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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
ANGELS.—The statements as to angels which meet us in the Gospels are in most respects the same as are found in the Jewish literature of the period, both Biblical and extra-Biblical. In the main, Christ and His Apostles appropriated the Angelology of current Judaism—but not without critical selection. It would be difficult to point to a time when the Jews, as a people, did not believe in angels; yet there were exceptions. Possibly it was the exuberance of the belief that produced in some minds a reaction. At all events, it is a fact that the portion of the OT known to criticism as the Priests’ Code is silent on the subject of angels; and it is also noteworthy that the Sadducees, who were the descendants of the high-priestly families, protested in the time of our Lord against some, if not all, of the popular notions respecting angels (Acts 23:8).
It is probable that belief in angels is originally a corollary from the conception of God as King. A lone king—a king without a court—is almost a contradiction in terms. And inasmuch as the recognition of God as King is the earliest and most prevalent of Israel’s conceptions of God, we naturally expect the belief in angels, as God’s court, serving Him in His palace and discharging the function of messengers, to be ancient and pervasive. We have then, doubtless, a very primitive conception of angels in the words of Micaiah to Ahab, in 1 Kings 22:19 ‘I saw Jahweh sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him, on his right hand and on his left.’ A second and quite distinct feature of the Angelology of the OT is found in the appearances of one who is called ‘the Angel of Jahweh’—who is described as undistinguishable from man in appearance, and yet claims to speak and act in the name of Jahweh Himself (Genesis 18:2; Genesis 18:16-17; Genesis 32:24; Genesis 32:30, Judges 13:3; Judges 13:6; Judges 13:22). It is noteworthy as a feature of OT criticism, that, as P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] is silent as to angels, so the appearances of an angel as a manlike manifestation of God and not a mere messenger, are confined to those portions of the OT which, on quite other grounds, are assigned to JE [Note: E Jewish Encyclopedia.] . Thirdly, when the Jews came to have more exalted views of God, and of the incompatibility between Divinity and humanity, spirit and matter, good and evil, and, in consequence, conceived of God as aloof from the world and incapable of immediate contact and intercourse with sinful mortals, the doctrine of angels received more attention than ever before. The same influences which led the Persians to frame such an elaborate system of Angelology, led the Jews, during and after the Exile, to frame a similar system, or in some respects to borrow from the Persian system; to believe in gradations among the angelic hosts; to give names to those who were of high rank, and to assign to each of these some definite kind of work to do among men, or some province on the earth to administer as satrap under ‘the King of Heaven’ (see art. ‘Zoroastrianism’ in vol. iv. of Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible).
In the Gospels there are clear indications of the first and third of these phases of belief. The second is of interest to the NT student as a preparatory discipline in the direction of Christology: and as such has no further importance for us at present. Ewald has said (OT and NT Theology, p. 79) that in Christianity there is ‘no denial of the existence of angels, but a return to the simpler colouring of the early narratives.’ So far as simplicity of narrative is concerned, there is certainly a close resemblance between the angel-incidents of St. Luke and Acts on the one hand, and of Genesis on the other; but in the NT the angel never identifies himself with Jahweh as is done in Genesis; and there are in the NT some phases of Angelology which belong, not to ‘the early narratives,’ but to post-exilic conceptions.
We wish now, with the help of Jewish literature, more or less contemporary, to make a systematic presentation of those beliefs as to angels which are found in the discourses and narratives of the four Gospels. It might be supposed that we should find it helpful to keep apart the utterances of our Lord from the descriptions of the Evangelists; but, in fact, there is such complete unity of conception underlying both discourses and narratives, that no useful purpose can be served by treating them separately.
i. Angels in Heaven.—1. They form an army or host. Luke 2:13 ‘There was with the angel (who appeared to the shepherds) a multitude of the heavenly host’ (στρατιά). Our Lord carries the military metaphor even further when He speaks of ‘more than 12 legions of angels’ (Matthew 26:53). Oriental hyperbole was fully employed in expressing the magnitude of the heavenly army. Revelation 5:11 speaks of ‘myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands’; and Hebrews 12:22 speaks of ‘the myriads of angels’—both in probable allusion to Daniel 7:10. In Job 25:3 also the question is asked: ‘Is there any number of his armies?’ Similarly the Pal. [Note: Palestine, Palestinian.] Targ. [Note: Targum.] to Exodus 12:12 tells of 90,000 myriads of destroying angels; and in Deuteronomy 34:5 the same Targum speaks of the glory of the Shekinah being revealed to the dying Moses, with 2000 myriads of angels and 42,000 chariots; as 2 Kings 6:17 tells of a ‘mountain full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.’
