Articles

St. Michael and All Angels

Feast Day, 29th September.

I approached this subject as a virtual novice.  My knowledge of angels does not extend much beyond some of the Biblical accounts of their appearances and activities.  I cover the Biblical evidence in the second part of the article.

For the first part of the article I defer to the superior knowledge of a respected author. For the second part I defer only to the word of God.

In order to gain further insight into angels I resorted to an author who had already done a good deal of research on the subject, Peter Kreeft.  Let me say at the outset that I do not necessarily endorse everything Kreeft states in his book, or in any of his books.  This is a non-denominational blog.  If I cite the work of an author who is an apologist for a particular brand of Christianity, I feel duty bound to point that out to my readers.  Kreeft is a well-known apologist for Roman Catholicism.  However, in this instance his church affiliation does not detract from the value of his findings.  I have yet to find a book that treats the subject with such detail and without being overly esoteric.

Peter Kreeft  Angels (and demons): what do we really know about them?  Ignatius Press, 1995.

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Scripture are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB).

Who are angels?

Kreeft provides a useful overview of ‘angelology’.

‘Angelology has data, and its theories are justified by its data. For instance, the traditional theory of angels….says that angels are (1) creatures of God, (2) bodily spirits, (3) with intelligence, (4) and will, (5) who live in God’s presence in heaven, (6) obey his will, (7) carry his messages (angel means ‘messenger’), (8) assume bodies as we assume costumes, (9) influence our imagination, (10) but not our free will, and (11) move material things supernaturally.  If any of the points in this theory were false the data would be different.  This is the justification for the theory.  For instance, if angels could not assume bodies, they could not eat.  However, in Scripture they do on occasion eat (see Genesis 19.3), therefore they can assume bodies.

‘The only reason today that people are much more suspicious of angelology than in any previous time or place or culture is naturalism, the philosophy that denies the supernatural.  If the data didn’t claim anything miraculous or supernatural, it would be accepted just as data about other natural beings and events is accepted even if it is unusual (like platypuses in zoology or multiple personalities in psychology).’ (pp.28-29)

The attributes of angels are set out at the beginning of the book (p.17):

1. They really exist. Not just in our minds, or our myths, or our symbols, or our culture. They are as real as your dog, or your sister or electricity.

2. They’re present, right here, right now, right next to you, reading these words with you.

3. They’re not cute, cuddly, comfortable, chummy or “cool”.  They are fearsome and formidable.  They are huge.  They are warriors.

4. They are the real “extra-terrestrials”, the real “Supermen”, the ultimate aliens.  Their powers are far beyond those of all fictional creatures.

5. They are more brilliant minds than Einstein.

6. They can literally move the heavens and the earth if God permits them.

7. There are also evil angels, fallen angels, demons, or devils.  These too are not myths.  Demon possessions, and exorcisms, are real.

8. Angels are aware of you, even though you can’t usually see or hear them.  But you can communicate with them.  You can talk to them without even speaking.

9. You really do have your very own “guardian angel”.  Everyone does.

10. Angels often come disguised.  “Remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13.2) – that’s a warning from life’s oldest and best instruction manual.

11. We are on a protected part of a great battlefield between angels and devils, extending to eternity.

12. Angels are sentinels standing at the crossroads where life meets death.  They work especially at moments of crisis, at the brink of disaster – for bodies, for souls and for nations.

