Meditations on the Larger Catechism
What are Angels?
Q&A 13, 16
We’ve all seen them, right? Angels, that is. You know, those chubby little children with wings; those cute Precious Moments statuettes; those little guys on your shoulders—one reminding you of good and the other tempting you to what is bad. From the downright silly to sentimental to seriously wrong, from what is found in bookstores and heard on daytime talk shows, angels are big business in our time. This just goes to show how important they are to people’s mindset.
Our Reformed and Puritan forefathers thought they were important, too. The Belgic Confession of Faith in its article on creation spends one long line on the creation of the world but an entire paragraph on good and bad angels as well as a rejection of errors about them. The Westminster Larger Catechism also gives a basic exposition concerning angels. So what are angels?
In Hebrews 1:1–14 we read one of the most poetic and powerful descriptions of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. The writer contrasts angels with our Lord. Angels are glorious, but our Lord is most glorious. They have an excellent name, but he a name that is “more excellent” (Heb. 1:5). They are spirits, but he is the Son. They are servants, but he is the Lord. Yet while the apostolic author seeks to show the superiority of the Son, he does reveal some basic knowledge about angels.
They Serve the Lord
The first thing Hebrews 1 reveals is that angels serve the Lord. In the words of the Larger Catechism, “God created all the angels…to execute his commandments” (Q&A 16). There are two reasons why they do so.
First, they serve the Lord because they were created by the Lord. In contrast to the only begotten and firstborn Son, Hebrews says, “Of the angels he [God] says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire’” (Heb. 1:7). Here the writer quotes from Psalm 104, which extols God for his created works. A part of that creation is the host of angels. They were “made.” Paul also makes this contrast. God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13–14). This Son is then extolled: “For by him [the Son] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16).
One of the ways this is so important is with the infatuation today for angelic guidance. There are book galore that tell stories about how angels gave messages to people, how angels saved people from danger, and how angels guided people’s lives. And the purpose of these books is that you would seek them out to do this for you. Let me say to you as unequivocally as possible: Jesus Christ is the one who speaks to us through his Word; Jesus Christ is the one who saves us from sin and from danger; Jesus Christ is the one who guides our lives. Do not seek the creation to do this, seek the Creator!
Second, they serve the Lord because they were elected by the Lord. Just as among humanity, so too in the angelic realm God’s decree of election and reprobation was operative (Q&A 13). When Q&A 16 says that the angels are “subject to change,” the proof text that is offered is 2 Peter 2:4. There Peter describes the effect of a prior decree of God. Some angels sinned against God and therefore were cast into hell. We see the same thing in Jude 6, which speaks of “angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” On the contrary, Paul speaks of “elect angels” in 1 Timothy 5:21. All angels, of course, were created to serve the Lord, but it is those especially, chosen by grace, that serve him.
Let me pause and reflect upon a practical benefit of this. This means you need not fear demons as if they were almighty beings. They are created. They sinned. They were punished. And most importantly, the Lord within you is greater than them! As James 2:19 says, “Even the demons believe [there is one God]—and shudder!”
So how precisely do these elect angels serve the Lord as the result of their election?
First, by worshipping the Lord: “And when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him’” (Heb. 1:6). Recall how this happened. When our Lord was born, who heralded his birth with a song of praise? The angels: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is well pleased’” (Luke 2:13–14). Their worship calls us to worship as the four living creatures surrounding the throne of grace in heaven cry out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8)
Second, by executing the Lord’s commands: “Of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his messengers a flame of fire’” (Heb. 1:7). The writer describes angels as if they were the wind and fire. The wind and fire are elements of creation, which the Scriptures describe as executing what God commands. When the Lord wanted to redeem his people, he sent a strong east wind that blew all night to split the Red Sea in two. When the Lord wanted to judge Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness he sent fire from heaven to do his will. It is the same way with the angels. They are sent forth like the wind, they execute the Lord’s commands like the fire.
Why is this so important for us to meditate upon? If the angels serve God in worshipping him and in obeying his commands, we who have been redeemed from sin by God’s grace need to do so even more, praying, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
They Serve the Elect
The second thing we learn about angels from Hebrews 1 is that they serve the elect: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14) How marvelous it is that they who serve the Son serve us.
We see their service to the elect in announcing to Mary the birth of the Lord himself (Luke 1), in ministering to our Lord in the wilderness after his fasting and temptation (Matt. 4), in announcing the resurrection of the Savior (Matt. 28), in announcing the soon return of our Savior after his ascension (Acts 1), in releasing Peter and John from prison (Acts 5; 12), in guiding Philip to preach to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8).
But how do they minister to us, now? Pay close attention to Hebrews 1:14. The angels are servants of the Lord for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation. The author is speaking not of our reception of salvation now, but our reception of salvation not yet. In this life we have the promise of receiving an eternal inheritance. But we only receive that inheritance completely in the life of come. The angels serve us by assisting us in our life of perseverance so that we might endure to the end and receive our inheritance: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master . . . Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:21, 34).
John Calvin described this ministry of the angels towards the elect as the “heavenly hosts [being] assigned to be their servants to see to their salvation.” He went on to say, “It is no ordinary pledge of God’s love for us, that He keeps them busily working for our sake. From this there comes an extraordinary confirmation of our faith that our salvation is beyond danger, guarded as it is by such defences. God has the best possible consideration for our infirmity in giving us such helpers to resist Satan with us, and to put forth all their effort in every way to care for us (Commentary on Hebrews). God in his love has sent us angels, who are “mighty in power” (Q&A 16), to guard us from the assaults of Satan and to help us in our fight against him. This ministry is summed up in the words of the Psalmist, who in Psalm 91:11 spoke of their protection: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Ps. 91:11–12).
May God grant that we serve him even as the angels. May God grant that we fight against all the assaults of the world, the flesh, and especially the devil even as the angels serve us in this fight.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews, trans. William B. Johnston, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 12:17.