Question: I always imagined an angel encounter would be beautiful and reassuring. What was so terrifying to the shepherds about the appearance of just one angel announcing Jesus’ birth?
The “terrifying” angelic encounter is found in Luke 2:
Luke 2:9-10 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.
Angel encounters in Scripture often (though not always) describe people being “frightened” (Gk. phobos— from which we get our word phobia). Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, unexpectedly encountered an angel while alone in the Temple:
Luke 1:12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a similar experience:
Luke 1:30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
The shepherds outside Bethlehem, however, were far more than simply startled or “troubled” by an unexpected angelic visitor. Their experience was probably more like that of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, for he witnessed more than just the sudden appearance of one angel:
Ezek. 3:23 So I arose and went out into the valley, and behold, the glory of the LORD stood there, like the glory that I had seen jby the Chebar canal, and I fell on my face.
When Ezekiel sys, “the glory of the Lord stood there…” he is describing a heavenly being surrounded by indescribable light that flooded his senses, radiating from a non-earthly origin. This is a glimpse of the light of heaven, a slight parting of the veil separating the dimension of God’s kingdom on the spiritual plane from the dimension of the material universe.
This would be much like what the shepherds witnessed when the dark night sky gave way to the glory of “…God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see (1Tim. 6:15-16). Artistic portrayals of that scene usually depict a soft beam of light emanating from an angel hovering in midair, casting a spotlight upon the shepherds as if they were actors on a stage. But according to Luke 2, heaven’s light was so intense that “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Lk. 2:9).
The word “glory” always refers to someone or something other than itself. The corona of the sun is a radiant, beautiful powerful display of an unapproachable ball of nuclear fission. The corona is what we are able to see of the sun, without actually seeing the sun itself. It is the “glory” of the sun. The glory that flooded the shepherd’s field and dissolved the night sky into day did not radiate from the angel, rather it was “the glory of the Lord” Himself!
The shepherds got a glimpse that night of what every follower of Jesus will see one day in heaven itself:
Rev. 21:22-23 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.