Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Do angels walk among us today? It’s a classic Bible question, and one we have not tackled yet on the podcast — until today. A listener named Cortney writes in with the question. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast. My question is about Hebrews 13:2 — ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’ I’ve read this text often and wondered what it means. Does it mean angels are walking among us in human form right now, and we are unaware of them?” How would you answer it, Pastor John?

Let me give some background about angels in general, and then I will give my answer in the context of that wider picture.

Angelic Activity

First, here’s a glimpse of the activity of angels in the Old Testament:

  • Judges 13:3: “The angel of the Lord appeared to [Samson’s mother-to-be] and said to her, ‘Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son.’”
  • Psalm 34:7: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.”
  • Psalm 91:11: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”
  • Daniel 6:22: “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths.”
  • Psalm 103:20–21: “Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the Lord, all his [angelic] hosts, his ministers, who do his will!”

So, it appears from the Old Testament that angels are messengers from God. They are protectors of God’s people. They do countless obedient things in response to God’s bidding.

Now, when you come to the New Testament, it begins with a great flurry of angelic activity surrounding the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke (Matthew 1:20–25; Luke 1:26–38; 2:8–14), and then there’s some activity of angels during the life of Jesus (Mark 1:13; Luke 22:43). And then in the book of Acts, angels rescue Christians from prison twice (Acts 5:17–21; 12:6–11). They guide Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40). They guide Cornelius to Peter (Acts 10:3–8), and they guide Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10:9–16). They kill Herod (Acts 12:21–23). They remind Paul on the ship that he is going to make it to Rome (Acts 27:13–44).

Age of the Spirit

And then you turn to the letters of Paul and James and John and Peter and Jude, and there’s virtually no teaching about the function of angels in our present experience — as messengers and protectors or guides. And I just stand back and say, “That’s amazing.” And the least it can mean, it seems to me, that all those letters have no teaching about the present experience of angels in our lives — the least it can mean is that the teaching about angels and how they serve Christians now was simply not essential for us to know. That’s my conclusion.

And my own guess about the reason for that is that the Lord Jesus himself promised that he would come to us. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). He promised he would be with us “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20), and that he would give gifts to the church (Ephesians 4:7–16), and that he himself would build his church so that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Jesus is doing that, not angels. All of this teaching about the immediacy of Christ himself in this age, along with the presence of the Holy Spirit, is so overwhelming, glorious, that it has preempted any prominent place that angelic activity in the lives of Christians might have.

Unaware of Angels

Now, let’s be careful: to say that there isn’t a prominent place, or that the knowledge about them isn’t essential, does not mean there’s no place. And the book of Hebrews, from which this question is coming, is the place where the most pervasive answer to the question “What are angels for?” is given. Hebrews 1:13–14 goes like this:

And to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
     until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

Are they [angels] not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

So, we have the preeminence of Christ over against angels being highlighted. But then there is the amazing statement that angels are ministering spirits sent out into the world by God — now in this age — to serve for the sake of Christians. In other words, everywhere that angels are active in the world, doing whatever God assigns them to do, it is for the sake of making everything work together for the good of Christians (Romans 8:28).

But notice: the writer of Hebrews doesn’t draw any explicit inferences from angelic ministry for our behavior, nor does he anywhere else in the book of Hebrews. The closest to it would be the text that Cortney refers to when she asked this question — namely, Hebrews 13:2, which says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

“The Christian life should be a hundred times more oriented on Christ than on angels.”

Now, most commentators think this is a reference to the time that Abraham entertained three angels in Genesis 18. But whether that’s the case or not, the point of the verse is that since, in fact, angels have been shown hospitality without the host knowing it, therefore don’t neglect this crucial ministry of showing hospitality to strangers — especially Christian strangers, people you don’t know. And that is the point: You don’t know them. If you knew them, you’d know that they weren’t angels. These are strangers.

So, I think the answer to Cortney’s question is yes, there are angels among us. They might take the form of a stranger who needs your hospitality. The point of saying that is to raise very high the enormous importance of Christians being generous with our homes.

Christ Among Us

But keep in mind two amazing things that should keep us back from an unhealthy speculation about angels coming to our homes.

One is that Jesus already gave a much more amazing incentive for hospitality than this text does. He told the parable of the final judgment. Those at the Lord’s right hand who had shown him hospitality ask,

[Lord], when did we see you a stranger and welcome you? . . . And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:38, 40)

Which is greater? To welcome a Christian pilgrim and find that it was an angel, or to welcome a Christian pilgrim and find that it was Christ?

And the second amazing thing to keep in mind is that three verses later, in Hebrews 13:5–6, when the writer encourages us not to worry about the money that we might spend on hospitality, he does not say, “Oh, the angel will take care of you.” He says,

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for [God in Christ] has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,

“The Lord [not angels] is my helper;
     I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”

So, the New Testament position seems to be this: Angels are real. They are sent into the world for the sake of Christians. You might entertain an angel without knowing it. But vastly more important is to grasp that Christ is among us; Christ has promised to take care of us; Christ will never leave us or forsake us; Christ may be entertained in the person of a believer. And therefore, the Christian life should be a hundred times more oriented on Christ than on angels, and for his sake — for his sake — our homes should be open.