Angels at Christmas might conjure up pictures of children dressed up or fluffy toys on top of trees, but the Bible tells a very different story about these ‘celestial terminators’...

Over the next weeks many of us will see cute children dressed as angels with tinsel wings. At Christmas we will hear about the important part angels played in the birth of Jesus, but do we really know what they are?

‘Angels aren’t just fluffy toys jammed on top of trees. They’re Terminators with divine light sabres and a strong sense of justice,’ writes Dave Hopwood in The Bloke’s Bible (Authentic).

While the cultural perception of angels seems to drift further from how the Bible actually portrays them, interest in the subject more generally has grown. The ‘spiritual’ sections of bookshops include many books about angels. Within the Church, some people talk about being aware of angels in worship, sometimes particular kinds of angels indicating a certain ministry of the Holy Spirit.

So what do Christians believe about angels, and should our angelic knowledge make any difference to our lives?

Angels on the Walls

A Church of Ireland minister was walking to his church in Belfast one morning when a man approached him. ‘Did you know you have angels protecting your church?’ he asked the minister. ‘Last night I couldn’t sleep. I came downstairs and drew the curtains. There were two of them. And they were massive. They were much taller than the gable ends of the church. And they were dressed like samurai warriors. They were protecting your church.’ It turned out the man was a recent convert to the Christian faith.

The minister was delighted. He and his church had recently been praying specifically for angels to protect their building after months of harassment and vandalism from a gang of youths connected with a Loyalist paramilitary group. Already there had been a marked improvement.

That Belfast church had been inspired by the story of St Boniface’s Church in Quinton, Birmingham. St Boniface’s too had been besieged by a vandalising teenage gang. Mary Brown, the wife of the vicar, Wallace, was praying in desperation one night. She thought God was telling her to read the book of Nehemiah. The biblical account of enemies hindering the work of God’s people echoed remarkably the battle they were in. Full of new enthusiasm, Mary dashed upstairs. ‘Wallace! We’ve just got to pray and put guards on the walls, the same as Nehemiah did.’

After more sleep, Wallace began to see the parallels between Nehemiah and their battle. Together they asked God how they were to put guards on their walls. ‘He gave us the understanding to place guardian angels there. We were to do this each day. And to continue to pray, just like Nehemiah.’

The next day Wallace and Mary went out and prayed ‘on location’. ‘Feeling slightly foolish, we asked God to place guardian angels all round the walls, to make them safe, and to bring godliness to our lawns and boundaries,’ he says.

‘The effect was immediate and astonishing. Within a few days the gang started to break up. From the 35 swearing, screaming youths of the previous week, the number dropped to about ten and then the following week to a mere two or three. Mary and I continued to go out and pray day by day. “Lord, keep your guardian angels round these walls, please.” After year upon year of human failure, the terrible “siege” of church and vicarage was broken by the supernatural holy presence of God’s angels.’

Ten years ago Wallace and Mary wrote their story in the book Angels on the Walls (Kingsway) and spoke across the country. The church in Belfast read the book and started praying for angels. The Browns had said, ‘Never copy what we do. Ask God to show you what he wants you to do.’ ‘But they took no notice of that,’ explains Mary. Where general prayer for protection seemed unanswered, a specific prayer for angels was followed by ‘dramatic’ improvement.

Angels in the Bible

When Billy Graham wrote Angels: God’s Secret Agents (Doubleday and Company) in 1975 he commented ‘little has been written on the subject in this century,’ but angels are much written about today. In 1991 Hope Price, an English vicar’s wife, thought that God was prompting her to write a book about angels. Her book Angels: True Stories of How They Touch Our Lives was published in 1993 and became a best-seller. Don’t Forget The Angels (Destiny Image) by Nick Pengelly, a New Church leader in Wrexham, was published in 2006, the same year as Angels (Lion Hudson) by Jane Williams, wife of Archbishop Rowan, and The Lion Treasury of Angel Stories by Mary Joslin. Across the Atlantic also, Christian books about angels have been published in recent years, and several websites explain about them.

The Bible mentions angels on many occasions, but nowhere describes nor explains them fully. Jesus talked about angels rejoicing in heaven over even one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10); ready to come to his rescue in legions like an army (Matthew 26:53); taking poor Lazarus to be with Abraham (Luke 16:22); coming with the Son of Man in his glory, gathering the chosen (Matthew 24:30,31); separating the evil from the righteous at the end (Matthew 13:41). He said that the ‘little ones’ on earth have ‘their angels’ who ‘always see the face of my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 18:10). According to Jesus, angels do not marry as humans do (Matthew 22:30) and do not die (Luke 20:36). Jesus said that Satan has his angels, who will be thrown with the devil into the fire eternally prepared for that purpose (Matthew 25:41).

In the Gospels we read about angels bringing the news of Jesus’ birth, either directly or in a dream (Luke 2:8–14; Matthew 1:20–23), and John the Baptist’s birth (Luke 1:11–20), ministering to Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11; Mark 1:13) and in Gethsemane (Luke 22:43), rolling away the stone from Jesus’ tomb and explaining to the women that he was risen from the dead (Matthew 28:1–7; Mark 16:4–7; Luke 24:1–8; see also John 20:12).

