The real story of the Christmas angels

The real story of the Christmas angels December 24, 2012

Suceviţa Monastery wall mural, Wikimedia Commons

Luke tells us that on the night Jesus was born, shepherds near Bethlehem were watching their sheep. Suddenly, an angel appeared before them — radiant, shockingly luminescent, and bright. Awash in the otherworldly light, the glory of God pooling around them, the shepherds were terrified.

“Do not be afraid,” said the angel, “for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2.10-11).

After telling them how they would recognize the infant Christ, the angel was joined by “a multitude of the heavenly host” (v. 13). If one angel was bright, how about a multitude? The initial flash must have been like an explosion, but the sound of the glorious blast was song:

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men! (v. 14)

We focus for obvious reasons on what the news meant and means for people. But we should know that the glad tidings were good for angels too. They weren’t just praising God for the benefit of the shepherds or even us. As I discovered while researching my book Lifted by Angels, they were also praising God for reasons of their own.

Long before Christmas

The Incarnation of Christ made it possible to heal the rift between God and humanity. But long before Christmas God moved to rescue people from the peril into which our first parents had plunged us.

In the ancient Jewish and Christian understanding, God appointed his angels to oversee and govern particular aspects of creation. God employed angels “to exercise providence,” according to Athenagoras of Athens, “so that God may have the universal and general providence of the whole, while the particular parts are provided for by the angels appointed over them” (Plea 24).

Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, was a friend of the bishop and martyr Polycarp and secretary to the apostle John. He said, referring to the angels, “[God] appointed some of them . . . to rule over the administration of the earth, and he ordered them to rule it well” (Fragment 9).

God tasked dominions, powers, authorities, and principalities with overseeing regions, nations, peoples, even cities. Though their specific functions are not much described in Scripture, allusions and references are there. Importantly, particularly for our story here, Deuteronomy’s “Song of Moses” shows God dividing humanity under the angels (32.8, particularly LXX), and Daniel discusses angelic rulers over nations (10.13, 20–21; 12.1).

Working from these biblical passages and their received interpretation, the ancient theologians and preachers of the church saw angels as governing the affairs of people. In his Miscellanies, for instance, Clement of Alexandria, who was born around the year 150, mentioned “regiments of angels . . . distributed over the nations and cities” (6.17). “God Almighty,” wrote Eusebius, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, “set over [people] the holy angels to be their leaders and governors like herdsmen and shepherds. . .” (Proof of the Gospel 4.6). And a few centuries later John Damascene said angels “are the guardians of the divisions of the earth . . . they govern all our affairs and bring us succor” (Exposition 2.3).

The Bible gives us a few pictures of God sitting amid these angelic overseers in council. Working from the number of nations as seen in the Scripture, the early Christians numbered the council of angelic rulers at seventy (see Psalm 82, Job 1–2, Genesis 10, Exodus 15.27, and Numbers 33.9).

Myriad angels serve beneath these seventy in their various ministrations — the primary of which is to bring people to a knowledge of God. “The single Providence of the Most High for all commanded the angels to bring all peoples to salvation,” as Pseudo-Dionysius wrote in The Celestial Hierarchy (9.4).

But something went wrong: Satan usurped the government of the angels.

The war in heaven

By the strength of my hand I have done it,
And by my wisdom, for I am prudent;
Also I have removed the boundaries of the people,
And have robbed their treasuries;
So I have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man.
My hand has found like a nest the riches of the people,
And as one gathers eggs that are left,
I have gathered all the earth;
And there was no one who moved his wing,
Nor opened his mouth with even a peep.

(Isaiah 10.13-14)

Eusebius identified these words as that of “God’s antagonist, boasting in the strength of his wickedness as he threatens to steal and obliterate the divisions of the nations delivered by the Most High to the angels, and loudly cries that it will spoil the earth, and shake the whole race of men, and change them from their former order.” Humanity consequently became “enslaved by earthly powers and evil spirits instead of the earlier ministers of God” (Proof 4.9).

It was cosmic coup, and humans were pulled evermore to the cause of the insurgency. People became increasingly rebellious and corrupt. Try as they might, the angels could not break or even slow the momentum toward evil first begun in the fall. The angelic assignment, said Papias, “came to nothing” (Fragment 9).

Satan pushed the angels out of their territories and installed demons over the nations. And so we find passages in Scripture that identify pagan deities with demons (see Leviticus 17.7, Deuteronomy 32.17, Psalm 106.37). Sometimes these passages are clearer in the Greek Old Testament; for instance, Psalm 95.5 LXX says, “the gods of the nations are demons” (compare 96.5 Hebrew).

This understanding undoubtedly informs the worldview of writers like Paul. “I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God,” as he says in 1 Corinthians 10.20.

Throughout the Old Testament period the battle waged. “[T]he activity of the demons daily waxed greater,” said Eusebius. And while Israel at first responded to the ministration of angels and “returned to the Light and proclaimed the true Lord,” as Pseudo-Dionysius said (Cel. Hierarchy 9.4), eventually God’s own chosen people succumbed as well.

“[E]ven the Hebrew race was hurried along in the destruction of the godless,” said Eusebius, but “at last the Savior and Physician of the Universe [came] down Himself to men, bringing reinforcement to His angels for the salvation of men”(Proof 4.10).

Reinforcement! This is the source of excitement. This is the reason for cheer. The angels were like long-embattled forces, beleaguered and weary. And at last, here is the answer to their foe. Here is Christ! And so the skies erupted over his birthplace.

Cause for excitement

Christ, God himself, would personally wage war on the demons. “[God] did not,” according to the second-century Epistle to Diognetus, “send [humans] one of his servants or an angel or a ruler or any of those who administer earthly activities or who are entrusted with heavenly affairs, but he sent the craftsman and maker of all things himself” (7.2).

In the Incarnation, God did not send another angel. He sent the Lord of the angels.

Christ’s cosmic counterinsurgency is intense and immediate. He gives his disciples authority over the demons. Then, very significantly, he sends out seventy disciples, a number which corresponds to the number of angelic princes over the nations, thrones which were then occupied by demons. Ancient Christian commentators like Cyril of Alexandria understood this action as revealing Christ’s intent to liberate all the enslaved peoples of the world (Commentary Upon the Gospel According to S. Luke 60).

Before going to the crucifixion where he would conquer death by death, bind Satan and finally liberate humanity through the Resurrection, Jesus pronounced judgment on the usurper: “[N]ow shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12.31).

The coming of Christ is indeed good news — both for us and the angels. Our liberator is here, and the usurper who had oppressed us and frustrated the mission of the angels is finally thrown down. That is why the angels cheer.

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