When the church was first established, unique events transpired as a result of the work of angels. When the apostles were imprisoned, an angel opened the doors of the prison for the apostles and instructed them to go and preach in the temple (At 5:19). Because God wanted the Ethiopian eunuch as a special evangelist to Africa, an angel was sent to Philip in order to inform Philip that the eunuch was on his way back to Africa (At 8:26). It was Philip who had the responsibility to preach the gospel to the eunuch, not the angel.
When God sought to inform the church that He wanted the gospel preached specifically to the Gentile nations, He sent an angel to Cornelius, the one who would be the example of Gentile obedience (At 10:3). Cornelius was then commanded by the angel to send for Peter who would teach him the word of the gospel by which he would be saved (At 10:22). An angel also appeared to Peter while he was in Herod’s prison, awaiting execution (At 12:7). An angel also smote Herod for his arrogant behavior, and thus, he was eaten with worms (At 12:23). An angel also appeared to Paul in a dream in order to comfort him on his journey as a prisoner to Rome (At 27:23).
What may be significant in reference to the work of angels in the first century when the church was initially established, is that there is little biblical information concerning a conclusion to the work of angels in reference to the disciples. The initial work of the Holy Spirit involved His ministry through the miraculous gifts that were given to the early disciples by the laying on of the apostles’ hands (At 8:18). But when the last Christ-sent apostle died, this ministry was eventually concluded when the last person died on whom the apostles had laid hands. In the beginning of the church, it was also the work of the Holy Spirit to reveal all truth to the apostles in reference to the gospel, and then inspire the recording of that truth as the New Testament documents. The Holy Spirit thus concluded His particular work in order that the disciples rely on the power of the word of God. He would continue His ministry in an indirect manner through this gospel dispensation. But we have no deductive conclusion for the cessation of the ministry of angels. We simply conclude that they two would carry on in some way throughout this gospel dispensation.
No reason is given in the New Testament for the cessation of the work of angels. Their ministries were specific, and often particular in reference to individuals. Though we have Holy Spirit inspired accounts of the appearance and work of angels in the first century, we do not have such inspired accounts today. We would only assume that the work of angels will not be finished until the last saint is secured in the arms of God. It is then that the angels will join with Jesus in His coming in order to collect the remaining saints who are alive at the time of the end of all things.
There is at least one final event of world history in which angels will be involved. Paul wrote, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God” (1 Th 4:16). We know that the angels will be involved in this final coming of Jesus. Paul gave us a very specific revelation of this matter when he wrote the following:
“For it is a just thing with God to repay tribulation to those who trouble you, and to give you who are afflicted rest with us when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th 1:6-8).
Assuming that the parables of Jesus in Matthew 25 are pictures of the final judgment, Matthew 25:31 would be a parallel statement to the preceding revelation: “When the Son of Man will come in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.” This revelation of the future consummation of all things is reminiscent of the consummation of the world through the flood of Noah’s day. It was then that “Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord came with ten thousands of His saints [angels] to execute judgment on all'” (Jd 14,15).
In all the above cases of the appearance of angels, angels worked in unique situations in order to bring about the will of God for the destiny of this world. They were not sent to be preachers of the gospel to the unbelievers. They were not sent as teachers for the saved, or even judges of the saved. They were sent as special envoys of God in times of crisis for ministry to carrying out the work of God among those of this world. In the events of the end of all things, they will continue to assist in carrying out the work of God to consummate all things of this present world.
Angels in the New Testament are associated with beginnings. We see their appearance when the Son of God was born into the world. We see their appearance when Jesus, the Son of God, began His earthly ministry. And finally, we see the special work of angels in the beginning of the church. We would conclude, therefore, that God’s sending of angels was unique in the first century in His work to begin this gospel dispensation of His work on earth until Jesus comes again.
And when Jesus comes again, angels will be coming with Him in order to consummate world history and begin our heavenly dwelling. Since the focus of their work was to begin this gospel dispensation of God’s work, then we would conclude that the manner or reasons for which they ministered in the first century would continue until the purpose for which the world was created is finalized.
A. Angels worked at the beginning in the incarnation.
The work of one prominent angel was significant at the time of the incarnation of Jesus. An angel, possibly Gabriel, appeared three times to Joseph in circumstances surrounding the birth and early life of the baby Jesus (Mt 1:20; 2:13,19). In reference to the birth and ministry of John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias (Lk 1:8-20). An angel of the Lord also appeared to Mary, the mother of Jesus. This angel informed Mary, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son. And you will call His name JESUS” (Lk 1:30,31).
It is significant to notice the announcement that an angel made immediately after the birth of Jesus. This angel made the first announcement of the gospel to mankind. Luke recorded the angel’s announcement:
“Do not fear, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy what will be to all the people. For to you a Savior is born this day in the city of David, who is Christ the Lord “(Lk 2:10,11).
When the angel made the preceding announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, “then suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God” (Lk 2:13).
The “good tidings” (gospel) that was announced was for the purpose of alerting the Jews that the prophecies of the Messiah, the Christ, were being fulfilled. This was good news. However, it was good news beyond what they were expecting, because the news was about the salvation of the atoning death of the incarnate Son of God. It was not an announcement about the restoration of national Israel. It was an announcement at the very beginning that would eventually conclude with Jesus’ gospel atonement, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father in order to begin His gospel reign as King of kings. Once the people realized that the baby that was born in a barn in Bethlehem was truly the incarnate Son of God, who would be God’s sacrificial offering for the sins of the world, their announcement to the world would indeed be “good tidings of great joy to all the people.”
B. Angels worked at the beginning and ending of Jesus’ ministry.
When Jesus had prepared Himself for the work of the ministry by fasting for forty days in the wilderness, angels were involved in the beginning of His ministry. After Jesus had fasted the forty days, “behold, angels came and ministered to Him” (Mt 4:11). They came in order to minister to His physical needs in order to restore His body with food. They ministered with food in order to strengthen His physical body in preparation for the coming three and a half years of ministry.
Angels also worked at the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry. Immediately before His crucifixion, angels came to Him in the Garden of Gethsemane in order to strengthen His soul. In the Garden “an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him” (Lk 22:43). Since this angel came “from heaven,” we assume that this was the time when the Father reached forth Himself from heaven in tender loving care over an only begotten Son who was on His way to the suffering of the cross.
(During His ministry, there was a traditional belief in Jerusalem concerning the pool of Bethesda. It was believed that an angel stirred the waters of the pool in order to bring healing. It was supposed that an angel stirred the waters of the pool of Bethesda, and subsequently, offered healing to the one who first entered the water when it was stirred. This statement is recorded in John 5:4 in older texts of the New Testament. However, because of the lack of manuscript evidence, this reading has been left out of more recent texts. It is assumed that the reading was not a part of the original autograph, but was probably inserted into the text of John as a marginal statement of explanation. The historical comment was made by some scribe who simply wanted to explain to the readers what the belief in Jerusalem was concerning the stirring of the pool of Bethesda. It was, therefore, a historical commentary that was eventually added by later scribes. The later scribes thought that the scribe of the original manuscript from which they made their copies, had mistakenly left out this case of a supposed work of angels.)
There were angels present at the time of Jesus’ resurrection. At the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and after the crucifixion and three days in the tomb, an angel came and rolled away the stone from the tomb of Jesus (Mt 28:2). When certain women came to the tomb on the glorious Sunday morning of His resurrection, there were angels who reported the resurrection to the women (Lk 24:23). Since the disciples had a difficult time in connecting the dots between the crucifixion of Jesus, and the intended atonement of that event, they did not initially believe that Jesus had been raised from the death. Jesus later rebuked them for not at first believing what the women reported (See Mk 16:14).
It appears, therefore, that the presence of the angels at the tomb of the resurrection scene was for a greater purpose than to comfort Mary. They were there to substantiate the fact of the resurrection. The declaration of the resurrection was not simply made by some women whom the disciples thought were in an emotional state of hysteria. It was verified and declared by angels. It was as the angel said to the women: “He is not here [in the tomb], for He is risen as He said. Come, see the place where He lay” (Mt 28:5). The announcement of the gospel resurrection, therefore, was first made by angels.
We must keep in mind that throughout the ministry of Jesus, angels did not assume the ministry of Jesus. They did not in any way serve as messengers to the unbelieving public in order to preach the gospel. Gabriel announced to Mary the good news of her pregnancy. However, the focus of the announcement was on her pregnancy, not the preaching of the gospel. This same indirect ministry of angels occurred in reference to the unbelieving world. At the time of the birth of Jesus, the angel only announced to the shepherds that the Son of God had been born in bodily form in Bethlehem.
Specifics concerning the gospel were not explained by angels. The witnessing work of angels at the time of the beginning of the life and ministry of Jesus was secondary in reference to the proclamation of the gospel. Angels announced the events of the gospel, as the incarnational birth of Jesus. But they were not allowed to reveal the gospel of the atonement that took place at the cross. The revelation of this mystery was reserved to be revealed only through the apostles and prophets.
On several occasions throughout the history of Israel, there appeared a messenger from God who was referred to as the “Angel of the Lord,” or “Angel of God.” Some biblical interpreters have assumed that this Angel was the Son of God before His incarnation. In fact, some translations capitalize the word “Angel” when it is used in various Old Testament contexts in reference to the ministry of this Angel.
In the context of this Angel, we must understand that the history that is recorded in the Old Testament was for our learning (Rm 15:4; 1 Co 11:10). And that which we are to learn from Old Testament history is that history was recorded to unveil the gospel of the coming incarnation of the Son of God. Therefore, the Angel who is identified specifically as the “Angel of God” worked on behalf of God in order to accomplish the eternal purpose of God on earth in the history of man.
The Angel of the Lord appeared on special occasions in order to carry out specific tasks in reference to the eternal plan of God. Because the Bible defines the work of the Angel of the Lord to be the direct work of the Lord, this Angel is pictured in the position of the Lord Himself. It is because of this that many assume that the Angel of the Lord is a reference to God the Son.
We could certainly make a valid argument here in reference to the work of the Son of God before the incarnation. We see God the Father working in the affairs of this world before the incarnation of God the Son. The Holy Spirit also worked throughout Old Testament history, specifically in inspiration of the prophets. It would only be logical, therefore, to assume that God the Son was also working. This would especially be true in the Son’s preparation for His own incarnation.
It simply would not be reasonable to conclude that God the Son sat in idleness throughout history before the incarnation. As in the creation of man, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit worked as one in order to accomplish the purpose for which the world was created (See Gn 1:26; Cl 1:16). They also worked as one throughout history in order to bring the Savior into the world. We would assume, therefore, that there would be some reference to God the Son in the Old Testament. We would conclude that this reference was to the Angel of the Lord who carried out the purpose of God for the creation of the world.
Several contexts in the Old Testament mention the special work of the Angel of the Lord. The Angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar in the desert (Gn 16:7), to Abraham when Abraham interceded on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 18), and to prevent the sacrifice by Abraham of his son Isaac (Gn 22). Abraham promised that Eliezer would go forth under the protection of this Angel (Gn 24). Later, the Angel appeared to Jacob (Gn 31), and subsequently, Jacob wrestled with the Angel of God (Gn 32:24ff). Jacob even spoke of this Angel and God as the same (Gn 48:15ff). The Angel of the Lord also appeared to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Sinai (Ex 3; At 7:30). He appeared to Joshua (Ja 5:13 – 6:2). He also appeared to Gideon (Jg 6:11ff).
Israel was commanded to obey the Angel that God sent before them to lead them out of Egyptian captivity, and through their wilderness wanderings (Ex 23:20ff). On the occasion of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian captivity, the Angel spoke with authority. If Israel disobeyed the Angel, then they would be disobeying God. In this sense, therefore, the Angel stood for God because God revealed His authority through this Angel in order to lead Israel. Since there are definite inferences in the Old Testament that the Angel of the Lord was the Son of God in spirit, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that He truly was.
In Exodus 32:34 – 33:17, Moses interceded on behalf of the nation of Israel when they sinned against God. Subsequently, God informed Moses that His Angel would go before him to lead Israel (Ex 32:34). God promised at the foot of Mount Sinai, “I will send an angel before you” (Ex 33:2). God promised that this Angel would go up with Israel into the land of promise in order to drive out the Canaanites.
It is interesting to note that in Exodus 32:34 God would send the Angel to go before Israel into the land. In Exodus 33:2 reference is made to “an angel.” We could possibly assume that “the Angel” of Exodus 32:34 was the same angel of Exodus 33:2. But what is significant to notice was the purpose for sending the Angel to lead Israel in her feat of casting out the Canaanites from the land. God sent the Angel instead of Himself because of what He said in Exodus 33:3: “I will not go up in the midst of you because you are a stiffnecked people, and I might consume you in the way.”
