By Pastor Glenn Pease
Before the turn of the century, a Bishop was paying his annual visit to a church related college. He was the guest of one of the professors, and was stating to his host, that now since man knows all about nature, and all inventions have been discovered, we must be on the verge of the millennium. The professor disagreed. He felt that the next fifty years would lead to many more discoveries and inventions. He suggested that men would probably be flying like the birds. The Bishop said, "Nonsense, flight is reserved for the angels." That Bishop's name was Wright, and little did he ever suspect that his two sons, Orville and Wilbur, would be the ones to prove him wrong by successfully flying in an airplane. Wright was wrong about flight being reserved for the angels. Man has advanced so far in this field, he now even hopes to compete with angels in interplanetary travel.
In whatever angels are successful, man is not far behind. Angels were the first to praise God for the glories of His creation, but devout men, like the Psalmist, soon joined in the universal chorus-the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork. Angels were the first to announce the birth of Christ, and sing of the glorious good news of Christmas. But man too, was soon filled with the music of this miracle. Martin Luther expressed it for millions-
My heart for very joy doth leap
My lips no more can silence keep,
I too must sing, with joyful tongue,
That sweetest ancient cradle song.
Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who unto man His Son hath given.
While angels sing, with pious mirth,
A glad New Year to all the earth.
Man cannot refrain from joining the angels in praise to God.
Angels are the intelligent beings that break through the barrier between time and eternity, the visible and invisible, and speak of wonders, and blaze trails for men to follow in God's providence. Angels play a major role in God's plan. Angels are mentioned 15 times in the first two chapters of Luke. Though they are common in Scripture, many people do not take them very seriously. The average Christian would not deny their reality, but it would really make no practical difference to them if such beings did not exist.
The paradox is, the secular world and scientist seem to have more interest in the invisible world than many Christians. Arthur Clarke tells of how radio telescopes are being used to pick up impulses coming from interstellar space. Man hopes to discover intelligent life in the universe. He writes, "We can be certain that these vast instruments will bring us nearer to a true understanding of our universe; and we can hope that, one day, they will tell us we are not alone in its immensity." What a paradox-here is a man of science fascinated by the search for intelligent beings, and here we are as Christians with a record of such beings communicating with man on that first Christmas. If we believe the Word of God, we already know we are not alone in the universe.
Mortimer J. Adler, chairman of the Board of Editors of The Encyclopedia Britannica, wrote the book, The Angels And Us. He also helped edit the Great Books Of The Western World, which is the greatest collection on earth of the 102 great ideas that have shaped the history of our civilization. The first idea dealt with is angels. Dr. Adler is no theologian, but everywhere he goes to lecture on angels, he draws large crowds. Why would the secular world be so interested in angels? It is because their reality would give man hope that life has meaning and purpose. Man longs to know he is not a freak accident of nature and a product of mere chance. That is what the search for intelligent life in space is all about. Earth is the hottest broadcasting body in the universe. Man is sending out radio and television signals from around the world in hopes that they will be picked up on some other galaxy and bring forth a response. Man longs to know he is not alone in this universe.
Adler argues that angels are a logical necessity. They would complete what is otherwise an incomplete universe. If man goes downward, he encounters the animal world, but if he cannot go upward and encounter the angelic world, something is missing and the universe is incomplete. God has created creatures for every environment below man, and it is logical that He would create creatures for every environment above man. There is body without mind. There is body with mind. If there is no mind without body between man and God, God has left a whole conceivable strata of life out of His creation, and thus is an incomplete Creator. But if God did make angels, then the creation is complete.
Philosophically, angels are a necessity. There must be an unbroken chain of life from the amoeba to the angel. We can see the chain below man but not the one above him. But reason demands that we believe in this invisible chain above man. What Adler says that reason demands, the Christian says, revelation gives. The point is, everything the Bible says about angels is consistent with the logic of reason and philosophy. It is a mistake to ignore them, for they play an important role in the total picture of the universe and of the plan of God.
Christians are still deeply influenced by the old scientific mentality, which sought to eliminate the supernatural. If it could not be made available to the senses, it was not real. Materialism became a dominant world view that made even Christians blind to the mysteries of the unseen world. We need to study the world of angels more seriously so that our appetite for the unseen world can be enhanced. Christmas is an ideal time to do this, and so let's look at angels and first of all consider-
I. THEIR NATURE.
There are more misconceptions on this than almost any other aspect of Biblical revelation. Poets and artists are guilty for this. One year there was a great deal of controversy over the Christmas stamp because it was obviously female. Artists have confused the romantic use of the word angel, with the Biblical use. The result is, Biblical angels are usually pictured as female, even though the Bible consistently portrays them as male. At the tomb of Christ they are even called young men. Peter Marshall preferred Biblical scenes on Christmas cards, rather than sail boats, bells, cats and dogs, or Santa. He said, "Angels there must be, but they need not be modernistic angels in evening dress with peroxide permanents." But the fact is, this is what you will usually see when angels are portrayed by the modern artist. Once in a while, however, the term angel is applied to males. Like the case of the man who suddenly found himself standing before the gate of heaven, and he was shocked. "How did I get here?" he asked. Peter replied, "Don't you remember when your wife said, be an angel and let me drive?"
The problem with humorous stories is that people take them as a reliable source of information. They do not read the Bible, and so all they know is what they hear in stories that circulate. I heard a man in the Civil Air Patrol say that he almost got his wings. He was referring to the fact that he almost collided with a jet when he was in his small plane. He was expressing the popular idea that when a man dies he becomes like an angel with wings. What is pathetic is that Christians often go right along with popular misconceptions. Children used to sing in Sunday School,
I want to be an angel
and with the angels stand,
A crown upon my forehead
a harp within my hand.
The Bible makes a clear distinction between man and angel. Men will never become angels. Their natures are radically different. Angels have neither bodies nor souls. Angels are pure spirits. They can take on the bodies of men, but this is not their nature. In Hebrews 1:14, angels are called ministering spirits. Man, because of his body, cannot be called a spirit. In eternity men will have a resurrected body, which will make them forever different from angels. Men are sometimes referred to as souls. A professor giving the population of his home town said, "There are several hundred souls and a few heels." Men can be called souls, but they are always souls linked to a body, and are never pure spirits, as are the angels.
Angels have some advantage over men by being pure spirits. They can communicate by an act of the will. They can travel like thought across infinite space without passing through the intervening space. Pure spirit does not even have the limitation of light. It is the fastest aspect of visible reality, but it still must pass through space. Angels are marvelous creatures, but they are still finite, for they were created.. In Psalm 148:2-5, angels are in the same category as all of the rest of creation-"Praise Him, all his angels....for He commanded and they were created." In Col. 1:16 we read, "For in Him were all things created....whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers." God alone is uncreated and eternal.
Angels have superior intelligence. Jesus implied this in Matt. 24:36, where referring to His coming again He says, "of that day and hour knoweth no one, not even the angels of heaven." In other words, there are some things God does not even share with those beings closest to Him, who know most everything else. Angels have a superior nature now, but ultimately, man will be the masterpiece of God's creation, when they are made completely Christlike. Next, let's look at-
II. THEIR NUMBER.
In verse 13 of our text, we read that suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host. It would be safe to say there are no small choirs in heaven. Angels are pictured in the Bible as being a vast multitude. They are often compared to the stars in number. It was widely believed among the early church fathers that the ratio between the number of angels to that of men was 99 to 1. They arrived at this conclusion by what we would consider a doubtful interpretation. They said the one lost sheep represented humanity, while the 99 in the fold represented the good angels. Jesus left the 99, as the Good Shepherd, to go find the one lost sheep of humanity. It is unnecessary to use such an interpretation to establish that angels are numerous. The Bible speaks clearly on this issue. Deut. 33:2, speaks of ten thousands of holy ones. Dan. 7:10 says, "Thousands of thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him." Rev. 5:11 says, "I heard a voice of many angels....and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands." The idea being conveyed is that they are beyond accurate human calculation. In our day these figures are not so vast, but in Bible times they represent numbers which are unimaginable. Milton was not just speculating when he wrote,
Nor think....though men were none,
That Heaven would want spectators, God want praise!
Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.
All these with ceaseless praise his works behold
Both day and night.
