By John Caldwell
I have a confession to make. In well over half a century of ministry, I’ve never preached about the angels as they relate to the resurrection of Christ. I have manuscripts of all my Easter sermons, but I’ve searched in vain through scores of them for any significant focus on the angels.
I fear that many of us have seen angels only as “bit players” in the Easter story. In reality, however, the angels play a major role.
Angels in the Bible
Angels have many roles in Scripture, and they would make for an interesting study; after all, they are called “ministering spirits.” But the word translated as angel simply means “messenger.” And while they were used as messengers on many occasions, it seems to me that three angelic announcements are especially noteworthy.
For starters, angels were the first to announce the birth of Jesus . . . first to Mary (Luke 1:26-35) and then to Joseph, informing him about the truth of Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:20, 21). And on the night of Jesus’ birth, an angel of the Lord proclaimed that news to the shepherds, after which the sky was filled with angelic beings praising God (Luke 2:9-14).
Next came the second message, which was about Jesus’ resurrection. But there was another angelic announcement we must not overlook. Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, the Lord ascended back to the Father from the Mount of Olives. Imagine his disciples’ emotions as he disappeared from their sight. But then two angels appeared and made a third announcement. “‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus . . . will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven'” (Acts 1:11, emphasis mine).
So, God’s angels announced the birth, the resurrection, and the return of Jesus, three events that change the destiny of man for time and eternity.
Our knowledge about angels is somewhat limited. We know they were created (see Psalm 148:2-5). We know they exist in huge numbers. (Revelation 5:11 speaks of millions of angels.) We know that while they were created to be holy, some of them rebelled against God (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). Angels often revealed themselves in bodily form to mankind for various purposes. Jesus said they do not die (Luke 20:34-36).
Angels appear to have superhuman intelligence, but they are not omniscient. There appear to be differing levels of angelic authority, for Michael was identified as an archangel (Jude 9). The angel Gabriel was sent to tell Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, of the impending birth of John the Baptist; later, Gabriel also was sent to Mary to tell her she would conceive and give birth to the Son of God, whom she was to name Jesus.
Angels at the Tomb
What do we know of the angels with regard to the resurrection? Apparently, two angels were present for this, but neither was named. Each individual Gospel writer provided unique details. One angel rolled away the stone and sat upon it (Matthew 28:2), perhaps to see that the soldiers made no attempt to reseal the tomb. That same angel also was responsible for eliminating any objection from the soldiers guarding the tomb; “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men” (28:2, 3). The New Living Translation says the guards “fell into a dead faint.”
When the women arrived—several in addition to Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James—the angel invited them inside the tomb where a second angel described as “a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side” (Mark 16:5) was already present. Some have made much of the fact that Matthew and Mark mention only one angel, while Luke mentions two. However, no Gospel writer says there was “only one.” One angel was the first to make the thrilling announcement that Jesus had risen: “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!” (Mark 16:6, NLT, emphasis mine).
The angel’s next few words are often overlooked: “Now go and tell his disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7, NLT, emphasis mine). Why mention Peter specifically? It is probably because Jesus knew Peter’s heart. Yes, Peter had denied the Lord in his hour of testing, but rather than condemn him, the Lord through the angel offered Peter encouragement, a new beginning, a second chance. Please don’t miss that important lesson.
Before Peter heard the words conveyed by the angel, he had gone out and wept bitterly. When the rooster crowed, Peter was reminded of his sin and his heart was broken. I’m sure Peter had sleepless nights as he thought of his cowardice and failure. He had denied even knowing the Lord. Imagine what he must have felt like when he heard the angelic message that the women were to “go and tell his disciples, including Peter,” of the resurrection. The angel wanted Peter to know that one failure doesn’t make one irredeemable.
Angels and Second Chances
Every person reading this has felt they have blown it. But the message of the empty tomb, as conveyed by the angel, is that we have a second chance. Easter—the resurrection—means hope, a new start, a new life, a new opportunity, a new beginning. And on the Day of Pentecost, just 50 days after the resurrection, this same Peter spoke to thousands of people in Jerusalem. He said,
“You nailed him [Jesus] to a cross and killed him. But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip. . . . God raised Jesus from the dead. . . . So let everyone in Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, to be both Lord and Messiah!” (Acts 2:23, 24, 32, 36, NLT).
Peter went on to become the undisputed leader of the early church, bringing thousands to Christ, and eventually dying a martyr’s death. Thank God for the angelic announcement concerning Jesus, “He is risen from the dead.” Thank God, as well, for the angelic announcement that reflects the fact that he is the God of second chances.
For many of us, those two words, “including Peter,” make all the difference.
John Caldwell served as senior pastor of Kingsway Christian Church in Indianapolis from 1974 to 2010. He remains involved in ministry as a guest speaker and interim minister, and he serves with three mission boards as well as a part-time field representative for Christian Arabic Services.