Sunday, January 3, 2010

What are Angels?

by Joe Trofemuk 

Note - I apologize in advance for the length of this post. There was no natural dividing point for making multiple posts, and I believe the length is necessary to lay the proper foundation for the posts which follow.

What are angels? This may seem to be an overly simplistic question with which to start this series. But it is crucial, because in our modern world it is very common to hear people, even those who are not Christians, discussing angels. Depending on what movie or television show is on, angels may be drunkards, slap stick comedians, chubby cherubs, or irreverent rebels. Or they may be nothing more than wobbly guards on automobile dashboards, a cosmic insurance policy against careless driving.

Of course society’s views are not where one turns to determine truth about angels. The only relevant question is “What does the Bible say?.”

So what does the Bible say? The word translated from Hebrew as angel means messenger. The Greek word translated as angel also means messenger.

So in terms of basic word meaning, the word angel means a messenger. But we learn much more by looking at what Scripture says about angels, rather than merely looking at the dictionary type meaning of the word.

And even on this foundational point we have to be cautious. Because everything the Bible says about angels is really as an aside to some other topic. The Bible does not have an encyclopedia entry on angels. Rather Scripture is the unfolding revelation of God and His plan of redemption through His Son. Angels are always presented in Scripture as part of this broader story line. They are never the focus, in and of themselves.

Even in Hebrews Chapter 1, which gave rise to the instant study, the focus is not on angels. The focus is on Jesus, God’s Son. It just happens that because of people’s wrong view of angels, they were viewing Christ wrongly.

So as the true starting point for this discussion on angels, I am going to go beyond the root meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word. I am going to start with a biblical definition found in a current theology textbook, which I have chosen because of its biblical accuracy.

The definition comes from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: “Angels are created, spiritual beings with moral judgment and high intelligence, but without physical bodies.”

We will look at each aspect of this definition in more detail to insure this is truly a biblical definition upon which to build our study.

a. Angels are created beings

The Bible makes clear that angels are merely created creatures.

Colossians 1:16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things have been created through Him and for Him.

This makes clear, with the exception of God Himself, everything that exists was created by God the Son. This truth is further affirmed in John 1:3 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.

And this clearly includes the angels.

Nehemiah 9:6 6 "You alone are the LORD. You have made the heavens, The heaven of heavens with all their host, The earth and all that is on it, The seas and all that is in them. You give life to all of them And the heavenly host bows down before You.

Psalm 148:1-6 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; Praise Him in the heights! 2 Praise Him, all His angels; Praise Him, all His hosts! 3 Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him, all stars of light! 4 Praise Him, highest heavens, And the waters that are above the heavens! 5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, For He commanded and they were created. 6 He has also established them forever and ever; He has made a decree which will not pass away.

Angels were created by God. This is the clear teaching of Scripture.

To suggest otherwise would be to make angels eternal. And this is not the case. Only God is eternal. 1 Timothy 6:15-16 15 which He will bring about at the proper time-- He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.

Another question might be asked on this same issue: When were angels created?

While this cannot be answered with pinpoint certainty, we know it occurred within the 6 days of creation described in Genesis. And an argument can be made that they may have been created early on the very first day of creation. Let’s review for a moment what we find in Genesis.

Genesis 1:1-5 1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

In Genesis 2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts.

These verses make clear that all that was created by God was created in 6 days. So clearly by the end of the 6 days of creation all angels were in existence.

But we see something else about angels and the time of their creation when we look at another portion of Scripture. It appears that angels were witnesses to God's creative work on the earth.

Job 38:4-11 4 "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, 5 Who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? 6 "On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, 7 When the morning stars sang together And all the sons of God shouted for joy? 8 "Or who enclosed the sea with doors When, bursting forth, it went out from the womb; 9 When I made a cloud its garment And thick darkness its swaddling band, 10 And I placed boundaries on it And set a bolt and doors, 11 And I said, 'Thus far you shall come, but no farther; And here shall your proud waves stop '?

If the angels (described here as morning stars and sons of God) witnessed God laying the foundations of the earth and these other creative acts, it would imply that they were created early on day 1 and thus able to witness the remainder of God's creative acts (i.e., the rest of days 1-6).

