With Christmas Eve upon us, many images fill our society with good tidings of great joy (if only every consumer at the store right now did the same, right?). One image that is often present is that of angels. They are depicted in our culture as either children, women, or men with wings. In fact, in popular myth, one often sees angels as humans who get their wings if they perform good deeds in life. Of course, angels are differrent creatures in the Bible than humans, and we know that we do not become angels, since the Bible tells us that angels are not apart of Christ's direct redemptive act of securing salvation upon the cross, i.e., they are not saved by it, but humans are (Heb 2:16; 1 Pet 1:12).
But we continue to depict them as humans with wings nonetheless. This, no doubt, is gained from the attempt throughout history to bring biblical statements concerning their appearance into a single picture, but is it accurate? First, angels are never said to look like women or children in the Bible. When they are said to appear, they look like men (Gen 18:1-3; Judges 13:3, 6; Dan 9:21). Now, we are told by Christ that angels do not marry nor are given in marriage, and this may indicate that they have no actual gender, so what people are referring to when they say, "a man" may in fact just be that the angel "looks" human, not that he is in the actual form of a man. But we are also told that we can actually have encounters with angels and be unaware of it (Heb 13:2), which means they must be able to transform themselves into something that looks and feels like a tangible human.
Yet, we are told that, in their undisguised appearance, they appear to be something much greater and more frightening than a man, as the continual comfort an angel often offers the person or group he is visiting is, "Do not be afraid." This tells us that his appearance is something rather terrifying. In fact, in Matthew 28:3, the angel that descends upon the tomb of Christ is said to have the "appearance of lightning," and that this causes the guards to be so scared as to lock up and be incapable of moving (a phenomenon that has led us to call this type of extreme fear, "being petrified"). It is not known whether his coming was quick like lightning or whether his appearance is bright like a flash of lightning. I think it's the latter, as the text further explains his description as one whose clothing was "as white as snow." This is consistent with Paul calling Satan an imposter of an "angel of light" (2 Cor 11:14), indicating that angels are creatures that have a brilliance to their appearance that gives off great light (which may have some implications for what the star over Bethlehem might be, i.e., rather than an actual star, it could be an angel--although there are good arguments made by some astronomers for taking it as a literal heavenly body). The angels who come with Christ at His return are called "His mighty angels" who return with Him in "flaming fire" (2 Thes 1:7), perhaps, depicting the terror and brilliance of light that accompanies them.
We are also told that they are not mere men because of the powers they possess. In fact, they are so powerful, they are called either the "sons of God" or "gods" themselves, since to us (and especially to a person in the ancient Near Eastern world) they appear to be gods. Hence, when the angel visits the wife of Manoah to tell her of the birth of Samson, she says of him, "A man of God came to me and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome" (or, "exceedingly fearsome") (Judges 13:6).. A single angel wipes out all of the firstborn of Egypt in the plagues. An angel strikes the hoard at Sodom with blindness by the wave of a hand. The two angels then rain fire and brimstone down upon the cities. The Israelites were led out of Egypt with a giant pillar of smoke and fire in which the angel of the Lord was clothed. He is the same angel that drives out the Canaanites from the land of Canaan. He also can destroy the entire territory of Israel. A single angel also destroys the entire encampment of the Assyrian army. Although it is not clear, if Satan was an angel, it may indicate their abilities are great, as we are told that he is capable of sending disease and controlling the weather. In fact, angels are even identified with wind and fire, precisely, because those two elements are the most powerful elements known in the ancient world, since they have the greatest amount of destructive power. Of course, there is only one true God who is the "God of gods," and so, even with all of their power, they are finite beings who are dwarfed by the Almighty.
So angels appear to be very powerful beings, but they look like very powerful human creatures, unless they cloak their glory in some way, and then they simply look like one of us. So where did the idea that they have wings come from? Well, it actually comes from biblical imagery that has been misunderstood as a literal depiction.
You see, in the ancient Near East, wings are a symbol of protection. Hence, guardians are said to have wings. Deities are often described as having wings (e.g., the sun god in Egypt is both presented as the sun with wings and as manifesting itself as a falcon). In fact, this imagery is applied to God, as it is said that he spreads His wings over His people like an eagle catching her offspring as they fall from the nest (Deut 32:11). We are told that Ruth has come to seek refuge under God's wings (Ruth 2:12). The Psalmist tells us that it is under the shadow of His wings that we may take refuge (Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7), as well as continually telling us that wings represent protection (61:4; 91:4). This doesn't mean that God looks like this. It doesn't mean the Spirit who cannot be contained even by the highest heaven (1 Kings 8:27) has a physical form that can be characterized as having wings. And the same is true for angels. The wings represent their role of guardians and protectors of what is holy. They surround the throne of God in visions to represent that, and they surround the people of God (i.e., His holy ones/ saints) to protect them.
Hence, their physical depictions in the Bible, such as we find on the ark and in visions, are that of a sphinx, having characteristics of strong animals to portray their power and wings to portray their role as guardians of what is holy. In other words, this is imagery, not a literal depiction of what they look like. They are depicted according to what the ancient Near Eastern world would see as guardians with god-like qualities, but they are not meant to give us an actual description of what they look like anymore than Jesus saying He is the bread of life means that our Lord is made of baked doe. Hence, when we see angels described this way, it is usually in very symbolic contexts (e.g., the making of the ark and tabernacle that carries tons of symbolism and in apocalyptic literature or in visions). When we have them described in narrative, they are often just described, in their true form, as extremely fearful looking human-like creatures that are clothed in white and emanate light. When in disguise, they would only appear to be humans and nothing more.
So our understanding of their literal physical appearance may be off, but I think we still understand their role, and that is what is truly important. We may hang up cherubs in the likeness of woman and children (or men) with wings, and be mistaken if we think that's what they look like, but we usually are not mistaken as to what their presence with us means. These images are symbols of God's love and protection of His holy people. They protect what is holy by holding the evil that would destroy it at bay, even sometimes destroying the agents of evil, on the one side of the coin, and on the other side, they, in those very acts, are symbols of our salvation from corruption and evil. In fact, these incredibly powerful beings are said to have been made specifically to serve us in this manner (Heb 1:14), and we will become their judges as to how well they did this job (1 Cor 6:3).
So I like seeing angels at Christmas, not because I think babies with wings are cute, but because these symbols display the great, eternal love and thoughtfulness of God toward His children in His decision to save and preserve them from this place and from themselves. It reminds us to look away from the constant evil with which we are surrounded and to see that God has surrounded us with His servants to protect our souls (and many times our physical lives) from that evil. They, then, are rightfully present at the announcement of God's redemptive acts, especially at the birth of Christ, and are overjoyed with this work on our behalf, as it confirms that all of their hard work was not in vain. They are there at the Exodus. They are there at the birth of Christ. They are there at His resurrection. And they will be there at His Second Coming. But we should always remember that they are there, not only because of the significance of those events, but because they are always there, watching over and protecting what God has entrusted to them, us.
So if you won't be getting a great present this year, please know that if you have given your life to Christ and are one of His children, you have been given a greater present each and every day than something that can be fit into a box. God has so set His love on you that He has long ago created and purposed His angels to watch over you, protecting what He considers to be sacred from harm. Their existence and presence trumpets out to us, "God loves and cares for you." And that's what those wings really mean. I just thought you should know.
God bless and Merry Christmas!
And in the same region there were [some] shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. "And this [will be] a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger." And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased." (Luke 2:8-14)