Luke’s narrative of the birth of Christ has surely become the most well-known religious story of history and one which is read more during the Christmas season than any other. In it Luke sets forth the historical and central details of the birth of a babe who is the Savior of the world. Yet how little of this historical event is truly understood and believed, especially in our modern, secular society. It is my hope that this study will help to unfold the significant details of this narrative in an attempt to set before us the meaning of this beautiful and simple portion of Scripture.
Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. (NASB)
The setting and historical circumstances are often either neglected or hurried over, but though they are presented simply and without fanciful embellishment, they are loaded with significance.
“Now it came about in those days” (2:1). How simply the story begins, yet how serene it is and its results to mankind. All my life, as I’ve heard these introductory words, I have been lifted up into a spirit of expectancy, awe and wonderment over the account which follows. Something so simply told and yet so significant to all humankind.
Literally the Greek text says, “and it came to pass,” or “came to be” The Greek verb here is ginomai “to come to be, happen.” However, we must not get the idea from this verb that this just happened. As we shall see, the sovereign decree and plan of God was here being minutely worked out in history with a most unique set of historical circumstances being brought together, first, to bring God’s own Son into the world according to prophecy, in the fullness of time, and second, to set events in motion to accomplish our so great salvation,
The verb is an aorist indicative which stresses reality, a historical fact of history which brings up another significant point. Some theologians, writers, educators, propagandists, some Jews, Gentiles and Marxists toy with and propagate the idea of “the Christmas and the Christ myth.” They teach that Christ never really existed, that the stories of His miraculous birth, life, death and resurrection were all a myth. They say these myths were promoted by a group of despondent Jews who were tired of waiting for their expected Messiah, or something of this sort. But those who say this have absolutely no historical evidence. The historicity of Jesus Christ, for the unbiased historian, is as axiomatic as that of Julius Caesar. So, let’s note a few things about Luke’s account of Christ’s birth which stand against the myth idea.
As one reads the narrative account of Luke, it is hard not to recognize certain key features. First, we see the very earthy nature and poverty of the circumstances of Christ’s birth. This uniquely fits the theme of Scripture as seen, for instance, in Philippians 2:6f. But such a portrait of Jesus stands in strong contrast to current Jewish Messianic expectations. Second, we note the scanty detail and extreme simplicity of the account stands opposed to the nature of legend and tradition of the days in which Jesus Christ our Lord was born. These things lead to indirect, but nevertheless, very strong evidence for the truth and historicity of this narrative.
If this lowly birth was the outcome of Jewish imagination and wishful thinking, where is the basis for it in the stream of current Jewish expectation? Would Jewish tradition, or legend, have ever presented their Messiah, whom they wanted to come and remove the Roman yoke, as one born in a stable to which Roman law and circumstances had consigned the mother of Messiah? The whole current of attitudes of Jewish opinions went contrary to this. It is impossible to honestly account for these circumstances apart from their reality.
At that time, there were two essential characteristics of legend and tradition. (a) They always sought to surround their heroes in a halo of glory, pomp and splendor—never in poverty. (b) They also attempted to supply a host of minute details. Historians have recognized that no apocryphal or legendary account of an historic event would ever be characterized by such absence of this kind of detail.
But what do we see in the Bible? The account of Christ’s birth is presented simply and factually, giving only enough of the essential information for a basic two-fold purpose. As John 20:31 says, “These have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, you may have life in His name.”
Next we read, “in those days.” What were “those days” like? We must not run hurriedly over these words for Galatians 4:4 says that “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, in the fulness of time.” There existed at this time a unique set of historical circumstances which were significant and meaningful to the birth of our Savior. What were those days like religiously, politically, historically?
Our passage tells us, (1) that “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” In other words, Christ was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus. (2) It also tells us He was born in the city of Bethlehem. This is both historically and doctrinally significant.
Bethlehem, where Christ was born, is no mythological city. It is very real and very historic. Eleven times it is mentioned in the Old Testament from the patriarchs to Nehemiah and it is also referred to in Egyptian diplomatic correspondence in the Tell Amarna tablets as early as the fourteenth century B.C.
Bethlehem originally belonged to the Canaanites and was dedicated to the god of war. Originally, the city’s name meant “the house or sanctuary city of Lahum.” “Lahum” was the god of war of the Canaanites. This is the belief of James Kelso, an archaeologist who spent years working in Palestine. He says, however, that “After the conquest of Palestine, the Jews revocalized the blasphemous name Laham to make it read lehem which means “Bread.”1 So Bethlehem means, “house of bread.”
It is interesting in connection with this that the Hebrew verb laham can mean “to eat,” or “to make war,” i.e., to devour an enemy by war. The significant point here is that Jesus Christ who spoke of himself as the “bread of life” (John 6:35), who is called “the Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6), who is portrayed as “our Peace” (Eph. 2:14), and the “Peacemaker” (Eph. 2:15-17) was born in the city which once meant “the house of war” and then came to mean “the house of bread.” It would suggest to us that all of this was not by accident or chance, but by God’s sovereign design to remind us of His mission.
When Christ was born, Palestine was under Roman rule. Rome had its god of war called Mars, but with the reign of Augustus Caesar, the longest, bloodiest civil war in Rome’s history had finally ended. Over 100 years of civil war had been brought to rest and Rome had vastly extended her boundaries. Augustus was the first Roman to wear the imperial purple and crown as the sole ruler of the empire. He was moderate, wise and considerate of his people. He brought in a great time of peace and prosperity, making Rome a safe place to live and travel.
This introduced a period called “Pax Romana,” peace of Rome (27 B.C. to A.D. 180). As a result of all that Augustus accomplished, many said that when he was born, a god was born. Thus, into these conditions was born One who was and is the source of true personal peace and lasting world peace, versus the temporary and false peace that man, even the very best of men, can give. Here One was born who was truly God, the God-Man, instead of a man called God.
But this rule of peace brought in by Caesar Augustus also helped to prepare the world for Messiah’s life and ministry so the gospel could be preached (Mark 1:14-15).
What was the spiritual condition of the nation or the religious climate into which Christ was born? The Gentiles were polytheists, as were the Romans, worshipping many gods. The Greeks also worshipped many gods along with philosophy. But what about the Jews, Christ’s own people? Scripture says, “He came unto His own and His own received Him not” (John 1:11). Was He not their Messiah? Were they not looking for their Messiah? What were “those days” like religiously?
“Those days,” were days of Messianic hope. It appears that many in Christ’s day were expecting and looking for Messiah to come. This is evidenced by many things:
(1) They knew where Messiah was to be born (cf. Matthew 2:4). Simeon was looking for the consolation of Israel, the Messiah (Luke 2:25-38). In the Jewish Talmud there were two sayings “All the prophets prophesied only of the days of Messiah,” and “the world was created only for Messiah.” Thus the Jews saw predictions of Messiah throughout Scripture.