The Biblical evidence

The two covenants

We first encounter an angel in Genesis 16.7-14 when one of their number comes to Hagar, Abraham’s wife who had previously been the slave-girl of Sarah, his other wife.  Hagar had run away due to mistreatment at the hands of Sarah.  The angel told her that she had conceived and that she should return home.  The child should be named Ishmael, for the Lord had heard her cries of distress (Ishmael means ‘God hears’).  ‘Ishmael’s descendents are Arabs of the desert who are as intractable and vagrant as these wild creatures [wild donkeys (v.12)], cf Job 39.5-8’ (NJB footnote).  Hagar is aware that she has seen an agent of God.  The proposition that she had seen God himself in bodily form is unlikely since elsewhere we are told that God cannot be seen.  Even Moses and Elijah, great prophets, were prevented from seeing God.  Instead they experienced terrifying manifestations of him (Exodus 19; 1 Kings 19).  It is only later in salvation history that God manifests himself in human form in the Incarnation, through his Son, Jesus Christ.  At the Transfiguration, God speaks but is not seen, in the presence of Jesus, Moses and Elijah and the disciples Peter, James and John (Matthew 17.13, cf 2 Peter 1.16-18).

In Genesis 18 and 19 we find an account of angelic intervention in the service of God.  In 18.1-15 the Lord sends three men to Abraham, angels in disguise.  They have come to inform him that his wife Sarah will conceive, despite her being beyond childbearing age. ‘Nothing is impossibe for the Lord’ (18.14, cf Luke 1.18).  Sarah later gives birth to Isaac, the child who continues the line that emerges later as the nation Israel.  He is therefore the child of the promise given previously to Abraham by God: ‘This is my covenant with you: you will become the father of many nations’ (17.4).  Ishmael is the child of human nature, not of the divine Spirit.  Ishmael is born of a slave-girl, but Isaac is born of a freewoman.  Therefore Isaac inherits God’s promise for posterity, whilst Ishmael is forsaken and wanders in the desert like a nomad.  This is an allegory for faith based on a divine promise as opposed to human beings who throughout history have wandered in a spiritual wilderness, slaves to their own passions instead of obedient children of God.

The narrative is also an allegory for two covenants, the one promulgated on Mount Sinai through Moses when he accepted the Law from the hands of God; the other as a continuation of the covenant given through Abraham, which is the inheritance of all who have faith in God through Christ, a faith of interior spirituality, not adherence to the Law (see Galatians 4.21-31).  Abraham’s faith in God was fundamental, explicitly placing trust in God.  It predates the giving of the Law.  As Christians our inheritance of faith is therefore from Abraham, not from Judaic rules and regulations.  The Law was in any case a temporary measure.  God ordained it as a framework by which the Israelites would cleave to God as the chosen people destined to carry forward God’s plan of salvation for mankind.

Christ, the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews, completed salvation history by establishing in his blood on the cross a New Covenant with mankind.  This is a covenant based on faith in Christ as Son of God who has completed the Law in his own person and work, and in his crucifixion and resurrection.  Christ’s work is redemptive, restorative and salvational, something that could never be achieved by the Law (Romans 5-8).  In the New Covenant God resides in the heart.  It is a spiritual transformation, an interior movement of the will propelled by the Holy Spirit, instead of deference to the exterior words of the Law.  Despite its divine origin, the Law cannot effect eternal salvation, ‘for the written letters kill, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3.6).

Angels as rescuers

Tbe Genesis narrative continues with the account of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Here the angels (now two) rescue Lot from the depravity of the men of Sodom.  The angels urge Lot and his wife to flee to the hills to escape certain death.  God’s wrath results in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (18.16 – 19.29). ‘The unnatural vice that takes its name from this incident was an abomination to the Israelites….but it was rife among their neighbours’ (NJB footnote). (See Leviticus 20.13, 23; Judges 19.22 seq; Romans 1.18-32; 1 Corinthians 6.9-11).

In the Acts of the Apostles there are two miraculous deliverances, one of Peter and the other of Paul and Silas.  In Acts 12 we find Peter under guard in prison, awaiting trial.  An angel of the Lord appears and the cell is filled with light.  He taps Peter on the side to wake him.  He wakes up and the chains fall from his hands.  He leads Peter out of the prison, gates opening through the angel’s power (12.1-11).  In Acts 16.25-37 Paul and Silas are miraculously freed from prison.  The event is equally mysterious and dramatic.  Although angels do not appear on this occasion, no doubt they were involved in the miracle.

Angels as messengers

At key points in God’s plan of salvation he sends angels as messengers to announce significant events.

In Ezekiel 40.1 to 44.4 the prophet experiences a lengthy vision.  He is lead by an angel to survey the future Temple in detail, the angel explaining the vision to him, stage by stage.

A similar motif is found in Zechariah 1 to 6.  The man standing among the myrtles is an angel who guides the prophet through eight visions.  The three horses in 1.8-11 represent the angels who have the world under their surveillance.  Are these the archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael?  The narrative notes the colours of the horses, each colour presumably identifying an angel.  Jewish mythology associates white with Michael, red with Gabriel, and green with Raphael.  In Chapter 6 there is a reference to four chariots.  The horses are coloured red, black, white and piebald.  The angel explains to Zechariah that these are the four winds of heaven who have attended the Lord.  We can surmise that they symbolise angels (6.1-8).  In Revelation 6.1-17 there is a similar motif involving four horses of different colours, but the context is different.  Here the angelic riders of the horses are given authority over a quarter of the earth.  They represent wild animals, war, famine and plague – instruments of divine retribution.

The angel Gabriel appears in Daniel 8.15-26 as the interpreter of Daniel’s vision of the ram and the he-goat.  He also appears to Daniel in 9.20-27, telling the prophet that he is a man specially chosen.  He then explains the meaning of a revelation given to Daniel, the prophecy of the seventy weeks (9.1-19).

In Matthew 1.18-25, an angel appears to Joseph, husband of Mary, in a dream.  He instructs him to take Mary as his wife despite the fact that she has conceived.  The angel explains that it is a miraculous conception through the Holy Spirit.  He tells Joseph that the child will be the one to save his people from their sins, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 7.14.

In Luke 1 we read of two visitations from the angel Gabriel.  The first is to Zechariah, telling him that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son and that he must be named John, later known as John the Baptist (1.11-20).  Next an angel visits Mary to inform her that she will conceive.  The child will be called Son of the Most High and must be named Jesus.  Mary is perplexed since she has ‘no knowledge of man’ (1.26-38).

In Matthew 28.1-10 Mary of Magdala and Mary mother of James go to visit the tomb of Jesus.  They experience a violent earthquake and an angel of the Lord appears, rolls away the stone at the entrance of the tomb and sits on it.  He informs them that the Lord has risen, urges them to see where he had been laid and to tell the disciples that Jesus would be in Galilee where they would see him.  As they rush away Jesus himself comes to meet them.  They pay him homage, clasping his feet.  He says to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; there they will see me.’

In Mark 16.1-8 a similar narrative appears, this time with the addition of Salome.  A young man in a white robe (an angel) is seated in the tomb and provides the same information as in Matthew.  However, in this account Jesus does not appear.

In Luke 24.1-11 Joanna has replaced Salome.  In this version two men (angels) in brilliant clothes suddenly appear as the women inspect the interior of the empty tomb.  The angels give them the same message as in Matthew and Mark.  Jesus does not appear in this account either.

In John 20.1-18 only one woman features, Mary of Magdala.  She goes to the tomb and sees that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance.  She immediately informs Peter and John who visit the tomb and see the linen cloths that Jesus had been wrapped in.  They realise that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, as he had predicted (Matthew 17.9; Mark 9.10).  The disciples then leave the scene. Mary remains, weeping.  She peers into the tomb and sees two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been.  Then, turning round she sees Jesus, although she doesn’t recognise him at first.  When he calls her by her name she realises who it is and addresses him as ‘Rabbuni’, which means Master.  He says to her, ‘Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to the brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’

In Revelation 1.1-2 we are told that God sent his angel to make known to John the revelations that we now know as the book of the same name, so that John can bear witness to the word of God and to Jesus Christ.

