The Lord's Day Morning
December 20, 2009
1 Peter 1:3-12
“Christmas Viewed from Afar: Angels’ Eyes”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Turn with me now to 1 Peter, 1 Peter chapter 1. It's a great pleasure and privilege for me this year to have been asked to bring three Christmas messages. This is the third and final one and I bring to you this morning something by way of an early Christmas present. We've just been singing at the very beginning of our service this morning about angels. We sang, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. It would hardly be Christmas, I think, if we didn't sing that particular hymn. And I think everything we've sung so far, including the anthem, made reference to angels. And that's what I want us to think about this morning. It's a reference that we find in our reading together. I'm going to read from verse 3 of 1 Peter chapter 1 down through verse 12. Before we do so, let's look to God in prayer.
Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures that holy men wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Once again we ask for Your blessing. We pray for the ministry now of Your Spirit, as we read these words and study them together, that the truth that is contained within them, that is these very words themselves, would be a source of help and joy and comfort and reassurance and perhaps even rebuke, as we meditate upon our blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We ask it in His name. Amen.
Hear the Word of God:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when He predicted the suffering of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
Let me repeat that last phrase, that last part of that verse — “things into which angels long to look.”
Now, I want to ask you a question. Have you ever seen an angel? Well, you might have, but not knowing that you have seen it, the book of Hebrews says. Let me ask this question again. Have you ever seen an angel? Now, there's a member of this church, first, eight-thirty service, not eleven o’clock — there's a member of this church who bakes for me a certain delicacy every year. It is to die for. And he is an angel, but I don't mean it in that sense. I mean it in the real sense, in the biblical sense — have you ever seen an angel?
Now, let me disabuse you of the notion — I know it's held by some and sentimentally held by some — that when you die you become an angel, or particularly perhaps when children die they become angels. That is not the case. That's not a Biblical notion. You may have read that somewhere, you may have been told that somewhere, but that's not in the Bible. Angels are angels, humans are humans, now and forever. But, have you ever seen an angel?
I love this time of year. I'm always tickled pink when Ligon asks me to preach some Christmas sermons because I just love this time of year. I've always loved it. Even when I wasn't a believer, I loved this time of year. I love this time of year partly because I love to contemplate the incarnation, the imponderable, the unfathomable. But I also love this time of year because it's a time when we can think about angels. Our text - and I'm only going to refer to the text a little - this is a one-off sermon, it's a topical sermon. I tell my students at the seminary, “Preach a topical sermon once a year and then immediately repent.” So this is my one, once a year, topical sermon, and I will repent at twelve o’clock.
Some of you have read Billy Graham's book, Angels. It's a wonderful book. It's a book you should read. He tells a lot of stories in the first few chapters about folk who have seen angels. One is a story that comes from the Second World War, the Battle of Britain. RAF pilots flew night and day for several weeks across the English Channel, some of who maimed and some were killed. And in a service after the war, Air Chief Marshal Lord Hugh Dowding — you all would love to have that name — Air Chief Marshal Lord Hugh Dowding was recounting what several people had seen: planes in which the pilots had been killed, and they saw the figure of a human being in the cockpit, flying these planes and engaging in battle. Oh I'm sure you have an explanation if you’re not a believer. I'm sure there are reasonable explanations. But the Air Chief Marshal said they were angels.
John Patton, missionary-extraordinaire to the New Hebrides — he proposed to his wife something along these lines — “Will you marry me, but two weeks later we're going to go to an island in the southern seas where there are cannibals?” Imagine. She would die giving birth to her first child. No sooner had they got there, he builds this hut, and there's this story, it's in the biography of John Patton — Billy Graham recounts the story — how John Patton is surrounded one night, he and his wife, by natives who are cannibals who are intent on capturing them and presumably eating them. All night John Patton prayed. They never came near and eventually in the morning they went away. A year later, the chief of that tribe was converted. It's a wonderful story in and of itself. And when John Patton and the chief are having a conversation, the chief says to John Patton about that night, “Who were all those men around your hut with drawn swords?” They were angels. I ask you again — Do you believe in angels and have you seen an angel?