(2) But much like the New Testament and the church’s view of Christ as seen in the Old Testament, the Jews held to “the pre-existence of Messiah, His elevation over Moses, above angels, His representative character, His cruel sufferings, His violent death for his people, His redemption, and restoration of Israel and many other such things.”2
(3) The Jews, however, were very vague about the sufferings of Messiah and the removal of sin because of their view of sin, even though the law taught them clearly about the nature of sin and man's sinfulness. The rabbis did not believe in the doctrine of original sin or inherent sin or the sinfulness of our nature. Thus, man’s need of a suffering Savior to bear the penalty of sin was overlooked. They were ignorant of their sinfulness and of God’s absolute holiness (Rom. 10:3). They taught there were two impulses in man, one good and one evil and that God actually created both. So very little blame was attached to sin in man—it was God’s fault.
(4) With the absence of a felt need of deliverance from sin, the rabbinic tradition found no place for the priestly office and work of Messiah or of a substitute suffering Savior, or even for His prophetic office. They taught that it was within the power of each to overcome sin and to gain life by study and works.3 The thing which loomed large and which overshadowed everything else was Messiah as King and political Savior from the tyranny of the Gentiles and the elevation of the nation Israel above all other nations.
Such was the hope of Messiah when Jesus came on the scene of human history. Nothing could be more directly contrary to Jewish thought and feelings than the mundane or simple circumstances of the birth of Jesus Christ, with the exception of a small remnant of Old Testament believers who had a proper view of sin and the hope of Messiah for Israel, as well as for themselves (Joseph, Mary, Simeon, Anna). The majority were so caught up with the details of life and their external religiosity that when the signs of Christ’s birth were given to the nation, such as the news of the shepherds and wise men—very few could be concerned.
Israel was spiritually bankrupt. It was a time of external religiosity, pharisaic letterism and formalism, and sadducian unbelief. Like much of America today, Israel was caught up with materialism, with human good deeds, and with ritual. There was a form of godliness, but they denied the power thereof. They were practical atheists—living as though God were dead or as though He were non-existent.
And so, it was into these conditions that Christ was born to deliver us from religion, from human philosophy, from materialism—indeed from sin and from all its forms.
Spiritually speaking, those days were really no different from these days. So, what does the birth of Jesus Christ mean to us? This birth—God revealed in the flesh—is the secret to godliness, the secret to happiness and inner stability and peace. But only those who will seek to know and apply what the meaning of Christ’s birth, life and work really means to them, can know the salvation Christ offers.
This brings us back to our passage where we want to observe another historical detail in the account of Christ’s birth—the census to be taken. Again, remember Galatians 4:4 which says, “but when the fulness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman …”
“That a decree went out … a census …” The word “census” here is apographo, which means “the taking of a census, registration, or enrollment.” The KJV has “taxed,” but the word actually referred to a census (though a taxing often followed based on the census or registration.) It was a registration for taxing purposes.
Critics have challenged this statement by Luke because they claim Josephus, a Jewish historian, placed this at least ten years later after Archelaus had been deposed and Quirenius had been sent as a Syrian magistrate in charge of this registration. Their point is Quirinius did not govern here until several years later.
Several years ago a writer for Life Magazine, Robert Coughlan used this along with some other things to claim the whole story of Jesus Christ was without historicity and should not be relied upon. But this assumes that we have all the information of this time and know more than Luke could have possibly known.
How do we deal with this apparent historical discrepancy? There is evidence that such registrations happened periodically about every 14 years and that Quirinius could have been twice in charge of these registrations. Luke shows us from Acts 5:37 that he was aware of the later registration or census of Quirinius, the one reported by Josephus. In other words, Luke shows us from Luke 2:1-2 and Acts 5:37 that there very well could have been two registrations conducted by Quirinius and this fits with archaeological findings as well as with Josephus’ account.
There is also another solution proposed by some archaeologists. In discussing the problem of this census with John McRay, a well known archaeologist, Lee Strobel describes part of the conversation with McRay who said in the interview, “An eminent archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman has done a great deal of work in this regard. He has found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing, or what we call ‘micrographic’ letters. This places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 B.C. until after the death of Herod.”4
Being somewhat confused by this reply, he asked, “What does this mean?” McRay replied:
It means that there were apparently two Quiriniuses. It’s not uncommon to have lots of people with the same Roman names, so there’s no reason to doubt that there were two people by the name of Quirinius. The census would have taken place under the reign of the earlier Quirinius. Given the cycle of a census every fourteen years, that would work out quite well.5
Walter Liefeld in The Expositors Bible Commentary points out another possible solution.
Quirinius had a government assignment in Syria at this time and conducted a census in his official capacity. Details of this census may have been common knowledge in Luke’s time but are now lost to us (cf. E.M. Blaiklock, “Quirinius,” ZPEB, 5:56). An incomplete MS describes the career of an officer whose name is not preserved but whose actions sound as if he might have been Quirinius. He became imperial “legate of Syria” for the “second time.” While this is ambiguous, it may be a clue that Quirinius served both at the time of Jesus’ birth and a few years later (cf. F.F. Bruce, “Quirinius,” NBD, p. 9).6
Regardless of the view one takes to solve this seeming discrepancy, over and over again archaeology has demonstrated the trustworthiness of the Bible on one supposed discrepancy after another. Luke was a painstakingly accurate historian who carefully investigated everything from the beginning regarding the life of Christ (Luke 1:1-4). In all fairness, we must assume that Luke knew something that we do not and wait for the evidence to come in. Earlier, when Strobel questioned McRay about Luke as a historian, McRay replied:
The general consensus of both liberal and conservative scholars is that Luke is very accurate as a historian, … He’s erudite, he’s eloquent, his Greek approaches classical quality, he writes as an educated man, and archaeological discoveries are showing over and over again that Luke is accurate in what he has to say.”7
In view of these facts, we need to give Luke, who lived then, the benefit of the doubt and wait for more evidence to surface.
Returning to Luke’s account of the census, our text says, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David …” (vs. 4). In this we see God’s sovereign providence working through Augustus and his decree to move Mary and Joseph out of Nazareth and down to Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy of Micah (Micah 5:2).
Verse 5 is particularly significant because of the way Dr. Luke carefully describes Mary’s relationship with Joseph as one “pledged to be married.” Because of the revelation given to Joseph by the angel, as described in Matthew 1:18-25, Joseph was willing to take Mary to be his wife since her pregnancy was the result of the supernatural work of the Spirit of God. But she was only his wife in what we might call a “legal” sense. According to the custom of the day, a marriage was consummated and sealed by the physical union. Following a ceremony where the bride was presented to the groom, the couple would go into their house and consummate the marriage by the sexual union. But as Scripture makes clear, this did not occur until after Jesus was born (Matt. 1:25). Luke is careful, then, to refer to her as “betrothed” (Greek, mnesteuo, “promised or pledged to be married”).
6 And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (NASB)
“… to her first-born…” Note again the careful emphasis “her first-born,” not Joseph’s. Joseph was the legal father by adoption, but not by conception. Once again, God’s Word carefully guards the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ (cf. Matt. 1:16 “the husband of Mary of whom …” This statement by Matthew completely broke with Jewish custom in genealogies and the sequence).
“First born” means none had preceded. This was her first. She was a virgin and it was necessary that Christ be the first born to whom all the rights of primogeniture would fall as: (1) the double portion of the inheritance, (2) headship over the whole family which for Christ included the entire redeemed body of believers, and (3) the priesthood of the family, which included the entire body of the redeemed, both Old and New Testament saints (Rom. 8:29).
