Angels on Assignment
by Greg West
One of my favorite passages in the Bible that deals with the appearance of angels is in Luke chapter one where the angel Gabriel has been sent to Zacharias to announce the birth of John the Baptist. After Gabriel has told Zacharias about the forthcoming birth in verse 18, Zacharias asks Gabriel how can he know that the things he has been told will actually happen. In verse 19, Gabriel begins his reply by saying, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read this passage I sometimes get goose bumps and shivers up and down my spine. You might ask, “Why? What’s the big deal? The Bible mentions angels all the time.” Yes, that is true, but when it comes to angels as presented in scripture, they are quite mysterious creatures—but here and there we get a glimpse of what angels are and the various purposes they serve.
Artistic interpretations of angels have ranged from chubby toddlers with little wings, to young women in white robes with large wings, to Fabio-like looking men with huge wingspans complete with swords and battle armor. Most of these depictions are meant to instill warm fuzzy feelings and a sense of comfort and security. None of these represent biblical descriptions of angels.
Most of the time when angels are mentioned in the Bible, those who see them do not experience a warm fuzzy sense of comfort and security, they experience fear, usually accompanied by trembling and/or fainting. This is why the first words out of an angel’s mouth when delivering a message from God to human beings is usually something along the lines of “Fear not”, or “Do not be afraid!”
When Gabriel says that he stands in the presence of God, what he is essentially revealing the fact that he is that he is a “cherub”. The first detailed description we have of cherubim (the plural form of cherub) is in Ezekiel chapter 1, and it is very much a strange and frightening description. Ezekiel writes that when he saw the vision of cherubim that he” fell on his face”.
Cherubim are the elite in the ranks of angels. Other than delivering the occasional monumental announcement or vision to someone on earth, a cherub’s sole purpose is to stand in the presence of God and his throne. Cherubim are the “special forces” or “green berets” (for lack of a better analogy) in the ranks of angels. Ezekiel chapter 28 gives us a clue that Satan was a cherub before “wickedness” was found in him.
The angel Gabriel is mentioned in three passages in the Bible and appears to three different people. The first is to Daniel in the Old Testament. In Daniel 8:17, Daniel writes that when Gabriel came near him he was afraid and fell on his face. Gabriel then shows Daniel a vision so disturbing that he said it caused him to “faint and was sick for days afterward.”
The second recorded appearance of Gabriel is in the New Testament, as mentioned earlier. Luke writes that when Zacharias saw Gabriel that he was “troubled, and fear fell upon him.” This might be Luke’s polite way of saying that Zacharias was so scared that he nearly soiled his priestly garments!
The third appearance of Gabriel was later in Luke chapter 1, when he delivers the announcement to the virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah. In verse 30 Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Luke chapter 2 records that when an angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds that they were “greatly afraid”. Shepherds were very low in the Jewish hierarchy, pretty much at the bottom, or maybe just one step above beggars. If they had television back then they might have even been featured on the Discovery channel’s “Dirty Jobs” program.
I find it both humbling and amazing that God did not send his “multitude of heavenly hosts” to the great kings of the time. He didn’t send them to Herod or Caesar to say, “Hey! The Messiah is about to be born and he will someday knock you and every other worldly king off his throne.” He sent them to the lowest of the low; to tell them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.”
Now, I don’t know how God chose which angels would get to appear in the multitude of heavenly hosts who appeared before the shepherds, saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men”, but I can imagine the rest of the angels in Heaven gathered together; leaning forward, watching in quiet anticipation as the scene unfolds on earth below; waiting for the Messiah’s entrance into the world, and later bursting into an angelic ovation of cheering and applause when it happens.
I can also imagine the shepherd’s reaction: “WHAT WAS THAT?!?!” And I also imagine a lot of falling down on the shepherd’s part. “I’m not sure but we’d better go check it out like the angel said!”
The word “angel” is from the Greek, ἄγγελος (angelos), meaning “messenger”, and we see them performing this function in the Bible time and time again. We as humans are not angels, and we don’t become angels when we die, but there is one way in which we can be like the angels. This Christmas and all year long, we can deliver the message of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone who has ears to hear and is willing to listen.