By Michael S. Heiser
“Therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”
Luke 1:5–38; Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 2:8–20
As we contemplate the marvelous fact of God becoming man in the birth of Jesus, it’s easy to focus on Mary and Joseph, who naturally take center stage. And it’s easy to identify with the other human characters in the unfolding drama—the simple shepherds, the curious magi, maybe even the troubled King Herod. But what about the angels who appear in the nativity accounts? We might be tempted to view them as stock characters, but once we understand their history, their role in the story can teach us some important theology.
Angels in great numbers
Luke’s record of the birth of Jesus includes the evening appearance of “an angel of the Lord” (Luke 2:9) to shepherds. The angel informs them of what has occurred in Bethlehem. A baby has been born whose birth signals “great joy that will be for all the people,” for he is “Christ the Lord” (vv. 10–11), the anointed messiah of Israel. At that moment, Luke tells us, “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (vv. 13–14).
This seems straightforward—until we realize that many Jews, including the shepherds, would associate a host of angels with a supernatural army. The Hebrew word translated “hosts” (tsebāʾôt) is frequently used of human armies (Num 31:14; 2 Sam 3:23), and the Old Testament—the Scriptures these Jewish shepherds would have known—calls God the “Lord of hosts” almost 250 times. The imagery portrays God as a divine warrior leading a supernatural army into battle (Isa 13:4–6, 10–13). In one instance indelibly etched on the mind of every Jew, an army of “destroying angels” was sent to assault Egypt in concert with the exodus plagues (Ps 78:48–51). Jews of the first century would not have been surprised at the book of Revelation’s depiction of angels being sent to judge the earth with plagues, war, famine, disease, and cosmic cataclysm.1
The point is that encountering a great number of angels wasn’t exactly something to be happy about. It would have been easy for the shepherds to conclude that the messiah’s birth was a harbinger of judgment. But that isn’t what the angelic host announces to the stupefied onlookers. Instead they pronounce peace on earth. What the shepherds heard was counterintuitive. Salvation, not judgment, had come.
Messengers and interpreters
One of the primary duties of angels was to deliver messages. That meaning comes across in the words for “angel” in the Bible’s original languages—(malʾāk) (Hebrew) and angelos (Greek). In the Old Testament, God sometimes dispatched supernatural beings to deliver messages (Zech 1:9, 19; 2:3). But angels also occasionally explained the content of God’s messages or the intent of his activities.
In Job 33:23 angels are described as “mediators” (Heb: melı̂ts) who could give people explanations of what God was up to. That makes sense because members of God’s heavenly host participated in issuing God’s decrees (1 Kgs 22:19–23; Dan 7:9).
Both of these roles—delivering and explaining messages—are evident in the nativity stories. Luke tells us the angel Gabriel visited Mary (Luke 1:26–38), announcing that, though she was a virgin, she would conceive and bear a son whose name would be Jesus. By way of explanation, Mary learned that her son was actually “the Son of the Most High” and the messianic king from David’s line (v. 32). When Mary wondered aloud how such a thing could happen without knowing a man sexually, the angel added that the Holy Spirit would be the cause, since her son was the Son of God (v. 35).
Matthew reports an unidentified angel appearing to Joseph in a dream and providing him the same information given to Mary (Matt 1:18–25). This suggests strongly the angel was Gabriel.2
Six months earlier, the angel Gabriel had appeared to the priest Zechariah, the husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:5–20). The initial message had been simple: the elderly couple would have a son whose name would be called John (v. 13). Then Gabriel added an important explanation: “Many will rejoice at his birth … and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah” (vv. 14–17). Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son John would be the prophet who would herald the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus. Prophecy would become history.
Lest all this seem too familiar, consider the content of these angelic messages and explanations. Some of the most essential points of the New Testament doctrines of salvation and the incarnation came from angels. Angels are not screen extras in the cosmic drama; they are indispensable messengers who reveal why the birth of Jesus truly is good news of great joy.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
1 Rev 7:1–2; 8:5–13; 9:1, 13–15; 10:1, 5, 7; 15:1, 6, 7–8; 16:1, 5; 17:1; 18:1, 21.
2 Though many English translations of Matt 1:20 read “the angel of the Lord,” the angel who visited Joseph isn’t the specific Angel of Yahweh known from the Old Testament. I discuss this in detail in Angels: What the Bible Really Says About God’s Heavenly Host (Lexham Press, 2018).