Rev. Kuiper is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
There are several reasons why we should have an accurate and extensive understanding of angels. First, the source of all angelic understanding is the Word of God, and it is surely our calling to understand the Word of God fully. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable.” We may expect to receive great profit as we search out the Scriptures on the subject of angels. And we assure you that all we set forth here will be from the Word of God. When we studied the available literature on our subject, we found that as soon as an author went beyond the Bible, without exception he became speculative and fanciful. We are not interested in that. We will restrict ourselves to the Word of God as the only source of truth regarding angels.
Secondly, we find in these last days of apostasy an emphasis among many on spiritualism, demon worship, and special revelations. Along with that, angels and demons have an important part. Many are being deceived by these movements, and many others do not quite know what to say about these things. If we have a Bible-based understanding of angels and devils, we will know how to judge of these matters, and we will know how to answer the neighbor when he comes to us enthusiastic about some meeting, or with earnest questions that he has.
Thirdly, we hope to show that a thorough understanding of the biblical doctrine of angels will enrich our lives and increase our thankfulness for salvation. May God open our eyes to this aspect of His creation and this aspect of our salvation. Martin Luther wrote, “The acknowledgment of angels is needful in the church. Therefore godly preachers should teach them logically. First, they should show what angels are, namely, spiritual creatures without bodies. Secondly, what manner of spirits they are, namely, good spirits and not evil; and here evil spirits must also be spoken of, not created evil by God, but made so by their rebellion against God, and their consequent fall. Thirdly, they must speak touching their function, which, as the epistle to the Hebrews shows, is to present a mirror of humility to godly Christians, in that such pure and perfect creatures as the angels do minister unto us, poor and wretched people, in household and temporal policy, and in religion” (Table Talk, pp. 278-279).
The great Reformation came at the conclusion of the Dark Ages; it may be argued that the Reformation was the reason the dark, middle ages came to a close! During the several hundred years before 1517, under the ignorance by which the Roman Catholic Church kept her members bound, there was a lot of superstition regarding heaven and hell, angels and devils, ghosts and goblins, etc. In the area of theology there were all kinds of speculations and endless discussions on the subject of angels. About 1200, a certain Albertus Magnus asked and attempted to answer 120 questions about angels. He discussed the language the angels spoke, and he was not afraid to write at length about the fall of Satan in heaven. About the same time, Bonaventura asked such questions as, “Can an angel be in several places at the same time?” “Can several angels be at the same time in the same place?” “How many angels can dance on the head of a needle?” Duns Scotus, the last of the scholastics or schoolmen, was so speculative in this theology that many in Europe called for saner methods of theological discussion, and Luther called him “the most arrogant of sophists” (specious reasoners). The Reformation brought an end to this wild, speculative method of biblical interpretation; it was a return to the Bible and the principles of Scripture alone and the sufficiency of Scripture.
The Belgic Confession, written about 1560, gives the Reformed view of angels, and shows the restraint that the Reformation engendered in its theologians. (We ask that you read Article 12 of the Confession.) It is very striking that in an article entitled “Of the Creation” more than half the lines are used to set forth the truth concerning angels! There are reasons for this: first, to set forth in a calm, biblical way what we must believe over against the speculations of the scholastics; and second, to distance the Reformed churches from the Sadducees and the Manichees. The former denied the existence of angels altogether. The latter taught that the devils were not created but were eternal, and did not fall but were eternally corrupted.
Angels as such
What are angels? Scripture presents us with four main teachings.
1)Angels are creatures; they were created by God, and are not to be worshiped. They are not eternal. And they are dependent. They have their being, not in themselves, but in God. The creation of angels is not recorded in the first chapters of Genesis. All those who believe in the literal meaning of Genesis 1 agree that angels were created on one of the six creation days. Some place their creation on day one, when God created the heavens and the earth. They point out that at this point the earth was without form and void, but not the heavens. We lean towards this interpretation. Others are content to say that they were created prior to the fourth day, when God made the sun, moon, and stars, basing their view on Job 38:7. Herman Hoeksema prefers the sixth day, although he refuses to be dogmatic about it. Rev. G. Lubbers stated in a recent conversation that he leans toward the second day. It is enough for us to know that as creatures the angels were created during the creation week.
As creatures, angels have their own peculiar natures. They are not glorified human beings. In Hebrews 2:16 we read that Christ did not take on Him the nature of angels, but He took on Him the seed of Abraham. Likewise, Hebrews 12:22 is careful to distinguish between the host of angels and the spirits of just men made perfect. They do not have flesh and blood, although God can give them bodily form. They are spirits, not in the sense that God is Spirit, but created spirits. God made His angels winds (Ps. 104).
Angels are greater than men in knowledge, but they do not know everything. A certain woman said to king David, “My lord is wise according to the wisdom of an angel, to know all things that are in the earth” (II Sam. 14), but we also read that of the day and hour when the Son of God returns, no one knoweth, not even the angels of heaven (Matt. 24:36). And Peter informs us that the angels desire to look into the things which the prophets foretold, the things of salvation. No, the angels do not know all things. Nor are they almighty, though they are stronger than men. We read of angels being mighty in strength, of angels who have power, even the power of Christ, of their work in rolling the stone from the door of the tomb of Jesus and setting the apostles free from prison. But only God is omnipotent. So angels are created spirits, higher than men.
2)Next we ought to see that God’s eternal, double decree of predestination pertains to the angel world. In I Timothy 5:2 the apostle writes, “I charge thee in the sight of God, and Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things.” And of the reprobate angels we read in Jude 6, “And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the last day.” God elected some angels, and reprobated all the rest. The Belgic Confession states that the elect angels have, by the grace of God, remained steadfast and continued in their primitive state, while others have fallen from that excellency in which God had created them.
At this juncture several important points must be made. First, according to the decree of reprobation, a large number of angels fell into sin. If you have been looking for something new here about that fall, you will be disappointed. Very likely you know as much as we about that matter. The angels fell sometime after their creation and before the appearance of the devil in a serpent to our first parents in Paradise. Their fall into sin was motivated by pride. The prince of the devils was not satisfied in being a holy angel in the presence of God, but he wanted to be God himself. He succeeded in getting a large number of angels to join in his rebellion; Revelation 12 states that his tail drew a third part of the stars of heaven down with him. But how sin entered into God’s holy heaven, how rebellion filled the minds of Satan and his cohorts, is a mystery that has no present answer. Will we know in heaven? Perhaps not even then.
Further, angels do not comprise a race similar to the human race, but they are a host or a realm of individuals. Angels are not organically related. They do not marry and bring forth little angels. Their number is constant from the moment of their creation. Angels are not legally related either. They do not form a corporation or federation. When Adam fell into sin, the entire human race became guilty and corrupt in him. He represented us in Paradise (Rom. 5:12). But when Satan fell into sin, all the angels did not become guilty of his sin. Those who willfully joined his rebellion became wicked and depraved, while those who remained steadfast by the grace of God remained upright and are still upright today.
The third point is that the death of Christ did not atone for the sins of a single angel. He is not the Savior of angels. The holy angels do not need redemption and the fallen angels have fallen absolutely. Yet, the Scriptures make clear that the work of Christ in His humiliation and in His exaltation does have significance for the angel world. Through His death, resurrection, and ascension to God’s right hand, Christ did unite all things in heaven and on earth. He makes all of God’s creation one, and He is Head over all exalted. There is that difficult passage in Colossians 1:20 (“And having made peace through the blood of the cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself; by Him, I say, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven.”) which states emphatically that through the blood of the cross Christ has reconciled all things unto God whether they be in heaven or on earth. The difficulty is that we usually think of reconciliation in terms of the removal of the guilt of sin through the satisfaction of the justice of God. But the holy angels have no guilt of sin. The answer to the difficulty must be found along these lines. The peace that Christ established through the blood of the cross is, first of all, peace with God. The opposite of peace is rebellion and war. Man is at war with God, and man is at war with man. There was also war among the angels or war in heaven (Rev. 12). Although the elect angels did not sin, yet a certain stain or reproach did attach itself to the angel realm because of the rebellion of Satan and his demons. Christ arose as the Firstborn of every creature, so that in the cross of Christ every thing is reconciled to God and every aspect of the universe is brought into peace with God. The division in the angelic realm is healed. Christ is the new Head of the angels as well, and He has the pre-eminence everywhere for uniting all things in one under Himself.
3)When God created the angels He placed them in various orders or at different levels. Angels differ as far as their glory and positions are concerned. We can call this the classification of angels. (We will limit ourselves to the holy angels; you can read C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters for the classification of devils.) Scripture speaks of the cherubim which are the guardians of God’s throne, righteousness, and holiness; of the seraphim which stand above the cherubim, and lead the worship of God in heaven; of the archangels, one of which is Michael and perhaps another is Gabriel; angels entrusted with specific, great tasks by God. Paul speaks in Colossians 1 of further organization of angels when he writes of thrones, principalities, dominions, and powers, all of which were created by Christ and for Christ. One more angel is mentioned in the Old Testament, the Angel of the Lord. Really this is not a created angel, but he is the Christ as He appeared in the form of an angel before His incarnation through the virgin birth. When Christ appeared in the form of an angel, to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Balaam, Gideon, and others, there is a foreshadowing of the great mystery of godliness, when God was manifest in the flesh.
4)The last point we wish to make regarding angels as such is their number. We said earlier that the number of angels remains constant. They do not increase or decrease. Now we notice that that number of holy angels is very great! In Daniel 7 the prophet writes that “Thousands of thousands ministered unto God, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.” Literally that is a hundred million, but the idea is really a countless throng! As we read in Hebrews 12, an innumerable host of angels.
… to be continued