When it comes to people’s overactive imaginations being passed off as “Christian teaching”, it would be difficult to find a more blatant example that the purported “study” of “angels”.
From the superstitious Pharisees protesting to their Sadducee opponents at Paul’s trial (Ac.23:9) “But what if a spirit or angel spoke to him?”, through the Renaissance paintings of fearsome, robed apparitions, or later depictions of kindly, protective, effeminate-looking beings in shining garments and halos, or assorted 13th to 20th century amalgamations of Dante and Milton with oddly distorted and combined snippets of Old Testament references, or ubiquitous fat pink cherubs, to modern supernatural speculation and cheap (or expensive) jewelry, one can find some sort of “angel” to suit nearly any predilection or decor! Most of these bear little if any resemblance to either accurate semantics or New Testament reality.
Now, please take a deep breath between your shouts of “Heresy! Heresy!”, and let’s ask our perennial question: “But what does the (New Testament) TEXT say?” We will not even try to cover it all.
The answer, as usual, starts with the vocabulary. Like many of the nouns we have considered, aggelos probably started life as the participial form of a verb: in this case, aggelo, “to carry or deliver a message,” and its derivatives aggelia and aggelion, both translated “message” or “news.” In turn, the aggelos was the carrier of a message – any message – from anyone, to anyone. Oddly, the occasional, often facetious request , “Be an angel and …(do something)” may be closer to the actual meaning of the word than most of the “teaching” you have heard! Put most simply, a verb describes action; its participle or noun counterpart refers either to the doer of that action, or at times, its result. The word says nothing whatever about the character, pedigree, or DNA of the message-bearer, let alone his/her/its appearance, origin, or ultimate destiny.
Classically, one of the most common tasks of a messenger/aggelos was to report on the progress of a battle (remember Marathon?). It was even used of birds or other artifacts of augury! The focus was uniformly on the delivery of necessary information – not the means or agent of that delivery – the report, not the reporter.
That this continued to be the case in the first century is obvious in the use of aggelos not only for supernatural apparitions, although there certainly were such (Mt.1 and 2, Lk.1 and 2, and elsewhere), but also of prophets (Mt.11:10, Mk.1:2, Lk.7:27), the messengers sent by John the Baptist to Jesus (Lk.7:24), the disciples commissioned and sent out by Jesus (Lk.9:52), and even the spies hidden by Rahab in Jericho (Jas.2:25), who were all clearly human. In such cases, traditional translators usually fell back on the correct word, “messenger”, after having used the transliteration, “angel” in places where they had decided (although the writers had used the same word) that a message was delivered by some sort of supernatural being. (Twice, they translated apostolos as “messenger”, presumably because they were unwilling to confer the “title” (their own creation) of “apostle” upon the individuals involved. (See W.S.#41, and remember that Jesus had forbidden the use of titles!)
Reference is also made to the agents of Satan as “messengers/aggeloi” (II Cor.12:7), but NOT, as some insist, to Satan himself.
Jesus also makes a particular point that aggeloi are not omniscient (Mt.24:36).
The folks on the ground at the time were not always as certain about the identifications as were those traditional translators. Notice Peter’s confusion when he was delivered from prison (Ac.12), and the gathered prayer group’s response to Rhoda’s announcement of his arrival. They thought she was seeing ghosts! Notice also that Luke’s initial resurrection account (24:4) speaks of “two men”, although later (v.23), the traveling disciples referred to “a vision of angels [messengers]”.
The confusion of modern readers is probably largely due to their perverse preoccupation with assigning titles and/or job descriptions to individuals , rather than focusing on the more necessary (and scriptural) concern that a message be delivered! Again, the status vs. function orientation rears its ugly head. Please see chapter 8 of Citizens of the Kingdom, as well as the end of chapter 13.
Notice, please, that the messenger is never the originator or the author of a message: merely its transportation. In fact, it probably doesn’t matter who the messenger is: only that he faithfully delivers the word entrusted to him, or performs his assigned task. This is the case whether the originator of the message is God (Lk.1 and 2, Ac.10), another person (Lk.7:24, Jas.2:25), or even Satan (I Cor.12:7, Mt.5:21). The latter, incidentally, is said to have messengers/angels, but never to be one – “fallen” or otherwise!