“And she wrapped Him in cloths” We should note the simplicity of this. The mother who bore the child (without aid undoubtedly) had to wrap the child herself. The custom of the day included cleaning and rubbing the baby with oil, usually olive oil. Then the arms were placed at the baby’s side and were wrapped in strips of cloth. This may portray a kind of paradox since a similar process was used in preparing a body for burial. Many have seen this, as part of the sign to the shepherds in verse 12, as a picture or anticipation of the cross casting its shadow over the cradle (actually a feed trough) of the Savior.
“And laid Him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.” The problem of the inn is still unsolved. The fact is we do not have any information regarding these Palestinian inns. In the rest of the Roman empire, we know they were places of ill repute and travelers, whenever possible, stayed with friends. Thus, we have the emphasis in the New Testament on showing “love to strangers.” Jewish inns may have been better, but this is only conjecture.
Some believe the word “inn” should be translated “caravansary.” Another translation might be “guest house” because the word can mean “guest room.” It was, however, a place where travelers stayed. The earliest non-scriptural reference to the birth of Christ is found in Justin Martyr, an early church father, and is dated about A.D. 140. He stated that Christ was born in a cave. Origen said the same in A.D. 248 as did Jerome, one of the most brilliant scholars of the early church.
Sometimes caves were used as a house, other times as the stable. Tradition says it was a cave in the side of the hill behind the inn or guest house of the village. The main point is that whatever the exact nature of the place, the city was so crowded with people because of the census that the only place left for them was the stable.
So they laid the baby Jesus in a manger, a feed trough. Compare Matthew 820, “Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’” This fact was true right from the very beginning of Christ’s life on earth. Like the cross, which cast its shadow even upon the crib because of the swaddling cloths (a procedure also used in burial), so the deep humiliation to which the Son of God submitted Himself cast its shadow upon His birth. He was indeed a man of sorrows and one acquainted with grief, despised and forsaken by men (Isa. 53:3).
The fact of “no room” reminds us of John 1:11. “He came unto His own, but his own received Him not.” This actually began on that first Christmas night. It was a kind of prophetic beginning. The city was crowded, full and hustle and bustle, busy because of the registration. Can we not see in this a prophetic revelation of the majority of people today—especially at this time of the year? Is there a busier time of the year? Look at our cities, crowded and busy with buying and selling. Yet the vast majority have crowded out Jesus Christ from their lives; they have no time and no room for Him.
I have heard that at this season of the year there are more suicides, more nervous breakdowns, emotional disorders and depression than at any other time during the year. Why is this? First, because people have no room or time for Jesus Christ, the source of peace (John 14:25-27). The spirit of Christmas (from the world’s point of view) crowds out the truth of Christ. Another reason is the problem of man’s substitutes. In place of Jesus Christ men are substituting the tinsel and glitter of the world, the details of life (pleasure, possession, good times, etc.), and they expect these “trimmings” of the holiday season to make them happy. But they can never bring true, lasting happiness. Thus, depression sets in and emotional disorders result.
What a paradox! Christ came to give peace, yet men during this holiday season have less time for Him than at any other time of the year. Why? Because they have “no room” for the Savior who came to give them His peace and life!
And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flocks by night.
The mention of the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in verse 8 brings up the issue of the time of Christ’s birth. When did it occur? Was it in December, January, February or April? Part of the argument for the time of the year revolves around these shepherds.
The traditional date of December 25 goes back to as early as Hippolytus (A.D. 165-235). This would indicate some form of observance or remembrance. Chrysostom (A.D. 345-407) in 386 stated December 25 is the correct day.
One of the main objections has been that sheep were usually taken into enclosures from November through March and were not in the fields at night. This is not conclusive, however, for the following reasons: (1) It could have been a mild winter. (2) It is not at all certain that sheep were always brought into enclosures during the winter months. (3) It is true that during the winter months sheep were brought in from the wilderness and Luke tells us the shepherds were near Bethlehem rather than in the wilderness indicating, if anything, the nativity was in the winter months. (4) The Mishnah tells us the shepherds around Bethlehem were outside all year and those worthy of the Passover were nearby in the fields at least 30 days before the feast which could be as early as February (one of the coldest, rainiest months of the year). So December is a very reasonable date.
James Kelso also sees the winter as the best time for the birth of Christ.
The best season for the shepherds of Bethlehem is the winter when heavy rains bring up a luscious crop of new grass. After the rains the once-barren, brown desert earth is suddenly a field of brilliant green. One year when excavating at New Testament Jericho, I lived in Jerusalem and drove through this area twice every day. At one single point along the road, I could see at times as many as fine shepherds with their flocks on one hillside. One shepherd stayed with his flock at the same point for three weeks, so lush was the grass. But as soon as the rains stopped in the spring, the land quickly took on its normal desert look once again.
Since there seem to have been a number of shepherds who came to see the Christ child, December or January would be the most likely months. . .8
Though Christ was probably born in the winter months, the biggest obstacle for establishing the 25th as the exact date of Christ's birth is the fact this was observed by what some have called the mother-child cult in various parts of the world even before the birth of Christ. Today, however, these pagan mystery ideas are little known and haven’t been for centuries. The main problem with Christmas is that we have allowed Satan to take this season, which should speak of the grace of God in giving us His precious Son, to focus the minds of men on the wrong things, thus perverting the real significance of Christ’s birth.
Our family, and many other biblically concerned believers, use the Christmas season as an opportunity to properly focus on Christ’s birth and what it means to us, though not as some holy day we must keep for spirituality (Gal. 4:8-11; Col. 2:16-17). Those who argue against this and condemn celebrating with trees and presents, etc., in my opinion are being legalistic.
Luke 2:8-14 And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
Verse 8 literally reads “And shepherds were in the same region keeping watches by night over their sheep” or “taking turns keeping watch …” The emphatic note here is the reference to the shepherds. The first announcement was made to shepherds—how fitting. The birth of the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, and the Chief Shepherd of our souls was first announced to those men whose very work spoke of the person and work of Jesus Christ—the Lamb of God. It was this Lamb who would lay down His life for us, provide for and lead us as His sheep, and then one day reward those men who have been faithful themselves as under-shepherds. The glory of God, for which Israel had long awaited, was not revealed to the priests or the Pharisees, but to shepherds.
Further, there is good evidence these men may have been watching over the temple sheep, sheep designated for sacrifice, which spoke of Jesus Christ and the reason for His coming into the world. Christ took on himself true humanity. He became the babe of the cradle that He might become the man of the cross (Heb. 10:5; 2:14).
It seems evident to me from their response and from the nature and character of God, that this acclamation of Christ’s birth was made to these shepherds because, like Simeon (2:25f) and Anna (2:36f) they were true Old Testament saints who were looking for the consolation (the Messianic hope) and the redemption of Israel. It is consistent with God’s actions that such special revelation as this would be made to men whose minds were prepared by the Holy Spirit rather than to the self-righteous, religious Pharisees and leaders.
“Keeping watches by night” In the Greek this is plural, both the participle “keeping” and the word “watches,” which indicates they were taking turns tending the flocks by night.
“And (the) angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them.” The Greek text doesn’t have “suddenly” but the word “stood” might well be called an ingressive aorist and might be so translated—looking at the sudden appearance of this angelic visitor on this undoubtedly star-studded night.
