The word which we commonly read in English translation as ‘saint’ or ‘saints’, derived from the Latin ‘sanctus’, translates the Greek word ‘agios’ (plural ‘agiois’) which is seen constantly in the inscriptions of iconography. In the New Testament, this word is used to describe both the worshipping community of the church in its sojourn on earth and the ‘dead in Christ’ (cf. Acts 9:13, 32, 41, Rom 1:7, 12:13, 1 Cor 14:33, 2 Cor 9:12, Eph 2:19). This Greek term is actually the substantive form of the adjective ‘holy’, and could simply be translated ‘holy one’ or ‘holy ones’. The reason it has traditionally been translated as ‘saints’ is to indicate that by the time of the New Testament, the term saint was already a specific term which had a specific usage in the Hebrew scriptures, the Greek translation of the Septuagint, and in the religious literature of Second Temple Judaism. The usage of this term as a reference to Christians in the New Testament serves as an indicator of a change in the cosmic state of affairs, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and the destiny of humanity transformed in union with Christ.
In the Old Testament, the ‘holy ones’ of God are, first and foremost, the angelic beings who make up the divine council, as seen, for example, in Psalm 89:5-7, “Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Yahweh, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the heavens can be compared to Yahweh? Who among the sons of God is like Yahweh? A God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him.” The angelic beings of the divine council surround the Lord, and while some of them fell and came to be worshipped as gods by the nations, none of them is like the only true God, Yahweh the God of Israel. “Who is like you among the gods, oh Yahweh? Who is like you in majesty among the holy ones?” (Ex 15:11 LXX). Israel, when gathered in worship participates in the divine council, and so they too, in these moments, are described as ‘holy ones’ (cf. Lev. 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7, 26, 21:6; Num 15:40, 16:3). When the Lord is depicted as coming in judgment, it is with his holy ones, as in Zechariah 14:3, “Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.” This stands in parallel to New Testament passages such as Matthew 16:27. In describing the coming of Yahweh to Israel, Moses says, “The Lord came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us. He shone forth from Mount Paran. He came from the ten thousands of holy ones with flaming fire at his right hand. Yes, he loved his people. All his holy ones were in his hand” (Deut 33:2-3). The holy ones of God are here depicted as ‘flaming fire’, an image which is also used in Psalm 104:4, “He makes his angels spirits, his ministers flaming fire”, as quoted in Hebrews 1:7.
The understanding of this imagery in Hebrews is important, and is elaborated in other terms by St. Dionysius the Areopagite in his Celestial Hierarchies. The fire in which the angelic hosts share, to varying degrees in their orders, are the divine energies, the grace and glory of God. Hebrews 1 uses this as a comparative to Christ. While the angels graciously partake of the glory of God, that glory belongs to Christ himself as God (Heb 1:8-12). In Hebrews 2, however, the argument continues to describe the incarnation of Christ, who was ‘made for a little while lower than the angels’ but then ‘crowned with glory and honor’, after which all things are made subject to him (2:7-8). While we do not yet see all things subject to Christ, we see Christ who was incarnate so that he might taste death for all mankind now crowned with honor and glory (v. 8-9). This discussion in Hebrews has an important frame. It begins with the statement that, “it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come” (2:5). This stands in contrast to the previous age of the old covenant, in which the nations had been given over to angelic dominion. Importantly, however, Hebrews is not merely pointing to Christ’s reign over all creation, but also to those who are saved through him. Those who find salvation in Christ are here called his sons (2:10, 13), parallel to the sons of God of the old covenant. They are called his brothers (v. 11, 12), concerning whom he testifies in the congregation. Through the incarnation, Christ has delivered those who share in his human nature from death and the devil (v. 14), and through the ascension, he has elevated that nature even above the angelic nature. In Christ, human persons become partakers of the divine nature beyond any of the ranks of angels, and come to be rightly numbered among the holy ones.
In the Old Testament, God’s authority on earth was imaged and represented by human authority within Israel. Moses, the judges from Joshua through Samuel, and the king represented the rule of God over his people. The 70 elders in Israel equaled in number the angelic beings of the divine council who had been assigned rule over the nations. The Davidic line, of God’s chosen king over Judah, in particular was a representation of God’s authority on earth, its court representative of the divine council. David and his line, however, represented the rule of God prophetically, such that the fulfillment of God’s reign over his people was ultimately seen to be the Christ, the Messiah, who would actualize God’s rule over his people in the age to come. It is for this reason that the prophecy of 2 Samuel 7:16, that David’s house and kingdom will be forever, is transformed in view of the coming Messiah in 1 Chronicles 17:14 to the promise that David’s descendant will live in God’s house, and God’s kingdom will be forever. These prophetic themes are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, such that before his ascension into heaven to be re-enthroned, he states, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matt 28:18-19). God’s rule over Israel has found its fulfillment in Jesus as the Christ, and Christ has also reclaimed authority over all the nations through the defeat of the fallen spiritual powers who had controlled them (Col 2:15).
The New Testament is clear that this authority is no more isolated in the new covenant than it was in the old. Quite the opposite. Now, through Christ, human persons have entered into glory and joined the divine council as part of the family of God. The promises of the scriptures regarding Christ’s saints are not merely promises of passive rest, but promises of participation in the rule and reign of Christ. Christ tells his disciples that when all is made new and he sits upon his throne after the ascension, they will ‘sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Matt 19:28). St. Paul says that the saints will judge the world (1 Cor 6:2) and in the next verse, that the saints will judge even angels (v. 3). He says that we are already seated with Christ in the heavenly places through Christ’s ascension (Eph 2:6). The Revelation of St. John describes the present age, before Christ’s glorious appearing, during which Christ reigns in the midst of his enemies, as the time during which the saints are raised to rule and reign with Christ in the heavens (Rev 20:4-5). Revelation then goes on to describe the role of the saints in glory as that of priests (v. 6), who make intercession before the throne of Christ.
The saints in glory, therefore, are not only filling the place in the divine council formerly occupied by the angels that fell, but also the role. It is in light of the fact that these members of the divine council were called ‘gods’ and ‘sons of the Most High’ (Ps 82:6) that the New Testament authors speak of our becoming sons of God, and the Fathers, as famously St. Athanasius, speak of men becoming ‘gods’. It is for this reason that since the very beginning of the Church, nations, cities, churches, families, and individual persons which once had ‘gods’ allotted to them have instead found heavenly patrons in the saints. This is not, as some would suggest, some sort of concession to popular polytheism. Quite the opposite. Rather, it is a function of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which declares that the malign demonic powers who once enslaved the nations have now been cast down (Gal 4:8-9, Col 2:8, 20), and that the saints now rule and reign with Christ, judging the nations as he promised. Just as in the old covenant believers sought the intercession of the holy ones before the Lord (cf. Job 5:1), so also, as the saints in glory serve as priests before the throne of Christ, they make prayerful intercession for the faithful (Rev 20:6). Just as the ranks of angels had different roles and participated differently in the grace and glory of God, so also the saints have their unique roles (1 Cor 15:40-41). The royal priesthood of the saints in glory is part and parcel of, and inseparable from, the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ.