"The Annunciation to the Shepherds" by Benjamin Gervitsz Cuyp
Angels we have heard on high…
Hark, the herald angels sing…
The first Noel, the angels did say…
Two Sundays ago, as I stood in my usual spot during worship, a thought came to me. It was the Advent season, and as we sang various Christmas songs from ages past, I noticed, apparently for the first time, how much the angels were mentioned.
You may laugh if you like, but for some reason I’d never realized it before. And as reference after reference of the angels passed before me, I started to think a bit about how we, or at least I, commonly imagine the angels.
Angels seem to pop up an awful lot this time of year. We buy coffee mugs with smiling celestial cartoons adorning the sides, wrap our various gifts in overpriced paper decorated with their cute caricatures (to be violently torn off, then thrown into the recycling and forgotten on Christmas morning), place dolls in their likeness atop our Christmas trees, and sing and/or listen to song after song about how they brought tidings of great comfort and bounteous joy to the shepherds those many years ago. The image I usually get is a skyful of shiny beings with fluffy-white wings, pretty halos and charming soprano voices, lighting up the sky like so many fluorescent bulbs in the night.
Aren’t angels more than that? Is that really all there is to it?
And if it is, why should we care?
It was a fair question, and I didn’t know how to answer it. Then another thought came.
Actually, it was a passage of Scripture, one that I’d recently memorized. The language is simple and straightforward, not at all poetical, but I loved it from the first time I read it, and it’s been one of my favorite passages since:
Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise.
You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host,
the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them.
You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.
I never read or think about these verses without having a feeling of awe for my Master and Creator awakened in me, something that I can’t say for most passages. And the last line always brings it home; the multitudes of heaven worship Him.
Maybe we should back up. What is an angel? What does the Bible tell us about them?
Actually, it tells us a lot. According to R.C. Sproul, in the New Testament alone, the Greek word for angel, angelos (literally, “messenger”), appears more times than the word hamartia (sin), or even agape (love). That blew me away.
As for what the Scriptures say concerning the angelic folk, I’ll say this: the common depiction seen today of angels falls pathetically short of the beings that the Bible describes.
The world today has reduced the angel to a mythological being that isn’t too different from a faun or a centaur. At best, we see them as little fluttering cutesy decorations with toy bows and arrows for our Valentine’s Day cards and trumpets for our Christmas decor. We like to think of them as gentle, sweet, innocent, maybe even naive. The Bible depicts them as fearsome beings. Whenever an angel was sent by God to anyone in the Scriptures, Old or New Testament, those people feared for their lives. The shepherds of the first Noel made their living beating back lions and wolves from their sheep in the wilderness. I’d argue they were braver than most of us when it came to facing bodily harm. And at the sight of one angel, they were sore afraid. Terrified.
Does a single angel not sound too intimidating to you? Talk to Sennacherib, king of Assyria, when he tried to threaten Israel under Hezekiah (2 Kings 19). Talk to King David after he sinned by declaring a census on the children of Israel (1 Chronicles 21). Talk to the Egyptians after the twelfth and most terrible plague (Exodus 11/12). Read Revelations. Angels are potent beings, and you rightfully fear for your life if you see even one, much less a whole company of them (see 2 Kings 6).
This is not to say that angels are malignant or ever-destroying (except maybe the demons, which is an entirely different story). The angels of heaven are servants of the Most High God, and they do His bidding in full, whatever it may be. They are not to be feared as one would fear a vicious creature. But they are not be treated as mere fairy-tale figures or icons. They deserve our respect, for we were made lower than they (Hebrew 2:7).
Of course, to go to the other extreme is foolish and sinful. The Bible makes it clear that the angel is a created being, not a divine one; no more to be worshiped than you or I. But make no mistake, they are at the top of the created order. And when I think about how glorious in beauty and terrible in power God made them, I don’t wonder why the early church had trouble with people bowing down before them in awe and worship.
Angels are an unmistakable sign of God’s unspeakable glory and might. And as the passage from Nehemiah makes clear, the fact that the multitudes of heaven worship our Lord is a sign in itself of His overwhelming majesty, glory, and power. The worship of angels is significant.
And now… now we have a great host of these powerful, heavenly messengers, appearing in the sky before shepherds. Celebrating, singing for joy, because of the birth of this small baby, lying in a manger…
When God brought His Son into the world, at His command, all His angels came and worshiped (Hebrews 1:6). There’s something very special, significant — divine — about a baby like that. When the multitudes of heaven sing out in celebration, when the messengers of God Almighty declare that peace on earth has come at last, when the angels bow down in worship before a baby — that is worthy of our full attention. If the angels have found that this child is worthy of their worship and adoration, how much more should we?
Let us remember the angels for who they are this Christmas. And let us follow their example as fellow servants of Christ, in worship and celebration, at the coming of the Christ child.