We stand on the threshold of a new year. Most people generally look at the new year as a fresh beginning, as an opportunity to kind of start over, to overcome a habit, or do a better job of something they see as important and that needs improvement. It may be parenting, being a better spouse, losing weight (which, by the way, is the number one resolution according to polls taken). It may be developing different priorities, using our time better, or a whole host of things that people would like to change.
So, we usually hear a lot about New Year's resolutions, resolutions which are usually broken in a matter of weeks. Many people are very pessimistic about the whole issue of making resolutions, and rightly so, because so many good intentions are followed by a history of past failures.
But the new year is a time to reflect and think about what the past year has brought and what the new year could bring. It is a time to stop and analyze, to take stock of our priorities, values, pursuits, and goals. We need to ask questions like "Who am I, what am I doing with my life? What should I be doing as a Christian with my life and the stewardship God has given me?" After all, according to the Word of God, all of life is a stewardship--a stewardship of our time, talents, treasures, and God's truth. In other words, since God's plan and our stewardships revolve around and through the life of His Son, Jesus Christ, we need to each ask "How well am I responding to the Savior and the spiritual life that He has given me?"
As we will see from the passage before us, Luke 2:13-20 provides us with a tremendous precedent or example for the new year and the kind of issues we might consider.
The preceding verses, 2:1-12, give us the account of the birth of the Savior. This included the revelation of His birth to the shepherds by a heavenly messenger, an angel of the Lord.
In this study, I would like to focus our attention on what followed this announcement to the shepherds (vss. 13-20). In these verses we see a number of things which bring acclaim to the person of Jesus Christ, but they also provide us with both an example and a challenge. We see both heaven and earth responding to the news of the birth of Jesus Christ in such a way that it exhorts and challenges us in our lives: in our attitudes, priorities, values, pursuits, and actions as it pertains to worship. It also challenges us as to our behavior toward spiritual things and even our reasons for living
The response by the shepherds as seen in this passage sets a precedent (an act or instance that may be used as an example in dealing with subsequent issues of life). The events here teach us how we should respond in view of the person and work of the Lord Jesus.
Acclaim to God and His Son and the impact of the news of the birth of Christ on others was demonstrated not only by words, but by the actions of the angels and the shepherds in the way they responded to the news of the birth of Christ. They provide some tremendous lessons and examples for us.
I also want us to note that the response of the shepherds was a result of the news of the angels. You may be saying to yourselves, "Well, if I saw a bunch of angels . . . , my life would be different too!" Let's put that idea to rest right now. Why? First, because the text makes it clear that it was not the angels they were excited about, but the news, the revelation which they viewed in faith as from God. Second, Scripture teaches us that it is not miraculous experiences that change men, it's the Word and the Spirit of God. The power of God is in the gospel--the Word of God--not in experiences (cf. Luke 16:27-31).
The response of the shepherds was the result of the proclamation of truth (Scripture). This provides a good analogy for our need to hear the Word on a regular basis, and, as a result of that, to act on what we learn and know.
Immediately following the announcement given in verses 11-12 there was a heavenly response by a host of angels. This certainly sets a example for us for whom Christ was born. Christmas and all of life should be a time of thankful praise to God for the person and work of Jesus Christ if one truly understands the significance of His life and death to both God and to man (Eph. 3:10; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet. 1:12).
But why angels? Angels were present at the rebellion of Satan and man. They observed man's failure and have, from the very first promise of the coming Savior (Gen. 3:15), been keenly interested in the coming of Christ because of what it would mean to God's glory and man's predicament (Eph. 3:10-11; 1 Pet. 1:12). Thus, at the announcement of the birth of the Savior, there was an immediate response from heaven.
It was an act of praise and adoration to God which manifested at least three things:
1. It recognized God as the source or origin of the birth of Christ as that supreme gift of God, which more than anything else, manifested God's glory or His divine essence--His holiness, love, grace, sovereignty, faithfulness, wisdom, and power.
