A few years ago, newscaster Andy Rooney responded to the charge that his profession only covered the negative side of everything. He imagined a newscast in which it was reported that planes took off and landed safely. In Florida, the orange crop was hit by another night of average weather. The oranges just hung in there and grew. In Detroit, General Motors announced that 174,000 Chevrolets would not be recalled because they were all perfect. Rooney’s point was that good news isn’t always appreciated unless it’s against the backdrop of bad news.
Our text tells us the best news in the world, but two factors make it difficult for people to appreciate it. First, the Christmas story is perhaps the most widely known story in history. As a result, many people, even Christians, shrug it off as not being especially exciting or relevant to the problems they are facing. Second, many people do not realize what dire straits they are in regarding their standing before God and their eternal destiny. So when they read the familiar story that a Savior has been born in the city of Bethlehem, they yawn and say, “That’s nice. What’s for dinner?” Not seeing their desperate need for salvation, they fail to appreciate the fact that this story is the best news in all of history.
The best news in the world is that a Savior was born for you, who is Christ the Lord.
A couple of years ago, Moody Magazine (Jan./Feb., 1996) reported that 49 percent of professing Christians agree that “all good people, whether they consider Jesus Christ to be Savior or not, will live in heaven after they die.” If that opinion is true, then the story of the birth of Jesus may warm your heart and make you feel good. But it won’t be the best news in the world, news that you cannot live without. However, if the Bible is correct in stating that all people have sinned and apart from Christ they are under God’s condemnation, then the news that the Savior has been born is hardly just nice! It is the best news in the world and it is absolutely crucial! Consider five aspects of this good news:
This needs to be emphasized in our day. So many legends, such as Santa Claus, have become intertwined with the Christmas story that people lump them all together and forget that the birth of Jesus Christ as reported in the Bible is true history. Some may ask, “Who cares if it’s history or not? The story about the virgin Mary, the Christ child, the angels, the wise men, the shepherds, and all that stuff is a heartwarming tale that children love to hear. It helps everyone focus on peace on earth for a few brief days every year. So what difference does it make if it’s really true or not?”
It makes all the difference in the world. If it’s just a heartwarming legend, you can choose to believe or disbelieve it. It’s your option, based on how it makes you feel. It’s a completely subjective decision, binding on no one.
But if the story is actually happened as reported by Luke, then the birth of Jesus the Savior confronts every person with some objective facts that cannot be shrugged off as personal opinion. The fact that these events happened as reported means that God exists and that He truly broke into human history in the birth of Jesus in fulfillment of many prophecies. The fact that God actually sent a Savior implies that people without the Savior are alienated from God and desperately need to be reconciled with Him through the forgiveness of their sins.
This means that the relationship between God and His people is not based on an inward experience inside their own heads, but upon a reality that was seen, heard, and authenticated by these witnesses. It means that you don’t just believe in Jesus because it makes you feel warm and happy inside, or because He helps you face life’s problems or because you like the Christian traditions of worship. It means that you believe the Christian message because it is true. Even if it brings you persecution and death, you cling to it because it is better authenticated in history than even the fact that George Washington was the first president of the United States. The good news about Christ the Savior is historically true.
The angel states it plainly in verse 11: Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, is the “Savior, who is Christ [Messiah, “Anointed One”] the Lord.” Consider who this Savior is:
He is fully man. He was born in the city of David, to descendants of David who were there to register for their taxes. That sounds pretty human, doesn’t it? Do you suppose Joseph grumbled about having to make a 90-mile, three-day trip, just to register to pay his taxes to the despised Romans? Isn’t it interesting that the God who sovereignly used the Roman emperor’s tax edict to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the birth of the Messiah (to fulfill prophecy) didn’t also sovereignly arrange for a room for them in the inn? There weren’t any special royal privileges for this baby. They laid Him in a feeding trough. Contrary to the popular Christmas carol, this baby did cry! There was no halo around His head. What the shepherds saw was a wrinkled, red, newborn human baby. Jesus the Savior assumed full humanity so that He might bear the sins of the human race.
He is fully God. The angel told the shepherds that this one who had been born in Bethlehem was Christ the Lord. We must interpret this title in light of its use in the Old Testament and in light of its context in Luke. In the Old Testament, the Lord clearly is God, Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! Luke uses the same word in 2:9, where is says that the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. He uses it in 2:23 to refer to “the law of the Lord” and “holy to the Lord.” If the word means something different in verse 11 than it does in verse 9 or verse 23, surely Luke would have clarified it. The Savior had to be man to bear the sins of humans; but He also had to be God so that His sacrifice had merit before the holy throne of Almighty God. Only Jesus is that unique Savior.
