What are angels and what do they do?

A sermon by Rod Benson

Much of what we see around us has elements of order, purpose, fascination and grandeur, but it is a small part of everything that is – even everything within our own neck of the woods. Part of the bigger picture, the hiddenness of reality, involves the existence and activity of angels. Who or what are angels, are they real, and what do they do?

Angels have an intriguingly high visibility in popular culture, considering that they are supposed to be invisible and, according to hard-boiled rationalists, imaginary beings. But the eternal and Almighty God himself is invisible, though far from imaginary, so angels are in the best of company.

As for empirical proof of the existence of angels, allow me to quote from two respected Christian leaders. As erudite Wesleyan theologian Thomas Oden observes:

Christianity has passed through many worldviews … Even within the frame of contemporary scientific worldviews (and there are many, even as there are many premodern views) it is hardly reasonable to rule out superpersonal intelligences in this vast cosmos that we still know so incompletely.[1]

In his book, Angels: God’s Secret Agents, evangelist Billy Graham says:

I believe in angels because the Bible says there are angels, and I believe the Bible to be the true Word of God. I also believe in angels because I have sensed their presence in my life on special occasions.[2]

So who or what are angels? They are not emanations of God. Jesus is not an angel, but one of the three persons who are God. Jesus is the “one mediator” between God and humankind (1 Tim 2:5), and no angel could fulfil that role because no angel is the incarnation of God, fully God and perfectly human, and therefore able to atone for our sins and unite us to himself through his death and resurrection.

Neither is the Holy Spirit an angel, but the third person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit shares divinity with the Father and the Son, and with no other being. The Holy Spirit is neither separate nor separable from God. He differs in both quality and kind from all created forms of spirit, such as angelic and demonic powers.

Angels are neither divine nor human. They are spiritual beings created by God with personality, high intelligence and moral judgment, but lacking physical bodies although they do take human form (see Neh 9:6 (cf Ex 20:11); Ps 148:2, 5; Col 1:16; Mt 28:5; Ac 12:6-11; Rev 4:11; 5:11; 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6; Ps 34:7; 91:11; Mk 12:25; Lk 24:39; Heb 1:14; 12:22; 13:2).

Catholic philosopher Peter J. Kreeft adds that angels

are in many ways to us what we are to animals: the next step up on the cosmic hierarchy, immensely more intelligent, powerful, and beautiful than we are, the most Godlike creatures that exist.[3]

Although invisible, angels feature prominently in relations with people throughout the Bible. They can bilocate: they exist in vast numbers in heaven and on earth (Dan 7:10; Heb 12:22; Rev 5:11), and possibly throughout the universe. In many ways, their powers are far beyond the powers granted to us.

But like humans, angels are endowed with free will, and may be tempted to disobey God. Those angels who “fall” in this way disavow their uncorrupted essence and fall under the judgment of God. Indeed, according to the teaching of Jesus, hell was not created for rebellious people but for fallen angels (Mt 25:41).

Some time after the creation of the universe, which God viewed as “very good” (Gen 1:31), and before the moment when Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1), it appears that a large number of angels, led by Lucifer (Satan), sinned and rebelled against God (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6). These fallen angels are what the Bible calls demons, or evil spirits, having the same nature as angels but with powers and freedom severely limited by God, and destined for eternal destruction in the Lake of Fire.

What do angels do? Their first purpose is the worship and adoration of God (Isa 6:1-3; Heb 1:6). Countless numbers of holy angels are said to surround the throne of God (Heb 12:22). Their second purpose is to do God’s will (Ps 103:20), and to announce the word and will of God to specific persons. The word “angel” means “messenger.” Angels convey God’s specific word and will to us, in particular situations and crises.

As the Bible shows, angels are especially active at key points in salvation history: following the fall from grace of Adam and Eve in the Garden; at the burning bush near Mt Sinai when God appeared to Moses; in relation to various prophetic words and actions; and especially in the life and ministry of Jesus: at his conception, birth, baptism, temptation, death, resurrection and ascension.

As well as biblical references, angels are well represented in literature, film and popular culture. Two perhaps surprising instances of this are the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. In his space trilogy, Lewis makes extensive use of the notion of angels populating the universe, worshipping God, doing God’s will, and providentially ordering aspects of human life. There is also reference to fallen angels, confined to Earth, “the Silent Planet.”