2. It revealed and focused on the key outcome to mankind--it brought peace to men. The peace among men mentioned here undoubtedly includes all aspects of peace that ultimately come to men through the person of Christ and His work on the cross as they respond to Him by faith:
(a) peace with God (reconciliation--from enmity to harmony),
(b) the peace of God (of fellowship and provision),
(c) the peace of harmony and unity with one another as men experience Christ, and
(d) one day, universal peace through the reign of Christ on earth.
3. It revealed the recipients of this peace: They are described as those "with whom God is well pleased." God is well pleased with whom? With those who know His Son by faith and walk in fellowship with Him because it is the Son and the Son alone who satisfies and pleases Him.
POINT: God is satisfied with us only when we are in His Son and when we allow His Son to live His life through us. As believers in Christ, we are in "The Beloved," the place where God's love and satisfaction abides (Eph. 1:6).
Revelation from God always demands an adequate response in man, ALWAYS. This means we become even more accountable before God according to the revelation we have.
Thus, as soon as this angelic Bible class was over (as we might call it), the hearers faced a responsibility. Were they going to act on the news they had received or simply file it away as so much interesting information like the chief priests and scribes when the magi came and inquired about the place where Messiah was born (Matt. 2:1-6)?
The Shepherds Acted: This news and information became the center of their conversation. Too often when believers go to church and hear the truth of the Word, whether new or truth they already know, they may or may not listen, but even if they do listen--and even take notes in their effort to retain it--they may still fail to relate their lives to what they heard. We are far too often simply satisfied with our religious activity and erroneously think God is impressed too. As a result, people too often fail to act on or even think seriously about the study, message, or passage and its implications. We are basically untouched by the message. I am reminded of what God has said through Isaiah the prophet: ". . . "But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word" (Isa. 66:2b).
The Sunday morning message, for instance, could become a topic for the family on the ride home or at the dinner table.
"Began saying" is what we might call an inceptive, progressive, imperfect in the Greek text. Instead of merely stating the fact of their conversation like a snapshot, the imperfect turned the conversation into a motion picture; it turned it into a story and it put the story in motion. It means they began and continued to speak with one another as men who were excited about what they had heard.
Two Implications Here:
First, their response demonstrates they had a heart for God and for what was truly valuable. I believe these men were most likely temple shepherds who understood the significance of what they did as shepherds of sacrificial sheep. They were Old Testament saints who had the hope of Messiah and who (undoubtedly by God's working in their lives and by their patterns of life), had been prepared to respond to this news. As the Lord teaches us in Matthew 7:6, God does not pour pearls before swine--those in capable of appreciating His truth. It is significant that the angels appeared to these shepherds rather than the chief priests and scribes.
Principle: We reap what we sow. "Draw near to God," the Bible says, "and He will draw near to you." Scripture teaches us, "You will seek Him and find Him when you search for Him with your whole heart" (Jer. 29:13), and "If any man is willing to do his will, he shall know . . . "(John 7:17). Compare the warning of Hebrews 2:1f.
Application: What are we doing through the week and on the day of worship or Bible study to prepare the soil of our hearts for the Word? Has there been prayer, meditation, honest and pin-pointed confession, daily reading of the Word, or do we come hurried and harried, mumbling and groaning, upset and out of sorts? Are we more occupied with the world, with business, with sports, with pleasure, with computers, with cars, or even with our problems than with the Savior?
Second, the Bible declares that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone and never by our works or by our experience. As such, our primary concern is to live in vital relationship with Him through the Word and the indwelling Spirit of God. But fellowship with the living God means experiencing the living God and having an appreciation for who He is, what He has done, and is doing in us, for us, and to us through Christ. Shouldn't this produce an enthusiasm and an excitement about our life in Christ and what God is doing? Just think about the big picture we are a part of as believers in Christ!
Warning: Enthusiasm or living with a religious high should never be the focus of our attention, nor our pursuit, nor the basis of our assurance. In fact seeking a religious high does not serve the glory of God and advance His kingdom. It is too often, as we see in 1 Corinthians, self-serving. John the Baptist furnished the model of true spirituality when he said, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).
Nevertheless, as believers and as a product of caring about the Savior, a certain amount of excitement about eternal values, about the Word and God's Son and our Savior is certainly in order. Why? Because it to some degree, it demonstrates the character of our faith and our values or at least, something of our spiritual condition.
Consider how the average sports enthusiast responds when his favorite team scores a touchdown, etc.
In keeping with this is our next point:
Have you ever noticed how people naturally like to share good news or discuss important events in their lives--the birth of a child, the purchase of a new home, the landing of a new job, the winning of a key football game by their favorite team. This demonstrates how we are social beings and how we need to give and receive input from others; we need and like to share with one another. We all generally and naturally love to talk about the things we enjoy and love and that are important to us. This should remind us of the teaching of the New Testament which is based on the many "one another" passages which highlight the needs and responsibilities we have to one another as members of the body of Christ. We are to love one another, build up one another, serve one another, encourage one another, and the list goes on. Two principles are involved:
Next, note that in this one another relationship they did something else that is very interesting.
Notice, they said, "let us . . ." Grammatically, this is what we call a hortatory clause, one that calls others to join us in some action or responsibility. This gives us a good example of how in this one another setting we need the exhortation, comfort, encouragement, challenge, and sometimes loving rebuke of others. We need it from others and they need it from us.
Thirty-one times we find this hortatory "let us" in the New Testament. I remember hearing a good friend speak on some of these passages. He introduced his message in a very interesting way, by saying, "Today, I would like to feed you a healthy biblical salad that I have prepared out of the lettuce passages of the New Testament."
Notice the nature and results of this combined reciprocal action: these men were able to narrow their discussion and needs down to two crucial decisions about what they needed to do.
They said, "let us go straight . . . and see . . ." Do you see the principle? They had received revelation from God and when responded to in faith, God's Word always reorients the direction of our lives. It changes our orientation. In the light of this news, they developed specific goals that controlled and directed their behavior and pursuits. Of course, behind these goals were values, but we will say more about that later.
Without biblical goals based on biblical values, people never go straight. Instead, they chase down rabbit trails and run from one thing to another. They go with the flow of humanity, but lack a purpose that will give meaning and true satisfaction.
Many people, especially today, are like a small corked bottle carried by the tides and the waves of life rather than like a ship that is being guided according to a set course, one set by the captain of the ship who knows where he is going, who has a destination--an objective in mind.
Goals (or the lack of them) determine what we do with our lives, with whether we count for God and for eternity or not. What are your goals for the new year? Do you have any? Do they go beyond self-centered desires? Do you see your purpose in life?
But what was their purpose? Their purpose was to see the Christ child; it was to see and know Him. Notice it was not to watch their sheep (carry on their occupation or put food on the table), it was not to make converts, it was not to write books, or preach sermons, or raise the kids--as important as all these things are.
We have here an illustration of what should become the supreme purpose for our lives. We were created to know and love God. Without this there will be a huge void that must of necessity leave us without meaning and without an adequate purpose for living. An inadequate purpose for living leaves us frustrated, always ill at ease, wondering what's wrong. And there is another important element here. An inadequate purpose will also leave us seeking happiness in all the wrong places.
Dr. John White, a Christian psychiatrist, points to the fact that three of the most common causes of depression and mental difficulties he constantly faced are: 1) guilt and the need of forgiveness, 2) inability to cope because of a lack of biblical confidence and faith, and 3) a lack of purpose and I think by that he means, a biblical purpose.
For most, it's life on a gerbil wheel. Why are our lives often so incredibly busy, yet lacking in purpose? Do we really know what our purpose is, but find ourselves caught up in the rat race because our primary pursuit is the good life--whatever that is. Perhaps the good life is really the pursuit of peace and prosperity, comfort and pleasure.
Tom Sine in his book, Why Settle For More and Miss the Best, points out that living in our society today is much like climbing a mountain, but when you do get to the top, there is nothing there, not even a view. Further, he goes on to show that there is good evidence that when you look at our society, the climb is not doing us any good because so many are living lives of hyper-stress and hyper-burnout.
And there is another side of this. Sine goes on to show that not only is this climb without reason and poison to the climbers, but it is not helping the non-climbers. It is a totally selfish dream that causes people to neglect God and others. But there is another mountain to climb, one that has a purpose, blessings at the top, one that is beneficial to the climber, and one that brings blessings to others.
