Imagine you’re in the hills near Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem, huddled with a group of exhausted herdsmen around a crackling fire. Some are sleeping, while others watch over the flocks. The cold, still air and dark skies feel eerily calm. Then, out of nowhere, a strange being emerges overhead. It is shining bright and moving like a human while your heart thumps wildly.
“Do not be afraid,” the messenger says.
“I bring you good news of great joy which will 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 to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).
The once-dark sky now comes to brilliant life with a sea of similar illuminated beings. They speak and praise, but they are not human. They float and fly, but they have no wings.
These are Yahweh’s angels—heavenly messengers.
The mysterious messengers continue speaking, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14).
Who are these angels in the Bible? When and why do they show up? And how do they compare to other heavenly winged creatures described in the Bible like the cherubim? Let’s take a look.
The First Cherubim
Cherubim (plural for cherub) first appear in the third chapter of Genesis. When God creates the world, he forms two realms: the skies (God’s space) and the land (human space). Then God forms human beings from the land and plants a unique garden, brimming with life.
In the wilderness outside of this garden, life is harsh, and survival is a struggle. But within the garden, life flourishes, and death is not a reality—it has no place there. People get to choose whether they want to live in the garden or not, and while the choice seems obvious, there is a twist. Living in this garden means choosing to love God and follow his instructions—it’s a place where God’s space and human space overlap and become inseparable.
Tragically, the first humans placed in the garden choose not to follow God’s instructions. They rebel and are exiled back to the land where God formed them, where mortality is real. God then places heavenly cherubim to protect the garden’s east end, guarding the way back in (Gen. 3:24). Why does he do this?
The cherubim are not praising, flying, or speaking like the angels who appeared to the shepherds. But their presence sends a crucial message: This garden of Eden space is a place where Heaven and Earth are one, where God’s will and human will never oppose one another. Attempts to act against God’s will in this space result in exile from the garden and eventually death, as it did for the first humans. Whenever we read about cherubim in the rest of the Bible, it is recalling this foundational garden-exile scene in the Genesis scroll.
Other Biblical Cherubim
Later, in the Exodus story, craftsmen create artful cherubim symbols on blue, purple, and scarlet curtains, and the cherubim have wings. The curtain blocks entrance to the tabernacle’s holy space, where the ark of the covenant rests and where God and humanity meet as one (Exod. 26:31-33). This sounds a lot like the cherubim’s position blocking the entrance to Eden, where God and humanity dwelt as one.
When God gives instructions for building the ark of the covenant, he tells the craftsmen to hammer-forge two cherubs out of solid gold—one for each end of the mercy seat where he says he will be present (Exod. 25:18-22). God says he will speak with the people from that position, between the wings of these two cherubim sculptures.
Whether stationed at the east of Eden or embroidered onto the tabernacle curtains (and later in the temple), the cherubim remind people that entering into a place of true, everlasting life is not something humans can achieve apart from God. Choosing to enter this space means choosing to unite with God’s will and instruction—the same choice Adam and Eve faced in the garden. No human beings living according to their own wisdom or way can survive while passing the cherubim.
In later Hebrew Bible prophecies and narratives, we learn that cherubim wings can sound like God’s voice when they move, and their bodies look like a wild mashup of different animal and human-like features (e.g., Ezek. 10:5-14; 1 Kgs. 6:24-26). The biblical authors describe cherubim as formidable creatures who rest at the throne of God’s presence and relentlessly guard his sacred space.
Let’s get back to the events leading up to Jesus’ birth. Imagine being at the temple to watch Zechariah serve outside the door of the Heaven-and-Earth sacred space, the Holy of Holies (Luke 1:9-10). Spicy-sweet fragrances fill the air as he burns incense, and the curtains protecting the space are embroidered with cherubim symbols. Suddenly, a heavenly being appears to him out of nowhere—an angel.
“I am Gabriel,” this angel says, “who stands in the presence of God” (Luke 1:19).
Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and his infertile wife, Elizabeth, will miraculously have a child named John, who will grow up to prepare the nation for the Messiah’s arrival. Six months later, God sends the angel Gabriel to visit a young woman named Mary in the Galilean village of Nazareth.
“Do not be afraid, Mary,” he says—the same opening message that angels gave to the shepherds in Bethlehem. He explains that she will give birth to a boy who is also the Son of God. Gabriel instructs her to name him Jesus, promising that her son will rule with love in an eternal Kingdom.
Do angels always announce such exciting reports? What about other angels in the Bible, and how are they different from cherubim?
What Are Angels?
The word “angel” in the Bible is translated from the Hebrew word malach and the Greek word angelos, both meaning “messenger.” God sends angels to warn, comfort, and guide people by communicating his messages to them.
In the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative, we see angels rescuing Lot’s family (Gen. 19:1-15). In the Elijah story, God sends an angel during Elijah’s most painful and despairing moment to comfort him. The angel wakes him up and invites him to eat a meal (1 Kgs. 19:5-7). In the story about Daniel, we see several angels, including one who is held up from delivering a message for 21 days due to a conflict with a Persian ruler (Dan. 10:10-15).
The authors of Exodus record that angels directed and defended God’s people during their journey out of slavery and into the promised land (e.g., Exod. 12:23, 23:23). Angels also appear in dreams to guide humans to safety (e.g., Gen. 28:12, 32:1-2; Matt. 1:20, 2:13). And in the last book of the New Testament, John records a complex message from Jesus, delivered to him from an angel (Rev. 1:1).
There is a common thread in these (and many more) angel stories in the Bible. Angels are messengers, sent to protect and proclaim how people can enter the place of life they were built to flourish within. They want humans to trust and follow the one sending the message, to know how to live where Heaven and Earth overlap—where God and humans are united in peace. Ultimately, the angels’ messages tell us the will and the way of the Messiah. Angels do not tell us much about themselves, but they do talk a lot about Jesus.
Mysterious as they are, angels in the Bible are often described with human qualities, even speaking like people and bearing human-sounding names. Also, they do not appear to have wings.
The cherubim are equally mysterious, said to have wild human and animal-like features, and yes—these beings have wings. God first charged cherubim with protecting entry into the garden, and in the rest of the story they continue to guard holy spaces where God dwells and Heaven and Earth overlap. Cherubim are always honoring God and helping readers recall the essential nature of that first garden, a place where choosing to stay means choosing to trust and follow God’s instruction.
Angels bring divine messages, including the good news of God’s desire to be close to humanity forever. Angels in the Bible communicate through dreams, visions, and in-person visitations to help people move out of the place of toil and death, through the cherubim, and into the Heaven-and-Earth space where good life flourishes without end and where people live in harmony with one another and God.