It’s a common refrain, “The angels are rejoicing because so-and-so has become a Christian.” I’ve said it, you’ve said it, we all at one time or another have made this joyous proclamation. But is this a Biblical expression? Is the focus of heavenly joy the angels? And where’s God in all of this? For the answers to these questions and more, let’s turn to Luke 15.
The origin of the phrase, “The angels are rejoicing…” finds its roots in the Lost Parables of Luke 15. It is here that the Pharisees and scribes grumbled over Jesus’ reception of “sinners” (v. 1-2). This prompted Jesus to tell three parables (v. 3) designed to illustrate the joy of heaven over the return of a repentant sinner – a joy that should be shared by everyone.
The Lost Sheep
First, Jesus tells of a shepherd who had one hundred sheep but one was lost. While he left the ninety-nine in the open country (v. 4a), the shepherd searched for, found and brought home his one lost sheep (v. 4b-5). In his joy, he called his friends and neighbors together to rejoice with him. The emphasis in this parable is the joy of the shepherd, not the friends and neighbors; they were merely invited to share in the joy of the shepherd. Jesus ends this parable by saying, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (v. 7). Jesus states that while there were complaining on earth among the Pharisees and scribes, there was great joy in heaven. Just as the shepherd was the source of the rejoicing on earth, God is the source of the ecstatic joy heaven expresses at the return of one of God’s sheep. The angels are mere participants.
The Lost Coin
Next, Jesus tells of a woman who had ten coins but loses one of them. Even though she has nine coins in hand, she turns her house upside down looking for the one lost coin (v. 8). In the joy of finding the lost coin she called together all of her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her (v. 9). Again, Jesus focused on the joy of the woman who has found her lost coin, not the friends and neighbors. Moreover, Jesus ends by saying, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10). Notice the emphasis is the joy that is “before the angels,” not the joy of the angels. The origin of the heavenly joy is God. Just as the joy of the shepherd and the woman emanated to their friends and neighbors, so the joy of heaven radiates from God to the heavenly host. Who in heaven is more suited to rejoice over the repentance of the created than the creator Himself? This is made even plainer in the next parable.
The Lost Son
Finally, Jesus tells of a father who had two sons (v. 11). The younger of the two left home with his inheritance and squandered it on “prodigal living” (vv. 12-13). After a period of want, the young man comes to his senses, and humbly returns home (vv. 14-20a), where he is gladly received by his father (vv. 21b-22). In his joy, the father calls for the “killing of the fatted calf” and a great celebration (vv. 23-24). The joy of the father is further emphasized in vv. 27, 30, 32. As with the first two parables, the focus is on the joy of the one who received back that which was lost. Do the servants join in the celebration? Sure they do (vv. 24b- 25). However, the joy in the home centers on the father, not the servants.
The takeaway from this short study is that yes, the angels do rejoice when one sinner repents; just as the friends and neighbors and servants rejoiced with those who had received back that which was lost. Yet, the #1 reason why we shouldn’t focus on the joy of the angels is because Jesus never focused on the joy of the angels, rather He zeroed in on the joy of God Himself. And so it should be with us. When we express our joy over a repentant sinner, let’s put our focus where it belongs, on God and His joy, not the angels. Maybe next time we can say, “God is rejoicing…”