By Pamela Palmer, Crosswalk.com
The accounts of Jesus’ birth in the gospels includes a number of references to angels, often referred to by us now as the Christmas angels. You may wonder about the prevalence of angelic beings in the story of Jesus’ birth and their significance in Scripture. The Christmas angels were heavenly beings sent by God to deliver the news of Jesus’ conception and birth.
What Are Angels in the Christmas Story?
Angels are not unique to the Christmas story and actually appear throughout Scripture. They are spiritual beings created by God to do his work and share messages from God. The meaning of the word angel in Greek is messenger. Angels were created by God (Psalm 148:5) and they are spirits sent to serve believers (Hebrews 1:14).
The Bible states that God made human beings lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5), and asserts that although Jesus was a little lower than the angels when he took on human form, he is once again higher than them (Hebrews 1:4). Angels, as God’s messengers, deliver news, share prophetic messages, and perform an array of acts to help Christians.
From the beginning of Scripture, angels are introduced. As early as Genesis 2:1, angels are referenced as God has finished creating the heavens and the earth, “and all their hosts.” In Genesis 19:1, angels are sent by God to warn Lot and his family to leave before God destroyed the city. In Genesis 28:10-12, when Jacob fell asleep, he dreamed of angels ascending and descending on the ladder between heaven and earth. In Exodus 3:2, an angel appeared to Moses when God called him to lead the people out of Egypt. In Judges 2:1-4, an angel of the Lord delivered a powerful message to the Israelites. In Psalm 91, angels are commanded by God to protect people.
We read of angelic encounters in the New Testament, as well. After Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights in the desert, and was tested by the devil, angels appeared and attended to him (Matthew 4:11). Jesus spoke of angels, too, in Matthew 18:10, “For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” In Acts 12:7, an angel of the Lord appeared to Peter and rescued him from prison. We can even anticipate that angels will be part of the second coming of Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31). Angels take on crucial tasks and deliver important messages throughout the Bible.
Specifically, in the Christmas story, we read of angelic events. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him the news of Mary’s virgin birth (Matthew 1:20). An angel appeared to shepherds keeping watch over their sheep to tell them the good news of the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:10). Heavenly hosts who were praising God came along with the angel who appeared to the shepherds (Luke 2:13). Finally, another angel, Gabriel, is mentioned by name in the Christmas story.
Who Is the Angel Gabriel?
Gabriel is only one of two angels whose names are mentioned in the Bible, the other is the archangel Michael (Jude 1:9). We do not know if Gabriel is an archangel because that is never stated in Scripture, but mention of his name alludes to the fact that he is a lead angel that delivers vital messages.
In the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Gabriel is named as the angel who visited Zechariah to tell him the news of his wife Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy (Luke 1:13-19). Zechariah and Elizabeth were of old age, but Elizabeth’s barren womb would be opened. Gabriel told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son whom they were to name John. According to Gabriel’s message, it would be John who would go before the Lord.
Later, God sent the angel Gabriel to visit Mary, a young Jewish virgin soon to be wed to Joseph (Luke 1:26-32). Gabriel told Mary that she was highly favored and would give birth to a son whom she was to name Jesus. He would be the long-awaited Son of the Most High.
Earlier in Scripture, Gabriel is mentioned in the book of Daniel (8:16 and 9:21). In both occurrences, Gabriel visited Daniel to affirm prophetic visions regarding the kingdom of God. Ultimately, very little is known about the angel, Gabriel. These appearances of Gabriel in the Book of Daniel and the Gospel of Luke are the only instances in the Bible where Gabriel is mentioned by name.
What Is a Heavenly Host?
An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him the news of Mary’s virgin birth (Matthew 1:20). In the birth narrative of Jesus, it states that heavenly hosts joined the angels who visited the shepherds keeping watch (Luke 2:13). Specifically, these heavenly hosts worshiped and praised God when they came to the shepherds declaring, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him the news of Mary’s virgin birth (Matthew 1:20).
In Scripture, similar to the term, heavenly host, which is used to describe angels, is the phrase, Lord of hosts, which refers to God. In 1 Samuel 1:11, Hannah prayed to God, calling him, “Lord of hosts.” Elsewhere, in Malachi 3:17, God is referred to again as Lord of hosts. In Hebrew, Lord of hosts means Lord of armies. In Revelation 12:7-9, it is foretold that Michael the archangel and the host of angels will defeat Satan. Heavenly hosts, then, are believed to be God’s army of angels.
Why Did the Angels Appear to Shepherds?
In Jesus’ time, shepherds were considered lowly people. They were not admired, were considered untrustworthy, and looked down upon. God sent his angels to the shepherds to share the good news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:9). The angels appearing to the shepherds was an indication of Jesus’ humble birth. He was born in a meager stable beside animals, he was laid in a manger, and the good news of his birth was told first to shepherds. Humble circumstances surrounded Jesus’ birth, which was fitting for the Son of the Most High who would lead a ministry that was marked by sacrificial love, servanthood, and surrendering to the Father’s will.
The angel visiting the shepherds also serves as a prelude to Jesus’ three years of earthly ministry where he was routinely found ministering to and spending time with the outcasts and marginalized people. He ate with the tax collectors (Matthew 9:10), he saved adulterers (John 8:11), and he made a Samaritan the hero of a parable (Luke 10:33). From the very start, Jesus demonstrated he was truly sent to save sinners, not the righteous (Mark 2:17).
The angels sing while they visit the shepherds because they are announcing God and giving him the glory he is due. Just as in Isaiah 6, when the angels sang in the presence of the Lord, so, too, they are singing at the presence of Jesus (Immanuel, meaning God with us). Praise is what the angels do. It is their inherent nature to worship God, and they do this continually according to Scripture in a variety of circumstances (Job 38:7, Psalm 103:20, Luke 15:10). When angels are present in Scripture, often they are worshiping and praising God. The angels were giving praise to the King born to the world.
Why Are Angels Important and Symbolic in the Christmas Story?
Angels are significant to the Christmas story because Jesus’ birth was like none other. Angels are powerful and appear for pivotal circumstances, thus, it makes sense as to why they were present in the Christmas story. Something truly miraculous happened when Jesus took on the human form as a baby boy. The presence of angels served as confirmation to the miraculous nature of Jesus’ conception and birth, and the arrival of the king of kings.
The presence of angels in the Christmas story is inspiring. It reminds us that the conception, birth and life of Jesus were sacred and changed the course of history, bridging the gap between the Father and sinful humanity. From the role of Gabriel, to the heavenly hosts praising the Lord, the angelic presences in the Christmas story fills us with excitement, hope and joy brought only by the life and ministry of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Stratos Giannikos
Pamela Palmer is a writer, speaker, and the founder of upheldlife.com, the platform on which she produces devotionals and faith resources to inspire keeping faith at the center of life. She is in pastoral ministry and gets to share in the emotional and spiritual lives of others. She lives and thrives on Jesus, coffee, and music. She is the author of Living a Deeper Faith: Nurture Your Relationship with God and Live a Faith-Fueled Life. Pamela married the perfect man for her and they have two beautiful kiddos. She has been published on herviewfromhome.com, and you can follow her at upheldlife.com or on Facebook.com/upheldlife.