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Angels in Our Midst

Angel_of_Death_and_the_First_Passover

The Angel of Death and the First Passover, illustration from Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster, 1897

“In speaking of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels spirits, and his servants flames of fire.’”  (Hebrews 1:7)

Just before Pharaoh released the Jewish People in the Book of Exodus, the Angel of Death visited Egypt in the tenth plague.  Death passed over Hebrew and Egyptian homes that had been marked with the blood of the lamb in obedience to the God of Israel.

Angels are mentioned at least 108 times in the Tanakh (Old Testament) and 165 times in the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) (Chafer, Systematic Theology, II, 3).  They fascinate Believers and non-Believers alike.

For that reason, they have been the subject of or characters in film, television and live theater.  Over the years, we have been presented with a wide array of angels, some male, some female, some serious, some frivolous and comedic.

The Guardian Angel Clarence in Its a Wonderful Life.

The Guardian Angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life.

One need only think of the “angel” Clarence in Jimmy Stewart’s well-known and well-loved film It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the film, Clarence is sent to “earn his wings” by pulling Stewart’s character, George Bailey, back from the brink of suicide.

“As a believer living in the US before returning to Israel, I played the angel in an adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, which we presented at the annual Messianic Jewish Alliance Conference,” said Barry, a Bibles For Israel team member.

“In it, I dressed up wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson hat that I had acquired while running a banana plantation years earlier in Belize Central America and bought while visiting Guatemala City.”

Although Clarence is certainly a lovable figure, he also seems to be somewhat unstable and comedic, being far from the description of angels that we have from Scripture.

The Guardian of Paradise, by Franz Von Stuck

The Guardian of Paradise, by Franz Von Stuck

What and Who Are Angels?

“Praise the LORD, you his angels [malakh], you mighty ones who do His bidding, who obey His word.”  (Psalm 103:20)

Theatrical presentations of angels perhaps only serve to confuse us about the nature of angels.  On the other hand, these presentations may also serve to open a dialogue so that a person has the opportunity to hear what the Bible says about them, as well as the Good News.

God created angels in a variety of forms for the purpose of serving.

Because of their supernatural nature, it is easy to think that angels are God-like.

“Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”  (Hebrews 1:14; see also Psalm 34:7; 91:11–12; Daniel 6:22)

A statue of an angel in a San Francisco church (Photo by Alvaro Guzman)

A statue of an angel in a San Francisco church (Photo by Alvaro Guzman)

Angels are created beings ruled and governed by God.  They were not made in the image of God as man was.

In Matthew 22:30, Yeshua (Jesus) tells us that they do not marry.

Traditional Judaism also contends that angels are not created from the same basic elements that a physical being such as a human being is created.

In fact, within Judaism, there is debate whether the Torah actually describes them as assuming physical form at all.  Maimonides contends that they only appeared as a physical being during a vision or prophecy.  (Chabad)

Nevertheless, whether they actually assume physical form or simply appear as a physical being, they are spiritual, supernatural beings.

The Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Worship of Angels

The grandeur, power and mystery of angels makes it tempting to worship them, even though we know that worship of anything other than God is a violation of the First Commandment.

We see this, perhaps, when the most beloved Jewish disciple of Yeshua, John, had a vision of the Marriage of the Lamb and of the crystal clear water of life flowing from the throne of God in the New Heaven and Earth.  When John fell at the feet of the angel that revealed these things, the angel rebuked him:

“[The angel] said to me, ‘Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Yeshua; worship God.  For the testimony of Yeshua is the spirit of prophecy.”  (Revelation 19:10; see also Revelation 22:8–9)

The Prophet Elijah Taken to Heaven

The Prophet Elijah Taken to Heaven

Unlike human beings, when angels fall, there is no repentance or salvation for them.

There are both good and evil angels (malakhei habbalah or destroying agents).  Originally, the phrase indicated demons in Judaism, but came to be recognized as an angel.

The term “angels of destruction” is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  These angels come under the direct rule of Belial, a name that means worthlessness or wickedness.  Belial is seen as the commander of the forces of evil and a tempter of men.  In the Dead Sea Scrolls War Scroll, these angels called Sons of Darkness are agents in Belial’s army.

We understand that demons are the forces that joined with Satan in his rebellion against God and who were thrown down to the earth to torment men until their final destination, which is the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14).

That said, traditional Judaism does not believe in the “devil.”  It believes in haSatan (the adversary or challenger), an angel who embodies humankind’s challenges.  According to Jewish belief, his role is to give people a meaningful choice as to whether they will choose good over evil.  He is seen in the Book of Job as presenting a challenge in the Heavenly Court.

Many wrongly imagine Satan as having a demigod status.  His power is limited. He is a created being like any other angel.

Detail of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Eugene Dalacroix

Detail of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Eugene Dalacroix

What Do Angels Do?

Angels have hierarchies or ranks, and each rank provides a different type of service.

