Angels: what, who, and why?

Angels are a funny topic in Scripture.  They’re so popular in the non-Christian popular imagination that many Christians (especially of the non-liturgical stripe lacking that tether to the historic faith) have practically forgotten they exist at all.  So now that we’re in what could be nicknamed “angel week” I figure this is as good a time as any to jot down some thoughts about angels here on the blog.  The outline of this post was intended to be a homily I’d preach this Wednesday evening, but the worship service had to be canceled due to the health of the hostess.  (And by “angel week,” I’m referring to Monday being the feast of St. Michael and All Angels by Anglican nomenclature, and Wednesday being the feast of the Guardian Angels in the Roman calendar.)

What are angels?

In Hebrew, one of the main words for angel is “malak” which means ‘messenger.’  This is a pretty good summary of what angels are: they’re messengers, both through words and through actions.  Sometimes they show up with prophetic words, sometimes they just show up with swords ready to fight.  This leads to another common identity: angels are God’s army.  Throughout the Old Testament many translations have the phrase “Lord of hosts” to describe.  ‘Hosts’ in this context means armies, hence how some translations (like the NLT) translate this phrase as “God of heaven’s armies.”  These armies of God are angels, not humans.  A third common role that angels have in the Bible is that of worshipers.  Both in Old and New Testament visions, angels of various types are seen surrounding the throne of God offering him endless worship and praise.

There’s also a figure known as the “angel of the Lord” who pops up from time to time throughout the Old Testament, such as in Exodus 23.  This particular angel sometimes has attributed to him statements like “my Name will be in him,” which has led many Christian teachers to believe that this is not any ordinary angel, but in fact the pre-incarnate Christ – the Logos (Word) of God before he became flesh in the womb of Mary.  He’s angel-like in the Old Testament and thus unsurprisingly depicted as the leader of the angelic army in the New Testament.

Who are some angels?

There are three angels whose names are known to us: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.  Michael is like God’s head general, he is consistently identified as a warrior sort of angel entrusted with large-scale operations such as defending the entire people of Israel.  He can be found in Daniel 10 & 12, Jude, and Revelation 12.  Gabriel is the ultimate messenger; lots of angels deliver messages, but Gabriel gets to carry the most important news ever: the coming of the Christ!  He starts the 490-year countdown to Jesus in Daniel 8 & 9, and then shows up in Luke 1 to alert the parents of John the Baptist and of Jesus that their sons would be the Christ and his forerunner.  Raphael is primarily a healer: he assists Tobit on a long journey and helps him cure both his bride from demonic affliction and his father from blindness.  However, because this story is from the book of Tobit, most Protestants have lost track of Raphael, or utterly rejected this story as fantasy.  He does, nevertheless, continue to be remembered in the Roman and Eastern churches, and whatever Anglican and Protestant churches happen to sing the excellent hymn Christ the fair glory of the holy angels.

Why are there angels?

One of the main reasons that faithful Protestants avoid ever talking about angels is similar to why they avoid talking about the communion of saints: they’re afraid of stepping on God’s toes in terms of veneration and respect.  The concern is that if we attribute miraculous happenings to angels, it will detract from the perceived glory and power of God.  But, like the Sacraments, ignoring these instruments of God’s activity in the world ultimately does more to disarm God’s power than protect it.  Just as God made promises in and through the waters of Baptism and the participation in Christ’s Body & Blood through bread & wine, so has God definitely acted through his angels.  They are, in a way, extensions of his power in the spiritual realms, not unlike how the Sacraments are extensions of his power in the physical realms.

Many of God’s pronouncements are enacted through angels.  In the original Passover it was an “angel of death” that went about killing every firstborn son in Egypt except for the homes God ‘passed over’ to protect [Exodus 12].  When King Hezekiah was in danger of losing a war (and Jerusalem itself) against the Assyrians, an army of angels slaughtered the invaders overnight [2 Chronicles 32].  When Jesus returns at the end of this age, angels will be the ones gathering up the harvest and separating the faithful and the unfaithful [Matthew 13].

God’s angels also serve God’s people – us!  This is described at the end of Hebrews 1, in the middle of Psalm 91, as well as in Matthew 18 (which is the closest Scripture gets to describing ‘guardian angels’).  What’s interesting about that last reference is that the angels not only protect children (be they either children by age or children of faith) but they also attack and punish those who oppress them.  In this regard, angels are rather like policemen.  They have a lot of power that we don’t have, yet they’re here to serve us and protect us, yet they are not at our beck and call.  They answer to God, not to us.

So what?

Well we can’t boss them around, but we know God sends angels to do all sorts of things.  It can’t hurt to ask God for them, can it?  When praying for ourselves and others, it’s fair to ask for God to send his angels to protect us from temptation or harm or whatnot, just as we’d ask for the Holy Spirit to refresh and guide us.  It also can’t hurt to thank them when they do stuff.

Granted, most angelic activity is entirely invisible to us, but occasionally in Scripture they interact with people, or are at least revealed to people with the eyes of faith.  Most of their appearances in Scripture have either been incognito (people “entertaining angels unawares”) or terrifyingly awe-inspiring.  Angels consistently have to tell people 1) not be afraid of them and 2) not to worship them, but God alone.  So we respect them like we respect the police (ideally), but we don’t treat them like the boss either.

Short of these rare encounters and moments of supernatural vision and clarity, though, we can at least worship with them.  Every Eucharist, towards the beginning of the prayers, includes the joyful proclamation before God: “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to the glory of your Name…”

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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