Hebrews 1:14 says that angels are ‘ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation’. Psalm 103:20 says angels are ‘mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word’. The Greek word angelos means ‘messenger’ but Hebrew malakim have wider roles, including praising God, protecting and fighting for people, causing death (in Egypt). Angels are the whole range of divine royal servants, not just messengers. Billy Graham writes: ‘They criss-cross the Old and New Testaments being mentioned directly or indirectly nearly 300 times.’

Billy Graham sees the work of angels behind the great record of faith in Hebrews 11. Yet Hebrews goes on to describe others who suffered much and no angels came. Believing in angels today sharpens the puzzle of why deliverance comes sometimes, but not always.

Angels are spiritual beings, but they can change physical circumstances – providing food for Elijah to eat (1 Kings 19:5–8), rolling away the stone at Jesus’ tomb. Angels sometimes appear as humans, sometimes terrifyingly different. People have not realised they were encountering an angel, because what they saw was different from the usual picture of an angel.

The Natural and Angelic Orders

Humans and angels speak different kinds of languages, as Paul mentions in his famous chapter 1 Corinthians 13. Humans cannot become angels, despite popular belief. Indeed the Bible looks to a time to come, already begun in some way, when humans rank above angels. Psalm 8 talks of humanity as ‘a little lower than angels / heavenly beings’, although humans should certainly never worship angels (Revelation 22:9). Hebrews 2:7 changes this to ‘for a little while lower than the angels’, explaining that this refers to the human Jesus now crowned with glory and honour. One day Christians will sit with Jesus above the angels, as children of God above the servants of God.

Around the time of Jesus, there was considerable speculation about angels among the Jews. This was developed in the early Church into teaching about different orders of angels, most commonly nine. The Roman Catholic Church officially holds to this teaching, and encourages Christians to call on angels to help them. Protestants generally avoid all spiritual conversation that is not directed to Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Meetings with Angels

A few Protestants, however, have recorded speaking to angels. Pastor Roland Buck of Idaho wrote the popular book Angels on Assignment (Whitaker House) in 1979 (re-published 2005) as a thoroughly biblical minister.

Mark Virkler is a worldwide American teacher on how to hear God’s voice. He describes his experience, which he acknowledges is unusual: ‘When I looked for my guardian angel, I saw him standing at attention at my right side…As I looked at him over the next several days, he was always simply standing there at attention, and doing nothing…’ He talked with the Lord about this, and consequently started commissioning his angel to bring deliverance to people with whom he was working – with some good results.

Testing the Spirits

If there has been a renewed interest in angels among Christians, there are now countless teachings on angels in the New Age. A visit to my local library furnished me with three books, describing numerous angels who could be contacted for guidance and help. Christians generally recognise the spiritual searching in New Age practices, but are aware that unclean or demonic spirits can infect a person by pretending to be an angel of God.

As with everything spiritual, biblical testing is needed (1 John 4:1). If the angel encourages someone to worship anyone other than Jesus, denies that Jesus is the Son of God, contradicts any clear teaching of the Bible, or claims to give a revelation that supersedes Jesus and the Bible (as with Joseph Smith the founder of Mormonism and Mohammed the founder of Islam), that angel is to be renounced.

We can happily assume, however, that many people who report encounters with angels have met with a genuine secret agent of God. God’s angels are far more numerous than the devil’s, as shown by the story of Elisha in Dothan in 2 Kings 6. Children are more likely to see angels than adults, and their stories should be respected.

The Right Focus

Some Christians are actively asking to be made more aware of angels. Nick Pengelly speaks of sometimes being aware of angels in his church and others, through an amplification of the singing voices which even the sound engineer has commented on. ‘We can learn more about the angelic realm and how to activate our spiritual senses in that realm,’ he says. ‘If the focus is all on angels, that’s dangerous ground. But…if we become aware of angels moving in healing in worship, we start praying for healing. We look to cooperate with what God is doing through angels, rather than initiate. Focus on the Father, on Jesus, and ask to be shown more…’

Andy Cowgill from Cirencester has seen angels many times, beginning in worship a few years ago at a John Wimber conference. He has seen angels in his home church and with him at work, as well as in other places. Yet he never looks for angels, nor seeks to interact with them.

Nearer Than You Think

Wallace and Mary Brown have never seen an angel, yet they testify to the fruit of asking for angelic protection. Over the years they have come face to face with three or four members of the gang dispersed by angels. Each one had ‘done some sort of walk in faith’, one in prison. When asked why they had suddenly left St Boniface’s alone, they replied, ‘We just didn’t want to be there any more.’ ‘It went further than that,’ adds Mary. ‘They just didn’t want to be a gang any more either. The gang broke up totally.’

After St Boniface’s, the Browns moved to another church in a quieter area. ‘There was a spate of vandalism on the priceless stained-glass windows. We did teach a little prayer group in the church that we can ask God to come and put guardian angels round this area. And it did help.’ It seems that asking for angels is one way of obeying Jesus’ command: ‘Ask and it will be given to you’ (Matthew 7:7).

Today an increasing number of Christians can say with Billy Graham, ‘I am convinced that these heavenly beings exist and that they provide unseen aid on our behalf.’ He continues: ‘The angels are nearer than you think…While we do not place our faith directly in angels, we should place it in the God who rules the angels; then we can have peace.’