Taming Angels

Martyn Casserly & Jonathan Macy in Christianity Magazine, November 2011














For those without angelic vision the text is as follows:

Angels, it seems, have a PR problem. Not in the ‘News of the World forced to shut down after a public outcry’ sort of way, but rather that they find themselves strangely misrepresented. Enter ‘angels’ into the search bar on Amazon and of the top fifty books that appear only a couple explore the subject from a biblical standpoint. There’s a few novels that have Angels in their title, but the list is dominated by self-help, spiritual-discovery missives with names such as ‘An Angel Held My Hand’, ‘Angel Therapy Oracle Cards’, and ‘Angels in My Hair’. Seriously. How ironic that God’s chosen messengers should suffer from problems of communication.

One of the most popular writers on the list is the wonderfully named Doreen Virtue, who has authored such classics as ‘Messages From Your Angels’, ‘Signs From Above: Angelic Messages to Guide Your Life Choices’, and ‘Magical Messages From The Fairies’. Most of her books receive four or five star reviews from grateful readers and you can be sure that her publishers also view her as something of a blessing.

In ‘Messages From Your Angels’ she depicts a pastoral and kindly vision of the spiritual beings, who are loving and have a close, personal, tangible relationship with their charge. God is hardly mentioned and when He is it’s never with much focus. He is seen as distant whereas the angels are close and can be asked for answers to a range of problems we might have. These include ‘How can I discover my life’s purpose?’, ‘How can I know if my current lover partner is my soul mate?’, and our personal favourite ‘Dolphins seem to be unearthly, and I wonder what their origin is and if they have a special purpose on Earth?’. Yep, from love lives to porpoise history angels are there and will give you beautifully crafted answers which affirm you from head to toe, inside and out. Glory be.

So why is it that when an angel appears in the bible the first thing they often say is ‘Don’t Be Afraid’? Why would their witnesses fear them? Surely the only thing they’d be in danger of was discovering whether sharks drive cars on their home planet, or a practical solution to bed-hair? Yet both Zechariah and Mary are reassured by Gabriel before he delivers the news that will change their lives forever. Maybe there’s more to these celestial beings than Ms Virtue would have us believe?

Mary and Zechariah, as good God-fearing Jews, would have known the Old Testament reputation of angels, and so had every right to be afraid. Today, thanks to a few thousand years of art, film, and books which have portrayed the angelic as harp wielding, clothes eschewing, floating babies, or languid looking, androgynous beings usually found near beams of sunlight, it can be hard to understand their terror. But the Old Testament showed them as less than benign. More importantly they were less than tame, less than predictable – beings to truly fear.

As Gabriel appeared before them he would have radiated the Father’s holiness and glory – in a similar fashion to Moses after his return from Sinai – due to having stood in God’s presence. His trembling audience would also have known that often angels came when the creator was unhappy and needed something sorted out. They’d have heard about the Cherubim that blocked the way back to Eden, and the angel of the Lord that led the Israelites around the desert for decades until all but two of the original party had died. Then there were the really scary stories. The 70,000 Israelites killed by an angel-administered plague in response to David putting his faith in the size of his army rather than the power of his God (2 Samuel 24:15-16). How Jerusalem only survived a similar fate due to David’s repentance and God’s mercy. Not to mention the 185,000 Assyrians slain by one, solitary angel over the course of a night (Isaiah 37:36). Whatever went through their minds you can pretty much guarantee that the eternal purposes of dolphins didn’t feature highly.

Perhaps one of the most disorienting elements to angelic visitations is that things rarely turn out how you might expect. 2 Kings 6:8–23 is a good example of this. Israel was being attacked by the Syrians, and the Syrian king knew that his only chance for success was to get rid of Elisha. So, as is often the case with kings, he sent his army. Elisha’s servant saw the massed forces approaching and did what most normal people would…he panicked. The odds were insurmountable! Surely they’d be killed! Elisha, however, was very relaxed. Why? He could see the angelic army of the Lord that were positioned around the city to protect them. Then God, in his mercy, opened the eyes of Elisha’s servant to share the vision.

At this point you can imagine the now confident servant mentally pulling up a deck chair, making popcorn, and preparing to watch the slaughter from the safety of the city ramparts. But as the Syrian army attacked, Elisha prayed not for a bloodbath to ensue, but for blindness to fall on the army. This may have prompted a slight adjustment in the servant’s plans, along the lines of ‘Ok – this will make them easy pickings for the heavenly host. Pass the nachos’. No. Instead Elisha took the visually impaired aggressors to their intended victim’s stronghold for a spot of tea. From then on the Syrians did not raid Israel and good relations were restored between the nations. The land was returned to both peace and safety, yet the angels did not have to destroy the enemy army to accomplish this.