I want to think of it along three lines of thought. First of all — What are they? Secondly — What do they do? And thirdly something of a speculative thought on my part — If you were to see an angel this morning, what do you think that angel would say to you?
I. What are angels?
What are they? The simple answer to that question is they are part of God's creation. They are part of God's family. There are many of them, countless numbers of them, there are different kinds of angels — angels, archangels, cherubs, seraphs, and then the book of Revelation talks about all kinds of creatures and perhaps it's only recording for us some of the creatures and there may be others that we know nothing about. They’re intelligent, moral, not ordinarily visible, though on occasions they do appear in human form. Like human beings, they were set on probation and some of them fell.
Ligon was preaching on Luke 8 a couple of weeks ago, the story about Legion, you remember, which tells us that there can be many, perhaps thousands of angels, located in the same spot at the same time. That gave rise to all kinds of questions in the medieval era, none of which I want to go into here this morning. They’re part of God's family. They don't have bloodlines like you and me, but they are, how can I say it, they are extraterrestrial creatures, supra-terrestrial creatures. I’ll let you in to a little secret. I love the Sci-Fi channel. I'm a sucker for the Sci-Fi channel. I'm fascinating by the question of extraterrestrial beings. I have no answers. I'm just fascinated by the question. One of our staff members is fascinated by the question. I won't tell you who that is.
Sometimes I'm asked the question, and I remember some time in the past I remember Sinclair Ferguson being asked the question, were there such things as extraterrestrial beings. And he said, “They are members of my family.” Because you know when we are converted, when we are brought into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, we're brought into this huge family. Not just the family which is the church, but the family that we can't see, of angels and Gabriel and Michael and seraphs and cherubs and other exalted beings. They’re members of my family. You know I think that's why Jesus said, “There is rejoicing in heaven among the angels when one sinner repents,” because they’re saying, “Another member of our family!”
II. What do angels do?
What do they do? What do angels do? The Hebrew word for an angel is “mal-ach.” The Greek word is “angelos.” Both words simply mean “messenger.” They’re messengers. They’re messengers of God. They do His bidding. They’re servants of God. They do whatever God tells them to do and they take delight and joy in serving the Lord. Heaven is their home. They spend their time worshipping God. You have a little glimpse of it in Isaiah 6 — “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth is filled with His glory.” You have a little glimpse of it in Revelation 4 and 5, of angels and exalted beings singing to the glory and praise of God. They love to worship.
They’re also guardians. Now I don't believe — and this may upset you — but I don't believe that the Bible necessarily teaches — I'm being careful how I say this — I don't believe the Bible necessarily teaches that there's one guardian angel for every believer. I'm not sure I find that in the Bible. But I do find in the Bible that angels guard and protect believers, especially little ones. Matthew 18 and verse 10, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. In heaven, their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven — their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.”
That's a reassuring thought, isn't it? That the way Jesus cares for our little ones is He sets angels to guard them and protect them and watch over them. To those of you who have children that are sick, in body or mind, what a comforting thought that there are — and you know, angels are powerful creatures. You rarely read in the Bible of somebody seeing an angel but that he's prostrate on the floor and even at Christmas, what did the angels say to the shepherds in Bethlehem? “Fear not,” meaning that their first thought was fear. These powerful creatures, powerful creatures, guarding and protecting and watching over our little ones to do the bidding of our Heavenly Father.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus tells us that at death, the poor man was carried into heaven by angels, and I wonder, I wonder — is that the first thing that we see when we die? Before we see the face of Jesus, before we're ushered into the presence of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, and to see the beauty of that beatific vision — the first thing that we see are angels. Perhaps the very angels who have been guarding and protecting and watching over us in the course of our lives and we didn't even know it. That's exciting. I find that exciting.
