In one of his poems, John Milton said: ‘Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth, unseen both when they wake and when they sleep’. The teaching about angels is one of the intriguing things of biblical faith. It is mysterious.
Yet it is clear from the Bible that there are a finite number of created spirits, evil (fallen) and elect (holy). It seems they are not so limited in movement as human beings. There is ‘behind-the-scenes’ activity of both unfallen angels and demons, including Satan their chief (Ephesians 6:12).
References to them are found all over the Bible. Sometimes they take visible form; for example, the three visitors to Abraham at Mamre, foretelling the birth of Isaac (Genesis 18). It is probably to this the writer to the Hebrews refers in 13:2: ‘entertaining angels unawares’.
In the ministry of the Lord, we often meet with angels. Holy angels heralded his coming (Luke 2:13-14). They strengthened him after his temptations (Matthew 4:11) and later in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43). Angels announced his resurrection (Matthew 20:12) and were present at his ascension (Acts 1:10). They will accompany him when he comes again (Matthew 16:27; 2 Thessalonians 1:7).
The devil and the other fallen angels were a constant provocation to the Lord, and remain such to the church of God (Ephesians 6:12). Christ was tempted by the evil one (Matthew 4:1) and cast out demons (Mark 16:9). They are a malign influence in the world (1 John 5:19).
In faithfulness to Scripture, we hold as established truth that there are such created spirits in the world. We should be aware of them, because, on one hand, the help elect angels are to the true church, and, on the other, the temptations and deceptions of the devil that are to be resisted steadfastly.
A seventeenth century divine named Joseph Hall brought out the relevance of this theme when he wrote: ‘The good Lord forgive me that I have suffered much to forget his divine presence, so the presence of his holy angels. It is, I confess, my great sin that I have filled mine eyes with other objects and have been slack in returning praises to my God, for the continual assistance of those blessed and beneficial spirits’.
This is not speculation, but it is a mystery. The puritan John Owen said: ‘Great is the privilege, manifold are the blessings and benefits that we are made partakers of, by this ministry of angels. What shall we render for them and to them?
‘Shall we go and bow ourselves down to the angels themselves and pay our homage of obedience to them? They all cry with one accord, “See you do it not; we are your fellow-servants”. What shall we then do? “Why!” they say, “Worship God!”
‘Glorify and praise him, who is the God of all angels; who sends them unto whom they minister, in all that they do for us. Let us bless God, I say, for the ministry of angels’.
Sensible thought and reflection on this theme will help us discern the potentially malign influences of the ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘vampire’ crazes that are having such widespread influence.
Let us note that the angels are created spirits. They do not marry (Mark 12:25); they are in one place at a time and are immortal. The elect angels cannot fall and the fallen angels cannot be redeemed.
The holy angels do not save us; Christ does that. They do not change our hearts or sanctify; the Holy Spirit does that, but the holy angels are ‘ministering spirits’, sent by God to the saints (Hebrews 1:14). Consider these facts:
They are present when the church gathers for worship
There is reference to this in 1 Corinthians 11, in a difficult passage concerning the head-coverings of women in public worship. This is said to be ‘because of the angels’ (v.10).
Presumably this has the idea of angels looking on with approval, among other things observing that women have retained their dignity and honour — their veil or head covering being an indication of this.
The biblical order of the headship of men is not an assertion that men necessarily have inherent superiority in intellect or ability. Nor is it a matter of subjugation, but of mutual honour and love.
The ‘sign’ on the woman’s head relates to that issue, but it is interesting that one motivation for the ‘sign’ is the presence of angels. As the angels are subject to God, so the women are to the headship of the man. And we realise, at any rate, that angels are present when the church gathers for worship!
They present the church’s worship before God
Consider this description in Revelation 8: ‘I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand’ (vv. 3-4).
There is a reference to the interest of angels in the witness of the church (1 Peter 1:12) and preaching of the Word (1 Corinthians 4:9). It is surely a source of utmost encouragement and comfort to believers that angels are so involved.
They make known the will of God to believers
We now have a complete revelation in the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, there is no need for angelic visions and revelations as the patriarchs, prophets and apostles experienced. Nevertheless, ministering spirits under the direction of the Lord have a role, among other things, in confirming the revealed Word to the minds of the saints (Hebrews 1:14).
If the wicked are under the sway of the evil one, tempting people (1 John 5:19), it is reasonable to suppose that angels assist saints in understanding and applying the truth; and it is not unreasonable to suppose that they are employed in suggesting good thoughts to our minds. Both aspects are evident from Matthew (4:1, 6, 11). This can be understood as being under the direction of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in no way supplanting the Spirit’s inward sanctifying work.
The angels are employed to preserve believers
It is clear that angels had such a role in the earthly experience of the Lord Jesus, as, for example, after his temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11) and his agonising in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest (Luke 22:43).
This role of angels as guardians of God’s people is taught, for example, in Psalm 91: ‘He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. In their hands, they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone’ (vv. 11-12, see Matthew 4:6). We cannot go as far as teaching that each believer has a ‘guardian angel’, though we can say they are actively involved in the life experiences of the saints, night and day.
What a comfort this is when we are faced with perplexing dangers! Believers are not exempt from harm, from accidents and injuries common to man. Yet we can believe ourselves under the watchful eyes of angels, delivering from perils according to the will of God.
The angels carry the souls of believers to heaven at death
We have the case of Lazarus in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. In his life Lazarus had known the companionship of dogs at the rich man’s gate. At his death he was borne to glory by the angels.
It is not uncommon for grand services to be held for the rich and famous, including state funerals with their pomp and show, but nothing can be more wonderful than the conveying of the saints at death into the presence of the Lord and his redeemed, however modest their attainments in this life, and however low their standing in the eyes of men.
This is not to denigrate the rich and famous, some of whom may be true believers. But the unsaved man or woman will have no place in glory and will end up with the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).
When the saint of God gets to glory, carried there by the angels, what does he or she find? Here is the answer: ‘You have come to Mount Zion and to … the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant’ (Hebrews 12:22-24).
How should this affect us? For the believer, it should bring a great sense of anticipation. For the unbeliever, the writer to the Hebrews gives the challenge: ‘See that you do not refuse him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from him who speaks from heaven’ (v.25).
At the resurrection of the last day, the angels will be involved. This is what Jesus taught: ‘So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew 13:49-51). How awesome!
It will be glorious for the believer. ‘They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send his angels, and gather together his elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven’ (Mark 13:26-27).
The believer may often feel forsaken or lonely and be fearful of approaching death. But you are never alone; the Lord will not forsake you, and angels will be ever-present.
We do not worship angels. Yet, for the believer, they are a source of sweet comfort and encouragement. The Lord deploys them for our good. In life and death, they strengthen the saints of God, just as the angel strengthened the Lord in Gethsemane.
We do not commit ourselves to them, yet we know the Lord uses his angels for our strengthening and protecting. We can pray for their ministry, as directed by the Lord.
For the unconverted, no comfort can be taken from these ‘ministering spirits’. The unsaved are still under the sway of the evil one. But that grip can be broken by Christ and their souls liberated for the worship and service of the Saviour.
Then, and only then, will they be able to say, with all believers:
‘Lord! when I leave this mortal ground, and Thou shalt bid me rise and come,
Send a beloved angel down, safe to convey my spirit home!’ (Isaac Watts).
John W. Keddie is a minister of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). He served for 14 years at Bracadale, Skye, and is now principal of the Free Church Seminary.