July 16, 1995
SUGAR COATED ANGELS
The Son of Man will send out his angels and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. Matthew 13:41
Angels are making it big. They’ve starred in TV programs and movies. They’re the topic of talk shows. And they’re selling books like crazy. Just how big is the angel boom? In the last five years, the number of angel books in print has gone from five to at least 200.
There’s a strong demand for angels, and it’s no wonder. These angels are eager to help with just about anything you want. They rescue you from car accidents, they help you win baseball games, they heal you from sickness, and if you’re looking for a spiritual high, they give you revelations and spiritual experiences and warm feelings like nothing you’ve had before.
I’m glad people are interested in angels again. For too long, too many of us have acted like nothing is real but the material world, the things we can see and touch and control. If the new interest in angels gets us out of this rut and makes us alert to supernatural realities, it will be a very good thing indeed. And it will be even better if this interest in angels leads us to seek the Lord of angels, God himself.
But I wonder if angels aren’t just a little too popular and profitable. Trudy Bush writes in the Christian Century about the angel craze and tells how angels are often packaged to fit the taste of consumers. Stores are selling ceramic angels, angel plaques, angel pins, and angel calendars, to go with all those angel books. The angels are pretty and pleasant, and the books about them are often filled with sugary words about how sweet it is to have your own angel. But I wonder: Are publishers and store owners eager to add to our knowledge of heavenly beings, or just eager to add to their own earthly bank accounts?
Whatever the case, the merchants seem eager to please the customer, and so do the angels they sell. According to Sophie Burnham’s bestselling book Angel Letters, angels “pour their blessings on us overwhelmingly. They play with us. They look after us. They heal us, comfort us with invisible warm hands, and always they try to give us what we want.” In other words, angels think that the customer is always right. “Always they try to give us what we want”!! Who wouldn’t want angels like that?
I’m sure you kids who’ve seen the movie Aladdin would like to have a genie like Aladdin’s who does whatever you want. Well, if some of the angel books are right, you really can have your own personal genie–an angel who considers your wish his command. Your angel might not be quite as hilarious as the genie in Disney’s Aladdin, but that’s okay. You can still be sure that your angel is fun-loving and as eager to please as any genie.
Consumer-oriented angels–sounds good, doesn’t it? And the nice thing about these angels is, it doesn’t really matter what you’re like or what you believe. These angels just want to make you happy. They won’t confront sin in your life. They won’t challenge the way you treat others. They won’t scare you or threaten you with punishment. And they’ll never do anything that won’t fit in with whatever you happen to believe about God.
In fact, with these sugar-coated angels, you don’t have to deal with God at all. You don’t even have to believe in God. You can if you want to, but you don’t have to. Some folks who don’t want to believe in a Supreme Being still like to believe in angels, and so they think of them as just a more highly evolved life form. Others believe that God exists and that he made the angels, but their God is just as sugar-coated as their angels. So yes, the renewed interest in angels might be a sign in some cases of a healthy spiritual appetite and a growing faith in God; but all too often, it’s a way of getting spiritual excitement and comfort without having to deal with the God of the Bible.
Why focus on an Almighty God who rules the universe and calls for your loyalty and obedience, when you can focus on a genie who is completely loyal and obedient to you? Why listen to the Bible, when you can take any thought that pops into your head, and any warm feeling you have, as your personal revelation from an angel? Why ask how to be saved from sin and judgment, when you have an angel who thinks you’re wonderful the way you are? It’s handy to believe in your own personal angel friend who follows your agenda, instead of coming to terms with a righteous God who has his own agenda.
But no matter how handy it is to think this way, we need a reality check. How real are these sugar-coated angels? When something fits our taste too well, it usually means we’ve cooked it up ourselves. Angels exist, that much is true, and I’m glad so many people know it. But the reassuring idea that angels are always sweet and cooperative is a long way from what angels are really like. When the Bible talks about angels, the picture is often scary and uncomfortable. And that’s one more reason accept the Bible’s account. The Bible tells us the way things are, not the way we’d like them to be. It has the taste of truth, not the artificial sweetness of something we cooked up to suit ourselves.
Time after time in the Bible, we read of angels carrying out terrifying judgments from God. Of course, the Bible also says a lot about the happier, more comforting parts of the angels’ work, but that’s not the whole story, not by any means. Angels are mighty warriors, enforcing justice and avenging evil. We won’t really understand angels, and we won’t understand the God they serve, until we forget our sugar-coated illusions and come to terms with the biblical truth.
It’s tempting to believe in a sugar-coated God and sugar-coated angels. But in the Bible God tells us the truth. He and his angels bring judgment as well as joy. The angels aren’t just warm, fuzzy friends. They are mighty warriors, following the orders and enforcing the will of the mighty King of the universe.
Now, the Bible does tell some very uplifting and comforting stories about angels. Maybe you know some of the stories where angels rescued people from danger, fed people who were hungry, encouraged people who were feeling down, and brought messages of good news to God’s people. And still today angels undoubtedly do all sorts of things to protect and help people in need, often without us realizing it. We can be glad about that, but we shouldn’t pretend that this is the whole picture. We’re fooling ourselves if we ignore the fierce holiness of the angels, or if we think they take orders from us instead of God.
The very first time we meet angels in the Bible, it’s in a situation of judgment. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the Lord drove them out of the garden of Eden. Genesis 3 says that God placed at the border of Eden some of his mightiest angels, the “cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24). There was nothing sugar-coated about those cherubim! They were a terror to any sinner who thought he could grab the right to live forever.
Centuries later, God sent two angels to the city of Sodom. The people of Sodom were wallowing in sexual sin and cruelty. Only one family in the city had a shred of decency left in them, the family of Lot. The two angels told Lot to gather his family. “Get them out of here,” the angels said, “because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it” (Genesis 19:12-13). By the next evening, Sodom was nothing but smoke and ashes. Those angels came as rescuers for Lot and his family, but they came as destroyers for all who despised God’s ways.
The Bible is filled with stories about angels unleashing their fearsome power against the enemies of God. The Israelite people were slaves in the land of Egypt, and God sent Moses to Pharoah, demanding that he set God’s people free. But Pharoah and the Egyptians refused. So what did God do? The Bible says, “He unleashed against them his hot anger, his wrath, indignation and hostility–a band of destroying angels” (Psalm 78:49). These angels brought on Egypt a series of terrifying plagues, the like of which they had never seen before. When the Egyptians still refused to let the Israelites go, God sent an angel called “the destroyer,” (Exodus 12:23) and this angel of death killed the oldest boy in every Egyptian home.
Something similar happened much later in Israel’s history. The armies of the Assyrian empire surrounded Jerusalem. The Assyrian king demanded immediate surrender. He mocked the people and laughed at the idea that their God might rescue them. How did God respond? He didn’t send all the angels of heaven. He sent just one. And that was more than enough. “That night,” says the Bible, “the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp” (2 Kings 19:35). I think it would be pretty hard to sell any sugar-coated angels to the scattered survivors of the Assyrian army or to the shattered Egyptians or to the smoking ruins of Sodom.
But it wasn’t just nations like Sodom and Egypt and Assyria who felt the ferocious judgment of angels. Even the Israelites themselves were not exempt. If they had been exempt from angelic judgment, then angels would still be like genies. They wouldn’t be sugar-coated or harmless, of course–they’d be tough and dangerous, but only against the enemies of Israel, not against the Israelites themselves. If the angels automatically helped the Israelites and destroyed anybody the Israelites happened not to like, then angels would indeed sound pretty much like genies devoted to giving the Israelites whatever they wanted.