The tasks of messengers are greatly varied. An aggelos may be assigned to reap a field (Mt.13:39), to gather the Lord’s people (Mt.24:31, Mk.13:27), to prepare the way for Jesus (Mt.11:10, Mk.1:2, Lk.7:27), to care for him in the desert (Mt.4:11, Mk.1:13) or in the garden (Lk.22:43), to precede his arrival at a preaching destination (Lk.7:52), to stir the healing waters in a pool (Jn.5:4), to carry questions to Jesus from his cousin John (Lk.7:24),to deliver the joyous news of his resurrection (Mt.28:2, Lk.24:23, Jn.20:12), or to accompany his return in glory (Mt.16:27, Mk.8:38, Mt.25:31, Lk.9:26)! And that is only in the gospels!
I have deliberately chosen not to differentiate between the translations of “angel” and “messenger”, because they represent the same word. To the writers, there was only one idea.
They did not seem to care whether the “messenger” was natural or supernatural – why, then, should we?
Do you think the apostles cared, or asked for some sort of heavenly credential, when the prison doors opened and they were directed to go back and continue preaching in the temple (Ac.5:19)? Peter (Ac.12) thought he was dreaming, but followed the messenger who released him the second time. And Stephen’s account of Moses’ experience (Ac.7:30-38) refers alternately to “the Lord” and “the messenger/angel of the Lord”, while he quotes the “voice” as self-identifying, “I AM the God of your fathers!” Similarly, aggelos and pneuma (see #52 and 53) are interchanged in the encounters between Cornelius and Peter (Ac.10), Philip and the Ethiopian (Ac.8:26), and the Pharisee/Sadducee argument in Ac.23:8-9. These, being used interchangeably, are clearly related, but not equated.
The epistles add insight. The first two chapters of Hebrews are quite explicit in repeatedly asserting the superiority of Jesus over any sort of messenger/aggelos. Indeed, in 1:6, “all God’s messengers” (natural and supernatural?) are instructed to “worship him!” and in chapter 2, it is clear that Jesus voluntarily and temporarily assumed a lower position, only for the purpose of destroying death, and breaking its power. Does it matter, whether the roll-call of the celebrants in his eventual glory includes different categories of the faithful, or simply synonyms (12:22)? I don’t think so!
Both Peter (I Pet.3:22) and Paul (Rom.8:38) also assert Jesus’ superiority over messengers; the latter even declaring that “we” (his people) “shall judge angels/messengers”(I Cor.6:3)!
Paul’s admonition to the Colossian church (Col.2:15-19, but especially v.18), is extremely relevant today, to folks who are as inclined as their earlier brethren to become fascinated with all sorts of mythological beings, thinking to supplement their “knowledge”or status, and prone to give them more credence than the Lord himself! Paul repeatedly warned both Timothy and Titus (I Tim.1:4, 4:7; II Tim.4:4, Tit.1:14), to avoid such myths – both Jewish and pagan. The healthy growth of the Body depends upon Jesus alone!
The “messengers” who are the primary actors in the Revelation, following instructions from “voices”, “the throne”, or “the altar”, emptying jars, blowing trumpets, and relaying information to John, are most likely supernatural beings; it is not always clear to John – or his readers – whether he is hearing from the messengers or from Jesus himself. But here, too, he is strictly advised that the messenger is not to be worshiped (22:8).
So – who / what is an aggelos?
Perhaps the writer to the Hebrews said it best: “Aren’t they all just officiating spirits, sent to take care of those who are inheriting God’s deliverance?” (Heb.1:14)
It seems as if, when the Lord has one of his human servants available, and something needs to be communicated or done, he sends that available person as a “messenger.”
But if there is no one handy – no problem – he also has an ample supply of supernatural servants.And if his message gets through, or the job is done, it really doesn’t matter who does it!
This realization can delightfully enhance our perception of our brothers and sisters, as well as any other aggelos that is sent our way – as well as our own sense of responsibility.
Have you seen or heard from an aggelos lately?
Have you been one?
Thanks for this treatise, Ruth. It helped clear up some questions I have had for a long time.