An Interview with the Leading Expert on Angels

An Interview with the Leading Expert on Angels February 19, 2019

Update: The new INSURGENCE podcast has launched and I have two conversation partners. Go to TheInsurgence.net to check it out.

Today I interview my friend Michael Heiser.

If you’ve read my book Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, Michael’s name should be familiar to you since I quote him in several places in my discussion of the fallen principalities and powers later in the book.

(Michael also graciously wrote a robust endorsement for the book, to which I’m thankful.)

Like all of my work, much of Michael’s work is marked by exposing unbiblical traditions that Christians have embraced. Those traditions are so engrained that God’s people routinely filter the Bible through them.

Recently, Michael released a new book which covers the waterfront on what the Bible has to say about angels. And in so doing, he corrects many erroneous ideas that Christians have imbibed about angelic beings.

I’ll say at the outset that many books have passed through my hands that seek to expound the biblical teaching on angels.

For example, see my free article The Origins of Human Government and Hierarchy where I cite many of them.

But Heiser’s new book Angels: What the Bible Really Says About God’s Heavenly Host trumps every book I’ve seen on the subject of angels.

(Man, Heiser should pay me well for this Introduction! Cough).

I caught up with Michael to ask him some questions about his new book. My thinking behind these questions is that they would be of interest to you, my audience.

Let’s see if I’m in the ball park on that assumption.

Enjoy the interview!

This first question would fit the category of “pastoral.” Namely, how does your book on angels benefit a believer’s day to day life? 

Michael Heiser: I’ll answer this by relaying the most frequently-mentioned item I get from readers and people when I speak on the topic of the supernatural world: the more we understand how God thinks about, and relates to, his supernatural family-partners (the loyal members of the heavenly host), the more clearly we will see how God thinks about us. One is a template for the other.

It is no accident that the vocabulary of “holy ones” used almost exclusively for the supernatural heavenly host is not used of angels in the New Testament. Instead, it’s used of human believers. It’s also no accident that the same is true of the phrase “sons of God.” God wants us in his family, alongside his supernatural family, partnering with him as they do, just in our world.

God’s vision for human believers is to rule with him, displacing the rebellious supernatural sons of God as his council-partners in a new, global Eden.

Angelology informs our identity, mission, and destiny. If we placed more attention on those items we might just be more motivated to remember that this world isn’t our real home. And if we approached each day that way, the Church would change.

There is a movement that often comes up with some wacky ideas and practices with respect to the spiritual realm. For example, they teach that Christians could command angelic beings to do things for them. What is your response to this?

Michael Heiser: I’ve heard this idea and write about it in the book. Hebrews 1:14 is usually the point of reference for the notion we have the authority to command angels: “Are they [angels] not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?”

Some people presume that the verse means that God has sent angels to minister at the behest of believers, which in turn suggests that Christians can command angels to do their bidding.

The book provides more exegetical details, but it’s sufficient to say here that this interpretation can’t be sustained in light of the grammar of the verse. If we’re supposed to command angels, no one in the New Testament (or the Old) got the memo. There isn’t a single instance in Scripture where a human being commands an angel.

We agree on this. What do you believe Hebrews 13 means when it says to be hospitable, because you may be “entertaining angels unawares” (KJV)?

Michael Heiser: Hebrews 13:1 hearkens back to unexpected angelic visitations in the Old Testament (it’s the book of Hebrews). The Old Testament has several examples where people unknowingly interacted with angels. Lot’s exchange with the two “men” in Genesis 19 is a good example.

The two men looked entirely ordinary. It was only when they did something beyond human ability (they struck the men of the city blind; Gen 19:11). The two had shared a meal with Abraham (as well as God himself) in the previous chapter. There was no indication in that encounter that Abraham knew they were angels. Gideon (Judges 6) entertains the angel of the Lord without knowing who he was.

These incidents are precedent for the remark in Heb 13:1, suggesting that the same sort of episodes could happen to people in the New Testament era—and now.

In the Gospels, we are told that after Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the angels came and ministered to Him? If you and I were there watching, what do you think we’d see? In other words, how do you think the angels ministered to Jesus in the wilderness, exactly?

Michael Heiser: I think we’d see individuals who look like men ministering to Jesus. In the New Testament there are occasional physical indications that such men are angels, but not alwys. In your scenario we therefore might take note of brilliant white clothing or some other indication of luminous appearance, but that’s not a given.

If we saw them doing something beyond human capacity, like appearing and disappearing in transit, then that would be the giveaway. Since this passage is known to have inter-textual connections to the Elijah story (1 Kings 19:4-8), I suspect the angels would be bringing Jesus food and water. Matthew 26:53 of course indicates that Jesus could expect and command such aid if so desired.

Talk about “the angel of the Lord” that’s mentioned in the Bible. Many scholars suggest that this isn’t a reference to the second Person of the triune God. I disagree (as Len Sweet and I wrote in Jesus: A Theography). Speak to this. Who was the angel of the Lord?

Michael Heiser: It’s not difficult to establish that God appeared as a man in the Old Testament. Several scholarly monographs (outside the Christian orbit) have gone through the relevant material in detail to show that’s the case: e.g., Hamori, “When Gods Were Men”: The Embodied God in Biblical and Near Eastern Literature; Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel; Knafl, Forming God: Divine Anthropomorphism in the Pentateuch.

These works and others show that such episodes in the Old Testament went beyond visions to corporeal experiences. Genesis 18 is perhaps the most familiar, where God shares a meal with Abraham and two angels (cf. Gen 19:1).

The major figure here is the Angel of the Lord (Yahweh). I devoted three chapters to this figure, whose identity is conflated with, and yet also distinguished, from Yahweh himself. I of course discuss this angel in the present book. To be brief, it is this angel that has the “name” (the presence or person) of Yahweh in him (Exod 23:20-23). It is this angel that Gen 48:15-16 fuses with Yahweh in Jacob’s prayer, ending the third stanza with a third person singular verb (“may he bless” – not “may they bless”).

This instance overrides the frequent contention that messengers speak as though they are the person who sent them, because the angel never says anything. We have in Gen 48:15-16 Jacob’s own assessment of the events of his life involving this angel—which he equates with Yahweh.

It is this angel who is with Yahweh in the burning bush. And when Joshua confronts the “commander of Yahweh’s host” (Josh 5:13-15) and that figure commands Joshua to remove his sandals because he is upon holy ground, we see that the biblical writer wants to associate this commander with the Angel in the bush. While the term Angel of the Lord does not appear in Josh 5:13-15, a description used only twice elsewhere in the Old Testament (exclusive to the “Angel of the Lord”) is indeed present (“with drawn sword in his hand”; cp. Num 22:23; 1 Chron 21:16).

All of this establishes the notion that this particular angel was Yahweh, but yet was distinct from Yahweh. This is conceptually akin to the way we talk about Jesus. But Jesus of Nazareth was a real man born to Mary long after the events of the Old Testament. Consequently, it is imprecise to say things like the Angel of the Angel of the Lord “was Jesus,” but it’s biblical viable to say that God came to people as a man in the Old Testament, and was yet distinct—and so the second person of the Godhead did come as a man in the Old Testament. This sort of embodiment, though, was not incarnation (being born of a human woman).

Nevertheless, it was embodiment. The Old Testament embodiment of God was conceptual or intellectual preparation for the idea of a Godhead, which would take on new, bolder elements in the incarnation of God as Jesus of Nazareth.

Have you — or someone you know personally — ever seen an angelic being? If so, tell us the stories.

Michael Heiser: I’ve never seen an angel, though I do suspect I was providentially assisted by one (or God if you will) at several points in life, particularly during graduate school. I had some uncanny things happen in the course of writing my dissertation with respect to research finds. I’d love to claim I was just a good academic, but I know better. On at least two occasions the set of circumstances compel me to just say I was shown things, not in a goofy or “charismatic” way, but some otherwise unexplainable providences.

As far as others, I do have some friends who have shared angelic encounter experiences, either with respect to themselves (e.g., restoring lost objects, providing specific directions in dealing with a situation) or their children (e.g., appearing in their room). I think Hebrews 13:1 pretty much tells us that such experiences are on the table and shouldn’t shock us.

See also my interview with Michael on his book The Unseen Realm.

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