Luke's gospel gives us a glimpse into the role angels played in the Christmas story as well as the role they play in the Gospel story. So if you've ever found yourself questioning how and why God uses these mysterious and invisible creatures, find out now.
At the Speed of Angels
Luke 1:26-38 & 2:8-14
In the early 1830s, two different groups of men, one in America and one in England, were independently racing to build an electric telegraph system.
The American group would win the day . . . with its unique use of magnetic pulses and a special code invented by the group’s leader, Samuel Morse. Samuel was, by occupation, a skilled painter who specialized in portraits.
But by the late 1800’s, his invention took the world by storm and electric telegraph companies were soon in operation.
If you can imagine it, less than 150 years ago, the fastest way to send a message from New York to California was to use the Pony Express, which took ten days. Can you imagine? Less than 150 years ago, the fastest way for someone on the East coast to get a message to someone living on the Left Coast, was to use a horse and a rider.
That would all change.
With the invention of Samuel Morse and the creation of his Morse code, that distance could be spanned at nearly the speed of light.
The Wright Brothers would use it in 1903 to send a telegram to their father that December telling him about their first flight.
I was able see a picture of that telegram. In fact, I saw a picture of the very first telegram. It was dated May 24, 1844. On that historic day, Samuel Morse made the first public demonstration of his telegraph by sending a message from the Supreme Court Chamber in the U.S. Capitol to a station in Baltimore. His famous message was four words, “What hath God wrought.”
In other words, “Look what God has done!”
Fascinating to see the inventive abilities of mankind and on this occasion, Samuel Morris gave his Creator God the credit.
His invention would be in used for more than 150 years of communication. And on January 27, 2006, the last batch of telegrams were transmitted by Western Union. Other forms of communication had finally put it to rest.
If you can imagine it, today the number of text messages sent
every day exceeds the world’s population; billions every day.
I believe it . . . my youngest daughter is responsible for 100 million of them.
Well, these last telegrams sent last January included condolences on the death of a loved one, emergency news, birthday wishes and several people trying to be the last ones to send a telegram.
Can you imagine how communication methods in our world have so improved in 150 years.
But to this day, there is one communication system that only God has access to.
Message delivery by angel service . . . angelgrams.
They travel faster than the speed of light. They are never lost in transmission . . . they never fail to deliver . . . and they are never coded so that everyone who hears these divine bursts of information can understand.
The number of angels is so vast that no one can comprehend the total. Their power is remarkable; the Bible records that one single angle killed 185,000 enemy soldiers in one night (2 Kings 19:25).
A.S. Joppie, All About Angels, (Baker, 1953), p. 12
Micaiah the prophet reported his vision in 1 Kings 22 of the angelic hosts surrounding the throne of God.
If you literally multiply Daniel’s accounting of angels around the throne of God you have his vision of 100 million angels worshiping God.
We’re told the same number of 100 million angels and more will sing praise to God around His magnificent throne (Revelation 5).
These numbers are probably intended to be symbolic of a numberless throng of angels who raise their voices in worship.
Herbert Lockyer, All the Angels in the Bible (Hendrickson, 1995), p. 24
The writer of Hebrews informs us that thousands upon thousands are in joyful assembly in the heavenly Jerusalem. (Hebrews 12:22)
Listen, if you were God and you wanted to deliver the birth announcement of God the son to the world . . . how would you deliver the message?
What better way, than angels.
And not just by angels, but one particular angel. One angel blessed with the singular task of informing all the critical parties involved that God was moving the redemptive plan to the next stage.
This special angel messenger’s name is Gabriel.
Daniel has described him with eyes blazing as if they were on fire, arms and feet that shone like burnished bronze, a lightning appearance and an amazing, deep majestic voice.
He broke the silence of God that had lasted 400 years by appearing to an old priest named Zacharias and delivering the gospel of the coming Messiah.
If you turn back to Luke’s Gospel, you discover Gabriel again appearing; this time he will deliver a message to a young teenage girl in the middle of her Kiddushin – that was the customary Jewish betrothal period or engagement to a young carpenter named Joseph.
Notice verse 26 of Luke chapter 1. Now in the sixth month (that is, of Elizabeth’s pregnancy), the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth.
Don’t miss the significance of that phrase.
Gabriel was sent from God.
“Yes, my King.”
“Deliver my message personally to that specific girl
down there in that specific village called Nazareth.”
“When shall I deliver it?”
“Wait a moment . . . wait just another moment . . . now Gabriel, at this moment in redemptive history; deliver the message.”
And Gabriel wings his way from the highest heaven, crossing the universe far faster than the speed of light . . . oh no, this is at the speed of angel’s flight.
And would you notice that when Gabriel arrives he does not ask Mary to wait a minute while he catches his breath.
Not only do we not understand the communication methods in the heavenlies, we do not understand flight patterns.
What we do know is that God ordered and Gabriel appeared.
Verse 28, And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Poor Mary nearly faints . . . so Gabriel has to say what angels are always saying to people they encounter, verse 30, “…do not be afraid.”
