by Rubel Shelly

From What Child Is This? West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Co., 1992.

They're Still Watching

All angels are "ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation" (Heb. 1:14). They are spirit beings created by God long before the material universe was called into existence. Perhaps they participated in its creation. At the very least, they "shouted for joy" as they watched God call all physical things into existence (Job 38:4-7).

The Bible indicates that there are thousands upon thousands of these heavenly creatures. They surround the throne of God, adore and praise his holiness, and stand ready to do his will.

Since most of the Old Testament references to angels are found in the Prophets rather than in the Torah, the Sadducees rejected the doctrine of angels (cf. Acts 23:8). The Pharisees, by contrast, not only accepted their existence but developed an extensive angelology.

Most often in Scripture, angels become involved in human affairs as the means of communicating important messages from heaven to earth. Thus they appear to such characters as Abraham (Gen. 18:1-16), Gideon (Judg. 6:11ff), and others. Perhaps because of their involvement in ministry on behalf of God's people on earth, they seem to have an intense interest in human beings. Peter, for example, wrote of the prophetic messages given to men of long ago -- with many of them mediated through angels -- and observed that angels were always curious to find out the meaning of those utterances (2 Pet. 1:10-12).

In spite of the existence of thousands of these heavenly beings, only two -- unless one includes Satan, the angel who fell from his high estate -- are named in the Bible. One of them is Michael (cf. Dan. 10:13, 21; 12:1; Jude 9; Rev. 12:7), and the other is Gabriel. Although Gabriel was involved, along with Michael, in the events of the life of Daniel (cf. Dan. 8:16; 9:21), his most dramatic moments in the biblical record come in connection with the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.

Do angels volunteer for missions? Or is everything by assignment? If their work is done by assignment -- as I suspect it is -- was Gabriel chosen for his tasks in connection with the birth of the Son of God because of an especially intense desire for the salvation of his fleshly cousins? Or was it just a quirk of fate? If those turned out to be the exhaustive options, I know which I would select.

Angels apparently have some knowledge of our fallenness and the pain sin brings to our lives. Perhaps because they know the fate of some of their own fellow-angels who sinned, were cast out of heaven, and are destined to hell forever (cf. Matt. 25:41), they are grieved for the lost of Earth. Perhaps because their own joy in heaven is so complete, they are unselfishly eager that we should participate in that same fullness of joy.

Do angels experience an emotion comparable to human anxiety? Did Gabriel carry a burden in his heart from the time he saw creation turn from its original perfection? What might he have felt if he witnessed the rebellion of Eve and Adam? What would he have thought about the murmuring and unbelief of ancient Israel in the wilderness? Might he have turned away in despair from the continual apostasies of humanity during the period of the prophets? Perhaps he assumed the cause of human redemption was hopeless when the prophetic period came to a close and revelation from the throne ceased to be ferried to mortals.

In a moment of freedom from whatever responsibilities he had to tend to in heaven, the plight of humans might have crossed Gabriel's mind one day. Walking down a golden street and basking in the eternal light that bathes heaven constantly, he remembered that men and women were plodding the earth in spiritual darkness. How long had it been since anyone had been sent from here to there? As best he could calculate human time measurements, it must have been about 400 years ago. And Gabriel's worst fear was that nobody down there had even noticed the silence. Perhaps no one on Earth even cared any more.

Then a call came from the throne. Yahweh was summoning Gabriel. Without so much as a millisecond's delay, he was standing in the immediate presence of the Ancient of Days.

"Gabriel," said a voice from the throne. And the angel who was used to face-to-face conversations with deity marveled all over again at the sound of that voice. It carried simultaneously the authority that could call a universe into existence by the uttering of a word and the tenderness that could make one know that he was valued beyond any worth of his own.

"Gabriel, the time is right for us to break our silence. The precise moment we have been waiting for has come. We are going to speak to Earth one last time. The Word will go forth to men. In fact, the Word will become flesh and live for a while among humankind. This is our last chance -- and theirs."

There is no evidence in Scripture that suggests angels have immediate insight into divine mysteries. In fact, all the evidence is against it. They did not understand the meaning of the prophecies they helped give to men in the days of Moses, Isaiah, or Micah. So how could Gabriel understand the means of their fulfillment?

The Word will leave heaven? The Word will live in flesh? The Word will become human? How can it be?

