Marveling at the Mystery
Something about the Christmas story appeals to our fascination with mystery. It has all the elements of intrigue: the aura of starlit skies, ancient customs, rustic environs, delicate life, veiled greatness, inquisitive wisdom, high conspiracy, imminent danger, and, oh yes, angels. They are the unruffled presence in a plot unfolding on the pages of history. They are God’s choice to mediate the most remarkable event bridging time and eternity.
Far more than providing needed guardianship for “those who will inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14), angels have involved themselves in salvation history itself. While they are superior to mortals, their relationship to humans is challenged in Jesus Christ, the One whose incarnation we celebrate at this time of the year. Simply put, He who is far greater than the angels brought to us who are a little lower than the angels that which angels long to look into. As curious as this may sound to some, how much more so is its significance to the angels themselves!
Far Greater than the Angels
The superiority of Christ over angels is a point the writer of Hebrews strongly emphasizes. He writes, “So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs” (1:4). The fact that angels attended to Him from His birth to His ascension and that they will worship Him throughout all eternity (Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:11–13) are indications of His unrivaled position. The credibility of the Savior and the validity of our salvation depend on it.
You won’t hear the angels, at least not the holy ones, contesting this point. They were the mouthpieces of this message on the night when a band of shepherds on a hillside outside Bethlehem were startled by their appearance. They were announcing the birth of Christ, His coming in the flesh to bring salvation to all people (Luke 2:8–14). Their role in this remarkable event demonstrates their acknowledgement of Christ’s superiority.
Lower than the Angels
Comparing angels to humans as a class is an entirely different matter. Although both angels and humans are creatures of God, humankind rank lower than the angels. David hints at this in the Psalms, which later is clarified in the Book of Hebrews. Quoting Psalm 8, the writer of Hebrews speaks of Christ’s incarnation and makes an implication about man when it says, “You made him a little lower than the angels” (2:7). The subordinate role of people to angels in the creation order is especially noticeable in intelligence and power. Being supernatural, angels know far more than human beings, and they certainly have abilities that exceed ours. Descriptions of angelic hierarchy and spiritual warfare in both the Old and the New testaments speak to this fact.
The inferior abilities of humans in comparison to angels is opportunity for God to display to believers His safeguarding power through these “ministering spirits” (1:14). Stories abound of angelic activity—stories attested by the credibility of those telling them. That mortals are visited by angels is harmonious with biblical teaching, which speaks of guardian angels protecting the people of God. Scripture also points out that showing hospitality to strangers leads to the possibility of entertaining “angels without knowing it” (13:2).
In Billy Graham’s book Angels he writes, “Millions of angels are at God’s command and at our service. The hosts of heaven stand at attention as we make our way from earth to glory, and Satan’s BB guns are no match for God’s heavy artillery.” The believer’s humble dependence on a sovereign God is rewarded by His providential care through angelic intervention.
What the Angels Long to Look Into
With all their supernatural exploits angels have been deprived of one measure of spiritual experience that only human beings are party to. On this one point it could be said that angels are “beholding to” while at the same time “beholding of” mortals in light of our unique opportunity to experience God’s redemption (Eph. 3:10). In God’s immeasurable wisdom He has chosen to give salvation to those humans who believe in His Son.
God’s provision of redemption is apparently a marvel to angels, so much so that they are in awe of its meaning. Peter addressed this in his first epistle when he wrote, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets … spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Pet. 1:10, 12).
Though angels are “outside the loop” when it comes to salvation, this certainly hasn’t kept them from being a part of the celebration. They were instrumental in announcing the Savior’s birth, and they are continually delighting over the change in lives that the Savior has effected among those who believe. Jesus said, “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
Indeed, He who is far greater than the angels brought to us who are a little lower than the angels that which angels long to look into: salvation! Is it any wonder that the angels sang?
Is there any reason we shouldn’t?
Steve Faulkner (ThM, 1984) is pastor of Emmanuel Bible Church in Simcoe, Ontario, Canada.