v.7 You’ll notice that Luke gives us absolutely not a hint of the time of year, much less the date of the Lord’s birth. Despite the best efforts of scholars ancient and modern, no one knows when Jesus was born. One scholar writes that it was probably a combination of two factors that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem at that time: 1) the requirements of the tax registration and 2) the gossiping tongues of Nazareth. [Morris, 101]
v.8 The fields today identified as “Shepherds’ Fields” are some two miles from Bethlehem, toward the Dead Sea, and below the snow line. It is wonderful to imagine David as a young man, centuries before, walking over these same fields, tending to his father’s flocks, fighting off the lion and the bear. The text does not say that Jesus was born at night; that thought is taken over from the time of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, which could have been hours or even a few days after the Lord’s birth.
v.10 The verb translated “bring good news” is our “evangelize.” It was to become the characteristic way of speaking about or communicating the message of Christ and his salvation: “bring good news.”
v.11 Christ, as you know, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah,” that is, it means in Greek what Messiah means in Hebrew: anointed one, which is to say, the coming king of OT prophecy. The verb from which Christos comes means “to pour,” as in pouring oil over the head of the man to anoint him king.
Also noteworthy, this is the first time in the Bible that the Messiah is specifically referred to as the Savior! In the OT it is usually God who is the savior of his people! But this is the first time that this baby boy, who has already been very clearly identified as the Messiah, is called the Savior. [Bock, i, 217] In Matthew’s account also we read that the coming king will save his people from their sins. The identity of this baby is being disclosed piece by piece. That he is to be “the Lord” has already been disclosed, but not yet the full meaning of that title. That he would do what God alone can do is certainly being intimated here.
v.12 The sign is not that the baby would be in swaddling cloths, there may have been several other newborns or nearly newborn babies in Bethlehem that night, but none of the others would be lying in a manger.
v.13 “Host” is one of these words like “ark” that has simply somehow or another found its way into the Christian consciousness and now can’t be changed. Nobody wants to read about Noah’s “barge.” They want to read about Noah’s “ark” and in the same way we expect to read about the heavenly “host”, not the heavenly “army.” But “army” is what the word means. We don’t say that the U.S. “host” is in Afghanistan, we say the U.S. army is in Afghanistan. “Host” is a military term. It means “army.” But this is an army that announces peace!
v.14 For many years, as you all are well aware, the effort has been made in western culture and particularly in American popular culture to diminish the controversial aspect of Christmas. The Christmas message has in many ways been made sentimental, harmless, and altogether less distinctively Christian. And interestingly that effort was unintentionally aided by the translation of Luke 2:14 in what otherwise is the never enough praised King James Bible. In that English translation for generations Christians had read that the angels, in announcing the birth of the Messiah, said to the shepherds,
“Glory to God in the highest, Peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
It was that translation that Handel took up into his Messiah and it was that translation that was repeated in countless Christmas carols. Well there is nothing very controversial about saying or singing “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Anyone and everyone can say that. You don’t have to be a Christian or even religious to say that. Even if it were taken, as it sometimes was, following the translation in the Vulgate, the Latin Bible, to mean “peace on earth to men of good will,” there was, again, nothing distinctively Christian in such a message. Everyone naturally thinks that men of good will should be and will be blessed with a greater measure of peace. Who more than George Bailey should be happy at Christmas time!
But no modern translation of the Bible into English renders the angelic announcement that way any longer. “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” is not what the angels said to the shepherds. What the angels said, as our ESV and all modern translations have it, was:
“…and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
That is, the message of peace the angels were announcing, the peace that was being brought from heaven by the Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, was for people upon whom God’s favor rests. That is, the good news is for people with whom God is pleased. The emphasis is all on God, not on man. There is no dispute as to the proper translation of the text. I won’t bore you with Greek grammar and don’t need to: that is what the words mean and everyone admits it. Much more controversial, more hard-edged that, because the unmistakable implication is that there are men with whom God is not well pleased and on whom his favor does not rest.
v.15 “The Lord” The shepherds instinctively realized the significance of a word spoken or sung by angels. God had spoken to them.
v.20 What had the shepherds heard? Surely the song of the angels, but no doubt they didn’t simply see the baby, turn around and leave. They told Joseph and Mary what they had seen and heard out in the fields and no doubt Joseph and Mary told them much of what Gabriel had said to them and what had happened to Mary.
