When someone mentions angels in connection with the Christmas story, what do you think of first? The angel Gabriel announcing God’s plan to Mary? A great chorus of angels singing “Glory to God!” while the shepherds looked on in awe?
Angels played an integral part in communicating certain specific instructions from God for events surrounding the birth of Jesus:
- Announcing the birth of John: An angel announced to Zacharias the birth of a long-awaited son. The angel instructed Zacharias to name his son John, which in Hebrew means, “the Lord favors,” and tells him that John would fulfill the prophecy of Malachi, preparing the way for the Messiah (Luke 1:5-20, Mal. 4:6).
- Announcing the incarnation of Jesus: The angel Gabriel announced the coming birth of Jesus to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). Gabriel is one of a small handful of angels we know by name, indicating he is an angel of high rank. This same Gabriel was also sent to the prophet Daniel, some 600+ years earlier, to announce God’s timetable for events leading up to the coming of the Messiah (Dan. 9:20-27). It must have been an incredible privilege for him to declare the fulfillment of the Messiah’s imminent birth through Mary.
- Reassuring Joseph: An angel reassured Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy was of God and instructed him to take her as his wife and to call the baby Jesus, which in Hebrew means, “The Lord Delivers” or “God Saves” (Matt. 1:18-25).
- Announcing the birth of Jesus: An angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds and was joined by a “multitude of the heavenly host” praising God (Luke 2:8-20).
- Warning Joseph: An angel warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s fit of rage (Matt. 2:13-15).
- Declaring safety: An angel told Joseph when it was safe for them to return to Israel (Matt. 2:19-23).
Which part of the story is your favorite? Are you drawn to one particular image of angelic participation in the Christmas story?
When I think about the part that angels played in the birth of Jesus, my thoughts often turn to those who aren’t mentioned in the gospel stories. I think of the angels in heaven watching in awe as the Son of God laid aside the privileges of His power and glory to become a tiny spec nestled in the womb of a young maiden (Phil. 2:5-11). Having seen Him and known Him in the fullness of His glory, it must have been astounding to grasp the reality of God made Man. I imagine them watching with wonder as Mary carried Him to the moment of His birth. It is no wonder the heavenly host burst onto the scene with joyful praise when the birth of Jesus was announced to the shepherds.
The apostle Peter wrote that the prophets understood how their message revealed the coming of Christ as Savior. They knew the Christ would not come within their lifetimes, but that their message was for a generation yet to come:
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven — things into which angels long to look. (1Pet. 1:10-12)
I love this passage not only because it reveals the hearts of the prophets, but because it provides a glimpse into the hearts of the angels. The angels longed to see and to understand God’s plan for salvation. They watched in awe as the mighty Son of God humbled Himself, not only to become a man, but to so fully identify Himself with us that He became a tiny, helpless infant.
Angels appear three additional times in the story of Jesus’ incarnation. Angels ministered to Jesus after His forty-day fast and temptation by Satan (Matt 4:8-11, Mark 1:12-13). An angel appeared to strengthen Him when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of His betrayal (Luke 22:43-44). And two angels rolled away the stone from His grave and joyfully announced His resurrection to the women at the tomb (Matt. 28:2-5, Luke 24:22-23, John 20:11-12).
One day, perhaps, I will have the opportunity to ask an angel what it was like to watch the Son of God humble Himself to become a man. If you could talk to one of the angels who played a part in the Christmas story, what would you ask?