THE NATURE OF ANGELS
January 1, 1998 Issue
by Alan Bonifay
Three previous articles in this study of angels have brought us now to the particular topic before us, the nature of angels. As we begin to consider what God's word teaches about this subject, perhaps the best place to start is with the classification of angels. Much can be discovered about the nature of angels from the designations given to them in scripture. And so we consider nine terms given in the Bible that designate angels (or an angel) and serve to classify them for us.
"Angel" - This word comes, as you may remember, from the Greek word "angelo" and the Hebrew word "malak." The term simply means messenger. In God's word angels were chiefly employed by God to deliver His oracles to men. This was the case in the Patriarchal (Genesis 18), Mosaic (Acts 7:53, Galatians 3:19), and Christian Age (Acts 10:3; Acts 27:23). You will remember that angels were primarily messengers who brought to men God's word.
"Host" - The words "God of hosts" are found in Psalm 89:8 and Amos 4:13. "Host" is a military term, and the teaching of the Bible is that God has a great army of angels. These angels execute His judgments.
"The sons of God" - From the Hebrew term "Benai Eloheim," found in Job 38:7, comes our English translation "the sons of God." One of the names of God given in Hebrew scripture is Eloheim, and this term is also applied to angels in Psalm 8:5, a passage quoted by the New Testament writer of Hebrews (2:7). From this designation, we can clearly see that angels are not only in the family of God, but they also are supernatural beings.
"Sons of the Mighty" - This term is found in Psalm 89:6. It is a term used to describe the power that angels possess. Jesus used much the same type of description when He called James and John the "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17). In that case, we readily understand Jesus was calling attention to the fact that James and John each had a thunderous nature. And when "sons of the mighty" is used in reference to angels, it is to be understood that an gels, by their very nature, possess immense power and might. The Bible supports this conclusion eminently. The words of David are, "Bless the Lord ye angels that excel in strength" (Psalm 103:20). 2 Kings 19:35 notes the remarkable fact the one angel killed 185,000 Assyrians in a single night, ample evidence indeed that angels are certainly very powerful beings.
"Stars" - Job 38:7 reads, "When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" This wording is an example of Hebrew parallelism, for the stars who sang are the sons who shouted as well. A passage such this seems to place a close connection between the angels and the stars. The connection is mysterious at best, and to go further than this is to enter into speculation.
"Cherubims" - These are the first angels we meet in the Bible, for the Divine Record tells us that God placed Cherubims at the east of the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were driven out Genesis 3:24). Cherubims occupy a prominent place in the Old Testament, which teaches us they are usually located in God's presence. God dwells between the cherubim in the Most Holy Place according to Psalm 80:1 and 99:1 (compare also 2 Kings 19:15 and I Samuel 4:4). This truth is clearly seen also in God's instructions to Moses concerning the ark of the testimony (which was placed in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle) and the mercy seat with its cherubims that was placed upon that ark. Concluding His instructions concerning the ark. God tells Moses in Exodus 25:22, "And there will I meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony..."
"Seraphims" - Here is a word which means "the burning ones." It seems likely that the seraphims are those angels who perform priestly functions in Heaven. This idea has been garnered from Isaiah 6:1-8. In that passage, particularly verses six and seven, it is one of the seraphims which takes a live coal from off the altar and brings it to touch the lips of Isaiah, thus taking away his iniquity and purging his sin. These are clearly priest-like duties.
"Michael" and "Gabriel" - These two angels are the only ones in the Bible for whom a name is revealed. They are the archangels. "Michael" means "one who is like God," while "Gabriel" means simply "man of God." Michael seems to be the angel who is the military leader of the angels of God. It was Michael who fought with Satan in Revelation 12. And again, it was Michael who disputed with Satan over the body of Moses according to Jude verse 9, daring not to bring a railing accusation against Satan, but rather saying, "the Lord rebuke thee."
"Angel of the Lord" - This is an angel mentioned very often in the Old Testament, and a very special angel in deed is this last one we consider. Often, the angel of the Lord is identified with Jehovah refers to Christ in His pre existent state, and there is a significant argumentation to support this view. However, it is hard to be dogmatic because there are some passages differentiating between the angel of the Lord. Some believe him to be simply an angel with a special commission, while others say he could be a momentary descent of God into visibility. Whatever the case may be, he is no ordinary angel and at a minimum is very closely associated with God Himself- closely enough to receive worship.
