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If you could add up all the minutes during the year that you think about angels, I’m guessing that 95% of those minutes would be in December. Most of us, whether we’re in church every Sunday or haven’t ever been before in our lives, do not spend a lot of time, at least in this country probably, considering angels. Except around Christmas, and then you cannot get away from angels. They seem to be in every Bible text in so many of our Christmas carols, like the one we just sang. They’re on our Christmas cards, on our Christmas trees, they’re in nativity scenes all over town and in our yards, lots and lots of angels.
Angels are actually more common in the Bible than you might realize. By one count there are 17 books in the Old Testament that mention angels and 17 books in the New Testament that mention angels, with a total of 273 references. So not the main character, not the lead, but not an insignificant role either.
Angels fulfill many different roles in the Bible. Sometimes they’re guardians of the sacred. Think about the angels that are put there to guard the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve are kicked out. Or the angels that are put on top of the ark of the covenant to guard that sacred representation of God’s presence. Sometimes angels are bridges between heaven and earth. Think of the vision in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, “and I saw angels ascending and descending.” Sometimes they’re like patrol officers, they’re cops, they watch over people and places. They’re servants. And preeminently, angels are messengers. That’s what the Greek word angeloi, angels, that’s what it means, to be a messenger.
And if you think about it, it’s not a bad gig to be an angel. There is no angel named Clarence in the Bible, though he has come to us as a secular angel of sorts.
We see lots of angels at Christmas.
Now we don’t know how the assignments were given. In many places, schools and churches when they have a nativity scene and some children are chosen to be shepherds or wise men, and someone has to come in, two of them usually, as a camel or something, you don’t know how they’re always chosen, the children to be the angels, and we don’t know in heaven how the angels were given their specific assignments, but you can imagine perhaps raising one of their wings, “pick me, pick me, I want to be a part of the Christmas story.”
Think of all the angelic involvement in the Christmas story. An angel appears to Zechariah to explain that his wife Elizabeth is going to give birth to a son in her old age. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, later an angel appears in a dream to Joseph. An angel appears to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, “Fear not. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. In the city of David,” they said, “you will find the Christ child wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger.”
Then a multitude of angels appear and begin to praise God, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.” All over the Christmas story.
It’s not just the Christmas story. Have you ever noticed that at virtually every key moment in the life and ministry of Jesus there are angels? Angels attend Christ in Matthew 4 during His temptation in the wilderness. They strengthen Him in Luke 22 in the garden of Gethsemane at that moment of temptation and suffering. All four Gospels make quite a big deal that there are angels present at the empty tomb.
So you put it all together and we see that angels have quite a privileged place in the story of redemption. You have angels foretelling the coming of the Christ, they announce His conception, they announce His birth, they sing in the sky, they are there in the wilderness, they are there in the garden of Gethsemane, and they are there on Easter Sunday morning. Every step of the way, angels.
You think of all that the angels did, all that they announced, all that they knew. Think of all that the angels have seen and it really is more than we often realize a privileged place in the story of redemption that the angels have.
Yet with all that the angels saw, there is still something that angels long to see.
1 Peter chapter 1, verse 10: Concerning this salvation, Peter writes, now this salvation is what he’s talked about in the previous paragraph, God and Father, His great mercy caused us to be born again through a living hope by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. So this salvation is what God accomplished through Christ, to cause us to be born again, to have our sins forgiven, to have death and the devil conquered by Christ on the cross and His resurrection. That’s all in view.
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them,” so that is to those who foretold these things by the spirit, “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
Now there’s a lot going on in that paragraph. You have prophets inquiring, the Spirit indicating, preachers preaching, people believing, and then at the very end you have that line, don’t miss it: Angels longing.
Throughout the Bible angels are almost always in a position to know more than human beings know. They deliver messages ahead of time. They foretell events that have yet to take place. They explain visions to human beings. Sometimes they take them away, they transport them to a high mountain and they show them some sort of heavenly vision. If anyone is in the know, it’s the angels. But verse 12 says there is something which angels can’t quite see. It’s an amazing verse. I wonder if you’ve noticed it before. It has always stood out to me as one of the most remarkable verses in all the Bible. What are the things into which angels long to look?
