The Real Christmas Story, Part 4

640px-Mattia_Preti_-_The_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_-_Google_Art_ProjectI began this study of Christmas as a devotional to present to a Thursday night youth group a couple of years ago. The original version was much shorter and less detailed. Honestly, my presentation did not go over so well with my congregation that night. I believe some of them will never forgive me for ruining their Christmas traditions. [1]

My goal in this study has been to call attention to the fact that much of what we call doctrine in the church and much of the things we believe that we are willing to fight over are based, not on what the Bible actually says, but on the traditions we have grown up with over the years.

There is nothing wrong with tradition, but our traditions should never determine our doctrine. It is important that we know what we believe, why we believe it, and be able to biblically support our beliefs.

Now, to the conclusion of the series…

Luke 2:15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found – Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

Since I have ruined Christmas for so many people around the world who might read this series of articles, I will add one more sad note…

There was no little drummer boy.

I know. It’s a crushing thought. I can hear the cries now, “Why don’t we just call off Christmas then!”

Actually, there is no record that the shepherds brought any gifts to Jesus. For the shepherds, the events of that night (assuming it was still dark when they arrived in Bethlehem) were not about giving and receiving of gifts. (By the way, there is no record that the shepherds ever saw a star!)

The birth of Jesus was about revelation, incarnation, and the fulfillment of the promise of God. The shepherds came to Bethlehem as witnesses of the truth of God’s word. They came to worship this baby as Messiah – as Lord.

It is significant that the first people outside of Joseph’s family to witness the birth of the Messiah were shepherds. Here, in the form of a baby, was God in the flesh, later to identify Himself as the Great Shepherd who cares so much for His own sheep.

While we probably celebrate it at the wrong time of year, the important thing to remember at Christmas is that God has come into the world to call sinners to repentance and to make for himself sons and daughters who will worship Him forever.

Luke 2:17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

There are many questions about the chronology of events in the gospel stories, including the story of the shepherds. Assuming the story to have been recorded chronologically, let’s follow the steps of the shepherds after they arrived at Bethlehem.

  • The shepherds searched through the region of Bethlehem until they found the child the angel had told them about exactly as the angel had described him – wrapped in swaddling and lying in a manger (v. 16).
  • They then made known all that they had experienced that night concerning the visitation and the message of the angels (v. 17).
  • Those who heard the story wondered at such a story (v. 18).
  • Mary seemed, however, seemed to have remained relatively quiet as she thought of all the things that had happened over the previous year (v. 19).
  • Only then did the shepherds leave the birthplace and return to their sheep (v. 20).

Depending on the chronology of the event, there are two interpretations of what happened at the end of this part of the story.

Imagine Joseph and Mary’s surprise when a group of shepherds of uncertain number showed up at the birth site seeking the Savior of the world. It would seem natural that they would have been curious about how the shepherds knew so much about the birth, and that Joseph or Mary or someone else in the house would have inquired as to their source.

In reply, the shepherds related to those in the house the events of the night, of the appearance of first one angel with his message, and of the subsequent appearance of an entire host of angels singing the praises of God.

Consider all that had happened during the previous year to those in the room.

Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, had had a miraculous conception following the appearance of an angel to her priestly husband, Zacharias. Mary had visited in their home shortly afterward and experienced the response of the baby in Elizabeth’s womb to the miracle within her own.

An angel appeared to Mary telling her about her own miraculous conception. Then an angel appeared to Joseph to explain Mary’s pregnancy and the purpose behind it. Now here are these shepherds who have had their own angelic appearance and message. Here was certainly a most wonderful and marvelous story.

If we assume this to be the correct chronology, then the next thing that happened (v. 20) was that the shepherds returned to their flocks, praising and glorifying God along the way. They many have told other people along the way, but it seems they simply slid back into the oblivion where they originated.

However, if we assume that the verses are not in strict chronological order, then verse 17 tells us that the shepherds, once they had seen the baby and confirmed the angels’ message, were so changed by their encounter with the Savior, that their next action was to tell the world about all that had happened.

Traditionally, the latter case has been accepted as the true version of events. Many commentaries point out that verse 17 says that the shepherds “made known abroad” all that had transpired in their own experience as well as what they had witnessed in Bethlehem, making them the first preachers of the gospel.

This side of eternity, I don’t know if anyone can prove either case to be the truth. Nevertheless, I tend to favor the version that has the shepherds sharing their testimony and sharing the good news of the coming of the Savior to everyone they met along the way home.

Thus, the real Christmas story found in Luke 2 is not so much about taxes and angels and shepherds and innkeepers or even about a baby lying in a manger. It is more about a sovereign God fulfilling His eternal plan – about salvation and evangelism and missions.

We are called, not just to come to Jesus and to worship Jesus, but to carry the message of His birth, death, and resurrection to everyone we know and to those we have not yet come to know who live at the ends of the earth.



[1] Picture Credit: Adoration of the Shepherds, Mattia Pretti.

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