[Unless otherwise stated, scripture quotations are taken from the New Kings James Version of the Bible]
In all, our Lord is given the title ‘Saviour’ sixteen times in the New Testament. I want us to consider the last but one of those references – the words of the Apostle John in chapter 4 of his first Epistle: ‘We [we the apostles, that is] have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world’.1
‘The Father sent the Son’. Did John, I wonder, have in his mind2 the parable told by the Lord Jesus just before His death concerning the vineyard owner who sent a succession of servants to collect the fruit of his vineyard from his tenants – all of whom (his servants) were either beaten or killed. ‘Last of all’, Jesus had said, ‘he sent his son to them’.3 ‘They took him’, Jesus added, ‘and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him’.
The meaning of that parable was not lost on the chief priests and Pharisees for whose benefit the Lord had told it.4 But neither, I suspect, was it lost on the Apostle John in later days. He knew well that, over many centuries, God had sent a succession of prophets who had received very rough treatment at the hands of the leaders of the nation – a succession of prophets which terminated in the person of John the Baptist. ‘There was’, the apostle wrote, ‘a man sent from God, whose name was John’.5
But we know that God had ‘sent’ not only men. But that, over the centuries, He had ‘sent’ angels also – and that on a wide variety of missions.6
There was the case of Sennacherib’s assault on Jerusalem,7 concerning which we read that King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah prayed ‘and cried out to heaven’. Following which, we read, ‘the Lord sent an angel, who cut down every mighty man of valour, leader, and captain in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned ashamefaced to his own land’.8 ‘The Lord sent an angel’.
Then, there was the case of Daniel’s three companions (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah), who, on account of their refusal to fall down and to worship the colossal golden image erected by Nebuchadnezzar, were thrown into his blazing fiery furnace.9 At which time, Nebuchadnezzar leapt to his feet exclaiming, ‘I see four men … walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods’.10
And, when the three young men emerged from the furnace unharmed, with hair unsinged, with cloaks undamaged, and without so much as the smell of smoke on them, Nebuchadnezzar responded, ‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants, who trusted in Him’.11 ‘God … sent His angel’.
Then, there was the case of Daniel himself many years later, who, because of his persistent and undisguised praying,12 was thrown13 not into a fiery furnace, but into a den of lions late one evening. When, at first light the following day, King Darius rushed to the den and found Daniel alive and well, ‘Daniel’, we read, ‘said, “O king … my God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me’.14 ‘My God sent His angel’.
And then, turning now to the New Testament, there was the case of the Apostle Peter in Acts chapter 12. We are now in the days of King Herod Agrippa the First (grandson of Herod the Great), who, on account of his strong Jewish feelings, first had the Apostle James put to death with a sword, and then had Peter imprisoned with the stated intention of having him executed in the near future.
But God had other plans, and, following the earnest prayers of the church, Peter was delivered. Peter, Luke says, ‘did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision’.15 Yet, having passed two sets of guards and having witnessed the iron gate which led into the city open for them of its own accord, Peter, we are told, ‘came to himself’, and said, ‘Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod’.16 ‘The Lord has sent His angel’.
Oh yes, angels could be sent from God to ‘deliver’ men from the army of Sennacherib, from the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, from the lions of Darius, and from the sword of Herod Antipas.
No angel could deliver men from their sins. Which is why, as John had written, ‘God … sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins’.21
None of the missions performed by angels involved them in any cost – in any loss or suffering. But we know that it was very different for our Lord Jesus – that, as John expressed it back in his first chapter, it is ‘the blood [the sacrificial death] of Jesus Christ His Son’ which alone ‘cleanses us from all sin’.22
No angel could be ‘the Saviour of the world’ – of the human race – in part because no angel could ever become a man.23 Oh yes, an angel could look like a man,24 an angel could speak like a man,25 and an angel could even eat like a man,26 but in no way could an angel ever become a man – as He did.
And then, no angel could be ‘the Saviour of the world’ because no angel could ever die – and thereby ‘take away the sin of the world’27 – as He did.
In our Lord’s dispute with the Sadducees about resurrection, He made it clear that, when men rise, they cannot ‘die anymore, for they are equal to the angels’.28 As we have noted earlier, angels can slay men … and we learn from the Book of the Revelation that angels can loudly proclaim the worth of the One who was slain to redeem men29 but they cannot themselves be slain.
An angel could be sent by God to bring Jesus’ name (meaning ‘the Lord is salvation’) for Him from heaven to the virgin Mary.30 An angel could be sent by God to explain the significance of that name31 to Joseph – that He (Jesus) was to ‘save His people from their sins’.32 And an angel could be sent by God to proclaim His coming as a Saviour to humble shepherds.33 But no angel could ever be sent by God, as John wrote concerning our Lord, ‘to be the Saviour of the world’.34
Let us remind ourselves that the Son whom the Father ‘sent’ to be a Saviour, Himself ‘came’ willingly and gladly. As He told Zacchaeus, ‘the Son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost’.35
‘I cannot tell why He whom angels worship Should set His love upon the sons of men … But this I know, that He was born of Mary … And so the Saviour, Saviour of the world, has come’.36
1 John 4. 14 KJV. The only other occurrence of the title ‘the Saviour of the world’ is in John 4. 42.
John 14. 26.
Matt. 21. 37.
Mark 12. 12.
John 1. 6.
Cp. Luke 1. 19, 26; Rev. 22. 6, 16.
In spite of his famous claim on his Prism (saying of Hezekiah, ‘I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork’) it seems clear that Sennacherib did not actually besiege Jerusalem, 2 Kgs. 19. 32; Isa. 37. 33.
2 Chr. 32. 20, 21.
Their principled refusal got them into more than ‘hot water’!
Dan. 3. 25 ESV.
Dan. 3. 28 ESV.
‘It is not, as with his three companions in chapter 3, a question of a positive sin which he will not commit, but of a positive duty which he will not omit’, S. R. Driver, The Book of Daniel, pg. 71.
The same word is used in Daniel chapter 6 verses 7, 12, 16 and 24 as it was in Daniel chapter 3 verses 6, 11, 15, 20, 21 and 24.
Dan. 6. 21-22.
Acts 12. 9.
Acts 12. 7-11. For the background to Agrippa’s actions, see https://readingacts.com/2013/02/19/acts-121-2-why-did-herod-kill-james/.
Although unquestionably great in power, Ps. 103. 20; 2 Pet. 2. 11.
Col. 1. 13.
Heb. 2. 15.
1 Thess. 1. 10.
1 John 4. 10.
1 John 1. 7.
Angels are ‘spirits’, Heb. 1. 14.
E.g., Gen. 18. 2, 16, 22; 19. 1.
E.g., 1 Kgs. 19. 5.
Gen. 19. 3.
Note the Baptist’s word about ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’, John 1. 29.
Luke 20. 36. The Lord Jesus was capable of dying (unlike fallen angels, Luke 20. 36), but He was not subject to death (unlike fallen man, Heb. 9. 27).
Rev. 5. 8-12. His wounds are the memorials of death which no angel will (or can) ever carry.
Luke 1. 26, 31.
In terms of His mission; cp. His ‘office’ as Saviour.
Matt. 1. 21.
Luke 2. 10, 11.
There was – and is – no more salvation to be found ‘from angels’ than there was – or is – salvation to be found ‘for angels’. Their only ‘deliverance’ was into chains, pending judgement, 2 Pet. 2. 4; cp. Matt. 25. 41. Jesus did not don the nature of angels, Heb. 2. 16, ‘because He was not to be a Mediator for them, a Saviour unto them. Those of them who had sinned were left unto everlasting ruin; and those who retained their original righteousness needed no redemption’, John Owen, Works, Volume 1, pg. 86. ‘From heaven the sinning angels fell And wrath and darkness chain’d them down; But man, vile man, forsook his bliss, And mercy lifts him to a crown. Amazing work of sovereign grace That could distinguish rebels so! Our guilty treasons call’d aloud For everlasting fetters too’. [Isaac Watts]
Luke 19. 10; cp. 9. 56.
The full first verse reads: I cannot tell why He whom angels worship Should set His love upon the sons of men, Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers, To bring them back, they know not how nor when. But this I know, that He was born of Mary, When Bethlehem’s manger was His only home, And that He lived at Nazareth and laboured, And so the Saviour, Saviour of the world, has come. [William Fullerton]