We are all familiar with the Christmas story and the details surrounding it as we hear it year after year. Aside from the immediate players in the story – Mary and Joseph – there are three major groups of people. There is the heavenly, the lowly, and the noble.
There is a lot of confusion about what goes on in heaven. And some of it is for good reason because we are given very few pictures as to what takes place in heaven. We know that there are spiritual forces at work behind the scenes that we can’t see but we don’t know how they work. What we can be assured of though is that know the ultimate outcome. God is sitting on the throne and He will reign forever. There may be a battle taking place between angels and demons but the war is already won.
Some of our confusion about what takes place in heavenly realms comes right from bad theology. Or I might say cartoon theology. I grew up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons where a guy falls off a cliff and the next thing we see is that they are floating up to heaven with a harp and a pair of wings.
I’m not sure where this idea ever came from but we will not become angels when we die. Rather, we have been made to be greater than angels. Becoming an angel would actually be a demotion rather than something good.
We are told that we will be like angels at the resurrection but never told that we would become angels. In Matthew 22:30 Jesus tells us that, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
In 1 Corinthians Paul writes about how we should be able to settle our own disputes. He almost casually mentions how we will judge angels in heaven in 1 Corinthians 6:3: Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!
Despite the integral role that angels play in the story of Christmas, they are but observers to what God is doing. 1 Peter 1:10-12 tells us that the angels long to investigate what is going on.
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.
Even though the angels were a witness and a participant to the greatest event in human history, they did not fully understand what was taking place. They announced the birth of the Savior but they didn’t understand all that was happening.
So we are at least in good company when we don’t completely grasp the intricacies of salvation. What we should not miss though is the importance of salvation and of what took place and what we celebrate every year. The angels understood the importance of it even if they didn’t understand all that was going to happen.
An angel is literally a messenger. We see them throughout the Bible in significant places. We know that there are different classifications of angels, at least cherubim and seraphim. Cherubim are mentioned numerous times and are what are depicted on top of the ark of the covenant. Seraphim are only mentioned in Isaiah 6 and are seen flying above the throne of God.
We see angels visiting Abraham, and Lot is visited by angels to warn him of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Exodus at the Passover we see the angel of death who strikes down the firstborn male of every household without lamb’s blood on the door post. In Daniel we are introduced to the archangel Michael, or most likely an archangel as Daniel describes him in 10:13 as “one of the chief princes.”
Despite the number of appearances in the Bible, we know very little about angels. They are mysterious agents of God. This is probably why they are so intriguing to us. Even though we can’t completely understand or even fathom God’s greatness, we’re still told a lot about God’s nature and who He is. We know about God’s love for us even if don’t fully grasp it.
Central to the Christmas story is an angel named Gabriel. As the names of most angels are never mentioned and Gabriel appears more than once, he may be God’s chief messenger who carries the most important messages. We see Gabriel three times in scripture. First is in Daniel as he gives the interpretation to Daniel’s visions. Next is in Luke when Zechariah is told that his wife Elizabeth will have a child. A few verses later, Gabriel appears to Mary.
26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Gabriel knows a lot of the Lord’s plan but not all of it. He only knows what God has revealed and what he has been instructed to tell Mary.
It is curious as to why God sent an angel to Mary rather than communicating with her in some other way. She could have had a dream or a vision where God could have spoken to her directly and answered her questions much as Gabriel did. Why He sent an angel instead is something that I can’t even really speculate about. Whatever the reason, this is an obviously important message and God gives the job to Gabriel.
Angels appear once again in Luke 2 after the birth of Jesus. At first there is only one angel, perhaps Gabriel once again but we aren’t given a name this time. Then the first angel is accompanied by a great company of angels. We aren’t told the number but it could number in the thousands.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
In the Old Testament angels often appeared in the form of men. The people they were speaking to may or may not have even realized that they were speaking to an angel. When the angel appeared to the shepherds it was apparent that it was an angel.
The glory of the Lord shone around them. One can understand the terror. When Moses would speak with the Lord his face reflected the Lord’s glory when he returned to the Israelites. This reflected glory, merely a residual image of God’s greatness, was terrifying to the Israelites so much that Moses had to wear a veil over his face after he returned from speaking with the Lord. Having an angel suddenly appear with the glory of the Lord would have to be much more frightening.
The message that the angels delivered was not terrifying however. We often don’t recognize it but the angels deliver a two part message. The first part is that a Savior has been born in the city of David. Of course this is good news and it is something that the Jews have been waiting for for a long time. But that isn’t the whole story.
The first angel announces that the savior of the Jews has been born – Christ the Lord. The Jews were looking for a savior, a king who would reign over them righteously and one who would defeat their enemies. But the chorus of angels announces something even greater than just the arrival of the Messiah that the Jews were awaiting.
What the chorus of angels announces is peace on earth. We casually think of this now as one and the same with the arrival of Jesus but this is really the announcement that Jesus is not just for the Jews, He has come into the world for the sake of the entire world.
In the Bible there have been a few important messages that have been hand delivered by angels. But this final announcement is so big that it can’t be given by just one angel. It has to be delivered by a multitude of angels. Imagine an announcement so big that it couldn’t be given by just one angel. That’s this announcement. The fact that Jesus had come for the entire world is the biggest announcement. He’s not just the Jewish savior, He is the one who will bring peace between man and God. He is for everyone.
I mentioned before that we don’t know how many a multitude is, but just picture how many it could be. Jesus mentioned that he could call twelve legions of angels to His defense if He desired. Twelve legions is 72,000 angels. So, it’s possible that this multitude of angels consisted of 72,000 angels. That is an entire stadium full of angels. Imagine that number of angels the next time you hear about a multitude of angels. That’s how important the message is that Jesus has come not just as savior of the Jews but that He has come to bring peace on earth.