By Dean Turbeville (Pastor in Residence, Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, NC and member of First Presbytery)
I recently heard a sermon in which it was said, “We Reformed folk don’t talk that much about angels.” And that preacher was right! Here are some of the reasons we may be hesitant to emphasize these elevated creatures:
First, we don’t want to be seen as being like Roman Catholic folks, who have been known to pray to angels. As one Roman Catholic commentator has said, “So, yes, Catholics pray to angels. We pray to our guardian angels, the archangels saint Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and all unnamed holy angels and saints. Ultimately… they… are charged with intercession to God on our behalf.”
But we beg to differ! Christ is our only intercessor, the only one we pray through and to in order to access God. We do not need more access than that which he provides! We also do not want to make the mistake of the congregation to whom the letter to the Hebrews is addressed, which included people who actually worshipped angels. And this danger continues today. As the so-called “new-age” movement reveals, it is possible to be too interested in angels.
Secondly, there is the issue of Medieval and Romantic era art, which often presented misrepresentations of these mighty, august creatures. As C.S. Lewis once noted: “In the arts these symbols have steadily degenerated. Fra Angelico’s angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of heaven. Later come the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish and consolatory angels of nineteenth-century art. . . They especially are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying “Fear not.” The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, “There, there.”
Thirdly, we often don’t think much of angels because we may have unwittingly bought into the “Enlightenment” view of reality, which has led to a scientific materialism that is neither very scientific (saying that something cannot exist if it cannot be perceived and measured) nor, in a Christian incarnational sense, even truly materialist. It is also from just plain old man-centeredness: If we can’t see it, it must not be real, because we must define all reality for ourselves. All this results in a flat, one dimensional reality instead of a rich, multilayered reality of “all things visible and invisible” which were made by God. Every time we say the Nicene Creed, we confess that God created the glorious angelic host!
The Bible is full of references to the activities of angels. In the first chapter of Zechariah, the prophet has the first of eight visions, visions which speak to the activity of God on behalf of his discouraged people who, having been freed from Babylon 20 years earlier and returned to Jerusalem, had found life in the ruined city hard to re-start. The prophet has conversations with an angel about a posse of angelic horsemen, and is told, “These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth”(v.10). This is a “special ops” unit from heaven who observe what is happening to the covenant people and to the hostile nations around them and “report” these activities to God. The Lord also speaks “gracious and comforting words” (v.13) to Zechariah through the angel. This is typical angelic activity, and it is geared to our protection and encouragement.
In his helpful Concise Theology, J.I. Packer writes, “Angels (their name means “messengers”) are one of two sorts of personal beings that God created, humankind being the other.” As persons, they have personal names, such as Michael. They serve Jesus Christ with perfect personal obedience: In Matthew 26: 53, Jesus says to Peter when he pulled his sword to defend him, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” And they are not rare, but numerous: “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands…” (Rev. 5:11).
Packer adds, “They are intelligent moral agents, not embodied or ordinarily visible.” In other words, they exist in another dimension of reality, which in the era in which scientists have discovered invisible but very real “dark matter,” should not be that hard to imagine! Yet angels are able to show themselves to humans in what appears to be physical form, as in the case of the three angels who meet with Abraham under the oaks of Mamre, or the several angels who bore witness to the resurrection at the empty tomb of Jesus, or the angel who sprung Peter from prison in Acts 12. Yet apart from these momentary “incarnations,” they are essentially not from our spatial dimension at all, and therefore many of them can congregate in a small space, as we see when a “legion” of the demons (that is, fallen, wicked angels) in the soul of the demoniac in Luke 8. That same text also shows us that angels are always compelled to obey the explicit command of Jesus Christ, even when they are these fallen angels who failed to pass the probationary period we assume they experienced. Christ actually gives the demons permission to enter the pigs!
Now that is the demons, but the many “myriad of angels” we mentioned earlier who passed that primordial test, are now, as Packer writes, “evidently confirmed in a state of holiness and immortal glory.” They dwell in heaven with God, whom they adore. David even gave them a call to worship in Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word; bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will.”
That divine will especially involves serving the interests of the elect children of God. God graciously uses sinless angels in the lives of sinful people who are united to him by faith in Christ. In Hebrews 1:14, we read, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” We don’t know all the nature of that service, but we know they are not watching for us to stumble (like the devil is) but looking for our faithfulness. In fact, the work of grace that God is doing in our lives, because it involves redemption from sin, is utterly fascinating to sinless angels. I Peter 1:12 says, “It was revealed to them (the prophets) that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
Angels guard the lives of the saints in a secret way. Ps 91: 9-12: “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place — the Most High, who is my refuge— no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” We are not promised in the Gospel that nothing painful will ever befall us, but haven’t you ever had the sense that you were being protected in some way? This text would even seem to suggest that angels may intervene from things like the coronavirus on occasion. I know this: I have had too many “close calls” in my life to think it is all an accident that I am still here!
Indeed, angels have a special concern for the church, and are often present when the church is gathered. In 1 Corinthians 11:10, a passage about proper behavior in worship, we read “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” The assumption is that when the church gathers for worship, angels are present in sacred assembly!
In fact, the heavenly pattern we see in Revelation 4:8-11 should be duplicated on earth: “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’ And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’” (emphasis added) When you and I gather to worship on the Lord’s Day, should we not think of these holy, majestic, intelligent beings being present with us? What might that do to our sense of reverence and joy?
Angels also seem to have special ministries to us when we die; pastors and those who work in Hospice know how often the dying speak of seeing them. In the story Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus, when the poor man (Lazarus) dies, he is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side by a platoon of angels. I used this fact to comfort a dying man not long ago.
We will all see the work of angels eventually. Packer points out, “Angelic activity was prominent at all the great turning points in the divine plan of salvation (the days of the patriarchs, the time of the Exodus and the giving of the Law, the period of the exile and restoration, and the birth, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ), and it will be prominent again when Christ returns.” As we read in Matthew 25:31-32, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” We will all see the work of God’s mighty angelic ministers!
And finally, brothers and sisters, as we pray, let us remember that we are surrounded by wondrous, holy creatures who care for each of us and are interested in everything we pray about, because they are ever concerned for the kingdom and glory of the One to whom we pray!