The Greek does not say “the angel” of the Lord but only “an angel” of the Lord. It is not trying to specify a certain angel as the angel of the Lord of the Old Testament which was the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This was merely an angel sent from the Lord with a glorious message.
“Stood before them” or “by them.” It seems he stood on the earth rather than floating suspended in the air above them as it is so often pictured.
“And the glory of the Lord shown around them.” “Shown around” is perilampo from peri meaning “around” and lampo meaning “to shine.” Thus, “to encircle, encompass with light.” They were completely encompassed in light, the light of “the glory of the Lord.” Surely this was nothing less than the shekinah, the brilliant white light of God’s glory, which represented the holiness and presence of God in the Old Testament (cf. Ex. 24:16; Isa. 6:1-3; Rom. 9:4).
In the New Testament, in addition to this passage, this light was seen at the transfiguration (Matt. 17:), by Stephen (Acts 7:55), and by Paul (Acts 22:6-11). In the Old Testament this glory appeared to Abraham (Acts 7), it appeared in the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-35), in the temple (I Kings 8:11), and was the glory which Ezekiel saw depart from the temple (Ezek. 10:18-19; 11:22-23). For more than 500 years, Israel had been without the visible blessing of God’s presence among His people—God’s glory.
Why this display of God’s glory now? This display of God’s glory was a manifestation of His divine essence, specifically and primarily, it was a display of God’s divine and infinite holiness. Remember “God is light and in Him is no darkness …” (1 John 1:5). “He is of purer eyes than to behold evil, He cannot look upon sin” (Heb. 1:13). Because of man’s sin and iniquities, a barrier was created between man and God and He hid His face from man.9
(1) This manifestation of God’s glory at this first announcement of Christ’s birth to man was a reminder that God’s provision of His Son was an act, not only of His love, but also of His divine holiness. It reminds us that man is a sinner and thus separated from God, but here God was acting in human history to remove the barrier that separates man from God by the provision of His Son.
(2) I also believe this manifested glory authenticated the absence of sin in this Child and declared His qualifications as man’s Redeemer. This manifested glory at Christ’s birth authenticated the absence of imputed sin and an inherent sin nature.
The voice out of heaven at Christ’s baptism authenticated the absence of personal sin during Christ’s silent years before His ministry. But how different when Christ was on the cross! At that time there was no glory or light, only blackness. This blackness, which enveloped Christ while He was on the cross, showed He was bearing our sin, but also that his life and ministry were likewise without sin. Thus, He alone was qualified to be our sin bearer.
“And they were terribly frightened.” Literally the Greek says “they feared a great fear.” Luke, as he does in other places, employed what is known as a cognate accusative, the use of a verb and a noun from the same root. This was an emphatic way to stress a point, the point of fear. But why? Because of this sudden burst of blazing light in the middle of the night and because we are not accustomed to running into supernatural creatures. But more than anything, it was the contact with the shekinah glory of God’s holiness. Even though they were Old Testament saints and probably looking for the Messiah, contact with this manifestation of God’s glory struck fear in their hearts because man in himself cannot stand before God.
Can you imagine how the unbeliever, whether immoral, moral, or religious, will feel when they face God in all His infinite holiness at the Great White Throne Judgment and must stand there without the righteousness of Jesus Christ?
“And the angel said unto them” (verse 10). Here the angel is going to announce the good news of Christ’s birth. Then he will be joined by a heavenly host of angels.
This brings up a point of truth. Angels are special creatures of God who were created by God and ordained to serve Him and believers (Heb. 1:14). They were present at the fall of Satan and the rebellious angels who fell with him. They undoubtedly also observed man’s temptation and fall and knew about the promise of Genesis 3:15. They were also instruments of God’s revelation throughout the Old Testament which pointed men to Messiah. What’s the point? Ephesians 3:10 and 1 Peter 1:13 tell us angels are especially interested in man and his salvation in Jesus Christ. This is undoubtedly because God’s redeeming grace in Christ manifests and vindicates God’s holiness, righteousness, justice and manifold wisdom. It is only fitting, therefore, that good angels make this glorious acclamation.
Next we read, “do not be afraid.” The Greek uses the negative me plus the present imperative of phobeo, which, in this context, means “stop and don’t go on being fearful.” The reason for not being fearful is given in the good news which he was about to announce. The message the angel was about to give has the power to dispel all fear. It points men to the person and work of Christ, Who is the manifold wisdom of God whereby all our fears may be set to rest. So the angel says in essence, “do not go on being fearful.”
Next he said, “behold.” This is the Greek idou meaning “to see and discern.” It is an aorist imperative which often indicates urgency, so it came to be used as a demonstrative particle designed to capture our attention calling them to discern the significance of something. Believe me, he already had their undivided attention! Here he was saying, ‘get the meaning of this news.’
“For I bring you good news of great joy.” Literally, “for behold I am announcing good news for you (a dative of advantage) of great joy.” Good news of (accusative of extent = which will bring) great joy.” Joy is anarthrous (without the article) which stresses the quality of joy. Real joy, the kind which only God can give through His son. The adjective “great” is megas and stresses the measure, quantity, degree of this joy. Like the peace which passes all human understanding, so is this joy. When men appropriate the news by faith, it becomes unsurpassing. It is a joy like no other.
With this in mind, think about the presents at Christmastime and joy they give. But the joy they bring so rapidly fades. Even the joy of giving is often disappointing because of the way people respond to the presents given.
To appreciate the good news men must understand and accept the fact of the bad news. The law had demonstrated to Israel for hundreds of years that all had sinned and come short of the glory of God, that there were none righteous, not even one, and that men needed a righteousness from God, one apart from man’s works through faith (Rom. 3:10-23).
As a result, all humanity was under the penalty of death (Rom. 6:23). As keepers of the temple sheep, which spoke of God’s unique lamb, these men undoubtedly knew the bad news. Thus, unlike the religious leaders, they were prepared for the good news, and so God revealed it to them. This truth is illustrated in Jesus’ use of parables as seen in Mark 4:1ff and His comments in Matthew. 11:25. The Lord Jesus used parables “usually to make the truth more engaging and clear to those who were willing to hear (Luke 15:3), but sometimes they were used to make the truth obscure to those who lacked spiritual sensitivity (vv. 11-12).’10
“Which shall be for all people.” “Shall be” is a future indicative, the mood of reality, and “for” is a dative of advantage (He who was born was for the benefit of mankind). The word “all” points to the doctrine of unlimited atonement (1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:10; 1 Tim. 2:6) “who gave Himself a ransom for all.” This declares the good news is for all men. Literally the Greek says, “to all the people” which points to the nation of Israel. He was their Messiah. He was to be salvation to them first and to the Gentiles second. But because of their rejection, it becomes especially a gospel for all people everywhere as the above verses suggest.
“For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (verse 11). Every word here contains transforming and transporting information which answer some of the key questions of life and which point us to the key facts of the good news.
(1) For whom is it provided? “For you,” the shepherds first and then it is applicable to any individual who will receive this Savior. This personalizes the message. It is to all, but individuals must receive it (1 Tim. 4:10).
