Greater Than the Angels
In the church I served prior to this one, there was a strong sense of the angelic, and a strong belief in the activity of angels in people’s everyday life. I mean, as a pastor you hear about this kind of thing a lot, but the activity of the angelic took up a lot more space in the faith among many of the congregants. I was fascinated listening to these stories. Many of the stories of angels spoke about an angel’s protection. In a near car accident. When someone was about to do them or a loved one physical harm.
One story stands out among others. It was unique because the people that shared it with me had some preconceived attitudes about folks with different skin tone than their own. They were driving their truck in the deep south, making their way to visit a loved one in that area of the world. They were on some back road in the middle of a very nasty storm. The road was taking on water. The car broke down. Visibility was at zero. All of the sudden a gentleman came to their aid, out in the middle of nowhere—he just showed up. He took a look at the truck. Came up with a fix for the vehicle. And as the driver was quickly closing the hood the man began to call out a word of thanks to him. He saw him for a moment, and then he just disappeared. It was an angel they said. And he was BLACK. BLACK. Can you believe that? They said. If I would not have seen it I would have never believed it. That is what they said.
When I heard their story, I tended to believe it. First, because the Scripture entertains angels unawares. Second, because the way God works is that he presses us out of our comfort zone and our preconceived notions. And third, because I loved the people who told the story to me.
Angelic visitation has fascinated Christians for a number of years. Angelic activity is something that believers have speculated about as well. Some of the stories that one hears are inspirational. Others are a little suspicious. And still others seem to contradict the plain teaching of Scripture.
The desert fathers in the early monastic period spoke of encounters with angels, but so did Mohammed. St. Teresa of Avila seemed to be inspired by angels, but Joseph Smith claimed to be as well.
And when we speak of angels, of course we can speak of fallen angels as well. I know of people throughout history, and in my own life who have spoken of power encounters with the forces of evil, where the demonic held sway over people until they discovered deliverance.
When I was in college, there was a book that captured the spiritual imagination of many of my classmates. It was a book of fiction about a college in small town that the powers of evil were seeking to invade and the powers of righteousness were engaged in battle against the evil one. The college was the center of the battle, that would have influence around the country and the world. The angels wanted to act on behalf of God, but were only as strong as the prayer power that was rallied in their support.
This book, being read by fundamentalists and evangelicals that were recruited to a mainline Presbyterian college that challenged its students to think rigorously about matters of faith, influenced the way many of my friends saw their world. They began to see professors that did not fit within their theology to be subject to fallen angels. Every time they went on a drive, they prayed about the heavenly host carrying their car from one place to the next.
The book, for those of you who read inspirational fiction, was entitled This Present Darkness. The students who read the book benefitted from an increased attention to prayer. That was good
However, I began to struggle with some of the other ways that this book made its way into people’s hearts. One of the ways that people began to use this book was to describe anyone who disagreed with them, or set policies in opposition to them to be influenced by the evil one. This seemed to me, at times, to be too convenient of a way to scapegoat people.
The other thing that bothered me is that the activity of the Godhead took a back seat to the activity of the angelic beings. I mean, I believe in angels and in the fallen angels called demons that the Scripture speaks about, I believe in spiritual warfare, but I believe that God is still mightily at work in the world. I just don’t believe that there is an angel behind every blessing, and a demon lurking in every corner.
Furthermore, I believe that the power of Christ is at work in believers through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The power of evil is no match for the risen Son of God. In the situation I observed in college, there were times where people seemed to almost make an idol out of the angels—asking for their assistance instead of asking God for help as they prayed etc.
There are several examples in recent and not so recent popular culture that seems to lift up angels, with very little acknowledgement of the Almighty that sent them on their mission. I remember television shows like Highway to Heaven and Touched by An Angel being like this. In Scripture, the angels always seem to be pointing people to faith in the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Of course, his veneration of angels is not unique to our time. People have had superstitions about angels for centuries. Several in the early church tradition, and in some Christian traditions today pray to angels and saints. This does not seem biblical. Some of the Reformers believed that the veneration of angels and saints by Catholics was idolatry, and amounted to worshiping angels. And in the time of Scripture, especially among people of Jewish background, some Christians could have an unhealthy understanding of angelic power that could border upon worshiping of angels.
The preacher that brings this sermon in the book of Hebrews is aware of this kind of thinking in his congregation. He realizes that there are some people that he works with that are strongly focused on the work of angels in the world, and that they seem to give more attention to the supernatural, sensational acts of heavenly beings than they do to Jesus Christ.
He lays out several Old Testament Scriptures. As he does so, he contrasts the Lordship of Christ with the ministry of the angelic beings.
