Seen by Angels

Posted: September 1, 2022 in Uncategorized

A sermon

Preached at Bethel Christian Church on Sunday, August 28, 2022

Read 1 Timothy 3:16, Matthew 1:18-25, Acts 1:1-11

The third line in this confession is ‘Seen by Angels.’ This confession is actually in two groups of three, and so this phrase in a sense completes the first trio.

Before we look at what is meant by ‘seen by angels,’ let’s deal with a more basic question: What are angels? There’s a good chance that the Bible’s answer to that question will challenge some of the assumptions you’ve had.

Hebrews 1:14 gives us the clearest definition of angels:

Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

This verse tells us about the purpose of angels – we could even say the reason they exist. Firstly they are ‘ministering spirits’. The word used for ministering here is that same word used of priests performing their duties in the tabernacle. It’s sometimes translated as ‘worship’. So an angel serves as a kind of ‘mediator’ between human beings and God, enabling us to worship. Secondly, they are ‘sent out to serve’  a specific group of people: ‘those who are to inherit salvation.’ They’re not for the general population, but uniquely for God’s people; they’re used by God to accomplish his purposes for his children. 

In the context of this verse in Hebrews 1, the writer’s stressing the supremacy of Jesus, whom he introduces as:

…his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

In first century Judaism, because of the influence of other religions in the centuries leading up to that time, angels had become very significant, to the point that some Jewish groups actually worshipped angels, and attributed to them some of the qualities and functions we know apply to Jesus – even being able to atone for sins. Some of these ideas had crept into Christian churches, and needed to be counteracted. For example, some people in the Colossian church were worshiping angels, and some people in the Corinthian church claimed the ability to communicate with angels in angelic languages. Angels exist not to be worshipped, but to help us worship God. So any discussion about angels must never stop just with angels. It must always lead on to the One true God to whom they will always point us.

While this Hebrews verse tells us about the purpose of angels to be of service to us, it doesn’t tell us how they actually go about doing this. We’ll look at this in a moment, but before we do I want to briefly demolish some other myths that surround angels. These are myths that we find in popular culture that’ve been taken on board by Christians, or are in popular culture because of some wrong ways that the church has historically spoken of angels. Some myths seem trivial, other more serious.

  • Angels don’t have wings. There’s no passage in the Bible describing angels with wings. This misunderstanding has come from a confusion between angels and cherubim. A cherub is a guard which shields the way into a holy place, keeping human beings separate from God. The first cherubim mentioned in the Bible were placed at the entrance to Eden after the man and woman were banished, with flaming swords blocking the way back in. All other instances of cherubim are in the tabernacle and the temple, and are artistic depictions of fearsome, composite creatures with features of animals like lions, bears, and eagles. The cherubim on the top of the ark of the covenant had eagles wings that met in the middle of the mercy seat, symbolically forming a throne for the Lord. These creatures are symbolic, seen by prophets in dreams and visions; angels on the other hand are real creatures, encountered in real life (as well as dreams and visions). Whereas Cherubim are always depicted as blocking our way into God’s presence, Angels do the opposite – they bring people into the presence of God.
  • People don’t have a personal guardian angel. This is an idea that came out of pre-New Testament times. We see evidence in the New Testament that some people believed in personal angels, but never is it taught as truth. The few verses in the Bible about angels protecting or guiding never point to the notion of angels being assigned to each person.
  • People don’t become angels in heaven. This is an idea that began with a cultic group in 19th century America, and has found its way into popular imagination.
  • Angels are not above us in the hierarchy of creatures. The apex of creation isn’t angelic beings, but human beings. We’re the only creature made in the image of God. In fact, angels don’t even get a mention in the creation account in Genesis 1-2. They exist to serve us, not be served by us. Paul told the Corinthians, ‘Do you not know that we are to judge angels?’ (1 Corinthians 6:3). More on this in a moment.

So what do angels do to serve those who are to inherit salvation? Angels are messengers. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for angel mean literally ‘messenger,’ and are sometimes used of human messengers, not just spiritual beings. Every time in the Scriptures an angel is sent to a person, it’s to bring them the word of God. It may be a reminder of God’s promise, or an instruction, or a word of assurance, or an announcement of something God has done or is about to do. But it’s always a Word.

