Angels - Ranks&Duties|
Q. I love the subject of Angels, especially stories of their assisting mankind in troublesome situations, or stories of their appearing to men near death. Do you think many of these are true accounts?
It is difficult to find careful, studious, scriptural studies of what it is that angels of different ranks do for mankind outside of the seminary bookstore. Too often this subject has been embellished by Catholic or Orthodox traditions, or by New Age thought and literature.
Angel of Light
We must never forget that…"Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14).
When you read accounts of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) it is helpful to keep this verse in mind. There are hundreds of NDE descriptions that find their way into New Age philosophy and literature. Many of these accounts deny Christ, deny judgment or hell, and teach that all religions lead to God. It is clear from where these beliefs originate.
Such books are plentiful in your local bookstore.
So let's review the ranks of angels and then attempt a scriptural description of angels' duties given by prominent theologians.
Review of Angel Ranks
Angels are organized in terms of authority, power, and glory. Their ranks consist of archangels, angels, seraphim, cherubim, principalities, authorities, powers, thrones, might and dominion. These terms come from Colossians 1:16, 1 Peter 3:22, Romans 8:38, Ephesians 1:20-21 and 6:12. There are other scriptural references, but these are the primary ones taken from Pauline texts.
First-century Rabbinic Thought
Colossians 1:16 says,
"By Christ all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities - all things were created by him and for him."
Ephesians 1:20-21 notes that Christ is seated at God's right hand in the heavenly places, "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come."
These words describing ranks of spiritual powers were voiced by rabbinic thought of that time. First-century writings reveal the hierarchical organization of angels.
According to orthodox beliefs there are nine orders of angels divided into three hierarchies, which are themselves divided into three orders: the highest, the intermediate, and the lower.
The first hierarchy consits of Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones or Ophanim.
The second hierarchy consists of Dominions, Virtues, and Powers.
The third hierarchy consists of principalities, archangels, and angels.
We see these ranks frequently mentioned in Catholic and Greek Orthodox literature. We are also briefly introduced to "ranks of angels" in current popular films and literature. Who can forget the lovable lower-ranked angel, Clarence, in "It's a Wonderful Life?"
New Age thought
During the 1990s there seemed to be a strong resurgence of interest in angels. Many New Age gurus wrote books about angels and made them to be fluffy, cute, sweet little baby "cherubim" or half-wispy female angels with long, flowing robes and long, blonde hair.
Nothing could be further from the biblical truth!
Biblical angels are strong, powerful, highly intelligent beings who are fierce warriors and protectors.
Angelology - Ranks&Duties
Dictionary of Biblical Imagery
Let's look at the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery: Dr. Leland Ryken notes "these (angelic) beings are also spoken of as spirits, cherubim, seraphim, sons of God, the heavenly host, or in a few instances, even referred to by their proper names, such as Michael and Gabriel."
"On many occasions God chose to mediate his presence to his people through angels. When he revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, the Lord said, 'no one may see me and live'" (Ex. 33:20 NIV).
"Thus, in reality, it was the 'angel of the Lord' that appeared to Moses in the form of a 'burning bush when God disclosed himself as the 'I am,' or YHWH (Ex. 3:2)" (Ryken 1998, 23).
Angels Among Us
Angels known as thrones may be those in the presence of God who may sit on their own lesser thrones (Rhodes 1998, 89).
Dominions may be next in dignity to the angels known as thrones. "These angels exercise dominion over specific domains in carrying out the sovereign bidding of God" (1998, 90).
"The ruler angels reflect the fact that God is characterized by order and organization in the way He governs the universe" (90).
These angels may be subordinate angels who carry out "imperial responsibility" (90).
"Renowned Bible expositor Joseph Lightfoot makes the important point that the combination of the words "rulers" and "authorities" are applied "not only to good angels but to bad, not only to spiritual powers but to earthly. Just as there are humans in authority over other humans, so also are there holy angels in authority over other holy angels, and fallen angels in authority over other fallen angels" (Rhodes 1998, 90).
An archangel is apparently first among all angels. "Charles Ryrie, for example, says, "Only Michael is designated as the archangel" (Jude 9 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16). However, "Jewish tradition has always held that there are seven archangels" (91).
Michael the Archangel is primarily seen as the angel who protects Israel (Daniel 12:1).
The cherubim are not cute, cuddly little angel babies! They are powerful creatures who surround God's throne and "defend His holiness from any contamination by sin" (Genesis 3:24, Exodus 25:18, 20, Ezekiel 1:1-18)" (Rhodes 1998, 95).