Before moving on from this term, Lord, we must note that it implies that Jesus has authority over every person, as well as over all angelic and demonic powers. It is absurd for a person to say, “I’ve accepted Jesus as my Savior, but not as my Lord.” You can’t divide Him into neat categories to serve your selfish needs! Jesus is both Savior and Lord, which means that submitting your entire life to Him is not an option for you to consider adding to the salvation package at some later date. It is demanded by virtue of who He is, the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth!
This Savior is the Christ (or Messiah). Messiah is the Hebrew and Christ is the Greek word for “Anointed One.” It refers to Jesus as the special Anointed King and Priest, who brings God’s salvation to His people. In the Old Testament, the only two office bearers to be anointed were the King and the High Priest, but the messianic expectation centered on the kingly aspect, as portrayed in Psalm 2. The title, Christ, especially focuses on the fact that Jesus is the One who fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies about the promised Savior.
Finally, note that this one who was born is the Savior. This implies that those He came to save are lost, alienated from God, under His just condemnation because of their sins. What Jesus saves us from is the awful wrath of God. The term also implies that we are helpless and can do nothing to save ourselves. We need outside intervention if we are to be delivered from God’s judgment. Jesus alone provides salvation for sinners.
So this combination of terms, that this Jesus who was born is a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, attributes to Jesus the highest possible view of His person. Any message that implies or states that Jesus is less than fully human, less than fully God, less than fully Lord, or less than fully the Savior from sin and judgment, is not the good news of the Bible. The good news centers on the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever considered why the story does not say, “Now there were in the same region scribes and Pharisees, keeping watch over their scrolls and religious rituals”? Or, “There were kings and princes keeping watch over their treasures at the palace.” God chose to reveal the birth of the Savior to simple shepherds who were going about their duties. Why shepherds? God chose shepherds to show that …
The good news is for all people, not just for the elite. As Paul told the Corinthians, “Consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God” (1 Cor. 1:26-29).
If the gospel were some complicated philosophy that required years of graduate study and a high I.Q. to grasp, then those who attained it would boast of their intelligence. If the gospel required sums of money or high social standing to attain, there would be no hope for the poor and lowly. But the beauty of the good news is that even an uneducated, illiterate tribal man in the jungle can understand that he is a sinner and the Jesus Christ is God’s Savior, and by God’s grace, he can believe and be saved.
The good news involved the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. It is likely that the very sheep these men were tending in the fields that night were being prepared for slaughter at the Passover in Jerusalem. Thus it is symbolic that the shepherds who were watching the Passover lambs would be invited to Bethlehem to view the Lamb of God who would be slain for sinners.
In His perfect justice, God has declared that the wages of sin is death. But in His love and mercy, God provided the very penalty His justice demanded. The entire Jewish sacrificial system pointed ahead to Jesus Christ, the perfect sin-bearer, who offered Himself as the acceptable substitute for sinners. If you trust in Him as your sin-bearer, God transfers your guilt to Him and His perfect righteousness to you.
The good news provided us with a Good Shepherd. God has always had a special place in His heart for shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were shepherds. King David was called from tending the sheep to shepherd God’s people. David was a type of his promised descendant, who would reign on David’s throne, who said of Himself, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). If you will trust in Jesus as your Savior, He will become your Good Shepherd, who will care for you as no other can. He knows your deepest needs. He will protect you from wolves and thieves who would destroy your soul. He came to give His sheep abundant life (John 10:10-13).
So God revealed His Savior to these simple shepherds to show us that His good news is for common people. It involved the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. It provides us with Jesus as our Good Shepherd.
The good news about Christ the Savior is historically true. It is based on His unique Person. It reaches the common person.
The events that happened to those shepherds on that historic night were symbolic of what happens to every person who responds to the good news of Christ the Savior. First, they were sitting in the darkness of the Judean night. Coming immediately after Zacharias’ prophecy that the Sunrise from on high would “shine upon those who sit in darkness” (1:79), the story of the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night is more than a coincidence. It shows a fulfillment of God’s promise. Their sitting out in that black night is a picture of every human heart without the Savior. We all sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
Then, suddenly, there was a great flash of light. An angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. It was as if a prolonged lightning flash lit up the night sky. But it was more than a physical event. It symbolized what happens to every person when the Holy Spirit illumines his or her darkened heart with the light of the gospel. Whereas before they were blind, now they see. As Isaiah prophesied, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (Isa. 9:2).
