The words we are going to read from Scripture were probably part of a hymn sung by the early Christian believers. You'll notice that the first line of this hymn is a statement about the birth and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. So I think it would be fair to describe this hymn as a Christmas carol and probably therefore one of the earliest Christmas carols ever written, a song of praise for Jesus Christ sung by the earliest Christian believers1 Timothy 3:16 says:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.
I want to reflect on just one line from this carol, and it's the great statement in the middle, that Christ "was seen by angels." Seen by angels. It's a phrase that invites us really to view the whole of the Christmas story from the perspective of the angels. Now, we sometimes think about the Christmas story through the eyes of the shepherds, for whom it was great good news and great joy. Or sometimes we think about it through the eyes of the wise men, for whom the coming of Jesus was the beginning and the ending of a long search. We sometimes even think about the Christmas story through the eyes of Herod, for whom it meant the overturning of everything that he stood for and all that he had in place in his life. This morning I want us to think about the Christmas story as it was seen by angels. He appeared in a body. He was seen by angels.
We know that when God created the heavens and the earth he created man and woman as the pinnacle of his earthly creatures. That is why human life is of inestimable value and worth. But God not only created earth and human life. God also created the heavens, and just as man and woman are the pinnacle of the earthly creation so the angels are the pinnacle of God's creation in heaven. It's important for us to remember that the angels are not God, but the angels were created by God. In fact, the whole of the first chapter of the Book of Hebrews is written to remind us of the great difference between angels and God, or more particularly between angels and the Son of God.
Angels, for example, do not know all things. Only God does. There's a fascinating verse in 1 Peter 1:12 where Peter is writing about our salvation, and he says, "Even angels long to look into these things." They don't know everything. Only God does.
And they're not present everywhere. Only God is. Angels are sent to specific places at specific times for specific tasks.
And then they're not . Only God is. Angels are servants of God with power to execute the will of God. They are not .
The Bible indicates, interestingly enough, that some angels joined in the great genesis of evil by participating in the rebellion of Satan, and the result was that they lost their position in heaven. And so the Bible sometimes speaks about the devil and his angels. But our focus today is on the angels of God, the multitude of God's created beings and servants in heaven, whose only experience has been the joy of serving God and participating in his plans to bring about blessing on earth. And if angels are the pinnacle of God's creation in heaven, then it should not surprise us that when heaven and earth touch and meet, angels will be there.
Seen by angels.
What did the angels see? We're going to trace seven answers from the Gospels to that question.
1. The angels saw Christ in heaven
Now it's important for us to remember that although the Lord Jesus Christ was born in a manger, that was not the beginning of his existence. This is one of the ways in which he is absolutely unique and different from us. None of us existed before we were in our mother's womb. Before you were conceived in your mother's womb, you were not. You did not exist. For you, for me, that was the beginning of existence. But for Jesus Christ it was different. Before he was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Bible tells us his glory filled the heavens. "In the beginning was the Word [a name for Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Since before the creation, before the beginning of time as we know it, God has always been God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Christ was with God and he was God.
And the Bible says all things were created by him and for him, so that includes the angels. They were created for Christ, and they were created by Christ. Now, the creation of angels is not something we're told much about, but we can be sure of thisthat the first moments of created consciousness for the angels would have been moments when they were aware of the presence and glory of the Son of God who created them. He created them. He brought them into being by the word of his power, and as he called them into existence their first sight would have been of his glory.
There's an interesting passage in Isaiah chapter 6, for the prophet Isaiah is given a glimpse of heaven. And he says: This is what I saw. I saw the Lord, and he was seated on a throne.
And John in his gospel tells us a little more. He says what Isaiah saw was Jesus and his glory. So he sees the Lord Jesus and his glory filling heaven, and then Isaiah describes the angelic activity around the throne as they cry out to one another, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."
So, before the Son of God ever entered our world, he was the very center of the adoration and worship of angels. Jesus spoke about the glory that he shared with the Father before the world began, and the angels saw him in heaven.
2. The angels saw Christ in the manger
When you think about it, this is incrediblethe marvel of the incarnation, to the astonishment of angels. This Christ, whom Isaiah saw seated on his throne in heaven, rises from his throne, and then he disappears from view. And to their utter amazement, in a miracle that is shielded from our view, the eternal Son of God, who was God and was with God, is found conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, taking human flesh from her, and then is born as a baby. They see him lying in a manger.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us for a little while. One of the hymn writers put it, "Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man." And in Christ we see the glory of God and our human flesh united in such a way that the two become one. He assumes what is ours, that we may inherit what is his.
