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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. M. Pendleton
From Christian Doctrines: A Compendium of Theology, 1878
Angels are subjects of the divine government, and the part they act in the history of man renders it proper to make special reference to them. Their existence is everywhere taken for granted in the Scriptures; and while they are several times spoken of in the book of Genesis, they are more frequently mentioned in the book of Revelation. To attempt to prove, therefore, that angels exist, would be superfluous and uncalled for.
The term angel, in its literal import, suggests the idea of office—the office of a messenger, rather than the nature of the messenger. Hence we read in Luke 7:24, "And when the messengers of John [in the original Greek, the angels of John] were departed." It seems that when the Bible was written it was so common for some superior spiritual being to be divinely sent as messenger to man that such being was in process of time called angel, that is, messenger.
It is easy, too, to see that the order of beings to which the messenger belonged would likewise be called angels. The term angel, being used to designate a spirit bearing a message, would also be employed as descriptive of kindred spirits, even though they might not be appointed to bear messages. Thus the heavenly hosts are termed angels, though it may be that comparatively few of their vast numbers are engaged in the delivery of messages. But this is a point on which it is needless to dwell at length.
While the word angels is sometimes used in a specific sense to denote a part of the inhabitants of heaven, as in I Pet. 3:22, I assume that it is usually employed in a general sense as designating all the inhabitants of heaven, with the exception of the redeemed from among men. It will therefore be unnecessary to refer specially to "cherubim," "seraphim," "principalities," "powers," "authorities." Doubtless these terms are significant, but I shall regard them as embraced in the general term angels. This view of the matter makes plain the meaning of Luke 15:10, "Likewise I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." No one can suppose that the joy in heaven over a repenting sinner is so confined to angels as to exclude cherubim, seraphim, and others of the heavenly host from participation in it.
Of angels the following observations may be made:
1. They are immortal spirits. The term spirit may be regarded in general contrast with matter. The two substances embrace all the objects to be found in the wide realm of knowledge. There is no substance of which it can be said that it is neither matter nor spirit. The world of matter is all around us. We see it in the earth and its productions, in the sea and its treasures, in the sun and the planets revolving round him.
Our senses bring us into contact with the universe of material nature, and we hear, and see, and smell, and touch, and taste. It is manifest, too, that matter is capable of great changes. It may be fashioned into many forms and taken through many processes of refinement. Gold may be purified seven times—that is, purified to perfection—till every particle of dross is taken from it; and the diamond by laborious and persevering effort may be fitted to sparkle in a monarch's crown; but no operation performed on matter, and no series of operations, can endow it with thought, and will, and reflection.
These are peculiarities of mind or spirit, and where they are found there is spirit. They are found in angels, and angels are spirits. They are in perfect contrast with matter, whether in its grosser or more refined forms. They are spiritual beings, and we, burdened with the encumbrances of matter, can very imperfectly imagine what they are.
While we regard spirit in general contrast with matter, we may consider it in particular contrast with body. The words of Jesus authorize us to do this: "Handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have." (Luke 24:39) This language was addressed to the disciples when they were in great fear. To relieve their minds, excited and alarmed by the supposition that they were in the presence of a spirit, he said, "Handle me, and see." They were by personal examination to assure themselves that he had "flesh and bones," and this was to be decisive of the point that he was not a spirit. A body, we know, has "flesh and bones," for they are so essential to it that there can be no body without them. Here, then, the worth of Jesus place spirit and body in most positive contrast. It follows, therefore, that as angels are spirits, as we are taught in Heb. 1:7, they are without bodies.
Many suppose that they are capable of assuming bodies or something equivalent at pleasure, and that this is necessary to the performance of acts ascribed in the Bible to their agency. Such a supposition, however, may have no other basis than the fact that men are accustomed to exert their power through their bodily organs and by material mediums. It surely does not follow that the same limitations are placed on angelic power; or, if this is the case, may we not inquire as to the nature of supreme power in God?
Who will say that his power cannot be exerted unless a body furnishes the means by which it is done? Our knowledge of the two substances is confined to what can be known of their properties. Acquainted with the properties of matter, we can affirm or deny certain things concerning it; knowing the properties of spirit, we can also affirm or deny. This is all we can do.
