The Festival of St Michael and All Angels

September 29, 2013


The ambiguity of angels

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and
his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in
heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and
Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown
down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the
kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has
been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by
the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto
death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for
the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation
12:7-12 ESV)

There is an ambiguity about angels. Portrayed in various forms in the media, popularised as cuddly
cherubs like Raphael’s two angels looking upward at the bottom of the painting ‘Sistine Madonna’,
commonly associated with words such as ‘heavenly’ and ‘wings’, angels are nevertheless often vague
and confusing.

The word ‘angel’ in Greek means ‘messenger’ or ‘envoy’ or ‘one who is sent’ and is used for both
human messengers and the heavenly versions. If you search the bible for information you certainly
come up with material but there are no pictures or diagrams or links to a streaming video from around
the heavenly throne so things are not crystal clear regarding angels. Angels are clearly messengers,
they bring messages to people, but there can be ambiguity because at times the phrase ‘angel of the
Lord’ implies that the Lord himself is present and speaking (Judges 6). Angels are invisible, not
readily seen, though a donkey doesn’t seem to have too much difficulty and if they’re carrying
anything then it might be swords or some weapon. For Adam and Eve it was a consequence of their
action (Genesis 3), for Barak it would have been disastrous (Numbers 22) as it was for the Egyptians
(Exodus 12) and the Assyrians (2 Kings 19). However for Elisha’s servant the fact angels were armed
was comforting (2 King 6) as it was for Joshua (Joshua 5).

The bible gives us glimpses of the heavenly realm filled with heavenly creatures – we have a sense of
different beings (maybe a little like an alien gallery in Star Wars or Star Trek) – but we’re not sure if
they are all angels. We have a sense of hierarchy and order – archangels are mentioned – and there’s a
military quality to them which seems ambiguous since they are serving the most powerful being of all.
Why does an omnipotent God – by definition no one is more powerful or even close to him in power
and might – or an omnipresent God need angels? And then there’s the matter of good and bad which
is also ambiguous because we’re not given much information except that there are clean spirits
(angels) and unclean spirits (demons). The demons also have structure (think Beelzebub and Satan
who are seen as princes of some sort – what does that mean?!) but we don’t know much about the
how, why or consequences of ‘angels going bad’ which then leaves us wondering whether they still
can. The Bible simply doesn’t answer all the questions we could ask.

But the Church has taken up the matter of angels in its teaching and remembrances as it should
because the Bible speaks about them. Feasts developed early in Eastern Christendom. In the West,
things really don’t begin moving until after Constantine (and now we’re in the 4th century). September
29 as the day commemorating Michael representing all angels (and there is another ambiguity in
affixing the title ‘Saint’ here) doesn’t come into being until the 5th century and the dedication of a
basilica on the Via Salaria (6 miles from Rome)1 but this is not introduced to the whole church until
the Council of Mainz in 813. King Ethelred established this feast in England in 1019 and it’s not until
the English Reformation that the phrase ‘and all angels’ is added. I would suggest that this
1 Luther Reed (1947). The Lutheran Liturgy. p. 566
development over time reflects the ambiguity surrounding the topic otherwise it would have been
established more clearly more quickly.

One of texts selected for this day – Revelation 12 – encapsulates this ambiguity for me. Again the big
picture is clear – God wants to rescue his people – the dragon does what it can to destroy God’s
people and kill off the rescue mission – the battle is on – the bad guys (demons, dragon / Satan / the
Devil) lose and are cast out of heaven and rage on earth as a result. The victory is through the blood of
the Lamb, through the actions of God’s Christ. The devil entices and bullies and entraps people into
sin and then accuses them before God of sin! He lies and schemes against us but when he makes
accusations against us before God, he’s telling the truth; we have sinned. And the defence against this
tactic and tragic situation is God’s Word which absolves us, forgives us, and tells us about the blood
of the Lamb and of God’s Christ. Now who am I talking about? [Jesus!] Exactly – we know this
answer – we live or die by this answer – and yet what does the scribe of Revelation, John, say?
And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and
his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.

We know that Jesus will send the angels to reap the harvest (Matthew 24); we know that Jesus talked
about angels carrying the dying to heaven (Luke 16); we know that angels were at his beck and call in
the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26) but they remained on standby; we know that angels sang at
his birth about God’s glory in heaven and peace on earth (Luke 2) but – have you notice? – angels are
always in the supporting roles or not needed – no angel dies on the cross – though an angel did bring
comfort to Jesus in the garden (Luke 22) – and yet John describes the force that defeats Satan as
‘Michael and his angels’.

We know that there is an archangel called Michael from the books of Daniel and Jude but John
doesn’t say that Michael is an angel. There is an ambiguity even here. Is John talking about archangel
Michael and the angels who are under the command and lordship of Jesus – though not stated –
battling the dragon and demons as symbols or pictures of the cosmic battle for our salvation? Or is
Michael which means ‘he who is like God’ code for Jesus himself in a similar way as Jesus is the
Lamb who was slain (Revelation 5) and the baby born of the woman (Revelation 12)? To be honest, I
don’t mind which interpretation you prefer – though some people in the church are quite
uncomfortable with the Michael equals Jesus view of this passage because they think it fuels the
views that Jesus isn’t God which I obviously don’t accept. If you read, as Lutherans are expected to
do, all of Scripture when determining what we believe because we hold that Scripture interprets
Scripture, then it is abundantly clear that Jesus is God and our Saviour. So I see that the end result is
the same – whether Michael is an archangel then he fights and points to Jesus and if Michael in this
passage is code for Jesus then he again points to Jesus. So whatever the ambiguity we ever have about
angels, there remains one thing which Scripture clearly testifies about angels – that they point to Jesus
– and their actions have as their goal our facing, meeting, and worshipping Jesus.

The writer to the Hebrews summarises angels best I think when he writes – after a full chapter of
showing that Jesus is the Son God and not an angel – Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to
serve those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:14) Again, the Greek is helpful for ‘ministering’ is
literally ‘liturgising’ – and now we have a framework in which to understand angels – they are not our
butlers or maids at our beck and call for magic help or a parking space. Yes, they exist and yes, people
may have experiences of them as God decrees – but they bring no new messages – and everything
they do has the goal of helping us worship – even (especially) when we die for then we will see God
face to face and the only response will be praise and adoration in joyful worship. Whatever they are
doing ‘behind the scenes’ protecting us is largely hidden as the devil and his demons still thrash and
rage and try to gobble up as many people as possible to take them down to destruction with them. God
doesn’t need angels but questions of their origins are finally irrelevant for us because they are part of
our reality because God’s Word says so – and together the heavenly creatures and those who are
saved and even all those in hell will one day acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of
God the Father. We glimpse through our ears this truth every Sunday at the Divine Service where we
join with the angels or the angels join with us (another ambiguity) as we sing the hymn of adoration
‘Glory to God in the highest’ and also the hymn from around the throne of the Lamb ‘Holy, holy,

Angels are creatures who raise questions for us – in that sense they are ambiguous – but you can be
clear about a few things – if you meet one, don’t bow down to him but turn shoulder to shoulder with
him and face the Lord of lords and worship the lamb who was slain so that you could live with Jesus
now and forever. We thank God that he, in his wisdom, provides angels to help us worship – both in
church and in our ‘daily worship’ as we living out our discipleship each day – but we thank God even
more and praise him together with the angels for his Son, Jesus, who has defeated the power of evil
and death and Satan to have the last word about anything!



Bible References

  • Revelation 12:7 - 12