A few years ago Anita and I were reading through the Revelation together, and remarked how many angels there were. Every time we turned the page, we met another flurry of them. (There are sixty-nine references to angels in the Revelation, more than in any other book of the Bible.)
This year at Christmas, we noticed another place where they are concentrated: the Christmas story.
On six separate occasions God’s angels reveal themselves to the main characters of the Christmas story.
The angel Gabriel appears to Zecharias to announce the birth of John the Baptist:
Luk 1:11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. 14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. 17 And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Next, Gabriel is sent to tell Mary that she will bear the Messiah:
Luk 1:30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 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: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
When Mary’s fiancé Joseph discovers her condition, an angel explains the situation to him:
Mat 1:20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. 21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
After they are married, they travel to Bethlehem for the census, and there the Messiah is born. The Lord sends an angel to tell the shepherds of the event, and to emphasize the importance of the message, many more allow themselves to be seen as they praise God for the news:
Luk 2:8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
When Herod plots to destroy the infant, an angel warns Joseph to take the family into Egypt:
Mat 2:13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
And after Herod’s death, the angel announces that it is safe to return:
Mat 2:19 But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.
As we meditated on these instances, we recalled what is written of angels in Hebrews 1.
Heb 1:13 But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool? 14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?
Notice the word “all” in v. 14. Hebrews describes the mission, not just of some angels, but of all of them, as caring for God’s redeemed. David was conscious of this angelic care:
Psa 34:7 The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them.
Martin Luther’s hymn reminds us of “this world with devils filled.” The Christmas story reminds us that it is also filled with angels. They do not always show themselves to us, and when they do, we may not recognize them. Sometimes, like Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, we may “entertain angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). But they are there, watching over us, charged with taking care of us. Nor should we be misled by artists’ conceptions of angels as chubby baby-boy cupids, or sweet young girls with flowing flaxen hair. Three times in the Christmas appearances, the angels must reassure those to whom they appear, “Fear not.” The angel who appears to Zecharias and Mary in Luke 1 is named “Gabriel,” which means “God’s mighty hero.” These are fearsome creatures, overpowering all those who oppose them. They form a great army—that’s what the word “host” means in Luke 2:13.
People sometimes speak of a person’s “guardian angel.” There’s no reason to limit the number to one. Our Lord, at the time of his arrest, indicated that more than twelve legions of angels were ready to intervene on his behalf. There were about 5000 soldiers in a Roman legion, so the Lord has in mind a personal bodyguard of 60,000 or more angels. They stood back only because the Father’s purpose, and thus his, required that he be delivered into the hands of sinful men for our redemption (Matt 26:53-54).
Our Lord was not alone in enjoying the watchful protection of an overwhelming heavenly army. When the Syrians sent to Dothan to capture Elisha, his servant was terrified to see their army surrounding the city. But Elisha assured him,
2Ki 6:16 Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them. 17 And Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.
Later, a huge Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem. We don’t know its total size, but their casualties alone were 185,000 (2 Kings 19:35). That’s probably several times the total population of Jerusalem. Yet Hezekiah encouraged the people,
2Ch 32:7 Be strong and courageous, be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him: for there be more with us than with him: 8 With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God to help us, and to fight our battles.
In “this present evil world” (Gal 1:4), we may be tempted to be discouraged at the spiritual forces of wickedness that are growing increasingly bold. Let us never forget that “there be more with us than with” them. God’s angels are all around us, watching over us and protecting us. If he allows us to suffer, it is only for his glory, and to allow us the privilege of knowing the fellowship of our Savior’s sufferings (Phil 3:10). Our situation is never, ever out of control. Because our Savior has purchased us, we are God’s chosen possession, his precious jewels, and he has charged all the host of heaven to care for us.