Because it is his nature to be gracious, Yahweh may have proceeded at that point to clear away the confusion. As Jesus would later do with the disciples after his resurrection, perhaps now some member of the Godhead opened his mind to understand what had been foretold and how it would be fulfilled (cf. Luke 24:45). Perhaps the entire heavenly host was informed of what was about to happen and put on alert for various roles to be carried out in the divine drama.

If anything resembling an explanation of the significance of what was about to happen was given to him, one can almost imagine the excitement Gabriel would have felt about being chosen to bear the glad news to earth. He was to announce the birth of John to Zechariah and the birth of Jesus to Mary. But there was a timetable. Nothing could be rushed. The events would happen at precisely the time God had determined. Nothing would happen a moment too soon. Nothing would happen an instant too late.

Gabriel and the other angels ministering before the heavenly throne would be obedient and follow the schedule. Yet they wondered why Joseph would learn about the baby so much later than Mary? Might that confuse Joseph? Would he believe Mary's report? If so, why would an angel need to explain anything to him? These issues were not for angels to resolve! They would simply obey, follow the timetable that had been worked out, and believe that God would unfold his purposes from it all.

Then the day came for Gabriel to go to Zechariah. The angel knew him. He was an upright man, a priest who belonged to the Abijah division. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had prayed for a child during all the years of their long and happy marriage. But Elizabeth was barren. Now that they were both past the age of having children, they had accepted the fact that it was not to be. They were local favorites with the children near their home in the hill country of Judea -- everybody's Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah. Their obvious love for children had made many people comment on the pity it was that they could never have children of their own.

Zechariah was on duty at the temple in Jerusalem on the day Gabriel went to him. At the moment of his appearing, the old priest was placing incense on the altar inside the Holy Place of the temple. Whether Gabriel appeared as a full-blown angel, wings and all, isn't told in the record. Angels often appeared simply as men. In either case, Zechariah would have been startled because this part of the temple was off-limits to anyone except the priests on duty.

When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and seized with fear. So Gabriel spoke and 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, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous -- to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

Gabriel saw the look on Zechariah's wrinkled face. It was a mixture of excitement and incredulity. He thought to himself that he had probably put a strain on the elderly man's heart by giving him such news!

Then Zechariah spoke to him and asked, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."

The angel was neither rebuffed nor angered by the priest's question. It was perfectly normal for a man his age to think it impossible that he would father a child by a wife who had been barren for all the years of their life together. This contingency had been anticipated and prepared for in the plan that Gabriel had been given.

So the angel spoke again and said, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 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 proper time."

Gabriel smiled at his words to Zechariah about things coming true at their proper time. He had wondered about things happening on Earth, but now he knew that God had a plan and was carrying it out. Soon Zechariah would know it, too.

Meanwhile there were people outside the temple who were wondering what was taking Zechariah so long. Then, when he did come out, he was unable to speak. The best he could do was make signs with his hands and try to communicate by the gestures he made. Later it would occur to someone to suggest that he write down what he wanted to say.

He was able to get them to understand that he had seen a vision, but he was both unable and unwilling to share its content with them. It was a matter to be shared first with his wife, Elizabeth.

When he had finished his period of service at the temple -- for his inability to speak did not keep him from his work -- he hurried to his home. At first Elizabeth was frightened when her husband was unable to speak. He began to communicate through the slow and painful process of signs and written notes to Elizabeth, and she understood and believed. She became pregnant.

Gabriel watched all this with eager interest. The plan of God was unfolding. Everything was happening right on time.

When Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, Gabriel was dispatched again. This time he was sent to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. The announcement he had been told to take her was even more startling than the one he carried to Zechariah. Old people such as Abraham had been enabled by God to have children before. But his message to Mary was that she would conceive a child without losing her virginity.

He appeared to her in her house, saying, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." As he spoke the words, he saw the same look of fear on her face that he had seen on Zechariah's a few months before. But this face was different, too. It was so beautiful. It was so young. It was utterly innocent and trusting.

He said, "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 call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

Gabriel remembered the promises to David -- some of which he had helped deliver. Now he knew what they meant! The eternal Word, soon to live in human form, was about to fulfill them. And Gabriel was standing before the woman who would provide the divine being he knew in heaven with the body he would have on Earth.

Mary spoke to ask, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

He 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. 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."

Then Gabriel saw a look of serene acceptance come over Mary's face as she said, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said."

