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You do not hear much preaching about angels despite the many biblical references to them. Some years ago, Billy Graham decided to do a sermon on angels and realized that he had never heard one. It prompted him to, not only preach a sermon, but write an entire book on the subject: Angels, God's Secret Agents.(1)
Some years ago, when the internet was just coming into its own, I decided that the church I served should have a presence on the web to reach folks who otherwise might have no contact with us at all. It was relatively easy to put up a website, and so we launched one, the first congregation to do so in Greensboro, NC. It had much the same type of information as our First Presbyterian website has today - location, service times, events, activities, and sermons...a new one every week. It attracted a lot of attention, was written up in the newspapers, and so on. No big deal these days, but back then, something on the cutting edge. I mention that because one of the first sermons I posted had to do with angels,(2) and, to this day, that sermon has attracted more e-mail than any of the almost 400 that are currently on our website. One of the notes came from a university student who was involved in a research project on angels and, in his web search, he had come across the sermon and was writing to comment on it. Oh yes, the student was in Indonesia. Amazing!
Another was from a lady, somewhere in the US, I have no idea where. She wrote:
Rev. Leininger:Well, Mrs. Adams, I do have some feelings or insight as to such experiences. I agree with Shakespeare who said in Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy."(3)
According to a Gallup Poll last year, while the portion of Americans who believe in God has remained relatively steady at upward of 90%, increasing numbers of Americans believe in heaven, hell, angels and the devil. Eighty-one percent of Americans believe in heaven, and 70% believe in hell. Those figures are up from 72% and 56%, respectively, since 1997. More than three-fourths of Americans - 78% - believe in angels, up from 72% in 1994. Eighty-four percent of women believe in angels, compared to 72 percent of men.(4) That surprises me a little - after all, how many men describe their wives as angels? "My wife is an angel...always up in the air harping about something." Uh-huh.
So saying, 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 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.
By the way, those cute cuddly little cherubs on Christmas cards do NOT reflect the Biblical image; after all, most every time someone encounters an angel in scripture, the first words out of the angel's mouth are FEAR NOT. Who would be afraid of one of those chubby little munchkins?
So, 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 (which would mess John Travolta's Michael up BIG time). But then there is that passage in Genesis 6:2 which says, "the sons of God (or 'angels') saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose." In other words, I would not bet the ranch on either position - the Bible is not clear here. And, by the way, just because the Bible is not clear has never hindered theologians from speculations - I will not go into them all here, but if you are interested, you can check that old sermon on our website entitled ANGELS for some of them.
One of the subjects with which that sermon dealt remains one of biggest questions people have regarding angels, specifically Guardian Angels - do we have them? Lots of folks believe so. The passage in Psalm 91 suggests YES: "For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone." There is Jesus' comment in Matthew 18:10: "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven."
In Billy Graham's book is the story of the Reverend John G. Paton, pioneer missionary in the New Hebrides Islands. He told a thrilling tale of hostile natives surrounding his mission headquarters one night, intent on burning the Patons out and killing them. John Paton and his wife prayed all during that terror-filled night that God would deliver them. When daylight came they were amazed to see that, unaccountably, the attackers had left. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
A year later, the chief of the tribe was converted to Jesus Christ, and Mr. Paton, remembering what had happened, asked the chief what had kept him and his men from burning down the house and killing them. The chief replied in surprise, "Who were all those men you had with you there?"
The missionary answered, "There were no men there; just my wife and I." The chief argued that they had seen many men standing guard - hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands. They seemed to circle the mission station so that the natives were afraid to attack. God's angels? The chief agreed that there was no other explanation. Do you have one?
I will say this: I DO have a problem with some stories. In my files I have one(7) 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? I have never heard an answer that satisfies 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)
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. Angels are a sign of God's interest in us, of God's desire to point us in the right direction. 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. 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. An angel.
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 is being said to you. An angel.
Third, look for angels in the people around you every day. Years ago, I was in the process of wrestling with God in discerning where it was my ministry would take me next. I was convinced it was a church in Kansas. One morning, as Christie and I were walking, she said to me, "I don't know how you feel called to Kansas, but I feel called to North Carolina (where another church was asking me to serve). She had never said anything like to me before. Ever. An angel.
Angels. A pastor went to visit a newly-married couple in his congregation. He knocked on the front door. A sweet voice from within called, "Is that you, angel?"
The minister replied, "No, but I'm from the same department."
Angels. 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. Remember, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of..." Angels.
1. Waco, TX : Word Publishing, 1975
3. I, v, 166
4. Kevin Eckstrom, Religion News Service, "Poll: Belief in angels, devil on the rise," The 2004 figures are based on a telephone poll of 519 adults. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
5. Much of the following comes from "Angels" by Mike Martin in the Holman Bible Dictionary, Electronic Edition, Parsons Technologies, 1994
6. "Angels Among Us," Time, 12/27/93, p. 59
7. Eileen Elias Freeman, Touched by Angels, (Warner Books)
8. The Pastor's Story File, Oct. 1991, p. 5