Superhuman or heavenly being who serves as God's messenger. Both the Hebrew malak [J; 'm] and the Greek angelos [a [ggelo"] indicate that these beings also act decisively in fulfilling God's will in the world. But these two terms also apply to human beings as messengers ( 1 Kings 19:2 ; Hag 1:13 ; Luke 7:24 ). "Angels" are mentioned almost three hundred times in Scripture, and are only noticeably absent from books such as Ruth, Nehemiah, Esther, the letters of John, and James.
The Old Testament From the beginning, angels were part of the divine hierarchy. They were created beings ( Psalms 148:2 Psalms 148:5 ), and were exuberant witnesses when God brought the world into being ( Job 38:7 ). By nature they were spiritual entities, and thus not subject to the limitations of human flesh. Although holy, angels could sometimes behave foolishly ( Job 4:18 ), and even prove to be untrustworthy ( Job 15:15 ). Probably these qualities led to the "fall" of some angels, including Satan, but the Bible contains no description of that event. When angels appeared in human society they resembled normal males ( Genesis 18:2 Genesis 18:16 ; Ezek 9:2 ), and never came dressed as women.
In whatever form they occurred, however, their general purpose was to declare and promote God's will. On infrequent occasions they acted as agets of destruction ( Gen 19:13 ; 2 Sam 24:16 ; 2 Kings 19:35, ; etc. ). Sometimes angels addressed people in dreams, as with Jacob ( Gen 28:12 ; 31:11 ), and could be recognized by animals before human beings became aware of them, as with Balaam ( Nu 22:22 ). Collectively the divine messengers were described as the "angelic host" that surrounded God ( 1 Ki 22:19 ) and praised his majesty constantly ( Psalm 103:21 ). The Lord, their commander, was known to the Hebrews as the "Lord of hosts." There appears to have been some sort of spiritual hierarchy among them. Thus the messenger who instructed Joshua was a self-described "commander of the Lord's army" ( Jos 5:14-15 ), although this designation could also mean that it was God himself who was speaking to Joshua.
In Daniel, two angels who interpreted visions were unnamed ( 7:16 ; 10:5 ), but other visions were explained to Daniel by the angel Gabriel, who was instructed by a "man's voice" to undertake this task ( 8:15-16 ). When a heavenly messenger appeared to Daniel beside the river Hiddekel (Tigris), he spoke of Michael as "one of the chief princes" ( Daniel 10:13 Daniel 10:21 ). This mighty angel would preside over the fortunes of God's people in the latter time ( 12:1 ). Thereafter he was regarded by the Hebrews as their patron angel. In the postexilic period the term "messenger" described the teaching functions of the priest ( Mal 2:7 ), but most particularly the individual who was to prepare the way for the Lord's Messiah ( Mal 3:1 ).
Two other terms relating to spiritual beings were prominent at various times in Israel's history. The first was "cherubim, " a plural form, conceived of as winged creatures ( Exod 25:20 ), and mentioned first in connection with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden ( Gen 3:24 ). Apart from their functions as guardians, however, nothing is said about their character. When the wilderness tabernacle was being fashioned, God ordered two gold cherubim to be placed on top of the "mercy seat" or lid of the covenant ark to screen it. These came to be known as the "cherubim of the Glory" ( Heb 9:5 ). Cherubim designs were also incorporated into the fabric of the inner curtain ( Eze 26:1 ) and the veil of the tabernacle ( Exod 26:31 ).
Solomon placed two wooden cherubim plated with gold leaf in the Most Holy Place of the temple, looking toward the Holy Place. They stood ten cubits (about fourteen feet) high and their wings were five cubits (about seven feet) long. Near Eastern archeological excavations have shown how popular the concept of winged creatures was in antiquity. The throne of Hiram at Byblos (ca. 1200 b.c.) was supported by a pair of creatures with human faces, lions' bodies, and large protective wings. It was above the cherubim that the Lord of hosts sat enthroned ( 1 Sa 4:4 ).