Now, here’s the message.
“You have found favor with God.”
Imagine the word “grace” – charis – coming from the mouth of an angel.
Mary, you are the recipient of unmerited, undeserved grace from God.
This is the gospel – God has visited man and offered unto him undeserved favor. The day of charis – the day of grace had come.
John Phillips, Exploring The Gospel of Luke (Kregel, 2005), p. 66
But not only is Gabriel’s message a message of God’s grace, it’s a message of God’s greatness.
Look at the sovereign control of people and events and history past, present and future.
Notice how Gabriel speaks so matter-of-factly beginning with verse 31. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name Him Jesus. He will be great and He will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God willgive Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.
Gabriel is just laying it all out. No problem with him for all this to take place. Why? Because he’s just come from the throne of God.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the closer you and I live to the throne of God the less of a problem we will have with His sovereign control and power as well.
Mary has just heard the stunning news that she will bear the Messiah. Gabriel has loosely quoted 2 Samuel chapter 7 and the Davidic covenant. Not only are the first four assertions by Gabriel coming true, the last 3 assertions will come true as well.
He will mount the throne of David one day. He will one day rule just as surely as he became a literal son of a literal teenage girl who named Him Jesus.
You remember Gabriel had announced earlier to Zacharias that his wife would get pregnant and bear the forerunner of the Messiah.
Gabriel now announces to Mary that she will become pregnant and bear the Messiah.
It occurred to me as I studied this text again that in the first encounter, Gabriel would inform Zacharias that his wife, Elizabeth who couldn’t get pregnant, will.
And now, in this second encounter, Gabriel is informing Mary – who shouldn’t be pregnant that she is about to be.
Elizabeth couldn’t get pregnant, but would.
Mary shouldn’t be pregnant, but will be.
Mary staggers under the weight of this news; especially this part – notice verse 34. Mary said to the angel, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”
You remember earlier Zacharias responded to Gabriel’s announcement with the word, “How?” And now Mary responds by asking, “How?”
Zacharias will be disciplined with the inability to hear or speak for 9 months. But Mary isn’t disciplined for unbelief.
That’s because they asked two different kinds of questions.
For Zacharias, it was a question of belief; for Mary, it was a question of biology.
Zacharias wanted more proof; Mary wanted to understand the process.
Besides, it’s one thing to tell an older woman that she’s pregnant; it’s another thing to tell a virgin that she’s pregnant.
How does that happen?
Gabriel, who evidently had been given more information than this message is able to answer her questions in an amazingly articulate manner. Evidently, God had given Gabriel the inside story.
Notice verse 35. The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the Holy Child shall be called the Son of God.
That Greek word, ‘overshadow’, is the same word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for the overshadowing presence of God in the Holy of Holies.
Warren Wiersbe said it this way, “Mary’s womb would become a holy of holies for the Son of God.’
Warren Wiersbe, Be Compassionate: Luke 1-13 (Victor Books, 1988), p. 14
She must have been perfect . . . she must have been sinless for God’s Son to indwell her and the Spirit of God to overshadow her.
Have you forgotten?
- Your body is now the temple of the living God? (I Corinthians 6:19)
- Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwells in him. (1 John 4:15)
Just as Mary’s womb became the holy of holies, so is your heart. For God has made your body His temple.
Listen, just as Mary carried Christ physically, so we bear Christ spiritually.
You, Christian, are carrying the Messiah today wherever you go.
Why, because you’re perfect? Because you’re sinless? How can you be honored carry within you the Holy God?
By becoming like Mary – a recipient of undeserved, unmerited grace and favor from God.
This is the gospel according to Gabriel . . . delivered to Mary – and us.
And what did Mary do? Verse 38 records her testimony, “Behold, the bond slave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”
You need to understand that Gabriel’s message for Elizabeth was good new without any bad news.
His message to Mary was good news surrounded with bad news.
This was no simple matter. She was being asked to reveal to her family and to Joseph that she was carrying a child and it wasn’t his. In standing up for God and His power and plan, she will become the object of doubt and ridicule and slander
Adapted from Darrell L. Bock, The NIV Application Commentary: Luke (Zondervan, 1996), p. 58
The Talmud – the second century compilation of Jewish laws and commentary and traditions – includes the record that Mary was the mistress of a Roman soldier named Panthera and Jesus was illegitimate. That story had spread and by the time of Christ’s ministry the Pharisees said to him, “We were not conceived in sexual immorality as you were . . . you don’t even know who your father is.” (John 8:41).
Christ never outlived the whispers. Which meant Mary never lived down the accusation. She would always be in the rumor mill.
She would surrender to a life of mistaken identity. She would be viewed as someone she was not.
But Mary said, in effect to Gabriel, “Listen, wing your way back through the universe and up to the throne of my Lord and tell Him, “I accept!” “I will cooperate with God.”
Mary presented her body a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God which was the most reasonable service she could ever perform.
What has God asked you to do that is inconvenient and upsetting and uncomfortable; what has He asked you to surrender?