Once again we have a narrative about the coming of the Savior of the world that focuses primarily on the response of people to the news. The fact can hardly be missed that though Augustus and Quirinius are mentioned at the beginning of the account, both powerful and influential men, the announcement of the Savior’s birth was not made to them. The high and the mighty are rarely friends of the truth of God and, accordingly, rarely feature in the account on the spread of the good news through the world.
The announcement comes instead to a group of shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks at night perhaps a few miles from the village of Bethlehem. There is nothing in the text to suggest that these shepherds were devout men whose faith was rewarded by the extraordinary appearance of the angelic host. In all likelihood, we would be more likely correct if we concluded that these men became devout believers as a result of the appearance of the angels. This night was not only a great night in the history of the world for the appearance of Jesus Christ and the announcement of his birth, but because of the transformation it wrought in these simple men living and working nearby.
The Christmas narrative has cast such an aura of sanctity around this group of shepherds that we tend to idealize them and their occupation. We tend to think that the angels would, of course, have made their announcement to shepherds because nothing would be more appropriately beautiful, or so fitting on a Christmas card than that bucolic scene on a hillside outside Bethlehem: men in robes with staffs sitting around a fire, with cute sheep in the background. But that is not the significance of the fact that the angelic announcement was made to these men.
Shepherds, as a result of their occupation, were, as we might say, rarely in church. Their manner of life made strict religious observance difficult, if not impossible, and they were looked down on by the more religiously serious element of the population. Jewish evidence from an admittedly somewhat later period suggests that they were not, as a class, held in great esteem by the public. As one put it, they weren’t the sort of people carefully to distinguish between “mine and yours.” [Strack-Billerbeck, ii, 113] Perhaps a modern analogy to a particular class of individuals would be to the car mechanic who is suspected of charging for repairs that you didn’t need or even that he didn’t make. Some of you may be mechanics and you are perfectly aware that your occupation has that kind of reputation in our society. You have to work hard to overcome it. When we find an honest mechanic who will fix our car properly at a fair price, we offer our daughters in marriage and we do everything we possible can to keep that relationship warm and healthy. There is a statement in the Talmud (“Sanhedrin” 25b) to the effect that shepherds were not permitted to testify in court. On the other hand, it must be admitted that in the OT the shepherd is often commended as an image of good and holy things. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” is but one example. Still, all things considered, at this time in Jewish history they were not as a class known to be devout men and there is nothing to suggest that this group of shepherds was, like Simeon later in this chapter, eagerly waiting for the consolation of Israel. In all likelihood they were not.
Indeed, they are the prototype of the little people, the often sinful people with whom the Lord Jesus would spend so much of his time during his ministry: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and the like. These men are the forerunners of the so-called “sinners” who would fill up Jesus’ congregations when he began to preach and who would hear him gladly when the upright folk found only reasons to criticize. In those latter cases as well, it was not the case that the Lord appeared to them because they were already believers but, on the contrary, his appearance made them believers. As Jesus himself would say, and as we will read later in Luke, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” [5:31-32]
This is certainly likely to be the case with the shepherds here. Unlike Zechariah and Elizabeth and Joseph and Mary it was the revelation of the coming of the Savior that made them believers. They received the good news and they responded in faith.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
That was the announcement they heard being sung by a great company of the heavenly army. That was the meaning the angelic host attached to the report the one angel had given these men about the baby just born in Bethlehem. “Those with whom God is pleased,” the translation of but two words in Luke’s Greek, was, at that time, a conventional way of speaking of God’s elect, his chosen people. But how are those people to be identified? How is anyone to know whether he belongs to that class of people with whom God is pleased?
Well, we already learned in Mary’s Magnificat in chapter 1 that the Lord’s mercy is for those who fear him and for those who are humble before him. But here in Luke 2 we are given a flesh and blood picture of men with whom God is pleased, what they do and how they do it.
I don’t think there can be any doubt that part of the great significance of this magnificent and timeless account of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ is precisely its beautiful, understated, but perfectly clear depiction of true Christian faith in action. How is faith described here? By the way in which these simple men respond to the good news that was proclaimed to them. What is living faith in Christ? Watch what these shepherds do!
The announcement of the good news changed these men. You have, indeed, an echo of this in the secular, sentimental versions of Christmas. There are many Christmas stories told in book and film of misers who become generous, workaholics who finally realize the importance of family, or industrialists who come to understand that people are more important than commerce. These are fictional echoes of the transformations of life and of the righteous character of the people who inhabit the Christmas history. But what these modern accounts leave out is what is most important: both the cause of a saintly life, viz. faith in Jesus Christ, and the nature of that life, viz. love for God and a desire to serve him. Scrooge is Christmas without the incarnation. Performances of Handel’s Messiah are often accompanied with introductions that celebrate its message of peace and the triumph of good in the world. But in Handel and in Luke there is no hope for peace and the victory of good apart from the divine intervention on man’s behalf by a merciful God who sent his Son for the world’s salvation.
