Thursday, May 19, 2022

Barth on the Kingdom of Heaven

The following is my summary of Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume III.3: The Doctrine of Creation; Chapter XI: The Creator and His Creature; Section 51: The Kingdom of Heaven, the Ambassadors of God and their Opponents; Subsection 2: The Kingdom of Heaven (translated by G. W. Bromiley and R. J. Ehrlich, 1960).

2. The Kingdom of Heaven (418)

To the dialectic of God and man corresponds, for the biblical witnesses to revelation, the dialectic of heaven and earth. What the Bible says about angels can be understood only in terms of this (418). “To say God in the biblical sense and therefore with a responsible Christian understanding is also to say heaven; and to say man in the same sense and with the same understanding is also to say earth…If we think in this twofold dialectic, we are necessarily led to the concept of angels appropriate to the context of the biblical witness and therefore true in the Christian sense. For in the relationship first between God and heaven, then between heaven and earth, and then and decisively between God and man, the angels have their specific place” (419).

1. Heaven, like earth, is creaturely.

Heaven is not God. Angels are not divine. Heaven, like earth, is a creation of God. Angels, like human beings, are creatures of God: created by him out of nothing, sustained by him, and subject to his lordship. “Heaven is not, therefore, under God as earth is under heaven, but it is under God as earth is under Him” (419). This is true even though, as will be discussed later, the relationship between heaven and earth is analogous to the relationship between Creator and creator.

The Old Testament does not use a word, like “world” or “cosmos,” to denote all of creation. It always speaks of creation as the differentiated unity of heaven and earth. The New Testament for the most part continues this practice. The Bible, then, speaks of creation, of heaven and earth, in a way that recalls, by analogy, its meaning and purpose: the relationship of God and humankind. It recalls then, the ordered unity of both in Jesus Christ.

Opening the Bible, we first read, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). So God created heaven as well as earth. “The Lord made the heaven” (Ps. 96:5). “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6). They are the work of His fingers (Ps. 8:3) or hands (Ps. 102:25). Consequently the mysteries and limits of God are higher even than the heavens (Job 11:7-8) and we rightly exalt God above and beyond them (Ps. 57:11). So too Jesus Christ “ascended higher than all the heavens” (Eph. 4:10). In his prayer of dedication for the Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon declared to God, “‘The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you’” (1 Kgs. 8:27). Neither the heavens nor its angels may claim God’s perfection: “If God places no trust in his holy ones, if even the heavens are not pure in his eyes…” (Job 15:15). God makes “the pillars of the heavens quake” (Job 26:11). Indeed the day is coming when “the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment” (Is. 51:6); “Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them” (Rev. 20:11); “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…” (Rev. 21:1). That is why we worship God alone and nothing in the heavens: “And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshipping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven” (Dt. 4:19). “And when I had heard and seen [these things], I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, ‘Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!’” (Rev. 22:8-9).

2. Heaven and earth exist as a differentiated unity

Yet “the created world in its totality (and therefore heaven and earth) corresponds to that for which it was created; to the encounter, history and fellowship between God and man” (421). Heaven is above, earlier, and more than earth; earth is below, later, and less than heaven. Heaven and earth are a differentiated unity and, therefore, a unity of different spheres or realms. As such: “They only reflect, but they do reflect, the true and proper and strict above and below of Creator and creature, of God and man” (421). Therefore, the existence of heaven does witness, in relationship to earth, the covenantal relationship of God with man for which both heaven and earth were created. Differentiated unity: without separation or confusion. “We do not express or know the second and decisive dialectic [of God and man]—which is that of the history of the covenant and salvation—apart from the first dialectic [of heaven and earth] grounded in the nature and constitution of the created world…Man is on earth under heaven. In no way…can we abstract from the fact that we have the earth to which we belong beneath us and the heaven which is not as such our place above us. That which did and does and will take place between God and man is an event which, willed and accomplished by God and relating to us, is both heavenly and earthly. To dismiss the reality of this likeness is to dismiss the reality of the event, its divine origin and human goal. It is the event between heaven and earth, or it is not the event between God and man, the event of Christ” (422).

     a. Heaven exists as earth’s counterpart.

This is because God is nearer to heaven than to earth. This is not because, by nature, heaven is more special but because, by grace, God chose to draw closer to heaven. The relationship of heaven to earth, then, is ordered by the relationship God chose to establish with each.