But this is in the end speculation. We do not know for sure the exact time of their creation. But the Scriptures prove without a doubt that angels are created beings.

b. Angels are spiritual beings, i.e., they do not have physical bodies

The definition by Grudem claims angels are spiritual beings. Is this scriptural? Absolutely.

Hebrews 1:13-14 13 But to which of the angels has He ever said, "SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I MAKE YOUR ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR YOUR FEET "? 14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?

Likewise fallen angels are referenced as spirits in the NT.

Matthew 8:16 16 When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill.  So it is clear all angels are created spirits.

That means that if they are spirit, they do not have flesh and blood bodies. Again we see this by extension elsewhere in Scripture.

Luke 24:37-43 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. 38 And He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 "See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." 40 And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 41 While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" 42 They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; 43 and He took it and ate it before them.

If angels are spiritual beings (and they are) this means that we as humans do not normally see the angels around us. This is one of the things I believe Paul was alluding to in Colossians 1:16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things have been created through Him and for Him.

And there are numerous biblical examples of angels being invisible as well. One of the clearest examples involves the OT prophet Elisha.

2 Kings 6:15-17 15 Now when the attendant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?" 16 So he answered, "Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them." 17 Then Elisha prayed and said, "O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see." And the LORD opened the servant's eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

So angels are spirits; they do not have physical bodies, and are normally not visible.

c. Angels have moral judgment

Angels are not morally neutral. They are capable of knowing right from wrong, and they at least at some point in time were capable of sinning. We know this because all angels were originally created good, but some of them sinned, incurring God’s judgment. So they must be capable of moral judgment.

How do I know that all angels, which would include every current demon and Satan, were originally created good?

God’s Word says so. Genesis 1:31 - 2:1 31 God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. 2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts.

Yet by Genesis Chapter 3 Satan is tempting Eve to Sin.

When did angels sin? It had to be sometime after Genesis 1:31, before Genesis chapter 3. We cannot pinpoint this any further, because Scripture does not specifically say.

But all of this means that angels made moral judgments. Some chose to obey. Some chose to be disobedient. That division between “good” or “holy” angels, and “bad” or “fallen” angels continues to this day.

Those who obeyed still obey.

Mark 8:38 38 "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."

In fact, as I read one commentator, even the Lord’s prayer makes clear that angels are obedient.

Matthew 6:9-10 9 "Pray, then, in this way: 'Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. 10 'Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.

So angels who are still with God do His will to this day.

Sinning angels will be addressed in more detail later. But for now it is suffice to note their moral choice. 2 Peter 2:4 4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment;

d. Angels are personal beings, i.e., they have individual personalities

It is clear from Scriptures that angels are not mere robots. Nor are they some type of collective consciousness. They have individual personality. Partly we know this because at least two angels have names; Gabriel and Michael.

And we know angels are curious, and are capable of rejoicing.

1 Peter 1:12 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven-- things into which angels long to look.

Luke 15:7 7 "I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Luke 15:10 10 "In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

Finally, Scripture shows that angels interact on an individual basis at times with humans. Revelation 22:8-9 8 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed me these things. 9 But he said to me, "Do not do that. I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book. Worship God."

Angels are not a collective consciousness. They are personal beings.

e. Angels are highly intelligent beings

We know angels have intelligence. In fact they have the capacity, as noted above, to be curious about things that they do not know and understand. 1 Peter 1:12 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven-- things into which angels long to look.

Angels do not know everything. But they apparently know more than humans know. We see this by implication in Jesus’ teaching.

Matthew 24:36 36 "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.

Jesus is saying that lest any human think he can figure out the hour or day of Jesus future coming, not even the angels in heaven know that information. This argument only makes sense if angels are much more knowledgeable than we humans are, which implies that they are highly intelligent creatures.

So even though angels do not know everything, they are intelligent creatures.


Let’s look back at the definition we started with.

“Angels are created, spiritual beings with moral judgment and high intelligence, but without physical bodies.”

I believe that this definition is not just the thought of a wise man (and Wayne Grudem is undoubtedly that). I believe we have seen that this definition reflects the teaching of Scripture. And this definition will be the foundation upon which the further posts in this series build. This is a good and biblical answer to the questions "What are angels?."

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