Do you believe in angels? If so, what do you think angels are like? What do they do? What do they look like? Some time ago these questions got much more personal for me when I was given the role of the Angel Gabriel in The Promise (more about that in a moment). But you don’t have to play an angel in a movie to wonder about these heavenly beings. Questions about angels are pretty relevant in a culture where many people completely reject these supernatural beings on the one hand, while others accept all manner of wild myths and folklore on the other.
To believe the nativity story of Jesus is to believe in angels. The opening acts of Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels record angels everywhere: speaking to Zechariah in the temple, announcing the coming Messiah to Mary, announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds and speaking to Joseph three times in dreams (one has to wonder, too, if Simeon and the Magi don’t receive their messages from God through an angel?). Without God’s heavenly messengers, the story simply could not have happened as the New Testament tells it. How else would Mary and Elizabeth have known the significance of the babies they carried? How would Joseph have been prevented from divorcing Mary, or the lowly shepherds informed of Jesus’ birth? Without angelic messengers, it seems like these people would have lacked a lot of information – and a great deal of confirmation – that the angels brought to them.
My own knowledge of angels was recently ramped up considerably as my personal journey took an “angelic” turn. One day my friend and The Promise director Todd Shaffer asked me to come into the Glorious Films studios to sing for him and producer Ron Mezey a newly written song for The Promise. At the time I was doing part-time Bible and music consulting for the movie, but by the time I walked out of Ron’s office, I had a new “role” – the voice of the Angel Gabriel! I decided immediately that I must do a serious study of Gabriel and angels in the Bible in order to play the part faithfully to Scripture. As Bible consultant, I also wanted to make sure the script and animation portrayed Gabriel as accurately as possible. So I dug into angelology (the study of angels) and the following is what I discovered.
When you read the Bible, the first thing you’ll learn about angels is that they are not who pop culture makes them out to be. Rather than child-like cherubs with wings, halo and harp, angels are mighty warriors of God. In fact, the name Gabriel most likely means “Warrior of God.” Often biblical angels brandish fiery swords, and are used by God to defeat earthly and heavenly enemies (they do this seven times in just the first two books of the Bible).
Physically speaking, angels appear in human-like form very often; they speak, eat, and walk around like human beings. Unlike popular depictions of angels, they probably they do not have wings (this notion is apparently derived from the fact that angels may descend from and ascend to the heavens (how else, but by wings?). There’s also probably some confusion due to the fact that the other heavenly creatures, cherubim and seraphim, have wings). Quite often, angels are mistaken for mere men in the Bible (see Genesis 19:1ff). At other times, angels have a radiance about them that clearly communicates that these creatures are from the heavens, their countenance having been illuminated by being in the presence of the glory of God (Matthew 28:2-3). The most oft-repeated phrase in the Bible is “fear not” and it is for good reason that angels are often the ones voicing this reassurance — men and women are understandably frightened to death at the site of these mighty, radiant warrior-messengers of God!
As I researched Gabriel, I found that Gabriel is one of only two angels mentioned by name in the Bible (the other is the archangel Michael). This scarcity is astounding when one considers that in extra-biblical Christian, Jewish and Islamic writings there are found some 100 angels by name (Raphael, Uriel, et. all.). Gabriel is mentioned four times in Scripture – twice in the Old Testament and twice in the New Testament, and it is very possible that he is the angelic messenger in other stories where the figure goes unnamed. He first appears to the prophet Daniel (8:16) to explain the vision of the ram and the goat. Later he gives Daniel the prediction of the seventy weeks (Dan. 9:21-27). In Luke’s Gospel – the biblical source for The Promise – it is Gabriel who appears to Zechariah in the temple and announces the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:11) and shuts Zechariah’s mouth for nine months for his unbelief even as he opens his wife’s closed womb. Most famously, Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she will bear the Messiah. Every time Gabriel brings a message to someone, it is a momentous prophecy concerning the coming Messiah. When Gabriel appears, good news seems to come with him!
I spent a lot of time with the lyrics for Gabriel’s songs, and I think the writers did a great job capturing the essence of the biblical text. One of these is Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:28ff:
“Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.
Don’t be afraid Mary, I am Gabriel.
I stand in the presence of God
And I have been sent
To bring you a message.
For you have found favor with God.
Soon you’ll conceive and give birth to a son
And he shall be named, Jesus.
He will be great. The Son of the Most High.
And the Lord will give him
The throne of His Father
And he shall reign over the house of Israel
And his kingdom will never end!”
Mary understandably asks, “I will bear the Messiah? How can this be since I’ve not been with a man?”
To which Gabriel responds,
“Nothing is impossible with God!
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
And the power of the Most High
Will overshadow you.
A child will be born.
And he shall be holy – the Son of God.
Gabriel stands in the presence of God. He is sent from God and bears His messages. The message he brings to Mary is phenomenal – she, though a virgin, will conceive a son through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that child will be the promised Messiah – the Son of God!
When I went into the recording studio, my goal was to portray Gabriel in a way that did justice to this warrior-messenger who “stands in the presence of God.” That’s not necessarily easy, or even possible, to do (contrary to my wife’s confidence that I could play the role convincingly because I talk so loudly)! Likewise, our studio artists crafted a Gabriel who is a formidably large and muscular figure, dressed in fine linen, sans wings. He has a graceful, yet authoritative and other-worldly sense to his movements and facial gestures. But most of all, Gabriel in The Promise does what the real-life Gabriel did 2,000 years ago – he delivers a very important message to human beings on earth – “A child will be born, and he shall be holy, the Son of God. . . and you shall name Him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins!”