And God did choose to establish this differentiated relationship with heaven and earth because God chose just this relationship to serve as the context of his covenant with man. As the differentiated context of this covenant, what happens on earth relates to what happens in heaven, and what happens in heaven relates to what happens on earth.

Knees bow in worship of God in heaven as well as on earth (Phil. 2:10). A binding and loosing in heaven corresponds to that occurring on earth (Mt. 16:19, 18:18). The prodigal son sins against heaven and then, but also, against his father on earth (Lk. 15:21). The Samarians commit an outrage against Judah which cries aloud to heaven (2 Chr. 28:9). The heavens grow dark in commiseration with a mourning earth (Jer. 4:28) just as they rejoice as the earth is glad (Ps. 96:11, Is. 49:13; etc.). In the end, all things in heaven and on earth will be united under Christ (Eph. 1:10).

     b. Heaven exists as the limit of our comprehension.

Heaven, as the counterpart of earth, “is the sum of all that which in creation is…mysterious” (424). Because earth is our realm, we may comprehend all there is about it. In contrast, heaven, which is real but invisible, lies primarily beyond our comprehension and control. This mystery of heaven is not that of God. That mystery lies beyond both heaven and earth. But, within creation, a boundary also exists between the visibly real of earth and the invisibly real of heaven—even as our reality borders on it and even as its reality penetrates our own.

When the Bible speaks of heaven, it includes first that which is visible about it; that is, what we describe in meteorological and astronomical terms. Also, the Bible finds aspects of the lower cosmos which also we cannot comprehend. If we cannot measure the heights of heaven, neither can we measure the volume of the oceans or weigh the mountains (Is. 40:12). God interrogates Job, asking, “‘Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?’” (Job 39:31-33). Thus there are aspects of heaven which we see: the sun, moon, and stars; the sky, clouds, and wind. Conversely, there are aspects of the earth we cannot comprehend. Yet, in the Bible, heaven “stands with its own mystery in some sense at the head of all mysteries” (425). The folly that led to the confusion of human languages and scattering of humankind was our attempt to build a tower that reached the heavens (Gen. 11:1-9). In his pride, the godless person “reaches to the heavens and his head touches the clouds” (Job 20:6). In his pride, Nebuchadnezzar sees himself in a dream as a tree so tall it touches the sky (Dan. 4:11f.). But God sets those who speak in such a way on a slippery slope (Ps. 73:9, 18). “Heaven is thus the epitome of the limit set for man” (426). “‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Is. 55:9). The height of heaven above the earth is like the love and faithfulness of God beyond our comprehension: “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies” (Ps. 36:5). “Heaven thus seems to be the norm of that which is inconceivable to man” (426).

Heaven, then, is both the earth’s counterpart and “the world of the mystery which encounters us” (426). But this, again, is something we may know only by revelation. Furthermore, what is revealed to us about heaven is revealed only in relation to the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, the Bible does not talk about the nature of heaven in general or in a manner calculated to satisfy the curious. Heaven stands as the counterpart to earth and as that realm of creation over which we have no control and of which we have no comprehension apart from revelation. As such, in its mystery, we have a likeness in creation to God’s mystery. As such, it is the limit of our earthly realm.

     c. Heaven is the starting point of God’s saving word and work, and earth is its ending point.

This is what gives heaven and earth their unity, differentiation, and irreversible order. The saving word and work of God begin in heaven and are done on earth.

As human beings, we are both on and of the earth. By grace alone, God condescends; he comes down to us freely in love. This is earth’s distinction and glory.

In contrast, heaven is the place from which God acts in and with and for us. That is its distinction and glory. Heaven is the distinctive realm of God from which he initiates his saving purpose and earth is the distinctive realm of humankind in which his saving purpose reaches its goal. So we do not have God living in isolation in heaven, nor humankind living in isolation on earth. We have God and humankind, heaven and earth, in their proper unity, differentiation, and order. “It is from heaven that [God] speaks and works…It is from heaven that His mystery limits us. Hence this place, heaven, is before…and more and higher than earth” (433). “It is from heaven that the kingdom of God comes to us, so that as such the coming kingdom of God is also the kingdom of heaven” (433).

