The Shepherds of Bethlehem

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We are right now in the midst of the greatest season of the year for most people – especially for retail businesses.

Thousands of people are either out there shopping or online, even this morning, struggling to find the perfect gift for someone they know.

I heard about one man who left to go do some Christmas shopping.

In the meantime, his wife was listening to Christmas music on the radio when she heard the announcer say, “Be very careful and watch out if you’re driving on the interstate today. There is a motorist driving the wrong way!”

Fearing for her husband, the man’s wife called him on the cell phone to warn him to look out for a crazy one-way driver.

His reply was: “You’re telling me! There’s not one; there are dozens of them!”

Most people will spend more money than they have to purchase things that aren’t really needed in order to fulfill some fantasy that is not true about the season of Christmas.

I know that we have all heard messages about the true meaning of Christmas.

We all know that Christmas is not about all the commercialism and the advertisements and all the hype for this product and that electronic gizmo, etc.

We have also heard people say things like, “The true meaning of Christmas is…

  • …that it’s better to give than to receive.”
  • …about being with the people you love.”
  • …generosity.”

These are certainly positive, moral messages that sound nice and look great in print but all of them fall far short of the truth of the message of Christmas. The problem is that, while these things are good things, they are not the best thing about Christmas.

For a moment, let’s look once more at one of the most familiar parts of the Christmas story in Luke 2 – the story of the shepherds, found in verses 8 – 17. It’s a story that we have heard so many times, we can almost quote it from memory.

The problem is that the true story of Christmas has been lost among the glitter and traditions that have sprung up around the story throughout the generations.

The problem is that the true story of Christmas has been lost among the glitter and traditions that have sprung up around the story throughout the generations.

Verse 8 There were in the same country (meaning in the region around Bethlehem) shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Verse 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

shepherds…

The appearance of the angels to the shepherds is not just a romantic story we tell to children during the Christmas season. The story does not begin, “Once upon a time…” as fairy tales do.

This appearance of angels was not an accident of history, but the intentional act of God.

The shepherds in this story were very special shepherds who had been trained to recognize and care for sheep that were unhurt, undamaged, and unblemished – to recognize a lamb worthy of sacrifice – and thus were prepared to recognize the precious Lamb of God, although they would have had no idea that Jesus would one day give His life for their sin.

…the glory of the Lord shone…

The light which accompanied the angel in verse 9 and which encompassed the shepherds was actually the visible revelation of the glory of God representing the mind and the thoughts of God all of which were physically embodied in the baby that was born there in Bethlehem – in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.

The light of the glory of God gave testimony to the deity of Jesus – that He was God in the flesh – fully God and fully man.

The light of the glory of God gave testimony to the deity of Jesus – that He was God in the flesh – fully God and fully man.

Verse 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

I bring you good tidings…

Five English words are required to translate the one Greek word Luke used here to quote the angel the word that is the root of our word evangelize.

The angel had good news to tell the shepherds. And in verse 11, we find out what that good news was.

Verse 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

born…

Born. What an innocuous way for a king to enter into his kingdom.

Those who know Christ as Savior cherish the period of Easter as a most sacred time of the year as we mark Christ’s victory over death and the grave.

However, the resurrection could never have taken place until there had first been an incarnation.

Think of how marvelous the idea of incarnation is!

God who is infinite and eternal and omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent, perfect in every way and in need of nothing, without danger of harm or injury as pure spirit, stepped out of eternity and into time, space, and matter to be born as a baby in this lowliest of villages called Bethlehem so that He might save us from His own wrath!

The angel said, “I give you the Gospel – the good news of the coming of the Christ.”

Jesus was not born to be the Savior of the world. He was born because He is the Savior of the world.

Jesus was not born to be the Savior of the world.

He was born because He is the Savior of the world.

…this day…

This birth event was no accident.

There were no emergency meetings in heaven to deal with the sins of man.

God did not look down one day on a sinful earth and decide to send a Savior.

This was His plan “from the foundation of the world,” and there is no Plan B.

Micah 5:2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

The real reason for the season of Christmas is to fulfill the eternal plan of God – a plan that has always existed.

Galatians 4:4 When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,

Mark 1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

2 Timothy 1:9 God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.

Christ’s coming into the world as a sacrifice for sin was known and determined and planned in detail before there was anything created.

Christ came for the express purpose of creating “sons of God” for the “glory of God.”

…a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord

Here in this short expression of the angel are three terms defining Jesus:

Savior – the One who could and would deliver us from the penalty of sin as well as the wrath of God

Christ (Messiah) – the anointed one – prophet, priest, and king

Lord – a word that shows us that Jesus did not just come from God, but He is God.

That’s why He is called Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

Here within these few simple words of an angel we find the entire Gospel of Christ revealed to a small band of shepherds.

No wonder they were frightened.

But the story is not over yet.

Verse 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

…wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

In verse 11, the angel explains who Jesus is – God in the flesh, the king of all creation, the Savior of the world.

Now he tells the shepherds how to identify Jesus.

They would find the all-exalted ruler of the universe – whom the heavens cannot contain – wrapped in swaddling clothes, not like a king, but just like any other baby born to the poorest families in the land.

Born of such low estate that there was no other place to lay him down to sleep other than in an animal’s feeding trough.

Verse 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

…multitude of the heavenly host…

The first angel came to proclaim.

Then a multitude of angels came to praise.

When the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and understood, it is always accompanied by praise.

When the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and understood, it is always accompanied by praise.

Therefore, what follows in verse 14 is not a pronouncement for the benefit of man, but of praise for the plan of God.

Verse 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Glory to God in the highest

Christ’s coming to earth brought down from the heavens the very glory of God that resounds all the way back to the throne of God in the very highest heavens.

Separation between the two spheres – heaven, the dwelling place of God, and earth, the dwelling place of man – has ended.

That’s why Jesus’ first sermon was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

…peace on earth, good will toward men.

A better translation would be “peace on earth to men of goodwill.”

Here was the host of Heaven – the soldiers of the Lord God – proclaiming and professing peace – not to the whole world, but to those men who are in right standing with God – made right by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, the Savior.

A paraphrase –

The light of God, which shines from the highest realms of heaven, now shines on the earth, revealing the glory of Almighty God and bringing peace to those men in whom He is well-pleased.

The world in general has claimed this phrase as if it belonged to all men, but it does not. The world that does not know Christ as Savior will never know peace.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned good, moral behavior such as generosity, family time, thankfulness.

All of these are messages of Christmas. They’re just not the most important message of Christmas.

Generosity is good. Generosity in Jesus’ name is better.

Family time is good. Family time that calls on the name of Jesus is better.

Thankfulness is good. Thankfulness to Jesus is better.

Christmas with Jesus is the best.

Christmas without Jesus, no matter how good it is, just isn’t Christmas.

Christmas without Jesus, no matter how good it is, just isn’t Christmas.

Verse 15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

…see this thing that has happened

There is in the response of the shepherds a sense of excitement and determination. As a group they determined to go to the place the angel had apparently pointed out to them.

They went to see “this thing.” Literally, they said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this word – this spoken thing.”

Here in a small Judean village, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lay the very Word of God.

By this same Word the Universe was created.

By this same Word we are saved.

And by this same Word God, the Creator of all things in heaven and earth, was made known to humankind in the form of man – as a baby lying in a manger.

Those things that God the Father set in motion before the foundation of the world had come to pass.

God is sovereign and His will is eternal. His plan will be carried out in spite of every attempt of man to thwart it.

He calls us by His own will and authority to join the family of God – to become disciples – to become Sons of God – to become like Christ.

He compels us all to come and “see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.”

Verse 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.

Verse 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

…found…

The shepherds found Mary, Joseph, and the baby in a manger.

The word “found” means that they discovered everything to be in order corresponding exactly to the words of the angel who had revealed the birth to them.

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 cared so much for His own sheep.

While we probably celebrate the birth of Jesus at the wrong time of year, the important thing 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.

…made known abroad

It is also significant that, once they had seen the baby and confirmed the angels’ message, the first reaction of the shepherds was to go out and tell everyone else they knew about Him.

The true story of Luke 2 is not so much about taxes and angels and shepherds and innkeepers, but about salvation and evangelism and missions.

Those who know Christ as Lord 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.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come
Let Earth receive her King!

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