1. Angels are created beings, while Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity
Jesus is the Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end. Angels were made by God to do his will. They are not gods themselves.
The word “angelos” is the Greek Word for messenger. Angels are created beings that are sent out to deliver messages on God’s behalf, in part. The Scripture mentions several things angels do, including some aspects of spiritual warfare that we discussed earlier. But mostly they speak for God. They come to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds to announce the conception and birth of Jesus. They come to Isaiah in the temple, and convince him to accept God’s call to ministry. They warn Balaam’s donkey and eventually Balaam in the Old Testament not to stand against the Israelites as they come to the promised land.
2. Angels are made to worship the Lord, while Jesus is to be worshipped
Read the book of Revelation. Read Luke’s gospel. The angels, when they are not delivering messages, are a gospel choir. They sing hymns to proclaim the birth of Jesus Christ. They are around the throne of God in the book of Revelation singing “Thou Art Worthy”. They are ministering to Jesus in the desert after he is tempted.
Angels are not to worshiped. They are made to worship Christ.
3. Angels are created to serve and obey Christ
This is what the passage gets at when it says, “He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire”.
Angels are under Christ’s authority. They respond to his Word. They do his will. They are created to point to Jesus, not to take the place of Jesus.
Throughout Scripture, angels are sent out with divine tasks. In Revelation, the angels are the ones who initiate stages and processes of God’s judgement on behalf of Christ.
They attend to Christ, and in fact many of the righteous at the time of death.
4. Angels are created to minister to disciples of Jesus so that they can do his will
God sends angels to us. They minister to us, and at times protect us. Later in the book of Hebrews it says that we can encounter angels and not even know about it, and for this reason, if no other, we should be hospitable.
You see, angels are beautiful creations of God. They are powerful beings. They are supernatural beings. But they are not worthy of our worship and our praise. They did not create us. They did not live a sinless life, go to a cross, and die for us. Jesus did that. So we worship him. He is greater than the angels.
When I read through this, I wonder what all of this really means to me and you and how we live our lives. As I read this, in the context of Scripture as well as the context of our lives, two things leap out at me.
First, many of us can look at the spiritual world through a dualistic lens. In other words, we can look at spiritual warfare as a battle of two evenly matched teams, so to speak. One is God’s team, represented by the angels. The other is the forces of Satan and demons. While I do not discount evil and the principalities and powers we fight against, as Ephesians says, I do believe this: the war against the evil one has been won at the cross. God is greater than the forces of evil in this world. The evil one may still be at work seeking to do damage, but he is overmatched. His fate is assured. He is a defeated foe, destined for eternal punishment. When the Apostle’s Creed says, “He descended into hell” God proclaims this truth. Christ is greater than the forces of evil in the world today.
Also, I think that a lot of times, we are addicted to the sensational and the sentimental. I think that we are often interested in the big flash, the amazing experience, and the supernatural encounter. When we think we are encountering angels, we are overwhelmed by a sense of the supernatural being tangible, but even more we are enamored with the idea that we matter enough to have an angel appear in on the stage of our lives.
The truth of the Christian life, however, is that the power of Jesus Christ may be accompanied by angels at times in the life of the believer, but the work of the Holy Spirit transforming us to be more like Jesus is where the real action is happening.
The life of discipleship is a “Long Obedience in the Same Direction” as Eugene Peterson puts it. God’s amazing grace is shown more powerfully through the growth of a believer than enables them to learn forgiveness, that changes a person from an addict into an evangelist, a sinner into a saint.
I think that the other reason people look to angels is that they long to experience spiritual power. Many evil forces in this world seem to grab a hold of a person and do not let them go. The power of addiction. The hardened heart that goes into a school and kills people. The person so under the influence of evil that they abuse children placed by God in their trust.
People want to see the power of God at work in a visible way. And at times angels are sent by God in response to this cry. Even more though, the power of the resurrected Son and the Holy Spirit are more powerful than the evil one, and when the power of God is manifest, lives are influenced and lives are changed. God’s power is best manifest in a person who has completely surrendered their life the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and not one who has gained the attention of a heavenly being.
I would rather see the Spirit change a person’s heart so that they place their faith in Jesus Christ than to see an angel fill this place with its awesome presence. I would rather see the evil one vanquished through the Holy Spirit’s power than to see some supernatural angelic manifestation.
Angelic beings are an amazing part of God’s plan. But in the end they are just signposts, pointing to Jesus, who lived and died for you, rose again, and now reigns in heaven, and who will come to judge the living and the dead. So worship Jesus! And know that his power is greater than the angels, than any other force, power or being in the spiritual realm. In all things, Christ is our champion.