It seems that the intercessory work of Jesus the Son of God started long before the atoning sacrifice of the cross. If God went with Israel into the land, the people would of necessity be terminated because of their persistent rebellion that would eventually take place in the land of promise. But if the Angel led the way, the wrath of God would be appeased through the intercession of the Angel. Of this intercessory work, Paul wrote of King Jesus in His present ministry: Jesus “is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us” (Rm 8:34). “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tm 2:5). The Angel who went with Israel into the land of promise eventually came in the flesh in order to continue His work of intercession between God and man as Moses interceded on behalf of Israel.
Moses had at one time interceded on behalf of Israel. But when he died, the Angel of the Lord in the flesh took on this responsibility. Eventually in the history of Israel there would be the voice of one crying in the wilderness that Israel’s intercessor in the Spirit was incarnate in the flesh as their Savior (Lk 2:10,11).
It is thus challenging to determine who the special “Angel of the Lord” was in the Old Testament. Our best conclusion would simply be that God could use this special Messenger to carry out His work, and in so designating this Angel in a special way, we would view Him to be different from all other angels. Since this Angel of the Lord worked so obediently on behalf of God the Father in special situations, we could only conclude that the Angel of the Lord was truly special and chosen to carry out specific works that would accomplish the purpose for which the world was created. Since the world was created by God the Son in order to bring us into the eternal presence of God, we would assume that God the Son was at work in the affairs of man long before He showed up on the scene when an angel made the following gospel announcement to some shepherds:
“But do not fear, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be to all the people. For to you a Savior is born this day in the city of David, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10,11).
Once the seed of Abraham was chosen to give birth to a nation that would preserve the seedline of woman unto the time of the “crushing” (Gn 3:15), we would assume that the Seed would work through the chosen nation of Israel until the time of the revelation of the incarnation. The Son of God was the “Angel of the Lord” who worked to bring Israel to the cross. But after the ascension and coronation, and as King of kings over all things, the resurrected Seed worked to bring His spiritual seed into eternal glory. Since the world came into existence in order to populate heaven, and Israel was established to preserve the seedline, we would correctly assume that God the Son began His ministry of reconciliation from the very time when the command was issued, “Let Us make man …” (Gn 1:26).
We know little of the nature, or even the character, of angels. Little is revealed in the Old Testament about these mysterious beings who were sent into this world on missions from God. Nevertheless, there are enough statements in Scripture that give us some hints about their nature and character that stimulate our imagination.
When angels were allowed to appear to man, they came in the form of men (Gn 18:2,16; Ez 9:2). There is a possible reference to an angel who appeared as such to the women in Zechariah 5.
Since angels were created with the right to make free-moral choices, Job 15:15 states that God does not put His trust in His holy ones (angels). In other words, our trust is in God, not in His angelic messengers, for His messengers must function in total subjection to the purpose for which they were created. Whether correct or not, since Eliphaz’s argument in reference to angels is correct, “Behold, He puts no trust in His saints [angels],” then certainly God will not put His trust in man (Jb 4:18).
God would not put His trust in angels simply because angels receive their commission from God, the One in whom we must put our trust. The point is that angels work in obedience to the will of God. Since they have no indigenous authority as free-moral beings, we must assume because of the rebellion of Satan, that angels were given some free-moral of choices. Though Satan and his angels could choose, neither he nor his angels have any indigenous power over the created world. They have only that which God allows them to exercise. This fact was brought out in the case where Satan sought to tempt Job. Before he could do such, he had to ask permission from God (Jb 1:6-12).
There are no references in the Bible to angels having halos or wings. The concept of winged angels possibly came from the “flying” angel of Revelation 14:6 and Zechariah 5 (See Dn 9:21). Therefore, we must not allow our concept of angels to be determined by the fine artwork of those who have portrayed on canvas their understanding of these heavenly beings.
The appearance of angels was beheld by man, but we must question whether there was a real incarnation of angels into the flesh of man. At least, the incarnation of Jesus was based on the fact that God in spirit (Jn 4:24) came in the flesh of man (Jn 1:14; Ph 2:5-8). We could argue that if angels were actually the incarnation of heavenly beings into the flesh of man, this would certainly marginalize the true incarnation of the Son of God.
One of the major teachings of the apostate gnostics of the second century was that Jesus was only the last in a series of digressive emanations from God. This gnostic teaching was based on a truth that in God there is no darkness (1 Jn 1:5). So the gnostics assumed that God who is all good could not connect with the material world that was supposedly all evil. The gnostics assumed, therefore, that there had to be a digression of angelic beings from God who would eventually come into the evil material world. The last of this series of emanations was supposedly Jesus. He could come into the world because He was the final digression from God.
The emanation of “Jesus” supposedly digressed so far away from God that he could be “the son of God” in the darkness of this world. Because this emanation digressed so far from God who is good, that he became spiritually dysfunctional, and thus could identify with the evil of the world. This gnostic fantasy destroys the gospel of the incarnation of the Son of God. Therefore, if we assume that angels were an incarnation, then we are moving closer into a theology that rubs shoulders with the theology of the gnostics.
It would be better to understand that angels were visionary beings who appeared in the form of men. They could interact with humans, but their “human form,” whatever it was, was not permanent. Even if we assume that they appeared in the flesh of man, we must not assume that they were an incarnation as the Son of God.
The difference between an angel in the appearance of a man, and the Son of God as the incarnation of God, is that one was formerly eternal in the spirit (Jn 4:24), but the other was the creation of the eternal Spirit (Cl 1:16). Incarnation, therefore, would apply only to the gospel of the eternal Son of God, not angels. The incarnation of the Son of God was something that He personally chose to do, not something He was commissioned to do as angels are commissioned. Paul revealed this in the following statement: “He made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant and being made in the likeness of men” (Ph 2:7).
On several occasions, angels are pictured to be carrying out missions of destruction in the affairs of man. In this sense, they were angels of destruction (See 1 Sm 16:14; Ps 78:49). The warlike work of angels is portrayed in the word “hosts” (See Gn 32:1ff; Ja 5:13-15; 1 Kg 22:19; 2 Kg 6:17). They are the “hosts” of God who stand ready to carry out the work of God against His enemies. They even stand ready to carry out God’s work in reference to the unfortunate decisions of His people. For example, when David numbered Israel in violation of the will of God, an angel destroyed many in Israel with a pestilence.
“And when the angel stretched out his hand over Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the destruction, and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “It is enough; now restrain your hand” (2 Sm 24:16).
An angel was also sent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 19:13). When the Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem, an angel of the Lord came in the night and killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers.
“And it came to pass on a certain night that the angel of the Lord went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead” (2 Kg 19:35).
The reason for this destruction was in the fact that the Assyrians were on the verge of wiping out the nation of Israel, through whom God had planned to bring the Savior into the world (See Gn 12:1-4). Since their intentions were totally against the work of God in history through Israel, the army of the Assyrians had to be terminated.
