For instance, there is no mention of wings in most appearances of angels in Scripture, while they do occur in some visions—though not with just two. There are other common misconceptions too.
Halos of light
A typical feature of angel costumes in children’s Bible plays is a glittery halo—representing a supposed ring of light over the head denoting holiness. This recalls a lot of medieval art, where saintly Bible characters are depicted with a halo or glowing golden disk over or behind the head. In fact, this image—also known as a nimbus, aureole, glory or gloriole—has been used in the sacred art of many religions.
We find it among the Greeks and Romans. The rayed crown of the sun god Helios was depicted in the Colossus of Rhodes (and later copied for the Statue of Liberty). It was used in images of Hellenistic and Roman rulers. This may have been associated with the Zoroastrian divine luster that marked Persian kings. The halo also occurs in ancient Hindu and Buddhist art.
And it goes back much further. “Sumerian religious literature frequently speaks of … a ‘brilliant, visible glamour which is exuded by gods, heroes, sometimes by kings, and also by temples of great holiness and by gods’ symbols and emblems’” (Wikipedia, “Halo (religious iconography)”). Indeed, we see it prominently as the solar disc of Ra, the Egyptian sun god.
As the editors of The Encyclopaedia Britannica point out: “Because of its pagan origin, the form was avoided in Early Christian art, but a simple circular nimbus was adopted by Christian emperors for their official portraits. From the middle of the 4th century, Christ was also shown with this imperial attribute … In the 5th century it was sometimes given to angels, but it was not until the 6th century that the halo became customary for the Virgin Mary and other saints … The halo was used regularly in representations of Christ, the angels, and the saints throughout the Middle Ages” (Britannica.com/art/halo-art). While Christ and the angels do have glorious radiance—with brilliant, shining faces—this does not correspond to the halo and its origins as a pagan sun symbol.
Sitting on clouds
The idea of angels lolling about on clouds—and that people will do the same after they die—probably comes from a combination of archaic imagination and misapplied scriptural mentions of clouds in association with heaven. Satan in his rebellion said of his assault on heaven, “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14 Isaiah 14:14I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.
American King James Version×). Yet this was not ascending into some “Jack and the Beanstalk” kingdom of giants on the clouds, but rising out of the earth’s atmosphere and traveling beyond outer space into another dimension.
We also see prophecies in Scripture of Christ coming with or on “the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13 Daniel 7:13I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.
American King James Version×; Matthew 24:30 Matthew 24:30And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
American King James Version×; Matthew 26:64 Matthew 26:64Jesus said to him, You have said: nevertheless I say to you, Hereafter shall you see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
American King James Version×)—or “coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27 Luke 21:27And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
American King James Version×). Consider that He also came to the ancient Israelites in a cloud with power and glory—in the pillar of cloud and fire that led them and that descended on the physical tabernacle.
When Jesus ascended to heaven after His resurrection “a cloud received Him out of [the disciples’] sight”—and angels said He would return in the same manner (Acts 1:9-11 Acts 1:9-11 9 And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.
10 And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;
11 Which also said, You men of Galilee, why stand you gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as you have seen him go into heaven.
American King James Version×).
In most of these passages the reference is to the earth’s atmosphere, where there are physical clouds. And even physical clouds can be spectacular. You’ve no doubt seen clouds of the sky beautifully illuminated by the sun as a grand display of the majesty of the Creator. In any case, the picture of angels sitting on actual clouds is more cartoonish than scriptural.
Idly strumming on harps
Another popular conception has angels idly strumming on harps while floating about or sitting on the clouds. Yet we don’t see this in Scripture either. It’s true that some angels do have harps, while others have other instruments. Indeed, God enjoys music, and at least some angels were given great musical abilities, as is true of some people.
Notice what God said to the angel who rebelled and became Satan: “The workmanship of your timbrels and pipes was prepared for you on the day you were created” (Ezekiel 28:13 Ezekiel 28:13You have been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of your tabrets and of your pipes was prepared in you in the day that you were created.
American King James Version×). The apostle John in Revelation 5:8 Revelation 5:8And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints.
American King James Version×refers to the 24 angelic elders “each having a harp”—presumably used in performance and praise before God. John later in Revelation 14:2 Revelation 14:2And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps:
American King James Version×hears “the sound of harpists playing their harps.”
It seems there are choirs and orchestras of angels in regular praise at the throne of God. John later sees a vision of people joining in the music, “having harps of God” (Revelation 15:2 Revelation 15:2And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God.
American King James Version×). As the physical tabernacle and temple of God were intended as a model of the heavenly temple (see Hebrews 9:23-24 Hebrews 9:23-24 23 It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us:
American King James Version×), it seems quite likely that the Levitical choirs and musicians of the physical service were meant to model the ongoing heavenly praise directed toward God.
Don’t be misled by popular—but wrong —ideas. Learn what the Bible reveals about God’s powerful angels!