"And there appeared an angel unto Him from heaven, strengthening Him."
Our Lord had in vain sought wakeful sympathy from His three human friends, and returned with an additional burden to solitary communion with His Father. To supply their lack, an angel was sent from heaven to strengthen Him in visible form and audible voice, and prove to His depressed humanity that the invisible God was there, seeing His tears, hearing His groans, answering His prayers.
As Jesus was removed only a stone's cast, the disciples, just aroused, could see in the moonlight, this heavenly visitant. Most probably he came, as angels on other occasions, in human form. Which of the angels enjoyed the distinguished honor of being sent direct from the Father in response to the prayer of the Son? Alas for the disciples, who by sleeping, had forfeited the privilege of rendering such ministry!
In what manner was strength imparted? To the body, wasted as it was with struggle and woe, "even unto death?" As the angel revealed to Hagar the water which saved Ishmael; and as an angel provided the cake and cruse of water for Elijah, did this strengthening angel sustain in some manner the body of our Lord, to enable Him to endure the agony and finish the work?
Was it strength to the human soul by the tender sympathy which the disciples failed to express; invigoration of His sensitive and saddened heart, to bear up under desertion of friends and malignity of foes?
How often have men ready to faint been made strong by sympathy, courageous by kindness! How often have gentle words of love roused the hero to fresh deeds of valor, and the tender tones or tears of friendship been the prelude to the shout of victory! There is no such strength as that which love can give. The love of God makes the feeblest of men mighty to overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. "Your gentleness has made me great." Was it thus the angel was "strengthening Him?"
Was it strength imparted to the higher nature, the spirit of the Divine Man? Was it by suggesting, at this hour of fierce temptation, the greatness of the work He was now about to complete—the salvation of mankind, and thereby the manifestation of the Divine glory—the work He had come expressly to accomplish, which was dear to His heart, which was now so very near its completion? Was it by holding before those sorrow-streaming eyes the crown which the cross would win, the ocean of everlasting gladness the bitter cup would open, so that He "for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame?"
Of this we may be sure, that the visit of the angel, direct from heaven, was an assurance that He was not forsaken by God, and that the cup of agony would pass, if not by His being spared it, yet by His being strengthened to drink it.
What a wonder is here! The Eternal Word incarnate, having assumed the nature of man, and made "lower than the angels," needs and accepts support from one of His creatures! The Lord of angels, in His weakness and woe, is sustained and strengthened by one of the countless host who had bowed before His throne in worship, and had hastened to fulfill His every command. "Jesus was pleased to receive comfort from His servants just as God receives comfort from His creatures; and as we feel pleasure when a friendly hand lays upon our wound the plaster which ourselves have made." (Jeremy Taylor.) This ministry exhibited the extremity of the woe which needed it, and the vastness of the love which stooped to such need.
Why should the existence and ministry of angels be regarded by any one as impossible, and such belief the offspring of credulous superstition?
A law of the natural world is 'agency by instruments'—one great Efficient working by second causes. He makes day and night, summer and winter, instrumentally, by the motions of the earth. In causing the grass to grow, He employs the showers; in bringing the showers, the clouds; in producing the clouds, the sun; in preserving man and beast, one generation for ministering to the next. He cares for children; "it is not His will that one of these little ones should perish," and the parents are naturally His angels on earth, while "their angels do always behold the face of their Father in heaven."
The less minister to the greater, and the greater to the less. All the lower orders of being minister to man. Are there no higher orders to minister to him, even as he, the greater, ministers to so many less?
But are there any greater? Why not? Below man are countless orders of graduated life, from infusoria to quadruped, from mollusc to mammal. Above man up to the Creator is Infinity. Does nothing exist in that interval? Man is the first in the upward series possessing a soul; does the progression end here? May there not be above him modes of intelligent existence even as below him there are modes of unintelligent? What the Bible reveals in the spiritual world has its analogy in the natural.
The Old Testament records many instances of such ministry, while the New Testament crowds into the history of a few years a much larger proportionate number. ANGELS predicted the birth of Christ's forerunner and of Himself, sang His Advent hymn, sustained Him in the desert and the Garden, gathered around Calvary, rolled away the stone from the sepulcher, announced His resurrection, and attended His ascension. Continuing this ministry to His disciples, they opened prison doors for their escape, smote Herod their persecutor, brought to Cornelius the answer to his prayers, assured Paul of safety in the storm, and were beheld by John surrounding the throne in numberless array, singing the anthem of delivering grace.
"There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." They must, therefore, take deep interest in the facts and truths relating to the Savior's kingdom. "Which things the angels desire to look into." They will share the final triumph "when the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him." Their voices will swell the Hallelujah Chorus of the skies. "I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, saying, with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing."
