Attention for the Angels
Recently, an engaging book about angels was published, written by the Reformed minister Dr. L.F. De Graaff.1 A Kuyper already stated “that today, among the Reformed, and one might even say among Protestants in general, the angels do not enjoy the degree of attention given to them in the Scriptures.”2 In his study, De Graaff determines how it came to be that the angels have disappeared from the church and theology. He especially sees the influence of the Enlightenment, which embraced the mythical world view that also includes speaking about angels and demons.
Although the influence of the Enlightenment is still visible in modern theology, recently renewed attention has been paid to the angels in all sorts of popular publications. We hear about angelic appearances at the beds of the sick and dying. Especially in evangelical circles, the angels are back as protectors of God’s children. Many testimonials relate how an angel came to the rescue.
Thankfully, Reformed theology has not lost sight of angels. However, the question can be asked whether A. Kuyper is not right. Are we fully aware of what Scripture teaches about the angels, and do we still realize the richness of the Lord’s proclamation about his heavenly servants?
The book by De Graaff provides a good motivation to reexamine the Scriptures again on this matter. After we have listened to the Scriptures, I will come back to this book.
Those who consult a concordance will see that there are many texts in the New Testament where angels are mentioned. The Old Testament is more temperate, but still some very essential things about God’s heavenly servants are recorded here.
In the Old Testament a number of times we encounter the portrayal of a celestial court council, of which the angels constitute a part. The Lord is the chairman of it and oversees it. The prophet Micah sees the Lord sitting on his throne, while “the whole host of heaven” is at his right hand and at his left hand (1 Kings 22:19). God poses a question to which various proposals are given by the members of this court. What must happen to King Ahab is the subject of a deliberation involving God’s heavenly servants. Angels may have their say, but it is the Lord who ultimately makes the decision. In Job 1 and 2 it appears that the members of this heavenly council “appear before the Lord from time to time” and report on their “wanderings” about the earth. Also in Daniel 7 we are confronted with this court. God sits upon his throne as “an Ancient of Days,” while ten thousand times tens of thousands stand before him. The heavenly court is seated, surrounded by countless angels.
This impressive court council speaks to God’s majesty. Psalm 89 therefore says, “A God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him.” Whoever has such a court must be awesome! Within this heavenly court there appears to be diversity. There are cherubim and seraphs. The cherubim appear to be very specially associated with God’s holy throne. The beings that Ezekiel sees carrying God’s throne (Ezek 1:5, 26) are referred to as “cherubim” (Ezek 10:15). The places in the Old Testament where cherubim are discussed usually have to do with the ark (Ex. 25:18-20) and with the walls of the temple (1 Kings 6:29). We get the impression that the Lord is enthroned above the cherubim, who spread their wings over the ark. Indeed, there is a constant mention of the Lord “enthroned on the cherubim” (1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Kings 19:15; Ps. 99:1; Isa. 37:16). The earthly dwelling of God reflects his heavenly palace. Ezekiel sees God’s heavenly throne room as an enlargement of the Most Holy Place. In Revelation 4 we meet four “living creatures” at God’s throne. These beings remind us of the creatures that Ezekiel saw. However, they do not carry the throne of God, but guard that throne. We may not simply designate them as cherubim.3 But they are, as the cherubim, spirits that tremble to accentuate God’s unapproachable holiness.
Cherubim also serve as guards of what may not be profaned by sinful people. They guard the way to “the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24). We also hear about that guarding task when the king of Tyre is compared to a “guardian cherub” (Ezek. 28:14, 16).
There are also seraphs in God’s heavenly retinue. They are symbolically described, just like the cherubs. We hear about them in the vision of Isaiah’s calling. They stand above God’s throne and praise God’s holiness (Isa. 6:2, 3). We also read how one of them purifies Isaiah’s lips by means of fire from the altar. All angels have the duty to praise the Lord (Ps. 103:20; 148:2). Perhaps the seraphs form a group of angels who have a very special place at God’s throne and proclaim his holiness.
In this praise of the angels there is not only the resounding of God’s glory, but also of God’s work. Angels know about that work. We hear it in Psalm 29, when it concerns God’s majesty in the storm. We also hear it in Psalm 89, when it concerns God’s favour to David and his people. It is also heard in Revelation 5, when the choir of angels reacts in praise for what the Lamb does.
The numbers mentioned in Daniel 7 and Revelation 5 are symbolic: they point out that the number of angels is unimaginably large. This too speaks of God’s awesome majesty. In this way, we get the impression that there is a hierarchy in the world of angels. There are “archangels” (1 Thess. 4:16). We know one by name: Michael (Jude 6). There are “princes,” of which Michael is again called one of the chief princes (Dan. 10:13). In Colossians 1:16 we read about “thrones,” “rulers,” “dominions,” “authorities”: names that may also indicate a rank among the angels. That there is a hierarchy can also be deduced from the place of Satan. He is “the chief of the (evil) spirits” (Matt. 12:24). It has sometimes been concluded that there is a more extensive ranking of the angels. An example of this is the famous writing On the Heavenly Hierachy by Dionysius the Areopagite (6th century). But the Scriptures do not give occasion for such extended hierarchical classification. God’s heavenly court is also referred to as “the sons of God” (Job 1:6; 2:1) and as “the saints” (Ps. 9:8; Zech. 14:5). Names that underline how much the angels belong in the holy sphere of God.
About the service of the angels, the Scriptures mention the following. Their task is first to praise the heavenly majesty (Pss. 29:1; 148:2; Isa. 6:3; Rev. 5:11). They also fulfill the will of God (Ps. 103:20). They are God’s messengers (Dan. 9:22; Matt. 28:5; Luke 1:19, 26-37; 2:10; Acts 1:11). As such, they are also interpreters of what God wants to make known (Dan. 8:19; Zech. 1-6; Rev. 17:7). The angels are “powerful heroes” (Ps. 103:20), fighting against evil powers (Dan. 1:13; Rev. 12:7). They execute God’s judgments (Gen. 19:13; 2 Sam. 24:16; Acts 12:23; Rev. 8-11). The angels are also active at Christ’s return. They will gather all lawbreakers (Matt. 13:41), and they will also gather the elect (Matt. 24:31). An archangel calls (1 Thess. 4:16). They form an honor guard upon his appearance in glory (Matt. 25:31; 1 Thess. 3:13). God’s heavenly servants observe what transpires in the congregation on earth (1 Cor. 11:10). They rejoice in the sinner who repents (Luke 15:10), they see what is inflicted upon the ministers of the gospel (1 Cor. 4:9), they hear the praise of the church (Eph. 3:10). Even in the death of God’s children, angels come into action: they carry them into heavenly glory (Luke 16:22).
But not only in the death of God’s children do the angels have a task. The whole life of God’s children on earth is guarded by the angels. Indeed, we read in Psalm 91:11: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”
And in Hebrews 1:14, concerning the angels it is said, “Are not they all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” Already in the Old Testament we hear of this kind of preserving function. Abraham’s servant may hear that God will send his angel before him (Gen. 24:7). Jacob meets the “army of God,” which with him meets Esau (Gen. 32:1, 2). The prophet Elisha is protected in Dothan by “fiery horses and chariots” (2 Kings 6:17). Daniel is guarded by an angel in the furnace (Dan. 3:25) as well as in the lion’s den (Dan. 6:23).
There has been much to do about the word of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 18:10, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” Based on this word, the church of Rome teaches that every believer has his own guardian angel. Reformed theologians have also tread this path.4 But this word gives no ground for the teaching of a personal guardian angel.5 “Their angels” is in the plural, as is also the case in Psalm 91:11. However, from what Christ says we may conclude that believers, who are insignificant and vulnerable are protected by a special group of angels (cf. “their angels”). There is nothing to “despise”: to the Father of the Lord Jesus, these insignificants are so precious that he puts them under special protection. Their angels “constantly see the face” of that Father. That means that their heavenly guards constantly communicate with God concerning their service.
Finally, from the New Testament, angels act to send preachers of the gospel (Acts 8:26), to deliver (Acts 5:19; 12:7), and to encourage (Acts 27:23, 24).6
Theologians have contended a great deal about the essence of God’s heavenly servants. However, it is remarkable how sober Scripture is on this point. We must acknowledge that we cannot formulate the ontology (= study of the nature of being) of the angels. Hebrews 1:14 says they are all “ministering spirits” (leitourgika pneumata). And that must suffice. Angels are spirits. That implies that they do not belong to the physical realm, to “flesh” and “blood” as we know people. The Lord Jesus emphatically states that a spirit (pneuma) “has no flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). The existence of the angels resembles that of God’s dead children in heaven. Hebrews 12:23 speaks of “the spirits (pneumasi) of the righteous.” They also have no “flesh and bones.” After death God’s children exist in heaven as “spirits,” like “souls” (see Rev. 6:9). Until at the great resurrection they receive a glorified body (see Phil 3:21), receive a new glorified body. Although there is a similarity between the existence of God’s dead children and that of the angels, we may not here equate them. Human “spirits” remain distinguished from the angels as spirits. Even after death, God’s children do not become angels.7
When angels appear, they take on a shape. Sometimes very human (Gen. 18:16: “the men”), sometimes human and yet splendid (Luke 24:4: “two men … in dazzling apparel”). Numerous appearances are mentioned, in which we hear nothing of the form in which angels reveal themselves to humans (see Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:11; Acts 5:19; 10:3; 12:9; 27:23). The question how people recognize these angels as God’s heavenly emissaries is not answered. We remain here with questions. The popular representation that angels appeared to people as winged figures is not found in Scripture. It might be argued that the appearance of the winged cherubim at the ark and the winged seraphim in the calling vision of Isaiah is indicative of the fact that the Lord sent out his heavenly messengers exactly in the same way.
Angels seem to possess personality: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God” (Luke 1:19; cf. Rev. 22:9). They have a “nature” that can become deeply corrupted (John 8:44). They are aware of their position (Luke 1:19; Rev. 22:9). They have knowledge of God’s work (Mark 13:32), can hear (Ps. 103:20), speak (1 Cor. 13:1), see (Matt. 18:10; 1 Cor. 11:10), covet (1 Peter 1:12), choose (Jude 6) rejoice (Luke 15:7). Precisely all this makes us realize how much the angels remain a mystery to us. How can one see without physical eyes and speak without a physical mouth?
The quintessential description of angels is found in Hebrews 1:14: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve?” The word “angel” originates from the Greek word angelos which means “messenger.” The focus is on what the angels do. Their existence is characterized by serving. They are God’s heavenly servants sent out as such. In addition, we must note that Hebrews 1:14 particularly mentions their service to God’s children. The Holy Spirit apparently specifically wants us to know this about the angels! What we find in the Scriptures teaches us to speak about “angels, soaring through the sky.” God’s heavenly servants are awesomely magnificent. They display the glory of their Sender. They are his “mighty ones” (Ps. 103:20), his “heavenly host” (Luke 2:13), his “host of captives” (Ps. 68:18), his “fiery horses and chariots” (2 Kings 6:17), his “army” (Gen. 32:2), his “hosts” (2 Sam. 6:2; Ps. 24:10).8
Whoever speaks about angels cannot keep silent about Christ. He for a while was made lower than the angels (Heb. 2:9). But when his sufferings were fulfilled, he received the name above all names (Phil. 2:9) and all power in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). He is now “head over all things” (Eph. 1:22) and the Lord of the angels (1 Peter 3:22). Therefore, in the New Testament they are called his angels (Matt. 13:41; 24:31; 2 Thess. 1:10). In Lord’s Day 19 of the Heidelberg Catechism we confess that the Father rules all things through Christ. We must also apply that confession to the service of the angels. Angels have tasks in God’s providence. They also have a task in protecting God’s children. We heard it. We must read Hebrews 1:14 (and Ps. 91:11-12) christologically. It is our Lord Jesus Christ who now sends his angels for the serving of those who shall inherit salvation. He was made lower than the angels for a while, to protect us with his angels. All that Scripture speaks about the power and care of God’s heavenly servants, now proclaims to us the splendor of our glorified Savior. He is the one who is with us until the end of the world (Matt. 28:20). In this he uses his angels. And thus, it is true: “He will command his angels concerning you, … on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”
Whoever today writes about the angels must read the book by Dr. L.F. de Graaff. It is clear in its intent and argumentation. His study provides a lot of information about what the Scriptures say and what theologians from earlier times have put forward. De Graaff believes that in the footsteps of Calvin, in Reformed theology the teachings about the angels has been minimized: they are only mentioned in their protective role for believers. It seems to me that in this the author minimizes the issue. For one, the book by A. Kuyper, De Engelen Gods (1923), contradicts this. Not to mention H. Bavinck in his Reformed Dogmatics (II, 1930). Both speak of the “ordinary service” of the angels, naming the praising of God as the most important.
No matter how good a read De Graaff’s book is, it does raise concerns. Especially when the author repeatedly posits that the Old Testament adopts ancient Near Eastern concepts in the way it speaks about the angels. This would indicate how great the influence of the Canaanite religion was on Israel’s religion (p. 84). Whoever claims this can hardly maintain that we also have divine revelation in what the Old Testament says about angels.
It seems unthinkable to me to suggest that, according to Scripture, angels function as mediators. Job 33:23 is too weak a proof for this.9 (9) In Zechariah 1:12, it is not an ordinary angel that speaks, but the angel of the Lord who intercedes for Jerusalem. The angel in Revelation 8:3 does not himself raise the prayers of the saints before God’s throne. The incense that was given him cleanses those prayers: God himself makes it possible for the prayers of his children to rise to him. I therefore think that the Reformation has rightly rejected the angels as advocates and intercessors (cf. BC art. 26),
De Graaff’s study ends on a rather low note. In our postmodern climate, the biblical representations of the angels cannot be integrated into church and theology. Especially because through it the authority of Scripture as a divine revelation is questioned. De Graaff sees this as a very regrettable impoverishment, but does not really see a solution.
The way out he finally proposes is that church and theology cannot ignore the experience of angels, which postmodern people – as attested to by many – still have today. It will be necessary to investigate why modern people find comfort and security in it. This phenomenon can lead to new reflection and a realization that with the disappearance of the angels from church and theology we have lost an essential element of faith.
The book by De Graaff shows how, under the influence of the Enlightenment, the authority of Scripture was affected. Because of this, the angels were lost sight of. Heaven is depopulated when one does not bow to what the Lord says in Scripture about his heavenly servants. Here too, Scripture teaching again is decisive! In addition, we must be careful not to speak anthropocentrically about the angels: angels are not first to serve us. They are first of all to serve God. They praise him and testify in their number and glory of God’s holy majesty. They fulfill his will and have their place in his government of all things. That means: much of what the angels do remains hidden from us. Much more happens than people can ever experience from them. They are in the service of Jesus Christ who gathers his church, but also drives the kingdom of the evil one to its demise. In that great work of God and his anointed, there is also the guardian service of God’s heavenly servants towards believers. That is of special comfort and encouragement. Calvin points to this when he writes,
“This alone ought to be sufficient for us that the Lord declares himself to be our protector. But when we see ourselves beset by so many perils, so many injuries, so many kinds of enemies, such is our frailty and effeminacy, that we might at times be filled with alarm, or driven to despair, did not the Lord proclaim his gracious presence by some means in accordance with our feeble capacities. For this reason, he not only promises to take care of us, but assures us that he has numberless attendants, to whom he has committed the charge of our safety, that whatever dangers may impend, so long as we are encircled by their protection and guardianship, we are placed beyond all hazard of evil.”10
A controversial matter remaining is whether these heavenly protectors at times still visibly appear.11 It is known how particularly in pietistic circles, stories about a visible intervention by angels played a role. We also encounter these stories among the Dissenters of 1834. In my family the tale is still told of a Dissenting ancestor who was wonderfully saved by an angel when two men molested him. There are also stories known from the history of mission work. I think we should tread modestly here. We cannot restrict God’s work with a “never again.” At the same time, it is sobering that De Graaff points out in his study that these angels appear differently than in the Scriptures, and that it is extremely difficult to distinguish between imagination and reality. The truthfulness can actually not be confirmed because we always have to deal with a very personal (and possibly colored) narrative. But that’s not bad. For we do not believe that angels protect us because people also experience this, but because the Lord tells us this in his Word. Even though we do not see it, we may know that angels are around us and heavenly armies assist the church in its struggle. Here too, the spirit of Easter applies: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Christ reminds us, in the prayer he teaches us, of the service of the angels. From this we learn how important the teaching of the Scripture is about God’s heavenly servants. The angels may not be forgotten! They will need to receive adequate attention in preaching and catechesis. Their service is held up as an example for us. If the servants are so devoted and listen to God’s voice, how much more faithful and obedient should the children be! What the Scriptures reveal about the service of the angels can only motivate us to pray for the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, to deny our own will, and to obey the Father’s will without any contradiction. From time to time we must look through an open door into heaven, see what the Scriptures tell us about the angels, to understand anew what it is: to do God’s will!
This article was translated by John Vanderstoep.