Let’s leave this scene for one final scene where I believe it is Gabriel again, though this time not identified.
In Luke’s account and chapter 2, Gabriel appears again, using the same introduction as with Zacharias and Mary and evening using that profound word – euangelizomai – translated “the gospel – good news.”
He stands before the shepherds in verse 10 and says, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you the gospel of great joy…”
Gabriel isn’t talking to just any shepherds, but temple shepherds.
To see that the supply of unblemished lambs were always available, the Temple authorities had their own private flocks; and we know from historical records that these flocks were kept near Bethlehem. Zacharias has seen lamb after lamb taken from these flocks and offered at the morning and evening sacrifice in the temple.
Imagine, Gabriel is announcing to shepherds who were looking after the Temple lambs that the final sacrificial lamb had just been born.
Here they are – keepers of lambs destined to die as sacrifices for the sins of the people; and they will soon be the first to witness the birth of the Lamb of God who will permanently take away the sins of His people.
Adapted above from William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Westminster Press, 1975), p. 23
By the way, according to the Jewish traditions recorded in the Mishna, shepherds could not worship in the temple. They were consistently unclean, dealing with blood and dead animals . . . unable to come into the temple precinct, living outdoors, often stealing to survive.
According to the Mishna, the only class of people lower than shepherds were lepers.
R. Kent Hughes, Luke, Volume 1 (Crossway, 1998), p. 87
It’s as if God gives a foretaste of the redemptive grace of Christ, delivered to the outcast . . . can you imagine the glory of the gospel here. Notice verse 11. For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
This baby is identified three ways:
- That 1st expression or title is “Savior” – soter – a deliverer.
- Gabriel announces that this newborn baby is not only the Savior, he is the Christ. This is the Greek for the Hebrew Mashiach – or Messiah. This is the Anointed One of God.
R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Augsburg, 1946), p.131
This is the One who is qualified to sit on David’s throne.
- Gabriel said that this newborn is also the Lord – kurios. Literally, God.
Listen to the gospel – the good news – first delivered by Gabriel. Today in the city of David there has been born for you a deliverer who is the anointed One, who happens to be God incarnate.
A Jehovah’s Witness can’t say that; a Mormon can’t sign on to that; a Muslim can’t agree with that. They can say that Jesus was a Savior . . .that he was a prophet . . .that He was a good man . . . but that cannot say that he was Savior and Messiah who is God.
But don’t miss the unmistakable distinction Gabriel makes between himself and the shepherds. Did you catch it? “Today in the city of David, there has been born whom? for you! For you!
Not for angels . . . for people. For lepers and shepherds . . . for sinners like you and me. For people under the ban - for the unclean.
May I suggest that you write your name into the margin of your Bible so that it personalizes the birth of Christ even further – Christ has been born for you!
What an announcement . . . what a series of visitations by Gabriel.
- He delivered the gospel to the son of Aaron – Zacharias – religious and connected – able to enter the Holy Place, but just as needy an unbeliever as anyone. Struck deaf and mute to provide the illustration perhaps of the nation’s leaders who will refuse to hear the gospel message and refuse to deliver it to the people.
- Gabriel has delivered the gospel to the ordinary person who by faith becomes the recipient of the grace of God.
- And finally Gabriel delivers the gospel to the outcast who have no hope of being cleansed and accepted. Unable to worship God . . . unclean and dirty.
This is the gospel according to Gabriel – the good news delivered to those who will believe that this one who is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a dark stable in the Bethlehem night is the same one who asked Job centuries earlier – “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me, if you understand . . . when I made a cloud its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band.” (Job 38:4, 9)
Imagine, the one who wrapped the universe in darkness as he birthed it by His word is now lying in a manger in swaddling clothes, under the dark sky of Bethlehem.
And one particular angel is scurrying about delivering the angelgrams at God the Father’s bidding.
And then at last, Gabriel is joined by a host of angels – Luke’s Gospel informs us in v. 13 that an untold number suddenly appear.
One commentator argues that every angel would have been present – for just as they had sung at the birth of the created universe, so they will not be absent to sing at the birth of their Creator.
It was the Jewish custom for Father’s to hire musicians to sing at their home celebration at the birth of a son. Mary and Joseph have no connections – no relatives to come by . . . no musicians to hire.
But that’s alright! The Father has connections . . . the Father won’t hold back. There above Bethlehem, the angelic host celebrates the birth of God’s Son and the glory of this gospel.
The heavens are literally packed with angels singing glory to God.
With this, the gospel announcements of Gabriel and the angels come to an end.
Angelgrams are no longer His method of communication. He’s given us the privilege to go and make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19).
It’s up to us who are inhabited by the Messiah – to sing glory to God in the highest – and invite all who will be faith believe in this Savior, who is Christ, who is God incarnate.
And all who will believe, will one day according to Revelation 19, join with all the redeemed and the hosts of heaven in singing praise to God our Father and Christ our Redeemer, our Savior our Lord.
Stand and Sing:
We’ll praise His name forever . . . Christ the Lord.