In Revelation 4.5, in the passage where God entrusts the future of the world to the Lamb (Jesus Christ), we read of seven Spirits of God.  The NJB footnote states: ‘Not the seven-fold Spirit of medieval tradition but the seven angels of the presence – see Revelation 3.1, 8.2; God’s messengers, cf Revelation 5.6 and passim; Zechariah 4.10.’

Angels as guardians

In Revelation 1.20 seven angels are referred to as guardians of the seven churches that form the narrative of Chapters 2 and 3.  The NJB footnote states: ‘Hence each church is considered to be ruled by an angel responsible for it, to whom the letter is addressed.  But the churches are also in the hand of Christ, that is, in his power and under his protection.’

Angels also appear as guardians in the following narratives:

Exodus 3.20.  An angel precedes the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land.

Deuteronomy 32.8.  In the Song of Moses it is revealed that nations are assigned guardian angels, here named ‘sons of God’ (JB).

Daniel 10-12.  An angel appears to the prophet Daniel as an apparition.  In a long discourse he reveals recent events of prophetic significance and what will happen as a consequence.  It is here that we meet the archangel Michael (which means ‘Who-is-like-God’).  He is the guardian angel of the people of God (cf Exodus 23.20).  Michael is sent by the Lord to confront Satan in Zechariah 3.1-2.  In Jude 9 Michael leaves Satan’s condemnation to God.  Daniel 12 opens with the prophecy that Michael will arise as defender of the Israelites, that it will be a time of great distress, unparalleled since nations first came into existence.  This is echoed in Matthew 24.21, Jesus’ prophecy concerning the great tribulation of Jerusalem (cf Revelation 7.14, 16.18).

Michael reappears in Revelation 12.7, leading the angels against the dragon (Satan) who has his own band of (fallen) angels.  The dramatic narrative of the struggle against the forces of evil continues to 21.8.

Angels inferior to Jesus; human beings inferior to angels

God is at the apex of the universal hierarchy, under which are spiritual beings, angels and men.  As both a spiritual and material being, man occupies a unique position.  Below man exist the animals, then the plants, then minerals.

In the spiritual sphere Jesus is superior to the angels, as is made clear in Hebrews 1.5 to 2.9.  However, for a short time Jesus was made lower than the angels.  This was during his presence on earth, a period of around thirty years from birth to crucifixion.  He shared equally in our human nature ‘so that by his death he could set aside him who held the power of death, namely the devil, and set free all those who had been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death’ (Hebrews 2.14-15).  The NJB footnote explains this passage: ‘Sin and death are related because both derive from Satan, whose reign is the opposite of the reign of Christ.  The resurrection is the guarantee to believers that they will rise’ (cf Romans 8.11).

Angels are God’s courtiers, as described in Deuteronomy 32.43; Job 1.6; Psalms 18.10, 99.1, 103.20-21; Daniel 4.10; Hebrews 1.7 and Revelation 4.5.  A seraph, a kind of angel, was sent to Isaiah to annoint him as God’s prophet (Isaiah 6.1-7).

Only three angels’ names appear in the Bible: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.  The last-named appears only in the apocryphal Book of Tobit, 3.17 and 12.6.  Some Protestant churches recognise Michael as an archangel or the Prince of angels.  Catholicism recognises all three as archangels.

Man is only a little less than the angels (cf Psalm 8.5).  Human beings are inferior to the angels as they do not possess superhuman and supernatural powers.  The lives of human beings are held in balance during their time on earth, with free will a crucial factor in determining their ultimate destiny – that is, our will co-operating with God’s will.  Through faith, God will raise us above our earthly sphere to the spiritual heavens, salvation to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15.1-58; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18).

There dwells in the human heart a continuous tension between the forces of good and evil (Jeremiah 17.9).  Sin crouches at the door of the mind, but it can be mastered (Genesis 6.7).  Light, true Light, cannot be overpowered by darkness (John 1.5) but the ill-disposed and weak-willed are always vulnerable in the swirling tide of human affairs.  Men and women can embrace the faith or they can choose to reject God and deny that he exists.  By so doing they condemn themselves to an autonomous existence without God’s protection.  It is a fateful decision.

