which envisions the better angels
communing with God and the lesser ones ministering to humanity
has no foundation in the Bible. Scripture presents God directly
involved with us. Thus, any hierarchy which serves to separate
God from humanity by interposing a series of lesser beings should
Another question: where did the angels come from? The Bible
does not say other than to affirm that since only God is eternal,
angels must therefore be created beings. "They are not ghosts
nor are they spirits of the dead. They do not spend time trying
to `earn their wings" like the sweetly ministering Clarence in
the movie, It's a Wonderful Life." (6) No place in Christian
theology do we find any reference to humans becoming angels.
What do angels look like? In the Bible, the appearance of
angels varies. Only cherubim and seraphim are represented with
wings. Often in the Old Testament angels appear as ordinary men.
Sometimes, however, their uniqueness is evident as they do things
or appear in a fashion clearly non-human. The brilliant white
appearance common to the New Testament angel is not a feature of
the Old Testament image.
How about gender? Are there boy angels and girl angels?
Some point to Jesus words in Mark 12:25 about there not being
marriage as we understand it in heaven; instead we will, to use
his words, "be like angels;" many have interpreted that as
meaning that angels are sexless. But then there is that passage
in Genesis 6 which says "the sons of God (or "angels") saw that
[the daughters of men] were fair; and they took wives for
themselves of all that they chose." In other words, I would not
bet the ranch on either position - the Bible is not clear here.
One of the biggest questions people have regards Guardian
Angels? Do we have them? As I mentioned, lots of folks believe
we do. The passage in Psalm 91 suggests YES: "he will command
his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On
their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your
foot against a stone" (11,12). There is Jesus' comment in
Matthew 18:10: "Take care that you do not despise one of these
little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually
see the face of my Father in heaven."
Amy Grant sings a popular song called "Angels:" (7)
Angels watching over me!
Angels watching over me, every step I take,
Angels watching over me!
God only knows the times my life was threatened just today.
But I know they're all around me
If you're asking what's protecting me
What do you think? In the comic strip "Family Circus,"
Billy comes into the house all tattered and torn. He looks like
he has been in a wreck, then a fight, then dragged for a mile or
two by a team of runaway horses. He asks, "Do guardian angels
take days off?" (8)
There are all sorts of more positive accounts out there.
For example, in Billy Graham's book, Angels: God's Secret Agents
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), one of the few books
published in recent years that approaches angels from a very
literal Biblical perspective, Billy tells the story of Dr. S. W.
Mitchell, a celebrated Philadelphia neurologist (9). Dr.
Mitchell had gone to bed after an exceptionally tiring day when
suddenly he was awakened by someone knocking on his door.
Opening it, he found a little girl, poorly dressed and deeply
upset. She told him that her mother was very sick and asked him
if he would please come with her. It was a bitterly cold, snowy
night, and though he was bone tired, Dr. Mitchell dressed and
followed the girl.
As the book recounts the story, the doctor found the mother
desperately ill with pneumonia. After arranging for medical
care, he complimented the sick woman on the intelligence and
persistence of her little daughter. The woman looked at him
strangely and then said, "My daughter died a month ago." She
added, "Her coat and shoes are in the clothes closet there." Dr.
Mitchell, amazed and perplexed, went to the closet and opened the
door. There hung the very coat worn by the little girl who had
brought him to tend to her mother. It was warm and dry and could
not have possibly have been out on a wintry night.
Could the doctor have been called in the hour of desperate
need by an angel who appeared as this woman's young daughter?
Was this the work of God's angels on behalf of this woman? I
cannot explain it.
I will say this: I DO have a problem with the concept. As I
prepared this sermon, I came across the story (10) of a woman who
says she was prevented from going into a certain building at a
certain moment because she was held back by an unseen hand on her
shoulder. She looked around, but saw no one nearby. She tried
again and was stopped again. Whirling around, she still saw no
one. But then she heard a clear voice: "It would not be wise for
you to go in there just now." Hours later she learned that there
was a woman murdered in the building, just after she would have
entered. It could have been her - it probably would have been
her, she thought. She got down on her knees and gave thanks.
