Angels are a basic feature of biblical cosmology. They frequently appear in the Old and New Testaments as warriors, messengers, worshippers, healers and comforters. Encounters with them are often dramatic and terrifying, but just as often they are commonplace, with angels disguising themselves as humans in order to speak and journey with people.

Stories of the angelic world and their interaction with humans might make us moderns a bit uncomfortable, as if this is an antiquated or overly mythologised worldview. Quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, is St Basil who says this: ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life’ (§336). The existence, presence, and unseen protection of the angels has been a mainstay of the Christian tradition up and down the ages. Reflecting on their presence in the Scriptures is a good way of opening ourselves more to this strange reality.

2 Kings 18:35

The Bible is at times, to put it bluntly, a bloodbath. Hezekiah was the thirteenth successor of King David and reigned in Judah as one of its more honourable rulers. ‘He put his trust in the God of Israel,’ the writer of Second Kings tells us, which is one of the highest compliments an Old Testament figure can be paid (18:5). Not only did he destroy idolatrous shrines and follow the path of Yahweh, he also ‘rebelled against the king of Assyria,’ something which would have dramatic consequences (18:7).

In the fourteenth year of his reign, King Hezekiah found himself being besieged by the Assyrians. The King of Assyria, Sennacherib, confronts Hezekiah and his people, trying to make them lose confidence in Hezekiah’s faith: ‘Do not listen to Hezekiah who is deluding you when he says: Yahweh will save us. Has any god of any nation saved his country from the power of the king of Assyria?’ (18:32-34).

One of the recurring themes of the Old Testament is precisely this: Trust in Yahweh. Hezekiah, despairing, consults the prophet Isaiah who offers an oracle from the Lord that Jerusalem will not fall to the Assyrians. Then, with typical biblical laconicism, we read this in 2 Kings 19:35:

That same night, the angel of Yahweh went out and struck down a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. In the early morning when it was time to get up, there they lay, so many corpses.

Hezekiah’s trust was rewarded.

Joshua 5:13

The book of Joshua is the exciting narrative of the conquest of Canaan by Israelite armies, led by Moses’ successor Joshua. During this conquest, there is the famous story of Jericho’s fall, where the walls come crashing down at the trumpet blasts. Prior to this dramatic conflict, we are given a glimpse behind the veil and into the spiritual. What occurs in Jericho is not simply a picture of human warfare but, apparently, spiritual warfare too. Before marching on Jericho, we read this:

When Joshua was near Jericho, he raised his eyes and saw a man standing there before him, grasping a naked sword. Joshua walked towards him and said to him, ‘Are you with us or with our enemies?’ He answered, ‘No, I am captain of the army of Yahweh, and now I come . . .’ Joshua fell on his face to the ground and worshipped him and said, ‘What are my Lord’s commands to his servant?’ The captain of the army of Yahweh answered Joshua, ‘Take your sandals off your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy.’ (Joshua 5:13-15).

This is a mysterious encounter. Sometimes in the Old Testament the appearance of an angel is taken to be basically the appearance of God himself. In some sense, this passage involves the angel – perhaps God himself – taking over command of Joshua’s army, reminding him that this wasn’t Joshua’s fight. It was God’s fight and their role was to trust and follow the path Yahweh was laying out for them.

5 Washington Allston The Angel Releasing St Peter from Prison 21 1379 Museum of Fine Arts
‘The Angel Releasing Peter from Prison’ by Washington Allston (1379)

Acts of the Apostles 12:1-23

The Old Testament is not the only Testament with angelic appearances. These particular encounters come during a time when King Agrippa I was heavily persecuting the early Church. After beheading the apostle James, one of the “Sons of Thunder”, he had the apostle Peter imprisoned.

While in chains, an angel appeared and ‘the cell was filled with light’ (12:7). Peter thought he was having a vision – he didn’t believe this was real (7:9). The angel made the chains fall way and guided him past the guards and through the iron gate of the city. Later, while King Herod was making a speech, the people were acclaiming him with the words, ‘“It is a god speaking, not a man!”’ At this moment, ‘the angel of the Lord struck him down, because he had not given the glory to God. He was eaten away with worms and died’ (12:22-23).

We have a tendency to overly partition the Old Testament from the New, as if angelic interactions with people – even the ‘angel of the Lord’ striking someone down – were an Old Testament reality. This is one of those passages that throws a spanner in the works, jolting us and making us a bit uncomfortable. As always with passages of Scripture that make us uncomfortable, the best thing to do is sit with them, read them over and over and over again and pray with them.

The Book of Tobit

The book of Tobit is widely considered to be more of a folk tale than anything else (much like Jonah). Still, it is a beautiful piece of literature and one angel – the Archangel Raphael – features prominently. The story centres upon Tobias, the son of the blind man Tobit. Tobias is on a journey to Media to collect money that his father had kept in someone’s safekeeping. A stranger accompanies him as a guide – this is Raphael in disguise.

Along the way, Tobias encounters and falls in love with a woman named Sarah, who is possessed by a demon. She has tried to be married seven times and each time the groom has ended up murdered by the demon. Despite this situation, ‘he fell so deeply in love with her that he could no longer call his heart his own’ (6:18).

When Tobias marries her, Raphael successfully dispatches the demon. The demon flees into Egypt, but ‘Raphael pursued him there, and bound and shackled him at once’ (8:3). This is one of the only encounters between an angel and a demon we have in the Old Testament in open conflict.

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‘Christ at Gethsemane II’ by Carl Bloch

Luke 22:43 – The Garden of Gethsemane

This is a more intimate moment that gets revealed to us. The Garden of Gethsemane has always been a location ripe for reflection on Jesus’ humanity; on the fact that he is not only fully divine but also fully human, down to the fear, the suffering, and the emotion that marks human life deeply.

This section of Luke’s Gospel is one that reveals Jesus ‘in anguish’ and sweating blood (22:44). Prior to this comes the moment when Jesus utters his prayer of surrender, ‘let your will be done, not mine,’ and an angel appears, ‘coming from heaven to give him strength’ (22:43). Here we have a different angelic appearance, whereby they are not warriors or messengers or engaging in anything dramatic. Instead, they are appearing at a deeply vulnerable and emotional moment in Jesus’ life to offer strength. It is a beautiful moment.

What makes this more interesting is reflecting on the fact that angels have been considered to be, by the Christian tradition, rational creatures and “persons”. We tend to think of them as a faceless, spiritual reality, but as persons every angel has its own “identity”, so to speak. They’re persons. Who was this particular angel? Why was it chosen to strengthen Jesus? This might sound like a strange question, but did Jesus and this angel have a closer friendship than the other angels? According to the gospels, John was the “beloved disciple”, so presumably Jesus was closer with some disciples than others. Is this true for angels, too? Admittedly this is a strange train of thought, but these are the kinds of interesting speculations that open to us when we spend enough time with a text.

Where are they now?

Belief in angels might be something that people poke fun at these days, especially since we live in an age more sceptical towards the supernatural than our biblical counterparts. Nevertheless, they are an important part of the Christian and biblical faith and we can always benefit from spending more time reading about them. Naturally, the Bible is brimming with many more stories like these – too many to count. Angels were constantly active and intervening in human affairs on behalf of God.

It makes us wonder: What are they up to right now?

The memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels is celebrated on 2 October.