2. They form a court. Heaven is ‘God’s throne’ (Matthew 5:34; Matthew 23:22), and there also ‘the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of his glory’ (Matthew 19:28). The angels, as courtiers, stand in vast multitudes before the throne (Revelation 5:11; Revelation 7:11). As in earthly courts there are gradations of rank and dignity, so in heaven. It is St. Paul who speaks most explicitly of ‘the principalities and powers in the heavenly places’ (Ephesians 3:10), and of Christ’s being ‘exalted far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion’ (Ephesians 1:21); and ‘evidently Paul regarded them as actually existent and intelligent forces’ (Robinson, in loco); but the same conception presents itself in the Gospels in the reference to archangels, who were four, or in some authors seven, in number: Gabriel, Raphael, Michael, and Uriel being those most frequently mentioned. In Luke 1:19 the angel who appears to Zacharias says: ‘I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God’; as in Tobit 12:15 the angel says to Tobit: ‘I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints and go in before the glory of the Holy One.’ Even in the OT the angels are spoken of as forming ‘a council’: e.g. in Psalms 89:7, where God is said to be ‘very terrible in the council of the holy ones,’ and in Psalms 82:1 where He is said to ‘judge amidst the Elohîm.’ This idea was a great favourite with later Jews, who maintained that ‘God does nothing without consulting the family above’ (Sanhedrin, 38b). To the same circle of ideas belong the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘Every one that shall confess me before men, him will the Son of Man confess before the angels of God; but he that denieth me in the presence of men shall be denied in the presence of the angels of God’ (Luke 12:8-9). Evidently the angels are interested spectators of men’s behaviour, responsive to their victories and defeats, their sins and struggles; and we are here taught that to be denied before such a vast responsive assembly intensifies the remorse of the apostate, as to be confessed before them intensifies the joy of those who are ‘faithful unto death.’ Again, in many courts, and particularly in that of the Persians, there were secretaries or scribes, whose business it was to keep a ‘book of records’ (Esther 6:1), in which the names and deeds of those who had deserved well of the king were honourably recorded. The metaphor of heaven as a palace and court is so far kept up, that the Jews often spoke of books in heaven in which men’s deeds are recorded. Not only do we read in Slavonic Enoch 19:5 of ‘angels who are over the souls of men, and who write down all their works and their lives before the face of the Lord’; and in the Apocalypse of John, where symbolism abounds, of ‘books’ being ‘opened,’ and of the ‘dead’ being ‘judged according to what was written in the books’: but even in an Epistle of St. Paul we read of those ‘whose names are in the book of life’ (Philippians 4:3), and in Hebrews 12:23, of ‘the church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’; and precisely in accord with the above our Lord bade His disciples rejoice, because their names ‘are written in heaven,’ i.e. enrolled for honour (Luke 10:20).
3. They form a choir in the heavenly temple. The description of heaven in the Apocalypse is quite as much that of a temple as a palace. Heaven contains its altar (Revelation 8:5; Revelation 9:13), its censers (Revelation 5:8, Revelation 8:3), its musicians (Revelation 5:8, Revelation 15:2), and its singers (Revelation 5:9, Revelation 14:3, Revelation 15:3). In extra-Biblical literature the veil is often mentioned, concealing the abode of God in the Most Holy Place, within which the archangels are permitted to enter (Tobit 12:12; Tob_12:15, Enoch 40:2). The only reference in the Gospels under this head is the song of the angels, described in Luke 2:13 f. It is possible, in spite of the reading of some very ancient Greek MSS [Note: SS Manuscripts.] (א* ABD), that this song, like that of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:2, is a triple antiphonal one—
‘Glory to God in the highest [heaven],
Peace on earth,
Among men [Divine] good pleasure.’
4. They are ‘sons of God.’ In this respect the saints who are raised again are ‘equal to the angels’ (Luke 20:36). They are sons of God by creation and by obedience (Job 1:6; Job 2:1; Job 38:7). They ‘do not owe their existence to the ordinary process of filiation, but to an immediate act of creation’ (Godet, OT Studies, 7); thus resembling in their origin the bodily nature of those who are ‘sons of the resurrection.’ Hence we find that they are frequently described as ‘holy’ (Matthew 25:31, Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26, Job 5:1; Job 15:15, Daniel 8:13), and by implication we learn that angels obey God’s will in heaven, since we are taught by our Lord to pray that God’s holy will may be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10, cf. Psalms 103:20).
5. They are free from sensuous feelings. This is taught in Matthew 22:30 ‘In the resurrection they neither marry [as men] nor are given in marriage [as women], but are as the angels of God in heaven.’ These words were spoken by our Lord in response to the doubts of the Sadducees on the subject of the resurrection. Christ’s reply is in effect this: The source of your error is that you do not fully recognize the power of God. You seem to think that God can make only one kind of body, with one sort of functions, and dependent on one means of life. In that way you limit unduly the power of God. ‘In that age’ (Luke 20:35), ‘when they rise from the dead’ (Mark 12:25), men do not eat and drink (Romans 14:17). Not being mortal, they are not dependent on food for nourishment, nor have they, by nature, sensuous appetites, but are ἰσάγγελοι (‘equal to the angels’). Thus skilfully did Jesus give a double-edged reply to the teachings of the Sadducees (Acts 23:8). While answering their objection against the resurrection, He affirms that ‘those who are accounted worthy to attain to that αἰών, and the resurrection from the dead … are equal to the angels’—thus plainly disclosing His belief in angels and setting it over against their disbelief. As to the spiritual nature of angels, Philo speaks of them as ἀσώματοι καὶ εὐδαίμονες ψυχαί (‘incorporeal and happy souls’); and again, as ‘bodiless souls, not mixtures of rational and irrational natures as ours are, but having the irrational nature cut out, wholly intelligent throughout, pure-thoughts (λογισμοί, elsewhere λόγοι) like a monad (Drummond’s Philo, 145–147; cf. Philo’s Confusion of Tongues, p. 8, Allegory, iii. 62). The Rabbis interpreted Daniel 7:10 to teach that the nature of the angels is fire. ‘They are nourished by the radiance which streams from the presence of God. They need no material nourishment, and their nature is not responsive to bodily pleasures’ (Weber, Jud. Theol.2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] 167; Pesikta, 57a; Exodus R. 32). They are also said to be ‘spiritual beings’ (Lev. R. 24), ‘without sensuous requirements’ (Yoma, 74b), ‘without hatred, envy, or jealousy’ (Chag. 14). The Jewish legends which interpret Genesis 6:4 as teaching a commingling of angels with women, so as to produce ‘mighty men, men of renown,’ seem at variance with the above belief as to the immunity of celestial intelligences from all passion. It is true that Judges 1:6 and Enoch 15:3–7 both speak of the angels as having first ‘left their habitation’ in heaven; but the fact that they were deemed capable of sexual intercourse implies a much coarser conception of the angelic nature than is taught in the words of our Lord, of Philo, and of the Talmud.
