“And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.” Revelation 12:7
What do we think about angels?
Summer holidays used to be spent 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 people would imagine. Most people, if they tried to imagine an angel, would think of the sort of figures seen in stained glass windows. The 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. The word “cherub” is used to describe a child who is beautiful in both appearance and behaviour.
When they think of angels many people 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 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, an angel announces the birth of Jesus to Mary and an angel speaks 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, there is a tendency not to read the stories of extraordinary angelic interventions; they demand that people think about ideas and beliefs that aren’t part of the European mindset.
Yet, at the heart of the Christian message, there is a that, as Saint Paul writes to the Christian Church at Ephesus, “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 described by Saint Paul is 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.
For most of Christian history people firmly believed these things – in medieval times the belief that people were engaged in a spiritual battle was particularly strong. Only since the Enlightenment, since the 18th century, has the Christian faith been brought down to human terms, has there been a seeking of a reasonable explanation for everything.
Yet, for Christianity to make sense it has to be supernatural, it demands belief in a God who is out there, a belief in heaven, a belief that there are forces of light that will overcome the forces of darkness in this world.