This column was originally posted on Fox News Opinion; to read the article on their website, click here.
The following column is excerpted from author Eric Metaxas’s book, "Miracles: What They Are, How They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life" (Plume, October 13, 2015), now available in paperback from Plume.
The Bible is filled with stories about angels, but many of us have had our view of angels confused by popular misconceptions about them, the principal of which is that angels do not actually exist anymore than fairies do, or wood nymphs or water sprites. But they do exist and the Bible attests to their existence innumerable times.
The word “angel” is simply the New Testament Greek word meaning “messenger,” so angels are powerful celestial beings created by God to carry his messages and to otherwise do his bidding.
In the Bible they are often said to be carrying swords—something my friend Peter Martin corroborates in the first story of this chapter.
So in saying what angels are—according to what we know from the Bible—we must also say what angels are not. For one thing, they are not fey, effeminate creatures, languid as a Victorian heroine. They are also not chubby and unthreatening cherubs.
Most angels we see in Scripture are exceedingly fierce and usually terrifying to humans, whether they have swords or not.
Many of us have heard the term “seraphs,” which refers to the seraphim, the highest order of angelic beings, having six wings and being charged with guarding the throne of God.
Many of us have also heard about the cherubim, who are the next order of angels, and who are pictured in Genesis as guarding the Tree of Life. But cherubim have become confused with the plump, toddler-like creatures commonly called cherubs, which we sometimes see depicted as Eros figures in Greek and Roman art, usually fluttering around Aphrodite or Pan. Those creatures, which we also see in the work of Raphael, are nowhere mentioned in the Bible.
There are various types of encounters with angels. A typical one is when they intervene to save a life.
My friend April Hernandez, whose story of inner healing appears in a previous chapter, told me just such a story.
It happened when she was thirteen years old. She had gone to the beach in the Bronx with some friends. But where they had decided to go into the water, far from other people, there was an immediate and very sharp drop-off. April couldn’t swim, so she wasn’t about to go in. Instead, she stood with her legs in the water, near the edge of this sharp drop-off, intending to go no farther. But as she stood there her friend—who herself wasn’t much of a swimmer—began to tease April. “C’mon!” she said, goading her not to be such a chicken. Then, without warning, she grabbed April and pulled her into the deep water.
April immediately went under and panicked. In a desperate desire to save her own life, she frantically grabbed at her friend and began pulling her down too.
April knew she was drowning. Then, suddenly, she felt a powerful hand grab her by the arm and pull her the few feet to shore, saving her life. But when she opened her eyes and looked up to see who had saved her from drowning, she saw no one. It had to be an adult, because it had been a very strong grip and had pulled her right out. But there was no one there. On the sand around her there were no footprints. Nor were there many people on the beach at all, and certainly not near her.
If it had been a person, surely he would have stayed there a moment to make sure that she was okay. If he had pulled her out so quickly, he had obviously seen she was in trouble. But whoever had done this was not there, even seconds after it had happened.
April knew without any doubt that she had experienced a miracle, that an angel had saved her life.
Another type of angelic encounter is when someone simply sees an angel or angels. In these instances the angels are not communicating with us, per se, or doing anything that involves us, but are just there doing what God has commanded them to do. Yet we are afforded the privilege of seeing into the heavenly realm. In the Book of Second Kings in the Bible, we read of how the King of Aram is at war with Israel.
Elisha the prophet is traveling with Israel’s army and when his servant awakes one morning, he sees the enemy army surrounding them, with horses and chariots. But when he tells Elisha this, Elisha is not concerned. He prays, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” The passage says that the Lord then opened the servant’s eyes and he “saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fi re all around Elisha.” In other words, he saw what was there, but what had been invisible to him: God’s army of angels with their “chariots of fi re.” Sometimes it seems that God allows us to see into the invisible realm simply to encourage us.
A third type of angelic experience occurs when we encounter an angel in the guise of a person. In the Book of Judges, both Gideon and Manoah converse with angels, but only realize after the angel has left.
In the New Testament book of Hebrews, it says, “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.”
So the idea that angels sometimes are disguised as people is certainly a Biblical idea. Many people on the mission field tell stories along this line.
Eric Metaxas is the author of several bestselling books, including "Bonhoeffer" and "Amazing Grace." His latest book is "7 Women and the Secret of their Greatness" (Thomas Nelson, September 8, 2015). His book "Miracles" is just out in paperback from Plume.