Hesitancy about Angels

The season of Advent is intended to turn our focus to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, in both his first and second comings. But another phenomenon occurs during this season, and we find ourselves preoccupied with the secondary characters of the Christmas story: Mary, Joseph. Innkeepers. Shepherds, Herod, Wisemen, stars, sheep and camels. Oh, and don’t forget the angels! Who can forget the angels these days? They’re everywhere!

Over the past few years we have been repeatedly told about the importance of angels. Spiritual warfare books paint great battles between devils and angels in the air above our heads. Others inform us that everyone has a guardian angel watching out for them.

May I confess my hesitancy to you? Some days I find myself very much concerned and not a little irritated with the angels, – well, at least concerned at our current obsession with them.

Images of Angels.

For thousand of years there have been images of angels drawn in art, pictured in poetry, and developed in imagination. Sometimes they have been portrayed as fat little cherubs floating in the air, looking like pink and plump valentine cupids. Sometimes they are represented rather effeminately with long blond hair, dressed in white gowns with gossamer wings looking a bit like dragonflies. Sometimes they look like warriors from the court of King Arthur, wielding swords and spoiling for a fight. With those pictures in mind I am more inclined to be cynical than is good for me. Those angels owe more to fairy story than His-story.

But why do I bother with this issue?

Recent Interest in Angels

In recent years North American culture has undergone a high preoccupation with angels. In December 1970 Time magazine had an article that lamented the decline of belief in angels and the supernatural. The author should not have been such a pessimist!

Then as the 1990’s began, the newspapers were running articles with headlines such as, “Belief in angels is widespread.” and went on to talk about the growth industry in angels. Guardian angel pins have moved to the checkout counters of grocery stores. Hundreds of new companies have been created to market angel articles. (Check the web pages!)  A recent newspaper reports “Angels catalogues, angel seminars, angel newsletters, angel books, and angel sightings are now big business.”  In the last decade angel movies and TV shows have received an inordinate amount of coverage. Recent surveys of Baby Boomers and GenXers indicate a rapid increase of belief in angels among younger people.

So what’s the problem? Let me suggest one.

Warnings about Angels

This obsession with angels is not a new problem. It was an issue faced by the early Christian Church.

At the time of St. Paul, the Jewish world had become preoccupied with angels.  Because God was seen to be so distant, some began to focus more on angels than on God. After all, the angels hover nearby, whereas God is out there somewhere. Most people presumed they had a better chance to hear from an angel than to hear from God. That is one of the reasons why the author of the Book of Hebrews begins his book insisting that Jesus Christ is greater than the angels. The writer is trying to reduce the importance of angels in the minds of Christians who had recently come out of a Jewish background.

In the Greek world a cult called Gnosticism evolved. They said God is so high and so divine and so sublime, that he doesn’t have much to do with our world. But under God there is another God, who is a little less divine, and under him another who is even less divine, and under that one a long chain of other lesser and lesser beings such as cherubim and seraphim, then archangels and then angels. And it is with angels that we mere mortals get to deal. Paul aware of that trend in Greek thinking warns the Colossian Christians about the “Worship of Angels under the guise of a false humility.” (Colossians 2:18)

Paul tells the Galatian church that even if an angel brought a message different than the one he had already passed on, let him be cursed.  John tells his congregations to test the spirits to see if they were really from God. The early church knew than belief in angel spirits could be a dangerous thing! But why would the early Christians be wary of an undue interest in the angels?

There is always the temptation to worship the seen rather than the unseen; to worship a tamer deity than God Himself. Many in our culture prefer angels to God. We prefer to call the Divine 911 and hope for the Angelic Rescue Team. Angels are usually described in modern mythologies as the doers of kindly deeds, while God seems to be described as a commanding officer with high demands. Angels are helpers: but God insists on moral responsibility. Angels are easy to live with; God seems terrifying to many. And for some of us an angel is a welcome stand-in for God, without God’s sharp edges. The God who is Totally Awesome is too big for our appetites, while an angel is a much more digestible deity. We would rather deal with the messenger service than the God who communicates directly. (See the very same phenomenon described in Exodus 20:18-21 where God’s people would rather deal with Moses the messenger, than God Himself.)

God has always been too big for us. In the medieval period we decided to populate heaven with the saints. Now we could take on a patron saint and pray to him or her. We preferred to deal with God through more approachable intermediaries. Talking to Mary and sensing her sympathy was more comfortable than trying to approach the enthroned God directly.

Our current culture wants spirituality without religion, religion without God; Christianity without Christ, but it doesn’t mind having a few angels hanging around. Someone as glorious and overwhelming as God is much too much for us. We would rather have a god from the bargain basement shelf; who doesn’t offer us much, but doesn’t charge us much either.

I have no desire to do insult to angels. Biblical angels are right, however, when invariably they forbid the worship of themselves. During the season of Advent let us resist the temptation to focus on angels or any of the other secondary characters of Christmas, and instead let us give our worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Think it Through…

What is going on in our society that makes angels so popular to the modern media? Is this trend to be welcomed as a return to “supernaturalism” and a move away from the “secularism” of earlier decades? Or is this a trend to create a “kinder and gentler” God that the one described in Scripture?

Take Action…

What are the substitutes for God in our more secular culture? Are we prone to give our worship to personalities from the sports or entertainment industry?

What are the substitutes for God in Christian culture? Is it possible that we are more in love with the Church of God (the messenger service) than the God of the Church? Have religious personalities such as Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, or Graham, Hybels, and Yancey (all messengers of God) become more appealing voices than God and His Word?

For the Small Group Leader…

Angels are mentioned over 300 times in 34 of the Bible’s 66 books.  But there is something very confusing about the angels of the Bible. Sometimes what we thought was an angel, turns out to be God Himself. Note the following passages that seem to infer that at times an angel may be God manifesting Himself in visible form.

Genesis 16:7-14
Genesis 18:1-33
Genesis 31:10-13
Genesis 32:22-32
Exodus 3:1-6

Published in Light and Life,  November-December, 2001.

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