Over the last several weeks we have been making trips to Bethlehem. First, we traveled with Ruth and Naomi to a place of restoration and blessing following a season of tragedy and discouragement. Last week we traveled with Mary and Joseph to a place of fulfilled promises following inconveniences and peculiarities. Today we are going to take one more Journey to Bethlehem, this time alongside several shepherds the same night Jesus was born. Their story is revealed to us in Luke 2:8-20 and as we witness two meetings that take pace in this passage we will learn that journeying to Christ is only the beginning of what God has in store for those who embrace him in faith.
I. MEETING #1: THE ANGELS MEET WITH THE SHEPHERDS-2:8-14
When we last left the Christmas story we saw the greatest miracle ever—the birth of Jesus Christ. God had come to earth as a baby and news of this magnitude needed to be shared. Enter the next set of characters to emerge onto the scene—“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night…” (2:8). While it might seem a bit peculiar to announce this important news first to shepherds in a field (especially when one understands their humble place in society), consider the prominent role shepherds play in the Scriptures. King David, after all, was a shepherd and God is described as a shepherd (see Psalm 23:1). Later Jesus himself would be called the Good Shepherd (see Jn. 10:11). These references seem to indicate that God seems pleased with associating with and elevating the lowly for his incredible purposes. This would be Jesus’ M.O. throughout his ministry as he would extend good news to those who were humble enough to understand that they needed it. What a treat, undeserved and unmerited, it would be for these shepherds to be entrusted with this great news of Christ’s birth!
While watching their sheep in the cool of the night “an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened” (2:9). Just imagine these men, nodding off to the soft braying of the sheep and the sound of nearby crickets, suddenly being awakened by the bright light and presence of this heavenly figure. This angel was probably that same Gabriel who appeared in 1:11, 19, 26 to foretell the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. The initial reaction to the emergence of this angel is terror (and understandably so). It is not every day you are visiting by a figure from heaven with the glory of the Lord. In fact, remember, heaven had been relatively silent for over 400 years! The shepherds were anything but prepared for what they saw and, what they were about to hear. That said, this is just the latest in a series of divine interruptions used the lives of people to bring them to Bethlehem—to a place of great blessing. Remember, Ruth and Naomi’s life was interrupted by death and famine; Mary’s life was interrupted by a miraculous pregnancy; Joseph’s life by a decree from Caesar; and now these shepherds with the appearance of an angel. God uses these interruptions to interrupt the world of sin and death with the solution of a Savior.
After the initial shock of this divine disruption, “the angel said to them (these shepherds), ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all people’…” (2:10). The nature of the message the angel gives is especially important. First, it is good news. This is the definition of the gospel—(euaggelion). In fact, it is the best news of all—God has sent his Son to save the world. Second, this should bring about great joy. In a world of heartache, brokenness, darkness, and death, nothing can change the fact that God has provided a remedy for and ultimate salvation from these things. This ought to provide sustaining joy to all who know and understand it. Third, this gospel and joy is “for all the people.” It is for everyone who will accept and embrace it! Rich and poor, Jew and gentile, slave and free, shepherds and kings (Gal. 3:28; 1 Tim. 2:3-6). I imagine the look of terror on these shepherds faces was beginning to change, their mouths curving into a smile.
Next, the angel reveals that this gospel and joy with implications for the world is found in a very special newborn baby—“for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11). This birth announcement indicates that this baby has a royal pedigree (city of David) and would be the long-awaited “Savior” of his people. In the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and Isaiah, God is frequently identified as the “Savior” of his people. Jesus would prove to be the Savior because through him God would redeem his people (Strauss, ZIBBC, 343). The title the angel gives Jesus—“Christ the Lord”—calls to mind his special anointing as the salvation-bringing king of the Jews in keeping with the messianic expectation found in promises of the Old Testament. A King, Savior, and Messiah had been born to bring good news and joy for all who would accept it.
This message could be verified in a confirming sign—“This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (2:12). Perhaps we can now understand part of the reason behind the peculiar nursery Jesus was inhabiting. After all, how many babies would be found lying in a feeding trough? Certainly, this anomaly would help indicate that something very special had taken place, that is, if the shepherds were willing to check things out for themselves.
If this wasn’t already enough of a spectacle, “suddenly there appeared with eh angel a multitude of the heavenly host,…” (2:13a). Such hosts or “armies” of heaven reveal God’s sovereign power and authority—sovereignty that we have already traced in every detail both great and small in this unfolding story. The same God who orchestrated the geo-political climate, lives of Mary and Joseph, timing of the pregnancy, and issuing of the decree so that the birth of Christ would take place at the exact right place at the exact right time in the exact right way was now showing his control over who would receive the news and how it would be spread.
This heavenly host turns into a mighty chorus of singers “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (2:13b-14). Here, the events and circumstances of Jesus’ birth are properly directed to the glory of God. Everything that has occurred in this endeavor of bringing God’s Son into the world glorified the Lord in a most special way. Not only that, but it would result in “peace among men with whom he is pleased.” Those who will embrace God’s gift will know the peace of God that overwhelms the anxiety and brokenness brought on by sin.
Talk about an exciting meeting! A welcome interruption of the greatest news about the greatest gift come to the world to provide the greatest relief from mankind’s greatest problem. This news is just as good today, and it is our prayer that if it has not already interrupted your life, it would this Christmas.
II. MEETING #2: THE SHEPHERD MEET WITH JESUS-2:15-20
The shepherds respond to this divine interruption with immediate action. Luke reveals that ”when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, 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’…” (2:15). The way this response is described here suggests that the shepherd left at once in a hurry to confirm what the angel has disclosed to them.
“So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as he lay in the manger” (2:16). The shepherds probably checked the animal stables until they found the one with the baby; Bethlehem was not a large town by modern standards and this search probably did not take too long for them (Keener, IVPBBC, 185). Their journey to Bethlehem ended when they happened upon exactly what the angel predicted they would see—the God-child laying in a manger with Mary and Joseph on either side.
What a special camaraderie this small group shared on this most consequential night. All these parties had journeyed to Bethlehem because each of their stories was interrupted and redirected according to God’s grand narrative. Mary and Joseph were brought to Bethlehem at the behest of Caesar’s edict, the shepherds were called to the stable at the call of the angel, and Jesus was sent through Mary to save the world. Each in their own way, following the journey to Bethlehem, was brought to this point of blessing in keeping with God’s plan and mighty purposes.
The text goes on to say that “when (the shepherds) had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child…” (2:17). This implies that the first reaction to the experience they just had with Jesus was to go and tell others what they had witnessed. This is the first example of a pattern that will surface again and again throughout Jesus’ ministry and thereafter. Many who are healed by Jesus later in his ministry go and tell those around them what occurred. The Samaritan woman at the well, immediately upon her interaction with Jesus, shares who he is with her town. The disciples, following the resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit, go and tell Jesus’ story and establish the church. Saul, after confronting Jesus on the road to Damascus, changes his name to Paul and spends the rest of his life going and telling others the gospel message throughout the Roman Empire. The Ethiopian Eunuch, after learning about Jesus from Philip, was saved only to then go and tell his people back home. The Philippian jailer, after hearing about Jesus, goes and tells his family. We could go on and tell you story after story that repeats the same theme. This pattern, which began with the shepherds seems to be the first and most appropriate response to interfacing with Jesus—whether the person or his message. Those who understand who Jesus is and what he came to bring ought not be able to help themselves and, like these shepherds, busy themselves with sharing the greatest news of all.
The testimony of the shepherds appears to prove effective as “all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds…” (2:18). At least for the present, this “wonder” that was instilled in those who heard their message was enough to set in motion the next phase of God’s plan. There was something wonderful about what was shared by these shepherds and the happenings of that first Christmas night and such wonder drew the gaze of those who heard their report toward the heavens. “Could this be true?” “Has God broken through?” “Is salvation really come to earth?” The answer to these questions is a resounding YES! Jesus has been born and with him, the redemption for all who believe.
Do you know this? If you know this are you keen to go and tell those around the greatest news of all? Do people stand in wonder at your testimony of who God is and what he has done? What better gift can we possible give this Christmas than to go and tell this story and what it means to those who have not heard it or have not yet been willing to embrace it?
Over the last several weeks we have journeyed to Bethlehem no less than three times: with Naomi and Ruth, with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, and with the shepherds. We have made the case that God has been actively engaged in all of the details to bring all of these parties to this special place at very specific times and in very specific ways so that he might bring all to a point of unprecedented blessing. This same sovereign God is in control of this moment and your viewing of this message (whether live in-person, online, or in recorded form). It is not by accident that you are listening to this or watching this at this juncture in your life. The only question you must answer is why? What is God trying to get through to you or leading you to do in response to what you have heard? Perhaps God is leading you, much like the shepherds to the person of Jesus Christ so that you might surrender to him and embrace the gift that he was sent to bring—salvation. Perhaps God is leading you, much like Mary and Joseph, to be obedient, even in the little things, trusting that God is in control over even the small details and working them out for his good in your life. Or perhaps, as in Ruth and Naomi’s case, God is revealing to you that despite the heartache and struggle, he is not through with you and is, even in this season, leading you according to his perfect will. Do not miss out on what God has for you this Christmas. Take the journey he is leading you to take and wait expectantly for all the wonderful things he will do!