6. They have extensive, and yet limited, knowledge. This is clearly taught in one utterance of Christ’s, recorded in Matthew 24:36 || Mark 13:32 ‘Of that day and hour knoweth no man, not even the angels of heaven.’ The implications clearly are (1) that angels know most things, far better than men; but (2) that there are some things, including the day of the Second Advent, which they do not know. Both these propositions admit of copious illustration from Jewish literature. First, as to their extensive knowledge. There are numerous intimations of the scientific skill of the angels, their acquaintance with the events of human lives, and their prescience of future events. The Book of Jubilees, a pre-Christian work extensively read, affirms (Jubilees 1:27) that Moses was taught by Gabriel concerning Creation and the things narrated in Genesis; that angels taught Noah herbal remedies (Jubilees 10:12), and brought to Jacob seven tablets recording the history of his posterity (Jubilees 32:21). In Enoch 8:1 Azazel is said to have taught men metallurgy and other sciences; as Prometheus was said to have taught the Greeks. In Tobit 12:12 the angel assures Tobit that he was familiar with all the events of his troublous days: as in 2 Samuel 14:17; 2 Samuel 14:20 the woman of Tekoa flatters Joah that he was ‘as wise as an angel of God to know all things that are in the earth.’ But this knowledge has its limits. Angels were supposed to understand no language but Hebrew (Chagigah, 16a). In 2 Esdras 4:52, in revealing eschatological events, the angel gives the tokens of the coming end, but confesses his ignorance as to whether Esdras will be alive at the time. The Midrash on Psalms 25:14 affirms that ‘nothing is hidden from the angels’; but according to Sanhedrin, 99a, and other Talmudic passages, ‘they know not the time of Israel’s redemption.’ In 1 Peter 1:12 we are told that ‘the angels desire’ (but in vain) ‘to look into’ some of the NT mysteries; and in Slav. Enoch 24:3, 40:2, Enoch tells his children that not even the angels know the secrets which he discloses to them.
7. They take a deep interest in the salvation of men. We gather this from the evident joy with which angels announced the advent of the Messiah to the shepherds at Bethlehem. The angel who brought the ‘tidings of great joy’ (Luke 2:10) clearly felt the joy himself; and the song which the heavenly host sang in praise to God was the outcome of joyous hearts. Even more explicitly is this taught in Luke 15:10 ‘There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.’ The word ἐνώπιον seems here to mean ‘in the midst of,’ ‘among.’ ‘Joy is manifest on every countenance.’ Even if the joy intended be ‘the joy of God, which breaks forth in presence of the angels’ (Godet, in loco), still the implication would be that the heart of the angelic throng is en rapport with the heart of ‘the happy God.’ On this point the words of the angel are instructive which are recorded in Revelation 22:10 ‘I am a fellow-servant with thee and with thy brethren the prophets, and with them that keep the words of this book.’ The interpreting angel confesses to unity of service with the Church, and in so doing implies a oneness of sympathy and love with the saints. So also when, in 1 Peter 1:12, we read that ‘the angels desire to look into’ the marvels of redemption, there is, as Dr. Hort says, ‘a glimpse of the fellowship of angels with prophets and evangelists, and implicitly with the suffering Christians to whom St. Peter wrote.’ The same deep interest in the progress of the Church appears in Ephesians 3:10, where we are taught that one great purpose which moved God to enter on the work of human salvation was, that ‘through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places.’ The Church on earth is the arena on which the attributes of God are displayed for the admiration and adoration of ‘the family in heaven’ (Ephesians 3:15).
ii. Angels as Visitants to Earth.—1. To convey messages from God to man.—(a) In dreams. It is a peculiarity of the Gospel of the Infancy, as recorded by St. Matthew, that the appearances of the angels are in dreams to Joseph, bidding him acknowledge Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:20), take the young child and His mother to Egypt (Matthew 2:13), and return to Palestine on the death of Herod (Matthew 2:19). The only OT parallel to this is Genesis 31:11, where Jacob tells his wives that ‘the angel of God spake’ to him ‘in a dream.’
(b) In other instances the message of the angel is brought in full, wakeful consciousness. It was while Zacharias was ministering at the altar of incense in the Holy Place that an angel who called himself Gabriel appeared, foretelling the birth of John (Luke 1:11). It was while the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock that the angel stood near them and directed them to the babe in Bethlehem (Luke 2:9; Luke 2:11); and it is narrated by the three Synoptists that it was through angelic agency that the disciples were informed of the Resurrection. St. Matthew narrates that it was an angel who had ‘descended from heaven’ (Matthew 28:2), that spoke to the women at the tomb (Matthew 28:5; Matthew 28:7). St. Mark speaks of a young man ‘arrayed in a white robe’ (Mark 16:5), and St. Luke of ‘two men in dazzling apparel’ (Luke 24:4), who assured the women that Christ was risen. The author of the Fourth Gospel is silent as to angelic appearances at the Resurrection, but he bears testimony to the popular belief in angelic voices (John 12:29). When a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘I have glorified and will again glorify (my name),’ the Evangelist records: ‘Some of the people said, An angel spake to him.’
We reserve for special consideration the sacredly mysterious interview of the angel Gabriel with the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-38). The salutation of the angel was: ‘Hail, thou favoured one! The Lord is with thee.’ When she was perplexed at the saying, the angel announced: ‘Thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bear a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.’ This Son is further described as ‘Son of the Most High’ and He to whom ‘the Lord God will give the throne of his father David.’ Then, in reply to the Virgin’s further doubts and perplexities, the angel vouchsafes the dread explanation, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power (δύναμις) of the Most High shall overshadow thee.… No word from God shall be devoid of power.’ The full consideration of these words will be fittingly considered under Annunciation (which see). On us it seems to devolve to speak of the view which arose very early in Jewish Christian circles, and which regarded the angel as not merely the messenger, but the cause of the conception. It was a general belief among the Jews that a spoken word has causal efficacy. This lay at the root of the belief in the potency of spells and charms. And if every spoken word is mighty, the words of God are almighty. The expression ‘No word from (παρά) God shall be devoid of power’ (Luke 1:37) was accordingly interpreted to mean that the message brought from God through the angel had causal efficacy: the Divine word spoken by the angel caused the conception. In the Protevangelium of James (11:2) the angel is recorded to have said: ‘Thou shalt conceive from His word’ (ἐκ τοῦ λόγου αὐτοῦ), and the same expression occurs in the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy. This is the origin of the curious doctrine of the ancient Church, that the Virgin conceived through the ear. The word of the angel, which was a Divine message, reached the Virgin through the ear. The ear was thus believed to be the channel through which the Divine potency was operative. Even Augustine says: ‘Virgo per aurem impregnabatur.’ As bearing on this subject, we may note that in the Ascension of Isaiah the angel Gabriel is called ‘the angel of the Holy Spirit’ (3:18, 7:23, 9:36). In pseudo-Matthew (c. 10), Joseph says: ‘Why do ye mislead me to believe that an angel of the Lord hath made her pregnant?’ and in the Protevangelium of James the Virgin explains her condition to Joseph in these words: ‘The case is the same as it was with Adam whom God created. He said, “Let him be”; and he was.’
2. Angels as performing physical actions. This is an ancient representation of which the OT furnishes many instances: Psalms 91:11 f. (cited Matthew 4:8, Luke 4:10 f.), ‘angels … shall bear thee up on their hands’; in Daniel 6:22 angels shut the lions’ mouths; in Psalms 34:7 angels encamp round about them that fear God; so in Apocrypha (Bel 36, Three 26). It is therefore precisely in accord with Jewish modes of thought that we read in Matthew 28:2 ‘There was a great earthquake: for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled away the stone’; and in Mark 1:13 ‘He was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him’ (cf. Matthew 4:11).
3. As performing psychical actions. When Jesus was in the garden, and ‘being in an agony prayed more earnestly,’ we are told that ‘there appeared to him an angel from heaven strengthening him’ (Luke 22:43).* [Note: On the question of the genuineness of this passage see the ‘Notes on Select Readings’ in Westcott and Hort’s NT in Greek.] So in Daniel 10:17 f. Daniel records that there was ‘no strength in him, and no breath left in him,’ and an angel ‘touched him and strengthened him.’ The Hebrews drew no distinction between the physical and the psychical. It was in their regard just as easy for these spiritual existences to roll away a stone as to infuse vigour into the system, and give power to the enfeebled nerves and will.
4. Angels are deputed to guard the righteous from danger. In Genesis 24:7 Abraham prays for his servant: ‘May God send his angel before thee’; and Jacob saw angels ‘ascending and descending’ over him in his sleep (Genesis 28:12). In the time of Christ it was a Jewish belief not merely that angels are sent to guide and guard men, but also that every man has his own guardian spirit, or, as others teach, two guardians. In the Talmudic treatise Berakhoth (60b), when a man goes into an unclean place, he prays his guardian angels to wait outside till be returns. In Pal. [Note: Palestine, Palestinian.] Targum to Genesis 33:10 Jacob says to Esau, ‘I have seen thy face as if I saw the face of thy angel’; on Genesis 48:16 the same Targum reads: ‘May the angel whom thou hast assigned to me bless the lads.’ Similarly the Sohar to Exodus (p. 190) says: ‘From the 13th year of a man and onwards, God assigns to every man two angels, one on the right hand and one on the left; and the Testament of Joseph (circa (about) 6) names the angel of Abraham as the guardian of Joseph. It is here more than elsewhere that we seem to recognize the influence of Persia on Jewish beliefs.
The question now occurs, What connexion is there between the above and Matthew 18:10 ‘See that ye despise not one of these little ones, for I say unto you, that their angels in heaven continually behold the face of my Father who is in heaven’? It is evident that ‘their angels’ means angels that watch over them. But did our Lord refer to the ‘angels of the presence’ or to individual guardian angels? The former is more probable for two reasons—(1) It was not part of the Jewish creed that any angels behold the face of God except the archangels; (2) the guardian spirits accompanying men on earth could hardly at the same time be said to be in heaven continually beholding the face of the Father who is in heaven. The allusion probably is, then, to the ‘angels of the presence,’ and especially to Michael the guardian of the pious and the helpless. It must be admitted that in Acts 12:15 we seem to have the popular Jewish notion in all its later development. When many brethren were met in the house of Mary, mother of John Mark, and were unable to believe that Peter had really been delivered, they said to Rhoda, first, ‘Thou art mad,’ and then, ‘It is his angel.’ This, if pushed to its apparent implications, seems to contain an allusion to a notion which occurs in some Jewish writings, that heaven is a counterpart of earth, and every man has his double in the celestial sphere; or at all events the guardian angel is like him whom he guards. It is quite likely, however, that on the lips of the disciples these words might be merely an allusion to a popular conception, without carrying with them any literal belief.
5. Angels visit wrath on the adversaries of the righteous. This is implied in Christ’s words: ‘See that ye despise not one of these little ones’ (Matthew 18:10). The word ὀρᾶτε implies ‘beware!’ and the teaching clearly is that angels are capable of punishing any who injure those whom it is their business to guard. The OT contains instances of their punitive abilities. It was an angel of the Lord who smote 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35), and who destroyed the children of Israel till, when he came to Jerusalem, the Lord said to him, ‘It is enough’ (2 Samuel 24:16); and Psalms 35:5 f. presents a picture calculated to inspire terror in every breast: ‘Let them be as chaff before the wind, the angel of the Lord driving them on. Let their way be dark and slippery, the angel of the Lord pursuing them.’ It is very noteworthy that the Lord Jesus, even in His hour of intensest agony, drew comfort from the thought of angelic help. It was a real comfort to Him that the angels were at His control, if He needed them. The military band led by Judas could not arrest or injure Him unless He voluntarily submitted Himself to them. He had ‘authority to lay down’ His ‘life’; and when the struggle was over, and the resolve retaken that the path of the cross was the path of duty, he conveyed to the Eleven the fact of His self-surrender by saying of Peter, who had impetuously used the sword in his Lord’s defence, ‘Thinkest thou that I cannot now beseech the Father, and he would even now send me more than twelve legions of angels’? (Matthew 26:53). We note here that the prayer is not to be addressed to angels. There are very few instances of Jews praying to angels. The Rabbis discouraged it. Every pious Jew would, as Jesus did, pray to God that He would send angelic ministry; as in 2 Maccabees 15:23, where Judas is said to have prayed: ‘O sovereign Lord, send a good angel before us to bring terror and trembling.’
6. Angels render aid at death. Luke 16:22 ‘Lazarus was carried away by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.’ We come here upon a widespread belief among Jews and Jewish Christians—that angels convey the souls of the righteous to Paradise. Michael is usually the one entrusted with this duty. If he has a companion, it is Gabriel. The Gospel of Nieodemus records that when Jesus descended into Hades and released the righteous dead from captivity, He delivered Adam and all the righteous to the archangel Michael, and all the saints followed Michael; and he led them all into the glorious gate of Paradise: among them being the penitent thief. The History of Joseph the Carpenter records that Michael and Gabriel drew out the soul of Joseph and wrapped it in a silken napkin, and amid the songs of angels took him to his good Father, even to the dwelling-place of the just. In the Testament of Abraham we have a similar account of the death of Abraham. The Ascension of Isaiah (7:25) affirms that ‘those who love the Most High and His Beloved will ascend to heaven by the Angel of the Holy Spirit.’
7. Angels are to be the ministrants of Christ at His Second Advent. ‘The reapers’ in the great Harvest ‘are angels’; and they separate the tares from the wheat (Matthew 13:39). ‘The Son of Man will send forth his angels to gather out all that offend’ (Matthew 13:41). ‘He shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him’ (Matthew 25:31). ‘He shall send forth his angels with the great sound of a trumpet to gather the elect’ (Matthew 24:31; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:17, 2 Thessalonians 1:7).
8. To complete our survey, we must add one word as to the appearance of angels when men were conscious of their presence. It is taken for granted that there needs to be a preparation of vision before man can recognize their presence. As Balaam was unaware that the angel confronted him until the Lord opened his eyes (Numbers 22:31), and as Elisha prayed that God would open the eyes of his servant (2 Kings 6:17), so when the risen Jesus appeared to Saul of Tarsus, those who travelled with him ‘saw no man’ (Acts 9:7). (a) Angels had a manlike appearance. As Abraham and Manoah’s wife mistook them for men (Genesis 18:16, Judges 13:6), so, in describing the Resurrection, St. Mark says that the women ‘saw a young man’ (Mark 16:5), and St. Luke that ‘two men stood by them’ (Luke 24:4).—(b) Their appearance was usually with brilliant light or ‘glory.’ When the angel appeared to the shepherds, ‘the glory of the Lord shone round about them’ (Luke 2:9), and when the Son of Man cometh, He will come ‘in the glory of the holy angels’ (Luke 9:26). So in Tobit 3:16, Cod. B reads: ‘The prayer of both was heard before the glory of the great Raphael’; in 2 Maccabees 3:26 two young men appeared, ‘notable in their strength and beautiful in their glory’; and the Protevangelium of James narrates that ‘an angel of the Lord appeared in the great light to Joachim.’—(c) They wear raiment of great luminousness. Matthew 28:3 ‘His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow’; cf. Daniel 10:6, Ezekiel 1:13, Revelation 1:14; Revelation 19:12. So Apocalypse, Apocalyptic of Peter says of the angels, ‘their body was whiter than any snow.’
iii. Differences between NT and Rabbinism as to Angels.—We undertook to show that ‘in the main Christ and His Apostles appropriated the Angelology of Judaism’; and the above systematic treatment has surely rendered this evident. It has often been observed that ‘Jesus says very little about angels’; and, so far as the bulk, of His sayings is concerned, this is quite true; but when we classify His utterances, we find that they constitute almost a complete Angelology; and so far as it goes, it is in harmony with the Jewish beliefs of the period. The Jews believed all that the NT says of angels, but they also believed much more.
1. It is very significant that the Gospels are silent as to the mediation of angels. In Judaism this was very prominent. In Tobit, e.g., one great function of angels is said to be to carry the prayers of saints within the veil, before the glory of the Holy One (Tobit 12:12; Tobit 12:15). In Enoch 40:6 the seer says: ‘And the third voice heard I pray and intercede for those who dwell on the earth, and supplicate in the name of the Lord of spirits.’ In the Greek Apocalypse, Apocalyptic of Baruch (c. 11), Michael is said to have a great receptacle in which the prayers of men are placed to be carried through the gates into the presence of the Divine glory (Texts and Studies, v. i. 100). In the Midrash Exodus Rabba 21 an angel set over the prayers of men is said to weave them into crowns for the Most High.—But not only are the Gospels silent as to the need of angels to be mediators in carrying the prayers and necessities of saints into the unapproachable chamber of the Most High, the teaching of Jesus was designed to counteract such a view of God. When our Lord said: ‘Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things’ (Matthew 6:32); ‘Your heavenly Father feedeth the fowls’ (Matthew 6:26); ‘Thy Father seeth in secret’ (Matthew 6:18); ‘Pray to thy Father who is in secret’ (Matthew 6:6),—He certainly wished to break down the barriers which the Jewish mind had placed between itself and God, and encourage men to come direct to the Father in childlike confidence.
2. In other respects the only difference is, that the Gospels are free from the extravagant embellishment in which the Rabbis indulged, when speaking of angels: (a) as to their size. The Talmudic treatise Chagigah (13b) says that Sandalfon is taller than his fellows by the length of a journey of 500 years; and the Gospel of Peter (c. 9) tells how the Roman soldiers saw two men descend from heaven, and the head of the two reached unto heaven, but that of Him whom they released from the tomb overpassed the heavens.—(b) As to a fondness for the marvellous in describing their appearance and actions. For instance, Yoma 21a narrates how a high priest was killed by an angel in the Holy of Holies, and the impress of a calf’s foot was found between his shoulders. Joshua ben Hananiah is reported to have told the Emperor Hadrian that God hears the song of new angels every day. When asked whence they come, he replied, ‘From the fiery stream which issues from the throne of God’ (Daniel 7:10); see Bacher, Agada der Tannaiten, i. 178.—(e) The Jews also speculated much as to the origin of the angels, their connexion with the four elements, etc.; and they had ingenious methods of computing their number by Kabbalistic Gematria—the whole thing being the extravaganza of Oriental phantasy.
iv. The objective value of the NT doctrine of Angels.—The most difficult part of our task now awaits us, to give some account of modern views as to the reality of angels, and to discuss whether there are valid reasons why we, as Christians, are bound to accept the prima facie NT teaching as to the angelic ministry. Every Christian must feel that it is of very great importance to decide whether the Lord Jesus really believed in the objective existence and ministrations of angels. To this question the present writer feels obliged to give an affirmative reply [but see art. Accommodation, above, p. 20], and that for the following reasons: (1) Though Jesus did not speak much concerning angels, yet His recorded sayings cover, with some intentional exceptions, almost the complete Angelology of the Jews—which is evidence that He was, in the main, in agreement with it. (2) If the disciples had been radically mistaken on this subject, surely this is a matter as to which Christ’s words were applicable: ‘If it were not so, I would have told you,’ John 14:2. (3) In controversy with the Sadducees, who were sceptical as to angels, He adroitly gave them such a reply to their objection against the resurrection as to show that the existence and nature of angels was to Him a settled matter, and might be used to elucidate the nature of the resurrection body. There is a wealth of conviction in the words of Jesus: ‘Those who rise again are like the angels.’ (4) Christ made mention of angels not merely in the parables, where we expect symbolism and pictorial illustration, but also in the interpretation (Matthew 13:39; Matthew 13:41; Matthew 13:49). (5) He used the punitive ability of angels to warn men against despising the little ones in His kingdom (Matthew 18:10). Apart from a literal belief in angels, such words are an empty threat. (6) In the time of His most intense agony He evidently derived comfort from the loving sympathy of the ‘cloud of witnesses’; for when He emerges from the trial and its bitterness is past, He assures Peter that, had He permitted it, more than twelve legions of angels would readily have intervened to deliver Him (Matthew 26:53).—Stevens (Theology of NT, p. 80) is impressed by other passages. ‘In several places,’ he says, ‘Christ seems to refer to angels in such a way as to show that He believed in their real existence. He will “come in the glory of his Father with his holy angels” (Mark 8:38). “Angels in heaven” neither marry nor are given in marriage (Mark 12:25). Of the hour of his Advent “not even the angels in heaven” know (Mark 13:32).’
