Each appearance seems to have a special purpose. I thought it would be fun to explore the purpose of each visit.
- A message fulfilling a long hoped for wish. Gabriel visited Zacharias in Herod’s temple in Jerusalem to announce the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:11–20). Gabriel actually was a forerunner who announced the birth of yet another forerunner, John. I think it’s interesting that Gabriel appeared just outside of the holy of holies in the temple, the place where the high priest annually appeared on the day of atonement in behalf of all Israel. The day is known as Yom Kippur. Gabriel’s announcement was not well received by Zacharias—he doubted. It must have been a pretty serious doubt because he was struck dumb—the “penalty of doubt” according to James E. Talmage—until the day his son was circumcised (see number 4).
- A message for the ages. Gabriel visited Mary in Nazareth to announce the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:26–38). Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph and was likely still a teenage girl. Imagine her thought processes as she was told she was going to become pregnant, miraculously, before her marriage, with the Son of God. I ask myself why God timed this pregnancy before the actual marriage when no suspicions would arise. The path to obedience and faithfulness can be a steep climb and requires a lot of patience and faith from us, sometimes even persecution.
- A message of assurance. An angel visited Joseph in Nazareth in a dream, assuring him that his soon-to-be wife Mary was bearing a holy child (Matthew 1:20–25). Matthew doesn’t name this angel, but it is reasonable to believe that it was Gabriel, the same angel who appeared to his fiancé Mary. Joseph was having a hard time believing Mary’s pregnancy story—like a lot of us men, we can be a little slow in catching on. But after the angel came, he was emboldened and married her soon after. I love how both Mary and Joseph were eager to take their on these divine commitments seriously.
- A prophetic message and ordinance. An angel visited John when only eight days old to ordain him to the priesthood (D&C 84:27–28; see also Luke 1:39, 65). This was likely the same day that John was circumcised, the day that Zacharias’s voice was restored. I love the way Zacharias affirms, “His name is John” when some questioned why the baby boy wasn’t named for his father. That non-verbal affirmation was an affirmation of faith after which the penalty of his doubt was lifted and his prophetic Benedictus was uttered. While he was still young, John lived in the desert (see Luke 1:80), perhaps to avoid persecution or even death, for though disputed by scholars, the Protoevangelium of James states that Zacharias was murdered for protecting the whereabouts of John.
- A glad message of great joy. Angels visited shepherds near Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth (Luke 2:9–14). I love how the angels appeared—first just one angel and then a multitude—to “the most humble in the social order of that time,” according to Dallin H. Oaks, which to me is evidence that “the weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones” (D&C 1:19) and that “the weak things of the world, those who are unlearned and despised” will come forth to “thresh the nations by the power of [his] Spirit” (D&C 35:13).
- A message of warning and protection. An angel visited Joseph in Bethlehem to warn him to flee Herod’s barbarous soldiers and escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:13). After Jesus was born, the little family must have stayed on in Bethlehem for several years, for according to the wise men, the star heralding Christ’s birth had appeared two years before they arrived in Palestine to seek out and worship the child. The angel warned Joseph to depart quickly to protect Jesus from Herod’s murderous jealousy (man, that guy had issues). I am sure the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, helped to finance their travels.
- A message to come home. An angel visited Joseph in Egypt, commanding him to return to the land of Israel (Matthew 2:19–20) which eventually led them back to their native Nazareth. I have often thought about how long they were in Egypt, who they met there, and what they learned. I also think about the little family returning to Nazareth after what might have been a long absence, and maybe with more than one child (Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters [see Matthew 13:55–56]). Perhaps they heard, “Where on earth have you guys been?” How much of their story could they tell? How much did they dare tell?
Finally, it’s inspiring to me that the command to “fear not” is repeated four times by angels during these visits (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30; Luke 2:10.) I am not sure of the meanings in the original sources, but in the translated versions, that is a command, given repeatedly, in an imperative voice, by divine messengers.
We have a loyal helper, an inspired guide, an invincible protector, a Savior. His name is Jesus Christ—a name you can trust. This is the ultimate message of the angels: We need never be afraid again.
[This post was first published in December 2016.]