The seraphim were also thought of as winged, and in Isaiah's vision they were stationed above the Lord's throne ( 6:1-2 ). They seemed to possess a human figure, and had voices, faces, and feet. According to the vision their task was to participate in singing God's praises antiphonally. They also acted in some unspecified manner as mediums of communication between heaven and earth ( Isa 6:6 ). The living creatures of Ezekiel 1:5-14 were composites of human and animal parts, which was typically Mesopotamian in character, and they seem to have depicted the omnipotence and omniscience of God.
The Apocrypha In the late postexilic period angelology became a prominent feature of Jewish religion. The angel Michael was deemed to be Judaism's patron, and the apocryphal writings named three other archangels as leaders of the angelic hierarchy. Chief of these was Raphael, who was supposed to present the prayers of pious Jews to God ( 1 Tobit 2:15). Uriel explained to Enoch many of his visions (1 Enoch 21:5-10; 27:2-4), interpreted Ezra's vision of the celestial Jerusalem (2 Esdras 10:28-57), and explained the fate of the fallen angels who supposedly married human women (1 Enoch 19:1-9; cf. Gen 6:2 ). Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and Uriel (1 Enoch 40:3, 6) reported to God about the depraved state of humanity, and received appropriate instructions. According to contemporary thought, Gabriel sat on God's left, while Michael sat on the right side (2 Enoch 24:1). The primary concern of these two angels, however, was supposedly with missions on earth and affairs in heaven, respectively. In rabbinic Judaism they assumed a character which, while sometimes dramatic, had no factual basis in divine revelation.
The New Testament Against this background of belief in angels who were involved in human affairs, it was not surprising that the angel Gabriel should be chosen to visit Zechariah, the officiating priest in the temple, to inform him that he was to become a father, and that he had to name his son John ( Luke 1:11-20 ). Gabriel was not referred to here as an archangel, the Greek term archangelos [ajrcavggelo"], appearing only in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 to describe an otherwise unnamed executive angel, and also in Jude 9, which refers to "Michael the archangel." Six months after his announcement to Zechariah, Gabriel appeared to Mary to inform her that God had selected her to become the mother of Jesus, the promised Messiah ( Luke 1:26-33 ).
Nothing in Gabriel's behavior is inconsistent with Old Testament teachings about angels. It has been pointed out frequently that, just as they were active when the world began, so angels were correspondingly prominent when the new era of divine grace dawned with the birth of Jesus. On three occasions an angel visited Joseph in a vision concerning Jesus ( Matt 1:20 ; Matthew 2:13 Matthew 2:19 ). On the first two occasions the celestial visitor is described as "the angel of the Lord, " which could possibly be a way of describing God himself. On the last visit the heavenly messenger was described simply as "an angel of the Lord." In the end, however, the celestial beings were most probably of the same order, and were fulfilling among humans those duties normally assigned to such angels as Gabriel ( Luke 1:19 ).
There is nothing recorded about the actual form of the latter, but Zechariah appears to have recognized the angel immediately as a celestial being, and was terrified ( Luke 1:12 ). His penalty for not having learned anything from his ancestor Abraham's experience ( Luke 1:18 ; cf. Gen 17:17 ) would only be removed when his son John was born ( Luke 1:20 ). When Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear Jesus (Luke 31), she seems to have been more disturbed by his message than his appearance. The birth of Jesus was announced to Bethlehem shepherds by the angel of the Lord, and since he was accompanied by the divine glory he may well have been the Lord himself. The message of joy having been proclaimed, the heavenly host of angels praised and glorified God ( Luke 2:13-14 ) for a short period, as they had done at the creation of the world ( Job 38:7 ), after which they departed.
During his ministry, angels came and ministered to Jesus after he had resisted the devil's temptations ( Matt 4:11 ). Again, when Jesus was submitting himself to God's will in the garden of Gethsemane ( Luke 22:40-44 ), an angel came from heaven to strengthen him. At the resurrection, the angel of the Lord rolled back the stone from Jesus' burial place ( Matt 28:2 ), and he was described as having a countenance like lightning and garments as white as snow ( Matt 28:3 ). Again, this celestial being performed a service of reassurance and love for Mary and Mary of Magdala, who subsequently reported seeing "a vision of angels" ( Luke 24:23 ). In John's Gospel Mary Magdalene saw two angels in white clothing, sitting in the empty tomb, just before she met the risen Lord ( John 20:12-16 ).