Another case of the destructive ministry of angels is identified in the prophetic visions of Ezekiel. Ezekiel heard the command that six angels were commissioned to destroy the wicked of the city of Jerusalem (Ez 9:1-7).
From the few cases of history that are recorded in the Old Testament concerning the destructive missions of angels, it is clearly evident that angels carried out destructive missions in order to accomplish the goals that God wanted to accomplish through Israel and certain individuals. We would deduct from this mission of angels that they were created and sent forth in order to implement and preserve the eternal plan of God to bring the Savior into the world. And since the Savior came into the world for us, then we must conclude that the destructive work of angels that are recorded in the Old Testament was for the purpose of our eternal salvation.
Angels also functioned in the Old Testament era in order to carry out many constructive works, most of which had positive results. While on Mount Sinai, the Sinai law was evidently given through the ministry of angels. Stephen spoke of this ministry: “… you [Jews] who have received the [Sinai law] by the direction of angels” (At 7:53; See Gl 3:19; Hb 2:2). Other examples include the angel who appeared to Jacob in a dream (Gn 28:12; 31:11). In order to divert Balaam, an angel once appeared to the donkey on which Balaam rode (Nm 22:22-41). In this particular case, it seems that the donkey saw the angel, but Balaam did not, arguing the point that the appearance of angels was not the incarnation of angelic beings in the flesh of man.
There was also the angel who interpreted a vision that was given to the prophet Daniel (Dn 10:5). Another angel also interpreted a vision that was given to King Belshazzar (Dn 7:16). On other occasions, Gabriel interpreted visions and dreams for Daniel (Dn 8:15ff; 9:21). In these cases, angels were functioning on behalf of God to enlighten men on earth concerning His work among men.
In the book of Daniel reference is also made to Michael who is described as “one of the chief princes,” “the great prince who stands for the children of your people,” and “your prince” (Dn 10:13,21;12:1). Reference is also made to the “prince (commander) of the host” of God in Joshua 5:14. This is undoubtedly a reference to Michael, the archangel. In some way, therefore, Michael functions as the “prince” of angels in his relationship with all other angelic beings. We have no doubt that this is true, and thus, there is a rank of authority among angels that was designated by the One who created all angels (See Cl 1:16).
It is significant to note under this point that at one time in the spirit world there was an argument between Michael the archangel and Satan (Jd 9). The argument was over what should be done with the body of Moses. Satan surely wanted it to be preserved and presented in some mausoleum where it would eventually be worshiped by the Jews. Such has been done throughout history when iconic leaders died. So in order to prevent this, the Holy Spirit informed us that Michael contended with Satan over the body of Moses.
The end of this story revealed the submissive spirit of Michael. He chose not to contend with Satan, but submitted to the authority of the Lord. He subsequently turned the matter over to the Lord, who in turn, buried the body of Moses in an unknown location (Dt 34:5,6). The incident not only revealed the submissive spirit of Michael, but it also revealed the rebellious spirit of the Chief of demons and his demonic angels.
There is more in the Old Testament concerning angels than is usually considered. In our efforts to study and understand the work of God through the patriarchs to preserve the seedline of woman for the coming Seed, we often overlook the fact that God worked through His messengers on many occasions in order to bring about the fulfillment of His eternal gospel plan to bring the Seed into the world.
Though the Old Testament does not focus on angels as a primary theology to be studied, angels played a significant part in many unique situations where God was working in order to accomplish His eternal plan to bring the Son of God into the world. In His work, the presence of angels is mentioned as an ordinary manner by which God worked among men. It may simply be because of the length of time, but the predominate work of God through angels took place before the revelation of the gospel. There were centuries of God working through angels in order to bring the Seed of woman into the world. However, because of the expanse of time from creation to incarnation, angels appeared on the scene of history in only a few unique episodes of God’s work to accomplish His eternal plan.
Eventually, there occurred the good news of the incarnation of the Son of God on the face of the earth. God used angels to initiate the beginning of the gospel birth of Jesus (Lk 1:8-11,26-28; 2:10,11). Jesus then “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52). And then when He was about thirty, “Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of diseases among the people” (Mt 4:23).
God initially worked through the miraculous work of Jesus and the early disciples in order to confirm the message and messengers of the gospel (Mk 16:20; Hb 2:4). Since all revelation concerning the gospel has now been revealed through the inspired word of God (2 Tm 3:16,17), God does not need to work openly through angels. He does not need to do so because everyone now has the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel of His Son that is revealed in the word of God.
In order to understand the work of angels to carry out the redemptive plan of God in this world, we must journey back before this world existed. Our information concerning the earthly mission of angels, therefore, begins before the creation of the world. When the earth was created into existence, there were angels already in existence, and ready for the commissioning of God. In order to bring about this eventual incarnation into this material world, God, the Son, first created angels, and then all things. Paul wrote,
“For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him” (Cl 1:16).
Angels would fall under the category of things invisible. Therefore, in the work of creation, God the Son created angels. The origin of Satan would also fall under the category of those “invisible” beings that were created. However, Satan was not created as the evil one we come across in the Garden of Eden. He was a created angel who eventually rebelled against the authority of God some time before the Garden of Eden temptation. He is truly a “fallen angel.” Nevertheless, his origin was included in the creation of all things by God the Son.
Though John revealed the visions of Revelation with striking cryptic symbols, we could assume that through the Spirit he gave some explanation concerning the fall of Satan in the following statement:
“Now there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought, but did not prevail, nor was a place found for them any longer in heaven. Then the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world. He was cast out to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him“ (Rv 12:7-9).
Since Satan and his angels gave up their proper habitation in heavenly places (2 Pt 2:4; Jd 6), and Satan himself was present at the time of the temptation in the Garden of Eden, then we must assume that angels were in existence before the serpent showed up in the Garden of Eden. Their creation took place before the temptation event in the Garden.
Sometime after their creation, Satan and his heavenly hosts evidently rebelled, and subsequently, they were all cast down from their original heavenly environment. Therefore, we would conclude that all angelic beings were in existence before the Garden of Eden. However, Satan and his demons were cast out of the heavenly environment sometime after their creation, but before the temptation of the Garden.
The Psalmist referred to the angels of God being present at the time of creation (Ps 148:2,5). Because they were in existence at the time of creation, angels subsequently rejoiced over the creation of all things (Jb 38:7). However, after the creation and before the Garden of Edan event, they were cast down.
Some have assumed that reference was made to angels in Genesis 6:1,2 when the following statement was made concerning the “sons of God”:
“Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose” (Gn 6:1,2).
