What are angels?
Lord knows. Many tasks have been assigned to them in Jewish and Christian tradition, in folklore and folk theology. People have been guessing at it for 4000 years, probably longer. One helpful view is that angels are sent by God to bring the truth, especially the big truths, to specific people in critical situations. The biggest truth (the one that Jesus Christ was living, dying proof of) is that God is with us and for us, and an angel is sent here as a part of that. God’s message can be a warning, or be a comfort in times of danger and fear. There’s more going on than the careless eye can see, so God’s messenger points it out. Since God is way too much for us to take, the messenger is sent in God’s stead, like a diplomatic envoy. What happens then is between humans and the Lord. God chose this way (among other ways) to keep in touch with us and not be a far-off Deist god.
Part of the unseen
Angels are from the unseen in the “all that is, seen and unseen” that the Nicene Creed says the Father created. They don’t decay or die, since they are spiritual beings. They exist to praise God and to bear the message and task for which God sends them, including to us humans. They can think and hold conversations, and they have their own identity. They even have some sort of rank, such as the archangels and the “angel of the Lord”. They appear to people of all religions, even people of no religion at all, when God wants them to listen. We can’t prove angels exist, any more than we can prove God exists; they are, after all, spiritual beings and don’t fit into material-world rules. Not all religious folks believe in angels (for instance, the Jewish Sadducees, and many modernist Christians). But all over the world, those who have a strong sense of spirituality tend to believe God sends supernatural envoys and heralds, and they sometimes experience their presence. Thus there are many angel reports from India, Malaysia, and other Asian countries. That’s no surprise, since God loves them, too.
The ancients couldn’t picture anything in the ‘pure’ world of heaven as being female or neuter, so they called them mostly what they felt was greatest – male. (A possible exception is in Zechariah 5, but the passage is cryptic at best.) Maybe we’re getting over such a narrow vision. Angels are often pictured as having feathered wings. The ancients believed the angels flew, so they portrayed it through the only means of flying they knew: the feathered wings of a bird. I suspect this image came in handy. They don’t need angel wings to fly (they’re supernatural beings), but wings of what would be the necessary size inspire awe in us ground-bound material-type beings. The angel-messengers are often reported and portrayed as glowing with light, especially as they deliver their message.
Are Angels Overrated?
Where big things are happening, angels are among us, at the scene. The ginormous event of God’s coming to us, started off with a peasant girl from Galilee talking with the archangel Gabriel. Herald angels sang to a bunch of field-working shepherds on the day Christ was born, and many thousands of us try to sound like that angel choir each Christmas. Angel choirs abound, and will be singing strongly when the Kingdom arrives in full. When Mary Magdalene peered into Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter, she saw two angels, one sitting at each end where Jesus’ body was laid. Just as an arch angel set up the first coming of Christ, so an archangelwill mark the final return of Christ. Thus, Christianity’s two main holy days, Easter and Christmas, are marked out from the start by angels.
Humans tend to get freaky when an angel shows up. We often quiver in fear or fall down in awe. Not to say they’re ho-hum, but angels themselves are not really that big a deal. We’re more important than they are. Angels are servants, acting on Someone Else’s authority, while we humans make our own decisions, and are responsible to discern God’s ways by what the Lord has given us. God made us, not angels, in the image of God. Jesus makes His followers, not angels or even archangels, into God’s heirs. Every angel goes by what they know: they personally live in God’s great presence and receive God’s command. We are made to walk not by sight, but by faith. We’re told not to worship angels in Colossians 2:18. (Indeed, any bona fide angel will urge you not to worship them, but to worship the God who sent them.) Nor are we to pray to them, though, like the others in the divine realm, they are praying along with us and in our favor. The apostle Paul even tells the Corinthians that, in the end, we will judge angels, not the other way around.
The angels revel in being in God’s presence. How much more will it be so for creatures like us who bear God’s image, once the Kingdom comes in full! What’s much more important than us or the angel is the One for whom they are acting. The author of the letter to the Hebrews (in chapter 1) takes pains to point out that however awesome you may think angels are, Jesus is far more important.
Why Are There Angels?
Not There to Meddle
Angels are not there to be meddling fix-its, but our helpers in responding to the truth. A divine envoy may guide us in the way God wants us to go in a specific situation, sometimes calling on us to take a specific action. We can just blow them off, but people usually find themselves responding instantly with some amount of trust, comfort, or awe. Angels can celebrate and have joy, and presumably have other emotions as well. They don’t negotiate unless God tells them to. They don’t argue, either; they let God do the rebuking, like the archangel Michael did against Satan. By sticking to God’s given task instead of asserting themselves, they are good examples of humility.
Angels Execute Judgement
Scripture shows that angels have another fierce task: when God passes judgement on injustice, they’re often the ones who enforce the sentence. An angel who was sent on this sort of a mission executed the first-born of Egypt, leading to the Exile. The usual image shows them with flaming swords, but the Bible shows how they can execute judgement in other ways as well. When carrying out a sentence, angels are more like a strike force than envoys. You won’t find them doing this on a Christmas card!