My dad loved huge Christmas trees, and he made quite a production of trimming those trees. First we would wrap all the lights on the trees, then cover it with ornaments and tinsel. I would watch as Dad placed the angel on the top branch—the final act of the tree trimming ritual. It seemed a grand gesture. Only moments before, the tree had somehow appeared incomplete, as if something important was missing. But with the placing of the angel, the house was finally ready for Christmas. As I remember it, the angel was blonde, feminine, winged, and robed in a white gown that sparkled. For years afterward, whenever I thought of angels, my mind envisioned that figure on the top of our Christmas trees. What a shock it was, years later, when I learned that whenever angels are named in the Bible they have masculine names, and that it is highly unlikely they were blonds in sparkling gowns!
It’s hard to shake our childhood impressions, but I was right about one thing: angelic beings played a significant role in the events of the Nativity. Without their involvement, there would be a hole in the story—as incomplete as an unfinished Christmas tree. To help us understand the role of angels in Christ’s birth, let’s take a closer look at the heavenly beings themselves.
Who Are Angels?
From paintings to poems to movies to television shows, it seems that angels need a new press agent. They aren’t being well represented. It helps to remember that their best and most accurate representation comes to us in the pages of the Bible.
Angels are seen throughout the Scriptures and are called by a variety of names, including cherubim, seraphim, and living creatures. Sometimes they are described as men, often in shining garments. They are seen guarding Eden, waging war, rescuing Peter from prison, worshiping in the presence of God, and, tragically, in the case of some angels, rebelling against God. They carry names like Michael (“who is like God”), Gabriel (“warrior of God”), and Lucifer (“light bearer,” before he became Satan—the Adversary). They are the often mysterious, sometimes mercurial servants of God that are at the center of many of His dealings with men and women in the Bible.
The word angel itself comes from the Greek term angelos. The primary definition is messenger, and that is often what they are seen doing in the pages of the Bible:
While angels unquestionably do more than simply carry messages, it is impossible to underestimate their critical role as messengers making announcements from heaven to earth. The gospel (good news) was first delivered to the world by angelic messengers during the events surrounding the birth of the Savior.
How Are Angels Part of the Christmas Story?
So, we come back to my childhood Christmas tree. Why an angel on top of a tree? Because the Christmas story is filled with angels, busy carrying messages to people who are integral to the story.
The first angel we encounter in the story is Gabriel, an archangel—apparently the highest ranking in the command structure of the angelic realm. Gabriel visits planet Earth to inform the principal players, and ultimately the world, that the “fullness of time” has come—that long-awaited moment in history when the promised Messiah will arrive (galatians 4:4). This comes in a series of announcements.
Announcement #1 (Luke 1:5–22)
Gabriel appeared to Zacharias, an aged, childless priest who was performing his priestly functions in the temple. At first, the old priest was troubled by this phenomenon, but the terror of the moment turned to comedy when he heard the angel’s message. Gabriel declared to Zacharias that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son who would be the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. When Zacharias, understanding the physical realities faced by himself and his aged wife, questioned the possibility of a senior-citizen childbirth, Gabriel informed him that he would be mute until the child, who was to be named John, was born.
Gabriel’s announcement came true, and John the Baptist arrived to “prepare the way of the Lord”—step one in the process of bringing Christ into the world.
Announcement #2 (Luke 1:26–38)
Six months later, Gabriel came to the village of Nazareth to give a message from God to a young woman named Mary. She had been selected for the role that had long been the desire of Jewish women—the privilege of giving birth to the promised Messiah. Her response was one of submissive confusion: she was ready to do the Lord’s bidding but mystified as to how such a thing could occur. She was a virgin, and, betrothed to her fiancé Joseph, had no intention of violating her vows of purity. The angel assured her that she would in no way violate her vows, and that the child would be the result of the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, when the child was born, He was to be named “Jesus” (“the Lord is salvation”)—defining both His character as the Son of God and His mission as Redeemer. At that point, Mary’s response was one of simple availability: “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word” (luke 1:38).
Following his visit to Mary, Gabriel also visited her husband-to-be, Joseph, and gave him the same message—Mary’s child was of God, not man (matthew 1:20–25). Joseph could take her to be his wife with full confidence in her purity.
Nine months later, Gabriel returned with yet another message—this time not a message of anticipation, but one of arrival.
Announcement #3 (Luke 2:9–14)
The shepherds of Bethlehem were enduring yet another cold night tending the sheep when they suddenly beheld a brilliant, heavenly light show! This time, the glory of the Lord accompanied the angel’s message, and the shepherds were terrified by the sight. The message itself could not have been more dramatic.
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (luke 2:10–12).
These simple herdsmen clearly were not equipped to handle this! Angels were supposed to appear to priests, not shepherds. They should be calling on the current managers of the temple in Jerusalem, not men and boys at the lowest level of the Jewish social strata.
We have heard this story so many times that we have become immune to its power and majesty. We talk about angelic appearances as if they were an everyday occurrence—but they weren’t then, and they aren’t today.
No one could have anticipated that such an audience would be the first to hear the angels give the evangelios—the good news of the Savior’s arrival!
Why Do the Angels Respond with Exaltation?
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (isaiah 6:3).
The role of the seraphim is the perpetual worship of God, exalting the beauty of His holiness.
Whereas in Revelation 4 and 5 the angelic realm celebrates God’s creation and Christ’s salvation, in the Christmas story they assemble in a glorious mass choir to celebrate His invasion of the broken planet that is the object of His eternal love (luke 2). When the angel announces the arrival of the Son of God in human form, the heavenly host can remain silent no longer. They raise their voices in exaltation of God for His glory, for His Son, and for His plan to rescue the lost, tired, and confused race of men and women who, like the sheep guarded by the angels’ Bedouin audience, had long since gone astray. This response of exaltation becomes the great thread of worship that began that first Christmas and continues in our worship today. Their message was powerful:
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among [those] with whom He is pleased” (luke 2:13–14).
What Isaiah and John witnessed in the sanctuary of heaven, the shepherds experienced on that Bethlehem hillside. They heard the angels affirm the glory of God and announce that Christ had come to offer peace with God to a race in rebellion against Him. The reconciliation between God and mankind—the solution for the human condition of sin—is summed up in the simple word peace. It is important, however, to understand that this peace is not simply the absence of conflict—it is the presence of the Christ who is described by the prophet Isaiah as the “Prince of Peace” (isaiah 9:6). It is, through Christ, the reality of relationship with the God of peace (philippians 4:9). The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, encapsulates this idea, for it carries the weight of such realities as completeness, soundness, and contentment. Peace. The angels could offer this promise of peace to the shepherds (and us) because the Christ who makes such peace available to us had just arrived on planet Earth!
The voices of the angels, raised in exaltation of the living God, continue to ring out in our celebrations today. The hope of peace, the longing for glory, the gift of Jesus. All these things that reverberated in the hearts of those shepherds continue to resonate with the deepest longings of our own hearts two millennia later.
How Did the Angels Serve the Christ?
How disappointed the shepherds must have been when the glorious bright angels left and the sky returned to its cold darkness. But the angels were not finished. They would continue to be involved in the ministry of Christ for the next thirty-plus years, particularly during critical moments of danger or declaration:
Paul may have been considering a similar cataloging of the activities of angels in and around the earthly mission of Christ when, in writing to one of his young ministry protégés, he gave a summary statement of the incarnation of Christ in 1 Timothy 3:16:
By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Beheld by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.
There was great interest among the angelic host concerning the earthly mission of the Lord of glory. The events of the incarnation were not merely “seen by angels”; these divine activities were “beheld”—that is, gazed upon—with great interest. In other words, Christ’s redeeming work was, and is, an ongoing source of fascination for the angelic company. Notice how the apostle Peter describes this:
It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look (1 peter 1:12, emphasis added).
What does it mean, these “things into which angels long to look”? Bible teacher and commentator Adam Clarke described it this way in his commentary on 1 Peter:
[They] stoop down to—the posture of those who are earnestly intent on finding out a thing, especially a writing difficult to be read; they bring it to the light, place it so that the rays may fall on it as collectively as possible, and then stoop down in order to examine all the parts, that they may be able to make out the whole. There is evidently an allusion here to the attitude of the cherubim who stood at the ends of the ark of the covenant, in the inner tabernacle, with their eyes turned towards the mercy-seat or propitiatory in a bending posture, as if looking attentively, or, as we term it, poring (over) it. Even the holy angels are struck with astonishment at the plan of human redemption, and justly wonder at the incarnation of that infinite object of their adoration. If then these things be objects of deep consideration to the angels of God, how much more so should they be to us; in them angels can have no such interest as human beings have.
Why is this so? Because it involves “the incarnation of that infinite object of their adoration”—the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The angels exalt Christ for who He is and for what He has done. They exalted Him in His birth, ministered to Him in His life, supported Him in His anguish, announced Him in His resurrection—all because He is the Christ. All because He chose to do all of that for an underserving, sin-stained race. All because He chose to express His inexpressible love in such a mysterious and wonderful way—and pour it out on His wayward creation.
The angels know what we too easily forget: that the Lord Jesus Christ is ever and always deserving of the highest exaltation. And, as Clarke said, if the angels, who can only observe redeeming love but never experience it, exalt the Christ for His grace, how much more should adoration of the Savior drive the hearts and passions of the men and women who have been granted this great grace!
The marriage of awe and exaltation from observing angels and redeemed humanity finds wonderful expression in one of the most familiar of Christmas hymns:
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King:
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
May we, with grateful hearts, join in the exaltation of the Christ, God’s glorious gift to us!