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Angels in Disguise

by Tim O'Hearn

He was a rich man who gave most of what he had to the poor before he died. He spent all his time doing good deeds for others. He must have been an angel in disguise.

That is a summary of a song I heard recently. I think it is also a summary of many people’s misconception of the nature and work of angels. Regardless of what anyone may think of the theology of Della Reese, she at least seems to understand better than this the biblical nature of angels. On her TV show, Touched By an Angel, very rarely do the angels do things “for” people; rather they tell things “to” people.

In all of scripture there may be only one instance of angels providing food or other physical things for anyone. That is in I Kings 19, when twice an angel woke Elijah to tell him to eat before taking a long journey. It is assumed the angel provided the food that Elijah found there. Beyond that, the only other possible time that angels provided for someone was when, after the temptation of Christ, Matthew and Mark say the angels “ministered to him.” (Mt 4:11; Mk 1:13) What the nature of that ministry was is open to speculation. Did they provide food, or just a word of comfort? I don’t know.

All the other scriptures that describe the work of angels can be divided into two or three categories: delivering messages, fighting for God, and delivering God’s prophets from harm. These latter two divisions may even be considered one.

Angels as Deliverers

This is probably the least documented of the works of angels. The first recorded instance (saving Lot from the men of Sodom in Genesis 19) seems to be only incidental to their real purpose, delivering God’s warning to him. The only other Old Testament instance of this phenomenon is in Daniel 6:22, where an angel shut the mouths of the lions. In the New Covenant we find an angel delivering the apostles in Acts 5:19, and Peter in Acts 12:7-10. In the first two of these three instances the clear purpose of the angelic assistance was to prove to others (the king/the Sanhedrin) that the men delivered were God’s men. In the example of Peter, however, the deliverance appears to have had the sole purpose of preventing his death the next day. All of these events could even be said to be among the times that angels fought for God.

Angels as God’s Army

This is, to me, a really interesting aspect of the work of angels—not because I am so military minded, but because of the distinct lack of action in God’s heavenly army. From the beginning of time until now, the angelic host has made appearances. In that same time there is practically no evidence of their actually fighting. An angelic guard was put on Eden after the fall of man, but nobody appears to have ever challenged that guard. A single “angel of the Lord” caused the death of Herod because of blasphemy in Acts 12:23. In 2 Kings 19:35 (also 2 Chron 32:21 and Isa 37:36) a single “angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.” The hosts of angels appear on occasion, but it seems their presence alone is enough to allow the earthly armies of God to gain the victory. This is understandable, when a single angel was able to effect the slaughters mentioned above.

One of the notable examples of this is found in 2 Kings 6. The king of Syria had sent an entire army to find Elisha and prevent him from telling the king of Israel the Syrian movements. The young man who served Elisha saw the Syrian army and was afraid. The account proceeds in verses 17 and 18: “And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha. And when they came down to him, Elisha prayed unto the Lord, and said, Smite this people, I pray thee, with blindness. And he smote them with blindness according to the word of Elisha.” I am presuming the horses and chariots were manned by the angelic hosts. Even in this case, however, it is not the angels to do the smiting, but God Himself, at Elisha’s request.

This will not forever be the state of affairs, however. There will be a time when all the angels will be directly involved with the affairs of men on God’s behalf, but it will not be a pleasant time for most. “The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt 13:41-42) “And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Mt 24:31) It seems that the primary function of the angels as God’s army will be carried out at the gathering for judgement.

Angels as God’s Messengers

In the early part of the American Civil War, the Union cavalry’s main function was to guard the camps and to carry dispatches. After General Sheridan took over, the cavalry became a major fighting force. So it will be with the angels. Before now their primary function has been as guards and messengers. They may on occasion open locks or slay armies, but mostly they delivered messages for God. After the coming again of the Messiah they will begin taking a more active part in the war, in the gathering and punishment of souls.

“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son.” (He 1:1-2) Among the various manners God used to speak the the fathers was the use of angels. Space does not allow me to cite all the sundry times God spoke through angels. To establish the point I will mention only a few.

In Genesis 16, an angel appears to Hagar and delivered a message. Three chapters later, angels warn lot of the doom of Sodom. Angels appear to deliver messages to Balaam (Nu 22:31), to Joshua (Jos 5:15), to Gideon (Jud 6:11-22), to Manoah and his wife (parents of Samson) (Jud 13), to Daniel (Dan 8:16-17; 9:21), and to Zechariah (Zech 1:9). Perhaps the best known angelic visitations are those to Zacharias announcing the birth of John (Luke 1:11) and to Mary announcing the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:28). They also appeared to the women at Jesus tomb, after the resurrection (Matt 28:5-7), and the apostles at the ascension (Acts 1:10-11). They delivered messages to Philip (Acts 8:26), to Cornelius (Acts 10), and to Paul (Acts 27:23-24). On the island of Patmos, about five miles off the Ephesian coast, John received a series of messages from angels which he recorded in what we call the Book of the Revelation. By far, the instances of angels as messengers outweigh the cases where they did anything else. The passage in Hebrews 1:1 seems to indicate, however, that even this is no longer a function of angels, television dramas notwithstanding.

There are many things we don’t understand about angels. This seems to be certain, though. A person going around doing good deeds is probably not an “angel in disguise” as much as he may be an “Abraham in disguise.” (Heb 13:2)