ANGELS AND THEIR MINISTRY
“Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall Be heirs of salvation?” Hebrews 1.14.
The question is rhetorical; it affirms what it asks. The dominant theme of the epistle in which it is found is the sufficiency, the superiority, and the supremacy of the ever-blessed son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is greater than Abraham, mightier than Moses, wiser than Solomon, and .better than the angels (1.4). Nevertheless, we value the inspired teaching in the life and work of Abraham; we would be the poorer for the loss of that of Solomon; and the wholeness of Scripture would be seriously impaired were we bereft of that of Moses. Yet the ministry of angels is a matter grossly neglected in the professedly biblical Christendom of our day. How many sermons have you heard on the subject? How often have you considered it yourself? Or have you simply dismissed it on the vague suspicion of some rumoured angel-worship in some obscure quarter?
It is a common, though thoroughly unbiblical notion that the ministry of angels ceased, and was superseded by the ministry of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. If that be so, why do so many of the chapters of the Acts of the Apostles follow the account of the Holy Spirit’s descent into the world with accounts of the ministry of angels? And further, why does our text define their ministry in the present continuous tense? The subject, though thoroughly biblical, is highly neglected. This is largely because many people who ‘believe the Bible from cover to cover’ none the less regard some portions and some subjects as ‘unprofitable’, though the Bible itself asserts that “all scripture is … profitable” (2 Tim. 3.16). Subjective opinions of professed Bible believers as to what is and what is not ‘profitable’ in Scripture are responsible for almost as much faulty practical Christianity as the hostile mutilation of Scripture by the higher criticism.
The term ‘Angel’ means, basically, ‘Messenger’. It is used in Scripture of men sent as messengers; and it is used of the pre-incarnate manifestations of the Son of God as the Angel of the covenant. But its special and distinctive use is in reference to that order of bright, superior, spiritual beings known as the angels of God. We shall consider the subject by the simple method of question and answer.
Are the Angels created or uncreated beings? The argument of the first chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews is that there is a distinction between the eternal and ever blessed Son of God on the one hand, and the angels on the other, in this respect. The Son is uncreated; like the Father and the Holy Ghost, He is eternal. But there was a point at which there were no angels;
there was a point at which they were brought into being. The creation of the angels was, according to Paul in Col. 1.16,17, part of the creative handiwork of the Son of God. Though spirits, they are creatures; as creatures they do not possess the attribute of eternity.
Do Angels have bodies of any kind? The question arises because the angels are spirits in the same way that men are referred to after death as ‘spirits’ as distinct from man in the body (Heb. 12.23). This has led to the idea that angels have no bodies at all. But there is a good case for the view that angels, while they certainly have no physical bodies, do have spiritual bodies. How else is the appearance of angels to be accounted or? There were three who appeared to Abraham in the form of men (Gen. 18.2); two “in shining garments” on the resurrection morning (Luke 24.4); and numerous other such cases. The inference is that angels have spiritual bodies adapted to their spiritual state and condition, bodies which are ordinarily invisible, but occasionally visible at the behest of their creator and God. Angels have been seen by men, in human form; and the words of our Lord concerning His coming again are quite explicit: “Ye shall see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven, with the angels …” (Matt. !4.30). In that day men will see the Son of man, they will see the clouds of heaven, and they will see the angels of God. A pure spirit has no body and is invisible; the angels have spiritual bodies which are capable of a perceptible form as and when desired by Him who governs both them and all His creatures.
Are Angels male and female? Is there a distinction of sex among them? The question is legitimate because this is a nature common to every other species of living creature that
God has made. That Scripture uses the masculine pronoun “he” of the angels is inconclusive because it is also commonly used of the human race without distinction of sex. A Sadducee once asked our Lord about a woman who had been married in turn to each of seven brothers: whose wife will she be in the resurrection? was his point of interest. The reply was: “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22.23-30). If there is a distinction of sex among the angels, it is not revealed in Scripture; what is revealed is that they do not marry, nor do they propagate their species as does every other created order.
Do Angels die? This question arises from the last, and it can be answered quite categorically in the negative. In Luke 20.36 our Lord says of Christians who come to the resurrection of life: “Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels …” The inference is that angels never die; never cease to have life. Then in Hebrews 2.9 there is the significant statement that our Lord “was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death”. The incarnation was with a new to the atonement; atonement involved the suffering of death; so the incarnation had to be in human, and not in angelic form. Angels are deathless creatures, which, along with the fact that they do not propagate their species by marriage, implies that their number is fixed and changeless. And that number is also vast – “ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” (Rev. 5.11).
What is the status of the Angels? If Hebrews 1 makes it clear that angels are inferior in rank to the Son of God, Hebrews 2 makes it equally clear that they are higher in rank than men. ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him? thou hast made him a little lower than the angels” (Ps. 8.4,5; Heb. 2.9). The point is clarified by observing the ascending scale of gradation among all the creatures of God. At the lowest level is the inanimate creation, the rocks and the hills. Above this is the animate creation with its distinction between vegetable and animal life. Still higher is man, into whose nostrils God breathed “the breath of life; and man became a living soul” Gen. 2.7). And higher than man is the angelic order, while
towering above all created ranks there reigns uncreated Deity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Are there orders and ranks among the Angels? Lesser, and greater? Undoubtedly there are divisions, and gradations. Twice we read of the archangel (1 Thess. 4.15; Jude 9). There are angels with personal names, as Michael and Gabriel. There are the cherubim, and the seraphim; and the beasts (“living creatures”) of Rev. 4; about these there is little more that can be be said than that they are clearly special categories or ranks of angels. Without doubt the most vital classification is the distinction between the elect and the evil angels; the good and the bad, or the unfallen and the fallen angels. While the apostle Paul makes specific reference to “the elect angels” (1 Tim. 5.21), our Lord is equally explicit in his allusion to “the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25.41). Whatever other ranks or categories may be among the angels, they are divided between the evil and the fallen “which kept not their first estate” (Jude 6) in whose hands is the whole realm of spiritism and the occult; and the elect, the unfallen and the good angels who are “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1.14). Our attention is now confined to the latter.
What do the Angels do? What is their work, their functions, their ministry, their service?
(a) Preeminent in angelic ministry is their adoration and worship of God and of the Lamb. They sing His praises. Singing is always especially associated with the angels, and their singing is always praise. “A multitude of the heavenly host, praising God …” So the angels serve the honour and the glory of God in the most direct and immediate sense. They do other things, but this is their prime business, and this is the highest occupation open to any created being. The angels delight in it; they live for it; and in it they are an example to Christians.
(b) Angels serve God with a peculiar eagerness, alertness, and alacrity. Our Lord said that the “angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 18.10). The expression “always behold” means an intense watching, studying, scrutinising of God’s face, for the indication of His
will and good pleasure. Nothing pleases angels more than to discover His will, and do it. They are intelligent beings; they have purpose and motive; they have eagerness and enthusiasm about their service of God. Their eye has in it something like the glint in the eye of a well trained sheep-dog fixed (“always beholding”) on its master’s face waiting only his word of command. In this also, the angels set an example for all Christian service.
(c) Angels enquire into the Christian salvation. “Which things” says Peter, “the angels desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1.12). This subject fascinates the angels; it astounds them; it gives them pleasure, even though they know nothing of it in an experimental way. They are willing spectators of something provided not for their rank and species, but for an elect race of men. It is a part of the “eternal purpose which (God) purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” that “unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3.11,10). In short, the salvation of the church is a part of the education of the angels; they look on, and learn; they look on with feeling and with sensitivity as grace lays hold of sinners from generation to generation. Hence our Saviour’s affirmation: “I say unto you.there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15.10).
(d) Further, the Angels observe the children of God in the whole of their life. Not only in the day of salvation, but continually. They are not omniscient as God is omniscient, knowing all things; but their knowledge is great, and some of it is gained by observation of the on-going life of the church of God. Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 11.10 is a case in point-“For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head, because of the angels”. “Power” here means a sign of being under authority, a veil or covering. Why so? Why should Christian women have their heads covered in public worship? For this reason, “because of the angels”; because of their presence, and because of the superiority of their rank, and because of their observance of Christian worship. As the presence of the Highest of All in Christian worship commands reverence, so the presence of the angels commands respect.
(e) Angels are messengers making known God’s will. How did God give man the Law? “It was ordained by angels” (Gal. 3.19). How did God announce the birth of His Son? “The angel of the Lord came … and said … For unto you is born … a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2.9-11). How did God announce the resurrection from the dead of His Son? “The
angel answered and said… He is not here: for He is risen, as he said” (Matt. 28.5,6). Abraham and Jacob, Gideon and Zacharias were frequent recipients of messages by angelic messengers. The angel of the Lord told Joseph God’s will concerning his wife, Mary (Mt. 1.20-25); sent them into Egypt (Mt. 2.13); and finally called them back again (Mt. 2.19-20). In innumerable ways angels are messengers of God’s will; they serve Him day and night, and are at His sovereign disposal.
(f) The Angels are used by God to bless, guard, and care for His people, and this they do in many ways:-
(i) In general, they serve the cause of our salvation from beginning to end. They do not cause our salvation, but they serve it. Their service is hidden, secret service. They are “sent forth to minister” and so they do, as in the case of Cornelius whom they prepared for his call by grace (Ac. 10.3ff). We shall never know just how much our salvation owes to the service of the angels. It is not service that supersedes nor in any way alters the finished work of Christ, but service whereby that alone finished work is brought home to us. It is not service that supplants the Holy Spirit of God in His appointed work of applying redemption, but service that serves Him in serving His people – “the heirs of salvation”.
(ii) The angels are engaged in protecting the people of God. “He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee” (Ps. 91.11). The significance of the quotation of these words to the Son of God in the wilderness at His temptation, is that they were quoted by a fallen angel (Mt. 4.5,6). Providence flies on the wings of angels.
The hosts of God encamp around
The dwellings of the just;
Protection He affords to all
Who make His Name their trust.
(iii) Angels are used to bring guidance to Christians. The guidance and direction is God’s; but it is often brought by the hand of an angel. Philip the evangelist was guided by an angel to an obscure desert place where he was to be used in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (Ac. 8.26-40). Divine guidance often employs angels’ lips.
(iv) Angels are used to cheer, and to comfort God’s people in distress. The Apostle Paul faced shipwreck on his voyage to Rome. “Driven up and down in Adria” he stood forth and said, “There stood by me this night the angel of God whose I am…” Thence came the comfort of his God. And so it comes to Christians tossed “up and down in Adria” in mind and heart. Most of us have been there; but we are never there alone. In
retrospect we discover we were not deserted.. In the midst of the roaring billows there stood by us the angel of God, and he ministered to us the consolations of God’s grace.
(v) Angels are employed for the deliverance of God’s people. When Peter was delivered from prison, the angel of the Lord appeared, spoke, and led him out (Ac. 12.7-11). Have you been in bonds? So terrible you thought there was no way of release? And yet it came to pass; and you know what deliverance is! You probably saw no angel, heard no voice; you ascribe your deliverance to the Lord alone, and rightly so. But He has hosts of angels in His employ; and without advertising the ways and means of His action. God uses these. His servants, to your benefit. In retrospect your testimony is that of Peter, “Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me …” (Ac. 12.11).
(vi) Angels are used to carry Christians to heaven. Are you afraid of death? The fear of death is a natural fear; sometimes the Lord delivers from it, sometimes not; but listen to this:
“The beggar died, and was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom; the rich man died and was buried” (Lk. 16.19-22). “Abraham’s bosom” is a metaphor for heaven; and the beggar, the poor man who has nothing outside of Christ, dies, and is carried there by the hands of the angels. This is their work. Not only do they watch over Christians, guide them, and deliver them from trouble in this life; when Christians die, they do not die alone; they die in the company of the angels of God who carry them to heaven, to “be with Christ, which is far better”. A Christian should not regard death as something desolate; death is not a door through which a Christian goes alone, a solitary, disembodied soul. If he is “in Christ” before death, he is “in Christ” at death, and death is but a door through which the angels of God bring him safe to heaven. It is the Lord’s doings; but He does it by the hand of His angels.
(vii) Angels carry out God’s judgments on His enemies. So it happened to Herod Agrippa I when he decked himself in royal apparel, made an oration, and accepted the adulation of the people as though he spoke as God. “And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory . . .” (Ac. 12.21-23). So it happens again and again; the judgments of God are abroad in the world; and they are administered by His servants the angels. In the day of the final judgment it is the angels who separate the wheat from the tares, the evil from the good; it is the angels who gather together the elect from the four corners of the earth. As they were there at the creation, as they function all through history,
so will they appear at the very last, gathering together the least and the last of the vast multitude of God’s church. They are the servants of God’s good pleasure for the heirs of salvation; and when the heirs come into their final inheritance, the angels of God attend them, as well as Him.
We neglect the biblical doctrine of angels to our loss. Angels are not substitutes for Deity; they are servants of Deity. As God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, has purposed the salvation, preservation, and final glorification of His church, so, to ensure the end He has in view. He creates and employs the angels as ‘ministering servants, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation.”
Angels our servants are,
And keep in all our ways;
And in their watchful hands they bear
The sacred sons of grace;
Unto that heavenly bliss
They all our steps attend;
And God Himself our Father is,
And Jesus is our Friend.
K. W. H. Howard