This is a little preachier than most of my blog posts, but it is a devotional I did at our church on Christmas Eve. And since I am a pastor, I should get to preach a little bit now and then….
Eight out of ten Americans believe in angels, perhaps more than believe in God. There are a lot of misconceptions, however. Some believe we were or become angels, not an idea supported in Scripture.
Last week a Catholic theologian issued a statement that angels don’t have wings. And he is probably right. While seraphim and cherubim may, and clearly some creatures in heavens do have wings, in no biblical appearance of angels are wings ever mentioned.
They simply appear as powerful messengers and warriors. And while they seem to appear as humans, something about them inspired awe.
They are so powerful, in fact, that it doesn’t take many of them to get the job done. They almost always appear by themselves, as an angel or the Angel. In at least some of these cases it may have been Jesus Himself.
But there are few instances where they appear in groups. The exceptions are Jacob’s ladder, where a host of angels are ascending and descending stairs into heaven. And at one point Elisha reveals an army of unseen angels to one of his disciples (See accompanying art).
A couple of times they appear in pairs. Two appeared to the prophet Zachariah, for example, and two were at the tomb at the Resurrection. Two appeared to Abraham with the Lord to announce the destruction of Sodom.
But apparently you don’t need many angels. Joshua, Balaam, Joseph, Mary—one angel is all you get or need. One angel can stop a donkey or slay the firstborn in Egypt. One angel can feed a prophet or get an apostle out of jail. One angel can contend with Satan over the body of Moses.
It’s hard to imagine then the power of a band of angels. We are told that Jesus could call legions of them to his side if He so wished. And multiple angels ministered to Him in the wilderness and at Gethsemane. Where Jesus is concerned, a host of angels is always nearby.
But they seldom appear en masse to human kind, as they did on Christmas night to shepherds on a hill near Bethlehem. It seems like the shepherds could not bear the glory of it, the sheer intimidation. Perhaps this is why only one angel appeared to them at first, to cushion the shock.
This is not to say they aren’t near us. In fact, they do many things for us, although singly or invisibly. In the Bible they guide us, announce things to us, guard us. “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” the writer of Hebrews asks.
They are messenger and servants and warriors who stand in the presence of God and do his bidding, often to our good. But they are not all powerful. It takes a couple of them to destroy a city. They are not all knowing. In Isaiah one of them asks when the prophecies will come to pass. And Jesus says even the angels do not know when He will return.
So why does a multitude appear to the shepherds? In seems that when it involves Jesus there is usually a multitude of angels. He is the Lord of Hosts.
Psalms 91 says God would command the angels to take care of Him. But surely these shepherds were not a threat. The angels that appeared to the shepherds probably had another motivation—to understand the mystery of the incarnation and to worship in His presence.
It was revealed to them, Peter tells us, “that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through the preaching of the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit, things into which the angels long to look.”
They want to know what we know—that Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners. They were there to praise God, of course. But the truth is angels are more curious about the incarnation than many of us are.
What wonder is this? they wonder. The Lord of Hosts? The Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace stoops this low and for this purpose—to redeem a people of his own.
Like the angels with Jacob at the ladder of heaven, this too is the birth of a nation. We too are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that we might proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
And so that night the angels rejoiced in awe.
This is their primary work— to praise The Lord. They are commanded to do so in Psalms 148:
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
The phrase “praise the Lord” appears throughout the Old Testament but is translated in the New Testament as “hallelujah” only a few times, all of them in Revelation 19.
Here the angels around the throne sing hallelujah when God avenges the blood of his servants. They join the elders in crying Hallelujah as the smoke of Babylon rises forever.
“Amen, Hallelujah,” they shout. “Praise our God all you his servants, you who fear him small and great.”
Then the saints join in:
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
“These are the true words of God,” an angel concludes. “Worship God.”
This is of course the basis of one of our greatest choral anthems, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.
You should listen to it.
In fact, you should sing along.
With the angels.