Most people believe in angels. But it’s what we believe about them that matters. Have our preconceived notions about angels been shaped by sensationalized popular opinion rather than by true biblical representation? From the Garden of Eden to the book of Revelation, Scripture is filled with hundreds of references to these messengers of God.
Bible Gateway interviewed Scot McKnight (@scotmcknight) about his book, The Hum of Angels: Listening for the Messengers of God Around Us (WaterBrook, 2017).
Explain the meaning of the title, The Hum of Angels.
Scot McKnight: I was in a bird store one day, struck up a conversation with the owner, and I mentioned in passing while looking at a hummingbird feeder that I had one but couldn’t attract hummers. He asked where we live, I told him, and he immediately said, “They’re all around you. But you have to have an ear and eye for them.” So, we bought another one, put it up and waited. And before long we had hummers; and we developed an eye for their sudden and sharp moves and an ear for their humming.
The same with angels: they’re here and around us; perhaps all around us. But we have to have an ear for them and an eye for them, and that only comes when we have the courage and faith to open ourselves to a world inhabited by more than humans and animals. There are angels around us.
According to the Bible, what are angels’ purpose?
Scot McKnight: In The Hum of Angels I develop a theology of the mission of angels on the basis of the mission of God in this world. Here’s how it goes: God is love so all God does is loving. God’s love entails a covenant commitment on the part of with us, and that covenant commitment means a promise to be with us and for us, and God’s covenant is shaped toward our redemption.
Angels are spirits on mission, and that mission is God’s. So, we can say that God, out of his love, sends angels to aid us in our redemption. Angels are sent for our redemption, and that redemption leads us all the way into the heights of worship.
How do angels teach the Bible’s big ideas?
Scot McKnight: What’s surprising in the Bible about angels, and my book’s attempt to shackle our ideas about angels to the Bible, is how frequently they appear in major moments: think of angels and Abraham and Moses and Isaiah and Daniel and Jesus and Peter and Paul and John. They are there when big things happen: they’re at the birth of Jesus, the temptation of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the resurrection, and the Parousia.
So angels are involved in revealing the covenant, the law, the coming of Christ, the appearing of Christ, the redemptive work of Christ, and the second coming of Christ. Angels reveal by way of explaining what’s happening; that is, a child will be born and he will be called the Son of the Most High. Mary knows the identity and mission of her son because an angel told her.
Why are the first words out of angels’ mouths in the Bible many times, “fear not”?
Scot McKnight: When Kris and I were on sabbatical in Assisi, Italy we wandered daily through churches and we had fun with what we called the “chubby cherubs.” The only other kind of angel in the frescoes and paintings of those churches were wispy seraphs. I saw no angel that did anything other than brought me comfort or coaxed a smile from me.
The angels of the Bible terrify the humans to whom they visit; they startle and scare and even stun the humans. Why? Because in the Bible angels are colossal figures, fiery in light and, more often than not, overwhelming in their power. Angels, then, in the Bible are supernatural beings that humble us in their presence.
Should we be afraid of angels?
Scot McKnight: I’ve not seen an angel like that. But angels, inasmuch as they come from the Throne Room of the Thrice-holy God, usher us into the presence of God once removed and such encounters with God are more powerful and overwhelming than ordinary moments with God. So, yes, angels will frequently—even when they’re comforting us with good news—touch the awe of God’s eternal presence and drive us to our knees before our God of glory. But, “afraid” can be a tricky word. Yes, and no; awe is the better word. They do not intend to intimidate or scare, but their overwhelming glory and being will stun us into sudden contact with what is far beyond us.
Is there a hierarchy of angels?
Scot McKnight: Big issue. In The Hum of Angels I examine the history of this discussion and I join hands with Karl Barth on this one: most of this is a bucket of nonsense (my words, his substance).
In an era of neo-Platonic and quasi-gnostic beliefs in orders and strata in the heavenly places, some such theologians came up with a hierarchy—using some of the Bible’s own terms like principalities and authorities and then filled it in by assigning these biblical terms to various levels, which the Bible itself does not do. The man who did this and set the ball rolling was Pseudo-Dionysius. And then St Thomas Aquinas, in his classic Aristotelian mode of thinking, perfected the hierarchy into a science. In all due respect, I’m a Bible guy and I don’t see it in the Bible sufficiently to embrace the speculation. We’re better off without it.
Do people have a specific guardian angel?
Scot McKnight: Many serious Christians and theologians think so. There’s no doubt the Bible talks about angels guarding us. For instance, the wilderness wanderings of Israel were accompanied by an angel (Exodus 23:20) and clearly Jesus said something that sounds like a guardian angel: “For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). These kinds of texts in the Bible have led to a full development of guardian angels.
Some think we each have a guardian angel while others think we don’t have an assigned guardian angel, while yet others think God at times—but not always and not by assignment to each of us—sends an angel on a mission of guarding. The Bible’s evidence that each of us has a specific, assigned guardian angel is not as solid as some think, so I’m with those who think sometimes God sends guardian angels but that we don’t have a specific guardian angel. What then do I do with those who think they have one? Perhaps they do, but I don’t sense that I have one. Nor does my wife or anyone I’ve ever talked to. But perhaps they’re with us just beyond our hearing and sight. What matters more is that we know God loves us and seeks our redemption, at times through angels.
Can we (should we) talk to angels?
Scot McKnight: I’ve never spoken with an angel, though one time I felt the awesome weight and glory of God’s presence in an angel in my bedroom as I kneeled in prayer. I kept my eyes closed, good Baptist that I was at the time, so I never knew if it was an angel. (I now am reasonably confident it was.)
In the Bible angels speak and humans speak back to them. This is the case with Mary in Luke 1. The angel speaks, Mary questions, and it goes back and forth. Abraham speaks with angels. So I would contend the Bible has enough evidence of angels speaking and humans speaking that speaking with an angel today would be reasonable. I’ve heard enough stories and read such that confirm that Christians today do speak with angels.
Are angels worship leaders?
Scot McKnight: The ultimate end of redemption is that we worship God with our whole being and in the whole company of the redeemed. Angels emerge from the presence of God and worship of God, are sent on mission for our redemption, so it doesn’t surprise me to read in the Bible of angels leading us into the presence of God in worship. Psalm 29:1 exhorts the angels to worship God, and we read the same in Psalm 148:1-6. The angels worship Jesus, as we see at Luke 2:13. Revelation 5:6-12 describes the angels leading the redeemed in praise of God.
I’m convinced of this: angels are sent from the presence of God where they worship and they arrive in our presence with the ultimate aim of leading us into the presence of God to join them in worship.
Bio: Scot McKnight is the author of more than 50 books, including The Jesus Creed, and The Heaven Promise. A popular speaker at events such as Catalyst and Q Conference, Scot is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. His blog, Jesus Creed, has 3 million page views annually. He and his wife, Kris, live in the Chicago suburbs.
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