Some people today are skeptical of angels; others are a bit too infatuated with them. All in all, few people seem to have a clue who they really are and what their purpose is. Angels are very important to the Gospel, however, and that's why Luke speaks of them often in his account. Let's see what he has to say about them.
Declaring the Break of Dawn
It is impossible to explore the birth of Christ without encountering one angelic visitation after another.
- An angel will announce the birth of John the Baptist.
- An angel will deliver the news to Mary of her pregnancy.
- An angel will assure Joseph that Mary has conceived of the Holy Spirit.
- An angel will deliver the news of Christ’s birth to Shepherds.
- Angels will chant their praise to God in the skies above Bethlehem.
- An angel will warn Joseph to hide out in Egypt to escape the violent purge of little boys by Herod’s own decree.
Angels were busy scurrying about in these early scenes, carrying out the details of God’s redemptive plan so that all went according to the Divine script.
I pulled my volume off the shelf entitled, “All the Angels of the Bible”, by Herbert Lockyer and read in the preface of his work an interesting personal account he recorded. He was in Kenya, Africa on of a preaching tour and on one occasion spoke at a missionary school outside of Nairobi. In the audience was a native tribesman who would end up accepting Christ as his Savior there in the school’s chapel. After the service he told Dr. Lockyer what led him to attend the service. Earlier, he and other tribesmen had decided to invade this school compound with its mission station and school for missionary children. These young and ruthless warriors had made a pact together to climb the hill up to the school and capture and kill the children. However, as they made their way up the hill under the cover of darkness, suddenly men dressed in white robes surrounded the school. In the hands of these men as a sword that seemed to be on fire.
The staff all agreed as they heard this story. There was no other explanation.
Herbert Lockyer, All the Angels in the Bible (Hendrickson, 1995), p. ix
Not too long ago we had missionary Steve Saint preach here at Colonial; he’s the son of martyred missionary Nate Saint who was killed along with Jim Elliott and others by Auca Indians. Steve told us that moments after killing the five missionaries who’d come to deliver to them the gospel, these native men saw hazy figures above the tree line singing music they had never heard before. Many months later, several of these tribesmen were converted to Christ and they sat listening to a missionary’s record player – that’s a machine that played music recorded on round plastic things. They were actually listening to a recording of a choir singing hymns. These natives said they recognized the music – it was like the music they had heard that day on the sandy beach coming from those figures hovering above the tree line . . . no doubt to Steve and the others, it was the singing of angels.
There are many in our world who are skeptical of the existence and ministry of angels.
Obviously you can overdue your view of angels and become so infatuated with them that you have angel coffee mugs and angel jewelry and angel pajamas and angel art somewhere in your house or apartment.
You can be too enamored by them or completely ignore them or even deny their existence.
The great puritan theologian, pastor and author, John Owen wrote that to ignore the angels is the height of ingratitude. He penned these words in his commentary on the Book of Hebrews, “[we are to] search after what may be known of them . . . God hath neither appointed nor revealed them for nothing. He expects a revenue of praise and glory for it – and how can we bless Him for it when we know nothing of . . . angels. Let us bless God, I say, for the ministry of angels.
Ibid, p. xiv
It has struck me in re-reading these Gospel texts describing what we call the Christmas account, that to deny angels would be to deny the central declaration of the gospel of Christmas.
God used them to play a significant role. I read one well respected author make the statement that angels cannot preach the gospel – only Christians can.
In fact, the very first appearance of the Greek word translated “gospel” or “good news” comes from the lips of an angel.
New Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament, (Associated Publishers, 1972), p. 320
And it will be an angel who delivers the gospel to shepherds out in the fields of Bethlehem as he declares, “Don’t be afraid, for I bring you good news – literally – the gospel of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David – here’s the gospel – there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
That’s the euanggelion – the gospel. This is the good news delivered by the hosts of heaven.
And one particular angel stands out above the rest of the innumerable hosts of heaven who played a role in the incarnation account of Christ.
He will be the angel who appears to Mary and announces that the baby she is now carrying is the Messiah.
It is the same angel who will appears to an old priest and deliver some startling news about his wife.
What I want to do together with you is dig into the rich truths delivered to mankind through this leading angel who is part of the fabric of the gospel of Christmas . . . and he shows up critical times . . . this angel’s name is Gabriel.
Would you turn to the Christmas account by Luke and chapter 1.
I do, along with the Puritan pastor, John Owen, believe that our study of these angelic encounters will lead us into a greater praise and glory of God.
Gabriel’s first appearance will take place just outside the Holy of Holies inside the magnificent temple of Herod.
Look at verse 5. In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
Gabriel – that’s your mark; he is My first assignment for you. That old priest down there will be the first to hear the news that the Messiah is almost here.
Before we go any further, let’s set the stage for this dramatic encounter.
The verse you just read told us a lot about this scene.
These are the days of Herod, King of Judea. Which means, these are the days of a wicked and paranoid ruler.
He also is an older man – now 70 years of age. And He has become insanely jealous of his power and his throne.
He had already secretly ordered the murder of the Jewish high priest because he was more popular with the people of Judea.
