Practical Divinity: Angels: God’s messengers, our guardians

By Andrew C. Thompson

Andrew C. Thompson

Andrew C. Thompson

We’re in a season of angels.

It all began with Advent. One of Advent’s most beloved Scripture passages is the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary. Joseph had his own angelic encounter, of course. An angel visited him to assure him that Mary’s child was from the Holy Spirit.

So it was through angels that news of Jesus Christ’s coming into the world was first revealed.

Then after Advent, on the holy day of Christmas itself, angels were everywhere around the birth of Jesus. An entire host of them visited the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem. They sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace amongst those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14).

Around the time of the Epiphany, an angel shows up again. Joseph is visited by an angel in a dream. The angel warns him to take Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt following the visit of the Wise Men.

We don’t talk that much about angels these days. Perhaps we should.

In the Bible, the presence of angels in our world is a given. Angels are God’s messengers. Hebrews 1:14 speaks of angels as “spirits in the divine service” that are “sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.”

Hope for spiritual revival

One of the chief hopes of Bishop Mueller is that the church in Arkansas would experience a great spiritual revival. I share that hope as well. I also believe that one thing that needs to be in place in order for spiritual revival to happen is a deep awareness on our part that we live in a profoundly spiritual world.

A feature of modern life very damaging to Christian spirituality is the tendency we have to artificially segment our lives into different parts. We think spiritual things when we go to church. When we’re out in the world, we are much more likely to act as if the material world is all that exists. Our faith can become something like a hat we wear when we are expected to act in Christian ways. Otherwise, we’re happy doing our own thing. How might we think about ourselves and our world differently?

A mentor who has had a great impact on me is Richard P. Heitzenrater, one of the leading historians of John Wesley and early Methodism. I once heard Dr. Heitzenrater describe what it was about Wesley that he found so fascinating.

Here’s what he said: Among all historical figures he has ever come across, John Wesley had a greater sense of God’s abiding presence in the world than anyone else. Wesley was keenly aware that he was living in a Spirit-drenched world and that God was literally everywhere. He didn’t just know this in his mind, of course. Wesley felt it deeply in his soul, and it directed everything about how he lived his life.

That Wesleyan awareness of the world as a Spirit-drenched place is exactly what we need in order to be prepared for the Spirit’s work of revival among us.

Angels in our midst

Angels are spiritual beings, of course, so it should not surprise us that Wesley was deeply interested in them. His interest began at a young age. One of the very first sermons that we have from his hand was written in 1726. Its title: “On Guardian Angels.”

In the sermon he cites Psalm 91, which reads, “For he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways” (verse 11). Wesley sees this biblical promise as meant by God for all faithful Christians—evidence of the “peculiar care he hath taken for their protection.”

In a later sermon, “Of Good Angels,” Wesley gets very specific about the ways that he believes angels minister to human beings. He says that they surely enlighten our understanding and warn us subtly against danger. Wesley believes that angels also come to us in our dreams and reveal things to us that we need to know. He even believes that they intercede in the physical world to protect us from harm and to heal diseases. Because he sees the world we live in as so deeply spiritual, Wesley even thinks that good angels regularly do battle against evil angels that would seek to harm us.

These views might make a modern Methodist blush. Should we put stock in such things that seem so unsophisticated or unscientific?

That all depends on how seriously you take the biblical worldview of how God interacts with the world. Does God use angels for divine purposes? Wesley had no doubts, and I think there is a great deal to learn from that.

I yearn for a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon our church. Lately, I’ve been wondering if there are angels beckoning us to prepare for that. If you wonder the same thing, you might from time to time pray this prayer that was important to Wesley himself:

“Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” (Collect for Saint Michael and all Angels, Book of Common Prayer).

The Rev. Dr. Thompson, Wesley scholar for the Arkansas Conference, teaches at Memphis Theological Seminary. He writes “Practical Divinity” quarterly for the Arkansas United Methodist. Email: athompson@arumc.org.