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Revelation 19: Guarding against idolization, John’s angelic encounter

Illustration of a an angel, having sounded the trumpet to announce the Day of Judgment, tears down the Sun, which definitely means the End of the World as we know it
Illustration of a an angel, having sounded the trumpet to announce the Day of Judgment, tears down the Sun, which definitely means the End of the World as we know it | Getty Images/Nastasic

Dr. Billy Graham’s book, Angels: God’s Secret Agents, had an impressive sales record. By the end of 1975, even though it was only released in October, it had sold 810,000 copies. It achieved the remarkable milestone of one million copies sold in January of the following year. This was noteworthy because it became the first best-seller to reach the one million mark within just four months of its release. Dr. Graham said:

“As an evangelist. I have often felt too far spent to minister from the pulpit to men and women who have filled stadiums to hear a message from the Lord. Yet again and again my weakness has vanished, and my strength has been renewed. I have been filled with God’s power and not only in my soul but physically. On many occasions, God has become especially real, and has sent his unseen angelic visitors to touch my body to let me be his messenger for Heaven, speaking as a dying man to dying men.”

Despite claims by skeptics that angels are not real, but only psychological phenomena, or cognitive biases, many people continue to hold strong beliefs about angels and there is a great deal of interest in them, some of it good and some of it bad.

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Angels are a recurring theme in popular culture, including motion pictures, television shows, books, and art. There is a considerable amount of literature dedicated to the study of angels. Various online communities, forums, and social media groups are dedicated to discussions about angels, angelic encounters, and related spiritual topics. In New Age and holistic healing practices, angels are sometimes invoked or called upon for healing and protection. Some organizations offer workshops, seminars, and courses focused on angels, teaching participants about how to communicate with angels. And then, there are angel cards or angel readings, which are a form of divination.

However, if we want information about angels that is reliable, we must look to the Bible to get the facts. The Bible says that angels are powerful spiritual beings created by God, distinct from humanity (Colossians 1:16; Psalm 148:2,5). They serve as messengers, provide direction, and carry out divine missions given by God (Luke 1:26-38). They are sometimes depicted as protectors and guardians of individuals and nations (Psalm 91:11-12; Daniel 6:22). They are known for their worship and praise of God (Isaiah 6:1-3; Revelation 4:8-11). Jesus said angels rejoice in the salvation and redemption of sinners, who repent and turn to God (Luke 15:10). Angels apparently can morph into human-like appearances to interact with humanity when necessary (Hebrews 13:2; Luke 24:4-7).  The Bible also suggests that angels operate within a hierarchy, with some of them holding more prominent and powerful roles than others (Jude 1:9; I Thessalonians 4:16). And while they are formidable, incomparably stronger than humans, they have limitations and are subordinate to God, and sent as ministering spirits to those who are to inherit salvation (Hebrews 1:13-14; Revelation 22:8-9).

What has previously been described are good angels, or as most Bible scholars refer to them from Scripture, the holy angels. But the Bible also describes a group of fallen angels, which is what Satan is, and all the other angels that rebelled against God with him (Isaiah 14:12-15; Revelation 12:7-9).

These fallen angels hate God and everything that he loves with an unfathomable intensity. They rebelled against God’s authority in eternity past and chose instead to follow Lucifer (Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:12-19.)

According to the Bible, Lucifer was a magnificent, even glorious being, full of unrivaled wisdom and beauty among the angels. In the angelic order, he held a position of tremendous status and authority. His role included standing in the presence of God and serving as an anointed guardian. But somehow pride took root in his heart and he started to exalt himself above God, aspiring to ascend to the same authority as God himself (Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:12-19). For this, Lucifer was cast down from his exalted position and became Satan, the Devil.

Revelation 12:4 indicates that a great company of other angels joined Lucifer in his revolt against God. Because of their insurrection, these angels were cast out of Heaven (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6). They remain as the adversaries and enemies of God and His people, seeking to deceive, tempt, and hinder humanity from recognizing and honoring the Lord’s authority. Bible scholars refer to these malevolent beings who now take their orders from Lucifer (Satan) as demons or devils.

Throughout the book of Revelation, angels both holy and fallen are mentioned. In Revelation chapter 19, the apostle John was so overwhelmed with the celestial luminary before him, this radiant emissary of Heaven that was giving him the message of God, that he prostrated himself before the angel to worship him. The Scripture says:

“Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said, ‘No, don’t worship me. I am a servant of God, just like you and your brothers and sisters who testify about their faith in Jesus. Worship only God. For the essence of prophecy is to give a clear witness for Jesus.’”

Think of it. John was an individual of tremendous spiritual character. He was one of the inner circle of the disciples of Jesus, along with Peter and James. As such he was present with Jesus during key moments like the Transfiguration. His close relationship with the Savior provided unique insights into Christ’s teachings and actions. John has often been referred to as the “Apostle of Love” because he wrote much about God’s love in his Gospel account and the epistles he penned. He endured faithfully through many trials and persecutions. He was in exile on the island of Patmos during the composition of the Book of Revelation. He had a keen understanding of Christ’s divinity. Yet, this man who exemplified remarkable spiritual integrity experienced a profound spiritual lapse.

In Exploring Revelation, John Phillips wrote:

“We are told of the blunder of the seer. It was usually Peter who said the wrong thing, but this time it was John, and he made a terrible mistake. His is a serious breach of etiquette, and he tells us all, keeping nothing back. John was carried away by the wonder of the revelations being made to him by the angel, and he says, ‘I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.’ John’s great blunder was to attempt to worship an angel — a blunder which has often been repeated in the history of the professing church.”

The angel rejected John’s worship, rebuking him for it, and strongly admonished him to worship only God. The angel added that he was just a servant of the Lord as John was, no more.

The incident of John’s worshiping the angel stands as a poignant lesson for every Christian leader, emphasizing the need for constant vigilance, no matter their past spiritual triumphs.

The reasons why leaders fall are seemingly as complex as human nature. The Bible contains numerous pages about famous religious figures who fell into gross sin.

King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged for the murder of her husband (2 Samuel 11:1-27). Moses lost his temper, striking the rock to bring forth water instead of speaking to it as instructed — an act that cost him the privilege of bringing Israel into the Promised Land. Samson, a judge of Israel fell into sexual immorality with Delilah, who subsequently betrayed him into the hands of Israel’s enemies, the Philistines (Judges 16:1-21). Solomon, known for his incredible wisdom, foolishly took to himself many wives who turned away his heart from the Lord (I Kings 11:1-13). Peter denied Christ three times, despite his solemn promise of loyalty (Matthew 26:69-75). Elijah, the prophet, who so courageously took on the prophets of Baal, succumbed to fear and despair, running from Jezebel and hiding in the wilderness (I Kings 19:1-18).

Shakespeare was known for writing about tragic heroes who succumbed to the enemy within. Othello was a victim of his jealousy. Lear was the prey of his own irrationality and misdirected suspicions. Hamlet was a casualty of his indecisiveness. The sinful nature of mankind may be an antiquated concept in the mind of many, but the relevance of the Bible’s truth is constantly demonstrated among the great, as well as the small: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

For this reason, leaders must be especially careful and zealous to guard their roles. God graciously grants leadership for the sake of service. Unfortunately, however, those blessed with it have been known to give in to their lower natures. Consequently, the losses can be profound.

There can be an upside, however, when leaders fall, whether it’s a public figure or a church leader, there can be redemption and recovery, and others may learn from their mistakes and be cautioned to beware of such stumbling blocks.

For instance, in his commentary on the Book of Revelation, William Barclay highlights what John would learn about angel worship and the importance of the prohibition of the Church against it that resulted.

Barclay suggests during the early days of the Christian church, there was a tendency among some believers to venerate or worship angels. This inclination toward angel worship was not unique to Christianity but had roots in certain circles of Judaism and the cultural context of the time. He mentions examples from the Apocrypha, such as the Book of Tobit, where the angel Raphael is depicted as bringing prayers before God. Additionally, in the Testament of Dan and the Testament of Levi, angels are described as intercessors for humanity. Some Jewish traditions placed a significant emphasis on angels as intermediaries between God and humans.

The renowned Scottish scholar points out that this emphasis on angels in Judaism was partly due to the belief in the transcendence of God, which led to the idea humans needed intermediaries to approach God. Therefore, when some Jewish individuals converted to Christianity, they sometimes carried with them this erroneous reverence for angels, forgetting or not knowing that Jesus had eliminated the need for any intermediary between God and humanity.

Barclay also highlights the cultural context in which many Greeks, who were converted to Christ, were inclined to make angel worship a real concern. In Greek culture, there were multiple gods, and it was tempting for some of them to simply adapt these gods into the form of angels. Additionally, the Greek worldview involved the belief divine forces (daimons) mediated between gods and humans, and it was easy for Greek converts to equate these “daimons” with angels and continue to worship and wrongly venerate them.

John’s grievous error of falling prostrate before an angel to worship him — something he not only did once but twice (Revelation 22:8-9) — serves as a powerful example of how a spiritual fall in life can be transformed into a platform for positive change.

Numerous modern-day examples of this principle abound, examples of where some individuals made huge blunders but they served to be redemptive, even protective, for countless others.

Although many lessons might be gleaned from this particular text in Revelation, one other certainly seems relevant. In John’s sincere but misguided act of angelic worship, we find a profound reflection of the human proclivity to elevate and idolize individuals and entities that radiate extraordinary brilliance, be it in their presence or their message. This tendency can be seen in various aspects of modern life.

Beware celebrity worship in which people actually idolize celebrities, athletes, and public personalities, attributing to them almost supernatural qualities. Adoration given to many celebrities nowadays falls nothing short of providing them with a god-like status.

It is an indictment of idolatry that so many young people today know more about celebrities than they do about Jesus or the characters in Scripture.

Moreover, some celebrities court this god-like status. One recently called himself, “Yeezus,” a play on his name, and “Jesus,” in his music and public appearances. A media mogul who has been associated with New Age spirituality has made a statement about the power of intention and positive thinking that suggested a divine or god-like status of her own role and influence in the world.

Beware, don’t elevate these persons to a level of admiration that goes beyond their actual contributions or abilities. They are simply human, sinners in need of redemption and God’s direction and guidance. They are not gods, nor should they be venerated like gods. Scrutinize the influence of celebrities by the Scriptures, whether it is from heaven or hell. More often than not, their influence is from the pit.

Be wary about giving undue adoration to political figures. In politics, certain people may garner a cult-like following, with their supporters, even unknowingly, seeing them as messianic figures or saviors. This kind of adoration can lead to profound disappointment, disillusionment, and destruction. There is but one Messiah, one Savior, and that is Christ.

Also be careful about esteeming religious leaders, no matter how marvelous they may seem. It’s not that they don’t deserve respect for their office, nevertheless, some have been allowed to develop an extreme authoritarian leadership style, where they end up exercising control over people’s lives, dictating their personal decisions, isolating them from outside influences, and enforcing legalistic and strict rules. They have such an allure about them that followers are pressed to donate large sums of money to support their lavish lifestyles.

A recent documentary, titled, “Let Us Prey,” highlights a disturbing aspect of abuse within some Christian circles. Some Christian leaders are granted such power and sway, without the necessary checks and balances, that they have engaged in various forms of sexual misconduct, sexually abusing vulnerable women and children within their congregations.

What’s at the bottom of this kind of tragedy? The answer: Humanity’s timeless penchant to improperly raise and revere those who exude extraordinary luminosity, whether through their very being or the profound resonance of their words.

The point here is that the worship of angels is not the only problem.

Finally, after the angel rebukes the apostle for his effort to worship him, he says to “worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (v. 10).

There are various interpretations of this particular part of the text. Barclay quotes H.B. Swete, arguing that, “[t]he possession of the prophetic spirit, which makes a true prophet, shows itself in a life of witness to Jesus, which perpetuates his witness to the Father and himself.” In other words, a true prophet’s witness is demonstrated in his Christ-like life rather than just the witness of his words. This is so very true.

Barclay also claims the text can equally mean that no person can speak with genuine authority about Christ unless he first personally knows Christ and has sat at his feet in worship and listened to him. Barclay writes, “It was said of a great preacher: ‘First he listened to God, then he spoke to men.’”

The argument is that it’s all about Christ. The focus should always be on Christ. Even the angels, mighty and glorious as they are, hang upon every word from Jesus. They do not hesitate to do His bidding. Instead, the holy angels hasten to do God’s will. They bow to him alone. They humbly worship and serve Him only and we should do the same.

There is no greater privilege given to humanity than to comprehend something of the sovereignty and sufficiency of God — no greater privilege than to put down every competing idol, or rival entity, and worship God alone, through his blessed Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Rev. Mark H. Creech is Executive Director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He was a pastor for twenty years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.

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