Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Angels Among Us
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels. Hebrews 13:2
Question 16 of the Larger Catechism asks, “How did God create angels?” It gives the answer, “God created all the angels spirits, immortal, holy, excelling in knowledge, mighty in power, to execute his commandments, and to praise his name, yet subject to change.” Last time we looked at the spiritual nature of the angels and their abilities and powers. Today we will consider some of the more mysterious examples of angels in the Bible.
In both the Hebrew and Greek languages used in the original manuscripts of the Bible there is a single word that can mean either angel or messenger. The context of a verse can help us to decide which English word to use in our translation. A human being can be a messenger, but a human being is not and cannot be those divine spirits we know as angels. As we saw earlier, Scripture presents occasions where angels appear so exactly in human form that they are sometimes mistaken as men. So the citizens of Sodom mistook the two angels who were with Lot when they asked him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight?” (Gen. 19:5). Likewise, the verse at the head of this article describes times when human beings have unknowingly entertained angels, welcoming them into their homes and sharing conversation and food with them. We see examples where angels walk, talk, stand, sit, eat, drink, and use their bodies and minds in the same way that human beings do. Where and how they get these human likenesses or how long they have them we do not know. Scripture seems to clearly teach that the physical bodies of angels are not germane to their natures. “He makes His angels spirits,” (Ps. 104:4), they are “all ministering spirits,” (Heb. 1:14). They are spiritual beings.
Though Jesus uses the angels as examples of beings that neither marry nor are given in marriage (Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25), it is unwarranted from this passing reference to conclude that the angels are sexless or androgynous (both male and female). In fact the angels that appear in human form in the Bible always appear and are referred to as male. The two “winged” women of Zech. 5:9 are not called angels but are part of a highly symbolic vision of God’s judgment. Thus, their wings are said to be “like the wings of a stork.” However, simply because there are no female angels showing up in the Bible does not allow us to conclude that there are no female angels. Nor does it seem warranted to conclude that angels are male in exactly the same way that human men are. All that we can say for sure is that the Bible does not clearly address the issue. The highly disputed passage of Gen. 6:1-4, where the “sons of God” take wives from “the daughters of men” is probably best understood as human believers wrongly intermarrying with human unbelievers. But regardless it can hardly be pointed to as clarifying the matter!
However, beyond the physical, human, male and female questions regarding angels, we often see angelic beings that are not human in form but are described as animalistic or fantastical creatures. Thus, the first angels in Scripture are the “cherubim” of Gen. 3 who stand with the flaming sword to guard the tree of life. Cherubim is the plural for cherub, which is not a chubby flying baby but a fearsome creature! By God’s command the wings of two cherubim cover the ark of the covenant (Exod. 25:20). In a terrifying description of judgment, God rides a flying cherub in Ps. 18. Moreover, the cherubim of Ezekiel 10 have heads, faces, feet, and human hands under their four wings. Furthermore, if Ezekiel is identifying the creatures of chapter 1 as cherubs, then the cherubim as well as the whirling wheels each had four different faces of four different creatures. Though this passage appears in a highly symbolic vision, the angelic cherubs of Ezekiel do show some similarity to the angelic “seraphim” of Isaiah 6, who also appear with wings (six each), bodies, eyes, hands, and feet. Seraph in Hebrew means fire, which reminds us of the chariots and horses of fire appearing for Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), and with Elisha (2 Kings 6:17), not to mention some of the mighty angels of Revelation (7:1; 9:14; 10:1; etc.).
What can we say of these strange descriptions? Only that there is much about angels that we do not know! But one thing is for certain: like humans, they are creatures. No matter how awesome they appear to us they are never to be worshipped (Rev. 19:10; 22:9) nor sought out as mediators in doctrine or prayer (Col. 2:18; 1 Tim. 2:5). They are God’s creatures created for His glory. We affirm their existence, we thank God for their assistance, and we wonder at their appearance. But while we are in this world our focus must be, like theirs always perfectly is, the glory of God.