As the word means “messenger,” an angel isn’t so much a type of being as it is a job description. Today, Barry Cooper presents a biblical picture of these otherworldly creatures.
One of the things we preachers love to do at Christmastime is to add to the Christmas cheer by telling everyone that a great deal of what they’ve learned about Christmas from Christmas cards and school nativity plays is completely and utterly wrong.
You know the kind of thing. “There is no biblical reason for thinking that there were three wise men.” “It is debatable whether Jesus was born in a stable.” And “there is literally no biblical support for the role of ‘little drummer boy’ in your school nativity play.”
One of the other major players in any self-respecting nativity scene, of course, are the angels. But even here, the Christmas preacher can find yet another festive parade to rain on. Only certain kinds of angels are said explicitly to have wings: cherubim and seraphim. And typically, angels are not the demure figures we see on Christmas cards.
They have a name in Hebrew: malakim, or in Greek angelos, from which we get the word angels. The word literally means “messenger,” so angel isn’t so much a type of being as it is a job description. Their role is to take messages and announce them, which is what we see them doing, for example, during that first Christmas. An angel named Gabriel is sent by God to Mary to tell her that she’d found favor with God. Another angel appears to the shepherds, announcing that a Savior had just been born in Bethlehem. And so on.
In the early church, there was even a heresy that claimed Jesus was an angel, which may explain in part why we read in Hebrews, “After making purification for sins, [Jesus Christ] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” In fact, we read, Christ is worshiped by the angels.
What would it be like to see an angel? Well, they are beings created by God, but they are spiritual beings, rather than physical, though they can certainly take on physical form as the need arises. They appear, for example, at the empty tomb of Jesus at His resurrection, and Jesus’ ascension into heaven was heralded by angels. And the promise of Jesus Himself is that when He returns to judge the living and the dead, He will come “in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
When they do appear, angels often say to the human they’re speaking to, “Don’t be afraid.” So we can probably conclude that for you and I to come into contact with one would be a fearful thing, so uncanny and overwhelming would their presence be. But it isn’t always the case. In Hebrews, we read, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
And yet, as extraordinary as they are, Scripture says something remarkable to followers of Jesus. Because of our being united with Christ, and thus elevated—according to Revelation 3:21—to the very throne of God, we will one day judge all things with Christ. And that even includes the judgement of angels. The elevation between where we are now and where we will be then is breathtaking.
Finally, it’s a beautiful reality that angels have another function, which is that they are sent to “minister” to people. For example, we read that angels came and ministered to Jesus after His forty days of temptation in the wilderness.
If you’re a believer in Christ, the same is true for you. These “heavenly helpers” are mostly invisible, and yet by God’s grace, our world is filled with them, and their joyful task is to serve you, and minister to you, and ensure that you are brought safely to glory.