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.

‘From Eden to the New Jerusalem’ by T. Desmond Alexander

In this book, T. Desmond Alexander traces some of the central themes of the Bible story. Dr Alexander explores each theme in an unusual way – by beginning at the end of the Bible, in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation. In this way, he keeps the goal of God’s plan of redemption in view as we track each theme from Genesis onwards through the Bible.

There seven main chapters, bracketed by an introduction and conclusion. Here are the titles of these seven chapters; each is followed by an outline of the chapter’s content.

Chapter 2: “From sacred garden to holy city: experiencing the presence of God. ” This is by some way the longest chapter. It develops the central theme of God’s presence on Earth. We’re introduced to the end-goal of God’s plan: Revelation 21.1-3 describes the holy city that possibly fills the whole earth, and where God lives with His people. After an overview of the Bible’s theme of God’s dwelling on Earth, Alexander shows us that New Jerusalem is a temple-city. Then we’re taken back to the beginning: he shows us that God’s first dwelling place on Earth was the temple-garden of Eden. But after their sin, Alexander explains that God deprived Adam and Eve of their priestly status in God’s temple-garden; God’s plan that, in Alexander’s words, “the whole earth should become a holy garden-city” is jeopardised. Alexander briefly looks at the escalation of sin and God’s response by sending the Flood, and at the Babel project. Alexander then traces the path that God took to restore Earth to be His dwelling place with humanity – through the Tabernacle, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Church as God’s temple. Finally, he looks briefly at the New Testament’s references to God’s promise of His city.

Chapter 3: “Thrown from the throne: re-establishing the sovereignty of God.” Alexander first looks at God’s sovereignty over Earth and mankind’s original vocation as God’s viceroys – as royal priests. But, as Alexander tells us, “By betraying God and obeying the serpent, the royal couple dethrone God” . He then traces the way God restored His sovereignty over the whole Earth – firstly, through Abraham and through the theocracy of Israel, and then through the Man Christ Jesus. The author shows that Christ is now God’s viceroy over Earth, a role that His Church – a royal priesthood – shares. As he writes, “By living in obedience to Christ, his disciples participate in the establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth.” Finally, he briefly looks forward to the time, pictured in Revelation chapters 21-22, when God is king over the whole Earth.

Chapter 4: “Dealing with the devil: destroying the source of evil.” In this chapter Alexander explains that Satan exercises authority over this world, and outlines how he came to do so. He traces the ensuing conflict between God and Satan as it is played out in the world. He looks at Jesus’ conflict with Satan, culminating in Jesus’s death, which seems to be a triumph for Satan. But, as he tells us, “Apparent defeat is dramatically turned into victory with the resurrection of Jesus. For this reason, Jesus can subsequently proclaim to his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Matthew 28.18).” Finally, he briefly looks at the end of Satan’s domination as described in Revelation 20, and believers’ spiritual warfare in this present world.

Chapter 5: “The slaughter of the Lamb: accomplishing the redemption of creation. ” Five times, the last two chapters of Revelation refer to Jesus Christ as “the Lamb”; He is referred to as a “Lamb” 28 times in all. He briefly looks at the image of Christ as the Lamb in the Book of Revelation, then back to the Passover in Exodus. He writes that “the Lamb of Revelation 5 is undoubtedly associated with the Old Testament exodus story”. He takes us through the first Passover in Egypt. He explains that the Passover ritual in Egypt provided atonement and purification, and that Jesus’s sacrificial death provides atonement and purification for all believers. Dr Alexander also writes that eating the Passover lamb in Egypt made people holy; and that eating the New Testament equivalent – the Lord’s Supper – sanctifies believers. In his words, “Like the original Passover sacrifice, his death atones for the sin of the people, his blood purifies and cleanses, and those who eat his body at the Lord’s Supper share in his holy nature.” (However, it isn’t clear why eating the Lord’s Supper sanctifies us. I can personally see a connection, however. Both the Old Testament Passover and the Lord’s Supper are covenant meals. Participating in them reaffirms the covenant bond between the Lord and His people – that is, the God’s people are committed to and belong to the Lord – and so therefore are holy to the Lord.)

Chapter 6: “Feasting from the tree of life: reinvigorating the lives of people from every nation.” Alexander writes, “we have traced how God has acted to reclaim the earth as his own and build a temple-city by gradually establishing his presence and sovereignty through the theocracy of Israel and the church. Central to the redemptive activity of God is the cross of Christ, for through it Satan is defeated and human beings are enabled to regain the holy, royal status Adam and Eve lost. Building on these observations, this chapter explores how John’s vision of the New Jerusalem anticipates human existence as we have never known it. The life to come will be truly abundant and fully satisfying. This hope is reflected in themes found in Revelation 21–22 that reappear throughout the entire biblical meta-story, in particular, the concepts of ‘holy people’, ‘tree of life’ and ‘nations’.” Alexander look briefly at God’s people as holy people in His presence. He then explores what the Book of Leviticus teaches about holiness, cleanness/purity and uncleanness/impurity. Dr Alexander writes, “To be holy is to be unblemished or unmarred; it is to be complete, perfect, whole”. So he then looks at the bodily wholeness that will be part of our holiness – bodily perfection and immortality, with access to the tree of life. Finally, he looks at the ecological transformation of our planet, and the social harmony we’ll enjoy, where peoples from all races and nations will live in unity.

Chapter 7: “Strong foundations and solid walls: living securely among the people of God.” Dr Alexander makes it clear that the New Testament builds upon what is revealed in the Old Testament. He writes, “The continuity between the Old and New Testaments is also important because it provides a greater basis for believing in the reality of the future New Jerusalem. . . . . As our study has revealed, the New Jerusalem is a natural extension of all that has been revealed in the rest of the Bible.”. He then explores the contrasts between the New Jerusalem and the other city described in Revelation – Babylon. He explains, “Babylon and the New Jerusalem represent contrasting worlds.” Babylon is a prostitute; in Alexander’s “the city of Babylon represents humanity’s obsession with wealth and power, which become a substitute for knowing God” . New Jerusalem is a bride; Alexander writes, this city “promises holiness, wholeness and love in the presence of God.”. He points out, “the book of Revelation warns us to come out of Babylon and encourages us to take our stand with Christ”.

Dr Alexander specialises in the study of Pentateuch and Biblical Theology. This book is based on his expertise in these areas, and there’s substantial theological depth underpinning this book. It bridges the gap between books written at a popular level and those aimed at such people as seminary students and scholars. The book is relatively brief (less than 200 pages of text) and accessible. The text is accompanied by many footnotes, and there’s a 9-page select bibliography at the end.

David Schrock has written a helpful summary and brief analysis HERE.

Read the publishers’ descriptions HERE and HERE

T. Desmond Alexander is Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies in Union Theological College, a constituent college of the Institute of Theology at Queen’s University Belfast. His research interests lie primarily in two areas: the Pentateuch and Biblical Theology. He has authored and edited a variety of articles and books.