Gabriel was so moved by her statement of faith that he was speechless. He left her alone with her thoughts. And he was alone with his. It had been a long, long time since he had seen such faith. Only a few, rare people in history had been like Mary. Not one of those saints from ancient days had been just a child. It made the scene all the more incredible as Gabriel reflected on it.

Perhaps he determined at that instant to volunteer to take personal charge as Mary's guardian angel from that time forward. How he would like to have the honor of that assignment! He would see that no harm came to her from people who would not believe her story, that her trip to see Elizabeth was made safely, and that her pregnancy went smoothly. It is not hard to imagine that he returned to the throne room and asked permission to see this situation through for Mary's sake. It is not far-fetched in the least to think that Gabriel went around heaven telling other angels of the great faith of a teen-aged girl he had seen at Nazareth. Even an angel was probably at a loss for words to describe what he saw in her face.

Now it is three months later. Mary has had a wonderful visit with her cousin Elizabeth, and they have shared with each other the stories of their pregnancies. Each has reinforced the faith of the other. On the eve of Elizabeth's delivery of her child -- with the fulfillment of Gabriel's promise about Zechariah's speech returning being realized on the eighth day following his birth -- Mary returned home.

Gabriel watched over her trip and sensed Mary's growing anxiety as she drew nearer to Nazareth. She would have to face Joseph soon, tell him about the child she was carrying, and ask him to believe what an angel had told her about the baby's identity. The face that was so beautiful and serene began to show the characteristic signs of tension. Gabriel may have wished that he could handle the task for her and go directly to Joseph himself. When he checked the divine timetable, however, he discovered that Mary was to be the one who would break the news to him. No angel could relieve her of the painful responsibility.

On God's timetable, an angel was to see Joseph in a dream. Whether the same angel, Gabriel, went to Joseph as had earlier gone to Zechariah and Mary is unclear. The biblical text merely says that "an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream."

As the angel of God came near the sleeping carpenter at the appointed time, he saw a face that was tormented. Joseph was sleeping fitfully, tossing on his bed. The visiting angel could have seen the tracks of tears on both his cheeks if he had chosen to look closely, for Joseph had not accepted Mary's explanation. He was in anguish over the situation.

"Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit," said the angel. "She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

Joseph's face lost its contorted look. He did not wake up, but he began to be at peace in his sleep. His breathing became less anguished. He lay still. The angel who had borne the message may have felt a special sense of joy in the task just performed, for it obviously had made an immediate and profound impact on Joseph to learn that the woman he loved was all that he had once thought she was. Mary was pure and chaste, so utterly devoted to God that she would risk both her wedding and her reputation for him. And now Joseph knew what his responsibility to her was.

As the angel left Joseph to his sleep, he may have reflected on a prophecy that had been given 700 years ago through Isaiah and whose meaning had been discussed among the heavenly host from that time: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel."

The final event surrounding the birth of Jesus in which angels are specifically mentioned is their appearance to some men near Bethlehem on the night of the baby's birth. If there was ever the possibility of a group portrait of the angels taken from earth perspective, surely it was on that night! One angel -- perhaps Gabriel -- got to make the revelation to shepherds watching their flocks. "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger."

Then, as if every angel in heaven wanted to be involved in the event, "a great company of the heavenly host" joined that angel to praise God and to proclaim, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

It must have looked like a family photograph on July 4. Everybody wanted to be in the picture. Everybody crowded in close. Everybody smiled. It was an event to be remembered!

But can you imagine what it must have looked like from the perspective of the angels? Shepherds huddled around a hillside fire to fight off the night chill were startled by the appearance of one angel. Then to be confronted by "a great company of the heavenly host" may have been more than a little unnerving. If angels have a hard time keeping a straight face when they see something funny, the whole group had to fight off laughter that night.

In their dirty, smelly clothes, though, that group of shepherds was impressive in faith. When the angels disappeared from view, they left to find the baby who had been born in Bethlehem that day. And they adored in a manger the eternal Word whom the angels had worshiped and adored in heaven from the time of their creation by him.

Angels. The word may cause you to think of winged beings on the far side of the universe, divorced from and disinterested in the human plight. But the involvement of angels in the coming of the Son of God to Earth serves notice to a very different relationship.

Ministering spirits, concerned observers, faithful messengers, anxious for our salvation -- they are still watching today.

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