The Hebrew name Mîkhā'ēl, meaning “Who is like God,” was not uncommon among the ancient Jews (Num. 13:13; 1 Chron. 5:13, 14; 6:40; 7:3; 8:16; 12:20; 27:18; 2 Chron. 21:2; Ezra 8:8). The name appears three times in the OT book of Daniel, and once each in the NT books of Jude and Revelation, with reference to a mighty angelic figure historically known as Michael the archangel.
The intertestamental Jews recognized Michael as one of seven archangels, regarded as the advocate of their nation.1 He was identified as the messenger who informed Abram of Lot’s capture (Gen. 14:13), one of the three “men” who visited Abraham and rescued Lot from Sodom (Gen. 18:2; 19:1), and the angel who stopped Abraham from killing Isaac (Gen. 22:11-12), who wrestled with Jacob (Gen. 32:24), and who led the Israelites in the wilderness (Ex. 23:20). Michael was also believed to be the instructor of Moses, defender of Israel, caregiver of righteous souls, equated with Melchizedek, and regarded as high priest.2
In post-apostolic tradition Michael was venerated as a healer and as a warrior saint. A number of feasts, sanctuaries, and monasteries were dedicated to him. He is called “Saint Michael” in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. Prayers are even offered to him. Michael is viewed as the leader of God’s army and guardian of the Church, who weighs the souls of the departed and carries them to their eternal reward.3
Some early Protestants, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses equate Michael with the pre-incarnate and post-resurrection Christ.4 Mormons believe Michael to be “Adam, the father of all, the prince of all, the ancient of days” (D&C 27:11). Michael is named once in the Muslim Quran as an angel of God (Sura 2.98).
Irrespective of endless speculation and folklore, what the Bible says is the focus of our present study. Although much of the information is couched in symbolism and is rather obscure, our aim is to develop a clearer understanding of this intriguing Bible character.
According to Daniel
The prophet Daniel lived through the entire 70-year-period of the Babylonian exile (6th century BC), and his prophetic writings disclose the superiority of God’s wisdom and power over that of the pagan world. According to the 10th chapter of Daniel’s book, the prophet is visited in a vision by a “man” who appears to be a heavenly messenger (vv. 5-6), delayed by “the commander of the kingdom of Persia” but assisted by “Michael, a chief of the commanders” (v. 13).5 Michael is then described as “your [plural] commander” (v. 21), i.e., the commander of Israel, who would defend them against Persian and Greek enemies.6 The only other reference to Michael in the OT is Dan. 12:1, where he is described as “the great commander who stands [watch] over the sons of your people …”
The Hebrew sar, translated “prince” in most English versions, can refer to either nobility (“ruler,” “prince”) or a military leader (“captain,” “commander”). In Joshua 5:13-15 the word is applied to “the commander [sar] of Yahweh’s army.” In the LXX Michael is designated árchōn (“leader,” “ruler,” “chief”).
Admittedly these visionary passages in Daniel are somewhat enigmatic, and the question of whether Michael’s foes are physical, spiritual, or both has been debated for centuries.7 Nevertheless, it is clear that Michael is a formidable leader and intercessor, defending and protecting the people of God.
According to Jude
While the initial intent of Jude’s letter was to convey a positive message about “our common salvation” (v. 3a), the focus abruptly switches to the urgency of his readers to “earnestly contend for the once-for-all-having-been-delivered-to-the-saints faith” in view of the intrusion of ungodly men (vv. 3b-4). Jude describes these intruders as void of spiritual substance (“dreamers”), who corrupt the flesh, reject authority, and slander those in prominent positions (v. 8). To reinforce and illustrate the indictment, he writes, “But Michael the archangel, disputing with the devil concerning the body of Moses, did not dare bring against [him] an abusive judgment, but said, ‘[The] Lord rebuke you!’” (v. 9). Michael speaks with moderation and restraint, respectfully leaving the judgment to the Lord (cf. Zech. 3:1-2; 2 Pet. 2:11).8
Jude’s reference to “Michael the archangel” is one of only two NT passages that employ the term archággelos (see further below). It is a compound word, joining árchōn [“leader,” “ruler,” “chief”] + ággelos [“angel”], meaning “chief among angels,” or “leader of angels.”
According to Paul?
In 1 Thess. 4:16 Paul and his coworkers offer a brief description of the Lord’s future return, which, among other things, is to be accompanied by “an archangel’s voice.”9 As noted above, Jude alludes to “Michael the archangel,” and in a later first-century apocalyptic text (discussed below), we read of “Michael and his angels” (Rev. 12:7). Seeing that “at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven” Christ will be accompanied by “angels of his power” (2 Thess. 1:7b-9; cf. Matt. 13:39; 25:31; Mark 8:38; Jude 14-15), it would appear that Michael, whose “voice” directs the charge, is the leader of the angelic forces. Even so, the expression in 1 Thess. 4:16 is noticeably indefinite (“a voice of an archangel”), perhaps to keep the main focus on the event’s principal character, “the Lord himself.”
