An important part of the Christmas story is the appearance of angels to mere mortals in order to pass on the exciting news of Jesus’ coming.
In the Christmas story, the first guy who has a visit from an angel was Zechariah. He was a priest and an all-around great guy. He had lived a productive, God-fearing life for many, many years. His wife Elizabeth was barren, so they had no children and they were now way past their child-bearing years. So there he was, minding his own business and getting on with his priestly duties, when suddenly the angel Gabriel appears! Luke tells this story best. He says:
“When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth!’”1
The angel went on to tell Zechariah how his son would bring many of the people of Israel back to God, how he would have the spirit and power of Elijah, and that he would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
You would think Zechariah would do a little happy dance. He was finally going to get that son he’d been praying for, and he was going to be such a special child! But no, instead he looked that angel in the face and said, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.”2
I imagine Gabriel was a little exasperated that he had to explain to him, “Well … because, I’m Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and give you this good news!” The Lord obviously wasn’t too pleased with good old Zac doubting Him, and He, through Gabriel, gave him a pretty stern punishment: “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”3
Six months later the angel Gabriel made another visit, this time to Mary, who was just engaged to be married to Joseph.
The angel appeared and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary also got a bit of a fright and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
And just in case that wasn’t enough exciting news for the day, he also told her, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.4
It’s interesting to compare the two responses. Zechariah didn’t believe that the Lord was capable of fulfilling His promises. Mary also asked the Lord how it was possible, but her way of asking was probably more of an acknowledgment that this wasn’t humanly possible, and not a doubt of the Lord’s ability, which we can see from her simple acceptance of the answer.
I’m sure we’d all be tempted to doubt or second-guess the Lord, as many of God’s children did throughout the Bible. Sarah even laughed in disbelief when the angels said that she and Abraham would have a son in their old age. Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah all had their own excuses when they were called by God to serve Him. Jeremiah said he was too young. Moses was sure he couldn’t speak well enough to pass on the Lord’s messages. The Lord had to convince them otherwise.
Maybe the Lord dealt more severely with Zechariah because he had been a priest for so many years and had been serving God for his whole life, so perhaps he should have known better. Most of the time, the Lord goes over and above to help people overcome their doubts and fears. The way the angels appeared to the shepherds is a good example.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.’”5
I think these shepherds must have been pretty tough nuts, as the Lord, being thoughtful as always, gave them a sign in case they needed more proof. The angel said: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”6
And in case that wasn’t quite enough …
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”7
After that performance they definitely didn’t need any more convincing, and they said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”8
“So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”9
The Bible talks about angels appearing quite a few times throughout Jesus’ early life: to the wise men in a dream to keep them from crossing Herod’s path,10 to Joseph when they had to escape to Egypt,11 and again when it was safe to return.12
They were messengers of warning and of hope, and sources of comfort after trying times. To me, they’re a wonderful and beautiful part of the Christmas story and a reminder to trust God that everything will work out okay.
I love the way Larry Libby said it: “Late on a sleepy, star-spangled night, those angels peeled back the sky just like you would tear open a sparkling Christmas present. Then, with light and joy pouring out of Heaven like water through a broken dam, they began to shout and sing the message that baby Jesus had been born. The world had a Savior! The angels called it 'Good News,' and it was.”13
For more articles from Anchor, visit Anchor’s website.