(2) What has been given? A Savior, a Deliverer. This Greek word, soter, was applied to personalities who were prominent and active in world affairs and it was used of such celebraties in order to remove them from the ranks of ordinary men. It was a term of elevation. Furthermore, the word is anarthrous which stresses the quality and nature of Christ’s person—a Savior-kind of person, One who came to save and deliver mankind. So this title of Christ shows what He is to man and raises Him above all others. Other men are active in human history, others have tried to deliver people in various ways, but there is only one true Savior. Why can this be so and who is this One? The answers are in the words which follow.
(3) Who is provided? One who is “Christ the Lord!” Again we have anarthrous nouns even though this one is clearly the Christ of Old Testament expectation—the Lord. The articles are missing to stress the character and quality of this person’s life. We can translate it “Christ the Lord” because nouns in Greek are automatically different and the article is left off. Christ is the Greek christos meaning “anointed one.” Messiah is from the Hebrew word for anointed and Christ is the Greek equivalent. Prophets, priests, and kings were each anointed in preparation for service, which spoke of the ministry of the Holy Spirit preparing and enabling them to serve. Christ was and is the embodiment of all three offices in one, and in Him the Spirit would operate in a seven-fold way, i.e., He would be the embodiment of a spirit-controlled man (Isa. 11:2f). Thus the Greek stresses the nature of this one as anointed, but of course, He is also “the Anointed One” (Acts 2:22).
“Lord” is kurios which here is used for Yahweh of the Old Testament. This one who is provided is also the embodiment of God, undiminished deity. “For in Him all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form,” Colossians tells us (Col. 2:9).
(4) How is this one to be given to man? He is to be born. In fact, he has been born! What a paradox, what a seeming contradiction! He who was and is eternal God, was also born. He became human flesh, true humanity. As the prophet said, “behold a virgin shall conceive … For a child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us . . . and His name will be called Miracle Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). How could such a thing be? This is spelled out for us in Luke 1:35, by the overshadowing work and power of the Spirit of God.
(5) When would this be? “Today.” Note please the emphasis and feeling of this announcement in the original word order. “For was born for you today a Savior …” The emphasis is on fulfilled prophecy—it has been done. The silence of the last 400 years has been broken. All the prophecies of hundreds of years have ‘today’ been for you fulfilled. Can you imagine the excitement, the joy, the thrill which must have swept over their souls?
But this has meaning for us as well. “Today” meant not only now you can go and find your Savior, but it also stresses the principle that “now is the day of salvation” and “today if you will hear his voice.” Don’t delay! Don’t procrastinate! The news is too great, the salvation too wonderful and the human heart can become hardened and callused when we delay. So don’t put it off, don’t delay, go seek and find. As Psalm 107:9 says, “he satisfies the thirsty soul and fills the hungry soul with goodness.” “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find …”
But for us who already know the Savior, we might remember the Lord’s words in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock …” This was written to the church who had excluded Him from their daily walk, for those who had no room for fellowship (Eph. 3:16f). Compare Hebrews 2:1-3a.
(6) Where will the Savior be provided (born)? “In the city of David,” in Bethlehem. Bethlehem means house of bread. He will be provided in the predicted line of David, and in the predicted spot—Bethlehem of Judea—as Micah foretold hundreds of years before (Micah 5:2). But how can we recognize Him?
(7) What will be the sign of His birth? This is given in verse 12. The sign was “a babe …” How beautiful is this verse. How full of significance these words which point us to that great historical event one night 2,000 years ago when God became man and took upon Himself true humanity.
But what is our response to this great historical event? Is it one of awe, of praise, of transformed priorities, of seeking and finding and telling others?
Next we will look at a precedent set by the hosts of heaven and the shepherds to the acclamation of this angel. It is a precedent which should become the regular experience and pattern for all men, but sadly it is far too often the exception rather than the rule.
And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
“And suddenly there appeared with the angel …” (verse 13). “Suddenly” is exaiphnes, an adverb telling us how the next scene in the acclaim of Christ’s birth occurred. “Suddenly, quickly” as if to show how eager and anxious these angelic beings were to break in immediately following this announcement of Christ’s birth with what may have been praise in antiphonal chorus.
“With the angel,” not in place of the angel. He does not retreat, but is joined by others who come to seal and honor the news he has just announced.
“A multitude” is the Greek plethos which means a great number or quantity. This shows the response of heaven, of those who, as servants of God are totally dedicated to the glory and plan of God. It was not just a few, but a whole multitude. What a precedent for mankind, especially believers. There was immediate response to the news of the birth of Christ in huge numbers.
“Of heavenly hosts,” The terms “hosts” is the Greek word stratia which means an army and was a military term for a band of soldiers. “Heavenly” is the adjective ouranios and tells us what kind of soldiers—angels, mighty heavenly angelic beings who excel in super-human powers, who are dedicated to defending the glory of God and also in protecting and ministering to believers (Ps. 103:20; Heb. 1:14). “Heavenly” means “belonging to heaven, i.e., heavenly in origin, character and nature.”
This heavenly army, with a perfect, flawless, heavenly character and one totally dedicated to God’s glory, without hesitation or coercion, immediately assembled at the announcement of Christ’s birth to give forth praise. The heavenly army assembled to pay honor to the Prince of Peace, the ultimate victor over the enemies of God, (angels and man, i.e., Satan and his hosts, sin, unbelieving man, and death).
Remember, there are two phases of Christ’s work as Prince of Peace—the first advent (suffering, dying, being judged in our place) and the second advent (coming in judgment as King of Kings).
May I suggest a point of application to us. As believers we too are heavenly citizens and members of a heavenly body of soldiers, an elite military corps (Eph. 6:10-18; 2 Tim. 2:3-4; 1 Cor. 9:7; 2 Cor. 10:4). Our response to the news of Christ and to His word, our desire to assemble for worship, praise, and to learn about Him says a whole lot about the nature of our relationship with the Lord as believers. In Christ, in the heavenlies (our position), all believers are blessed with every spiritual blessing, but those blessings must be personally appropriated by knowledge, faith, and deliberate choices in order for our experience to take on the heavenly character of our position, as we see in the obedience and desire of these angels. May we take a lesson from their actions. May it challenge us, may it convict us if we have neglected Him.
Next we read they were “praising God and saying …” The word “hosts,” stratia means “army” and is in the singular. “Praising” and “saying” are in the plural which may individualize and stress not the army as a whole, but the army made up of many individual angels—each one praising and glorifying the Lord. No one was AWOL, every angel was in his place, thus this night of praise was glorious and complete.
“Praising” is aineo and refers to the praise of the lips, of what we sing or say which extols the character and works of God. It is used in Scripture only of praise to God. But in other sources outside the Bible, it was used of the praise to false gods, to heathen gods. Thus, the Greek says “praising the God.” Here we have the article to specify the true God versus the false gods which men or the fallen angels might worship such as money, power, prestige, possessions, human personalities or even demons or Satan himself.
This by application sets another precedent for us as believers in Christ. Our praise and adoration should extol Him and His matchless grace. All we have, our salvation in Jesus Christ, our ministries, our spiritual gifts, all we have we owe to him and our praise and focus should be on Him, on who He is and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
“Saying” does not tell us whether this was shouted or sung. The word “saying” itself does not tell us they did not sing (cf. Ex. 15:1, literally “they sang this song saying”). I like to think they sang it and probably in antiphonal chorus as in Isaiah 6:3 “and one called to another and said, holy, holy, holy.” Perhaps one group sang “glory to God in the highest” and then another “peace upon the earth” and perhaps another “among men of good will.”
