Entertaining Angels: Who Are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.
5For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father”? Or again,
“I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son”? 6And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.” 7In speaking of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
his servants flames of fire.”
14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
Today I am beginning an eight-week series titled Entertaining Angels. That might seem to suggest that we’re going to look at the most entertaining angels in the Bible, but that’s not quite it. Frankly angels have been called a lot of things, but entertaining is probably not one of them.
But I’m taking the title from the passage in Hebrews 13:2 KJV, which says —
2Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. -Hebrews 13:2 KJV
My interest in the topic of angels was piqued over the Christmas holiday by the news that Anne Rice has come out with a new book titled, Angel Time. You may remember Anne Rice as the wildly popular author who gave vampires a very hip and sexy remake in her Vampire Chronicles series. Tom Cruise played Lestat, the very attractive yet deadly vampire, in the 1994 movie, Interview with the Vampire. Rice is generally credited with reviving, if you’ll forgive the pun, the entire vampire myth and making vampires a part of popular culture in the last decade of the 20th century.
But something happened to Anne Rice, avowed atheist, along the way: Anne Rice returned to the faith of her childhood, the Roman Catholic Church. I’ll let you explore the details of her recommitment to Christ, but shortly after her change of heart, she began writing about Jesus. Her first book about Jesus published in 2005 was Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, was followed by a second in her announced four book series, called Christ the Lord: The Road To Cana.
Her latest book, Angel Time, is the first in her new Songs of the Seraphim series. Rice being the successful author that she is, knows a good thing when she sees it.
I recently posed the question in my blog, Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor — “Are angels the new vampires?” By that I meant, Will Anne Rice do for angels what she did for vampires in the last decade? I posted the article that asked that question last Sunday. In less than one week over 1,000 people read that article. And, to make things even more interesting, Anne Rice (I’m sure it was someone who works for Anne, and not Anne herself) linked my article to her website under reviews of the book, Angel Time.
The response to my article got me to thinking about the interest in angels, and about what we typically know about angels. When Dan Brown published The DaVinci Code, the American Christian community was up in arms over that book which told an intriguing tale of secret societies, and the heretofore untold story of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene. All of which, was totally made up stuff, but Dan Brown didn’t care because he sold millions of copies, and created a flurry of publicity that made even those who disagreed with Brown want to read his book.
My point in resurrecting The DaVinci Code controversy is to tell you why I’m preaching this series on angels. Wouldn’t we be better off to know more about what the Bible and the historic church fathers say about angels than not? So, before Anne Rice does for angels what she did for vampires, we’re going to look at what the Bible has to say about angels for ourselves.
But, there’s another, more important reason than Anne Rice or Dan Brown or popular culture for entertaining the idea of angels: No other topic in scripture is so widely misunderstood, or ignored than the topic of angels. So, we’ll be entertaining angels in this series for the next eight weeks.
According to a 2005 Harris Poll, 68% of Americans believe in angels, 15% are unsure, and only 17% do not believe in angels. These were not church members necessarily, but a cross section of American adults. If you add those who believe in angels and those who don’t know, that’s a total of 83% of Americans who believe, or don’t know, if angels exist. Only slightly more than that believe in God, so angels are pretty popular with the general public.
Who Are Angels?
In the Christian Year, angels crop up on two primary occasions — the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Christ. Christmas and Easter, in other words. But, as I said earlier, there is probably no topic, no other doctrine, that is so widely featured in Scripture both Old and New that is so widely ignored. It’s as though we see the word angel, and simply skip over it, or relegate the idea of angels to another day and time.
Of course, that is exactly correct. Before the Enlightenment of the 16th and 17th centuries, the world was thought to be inhabited by spirits, both evil and good. Gargoyles perched on the sides of the great cathedrals of Europe to serve as downspouts, but also to remind worshippers that evil lurked outside the walls of the church. Some also believe that gargoyles also were placed on church buildings to frighten away evil spirits. Either way, most people, including Christians, believed that unseen spirits existed and affected personal and community events.
But with the Enlightenment and the adoption of the scientific method, religion was relegated to the world of superstitions and improbabilities. There was no scientific proof of angels, demons, or even God Himself, and so while it was okay to continue to believe personally and privately in the scientifically unverifiable, religion was not a suitable subject for rational people to go on about.
While the Enlightenment did give the world great advances in the sciences, religion and the belief in the unseen world became merely a source of speculation, opinion, and superstition. That included angels and demons, of course.
