Angels in the New Testament
The view and roles of the angels change dramatically in the New Testament. Gone are the Angels of Death and Vengeance, and also gone are the heroic deeds of angels. No longer do angels bring death and destruction, nor do they go about killing the firstborn of unbelievers. They are also no longer depicted as bland creatures without personalities. In the New Testament, the images of the angels are portrayed as being more personalized. From being purely abstract extensions of God, angels became friends to human beings, powers that could be called upon in times of stress or need.
See for yourself and draw your own conclusion as you now read and reflect upon the stories from the New Testament.
One of the most important angelic visitations in the view of the early Christians is the Annunciation, the speaking of those famous words: Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. The angel came to Mary and said, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His Father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:30–33). When Mary's pregnancy became obvious, Joseph, her husband, was embarrassed by this situation. But an angel appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid … for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20–21). After the birth of the Savior, the angel continued to look after the family and appeared twice to Joseph, giving him instructions on where to go so he could keep his family safe.
Angels after the Crucifixion of Christ
The Gospel of Matthew does mention that two angels, without wings but with “a countenance like lightning” and “garments white as snow,” were found sitting inside the cave in which Christ had been laid in burial. Mary Magdalene and Mary went to the tomb to care for the dead body, but when they arrived there was no body to be seen anywhere; It had disappeared. One of the angels informed them that the reason there wasn't a corpse was because Christ had “risen up from the dead.” Not knowing what to think about this extraordinary occurrence, the women rushed to get the men to take a look for themselves, and they too, found the tomb empty. This story is told in many different versions by different Gospel writers, but the basic elements are the same.
In Vision of Paul, in New Testament Apocrypha, Paul is guided by an angel on a complicated and confusing journey through the territory of heaven and hell. The narrative shifts back and forth between beauty and horror. He has visions of utter bliss and visions of terrible punishments. Finally, the angel leads Paul to the door of the third heaven. Paul says, “And I looked at it and saw that it was a golden gate and that there were two golden tables above the pillars full of letters. (These letters are the names of the righteous, already inscribed in heaven while they still live on earth.) And again the angel turned to me and said: “Blessed are you if you enter in by these gates.” After entering the gates of paradise, Paul encounters the ancient prophet Enoch, who issues a warning to Paul not to reveal what he has seen in the third heaven. Then, the angel descends, with Paul, to the second heaven and thence to the earthly paradise, where the souls of those deemed righteous await the resurrection.
It was absolutely crucial for the new early church to draw a firm line of distinction between Christ and angels, who were considered to be the lesser intermediaries between God and his people. No doubt angels had their work to do delivering messages from God, but it had to be Christ who was the closest communicator to God.
Then the angel puts Paul in a golden boat and the narrative continues: “And about three thousand angels were singing a hymn before me until I reached the City of Christ.” When he reaches the City of Christ he says, “I saw in the midst of this city a great altar, very high, and there was David standing near the altar, whose countenance shone as the sun, and he held in his hands a psaltery and harp, and he sang psalms, saying Alleluia. And all in the city replied Alleluia till the very foundations of the city were shaken…. Turning round I saw golden thrones placed in each gate, and on them men having golden diadems and gems: and I looked carefully and saw inside between the twelve men thrones in glorious rank … so that no one is able to recount their praise…. Those thrones belong to those who had goodness and understanding of heart and made themselves fools for the sake of the Lord God.” It ends with Paul seeing 200 angels preceding Mary and singing hymns, and Mary informs him that he has been granted the unusual favor of coming to this place before he dies.
The story of the Ascension of Isaiah (in New Testament Apocrypha) is far less complex. The prophet is taken out of his body and led by an angel to the first heaven above the sky: “And I saw a throne in the midst, and on the right and on the left of it were angels singing praises.” He asks whom they praise and is told by the angels, “It is for the praise of him who is in the seventh heaven, for him who rests in eternity among his saints, and for his Beloved, whence I have been sent unto you.”
Angels were a difficult matter for the early church, especially concerning whether they had bodies or were incorporeal or pure spirit. While Scripture clearly states that angels appear as men, it also states plainly that angels are spiritus (Hebrews 1:14).
The “heaven above the sky” is the first heaven of seven, and the angel then takes Isaiah to the second heaven, where once more he sees a throne and angels to the right and to the left. Awed by the situation, the holy prophet prostrates himself to worship the angel on the throne, but is told not to do that; angels are not to be worshiped.
Ascending further, each of the succeeding heavens is filled with more glory than the one before, and the sixth heaven is of such glorious brightness that it makes the previous five dark by comparison. Isaiah wants to remain in this place of wonder, but the angel explains that Isaiah's time on earth isn't finished, but Jesus himself allows Isaiah to enter the seventh heaven. The vision ends with Christ escorting Isaiah down through all the heavens to earth to witness the Annunciation and the Incarnation.