In my Christmas 2012 post, I featured part of an article by Dr Paul Copan concerning the birth of Jesus Christ, ‘The First Christmas: Myths and Realities’.
Copan, a theologian and author, has written several books about Christianity in light of the Bible. This is what he has to say concerning the imagery of angels in Christmas carols, contrasting that with Scripture (emphasis mine in the paragraph preceding the bullet points below):
In a verse of the Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” we come upon these words about angels:
Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world.
In the carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” they are called to “Wing your flight o’er all the earth.”
The Bible speaks of angelic beings such as cherubim and seraphim, which have wings (e.g., Isaiah 6). However, what most people don’t know is that the specific usage of the word “angels” in Scripture indicates that they do not have wings. They always appear in the form of men.
- Gen. 18-19: Three representatives of Yahweh come to check out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The three appear to Abraham and then Lot (two come to him while the third goes to Gomorrah). Although they appear as “three men” (Gen. 18:2). Abraham immediately recognizes them as manifestations of the Lord. When they appear to Lot, (they are called “two angels” (Gen. 19:1), and Lot takes longer to recognize them. In Heb. 13:2, which refers to these passages, the author writes that some have “entertained angels without knowing it.” This suggests that these angels appear as men—without wings. If they had wings, they would surely be recognized!
- Judges 13:3-6: First, we read that “the angel of the LORD” (v. 3) appeared to Manoah’s wife (Samson’s mother). Then she reports to her husband: “A man of God came to me and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome.”
- Daniel 3:24-28: Nebuchadnezzar sees “four men” in the fiery furnace (v. 25). He then says, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who put their trust in Him” (v. 28).
- Resurrection narratives: Although we read in the two of the Gospel resurrection narratives that angels are at the tomb (Matthew 28:1-5; “an angel of the Lord”; John 20:12: “[Mary Magdalene] saw two angels in white”). The other two Gospels speak of them as men (Mark 16:5: “they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe”; Luke 24:4 “two men . . . in dazzling clothing”).
- Acts 10: An angel of God (10:3) appears to Cornelius in Acts 10, the angel is later on referred to as a man in shining clothes (10:30).
Whilst this should not detract from our enjoyment of Christmas carols, it is important for us to know how angels appear in the Bible.