ANGELS — What Are They? What’s Their Purpose?
This article could also be called Angels: The Basics because we’re going to establish the basics about these spiritual beings—good and evil ones.
The first thing we need to do is define the term. The word ‘angel’ is angelos (ANG-el-os) in the biblical Greek* and malak (mal-AWK) in Hebrew, both of which simply mean “a messenger.” While the messenger in question could be human (1 Kings 19:2), it typically refers to a supernatural courier conveying news or directives from God to people.
* Biblical Greek is koiné Greek, meaning “the common dialect” of the Greek language in the 1st century. (Koiné is pronounced KOY-nay).
Further insight can be observed in this fundamental description of angels:
Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
As you can see, angels are defined as “ministering spirits.” They are not people, nor are they people who have become angels; they are spiritual beings distinct from humanity.
Angels are described as “ministering spirits,” which means they are given to serve. Whom do they serve? Their Creator first and foremost, but the verse specifies that they are “sent [by God] to serve those who will inherit salvation.” This means people because we’re the ones who are to inherit salvation. As such, angels are serving spirits who serve the LORD and are commissioned to minister to people, whether by conveying news and instructions or helping us in some other manner, like provision in time of need (1 Kings 19:5-7), ministry when we physically expire (Luke 16:22), fighting demonic spirits on our behalf (Daniel 10:12-13) and, of course, protection.
A good example of the latter can be observed in this psalm:
11 For he [God] will command his angels
to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot
against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
So angels are supernatural servants of the LORD whose purpose is to serve God by serving people. With this understanding, let’s briefly consider…
The fact that angels are ministering spirits sent to serve people shows why Satan & his fallen angels do the precise opposite—they constantly try to hinder & oppress people, especially God’s people. One of their main objectives, of course, is to keep those who are lost from eternal salvation.
The rebellion and fall from Heaven of Satan & his filthy angels occurred sometime after the creation of the Universe and human beings, yet before the devil’s temptation of Eve, which means sometime between Genesis 1:31 and Genesis 3:1.* This time period could involve many years, plenty of time for Satan’s harebrained coup attempt and their subsequent ousting from Heaven (Luke 10:18 ).
* This is the young Earth perspective, which I believe is the most biblically faithful position on the age of the Earth/Universe. Gap theorists, who embrace the old Earth model, place the fall of Lucifer & his angels sometime between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. The topic is explored in detail here.
The reason this is important to our topic is because it shows Satan’s rebellion occurring relatively soon after the creation of human beings. Could it be that one of the main reasons these angels rebelled was because they were jealous of God’s new creation—people—the only physical beings created in God’s image? Could it be that they didn’t want to spend their lives serving humans, as angels were mandated? Is it likely that their envy was further stirred when they caught wind of the fact that people were expressly created to be co-heirs with Christ, seated with Him at the right hand of the Father?* Does two plus two equal four?
* See Romans 8:17, Hebrews 1:13 and Ephesians 2:6.
The bottom line is: There are angels who work for us and fallen angels—demons—who work against us. Evil spirits are not ministering for you; they’re ministering against you.
Satan’s rebellion, by the way, shows that angels possess freewill, just as people do.
For more about fallen angels see this article.
The Difference between the Holy Spirit and Angelic Spirits
The Holy Spirit is God* who indwells the spiritually reborn believer. This makes every genuine Christian a “temple” of God (1 Corinthians 6:19). The Holy Spirit’s function is to help, counsel, teach, comfort and lead believers (John 14:26 & 16:13).
* See Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:14 and Ephesians 4:4-6.
Angels, by contrast, do not dwell in you or lead you. They are here to minister for you, that is, serve you in one capacity or another.
It is the Holy Spirit’s job to “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13), which is why Romans 8:14 says “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” Notice that it does not say “those who are led by angels are the children of God.” Why? Because angels aren’t here to lead us, the Holy Spirit is. Angels are here to serve us.
