There seem to be two extreme responses to the reality of angels among Christians today. On one end of the spectrum, some Christians seem to dismiss angels as a myth that no one in this scientific age can be expected to take seriously. On the other end, however, there are Christians who speak of angelic encounters as if they are part of the normal Christian experience.
Most Christians stand between the two extremes. They are aware that the Bible does speak of angels, but they are unsure what these creatures are and what they are supposed to do. With the exception of a few allusions, they seldom hear about angels in Sunday sermons.
Yet, the Bible is full of accounts of angelic activity. Angels were present at different occasions in the history of Israel. They were present at the events surrounding the birth and ministry of Jesus. Angelic activity in the early church is recorded in Acts, and Revelation describes their various roles at the close of the age. However, while the Bible describes the presence and activities of angels, it says precious little about their nature and purpose.
The English word angel is derived from the Greek aggelos which simply means ‘the sent one’. ‘Angel’ therefore simply means ‘messenger’, and can be used to refer either to a human or divine person. In the Bible, angels mostly refer to the spiritual or divine messengers of God. Psalm 8:5 makes clear that angels are superior to human beings but inferior to God. ‘You have made him (man) a little lower than the heavenly beings (angels) and crown him with glory and honour’. Angels are therefore God’s special creatures, a part of God’s wonderful and diverse creation. In Colossians, Paul refers to angels as the ‘invisible things’ that God has created through Christ (Col 1:16).
As created beings, angels, although in many ways superior to human beings, do not possess attributes that belong only to God. For example, although angelic knowledge is superior to the knowledge possessed by human beings, angels are not omniscient – they do not know everything. And although angels appear to be able to shuttle from God’s throne in heaven to earth in a flash, they are not omnipresent. In light of this, the Bible explicitly prohibits the worship of angels (See Rev 19:9-10).
What do angels look like? Do they have human features? Do they have physical bodies? Are they visible or invisible? There is a large body of literature in the Christian tradition that deal with questions like these.
Most theologians maintain that the Bible teaches that angels are spirits, and therefore do not possess physical bodies like human beings. Some theologians, however, opined that angels are pure spirits while others maintain that they possess spiritual bodies. Theologians who maintain that angels possess spiritual bodies insist that only God is pure spirit. All of his creatures are in some sense corporeal, possessing bodies in accordance to their natures. Angels, they claim, are corporeal in that they possess bodies that are very different from the physical bodies of human beings.
Ordinarily, angels are invisible to the human eye, although they can appear in human form. There are many accounts in the Bible of real encounters between humans and angels. These encounters suggest that angels are able to take on the form of human beings. The great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, maintains that angels have the ability to assume human bodies. But he is silent about how this is done and where these human bodies come from.
The Bible teaches that part of the ministry of angels is to protect God’s people and deliver them from harm. In Psalm 91, David writes: ‘For he (God) 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’ (v 12). Instances of angelic protection can be found in Acts, the most famous of which is 12:5-11, which describes the rescue of Peter from prison by an angel (See also Acts 27).
The author of Hebrews therefore describes angels as ‘ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation’ (Heb 1:14). Describing the work of angels in his sermon entitled, ‘Of Good Angels’, John Wesley wrote:
May they not minister also to us with respect to our bodies, in a thousand ways which we do not now understand? They may prevent our falling into many dangers which we are not sensible of; and may deliver us out of many others though we know not whence our deliverance comes. How many times have we been strangely and unaccountably preserved in sudden and dangerous falls? And it is well if we did not impute that preservation to chance, or to our own wisdom or strength. Not so; it was God gave his angels charge over us, and in their hands they bore us up (Sermon 71, ‘Of Good Angels’).
As angels mostly work in secret and in cognito, Christians should not be obsessed by angelic activities in the world. Rather, Christians should always be thankful to God for sending these mysterious creatures, his servants, to serve and protect his people.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (February 2014).