You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Angels’ tag.

The metaphor of heavenly books is common in both the biblical and apocalyptic materials. This is a stock image drawn from a court room scene. In Dan 7:10, for example, thrones are set in place and the Ancient of Days takes his place at the head of the court. Once the court was seated, “the books were opened.” Based on the content of these books, the blasphemous “little horn” is thrown into blazing fire. So what is the content of an “apocalyptic book”?

Angel BooksSometimes these books record the names of the redeemed; or conversely, the names of the wicked are “blotted out” of the books. This is probably based on Exodus 32:32–33. In this non-apocalyptic text, the Lord says “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.” The Psalmist asks God to blot out the names of his oppressors from “the book of the living” (Ps 69:28). Originally this meant a name carved in stone that would be obliterated if the named-person offended the king. Perhaps this was based on a citizenship roll or something of the sort, but the idea a text exists containing the names of those who are part of the kingdom. Isaiah 4:3 some people have been destined to survive in Jerusalem, “everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem.” In 2 Baruch 24:1, the opened books contain both the righteous deeds of the righteous and the wicked deeds of the wicked. These books are opened after a period of oppression, “When horror seizes the inhabitants of earth, and they fall into many tribulations and further, they fall into great torments” (2 Baruch 25:3) after which the messiah comes.

In other apocalyptic contexts books contain hidden secrets sealed up to be revealed at the appropriate time. In Daniel 12:9-10 there are secrets sealed up in a book “until the end of time.” In Rev 10:4 John was prepared to write down what the seven thunders said, but he is told to “seal it up” and not writer it down. The seven thunders are therefore some hidden secret not to be revealed at that time. There are examples of this phenomenon in other apocalyptic books as well. In 1 Enoch, the seer has a great deal more revealed to him that he is permitted to write at that time,.

1 Enoch 81:1-2 Then he said unto me, “Enoch, look at the tablet(s) of heaven; read what is written upon them and understand (each element on them) one by one. So I looked at the tablet(s) of heaven, read all the writing (on them), and came to understand everything. I read that book and all the deeds of humanity and all the children of the flesh upon the earth for all the generations of the world.

In an expansion on the biblical story. Jubilees 32.20–22, at Bethel Jacob is given seven tablets determining everything that would happen to his sons in the future.

Jubilees 32.20–22 And Jacob watched until he went up into heaven. And he saw in a vision of the night, and behold an angel was descending from heaven, and there were seven tablets in his hands. And he gave (them) to Jacob, and he read them, and he knew everything which was written in them, which would happen to him and to his sons during all the ages.”

But more commonly the books contain the sins of the person under judgment. In Jude 4 the judgment against the false teachers was written down (προγράφω) long before they secretly crept into the churches. In the Animal Apocalypse, the names of the good and bad shepherds are carefully recorded in books for future judgment (1 Enoch 89:62; 90:14-22). In 1 Enoch 104:7 sins are investigated and “written down every day.” In Jubilees 5:13-14 sins are carefully written down and judgments are “are ordained, written, and engraved.”  Describing the judgment awaiting the sins of Lot’s daughters, the writer of Jubilees says:

 Jubilees 16:9 “And behold it is commanded and it is engraved concerning all of his seed in the heavenly tablets so that he will remove them and uproot them and execute their judgment just like the judgment of Sodom and so that he will not leave seed of man for him on the earth in the day of judgment.”

Bringing this back to the throne room in Revelation 5, the scroll functions similarly the last category in that the opening of the scroll subjects the world to judgment. The final judgment is the coming of the Messiah to set up thrones and render justice (Rev 20:1-6). By taking the Hebrew Bible as the immediate background and tracing the development of a metaphor in the Second Temple Period apocalypses, we are more likely to understand the metaphor as John intended.

The 24 elders in Revelation 4-5 are a good test-case for methods of interpretation in this unusual book. What is important in this vision is the worship God receives from all of creation. Is the number 24 significant?

william-blake-revelation-4

The Twenty-Four Elders by William Blake

There are a few unusual views for the 24 elders we should probably set aside early on. For example, some have taken the number 24 as the 24 books of the Old Testament. (This is mentioned by Greg Beale, although he does not advocate for this view, Revelation, 326). The evidence for this view is The Gospel of Thomas 52. There Jesus says that there were 24 prophets who spoke to Israel, meaning the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.  This means the “elders” are the book which the Lamb fulfills in his death and resurrection. Ford identified the 24 as the “great men of the faith” listed in Sirach 44-49, although few have been persuaded by her argument. Henry Morris argued the rather unique view that the 24 elders are the 24 ancestors of Christ, Adam to Pharez (The Revelation Record).