And so on the night of his birth, as heaven and earth touched in Christ, the angels appeared in a multitude and praised God and said, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." It was as if they were saying to the shepherds and to all of us human beings: Do you realize who has come to you? Do you realize the gift you've been given? We've been worshiping him in the glory of heaven, and he's now taken your flesh. Glory to God in the highest! Do you realize the favor of God that rests upon you in the coming of his Son?
So they saw Christ in heaven, and they saw him in a manger.
3. The angels saw Christ in the desert
Then as you trace the story of angels relating to the life of Christ through the Gospel, you find a third answer, that they saw him in a desert. As the Son of God grew into manhood, the question was whether he would really face life as a man, or would he resort to using his power as God to make the experience of human life easier? It was along these lines that the devil first came to him.
The Bible tells us he had been driven by the Spirit into the desert, and he had fasted forty days and forty nights, and so he was hungry. The devil came to him, and the thrust of that first temptation was this: Now, you are the Son of God, aren't you? So why should you bother with being hungry? I mean, you've taken this human flesh, and human beings are hungry when they go without food, but why should you go without food? You've got the power to turn stones into bread. So why don't you do it? Why be so serious about this incarnation thing? You don't have to experience all that they experience. Turn the stones into bread.
The Scriptures go on to narrate the temptations of Jesus that seem to come in wave after wave. It would be easy for us to underestimate the power of the temptations. We read of how Jesus resisted the Devil through the Word of Scripture, but we are not to imagine that this was like some kind of walk in the park for him, for you know that the times of most acute temptation are never like that. We know that temptation is at its highest a desperate and exhausting struggle, and he was tempted at every point as we are, yet was without sin.
The Scriptures indicate to us, then, that Jesus, God as man, encountered the full force of all that the enemy could throw at him and emerged the victor. But at the end of it he experienced in his body exhaustion. And the Gospel tells us this: that the Devil left him, and angels came and attended to him. How could it be that this Son of God, who can overthrow all evil by the breath of his mouthas he will in the Second Comingshould limit himself to facing evil as a man, that he should be reduced to an exhausting struggle? Angels came and ministered to him.
Of course they had seen the story from the beginning. They had seen Adam and Eve in the Garden, where human flesh first encountered temptation. And what a miserable failure it was. And then they had seen through the generations of history how time and again when human flesh came against temptation there was a repeated record of failure. But now they saw the triumph of Jesus Christ in the battle. John Henry Newman puts it in poetry in this beautiful way:
Oh loving wisdom of our God,
when all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.
Oh wisest love, that flesh and blood,
which did in Adam fail,
should strive afresh against the foe,
should strive, and should prevail.
4. The angels saw Christ in the garden
The next time we read about an appearance of angels in the life of our Lord Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane. And here Jesus struggled as he anticipated the impending crucifixion that he would endure as a man. The flesh that had been born of Mary was to be torn, and his own knowledge of the Father's love that went back before the beginning of time was now to be eclipsed as he would be plunged into the abyss as our sin bearer. Christian art has portrayed Jesus Christ in the posture of being draped full length over a large rock as he poured out his soul in the agony of prayer in Gethsemane: Father, if it be possible, let this cup be taken from me. Nevertheless, not my will but your will be done.
And then as he reached resolution and submitted to the will of the Father, an angel from heaven appeared to strengthen him. How astonishing. As God he needed no strength of angels; angels worshiped him. But now in these moments of his agony he is glad to be strengthened by the ministry of an angel. And if we may just a little bit push the boundaries of imagination, what must it have been for that angel to hear the voice of God say, "Go, strengthen my Son," and then for that angel to gaze into the eyes of the one he had worshiped back in eternity and to see in those eyes the agony of Gethsemane?
5. The angels saw Christ on the cross
And then angels saw him on a cross. Jesus made specific reference to this. You remember the moment when they arrested our Lord Jesus Christ. We're told, quite incredibly, that they bound his hands. Do you remember what Jesus said to them? "Do you not think that I could call on my Father, and at once he will put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels," he said.
And when we think about the witness of Christ to the incarnation, what must the angels have thought as they witnessed his death on the cross? What must they have thought as they heard him be accused? And what must they have thought when they who had worshiped him in heaven saw the mocking worship of the people who put a reed in his hand and said, "Hail, king of the Jews"? And what must have gone through the minds of angels as they saw someone taking a briar of thorns and weaving it together: Surely they will not put that on his head? And what must the angels have thought of our human race when they saw the Son of God nailed to a cross? We crucified the Lord of glory. The angels of heaven surely must have been straining at the parapet of heaven to intervene, but permission was never given.
The purpose of Father and Son together was that the Lord Jesus Christ should die, that the Lamb of God should take away the sin of the world, that he should be wounded for your transgressions, that he should be bruised for my iniquity, and that the punishment that will bring all of us peace should be upon him. That is why he came into the world. He appeared in a body, and he was seen by angels.
6. The angels saw Christ at the Resurrection
And then the Scripture tells us that they took down that body of Jesus, and they laid it in the tomb. And then we come to the sixth answer to our question. Angels saw him at his resurrection. For the angels were the first witnesses when the Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead. They had a better view of it than anybody else.
We're told in Matthew 28 that there was a violent earthquake. "For an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it." I love that bit at the end: the picture of the angel sitting on the stone. That is a picture of defiant victory. The angel is saying, as it were: Look what just happened to death. This stone that made death like a sealed tomb is now an open door. This Christ has come to you. This Christ has defeated death for you, and through faith in this Christ you, men and women of this human race, will defeat death also and rise.
"Do not be afraid," they said. "I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said." Seen by angels.
7. The angels will see Christ at the Second Coming
And then seventhly, he will be seen at his second coming. Forty days after the Resurrection, we're told, Christ ascended back into heaven from where he had come. And again angels appeared, because heaven and earth were touching. And they said to the apostles: Why are you gazing up into heaven in this way? This Jesus will come back in the same way in which you have seen him go.
The Bible tells us that when he does return it will be with all his holy angels with him. And we are given a glimpse into the scene in heaven where Christ is seated on his throne. In the Book of Revelation, John describes what he saw in his vision. He says: I looked and I heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne. And with a loud voice they sang, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive honor and power and wisdom and strength and glory and praise."
We are to tell the nations what the angels have seen
He appeared in a body. He was seen by angels. He was preached among the nations. We are to tell the nations what angels have seen. That is the job of the church. That is the Great Commission. We're not here to say how I see it or how you see it or how anyone else happens to see it, as so much discussion is just at that level today. We're not in a discussion of perspectives. We are to proclaim what the angels have seen. We're to tell the nations about this Christ of glory, this Christ who was born into the manger, this Christ who faced temptation as man for us, this Christ who agonized in the garden, who went to the cross, who died, and who rose again. We're to tell the nations about this Christ who has ascended into heaven, who reigns until his coming again in glory. We're to tell the nations about the love of God. We're to tell the nations about the unspeakable gift. We're to tell the nations that the risen Christ, who came for us and triumphed over death, stands ready to receive all who will come to him in repentance and faith. We're to tell them that God is Immanuel. He's with us. We're to tell them the name Jesus. He will save his people from their sins.
Even angels long to look into these things. And their sense of awe at the mystery is the source of their highest worship. That is how it should always be for us.
And you know, although the angels have one advantage over usthey see the face of Christ; we have not yet seen the face of Christwe have something over them too. For angels have never known what it's like for a sinner to receive the grace and forgiveness of God. Angels long to look into what it must mean for a human being to be redeemed by Christ, for Christ did not come for angels. He did not assume the form of an angel. His blood was not shed for angels. All this was for us. It was for you. God gave his Son for us. The writer to the Hebrews describing the one who is the adoration of angels puts it this way: For a little while he became lower than the angels, so that he might taste death for everyone. But now he is crowned with glory and honor.
And the most marvelous thing is that by assuming our humanity, this Christ lifts our humanity higher than the angels. The Christian believer will be exalted with Jesus Christ.
Do you get the transcendence of it all? This is bigger than any of our little lives. This is God. This is God saving human beings by the coming of his Son. This gospel staggers heaven. And if it staggers the angels, why should any one of us this morning be indifferent to it? And if all heaven should bow at the feet of Jesus Christ, what reason does any one of us have to hold anything back?
Oh, come let us adore him, for he is Christ and he is Lord.
Colin Smith is senior pastor of Arlington Heights Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.