Herald-angels, other spiritual beings, and the church

Dec 18, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Why do we sing about angels at Christmas time but don’t often talk about them the rest of the year? It could be because evangelistically, talking to secular people about Jesus, we want to avoid extra things that just make it too difficult to believe. They don’t appear in TV dramas, or in the serious newspapers, or in discussions about the economy. So if we want people to start thinking about the Christian faith, using their heads, better steer clear of angels – except at Christmas, where the magic of the season, the candles in the darkness, children singing etc creates an atmosphere in which there is suspension of disbelief.

But is this theory about secularization correct? Some people are fascinated by angels. Cars have bumper stickers: “protected by angels”. They are of course in houses and in lights at Christmas time, but also all year round, in the spiritual section of bookshops, you can hardly find any books on Christian faith but quite a few on angels and how to talk to them, get to know your guardian angel and so on. At funerals it’s common for people to refer to the departed as “an angel in the sky”. Is this an example of the oft-quoted dictum attributed to GK Chesterton, that when people stop believing in God, they don’t become secular, they become undiscerningly pan-spiritual?

Some Christians might feel that even if there are angels, we should only allow them to feature in the background of the gospel message at Christmas, because people are either too secular or too superstitious. Angels might confuse people and take away their focus on Jesus. But in the bible angels have an important gospel function.

We see it a few times in the Old Testament: for example, an angel gives a message to Abraham about his wife’s pregnancy. An angel stands in the way of the wizard Balaam when he is on his way to curse the Israelites. An angel stands in the way of Joshua as he enters the promised land. An angel appears in the fiery furnace with Shadrach Meshach and Abednego in the book of Daniel. We also get the occasional appearance of a host of angels, like an army of them – Elisha and his servant saw them when surrounded by a group of hostile enemies. God is often referred to in the OT as ‘Yahweh Sabaoth’, often translated as ‘the Lord of hosts’. Isaiah and Ezekiel show prophetic visions of God surrounded by spiritual creatures. In the New Testament, visible spiritual messengers, are used to make announcements of the birth, and later the resurrection of the Messiah.

But we also know that a group of angels led by Satan rebelled against God and were cast out of the glorious heavenly host, and for reasons that Scripture only hints at, sought to lead humanity away from God and ultimately be destroyed. Some became the ‘evil spirits’ that Jesus had to drive out when he began his ministry, causing havoc, but over which Jesus and his disciples have authority. The people of the time were not amazed or disbelieving that there were evil spirits around. They knew them and were perfectly capable of distinguishing between illness, mental illness, and the activity of a demon, unlike us today where we have discounted the existence of demons, and so, arguably, can no longer recognise evil in our society. What amazed the people in the synagogue was not that there was a demon, but that Jesus could get rid of it with a word of authority.

A strong case can be made from Scripture that there are also higher level spirits, who have a certain amount of power and authority in human structures of society, governments, perhaps big institutions – even churches, but which have become corrupt. For example, Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation are addressed to ‘the angel of the churches’ and Psalm 82 seems to suggest the existence of spiritual powers who apparently have some authority over human affairs.

We are made in the image of God and so we have the capacity to be aware of these beings. But having said that there are strong warnings in the Bible to worship God only, and not to worship other spirit beings, seek help from them, get too interested in them. In Luke Chapter 1, Mary encounters the angel Gabriel. There is a brief conversation in which Mary ends up accepting the message from God in faith, and then the angel leaves. There was an obvious difference in Mary after this – her cousin Elizabeth kept saying “blessed are you among women!” But in verse 46, Mary does not praise the angel, or speak of it, or try to contact it again – instead she praises God. And it’s the same with the shepherds after their encounter with one angel and then a host of angels in 2:20 – they worshipped Christ.

The letter to the Ephesians, almost certainly written into a context where magic, superstition and alignment with spiritual hierarchies was rife, gives us some vital guidance as to how we are to live, given the reality of the complexity of the material/spiritual cosmos around us:

Eph 1:20-21. God exerted mighty power in Christ and seated him far above every power – and this list refers to spiritual powers as well as human power. Jesus, the one who was born in poverty and laid in a feeding trough, is now risen and in heaven – more powerful than all evil spirits and any force which we think is beyond our control. He has won and will win in the end. So it is a sign of spiritual ignorance, and lack of faith, for Christians, and especially church leaders to act as if they need to appease secular human power and in doing so, unintentionally submit to ungodly spiritual powers, as if somehow this will serve the cause of Christ.

Every person, however good they look on the surface, is under the control of Satan until God transfers him or her across to his control. Eph 2:1-10 explains this dynamic. The transfer of lives from darkness to light is achieved by the resurrection power of God challenging and defeating satan in the lives of individuals, not by gentlemanly negotiation or political manoevring with ‘the powers’ on our part.

Eph 3:10. God’s intent is that his wisdom should be made known to these spiritual rulers and powers. What is his wisdom? Earlier Paul makes clear – the message that through Jesus, people from every race and background can come to know God, their sins forgiven, with assurance of heaven, and able to live in peace now. This message is made known through the church, which should be broadcasting the rule of God to the cosmos. A compromised institution with an unclear message, fearfully submitting to dark powers for imagined short term gain, cannot be this beacon as intended.

Eph 6:10-13. The forces of evil do work through people, but we’re told very clearly that human beings are loved by God even though in error, and hostile to the gospel and God’s people. They are not the real enemy. Rather, Christians must love people, but identify and oppose through spiritual weapons the invisible powers behind the false ideologies and institutions in church and culture which deceive, intimidate and oppress.

The appearance of angels to the shepherds in Luke 2 is a rare vision of spiritual beings who surround God and do his will. They are normally behind the veil, in another dimension, and these good angels come and say “don’t be afraid”. When we first realize that there really is a spiritual realm, that there is a God who cares what we do, it can be disconcerting, even terrifying, but its not as terrifying as finding out that you’ve allowed your life to be controlled by the other side, by evil, without knowing it; and that without God’s grace we might be among those on whom God’s favour does not rest, and to whom peace is not proclaimed.

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