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Angels in the Life of Jesus: The Bird’s-Eye View

Before we look in depth at moments where Jesus interacted with angels, let’s get the bird’s eye view. Angels show up in the life of Jesus to mark crucial moments in the plotline: His conception, birth, temptation, death, resurrection, and ascension.

There is an unusual flutter of angelic activity as Jesus is to be born. Angels start appearing to people by day and by night, in places expected and unexpected. The famous angel Gabriel, whom everyone would have known about from the book of Daniel, actually appears to a priest in the temple named Zecheriah (Luke 1:11-20) and then, if that wasn’t astonishing enough, to Mary, a teenage girl at home (1:26-38). Her husband-to-be Joseph sees an angel in a dream while he’s asleep (Matthew 1:20). A group of shepherds see a whole lot of angels (Luke 2:8-20). All of these angels bring critical messages about Jesus. Sometimes, they save His life.

Then the angel reports calm down, except for Joseph. Joseph continues to receive angelic visits in his dreams throughout Jesus’ early childhood, guiding the family from Bethlehem to Egypt then back towards Bethlehem but then over to Nazareth, keeping Jesus safe and positioning Him where He needs to be (Matthew 2:13; 19-23).

Once Jesus is safely settled in Nazareth, we hear no more about what angels are doing for the rest of His youth, just as we don’t know much about any aspect of Jesus life during those years. We don’t know how much He saw or interacted with His Father’s angels.

But remember Zecheriah? His angel encounter was to announce his miraculous late-in-life son, John. Now John goes out to the river, preaching and prophesying and baptizing people. John says somebody special is coming (Matthew 3:1-12; John 1:19-28). Jesus emerges from obscurity by going down to be baptized by John, who recognizes Him and introduces Him not as his own cousin (which he was) but as God’s own “lamb” to sacrifice and save the world (John 1:35).

When Jesus insists on being baptized just like everybody else, heaven rips open above their heads (Mathew 3:16). Heaven had ripped open before and angels poured out over the shepherds when Jesus was born (Luke 2:8-20), but this time it is not angels who appear. It is the Father’s own voice that speaks directly from heaven to introduce Jesus as His beloved son! And it is the Holy Spirit Himself who comes down and lands on Jesus (vv 16-17).

The angels don’t appear until after the Holy Spirit has driven Jesus into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by the devil. While He’s there, the devil quotes one of the beautiful promises God made about sending angels’ to protect us to try to tempt Jesus to commit suicide! Jesus passes the test and refuses, and then the devil leaves and the REAL angels finally show up just when He needs help the most. They end His forty-day fast and help Him get out of the desert alive (Matthew 4:1-11).

After that, Jesus spends His three years of ministry-on-earth walking around teaching, healing, and empowering His disciples to do the same. During this time, we don’t know how much Jesus saw His angel friends or what they were doing for Him behind the scenes; the only references to them come out of Jesus’ own mouth when He mentions them in His teaching. Interestingly, almost every time Jesus talks about angels, He’s describing the role they will play at His second coming and the final judgment. He says the angels will come back with Him (Matthew 16:27; 25:31), the angels will sort out the righteous from the wicked (13:49), the angels will purge the evil and evildoers out of His creation (13:41), the angels will gather His chosen people to safety (24:31).

And then comes the time for Jesus to die on the cross, and there are two very important references to angels: one to what they DIDN’T do and one to what they DID do. What they DIDN’T do was fight the bad guys and rescue Jesus from the cross and carry Him to safety. He says they could have (Matthew 26:53). He says they would have. But He says He didn’t ask them to.

Because He loved us.

And we were saved by Jesus’ silence in that moment.

Instead, Jesus sweats blood and begs His Father for another way of escape, but there isn’t any, and Jesus three times forces out the words, “Yet not as I will, but as You will.” And the Father actually does answer Him. He sends Him a gift: “an angel from heaven appeared to Him and strengthened Him” (Luke 22:43). Instead of “ten legions of angels” to get Him out of there (Matthew 26:35), Jesus gets one angel who is there to strengthen Him to go through with it.

And He does.

And then, after Jesus has laid there in the tomb for the parts of three days required, the angels get busy. It’s resurrection time, and just as the angels seemed to be everywhere when Jesus was being born, they show up again when He’s coming back to life. They deal with the soldiers. They move the stone. They sit on it (Matthew 28:2-4). They go in and sit at the head and foot of His tomb-bed (John 20:12). They appear to the various women who come to the tomb (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:5-7; Luke 24:4-8; John 20:11-13).

Soon, Jesus Himself shows up and calms everybody down and shows them He really is alive again. After forty days of this, though, Jesus calls them all together, tells them to preach the gospel to the whole world while He’s away, and then just rises up into the sky and disappears right before their eyes! The disciples stand there staring, mouths open, wondering what just happened and how could that have just happened and if Jesus is going to come back down again and what they should do about it.

And they might still be standing there if the angels hadn’t shown up one last time. In one of the funnier angel encounters in the Bible, the angels skip the “greetings favored one” and the “fear not” that they usually use to start conversations and say politely, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here staring into the sky?” It sounds to me like they were trying hard not to say, “Seriously guys, Jesus just told you about this. Let’s get a move on!” (Acts 1:3-11).

Of course, the angel appearances don’t actually stop or even necessarily slow down once Jesus passes the baton to His astonished disciples. If anything, they increase. The angels are still helping out, breaking the disciples out of prison (Acts 5:19), breaking Peter out of prison again (12:7-9), telling Philip to go out to a certain road (8:26), telling Cornelius to send for Peter (10:3-7), or showing up to help Paul survive a shipwreck (27:23). Jesus is still with us to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), and so are His angel-friends. I am so grateful to God for that.

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