Moses Maimonides classified the angels in the Bible under one of the following ten ranks:

  1. Chayot HaKodesh (Holy Living Creatures), a group of angels mentioned in Ezekiel 1 and 10 as being close to the Throne and Chariot of God.  They have four wings and four faces (man, lion, ox, and eagle);
  2. Ophanim (Wheels), angels associated with the throne of God and mentioned in Ezekiel 1:15–21 and Daniel 7:9 (and in the Book of Enoch).  They look like wheels within wheels and are covered with eyes;
  3. Erelim (Valiant Ones), angels mentioned in Isaiah. In Jewish mystic tradition, they are thought to be connected to moments of sadness, death or destruction (Isaiah 33:7);
  4. Chashmalim (Shining Ones), described in Ezekiel 1:4;
Ezekiel's Vision

Ezekiel’s Vision

  1. Seraphim (Burning Ones), six-winged angels that Isaiah 6:2–3 describes as a male choir that sing out, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts; heaven and earth are filled with your glory.”  In Isaiah 6:6, a seraph purifies the Prophet Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar;
  2. Malachim (Messengers), whom Isaiah describes as bringing comfort to people in their distress, and whom the Book of Psalms promises will protect God’s people.
  3. Elohim (Godly Beings), mentioned in Psalm 8:5;
  4. Benei Elohim (Sons of God), angels who focus on bringing glory to God.  According to Jewish mysticism, they are led by the archangel Michael;
  5. Cherubim (To Be Near), angels described by Ezekiel as having four faces, who among other things, guard the Garden of Eden and the way to the Tree of Life with a flaming sword (Genesis 3:24).
  6. Ishim (Guardian), angels described in the Book of Daniel as being man-like (Genesis 18:2; Daniel 10:5).

According to Jewish thought, even though they all have superior intellect, some angels understand God and his ways better than others.  The above ranking indicates the degree of the angel’s comprehension of God.

The Visitation of Zacharias, by James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

The Visitation of Zacharias,, by James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Angels and the Revelation of Prophecy

In the Hebrew Scriptures, angels play key roles in interpreting prophetic visions, just as we see in the Book of Revelation.

The angel Gabriel, for instance, revealed the exact timing of the coming of the Messiah to the prophet Daniel (Daniel 9:20–27) as well as the work of the anti-Messiah in “the distant future” (Daniel 8:15–27).

In Zechariah 1:9–5:11, angels walk the prophet through his visions, explaining and teaching him what each vision meant.

Angels Deliver Messages

Another duty of angels is to bring messages.  In fact, in Hebrew, the word “angel” has no equivalent.  The closest word for angels in modern Hebrew is malakhim (מַלְאָכִים), which means messengers.

Messenger angels occupy a unique rank in that they often appear in the form of men, as opposed to winged cherubim and seraphim.

Malakhim have appeared to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses.  Isaiah mentions the Malakh Panav, the Angel of God’s Presence.

The angel Gabriel gave to Miryam (Mary) this message of prophetic fulfillment:

“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.  You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Yeshua.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; His kingdom will never end.”  (Luke 1:29–33; see also Isaiah 7:14)

The Prophet Elijah Receiving Bread and Water from an Angel

The Prophet Elijah Receiving Bread and Water from an Angel

Angels Minister

“Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”  (Hebrews 1:14)

Hebrews 1:14 tells us that malakhim are “ministering spirits” sent forth to minister to those “who will be heirs of salvation.”

The messages that angels send on behalf of God are two-fold.  Not only do they reveal His plans for their lives, they also serve to minister in times of dire distress:

For instance, an angel baked bread for Elijah when he was hiding out in a cave and wanted to die (1 Kings 19:3–6).

As well, Sarah’s maidservant Hagar thought she was about to die, crying out to the Lord, when she and Ishmael sat alone in the wilderness with no food or water after Sarah banished Hagar from her home.

The angel of God (malakh Elohim) appeared in order to relieve her distress saying, “Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.  Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”  (Genesis 21:18)

This message is also a tremendous prophecy, as Ishmael became the father of the Arab nations.

And angels ministered to Yeshua (Jesus) during his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness and subsequent temptation by Satan (Mark 1:13).

Hagar and the Angel in the Desert, by James Tissot

Hagar and the Angel in the Desert, by James Tissot

Angels Worship God

Angels not only minister to humans, they minister to God through their worship of Him.

Isaiah saw seraphim above God, “each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one called out to another and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD [YHVH] of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.’”  (Isaiah 6:3)

The apostle John saw similar angelic beings around the throne of God.  Day and night they never ceased praising God, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”  (Revelation 4:8)

When we receive our glorified bodies, we will join the angels in praising Him as we see the 24 elders doing in Revelation 4:10–11:

The twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever.  They lay their crowns before the throne and say: ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.’

A sculpture of an angel warring with a demon at a church in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Alvaro Guzman)

A sculpture of an angel warring with a demon at a church in Hamburg, Germany.  (Photo by Alvaro Guzman)

Angels War and Protect

Angels are involved in warfare and protection.  They war with the angels of darkness who try to prevent angels from performing their service to us.  After many days of intense praying, an angel appeared to Daniel explaining why he came three weeks late:

“The prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days.  Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.”  (Daniel 10:13)

Daniel persisted in prayer and the angel persisted in answering.

We understand that just because we do not receive an immediate answer to our prayers, we should not stop praying.  Our war is not against flesh but against spirits of darkness who are continually seeking to destroy our efforts.  (Ephesians 6:12)

A liturgical prayer that Jewish People recite before going to sleep acknowledges and seeks the protection offered by four specific angels (named in the Talmud as archangels) and by God Himself:

“To my right Michael and to my left Gabriel, in front of me Uriel and behind me Raphael, and over my head God’s Shekhinah [the Presence of God].”

In Jewish tradition, Michael is the angel of mercy; Gabriel, justice; Raphael, healing; and Uriel, illumination.

As well, the kabbalists of Safed in the late 16th or early 17th century wrote a poem that is now universally sung after returning from Shabbat services on Friday night, often before the kiddush (sanctification) of the Shabbat meal.

The short version states, “Angels of peace, may your coming be in peace; bless me with peace, and bless my prepared table.  May your departure be in peace, from now and forever.  Amen.”

A Jewish man prepares to recite morning prayer.

A Jewish man with a siddur (prayer book) wears tefillin (phylacteries) and a tallit (prayer shawl) during morning prayer.

Invoking the Service of Angels

It’s important to remember that we do not pray to angels for protection and angelic intervention.  We pray directly to the Father.

Angels do nothing on their own accord.  They listen for God’s Word.  Many Believers can dispatch angels based on this knowledge, using the Word of God to commission them.

Angels differ from human beings in that they do not exercise free will.

According to Jewish thinking, they are pre-programmed to serve God in one specific form of Divine service.  Humans, on the other hand, are designed to serve God in many ways and have the freedom to choose if they will serve Him at all.

For that reason, the service that a person who serves God is of greater value than an angel’s, and a person can achieve greater spiritual heights.

A Jewish man prays at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.

A Jewish man prays at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.

Are the Nephilim Really Descendants of Angels?

While angels are created beings, they have no children or descendants.  In Hebrew, a human being is ben adam, which literally means son of Adam, but can also be interpreted as a son of man.  Angels, however, are not called sons of angels.

There is controversy among Hebrew Sages, however, whether angels have actually married human women and produced giants known as Nephilim.

In most translations of Genesis 6:2, 4, we read that the Sons of God (benei elohim) and the daughters of humans (benot ha-adam) produced offspring called Nephilim.

The 2nd century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was said to curse those who translated benei elohim as the “sons of God.”  (Genesis Rabbah 26:5)

The Complete Jewish Bible reflects his view in that it translates benei elohim as sons of nobles.

The word Elohim is most often translated as God, but it can also at times mean ruler, judge or one with authority as in Exodus 21:6.

So the Nephilim could simply be the offspring of corrupt male rulers and not angels.  Yet, not all sages agree with Rabbi Yochai.

In the Talmud, some believe that the Nephilim are indeed the offspring angels, and so the controversy continues.  (Chabad)

Rembrandt-Isaac-sacrifice

The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Rembrandt.

Malakh YHVH: The Angel of the Lord

The term, “angel of the LORD” appears 65 times in Scripture.

At times it is associated with Gabriel who is referred to as “an” angel of the Lord, but Gabriel is never “the” angel of the Lord.  That term seems to refer to one unique being who appears in the Tanakh.

The Angel of the LORD being often speaks and acts as God (not merely for God) and even identifies Himself as God.

It was the Angel of the Lord who stopped Abraham when he was about to offer Isaac:

“But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’  ‘Here I am,’ he replied.  ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said.  ‘Do not do anything to him.  Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’”  (Genesis 22:11–12)

Peter references these verses and identifies the angel as being God.  (Acts 3:25)

Jacob's Dream, by James Tissot

Jacob’s Dream, by James Tissot

On his deathbed, while blessing Joseph’s sons, Jacob speaks of the Angel who “redeemed me from all evil.”  (Genesis 48:15–16)

Since Isaiah 43:11 tells us “I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no savior,” this angel who redeemed Jacob is considered by many Believers to be the Messiah, Yeshua.

Exodus 3:2 tells us that the Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a burning bush, but verse 4 identifies this angel as God, “God called unto him out of the midst of the bush,” as well as in verse 6: “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

These examples seem to indicate that the appearance of “the Angel of the Lord” was actually God and quite likely Yeshua the Messiah in pre-incarnate form.

Abraham and the Angels, by Aert de Gelder

Abraham and the Angels, by Aert de Gelder

Interacting with Angels

As we read about the Angel of Death in the Passover story this Friday night, we might be tempted to think that angels are no longer involved much in the affairs of men.

In Genesis 18:6–8, however, we read that Abraham entertained angels while they were in the midst of fulfilling their duties on earth.

The Brit Chadashah (New Testament) assumes that angels are still interacting with people, so we are all encouraged:

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”  (Hebrews 13:2)

God’s angelic messengers are active in our midst, taking an interest in the affairs of men as they carry out God’s will.

May each one of us be equally committed and active, as well, in carrying out His will.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  (Matthew 6:10)

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