It is believed by some that in the preceding Genesis 6:1,2 statement, Moses referred to women of this world marrying the “sons of God” who were angels. However, it is unlikely that this is the correct interpretation of this historical statement. Since angels have no gender, and thus no sex of either male or female, then the statement would not refer to women of this world marrying angelic beings who have no sex. This agrees with Jesus’ statement concerning angels: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage. But they are as the angels who are in heaven” (Mk 12:25).
Angels never married, nor were given in marriage, simply because they have no sexual orientation. The purpose of the sexual orientation of man and woman from the beginning was for the purpose of multiplying and populating the world. But this was never the purpose of angels. They were never given the right to multiply and populate the world with angels.
The correct interpretation of the Genesis 6:1,2 statement would be that those who were in a covenant relationship with God (“sons of God”) were marrying unrighteous people (“daughters of men”). It was simply the case of believers marrying unbelievers, and thus, the virus of wickedness increased on the face of the earth as the unrighteousness of the wicked overcame the good of the righteous. The context of Genesis 6:1,2 is explained in Genesis 6:5: “God saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Malakh is the common Hebrew word that is used in the Old Testament for angels. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit used the word aggelos. Both words refer to angels as supernatural beings who were sent forth as messengers on behalf of God. And since they were/are sent forth, we must assume that they are doing what God intends that they do. The common definition of the word aggelos is “messenger.” Angels were thus messengers of God who worked in order to carry out the will of God (See Jg 6:11-23; 13:3-5).
A. Old Testament explanation of angels:
Both the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “angel” are also used in reference to designated people who carried His messengers (See 1 Kg 19:2; Lk 7:24). As God sent forth different individuals to accomplish His work, so He also sent forth angels as His messengers.
When the plural form of malakh was used in the Old Testament, reference was to human messengers. However, when the singular form of the word was used, reference was almost always to the divine messengers of God. The plural form of the word was used to refer to the prophet Haggai (Hg 1:13) and to the priests of Israel (Ml 2:7). The word was even used to refer to the one who was to come as the messenger (John, the Baptist) in order to prepare the way for the Messiah (Ml 3:1).
In the Old Testament there are other Hebrew words that refer to angels. These words are translated in English versions with various English words. Depending on the particular version of the Scriptures that one is using, there will be variations in translation. For example, angels are referred to as “holy ones” (Jb 5:1; Ps 89:5,7; Dn 8:13) and “watchers” (Dn 4:13,17,23). Collectively, they are referred to as a “council” (Ps 89:7), a congregation (Ps 82:1; 89:5), or “hosts.” Because there are so many different translations of the Hebrew word that refers to angels in the Old Testament, the context must be the final authority in reference to who is the “messenger” or “angel” about which the text speaks.
The phrase “hosts of heaven” is applied to angels because there are many angels (Dn 7:10). This host of angels is pictured to be standing at the right and left hand of God (1 Kg 22:19). Angels are there to praise continually the name of the Lord (Ps 103:21; 148:1ff). At least we can conclude from their presence before the Lord that they are heavenly beings. Their proper habitation, therefore, is in a heavenly realm. When they were revealed on earth, they were outside their proper realm of existence.
B. New Testament explanation of angels:
When the word aggelos is used in the New Testament in reference to angels, it is often used with a qualifying phrase that identifies their proper habitation. For example, there are “the angels of heaven” (Mt 24:36), or the “heavenly hosts” (Lk 2:13).
References to angels in the New Testament also infer that there is an order or rank among angels. Paul referred to “Michael the archangel” (Jd 9). He also referred to the “voice of the archangel” (1 Th 4:16). It may also be that Paul included angels when he referred to “principalities,” “powers,” “thrones,” and “dominions” in the context of Ephesians 1.
At least Peter had angels in mind when he spoke of the kingship and lordship of Jesus over all things. He wrote that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him” (1 Pt 3:22). Though we may not understand all that is involved in the order or rank of angels, we do know that Jesus is presently ruling as head over all angels. Therefore, what work angels have done since the coronation of Jesus, they do on behalf of Jesus who has authority over all things (Mt 28:18; Ep 1:20-23).
Angels do not have the right to function autonomously in reference to their work. They are now under the total control of King Jesus. Wherever they have showed up in history after the gospel coronation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father in heaven, therefore, they have functioned under the mandate of the King of kings and Lord of lords. There never were, nor will be, any angels who have the freedom to roam about at their own will.
One of the most intriguing studies of the Bible is in reference to the existence and ministry of angels. This subject has stimulated the curiosity of Bible students for centuries. In today’s religious world, however, there are enough speculations about angels to write books. And many have. We will add to that library. Nevertheless, it is not our intention in this brief book to give any lengthy study of angels, and especially to discuss speculations that are beyond what is revealed on the subject in the Bible. Because there is little revealed on this subject in the Bible, this should not discourage one’s beliefs that angels are there, or here, in reference to our lives in this world. We would simply seek to remain with what the Bible actually says on the subject, and from there, walk by faith. We are sure that this is the walk with which our Father pleased.
We must confess that we have little trust in the theologies of those who have claimed today that they have personally conversed with angels. This is not to say that we do not believe that angels exist. Neither do we mean to say that angels are idle in reference to their work today among the saints of God. And we might add that we cannot deny someone’s supposedly personal encounter with one they perceived to be an angel. Such is a personal matter, and a perception that is based on faith. But in view of the fact that the totality of the gospel has already been revealed, and that God is no respecter of persons, we would question any personal conversations that one might claim to have had with an angel today.
We must understand, however, that the Bible teaches that God is not working in a manner today that appeals to our empirical perceptions. If He did so, then He would hinder our walk by faith. On the contrary, therefore, He seeks to build our faith. And truly, we seek to grow in our faith. We believe the God desires that we walk by faith in order to develop our characters for eternal dwelling. Therefore, those who seek to walk by sight, must guard themselves from conjuring up all sorts of fantasies concerning any close encounters with extraterrestrial beings. Therefore, it is not our purpose here to survey the personal experiences of those who claim to have supposedly encountered an angel. Our task here is simply to understand what the Bible teaches concerning this subject, and thus, understand what the Holy Spirit desires that we know about angels.
We must assume that the inspired Scriptures were written in order to give us a definition of what God feels is essential for our faith. Whatever our beliefs may be concerning the presence and work of angels, or the experiences we may have had, we must allow our understanding of this subject to be directed and defined by the word of God.
