Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

13 May 2024

Their Angels See the Father’s Face

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I do intend to finish my series on Matthew 24:36–41, but I am taking a break for this post. First, like Nebuchadnezzar’s magicians, I am “trying to gain time.” Second, while dealing with a passage that is debated, like Matthew 24, sometimes it is comforting to remind ourselves that the basic message of Scripture is clear. We can even understand the point of passages when individual clauses or phrases are enigmatic. I think this is the case with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 18:10, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (NIV).

We know from this verse that we are not to “despise” our fellow Christians. This statement comes right before Jesus uses the parable of the wandering sheep to motivate us to go after straying church members (18:10–14) and right before he tells us what that would practically look like (18:15–20). But what does it mean that “their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven”?

Here are the three most common views, with some representative commentators:

First, this could be a reference to the spirit of deceased believers who will be in God’s presence (Carson, 454, following Warfield). This option may be supported by Acts 12:15, where Rhoda mistakenly thinks Peter is “his angel,” and perhaps by some Second Temple literature. However, as several writers have noted, it would seem more natural for the future tense of the verb “to see” to be used to describe the future act of deceased believers seeing God, and we do not have clear evidence that the word translated angel was used for human spirits (see, e.g., Osborne, 681; France, 686 note 9). Furthermore, with all due respect to some of my favorite writers, I am not convinced that the sources commonly cited support this option. There are at least some senses in which deceased believers become like angels (cf. Matt 22:30), but I am not sure that is the same as saying that they become angels. And even if they did, why does our Lord refer to them as “their angels” if “they” are the “angels”?

Second, it may be a reference to guardian angels (this appears to be the majority view; see, e.g., Davies and Allison, 2:769; Evans, 332; Keener, 450). Although the idea of guardian angels is widely held, perhaps with the aid of Hollywood, there are no other biblical passages that clearly teach that we have individual guardian angels, at least in a one-for-one “buddy system” way. However, there could be a company of angels who protect believers without necessarily being assigned to specific individual believers (Blomberg, 276, cites this as an option). Calvin writes, “For the words of Christ do not mean that a single angel is continually occupied with this or the other person; and such an idea is inconsistent with the whole doctrine of Scripture, which declares that the angels encamp around (Ps. 34:7) the godly, and that not one angel only, but many, have been commissioned to guard every one of the faithful” (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, 2:338). This collective option is attractive because it seems that the Church, as God’s special people in this dispensation, the constituency of the coming kingdom, could be protected collectively by angels as angels once protected the nation of Israel and evidently will do so once again (Dan 12:1). Furthermore, on one occasion, God sent an entire angelic army to protect his prophet Elisha (2 Kgs 6:15). So, perhaps we should think of armies of angelic beings guarding us collectively but, when necessary, also individually.

Finally, others see it as a reference to angels who represent believers before God (France, 685; Hagner, 2:527; Quarles, 460; Turner, 439) or make God aware of the believer’s situation (Morris, 464), perhaps emphasizing that believers have the highest order of angels representing them because these are not just any angels but angels who see God’s face (see, e.g., Osborne, 680 note 3). This option is perhaps supported by the presence of the twenty-four “elders” in Revelation 4–5, but of course, the identity of the “elders” in that passage is also debated. Several writers point to Revelation 1:20 as a possible example of angels representing churches, but those could also be human messengers. However, this representation option is attractive because it better explains why the angels are described as “always” seeing the Father’s face. In other words, these angels do not appear to be out on missions but are instead remaining in God’s presence. However, does “always” rule out any exceptions? It is hard to say. How long does it take an angel to finish a mission? Broadus (385), in a fairly lengthy discussion, combines protection, provision, and representation. The fourth-century commentator Hillary of Poitiers also took a similar approach, combining multiple aspects of service.

I do wonder if we have to choose between guarding and representing. Although the analogy is far from perfect, perhaps the famous royal guards at Buckingham Palace might serve as something of an illustration. They are undoubtedly guarding, but without taking anything away from their role as guardians, I would imagine the monarch would be safe even without all of the pageantry involved. The distinctive uniforms and the rest of the ceremony say something about the one being protected and, by extension, the nation represented by the monarch. They are guardians and representatives. In a similar way, God does not need angelic guardians, and he does not need anyone to help him guard his people or to deliver messages for him. However, that he chose to create these amazing and fascinating spirit beings that we call angels to serve him and to assign them to us, in any role, says something about him and us. The angels point to the majesty of those whom they serve.

Perhaps it would be best to acknowledge that we cannot be sure what specific role these angels described by our Lord are carrying out (so, e.g., Gibbs, 2:911–12). In whatever role they are carrying out, the point in Matthew 18:10 is that God cares deeply about what is happening to his children, so we should as well. When we see one of our fellow sheep wandering away, when they have not been to the assembly, or when we know that they are struggling under the weight of sin, we are not allowed to shrug our shoulders, much less do anything that would cause them to stumble (Matt 18:6–9), but are instead to go after them. Why? Well, one reason is that the mighty angels that were created to point to the majesty of the King are also assigned, in some way, to them as well.   

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