It’s easy to understand the shepherds’ next response: They were terrified. Sitting in darkness in a deserted place is enough by itself to make you a bit jittery. They were watching their flocks because of the danger of robbers or wolves. So they’re sitting there, kind of on edge, but also fighting drowsiness, when suddenly the sky lights up like the noonday sun, and a man who had not been there seconds before was instantly standing before them, brilliant in his appearance. Instant terror!
It’s much the same when the light of the gospel flashes upon your mind. Sitting in the darkness of sin may have been a bit spooky, but it was tolerable. But suddenly the glory of God’s absolute holiness shines into your sin-blackened heart, and you realize, with Isaiah when he got a vision of God, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5).
But, thankfully, God in His tender mercy does not leave us in that terrifying situation. The angel immediately spoke words of comfort and joy, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy …” (2:10). With John Newton, we sing, “’Twas grace that caused my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”
The intensity and the sequence of these events will vary from person to person. There is a sense in which as we grow in our walk with God, our awareness of the utter blackness of our hearts, the blinding intensity of the unapproachable light of God’s presence, and the joy of knowing that our sins are forgiven, will continually increase. They aren’t all present in fully developed form at the moment of conversion. But they will be present to some extent in the heart of every believer. If you do not, to some degree, know the fear of God and the joy of sins forgiven, I question whether you know Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. Note one final thing:
The shepherds did not hear this great news and then sit around discussing it. They didn’t send a delegation to the rabbis in Jerusalem to get their view of things. They didn’t say, “We’ve always believed these things. After all, we’re Jews, we know the Scriptures, that Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. Thanks for telling us!” Rather, they responded in several definite ways:
The response of faith. Although the text does not explicitly say that the shepherds responded by faith, it describes their response of faith. They obviously believed the words of the angel or they would not have left their sheep and gone to Bethlehem to see for themselves what the Lord had revealed to them.
And, what did they see when they got to Bethlehem? Did they see a kingly child arrayed in royal robes in a golden cradle with servants attending Him? Did He and His mother have halos over their heads? Not quite! They saw a common couple from Nazareth in a primitive stable with a normal-looking newborn baby. It wasn’t exactly the way you would expect God to bring His Anointed Savior into this world. But the shepherds viewed this baby with eyes of faith, in accordance with the word of God given through the angel.
When God reveals Christ to your soul, you must respond with eyes of faith. Jesus may not be the kind of Savior you expected. You might have had in mind a Savior who could give you everything you’ve always wanted. Your thoughts about the Savior might not have included birth in a stable, let alone crucifixion on a cross. But this Jesus is God’s Savior and you must personally believe in Him as revealed in the Bible.
The response of proclamation. “When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child” (2:17). It is “good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people” (2:10). The shepherds didn’t stop to think about how people might respond. Some might have said with raised eyebrows, “You saw a bunch of angels and then you went and saw carpenter and his wife with a baby in a feeding trough, and you think he’s the Messiah, huh? Right!” But that didn’t stop these men from relating the story. Once you have seen the Savior with eyes of faith, you cannot stop telling others the great news.
The response of praise. “The shepherds went back glorifying and praising God” (2:20). When God has taken you from the darkness of your sin and by His grace revealed His Savior to your soul, your heart will be filled with praise and joy. As the apostle Paul puts it, believers should be “joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:11-13). Those who have heard God’s good news should respond with faith, with proclamation, and with praise.
The response of endurance. “The shepherds went back …” (2:20). Went back where? Went back to sign a book contract and to appear on Christian TV shows? They went back to launch a ministry called “Shepherd’s Vision,” and they became famous throughout the land? No! They went back to their sheep.
That’s kind of a letdown, isn’t it? After the great things that they saw, they went back to the routine job they had been in before. They didn’t set up tours of Bethlehem. They didn’t put on seminars on how to have visions of angels. They went back to their jobs, but praising God for His abundant grace to them.
God doesn’t call us to a spectacular, flashy, constantly exciting life. He calls us to believe in the Savior, and then He sends us back into the routine to learn to rejoice in Him and His great salvation day in and day out.
A man traveled a great distance for an interview with a distinguished scholar. He was ushered into the man’s study, where he said, “Doctor, I notice that the walls of your study are lined with books from the ceiling to the floor. No doubt you have read them all. I know you have written many yourself. You have traveled extensively, and doubtless you’ve had the privilege of conversing with some of the world’s wisest men. I’ve come a long way to ask you just one question. Tell, me, of all you’ve learned, what is the one thing most worth knowing?”
Putting his hand on his guest’s shoulder, the scholar replied with emotion in his voice, “My dear sir, of all the things I have learned, only two are really worth knowing. The first is, I am a great sinner, and the second, Jesus Christ is a great Savior!”
If you know those two things personally, you know the best news in the whole world, that a Savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation