One of the more obvious things about the Christmas story (as Scripture records it) would be prevalence of angels in it. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to tell him about the birth of the forerunner of the Christ (Luke 1:11). Six months later Gabriel again appears to Mary, to tell her that she will give birth to the Son of the Highest (Luke 1:26-27). An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream in order to tell him that Mary had not in fact been unfaithful to him (Matt. 1:20). The angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, and then the entire heavenly host appeared as well (Luke 2:9,13). An angel in the form of a star summons the wise men to come to Jerusalem in the first place, and then that same angel identifies the right house in Bethlehem for them (Matt. 2:2,10). And Joseph was warned in a dream by an angel to flee down to Egypt, in order to escape from Herod’s wrath (Matt. 2:13). Angels all over the place. What is the significance of this for us?
“And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:26–35).
Summary of the Text
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel, who had also appeared to Zechariah, came to Mary, who was in Nazareth at the time (v. 26). She was betrothed to a man named Joseph, who was of the line of David (v. 27). He greets her with a general blessing, but one that was also very high (v. 28). She was troubled by it, and tried to figure it out (v. 29). Gabriel reassures her, telling her that she had found favor with God (v. 30). He then said she was going to conceive a son, and He would be named Jesus (v. 31). He was going to be very great, the Son of the Highest, and He was going to inherit the throne of His father David (v. 32). He was going to reign over the house of Jacob, and His kingdom would be a never-ending one (v. 33). Mary asked, reasonably enough, how this was possible, given that she was a virgin (v. 34). Gabriel answered that it would be because the Holy Spirit would come upon her, that the power of the Highest would cover her, such that her Son would be called the Son of God (v. 35). We here must distinguish the eternal Sonship of the Second Person of the Trinity from the incarnate sonship of the Messiah, the result of the virgin birth. Christ is the Son of God in two different senses.
A Few Random Things
In the next verse, Elizabeth is called Mary’s cousin (v. 36), but the word might better be rendered as kinswoman. This is interesting because Elizabeth and Zechariah were both from the tribe of Levi, but the Lord was from the line of Judah. There are different ways this could work, but it is suggestive of various possibilities. Because Elizabeth was elderly and Mary was not, I think it is likely that she was something like Mary’s aunt, and Elizabeth’s or Zechariah’s sister had married into the line of Judah.
Second, in the Old Testament, angels do not go by their names. In fact, when the father of Samson asks an angel’s name, he is rebuffed. “And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?” (Judges 13:18). But in the inter-testamental period, it became more common to identify angels by their various names. But still, in the Scriptures, we are given the names of only two angels, Gabriel and Michael. Also note that here that I am following our common practice of calling any celestial being an angel. It is one specific category among the celestials (angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, etc), but it is also the catch-all name we use for all of them together.
And then third, what are we to make of all these angels in this story? Remember that the primary job description of angels is that they are messengers. The word angelos means messenger, and does not even necessarily entail a celestial being. Humans are called angels at various times, depending on the task they have. For example, John the Baptist is called an angel (Mark 1:2). He was a messenger, preparing the way of the Lord. And the pastors of the seven churches of Asia are also called angels (Rev. 2:1,8,12,18;3:1,7,14). They were given a message to deliver. And the verb for preaching the gospel is euangelio, preaching the good message.
Signs and Messages
Now throughout Scripture, angels do remarkable things. But they are not called wonder-workers. They are still called messengers. The signs that they give are the seal on the message. The contents of their messages are the important thing; the seal on the letter simply says that the message is authentic. “But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him” (John 10:38).
It was the same way with the prophets. Foretelling the future was not their main vocation. That was simply their authentication for what was their main purpose, which was forthtelling the truth, speaking the truth about the present.
“And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him”
Dt. 18-22 (KJV)
“Shew the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods: Yea, do good, or do evil, that we may be dismayed, and behold it together.”
Is. 41:23 (KJV)
The main thing is to believe the message, as Mary did and Zechariah did not.
It is noteworthy that in Scripture, there are three great periods of clustered miracles—the time of Moses, the time of Elijah/Elisha, and the time of Christ and the apostles. This is because these were also times when revelation was being given in bulk (law, prophets, gospel). We should note these miracles because we are bent on accepting the message they authenticate—whether the law, the prophets, or the gospel.
Becoming His Messengers
The angels declared the message to astonished shepherds. The shepherds declared the message to astonished passers-by. This is a metaphor that can indicate to us how that particular torch has been passed from angels to men. We have been promoted, and we are now God’s messengers.
“For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels”
Hebrews 2:5 (NKJV)
No, that world has been given to the sons of men, those who are in Christ, and so we have been charged to be the central messengers of this gospel promise—peace on earth, good will to men (Matt. 28:18-20). We are the angels being sent out to gather God’s elect from the four corners of the world (Matt. 24:31).