Angels are immortal spirits. If asked why they are immortal, I can only say that their immortality is to be ascribed to the good pleasure of God. They are not necessarily immortal because they are spirits. Spirits would as certainly die as do bodies, if God should withdraw his sustaining arm. In the absolute and highest sense of the words God "only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto." (I Tim. 6:16)
The immortality of angels and men is derived from him and dependent on his will. Angels are immortal, because God has made them so. They will never cease to be, because it is not the divine will that they return to their original nothingness. The words of Jesus shed important light on the immortality of angels. Speaking of the righteous dead at the resurrection, he says, "Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection." (Luke 20:36)
It is clear that the equality specially referred to is the impossibility of dying: "Neither can they die any more." For this reason they are equal to the angels, and, like the angels, incapable of death. It is a pleasing thought that angelic spirits will live forever. They are engaged in the worship and service of God, and he deserves everlasting worship and service. They are students of the wonders of redemption (I Pet. 1:12), and these wonders invite endless exploration. Angelic research will be prosecuted for ever.
2. Angels possess great knowledge. All who believe in their existence accord to them intelligence and wisdom of a high order. The common belief among the Jews in the days of David can no doubt be learned from the fourteenth chapter of the second book of Samuel. Joab, anxious for Absalom's return to Jerusalem, sent "a wise woman of Tekoah" to David, hoping through her agency to accomplish the object.
The only thing, however, that has a bearing on the point now under consideration is the following language addressed to David: "For as an angel of God, so is my lord the king to discern good and bad." (II Sam. 14:17) "And my lord is wise, according to the wisdom of an angel of God, to know all things that are in the earth." (II Sam. 14:20) Here it is assumed that an angel of God is wise and endowed with superior knowledge. Nor is it strange that the history of God's favored people from the days of Abraham encouraged and confirmed this view.
There had been frequent angelic interpositions, the natural effect of which was to create the belief that angels excel in wisdom as well as in strength. Their superiority to men is conceded, and the point needs not to be argued. They were, no doubt, created intelligent spirits, their knowledge beginning with their existence. This being the case, we can understand why they, as "sons of God, shouted for joy" when the foundations of the earth were laid, as we are most probably taught in Job 38:7.
They, as intelligent creatures, appreciated the power and wisdom of God displayed in the formation of the globe knowing that it would serve as a theatre for the exhibition of the divine glory; hence their gladness and their shouts of joy. But if the knowledge of angels was coeval with their creation, we may safely conclude that it has been increasing ever since. Their opportunities of observation, and the many experiences they have had in connection, as we may suppose, with direct revelations from God, must have added greatly to the stock of their original intelligence.
They are finite beings, and their knowledge is therefore imperfect; and if imperfect, progressive. The knowledge of God cannot be augmented, because he is infinite; the knowledge of angelic spirits is susceptible of increase, because they are finite. If this one part of angelic history—namely, constant improvement in knowledge—could be written, how full of interest would it be!
We know full well that angels have never been unconcerned spectators of the works and ways of God; and what centuries of opportunity have they had to learn about divine things! Their knowledge was increased before the Flood, and received new accessions when the human race was, with the exception of one family, exterminated from the earth. They learned much more from Abrahamic and Jewish history, scanned the page of prophecy, and when in fulfilment of prophecy the Saviour was born in Bethlehem of Judea, while one of their number announced the fact to astonished shepherds, a multitude of the heavenly host shouted, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2:14)
From the birth of Christ till now angels have watched and cherished the interests of his religion, learning more and more concerning the achievements of redemption, and looking forward with devout anxiety to the day when the earth shall be filled with truth, righteousness, and salvation. Truly, angels possess great knowledge.
3. They are very active and powerful. To give us some faint idea of the rapidity of their movements, the sacred writers represent them as having wings, and as flying on their errands to execute the commands of the Almighty. These forms of expression are not to be understood literally; for wings, and flight by means of wings, pertain to material beings, and we have seen that angels are pure spirits. Of all creatures coming within the range of our vision, those which have wings and fly, exemplify the highest speed.
Angelic activity is, therefore, very impressively taught by the figurative language referred to. There must, however, be a basis and a reason for the use of this figurative language, and they are to be found in the velocity of angelic movement. Here, again, our conceptions fail; for, as physical motion alone comes within the circle of our knowledge, we cannot possibly say what is the nature of the movement by which a spirit goes from one place to another. There is transition from locality to locality, but who can explain it or conceive it? We only know that it must be inexpressibly rapid.
In proof of this I may refer to the words of Jesus on the night of his agony and arrest: "Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matt. 26:53) The words were addressed to Peter to show him that his feeble help was not needed in that hour, for more than twelve legions of angels would be sent to his rescue if the divine plans did not forbid their interference. But the thought to be emphasized in the passage is that so many angels, their supposed residence being in heaven, could instantly appear in defence of their Lord. How these legions of angels could pass with more than telegraphic rapidity from heaven to sad Gethsemane, we know not. We only know that the possibility of the thing indicates an activity truly wonderful.