In most cases, the 24 elders are either angles or humans.  David Aune sorts commentators into these two categories. If they are humans, then there are several possibilities to identify who those humans might be.

The Elders are Angelic beings. No other human beings are present when John is called up to heaven.  Isaiah 24:33 may refer to angels as elders and  Psalm 89:7 describes God enthroned among his “council.” Colossians 1:16, Eph 3:10 and 6:12 refer to angelic hierarchy as “thrones. There are several places in Revelation in which the elders re-appear.  In each of these verses it seems unlikely that humans are in view (5:8, 7:13-14, etc.)

This is a tradition, beginning with Old Testament texts and extending into the apocalyptic literature, of God’s counsel as consisting of angels. That these are angels is consistent with the general apocalyptic images gathered together in this chapter.

Sepher ha-Razim 1.8  Within, three princes sit on their thrones; they and their raiment have an appearance like fire and the appearance of their thrones is like fire, fire that gleams like gold, for they rule over all the angels of fire. (Cited by Aune, 1:61)

The Apoc. Zeph. A  And a spirit took me and brought me up into the fifth heaven. And I saw angels who are called “lords”, and the diadem was set upon them in the Holy Spirit, and the throne of each of them was sevenfold more (brilliant) than the light of the rising sun. (And they were) dwelling in the temples of salvation and singing hymns to the ineffable most high God. (Cited by Aune, 1:61).

If the scene in heaven is a “heavenly temple,” then the 24 elders may be a reference to the 24 priests / Levites who lead  worship in Solomon’s temple.

The 24 elders are humans. In support of the 24 elders as humans, commentators usually note that angels are never called elders anywhere else in scripture (Isaiah 24:33 is a debated passage.)  In addition, the white clothing and crown are promised to the churches of Asia Minor if they “overcome.” There are three variations on this view. First, the Elders may represent the Church. The letters to the seven churches were all addressed to the “angel” of the church.  This is an indication that an angel might represent a church.  Here, these heavenly inhabitants represent the church of this age.  Several classic dispensationalists have held this view, including Ryrie (Revelation 36) and John F. Walvoord Revelation (107). In fact, Walvoord entitles chapter 4 “The Church in Heaven” because they are rapture before the time referred to by this chapter.

Second, the Elders may represent Israel. The 24 thrones are based on the 24 priest in David’s temple (1 Chron. 24:3-19 or the 24 Levites in 1 Chron5:6-31, cf. Josephus, Ant 7:363-367).

Qoh. Rab. 1.11 In the Hereafter, however, the Holy One, blessed be He, will number for Himself a band of righteous men of His own and seat them by Him in the Great Academy; as it is said, “Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed for the Lord of hosts will reign in mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before His elders shall be glory” (Isa XXIV, 23). It is not written here “Before His angels, His troops, or His priests” but “before His elders shall be glory.”

Tanhuma, Shemot 29   The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future cause the elders of Israel to stand as in a threshing floor, and He will sit at the head of them all as president and they will judge the nations of the world.

Third, the Elders may represent the Old Testament and New Testament Saints. For some, the 24 thrones are twelve for the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 for the 12 apostles. Occasionally this is expressed as “the church of all ages,” or as Swete thought, the elders represent “the church in its totality” (Revelation, 68-69). An a-millennial interpretation of Revelation would naturally see the Old and New Testament believers as the same church

One other possibility is that the elders are human, but the image is designed as a parody of the 24 lictors (bodyguards) who normally accompanied the Emperor Domitian. Suetonius described Domitian as follows:   “He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter ,Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.” (Aune 1:292)

While it is probably better to avoid dogmatism on this point, my understanding of the 24 elders is that they are angels who worship God before his throne. This might overlap with the lictors in a Greco-Roman throne room scene. Since there is a distinction between the elders and the “saints” later in the book, this identification seems best. In this case the number 24 (12 and 12) might not be significant for interpreting the imagery.

