If I were to present in detail how the angels’ activities have always been intertwined with those of the second person of the Holy Trinity this blog entry would be a mile long. They’ve been serving Christ since they were created and now that the promised Messiah has fulfilled His mission on earth and returned to heaven they’ve been unceasingly serving Him as He majestically sits upon the throne of His kingdom. As I pointed out in my last essay the angel Gabriel prepared the way for the coming of Jesus by first appearing to Zacharias and informing him (to his amazement) that his aging wife, Elizabeth, would give birth to John the Baptist. The same angel told Mary the incredible news that she’d be the mother of God incarnate. On the night of Jesus’ birth a bunch of angels showed up en masse to announce to a handful of startled shepherds that the long-awaited Savior of mankind was at that moment taking His first breaths in Bethlehem. It’s obvious the angels were heavily involved in the most miraculous event in history. But their work didn’t stop with the Lord’s arrival. They were very active in His public ministry that followed.
It’s not far-fetched to say that Christ’s temptation in the wilderness by Satan was the most difficult ordeal He endured outside his cruel death on the cross. He’d waited patiently almost three decades for the time to be right, then left the comfort of His home and carpentry business and humbly submitted Himself before His cousin John for baptism. Then He immediately embarked on a pilgrimage into no-man’s land where He not only fasted but subjected Himself to the harshness of the elements for forty long days. (I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t have lasted 24 hours. Two days tops!) Anyway, that coward the devil waits until Jesus is exhausted and at His stamina’s end to try and break His resolve. Satan figured this was his big chance to thwart God’s plan. Remember, the snake had been longing for this opportunity since he got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. His aim was to torpedo God’s rescue ship and send it to the bottom of the Mediterranean. Upon seeing Christ voluntarily put Himself in harm’s way the devil wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth so he attacked with stealth and what he considered an offer Jesus couldn’t refuse: relief from abject misery. What Satan didn’t realize was that the Lord was letting His adversary show his true colors for all humans to observe. The gutless devil always instigates his most effective schemes when his victims are at their lowest point. He finds our Achilles heel and he concentrates his focus on the hurts, hang-ups and habits that hold us back from being all that we can be. What a punk.
So Satan pulls up in a food truck, hops out and tries to tempt the Son of God three times. First he asks Jesus to prove He’s God by turning a rock into a loaf of Wonder Bread. Christ answered him with scripture. When that tactic failed the devil led Him to a mountaintop, spread out his arms and said “All this can be yours if you play your cards right and acknowledge my authority by kissing my toes.” Once again Jesus countered with more from God’s Holy Word. Frustrated, the devil supernaturally whisked both of them away to Jerusalem where they found themselves on the temple roof. Satan dared Christ to take a flying leap. After all, if He was who He claimed to be, wouldn’t the angels provide a soft landing? When Jesus reprimanded the evil imp with a stinging verse from Deuteronomy the devil knew he’d underestimated his foe. Christ was the real deal and the best course of action was to cut bait and get the heck out of there ASAP. He realized that at His weakest the Son of Man was a thousand times stronger than he was on his best day. Jesus, by Himself, routed Satan decisively. At that juncture the angels, concerned for their famished master, rushed in and “began ministering to His needs.” The Greek word used, diakoneo, expresses it well for they served Him as a deacon would. His faithful flock of angels supported, energized and sustained Him in one of his darkest hours. Christ overcame all the lures we face every day (and more) and that should be a comfort to us all. Hebrews 4:15 reads, “For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin.” Our Savior knows firsthand the trash life can throw at us. He also showed that, with the great I AM abiding in us, we can emerge victorious from our trials no matter how severe.