We must necessarily be interested in the character and qualifications of such allies. We may infer that they were created before Adam, because nothing is said of their origin, and their pre-existence is taken for granted. With faculties originally higher than our own, they have had ages during which to acquire knowledge and wisdom. They have the wealth of experience derived from such long existence. We may, therefore, suppose their intelligence.
Sinless, their faculties have not been impaired by moral imperfection. Doubtless they were tempted when Satan and his angels fell, but they were kept from falling. Christ spoke of His second appearing "with the holy angels." They cannot, therefore, be influenced by any unworthy impulse. They are sure zealously to carry out all the purposes of a God of holy love.
Being sinless, they are deathless—for sin is death. "Those who are accounted worthy to attain that world cannot die any more, for they are equal to the angels."
They are strong. "The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels." Their strength is seen in their actions as revealed. They are thus appealed to—"Bless the Lord, you His angels who excel in strength."
They are loyal—for they "do His commandments, hearkening to the voice of His word." We pray that His will may be done on earth as it is done in heaven. With unanimity, constancy, promptitude, cheerfulness, they carry out all His loving purposes towards us.
Because of such loyalty they are beneficent—for His will is love; and, because also of their own nature, they take special interest in our welfare. The Good Shepherd is sure of their sympathy when He says, "Rejoice with Me, for I have found the sheep which I had lost."
These heavenly allies are numerous—"The chariots of God are twenty thousand." As on Sinai, in the holy place, so at the Nativity there was "a multitude of the heavenly host," and both Daniel and John beheld their "thousands of thousands." Our Lord when leaving Gethsemane knew that "more than twelve legions of angels" would be sent for His rescue, if He needed them. These multitudes of celestial beings are employed for us. Unseen, they are our companions—companions before we reach their abode. Already "we have come to an innumerable company of angels."
The Word of God assures us that their ministry is rendered to all His people in general, and not merely to the special saints respecting whom such intervention is recorded. "The angel of the Lord encampeth round about those who fear Him." So we say that a general encamps round about a city. The Arabs thus encamp round their chief, whose tent is in the center. So did the Israelites round the Tabernacle, three tribes on each side. This teaches us the completeness of our defense. No part is left exposed to the foe, who cannot, by sudden assault, rush in to destroy us. The angel-circuit must first be broken. It suggests permanence; not such help as may be given by an escort which guards us to a certain point and then returns, but abiding support. It is personal permanence, not local. The escort keeps with the travelers, and does not, as a garrison, remain in the fortress after those travelers have left it. Angels not only encamp where we tarry, but strike tents and accompany us when we move forward.
The idea of vigilance is connected with
encamping. Not as troops who have returned home, or are dwelling in a city.
Angels are camping out with us on hostile ground—
In that wonderful outburst of holy confidence for all who "dwell in the secret place of the Most High," recorded in Psalm 91, we are told that He gives His angels charge concerning them, lest at any time they dash their feet against a stone. Not only are they often employed in rescuing believers from harm which obviously threatens, but in guarding them from unseen danger—not only from great perils, but from those little obstacles, as "stones," which cause discomfort if not disaster.
The writer to the Hebrews asks, not in doubtful inquiry but in confident assurance, "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for those who shall be heirs of salvation?" All of them are servants of God employed for the saints; all of them are sent forth to minister; all of them are engaged on behalf of all who, by faith in Christ, are "heirs of salvation."
We become heirs of salvation when, by faith, we become children of God, and thus "joint-heirs with Christ." Then angels rejoice over a sinner that repenteth. If they rejoice in our spiritual birth, will they not be interested in our growth? If they exult at the beginning of such life, will they not watch over and help its development? If evil angels are busy to mislead us, will not holy angels be at hand to counteract such agency and help us along the narrow road? Will they not do what they can, by command and help of their Lord, to draw us out of the Slough of Despond, to help, as Great-heart, up every Hill Difficulty, to rescue from the dungeons of Despair, to cheer in the dark valley, to rouse from slumber in the Enchanted Ground, to gladden in the Land of Beulah, to unfold bright visions as we cross the river, and with songs of bliss accompany us to the Celestial City?
Is it too much to believe that the same "helmed cherubim and sworded seraphim" who attended their Lord, attend also on His humblest friends?—that the bright-harnessed angels," who "all about the courtly stable" sat "in order serviceable," (Milton) are also round about many other manger-beds, and make many lowly hovels "courtly?"