The writer of Hebrews makes an inference from his assertion that Jesus is a High Priest: “Since we have a great high priest….let us approach the throne of grace with confidence” (4:16). The “throne of grace” in this verse is a reference to the presence of God. This may be a synonym for the Mercy Seat, the cover to the Ark of the Covenant that was in the Holy of Holies (Exod 25:17). While the word throne is sometimes used for an ornate chair and the words mercy and grace can both reflect the Hebrew word hesed, there is no other example of the Ark of the Covenant being called the “throne of grace.” Since the point of the passage is that the believer can enter into God’s presence, the analogy of the High Priest entering into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement seems to almost require the reader to understand the Mercy Seat Ark as the “throne of grace.” But like most things in Hebrews, the writer might evoke the Ark of the Covenant or the Day of Atonement, but he has in mind the ultimate presence of God in Heaven, the “real throne of grace.”

Within the world of the metaphor, no Second Temple period Jewish person would even think of entering the Holy of Holies! Only a Jewish priest could enter the Temple, but only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies within the Temple. Even then, the High Priest entered only once a year and only after elaborate preparations. Even then, the High Priest did not approach the Mercy Seat with confidence; he was likely in fear for his life while preforming the functions of his office, knowing that he was as close to the presence of God as he could be in this life.  If he was found unworthy or if he was erred in his job he might be struck dead.

Yet the writer of Hebrews tells his readers that they can enter this most holy place with confidence. In the context of temple worship, this is a remarkable statement since every high priest did his duty on the Day of Atonement with a great deal of fear and trembling! To “enter with confidence” is not disrespect. The believer is not to treat God as a human or flippantly address God. The noun παρρησία (parrasia) can be translated “boldness,” as it is in the early parts of Acts when the Apostles “speak with boldness” about who Jesus was (Acts 2:29, 4:13, 14:19).

In this context confidence refers to the believer’s position in Christ that gives us a kind of “permission to speak freely” to God.  Since we have Jesus as our High Priest, we have a new relationship with God that allows us to be fully open and honest with God (cf. Eph 3:12). For example, in the military a commander might have certain people who are his close advisors. These people have the freedom to speak openly to their superior officer in a way that would not be acceptable coming from a private.

If we are in Christ, we can walk into God’s presence and speak to him what is on our hearts. The best example of this boldness is the prayers of the Psalms. Some Psalms question if God really listens to the prayers, others are boldly claiming promises made. Others frank expressions a depth of anguish and pain that is almost embarrassing. The writers of the Psalms do speak with God with confidence. This confidence and boldness is based on the fact that Jesus is our Great High Priest and he has done something as the High Priest that allows his followers his new access.

What are the implications of the boldness in the context of the original readers? How can we “bridge the gap” to apply this “boldness” to contemporary spirituality?

The first section of Hebrews develops an argument that Jesus was foreshadowed by various people and events in the Hebrew Bible. In chapter 3 he will contrast Jesus and Moses, perhaps the most faithful servant of God and certainly the person associated most with the Law. It is well known that Matthew uses a kind of Moses typology in his Gospel to show that Jesus is a teacher in the tradition of Moses yet superior to him.

It is therefore somewhat surprising that the book of Hebrews does not begin with the contrast with Moses.  After the introduction, the writer says that the Son who is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven is superior to the angels (1:3). Following this statement, the writer constructs a lengthy comparison of Jesus and the angels, drawing on a series of texts from the Hebrew Bible (1:4-14, 2:1-9). Why start with the angels?

Dore AngelsAngels were very popular in Jewish mythology from the second century B.C. through the first century A.D.  A whole hierarchy of angels was developed along with some theological teachings that were not present in the Old Testament.  In the re-telling of Biblical stories writers often had angels performing acts that were acts of God in the Hebrew Bible.  Although the imagery is found in Daniel 10, the appearance of angels as glowing white, fiery, glowing, etc. was developed during this time as well.

