Part 17: Viewing God’s Theater (1.14)
After 24-inches of snow last week and 50-degree weather this week, I grabbed a book and headed to a favorite reading spot along a creek near my house. As I expected, the water was higher and swifter than I’ve seen. The loud creek provided the perfect silence for a good book.
The edge of the swift creek was a front-row seat to view the stage of God’s majesty, a special transcendent gaze into God’s glory and power. Calvin writes, “let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater” (179). Yesterday was “pious delight” in God’s “theater.”
But in chapter 14 of the Institutes, Calvin reminds us that God’s “theater” is much larger than what our eyes and ears can absorb from a metal bench along a swiftly running creek. Scripture opens us to a theater of God’s works that reveal an even larger and deeper glimpse into the power and might of God. God’s creative powers fashioned the visible, and He formed the elements of this universe that are largely invisible to the natural eye.
As Calvin transitions us from God’s general revelation (what can be seen with our eyes, usually encapsulated in the study of natural sciences) into God’s special revelation (what can only be seen through Scripture by faith, usually focused on salvation) the angels often fall forgotten in the middle. They are part of creation but only ‘visible’ through special revelation. So “if we desire to recognize God from his works, we ought by no means to overlook such an illustrious and noble example” (162).
First a warning. Human speculation corrupts our understanding of angelic beings. Every generation has attempted to explain angels apart from Scripture. Paul, having been taken to the third heavens, would not even trust his own observations but pointed people to the Word of God to understand the spiritual beauties (2 Cor. 12:1-4). “Therefore, bidding farewell to that foolish wisdom, let us examine in the simple teaching of Scripture what the Lord would have us know of his angels” (165).
We know angels are real beings only because Scripture reveals them to us. They are part of God’s creation we need Scripture to help us “see.” Calvin relates this to an old man with dim eyes trying to read without his glasses (160-161). We need Scripture to make God’s creation clear. We need to pray that God would open our eyes to see these angelic beings. Calvin uses this story in 2 Kings as an example:
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:15-17)
We need Scripture to see God’s protection around us. Revelation of the angels is not to satisfy our vain curiosity but to provide peace and comfort that God is protecting His children. May God grant us eyes to see.
Work of angels
The majesty of God’s creation in the angels is revealed in the work and power of the angels because they “in some respect exhibit his divinity to us” (165). The angels reveal this divinity in their works as God’s messengers and as “dispensers and administrators of God’s beneficence towards us” (166). Amazingly, the angels played a central role in the transmission of the Law (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). Beyond this angels protect, defend and direct the believers just as the angels ministered to Christ (Matt. 4:11; Luke 22:43). And “to fulfill the task of protecting us, the angels fight against the devil and all our enemies, and carry out God’s vengeance against those who harm us” (166-167).
So do we have guardian angels? Maybe. Some passages, like Acts 12:15, make it sound as though each believer has one primary angel. But this conclusion is uncertain and to Calvin unnecessary. “For if the fact that all the heavenly host are keeping watch for his safety will not satisfy a man, I do not see what benefit he could derive from knowing that one angel has been given to him as his especial guardian” (167). Good point.
Don’t worship angels
The warning is this: Don’t look so highly upon angels that you begin to worship them. We’ve already seen in our study of Humble Calvinism that John Calvin forcefully turns us away from everything that dilutes our worship of God. The angels are no different.
Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians displays this caution well. Christ created all things, even the angels (Col. 1:16). Paul does this so “that we may not depart from Christ and go over to those who are not self-sufficient but draw from the same well as we” (170). The angels are just as dependent upon God for their lives as we are for ours. “How preposterous, then, it is for us to be led away from God by the angels, who have been established to testify that his help is all the closer to us! But they do lead us away unless they lead us by the hand straight to him, that we may look upon him, call upon him, and proclaim him as our soul helper” (172).
But there are angels seeking to turn us away from God.
This would be the best place to insert a discussion of our angelic enemies. Satan is a powerful deceiver of souls. He deceives in order to lead sinners away from God, away from the Gospel, and blindly into eternal judgment (Matt. 13:25). “For he opposes the truth of God with falsehoods, he obscures the light with darkness, he entangles men’s minds in errors, he stirs up hatred, he kindles contentions and combats, everything to the end that he may overturn God’s Kingdom and plunge men with himself into eternal death” (174).
“We have been forewarned that an enemy relentlessly threatens us, an enemy who is the very embodiment of rash boldness, of military prowess, of crafty wiles, of untiring zeal and haste, of every conceivable weapon and of skill in the science of warfare. We must, then, bend our every effort to this goal: that we should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by carelessness or faintheartedness, but on the contrary, with courage rekindled stand our ground in combat” (173). While Satan roams and deceives, he is allowed only to do what God sovereignly allows (Job 1:6,12; 2:1,6; 2 Thes. 2:9-11).
Now back to the good angels. In all of this Calvin does not want us to forget about the full theater of God’s creative power. Look to His angels and be amazed at God’s power and glory. Be amazed at His thoughtfulness, love and protective power of us through them. The angels that we see with our eyes of faith are just as real and God-glorifying as the rushing stream that exalts God through the physical eye. Don’t wait until you are on top of the Rocky Mountains to worship God in His creation. Open Scripture!
Not only do we seek to know that God is the Creator of all things but in watching the theater of His creating power we feel His goodness which affects our hearts to service and comforts us in trials. But even more important to Calvin, it’s in Scripture’s revelation of this incredible God that we find assurance that the One we worship is in fact the One True and Living God, Maker of the universe. We worship no dead idol.