One of the first surprises that the Bible student learns about the study of angels is that God used angels to carry out many missions for Him throughout history. This is a surprise simply because there is usually little study of this subject among Bible students. Angels were God’s messengers throughout history, and simply because we do not see angels today, does not mean that they are not there. According to what the Bible says, they are there. Angels are present among us, though it is not necessary to encounter personally or hear them (See Hb 13:2). They simply carry on with their God-commissioned ministry at the command of the One who created them.
Angels are doing their intended work as the messengers of God regardless of our full understanding of what they do, or where they are at any time in history. As with studies of the Holy Spirit, we need not understand everything concerning the being and work of angels in order to know that they are doing what God wants them to do. The limitations of our awareness of their presence or their work does not limit what they are doing. Nevertheless, since there is so much in the Bible about their ministry among those on earth, the logical assumption is that they are still here. They are still working for their Creator on behalf of the saints. However, our questions concerning their work at any one time in history must be defined by what we read about their work in the Bible.
The New Testament clearly teaches that there is a special relationship between the Christian and the Holy Spirit. This relationship is defined as an “indwelling” of the Spirit. It is an indwelling relationship that one does not have with the Spirit before he becomes a child of God through obedience to the gospel.
Though the Spirit works on the heart of the alien sinner before baptism through the spoken or written word of the gospel, He indwells the Christian in a special relationship after baptism. God maintains this special relationship with His people until King Jesus comes again. It is then that our relationship with God will be truly personal.
When discussing the indwelling of God in the Christian while in this world, we must be careful to not literalize metaphors of human location in reference to God, and thus, localize God. The very nature of words as “in,” “here,” “there,” and “indwell” in our human vocabulary carry with them an earthly meaning of location. We are either “here” or “there.” But God is “here” and “there” at the same time. Therefore, when earthly words are used in the Bible to refer to the presence of God, they must first be understood metaphorically.
We cannot place God in a particular location. When we use words as “in,” “with,” “enter,” “upon,” etc. in reference to God, we often force an earthly and human characteristic or action upon God. However, when such words are used to refer to God, there must be a metaphorical meaning that is implied. God is beyond the source of our metaphors, that is, He is beyond the earthly definition of our words.
We do not serve a God who is confined to a location as we are so confined. We would not locate God in the physical structure of a temple. We would not, as apostate Israel, place Him on top of a mountain or confine Him to a literal definition of our own bodies. Literalizing beautiful metaphors in reference to God leads us to misunderstand the wonderful relationship God has with His creation. This relationship is explained with words that are of this world, but indicate something that is far beyond this world. We must not confine God to this world with a literal definition of our words that are used in the Bible to define either His existence or actions.
It is true that the Holy Spirit used “words of location” to explain the work, being, and presence of God. This is particularly true in His relationship with His people. However, we must understand that the Holy Spirit was limited to the use of our dictionary. If He would have used a “heavenly dictionary,” we would not have been able to understand the Bible. “Heavenly words” have no earthly definitions. One must understand, therefore, that earthly words fall far short of explaining heavenly concepts.
For the above reason, the Holy Spirit in inspiration used metaphors in order to explain those things with which we have had no experience. Simple words as “in” and “indwell” are often used in a metaphorical sense to explain something that is greater than our human experience. Therefore, something greater than the earthly definitions of the words is being conveyed by the Spirit when these words are used in reference to the Holy Spirit.
Biblical interpreters have often made an unfortunate error here. In failing to understand the inability of human words to define that which is beyond the human experience, they have humanized numerous concepts concerning God. This unfortunate practice has led to a great deal of confusion in our attempts to understand the nature and indwelling of God. By forcing God to conform to the definitions of our earthly words, we have created a god after our own image and after our own desires.
However, we are not alone in failing to recognize the fact that God is beyond human description. In other words, He is far beyond the definition of the words of our dictionary. Because the Jews failed to understand this, they also had difficulty in understanding metaphors that were used in reference to their relationship with God. This was especially true concerning their tendency to localize God to Palestine, and specifically to a temple once it was constructed. Their localization of God was clearly brought out in their concept of the “God in a temple.”
By the time of the kingship of Solomon, Solomon knew that the people would seek to locate God in the temple that was newly constructed. When he completed the temple in Jerusalem, therefore, at the inauguration of the structure, he reminded the Jews,
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!” (1 Kg 8:27; see 2 Ch 2:6).
Solomon was right. Nevertheless, the Jews’ earthly understandings persisted throughout their history. When Israel was deep into their apostasy of turning from the God of heaven, God rebuked them by saying, “Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build me? And where is the place of My rest?” (Is 66:1).
Israel persisted in localizing God in Jerusalem, and in particular, in the temple. Unfortunately, they missed the metaphors, and thus, missed a true understanding of the omnipresent Deity who created them. We often do the same today.
Since God is God, He does not dwell in a particular location, for it is superfluous to affirm that He dwells here or there in His creation. He is! And the fact that He is God means that He cannot be confined to a “location.” He cannot be located somewhere in His creation. He is located everywhere. The words “here” and “there” refer to the position that material objects or individuals have with one another.
God was not “there” in the temple while we are “here” in our houses. God is both “here” and “there” at the same time. Therefore, we do not go to the temple in order to encounter God. He is both in our house and in the temple at the same time. Such is the nature of His existence. God Is!
Stephen rebutted the Jews “localization theology” in Acts 7:48: “The Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands.” Stephen then quoted Solomon’s statements to remind the Jews that God never intended to dwell in a temple as they desired (At 7:49,50). It is simply not possible for God to be omnipresent, and at the same time, located. This is a logical contradiction.
Paul made the same argument to the Greek philosophers that Stephen made to the Jews, who also had the concept of placing God at a particular location. So Paul argued in Athens, “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (At 17:24).
In the mythological religion of the Greeks, the gods were conceived to be in different locations at different times. The Greeks had a humanized concept of deity. They created gods after their own imagination, and thus, when they thought of their gods they thought that the gods behaved as man. However, neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament teach such a concept concerning the true God of heaven.
Solomon, Stephen and Paul all maintained the same argument that was based on the statement that God made to Israel: “Has My hand not made all these things?” (At 7:50; Is 66:2; see Ps 102:25). In other words, God was saying that He could not dwell in something that is innate or material that He Himself had created. How could that which is created, box in He who creates it?
Our earthly understanding is that we build a house, and then, “dwell” in that house. However, God created the timber, the nails and all the construction materials. How do we think we can confine God by that which He has created? Israel could not confine God to the four walls of a temple. Neither can we confine Him in any “holy” structure that we would suppose to build for Him.
In reference to the omnipresence of God, the Psalmist wrote that the whole earth is full of His glory (Ps 72:19; see Hk 2:14). We cannot escape the presence of God, “for in Him we live and move and have our being” (At 17:28). We have our being in Him. He does not have His being in us. His existence is not dependent on our existence, nor on our imagination.
