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Hark to the herald angels

December 1996 | by John Legg

Angels are real, good and helpful: ‘ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation’ (Hebrews 1:14). Scripture speaks in terms of myriads upon myriads of them – and a myriad is strictly ten thousand. With so many evil spirits abroad in the world, a whole kingdom of fallen angels under their leader the devil (‘the powers of this dark world … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’, Ephesians 6:12), we cannot, surely, have too many such angelic helpers. Yet perhaps we are hearing too much about the angels and not enough about the King whose coming they were sent to ‘herald’.

The angels’ Lord

The best policy in this situation is to concentrate on what the angels in Scripture actually did and said; in other words, hark to the herald angels. Servants for the elect they may be, but their Master is the Lord Jesus Christ and it is of him that they uniformly speak and to him that they minister and bear witness. What can they teach us? Angels are particularly prominent around the time of the birth of Christ and it is very easy to be so taken up with these mysterious visitors that we miss the great event itself. Just as Mary is elevated by some in a way that detracts from the Saviour – a way that she would be the first to condemn – so angels are given attention which distracts from our Lord – an attention that they too would deplore. An angel like the one who rejected John’s worship in Revelation 19:10 would never willingly allow attention to be directed to himself instead of to the one of whom he testified.

Announcing the forerunner

It was the angel Gabriel who appeared to Zechariah, as he performed his priestly duty in the temple, to inform him that his wife would, amazingly, bear him a son, to be known as John (the Baptist). What was Gabriel concerned with? Soft and soothing influences to calm the priest’s troubled soul? No! When Zechariah showed his lack of faith, he was struck dumb. Gabriel’s task was to introduce John, who would, in turn, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’, or more precisely, ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’ (Luke 1:17). Gabriel pointed away from himself to Christ the Lord, just as John the Baptist himself would later do: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). We must do the same.

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Gabriel and Mary

It was Gabriel, again, who visited the virgin called Mary to warn her of her privilege – that she was to bear the Son of God, who would be called Jesus and who would reign for ever (Luke 1:31-33). Clearly his appearance was not primarily to comfort her, still less to give her something to boast about. Indeed, her first reaction was to be ‘greatly troubled’. There was nothing here of the cosy relationship with angels, of which so many speak today. No, Gabriel was concerned to honour God, with whom ‘nothing is impossible’, and to concentrate Mary’s attention on the Son of God. Most, if not all, angelic appearances in the Bible were matters of fear and trembling to those favoured with a visit. They represent the God of the impossible and should be accorded respect, just as the Lord should receive due reverence.

Joseph’s change of mind

When he learned of Mary’s pregnancy Joseph, obviously a kindly as well as ‘a righteous man’, had it in mind to divorce her quietly. However, a visit from an angel of the Lord changed all that. Once again the conversation was all about the coming son of Mary. Joseph was ‘to give him the name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Clearly angels, unlike many humans, believe in the sovereign plan of God, in which he sent his Son to die particularly and specially for his chosen people and thus save them – not just try to – from their sins. Was it the same angel who later appeared twice in a dream, first to warn Joseph to take the baby Jesus to Egypt and then, later, to bring him back when all was safe? In any case it is clear that the concern of angels is primarily for the Son of God and for his safety. In this way, especially, they served God’s people, for unless he was kept safe there would be no salvation. So by their actions and by their words they confirmed the gospel message, that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15).

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Shepherds too

It was the angel of the Lord who appeared to the shepherds in the fields to announce the birth of the Saviour. He called him ‘Christ, the Lord’. Clearly, angels have no doubts about the reality of the incarnation. This was no mere human baby; this was the Messiah, who had a right to the divine title ‘Lord’, the equivalent of the Old Testament Jehovah or Yahweh. He was accompanied by a great number of the heavenly army, praising God and proclaiming reconciliation, peace between man and God, achieved by the grace of God (Luke 2:11-14). So the information increases; the Lord, the Son of God, has come to begin his reign. He will save his own people; he will bring reconciliation to earth. This is where our emphasis must be also, not on angels and certainly not on us and our experiences.

Later angelic appearances

After this angels appear only rarely in the biblical account. Their main task has been completed; the heralds have announced the coming and mission of the King. When they do appear again, it is to guard and support him on his way to the cross. During the temptations Satan quotes from Psalm 91 about angels taking care of him lest he damage his feet against a stone, but they do not appear to guard him from Satan. Not until he has won the victory, by the power of the Spirit, do they come and attend him (Matthew 4:11). Far from defending him, they encourage him on the path of humiliation and suffering to which he is committed.

Again, it is while he agonizes in the Garden of Gethsemane that an angel appears to strengthen him, confirming him in his determination to drink the cup of wrath (Luke 22:43). A little later, Jesus tells his captors that he could call for twelve legions of angels to rescue him, but he does not do so. That is not their task. They are to help him on his way to the cross, not prevent it from happening. Having made clear at his birth who this is and what he has come to do, the angels of heaven watch over him to enable him to do his saving work. And it is thus they ministered to us as heirs of salvation, and it is thus that they continue to serve, not to encourage us in our attention seeking.

Garden tomb
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Finally, we see them at the open and empty tomb, declaring that the work on earth is finished and accepted; we hear them addressing the disciples at the ascension, promising his return in glory. Always it is of Christ that they speak; always it is he on whom their attention is concentrated. In this we must follow their example. We should honour the angels, unlike the false teachers in Jude, who ‘slander celestial beings’ (v.8), but we must never give them the place in our interest or our affections that the Colossians were tempted to do (2:18). Indeed, if they love and adore and worship and glorify him like this, how much more should we do so. In Hebrews 2:5-18, where we read about Christ’s sharing our humanity, verse 16 states that ‘it is not angels that he helps, but Abraham’s descendants’. The angels can praise him for his saving work, but they cannot thank him from redeemed hearts. They can and do sing his glory for his wonderful achievement, but they do not do so with overflowing gratitude. We can and we must.

John Legg