In Acts, the imprisoned apostles were released by an angel ( 5:19 ). Philip was ordered by an angel to meet an Ethiopian official ( 8:26-28 ), while another celestial being appeared to Cornelius ( 10:3 ). The angel of the Lord released Peter from prison ( 12:7-11 ), and subsequently afflicted Herod with a fatal illness ( 12:23 ). When Paul and his companions were about to be shipwrecked the apostle assured them of the presence of a guardian angel ( 27:23-24 ).
Paul referred subsequently to angelic hierarchies ("thrones, powers, rulers, or authorities") when proclaiming the cosmic supremacy of Jesus ( Col 1:15-16 ; cf. 1 Peter 3:22 ), and prohibited the worship of angels in the Colossian church ( Col 2:18 ) in an attempt to avoid unorthodox practices. His reference to "angels" in 1 Corinthians 11:10 may have been a warning that such things observe humans at worship, and thus the Corinthians should avoid improper conduct or breaches of decency.
The angelology of 2 Peter and Jude reflects some of the intertestamental Jewish traditions concerning "wicked angels." In Revelation there are numerous symbolic allusions to angels, the worship of which is forbidden ( 22:8-9 ). The "angels of the seven churches" ( 1:20 ) are the specific spiritual representations or personifications of these Christian groups. A particularly sinister figure was Abaddon (Apollyon in Greek), the "angel of the bottomless pit" ( 9:11 ), who with his minions was involved in a fierce battle with Michael and his angels ( 12:7-9 ).
Jesus accepted as valid the Old Testament references to angels and their functions ( Matt 22:30 ), but spoke specifically of the "devil and his angels" ( Matt 25:41 ) as destined for destruction. He fostered the idea of angels ministering to believers (cf. Heb 1:14 ), and as being concerned for the welfare of children ( Matt 18:10 ). He described angels as holy creatures ( Mark 8:38 ) who could rejoice when a sinner repented ( Luke 15:10 ). Angels were devoid of sexual characteristics ( Matt 22:30 ), and although they were highly intelligent ministers of God's will they were not omniscient ( Matt 24:36 ).
Christ claimed at his arrest in Gethsemane that more than twelve legions of angels (numbering about 72, 000) were available to deliver him, had he wanted to call upon them for assistance ( Matt 26:53 ). He taught that angels would be with him when he returned to earth at the second coming ( Matt 25:31 ), and that they would be involved significantly in the last judgment ( Matthew 13:41 Matthew 13:49 ). Finally, angels set a model of obedience to God's will in heaven to which the Christian church should aspire (cf. Matt 6:10 ).
Some writers contrast the celestial beings with "fallen angels, " of which there are two varieties. The first consists of unimprisoned, evil beings working under Satan's leadership, and generally regarded as demons ( Luke 4:35 ; 11:15 ; John 10:21 ). The second were imprisoned ( 2 Peter 2:4 ; Jude 6 ) spirits because they forsook their original positions in heaven. For New Testament writers they were particularly dangerous. The precise difference in function and character is not explained in Scripture, but some have thought that the latter were the "sons of God" who cohabited with mortal women ( Gen 6:1-2 ). This view, however, is strictly conjectural. Presumably the imprisoned angels are the ones who will be judged by the saints ( 1 Cor 6:3 ).
In a material world that is also populated by good and evil spirits, the Bible teaches that the heavenly angels set an example of enthusiastic and resolute fulfillment of God's will. They acknowledge Jesus as their superior, and worship him accordingly. Angels continue to perform ministering duties among humans, and this function has led to the concept of "guardian angels, " perhaps prompted by Christ's words in Matthew 18:10. It is not entirely clear whether each individual has a specific angelic guardian, but there is certainly no reason for doubting that an angel might well be assigned to care for the destinies of groups of individuals such as families. These celestial ministries will be most effective when the intended recipients are receptive to the Lord's will for their lives.
R. K. Harrison
Bibliography. G. B. Caird, Principalities and Powers; A. C. Gaebelein, The Angels of God; B. Graham, Angels: God's Secret Agets; H. Lockyer, The Mystery and Ministry of Angels; A. Whyte, The Nature of Angels.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Angel'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".