The English word angel comes from the Greek word aggelos (pronounced ang-elos). The
Greek word implies the function of a messenger. When translating the word from the
Greek New Testament documents, most English translators have considered whether the
one fulfilling this function is a human, or a supernatural being. If it is a human,
the word is usually translated by a word similar to messenger. When it is clearly
referring to a supernatural being, it is translated as angel.
Jesus, speaking of John the Baptist, said:
This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger [aggelos] ahead
of you, who will prepare your way before you.” (Mat 11:10)
John the Baptist was a normal human being, born to a mother and father. He was commissioned
by God as a messenger, but he was not a supernatural being who came down from Heaven.
In speaking of the incident in the Old Testament when Israelite spies entered the
city of Jericho, and were hidden by a woman named Rahab, James writes:
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what
she did when she gave lodging to the spies [aggelos; KJV: messengers] and sent them
off in a different direction? (Jam 2:25)
This is an obvious reference to human spies sent to gather information from Jericho
and bring a message back to human military leaders about its vulnerabilities. So
again the term is referring to human messengers.
But in the passage below, the messenger is obviously a supernatural being sent with
a message from God Himself, and thus the word is translated angel.
But after he had considered this, an angel [aggelos] of the Lord appeared to him
in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as
your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Mat 1:20)
The Hebrew word translated in the Old Testament as “angel” is malak (plural: malakim).
Like aggelos, this word also implies a messenger.
As in the New Testament, when the word is obviously referring to a human deputy,
it is translated into English as messenger. But when it is obviously a supernatural
being representing God Himself, it is translated as angel. You can see both types
of meanings in this passage from Genesis:
Jacob also went on his way, and the angels [malakim] of God met him. When Jacob saw
them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim. Jacob
sent messengers [malakim] ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the
country of Edom. (Gen 32:1-3)
It is clear that the OT term malak and the NT term aggelos are interchangeable in
their meanings, as the incident regarding Rahab and Jericho as it appears in the
book of Judges is described this way by Joshua:
The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the LORD. Only Rahab the prostitute
and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies
[malakim] we sent. (Jos 6:17)
Even though the root of the English word angel is a Greek word that could mean also
a human messenger, centuries of the Biblical use of the word have led to the term
being used almost exclusively in modern times to designate a supernatural being sent
on a mission from Heaven by God.
In the New Testament, the author of the book of Hebrews notes the primary function
of angels who come to Earth:
Are not all angels ministering [doing the work of a servant or a benefactor] spirits
sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Heb 1:14)
Thus in the New Testament narrative, angels appear particularly in roles of service
to key individuals.
Among other activities, an angel or angels:
· Announced the conception of John the Baptist to his father. (Luke 1)
· Announced the conception of Jesus to Mary and Joseph. (Luke 1)
· Announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. (Luke 2)
· Warned Joseph to flee with Mary and the infant Jesus to avoid Herod. (Mat 2)
· Ministered to Jesus after His 40 days of fasting, and His confrontation with Satan.
· Rolled back the stone from the tomb of Jesus and announced His resurrection to
some of His disciples. (Mat 28)
· Rescued the Apostles from prison in Jerusalem. (Acts 5)
· Guided Philip to a meeting with the Ethiopian Eunuch. (Acts 8)
· Rescued Peter another time from prison in Jerusalem. (Acts 12)
· Instructed Cornelius the centurion to send for Peter, leading to the baptism of
Cornelius and his household. (Act 10)
The activities of angels described in the Old Testament were often similar. Among
other things, an angel or angels:
· Rescued Lot and his daughters from Sodom. (Gen 19)
· Rescued Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness when they had been banished. (Gen 21)
· Guided the people of Israel to the Promised Land. (Exo 23)
· Delivered to Gideon his commission. (Judg 6)
· Announced the conception of Samson to his parents. (Judg 13)
In both the Old and New Testaments, the angels of God are also said to do battle
with evil supernatural forces which are attempting to thwart the plans of God.
In Daniel, an angel comes to bring a message from God to the prophet Daniel.
Then he continued, “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. 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.” (Dan 10:12-13)
This same “Michael, one of the chief princes” is referred to in the New Testament
book of Jude:
But even the archangel [archaggelos: chief angel] Michael, when he was disputing
with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation
against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jud 1:9)
And this “archangel Michael” is also referred to in the New Testament book of Revelation.
The author, John, sees a vision in which:
… there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon [identified
in verse 9 as Satan], and the dragon and his angels fought back. (Rev 12:7)
This would indicate that Satan has supernatural beings who accept his own authority
and assist him in doing his works of evil. For more information on this topic, see
The Devil, Dark Angels, and Demons.
Click here for a sampler of scriptures with examples of these five main roles of
angels as they interact with the servants of God: protection, provision, comfort,
guidance, and deliverance.
Only two angels are given specific names in the Bible.
The “archangel Michael,” mentioned in the passages above, is the only one who is
specifically designated an archangel.
This illustration is from a typical Eastern Orthodox Icon (picture used in religious
worship) that depicts “Saint Michael the Archangel” triumphing over the Devil.
The angel Gabriel announced the conception of Jesus to Mary and Joseph, and of John
the Baptist to his father, the priest Zachariah. This is likely the same Gabriel
who also delivered a message to the prophet Daniel. The Bible does not specifically
state that Gabriel is also an “archangel” like Michael, but this has been the speculation
since the earliest centuries after the writing of the New Testament.
In Christian artwork, such as the cast shown here of a carving on a cathedral from
1359, he is often represented as a winged figure blowing a trumpet.
Perhaps this is because of speculation that he is actually the unnamed archangel
in I Thessalonians 4:16:
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
Some apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings from shortly before and after the time
of Christ on the Earth (see Where Angels Fear to Tread for definitions of these words
and information on this type of literature) contain elaborate angelologies that name
and describe many other angels, and purport to give all sorts of information about
their activities, and elaborate details of a hierarchical system of “heavenly government”
in which they operate. Most of these writings have never been widely accepted as
“inspired scripture” in the same way as have the 66 books of the modern Protestant
version of the Bible. But many were, nonetheless, very influential in the thinking
of the “early Church Fathers.” Thus many of the details found in them have worked
their way into a sort of “Christian mythology” that has built up over the past 2000
years. It is important for the serious Bible student to sort out which of these details
are solidly based on the actual canonical scriptures (see Where Angels Fear to Treadfor definitions of canon, canonical, and extra-canonical) and which are based on
writings that are unreliable at best and contrary to the Bible at worst.
Out of these extra-biblical sources of information has come the notion that there
are seven archangels. In addition to Michael and Gabriel, the book of Tobit, in the
Roman Catholic Apocrypha, mentions one named Raphael. And the pseudepigraphal Bookof Enoch adds Uriel, Raguel, Sariel, and Jerahmeel. (Where Angels Fear to Treadcontains
information on the history and reliability of the information in these books.)
What Do Angels Look Like?
Paintings and sculpture of angels throughout history have almost invariably represented
them as having huge wings and a circular halo of some sort over, around, or behind
their heads. Throughout history they have appeared most frequently in artistic representations
as either females—or as very delicate, effeminate males. This 15th century painting
by Fra Angelico is typical of such portrayals.
The only angelic being consistently portrayed at times as a particularly masculine
character is the archangel Michael. This is likely because he is named as one who
was involved in battles, as he is shown in this 1865 sculpture, doing battle with
However, any of the accounts in the Bible that describe a person interacting with
an angelic messenger, such as Mary speaking with Gabriel or Gideon speaking with
an unnamed angel, never mention anything about wings or a halo. Most of the time
angels are just described as looking like men (never women), who have appeared unexpectedly.
On a few occasions, particularly in visions, their appearance may be described as
“dazzling” or extremely bright, or like fire or blazing jewels. But most of the time
there is nothing about their appearance that differentiates them from humans. It
is for this reason that the author of Hebrews could write:
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained
angels without knowing it. (Heb 13:2)
The only heavenly supernatural beings that are described in the Bible as having wings
are the cherubim and seraphim. See Part 2 of Biblical Angelology for details on these