But surely, in this we have a precedent, an example for men to follow. There should be praise and glory to God, worship and occupation with Jesus Christ for who and what He means to us—not only at Christmas but throughout the year, week after week, day after day, moment after moment.
This song divides into two parts not three. The old KJV based on the Textus Receptus was, due to a manuscript change in the word “good pleasure,” divided up into three parts (1) glory to God in the highest, (2) and on the earth, peace, (3) good will toward men. It had the nominative case eudokia which is literally “among men, good will.” But the oldest and better texts have eudokias, a genitive which means “among men of good will.” The genitive tells what kind of men. The study note in the NET Bible has, “The idea of people with whom he is pleased alludes to those who are marked out by God as objects of his gracious favor. It is not a reference to every single person, so the phrase should not be translated “good will toward people.”
This is thus a hymn of praise to God. In one Christmas carol, it is referred to as the “gloria in excelsis Deo.” It has only two clauses (a) glory to God in the highest, and (2) upon the earth peace in men of good pleasure (His).”
However, there is a three-fold correspondence or contrast which we should see in these two clauses:
(1) The correspondence of content, the what—between “glory” and “peace.” The birth of Christ brings glory and peace.
(2) The correspondence or contrast of places, the where—between “in the highest” and “upon the earth.” The birth of Christ was an event which touched the entire universe. No place was untouched.
(3) The contrast of persons, the who—between God and man. God is the origin of grace and mankind the recipients of God’s grace, His good pleasure.
The birth of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son who became flesh through the virgin birth, results in glory to God even to the highest realms of heaven, even among the angels. At the same time it brings peace or salvation to this sin-ridden earth among men who have received God’s grace and are the recipients of His good pleasure—His grace.
Some specifics which we should see.
“Glory to God.” “Glory” is the Greek doxa and refers to an opinion, an estimation in which one is held. It refers to a good opinion. Thus, it refers to praise, honor and glory, that which should accrue to someone because of who and what they are in their character and actions.
Thus, glory is something, as are praise and honor, which helps to reveal and give a proper estimation or value to someone else. “To God” is a dative of advantage and stresses that this birth is to bring praise and honor to God; the plan of redemption in Christ is designed to express and reveal God’s glory, His essence. It reveals His character—love, mercy, grace, sovereignty, holiness, righteousness, justice, omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, veracity, etc. It is a plan and work of God which vindicates His character which has been impugned by Satan, the accuser of the brethren and slanderer of God’s glory.
“In the Highest.” “Highest,” the Greek hupsistos, is a superlative adverb meaning the highest, the most exalted place, thing or person, way or manner. Actually most of these concepts are involved at least by way of application.
The primary idea is that glory should accrue to God as it does in the highest place, i.e., heaven and among the highest beings, even the angels, who as we have seen are keenly interested in the birth, life, and work of Christ, and our salvation in Him.
We should see this as a product of the angel’s desire to extend this to the highest realms—not of course to limit this only to the highest realms. The birth of Christ, and our redemption in Him, should result in glory to God on earth as well. In fact, it is only those who truly comprehend God’s grace to us through His Son who can really bring glory to God. Their lives should be ones which are devoted to bringing glory to Him. “… whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31b).
Closely related here is a second possible point of this phrase “in the highest.” While I don’t consider this to be the primary point, it should be considered by way of application and secondary significance, i.e., “glory to God in the highest strains, in the highest and maximum manner.”
Man, as the creation of God, was placed on this earth to glorify God, that is, to reveal the invisible God in a visible way. He was to reveal God’s love, mercy, wisdom, and character. But by sin and man’s fall, Satan wrested this capacity from man and only the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the New Adam, can reverse this condition and reestablish mankind’s capacity to glorify God. Thus, through Him and His work in us, we are to glorify God in the maximum way.
Let us therefore remember that Christ’s blessed birth means our responsibility, privilege and capacity to carry out one of God’s main goals for man, to give glory to God.
“And on earth.” While there are millions of other planets and stars, yet man has been placed upon this earth. This is the central place of a continuous battle being waged between the angels of God and Satan’s fallen angels. This is not to say there is no angelic conflict in the heavens, but one of the reasons for man and his placement on earth was to demonstrate the character of God and perhaps resolve the accusations of Satan by which he blasphemes God’s holy name. Thus, soon after man’s creation, Satan attacked the human race and wrested from man his peace—peace with God, with himself, with others, and brought chaos among the nations (cf. Gen. 3:1f; Isa. 14:12, 16-17; Heb. 2:5f). There is in these words “on earth,” as announced by these angels, a great emphasis and great meaning to these angelic beings who were present at the fall of Satan and man.
“Peace.” The world cries out, “Where is this peace; there is no real peace!” But the world does not know, nor understand the Word of God and God’s total peace package for this earth and man. Typically at Christmastime, men make it a basis of do-good programs by which they attempt to establish peace through their own energy and methods. The world seeks to bring about peace by promoting the ‘goodwill toward men’ mentality. The idea is that if we have good will toward one another we can all have peace. And, if we will have good will toward God, then we can even have peace with Him. It’s as though man in himself has the power and capacity for this good will. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting peace and wishing for good will among men; the problem is that men seek to accomplish this apart from God’s Son.
Peace, as used in the Old Testament (shalom) and as used here is somewhat synonymous with the concept of salvation. It involves the removal of the conditions and causes of alienation and hostility which separate people from God, from themselves, and from being a world at peace. But peace is a product of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. There are at least five main spheres of God’s peace.
(3) Peace of Christian harmony—men living in harmony and loving with one another through knowing, thinking, and applying the Word, the mind of Christ (Phil. 4:1-4, 8-9).
(5) Unlimited world peace—with Satan removed, Christ on earth, and the enemies of Christ defeated and removed (Rom. 16:20; Rev. 19:1f; Isa. 9:6f; 11:1f; 2:1-4). This involves nature also at rest and peace.
All peace is a product of God’s gift of His Son. Old Testament times were times of warfare and unrest. Even Israel only knew peace when she lived in the Word and looked for the hope of Messiah. When she was disobedient, God would discipline and war would come, but one of the messages of the prophets was that of the world peace which Messiah would bring. Even the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome, which the world knew at the time of Christ’s birth, was a work of God preparing the world for Messiah (Christ’s birth) and the ministry to follow.
Christ is the only means of peace. He is the Peacemaker, the salvation of mankind. But for whom is this peace?
“In men of good pleasure (His)” “Good pleasure” is eudokia and means “good will, favor.” It developed two significant uses: (1) favorable and sovereign disposition, grace, unmerited favor, and (2) will, volition or freedom of choice. The Arminian would stress “will, volition, human responsibility,” and the Calvinist the sovereign disposition of God’s grace. Of course Scripture teaches both.
God has chosen, in His Son, to provide peace, salvation in men. What kind of men? Men of His good pleasure. Those who have responded to and received His grace work in Jesus Christ.
Luke 2:1-14, gives us the account of the birth of the Savior. This included the revelation of His birth to shepherds by a heavenly messenger, an angel of the Lord, and then by a sudden appearance of a host of angels acting in response to that news. Of course, the story does not end here. What follows (vss. 15f) is a further response to this revelation and awe-inspiring, life-changing news.
Luke’s narrative of these events do more than simply recount the story. In these verses we see a number of things which bring acclaim to the person of Jesus Christ, but they also provide us with a precedent. The responsive actions of the angels, of the shepherds, and Mary in the verses that follow should impress upon our hearts the kind of response we should all have to the birth of Christ. Here is the narrative of the birth of the God-man Savior who came to live among men and gave His life sacrificially for the world. Therefore, we should view the attitudes and actions of the angels, shepherds and Mary as illustrations and examples that are both instructive and exhortative for each of us who read or tell the story.
In Luke 2 we see both heaven and earth responding to the news of the birth of Jesus in such a way that it instructs, exhorts, and challenges us in our attitudes, priorities, values, pursuits, and actions as it pertains to worship and our behavior in general toward spiritual things, even our reasons for living. This will become even more clear as we study the verses that follow (2:15-20).
The Response Seen in This Passage Sets a Precedent! Let’s be sure to note (1) how this all brought acclaim to God and His Son and (2) how the impact of the news of the birth of Christ was demonstrated not only by words, but by the actions of the angels, the shepherds, and Mary in the way they responded to the news of the birth of Christ.
We might also note that the response of the shepherds in the verses to be studied below was a result of the acclaim or the announcement of the angels. I know what some of you are thinking or saying to yourselves, “Well, if I saw a bunch of angels …, my life would be different too.” Let’s quickly put that idea to rest, 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. 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, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes—not man’s experiences (Rom. 1:16, cf. Luke 16:27-31).
The response of the shepherds was the result of the proclamation of truth, and this provides a good analogy for our need to hear and be in the Word on a regular basis, and, as a result of that, to act on what we learn and know.
The fact and time of this angelic response is surely significant: What happened 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. If one truly understands the significance of Jesus’ life and death to both God and to man, Christmas and all of life will be a time of thankful praise to God for the person and work of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3-10, 17-23; 3:9-12; 1 Tim. 3:16).
Then we might think about the nature of the angels response. It was an act of praise and adoration to God which manifested at least three things:
(1) Their words of praise recognized God as the source 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 as discussed previously. We are told to pray for national leaders in authority that we might be able to experience peace in society (1 Tim. 1:1f), but this is ultimately that we might be free to share the message of peace with a lost world, for only this gives true peace.
(3) Their praise also revealed the recipients of this peace: The recipients are described as those “with whom God is well pleased.” Who are those with whom God is well pleased? 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.
But what would these simple shepherds do with this information? Would they sit on it or would they act on it in a way in keeping with the grandeur of the message? How are we responding to this blessed news of all news? The news all around us is anything but good. We see a hurting world in almost every sphere. Amidst all the glitter of the Christmas season there is an emptiness accompanied by a futility of purpose and a lack of true peace in the lives of many if not most. We have a world that needs the glorious news of the birth of the Savior and why He became man. Oh, that we might be like the shepherds!
And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. (NASB)
Revelation from God should always result in an adequate response in man—always. This means the more the revelation, the more the accountability before God (see Matt. 11:20-22). As soon as this angelic announcement was over (or ‘worship service,’ as we might call it), the hearers faced a responsibility. Were they going to act on the news they had received or would they simply file it away as so much interesting information. This, of course, is what the chief priests and scribes did when the magi came and inquired about the place of the birth of Messiah (Matt. 2:1-6). In their smug religiosity and self-confidence, they failed to go and see.
The action that follows occurs at the departure of these angels into heaven, which draws attention to the nature of this news; it was news from God’s heavenly messengers. Here was news from the very portals of heaven, news in accord with Old Testament prophecy and these shepherds acted on the news they received. In fact, this news and information became the center of their conversation and the motivation of their behavior because it was divine revelation.
After hearing a portion of Scripture (God’s written revelation to us), whether it is something new or something familiar, what do we do with it? Do we treasure it, think on it, and above all, act on it in faith? Or do we just file it away in file thirteen? We are far too often simply satisfied with our religious activity and think God is as well, and, as a result, we fail to even think seriously about the message or passage and its implications. We are really, then, 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 you hear at church, for instance, could become a topic for the family on the ride home, at the dinner table, or for personal meditation. We might ask questions like: What does this mean to my life or to our lives as a family? What should we be doing about this? What should we be doing differently in view of the truth we heard today? How does this affect our relationships to God, to one another, and toward the world—our priorities, our values and pursuits, and those who live around us?
Verse 15b, begins “the shepherds said to one another,” which puts the scene in motion and highlights their reciprocal response. We might translate it, “They began saying.” This is what we might call an inceptive progressive imperfect in the Greek text. Instead of merely stating the fact of their conversation like a snap shot, this 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. Dr. Luke is telling us they began and repeatedly spoke to one another, suggesting, of course, their excitement and interest as they discussed this event together. The way the shepherds responded not only demonstrates the character of their response, but provides us with a number of wonderful examples for how the revelation of God’s Son should impact us. There are two implications here:
(1) Their response suggests they were men who had a heart for God and for what was truly valuable. I believe these men were temple shepherds who understood the significance of what they did as shepherds of the sacrificial sheep. They were Old Testament saints who had the hope of Messiah and who, undoubtedly by God’s work 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.
(2) This illustrates the principle that 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.
What are we doing throughout the week and on the days of worship to prepare the soil of our hearts for the Word? Has there been prayer, meditation, honest and pin-pointed confession and daily reading of the Word? Or do we come hurried and harried, 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 God and the privilege of worship?
Biblical Christianity declares that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone and never 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 does mean we will experience Him along with a growing appreciation for who He is and what He has and is doing in us, for us, and to us through Christ. Shouldn’t this, at least at times, 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.
However, 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 we do need to show some excitement about eternal values: about the Word and God’s Son, our Savior. We quite typically show excitement about our children or our favorite football team or hobbies, do we not? So why not about the things of Christ? In keeping with this, note the 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, landing of a new job? This shows that we are social beings and that we need and enjoy giving and receiving input from others. We naturally love to talk about the things we enjoy and love. The words “one another” remind me of what we might call the doctrine of one another, the teaching of the New Testament based on its many “one another” passages. These passages highlight the one another needs and responsibilities we have to others 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.
There are two principles we can draw here: First, no man is an island, we need others and they need us. We all need the influence and fellowship of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eccles. 4:9). Second, we need to share Jesus Christ and talk of Him with one another. Christ and our relationship with Him should be more and more the subject of our conversations as it becomes more and more the center of our hearts and lives (cf. Deut. 6:6-7).
Next, note that in this “one another” relationship they did something else that is very interesting.
They said, “let us …” This is what we call a hortatory clause, which calls others to join us in some action or responsibility. This reminds us that in our one another relationships as believers in Christ we need such exhortation, comfort, encouragement, challenge, and sometimes loving rebuke. We need it from others and they need it from us.
Such “let us” exhortations occur some 56 times in the New Testament, with over 30 of these occurring in the epistles. I remember hearing a good friend speak on some of these hortatory passages and he introduced it in a very interesting way. In his introduction he said, “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 …” They had received revelation from God and then responded to it in faith. God’s Word always reorients the direction of our lives. In the light of this news and their reciprocal exhortations, 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, they chase down one rabbit trail after another, running from one thing to another. They wander around and go with the flow because they lack the God-given reason for living and purpose that will give meaning and true satisfaction.
Many people, especially today, are like small corked bottles that are 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, whether we count for God and for eternity or not. What are our goals for the new year and the new decade? Do we have any? Do they go beyond self-centered desires? Do we see our purpose in life?
What was the shepherd’s purpose? Their purpose was to see the Christ child—it was to see and know Him. Notice their priority was not to watch their sheep (carry on with their occupation or put food on the table), nor was it to make converts, or to write books, or preach sermons, or raise their children—as important as all these things are.
Here is the supreme purpose for each of us. We were created to know and love God. Without this there must be and there will be a huge void that must of necessity leave us without meaning and without an adequate purpose for living. This always leaves us frustrated, always ill at ease, wondering what’s wrong, and thus also seeking happiness in all the wrong places.
Surely, three of the most common causes of depression and emotional difficulties people face today or in any day are: (1) guilt and the need of forgiveness, (2) inability to cope because of a lack of biblical confidence and faith in God, and (3) a lack of purpose, and I mean by that a biblical purpose.
For most people, it’s life on a gerbil wheel. Why are our lives often so incredibly busy, yet lacking in purpose? Or do we really know what our purpose is, but find ourselves caught up in the rat race of our society because of our pursuit of the good life, whatever that is, and because we are pursing 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, only 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 the climb is not doing us any good by the way so many are living lives of hyper stress and hyper burnout.
And there is another side to this coin. Sine11 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 and blessing at the top, one that is beneficial to the climber, and one that brings blessings to others.
What are those specific expectations that keep you climbing? What is it costing you in terms of your time, your relationships, and your own mental or physical health to scale your peak? What motivates you to keep climbing?
Check it out. My friends, there is a longing within each of us to be a part of a larger cause, a longing to see God use our lives in a way that makes a difference. Let me challenge you to describe your sense of what God’s purpose for your life might be.
At one time the United States 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 an escalating suicide rate. This is true especially among teenagers (those in the morning of life), and 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 Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
As we face this new year, with our compass (Bible) in hand, may we each examine our lives in this regard. 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.
There was some reevaluation going on that night. And you know what? These new values took control of their lives and began determining their actions. This is always the case for where our treasures are there will be our hearts be also (see Matt. 6:21 and compare Phil. 3:7ff).
Please note that these men were shepherds, men who belonged to a profession that is known for its faithfulness to duty and to their sheep. Yet, what did they do? They left their flocks and went in haste to see this child!
They were willing to put first things first and trust their business to the Lord. They were acting by faith on the principles of Scripture such as: (1) the Word is “more desirable than gold” (Psalm 19:10); (2) like the need to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33), and (3) like the fact that “life does not consist in the abundance of the things we possess” (Luke 12:15-23), nor in position and power. Rather, life consists of knowing God and serving Him.
Whenever we cling to the details of life in preference to the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word, we are clinging to a liability and what will become our loss and ultimate misery (Phil. 3:7-9). Remember, one of the lessons of the Christmas message is that the Lord did not cling to what He had, but rather He veiled His deity and took upon Himself true humanity for us that He might in turn go to the cross for us.
The actions of these shepherds demonstrated their values, their wisdom, and their faith which forms a fitting example for all of us in our crazy day of consumerism and indulgence. Unfortunately, I failed to write down the source of the following, but want to give the gist of what I read because it is so applicable.
We live in a time of absurdity. Sometimes I think we are crazy. Look at what we get excited about? Look at what we spend our money on and look at how much we spend for certain things which, in some cases, are really senseless. Money has become silly, price tags absurd, celebrities are our heroes. Something serious has happened in American culture and to American values. Today the more popular something is, the less sense it seems to make. Our heroes or celebrities are generally people with no morals and with no real value to mankind by way of example and biblical values. Some of them do and are nothing, they have just become popular because their names got into the paper or on the cover of some magazine, and often through some scandal (Remember Kato Kaylen in connection with the O. J. Simpson trial?). And many are actually harmful as examples because of their immorality, humanistic philosophies, and lack of values.
Our society has gone crazy, and it’s so easy for us to pick up on its values.
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 it done at all or in getting it 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. The result is, we fail to follow through on the priorities of life.12
As a result of the response of the shepherds, they found their way to Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. Because they acted 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” (vs. 16). 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 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 Lord’s exhortation, “seek and you shall find.” It calls to mind the words of Proverbs 2:4-5 which says: “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 which reads: “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 One who was God incarnate, the Emmanuel child.
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 known 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 “to physically see, observe, notice,” but 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 angel’s message 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?
(1) 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 who, upon hearing of the birth from the Magi, failed to go and see. 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).13
(2) 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).
I think it is interesting 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.14
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 really transforms us?
(3) 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 (Eph. 3:16-19; Rom. 12:1-2).
Again remember the principle 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 we have the most important information in the world that needs to be 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 can we learn from this?
(1) 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, this should have been anticipated among Jewish people. Our Lord told His disciples, “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 Jesus Christ, 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.
(2) What is our response to truth when we hear 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 worship of Him 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” in verse 19 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.
Again, what are some lessons we might learn from this?
(1) This illustrates the need to store and reflect on 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).
(2) 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. I am reminded of the following Scriptures:
“Thy word have I treasured in my heart that I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:16)
“I shall delight in thy statutes, I shall not forget Thy word (Psalm 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 (Proverbs 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” (vs. 19b) 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 things was both a design and a result of treasuring these events in her heart.15
In this, Mary gives us an example of the principle of meditating on the things of God. Those things 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.
(1) 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 feel like we are wasting time, or being lazy. Time, after all, is 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 become frustrated, and end up with high blood pressure.
(2) Satan always has a counterfeit. Today when we hear about meditation, it is of the New Age variety. Here 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. People are encouraged to take their minds out of gear by chanting a mantra. This, people are told, allows them to reach out to the universal force by which they can solve their problems, develop perfect health, and get rich. But the fact is, this opens a person up to demonic forces and attack.
With verse 20 we return to the actions of the shepherds.
“They went back” (vs. 20) to their sheep or to their work, but undoubtedly as changed men.
(1) Again we 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.
(2) We 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 as shepherds and as husbands and fathers.
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 us 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 it 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.
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. But let’s not make this our goal or objective. The first objective is to know Him more deeply. The changes occur as byproducts of knowing and loving the Savior. 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.
They “went back glorifying and praising God …” (vs. 20). These men returned to their sheep 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 woman 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, or on some special religious 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.
The shepherds went back to their sheep, to their occupations, and undoubtedly also to their families, but they went back changed men. They would be better at their work. They would be better husbands, fathers, and sons because of fellowship with their Savior in a new way and with a new vision and purpose for their lives. There would be a new song in their hearts and praise on their lips. There would also be a burden on their hearts and a message on their lips for they wanted others to learn of and know this Savior of theirs.
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.
9 For an illustration of the principle, see Isa. 59:2.
12 This can also be illustrated in the account of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:39-42.