In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel visited a priest named Zechariah. Gabriel appeared suddenly as Zechariah served alone in the temple. Zechariah was afraid. For one thing he thought he was alone in the sanctuary. Suddenly, seeing anyone in there with him might have given him a fright. Gabriel, however, was not just anyone; he was an angel. The sight of the glorious creature must have been amazing, as the angel radiated with beauty and the glory of the Lord. He tells Zechariah not to be afraid.
Then the angel announced something quite unexpected, that God had heard Zechariah’s prayer. What prayer did God hear? The angel explains: Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son, whose name will be John. Zechariah should have been happy to hear this news, but at the same time it must have been surprising.
Zechariah perhaps he thought, “I prayed so much for a child. Elizabeth and I both prayed. We prayed for many years, and we prayed fervently. But we haven’t prayed for a child now in a long time, not since Elizabeth passed childbearing age, and we accepted the fact that we will have no children. And now the prayer we prayed so many years ago has been heard?”
But Gabriel said more, describing the type of man the boy would become. He announced that his birth would bring about joy, gladness and great rejoicing; that he would become great in the sight of the Lord; that he would not drink wine or any strong drink; that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth; and that he, going before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord, turn the hearts of fathers to their children and turn disobedient people into those who seek wisdom and justice.
For Zechariah, this news was overwhelming, not only that he would have a son, but also that everything else would take place as well. In his mind, it was too good to be true. So, he stumbled and in disbelief, grasped for some reply. He grabbed hold of what he thought was scientific fact: He told Gabriel that he and Elizabeth were just too old to have a baby.
The angel’s reply is one of the most amazing revelations. He tells Zechariah,“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God” (Luke 1:19). He thereby, like a soldier, indicates his angelic name and rank.
These details may seem meaningless to us. Zechariah, however, when he heard them, should have known what they meant. For Gabriel’s name was already recorded in Daniel 8. There, after Daniel saw a vision, a man appeared in front of him, and Daniel heard a voice saying, “Gabriel, make this man understand the vision” (Daniel 8:16). And the angel Gabriel explained Daniel’s vision.
Zechariah, since he was a righteous man, would have known the book of Daniel. When he heard the name Gabriel, he would have recognized it and been amazed and afraid.
He knew then that Gabriel was an immortal creature, one of the “morning stars” and “sons of God” who shouted together and rejoiced to see the creation of the world (Job 38:6–7); whom God created in the beginning, and created to be immortal. In short, he knew that Gabriel was an angel.
We may think it is normal to believe in angels, but we have to remember that Zechariah lived in a time when some of the most powerful people in Jerusalem — especially among the priests in the Temple — were the Sadducees, who denied that angels existed (Acts 23:8). There were deep divisions in Jerusalem, between the Sadducees who denied the existence of angels and denied the resurrection, and the Pharisees, who believed in these things. The Sadducees sat in the ruling positions of power on the Judean Council known as the Sanhedrin.
“If only the rulers of Israel could see what I see now!” Zechariah might have thought, as the angel Gabriel spoke to him. “There would be no more arguing, and this dispute could be settled once and for all.”
More than his name, Gabriel also mentioned his rank and station: One who stands “in the presence of God.” Zechariah probably also understood from his readings that from among the many myriads of angels that God had created, only seven angels were privileged to hold this station (Rev. 8:2; see also Tobit 12:15). Not only were the angels real, but here stood one of the highest-ranking angels. And more than that, Zechariah was going to have a baby boy.
Words can hardly express the awe Zechariah must have felt, and also how foolish he felt to have disbelieved Gabriel’s message. It was too late, however, for him to change his initial reaction. To give Zechariah a sign of the truth of his message, Gabriel took away his speech, and prophesied: “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” (Luke 1:20).
And with that, the angel left him. Zechariah could not speak. After his days of service in the temple, he went home, and everything happened just as the angel said. His wife conceived, despite her old age. The boy was filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. His relatives gathered with them and rejoiced with them. And when the boy was born, Zechariah called him John. With this final act, Zechariah was finally able to speak again.
Sons by adoption and grace
Jesus teaches us how valuable God considers His human children as He stations angels to watch over them. “Their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10), He explains, while encouraging his followers never to look down on even the littlest of His disciples.
With such simple words, Jesus explains the relationship between the two categories of sons of His Father: the angels, the sons of God by creation and obedience; and men, sons by adoption and grace.
We might think it only proper that we should serve the angels; they came first and remained obedient to the Father, while we, like newborn babes, only entered into the world recently. Besides, we were conceived and born in rebellion and sin, not sons of God by nature but made sons only by God’s grace. God adopted us as His sons by His undeserved grace.
We like to strive for first place, and for others we like to show favoritism. We give priority to those who have earned seniority, and we give preference to the strong over the weak, the great over the small and the rich over the poor. Of course, we would think that the noble, powerful, immortal angelic sons of God should enjoy more honor, glory and service than the sinful, weak and mortal human adopted sons.
According to the plan of the Father, however, these creatures who bask in the glory of God are not served, but they serve. Angels are ministering spirits, sent to serve those who will inherit eternal life (Heb. 1:14).
God puts the first last, and the last first. He puts His spiritual sons in service to the adopted sons. He commands the children who have always obeyed Him perfectly to be the ministering servants of those who rebelled against Him and returned.
Such is the mystery of the will of God the Father. Far above His sons by adoption and His sons by creation is His only-begotten Son. This is His Son by essence, eternally begotten of the Father before any creature or creation. Indeed, only through Him were all things created. And yet the Father sent His only-begotten Son into the world, to become lower than the angels, to bestow upon mankind the unimaginable gift, of taking into Himself our humanity, thereby giving everyone who believes in Him the power and the right to be lifted up, to become a child of God. And as part of this plan, He willed that the angelic sons of God should become servants to the adopted sons, just as the angel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, brought a message to Zechariah.
Although we are only children by adoption, we should not be afraid, but confidently call upon God, according to His will, saying, “Our Father … Thy will be done.” We should ask that He send His holy angels to serve us and watch over us, so that the evil foe may have no power over us. This He will surely do, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26).