The fact that God exists means that He is omnipresent. We are in His presence at all times. He is simultaneously here, there and everywhere. He cannot be localized on the far side of the planet of Mars, or in another galaxy. He cannot be localized in any part of His creation. We cannot escape His presence even if it were possible to travel at light speed beyond our galaxy.
The nature of Jesus’ incarnation argues the omnipresence of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Paul wrote concerning Jesus,
“Who being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Ph 2:6,7).
John affirmed that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1,14). Before the incarnation, God the Son was in Spirit (Jn 4:24). However, He “localized” in the flesh of man in order to dwell among us in this world.
Though we may not understand all the implications of the incarnation of the Son of God, it is evident that God “localized” in some way on earth within the form of flesh that could be handled and touched (1 Jn 1:1-3). The flesh could be touched, nevertheless, the Deity that is spirit, could not. Therefore, the incarnation was necessary in order for the Father to offer for us His Son in bodily form.
At this point in time (the incarnation), a “personality” of God (the Son) focused here on earth in a fleshly body for a special purpose. Such affirms that beyond the physical dwelling (the body), Jesus as Deity before the incarnation was not here or there. He was God in omnipresent existence in eternity. What He was on earth was in contrast to what He was in eternity. In incarnation He took on human characteristics, and thus, human location in respect to the position or relationship that people have with one another. Therefore, in the state of incarnation, God the Son was “here” or “there.” But in the heavenly state in the spirit, God the Son was neither “here” nor “there.”
When considering the omnipresence of God, David felt extremely human in understanding. “Such knowledge,” he wrote, “is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (Ps 139:6). He was right. These things are beyond human comprehension. By inspiration David tried in Psalm 139:7-12 to help us understand the marvelous omnipresence of God.
“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” even the night shall be light about me; indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You.”
We are not the servants of a God who is confined to some location in order to have a relationship with mankind. If one should so think that God must be in a particular location in order to be close, then God would ask,
“Am I a God near at hand,” says the Lord, “and not a God afar off? Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him?” says the Lord; “do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord (Jr 23:23,24).
God is present at all times—He is close—because in Him we live, move and have our being.
The omnipresence of God the Holy Spirit, is a difficult concept to understand since omnipresence is not a characteristic of man. Nevertheless, we must understand the nature of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the context of the omnipresence of Deity. The metaphorical use of earthly defined words can take us only so far in comprehending the being and presence of God the Holy Spirit. Our imagination must take it from there. When we discuss the omnipresence of the Holy Spirit, therefore, we must not debate over our imaginations concerning the interpretations of metaphors. How can we possibly understand that which is beyond our experience?
Disputing over metaphors that were meant to take our minds into the realm of the supernatural is futile. The extent of our argument often defines the level of our inability to appreciate the Holy Spirit’s use of metaphor in order to explain His presence and relationship with man.
The Bible states that the Spirit indwells the Christian. However, determining the nature of the indwelling leaves us to ask some questions about things we do not understand. To ask the questions, and subsequently receive no answers, does not frustrate us. We will never understand everything about the indwelling work of the Spirit. However, we do need to caution ourselves about attaching human definitions to words that the Spirit used to explain a divine relationship that He has with us. The problem often comes when the Spirit used our words to communicate a divine relationship, while we argue over locations.
When we come to the Scriptures, we must therefore caution ourselves not to humanize God with our terms of location. Men in general often have a Jewish or Greek concept of God’s presence and existence. In some cases, we are still struggling to overcome a childish concept of God who supposedly has long gray hair, an old looking face, and sits on a great white throne on a cloud. In our literalization of figures of speech in the Bible, and lack of recognition of great biblical metaphors, we fail to allow the Holy Spirit to take our minds beyond this world. In literalizing the metaphors, we have cheated ourselves of greater understandings concerning the nature and being of God and His relationship with His children. We must in the end conclude that God is far beyond our comprehension, and therefore, we must never confine Him to the definition of our earthly words.
8. “Interpretation”: Some have misunderstood the meaning of the gift of interpretation. It has been claimed that Paul meant that one is to “decipher” an ecstatic utterance or gibberish, not interpret a foreign language. However, the Greek word diermaneutas (interpretation) is used in thirteen different places in the New Testament in one form or another. It is almost always used in reference to translating the words of one known language into another known language (See Jn 1:38,41; 9:7; At 13:8; Hb 7:2). An exception to this would be Luke 24:27 where Jesus interpreted the Scriptures for the disciples. But even in this case it was the interpretation of thought from one known language into another that was under consideration.
In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, therefore, we must understand that the word diermaneutas was used in its most common manner. It was not used to refer to the translation of gibberish sounds into a language of man. The word was never used to refer to the translation of some unheard of gibberish into a language that is known by man. It was used in the sense that the interpreter translated a spoken language that was known by mankind into the language of others who were present.
There is no justification to read ecstatic utterances into the context of 1 Corinthians. Fudge rightly concluded,
“The idea of some ecstatic language, some unintelligible gibberish, or a mystical prayer-language finds absolutely no support in the text of First Corinthians. Any teaching growing out of that notion is based entirely on supposition and assumption, and finds no ground in the Scriptures – here or elsewhere” (Speaking in Tongues).
There are no unknown languages discussed in the context of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14. There was no ecstatic gibberish in the assembly of the Corinthian church. When Paul discussed the subject of tongues, Bible students must understand that he was referring to the languages of men. In fact, his instructions concerning tongues throughout the context of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 can be understood only if we understand that he was speaking of known languages of men in the context of his instructions. This is the only consistent manner by which 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 can be understood.
[End of series: The forthcoming book, of which this material is one of the chapters, will be out as an ebook November.]
5.“Pray that he may interpret” (1 Co 14:13): This statement is made to affirm that one should pray for the gift of interpretation. In the case here, it is made in reference to those who already had the apostles’ hands laid on them in order to receive the gift of languages or some other gift.
We must remember that it was the Spirit who distributed the particular gifts (1 Co 12:11). Therefore, those who already had hands laid on them were to pray that the Spirit might give them the additional gift of interpretation if they had already received another gift, specifically the gift of languages.
We cannot assume that Paul was teaching here that they pray for a miraculous gift if they had not had the apostles’ hands laid on them. It took more than praying to receive the gift of tongues. This gift did not come simply in answer to prayer. The Corinthian situation proves this. They were in a situation where there was no interpreter of the various languages that were being spoken. If prayer was the only thing necessary in order to receive the gift of interpretation, then there would never be a situation where an interpreter is not present, for one could simply pray and receive the gift from God.