These are the terms given in the Bible which designate the various angels and serve to classify them for us. This consideration of these terms and our study of them also leads us to conclude that angels have various ranks. Such is born out in the scriptures. The Greeks delineated angels by rank in ascending order as principalities, powers, mights, and dominions, ranks that the New Testament refers to in Colossians 1:16 and Ephesians 6:12. The Jews recognized the same ranks as cherubims, seraphims, angels, and archangels. Having noted the classifications and ranks of angels, let us consider now their attributes as we further attempt to understand their nature.
ATTRIBUTES OF ANGELS
Angels are wise but not omniscient. In Exodus twelve, the Destroying Angel had to have (or at least he did have) a sign by which to know Hebrew houses from Egyptian houses. Further evidence of angels' lack of omniscience is the statement made by Jesus in Matthew 24:36 that the angels of heaven know not the day nor the hour of our Lord's return. And Peter, speaking by inspiration in I Peter 1:11, 12, says that the angels, though they desired to, were unable to look into the Gospel plan of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Angels are capable of great speed, but they are not omnipresent. Angels had to travel places, such as the time they went to visit Abraham in Genesis chapter 18. Angels went to Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Exodus 12:29,30 tell us of the angel that passed through the land of Egypt. Daniel relates an encounter he had with Gabriel in Daniel 9:20-23. In this passage, the Bible says Gabriel had to fly swiftly. And this angel himself says he came in obedience to a command. Again, we find Gabriel speaking to Zechariah in Luke 1:19, and there he says clearly that he had been "sent." These passages well teach that angels are capable of very great speed, but are by no means omnipresent.
Angels "excel" (Psalm 103:20) in strength and power, but they are by no means omnipotent. 2 Thessalonians 1:7 speaks of Jesus and his "mighty angels." But angels only have the power that God gives to them. The angel of 2 Samuel 24:15,16 slew 70,000, a mighty act indeed. However, he was simply acting as the agent of God. The Bible gives us other examples of angelic power. We see it at the tomb of Jesus (Matthew 28:2-4), at the release of Peter from prison (Acts 12:10), at the wicked city of Sodom (Genesis 19), and at the death of Herod (Acts 12:23). Let us not doubt that angels have immense power, but neither let us believe they are almighty. They are not, as the defeat of Satan, who defied God, clearly shows (Isaiah 14:12-15).
Angels have a will - they are not robots. Hebrews 1:6 says, "And let the angels of God worship him." Psalm 103:20 speaks of angels "that do his commandments hearkening unto the voice of his word." Satan was not one of these angels that hearkened. Rather, he exercised his own will. Notice the "I wills" in Satan's fall: "I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High" (Isaiah 14:13,14). The angels of God, and the demons as well, each exercise their own wills.
Angels are invisible to unaided human vision. Colossians 1:16 speaks of the invisible, and then lists the ranks of angels. Numbers 22:22-35 gives us remarkable account of Balaam and his encounter with the angel of the Lord. Three times the beast upon which Balaam rode saw the angel, but Balaam was completely unaware of his presence until God opened his eyes (verse 31). Equally remarkable is the account of Elisha in the city of Dothan. Elisha knew the hosts of Jehovah were there to deliver him from the army of the king of Syria, but Elisha's servant was unable to see the deliverance that was imminent until the Lord opened his eyes (2 Kings 6:17). David says, "The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them" (Psalm 34:9). And yet the angel of the Lord is unseen, for truly, without Divine assistance, angels are invisible to mankind.
THE NUMBER OF ANGELS
Though we cannot see them, angels are incredibly numerous. There is no way to know exactly how many an gels there are, but the scriptures do give us some hints. In Luke 2:13, upon the announcement of the birth of Jesus, a "multitude" of the heavenly host appearing praised God. In Matthew 26:53, Jesus speaks of "more than twelve legions of angels." Twelve legions would be 72,000 in literal terms. Angels are called "stars" in Job 38:7. Of the literal stars in the universe, we know they number in the billions. Hebrews 12:22 speaks of "an innumerable company of angels" - a number that is virtually infinite. Thus we see that the angels of God, in all their classifications, in their various ranks, and with all the attributes God has created them which constitute a virtual numberless host.
next article, Lord willing, we will conclude our study of angels with considerations of their mission and activities as well as their destiny.
Other OPA Article Links:
Alan Bonifay 1998 OPA Main Page HOME