Postscript

We hear of theologians who have lost their faith.  I have to question if they had much faith to begin with, or any at all.  Was the study of Christianity an intellectual exercise to accrue academic trophies?  Was the fascination transitory, a tantalising morsel washed down by the heady wine of intellectual arrogance?  Doubt is a seed that germinates in the mind, then it sprouts, then grows into a parasite.  Ivy attaches itself to a tree and draws the lifeblood out of it, eventually killing it.  Such is doubt, a creeping contagion that becomes a clinging permanence.  Over-analysis leads to spiritual paralysis, speculation triumphs over objective truth, philosophy replaces divinity.  Thus the great truths of the Christian faith are swept away in the floodtide of secular opinion. But when the tide recedes the Word of God remains in the sands of time, in the Rock of Ages.

All humanity is grass, and all its beauty like the wild flower’s.  As grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord remains for ever. (1 Peter 1.24-25, cf Isaiah 40.6-8)

Those who are sceptical about the supernatural demand a sign, a stupendous display to convince them, but even this may not succeed.  Better still to receive a metaphorical tap on the shoulder from the Holy Spirit, to hear the voice of God in the stillness of solitude, and then say, like the awe-struck prophet, ‘Ah, Lord God; look, I do not know how to speak: I am a child!’ (Jeremiah 1.6 JB).  Yes, a child of God, made in his image, a child destined to bathe in the light of his grace for all eternity and to sing with the angels.

St. Matthew

Feast Day, 21 September. Apostle and evangelist. Little is known about Matthew, when or where he was born or his eventual fate. His Gospel contains more references to the Old Testament than the others. This is done to illustrate from Scripture that Jesus Christ is the expected Messiah, not only fulfilling prophecy but completing in his own person and work the Law upon which Jews were enjoined to live out their lives. Matthew’s gospel was intended to convince the Jews of Christ’s divine credentials. Luke wrote his gospel on the same basis but largely for a Gentile audience.

The one certain fact is that Matthew was a tax collector for the occupying authorities, the Romans. As such he would have been anathematized and shunned by all right-thinking Jews, a collaborator who would have taken a percentage of the tax revenue for his own pocket. Picture the scene. Here was a man who readily accepted the call from Jesus to be one of his followers (Matthew 9.9). He came away from a lucrative occupation and embarked on a venture with an uncertain ending. Was it out of deep-seated guilt, self-loathing for being a traitor? His position would have made him a social pariah amongst his fellow countryman. This might have been too much to bear for someone who would otherwise have considered himself a devout Jew.

The Gospel of Matthew contains much to aid our understanding of Jesus Christ and his mission. The Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5 to 7, is a masterful exhortation from the lips of Jesus, setting out as it does the spiritual, moral and ethical framework in which Christian disciples must live, the dispositions of heart and mind necessary to sustain our walk with Christ. The Beatitudes (5.3-12) capture the new ethos in eight blessed evaluations of the Christian life.

For Matthew to be accepted as one of the inner circle, the twelve disciples, shows the radical nature of Jesus’ mission. Those who are in most need of God’s love and redemption are the first to be invited into the Kingdom. God’s grace is to be offered to sinners too. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.’ (Matthew 5.3). To respond to the call of Christ requires humility, repentance and a radical reorientation of one’s life. An encounter with Christ is transformative. It is also exclusive. ‘No one can be the slave of two masters….You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’ (Matthew 6.24).

As an official in the service of the Romans, Matthew may have been better educated than some of his confreres. Jesus’ words in Matthew 13 could well refer to Matthew: ‘….every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both old and new.’ (v.52). Matthew was a scribe who became a disciple and left us a wonderful account of his master’s teachings.

