Angels watch in wonder as God unfolds history. They see the work of Satan as he assumes control as prince and power of the air, and they see and engage in God’s unfolding plan to rescue His beloved creation. It’s a twisting, often agonizing story with only small light rays of redemption. The angels watch sin overwhelm the human race with corruption while God rescues and restores through the single faithful family of Noah.
The angels observe God pursue an idol-worshipping pagan named Abraham, who follows with threadbare faith into a journey unknown. Out of Abraham, he builds a people, who at times follow and at times flout his direction. From this nation, he plucks an obscure shepherd boy, the least of his brethren. From this fragile and fierce warrior-king would emerge the seeds of a new kingdom, bigger than Israel.
But the angels also see the dark fingerprints of Satan. Generation after generation, the people of God face both foes internal and external. Cycles of idolatry and repentance lead, eventually, to the judgment of conquerors. Kings and queens channel the spirit of Lucifer and attempt to snuff out the promise, but God keeps his promise and preserves a remnant. The angels listen as the prophets warn of judgment but promise a future king and kingdom, one in which the curse of Eden will be folded back and God will do a new thing.
They watch as God scatters Israel to the nations and gather a remnant back in the land. But when the final prophet speaks, silence fills the centuries. God’s people become pawns as the nations war. False messiahs appear on the scene, teasing a weary and cynical people with faint and false salvation.
And then, they are summoned, first Gabriel, to announce a new thing. They can hardly believe or understand what is about to unfold. The Creator wouldn’t just rescue his creation. The Son would become . . . human. And he wouldn’t appear in dazzling robes and white-hot splendor. He wouldn’t blind eyes like on Sinai or boom from heaven like in Eden. God would enter the world as a vulnerable, dependent, fragile baby. So they announce to Zechariah and Mary and Joseph. They flood the earth with a celebration to the shepherds. They warn the Magi.
The angels were also on call as Jesus grew. In his hour of temptation, they refreshed him as he proved the Second Adam would flourish where the first Adam failed. They strengthened Jesus as he accepted the Father’s cup in the Garden. They were absent—at Jesus’ request—when they could have been summoned as an army to sweep away the Roman executioners. And, in white robes, they sat atop the stone, wondering in bewilderment as the first visitors struggled to understand the meaning of Jesus’ empty tomb. The angels knew he would rise. The angels knew the power of God over sin, death, and the grave.
This was the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but not the beginning of His work. As he ascended, they chastened the puzzled disciples. This same Jesus would return in power one day, so go, they said, and tell the world.
And so those previously petrified men went throughout Israel and eventually around the known world. They saw the Spirit of God descend and birth a movement out of a fledgling band of disciples. At times they were summoned to action: freeing the apostles from prison, sending Philip on an evangelistic assignment, appearing to a Roman Gentile Cornelius as a sign of the gospel’s spread to the nations, releasing Peter from prison, and avenging the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus.
The angels watched, in amazement, as Jesus transforms Saul from persecutor to pitchman and an angel guided this messenger to the Gentiles through shipwreck and into Caesar’s court. We last see the angel traveling to the remote Island of Patmos, narrating a vision of the end of the age to the last remaining Apostle. John’s revelation shows the angels leading the New Jerusalem in worship, as every nation and tribe gathers around the throne of God. “Holy, Holy”, they declare, “is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come (Revelation 4:8).”
Hearing the Angels
Let’s travel back to that night in Bethlehem under the stars, the shepherds’ field, the quiet punctuated by the occasional bleating of sheep. To the rest of the world, from the marbled halls of Rome to Herod’s palace, this was just an ordinary night. It was a time of peace in the Roman Empire. History was, it seemed, running on an even plain.
But the angels knew. They knew that this was, to quote Galatians, “the exact right time.” All of human history funneled toward this moment. A baby was born in a cave in the nearby village. Few knew. Few cared. Babies are born every minute of every day around the world.
The angels knew, though, that this was something. The same Creator, who breathed life into humans would breathe his first breath in subjection to the world he made. This was not Jesus pretending to be a baby. This was not Jesus taking on the form of a baby.
The angels’ song was just the beginning of an ongoing chorus of creativity. The incarnation stirs in us some of the most beautiful worship: Mary’s Magnificat, Elisabeth’s Beatitude, Zecharias’ Benedictus, and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis. (which means literally, “Now … etc.)
The angels rejoiced and sang because the incarnation reveals God’s glory, his love, his holiness. Paul would later write, "Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh" (1 Tim. 3:16). A mysterious, beautiful Savior he is.
The hymn writer, Charles Wesley, beckoned us to listen to the song of the angels on Christmas. To “hark” is to hear, to bend the ear. What are these heralds, these messengers saying? To us, twenty-one centuries later, it’s a word that this broken, seemingly intractable world is not all there is. On that night in Bethlehem, few heard the chorus, but some did. Those, like the shepherds, whose hearts were soft, tuned to the Almighty. Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elisabeth, the Magi and those waiting in anticipation like Simeon and Anna. If you expect Christ, if you seek him, he will come. If you disbelieve, like the scribes and religious leaders, you will not hear the angel’s sing.
This is not a generic “belief” as in the holiday classics that urge us to “just believe” in some nebulous Christmas spirit. This is to allow the Spirit to open our eyes to what is unseen, like Elisha’s servant who suddenly saw the previously invisible army of God that surrounded them (2 Kings 6:17). To believe is to read the Scripture and hear the distant sound of angel voices. To believe is to fall on our knees in adoration. It is to follow the Creator who first gave us life.
Excerpt from Daniel Darling’s The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus