The Christmas army of angels

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“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel 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 2.8–14).

In his book, A Not-So-Silent Night: the Unheard Story of Christmas and Why It Matters, Verlyn D. Verbrugge writes, “One of the most familiar elements of the Christmas story in Luke 2 is the appearance of the angel to the shepherds. That angel was soon joined by a “great company of the heavenly host . . . praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2.13– 14 NIV). I doubt if there is anyone who does not envision this scene as a huge company of angels dressed in choir robes, perhaps complete with sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses, singing praise to the newborn king . . . . . . . . I, too, have always had this picture in my mind. . . . . But . . . I decided to revisit this passage in Luke 2, reading it in the Greek New Testament to see if there was something I may have missed. In doing so, I discovered something I had never realized before and something that is rarely mentioned and never discussed in detail in commentaries on Luke. This passage fits in with one of the two main themes I have been exploring in this book, namely, that Christmas is the beginning of war. Where is the military imagery in Luke 2:13? Listen carefully: The word that Luke uses for “host” is the Greek word stratia, a word that in classical Greek almost invariably denotes an army or a company of soldiers. On occasion the word could be used as an alternate for the Greek word strateia, which denotes a military expedition. In either case, the word has strong military connotations. . . . . What the NIV translates as “heavenly host,” Luke Timothy Johnson translates as “the heavenly army.” Christopher Evans refers to the “angels as the divine soldiery,” and F. L. Godet calls them a “troop of angels.” The NRSV has a footnote by the word “host” and indicates that in Greek this word means “army.” . . . . Most commentators, however, understand this word as a large choir.”

Dr. Verbrugge asks, ”How does this military imagery, then, intersect with the Christmas story? He explains, “In chapter 2 we discussed the evidence in the Bible that Christmas was the beginning of a celestial war. Jesus came to destroy the works of the Devil, and Satan reciprocated by trying to destroy Jesus. . . . . . . . Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, he had numerous encounters with demons, the cohorts of Satan.  . . . .  Our Savior openly admitted that he had always had a spiritual army at his disposal: “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).  . . . . It seems to me that those legions of angels who were ready to do the bidding of Jesus in Matthew 26 are identical to the multitude of the heavenly host, the stratia, that is out on the fields of Bethlehem. In other words, the song that these heavenly angels sing, . . . is not sung first and foremost by a heavenly choir, though I don’t doubt for a minute that they were trained in music as well as in military procedures. It is sung by legions of heavenly soldiers whose Commander in Chief has just been born, and they know that full-fledged war is just ahead of them.”

Verbrugge’s explanation throws a floodlight onto this heavenly encounter that Luke narrates. The appearance of this army of angels signals that a war – whose field of conflict embraced both heaven and earth – was entering its decisive phase. Christ’s nativity was the prelude to the great climactic battle in the war against Satan, the battle that took place on the cross, in which Satan was defeated, in which Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities” (Colossian 2.15).

That war against Satan began in heaven, when Satan first rebelled against God. Other angels joined Satan’s rebellion. From that time, Satan and his evil forces have opposed God and every angel and human loyal to Him. This cosmic conflict is central to the Bible story.

When Adam and Eve, too – tempted by the serpent – rebelled against God, the theatre of war now extended to planet Earth. After Adam and Eve’s sin, God cursed Satan. He said to him: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3.15). There would be conflict between Satan and Eve. And there would be conflict between their offspring – between people who follow Satan and God’s people. But, one day, a single offspring descended from Eve would – though suffering fearfully in the process – defeat Satan, and deal with all the consequences of sin. In Vaughan Robert’s words, “The rest of the Bible can be seen as a ‘search for the serpent-crusher”.

From the moment of the Fall, through century after century, God prepared the stage of history for the coming of the Serpent-Crusher. Alec Motyer comments that the Old Testament “is, in many ways, a book standing on tiptoe, straining forward into the future.” As we travel through the Old Testament God fills out the details of this Man Who would defeat Satan and rescue and restore mankind and the whole creation. So, after many centuries, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, . . . .” (Galatians 4.4). Just as angels sang at Earth’s creation (Job 38.4-7), now they celebrate our Saviour’s birth (Luke 2.13-14). God’s heavenly host rejoice every time Satan’s dark dominion is pushed back – and Jesus’s birth heralded Satan’s total defeat. No wonder they sang!

Details of Dr. Verbrugge’s book A Not-So-Silent Night: the Unheard story of Christmas and Why It Matters are available HERE.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2018 Robert Gordon Betts Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations (other than those in quotations from other authors) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers. © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked ‘NIV’ are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). UK trademark number 1448790.

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