Instead of acting up to their image of ones who simply judge, here, under God’s direction, they kept their swords sheathed and acted as a reminder of His power and mercy rather than his wrath. God struck the enemy blind and under divine direction Elisha did the rest.

Another prominent case of angels refraining from convenient smiting is that of the early days of Jesus himself. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask why the angel who came to Joseph warning him to take his family and flee to Egypt didn’t simply kill Herod’s soldiers and be done with it? Easy and effective. Except in this instance it appears that the role of the angels was to get Jesus safely to adulthood so he could start his ministry, be crucified, raised, ascended, and then send the Holy Spirit to bless His Church. An angelic slaughter of soldiers would merely have brought attention to Mary, Joseph and Jesus too early.

As the perfect father God knew the advantages of a child being raised in a peaceful context, rather than one where you are always looking over your shoulder. The constant distraction of watching out for either one of Herod’s thugs or an annoying angel-watcher wanting to grab a glimpse of some mighty act of God, isn’t an ideal environment in which to nurture an infant. Egypt would provide that safety, allowing people to return to normal life, and the horrible events of the nativity fade into memory.

As we follow the life of Jesus we see that angels are often involved in the key moments. During his trials in the wilderness Satan tempts him to throw himself off the temple for the angels to catch him, Jesus of course resists and once the devil leaves, defeated, angels come and tend to their lord. In Gethsemane, at Jesus’ lowest moment, an angel is sent to strengthen him, not in a ‘Yay, Jesus, you’re the best! We believe in you! You can do it! type way, but rather in an actual physical sense. The Greek word in the bible is Eniskuon, which is usually used to indicate the strength one receives from eating. The angel didn’t get him out of trouble but did help prepare him for the path ahead.

After his death it’s an angel who rolls away the stone of the tomb and tells the terrified women that Jesus has risen. Then once Jesus ascends into heaven it’s a couple of angels who tell the disciples that he’ll return again, a return that will be accompanied by the trumpet blast from, you guessed it, an angel. If Jesus is the perfect example of how to live, and he is, then it would seem arguable that the angelic should feature in any who seek to emulate him.

The answers-on-demand nature of the angels described by the likes of Ms Virtue is, of course, appealing. Whereas the rather random behaviour of the biblical examples is a little perplexing. Are they just being awkward? Do angels have some kind of behavioural disorder? Or is something wider going on?

One thing that characterised the later ministry of Jesus was it’s non-conformity and unpredictability. For example he never healed a blind man the same way twice, and if you’re looking for something non-conformist then the saviour of the world wiping gob and mud in someone’s eyes to make them see again is a pretty good shout. In fact there was no model of ministry or prayer which he employed and stuck slavishly to. Why? Because Jesus did only what he saw the father doing, and the father is inventive in his approach to creation. Christ worshiped and emulated a creative creator…and so do the angels. They too see the face of the Father (Matt 18:10), and it’s no surprise that when they serve Him and do His will their ministry exhibits a similar sense of unpredictability and discomfort for those around them.

As we see in the life of Jesus, God uses angels as a part of his loving pastoral care toward his creation. How He employs them though can be a bit confusing. He can use them visibly or invisibly, and even if he uses them visibly, we are told that sometimes we don’t see or even realise it is an angel! Hardly seems fair, but it’s certainly a useful motivation for treating strangers in a more Godly fashion.

If we return to Zechariah and Mary, both nervously about to receive similar messages – the impending birth of a very important son – we see that the outcomes are different and surprising. Poor old Zechariah is struck dumb for asking Gabriel a question, resulting in a rather comical game of Give Us A Clue taking place outside the temple as bemused passersby try to understand the clearly enthusiastic old man. While Mary is told that she, a young virgin preparing to be married, is now pregnant with the son of God, and is then left to explain this to her future husband. That would have been a tricky conversation if there ever was one. Gabriel does finally visit Joseph but only after Mary has faced the shame of being doubted and nearly jilted by her distraught fiancee.

Gather together the greatest marketing minds in business and ask them for ideas on how to announce the coming of world-changing events and I’ll guarantee you that using a mime-artist or a knocked up teenager will not make the list. Thankfully God isn’t interested in trends, focus groups, or market positioning. He knows what needs to happen, to whom he can entrust the task, and has devoted servants who will deliver the news in whichever fashion will work best in the end.

In truth you might never see an angel throughout your whole life, and you would lack nothing in your walk with God because of this. However, knowing more of how they move and minister opens our eyes to catch a glimpse of the splendour of heaven. The depths of God’s creation are exposed and the creativity in how he works is revealed to us. Modern writers may tell you that their version of angels can bring you riches, but if God allows us to see the real angelic realm, with all its mystery, power, majesty, and dedication to Him then we will indeed be richer in a way that really matters.

Jonathan Macy’s book on angels In The Shadow of His Wings is available here and to see what the critics have been saying, check out the Links We Love page on here under News and Reviews.

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