If we were to do a survey like we did last week of the significant moments through the Gospels, we’d be looking at many of the same passages we looked at last week, and more. An Angel announced the conception of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah and told him John would prepare the way for the Lord; In our first reading today, Angels announced the conception of Jesus to Mary and to Joseph and told them to call him ‘Jesus’; angels announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds as they filled the sky and sang ‘Glory to God in the highest’; it was an angel who told Josep to flee to Egypt from King Herod who was killing all the children Jesus’ age, and then again told him when it was safe to return. Angels weren’t needed at Jesus’ baptism, because there the Father himself spoke directly out of heaven, and the Holy Spirit came in a visible way upon him. But then at the end of his time of temptation in the wilderness it was angels who came and ministered to him (The same word used in Hebrews 1). Given what we’ve seen so far, we can safely assume that the way they did this was to speak to him the word of God that he needed to hear in order to be ready to step into his public ministry. 

Then the angelic events at the end of the Gospels are like a bookend, reflecting the beginning, but in reverse order. An angel came and strengthened him as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, preparing him to face his greatest trial ever – infinitely greater than the temptation that had followed his baptism. When confronted with the soldiers who came to arrest him, he refused to summon legions of angels to save him from the worldly authorities, because his time had come – as it hadn’t yet come when he was a child and an angel saved him from King Herod. Then it was angels who announced the momentous, cataclysmic event of Jesus’ resurrection, as they did at his birth. Finally, in our second reading today, at the ascension angels told Jesus’ disciples to be prepared for his second coming, as the angel did in announcing his first coming to Zechariah.

So we have angels at the start, leading us into the Gospels, and then at the end, leading us out of the Gospels, so that our central focus will be on Jesus, to whom they testify.

But there’s something very significant we  need to note. Angels are absent throughout Jesus’ ministry from his temptation until his suffering. Why? Because, as at his baptism, these special messengers aren’t needed. The Son Himself, the Word made flesh, is speaking the words of life given him by the Father, in the power of the Spirit. In Jesus we don’t have a word delivered by angels second-hand from God, but we have the Word Himself who is God. In the Old Testament angels mediated God’s word to people because they couldn’t, as sinners, come face-to-face with God and survive being exposed to his glory. But then the Word of God came, embodied in flesh and bone, in a form that’s accessible to us, so that when we hear the voice of Jesus we are hearing the direct voice of God.

We also need to note that it was during this time Jesus was preparing his Apostles to become his messengers – human ‘angels’ – who’ll be commissioned with the task of proclaiming the Gospel, the euangelion, to the ends of the earth. He didn’t entrust this task to angels, but to us. People are brought to faith in Christ not by supernatural encounters with angels, but by the word of Christ being spoken by human lips. 

Through the book of Acts, there are seven angelic visitations spread across the roughly 30 years that are covered in the book, again at strategic points in the going out of the Gospel. Not the flurry of angelic activity in the early church that we might sometimes be led to think. Christians aren’t taught in the New Testament to look for or expect angelic encounters – if anything, we’re told to be cautious about an experience that seems like an angel, being told that Satan ‘disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor. 11:14). Heb. 13:2 tells us to practice hospitality, mentioning that ‘thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’ That’s probably a reference to Abraham and Sarah hosting the three men who then turned out to be angels; and even if it’s a reference to the possibility of it today, it says ‘unawares,’ meaning we won’t actually know the person is really an angel.

This isn’t to say that angels are no longer active in the world since New Testament times. But it is saying that something has changed about the place of angels, and our relationship to them. And that’s what the phrase ‘seen by angels’ is pointing to. We’ve seen so far the role of angels in speaking to us, declaring, announcing and pointing to Jesus. But here it speaks not of angels speaking, but of angels seeing. The focus isn’t on what’s being made known to us, but on what’s being made known to them as they observe Jesus. And as we’ll see, seeing what angels see is directly relevant to us.

Here’s what’s going on here. I said earlier that angels aren’t, as some may think, higher up in the hierarchy of God’s creatures, but that humanity is at the apex. Psalm 8 says:

What is man that you are mindful of him,

And the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings

and crowned him with glory and honour.

