The Christmas story evokes so many beautiful emotions in us this time of year. For those who have eyes to see, Jesus' humble birth fills us with joy and stuns us with amazement. What churned in the heart of the LORD of glory to be born in such lowliness?
Amazement was also a common reaction of many in the four Gospel accounts. Whether it was because of Jesus' gracious words and wisdom (Luke 4:22) or His miraculous deeds (Matthew 8:27; Luke 9:43; Luke 24:41), the crowds, single individuals, and His inner core of disciples were constantly astonished by Him.
The events surrounding His birth revealed yet another group of stunned onlookers - angels. After Luke describes how an angel visited shepherds in the fields to speak to them about the birth of "Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11), he writes:
“And suddenly there was with the angel [that appeared to the shepherds in the fields] a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!””
(Luke 2:13-14 ESV)
Traditional narrations of Jesus' birth in plays and children's books depict what Luke calls the "heavenly host" as angels dressed in choir robes, arranged in typical soprano-alto-tenor-bass fashion and singing in perfect harmony. Well-known Christmas hymns even render them similarly:
- "Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation... Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king." (Hark, the Herald Angels Sing)
- "Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plains." (Angels We Have Heard On High)
- " . . . from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold." (It Came Upon A Midnight Clear)
But do our songs and Christmas plays correspond with Scripture's testimony what the shepherds saw on that cold, lonely night? The Bible has much more to say about these angels when we dig just a little deeper than our Christmas hymn theology.
A large choir or large army?
What took place in the sight of common Jewish shepherds was absolutely unprecedented. Though it is not clear from the scripture if they were actually singing (as our Christmas hymns boldly declare), it is clear that they were speaking and giving glory to God. There are examples throughout the Bible of angels lauding God in heaven (Isaiah 6:3; Daniel 7:10; Revelation 5:11-12; Revelation 7:11) but nowhere else in scripture do we see such a large company of angels worshipping God from the earth. What transpired is an explicit sign of the coming age when the universal, exclusive worship of the LORD takes place on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10) and when everything that has breath praises the LORD (Psalms 150). On that Day, none other than Jesus of Nazareth, both Israel's Messiah and the LORD Himself, will be incessantly adored by all creation.
But who are these "heavenly host"?
In modern terms, the word "host" is often used to describe a large number of something - for example, we might say: "I have a host of things to get done today." A closer look at the Greek word used in this passage is highly revealing. The word used by Luke is στρατιά (transliterated: stratia), a word that in classical Greek denoted an army or a company of soldiers. Very few commentators, both ancient and modern, have recognized the military significance of this word usage in Luke 2.
Howard Marshall in his The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Luke says: "Στρατιά, 'host, army,' is used to refer to a heavenly company in the LXX (1 Kings 22:19; 2 Chron. 33:3, 5; Jer. 8:2; 19:13; Zeph. 1:5; 2 Esd. 19:6). . . . The phrase may refer to the stars, but it is clearly used of angels in 1 Kings 22:19."
Bob Utley makes a very brief, but more focused statement in The Gospel According to Luke says: "This is literally 'army of heaven.' It reflects the Hebrew 'sabbaoth', which also has a military connotation (cf. Josh. 5:14)."
Understanding "stratia" as a word with explicit military overtones transforms our "sweetly singing" choir in the fields of Bethlehem into a powerful angelic army robed in battle array.
Somehow Christmas just got a lot more frightening.
The announcement of the angels
So if the shepherds saw an angelic army in the skies, why is an army saying "on earth peace among those with whom [God] is pleased"?
Though some more thorough commentators do acknowledge the use of stratia in Luke 2 and the Septuagint as a company or army of angels, they do not explore how this military imagery intersects with the Christmas story and with the identity of Jesus as "Christ the Lord", as the angel announced to the shepherds (Luke 2:11).
In a dirty feed trough in Bethlehem, the long awaited Messiah lay cold and hungry. God himself was visiting His people and light was shining on the sons of men. The stunned angel onlookers see more than just another baby. They behold their commander in chief - not as the mighty conquering "captain" as He was seen throughout the Old Testament, but as a helpless baby whose cries fill the night air.
Instead of the angel armies arriving for the great and terrible Day of the LORD as the prophets often announced (Isaiah 13:9; Jeremiah 46:10; Joel 2:1-11), the angels were proclaiming peace! It was not yet time for the final judgment. In saying "peace among those with whom [God] is pleased", the army was praising God and heralding a time of longsuffering and amnesty for all of humanity.
About 30 years later, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming an urgent message of repentance for the forgiveness of sin (Luke 3:3). God was visiting His people and a window of opportunity for repentance had been opened.
What does this mean?
What does this window of amnesty and longsuffering have to do with Christmas?
The shepherds and Jesus' disciples 30 years later came to understood the full meaning of the angel's words about Jesus as "Christ the Lord" after His life, death, resurrection, and ascension back to the right hand of God. Peter echoed the angel's words in Acts 2:36, recognizing Jesus as both Israel's Messiah (the Christ) and creation's one true God (the LORD):
“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 2:36-38 ESV)
Peter's message was essentially the same as John the Baptist's - "repent and turn from your wickedness, because the day of the LORD Jesus is coming". The window of amnesty was still open. Peter did not see God's promises of judgment and restoration as uttered by the prophets as altered or somehow fulfilled by Jesus' death and resurrection, but saw the atoning death of Jesus as the only means by which one would be able to stand on the future day when He judges the world in righteousness (Acts 17:30-31). Before His coming in power and glory to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him, Israel's Messiah and God first had to suffer for sin (Hebrews 9:26-28). The window of amnesty had to be opened for Gentiles to come to repentance and, by their faith, receive the Spirit and have the confidence of inheriting eternal life and participating in the kingdom in the age to come, as the prophets foretold. According to Peter, this time of amnesty is what Paul wrote about in his letters, which some continue twist to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Just as some mistake amnesty for "fulfillment", God's amnesty must also not be mistaken for His passivity or apathy. Just as John the Baptist said, the One who would come after Him would indeed be the Mighty One baptizing the world with the fire of judgment (Matthew 3:11-12; Luke 3:16-17), burning the wicked with a fire that would cause them to become ashes under the soles of the feet of the righteous (Malachi 4:3).
Jesus of Nazareth, the LORD, will have a Day where He will delay no longer. He will go forth to fight against Israel's enemies just as He did in the days of old (Zechariah 14:3-4). He will come in glory with His angelic armies (Matthew 16:27; Matthew 25:31; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26), the same armies that heralded the time of peace and amnesty in Luke 2. He will have the preeminence in all that He has made (Colossians 1:18), and will be seen and rightly adored for who He really is (Isaiah 45:23; Philippians 2:11), crushing all who scorned His patience and rejected His mercy (Romans 2:1-10; Romans 11:22).
Because of Jesus' birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, this is certain.
The Apostle Paul says:
"This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed."
(2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 NIV)
The Apostle John also saw Jesus, his friend and God coming with glory:
“He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.”
(Revelation 19:13-14 ESV)
As the world continues in its mockery of God and its secularization of Christmas, may we be ones who heed the words of the angelic army and approach His manger with joyful trembling this season. The captain of the armies of heaven rests his tiny head there and will have His Day. And as He sits on high presently, He bears long with the sons of men causing the sun to rise, the rains to fall, and breath to fill the lungs of His enemies. May His longsuffering be our hope in trial and His call to repentance be our message to the wicked until the day of His return.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.