We find those angels referred to as the seraphim only in Isaiah's vision in chapter six. "Seraphim" means "burning ones" in Hebrew. They are fiercely devoted to God and afire with adoration.
Gabriel stands in the very presence of God (Luke 1:19). He is known for bringing revelation to God's people such as seen in Daniel 8:16 and 9:21. He also brought the message to Zechariah about John the Baptist's birth and the message to Mary concerning Jesus' birth.
Characterisitcs of Angels - Reformation Study Bible:
The word "angel" comes from the Greek "angelos" meaning messenger. There are numerous angels, "myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands" (Rev. 5:11).
Angels are not embodied or normally visible to the human eye although they can appear in human form (Gen. 18:2-19, John 20:12, Acts 12:7-10). In other words, in fun we might apply the popular sci-fi term "changlings" or "shape-shifters" to angels.
Above Natural Law
Angels don't marry nor are they subject to death (Matt. 22:30, Luke 20:35, 36). In other words, angels are not subject to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics - that all things decay and die. They don't need to reproduce themselves by having babies.
Outer Space or other-dimensional Travelers?
They can travel from one place to another (Daniel 10:12-13). It took Daniel's angel three weeks to reach him because he was stuck battling the prince of the kingdom of Persia (Iran). It wasn't until "…Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left there with the kings of Persia" (Dan. 10:13) - that this angel could arrive to respond to Daniel's prayer! (Fascinating).
Finally, angels can be concentrated in a small area. See Luke 8:30 concerning "Legion" - demons - who lived in one man.
Their home is in Heaven (Matt. 18:10, 22:30, Rev. 5:11) where they constantly worship God (Psalm 103:20, 21, 148:2).
Angels follow God's command to service believers. Hebrews 1:14 tells us, "Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?" This controversial passage suggests that they do not minister to unbelievers. Thus, we have to ask ourselves just who are those "angels" who appear to New Age channelers and other non believers? (It's a scary thought).
These ministering spirits are called the "holy" and "elect" angels (Matt. 25:31, Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26, Acts 10:22, 1 Tim. 5:21, Rev. 14:10).
Angels protect believers (Ps. 34:7, 91:11, 12), and they especially protect children (Matt. 18:10). The angels' existence and protective duties may be one reason there is no such thing as an untimely or premature death for believers.
Escorts to Heaven
Angels seem to accompany believers to Heaven at the time of death. Luke 16:22 says that "the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom …" Many of us know of and can attest to Christians who saw angels at the time of their death.
Angel of the Lord
The Old Testament is filled with appearances of the "Angel of the Lord" or "Angel of God." Sometimes this angel is identified with God. Other times this angel is distinguished from God. In a few instances the Angel of the Lord is perceived as a preincarnate appearance of God the Son.
We see angelic activity during the time of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the giving of the Law to Moses, and during the period of the Exile and Israel's restoration.
We see lots of angelic activity during the time of Jesus' birth, resurrection, and His ascension. Finally, angels are clearly prominent when Christ returns to judge the earth (Matt. 25:31, Mark 8:38).
Agents of Judgment
Ryken states, "Angels have served, and will continue to serve, as God's agents for dispensing his judgment. This is one of the primary functions of the angels as they are revealed in the Apocalypse…This terrifying and destructive work of angels in meting out God's wrath was also characteristic of certain OT events…"
"Primarily, then, angels are supernatural beings closely linked with the work of God himself… Their primary activities are praise and worship of God in his heavenly court, making announcements and carrying messages on behalf of God to humans, intervening with guidance and protection in the lives of people, and dispensing the judgments of God" (Ryken 1998, 24).
Protestants do not pray to angels or worship them. However, it might be appropriate to thank God for our invisible messengers! Include them in your prayers. In heaven I'm sure we will find out just how many times they saved us from disasters or intervened on our behalf.
Graham, Billy. 1975. Angels: Ringing assurance that we are not alone. Nashville, TN: W Publishing. (Comment: It surprises many readers to learn that Billy Graham earned a degree in Anthropology - he was an educated evangelist. His book has become a classic and reference tool for seminary students).
Ryken, Leland and Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III. 1998. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press.
The Reformation Study Bible, ESV. Sproul, R.C. ed. 2005. Orlando, FL: Ligonier. (p. 1328).
Rhodes, Ron. 1994. Angels among us. Eugene, OR: Harvest House.
Ryrie Study Bible, NASB. 1995. Chicago: Moody.
Authors Valorie Emilio holds an MA in History from UCLA focusing upon Christian origins. Ken received the MA in Biblical Studies from Louisiana Baptist University.