In his account of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Matthew frequently uses the term kingdom of heaven. He uses the word kingdom to denote the active exercise of kingly rule by a royal person. He uses the word heaven to indicate that, wherever God rules on earth, heaven is present. In the New Testament, heaven, singular, is used in conjunction with earth to denote the whole of creation. Heavens, plural, is used to contrast the heavenly from the earthly. The expression, Our Father in the heavens (Mt. 6:9), with which the Lord’s Prayer begins, emphasizes that God’s fatherly relationship to us is a heavenly one or one expressing the nature of heaven (433).

To say, then, that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near to us (Mt. 3:2, 4:17, 10:7) is to say that, with God’s royal presence, word, and work in our midst, have come also to us on earth the “supraterrestrial possibilities and illuminations and powers of heaven” (434). So wherever God’s kingly rule is present on earth, heaven is present at least in part and, at that point, God’s “kingdom on earth acquires the character of the kingdom of heaven” (434). The term, kingdom of God, then, denotes God’s ruling presence, word, and work: the kingdom of heaven, then, denotes his royal exercise of that rule here on earth in our midst in ways which we, by his grace, may acknowledge, affirm, and participate in.

Whenever Matthew mentions the kingdom of heaven, he includes the action of angels. In both Old and New Testaments “the royal measures of God as the Lord of earthly history are frequently described as events which proceed from heaven and move earthward with the participation of heaven” (434).

“This is true of all the external and spiritual benefits which God confers on man” (434-5). Positively stated, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (Jas. 1:17). Expressed negatively, “‘A man can receive only what is given him from heaven’” (Jn. 3:27). So too David may “cry out to God Most High, to God, who fulfills his purpose for me. He sends from heaven and saves me…; God sends his love and his faithfulness” (Ps. 57:2-3). In response even to murmuring, God sends his people manna from heaven (Ex. 16:2ff.)—a provision which Jesus takes and applies to himself (Jn. 6:30f.). “The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the works of your hands” (Dt. 28:12). “The fact that the divine benefits are already fixed and ready as it were in heaven, and have only to come down to the recipient, is also a distinctive New Testament conception, the meaning being that although men have to receive the divine benefit they are already its lawful possessors and have already tasted the heavenly gift (Heb. 6:4) (435). Paul tells the Ephesians right off that God already “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3) and even “seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Jesus Christ tells us that, when we face persecution as his disciples, we may rejoice already in the reward that awaits us in heaven (Mt. 5:11-12). Heaven is where we are to store up treasure (Mt. 6:20); it is there our names are written (Lk. 10:20), w have an eternal house not built by human hands (2 Cor. 5:1), a better country toward which we journey even now in faith (Heb. 11:16), and our true citizenship as we live as colonists in this world (Phi. 3:20).

From heaven also come “warnings and punishments” (435). God can shut the heavens and so withhold the rain (Dt. 11:17). “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men” (Rom. 1:18). In a surprising passage we learn that God’s “sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; see, it descends in judgment on Edom” (Is. 34:5). From heaven may rain fire and brimstone, as in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24), or hailstones, as in the rout of the Amorites (Josh. 10:11).

But all of these divine benefits and punishments pale when compared with the coming from heaven to earth of God’s Word and Son. After God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, he commanded Moses to tell the Israelites, “‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven’” (Ex. 20:22). And, following his baptism in the Jordan, “as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (Mk. 1:10-11). In this way Mark stresses that the Son and Word of God has come down from heaven to earth and has become a human. Early in his ministry, Jesus says to his initial disciples, “‘I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’” (Jn. 1:51). He later adds, “‘It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life’” (Jn. 6:32-33, 35). Just as he descended from heaven, and as confirmation of that fact, so he ascended into heaven (Acts 1:11), where he sits at the right hand of God the Father and intercedes on our behalf (Rom. 8:34, Heb. 9:24). Just before his stoning, Stephen saw heaven open “and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). From heaven, Jesus Christ pours out the Holy Spirit upon his community (Acts 2:2), speaks to it (Heb. 12:25), and will return (1 Ths. 1:20, 2 Ths. 1:17) “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Mt. 24:30).

“This then, or this One, is the substance of what according to the biblical witness comes down (with blessing and punishment in its train) from heaven to earth because from God to man…Thus heaven is decisively the place where and from and to which He is” (437).

