By Michael S. Heiser
In Hebrews 13:2 the writer instructs his audience, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” The context for the writer’s admonition is the Old Testament, where we find several stories about angels appearing to people (e.g., Gen 19:1–22; Judg 6:11–27).
It is noteworthy that, in those stories, angels had no distinctive visual features that would have identified them as angels. The people with whom the angels interacted thought the angels were men—at least until they did something beyond human ability (Gen 19:11; Judg 6:21). These angels didn’t have wings. They looked like normal men.
Jewish readers (the primary audience of the book of Hebrews) would have known that their Bible never describes angels as having wings. That’s why Hebrews 13:2 makes sense. If wings were a normative feature for angels, how could you fail to notice the stranger to whom you’re extending hospitality was really an angel? If he had wings sticking out of his back that would certainly be a giveaway!
Angels in the New Testament also appear in human form, indistinguishable from men. Outside the symbolism of the book of Revelation, where you have angels straddling continents, there are rare exceptions to the routine human appearance of angels. Two of them are significant and theologically connected.
The first exception is the appearance of angels to the shepherds to hail the birth of Jesus, the Messiah (Luke 2:8–21). Luke 2:9 says “an angel of the Lord” appeared to the shepherds illuminating them with “the glory of the Lord.” The lone angel soon gets company: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.” The story is familiar to us because of Christmas traditions. We tend to read it as though the angels are suspended in the sky above the shepherds’ heads, but the account never says that. What it does say—and what removes any ambiguity in the minds of the shepherds about what they are witnessing—is that the “glory of the Lord” accompanies these angels.
The second exception is at the other end of the gospel story—the resurrection scene at the tomb. Luke 24 begins this way:
1But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
The people who went to the tomb are identified in Luke 23:55–56. They are the women who had prepared spices and ointments to embalm the body of Jesus as best they could. The women understand the men are angels (Luke 24:23). One of these women was apparently Mary Magdalene, as John 20:12 has her encountering “two angels” at the tomb. Interestingly, Luke informs us that the two “men” were wearing “dazzling apparel” (Luke 24:4). John’s account only describes their clothing as white. Both departures from the normal Old Testament pattern of portraying angels as nondescript men therefore occur in Luke’s Gospel. Luke uses the same sort of description for angels (“men”) in Acts 1:10 and Acts 10:30, and for the transfigured Jesus in Luke 9:29. What is the point of Luke’s language?
Both episodes involve proclamations from God (the birth announcement and the resurrection). Since Luke’s description of the transfigured Jesus aligns with the description of these angels, taken together these portrayals accomplish at least two things.
First, the shepherds and the women could not (and did not) presume they were talking to men. As if to remove any ambiguity in the messaging, these emissaries could not be mistaken for mere mortals. No one who saw them would wonder about their identity or the messages they brought. The effect was to assign immediate authority to their words. God was speaking through his agents.
Second, Luke’s wording links Jesus’ transfiguration to the announcement of his birth and resurrection. Luke wanted readers to notice that the baby in the second chapter really was more than a man; he truly was the Messiah. That he rose from the dead underscored that he really was the Savior (Luke 2:11). What God had said at his birth was demonstrated at the transfiguration and validated at the resurrection. With these angels we say, “Christ the Lord!” and “he has risen!” (Luke 2:11; 24:6).
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
1 See Michael S. Heiser, Angels What the Bible Really Says About God’s Heavenly Host (Lexham Press, 2018), chapter 8.