Angels and Missions
Over the last decade or so, angels have been popular figures on the stage of what we may call secular spirituality. This popularity involves a lot of sentimental speculation and very little biblical content. Since we do not live in Reformed cloisters, we are not altogether unaffected by this unfortunate trend. One of two extremes can sometimes result: either we capitulate to the secularists and essentially deify the angels or we neglect angels altogether in reaction to cultural trends. Neither extreme is desirable.
Historically, the Reformed churches have neither ignored the angels nor given them excessive attention. 1 If one looks at the index of Calvin’s Institutes, two-thirds of a page are filled with references to angels. This soundly reflects the emphasis found in the Scriptures. In a similar way, Article 12 of the Belgic Confession has a paragraph devoted to the scriptural teaching about the creation and purpose of angels. The intriguing thing is that this teaching has a weighty bearing on how we think about the missionary task of the church.
Belgic Confession Article 12
Says our Confession, “He also created the angels good, to be his messengers and serve the elect.” The angels were also part of God’s created work, though we do not know at what point they came into being. Regardless, their purpose is clear: they exist to serve God and his people. Though they were created good, some of the angels have fallen – these we call the devils and evil spirits. These hounds of hell “are so depraved that they are enemies of God and of all that is good. With all their might, they lie in wait like murderers to ruin the church and all its members and to destroy everything by their wicked devices.” This means that when we consider our missionary task, there is a formidable array of opponents waiting to destroy everything we try to do. But, on the other hand, the reverse is also true: we have a redoubtable heavenly host allied with us as, by the power and grace of God, we break ground for his kingdom. The good angels serve to build and establish the church. They are there to facilitate our missionary task!
The missionary task was given to the church by the Lord Jesus in such passages as Matthew 28:18-20. The Scriptures are clear that the angels must always be considered in connection with Him. They exist to serve the church and its task because they first exist to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. In popular portrayals, angels tend to be individualistic. They stand on their own. However, in the Scriptures, angels are first the servants of God, sent out by the Lord Jesus and therefore under his authority.
This is clear in a passage such as Mark 1:13 where, following the temptations of Satan, our Lord Jesus was served by the angels.
The Service of the Angels
This service of the angels is a feature of the ongoing spiritual battle with Satan and his minions. In the Old Testament, this is most vividly seen in Numbers 22-24. Dr. J. De Jong describes quite accurately the scene:
Particularly the first chapter describes the intensity of the struggle with Balaam first being commanded not to go, and then going, and finally a messenger is sent to meet him, an adversary. We have here an adversary against the Adversary, an opponent opposing the opponent. 2
And, of course, in the New Testament, we see this battle with Satan and his angels in the Revelation of Christ to John. The whole Bible makes it clear that we live in a time of spiritual conflict. And one of the most pre-eminent ways that the Lord Jesus fights this conflict is through his angelic armies. These armies continue to serve the Lord Jesus as He daily gathers his church from the four corners of the earth.
These angels are therefore an integral part of the mission of the church. Their involvement is not dispassionate, rather the Scriptures make clear that they are emotionally involved with what is going on. They share in the disappointments and the joys as lost sinners are brought to their master, King Jesus. Luke 15:10 tells us that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” When there is joy within the bride of Christ, there is also joy with his servants. But why?
It’s because, as Christ’s servants, the angels are also participating with the church in the gathering of lost sinners. Here we can think of their supporting role in the book of Acts. Angels appear in the very first chapter to comfort and encourage the apostles after the ascent of our Saviour. In chapter 5, an angel appears to release the apostles from prison so that the intense growth of the church could continue unabated. He encouraged the apostles to continue preaching to that end. In chapter 8, an angel goes to Philip and sends him down the desert road to Gaza where he providentially meets the Ethiopian eunuch – thus the gospel begins its journey into Africa! In chapter 12, Peter is released from prison again by an angel. Then, in chapter 27, an angel appears to Paul and assures him that he will provide a witness before Caesar.
What about Today?
Do the angels continue to form an integral part of the mission of the church? Though their presence may not be visible to the same degree, we have no reason to believe that the angels have withdrawn themselves from the church-gathering work of Christ in this present day. They serve Jesus Christ and they have not stopped doing so. In fact, the so-called Olivet discourse shows that they will have a role in the last days of this earth: “And then He will send his angels, and gather together his elect from the four winds, from the furthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven” (Mark 13:27). In their facilitating and guiding the missionary task of the church today, they are preparing for the great last day of our Lord Jesus.
There is an interesting story that has circulated for many years in Reformed churches about a certain preacher in the Netherlands. If I am correct, the story took place in the nineteenth century. This preacher held an evangelistic service in a certain town and then made his way safely home through the dark streets. A number of years later, a man came to him and told him that he’d become a Christian because of the preacher’s ministry. He asked if he remembered that dark evening so many years ago. He did. He then asked who the other two men were who had been walking with him. He and a friend were lying in wait to kill the preacher (who had irked them with his message and presence), but the other two had scared them away. The preacher replied that he had been all alone that evening. Suddenly, he realized that he had not been alone after all! 3
Whether or not that story is totally accurate, we can be sure that the scriptural teaching on angels means that missionaries are never alone. Certainly, we have the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and guides us with the Word. But we also have the angelic host who protect us.
In so doing, they serve the Lord Jesus as He gathers his church through us. They not only protect, but in ways unknown, they also engage the enemy in offensive battle. While we do not want to speculate à la Frank Peretti, we do know that the angels are fighting the spiritual war in the spiritual realm – and their victory is assured.
The scriptural teaching on angels gives insight and strength, not only to the missionary (and those who support him), but also to the mission congregation. The young believers can know that their struggles are the concern of the Lord Jesus and that He will support them with His angels. But the mission congregation can also find strength in this teaching when they gather for worship. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, mission congregations can be small. Such a congregation does not worship alone! The Lord Jesus is there with them (according to his promise in Matthew 18:20), but we also learn from such passages as Hebrews 12:22 that his holy angels are present too. In his Institutes (3.20.23), Calvin writes:
God willed to appoint the angels to care for our salvation. Consequently, they attend sacred assemblies, and the church is for them a theatre in which they marvel at the varied and manifold wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10).4
An acute awareness of this fact can be an immense support for young believers who often feel the isolation and loneliness which true faith in Jesus Christ can bring.
The bottom line is that angelology (the doctrine concerning angels) is a matter of comfort for all of us, but especially when it comes to our missionary task. When faced with our spiritual struggles (not against flesh and blood), we can recall the experience of Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6:16-17. They were surrounded by a heavenly army of angels, prepared to fight the Lord’s battle. Angels continue to do battle today; they continue to serve our Lord Jesus. A heavenly host is warring together with us. We know that the power of God is on their side and ours and thus we can have both courage and optimism in our work of proclaiming the gospel to lost sinners.
In different ways, Jesus Christ continues to gather his church: He sends his Spirit. He sends men. He also sends angels. Thus, the glory belongs not to the angels, nor to us, but to our faithful Saviour, the Shepherd who gathers his sheep!