The Bible, however, paints a different picture. The angels weren’t Israel’s own private commando squad. When the Israelites rebelled against God, the angels were just as quick to punish them as to punish any other nation. For example, after God rescued the Israelites from Egypt, the Israelites found themselves in the desert, and some of them griped complained and turned against God. And what happened? The grumblers “were killed by the destroying angel” (1 Corinthians 10:10).
Later, when David was king of Israel, he had success in his wars against surrounding nations, and Israel became more powerful and prosperous than ever before. David began to think his own power and organizational skill were the keys to his success, and he ordered a census to count up all the fighting men in the land. Now, it may be okay to take a census at times, but in this case, David and his people were feeling arrogant and self-sufficient and wanted to gloat about their military power. God responded by sending an angel with a plague. The angel killed 70,000 Israelites and was about to destroy Jerusalem before the Lord finally told the angel to stop (2 Samuel 24:15-16).
The Bible makes it very clear, then, that no one nation or group of people is exempt from judgment. Nobody, not even the Israelite people, could say, “We’ve got the angels on our side. They have to help us and destroy our enemies. It’s automatic.” No, angels don’t take orders from anyone but God. They don’t take any side but God’s side.
General Joshua learned this firsthand. Joshua was about to lead the Israelite takeover of the promised land, and his first target was the city of Jericho. The Bible says, “Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?'”
That seems like a good question, doesn’t it? “Whose side are you on? Are you for us or them?” But what did the stranger say? “‘Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’ Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence…” (Joshua 5:13-14). The angel in command of God’s army doesn’t sign up for one side or the other. He is on God’s side. In this particular case, the armies of heaven were going to judge the corrupt and vicious people of Jericho and give the city to the Israelites, and it would have been easy for Joshua to think the angels were on his side. But the angel commander made sure Joshua didn’t get the wrong idea. The angels aren’t on any side but God’s.
What does this mean for us? It means that if we have any sense at all, we’ll be less eager to pretend God and his angels are on our side and more eager to make sure we’re on their side. We won’t understand anything about angels if we don’t come to terms with the fact that angels are great warriors, and that they take orders only from God himself.
Again, let me emphasize that angel do some wonderful things. The Bible promises that if you’re one of God’s people, “he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). Angels help and protect and rescue people from many bad situations. But those who say that angels always try to give us what we want don’t know what they’re talking about. Angels aren’t always pleasant to everybody.
Think of the police. Police officers are there to help people in need, but they are also there to see that wrongdoers get what they deserve. If your car engine is stalled and you’re a long ways from help, it’s great to see a police car pulling up behind you; but if you’ve just been speeding or you’ve run a red light, it’s not so nice to see the police behind you. If you’re being robbed and beaten by a mugger, you’ll be overjoyed to see a policeman racing toward you; but if you happen to be the mugger, a police officer is the last person you want to see.
Like the police, angels are good news for some, but bad news for others. Angels are good news for those who depend on God and trust him but bad news for evildoers who pay no attention to God and reject his will. And like the police, angels don’t make up their own laws and rewards and punishments. Police officers, at least good ones, do their duties within the framework of their government and under its supervision. And the same is true of angels. Their governor and ruler is God, and they don’t take bribes or side with any individual who opposes God’s government.
Maybe you’re comforted at the thought of having your own guardian angel, but don’t forget the other side. Are there people you despise or exploit or injure? What if they have guardian angels? If they do, you may be in big trouble. When you meet someone who seems weak or small or unimportant, says Jesus, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:11). Guardian angels mean protection for those who are vulnerable, and they also mean punishment for those who despise or hurt the vulnerable.
God has his own system of law enforcement, his own criminal justice system. He orders his angels to protect the weak and punish the guilty. True, the Lord sometimes lets the faithful suffer and the wicked succeed for a while, for reasons we don’t always understand. But that doesn’t mean God or his angels have abandoned God’s people, or that the wicked will get away with their evil. According to Jesus, even those who die because of cruelty and oppression are still under the care of the angels, and the angels escort them to paradise. And what about their oppressors? Sin may pay for a while, but in the end, there’s literally hell to pay (see Luke 16:19-21).