(See Sine's book, Why Settle For More and Miss the Best, pp. 1-17)
At one time America was a Christian nation, but today there is very little remembrance of the biblical Christ in the consciences of the majority of people. The result is a higher and higher suicide rate especially among teenagers (those in the morning of life). Next on the list are senior citizens (those in the evening of life). Why? A lack of purpose has a lot to do with it!
Jesus Christ is the very revelation of God and the means of knowing God. Christ said in John 17: 3, "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."
As we face this new year, with our compass in hand (our Bibles), let's examine our lives. Where have we been and where are we going? What kind of goals do we have and should we have? Let us chart our course and set some new goals based on the values and priorities of the Word of God.
They said, "let us go straight to Bethlehem" and then we read in verse 16, "and they came in haste." They were determined, undeviating, and non-procrastinating. Procrastination (putting things off until tomorrow), often results in not getting them done at all or getting them done when it is too late. How often we have good intentions, but, lacking in determination, purpose, and commitment, we get side-tracked by family, by laziness, by indifference, by pleasure, business, hobbies, or any of a host of things, and we fail to follow through on the priorities of life. Remember Mary and Martha in Luke 10:39-42.
As a result of this action, the shepherds found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby. And as a result of acting without delay and digression, their lives would never be the same.
I believe this is evident in the words, "and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger." The word "found" is a compound verb, aneurisko, and implies searching in order to find or discover. It comes from the preposition ana, "up, upwards," and the verb eurisko, "find, discover." The idea is that of searching, looking up and down, in order to find something of great value.
The verb also looks at the culmination of their search. It is what grammarians call a culminative aorist. In this word we see their desire, their hunger and thirst to know the Lord and experience His life. It reminds us of our Lords exhortation, "seek and you shall find." It calls to mind the words Proverbs 2:4-5: "If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the Lord, and discover the knowledge of God."
I am also reminded of Psalm 42:1-2: "As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God?" These lowly shepherds, in response to the revelation of God, went to appear before the baby who was God incarnate.
They acted out of the understanding they received from seeing the Lord (vs. 17a). The text says, "and when they had seen, they made known the statement . . ."
In this we see the principle of cause and effect. Grammatically, the words "and when they had seen" represent a temporal participle in the Greek text which precedes the action of the main verb, "they made known." Sometimes, depending on the context, temporal participles also give us the cause as well as the sequence of events. Making know what they had seen was not merely the next event in the narrative. It was a product of seeing the blessed Savior.
"Had seen" is the Greek verb orao which means (1) "to physically see, observe, notice," but (2) it may also mean "to perceive, understand, and experience" in the sense of mental sight or understanding. Through the faculty of the eyes, i.e., through study and observation, one comes to see with his mind.
These humble shepherds came searching to see and know the Christ child and were rewarded for their efforts. They not only saw him with their eyes, but they went away with spiritual insight having seen the Lord, the one announced to them by the angels. The words or message of the angels had now come alive in their hearts. They experienced the knowledge of the Savior and acted appropriately, as men should always do who have met the Savior. The actions that follow show they were men who acted out of insight into the person of Jesus Christ.
What can we learn from their example?
First, we each need the same kind of interest and hunger for spiritual things that led these men to go and search for Jesus Christ. One of the greatest problems we face today is apathy or spiritual indifference. Many in the church of Jesus Christ are simply religious, like the religious leaders of Christ's time, but it seems they have no real interest in really coming to know the savior and experiencing Him.
Having seen the glorified Christ, what was the apostle Paul's attitude and goal? He said, "that I might know Him." This was the great obsession of His life. Why? Because he also said, "and the power of his resurrection." To know and have intimate fellowship with the Savior is to experience spiritual power which means, true spiritual change.
When we go to our Bibles, do we go seeking to see the Lord Jesus in order to have fellowship with Him, to hear what He is saying to us? Too often we are merely religious externalists. If we are not careful we can be like the church at Laodicea, lukewarm because we are satisfied with our material blessings or with our religious activities by which we substitute religiosity for personally knowing and seeing the Savior in the Word.