God would give the gift of interpretation in order to stop the confusion. But in this case in Corinth, there were languages being spoken without an interpreter of the language being spoken. Paul’s instructions in this case are mentioned in verse 28. If no interpreter was present, then the one who was speaking in a language that could not be understood by the assembly, must be quiet.
Other contexts prove that more than prayer was needed in order to receive a miraculous gift. If prayer alone were the only prerequisite for receiving a gift, then why did Paul desire to go to Rome in order that he might impart to them some spiritual gift (Rm 1:11)? Could he not simply have instructed them through the Roman letter to pray for gifts to be added among the Roman Christians? Why did the apostles Peter and John have to go from Jerusalem to Samaria in order to lay hands on the newly converted disciples in order that they receive miraculous gifts (See At 8:18)? Could not Philip have instructed them to pray for the gifts?
The answer to the preceding questions is simple. It was only through the laying on of the apostles’ hands that the gifts could be given. Prayer concerning the gifts was for the purpose of receiving from the Spirit another gift of personal choice, since it was the initial choice of the Spirit to distribute the gifts according to His will (1 Co 12:11).
Prayer for the gift of interpretation would be necessary because the gift of languages did not assume that one would also be blessed with the gift of interpretation. Languages was a gift of confirmation before unbelievers. For evangelistic purposes, those who spoke in languages to unbelievers did not need the language they spoke to be interpreted because the particular group of unbelievers to whom they preached the gospel already knew the language. It was their native language. In fact, the gift of speaking in languages to the foreign unbelievers was for the purpose of communicating the gospel to the foreigner in his own language. No interpretation was needed. Because of his mission to many language groups, Paul could say to the Corinthians, “I speak with languages more than you all” (1 Co 14:18).
But in the case of a mixed assembly of believers, and possible unbelieving foreigners, the spoken language of the assembly needed to be translated for the local Christians, or the visiting unbelievers. This is another point to prove that the assembly about which Paul was addressing in the context of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 was a special biannual assembly of all the Christians throughout Achaia who came together in Corinth for the Isthmian Games that were conducted in the city. In this assembly, the women were to keep silent, and the gifted prophets and language speakers were to sort themselves out in order that the possible participants of the Games who possibly attended this occasional biannual assembly not think that the assembly of Christians was an assembly of madmen.
We must keep in mind also that 1 Corinthians 14:13 addressed the brother who already had the gift of languages. Paul said that he must then pray that he interpret for the visitors. Therefore, he had already had hands laid on him to receive the gift of languages. His prayer would be that the Spirit also distribute to him the gift of interpretation (1 Co 12:11). Since one could possess more than one gift, then we assume from what Paul meant was that one should pray for other gifts if he had already had hands laid on him by a Christ-sent apostle.
1 Corinthians 14:13 could refer to one praying that an apostle be able to be present in order that one receive a spiritual gift (At 18:8). One should “desire spiritual gifts,” and pray that the medium through which they were distributed would come into his or her presence.
One who had not had hands laid on him by an apostle could not receive a spiritual gift simply by praying for it. A Christ-sent apostle had to be present in order that the gift be imparted by the laying on of his hands. Only if one had already had hands laid on him could he pray for another gift. Since there are no Christ-sent apostles today, it would be futile to word a prayer for a miraculous gift. This would be asking for more than what God has promised for us today. It would be a direct attack against the sufficiency of the inspired word of God that God says is sufficient to supply us unto all good works (See 2 Tm 3:16,17).
There is a practical argument concerning praying for the gift of interpretation that must also be considered in order to understanding what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 14:13. The one who was speaking in tongues was speaking the word of God. So it would be today if one stands up in an assembly and preaches in a language no one understands. If we have the miraculous gift of interpretation today, then certainly a brother could immediately pray for this gift, and thus, translate into the common language the meaning of what was being said. In this way, we could understand the message. If the speaker spoke in Mandarin Chinese, some brother could pray for the gift of interpretation in order to translate Mandarin into the common language of the assembly. The fact that this does not happen proves that we do not have the gift of interpretation today. In a practical sense, it proves that the gift of interpretation could not be arbitrarily received by the Corinthians.
6. “Understanding is unfruitful” (1 Co 14:14): This statement is misunderstood by some to refer to one not understanding some gibberish sound the speaker was supposedly speaking. Those who make this unfortunate interpretation affirm that they do not have to understand what they are saying. The fact is that if they are speaking gibberish they do not and cannot know what they are saying themselves. However, this is not what Paul is discussing in 1 Corinthians 14:14.
Such interpretations of the context of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 are certainly beneath the dignity of the Scriptures and certainly outside logical reasoning concerning the work of God. And above all, such interpretations make God use men as talking toys for His own amusement. The Holy Spirit does not work in a way to make God speak to Himself through the medium of men. God does not use the occasion of our assemblies to talk to Himself.
What Paul means is if the audience does not understand what is being prayed in a language, then there is no fruit produced from the prayer of those in the audience. If the audience does not understand the communication in prayer, then the prayer is useless to them.
The entire context of 1 Corinthians 14 is centered around the edification of the church in the assemblies (1 Co 14:26). The prayers that are under discussion refer to those prayers that are made in the assembly of the church. The church is not edified, therefore, if the prayers are in a language that cannot be understood by the assembly. This is why Paul said, “I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding” (1 Co 14:15). In other words, if God’s revelation flows through the inspired individual, but straight back to God, then the assembly benefits nothing. It was not the work of the Spirit in the first century to inspire people to speak to God in public prayer in a language that could not be understood by the audience. This would be God speaking to Himself.
7. “Strange tongues” (1 Co 14:21): This statement in the original King James Version is also used to read the practice of speaking gibberish utterances into the context of 1 Corinthians 14. From the English word “strange,” it is assumed that the language that was spoken was unknown by any man. However, Paul was here quoting from Isaiah 28:11. In the context of Isaiah 28:11, Isaiah referred to the language of the Assyrians who took Israel into captivity in 721/722 B.C. He was not referring to ecstatic utterances, but to a specific language that was known by man.
The fact that Paul used the quotation of Isaiah 28:11 is proof that he was discussing the known languages of men in 1 Corinthians 14. Isaiah referred to languages when he wrote Isaiah 28. The same meaning must be carried with the quotation into the context of 1 Corinthians 14.
The “strange tongues” about which both Paul and Isaiah spoke were “foreign languages” to the Jews. In fact, this passage is better translated in recent versions to read “other” tongues or languages. The Revised King James Version reads, “With men of other languages and other lips I will speak to this people.”