What are angels? What do they do?
Angels seem to appear and disappear in their popularity throughout history. Their star continues to be on the rise currently amongst the general populace, especially young adults, even those that may not believe in God. They appear in songs, books and movies regularly. Surveys in America, Canada and the UK show that well over 50% of people surveyed believed in angels and demons, including 1 in 5 who are not religious.
Back in the mid eighties there was an urban myth going around about the vanishing hitch hiker who was really an angel appearing on highways and giving Christians messages about the return of Jesus. A cynical group of musicians called The Swirling Eddies wrote a song called Urban Legends (1989) about the superstitions that Christians hold, especially in the way that God reveals himself and directs humans.
Part of the lyrics go (remember this is tongue in cheek):
“At midnight there stood a stranger on the highway,
Somewhere there abouts, (I think) in Corpus Christi,
He smiled and said that he was going my way,
No I couldn’t say that I believed all that,
‘till I picked up the vanishing hitch hiker,
He was an angel, I heard him say,
“Stop telling lies”, then he went away.
I get my info from the backward masking,
I get the Word of God from prayer and fasting,
J.F.K. is alive and well,
Kissenger is a beast from Hell,
The face of St. Paul in this butt roast,
Assures me that I’m going up to heaven,
The Anti-Christ does laundry on the East Coast,
I doubted the most - I did not believe in all that,
‘till I picked up the vanishing hitch hiker...”
The things we as Christians believe from ‘hear say’ rather than the Bible is at times laughable, at other times sad and misleading. How God speaks to us is often disputed points. It taps into the desire for God’s guidance which is an important question for many young people.
The Book of Hebrews starts with these words, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, “ (Hebrews 1:1,2) After this introduction the writer launches immediately into his comparison between Jesus and angels.
It seems as though angels were an important part of the Hebrew’s worldview and may have even been worshiped (see also Colossians 2:18). The point is made and concluded in Hebrews 2:1-3 when he sums up by saying “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so the we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angelous (Greek original) was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” This salvation which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.”
The point being that if the angel’s message was important how much more is the message of Jesus, who is God’s final revelation.
Angels are often thought about in a superstitious way, like the vanishing hitch hiker urban myth. In reality, angels can be rather ordinary. The English word ‘angel’ is a transliteration of the Greek word angelos, which is the ordinary word for ‘messenger’, ‘the bearer or proclaimer of tidings’. It is ordinarily in the Greek language used outside the bible for human messengers, but it could apply to anyone who bears a message. For example, there were Roman religious officers called augers who derived there prophecies from watching the movements of birds. The birds in augury are called angelous (Knox, 2000).
The word angelos or mal’ak in Hebrew is used 200 times in the OT. It simply means messenger. It can equally mean a human agent sent by God or sent by another human being, as well as a divine agent. In the NT angelos is used 188 times, however, only 7 times in the English versions do the translators give the ordinary meaning of the word - ‘messenger’ (Knox, 2000). The overwhelming translation of angelos as a superhuman being has not helped us to understand how God normally speaks to us. In some cases the translators would have been better to have used ‘messenger’ instead of ‘angel’. (See Matthew 24: 31; Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; 4:14; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 2:2; Revelation 2 & 3).
The prophets of the OT can rightly be called angels. The Greek Old Testament uses the word angelous to denote prophets. What we must remember is that “(I)n the past God spoke through prophets, (or angels) at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1). There is a sense of finality about these words in Hebrews. It is not to deny that angels as super human beings exits (that would deny over half of the bible’s use of the word angel), or that God cannot speak in other ways, what we need to keep in focus is what God says in the Bible about how He does things.
God does not normally speak to us through back masking (playing vinyl records backwards), we don’t normally get the Word of God through prayer and fasting, God doesn’t reassure us of our salvation through St. Paul speaking to us through a leg of lamb, nor does God need to send vanishing hitch hikers to relay His message of salvation to us.
God has spoken through Jesus, whose words are written in the Bible for us to read and apply in our lives. I know that sounds a bit ordinary - but it is true!