There is also a passage in the book of Daniel to which reference may be made: "Yea, whiles I was speaking in prayer, even the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, touched me about the time of the evening oblation." (Dan. 9:21) Here there was such velocity of movement as defies conception. The movement of Gabriel was actual, real, whereas the movement of the "more than twelve legions of angels" was potential, possible. The two passages prove beyond doubt the amazing activity of angelic spirits.
Angels, too, are powerful. They are said to "excel in strength." (Ps. 53:20) We are not to suppose that they possess inherent strength. They do not. They have the power that God gives them, for power in the highest sense of the word belongs to him alone. It has been his pleasure to endow angelic spirits with such power as has often appeared wonderful to men. For example, it seems evident that an angel had control of the pestilence which in the days of David destroyed "seventy thousand men;" for we read, "And when the angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed the people, It is enough: stay now thine hand." (II Sam. 24:16)
Another striking display of angelic power is recorded in connection with the army of Sennacherib, king of Assyria. The impious monarch threatened the destruction of Jerusalem, but it is said, "And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred four score and five thousand." (II Kings 19:35; Isa. 37:36) This was a fearful exhibition of the power of an angelic spirit. He smote with an invisible weapon, and a hundred and eighty-five thousand warriors fell before him.
Having read these accounts from the Old Testament, we are prepared for the following in the New: "And after these things I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory;” "And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all." (Rev. 18:1, 21) In view of such testimony as this we can readily believe that angels "excel in strength," and that on the last day "the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels." (II Thess. 1:7)
4. Angelic spirits are sinless and obedient. If God, as we are told, made man upright, we may be sure that angels came from his hand pure, spotless, faultless. We are not left, however, to conjecture on this point; for the epithet holy is applied to angels. They are called "holy angels." (Matt. 25:31) Their holiness, like the holiness of God, is not only an exemption from all moral impurity, but an assemblage of all moral excellences. These excellences, infinite in the character of God, are of necessity finite in the character of angels, because they are creatures. They are objects of God's complacent love. They are just what he would have them to be. They shine in his moral image and reflect his glory. They ascribe to him all conceivable moral perfections, and these perfections they consider embraced in holiness. They therefore exclaim with reverential awe, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory." (Isa. 6:3)
They have an appreciative sense of the holiness of the divine character; they feel for it an interim admiration, for they are holy beings, and out of their holiness arises love to holiness as exemplified in God. In connection with the purity of angels, it is delightful to think of them as constituting "an innumerable company." (Heb. 12:22) There are countless myriads of them, and they retain their original rectitude. They are resplendent with the beauty of sinless excellence.
In short, they are "holy angels," and their obedience is inseparable from their holiness. David calls on them, saying, "Bless the Lord, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word." (Ps. 53:20) It has ever been characteristic of them to hearken to the voice of the divine word. Thus to hearken is to obey. There is law in heaven, and the will of God is the supreme law. Every angel recognizes this fact, and is practically conformed to the will of God.
There is much meaning in the words of Jesus when he teaches us to pray, "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven." (Matt. 6:10) It is taken for granted that the will of God is done in heaven. If so, it is done by angels. They are inhabitants of heaven, and it is their pleasure to do what God requires them to do. It would be a reflection on the completeness of their obedience to intimate that they ask the reason of any command. It is enough for them to know that a command comes from God. The source whence it comes is the reason why it should be obeyed.
Angels so understand the matter, and there is, therefore, an alacrity in their obedience highly pleasing to God. Their only question is, “What does the Lord Jehovah require?” Someone in expressing this thought has said, "If God should send two angels down from heaven, commanding the one to govern an empire, and the other to sweep the streets of a city, they would feel no disposition to exchange employments." Why? Because the will of every angel is perfectly absorbed in the will of God. In such conformity of the will of the creature to the will of the Creator, true happiness is to be found. Angels are therefore happy. Their joy is complete and their bliss unspeakable.