How priceless is the sympathetic help of friends in our garden of grief—when, by voice or touch or tear we have been animated with new courage—whose tender sympathy and wise counsels have rendered them verily angels of God, raised up on earth yet sent by Heaven. But even the kindest may fail. Because our trouble seems to them light, some may think it should be light to ourselves. They cannot understand all our hidden, unspeakable woes; they may have absorbing sorrows of their own. Do angels sometimes supply the lack?
Have we never felt as if an unseen helper was with us? Sometimes, in great perplexity, not knowing how to take the very next step, light has suddenly shone upon the path, and a voice has seemed to speak—"This is the way, walk in it." Sometimes, when grievously tempted, and ready to faint or yield, some "sword of the Spirit" has been put into our hand, and we have exclaimed, "Rejoice not against me, O my enemy!" In some grievous sorrow, when we felt as if body and soul would sink beneath the weight of our cares, an invisible friend has seemed to interpose and lighten the burden, so that we could bear it. Sometimes, when the gloom has been that of the shadow of death, and not a star has glimmered, a gentle radiance has lighted up the darkness, as though some lustrous form, direct from the realms of light, had come to cheer us. When bound hand and foot with despondency, our chains have sometimes suddenly fallen, and the dungeon door has opened, as though by the visit of the angel who rescued Peter. When the storm has been furious, and our little boat ready to sink, there has been a sudden calm as though He who rebuked the waves of Galilee had sent an angel over the waves to repeat His own word, "Be not afraid."
"It may be that God will not send such a comforter until after a long expectation and a patient sufferance, and an enduring hope. But know this also, that the holy angel and the Lord of all the angels stands by every holy person when he prays; and although He draws before His glories the curtain of a cloud, yet in every instant He takes care we shall not perish, and at a right time dissolves the cloud, and makes it to distill in holy dew, and in drops sweet as manna, pleasant as nard, and wholesome as the breath of heaven." (Jeremy Taylor.)
Surely we may indulge the hope that angels will be near to encourage us in the hour of death, as with our Lord when anticipating the cross so near at hand. Having "ministered" to us all along the journey will they not be with us at its close? Numberless deathbeds of saints have been thus attended, unless we are to suppose that testimonies so many and varied have all been the utterance of delusions. Aged believers and little children, philosophers and rustics, have alike seemed to see and hear attendant angels brightening the darkened chamber, and thrilling it with unearthly harmonies.
Let this comfort us in the departure of those we love. They are taken from us, but are received by angels. Earthly companionships are exchanged for heavenly. Mourning relatives were not the only watchers at their bedside. Rejoicing angels were there, to gladden their departing spirits with visions of glory even amid the gloom of the grave. Let us also take courage in view of our own decease. We know not where this may happen, but wherever it may be, it will become to us the gate of heaven.
A stone was Heaven's gate when Jacob slept
Superstitious abuse of this truth has sometimes produced a recoil from the subject altogether. But we must bear in mind that whatever that ministry may be, it is merely instrumental, by direction and help of the Lord of angels. Scripture gives no sanction to prayers offered to them, as it encourages no assurance that such prayers are heard. For this, Omnipresence and Omniscience would be needed. Our prayers are to be offered to God alone, in the name of Jesus alone. He is everywhere, and listens to every supplication. When John "fell down to worship before the feet of the angel," who showed him the wonders recorded in the book of Revelation, the angel at once repudiated such homage, saying, "Don't do this, for I am your fellow-servant, and of them which keep the sayings of this book—worship God."
The angels are only His servants, to execute His will. We thank Him for the help He thus affords by them. Above all, we rely on the "other Comforter" whom Jesus promised to "abide with us forever," and on His own assured presence—"I am with you always." We may rest confident that He who needed the angel to strengthen Him will not leave us alone in our garden of grief.
While comforted by the thought of angelic support, let us look for such visits, not to lull us to sleep, but to rouse us to action; not to lead us away from the gymnasium and the battle, but to animate for the hardship and the strife; not to bring us out of Gethsemane, but to strengthen us, as our Lord, to "pray more earnestly." So the angels met Jacob, to teach him how to wrestle in prayer, "as a prince to have power with man and with God," and go forward to meet Esau; to Gideon, saying, "The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor; go in this your might against the Midianites;" to Elijah, that by strength received he might return to duty; to Paul, saying, "You must appear before Caesar;" and to Christ, encouraging Him to endure the cross.
We may all share in some degree the privilege of the angel who strengthened Jesus, by strengthening His weak disciples, by fellowship with the lonely, by companionship in watching and prayer, by leading to Christ those over whose repentance angels rejoice. "Forasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me." If the grief of our own garden is too great for us, as sufferers, let us go out of it to some other sufferer's garden on an errand of sympathy. In thus acting as ministering angels we may sometimes forget our own griefs. Such leaves of Gethsemane applied to others will help to heal our own wounds.