According to John
Near the end of the first century John pens a prophetic, apocalyptic document addressed to the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia.10 These Christians were suffering severe and widespread oppression that would eventually worsen, pressured to worship the secular ruling authority that was inspired and empowered by Satan, God’s archenemy.
Satan is depicted in the 12th chapter of Revelation as a great, powerful, fiery-red, seven-headed dragon, attempting to destroy Christ and the followers of Christ through brutal persecution. Behind the scenes, Michael and his angels fight against the satanic forces, gaining victory for the people of God (vv. 7-9). While many limit the application of this dramatic scene to the end of time, John’s first-century readers are given assurance that the devil is not invincible and his apparent success would not last thanks to “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ” (v. 10). Real victory is achieved “through the blood of the Lamb and through the word of their testimony” (vv. 11-12).11
Having examined every biblical reference to Michael the archangel, our nagging curiosity may still not be completely satisfied. Rather than trying to fill in the gaps with conjecture and whimsical imagination, let’s be content with what we can know.
In Hebrews 1:13-14 angels are described as “ministering spirits, being sent forth for service for the sake of the ones who will inherit salvation.” The present participle apostellómena (“being sent forth”) signifies an action that is currently and continually being carried out. This is consistent with how God has operated in the past (Psa. 91:11-12; 103:20-21; Matt. 4:11; 24:31; Luke 22:43), and there is no reason to suppose that angels are no longer active as God’s providential agents. The Lord providentially works in the lives of the faithful (Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 10:13; 2 Cor. 2:12; 1 Thess. 3:11), and his angels appear to be the instruments through which he operates.
The struggles we face as God’s children on earth are constant reminders of how much we need God in our lives. Seeing that our greatest challenge is spiritual in nature, the Lord has not left us defenseless (Eph. 6:10-18). We have added reassurance knowing that behind the scenes, Michael and his angelic armies are at the forefront of the war against the devil and his evil forces.
From Michael we learn:
· Duty and faithfulness in service to God and God’s people.
· Moderation and restraint, yielding to the judgment to God.
· Conviction and courage to fight the forces of evil.
· The Lord has our backs.
· Divine power is greater than Satan’s.
· Even in the midst of the severest trials, victory is assured.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Tobias 12.15-22; Testament of Isaac 2.1; Sybilline Oracle 2.215; I Enoch 9.1; 10.15; 20:5, “one of the holy angels, who, presiding over human virtue, commands the nations”; 24.4; 40.8, “the merciful, the patient, the holy Michael”; 53.6; 58.3; 66.14; 68.20; 70.16.
2 J. Jacobs, M. Seligshon, M. W. Montgomery, “Michael,” Jewish Encyclopedia <Link>.
3 Frederick Holweck, “St. Michael the Archangel,” Catholic Encyclopedia <Link>.
4 Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine <Link>; and The Watchtower’s Aid to Bible Understanding 1152.
5 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
6 The LXX rendering of Deut. 32:8 reads, “according to [the] number of God’s angels”; cp. Heb. 2:5.
7 See G. Clay Leonard, “Do Nations Have Guardian Angels?” in Identity in Crisis (ed. Doug Y. Burleson): 329-34.
8 This is the only biblical passage that speaks of the dispute over Moses’ body. On the assertion that Jude’s account is based on the pseudepigraphical Assumption of Moses, see Jude's Alleged Use of Pseudonymous Sources. On the nature of the dispute between Michael and the devil, see Why Argue Over the Body of Moses?.
11 Compare John 12:31; Eph. 2:6; 6:10-12; Col. 2:15; Heb. 9:11-24; Jude 6. Homer Hailey reminds us that this visionary war, like many other symbolic elements of the book, is “intended to teach some great spiritual truth” (Revelation 273). Bruce M. Metzger describes this passage as “a flashback,” as the words of the triumph song “remind us that the vision of Michael fighting the dragon is symbolic, representing the real victory won by the atoning death of Christ and the preaching of the gospel” (Breaking the Code 74); cf. also J. E. Waldron, The Lamb/The Lion 127-28; contra Robert H. Mounce, Revelation 240.
Image credit: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/michael-defeats-satan-guido-reni.html
The 1635 painting by Guido Reni is entitled, “Saint Michael the Archangel tramples on Satan,” and is displayed in Rome’s Capuchin Church of Santa Maria della Concezione. Satan’s depiction is likened to Pope Innocent X.