Modern religion can be characterized and contrasted to true biblical Christianity as follows:
The mere practice of religion is meaningless. It is an abomination to God and it "often promotes rather than alleviates guilt and anxiety. Scrupulous observance of the laws and codes of sacred tradition may grieve the Spirit. A beautiful liturgy may quench the Spirit. Scripture tells us that the only worship acceptable to God is worship `in spirit and in truth'" (John 4:23-24; Phil. 3:3). (Donald Bloesch, Faith and Its Counterparts, p. 18, InterVarsity Press)
Second, God rewarded their efforts to go and see the Christ Child. And so He does with us. Scripture says, "you will seek and find me when you search for me with your whole heart" (Jer. 29:13; John 10:17). God knows the hearts and gives to each of us according to our ways. "I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds (Jer. 17:10).
As mentioned previously, I think, instructive that the angels did not appear to the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Why? Perhaps because they were apathetic to information about the birth of the Christ Child and to know their God. They were merely religious. They even knew from the Old Testament where Messiah would be born (Matt. 2:4-6), but when they were questioned by Herod concerning the words of the magi, unlike the shepherds, they stayed in Jerusalem, and it was just business as usual. They just didn't care.
How about it? How hungry are we? Are we just religious, doing our little religious bit for God? Are we playing church to soothe a few guilty feelings with a few religious activities, or do we really want to know the Savior so that, like the shepherds, it can really begin to transform us?
Third, knowing Jesus Christ, seeing and understanding spiritual truth, gives insight for living. It renews our minds and enables us to reevaluate our lives, our reasons for living, our values, goals, priorities, and the whole works (Eph. 3:16-19; Rom. 12:1-2)..
Again, remember the principle here of cause and effect. One of the immediate results of their insight from meeting with the Savior was the desire, indeed, the compulsion to tell others the good news of Christ. Here is the most important information in the world that needs to be told and shared. When something good happens to us we generally can't wait to tell others. But because Satan blinds the hearts of men to spiritual truth and because people do not always respond as we expect and because they often either do not want to talk about spiritual things or think we are a little odd, we tend to keep this information to ourselves.
The news about the angels and the message about the birth caused a sense of amazement and wonder in the minds of men.
What are some the lessons we can learn from this?
First, the shepherds became like salt causing interest and maybe even thirst in some. The amazement of some may have bordered on skepticism while others may have marveled with a sense of joy and biblical expectation for after all such should have been anticipated among Jewish people. Our Lord said, "You are the salt of the earth." God wants us to be like salt. The kind of response we experience from people will vary as we share the truth of Scripture, but this should never affect our willingness and desire to share it. Much depends on the preparation of the hearts of men, but we should always look for opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
Second, what is our response to truth as we here it? Are we like some who want to be entertained, who look only for the sensational, the curious, the extraordinary, for that which excites or amazes, or are we simply those who love God and His Word and find simple but profound satisfaction in His worship and in the study of the basic truths of Scripture because to us they are like hidden treasure?
This leads us naturally to the next point and to the action of Mary, a fitting example for all of us.
"Treasured up" is the Greek suntereo, "to keep, guard, keep safe." It means to preserve, hold, treasure up in one's mind or memory because of its value. Were these just the treasured memories of a mother, or did it go beyond this because this was no ordinary child? Certainly she treasured this information regarding the shepherds and their testimony because of the spiritual significance of these marvelous salvific events.
This illustrates the need to store or memorize the truth of Scripture because of its value; we are to treasure God's truth even more than gold because it contains the wealth that gives life and life abundantly (cf. Isa. 55:1-11).
Note that she treasured "all these things." She stored every tidbit, every morsel of the story and these salvific happenings. Again, not just because it was her son, but because it was about the Messiah Savior. So I am reminded of,
"Thy word have I treasured in my heart that I might not sin against thee (Ps. 119:11).
"I shall delight in thy statutes, I shall not forget Thy word (Ps. 119:16).
My son keep my words, and treasure my commandments with you . . . bind them on you fingers: write them upon the tablet of your heart (Prov. 7:1 & 3).