“God is in heaven and heaven is the place of God” (437). The importance of this assertion: to acknowledge the distinction of heaven from earth and of God from humankind and our vain imagination. “Heaven is a place: the place of God in view of which we have to say that God is not only transcendent in relation to the world but also immanent and present within it; the place of God from which His dealings with us, the history of the covenant, can take place in the most concrete sense, and His majesty, loftiness and remoteness can acquire the most concrete form, where otherwise they would simply be a product of human fantasy” (437). We affirm this when we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven” (Mt. 6:9). Jesus speaks of his Father in heaven (Mt. 16:17, 18:19). Ecclesiastes makes the terse distinction: “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecc. 5:2).

The Bible also describes heaven as the place of God’s throne or even as the throne of God (Is. 66:1, Mt. 5:34). From his heavenly throne, God rules over everything (Ps. 103:19). Sometimes he laughs at our folly from his throne (Ps. 2:4). At other times he parts the heavens, soars on the wind, then descends to make the earth tremble, to scatter his enemies, and to rescue his own (Ps. 18:6-19).

Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of God the Father (Col. 3:1). To sit is to be likewise enthroned (438). To sit at God’s right hand is to enjoy the benefit of the Father’s kingly rule. Jesus Christ benefited from the Father’s kingly rule by being raised from the dead and exalted to the Father’s side in heaven (Acts 2:33). Jesus Christ now enjoys that benefit by exercising that rule as Prince and Savior (Acts 5:31). “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt. 28:18) (439).

This does not mean the Father is now effaced. There is no competition between Father and Son. According to the doctrine of the Trinity, there is only one God and Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are this one God’s three ways of being God. What’s the difference between God’s way of being God as Father and as Son?  “God the Father is the one true God in so far as he is this and only this, and as such is in heaven. The Son is the same true God insofar as He became and was and is also as such true man to all eternity, having come on earth to be born and to suffer and to die. And the exaltation of the Son to the right hand of the Father is that in heaven as on earth the one true God will and can be no other than the one who is also true man and was born and suffered and died on earth. He wills to be this in heaven and in the whole cosmos” (440).

3. God rules in the kingdom of heaven (441).

This means that God’s word and work start in heaven and then come down to earth in a way shaped in part by their start in heaven.

In speaking of the heaven in which this downward movement of God begins, we want to avoid saying too much or too little. To say enough, we may affirm that heaven, as the place where God is, may be known by us “as a place, as another created place, as a higher cosmic sphere confronting our own” but otherwise it is “unknown and inconceivable, and therefore a mystery” (442). The rule to follow: “the nature of the upper cosmos can be known to us only to the extent that it is illumined for us by the heavenly commencement of His Word and work with reference to us” (442). “We must keep strictly to the fact that we have only to see and know of heaven what may be seen and known as it is illumined by the kingdom which comes from heaven” (442).

We may begin by affirming that heaven is real even though it is invisible, largely beyond our comprehension, and completely outside our control. As something real, it is a creation of God and therefore was created by God to serve him in just the right way in the history of his covenant with humankind (443). Since it is the place in which Christ sits at God’s right hand, it is the creaturely place of the unity of the Father and the Son. As such it is the starting point in the creaturely world, the cosmos, of God’s word and work on earth. So “whatever the manner of heaven, its being is an obedient being” (444).

Heaven is God’s place. The creatures in God’s place obey God’s will. When God starts something in heaven that ends on earth, earth becomes God’s place too. Consequently on earth, too, we become creatures in God’s place who obey God’s will. In this way God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Mt. 6:10) (444).

“God rules in heaven as in a creaturely sphere. We have thus to reckon with a happening which takes place in this sphere. But this heavenly happening is determined by the fact that the goal of the lordship of God by which it has to orientate itself is a happening in our sphere, on earth…The lordship of God as that of the Father and the Son has as its goal man and the multiplicity and mobility of his history and existence…It is the lordship of his omnipotent grace, which is concerned with the order, harmony, integration, and differentiation, the reorganization of our earthly history and existence according to the model and plan of His wisdom and goodness. Because as heavenly occurrence it is determined by this model and plan, it cannot lack form, individuation and multiplicity, but is already ordered, harmonious, integrated and differentiated in its unitariness, collectiveness, and totality…And it is thus that [447] the kingdom of God comes to earth as the kingdom of heaven, not at a single stroke, on a single note, or in a single shade or form, but in a concentrated multiplicity of revelations and declarations, of events and relationships, of individuals and societies, which have their constitutive center in God Himself, namely, in Jesus Christ as very God and very man” (448).