Angels were associated with giving of the Law to Israel in early Judaism.  This tradition develops from Deut 33:2, where the “holy ones” accompany the Lord as he arrives at Sinai. “Holy ones” was taken to mean angels. In Acts 7:53, Stephen refers to the Law as “delivered by angels.” The Second Temple book Jubilees predates Hebrews and begins with a reference to the “angel of the presence” who wrote a text for Moses:

And he said to the angel of the presence, “Write for Moses from the first creation until my sanctuary is built in their midst forever and ever. And the LORD will appear in the sight of all. And everyone will know that I am the God of Israel and the father of all the children of Jacob and king upon Mount Zion forever and ever. And Zion and Jerusalem will be holy.” (Wintermute, “Jubilees,” in OTP 2: 54)

The tradition that angels delivered the Law is found in later Judaism as well:  “The presence of angels at the event of the giving of the law was a favourite bit of embroidery in rabbinic tradition, and was meant to enhance the glory of Sinai” (H. Schoeps, Paul, 182).  The emphasis in this literature is on the angels as intermediaries, delivering the Law to Moses.  When God revealed himself to Moses, he used angels.

Since the writer of Hebrews began his book by saying that God is new revealing himself through his Jesus, it is possible a Jewish reader might think of Jesus as an angel, like a Michael or Gabriel.  He must therefore begin by showing that Jesus is something other than an angel; he is “Son of God.”

One last observation:  Is this a “difference” between Jewish Christian literature and the Pauline Letters? Perhaps not. While Paul cannot be accused of emphasizing angels, he does use the same sort of language as Stephen in Gal 3:19: The law was “put in place through angels” (ESV).

Are there other reasons that the writer begins with a sustained argument that Jesus is superior to the angels in every way?

In Hebrews 1:6 the author says that God commands the angels to worship Jesus, his firstborn son.  The command to worship is drawn from the LXX of Deut 32:43 but seems to be blended with Psalm 97:7 (LXX Ps 96:7) and Psalm 89:27 (LXX 88:28). Ellingworth suggests Odes of Solomon 2:43b and 4QDt 32:43b are possible sources as well, although these two texts are probably alluding to the same texts as the author of Hebrews. The phrase “let all the sons of God/angels worship him” is missing in the Hebrew text, so the writer of Hebrews either is following the Greek of Deuteronomy or only has the Psalm in mind.

There are two issues with this verse that need to be addressed that have a bearing on Christology. First, the quote is introduced by a phrase calling Christ the “firstborn of God.”  The word “firstborn” could be taken to mean that Jesus was created or generated by God, so that Jesus was similar to God, but not the same substance as God himself. In fact, the Greek word πρωτότοκος (prototokos) does mean “first born,” but it often refers to the legal status as heir rather than birth order.

Rembrandt_AqedahIt is possible for the “first born” to be the literal first born child, but that is not necessarily the case. Jacob can be called the first born, even though he was not the literal first born, because he was the son of the blessing over his older brother. More importantly for the writer of Hebrews, the word πρωτότοκος was applied to David in Psalm 89:27 (LXX 88:28).

The second issue is the command to worship Jesus. In the original context of Psalm 97:7, worshipers of idols are put to shame by the glory of God revealed in creation. Since the idols are worthless, the gods/angels are commanded to worship God. The Hebrew Bible has כָּל־אֱלֹהִֽים, “all the gods,” the Greek of the Psalm has πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ, “all his angels.” It is probably the case that the translator took the “gods” as “sons of God” and translated the phrase “angels,” a similar case is found in Psalm 8.

The important point is what the quote says: all the angels should (now) worship the Son. In this present age, the firstborn son ought to receive the worship that was reserved for God in the previous age. This would create a problem for a monotheistic Jewish thinker – how can Jesus be worshiped as God? God is commanding his angels to worship something other than himself, a violation of his own Law. The shema, after all, says that there is one God. The angels can only worship God himself, so the author of Hebrews is pointing to the fact that the Son is to be worshiped because he is God.

Is this a valid inference from the text of Hebrews? If a reader sets aside their views on the Trinity (either for or against it), does the writer of Hebrews intend to equate Jesus and God in some real way in this verse? What else is there in Hebrews 1 to support this assertion?

The writer began by proving that Jesus is superior to the angels in chapters 1-2, and not who will show that Jesus is superior to Moses.  Why move from angels to Moses? For most modern readers, angels are superior to humans, so if Jesus is superior to angels, he would obviously be superior to Moses as well.