THE MINISTRY OF ANGELS
Having attempted to show who and what angels are, it is now expedient to refer to what they do. They are doubtless employed, as we have incidentally seen, but what are their employments? How are they occupied? Much might be said of their agency in the administration of God's providential government, but I pass over this topic, or only touch it in its relation to the service they perform for the saints. That there is such a service is plain from these words: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?" (Heb. 1:14)
To minister is to serve. Jesus therefore said, "Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Matt. 20:28) Christ died for the heirs of salvation, and angels being in subjection to him, he has appointed them to serve the saints, and the service is most willingly rendered. It is unquestionable that angels take a deep interest in what I may call:
1. The beginning of saintship. The greatest of moral changes occurring in this world is that by which a sinner is transformed into a saint, an unbeliever into a believer, a child of the devil into a child of God. This change is inseparably connected with repentance, and repentance is indispensable to salvation. Jesus said in his teaching, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." (Luke 13:3) And Peter under divine direction uttered these words: "Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out." (Acts 3:19)
These Scriptures show that repentance has an essential relation to the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the soul. There is so much involved in repentance, such important consequences result from it that angels rejoice over the event: "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." (Luke 15:10) Such a sinner becomes an heir of salvation, and angels rejoice in anticipation of his ultimate equality with themselves. They at once assume a service which is to them unspeakably delightful, and they serve the Lord Jesus in serving those bought with his blood.
2. Angels watch and guard the steps of the saints. It is written, "For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone." (Ps. 91:11, 12) The words of Jesus may also be properly quoted here: "Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven." (Matt. 18:10)
Without entering into the controverted question whether every believer has a "guardian angel," it may surely be said that the meaning of this passage is plain: The little ones, according to verse 6, are those who believe in Christ, and the reason assigned why they should not be despised is, that in heaven their angels evermore behold the face of God. Jesus therefore teaches that it is a serious and a perilous thing to treat with contempt the weakest of his followers.
To show the estimate he places on them and the honor they enjoy, he refers to "their angels." These words, "their angels," mean something. The little ones who believe in Christ can claim these angels as their own—in a sense it may be, which we cannot fully understand, but still their own, "their angels." I see nothing incredible in the idea that angels are divinely appointed to watch and guard the steps of the saints.
3. Angels convey the disembodied spirits of the saints to heaven. If they invisibly accompany Christians through the pilgrimage of life, it is morally certain that they are with them when their pilgrimage ends. But what does Jesus say? Speaking of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar, he used these significant words: "And it came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom." (Luke 16:22) No one supposes that the emaciated body of Lazarus was conveyed to Abraham's bosom. It was the immortal spirit of which the angels took charge and which they carried to the heavenly mansions.
Nor is the case referred to as peculiar and exceptional, but we are rather led to regard it as a common occurrence; that is to say, the obvious inference is, that angels do for every dying saint what they did for Lazarus—convey his disembodied spirit to the paradise of God. How little we probably know of what takes place in the dying chamber! We see the cold sweat on the pale brow, we hear the death-rattle, we feel the tears as they roll down our cheeks, and we are obliged to listen to the lamentations of bereaved ones. If, however, our eyes could be opened as were those of the young man for whom Elisha prayed (II Kings 6:17), we might possibly see an angelic escort waiting to conduct the emancipated spirit to its home in the skies.
4. Angels will minister to "the heirs of salvation" when Christ comes again. It is the fundamental fact of the gospel, that Jesus came into the world to save sinners; and a kindred truth is that he will come "the second time without sin unto salvation." (Heb. 9:28) He will come to consummate the salvation of his followers. His coming will be grand and glorious, and be has told us that all the holy angels shall be with him. They will constitute his shining retinue. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other." (Matt. 24:31) The Saviour in his explanation of the parable of the "tares and wheat" said, "The reapers are the angels," and added, "The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them that do iniquity." (Matt. 13:41)
We may form some feeble conception of the interest angels will feel in gathering the saints together, for these saints will be the same persons over whose repentance as sinners they rejoiced. Having ministered to them through their earthly life, having been present with them in death, having conveyed their separate spirits to the realms of bliss, they continue their kind offices at the resurrection. How will they exult when they see the bodies of the saints, at the bidding of their Lord, come up out of the grave radiant with glory and clothed with immortality! When the redeemed hosts are invited to "inherit the kingdom" of God, they will doubtless take possession of their inheritance amid angelic congratulations. Through everlasting ages saints and angels will live in blessed companionship.
Having referred to the character and ministry of holy angels, it is proper to direct our attention to sinful angels. I designate them thus, because Peter describes them as "the angels that sinned," and Jude denominates them "the angels that kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation." (II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6) It is plain that they had a "first estate," and a "habitation" peculiarly their own. Why they kept not "their first estate, but left their own habitation," we cannot tell, for the reason has not been given. True, one passage (I Tim. 3:6) contains an intimation that the sin of the devil was "pride," but as to the cause of his pride we know nothing; nor are we under obligation to adopt the theory of Milton or of any other great man.
The fact that some of the angels sinned is the thing which concerns us, and we are concerned in it, because their sin had a disastrous connection with the destiny of man. There is much less of mystery in the sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden than in the origin of sin among the angels. Eve was influenced by an artful and plausible temptation presented by another being, but this could not be the case with the first angel that sinned. There was no external influence or temptation leading to sin. Sin must have been the result of internal thought and purpose, but how the thought arose and how the purpose was formed in a holy being we shall not know till the judgment of the Great Day discloses all the circumstances connected with the angelic revolt.
It is evident that no federal headship was recognized among angels, but that they acted in their individual capacity. On this account some, in the exercise of their free agency, sinned, and others maintained their allegiance to God. All the probabilities are that sin originated with Satan, and that he had some kind of superiority, which enabled him to propagate his influence successfully among his fellow-spirits. Unless we regard him in this light—namely, as the head and prime mover of the angelic insurrection—it will be difficult to say why Jesus speaks of “the devil and his angels."
Sinful angels are not his by any creative tie, for he has no creative power, but they must be his because he is their leader and they act in subordination to him. He is, therefore everywhere referred to in the Scriptures as pre-eminent among apostate spirits, and is called "the prince of this world" and "the god of this world." In the common version of the Bible we have the term devil very frequently, both in the singular and in the plural number. It is not so in the original Greek. The term translated "devil," in its application to Satan, is always used in the singular number. There are two other terms sometimes translated "devil" in the singular, but more frequently "devils" in the plural, and in every instance the translation could be “demon” and “demons.” The teaching of Scripture, therefore, is that there are among fallen angels many demons, but only one devil, who presides over the demons.
This view seems to be sustained by Eph. 6:11, 12. There we have reference to "the wiles of the devil," and we are told that our contest is not against human foes alone, but "against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." That the influence of the devil, which includes the influence of all the fallen angels, is very great, appears from the effects ascribed to his agency. He is said to "take away the word of God out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved (Luke 8:12); to "blind the minds of them which believe not (II Cor. 4:4); and sinners are said to be "taken captive by him at his will." (II Tim. 2:26) Christians, too, are the objects of his implacable hatred.
He has "devices" against them, and seeks their ruin. He is fertile in expedients to lead them astray, and even transforms himself "into an angel of light" to accomplish his evil purposes. He is the chief adversary of God, and with unwearied constancy attempts to defeat the divine purposes. His malignant depravity has shown itself in all ages, and the lapse of many centuries has not diminished its power. There is one fact which, perhaps above every other, indicates the greatness and the extent of Satan's influence. The most effectual restraints are to be placed on this influence before the day of millennial glory can come. When in the strong, figurative language of Scripture the devil is "bound…and cast into the bottomless pit," then, and not till then, will earth keep jubilee a thousand years.
While, however, we ascribe to Satan and his accomplices great influence for evil, we must not suppose that they possess compulsory power. They do not, and the fact of temptation proves it. Why should the devil tempt and allure men to sin? Why present inducements to sin, if he could coerce them to commit sin? The process of coercion, so far as we can see, would be much more simple than the process of temptation. As Satan possesses no power of compulsion, men are culpable and guilty when they yield to his temptations. Whenever assailed by temptation they should, in imitation of the example of Jesus, say, "Get thee hence, Satan."
Speculation with regard to the future of fallen angels would be unjustifiable, but something can be said that does not belong to the realm of speculation. They are evidently in custody now, reserved to the judgment of the great day. I quote again from Peter and Jude: "For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment," etc.; "And the angels that kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day." (II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6)
Other Scriptures prove abundantly that men will be judged on the Great Day, but these passages teach the same thing concerning the angels that sinned. They are "reserved unto judgment." All the facts having a bearing on their sin will be brought to light, their inexcusable guilt will be shown, and the divine procedure in their case will be fully vindicated. Truly, "the day of the Lord" will be a great day—great in publicly fixing the destinies of angels and men.
Wretched as are fallen spirits now, there is reason to believe that there will be decided increase of their wretchedness after sentence is pronounced on them at the judgment. In proof of the correctness of this view, I refer to Matt. 8:28, 29: "And when he was come to the other side, into the country of the Gergesenes, there met him two possessed with demons, coming out of the tombs, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way. And behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? Art thou come hither to torment us before the time?"
The demons, having effectual control of the unfortunate men, spoke through them. There was no denial but rather a recognition of their future doom. They seem, however, to have regarded that doom as distant, and they were anxious to know whether Jesus was so anticipating it as to torment them before the time. We may regard these demons as representing the whole confederacy of fallen angels; and if so, it follows that there is a universal belief of a fixed period when their torment will be greatly augmented. The basis of that belief, we may reasonably suppose, is to be found in some intimation given them when they learned that they were to be "reserved to the judgment of the great day." (Jude 6)