They declare God's glory, they fulfill God's will, they are servants and defenders. My favorite Old Testament story I think is the story of Elisha and his servant — 2 Kings chapter 6 — and you remember they are surrounded. First thing in the morning, the servant goes out — they are surrounded by Syrian forces and the servant says, you remember, “Alas, my master, what shall we do?”
Every Christmastime in Britain there's a TV show, it's a very old show, it was a time when TV was clean and you could let your children watch it. It was called Dad's Army. Some of you might know it. It was set in the Second World War - a group of men, home-guard, generally elderly men, too old to enlist for the service, and they were the defenders of home. This was set in a place called Walmington-on-Sea on the southern coast, and it was led by a pompous, though very patriotic, Captain Mainwaring. But there was a character in the show, a Scotsman, a dour Scotsman, Private James Freighter, who had glass, staring eyes, and he was a coffin maker. And every show had a scenario, a moment where things were looking bad. And he would come out with a line - almost every show he would come out with a line — “We’re doomed!” That's what Elisha's servant was saying. And do you remember Elisha's response? “The hills are alive” — not to the sound of music — “The hills are alive” — well, possibly that too — but angels, forces, greater in number than the Syrian forces. Defenders, protectors.
Angels remind us that God cares for us. He cares for us. And our text — “things into which angels long to look.” Peter is talking about the Gospel. He's talking about the coming of Jesus. He's talking about the incarnation and the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and how prophets, Old Testament prophets, wondered about the things that they themselves by the Holy Spirit wrote. When Isaiah wrote that a virgin would conceive and bear a child — don't you think Isaiah said, “I wonder who this virgin is? And what child is this?” Or when Micah wrote that from Bethlehem - this nowhere place - Bethlehem, Ephrathah, one would be born who would be king of Israel. And they wondered. They gazed into their own writings.
And Peter adds, almost as an afterthought, “things into which angels long to look.” He uses a verb. The English has to make up words here — “longed to look.” It's a very intense word. It's the word John uses for Mary stooping down and staring into the empty tomb. The angels are fascinated by the Gospel. You know, when man fell in Eden, can you imagine the angels? As they’re listening to a conversation between the Father and the Son and the Father says, “You must go.” And Jesus says, “I'm willing. I'm going.” And the Spirit says, “Yes, and I'm going too.” And the angels are aghast. They’re holding their collective breath. What is this, that the second person of the Trinity would become incarnate and endure all of this for sinners? What is this? Something that was never done for angels. They’re fascinated by the Gospel. They are together for the Gospel.
III. What would an angel say to you today?
Do you know, that leads me to ask my third question. It's a speculative question and homileticians can rap me on the knuckles afterwards, but I'm going to ask it anyway. If you saw an angel this morning, what do you think that angel would say to you? I think that angel would say something like this — “Why are you not more captivated and enthralled by this message of the Gospel, by Christmas, by the coming of Jesus for the likes of you?” They are captivated by it. They love to sing about it. They rejoice at the message that God became incarnate, that God was “contracted to a span,” as Wesley put it, that there's grace with God for miserable sinners that whosoever believes in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved. And I think if we met an angel this morning they would say to us, “Why is your heart not more engaged by this?”
It was on this passage of Scripture that Jonathan Edwards said that “true religion in the main consists in the affections.” Not in the mind, but in the affections. And I think, yes, I think that the angels would concur with that.
Are your affections, is your heart, truly engaged in this extraordinary message that God so loves sinners like you and me that He is prepared to send His Son to be born in a stable in Bethlehem and to die upon a cross on Calvary to save us and rescue us so that we, think about this, so that we might become part of that family which consists of Gabriel and Michael and these powerful, powerful angels to behold the beauty of the Lamb and praise Him forevermore?
What a thing it is to be a Christian. What a thing it is to be a believer. What a thing it is to know that the Gospel is true. It's true.
May the grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with each one of you now and forevermore.
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