And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-14)
Let’s revisit the night when the birth of Jesus was announced.
As for the shepherds, they have been unjustifiably vilified as social outcasts from a despised class of people. But there is nothing to substantiate this charge. These men were probably devout Jews looking for the Messiah, given the way they respond to the angel’s words.
Try to envision what happened that remarkable night. We are so accustomed to special effects and bright lights and computer-generated special effects that this doesn’t strike us the way it undoubtedly affected the shepherds. The only light present that night was whatever they could generate from a small fire around which they were undoubtedly huddled.
It must have been a frightening shock as the whole of heaven suddenly burst ablaze with the blinding glory of God! The Bible literally says, “they feared a great fear.” Simply put, they were scared spitless!
But what exactly did this “good news” consist of? Why is the birth of Jesus “good news”? Several things have to be noted.
First of all, the announcement that night was designed to evoke great joy. Instead of fear, Jesus brings joy!
Second, the joy itself comes from the fact that this one whose birth is announced is our Savior. Yes, Jesus is an example for us, as well as a teacher, a counselor and a friend. But above all else he is a Savior. The joy of Christmas is not in toys and tinsel, not in gifts and goodies, but in redemption from slavery to sin. The message of the season is not frivolity and fellowship. It is the good news that One has come whose death and resurrection have set his people free from guilt and condemnation.
Do you understand why there is Christmas? There is Christmas because you are a sinner! There is Christmas because I am a sinner!
We will never understand or appreciate Christmas until we come to terms with the fact that the baby in the manger is appointed by God to be either the Savior or the Eternal Judge of all mankind.
There is something profoundly disturbing and unsettling about the Christmas story. “Malachi foresaw his coming and said, ‘But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.’ As long as we can keep him in the manger, and feel the sentimental feelings we have for babies, Jesus doesn’t disturb us. But once we understand that his coming means for every one of us either salvation or condemnation, he disturbs us deeply” (William H. Smith, World, Dec. 26, 1992).
Third, he is the Christ, which is to say, he is the fulfillment of all the OT prophecies concerning God’s purpose for his people. He is the anointed one, the prophet, priest, and king whose presence ensures that what God has said he will do, he will do.
Fourth, he is also the Lord. He is King, ruler, and his dominion as Lord will never end. This child is the One to whom all allegiance is due, the One to whom we must bow the knee, the One to whom all devotion and loyalty and love are due.
Consider all the people and places where the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah is sung. So moving. So powerful. So emotionally rousing.
“King of Kings, forever and ever, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. And Lord of Lords, forever and ever, hallelujah, hallelujah!”
And yet how many of those singing those words actually realize that in declaring Him “Lord” they are singing to their own damnation if they do not embrace him as Lord in faith and fall on their knees to adore and worship him above all? To sing of his Lordship and yet refuse to submit to his sovereign rule and dominion is to call down judgment upon yourself! For those who do not submit in faith and repentance to Jesus Christ as Savior, Christ, and Lord, Christmas is without question the most horrible of all holidays.
Fifth, he brings peace to those on whom God’s favor rests. But what kind of peace? Surely not merely that peace for which we are striving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Far more than the cessation of external or military strife is in view. Nor does it mean that we temporarily suspend our dislike for others, decline to exact our revenge, ignore long-held grudges, or the like. The peace that came with Christ is peace with God (Romans 5:1). It is the peace of salvation, the end of all spiritual enmity, the glorious harmony that comes from the propitiation of divine wrath.
Caesar Augustus, who issued this decree, was himself revered and worshiped in ancient Rome for bringing political peace to his empire. But Jesus brings a greater peace!
I can’t help but wonder if one of the shepherds was at least tempted to interrupt the angel when he said that they would find the baby “wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”.
“Uh, excuse me, sir. Did you say swaddling cloths? Did I hear you correctly? I must have misunderstood. I’m old and hard of hearing and to be perfectly honest I almost soiled my shorts when you showed up so suddenly in the sky surrounded by the glory of God. Can you repeat what you just said? Swaddling cloths? A manger? Excuse me, but this just doesn’t make sense. You did say, did you not, that this baby will bring us great joy and that he is in fact nothing less than the Savior, the Lord Christ himself? Surely this one must be resting well in a palace of gold, marble, and silver! Surely this one must be surrounded by hundreds of well-armed soldiers protecting him from harm! Surely this one must be sleeping on satin or silk sheets!”
I don’t know if any of the shepherds said that, or were even thinking that. But I would have, if I had been among them!
In any case, before anyone can utter a word in response, the heavens are suddenly filled with angels singing and shouting and rejoicing. Such glorious news is too much for one angel to utter. There is need for a heavenly host of voices to proclaim this momentous event.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
But for whom is this peace designed? The angelic chorus leaves no doubt. The Lord God bestows the peace of redemption on those “with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14). Perhaps a better translation would be, “those on whom his favor rests.” The angels are not proclaiming the merits of mankind, but the sovereign grace of God! The point is that true peace is the experience of those who are the saving focus of God’s distinguishing love. The angelic emphasis is on God’s free choice of his people and the peace he sovereignly bestows on them through the redemptive sufferings of his Son.
Those on whom God’s favor rests, his elect, delight themselves in the peace that Christ alone makes possible. Our response must be no other than that of the hosts of heaven. Let us join with them this season in singing, “Glory to God in the highest!”
We come now to the third and final piece to Luke’s narrative.
The shepherds leave quickly for Bethlehem, although we have no way of knowing when they arrived, whether that very night or the next day.
When they arrived, what a stunning contrast they encountered. They had just been blown away by the brilliance of divine glory filling the skies and the symphonic praise of a multitude of supernatural beings. Now they enter a dark cave or stable, doing their best to avoid stepping in the dung, and there find the baby whose birth had been proclaimed.
What is their first reaction? Evangelism! They immediately go on mission! Observe the three recorded reactions of those who were present:
First, wonder and awe (v. 18). Who these were who “heard” their report, we don’t know, but they are in awe of what the shepherds say concerning the identity of this little baby.
Second, Mary ponders and meditates and reflects quietly on the news concerning her child (v. 19). This text indicates that Luke probably got his report of the birth of Jesus directly from Mary herself.
Third, the shepherds themselves hold a worship service! They glorify God and praise him for the wonderful work that they have beheld (v. 20).
How can we do anything less?