Their service includes conveying divine messages, which is why angels are also called “messengers.” However, angels do not teach us spiritual truth (reality) as the Holy Spirit does. It’s the Holy Spirit—God—who provides revelation knowledge.
You could say that the Holy Spirit ministers to believers whereas angels minister for us. If I lay hands on you and pray I’m ministering to you whereas if I catch you when you fall I’m ministering for you. Just the same, when the Holy Spirit gives you a revelation He’s ministering to you whereas when angels help you escape a trap they’re ministering for you, like when an angel helped Peter escape from prison (Acts 12:5-10).
A pastor gave a testimony of how the LORD saved him from certain death while serving as a missionary. He was about to put his luggage on a plane at a small airport in the bush when he discerned a voice telling him not to do it. He obeyed and the plane crashed on takeoff. In his testimony he wrongly attributed this voice to his guardian angel. No, it was the Holy Spirit, who indwelt him and guided him. If he had entered the plane and was miraculously saved when it crashed then that could be attributed to guardian angels. Do you see the difference?
Be Aware of Angels and Partake of their Services, but DON’T Worship Them
Because angels are supernatural beings they’re fascinating creatures and we should appreciate them and take advantage of their services, but we must not entertain any temptation to worship them. ‘Worship’ is proskuneó (pros-koo-NAY-oh) in the Greek, which literally means “to acknowledge and adore by kissing the ground in prostration.” The apostle John was tempted to do this twice with an angel while he was receiving the revelation of Jesus Christ imprisoned on the Island of Patmos. Notice what this angel says to John on these occasions:
So I fell at his feet to worship to him. But he told me, “Do not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who rely on the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!”
But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!”
It’s important to understand this because the Bible warns us that the worship of angels stems from an “unspiritual mind” and it is a key element of those who try to mislead believers (Colossians 2:18). Cults thus put undue emphasis on either heavenly angels or fallen spirits. Do not be misled by these false teachers. Let your worship be reserved for God alone, as this particular angel instructed John.
These verses, by the way, explain why angels so seldom make themselves visible to people and, when they do, they often masquerade as humans (Hebrews 13:2). This also might explain the rather generic descriptions of angels in the Bible, at least “common angels” anyway. It’s just too tempting for us in our current state to be so awed by celestial beings that we naturally respond with worship, as John does above. If this great apostle was inclined to worship an angel who appeared to him, how much more so believers of lower stature?
The angel’s responses show that these spiritual beings are adamant about our attention being focused on the Lord, their ‘employer,’ not them. They prefer to stay in the background and let the Mighty Christ have the throne. As created beings, they know their rightful place and their purpose: To worship and serve the Creator, not be worshipped themselves.
Lastly, notice how this heavenly angel described himself in each of his responses to John: He said “I am a fellow servant with you”. We must get ahold of this fact: Angels are “ministering spirits”—serving spirits—sent by God (their ‘Boss’) to serve people. People, by contrast, do not serve angels; they serve us. In fact, we are mandated to judge angels one day, which we’ll address at the end of this chapter.
Angels are Created Beings who Witnessed the Creation of the Earth
Scripture shows that angels were created by Christ:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
It was implied earlier that angels were present when God created the Heavens and the Earth. We see evidence of this in the LORD’s humbling response to Job:
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
This is a form of Hebrew poetry called synonymous parallelism where the second part of the verse restates the same thought as the first in different words. With this understanding, notice that verse 7 refers to angels as “morning stars.” Keep this in mind for future reference.
The point is that angels already existed when the LORD created the Earth and Universe. They celebrated God’s awe-inspiring work with great joy—singing and shouting.
Angels are Watchers
Angels not only observed the formation of the physical Universe and all things in it, they’ve been watching events on Earth ever since; at least some of them anyway. This is akin to sports fans at a big game or spectators in an ancient Roman arena. The apostle Paul put it like this: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings” (1 Corinthians 4:9).
Our cats like to gaze out our windows and so Carol & I dub the windows “cat TV.” You could say that the Earth is “angel TV.” Angels are watching us and seem to be fascinated by us; Christ pointed out that they celebrate when someone turns from sin to God (Luke 15:7,10).
The fact that at least some angels are watchers can be observed in Daniel 4 where the Chaldean Aramaic word iyr (eer) is used to describe them; the word means “a watcher; i.e. an angel as guardian” (verses 13, 17 & 23). This doesn’t mean watcher in a merely passive sense, as iyr stems from an action-oriented Hebrew word that means “on the watch.” One of their jobs is likely to record events, including our words. A minister testified that she was able to see in the spiritual realm on one occasion and saw an angel nearby chronicling the conversations. Why would an angel chronicle words? Because Christ said we’ll be acquitted or condemned by them (Matthew 12:37) and this can’t happen if they’re not somehow recorded.
Later this chapter we’ll observe how cherubim and “living creatures” are described as being “covered with eyes.” This is likely a figurative statement which perhaps suggests that watcher angels are of the cherub and living creature variety.
Lastly, while watcher angels observe and document what’s unfolding on Earth and take action to the degree that we allow them (which is explained in detail in my book), they’re not God and therefore they don’t know everything that’s going to happen; for instance, they don’t know the specific day or hour of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:35-36).
The Population of Angels
The Bible doesn’t provide an exact count of these celestial beings, although in John’s heavenly vision he saw “many angels numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” encircling God’s throne (Revelation 5:11). This coincides with a vision Daniel had (Daniel 7:10). That’s over 100 million angels! Of course, this indefinite figure doesn’t take into account the billions of angels assigned to minister to people on Earth nor the fallen angels who fell from Heaven with Satan nor the angels elsewhere in Heaven. It’s simply a testimony of the myriad angels functioning around God’s throne in Heaven.
In any case, the passage offers a magnificent picture of the activity in God’s presence and suggests the number of angels to be incomprehensible. But, while the population of angels may be incredibly vast, it is a definite number; we just don’t know what it is.
Angels are Praise & Worshipers
Speaking of Revelation 5:11, the passage goes on to show the multitudes of angels praising & worshiping the Almighty (verse 12). The “four living creatures” that John saw around the throne are a form of angel and they’re also depicted worshiping God (Revelation 4:8); not to mention many other angels (Revelation 7:11-12).
Someone might ask: Why are these angels praising the LORD so much? Why would God need or want so much adulation? Actually, it’s not a matter of the Almighty being insecure and needing praise in a fleshly sense; rather, worship is simply the natural response to God’s stunning magnificence. Think about it in terms of watching great musicians, athletes or artists: We are so marveled by their talents we react with enthusiastic applause or shouts, sometimes even jumping up & down. You can times this to the nth degree when encountering the Most High. After all, who’s greater—the created or the Creator?
When Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem an angel appeared to some shepherds in a field nearby to inform them of this awesome event (Luke 2:8-15). They were terrified by the sighting, as is usual in Scripture, but the angel encouraged them not to be afraid and told them where to find the amazing baby. Then this happened: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host [angels] appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests’ ” (verses 13-14).
Praising God is obviously a priority for angels and one of their favorite activities. It’s healthy to celebrate & adulate the LORD, not just for angels, but all creation (Psalm 103:20-22 & Psalm 148).*
* For more on the importance of praise & worship see this article.
Angels Don’t Procreate
Christ pointed out in Luke 20:34-36 that angels don’t marry, which means they don’t copulate and therefore don’t procreate. So their population is a set figure, unless God were to create more.
This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that angels can’t copulate; just that they don’t marry and therefore don’t have sex. This doesn’t necessarily apply to the fallen angels, of course, as they are in rebellion against the Creator. In fact, a group of them manifested in the physical realm for the very purpose of having sexual relations with women and procreating, which gave birth to the giant Nephilim (NEF-ah-lim), as detailed in Genesis 6. This fascinating topic is covered here.
By the way, Jesus said that angels don’t marry; he didn’t say that there are only male angels nor did he say that angels are asexual. Whether or not there are female angels is tackled in Appendix A of ANGELS.
Neither do the Scriptures ever say that “all of the angels were created simultaneously,” as I read a couple ministers teach. While this may be likely, it’s not specifically stated. What we do know is that angels already existed when the Earth & Universe were created. We also know they possess intrinsic immortality, which means they can’t die, even if they’re fallen (Luke 20:34-36). Such immortality is only available to people who are redeemed (2 Timothy 1:10 & Romans 2:7). See this article for details.
What is an Archangel?
The prefix ‘arch’ is a Greek term meaning “of the first order, chief.” So an archangel is a ruling angel. This word only appears twice in Scripture:
But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
1 Thessalonians 4:16
The first passage shows that Michael is the ruling angel in the LORD’s service. While the second passage doesn’t mention Michael by name, we can safely conclude that it refers to Michael because the verse is addressing the resurrection of the dead and other passages cite Michael as the chief angel in charge of this endeavor (Jude 1:9 & Daniel 12:1-3). Scripture interprets Scripture.
Although it’s possible that Michael is the only ruling angel, a couple of things point to the likelihood of more archangels subordinate to Michael. For one, notice how an angel speaking to Daniel describes Michael in this passage:
“Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. 13 But 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.
This anonymous angel informs Daniel that he came in response to his prayers immediately but was detained for 21 days because the “prince of the Persian kingdom” resisted him. This “prince” was obviously a high-ranking evil spirit that ruled over Persia at the time. The messenger angel was only able to break free from this wicked spirit with the assistance of Michael. This shows that Michael is mightier than common angels, as well as fallen angels who rule over whole nations, which is befitting a chief angel or archangel.
Anyway, notice that the nameless angel describes Michael as “one of the chief princes,” which means one of the ruling angels.
Jewish tradition says that there are seven archangels, and this passage implies it:
And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.
It stands to reason that these seven angels are chief angels—archangels—in light of the fact that they’re standing before God. Think of it in terms of top generals who get direct instructions from their king or president.
I’m not going to list the names of the seven archangels from Hebraic tradition because it’s irrelevant in a study based purely on Scripture. However, the top two archangels on this list are cited in the Bible—Michael and Gabriel. Being the only two heavenly angels cited by name in the Bible, we know this marks Michael and Gabriel as special. In light of this, plus the fact that Michael is called an archangel—a ruling angel—and “one of the chief princes,” it’s safe to conclude that Gabriel is also a chief angel.
The only other angel cited by name is Lucifer, but he foolishly rebelled against God due to pride and was thus banished from Heaven.
Michael, Gabriel and Lucifer
Being the only three angels cited by name in Scripture, let’s consider each of them and their heavenly duties:
Michael. As noted above, Michael is an archangel—the only angel specifically referred to as such—and is described by a subordinate angel as “one of the chief princes.” ‘Chief ’ in the Hebrew is rishon (ree-SHOHN), which means “first.” And ‘prince’ is sar (SAR), meaning chieftain, ruler, official, captain, prince. So “chief prince” (rishon sar) can be defined as first ruler or top official. Furthermore, Michael is also described in Daniel as a “great prince” (Daniel 12:1). ‘Prince’ is the same Hebrew word as above whereas ‘great’ is gadol (gaw-DOHL), which simply means “great.” Thus Michael isn’t just a ruling angel, he’s a great ruling angel—the top one. So, while there may likely be seven archangels, Michael is the top one.
Is it any wonder, then, that Michael will lead the fight against Satan and his angels when they strike one last time against the Almighty?
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
This prophetic passage is actually a double reference. There are often double references in Bible prophecy, which simply means that the prophecy has both a more immediate application and a far-flung one, whether past or future. The context of this particular prophecy in the book of Revelation shows that it refers to the devil’s last ditch effort against his Creator during the mid-point of the future seven-year Tribulation, which fails. However, this is also a flashback to the devil’s original rebellion in Heaven and his embarrassing ouster, along with “his angels” who joined his harebrained scheme. We look at the prophetic “law of double reference” in more detail in my book.
In any case, Michael is listed as the top heavenly angel in command of fighting and defeating the enemy. “The dragon” (i.e. the devil) and his loser angels are “not strong enough” and thus lose “their place in heaven” and are “hurled to the earth.”
This, plus the fact that Michael helped an unnamed angel get a message to Daniel by defeating the demonic “king of Persia” (Daniel 10:13) shows that Michael is a warrior angel—the top one, in fact. You could say that he’s the 5 Star General of angels.
He’s also in charge of the resurrection of the dead, as pointed out earlier.
Michael’s name, by the way, means “Who is like God?” which fittingly honors the LORD.
Speaking of which, Michael is decidedly submitted to the LORD (Jude 1:9), but this doesn’t negate Michael’s mightiness in the least, as testified by the above passages. This is important to grasp because wives are instructed to submit to their husbands in Scripture (Ephesians 5:22), which is interestingly related to the hierarchal ranks of angels and their submission to authority:
That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
1 Corinthians 11:10
As such, a wife submitting to her husband does not negate her greatness or glory in the least. Chew on that.
Gabriel. This angel’s name literally means “God is my strength” (literally “God is my strong man”), but could also be rendered “devoted to God” or “hero of God.” All are fitting for this mighty angel. In the Bible Gabriel is shown delivering important messages to three different individuals:
- Daniel (Daniel 8:15-17 & 9:21-23)
- Zechariah (Luke 1:8-20)
- Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26–38)
On the latter two occasions he announces the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. As such, Gabriel is the angel of annunciation—God’s angel who announces special events or messages. He’s therefore likely the angel who will proclaim the gospel of Christ during the Tribulation, as shown here:
Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. 7 He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
The angel is described as “flying in midair,” which shows that he has the power of flight and therefore perhaps wings of some sort.
When Gabriel came to Zechariah to proclaim the pregnancy of his wife, Elizabeth, and the forthcoming birth of John, Zechariah foolishly responded with unbelief. Notice Gabriel’s stern response:
“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
Gabriel describes himself as one who stands in the very presence of God. Is this not reminiscent of the seven angels standing before God in John’s vision (Revelation 8:2)? This suggests that Gabriel is a chief angel—an archangel—although Michael is the top ruling angel.
Lucifer. This is the angel who pompously rebelled in Heaven and thus lost his position, falling to the Earth in defeat. Technically he fell to the “underworld,” which is the spiritual dimension that undergirds the Earth and Universe. He was fittingly renamed Satan, which means “adversary” or “the enemy,” as well as devil, which means “slanderer.”
‘Lucifer,’ by contrast, means “shining one” or “light-bearer.” He was a top cherub in Heaven, obviously an archangel and presumably in charge of worship. But he rebelled when people were created because he was envious of their nature as the only beings created in God’s image intended to be co-heirs with Christ. Not to mention he didn’t want to serve them, as angels are commissioned to do. Then there’s his utter arrogance in craving a position above the Almighty.
I say Lucifer was “obviously an archangel” because he misled a third of the angels in his imprudent revolt and they fell from Heaven with him. You can’t mislead others unless you’re leading them in the first place, which shows that Lucifer was a leading angel; and a leading angel is an archangel.
Here’s something to consider: There are only three angels named in Scripture and one of these, Lucifer, misled a third of the angels and they were kicked out of Heaven with him. Who leads the other two-thirds who weren’t banished from Heaven? Who else but Michael and Gabriel, the only other two angels cited by name?
The devil in more detail in Chapter 9 and, particularly, Chapter 11 of ANGELS.
One last thing about archangels: This verse suggests that archangels periodically report to God, including Satan:
One day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them.
Which angels came to report to the LORD? Obviously not every angel in existence and unlikely common angels. So this must refer to the ruling angels—the archangels—presenting themselves to God to give account. Job 2:1 shows this happening again, which suggests that it’s a periodic obligation, much like supervisors reporting to managers.