But the story raises a disturbing question: if she was actually
saved by an angel, why did the other woman have to die? Where
was HER angel? Are angels partial to certain humans -- does even
God play favorites? Throughout history, similar stories have
raised this question time and again, and I have never heard an
answer that satisfies me.
Tony Kushner wrote a Pulitzer prize- and Tony award-winning
Broadway play called Angels in America - it is about a divine
messenger who ministers to a man with AIDS. Kushner is also
troubled by the thought that angels appear to and take care of
only some people and not others. "I find that horrendously
offensive," he says, "The question is, why are you saved with
your guardian angel and not the woman who was shot to death
shielding her children in Brooklyn three weeks ago?" That
suggests a capricious divine force. If there is a God, He can't
possibly work that way." (11) I agree.
The biggest hazard in all this fascination with angels is
that it can take people's focus off God, the God who created
these ministering agents in the first place, the one who loves us
and this whole world so much that God's own son Jesus Christ came
to redeem us. Twice the angel messenger in Revelation tells
John, "Do not [worship me]! I am a fellow servant with you and
with your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship
God!" (Rev. 19:10, 22:9)
Angels are a sign of God's interest in us, of God's desire
to guide us. In the Bible God uses angels to guide people to
begin new ventures, to protect themselves, to wait, to trust.
There is no reason to think that God has stopped guiding people
that way. "Scripture clearly stands on the side of those who
believe that angels move among us - all the cultural fascination
is not false." My advice is to keep your eyes open for
angels... angels of all kinds. Do not confine yourself to wings
and haloes. Just remember that, Biblically, the word we
translate as ANGEL is just as correctly translated MESSENGER.
One messenger might be your conscience. "Ah, ah, ah."
"Watch it." "Careful." Listen for that inner voice that keeps
you from straying from the right path.
A second might be found in your dreams. This has great
Biblical precedent - In the Old Testament, Abimelech, Jacob,
Laban, Joseph, the Egyptian Pharaoh, Gideon, Solomon. In the New
Testament, Joseph, the Wise Men, the wife of Pontius Pilate, to
name a few. Analyze your dreams and their symbols (if you
remember them), to see what they might be saying to you.
Third (and perhaps related to what we just said), look for
angels in the form of loved ones who have died - Billy Graham's
story of Dr. Mitchell has too many parallels from too many
sources - believers as well as non-believers - to be totally
Fourth, look for angels in the people around you every day.
Over and over you have heard the story of Christie's challenge to
me about my intention to go that church in Kansas instead of
coming to St. Paul - that was an angelic message as sure as any I
Finally, remain open to the idea of a visit from some
celestial being. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, "There are more
things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your
philosophy" (I, v, 166).
Angels. The Male Chauvinist husband might say, "My wife is
an angel...always up in the air harping about something." No, we
do not begin to have all the details available to us. But if you
are interested in angels, be glad - it is a sign of a healthy
hunger for the answers to the great mysteries. Listen for God's
messengers and messages. Angels.
Let us pray.
O God, we are grateful for your ministrations to us from
whatever source and in whatever form. Prepare us to accept them
as they are sent. Then help us to grow in our faith. We pray in
the name of Jesus. Amen!
1. "Angels Among Us," Time, 12/27/93, p. 56
3. ibid., p. 61
4. quoted in a Midwest Today profile, Dec. 1992
5. Much of the following comes from "Angels" by Mike Martin
in the Holman Bible Dictionary, Electronic Edition,
Parsons Technologies, 1994
6. Time, p. 59
7. Words & Music by Brown Bannister, Gary Chapman, Amy Grant, and
Michael W. Smith
8. The Pastor's Story File, Oct. 1991, p. 5
9. pp. 14-15
10. Eileen Elias Freeman, Touched by Angels, (Warner Books)
11. Time, p. 65