In the Book of Revelation, two encounters between an angel and the Apostle John end in what Protestant reformers claim is an admonition against the veneration of angels—something the Church certainly still teaches and practices to this day.
Here is the first encounter, in Revelation 19:10, as rendered in the New American Bible translation:
I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t! I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brothers who bear witness to Jesus. Worship God. Witness to Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (The same exhortation is repeated almost word for word in Revelation 22:8-10.)
In a recent blog post for First Things magazine, theologian Peter Leithart invokes this verse as a reason for why angels should not be worshipped today, implying that the exhortation to adore God was inconsistent with the veneration John was prepared to offer the angel. There’s just one enormously inconvenient fact for this interpretation—and even Liethart readily admits it: angels are venerated without any rebuke in the Old Testament. (For more on the Greek word translated as worship see below.)
Joshua prostrates himself before the angel standing with his sword unsheathed in front of Jericho in Joshua 5. In Genesis 19, Lot bows to the ground before two angels. One chapter earlier, Abraham does the same to three angels. One view holds that one of the three angels was the pre-incarnate Christ. But, in the City of God, St. Augustine argues that all three were angels in whom God dwelled in the same way that the spirit of God was in the prophets. The Augustinian view is consistent with Hebrews 13, where it is said men entertained angels without knowing it—a clear reference to Abraham. Either way we are faced with an inescapable fact: angels, by virtue of their close relationship to God, were worthy of honor in the Old Testament.
Something changes when we arrive in the New Testament, Liethart says. But what?
We don’t have to wait until the last book of the Bible for the answer. It’s right there in the very beginning of the New Testament, in the Annunciation to Mary. There, it is the angel who honors Mary. Previously, men revered angels for three reasons, St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his commentary on the Hail Mary: the angels were ‘spiritual and incorruptible,’ they were nearer to God, and they shared in the ‘splendor of divine grace.’ Aquinas concludes:
Therefore it was not fitting that the angel should show reverence to man until someone should be found in human nature who exceeded the angels in those three respects. And this was the Blessed Virgin.
It’s clear that what changed was not the status of angels: they were still as worthy of veneration as before. What is new is the Incarnation, which means a human being has become Mother of God, a status that surely ranks above all the angels. It is this special status that earns Mary a more intense veneration than all the other saints and angels, technically known as ‘hyperdulia.’
Now we can read Revelation in context. As John was an apostle and is revered by the Church as a saint, we can expect that he is on an equal plane with the angel, but not above the angel in the way that Mary was: no creature can compare with the Mother of God. And that is exactly what we see in Revelation 19 and 20. The angel does not accept the veneration John offers, but neither does he honor John. Instead, since both are on equal footing, the angel urges John to turn his gaze in adoration to God. (This is the conclusion reached by the Haydock Catholic Bible Commentary, which writes that the veneration is refused “to make us the more convinced of the great dignity of this apostle and prophet, who should be raised in heaven to a degree of glory, not inferior to that of the Angels: and thus the Angel tells him, that he is his fellow creature. …”)
So where does this leave the rest of us? It is tempting for some to see John as a stand-in for all Christians. But the verse imposes limits on who enjoys this elevated status with John: ‘I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brothers who bear witness to Jesus.’ In the original Greek, the word for ‘witness’ is martyrian. That should look familiar to us: it’s where we derive our word for those who died for the faith, the martyrs.
In the Church, the martyrs—at least those who are known to us—have always been venerated as saints. In facts, in the earliest days of the Church, martyrdom was the definitive sign that someone was a saint. (It wasn’t until the age of persecution faded away that a new category emerged for a person who was a saint but wasn’t killed for their faith: the confessors.) Does the word ‘martyr’ have this traditional meaning in Revelation? It certainly seems so. In Revelation 6, John spies the souls of those who had been ‘slaughtered’ because of their witness (‘martyrdom’ in the Greek) resting under the altar in heaven. In Revelation 11 the witnesses are again killed for their faith. In Revelation 20 they are beheaded.
So now we have an interpretation, based on the available evidence, that John was rebuffed in honoring the angel because of their shared status, along with the martyrs already in heaven. Presumably, this does not release the rest of us from the requirement that we venerate angels and saints. But how can we be sure? Fortunately, the New Testament does not leave us guessing.
Liethart asserts that “[n]ow humans have been elevated to share in angelic service.” But the plain words of Jesus in the gospels argue against this. In Matthew 22:30, in response to a question about what life will be like in heaven, Christ says that believers will be “like the angels in heaven.” It follows that this isn’t the case while we are still on this earth.
The New Testament also offers two explicit examples of veneration paid to angels and saints. (These come courtesy of Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong.)
In Luke 24, some ‘women from Galilee’ stumble upon the opened tomb of Jesus and are accosted by two angels. The women respond by bowing. No rebuke follows. Instead, they are given the good news of Jesus’ rising. The Venerable Bede takes this as a lesson for Christians today to venerate the angels:
Let us then after the example of the devout women, whenever we approach the heavenly mysteries because of the presence of the Angels, or from reverence to the Sacred Offering, with all humility, bow our faces to the earth, recollecting that we are but dust and ashes.
Next, in Acts 16:29, the jailer in the story ‘fell down’ before Paul and Silas, after an earthquake had jostled their prison door open. Again, there is no reprimand. Instead, Paul and Silas instruct the jailer as what he must do in order to be saved. It stands to reason, that if Paul and Silas were worthy of veneration, the angels certainly were as well.
No doubt, the two verses in Revelation are not easy to understand—but that’s par for the course in a book filled with fantastic visions, obscure apocalyptic references, and utterly bizarre imagery, like the sea of glass and the seven-horned lamb with seven eyes. The key to Revelation is the Bible—the whole arc of scriptural testimony, from Genesis to Jesus. And it is only by applying a Catholic theology of the saints—with its hard and fast distinction between veneration and adoration—that we are able to use this key to unlock the true meaning of the verses in Revelation.
A Note on Worship Words: In the Catholic Church, adoration due to God is distinguished from the veneration due to angels and the saints by the Latin words latria and dulia, respectively. However, these words don’t always neatly line up with the original Greek. In the text under consideration here, the word translated as worship in Greek is proskyneō. In the rest of the New Testament, the word is normally reserved for adoration of God. However, it is not clear that it has that meaning in Revelation (see chapter 3, verse 9). Also, proskyneō had an ambiguous meaning in the ancient world, meaning either worship paid to divine beings or homage to rulers, according to Thayer’s Greek dictionary. It was also used as a generic term for either situations of adoration or veneration in the Old Testament, according to the Haydock Catholic Bible Commentary. ‘Worship’ is a historically generic term for either veneration or adoration and so is an acceptable translation of proskyneō in Revelation 19:10.