These verses illustrate the sovereignty of God: Even Satan, the fallen “god of this world” has to give account to the Almighty. The passages could thus be read as such: “the ruling angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and even the disgraced archangel Satan came with them.”
The fact that there are archangels—ruling angels—shows that there are angelic hierarchies, just as there are hierarchies in the natural, such as in families, businesses, companies, governments, militaries, assemblies and sects. With this understanding, let’s take another look at a passage, which suggests the hierarchy of angels:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
This reveals that there are subordinate authorities under Christ, and they are hierarchal in nature. Hierarchies are leadership divisions. Think of it in terms of militaries where there’s a chain of command. The chain starts with 5 Star generals, then subordinate officers (lower generals, colonels, majors, captains, lieutenants), and, finally, non-commissioned officers.
While hierarchies sometimes have a negative connotation they’re necessary for order in any group. It doesn’t mean that those in the group aren’t equal in the sense of intrinsic worth as living beings; it just means that some in the group are in leadership positions and therefore have more power and thus more responsibility, which makes them more important.
The Bible also shows that there are varieties of angels. Here are the types cited:
Seraphim (SAIR-ah-fim). Isaiah 6:1-7 describes one of Isaiah’s visions where seraphim flew above the throne of God. This is different from cherubim, who dwell around it. Seraphim (or seraphs) are described as having six wings, two of which are used for flying. The other two sets are used to cover their faces and feet. Their faces were likely covered to protect them from God’s glory since they were so close to the throne. Their feet were probably covered because feet were considered unclean in Hebrew culture.
In any case, a seraph (SAIR-uhf) is depicted in the prophet’s vision holding a live coal with tongs, taken from the heavenly altar, which the angel uses to touch Isaiah’s lips for purification. We observe that the seraph has hands.
Seraphim are only depicted by name this one time in Scripture. The Hebrew word means “fiery ones,” likely an allusion to their burning love, readily willing to minister to the LORD or whomever. As such, they’re sometimes called the “ones of love” because their name may be derived from the Hebrew root for “love.” All this points to the idea that they’re personal attendants of God. The Hebrew saraph (saw-RAWF) is ironically used five other times in the Old Testament in reference to “fiery serpents” or “flying serpents.”
The seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are shown constantly glorifying and praising God, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Using the same word three times to describe someone or something in Hebrew culture meant that the person or thing was utterly like the word. As such, the LORD is intrinsically holy; that is, absolutely pure, unlike fallen angels, which are unclean, impure or filthy.
Cherubim (CHAIR-ah-bim). In modern culture cherubs are typically depicted as pudgy children with wings, akin to Cupid in classical mythology. Scripture, however, describes them much differently. Cherubim are an order of mighty angelic beings. The Hebrew term is probably related to the Akkadian karabu, meaning “great, powerful, mighty.” They are first mentioned in the Bible as angels whom the LORD assigns to guard the Garden of Eden after Adam & Eve fell and were expelled (Genesis 3:24).
Cherubim are associated with God’s holy presence and thus the LORD’s glory. God instructed that the pure gold cover of the Ark of the Covenant be made with two cherubim facing each other, their wings spread upward overshadowing the Ark (Exodus 25:17-22). It was between these gold-sculptured cherubs that the LORD’s very presence would dwell on Earth during the Old Covenant period (Psalm 80:1 & 99:1). While this refers to the earthly Ark, it was a reflection of the heavenly reality: The LORD is enthroned in Heaven guarded by mighty cherubim on either side.
What’s more, David described the LORD as mounting cherubim and flying to help him in a life-threatening situation (Psalm 18:10 & 2 Samuel 22:11). “LORD” in this context refers to the pre-incarnate Christ, also known as The Angel of the LORD, which is addressed here. While David may have been speaking somewhat figuratively, it nevertheless shows the Mighty Christ utilizing the services of cherubim to save his servant.