For C.S. Lewis, among other things angels “intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory.”[4]

As for Tolkien, in his mythological world of Middle-earth, as represented in The Lord of the Rings, Wizards like Gandalf and Saruman are angels, and their nature and activities closely parallel the biblical teaching on angels. In The Silmarillion, we find hierarchies of angels, the Ainur, and those who enter the created world are the Valar, whose lesser ranks include the Istari, powerful and mysterious beings like Gandalf. “They are guardian angels, and they carry out divine providence by guiding and guarding man.”[5]

Other powerful angelic beings in The Lord of the Rings are Elbereth, who saves Frodo from the Black Riders at the Ford of Bruinen, and again in Shelob’s lair. Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, who do not feature in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, are probably angelic beings too.

Does the Bible teach that we each have a guardian angel? There are hints of such a possibility, but only hints. Psalm 91:11-12 states that God will “command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Who knows how many times you and I have been rescued from harm and danger, from temptation to sin, from evil influences, by angels?

Similarly, Jesus taught that little children have “their angels in heaven” (Mt 18:10), and after Peter’s miraculous release from prison in Acts 12, most of the disciples at the house he went to thought that the reappearing Peter was Peter’s “angel” (Ac 12:15.

On the possibility of guardian angels I agree with theologian Wayne Grudem who sees “no convincing support for the idea of individual ‘guardian angels’ in the text of Scripture.”[6] Yet I have no doubt, on the basis of many Old and New Testament passages, that angels are present and active in all our lives, and that our existence and survival might be very different in their absence.

Our experience is, in some ways, not unlike that of the hobbits in the Shire (their ancestral lands), which they viewed

as a district of well-ordered business; and there in that pleasant corner of the world they plied their well-ordered business of living; and they heeded less and less the world outside where dark things moved, until they came to think that peace and plenty were the rule in Middle-earth and the right of all sensible folk. They forgot or ignored what little they had ever known of the Guardians, and of the labours of those that made possible the long peace of the Shire. They were, in fact, sheltered, but they had ceased to remember it.[7]

We are all sheltered, and protected, and guided by God and by his holy angels. I have no doubt about that. It is important to pause and reflect on this aspect of divine providence, and express our grateful praise to God for his wisdom and mercy.

In closing, let me suggest four truths that flow from the existence of angels, beyond their specific ministry.

First, since angels are not created in the image of God, and only humans bear children like themselves (for the angels do not appear to have biological sexual lives), their difference from us is a reminder of how awesome and amazing it is to be created by a God who desires us to reflect or portray his own unique and glorious image.

You might not think you are very special, but God knows that you are. You might not believe that you are anything like God, but you are. You carry around in your body, and in your personality, the distinct and recognisable imprint of your Maker’s nature and character. No angel has that honour.

Second, angels demonstrate God’s love for us in that, when we sin, cleansing and salvation and a return to wholeness is available. No so for any angel who sins, according to 2 Peter 2:4.

In his wisdom, God created two groups of intelligent, moral creatures (angels and humans), but decided to redeem only humans (Rev 5:9). There is no hope for fallen angels. Those who have not fallen observe our regeneration, and our joy in God, and our songs of redemption, and they rejoice with us to see God’s mercy and grace, and unfathomable wisdom and love, expressed in us (Lk 15:10).

Third, angels remind us that the unseen world is real. When in 2 Kings 6:15-17 the Lord responds to the prophet Elisha’s request to open the eyes of Elisha’s servant to the reality of this invisible world, he saw things very differently.

The psalmist also shows awareness of the unseen world, encouraging angels to worship God: “Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly host!” (Ps 148:2). Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that, whenever we worship God, we enter the heavenly Jerusalem and gather with “innumerable angels in joyful assembly (Heb 12:22).

Finally, angels are an example to us, in both obedience and disobedience. There are real and eternal consequences to our attitudes and actions, and to our lethargy and ignorance. Angels are also an example to us in their worship of God, which we should emulate. And so we sing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,” and much more, reflecting passages such as Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 5:11-12.

The highest and most worthy use of our time, and our greatest joy, should be, as it is for the angels, the praise and adoration of our glorious Triune Almighty God, who has made us for himself.


Sermon 675 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Wednesday 1 June 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (London: Harper Collins, 1992), p. 132.

[2] Billy Graham, Angels: God’s Secret Agents (revised edn; Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), p. 9.

[3] Peter J. Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), p. 71.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 122.

[5] Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, p. 72.

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 1994), p. 400.

[7] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (one-volume edition; London: Harper Collins, 1991 [1954]), p. 17.

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