What are angels?

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Almost all people have heard about angels or claim to have seen an angel. But what actually is an angel and how can you know what an angel is? Why do angels exist and what should their relationship with God be? What is written about it in the Bible?

Its nowadays common to call one’s fellow sometimes an angel when that person does or brings something above expectation or which richly meets a need. In Biblical sense[1] however an angel is not a human person (a physical creature), but a spiritual person (a non-physical creature). An angel is even a divine[2] creature originating from heaven. For angels, heaven is their home base.

It seems that God created angels (plural) before He created man (singular), since they are to be seen as part of the creation of heaven which was created before the earth. There are angels in the direct vicinity of God[3], who have direct access to His throne and/or are Personally been sent by Him[4]. Contrary to the traditional view it seems that heaven is more ‘important’ than earth. In any case, it shows that the two worlds are rather separate. The latter fact is an important basis in understanding what angels are[5].

Word study
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word mal‘ach, from the non-existing root with the meaning ‘delegate’, is translated as angel. The word occurs for the first time in Genesis 16:7. It is used to indicate messengers, for example for kings or nations. It is used that way in Job 1:14 and also in Genesis 32:3. That also says something about their main task concerning humans: announcing the words of God.

The word mal‘ach also is related with the word mal‘achah – work assignment, that occurs for the first time in Genesis 2:2. That shows the other main task of angels: executing work assignments for God. Since it is evident that they were involved with God’s care for the physical world from the outset. Angels are therefore called roechot – spirits (Ps 104:4). Other descriptions are (morning)stars (Job 38:7) and sons of God (Job 1:6; Gn 6:2).

Next to this, different kinds of angels are identified. Firstly, ones that are named cherub (Hebrew: cheroev), mentioned 66 times in the Bible. Another kind, which is named by a word based on the Hebrew root saraf – burn (up). This kind of angel only is mentioned in Isaiah 6:2 and verse 6. In the fourth chapter of the book Daniel another kind is mentioned by the Aramaic word ’ier meaning ‘(angel)guard’.

In the New Testament the Greek word angelos is translated as angel. This word has with Greek a relation with the word angelion – message. Just like the Hebrew word mal‘ach.

Discovery of heaven
Also, before the coming of the Lord Jesus there were humans that knew God. In the enclosed garden of Eden, He walked and sought man. The first man, Adam, knew God even from first hand. That would seemingly make angels less relevant. Still, it is rather obvious that Adam had daily contact with angels, since it was virtually impossible for him to take care of the whole of the physical creation by himself[6]. Also, it is evident that angels needed to help him.

When man rebelled against God, they were logically punished by banishment from His Presence. Man thereby ended up in very dangerous and chaotic circumstances that continuously is corrupting them[7]. From the on God revealed Himself sporadically to certain people by speaking to them. Those people heard His Voice, but didn’t see Him. These were special revelations of God. Through that people came to realize that God actually existed outside and ‘above’ the physical creation.

It became more frequent that angels distributed God’s messages to people. Then it became clear that angels didn’t have their home on earth, but rather in a non-physical world. In heaven. This newly discovered heaven, that the angels represented, was then assumed as the new home where God resided. Therefore, heaven was imagined as being pure, clean, totally divine and devoid from any evil[8]. Believers even went so far as to imagine how it would be like for humans to join God and His angels there to worship and serve Him together.

God revealed believers that heaven was made up out of several levels and that a place existed where God was continuously worshipped. In the Temple in heaven. The service to God in that Tempe in heaven has its own function (glorification of God), a function for heaven (worshipping and serving God by the angels) and a function for the physical creation (ordering of creation, prayer & reconciliation of believers). Angels have their role in that Temple service, like the Levites did on earth.

The Lord Jesus, God’s Son, made known that He also had is home in heaven. That made heaven even more important. Especially since He returned to heaven, after He completed the works God had commanded Him to perform on earth. In heaven God made Him high priest for His Temple in heaven, on the bases of His completed works on earth.

It became even more clear to believers that heaven was in direct contact with events on earth. Angels make out an essential part of the fulfillment of God’s salvation plan and promise to His people[9]. Therefore, it is good for believers to be aware of that[10].

Without heaven it became impossible for humans to continue their contact with God and to let it grow. This remained so, even after God poured out His Spirit on the believers and man became fulfilled with His will. Fulfillment of the Spirit also proved to be dependent on heaven.

This also becomes clear from the intermediate role that angels have. They are seen as being between God and humans. For some this is confusing or deem it as a dilution of the direct contact with God. That explains why scholars often have a tendency to downplay the importance of angels. According to them they are not essential.

Angel fantasies
Most people image angels as persons in white clothes and with white wings. Angels also are assumed to radiate light. They supposedly appear all of the sudden and also suddenly disappear again after they have announced their message. They seem to descend from the sky down to earth and afterwards also ascend up into the sky. There exists also the conviction that each man, believing or not, has an angel for protection (Ps 91:11; Lc 4:10) or an angel and demon who whispers things in their ear (good and evil inclinations).