But it is important to read this argument in the context of first century Jewish Christianity.  For Jews living in the Second Temple period, Moses was the most significant person in salvation history. In Sirach (about 200 B.C.), Moses is described as equal to the “holy ones” or even God himself (as the Hebrew text of Sirach can be translated):

Sirach 45:1-2 …and was beloved by God and people, Moses, whose memory is blessed. He made him equal in glory to the holy ones, and made him great, to the terror of his enemies.

In addition, messianic hopes in the first century sometimes focused on the coming of a prophet like Moses. Hope for a “return of Moses” as messiah was so strong that at least one messianic pretender stopped the Jordan in a re-enactment of the crossing of the Red Sea. Matthew’s gospel is designed to highlight Jesus as a new Moses who goes up on the mountain and gives the people the Law–the Sermon on the Mount!

One might have offered a counter argument to the first two chapters of Hebrews: Jesus might be superior to the angels, but the ultimate servant of God was Moses, who gave the Law.  In the context of the first century, then, our author will argue that Jesus is a superior to even Moses as a servant of God.  Ultimately, this will lead to the conclusion that the covenant which Jesus made (the New Covenant) is superior to that of the Old Covenant made by Moses.  In verse two Moses is compared to Jesus, then he is subordinated to Jesus (verse 3) and by verse 5 he is contrasted to Jesus, negatively.

Moses and JesusThe author of Hebrews makes a “lesser to greater” type of argument. If Moses was faithful in God’s household in the previous age, how is Jesus be superior to him in the present age? First, Jesus is superior because he is the builder of the house.  Here the writer is making the point that Jesus is God, and because God is the designer of the administration that Moses presided over, he is therefore superior to him.

Second, Moses is a servant of the house, but Jesus is the son of the Builder, and therefore heir to the administration himself.  He is of a different class that Moses, beyond servant.  This takes into consideration the first argument of the book, that the angels were servants, but Jesus is the son.  Moses is a servant, but the word here is unique in the New Testament to Moses.  It is not a slave, but an “attendant,” one who “renders devoted service” (BDAG). The LXX uses the word for Moses in Num 12:7 (as well as Exod 4:10 and 14:31).

Moses was a servant of the first class, but he is still a servant of Jesus, and therefore subordinate to him.  What else in Hebrews 3 shows Jesus as superior to Moses?

The writer of Hebrews begins his argument concerning the superiority of Christ to everything by discussing his superiority angels.  Why start with the angels?

Angels were very popular in Jewish mythology from the second century B.C. through the first century A.D.   A whole hierarchy of angels was developed along with some theological teachings that were not present in the Old Testament.  In the re-telling of Biblical stories writers often had angels performing acts that were acts of God in the Hebrew Bible.  Although the imagery is found in Daniel 10, the appearance of angels as glowing white, fiery, glowing, etc. was developed during this time as well.

What is more, the angels are associated with the giving of the Law in early Judaism.  This tradition appears in the Hebrew Bible as early as Deut 33:2, although the “holy ones” merely accompany the Lord as he arrives at Sinai. Stephen refers to the Law as “delivered by angels” in Acts 7:53.  The book of Jubilees predates Hebrews clearly has the belief that an angel wrote a text for Moses:

Jubilees 1.27-28 And He said to the angel of the presence: ‘Write for Moses from the beginning of creation till My sanctuary has been built among them for all eternity.’ (Charles)

This tradition is found in later Judaism as well:  “The presence of angels at the event of the giving of the law was a favourite bit of embroidery in rabbinic tradition, and was meant to enhance the glory of Sinai” (H. Schoeps, Paul, 182).  The emphasis in this literature is on the angels as intermediaries, delivering the Law to Moses.  When God revealed himself to Moses, he used angels.

Since the writer of Hebrews began his book by saying that God is new revealing himself through his Jesus, it is possible a Jewish reader might think of Jesus as an angel, like a Michael or Gabriel.  He must therefore begin by showing that Jesus is something other than an angel, he is “Song of God.”

One last observation:  Is this a “difference” between Jewish Christian literature and the Pauline Letters? Perhaps not.  While Paul cannot be accused of emphasizing angels, he does use the same sort of language as Stephen in Gal 3:19: The law was “put in place through angels” (ESV).

Follow Reading Acts on WordPress.com

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,937 other followers

My book Jesus the Bridegroom is now available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle


Christian Theology

%d bloggers like this: