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Dec 22, 2019

Angels at the Nativity

Passage: Matthew 1:18-2:23

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Advent 2019

Keywords: angels, obedience, guidance, joseph, encounters, virgin mary


How different world and personal history for billions of people would probably have been without the angel encounters in the Nativity. Angels are not unnecessary messengers from God; they are vital participants in human history. Enjoy discovering just how critical they were to the most important conception and birth in human history as well as your personal story.


Angels from the Realms of Glory

Advent 2019 Series:  Message #3

December 22, 2019

Advent Candle, Week 4:  The last purple candle is called the "Angel Candle" It is lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent and represents peace. 

Isaiah 9:6—For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

      Ever stopped and pondered how different your life would be today…or if you would still be alive today…if there were no such kind of creature as angels? 

      Over the past decade or so, polls of Americans indicate that about 70% of us believe in spiritual beings called angels.  A 2007 (Baylor Religion) Survey found that 57 percent of Catholics, 81 percent of black Protestants, 66 percent of Evangelical Protestants, and 10 percent of Jews reported having a personal experience with a guardian angel. And 20 percent of those who identified themselves as having no religion also claimed having encountered an angel. 

      I won’t ask you to raise your hand, but I’m guessing that if I did ask, “How many of you think that you’ve had some sort of encounter with an angel,” that most of us would probably raise our hands. 

      But if I asked you, “How many of you have experienced some sort of spiritual oppression by demonic forces,” I’m betting that we might just find everyone raising their hands. 

      Strictly speaking, when we talk about angels, by biblical definition, we should also be including demons.  Demons, we believe from the Bible, are essentially rebel angels.  Originally created as spirit beings created by God for good, many of this multitude of spirit beings followed Satan’s lead, rebelled against God and became demons (Rev. 12:4). 

      But many didn’t.  Those who remained faithful to God we tend to call today simply “angels.” 

Q:  How many of you have heard a biblical message or read an article on angels in the last 10 years?  Well, you can check that off your bucket list after today!  J

      There is a lot of fuzzy thinking around today about angels.  Some of it probably comes from the church.  So let’s just start by describing what we’ve heard about angels.  What have we either come to believe or just heard other people say about angels? 

[Have people mention various beliefs…and talk about whether those beliefs are…

1.) accurate according to the Bible,

2.) open to debate or

3.) inaccurate according to the Bible.]

Q:  What QUESTIONS do you have about angels?

Since we’re all thinking about the Nativity story this week, let me ask you the question, “How different might things have been if God had not sent angels to earth to interact with various participants in and around the birth of Jesus?”  I know your Christmas crèche would be missing a few members.  But was it really that important for angels to show up in and around the events of the Nativity? 

For that matter, do angels really matter that much to us?  After all, how often do you think about them or talk to God about them?  After our service today, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found all that changing just a bit for the rest of your life. 

So let’s look first at the impact angels had on that first Christmas (or more accurately on the people associated with the entrance of God in Christ into humanity as a baby boy). 

We’ll start today’s inquiry with the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1.  Here is the first mention in Matthew of the appearance of an angel in the Nativity story.  And here’s what Matthew records:

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

So WHO had this angel encounter?  Joseph. 

      Next one:  Matthew 2—after the visit of the Magi to Mary, Joseph and the now toddler Jesus in Bethlehem.  (Yes, they apparently settled there after the birth of Jesus instead of returning immediately to Nazareth.) 

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Q:  WHO received this angel encounter?  Again, Joseph.

      We continue to the next angel encounter in vs. 19—

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Q:  WHO had the angel encounter?  Joseph.  And how did all three encounters take place?  In dreams. 

Note:  Don’t discount all dreams, especially those where you remember clearly what was said to you and it clearly has something to do with present events that may be troubling or timely. 

      So let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves, “How might things have played out differently if 1.) God had not sent an angel to speak with Joseph in his sleep, or 2.) If Joseph would have brushed off the encounter as too much rich matzah bread the night before?  J

      If Mary and Joseph were fitting into the customs and cultural norms of their day, Mary was most likely in her early teens (12-14) and Joseph may have been a bit older (14-17).  Next time you are tempted to question why God chooses this or that person, think about the incarnation! 

      If I were choosing someone to care for God-in-human-flesh, I would have thought that some couple in their 60’s like Zechariah & Elizabeth would have been better prospects. But not God.  He’s willing to risk His entire eternal plan for humanity on a couple of godly but nonetheless inexperienced teenage sweethearts. And both of them come through amazingly.

      But from Joseph’s young and inexperienced point of view, he’s been “betrothed” (effectively culturally “married” without the final sexual consummation part).  He finds out, (how, we don’t know), that Mary is pregnant…and he knows it’s not his child.  Here’s where his character comes shining through.  He truly loves Mary because, despite the inevitable confusion, hurt and sense of betrayal he is living, he determines to do the very best he can for her—divorce her “quietly.” 

            So what would probably have happened at this point if no angel had appeared? Joseph would have divorced her, Mary most likely would have gone into hiding somewhere and most assuredly would not have made the trip to Bethlehem during the census of Caesar Augustus.  The prophecy of Micah 5:2-4 would not have been fulfilled which spoke of Bethlehem as the birthplace of the future ruler of Israel.  

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
    until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
    to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

      Fast-forward 2 years roughly.  The Magi arrive bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They leave, careful not to return to wicket Herod and rat on Mary, Joseph and toddler Jesus.  So that night Joseph has another angelic visitor who tells him to head to Egypt. It’s such a clear message that he gets up in the middle of the night, wakes Mary, tells her they are packing their stuff and leaving for Egypt, of all places!  She apparently doesn’t argue with him.  (Remember, these are probably two sleep-deprived teenagers…who don’t have a lot of marriage experience under their belts…who aren’t that mature…who are poor and already feeling like refugees in Bethlehem…and a young dad obeys immediately…and a young mother follows immediately…and they migrate to Egypt, becoming instant refugees, instant racial minorities, instant outcasts without jobs or homes or relatives in a country that has a history of hatred towards the Jewish people. 

      So what would have happened to this family without this angel encounter? 

  • Failure of the prophecy in Hosea 11:1 that “Out of Egypt” God would call His son.
  • Probable death of Jesus at the hands of King Herod and his not-so-merry henchmen.
  • The end of God’s plan to redeem people through a Messiah

APP:  There are a few not-so-easy lessons out of this encounter.

1.)  If God sends you an angel with a message, you better obey immediately!  You have no idea what is at stake.

2.)  Arguably THE most blessed and important family chosen by God in human history was not spared serious difficulties, poverty, inconveniences, hardships and racial prejudice.  Being right in the middle of God’s will may put you right in the middle of life’s toughest times.

3.)  Couples, trust each other…and work together!  Trust God’s working in your spouse!  Don’t always demand that it pencil out, figure out or even appear to “work out.”  Just because God hasn’t spoken to you doesn’t mean He hasn’t spoken to your spouse. 

ILL:  Sandy and my return to Spain—walk on the Oregon Coast beach. 

4.)  When God asks you to do something, He will make a way.  In this case, God provided resources they probably never, ever had again so that they could survive the journey, the sojourn in Egypt and the return trip to Israel. 

5.)  Expect that if God thinks it’s necessary for you to have an angelic/miraculous means of direction in your life that you’re probably going to need to remember that experience because something really tough is just around the corner. 

      In vss. 19-23 it appears that there were actually TWO additional angelic guidance experiences.  One informed Joseph that Herod was dead and he should head back to Israel.  The second apparently came later as he crossed into Israel and found out that not all was safe in southern Israel (Judah) so he would need to return to northern Israel and their original jump-off point several years earlier when this whole expedition began with Mary’s humanly unplanned but divinely induced pregnancy. 

      Ladies, just think back to your first 3-4 years of marriage, having a little kid in tow, moving from this town to that.  What would you be thinking about now if your man was telling you these “dream” stories, asking you in the middle of the night, to move to another country, become refugees, etc., etc.?  These two young kids evidenced more maturity than most of us do after 50 years of marriage!  And if they hadn’t, the consequences would have been catastrophic for the entire human race! 

      Does anyone here not seriously doubt if either Mary or Joseph would have believed the other and taken the necessary actions to work out God’s plan of salvation had angels not been involved in the Nativity story with just this teenage couple?   No.  Without those angels, you and I would not be here today enjoying the wonders of salvation in Jesus Christ and pondering the importance of angels. 

      So that was Joseph’s angelic journey.  But Luke 1 gives us a parallel but different angelic journey that Mary was on.  Luke starts his Gospel by introducing us to John the Baptist’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah.  They are both older, past child-bearing age.  They never were able to have children and I’m pretty sure both of them had buried that desire long ago.  So when the “angel of the Lord”, Gabriel, appears to Zechariah as he is ministering before the Lord in the Temple by burning incense, and tells him that Elizabeth is going to be the mother of John, he’s understandably a bit skeptical! 

      BTW, we are told in Rev. 8 that angels stand at the altar in heaven and offer the prayers of God together with the smoke of the heavenly incense (whatever that is) to God.  You want God to see and respond to your needs and cries?  PRAY!  When we pray, angels work…and God responds!    

      Back to the story in Luke 1.  So for his skepticism, Zechariah must wait in silence for the fulfillment of the promised child for, well, at least 9 months and probably longer.  And six months into his wife’s pregnancy, they find that teenage Mary is standing on their doorstep with another hard-to-believe story about her unplanned pregnancy and another account of an angelic encounter.  Poor Elizabeth, all she gets first-hand in terms of confirmation during this time is one baby a-leaping in her womb when Mary greets her at the door.  Besides that, she has to trust a mute husband and a pregnant 14-year old female relative come to camp out with her for the last 3 months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. 

      But let’s read of the angel encounter Mary had in Luke 1.

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

            So here is a 12-14 year old teenager having one of the most important angel-experiences in all of human history.  It’s the same angel, Gabriel, who talked with Zechariah in the Temple months earlier.  It’s the same Gabriel who, we were told then, stood in the presence of God and was directly sent by God to earth (Luke 1:19). 

            BTW, “angel” literally means “messenger” in both the Hebrew O.T. and the Greek N.T.  In almost every case you see angels interfacing with humans in the Bible, it is to bring some message that was needed in the moment or that person’s life or the life of the nation.  Angels are message-bearers, not just experience-givers. 

            This particular message is one that Mary will need to hang onto for a lifetime.  What could and probably would Mary have thought over the next 9 months…and 33 years…and lifetime IF there had been no message from the very presence of God for her?  Women, what would you be thinking if you got pregnant as a freshman in high school and didn’t know why…and hadn’t had sex with a man?  How hard would it have been to show your face in public, talk with your family, face your husband without an angel encounter like this? 

            God knows what is needed to convince questioning human beings like us, especially when what He is asking us to go through or knows what is coming up is going to be very, very hard to do.  Sometimes it requires angelic intervention.

            But notice that even having an angelic encounter doesn’t remove all doubts. Mary goes on to ask a singular question of Gabriel, one that is not very different from what Zechariah asked of the same angel in the Temple months earlier. 

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

Zechariah had said in response to Gabriel’s prophetic word about Elizabeth’s upcoming pregnancy, “How can I be sure of this?  I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

            Both Mary and Zechariah were looking at physical and biological realities—age in one case and no conjugal relations in marriage in the other.  But they get different responses from Gabriel. 

Q: WHY do you suppose that is?  [Answers.]

  • Age difference?
  • Difference in length of faith journeys and thus what God expected, i.e. greater faith the older we grow?
  • Different measures of doubt that we can’t see in the words?
  • Other?

Regardless of the reason, Gabriel gives Mary several answers to her question:

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

WOW!  Here’s the proof of whether a message is from God or not:  “No word from God will ever fail.” 

Faith holds onto God’s word more than human doubt. 

Faith clings to God’s promises when it seems impossible, when it’s taking forever, when there is no human way possible that something God has promised will happen.  Because the angels in heaven know that “no word from God will ever fail!” 

APP:  This is the ultimate test of anything anyone—human or angelic—says to you:  does it align with God’s word… and does it come to pass.  If BOTH of those realities don’t unfold, then it’s not God who has sent that “messenger.” 

            That’s why, when someone gives me a “word from the Lord” or what they claim is a “prophecy”, if it doesn’t pass the smell test of agreement with God’s already-revealed Word, I reject it.  And if it passes that first test and doesn’t contradict God’s word, I’ll tell them “thank you” and wait to see whether it comes to pass or not. 

NOTE:  What I’m about to say, I don’t say to offend anyone or to throw any stones.  But this is honestly the test that Joseph Smith and all his followers should have applied to the supposed angelic revelation and messages of their angel Maroni and the Book of Mormon.  It fails the first test of being in agreement with the already-revealed word of God.  So no one need even wait around to see if it will pass the second test of actual fulfillment of prophecies about the future.

            To the angel Gabriel’s fuller explanation of how this pregnancy was going to take place, Mary answers like a saint 50 years old, not a teenager of 12 or 13 who likes to question everything!

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

            In essence, Mary is again affirming her submission to the Lord first.  “I am the Lord’s servant,” is a statement akin to, “Well, I belong to the Lord, body, soul and spirit.  So if that’s His will for me, then may your word, Gabriel, also come to fulfillment.” 

Mary goes on to sing her now famous song of joy and rejoicing to the Lord for God’s willingness to work with the humble and lowly like her.  And she went on to live out a lifetime of resulting joys and sorrows for embracing Gabriel’s message and God’s very mysterious call. 

            So life for all of us would probably be horribly different if you took the angels out of the incarnation. 

Which leads me to wonder, “How much would change in my life if it were not for angels?”  Many of us may never have a clear, direct encounter with an angel much less a host of them.  But many of us may. 

Regardless, think for just a moment about a few of the many things the Bible tells us angels may do for US at different times throughout life:

  1. Angels reveal the will and word of God at times. From encounters with Abraham to the Revelation of John, angels bring truth to us from the throne of God that help us make sense of the world. 
  2. Angels sometimes guide us. They did Joseph and Mary as we’ve seen….they led Philip to the desert so he could lead the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ (Acts 8:26)…they directed Cornelius to seek out Peter who would tell him how to be saved (Acts. 10-11). 
  3. Angels sometimes minister to our physical, emotional and spiritual needs: Hagar and her son (Gen. 21), manna for Israel (Ps. 78:23-25), Elijah in the wilderness (I Kg. 19:6), Jesus in the wilderness (Mt. 4:11); “ministering servants” sent to serve us, Heb. 1:14--Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
  4. Angels protect us at times: Daniel in the lion’s den (Dan. 6:20-23), The 3 Hebrew youths in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:24-28), Elisha and his servant in Dothan (2 Kings 6—the angelic army surrounding the city)

Story:  angels in Vietnam surrounding Glen Johnson in the highlands when the VC had surrounded them. 

  1. Angels are sometimes used of God to deliver us from persecution, danger, prison, Lot and daughters from Sodom, Gen. 19; Rev. 7:1-14—144K Israelites in the tribulation; Apostles in Ac. 5:17-20; Peter in Ac. 12:5-11  Angels fight for us:  Rev. 12:7; Mt. 26:53—Jesus in the Garden could have called legions.  Ps. 79-49—a band of destroying angels in Egypt.
  2. Angels sometimes strengthen and encourage us: Jesus himself in Mt. 4:11 & Lk. 22:43; Apostles to keep preaching the Gospel after imprisonment, Acts 5:19-20; promise to Paul that he would be preserved from death at sea, Acts 27:25; John on Patmos, Revelation.
  3. Angels play a role in the answering of our prayers: Daniel’s prayers were twice answered by an angel being sent to him (Dan. 9:20-24, 10:10-12); angels in heaven, Rev. 8:2-4.
  4. Angels minister to us in death: Michael with the body of Moses (Jude 9); Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom (Lk. 16:22); the day of resurrection of Israel’s righteous dead (Dan. 12:1-3). 
  5. Angels show us the importance of hospitality and love of strangers, Hebrews 13:2.

Angels are a very amazing, very different race of beings from us.  God in His wisdom has allowed them to interact with us in our world, sometimes visibly, often not.  And God put them in a very prominent place in the Nativity story.  He gave them vitally needed messages.  And He used them to implement His plan of salvation for desperate sinners like us.