Jesus in Matt. 12:53, told Peter to put away his sword. He said if He needed any defense, more than 12 legions of angels stood ready. The reality of innumerable angels is not an irrelevant fact, like the number of eggs a salmon can lay. It has very practical value in the psychology of Christian living. It is the basis of optimism in a world where numbers do not always support the truth of the Gospel. The prophet Elisha said in II Kings 6:16, "Fear not: for they that are with us are more than they that be with them." The point being, that because of the angels, the godly are always in the majority. The majority of intelligent beings in this universe are always on the side of truth and light. Without this confidence, Satan can easily lead us into discouragement, when we feel like we are alone.
The angels are man's allies in the battle against the forces of evil and unbelief. E. C. Burne-Jones said to Oscar Wilde, "The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint, there wings are my protest in favor of the immortality of the soul." When the study of angels becomes an end in itself, it leads to some sort of heresy, but when it leads you to focus on Jesus Christ and His eternal kingdom, then it is a blessed Biblical doctrine. Their focus is always on their Creator and Lord, and if we join them in that focus, they become our allies.
Come, let us join our cheerful songs
With angels round the throne.
Ten thousand thousand are their tongues
But all their joys are one.
The purpose of the angels on the first Christmas was to get men to go and worship and adore the Christ-child. That is still their main function in our lives today, and especially in this Christmas season. The angels played a conspicuous role in that first Christmas.
1. An angel announced the birth of the forerunner of Christ-John the Baptist.
2. An angel came to Mary to announce the birth of the Messiah, and to tell her what name He was to bear.
3. An angel came to Joseph in a dream to assure him the Christ-child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
4. An angel came to Joseph again to warn him to flee to Egypt.
5. An angel came to Joseph in Egypt to tell him to return to Israel.
6. Angels were the first to announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds.
Angels were the primary messengers of that first Christmas. The Star of Bethlehem was their only competitor, and it reached only the wise men. All others were reached by angels. The question is, what did Christmas mean to the angels? Were they just innocent bystanders who happened to take an interest in the Incarnation? Not so-they were directly affected by this event. It was good news to them as well as to the world, for it meant their job would be more effective.
Origen, the church father said, "The coming of Christ into the world was a great joy for those to whom the care of men and nature had been entrusted." He is referring to the angels. Why should it make any difference to them? Why are they rejoicing before the shepherds? It is because they too are shepherds. They do not care for sheep, but for men. They are the guardians and the guides of mankind. It is a hard job with Satan and his angels doing all they can to lead men astray. The track record of the good angels in the Old Testament is not very impressive. Satan led God's people astray over and over again. Now, at Christmas, they are rejoicing because their Lord has come to help them be more effective in the battle against evil. They knew that the Incarnation was an invasion into enemy territory that would lead them to be more victorious.
Now there is One who can destroy the works of the Devil, their greatest foe. Now they have their David who can topple the giant who is too much for them. Jesus is their hero. We read in Jude 1:9, "But even the Archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the Devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him but said, the Lord rebuke you." This is the most powerful angel we have any record about in the Bible, yet he had to be careful in his conflict with Satan. No wonder the angels rejoiced at Christmas. They now had a hero on the battlefield that would assure them of being on the winning team. Christmas is not just an earthly event, it is a heavenly event. It is cause for celebration in the heavens too, and that is why the angels are singing glory to God in the highest. They had been waiting for the Messiah to come too, for it meant victory for angels as well as for men. From their perspective, Christmas was the beginning of God's greatest strategy to defeat Satan.
The angels are not like the elder brother who was angry at the father for welcoming home the prodigal son. They rejoice at every sinner who repents, for they are on God's side, and rejoice that men are won back from Satan's clutches into the kingdom of light. We, as restored sinners to the family of God, are to recognize the angels as a part of that family. It is wrong to adore them and wrong to ignore them, but it is right to explore them and learn all we can about them so as to feel they are our friends. Christians have not always been friendly to angels. In this season of Christmas it is a good time to recognize our oneness with them, and to be aware that when we sing the praises of God for His gift of salvation in His Son, the Lord Jesus, we are being joined in our praise by the angelic host.