As modern people, when we think of the sun and the stars, we think of masses of incandescent gas; gigantic nuclear furnaces in which hydrogen is transformed into helium at, literally, astronomical temperatures. When we think of the moon, we think of a large dusty rock which orbits around the earth every 27 days. At some level, we are aware that ancient people did not think of them this way. We believe that our modern understanding is superior because it is based on mathematics and scientific observation. Ancient explanations and descriptions are viewed as quaint folktales and myths now supplanted by real knowledge. This creates a difficulty for modern readers of the holy scriptures, as those scriptures are quickly seen to not be based in the modern view. Modernity has had two typical response to this dilemma. On one hand, the Biblical references are dismissed as some sort of condescension by God in his revelation to primitive people or outright fairy tales. On the other, a modern understanding of these things is read back into the Biblical stories, so that the text of scripture is claimed to actually be talking about the clouds of gas undergoing nuclear fusion in the depths of space. Both of these modern approaches represent a failure of modern people to listen to and properly hear the Biblical text and what it is attempting to tell us. What the scriptures say about the stars of heaven, they are actually saying about our destiny as human persons in Christ.
Stars are repeatedly and consistently in scripture connected with angelic beings. The term ‘heavenly host’ or ‘the host of heaven’ is used consistently to refer both to astronomical bodies visible in the sky (cf. Gen 2:1; Ps 33:6; Jer 33:22) and the angelic beings as a group (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 22:19; 2 Chron 18:18; Is 24:21; 34:4; Dan 4:35; Luke 2:13). In most cases, it is not clear which of these two is in view in a particular reference. It appears most likely that the reference is to both (Deut 4:19; 17:3; 2 Kgs/4Kgdms 17:16; 21:3-5; 23:4-5; 2 Chron 33:3-5; Neh 9:6; Jer 8:2; 19:13; Dan 8:10; Zeph 1:5; Acts 7:42). The title of the God of Israel, Yahweh Sabaoth, is directly related. Sabaoth is the substantive form of the Hebrew verb ‘tsavah’ meaning ‘to command’ or ‘to set in order’, hence its typical translation as ‘hosts’ with a military connotation. Yahweh Sabaoth proclaims his powers as the God of gods, worshipped by all of the heavenly powers. This same interplay can be seen in references in the scriptures to the stars and to angels (Job 38:7; Mark 13:25; Rev 1:20).
This is not, however, a primitive confusion. Ancient people did not believe that the lights in the sky were angels, whereas now we moderns understand that they are balls of gases. Rather, all ancient people, both inside and outside of Israel, understood that there were spiritual powers associated with the governance of every aspect of the created order. Nature spirits and gods were associated with all of the elements of the natural world, including those objects in the heavens above, those on the earth beneath, and those in the abyss beneath the earth (Ex 20:4; Deut 5:8). The scriptures do not dispute that these beings exist. Rather, they describe these beings as spiritual beings created by God which are either in service to or rebellion against him. In speech, ancient people often did not distinguish between a person or object and the spiritual powers which stood behind it and animated it. This represents a particular view of the sovereignty of God, that he governs his creation through the members of his divine council. At the creation, a share in that governance was also given to humanity (Gen 1:26).
Philo of Alexandria describes the Jewish belief in the first century AD in the following way: “Some have supposed that the sun and moon and the other stars were gods with absolute powers and ascribed to them the causation of all events. But Moses held that the universe was created and is in a sense the greatest of commonwealths, having magistrates and subjects. For magistrates, all the heavenly bodies fixed and wandering. For subjects, such beings as exist below the moon, in the air or on the earth. These magistrates, however, in his view do not have unconditional powers but are lieutenants of the one Father of all. And it is by mimicking the example of his governance exercised according to law and justice over all created beings that they acquit themselves aright…So all the gods which the senses know in the heavens must not be supposed to possess absolute power but to have received the rank of subordinate rulers, naturally liable to correction…let us proceed to give honor to the immaterial, invisible, understood by the intellect alone, who is not only the God of gods, whether perceived by sense or by mind, but also the maker of all” (Special Laws, 1.3). When St. Paul decries the nations for having worshipped creating beings rather than the creator, he is not speaking of the material stuff from which idols were made, but rather of the spiritual powers who were being worshipped instead of God Most High (Rom 1:25; 1 Cor 10:20). St. Andrew of Caesarea describes this as also being the view of the Fathers in his interpretation of the Devil as the “prince and power of the air” (Eph 2:2).
Philo’s statement was made in commentary on Deuteronomy 4:19-20, “Beware if you should lift your eyes to the heavens and seeing the sun and the moon and the stars and all the host of heaven be led away and bow down to them and serve them. These are things that Yahweh your God has allotted to all of the nations under all of the heavens. But Yahweh has taken you and brought you out of Egypt, the furnace of iron, in order to make you a nation to be his inheritance, as you are today.” After the Tower of Babel event, Yahweh had given over all the nations of the world to the governance of spiritual powers who, rather than imitating his governance, had become corrupt and begun to be worshipped by those nations (Deut 32:8, 17). But he had chosen Israel for his inheritance and had revealed himself to them so that they might know him and worship the true God (Ps 117:27 Gk.). The relationship of these spiritual beings as patrons and governors of various elements of creation remains, however, and continues into the present age. Just as Israel had St. Michael as her prince (Dan 10:21; 12:1), churches have angelic patrons (Rev 1:20). The rebellious gods of the nations are judged at the resurrection of Christ and thrown down (Ps 82). God’s sovereignty, however, remains the same, and so these fallen former holy ones are replaced with new holy ones (read: saints). And so, in the church, we now have not only angelic beings but glorified men as patrons of churches, cities, and nations.
The destiny of human persons is not only described as coming to share in the governance of God over his creation. Our actual physical destiny, the destiny of our material bodies and their glorification, is associated with angelic beings. Daniel, speaking of the resurrection, says that the righteous will shine forever like the stars of heaven (Dan 12:3). Christ says that in the resurrection, human persons will be ‘like the angels’ (Mark 12:25; Matt 22:30). St. Paul speaks at length of the resurrection of the body in light of the bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. He directly utilizes the language of Deuteronomy 4 when he states, “There are celestial bodies and there are earthen bodies. There is one glory indeed of the celestial, and another now of the earthen. There is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon and another glory of the stars, because a star is different from another star in its glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sewn in corruption. It is raised in immortality. It is sewn in dishonor. It is raised in glory. It is sewn in weakness. It is raised in power. It is sewn an ensouled body. It is raised a Spirit-filled body. If there is an ensouled body, there is also a Spirit-filled body. Just as it has been written, “Into the first man, Adam, came a living soul,” into the last Adam came the Spirit who gives life” (1 Cor 15:40-45).
For St. Paul, one consequence of the resurrection of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is the glorification of humanity and this includes not only the soul but the physical body (Rom 8:17, 30). St. Paul never questions, but always affirms the physical, bodily resurrection. The transfiguring presence of God himself, however, transforms the human body from an earthen one to a celestial one as the angels possess. But this is not all. In Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven he has brought with him our shared human nature, such that our humanity now sits enthroned in the heavens in his person. Christ shares with us his own glory, the glory which he shared with the Father before the world was created (John 17:5). We are now, like the holy angels, rightly called ‘sons of God’, but in the resurrection, mankind has an even greater destiny: to be conformed to the likeness of Christ himself (1 John 3:2).