In recent times the views of scholars are much divided on this subject. 1. There are large sections of the universal Church to whom the existence of angels is very real, not only as a matter of theoretical belief, but as a matter of religious experience. They set great value on the services of angels as mediators between themselves, in their sins and needs and miseries, and the holy, infinite God; and they delight to think that the spiritual strength and light and succour which come to them in answer to prayer, reach their low estate through the mediation of angels. We might readily quote from saints of the Greek and Roman Churches on this head, but we prefer to give the ‘disclosures’ of Swedenborg. ‘According to him, we are every moment in the most vital association with the spirits both of heaven and hell. They are the perpetual prompters of our thoughts: they incessantly work by insinuating influences on our loves; and they give force on the one hand to the power of temptation, and on the other fortify the soul, by hidden influx, to resist temptation’ (Rev. G. Bush, Disclosures of Swedenborg, 79).
2. There are many who believe in angels theoretically. They take the teaching of the NT in a thoroughly literal sense. They are prepared to maintain and contend that Jesus Christ believed in the real existence of angels; and, in consequence, a belief in angels forms part of their ‘creed’; but angels have no part in their inner religious life. Some admit, not without regret and self-reproach, that angels do not seem so real to them as they did to Jesus; while others are reluctant to admit that it can be a fault to yearn as they do for heart-to-heart fellowship with God Himself, without the intervention of an angel ministry—to seek for direct interaction with God, without even the holiest angel intervening in the sacredness of the communion. As a specimen of this attitude, we quote from an article in the First Series of the Expositor (viii. 409 ff.) by R. Winterbotham: ‘I do not mean to imply that we disbelieve either the existence or the ministry of angelic beings: we cannot do so without rejecting and denying point blank the unquestioned and unquestionable dicta of our Lord and of His apostles. But I do say that our belief in angels is formal only, or at the best merely poetic. It does not strike its roots down into our religious consciousness, into that inner and unseen, but most real and often passionate, life of the soul towards God and the powers of the world to come.’
3. There are others yet again who set such a high value on the immediacy of the interaction of fellowship with God, believing, as they do, that it was the chief feature of Christ’s teaching to reveal the possibility of fellowship with God as our Father—or led perhaps by scientific predilections to feel that there is now no room for angels in our modern world—that they sweep away the intervention of angels, and are reluctant to admit that the Lord Jesus really believed in their existence. They would believe rather that He accommodated Himself in this matter to current popular notions. For instance, Beyschlag maintains that ‘the immediate relation to the world in which Jesus viewed His heavenly Father left no room for such personal intermediate beings’ [as the Jews of that time believed in]. In passages like Luke 12:8; Luke 15:10 angels are ‘a poetic paraphrase for God Himself.’ ‘The holy angels of the Son of Man, with whom He will come again in His glory, are the rays of Divine majesty which is then to surround Him with splendour: they are the Divine powers with which He is to waken the dead.’ And again, ‘The most remarkable passage is Matthew 18:10, and it is the very passage which we can least of all take in prosaic literalness. According to it, even the least of the children of men has his guardian angel who at all times has access to the Heavenly Father, viz. to complain to Him of the offences done to his protégé on earth. But as God, according to Jesus, knows what happens to each of His children without needing to be told, in what other way can we conceive this entirely poetical passage, than that in every child of man a peculiar thought of God has to be realized, which stands over his history, like a genius, or guardian spirit, and which God always remembers, so that everything which opposes its realization on earth comes before Him as a complaint?’ (New Test. Theology, i. 86 f.). Dr. Bruce is even more pronounced. In his Epistle to the Hebrews (p. 45) he says: ‘For modern men, the angels are very much a dead theological category. Everywhere in the old Jewish world, they are next to nowhere in our world. They have practically disappeared from the universe in thought and in fact.’ Then, with a strange lapse of the historic sense, he adds: ‘This subject was probably a weariness to the writer of our Epistle. A Jew, and well acquainted with Jewish opinion, and obliged to adjust his argument to it, he was tired, I imagine, of the angelic regime. Too much had been made of it in Rabbinical teaching and in popular opinion. It must not be supposed that he was in sympathy with either.’
A belief in angels among men of to-day depends entirely on one’s religious outlook, one’s general view of God and the world. The man who has scientific proclivities, who has toiled through much doubt and uncertainty before he can sincerely affirm the first article of the Christian creed, ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty,’ will probably be reluctant to take more cargo aboard than his faith can carry. In other words, he will employ the Law of Parsimony, ‘Entia praeter necessitatem non multiplicanda sunt,’ and, finding the full satisfaction of his religious needs in direct intercourse with God the Father, will reject, or ignore as superfluous, the ministry of angels. So also the man of mystical tendencies, whose eager desire is to have communion with the Divine—who claims to be endowed with a faculty by which he can cognize God, and receive immediate communications from Him, is also likely to regard the intervention of angels between his spirit and the Divine Spirit as an intrusion. And not less so is this the case with one who has leanings to Pantheism—whether he regards God as altogether immanent in the world, or as both immanent and transcendent. In proportion as one’s thoughts centre on Divine immanence, and as one regards God as more or less identical with Force, variant but transmutable, present everywhere, and everywhere causative, in that proportion are one’s thoughts drawn away from every theological conception but that of the One Great Cause of motion, life, and mind. There is no room for angels.
The only scientific conception which to some minds seems to foster the belief in angels is the Law of Evolution, or, to speak more accurately, the anticipation of gradation of being, encouraged by that law. T. G. Selby, in his volume of sermons headed by one on ‘The Imperfect Angel,’ contends that a true science welcomes the belief in angels as intervening between man and God. ‘It is surely not unscientific,’ he says, ‘to assume the existence of the pure and mighty beings spoken of by seers and prophets of the olden time.’ ‘The spirit of inspiration, in seeking to convey to us some faint hint of the strict and awful and absolute holiness of God, depicts ranks of angels indefinitely higher and better than the choicest saints on earth: and then tells us that these angels, which seem so lofty and stainless and resplendent, are creatures of unwisdom and shortcoming in comparison with the ineffable wisdom and surpassing holiness of God’ (p. 7). Godet in his Biblical Studies on the OT has elaborated a scientific apologia on behalf of angels. He contends that science recognizes three forms of being: species without individuality, in the vegetable world; individuality under bondage to species, in the animal world; individuality overpowering species, in the human race. He holds, therefore, that it is antecedently probable that there is a fourth form of being—individuality without species—each individual owing his existence no longer to parents like himself, but immediately to the Creative Will. This fourth form would exactly be the angel (p. 2 ff.).
It remains now to show that a belief in angels is in precise accord with the fundamental views of God and the world which present themselves in the recorded life and teaching of the Lord Jesus. Were the belief in angels at variance with Christ’s personal religious outlook, we might readily regard it as an excrescence which modern thought might lop off without much detriment; but if it is closely allied to our Lord’s fundamental doctrines, then this will surely confirm the impression arrived at from other evidence, that Jesus sincerely believed in the reality of angels, and would have us derive from the belief the same comfort and support which He did. Where shall we look with more assurance for the first principles of the doctrine of Jesus than to the Lord’s Prayer? There our Saviour taught His disciples to say, ‘Our Father which art in heaven. Hallowed be Thy name.… Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Beyond all contradiction, then, it is an axiom of the creed of Jesus that there are beings in heaven who do God’s will. It is generally recognized that Jesus presented to men a conception of God which meets the needs of man’s religious nature, rather than of his reason and intellect. Men of culture and philosophical training may aspire to know God as ‘the One in all,’ ‘the Absolute,’ ‘the First Cause’; and may appeal for support to isolated sayings of the Apostles, but not to sayings of the Master. His sayings owe their eternal permanence to the fact that they appeal to that which is common to all men—the innermost in all men—the heart—the religious nature. To conceive of God as the Absolute, or the First Cause, may satisfy the reason; but before the heart can be satisfied, it must know God as Father, the ‘Father in heaven.’ But the very phrase ‘Father in heaven’ seems to imply that He has sons in heaven. And that this implication is warranted, is irrefragably substantiated by the words which follow: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Surely no one can deny that Christ firmly believed that there are beings in heaven who do God’s will, to say the least, far more perfectly than we do, since their obedience is the model to which we are constantly taught to pray that we may attain. Again, it was the outstanding feature of Judaism to push God aloof from men and the world, whereas Jesus brought God nearer to men, as a Father who takes a minute interest in all that concerns us. But if Jesus thus brought heaven nearer to man, He must, in the very act, have brought the occupants of heaven nearer, and must wish us to believe that they also are deeply interested in our welfare. There is no need that angels should tell God anything that concerns us. He knows already far more than they can tell. Those who object to the doctrine of angels because it interposes a barrier between our prayers and our Father’s love, misunderstand Christ’s teaching. His disclosure of the Fatherliness of God was meant to correct Judaism, in so far as it made angels the bearers of our prayers and the informants to God of our requirements. Those Christians also who approach God through angels contravene in this way Christ’s teaching: and also His example, for in the garden He said to Peter (Matthew 26:53): ‘I could pray the Father, and he would send … angels.’ Christ’s teaching and example both show that it is our duty and privilege to have direct intercourse with God in prayer and fellowship. But this is not to say that there is no room for the ministry of angels. We may still believe that angels are sent on errands of mercy. Indeed, we may well say to those who on this subject are of doubtful mind, as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews said: ‘Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to do service on behalf of those who shall inherit salvation?’ (Matthew 1:14). There is nothing at all in the Gospel doctrine of angels which is at variance with the religious needs of the most cultured among us. It may present difficulties to reason, as everything which is supernatural does; but the heart of man which loves God must surely rejoice to think that the heavenly Father has also a ‘family in heaven’ as on earth (Ephesians 3:15). It must always find a responsive chord in the nature of men who allow the heart a place in their creed, to be told that there are beings who ‘continually behold the face of our Father,’ who are deeply interested in us (Copyright Statement
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