What are angels up to today? It’s a great question, and it comes to us today from an anonymous listener to the podcast. “Pastor John, hello and thank you for this podcast. Can you tell me, what is the role of angels right now? What are they doing? And as Christians, what active role do they play in our lives today? Thank you for any help you can offer.”
I think it’s helpful to pose the question like this: Why do angels exist? That will include, What do they do? How do they relate to us? And we can answer those questions at least in part by looking at what they do in the Bible, which is the safest place to start I think.
“All angels serve the good of all Christians all the time.”
But it also inclines us to ask, What is God up to by creating agents for his activity when he himself could do the very thing that they do just fine by himself? All of the things that the Bible says angels do, God could snap his finger, so to speak, and it would be done. God doesn’t need angels in order to accomplish things, so that’s why I ask, Why do they exist in the first place? And why are there so many of them (as we will see)?
Angels All Over
Let’s start at the safest place to start — namely, with the Bible instead of our own speculations. And here are some of the things that the Bible says angels are doing. And the terms angel or angels occur in the Bible close to three hundred times, so this is not a marginal reality in Scripture. Here’s a sample:
- Angels announced things about the birth of Jesus to Mary (Luke 1:26–38), Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:11–23), Joseph (Matthew 1:20–21), and the shepherds (Luke 2:8–14).
- They ministered to Jesus in the wilderness after his forty-day fast (Mark 1:13).
- They rolled the stone away from Jesus’s grave (Matthew 28:2).
- They opened prison doors for the apostles (Acts 5:19–20).
- They directed evangelists where to go, like Philip (Acts 8:26).
- They spoke to unbelievers like Cornelius about what they should do to find the gospel (Acts 10:3–8).
- They will come with Jesus, the Bible says, at his second coming (2 Thessalonians 1:7).
That’s just a sampling of their activity in the Bible, particularly from the New Testament. And they are mentioned, by the way, in the Old Testament over a hundred times.
Four Ways Angels Serve
But let’s get more specific with four texts that give us glimpses of what angels do and why they exist.
1. Angels minister to the saints.
Here’s the first one: One of the most basic texts there are about angels and Christians is Hebrews 1:13–14. Almost the whole first chapter of Hebrews is devoted to showing the superiority of Jesus over angels. The chapter ends like this: “Are they not all [that is, angels] ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14). Several things are remarkable about that statement.
- It says that angels exist for the sake of Christians: “those who are to inherit salvation.”
- It says that they are serving us as “ministering spirits.”
- And maybe most amazingly, it says that all of them — not just some, but all of them — “serve” Christians to help us make it home to “inherit [our] salvation.”
So, all angels serve the good of all Christians all the time. They are agents, as it were, of Romans 8:28, making everything work together for good under God’s providence.
2. Angels execute God’s will.
Here’s the second sweeping text about angels, Psalm 103:20–21:
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
It says angels are “mighty ones.” They’re not baby-like, chubby cherubs with wings. They are colossal and tremendous in power. And then the psalmist calls them “armies.” The English word hosts translates a Hebrew word that means “armies” or “troops” or “military forces.”
But whether you call them angels or you call them hosts or armies, the emphasis in both cases in Psalm 103 falls on this: they do the will of God — “You mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word!” “His hosts, his ministers, who do his will!” In other words, they are active; they are agents who do whatever God commands.
So, it seems to me that we can infer from this that God loves to create an abundance of doers of his will at multiple levels.
- Inanimate objects do his will: he commands the sea, and it obeys him.
- Animals do his will: he commands a whale to swallow Jonah.
- Humans do his will.
- Angels do his will.
“God created millions upon millions of angels as a fitting, regal, royal assembly for his magnificence.”
And when God decided to create, he thought it wise to create hierarchies of beings, from the least significant inanimate stone, to the worm, to the whale, to the human, and then to multiple ranks of angels. Because some are called archangels (1 Thessalonians 4:16). So, God created not just angels but ranks of angels. And when they become demonic by rebellion, there are ranks of principalities and powers in the hordes of the devil.
3. Angels magnify the grandeur of God.
Now here’s a third text that underlines God’s exuberance in creating angels. Daniel 7:10:
A stream of fire issued
and came out from before [the Lord];
a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
There’s a picture of God in heaven with one hundred million angels standing before him. Now that’s breathtaking. That’s the point. God created millions upon millions of angels as a fitting, regal, royal assembly for his magnificence. The vastness of such a crowd of colossal beings, all assembled before one great King, speaks in a unique way about the glory and the imperial majesty of the King of kings.
So, angels exist in their grandeur and in their obedience and in their vast numbers to call attention to the greatness of the God they serve.
4. Angels call attention to the worth of every believer.
Now here’s one last text that’s perhaps the most unusual of all. Jesus says in Matthew 18:10, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”
What in the world did Jesus mean by that? Well, the “little ones” refer to believers, Christians — childlike Christians, real Christians — who are easily despised and made fun of in this world. And I think what he is saying is this: every Christian — even the simplest, lowliest believer — has an entourage of titans, angels — colossal, glorious beings who stand in the most privileged position in the universe before the face of God — always ready to do God’s bidding at any time on behalf of those despised little Christians. So, be careful not to despise any simple, unimpressive follower of Jesus. Heavenly titans are in God’s service on their behalf in the very place of privilege before his face.
I wrote an article at Desiring God called “The Surprising Role of Guardian Angels,” where I give all the arguments for what I just said. If it sounds like a new and unusual take on that text or on guardian angels, I hope you’ll go to that article.
Let me just sum it up again like this: Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones [one of my believers]. For [because — here’s the reason you must not despise any Christian] I tell you that in heaven their angels [plural — this is not one angel for one person; there’s nothing in the text that would suggest that] always see the face of my Father.” Don’t despise this simple, unimpressive disciple of Jesus. Let his angelic entourage remind you whose son he is. Let this angelic entourage of titans remind you what Lord he has. Put your hand over your critical, despising mouth, and show great esteem for all ordinary, childlike disciples.
If the fact that God is their Father and Jesus is their Lord doesn’t keep you back from despising and mistreating the followers of Jesus, then let this terrifying advocacy and rank of their magnificent angels awaken you from your stupor. That’s the idea.
So, in heaven and on earth, angels in their magnificence serve to call attention to the grandeur of God and, surprisingly, serve to call attention to the lesser but breathtaking grandeur of the simplest believer. God intends for the role of angels to thrill us with his grace and power and wisdom in the way he created, the way he governs, and the way he is saving his people.