Ezekiel had an incredible vision that explains how the LORD “mounted the cherubim and flew”: God sat on a throne which rested on a huge platform that looked like sparkling ice. Underneath the platform were four living creatures—cherubim—who propelled the platform with the aid of four giant wheels within intersecting wheels (Ezekiel 1). While the passage doesn’t identify these “living creatures” as cherubim, the prophet does so in another vision in Ezekiel 10 (see verses 15 & 20 in particular). If you Google “Ezekiel’s vision” you can view several awe-inspiring depictions of this Divine craft from different artists. This is how the LORD travels by “mounting the cherubim.”
Speaking of these two visions, Ezekiel provides the most detailed description of cherubim: Unlike the seraphim, they only have four wings—two covering their bodies and two for flying. They have the form of human beings with the appearance of burning coals or torches; and they’re said to be covered with eyes (Ezekiel 1:18 & 10:12). They have arms & hands, but their feet are likened to hooves. Curiously, they have four different faces on each side of their heads—like that of a man on the front, a lion on the right, an ox on the left, and also an eagle. God gave them four faces perhaps to represent supremacy over the Earth and atmosphere: Humankind is declared the ruler over creation (Genesis 1:26); the lion is the proverbial “king of beasts”; the ox is the most powerful & useful domesticated animal; and the eagle rules the skies.
While Ezekiel’s description seems to change a bit in his later vision with the ox-like face switching to that of a cherub (Ezekiel 10:14), verse 22 verifies that he was simply referring to one of the four faces of the cherub, which his earlier vision confirmed as looking like an ox. In any case, just as humans, lions, oxen and eagles represent the greatest of their respective domain in the earthly realm, so the cherub is the greatest of angels in the celestial realm.
I should add that there’s no reason to think that every cherub looks like the ones Ezekiel described. After all, there’s a wide range of appearance in the varieties of people, right? Not all Caucasians, Africans, Asians and Australoids look alike; nor do all cherubim. The gold-sculptured ones on the Ark of the Covenant, for instance, only had one face and, evidently, two wings rather than four (Exodus 25:17-20).
Let’s also remember that Ezekiel was describing amazing otherworldly things from a 6th century BC mindset. It would be akin to a primitive native from the remotest parts of the Earth seeing a modern city for the first time and trying to describe skyscrapers and the like.
Also keep in mind that, with visions, the line between the literal and the symbolic is sometimes blurred. For instance, are the cherubs that Ezekiel saw literally covered with eyes or is this simply figurative of the fact that they’re “watchers,” as denoted earlier? Do they really have four different faces or is this also emblematic? Could they perhaps be wearing helmets with decorated faces on each side?
The hermeneutical rule is to take the Scriptures literally wherein at all possible and only figuratively when symbolism is apparent or highly suspected for one reason or another; in which case we should look for the obvious truth the symbolism intends to convey.
Living Creatures. John chronicles “four living creatures” around God’s throne in Heaven that share characteristics of both the seraphim and cherubim (Revelation 4:6-9). Interestingly, Ezekiel described the four cherubim he saw as “four living creatures” (Ezekiel 1:5,13) and, like them, the living creatures in John’s vision are said to have faces reminiscent of a man, lion, ox and eagle, except that they only have one face each, as opposed to four. Is this how they really appear or are they wearing symbolic helmets of some sort? They are also covered with eyes, which suggests they are watchers, like cherubim. But, like the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision, they have six wings and constantly say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” So the four living creatures are modified versions of seraphim and cherubim.
Since the four faces of the living creatures are analogous to earthly beings that are the greatest in their category—human, lion, ox and eagle—it is thought that the four living creatures represent creation worshiping the Creator.
Common Angels. When heavenly angels are cited in Scripture they are most often referred to simply as angels and are not designated as seraphs, cherubs or living creatures. While they may be one of these, the Bible doesn’t distinguish this. Furthermore, they are typically described in terms of young men with shining faces wearing white, gleaming garments (e.g. Matthew 28:2-3, Mark 16:5, Luke 24:4 & Daniel 10:5-6). You’ll note that there is no reference to wings in such passages, which supports the idea that not all angels have wings. While this may mean that these angels didn’t have wings, it could also simply mean that their wings weren’t mentioned, just as their hands & feet aren’t cited. Or perhaps the way common angels appear to fallen humans isn’t exactly as they look in the spiritual realm.