You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;

you have put all things under his feet, (Psalm 8:4-6)

Now, you might see that and say, hang on, that contradicts what you just said. Man is ‘a little lower than the heavenly beings,’ whom we know from when this verse is quoted elsewhere are angels. But it’s not a contradiction, because what’s described here is a temporary arrangement. Humanity was designed to rule and have dominion over the works of God’s hands. That rule was to be a priestly rule, in which we’d be the communicators of God’s glory to all other creatures, and to one another. But then through sin, through trying to grasp at that position of authority instead of receiving it thankfully as a gift from the Father, we made ourselves unworthy to rule. We were cast out of the garden into the wilderness, and what we could call an ‘interim administration’ was put in place, that involved laws and temples and priests, and in which angels were given roles that had been abdicated by us. For example:

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. (Galatians 3:19)

Since the fall, human beings have been ‘a little lower than the angels,’ but this is only in anticipation of what would happen when Jesus came to undo what took place in the fall. Let’s look at how Hebrews explains Psalm 8:

For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere,

“What is man, that you are mindful of him,

or the son of man, that you care for him?

You made him for a little while lower than the angels;

you have crowned him with glory and honour,

putting everything in subjection under his feet.”

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:5-9)

See how, firstly, ‘the world to come’ (5) isn’t for angels to rule over, but for human beings. This is the Father’s ultimate goal, to have the new heavens and earth ruled over by human beings, as we were designed to do in creation.

Secondly, see how verse 7 brings out the sense of a ‘little lower.’ It’s little not in degrees, but in time. It’s only temporary. Human history, in the bigger context of eternity is a ‘little while.’

Thirdly, see how the end of verse 8 speaks of the world as we see it at the present, but then verse 9 tells us what we also see: Jesus who has come down to our level, taken on our humanity in the likeness of sinful flesh, and has been made ‘for a little while lower than the angels’ for a specific purpose: so that he might taste death for everyone. By uniting himself to us in our fallenness he’s taken us down into the grave with him, so that he may then take us up out of the grave through his resurrection, so that we, still united to him, may sit with him in glory by the Father’s side. In Christ, our status is no longer lower than the angels, but higher. 

In Ephesians 1 the raising up of Jesus is described in relation to both us the church, but also to other ‘cosmic’ creatures:

…he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:20-23)

The ‘all rule and authority and power and dominion’ is speaking not merely of earthly human authorities, but also of spiritual powers and authorities, both good and evil. Jesus is raised up far above not only human authorities, but also far above the angels. And then in Ephesians 2 we see something astounding:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)

See how the language is the same as in chapter 1. What’s true for Christ in his humanity is also true for us. We are with the Father in the heavenly places in Christ! The church is the bride of Christ, one flesh with him. In our marriage to him, what’s ours is his, and what’s his is ours. He took on all our debts, our poverty, our sin and shame and our whole selves at the cross, and in return he has given us his abundance, his riches, his honour, and best of all, himself. That means then, we also share in his relationship to the angels and the heavenly beings. He was for a time a little lower than the angels, but is now above them, ruling them; he has also lifted us up so that we’re no longer lower than the angels. The ‘interim administration’ of the old system with angels and guardians and mediators has given way to the Kingdom of God in which we look to our king and brother Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, the only mediator between God and man.

Then, in Ephesians 3 is this same idea of angels ‘seeing’ Jesus:

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things…

There’s that idea of the Mystery being something that God kept hidden, but which is now being made known through the preaching of the Gospel…

…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realised in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:8-11)

See how it’s not just Gentiles who have this made known to them, but ‘the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’. The Gospel is a message with cosmic implications. Jesus came not just to bring people into heaven, but to bring about the renewal of all things and to put everything in creation – including spiritual powers – in its rightful place. 

Your position in Christ isn’t just about your personal, private relationship with God, or about making sure you go to the right place when you die, or about God giving you the stuff you want in this life and the next. Being in Christ means, firstly, that he has taken hold of you and made you a member of his bride, the church. We confessed last week in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, ‘We believe… in the holy universal church’ and ‘the communion of saints.’ Michael Horton says in his book, ‘The Gospel Driven Life’ which is subtitled,  ‘Being good news people in a bad news world’:

‘The church is not simply the effect of the gospel, but it is itself part of the Good News that is promised. When God raises our eyes from ourselves to his Son through the gospel, we begin to see ourselves surrounded by a community of people who are no longer simply neighbours but brothers and sisters,’

The Gospel Driven Life: Being good news people in a bad news world (Baker, 2009), p. 192

The church is the only human institution in this world that will continue on into eternity. God will have a family for himself forever. In Christ, you’ve been brought into that family.