The Flaw of the Excluded Middle
Paul Hiebert, the late Fuller Seminary missiologist, wrote a classic paper titled, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.” In that paper, Hiebert painted the picture of the typical Western missionary beliefs, or for that matter the typical Western Christian beliefs.
Hiebert, who served as a missionary to India himself, tells this story: One day while teaching at the Bible school Shamshabad, a local Indian pastor named Yellayya appeared at the classroom door. He was obviously tired from the long walk from his village. Hiebert finished the class and greeted his friend. As they talked, Yellayya explained that many in his village had contracted smallpox.
As was the village custom, the elders, who were not Christians, had consulted the local diviner who told them that the goddess Maisamma was angry with the village. The village would have to perform the water buffalo sacrifice to appease this goddess.
To conduct the sacrifice, each village family was asked to give something toward the purchase of the buffalo. This shared offering was not just to raise enough money, but to show that all the villagers recognized Maisamma’s anger and were making this sacrifice together.
Of course, you can imagine the reaction of the Christians in the village. Although a minority, the Christian families refused initially to participate in the offering or the sacrifice because Maisamma was a pagan goddess. Under extreme pressure, some Christian families wanted to participate because merchants were refusing to sell to them, and they had been forbidden to draw from the village well until they gave. But their pastor, Yellayya, would not give them permission.
To make matters worse, Yellayya said that one of the Christian girls had also contracted smallpox. Yellayya wanted Paul Hiebert to come to the village to pray for the girl’s healing. Hiebert went, but as he knelt in prayer in the village, he said the thoughts of total inadequacy raced through his mind. He believed in God, he had attended seminary, and yet here he was praying a prayer for healing in a spiritual showdown between Hinduism and Christianity.
It was at the moment that Hiebert realized that his faith had answers for the future including heaven and God’s eternal reign. He also realized that his faith had answers about the past including how sin had come into the world, and how Christ had come to provide forgiveness to humankind. But Hiebert realized, he had very few answers for the present, like what do you do when a child is sick, or others explain life events by the presence of unseen spirits.
Hiebert returned to his teaching, and the next week Yellayya showed up again. The girl had died. But Yellayya was excited because the non-Christian villagers had seen the hope of resurrection and the belief that her family would see her again in heaven. All of them realized that even if the girl had been healed, she would have died eventually as all do. But the Christian hope for a life beyond this life had captured the imagination of those who were not Christian, and they wanted to know more. — Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, pgs. 189-201.
Even though that story turned out well, Hiebert still wrestled with the gap in Western Christianity and our ignorance of the unseen world.
And that is why we are talking about angels for the next eight weeks. What would you have done if Yellayya had asked you to come to his village and pray for the healing of the Christian girl? Would you have faced the same internal conflict Paul Hiebert did? Would you have had the same uneasiness about the unseen world, and about the ability of God to heal?
The Basics About Angels
Who, then, are angels? Although almost 7-out-of-10 Americans believe in angels, we believe mostly in the cartoon or greeting card version of angels. Or we love the cute and cuddly cherubs that adorn our Christmas cards each year. But who are angels, if they are not as we commonly see them portrayed?
First, angels are created beings. In Colossians 1:16, Paul says that —
16For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:
The terms Paul uses — “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers” — are believed by most theologians to be an incomplete list of the orders of angels. Even Billy Graham, in his book Angels: God’s Secret Agents, acknowledges these words as titles for part of the hierarchy of angels.
An early heresy that surfaced in the first century stated that angels “emanated” from God, as though they were part of God Himself, now separate from God, and therefore divine and worthy of worship. Paul also refutes this idea in Colossians 2:18 —
18Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.
Secondly, angels were created before the world. In Job 38:4-7, God says to Job —
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone-
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
So, the angels were present at creation, but are themselves created beings. In addition, here are some other characteristics of angels that Christians have believed during the 2,000 years of church history —
- All the angels were created at once, and there are no more angels now than there were at their creation.
- The angels who rebelled against God did so prior to the creation of earth and mankind.
- There are more good angels than there are those who rebelled.
- Angels are individuals, yet they have no bodies unless they take an appearance to communicate with humankind. — Pascal Parente, The Angels
Why Do We Need Angels?
We’ll explore more of the characteristics and mission of angels in the next seven weeks, but we need to answer one other question first — Why do we need angels?
After all, aren’t angels sort of Christian folklore — nice to read about, but more like fairies, leprechauns, and other fantastic creatures? Why do we need them in the 21st century?
Here is where our Baptist statement of belief — The Baptist Faith and Message — is strangely silent. Nowhere is the word “angel” mentioned in the Baptist Faith and Message. But dozens of scripture passages are cited to support the statements of belief and many of these refer to angels. Do we really need angels now, and why?