In any case, are these angels a fourth classification? Whether they are or not, it’s only appropriate that we distinguish them, which is why I dub them “common angels.”
And what of archangels, that is, ruling angels? Are they a separate species of angel or are they just angels that have acquired leadership status—whether seraphim, cherubim, living creatures or (maybe) common angels? I would say the latter in light of the fact that Lucifer was referred to as a cherub before his fall. Speaking of which, it could be argued that all archangels are cherubim since, as noted above, cherubim are the “great, powerful, mighty” angels associated with God’s presence. This is not to say, of course, that all cherubim are archangels.
Consider human rulers throughout history, whether monarchs, dictators, presidents or prime ministers—are they a wholly different type of human being or are they simply people of varying races and socio-economic levels who attained ruling status one way or another? This is why I didn’t list archangels as one of the varieties of angels, but rather distinguished them as chiefs in the hierarchy of angels.
How Exactly Will We “Judge Angels”?
It was pointed out earlier that we don’t serve angels; rather they are commissioned to serve us. In fact, we’re called to judge angels. This can be observed in a rhetorical question that Paul asked the believers at Corinth:
Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!
1 Corinthians 6:3
What does it mean that we will judge angels? Answer: Since believers are co-heirs with Christ and we “will reign for ever and ever” with Him (Romans 8:17 & Revelation 22:5), we will have the authority to judge angels. This makes sense in light of the fact that the job of these celestial beings is to serve us. It should be added that judging angels would include governing them since the Greek word for ‘judge’ can mean “to rule or govern.” As such, angels will serve us in the eternal age of the new Heavens and new Earth as we govern them (2 Peter 3:13).
An alternative interpretation is that we shall judge fallen angels, but this is unlikely since their judgment is already set (Matthew 25:41).
Other Facts or Insights about Angels
- Since angels are spiritual beings they are not ordinarily visible to the human eye.
- If they are seen, it’s allowed by God for a particular purpose (Luke 2:8-15). In such cases they either reveal themselves to certain people with God’s permission or the LORD allows them to be seen.
- When this occurs, they often appear simply as normal human beings (Hebrews 13:2). This obviously isn’t their real appearance because when people see angels in their true form (presumably as they appear in the spirit realm) they are either awed by them or terrified (Revelation 19:10 & Luke 1:11-12).
- Unlike God, angels are neither omniscient (know everything) nor omnipresent (present everywhere at the same time).
- The scriptural description of seraphim, cherubim and living creatures shows that they have wings. Since Lucifer was a cherub before his fall we assume that he also had wings, which suggests Satan has them. The scant evidence also points to Gabriel having wings, as noted earlier. While Michael is never described as having wings we assume that he does since he’s the chief angel. How could he be the top angel if he didn’t at least have the talents of his subordinates? While common angels aren’t said to have wings, it doesn’t say they don’t either. Yet, here’s an alternative possibility: Perhaps angels described as having “wings” is mere symbolism for the fact that they possess the power of flight.
- Jacob had a dream where he saw a stairway (or ladder) going up to Heaven with angels ascending and descending. This illustrates the incessant activity of angels going back-and-forth from Heaven to Earth in the LORD’s service (Genesis 28:12).
- Someone argued that angels don’t need wings if they can use this stairway. No, all it means is that they utilize this traveling convenience to go back-and-forth from one realm to another. It doesn’t mean they don’t have wings or cannot fly.
- Angels going back & forth from Heaven to Earth obviously refers to angels delivering messages or carrying out other services and then returning (Daniel 10:12). Perhaps angels relieve those on Earth so they can go back to the presence of God and “recharge” before returning to duty. Remember, God is the Fountain of Life (Psalm 36:9).
comments powered by Disqus