Here it is the announcement of Christ’s birth and the shepherds’ response to that which dominates the account. The account is certainly that of the birth of Jesus, that, after all, is what the angels announce and celebrate, but the characters in this drama, the dramatis personae are the shepherds along with Joseph and Mary, who appear in the beginning and the end of the section. We see very little of the baby.
The shepherds are the prototype of those throughout the Gospel of Luke who will hear the news about Jesus and go to find him and, finding him, will believe in him. Notice what they do. They hear the announcement of the angels and as soon as the angels retired they said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” Notice, they did not say to one another “Let’s go to Bethlehem to see if this thing has happened which the Lord made known to us.” They went in the confidence that what had been told them by the Lord through his angels was true; must be true. They believed what they had been told. Now, perhaps you are saying, “Of course they believed; angels had appeared to them. What was not to believe?” But the fact is, through the rest of the Gospel and then throughout the Book of Acts multitudes of others would do precisely as the shepherds did. They would hear the message about Jesus, they would believe it, and they would go to Jesus. It is the self-authenticating authority of God’s Word, whether communicated by angels, by a gifted preacher, or by the halting witness of some simple Christian, that compels conviction in the heart of those with whom God is pleased.
Notice too that they went to Bethlehem in haste. There was the recognition, as there will always be in the believing heart, that the message of Christ and his salvation is too wonderful and too important to submit to other mundane considerations. Who cared for the sheep when the shepherds left for town? I don’t suppose they thought much about that. I guarantee you that one of them didn’t stay behind to look after the sheep. If somebody had suggested that, everyone would have said, “Great! But not me, I’m going to see; I’m going to Bethlehem.” The sheep could take care of themselves; something infinitely more important was afoot. And when did they arrive in Bethlehem? We can’t say. If they were only at most a few miles from the town perhaps it was still in the dead of night; perhaps it was as dawn was breaking. We cannot say, but the time of day or night was of no consequence to these men either.
The next thing to notice about the shepherd’s behavior is that it never occurred to them to keep what they had heard and seen to themselves. Having received the revelation of the Messiah’s birth, they instantly became willing witnesses. They arrived at the house where Joseph, Mary, and the baby were – I suppose they may have had to ask around town where they might find the newborn baby boy – they knocked on the door, were admitted, saw the baby boy lying in the manger, and out came the excited report of their encounter with the heavenly host, probably at first everyone talking at once, and then realizing that one of them would have to speak for the rest so that everyone could hear the story. But their witness surely did not end there. Verse 20 suggests that there would have been many others who heard of the Christ-child from these same men in the days and months to follow. It has often been said of these simple men that they were the first evangelists: having heard the good news, they shared it with others.
And, finally, as so often with those who discovered Jesus and realized he was the Savior and Lord, the shepherds rejoiced and praised God for the great thing that he had done for them and for the world. There is a thing the Bible calls the joy of salvation and it was filling the hearts of these men as they left the village to return to their sheep. The angel spoke but once, but, as one commentator observes, “Depth of spiritual commitment is determined by the quality of one’s fidelity after the majestic voice is no longer heard.” No more angels for these men, no angels at all for vast multitudes of believers in Jesus after them, but a life given over to the truth, the good news, and to Jesus himself, in the confidence that Jesus is the Christ.
We hear no more about these men in the New Testament. Nothing as remarkable as the appearance of angels was to happen immediately thereafter or for a long time to come. We wonder if any of those men were still alive when Jesus burst upon the scene some 30 years later to begin his public ministry, when supernatural events suddenly became commonplace once more. Did the shepherds witness the arrival of the Magi from the east when they paid their visit to the Christ-child? Did they keep in touch with Joseph and Mary when the Holy family returned to Nazareth? No email or cell phones then to make such communication across the miles easy and uncomplicated. We have no idea. But we are sure they continued to believe, realized in the nature of the case that the baby would have to grow up before assuming his royal office, and continued to tell others of that remarkable night long ago and all that they had heard and seen.