But that's not all she did with these treasured things. Why do we treasure or store up the Word? Our next point answers this question.
The word "pondered" is the present of continuous action. Pondering the things of Christ must become our practice, a constant part of our lives. "Pondered" is the Greek sumballo and means "to cast together." From this it came to mean to cast thoughts together in the mind, to reflect, to meditate. The suggestion of the grammar of the Greek text is that pondering these was both a design and a result of treasuring them ("pondered" could be classified as a verbal participle of intended result).
In this, Mary gives us an example of the principle of meditating on the things of God that we have read, studied, heard, and memorized for better understanding and application. Why do we learn the Word? So that we might reflect on it for greater understanding and application.
Let me suggest two things here:
First, biblical meditation is a lost art. People rarely take time for meditating on God's Word. They simply do not have the right perspective for it. We think only from the mind set of activity and business. That's the American way. If we are not busily engaged in something we are wasting time, or being lazy. Time, after all if for two things--making money and having fun. You've heard the statement, "Time is money." So we go go go, do do do, and then wonder why we burn out or up or become frustrated, tense and with high blood pressure.
Second, but Satan always has a counterfeit and today we occasionally do hear about meditation, but this by in large is of the Satanic variety. In this, the object of meditation is not on the Word and on the Christ of Scripture, but either on one's own desires and wants or on nothing at all. You are suppose to take your mind out of gear and put it on nothing and maybe also chant some supposedly meaningful words. This, people are told, allows them to reach out to the universal force by which they can solve all their problems, develop perfect health, and get rich. But the fact is, this opens a person up to demonic attack and they can end up making contact with demonic forces.
With verse 20 we return to the actions of the shepherds.
"They went back" to their sheep or to their work, undoubtedly as changed men.
We again see in this the concept of cause and effect. Only a proper cause will produce a proper effect. The flesh cannot deal with the flesh. Change comes only from knowing Christ and relating our lives to Him in daily fellowship.
We also see the nature of the change that was effected. Undoubtedly, their experience with the Savior made them even more conscientious and faithful. It would give them greater capacity in their work.
When Christ comes into our lives and when we make His Word and life a priority, it changes us and gives us a new capacity in all the various areas of life. It makes men better teachers, ranchers, carpenters, engineers, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives because it gives us a new purpose in life and a new capacity to love and care for others in a Christian sense. Because of the new orientation knowing Christ gives, our professions become a place to serve the Lord and others, not just as a platform for the gospel, but as people who do what they do for the glory of God and out of love for others.
Whatever we may have been, with Christ at the helm of our lives, indeed as the new source of our lives, we will be better, more capable, more relaxed, more at peace, stronger, and more efficient.
Principle: When we make Jesus Christ a priority and allow Him to rearrange our values, schedules, and the way we use our time, taking time for instance for spiritual things, the Lord will always meet our needs according to what is best (Matt. 6:33). We never ultimately lose with the Lord even when we suffer for righteousness sake.
They "went back glorifying and praising God . . ." These men returned with a song in their hearts and praise on their lips. Their lives would now be filled with a new dimension in every sphere, but especially would their worship be dramatically transformed. Our Lord told the women at the well, "they that worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth." The point is that the knowledge of Jesus Christ makes worship real, meaningful, joyful, and significant. It is not dependent on stained glass windows, soft music, and a special setting. It depends on seeing Christ and having fellowship with Him.
These shepherds were common men living very common and ordinary lives. Yet, the rest of their commonplace lives would be filled with the music of praise and their night watches lit by the glory of God in their hearts, a glory that would never fade as long as they continued to have fellowship with this Savior they had seen. These men probably never saw the person of Christ after He began His ministry thirty years later, but their lives would still be filled with a new song.
Let's not fail to note that they went back to their sheep, to their occupations, and undoubtedly also to their families, but they went back changed men:
How about us?
As we face this new year how are we going to respond to the messages of Scripture? What difference is it going to make in our lives? Remember that it takes two to make a good message, one that reaches our hearts and has an effect on our lives--the one who prepares the message, and the one who prepares to hear it.
Let's do some careful examining as we face a new year . . .