When my children were young, one of my sons came into the kitchen while I was doing the dishes, and nonchalantly asked me, “Mom, do you know how to tell a good angel from a bad angel?”
I wasn’t sure where my budding theologian was going with this question, but my curiosity was piqued, so I said, “No. How do you tell a good angel from a bad angel?”
“Oh that’s easy,” he said. “A good angel will always say, ‘Do not be afraid.’”
“Wow,” I said, “that is really cool.” Suddenly, I was very curious, “Hey, who taught you this?”
Again with a very casual attitude he said, “Oh we learned about it in Sunday School.”
He soon left me alone in the kitchen with my dirty dishes, where I stood in awe of our conversation. As a mother I always love it when my children teach me.
My young son was referencing the three angelic visits that are recorded in the Christmas story as it appears in the gospel of Luke. In Luke 1:13-17 we have the first appearance when the angel Gabriel spoke to Zechariah, the future father of John the Baptist.
In verse 13 the angel said,
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” ESV
Then in Luke 1:30-33 the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and said,
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” ESV
And, lastly, in Luke 2:10-12 an unnamed angel appears to the shepherds and says,
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a 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.” ESV
Can you imagine why the angels began their message with “Do not be afraid”? I think it could be frightening to see and hear an angel. Look at Luke 1:12.
And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.
Mary was also greatly disturbed when Gabriel spoke. Look at verse 1:28-29.
And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.
Extreme gentleness seems to be valued by the angels’ words. Ultimately, you see from these passages, regardless of their message, the angels wanted to bring peace to their hearers.
But, each listener had a choice. Would they believe the message or would they give way to their fright? Ironically, of the three it was the most mature and seasoned believer who had the trust issues. Zechariah the righteous priest, who was chosen by lot to burn incense in the temple, who had walked with God the longest, was the one who struggled the most to believe Gabriel’s words.
You should know I am making some assumptions about these incidents that the scriptures do not specifically speak to. I am thinking that the shepherds who got stuck with the night shift were younger than Zechariah. Late night work is often an entry-level job. Many companies like hospitals must pay more to get employees to work the night shift. So, I am assuming as I read these passages from the Christmas story that the shepherds, like Mary, were younger than Zechariah.
So, what can be learned from these three angelic visits?
A) Spiritual maturity will not stop you from listening to fear
Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous before God (Luke 1:6-7). They were blameless in all the commandments and both were descendants of Aaron. And, yet when an angelic messenger from God came to Zechariah he was terrified.
After the initial messages both Zechariah and Mary were confused. Look at Luke 1:18
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
Mary’s question was similar in Luke 1:34
And Mary said to the angel “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
Both Mary and Zechariah wanted more information, but only one, Zechariah, suffers after asking. Why? Look at verse 20.
“And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
Zachariah’s motivation was unbelief, but Mary chose faith. Look in verse 38.
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
It was not having questions that got Zechariah in trouble. It was the distrust driving his curiosity.
Wouldn’t you like the longer you seek God to show a transformation in you? Zechariah had studied about God for many years and yet he stumbled. Unfortunately, seeking biblical head knowledge about God does not guarantee a spiritual transformation. A person could just be collecting facts. Remember, unbridled fear can eventually lead to unbelief.
No matter your stage of spiritual maturity your peace will always be tied to your trust level. The more you believe God the more you will enjoy his rest. In Hebrews 11:6 the writer to the Hebrews wrote, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Do you believe God wants to reward you?
Maybe, Zechariah fell for a common spiritual error. Do you think he actually believed he had spiritually outgrown his need to trust God?
B) There is a heavy price to be paid when you begin listening to fear.
The cost of Zechariah’s unbelief was severe. When he came out of his encounter in the temple he could not speak and God did not open his tongue until it was time for him to name the baby. As a life-long talker I cannot imagine how difficult that was. Think of the many times he wanted to speak to his wife about the impending birth of their first and only child, but he couldn’t because of his lack of faith. Like, Zechariah, you will suffer when you cannot trust God.
C) Thankfully, God can still move when you begin listening to fear.
Zechariah could not believe the angel’s message, but Elizabeth still got pregnant. When God wants to move nothing can stop God’s plans from coming to birth. But, what you can do is stop your enjoyment of being a part of God’s plan. Zechariah’s story is a great example of God’s grace. God can still move when you cannot trust.
Zechariah’s story starts by revealing his many good works. And, yet his consistent right living had never brought him the child he so longed to hold. It was his fear, unbelief, and questioning of God’s message that God used to teach him about grace. Like Zechariah’s life, living under the law will exhaust you. Hear God’s gentle words, “Do not be afraid”, because fear is one of the most common of temptations.
As you face the many unknowns and uncertainties of life, there will be many things you can’t control. But, there is one thing you have full control over. You can determine whether you will believe God. Ultimately, your choices will not thwart God, but it might determine whether you experience God’s rest now or later. As you celebrate your Savior’s birth this Christmas season remember that the angels’ desire was to bring peace. May you be blessed during this season with an ever-increasing calm and rest as you continue to exercise your trust in God.