We’ve seen a number of examples from the Bible where God sent angels to rescue his people and judge his enemies swiftly and terribly right in the middle of this present world. All these are just a preview of what will happen fully and completely at the end of the world. Jesus himself puts it this way: “The Son of Man will send out his angels and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:41-43).
Now do you see why it’s so important to forget about sugar-coated angels and genie-like angels who only want to please the customer? Such sentimentalized and self-centered notions about angels can make us feel spiritual and warm inside, but when ultimate reality comes crashing in, we’ll be in deep trouble.
Here’s the truth of the matter. Angels are indeed real, and some day you and I are going to encounter them directly. These angels will do one of two things with you: they will either weed you out of God’s kingdom and throw you into the fires of hell, or else they will escort you into the presence of God himself, where you will live forever in radiant joy, uncorrupted by any sin or anyone who opposes God. And what the angels do with you will all depend on one thing: your relationship to Jesus Christ.
With the many people telling about their experiences with angels, and the hundreds of books being written about angels, let’s not forget the one Person and the one Book we can count on to tell us the truth. Jesus is the Person, and the Bible is the Book, and the message is clear and unavoidable. “The Son of Man will send out his angels and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.”
As loving as Jesus is, he cannot let evil enter his new creation. As helpful as the angels are, they cannot help people who cause evil. The angels follow the will of God. Like a good police force, they operate according to the standards of their government. They protect loyal citizens; and those who can’t be allowed to run loose in society, they weed out and punish and confine to prison. Sinful, self-centered people can’t be allowed in heaven. They have to be sent to hell.
So where does that leave you and me? The Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. When our first parents fell into sin, the angels and their flaming sword kept anyone among sinful humanity from gaining access to paradise and the tree of life. If nothing had changed after that, you and I would be lost forever. We could never hope to enter heaven. We would hate the angels the way a criminal hates cops, and we would hate God himself even more.
But what did God do? The Lord could have sent his angels to destroy every last one of us, but instead the Son of God became one of us. He made himself lower than the angels under his command and joined the human race. Jesus lived the perfect life that we could never live, and he died the death that we could never die. He paid the price we could never pay when he took the sins of the world upon himself and suffered the agony of hell as he hung on the cross.
Even at the moment of his arrest, says the Bible, Jesus could have unleashed a mighty army of angels to destroy his enemies (Matthew 26:53). But Jesus ordered the angels to stand back, and he let himself be crucified. He took upon himself the punishment we sinners deserve, and in doing so, he opened the way to eternal life.
By dying in our place, Jesus makes it possible for sinners who trust him to be pardoned and declared righteous. And by rising again and sending his Holy Spirit, Jesus makes it possible for sinners who trust him actually to begin changing the way they live. The new life of Jesus starts working right now inside those who believe in him to make them more like him, and the transformation will be completed when Jesus comes again, or else at the moment of our death, whichever comes first.
What this means is that when you put your faith in Jesus, you’re no longer counted among those “who do evil,” whom the angels will weed out and throw into hell when Jesus comes again. Instead, you’re counted among “the righteous [who] will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.” Don’t think the angels are your pals just because you have sugar coated ideas about them. Put your faith in Jesus, if you pray to the one who loved you and gave himself up for you and ask him to give you new life, then the angels will indeed be your friends. They will be your guardians here on earth and your escorts when you enter into the presence of the Lord himself.
Lord God, we so often ignore the world of the supernatural, and when we do finally think about it, we follow our own imagination instead of your Word. Forgive us for being so self-centered and silly. Help us to see the seriousness of our sin and your righteous wrath against it.
Father, turn us from sinful self-deception to your Son, Jesus. Wash away our sins by his blood. Make us more and more like him through your Spirit at work in us. Then, Lord, encourage us with the knowledge that you and your angels guard and keep us, and prepare us for that great day when you come in glory with all your angels to judge this world and make it new. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.