“And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.”
What do we think about angels?
We used to spend summer holidays in the Dordogne area of southern France, no big towns or cities, just little villages dotted here and there with gentle, rolling countryside in between. The villages are usually very old and at the heart of each village there is a beautiful medieval church – some of the churches are closed, some are poorly kept, but occasionally there is one that was beautiful both inside and outside.
Like most medieval churches, there is usually at least a handful of statues inside – it being France, Joan of Arc is very popular. The Maid of Orleans appears in many of the churches, dressed in her suit of armour and carrying a flag. But I remember being in a church where another figure dressed in armour caught my eye – a tall, fiercesome looking man with his visor raised, his right foot rested on the head of a serpent. Only when I saw the serpent did I realize who this figure was – this was Michael, the archangel from the Book of Revelation, the serpent was the devil or Satan, whom Michael and his angels had defeated in battle and had thrown out of heaven.
Michael did not match the picture of an angel most of us would imagine. Most of us, if we tried to imagine an angel, would think of the sort of figures we see in our stained glass windows. Our picture of an angel would be of an androgynous figure with a perfect face and blond curly hair, dressed in long white robes with feathery wings on his back. We even use the word ‘cherub’ to describe a child who is beautiful in both appearance and behaviour.
When we think of angels many of us would think of the Christmas nativity play with children dressed in white sheets wearing halos made from tinsel and cardboard wings – the picture the Bible gives us of angels is rather different.
Angels appear regularly in the Bible – there are almost three hundred references to them. The Greek word for angel, angelos, means a messenger, The word for ‘Gospel’ in Greek, euangelion, comes from ‘eu’ meaning good, and ’angelion’ meaning message.
In Scripture, angels are sometimes those who bring messages from God, sometimes they are more actively the agents of God’s will, as in the book of Exodus and in the book of Daniel where they are protectors of God’s people.
In the Gospels, we find an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to Mary and an angel speaking to Joseph in dreams. When Jesus has gone through the temptations in the wilderness, angels come to minister to him. Angels will come and implement the final judgment, separating the wicked from the righteous. Jesus speaks in plain terms about the potential power of the angels to protect him. In Saint Matthew Chapter 26 Verse 53, when he is being arrested, he tells Peter to stop using violence, asking him ‘Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?’
Not only were the angels there to protect Jesus, the angels were guardians of the vulnerable, ‘See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven’, says Jesus in Saint Matthew Chapter 18 Verse 10
Angels form part of the Gospel story, much to the discomfort of those who would try to reduce the whole story of Jesus to something that can be explained in straightforward human terms.
The use of the word ‘angel’ to describe someone who is good is not an accurate use of the word, angels may be good, they may also be evil. Jesus speaks plainly about the power of darkness, saying in Saint Luke Chapter 10 Verse 18, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ and that power of darkness has his own angels. In Saint Matthew Chapter 25 Verse 41, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the king says, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’.
Angels were part of the life of the early church—bringing messages and performing amazing deeds in the Acts of the Apostles—but when it comes to reading in church, there is a tendency to skip over the reading of such passages. Particularly in Europe, when we gather for worship, we tend not to read the stories of extraordinary angelic interventions; they demand that we think about ideas and beliefs that aren’t part of the way we usually think.
If someone met us in the street and asked, ‘are you involved with the angels in a supernatural battle?’ we would think they were eccentric. Supernatural battle indeed, we’re Protestants and there’s not much that is supernatural about being a Protestant. Yet at the heart of being a Protestant there is a belief in the authority of Scripture and in Scripture Saint Paul writes to the Christian Church at Ephesus, ‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’.
The Christian life is not just about being nice to people who live down the street or coming along to a nice old building to sing fine old songs on a Sunday – it’s also about a supernatural struggle between the forces of light and darkness. It’s about armies of angels taking a stand against the forces of death and hell. Christianity is a supernatural faith, it’s about saying we believe in things which we cannot explain or understand.
We can be rational. We can be reasonable. We can try to explain things, but these stories of angels remind us that our human minds can only take us so far. We are caught up in something that is far beyond all our human understanding.
If we come to church and we really think about the word we say and the hymns we sing, it should shake us up. Do we ever stop to think about the real business of the church? When we come along, do we ever think to ourselves that we’re coming to take part in a cosmic, supernatural battle? Maybe if we thought about it too much we wouldn’t come to church at all, if we really thought about what Saint Paul was saying when he wrote to the Ephesians about fighting ‘against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil’, it could frighten us out of our wits.
For most of Christian history people firmly believed these things – in medieval times the belief that we were engaged in a spiritual battle was particularly strong. Only since the Enlightenment, since the 18th century, have we tried to bring the Christian faith down to human terms and have we tried to find a reasonable explanation for everything.
Yet in our heart of hearts we need a belief in angels and all that it entails, we need a faith in the supernatural. If the Christian faith is just about us doing our best here and now, then there is not much point to it. For Christianity to make sense it has to be supernatural, we have to believe in the God who is out there, we have to believe in heaven, we have to believe that there are forces of light that will overcome the forces of darkness in this world.
When we think about these things, if we dare to think about such things, it can be deeply disturbing – we’re not used to trying to think about things outside of this world, we cannot understand them. Yet thoughts of angels can also be deeply comforting, because the forces that are with us are far greater than the forces against us.
‘Michael and his angels fought against the dragon,’ says Saint John. Michael and his angels fight for us.