The term heavens, plural, is used in the New Testament to refer to that which characterizes the heavenly in contrast with the earthly. Paul refers to three heavens (2 Cor. 12:2): the firmament in which the stars are embedded, the celestial ocean, and finally the third heaven as the place of God’s throne.

Furthermore, in the Old Testament, God is referred to as Yahweh Sabaoth: the Lord of Hosts. In heaven, then, we have a host of servants to God. So God the Father does not sit all by himself in a heaven either without form or at least empty. A host surrounds him. As the prophet Michaiah put it, “‘I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left’” (1 Kgs. 22:19). So God has “an armed and disciplined force standing at His disposal for instant use” (448). This host also is referred to as an assembly or congregation (Ps. 82:1) or council of the saints. “It is obvious that we have here what we described as the organization, order, integration but also differentiation of what is done in heaven; and that this is the master-concept under which the Old Testament groups the beings which in their decisive function bear the name of angels. We must keep strictly to the fact that our concern is with that organization and differentiation of heavenly being and occurrence…which are grounded in the fact that it is from heaven and therefore [as] the kingdom of heaven that the kingdom of God comes…to earth. This is finely expressed in Rev. 19:11-16” (448): “The armies of heaven were following him and dressed in fine linen, white and clean” (Rev. 19:14). Again, at the birth of Jesus Christ, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests’” (Lk. 2:13-14).

The term, heavenly host, must be used with caution since it has more than one meaning in the Bible. When the Bible refers to the hosts of heaven, “it does not always mean the host of truly angelic beings around the throne, the organization and differentiation of the upper cosmos” (449). Sometimes the term host denotes simply all creatures of heaven or earth or both (Gen. 2:1, Neh. 9:6). Sometimes it means, explicitly or implicitly, the sun, moon, and stars (Dt. 4:19, Is. 40:26). It may even refer to the armies of Israel (1 Sam. 17:45).

Even so, the term heavenly host is used specifically to denote angels, and angels as beings distinct from the sun, moon, and stars as well as humans. In 1 Kgs. 22:19, the heavenly host standing at the right and left of God’s throne are neither stars nor human soldiers. The psalmist calls for God’s praise first from God’s angels and then from the sun, moon, and stars (Ps. 148:2-3).

“Indirectly the different applications of the notion are naturally inter-related, and in such a way that the idea of God’s host or assembly as the direct entourage of His throne forms the basic concept reflected in that of the stars and then of the armies of God’s earthly people…If we only keep to the fact that…we have to do with a movement under the lordship of God from above to below…we shall not regard as in any way strange this particular interchange of meanings in virtue of which we are at one moment really above with God, then in the sphere of a very earthly heaven, and finally on earth itself, where the heavenly host are very definitely earthly (449-50). 

“We must now venture a further step. If the kingdom which as the lordship of God comes from heaven to earth, and therefore commences and is first in heaven, is an order, then it embraces certain elements ordered within it and adjusted to this order” (450). We need to speak of angels and their ordering to say enough; but we also need to recall certain limits, to avoid saying too much. Those limits: we rightly speak of angels (1) only in the context of their movement from heaven to earth as participants in the history of God’s covenantal relationship with humankind, (2) which they are in a way rightly ordered with other angels, (3) who with them are by nature heavenly creatures.

Within these limits we may attempt to say enough. Not abstractly but concretely, angels stand to the right and left of God’s throne and follow his word and action from heaven to earth. They do this both individually and together in a well-ordered way. We do not know their nature in and of itself. We do not know how they organize themselves in relation to one another. But we do know that they serve God who wills to save us from all the powers of evil. In this way angels serve us too—by helping us in ways we cannot help ourselves. Standing next to God’s throne, they witness God’s word as it enters the created world and from there follow it down to earth where it then encounters opposition and confusion. Finally, they serve God perfectly by helping us in a variety of ways.

“Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14). The point of this verse is to emphasize that, no matter how wonderful angels are, Jesus Christ is more significant. Angels do relate, however, to the work of Jesus Christ as ministering spirits: ministering, meaning helpful; spirits, meaning creatures whose way of being differs from our own human way. As ministering spirits, angels are helpful creatures whom God sends from heaven to serve those whom he will save (453).