‘Tradition relates that Matthew preached in Judea after the ascension for a number of years (twelve or fifteen) and then went to foreign nations.’ (Unger’s Bible Dictionary)

Read: The Gospel of Matthew, making a particular study of the Sermon on the Mount. Look for various themes and narratives – for example, the birth and infancy of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven, parables, miracles, discipleship, the Second Coming, the Last Judgement, Passion and Resurrection.

Prayer: Eternal God, you who have formed the universe and breathed life into mankind; call out from the Church men and women to serve you in the world. Equip them with the gifts of your Holy Spirit and entrust to them the great task of bringing new life to the deadness which surrounds us; that there may be a new creation in the hearts of all who turn to your Son in repentance and faith. It is in his name, O God, that we bring our prayer. Amen.  (Michael Saward)

St. Bartholomew (aka Nathanael)

The apostle, whose feast day is 24 August, appears in the list of disciples in the synoptic gospels and is identified as Nathanael in John’s gospel.  Bartholomew is a patronym, literally ‘bar Tolmai’, which means son of Tolmai.

Nathanael’s contribution to the gospel narrative is in John 1.43-51.  Philip draw’s Nathanael’s attention to Jesus, saying, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, the one about whom the prophets wrote: he is Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.’ Nathanael casts doubt on the worthiness of anything from that place.  Jesus soon dispels his scepticism with the declaration, ‘There is an Israelite worthy of the name, incapable of deceit.’ ‘How do you know me?’ replies Nathanael. ‘Before Philip came to call you I saw you under the fig tree,’ is Jesus’ response.

Nathanael is astonished at Christ’s supernatural knowledge (cf John 2.25).  On the basis of this experience he believes: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.’

“Christ responds by promising Nathanael that a day will come when his belief will be founded on something far more profound than Christ’s superhuman knowledge – the day when he will see ‘heaven laid open, and, above the Son of Man, the angels of God ascending and descending.’ This is John’s way of saying that a greater revelation will come to Nathanael when he realises that it is Jesus Christ through whom God has access to man on earth and through whom man has access to God in heaven.  John is here referring to the death and resurrection of Christ, the moment when this full revelation will be given.  Nathanael stands in vivid contrast to the unbelieving Jews who are later pictured as unwilling to open their eyes to the possibility that in the words and works of Jesus God is revealed (John 7-9).” (Kee and Young, The Living World of the New Testament, p.390).

Of Nathanael’s subsequent life we know very little.  He was one of a small group of disciples at the Sea of Tiberias to whom Jesus showed himself after his resurrection (John 21.2).  According to Eusebius, later accounts have his apostleship extending all the way to the Malabar coast of southern India, where he was martyred.

Nathanael “seems to have been one of those calm, retiring souls, whose whole sphere of existence lies not here, but ‘Where, beyond these voices, there is peace.’  It was a life of which the world sees nothing, because it was hid with Christ in God.” (Farrar, quoted in Unger’s Bible Dictionary)

The spiritual value of Nathanael’s conversion

Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus highlights the importance of evangelism, whether directly by preaching and by word of mouth, or indirectly through the written word or on the internet.  But words alone will not suffice.  We need to be touched by Christ through the Spirit, such that will ignite a spark of recognition in us of our spiritual poverty and neediness.  None of us can claim to occupy the high moral ground.  We need to confront our failings and seek a remedy.  Our introduction to Jesus may not be as dramatic as that experienced by Nathanael, but the result will be the same, a transforming friendship maintained through constant reading and study of Holy Scripture, by prayer and by lifelong witness in the service of the Lord impelled by the Holy Spirit, a friendship built on love that exceeds all expectations and the bounds of human knowledge.

Read: John 1.43-51; Psalm 16.5-11; Acts 1.6-14

Prayer: We thank you, Lord Jesus, for your last words.  We treasure them for the promise of your Holy Spirit to give us power.  Help us now to obey your command to be witnesses to the ends of the earth, starting from where we are now.  In your name we pray.  Amen.  (Ian D. Bunting)