First, it’s not up to us to determine whether or not we need angels. Angels are God’s creation, and as such are good, as all of creation was pronounced by God.
But angels are in a class by themselves. In the coming weeks, we’re going to see that there are at least 9 varieties of celestial beings, but for now we’ll just call all of them angels. But even at that angels are unique in several ways.
Angels were created before mankind, and mankind is said to have been created in the image of God.
Angels are higher than mankind in the created order. In Psalms 8:6, the psalmist is praising God’s creation of man, but he does so by saying — 4What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Angels are God’s messengers. Angels appear in both the Old Testament and New, delivering the message of God to God’s people. Consider the life of Jesus —
angels announce his coming birth to both Joseph and Mary;
an angel announces the birth of John the Baptist to his father, Zacharias;
angels announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds;
angels minister to Jesus in the desert after his temptation by Satan;
angels announce his resurrection at the empty tomb;
angels accompany Jesus as he ascends into heaven;
angels appear to the apostles on several occasions;
and John writes of Jesus coming with all his holy angels when he returns to earth.
And those are only a few of the references to angels as God’s messengers.
Angels are more numerous than we can imagine. In scripture, as they are beheld by the writers of the Bible, the angel hosts are described as so numerous “no man can number;” in the book of Daniel, they are described in this manner — A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.
Secondly, angels are God’s messengers, God’s army, God’s protectors, and God’s servants. They perform their work for the holy Trinity of God, most of which is unseen or unknown by us. Angels exist, not for our entertainment or contact, but for God’s purposes.
Third, Jesus spoke of angels, angels attended him, and he will return with the entire host of heaven under his command. It would probably do us some good to know a little about “the angel armies” before that time comes.
Finally, angels are at work in the world today. Imagine sitting next to you on the pew, right beside you, is your guardian angel. Or, imagine that as we sing each Sunday, angels “join the mighty chorus” of our praise to God. Imagine this building ringed with part of the angel army of God, swords drawn, allowing us to worship without interference of either man or demon.
The writer of Hebrews, in the passage we read today, reminds us —
14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
So, the question today is not, Do angels exist, or do we have angels? The question today is what are we doing to cooperate with the messengers of God who daily do God’s bidding? If we have no idea what our answer is, then that is all the more reason we need to be aware of this part of God’s creation we call angels.
A Story of Angels
On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2001, Tobi Gabriel and her young son, Gage, left her mother’s home to rent a movie and see some friends. In Moncton, New Brunswick, the weather was rainy and the temperature was dropping. When Tobi and Gage had not returned home by 11 PM, her parents phoned the police and reported her missing. Most folks usually turn up okay, they were assured, and the police told them that no accidents had been reported, so everything must be okay. But it wasn’t.
Early on Christmas morning Linda Belliveau, who lived in the nearby town of Lower Cove, went out to watch for her parents who were coming for Christmas breakfast. Despite the roar of the ocean waves behind her, Linda heard what she thought was the sound of a child crying. Of course, that was impossible at that hour of the morning and in the frigid weather.
But the cry continued and Linda made her way to the beach. There she saw a car lying upside down on the beach. She thought it had probably plunged off the roadway during the night because the ocean spray often turned to ice on the seaside road.
But there was something else that caught her eye. A small figure crawling toward her on the sand. A little child, drenched and frightened. Linda ran to the boy, picked him up and took off her own coat to wrap him in.
In the waves she saw the body of his mother, floating face down in the surf.
Little Gage was taken to the hospital. An investigation determined that Tobi’s car had skidded off the road sometime between 6 and 10 PM that night. No one heard the crash, however. Tobi was killed on impact because she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. Little Gage somehow survived.
Sergeant Dale Bogle of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police visited little Gage in the hospital, asking him very gently some questions about the accident.
Little Gage looked up at Sergeant Bogle during a quiet moment.
“I saw two girls,” Gage said.
Office Bogle was amazed. “You did? Where?”
“Standing in the water, next to Mommy. Their dresses were white.”
Sergeant Bogle asked, “Did they talk to you?”
“No,” Gage replied, “They just smiled at me all night until the other lady came.”
Gage’s grandfather calls him a “gift from God.” He’s older now, of course, and hardly speaks of the accident at all. –( Joan Wester Anderson, In The Arms of Angels, pgs. 1-6.)
Were the “girls” he saw angels? No one knows, except of course, God. Angels are, after all, His messengers.