24 months before he died, he also had his 2 oldest sons murdered because he was insanely jealous over the obvious fact that they would sit on his throne. In fact, just a week before his death, he killed the next son in line for the same reason.
But Herod was well loved by many people . . . especially the Roman emperor who had the Roman senate grant him his wish and give him the title, “King of the Jews.”
You can imagine how upset Herod was when the Magi arrived and asked him, “Where was He, who was born, King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1-2)
That was his title . . . and he killed any rival to his throne; which is why he will later order the murder of every little boy under the age of 2 living in the vicinity of Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:16)
These are not easy days to be a priest, serving God.
But our text says that Zachariah was a priest, in the days of Herod, the King of Judea.
The bright spot for the Jewish people is the fact that Herod so desperately wanted their favor that he built the magnificent temple.
The temple itself was built from imported cedar and white marble. Herod’s finest building project. In order to meet the standards of the Jewish priesthood, he used 1,000 specially trained Levites as builders and masons.
The temple itself was made of imported white marble and the doors were overlaid with gold as well as other portions of the temple. It’s shining brilliance lit up the city and you could see it gleaming from miles away.
Some of a wall surrounding the entire temple precinct is still visible today, known today as the wailing wall where orthodox Jews still pray.
Malachi had prophesied centuries earlier that the sun of righteousness would one day rise with healing in his wings. (Malachi 4:2)
The temple was constructed to match their hopes in the glorious dawning of the light of God’s splendor.
In fact, Josephus described the temple by writing in the 1st century these words, “Being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash you were compelled to avert your eyes. The temple appeared from a great distance away to be like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white.”
R. Kent Hughes, Luke, Volume One (Crossway, 1998), p. 19
Imagine, during the days of Herod, how the people anticipated the breaking of the dawn of God’s glorious reign.
Notice how Luke describes this faithful priest and his wife in verse 6. They were both righteous in the sight God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were advanced in years.
That alone was startling news. To be a priest . . . to be faithful God . . . to be serving God with your life brought about the expected quiver full of children. To the orthodox Jew, living in the 1st century, barrenness was considered the rebuke of God.
In fact, the Rabbi’s of this day taught that seven types of people could not expect an intimate walk with God. At the top of the list was a Jew who had no wife (so, single men couldn’t expect the blessings of God) and second on the list was a Jewish couple without children. In fact, during the days of Christ, barrenness was considered valid grounds for divorce.
Adapted from William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, rev. ed., (Westminster Press, 1975), p. 10
To live as a faithful couple, serving God no less, and in this era under the covenant of promise regarding children, the inability to have them would have written a volume of pain and despair – of tears and questions. The community pitied them and the faithful Jewish community assumed the worst. In fact, Elizabeth will later describe her barrenness as her disgrace. (Luke 1:25)
But this is just the setting of the scene – something startling is about to happen, and it all begins with the casting of lots.
Notice verse 8. Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9. according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
To onlookers, this was just a chance roll of the dice that selected Zacharias out of some 8,000 priests to perform this sacred duty.
You need to understand that during the days of Zacharias, there were an estimated 20,000 priests.
Hughes, p. 20
Only at Passover and at the Feast of Tabernacles did all the priests serve. For the rest of the year each division – and there were 24 divisions – served two weeks out of the year.
Barclay, p. 9
This just so happened to be the week that the division of Abijah was serving. And this was the division of Zacharias.
But there’s more.
Out of this division – perhaps as many as 1,000 priests were given their duties by the casting of lots.
Every morning and every evening of every day, a sacrifice was made in the temple for the whole nation. A lamb without blemish was offered, along with flour, oil and a drink offering of wine. Before the morning and evening offering was placed on the altar, one priest was given the special duty of going into the Holy Place, just outside the Holy of Holies. In that sacred place was the table of shewbread, the golden candle stick and the golden alter of incense in which were smoldering coals.
It was the high honor of this priest to pour incense over those coals just as the Lamb was being placed on the alter outside so that, as it were, the sacrifices might go up to God wrapped in an envelope of sweet-smelling incense.
Ibid, p. 10
The fact remained that there were so many priests, many of them never had the privilege of entering the Holy Place. In fact, if you were chosen by lot to burn incense upon the altar, you could only do it once in your lifetime.
This was high point of Zacharias’ life and ministry.
Verse 10 tells us that the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.
While he’s inside the Holy Place, the court outside is jammed with the people and priests, praying that God will accept with pleasure their offering.
It was also the high privilege of this priest to finish his task and come out to the railing before coming down the steps and preach a brief sermon, blessing the people in the name of their faithful and forgiving God.
So Zacharias, with trembling old hands, lifts the censer and lets the contents spill slowly over the coals and it hisses and crackles as the sweet smelling smoke begins to rise.
At that moment, Zacharias is no longer alone.
Notice verse 11. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12. And Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel (I’ll bet) and fear gripped him. (no doubt!)
Later in the text, the angel will identify himself as Gabriel.
This angel was well known to the priests and people of God. They had read of their prophet Daniel’s encounter with Gabriel.