An angel was with our Lord on the eve of His crucifixion as He agonized over what He knew was about to transpire. In the next few hours He’d be betrayed by His friend Judas Iscariot, seized by a unit of irritated soldiers who’d rather be snoozing in their beds, unceremoniously hauled before a spurious kangaroo court of Jewish snobs, beaten and whipped without mercy and then nailed to a crude wooden cross to die a criminal’s death. The mental images of what He could see coming down the pike were terrifying and frightful to say the least. The agony He felt was made visible through His sweating actual drops of blood. It was in this horrible situation that Jesus needed to summon the inner strength to face what no other entity in creation had ever struggled through. God Himself was about to experience the phenomenon of death, burial and resurrection from the grave, something never accomplished before. On top of that He was about to strap onto His shoulders every sin of each man and woman. He would actually become sin for our sake and the anticipation of that tremendous act congealed into a ghastly angst. Jesus had tried to get His most trusted disciples to provide Him with a modicum of moral support and encouragement but they weren’t of much use. He’d kept Peter, James and John in close proximity but they couldn’t keep their eyes open and were snoring away like old hounds on a front porch in July. Christ was left to suffer alone. Not knowing what else to do, He prayed to His heavenly Father and asked what any of us would if we were in His sandals: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) It was at that crucial moment, when His mortal compatriots let Him down completely, that His faithful angels did not. The Bible says that an angel came to be with Him and give Him extra strength to see His upcoming ordeal through to the finish. The Greek word used for “strengthening” is eniskuo, which means to make strong inwardly. The disciples no doubt meant well and intended to stay up with their master but it was one of the angels who proved to be the most trustworthy when the chips were down.
But as bad as the preamble was for our Lord, the tragedy and travesty of the pain He suffered on Calvary was a trillion times worse. It was there that Jesus offered Himself as the sacrifice required by the justice of God, enabling mankind to be redeemed. One would think that Satan would’ve been satisfied to smirk and gleefully take in his nemesis’ murder at the hands of God’s “chosen people” but he wasn’t. He was hoping to finally get the Messiah to succumb to his wicked will by once again tempting Him when He was at His emotional and physical nadir. The devil knew if he could coerce Christ to jump down from the cross, or if he could incite the gawking crowd to get Him riled up by their ugly taunts and insults enough to retaliate, then God’s perfect plan of salvation would go belly up. Satan did succeed in getting the rowdier spectators to cooperate with his shameful ploy. Matthew 27:39-44 reads, “Those who passed by defamed him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross!’ In the same way even the chief priests – together with the experts in the law and elders – were mocking him: ‘He saved others, but he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel! If he comes down now from the cross, we will believe in him! He trusts in God – let God, if he wants to, deliver him now because he said, “I am God’s Son!”’ The robbers who were crucified with him also spoke abusively to him.” (One of the more memorable scenes in the landmark movie, “The Passion”, is that of Satan’s pale specter mingling among the crowd of curious onlookers as Jesus stumbled beneath the weight of his cross on the road out of Jerusalem. Gives me chills.) It’s hard for me to imagine a more despicable, barbaric and gruesome scene than a gaggle of obscenity-shouting hooligans and so-called “holy men” boisterously ripping into an innocent human being as He’s being tortured to death right before His mother’s tear-filled eyes. It makes me ashamed of my species.
Yet Jesus absorbed every iota of the abuse without complaint and Satan was denied his Super Bowl ring. Christ knew better than anyone that He could’ve walked away from the cross without a scratch. He knew all He had to do was think a certain command and more than twelve legions of angels would descend with flame throwers and clear the hill in a matter of seconds. But Christ had the bigger picture in mind. He’d come to earth to save mankind and He wasn’t going to stray from completing His objective. I surmise that the angels wept bitterly and wanted more than anything else to swoop in and remove the King of kings from that repulsive ignominy but they were instructed to stand down and silently allow God’s will to run its course. Because of Jesus’ undying love for the human race and because He understood that it was only through the shedding of His precious blood that His rebellious children could achieve salvation He refused to let the angels intervene. The Creator of all power let Himself be powerless and the angelic host could do nothing but observe as their faultless master accepted the full death penalty that you and I deserved to pay.