To this primary understanding of angels we may add others revealed in the Bible. There are angels in heaven (Mk. 12:25). They are called saints (Ps. 89:5; Job 5:1, 15:15); that is, they are called by God and dedicated to his service. They serve as sentinels against human pride and pretension (Dan. 4:13, 23). Sometimes they are referred as sons of God (Job 1:6, 2:1; Ps. 89:6) or even as gods (Ps. 82:1). This does not mean they are pagan deities, self-emanations of God, or identical in nature with Jesus Christ the one Son of God. It means, as it does when these terms are applied in other biblical passages to Christians, that angels in God’s service are part of God’s family.

One passage refers to angels as seraphim (Is. 6:1f.) while others refer to angels as cherubim (Gen. 3:24, Ex. 25:18f., Ezk. 10:1f.). Scholars debate the exact meanings of these words. In some biblical passages, angels have specific names: Michael (which means Who is like God?) (Dan. 10:13, 12:1; Jude 9; Rev. 12:7) and Gabriel (The man of God) (Dan. 8:16, 9:21; Lk. 1:19, 26). This means we rightly understand the heavenly host, the assembly of saints or sons of God, the seraphim and cherubim, as consisting of individual angels. These individual angels speak and act both together with others and apart from them on their own.

We do well to remember, at this point, our limitations: “as the heavenly host exists only as it is assembled around the throne of God and sent out from it, so individual figures, to the extent that their names and speech and action are mentioned, exist only as they are specifically summoned and separated from the rest with a specific commission and in a specific relationship to the earthly history of salvation, disappearing again into the general body as soon as their work is accomplished. Hence it is futile to ask what Gabriel did or was between the role ascribed to him in Daniel and his part in the events of the nativity” (455-6). As David says, “Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word” (Ps. 103:20). “We do well, therefore, to picture their individual existence, if at all, only in the actuality with which it is presented in this psalm. The more strictly we do this, the more the angels lose the character of a curious gallery of legendary figures, the more clearly we see their practical significance, and the more clearly above all we see their existence in direct relationship to the reality and will of the living God” (456).

Does the Bible describe for us a hierarchy of angels (456)? In Dan. 10 and 12, Michael is referred to as one of the chief princes or captains. But Michael is singled out here, not because of his superior rank, but because of his notable role in the history of salvation: he serves God as the great captain or prince of God’s people Israel (Dan. 12:1). Nor is a higher rank stated or implied when Michael is called an archangel (Jude 9). “An archangel is not like an archbishop or an arch duke” (457). The prefix, in Greek, denotes someone who exercises power; an archangel, then, is an angel authoritatively exercising a given ministry—as Michael does in relation to Israel. But he exercises that ministry, not in his own name and with his own power, but as God’s representative and with God’s power. Finally, John speaks of Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon and its minions (Rev. 12:7). Rather than thinking of Michael as their superior, we may think of them as his because God has chosen to include them in Michael’s task of protecting Israel (457).

A hierarchy of angels has also been suggested to some by certain terms found in the New Testament letters: principalities, powers, rulers, authorities, thrones, and dominions (1 Cor. 15:24; Eph. 1:21, 3:10, 6:12; Col. 1:16; Titus 3:1; 1 Pt. 3:22). All of these terms denote beings with power or the ability to control human events. These terms are used in three distinct but interrelated ways. They are used to refer (1) to human beings exercising state power (Lk. 12:11, Rom. 13:1, Titus 3:1); (2) to angels serving Jesus Christ as his ministers (Eph. 1:21, 3:10; Col. 1:16; 1 Pt. 3:22); and (3) to demons illegitimately imitating angels, whom we need to fight (Eph. 6:12) but not to fear (Rom. 8:38ff.) because Jesus Christ already has triumphed over them and set them on the doomed defensive (Col. 2:15). Focusing here on the second reference, we have angels exercising authority on our behalf as ministering spirits who have Christ as their head and his word as their lead (Eph. 1:19-23). Nothing indicates we have a hierarchy of ranks here; that is, a list of ranks written in order from highest to lowest or from lowest to highest. Each of these angelic powers always represents the one power of God wherever they serve. Heaven is ordered, not in terms of status, but in terms of service.

What we can say concerns the relationship, revealed in these verses, between angelic, human, and demonic powers. The angels stand on either side of the throne of God. They serve God as ministering spirits to help us. God speaks and they act in strict conformity with his word. The angels referred to by the terms rulers and authorities bear a relationship to human beings, representatives of the government referred to in the same terms. These human authorities on earth correspond to those angelic authorities in heaven. If Paul says that human authorities are instituted by God (Rom. 13:1), he does so on the basis of this correspondence. “As God speaks His Word from heaven, He reveals and exercises His power to make peace on earth. The heavenly [rulers] and [authorities] are this revelation and exercise of His power to make peace on earth, and they find there counterpart in the earthly powers of state as forces for the maintenance of a relative peace…As and because there are these representatives of the divine power of order from heaven, earthly history can never be given up wholly to chaos, but there can always be within it, as poor but genuine replicas, real forces of peace and order; and it is by these powers, and as their imitation, that the forces of disorder live—the demonic powers with their specific human replicas” (458-9).

“And now…we may venture a final question and answer. What is the order to which heavenly occurrence is subject…? What is it that commences above and then comes to earth with the kingdom of God?...In what does the service of angels consist?” (459).

“A first brief mention must be made of that in which it naturally cannot consist. It cannot consist in their doing what God alone can do…Angels cannot, then, speak words which as their own are the words of God. They cannot do works which as their own are divine works. They cannot save, redeem, or liberate the earthly creature. They cannot forgive even the smallest sin, or remove even the slightest pain…They did not establish the covenant between God and man, and they cannot fulfil, maintain, renew or confirm it. They do not overcome death. They do not rule…any history. Otherwise they would not be the angels of God” (460). They would be demons (if on the pretext and with the appearance of being helpers, saviors, comforters, prophets, priests and kings, they assisted the earthly creature with their own word and work, directed its attention, adoration and gratitude to themselves, and approached it as lords in their own right and with an autonomous claim. And how terribly they would be misunderstood by the creature if they were seen in this role, and on the basis of any…presumed experience, or in any form, independent expectations, hopes, appeals and thanksgivings were addressed to them!” (460). If angels do have the power to say and do the word and work of God, which they do, “it is as representatives, in the revelation and exercise of the one power of God Himself. They never take the central position, but always leave it open for the One who alone can occupy it. They merely come and go again, having maintained this freedom of God. They never catch the eye. They always look away from themselves, and they invite and command others to look away from every creature, themselves included, to the One who alone is worthy that the eye of every creature should rest on Him” (460).

“The true service of angels, like that of all other creatures of God, is that of witnesses” (461); in other words, in their existence, they can give “an appropriate response to [God’s] existence, Word and work…a response which corresponds to Him as their Creator and Lord. In this correspondence they can declare Him, and their declaration can have the character of thanksgiving in relation to Himself and proclamation in relation to their fellow-creatures: the more powerful as proclamation the more radically it is thanksgiving; and the more sincerely thanksgiving the more seriously as proclamation. The creature may praise God. It cannot do this on its own initiative, but solely at His behest and in obedience. It cannot do it in well-meant disclosures, but only as it corresponds to His Word and work. It praises the Lord as it obeys this behest and is this correspondence. And praising Him in this way, it is His witness. This is the one thing required of it” (461).

“The ministry of angels is the supreme ministry of witness, to the increase of which our praise of God and ministry…can be added only as a secondary ministry attaching itself to it. The will of God is first done in heaven, and then on earth. We can paraphrase this to the effect that it first takes place in heaven and then on earth that God is praised by the creature, finding His creaturely correspondence and witnesses. He has found these in heaven before He finds a single one on earth. They exist in plenitude and perfection there even when there seems to be or are only a few on earth, and these are all extremely feeble witnesses. And because His kingdom comes from heaven to earth, this means that in those who come with Him He will always have many trustworthy witnesses on earth, namely, in the existence of His strong angels who are always present and active in full numbers, willingness and readiness even where the earthly creature seems to be sadly lacking with its praise both in quantity and quality” (462).

“We must insist that their ministry is a ministry of witness. God alone rules…But in the course of the divine speech, action and rule the angels as heavenly creatures are His primary, authentic, constant, inflexible and infallible witnesses. Their praise of God is pure praise. Their service which, in praising Him, they render both to Him and to their fellow-creatures is always…a fully authentic service. It is this because it is quite free from any personal desires for power or lordship. What is represented and present in the angels is always the whole secret of God. And it is the genuine secret of God…that He, God, is with us and for us” (462).

The prophet Isaiah speaks of seraphim above the Lord who is seated upon his throne. “And they were calling to one another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’” (Is. 6:3). Similarly, John describes four living creatures around the throne of God in heaven as crying, “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come’” (Rev. 4:8) (466).

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