His name meant “mighty one.”
Daniel had described him in detail in his encounters with this heavenly prince, recorded in Daniel chapter 10.
- First, Gabriel was wearing a linen robe. Highly significant because a robe made of linen was the garment worn by the high priest when he entered the Holy of Holies each year. It was to be clean and ironed perfectly. It signified access to God, which Gabriel had plenty of.
- Daniel described Gabriel further as having his waist girded with a belt of pure gold.
- Daniel described the body of Gabriel was like beryl. This was a greenish blue stone. It could be a reference to his body seeming to be, to Daniel, like a strong rock.
- Furthermore, Gabriel’s face was described by Daniel as having the appearance of lightning. In other words, it was probably too bright to look at for very long. Here’s this being in the room with you whose body and face are brilliant shades of blue and white – whose robe is perfectly tailored with a belt made of pure gold.
- Daniel goes further and describes the eyes of Gabriel as if they were glowing with fire.
- Daniel mentions the angels arms and feet glowed as if they were polished bronze.
- Finally, Gabriel’s voice was like the voice of a multitude. A long, low rumble, powerful and forceful.
A.S. Joppie, All About Angels (Baker Books, 1953), p. 16
And Zacharias was filled with fear.
That’s the understatement of the Christmas story. I’m shocked that Zacharias stayed standing . . . or breathing.
- By the way, it was during the evening sacrifice that Gabriel had appeared to Daniel (Daniel 9:20-21).
- Daniel’s response to Gabriel’s appearance was to fall down terrified (Daniel 8:17)
- Daniel would be temporarily rendered speechless (Daniel 10:15)
- And most importantly, Gabriel had delivered a message to Daniel describing future messianic times, and Gabriel is now delivering a message to Zacharias about the dawning of messianic times.
Hughes, p. 22
He is announcing the breaking of the dawn . . . the sun is about to rise!
Notice Gabriel’s words, in verse 13. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard. And your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.”
Now some would suggest that Zacharias was praying for a son –and that prayer would be answered. Based on his response to Gabriel’s announcement of him having a son, I don’t believe Zacharias was praying for a son . . . I believe he was praying for a Savior.
Like faithful priests were to do, Zacharias was praying for the deliverance of Israel.
Zacharias, your prayer has been heard. In fact, your son is going to be the forerunner of the Messiah, prophesied to come, Gabriel says in verse 17, as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children – that is, to challenge men to shepherd their families; and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous – that is, to challenge the people to follow their Shepherd – people prepared for the Lord.
Gabriel is telling Zacharias that he and Elizabeth are going to raise the prophet of God who will prepare the people for the Messiah.
18. And Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain?”
In other words, “Can you give me some proof that God will do this?
Imagine this. Here’s Zacharias in the Holy Place – all alone – except an angel is in there with him, his face like lightning and his arms glowing like bronze and his eyes like lanterns of fire – and Zacharias says, “I need a sign from God.”
I mean, v. 18b. “I’m an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”
Just like Abraham and Sarah of old who didn’t believe God could produce through them the forefather of the Messiah; Zacharias didn’t believe God could produce through them the forerunner of the Messiah.
19. The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel.”
There’s a play on words here in the original language. Zacharias emphasized, “I am an old man.” And the response from this angel was, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God.”
I’ve come directly from the presence of God. He sent me. You should know Zacharias, nothing is impossible with God.
Now notice this, “and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news – you could translate it, the gospel, for the gospel is the good news of God.”
Zacharias, you’ve been waiting for the movement of God . . . you’ve been praying for the Messiah . . . you’ve longed for the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy that the sun would rise and the father’s would turn to their families and the people would repent and prepare their hearts for the coming One.
Not only is God going to do that, He has chosen to give you a child who will grow up and with the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the people for the dawning of Messianic revelation.
Gabriel says, “This is the good news – the gospel.”
But since you didn’t believe my words, you’ll not be able to speak your own words – verse 20. And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words.
Verse 62 implies that Zacharias could neither speak nor hear. He made signs verse 22 and in verse 62 people had to make signs to him.
Imagine, being a spokesman for God all your life as a priest, but now you have the scoop on the most exciting news from heaven to hit Israel after 400 years of silence – from the last words of Malachi to the opening words of Gabriel - and you can’t tell anybody about it.
I wonder – for those of us who can communicate – who have you told about this gospel – this good news – not that Christ is coming, but that Christ has come and that Christ is coming back.
Well, Gabriel has accomplished his first mission . . . he leaves a stunned priest who now races home and begins to play charades with his wife as she desperately tries to understand her husband who seems to have lost him marbles.
He must have settled down long enough to perhaps write it out.
Along with the speech he’ll deliver at the birth of his son 9 months later. He will say, “The sunrise from on High is going to visit us.” (Luke 2:78)
Gabriel is nowhere to be seen . . . he has disappeared into thin air. He slips off the pages of scripture as quickly as he slipped in.
He’ll show up again . . . .
In fact, his first appearance has informed a man that his wife, who couldn’t get pregnant, would.
His next appearance informs a woman who shouldn’t be pregnant, that she is.