All these imaginations are not only nonsensical, but also most likely originate from paganism. From that originated also the imagination of fairies, elves and all kinds of demigods. In the Bible angels appear unto people as if they are normal humans. Its only just after the contact that people understand that they have been visited by angels when they consider their behavior and message.

Differences between angels and humans
God created angels with the same purpose for which He created humans: worship and service of God[11]. But although the purpose is the same, still angels and humans have important differences. An important difference is that angels are in principle non-physical[12]. They can have temporarily a human form[13]. As non-physical beings they are immortal (Lc 20:36)[14]. But not only that. They also exist permanently. That explains why they do not have their home in the current, physical creation of mortals.

Angels also are without sex[15], because they have no reason to multiply, like Adam that originally also had. Still, angels are not without a will. They can do more than God allows them to and stray (Job 4:18). Otherwise, rebellious angels (demons) wouldn’t exist. They, for example, can possess humans.

There are angels who are placed[16] ‘amongst humans’ and some ‘above humans’[17]. There exists immeasurable and enormous angel activity in the physical creation. Still, virtually all of it is unnoticed by man[18]. There is no head of state, no nation or element of nature that is not ‘ruled’ by an angelic power (Dn 4:13; Rm 8:38)[19]. No one can change that power, except for God or satan (Dn 10:13).

Angels can, as spirits, bridge enormous distances in a flash, but above all transfer between heaven and earth (Gn 28:12). Also, physical barriers are not a hindrance for them. They can for example pass through walls without any difficulty.

Angels bring believers that passed away to the right side of the underworld (Lc 16:22)[20]. This also is connected with the Biblical given that believers ultimately will be set ‘above’ angels (1 Cor 6:3)[21]. Worshipping angels therefore is a serious offence (sin)[22].

Fallen angels
There exists also another ‘angel’ of whom its name is unknown, but he has the well-known nickname satan – opposer (of God). In connection with satan Greek words are used like satyr (probable originating from the Hebrew word sa’ier – (possessed) male goat), diabolos – false witness/accuser. He was one of God’s most powerful angels.

There are angels who ‘joined’ satan in its war against God. These are best known with the Greek nickname daimoon – devide[23]/demon. Also, in life’s practice there is proof that these fallen angels do exist[24]. Still, most believers cling to their superstition that satan and his demons are not dangerous since God is supposedly almighty.

Order of angels
According to the Bible angels are arranged in army units (hosts). In short, angels have a military calling since there is war between God and satan going on. This becomes clear in their mutual hierarchy and functions. So, the power of God is divided over them. Angels that have the highest positions in the hierarchy are called archangels, like Michael and Gabriel.

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[1] The concept ‘angel’ originates in the Bible and not within paganism.
[2] More divine than humans.
[3] As personal guards or sentries of the heavenly realms.
[4] This latter is not so for all angels. These are certain angels which have this special status.
[5] Thus, angels are incomparable with humans.
[6] Angels take care of sustaining heaven, just like plants and animals on earth.
[7] This is due to the fact that satan became ‘tyrant’ of the physical creation.
[8] It seems all the more likely that the war of satan against God started in heaven and by heaven didn’t remain undamaged. The coming of the new heaven is announced. Seemingly it also needs restoration.
[9] This ends once the salvation plan of God is fulfilled.
[10] For example by following certain customs, like clothing (1 Cor 11:10).
[11] In principal angels also are in the service of God, the Father.
[12] In principle they are invisible for the eyes of physical creatures. But God can make them also visible for some creatures, whilst for others they remain invisible (Nm 22:23, 31).
[13] A human or animal form.
[14] So, satan and demons also.
[15] The continuing persistent error that angels have begotten children by humans (Gn 6) thus not only is impossible, but also bizarre (Mt 22:30).
[16] When the Lord Jesus was on earth He also was ‘amongst angels’. Therefore, He cannot be an angel, whilst some do think that. They view Him as ‘the angel of God’ mentioned in the Bible. But such a comparison is rather a Christological degradation.
[17] That also means that humans sometimes are obliged to do the charges of angels and when they refuse these they sin against God which has unbeneficial consequences.
[18] Still, not many wonder why so much things turn out in the right way.
[19] An angelic power is an angel that has received that ‘power’ over an entity in creation.
[20] They cannot bring them to heaven.
[21] Believers should condemn fallen angels and direct them to their subordinate place. The angels of God sometimes also do that.
[22] The angels of God never force people to serve them. This however does happen in the realm of satan.
[23] This characteristic is important, since God also has angels in His service whom He has given assignments that people view as evil (1 S 16:14) and bringing doom (Ex 4:24; 12:23). The salvation plan of God is the distinguishing criteria on that.
[24] Demons frighten and speak & act on themselves and not on behalf of God. Angels, on the other hand, ease and are humble (unto God).