Many of you have read of Henry Martyn, one of the greatest heroes of the world-wide gospel enterprise when it began again in the early years of the 19th century. Martyn was perhaps the brightest light in that galaxy of heroic young men who sat at the feet of Charles Simeon in Cambridge when they were students at the University, absorbing not only the full-blooded gospel from the great preacher, but missionary zeal as well. Indeed, Martyn, upon his graduation and ordination, served as Simeon’s assistant for two years before he left for India.
He served in India only some five years, though his erudition in languages was so great that, although he knew nothing of the language when he arrived, within those five years he produced a valuable translation of the NT into Hindi. He planned to return to England for a recruiting visit, in hopes of reunion and perhaps marriage with the woman he loved and had left behind, and to recover his own health, which had begun to fail during his time in the east. Providentially he decided to return to Europe overland rather than by the long sea voyage and so made his way toward England through Persia. There he paused, worked on a Persian translation of the Bible and engaged in apologetics and evangelism among the Muslim doctors of theology. Finally, in worsening health, making his way onward toward home, he collapsed and died in what is now Turkey, some seventy miles south of the Black Sea.
While still in India, working in the town of Cawnpore (Kanpur), where our own Frank and Esther Fiol worked for forty years in the middle of the twentieth century, Henry Martyn would often gather a crowd of people, many of them beggars, around his bungalow door and would preach to them of Jesus Christ who had come and was coming again. But one day, as it happened, an Indian court official was present. Perhaps he had simply been walking by. In any case, he stopped to listen.
Wholly unbeknownst to Henry Martyn, the words he heard that day about Jesus Christ, the Savior of those who trust in him – about his birth in Bethlehem and his thirty years of living a sinless life, his death on the cross, undergoing in our place the punishment for our sins, his resurrection from the dead, his coming again – those words took root and brought this Indian official in time to the Savior himself. Sometime after Martyn had left India, the man presented himself for baptism, a daring thing in itself for a Hindu, still more for a substantial Hindu man to do in those days as it can be still today, and then gave up his large income and position of prestige for a catechist’s pay of sixty rupees per month. In due time he received ordination as an Anglican priest. He was Henry Martyn’s only Indian convert, so far as we know, and Martyn himself never knew about him.
But Bishop Reginald Heber, the Anglican missionary statesman of India in those early days and the author of the hymn "The Son of God Goes Forth to War", described his meeting this man in his Indian Journal. He had taken a new name at his baptism: Abdul Messeeh, "The Servant of the Messiah." Heber spoke of how greatly impressed he was by the man’s noble Christian character. Almost certainly, as had been the case with the shepherds before him, he had been a man who had no real interest in living for God, no real love for God, certainly no intention of offering his life as a sacrifice to God; but he heard news of the Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, and he responded in faith and in grateful submission to the King who had been born in Bethlehem. He had heard about the Messiah and had gone to find him and finding had become his disciple. And the grace of God made something supremely beautiful out of his life.
The Christmas history in one respect is unrepeatable. There will never again be an incarnation of God. There will never again be the life of God himself incognito in the world. There will never again be a man born of a woman who is born under the law to redeem those under the law. All of that can happen, need happen but once. Salvation has been accomplished forever! And for that reason there will never be such an angelic announcement as there was when Jesus was born, never such an experience as the shepherds had that night.
But in another respect the Christmas history is being repeated every day as men and women of every stripe, class, nation, and language hear the good news of Jesus Christ and follow the news to find him, see him we might say, the incarnate Son of God, and welcome him, love him, and entrust themselves to him.
Do you wish to know whether God’s favor rests upon you? Do you want to know if, when the angels sang their “Gloria” to the shepherds they were bringing good news to you? Do you want to know if God is pleased with you? There is a way to know this; a sure and certain way. Ask yourself this: do I see myself among the shepherds? Can I see myself doing what they did: believing the great message I have heard, acting on it, and rejoicing in it? The shepherds are an example of believers in and followers of Jesus Christ. Are you like them?
Welcome the King born in Bethlehem as the shepherds did long ago, whose behavior is described to us in some detail precisely because they serve so well as examples for all to follow. Believe what you have heard from the Lord and put your faith into practice in all the ways believers can, changing your life to conform to the truth that has been revealed to you. Don’t delay; make haste! Make this the first thing, the main thing to which everything else in your life must be subject. Open your heart to praise God for what you have seen and heard as those men couldn’t help but do. Eagerly spread the news to others as the shepherds did so gratefully and gladly. The baby who was once laid in the manger is now in heaven, but he makes his favor known still today to those with willing hearts.