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Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, never professed a typical Christian faith. She called herself a deist—one who believes in a Creator-God who set the world in motion, then ceased to interfere in human affairs. But in April of 1884, something happened that changed her thinking.

Barton was supervising a relief effort for a terrible spring flood on the Mississippi River from the deck of the riverboat Mattie Bell. The river was jammed with debris, from large trees to buildings. Worst were the submerged dangers: boulders and levee breaks that could wreck a boat in moments.

Just before departure, one of her associates told Clara that a stranger was insisting on boarding the Mattie Bell, although he was, the worker reported, rather “unusual,” and vague as to his purpose. Clara had no time for sightseers. “Permission denied,” she said. But by the time she’d sent that order, the boat had pulled away with the extra passenger on board.

The stranger was soon forgotten, for they were sailing through a tragic scene. The water was thick with the bloated bodies of livestock, men, women, and children, all floating toward the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes they’d hear the roar of a crevasse—a broken levee forming a rushing waterfall that could pull the boat in and wreck it.

Near sundown, Clara noticed the stranger. Though he was looking ahead at the river and troubling no one, she reminded the captain that she wanted him put off. The captain wasn’t ready to stop. He wanted to continue on to a spot that he felt was a safer anchor. Clara reluctantly agreed. But as darkness fell, the ship was enveloped in a thick fog that left them navigating the debris-filled river blind. Clara, standing at the rail, was terrified, and in spite of herself, began to pray.

The stranger’s voice interrupted her. “Within moments the steamboat will be in a deadly crevasse,” he said. “The captain will not listen to me. You must command him to pull back at once!”

There was something about the stranger’s tone that impressed Clara. She issued the order, and the captain complied, reversing the engines and anchoring on the opposite side of the river.

At dawn, everyone saw the death they had narrowly escaped: a 500 foot crack, with all the force of the Mississippi behind it, plunging 15 feet off a high levee. How had the stranger known? Clara asked her staff to look for him so they could thank him. After a thorough search of the small riverboat, the report came back, “He’s nowhere on board.”

Until she died, Clara Barton believed that an angel had saved the Mattie Bell.

If you believe the Bible, you know that angels are real. So what does the Bible say about them?

God’s helpers

Angels go by several names in the Bible. In addition to the word angels itself, these beings are referred to as “cherubim” and “seraphim” (Genesis 3:24; Ezekiel 10:1; Isaiah 6:2, NKJV),1 and the word archangel is often applied to Christ Himself (1 Thessalonians 4:16; even though Christ is a Divine Being and thus not a created angel). The Bible even gives personal names to at least two angels: Gabriel and Apollyon (Daniel 9:21; Luke 1:26; Revelation 9:11).

The word angel comes from the Greek word aggelos (in biblical Greek, the letters gg are pronounced like the English ng), which means “messenger.” Much about angels is mysterious, but their work is not. They are God’s helpers.

Like us, angels were created by God. “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible,” explains Paul (Colossians 1:16, KJV). Though we don’t know how many angels God created, the Bible gives us a hint. Revelation 5:11 describes “many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” encircling God’s throne. The number of these angels is probably unchanged since they were created, for these heavenly beings neither reproduce nor die (see Matthew 22:30).

Angels have powers and abilities far beyond ours. Unencumbered by physical bodies—the Bible calls them “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14)—they can influence our lives even when we don’t see them. In many Bible accounts they appear and disappear at will. Once, when Elisha and his servant were surrounded by hostile forces, God let them see a vast, invisible angel infantry fighting on their side against the enemy (2 Kings 6:15–17).

In their visible form, angels occasionally appear with wings (Isaiah 6:2) or shining with a glorious light (Matthew 28:3). But they can appear in any form God wants them to—once, even, speaking through the mouth of a donkey (Numbers 22:28)! They frequently appear as human beings, such as when angels stopped at the home of the elderly Abraham to promise him a son (Genesis 18). That’s why the Bible advises us that if we do a kindness to a stranger, we may “have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

Angels are never described in the Bible as chubby winged infants, the way some artists depict them. These mini-cherubs reflect a misconception that babies who die turn into angels—an idea that is not found in the Bible.

Bad angels

In common with us, angels have free will—a quality that has played a big part in our own human spiritual history. For it was at the time of the creation of humankind that a rogue angel, nursing a wicked pride in his position as God’s second-in-command, declared, “ ‘I will make myself like the Most High’ ” (Isaiah 14:14). He convinced a third of the angels to join him in a rebellion against God and all that God stands for (see Revelation 12:3, 4). This villainous being, whom we call Satan, succeeded in tempting Adam and Eve to disobey God and so brought the curse of sin on the whole world.

Thus it’s obvious that not all angels are good. Satan and his rebellious angels are responsible for all the pain and unhappiness in our world—for wars, disasters, diseases, and even death itself. We human beings are caught in this cosmic battle, for Satan’s angels are masters of temptation: they manage to influence all of us, at some time or another, to disobey God. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” Paul warns, but “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

God’s angels

Thankfully, God’s angels are more than a match for Satan and his angels. The Bible pictures good angels helping human beings in several ways.

  • PROTECTION AND DELIVERANCE: Angels removed Peter from prison, and when Daniel was confined in a den of hungry lions, an angel kept them from attacking him (see Daniel 6:22). God promises that “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them” (Psalm 34:7).
  • GUIDANCE: At the time of Jesus’ birth, Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds all received guidance from angels (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:26, 27; 2:8, 9). After Jesus had returned to heaven, angels advised the apostles about the work of the newly founded Christian church (Acts 8:26).
  • COMFORT AND HELP: When Jesus was tempted by Satan, “angels came and attended him” (Matthew 4:11). And angels brought Elijah food when he hid from wicked King Ahab (1 Kings 19:6).
  • COMMUNICATION: Angels deliver messages from God. Moses received the Ten Commandments “ ‘through angels’ ” (Acts 7:53; see Galatians 3:19). They also bring answers to prayer, as happened frequently to Daniel (Daniel 9:20–22).

Angels and God

While more powerful than human beings, angels are not gods. Scripture says there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and present in all places at once—qualities angels don’t have. Angels receive their assignments from God, who will always “command his angels” (Psalm 91:11). They speak only what God gives them to say and do only what God asks them to do.

I once met a woman who’d filled her house with pictures and figurines of angels. She claimed that she could feel the presence of angels and that she sometimes talked to her personal guardian angel. It was almost as if she’d chosen God’s angels over God! I thought her obsession rather dangerous. Satan has been known to exploit human confusion about spiritual beings, which is why the Bible warns that we should not worship or pray to any creature or object, no matter how impressive. We should render our homage to God alone (Exodus 20:3–5).

While Paul acknowledged the importance of angels, he was careful to point out that when God “raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms,” he placed him “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given” (Ephesians 1:20, 21). That’s why Jesus, who started His life on earth as one of us, is now worshiped by angels (Hebrews 1:6).

There is one way in which we humans have an advantage over angels. Since angels never fell into sin, the joy of accepting Christ and receiving His forgiveness is an experience that they can never know. Angels are wondering onlookers to the plan of salvation (1 Peter 1:12). God calls on these mighty heavenly beings, who have unlimited access to the heavenly courts, to “serve those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14).

Angels and worship

When they’re not on God’s errands, angels spend their lives in worship. The book of Revelation describes the quintessential heavenly church service, where John the revelator heard the voice of millions of angels singing, “ ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’ ” This chorus was joined by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” (Revelation 5:11–13).

Revelation also reassures us that Satan’s rule over this earth is limited. John saw three angels flying through the heavens announcing God’s final judgment and the fall and punishment of Satan (Revelation 14:6–12). This prophecy will come true at earth’s final battle, when Satan gathers his forces for an assault against the Holy City. They “surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city” (Revelation 20:9, NASB),2 John writes. But Satan’s doom is sure, for “fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone” (Revelation 20:9, 10, KJV).

And when that’s done, you and I will have eternity to become friends with God’s angels!

1Scriptures quoted from NKJV are from The New King James Version, copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.
2Scriptures quoted from NASB are from The New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Angels: What the Bible Says About Them

by Loren Seibold
From the July 2010 Signs