Well, it may be that part of what Peter is talking about is the second coming of Christ, just as the prophets inquired where the person of the Messiah would come. You listen to that passage from Matthew, that even then they were inquiring, now where is it? Let’s check our scrolls, what have you heard? Where is He coming? Oh, He’s coming to Bethlehem. It may be that part of what the angels are longing to see is that second coming, the full unveiling of Christ and His glory.
But if that’s part of it, that’s certainly not all of it. Because it says at the end of verse 12, “things into which angels long to look.” What are the things? Well, the closest antecedent to “the things” is the “good news,” “the good news preached to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.” In other words, the things into which angels long to look are the tidings, the announcement, the Gospel, the good news that has been preached to you, to those in Peter’s day, and to all of you who have heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ’s saving grace for sinners.
Now it’s not that angels are ignorant. It’s not as if they couldn’t pass a theological test, as if they didn’t know what had happened, but think about it. These angels are un-fallen beings. They know what the Gospel is but they do not know the Gospel like we know the Gospel. They do not know what it is like to be saved.
Now I don’t want to get too fanciful. I’m not often accused of being too fanciful. But a little sanctified imagination. Just imagine what a conversation between the angels might sound like in heaven as they look down at God’s saved people here on earth, people like you.
Only two we know.
“What do you think that’s like?”
“What’s what like?”
“What’s it like to be saved?”
“What are you talking about, Michael?”
“Well, you know. What do you think it’s like to be a human saved by the Gospel?”
“Well, what do you mean?”
“Well, haven’t you ever wondered? I mean, we waited all those centuries to see God’s salvation plan unfold, and when it did, God sent His Son, and you know what? He sent His Son not to be like one of us, but like one of them. We know Christ is far superior even to us angels, but He skipped right by the angels. He went all the way down to human beings. And He didn’t come as a king in royal robes but in a manger. Isn’t that amazing?”
And the angel says, “Well, sure, but we’ve seen all that. What do you mean we don’t know all that? We were there. We helped make it happen. We showed up in dreams and visions. What more do you want to see?”
“Oh, I don’t know exactly. We’re not lacking for anything. I’m not grumbling, I’m not complaining, but I can’t help but wonder what must it feel like to be saved.”
“Yeah, but Michael, we know the Lord loves us. He created us. We know He delights in us. He delights in our praise and our obedience. We’re like flames of fire. We’re like the winds of heaven, Michael. We always to His bidding.”
And Michael says, “But that’s just it, Gabriel. We always praise God. We always do His bidding. But you know as well as I do that earth isn’t like heaven. Things don’t work down there like they do up here. Those people never seem to get it right. They get it wrong again and again. Even when they praise it’s imperfect. And yet He loves them. He came as one of them. He gave His life for them when they deserved death. For them. Don’t you ever wonder, Gabriel, what it must feel like to all those sinful, selfish people to hear such good news? That in Christ God loves them, God can forgive them, God will keep them, God will guard them, that God will give them eternal life. Haven’t you ever wondered, Gabriel, what it’s like to be saved?”
The work of the angels in the Christmas story is remarkable from start to finish. It’s all around us, in our songs, in our yards, in our trees, and deservedly so. They have a privileged place in the plan of redemption. And yet, friends, you can see more tonight than the angels even saw on that starry night in Bethlehem. It’s true. You can personally know even better news than they announced. The angels knew, but you and I can experience. The angel knew what he was doing when he told Joseph, “You shall give Him the name Jesus for He will save His people from their sins.” The angels understood that message, but you and I can know it even more. You can experience what no angel ever has. If you would kneel and in your heart worship in faith and repentance, turning from your sins, turning to Christ, you could know such a marvelous mystery, be part of such an amazing story that you, too, could receive such glorious good news that you and I can be people saved by the Gospel. That’s what tonight is about.
Yes, lots of traditions. Lots of songs. Lots of food and festivities and presents tonight or tomorrow or all through the week. But it is preeminently about that message that you shall call His name Jesus for He will save His people from their sins. Have you been saved from your sins? Not other people’s, yours. You and I can see things and know things and savor things into which angels long to look.
Let’s pray. Gracious heavenly Father, would You now by Your Spirit preach this good news to us. May we good Christian men and women and children rejoice that we can know, that we have been so privileged to hear when so many across this world know not the name of Jesus, that You have given us the opportunity to know how we might be saved. So preach this Word to our spirits, to our consciences, that we might repent and believe and bow and worship on this silent night and every night. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.