Secondly, it’s through the church that the Father’s working, bringing to bear on the world his purposes that ‘he has realised’ in Christ. We live in the reality that all God’s promises are fulfilled in Jesus. In Jesus his work has been completed, and both the salvation of all his people, and the renewal of all creation is guaranteed. The outworking of that reality, what’s called ‘the manifold wisdom of God’ (10) is happening through the church.

Geoffrey Bingham was a Prisoner of War in WW2. He once said that he remembered when the announcement came that the war was over and Japan had surrendered, but it seemed like a dream to them – almost unreal. It was true – but what did it mean for them? Shortly afterward they saw what it meant for them, as the Allied troops arrived and actually liberated them, put them on the trucks and took them home. The victory had been won, and the ‘Gospel’ announcement of that victory had been declared, but then the practical reality of that victory was rolled out as the army went out and brought that liberty to bear on their fellow soldiers who’d been captives. In this another message was being communicated to the Japanese: your defeat is a real defeat. Along with the liberation of prisoners, those guilty of war crimes were rounded up and put on trial. 

As we the church proclaim the Gospel, each time we declare ‘Christ is risen’, another nail, so to speak, is driven into the devil’s coffin, and the angelic hosts of heaven are given another reason to worship and give glory to God

Thirdly, because this reality of what we are in Christ is ‘seen by angels’ it tells us that our hope is much, much greater than we might realise. When you think about what it looks like to share the Gospel with someone, what is it that you would say is the true hope that Jesus gives by his death and resurrection? Maybe we would tend to lean towards the idea of ‘going to heaven/to be with God when you die.’ One popular evangelistic presentation starts with the question, 

‘If you died tonight, and God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into My Heaven?” what would you say?’ 

See how that’s an individualistic oriented question, about me being happy in a good place? It’s also no longer as relevant to anyone younger than middle-age who isn’t expecting to die any time soon – it’s something they think they’ll have plenty of time to sort out. But the thing is, going to heaven when I die isn’t the Christian hope that’s presented in the Bible. The resurrection of the body and the new Heavens and new Earth is. All things made new, with death and the grave not merely defeated, but done away with forever, with Christ reigning over all things visible and invisible in justice and truth and love, and with us his saints reigning at his side, restored to our creational design, exercising dominion over all of God’s creatures in such a way that every creature flourishes and lives to the praise of God’s glory that will fill the whole earth. That’s a much grander and more magnificent vision than ‘You can go to heaven when you die.’

Knowing all this enables us to lift our eyes from the petty, inconsequential things of our lives – those things that with a purely horizontal view seem all important and significant, like at the end of the day when the sun is low in the sky, the shadows of things grow in length and become bigger than the objects themselves. It helps us to look at things with a vertical view – to see things form the perspective of the angels who have seen Jesus in the fulness of his glory. In the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest and brightest, shadows are short or non-existent, and everything is seen clearly for what it is.

We may never in our lives have a personal encounter with an angel like we read about in the Biblical stories – although we shouldn’t rule out that ever happening. But we already, in sense, are living in the presence of the angels because in Christ the veil between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm has been pulled back. All the angelic hosts of heaven have ‘seen’ Jesus, watching as he stepped into creation to redeem us from sin and death, and to lift us up in himself to that place of reigning with him over creation, including the angels. The ministry that angels have to us today is to invite us to have the same view of Christ, and of us his church, as they do.

The book of Revelation was given to John from Jesus, via an angel. The word ‘angel’ appears more times in Revelation than any other book in the Bible. Twice in the book, John fell down at the feet of angels to worship, and was rebuked (19:10, 22:8) Because the book isn’t called the Revelation of angels, it’s the revelation of Jesus Christ:

Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. (Revelation 19:10)

Let’s hear the message this angel gives us: worship God, and testify to Jesus.

Read a response to a youtube video about an angelic encounter

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