In pictures angels often have wings, but sometimes they don't have wings. Are these pictures of angels with wings a mistake? Where does the idea that angels have wings come from?
There isn't a simple yes or no answer as to whether angels have wings. Angels are variously depicted throughout the bible, and there are clearly different kinds of angels. Most of the time they aren't described as having wings.
There are two ways that angels are depicted in the bible. One is in a spiritual form, and the other is in a flesh-like form. Most descriptions of angels in the bible fit into one of these two forms.
These different forms probably relate to the role of angels as messengers. As messengers and visitors, angels have the ability change their form as required. In other words, angels can leave their natural spiritual form and appear to us as normal people.
There is at least one example of this in the Old Testament, such as when Lot takes the two angels into his house (Genesis 19). This idea that angels can "disguise" themselves as people is also mentioned in the New Testament, "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Hebrews 13:2 KJV bible).
If we think about this account, then the way that the angels appeared must have been without wings. If the angels had appeared with large feathered "angel wings" then they could not have disguised themselves as men. Such winged people could not have been mistaken for typical traveling strangers.
The ability of angels to appear as human beings goes beyond their outer appearance. In one instance Abraham is visited by three angels who bring him the promise of Isaac's birth. It's written that Abraham and Sarah prepare food for the angels and they eat (Genesis 18.8), (see also Genesis 19.3).
If these angels were able to eat food, then they must have had flesh bodies on the inside. They must have been very human like, even having the internal workings of human beings. Rather than simply appearing as people, they must have fully taken on our flesh nature, and so were without wings.
The other way angels are depicted is in their spiritual form. This spiritual form is likely the natural state of angels. Angels are often described this way in visions and prophecy. Angels in their spiritual form usually aren't described with wings, but there are some exceptions.
Angels in their spiritual form are not bodiless spirits. They have bodies, but these bodies are angelic in nature. Angelic bodies are described as being bright, radiant and powerful (see also Spiritual Bodies).
"His body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude" (Daniel 10:6 KJV bible).
Angels in their spiritual form seem to be able to fly as well, "And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow" (Matthew 28:2-3 KJV bible).
It says here that the angel descended, as if he had the ability to fly. Maybe it's an omission by the writer, but there's no mention of this angel having wings. The bible in general doesn't describe angels as having wings.
There are certain angel-like beings that do have wings. These beings are called cherubim and seraphim. There are some similarities between them and typical angels, but also some differences. The cherubim and seraphim have unique roles in heaven.
"This is the living creature that I saw under the God of Israel by the river of Chebar; and I knew that they were the cherubims. Every one had four faces apiece, and every one four wings; and the likeness of the hands of a man was under their wings" (Ezekiel 10:20-21 KJV bible), "Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly" (Isaiah 6:2 KJV bible).
The description of the cherubim is that of having four wings, and being part human and part animal. In contrast, the seraphim are described as having six wings, but little else is said about their physical appearance. There maybe different forms of seraphim and cherubim as well.
The nature of these wings is a question in itself. In the case of the cherubim, the prophet describes them as touching wings to each other to form a square, and then flying as a single creature (see Ezekiel 1.11-12). The prophet describes a great thundering sound that comes from them. However, there is no mention of them flapping their wings in the way that a bird would.
Some researchers have interpreted these wings as being something other than wings. They interpret them as mechanical or spiritual appendages that are described as wings. Much of this is speculation, but we can say that the wings aren't normal flesh wings, because the creatures themselves aren't flesh.
Whether or not cherubim and seraphim are "angels" is a question of semantics. They are certainly angelic in nature. According to some authorities they are two of the highest orders of angels. if we consider them to be angels then some angels do have wings.
On the other hand, the word angel comes from a root word that means messenger. The role of the cherubim and seraphim is more like guardians than messengers (Exodus 25.20). If we don't consider them to be angels then angels don't have wings.
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