Q: “Who are the angels? What do they do?”

The word, ‘angel,’ comes from the Greek term, angelos (pronounced “ahn’geh lahs”), which means “messenger”. It’s the same word we find in euangelion (“good message” or “good news”), the base of our word ‘evangelize’. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who spreads the good news of salvation in Jesus is an angel; regular earthly Christians do that too.

Angels are supernatural persons God sends on special missions, though they may not be recognized for what they are at the time. As it says in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Indeed, perceiving angels can be tricky business. In one case, the wayward prophet Balaam couldn’t see one at all – but his donkey could – and as the animal kept dodging the heavenly visitor in his path, his master becoming irritated and abusive (Numbers 22:21-38).

The Bible is full of talk about angels – over 100 references in the Old Testament and over 150 in the New. For instance, in Genesis (where the Hebrew word for them is malak), we see an angel bringing counsel to the beleaguered Hagar (16:7-12). And at the far end of the Bible, in Revelation, 19 of the book’s 22 chapters mention angels.

Sometimes angels speak from heaven, as when one told Abraham to stop his sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). Others talk face to face, as did the one who visited Gideon under a tree at his workplace (Judges 6:11-21). Sometimes they work miracles – whether destructive or constructive – as when the angels rescuing Lot from Sodom blinded his menacing neighbors (Genesis 19:1-22), or when an angel provided Elijah with water and cooked food while he was running for his life from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1-8).

Sometimes the Bible gives the name, as with Gabriel in Luke 1:26-38, where he tells Mary that she, as a virgin, will bear a Son. But biblical angels are typically anonymous, as is the one who freed the apostles from prison in Acts 5:17-21.

Angels are organized into ranks of authority, with Michael named as an “archangel” in Jude 1:9. As such, they are engaged in battle with the devil’s supernatural ranks, mentioned in Ephesians 6:12. Though angels are often pictured in the arts – painting, sculpture, film – with wings, the Bible does not do so typically, but rather reserves wings for those it calls seraphs (Isaiah 6:1-7) and cherubs (2 Chronicles 3:10-13). Angels are not meant to be worshipped (cf. Colossians 2:18), but are themselves models of worship of the Living God and His Son Jesus (Hebrews 1:6).

We see them all over the place in Scripture – in “the heavenly Jerusalem,” where we find “innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Hebrews 12:22); monitoring the well-being of children, for, as Jesus said, “in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10); standing with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace (Daniel 3:24-25); ministering to Jesus after His temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11); appearing “ like lightning,” with “clothing white as snow,” to roll back the stone door to Jesus’ tomb and announce His resurrection” (Matthew 28:1-10).

Not surprisingly, many people today are interested in whether angels are still at work in the world. Billy Graham wrote a book on the subject, Angels: God’s Secret Agents, and it sold millions. As for myself, as editor of a Christian magazine, I once asked a group of Christian leaders if any of them thought they’d encountered an angel, and several readily said they had. One spoke of a mysterious deliverer in the midst of a snow storm in northwest Arkansas, and two others told of uncanny encounters with encouragers to lift them from depression – one on a redeye flight from Los Angeles to Detroit, another on a Boston subway platform.

I think the Bible encourages us to expect some such encounters. But there is danger if we’re not careful, for, as Paul warns in 2 Corinthians 11:14, “[E]ven Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” And, as a perfect example, six centuries after Paul’s death, Mohammed said that the angel Gabriel dictated the Koran, a book which denies the divinity of Jesus. So the work and words of alleged angels must always be squared with the teaching of the Bible.

Of course, God ministers to us in many ways, including the touch of the Holy Spirit on our hearts, the fellowship of fellow believers, the counsel of Scripture, and even the deeds of non-believers. After all, He is Lord of everything and can use anything to accomplish His purposes. That includes angels, and for their help, we can be grateful and alert.