Entertaining Angels: The Messengers and Armies of God
1It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
5So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
6The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
8Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
11Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.”
12When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
15“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.17Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.
The Ministry of Angels
In the story we have just read today, we get a glimpse into the ministry of angels. After the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost where 3,000 believed and were added that day, the church began to grow and spread.
At first this movement of Jesus followers was an insignificant number. Even 3,000 who became Christ followers at Pentecost were a drop in the population bucket of Jerusalem, where it is estimated population of about 600,000, swelled to over 1-million for the Feasts of Passover followed 50-days later by the Feast of Pentecost. So, even 3,000, while a large number, was less than one-half of one percent of the normal population, and even less if the population is double or triple that.
But, as the church grew, they attracted attention. And, they attracted attention, not just because of the increasing numbers of people who were joining the early Christians, but because of the demonstrations of God’s power that accompanied them.
In Acts 3, only one chapter after the Pentecost chapter, Peter and John are going to the temple at the hour of afternoon prayer, which was about 3 o’clock. They encounter a lame beggar who asks them for money. In a famous exchange, Peter addresses the beggar:
“Look at us,” Peter commands the beggar. The man looks at Peter and John.
“Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And with that the beggar was healed.
Peter goes on to preach in the courts of the Temple, and incurs the wrath of the Sadduccees, because they do not believe in the resurrection.
And on it goes, with the church coming under increasing persecution by the religious leaders.
— In Acts 5 the apostles heal many, are arrested, and put in prison. An angel of God comes to them in prison, opens the prison doors, and tells them to go stand in the Temple and preach the message of Christ.
— In Acts 6, the forerunners of deacons are chosen, and Stephen is among them. Not long after that, Stephen is arrested, brought before the Council of religious leaders. Stephen gives an account of his faith, and the chief priest and religious leaders become enraged, drag Stephen out of the city, and stone him to death. A young man named Saul approves of Stephen’s killing.
— In Acts 8, Saul takes a more direct and active role in persecuting Christians.
— In Acts 9, Saul is converted, he himself escapes from Jewish attempts to kill him.
— In Acts 10 thru 11, the gospel message is taken to a non-Jew, Cornelius, and Peter understands that the gospel is for all people.
— In Acts 12, King Herod, not the same King Herod who tried to kill Jesus, has James the brother of John killed. Seeing that the people liked this, Herod had Peter arrested and imprisoned, and is obviously planning to kill him, too.
So, we’ve already seen an angel open prison doors once, but we are about to see it again.
As Peter languishes in prison, the church prays. Peter is bound by two chains between two guards, so the possibility of escape is remote, if not altogether unthinkable.
But, Luke writes —
7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
Now, not only is Peter chained between two guards, but other guards are blocking the prison door. But that door opens by itself, and the angel leads Peter one block down the street before disappearing. Peter realizes that this is no dream, and finds his way to the house where the others wait, praying for him.
Talk about answers to prayer! Peter is outside knocking on the door, while the band of believers is inside praying for his release.
The servant girl, named Rhoda, heard the knock, went to the outer court door to see who was there. When she recognizes the voice of Peter, she rushes back in and tells everyone, “Peter is at the door!”
No remember, lots of folks are inside praying for Peter’s release. But rather than believe her, they tell her,”It’s not Peter, maybe it’s his angel.” Which provides an interesting insight into their idea that an angel might be able to assume the appearance and speech of a human being.
Nevertheless, Peter continues knocking, and finally the open the door and let him in.
Now, we could talk about expecting answers to prayer when we pray, because obviously these folks didn’t, but that’s not my point today.
My point is an angel of God came to Peter in his cell, make the chains fall from his wrists, led him past two sets of guards, miraculously opened the prison gate, led Peter down the street for a block, and then disappeared. Even Peter wasn’t sure his experience was real, until the angel vanished.
I’ve told that long story to remind us that angels not only bring messages from God, but that they themselves are actively engaged in helping those messages get carried out.
In The Old Testament
Several Old Testament examples come to mind of this dual messenger and warrior role.
The first example is a rather sad one. When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, God places an angel — cherubim to be specific — with a flaming sword that turned, to guard the way to the Tree of Life. So, the first instance of the warrior angel was not to do battle on behalf of God’s people, but on behalf of God, keeping Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden of Eden.
There are examples of angels appearing to Abraham and Sarah, and even to Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid. But these appearances fit more the idea of messenger, and not warrior.
But by the time we get to the Exodus experience, God does use an angel as a warrior. After Pharaoh and the Egyptians refuse to let God’s people go, God sends the angel of death to kill the firstborn of every household. Only in the Hebrew homes, where the blood of the lamb is spread over the door, are the firstborn children spared.
As the nation of Israel leaves Egypt, God promises —
20 “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.”
But there are other accounts of angels fighting for God’s people.
In 2 Kings 19:35, the angel of the Lord — one angel — puts to death 185,000 Assyrian warriors, making it possible for God’s army to be victorious.
In Psalms 34:7, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.”
In The New Testament
Next week, we’re going to look at accounts in both Old and New Testaments of how God uses angels to care for all of God’s creation, and people especially.
But, there are also instances in the New Testament of God’s angels acting in an adversarial role, a warrior role, to defend and advance the Kingdom of God.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, he says —
4Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.5All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.
The Book of Revelation is filled with the most descriptive imagery of angels as God’s warriors, but I want to leave that book for the week when we deal with angels and the end of time.
The book of Jude contains one very interesting, but mysterious event. Jude is writing about the brazenness of those who do not believe in God, or who live their lives in open defiance of God’s word. He contrasts that kind of arrogant attitude by saying —
9But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”
Jude’s point is to speak of the humility and restraint of even an archangel, but of course, we are very curious about what this brief verse means. You remember that Moses died in the presence of God, and God buried him. In Deutoronomy 34, the death of Moses is presented. The Bible only says that Moses died and was buried, and that no one knows where his tomb is. But, there must have been some dispute, some struggle between Satan and Michael over the body of Moses before its burial, and undoubtedly Michael wins.
Paul reminds us that even that we are in a spiritual battle. In Ephesians 6, Paul writes —
10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”
Paul suggests that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” That is a battle that started long before man was created, and continues to this day.
It is a battle for which we are ill-equipped, unless the scale is tipped in our behalf by the Holy Spirit, our own obedience, and God’s holy angels.
Down through the years, fantastic stories of angels fighting real battles have been told. The most famous of these in modern history is the story of the Angels of Mons. The story goes that during World War I, the British army was struggling, in retreat actually. But somehow they blundered forward into the small mining town of Mons, France. Two German army corps divisions attacked the British on August 23, 1914. And here’s where the story gets interesting. During the fight, either celestial bowmen led by St. George, or angels themselves, routed the Germans, allowing the British to safely retreat later.
The story had so much support that British historian, A. J. P. Taylor, included the account in his book titled, The First World War, published in 1963. Although the story has been largely discounted, it remains a popular legend concerning angels.
But, Jesus reminds us that his kingdom is not of this world. I am sure that implies that whatever battles he sends his angels to fight for us are battles that concern eternity, not politics.
Peter’s experience, and the experience of the early church, was that the power of God was evident in their preaching, their ministry, and their protection. God will send his angels.