We’ve looked at an overview of angels in Jesus’ life, and then zoomed in on Scene 1: His Birth and Scene 2: His Temptation. Now let’s zoom in on Scene 3: His death (read today’s story for yourself in Luke 22).
There are only two references to what angels were doing (or not doing) when it came time for Jesus to die. Both take place in the garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus was arrested in the night and then taken out to be crucified the next morning. One is only mentioned by Matthew, and the other only mentioned by Luke. They are two fleeting references, almost throwaway lines, but they give us a glimpse into what was happening in the Unseen Realm on the day that events in the Seen Realm were so horrific.
Jesus has been so brave. Today is a holiday, the Passover, a special day that Jesus had celebrated every year since He was a little child. He used to celebrate with His parents and relatives (Luke 2:41-42) and now He celebrates with His disciples. As they eat the bread-without-yeast and drink the four symbolic cups that commemorate God rescuing Israel from slavery in Egypt, Jesus would have memories of Joseph breaking this bread and and Mary telling these stories. He would have memories from Passover the year He was eight and the year He was nine and the year He was ten (and the especially memorable year He was twelve!).
The equivalent of that for me is Christmas, our biggest family holiday with the most memories. It’s emotionally like Jesus got arrested right after eating Christmas dinner with his friends and was killed the next day. If you knew you would be tortured to death on December 26, would you still look forward to Christmas dinner?
That night at their holiday dinner, Jesus said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). WHAT? If I knew what Jesus knew about His future, I would have spent years dreading anything that meant I was getting closer to the cross. Honestly, I would have spent my whole life being terrified.
But Jesus is the guy who said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).
And that guy was really, really good at practicing what He preached.
So Jesus enjoyed His life, right up to and including dinner the night before He died. At that special dinner, He did something that changed everything. Imagine Jesus is hanging out with your family for Christmas. He reaches into the Nativity set on your coffee table, picks up the plastic baby glued to the plastic manger, smiles big and says, “This is Me.”
That’s an equivalent of what Jesus does to His disciples in this moment. They are drinking the four cups of “Sanctification, Deliverance, Redemption, and Praise” like they have every year of their lives, and on cup number three Jesus drops the bombshell announcement, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood which is poured out for you.” He rips the bread in two down the middle (I wonder if He shuddered?) and announces, “This is My body given for you.” He picks up the tradition they’ve been observing for over a thousand years and says, “This is Me.”
With those words, He reveals that He knows He has to die and He knows why. Because He is the Passover Sacrifice, the Lamb whose blood will save their lives. And He has been looking forward to this dinner where He will tell them so.
And it is only after that dinner is over that He takes them outside to their favorite secret garden spot (another place where they have so many good memories, which is about to become a place of trauma tonight) and lets Himself feel all the emotions that I would have been feeling all this time. By the reckoning of His culture, each new day starts with the sunset of the day before; the sun has set, and so the day of His suffering is now, finally, Today and not Tomorrow. Now He will let Himself feel all His dread of the cross. He tells His disciples to watch and pray (they don’t) and then He takes a few more steps into the trees for privacy, throws Himself down on the ground, and lets it all out.
He begs His Father to find a way out of this.
Hebrews 5:7 describes Jesus’ prayers in this moment as “with loud crying” or “with strong crying and tears.” And the verse ends with the surprising statement that “He was heard because of his reverent submission.” It doesn’t look to me like He was “heard.” Jesus’ Father did not say “Yes” to His prayer for a way out of the cross. He wasn’t rescued from one minute of the screaming pain of it. Jesus realized that, and ended His prayer with the bravest sentence that has ever been spoken:
“Yet not my will but Yours be done.”
It’s such a powerful sentence that all His spiritual children after Him have prayed it, too. I’ve said it in more situations than I can count. But none of them were anywhere near as hard as His.
And even Jesus had to repeat that whole pleading-and-submitting process three times before He was ready to go through with it (Matthew 26:44).
Ultimately, the whole world would see that Jesus “was heard” by His Father when His incredibly proud and pleased Father raised Him from the dead. But for most of my life I have overlooked the fact that in this most difficult of all moments, the Father sent a very clear sign that He had heard and was incredibly pleased with Jesus’ sobbing prayer of surrender:
An angel showed up.
This angel had no message to deliver.
There were probably no words for this moment, anyway.
His Father was not sending a rescue from death, only a hug before He died.
The angel did two things: it “appeared to Him” and it “strengthened Him” (Luke 22:33) I expect every angel in heaven wanted to be chosen for that assignment. One very sad angel, who would have loved to save Jesus but respected His decision to save us, did the only thing it could do in that moment: wrap its arms around Him and feel these emotions together.
Agony in the Garden, by Franz Schwartz, 1898
I have “seen” and “felt” angels hugging me. It’s something I’ve asked my heavenly Father for, especially when I have gone into lonely places for His sake where there were no human friends to hug me (although He is so generous with the angel hugs that He said I can ask for them whenever I want to!). It was an amazing feeling. But I don’t know if the angel was able to make Jesus feel better in that moment. Maybe at this point it’s assignment was to keep Him alive long enough to die. Because the next verse immediately after the angel shows sounds like Jesus is feeling even worse:
“And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (v. 44).
I have never experienced blood oozing out of my skin in my sweat. If I did, I would freak out and maybe call 911. Jesus is not in a good place right now. The angel hangs on tight.
And somehow, Jesus has the strength to stand up and walk back to where His disciples are. There are no hugs from His human friends. They are sleeping, not praying for Him. He wakes them up just in time to see the enemies’ lantern lights coming through the dark trees. It is time.
And now Jesus is somehow ready. Now He is all courage. In the secret place before His Father and with the angel, He was sobbing like a baby. Now He is confronting Judas, “Are you betraying Me with this kiss?” and challenging the leaders “Why did you have to arrest Me under cover of night, huh?” and ordering His disciples “Stop cutting people’s ears off!” and even using His healing powers to reattach the ear that Peter cut off, healing His enemies so they can kill Him, still loving His enemies, still practicing what He preached, performing that one final healing miracle before He died. That beautiful Jesus. He has decided to die, and now He seems to be feeling like Himself again.
I kinda want to say, “That was one helpful angel!”
And while Jesus is rebuking Peter for cutting people’s ears off, He makes the second reference to angels in the story of this traumatic night:
“Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).
What are the other angels doing while that one lucky angel got to show up and hold Jesus through His prayer time? They are doing what the disciples were doing: waiting for an order to fight that never came. They are standing in formation, swords strapped at their sides, tears streaming down their cheeks, waiting for Him to call for them, waiting to fight and rescue Him, waiting for their Commander in Chief to command them again.
But their Commander in Chief knows He is also the only Lamb whose blood will make death Pass-over His people. He just said that His body will be broken like the bread and His blood poured out like the cup of redemption to make a new covenant possible. So now He doesn’t ask His Father to mobilize His angel army. He only says, “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” and holds out His hands to be tied up and led away by the beings He created.
A million angelic spirits hold back their inner scream, “Why are You letting them to do this to You?”
And there are no more references to angels until it’s time to raise Jesus from the dead. Then they are allowed to go to work, zapping guards into a coma and kicking a mammoth rock out of the way like it was a pebble. But for now, it’s as if they have to sit on the bench for the rest of the game. They don’t get to do a lights display in the sky like they did at His birth or give the jerks who are taunting Jesus a punch in the jaw. They don’t get to pick Jesus up when He crumples under the weight of carrying the cross or bring Him water when the soldiers offer Him vinegar to drink or cover Him when they rip His clothes off or or break the silence after He wails, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
And I can only imagine how much they wanted to.
The Father is in anguish. Jesus is in anguish. The Holy Spirit is feeling it all from inside of Him. And the angels watching must be feeling it too. Like God, they are immortal spirits who aren’t vulnerable to pain and death like we physical beings are. And also like God, they can surely feel the anguish of loving someone who is hurting and dying.
They don’t get what they want most: to rescue the One they love, the One they have always worshipped and obeyed.
Instead, they get out of it what He got out of it:
They get us.
In every experience of angels that I have ever had, I can feel that the angels LOVE me. It’s like being a baby and meeting all your parents’ best friends. You don’t know them, but they have heard all about you and they LOVE you. And whenever I wonder why the angels love me so much, I get the same answer: “Because Jesus died for you.”
If your best friend insisted on dying to save the life of an orphaned baby, how much would you treasure that baby all the days of its life?
If Jesus insisted that to Him, you were worth going through the cross for (and those angels had to witness every blood-drawing minute of it), you are worth your weight in diamonds to His friends. When you are introduced to them, they will shake your hand and say, “It’s a privilege to meet somebody Jesus died for.” (Try remembering that one-liner about everyone you meet!). The love in the Kingdom of Heaven is unconditional because its condition has already been met: Jesus paid it all.
Welcome home to that love.
Jesus’ army of servant-friends is happy now. They are setting the table.
Because Jesus is still looking forward to eating dinner with you.