Fact is, we can never come close to fathoming the depths of sin or grasp how unacceptable it makes us to God until we surrender our egos, stand beneath the cross and accept that it was our own sinful nature that made it necessary for Christ to be crucified in our place. The unspeakable horrors of terrorist acts done in the name of Allah, the sadness caused by someone taking their own life, the ravages of poverty across the globe, the widespread abuse of alcohol, drugs and porn to sedate the masses from reality, the lack of hope expressed by the generations growing up in the 21st century – these afflictions all speak as with a single voice of the degradation that drapes like a soiled blanket over civilization today. Yet no sin has been committed by any individual or group that can compare with the overflowing cup of the universe’s combined sins that hoisted Jesus upon the cross. Skeptics have asked the burning question ever since that first Good Friday: “Who was this man, exactly, and why did he have to die?” The definitive answer from heaven is (whether they choose to accept it or not): “Christ was my only begotten Son and He died not only for your particular sins but for the sins of the entire world.” The problem is that modern society has made sin an outdated concept, a bothersome technicality, an inconvenient annoyance. To the great I AM sin is still an abomination and an affront to His glory. Billy Graham wrote of sin, “It is the second largest thing in the world; only the love of God is greater.”
If humanity at large could only comprehend the sky-high price our Lord was willing to pay for our collective redemption then perhaps we could step out of our pride-driven denial and admit that something fundamental is out of whack with the human race. Without a divine Savior we are doomed. Period, the end. Our sin cost the Father in heaven His very best. It’s no wonder the angels folded their wings over their eyes as Jesus’ blood splattered on the rocky ground at the base of the cross. Maybe they were the only creatures in existence who were truly cognizant of the awfulness of Christ’s murder and what was at stake. However, their tears would dry two days later. The sun rose brighter than ever before or since on that following Sunday morning. The prince of darkness was sent packing as it became crystal clear that all his dirty connivances and plots were for nothing. The devil and his army of demons were vanquished when Jesus strolled out of His tomb and they knew for certain that their days of holding mankind in inescapable bondage were over. Hallelujah!
As I implied, the angels were ecstatic as the first Easter dawned and they made their powerful presence known spectacularly. Matthew 28:2-4 gives us a tantalizing scenario: “Suddenly there was a severe earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descending from heaven came and rolled away the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were shaken and became like dead men because they were so afraid of him.” The tonnage of the stone is moot because we know that no boulder could’ve stopped the King of kings from being resurrected. I surmise that, just for the shock effect alone, the angel dramatically moved that stone out of the way with one finger. The tough, stoic soldiers assigned to keep anything from happening to the tomb were rendered so helpless they couldn’t move a muscle and knew without a doubt they were up against forces of supernatural power. Minutes later they were sprinting for their lives. Isn’t it ironic that the women who showed up stayed put while the macho men skedaddled? John 20:11-14 tells us, “But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she bent down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ Mary replied, ‘They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him!’ When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there…” Christ had literally risen from the grave.
The angels are also alluded to in the story of Jesus’ ascension. Acts 1:9-11 says, “…While they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight. As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.’” It’s no stretch to assume that the cloud the author mentioned might’ve been the only way to describe the presence of the angelic host that lifted Jesus from terra firma. Maybe it was the same group of angels that had heralded the Savior’s birth announcement to a band of awe-struck shepherds some thirty-three years earlier that now happily escorted Him to the right hand of the Father. They’d been there every step of the way and to see Him back in total command of all creation was a joyous relief they’ll eagerly share with all who’ll listen throughout eternity. Yet they didn’t abandon their post. The rest of the angels remained behind to watch over the disciples as they began the work of spreading the Gospel message to the four corners of the earth and assist them in every way possible. And they’re with us still, encouraging believers to stay the course and courageously tell the world about what God has done for us. Angels never falter in their duty. May we be even half as faithful.