Angels appear at critical moments in the Hebrew Bible. The angel of Yahweh helps Hagar as she flees from Abraham’s camp (Gen. 16:7, 11), stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac (Gen. 22:11, 15), wrestles with Jacob (Gen. 32:24-32; Hosea 12:4), speaks from the burning bush (Exod. 3:2), defends Israel at the Red Sea (Exod. 14:19), blocks Balaam’s curses (Num. 22:23-24), commissions Gideon (Judg. 6:11-12), announces Samson’s birth (Judg. 13:3), spreads a plague after David’s census (2 Sam. 24:16-17), refreshes Elijah (2 Kings 19:35), and devastates Sennacherib’s army during the siege of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35).
Groups of angels also appear, though very infrequently. Two angels warn Lot that Sodom will be destroyed. Jacob sees angels at Bethel (Gen. 28:12), as he leaves the land, and again at Peniel (Gen. 32:1), when he returns. Israel knows Yahweh has angelic “hosts” (Ps. 24:10; 103:21; 148:2) but they don’t often catch a glimpse of them.
In fact, angel spottings become less frequent as the Hebrew Bible progresses. In 1-2 Samuel, the angel of the Lord appears only once; in 1-2 Kings, only three times. The angel guides Israel from Egypt in the first exodus, but no angels lead Israel’s second exodus from Babylon.
So, it’s a shock to turn from Malachi and find the next page teeming with angels. Nowhere in the Old Testament is there a cluster of angelophanies like those in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. Joseph dreams of angels. An angel tells him to take Mary as his wife (Matt. 1:20, 24), instructs him to flee from Herod (Matt. 2:13), and assures him it’s safe to return home (Matt. 2:19). Gabriel visits Zecharias in the temple to announce the birth of John (Luke 1:11-13) and brings Mary news of the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). An angel heralds Jesus’s birth to shepherds (Luke 2:9-10), and then he’s joined by a multitude of angels praising God (Luke 2:13).
We’re so familiar with this Christmas scene that we don’t realize how unique it is. Among the saints of Israel, only Jacob saw what those shepherds saw, the hosts of heaven, and Jacob didn’t hear them sing. In the old covenant, angelic hosts stayed put in heaven, worshipping at the heavenly throne. With the birth of Jesus, heaven comes to earth. As they sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:14).
As Jonathan Pennington has emphasized, Matthew frequently links “heaven” and “earth” (Matt. 6:10; 16:19; 18:18-19; 28:2). The phrase “heaven and earth” (Matt. 5:18; 11:25) goes back to Genesis 1:1 and 2:1-4, and refers to the whole of creation. Adam’s sin put heaven and earth out of sync. Earth goes its own way, ignoring the God of heaven. There is a king in heaven, but earth is enslaved to the “prince of this world.” When the angels sing to the shepherds, we know God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven—that heaven and earth will be ruled by a single Lord (Matt. 28:18). When we hear that choir, we know the Lord is retuning earth to harmony with heaven.
There’s another layer to this. The New Testament says the Lord’s covenant with Israel was mediated through angels. According to Paul (Gal. 3:19) and Stephen (Acts 7:53), angels delivered the Torah, and the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews spends the first chapter of his letter contrasting the angelic age of the fathers and prophets with “these last days” of the Son. Throughout the old covenant, Israel was a minor son under the tutelage of angelic guardians and managers (Gal. 4:1-7).
That tutelage wasn’t designed to last forever. For a little while, we were lower than angels, but we were created to be raised above angels—ultimately, Paul says, to judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3). The angels of Advent put the world on notice that this elevation is beginning. Jesus is heaven on earth, and it’s fitting that he should be surrounded, like his Father, by angelic hosts. Jesus is heaven made flesh. Angels praise a son of Adam, as they later celebrate his ascension as the triumphant Lamb (Rev. 5:11-14). By their very appearance in the fields of Bethlehem, the city of David, the hosts of heaven proclaim the good news that in Jesus mankind has reached its destiny. Man made of dust begins to share the glory of heaven.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.