A Royal Announcement to Humble Shepherds
Passage: Luke 2:8-20
This passage is on of the most well-known passages in the Bible. For many of us it has a lot of sentimental value. It reminds me of the annual Christmas Eve party we would have with my grandfather’s very large extended family. We would always read this passage together and sing Christmas carols. It was a special group of people, and those were special gatherings. Heidi naturally thinks of her dad reading this passage to begin Christmas morning. I’m sure many of you have similar sentimental memories surrounding this passage. But this passage is also a pretty incredible story. If you are a parent, it’s pretty incredible to imagine what Mary and Joseph went through to deliver Jesus. Isaac turned 1 this week, and so we have reflected some on what we went through a year ago. Heidi was supposed to go in at 8:00 am to be induced, but there was no room at St. Mary’s, and so we waited by the phone until 5:00 pm. And then we sat in a waiting room for 3 hours because there was still no room. Overall, we had a frustrating experience compared to our experience at the hospital in Michigan when James was born. But in comparison to what Mary and Joseph went through, we had it pretty easy. Imagine riding a donkey for several days when you are full term. And poor Joseph! I can’t imagine Mary was great company. And when they arrive in Bethlehem there is no room “in the inn.” Mary and Joseph are desperately looking for a private place to deliver a baby, and they end up in some sort of livestock area where this young couple goes through the excruciating and complex process of delivering a baby. They don’t have a doctor or nurse; they don’t even have a parent by their side to guide them. It’s hard to imagine just how crazy it all was. And then the setting shifts a small distance from town to some humble shepherds who encounter an army of angels. It’s another incredible turn in the plot, but with the words of the angels, we get to the most significant feature of this story. The angels tell us that this story is significant, not primarily for its sentimental value or even for its exciting drama. What makes this story significant is that the baby who created all this drama is, “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
This morning, I want to walk through the story of the shepherds. I hope that you will gain a little better understanding of the story, but more than anything I hope that we will be filled with joy as we reflect on who the baby really is and why he was born. Let’s begin by talking about…
The Setting (v. 8)
With v. 8 the setting shifts from a manger in Bethlehem to a scene outside town where a group of shepherds is watching their flocks during the dark, night hours in order to protect them from wild animals and thieves.
Some have speculated that since Bethlehem was so close to Jerusalem that these sheep were being raised to be offered as sacrifices, but it’s impossible to know for certain. Regardless, the shepherds would have been considered unlikely recipients and then heralds of a royal announcement. The Scriptures generally portray shepherds and their work in a positive light, but they were on the lower end of the social spectrum. They lived hard lives leading sheep all over the countryside. They ate and slept in the wilderness. And while there was nothing sinful about their work, but they spent a lot of time cut off from temple worship because their work frequently made them ceremonially unclean from handling dead animals among other things. And so v. 8 takes us to a back corner of society and introduces us to a simple group of nomads. It does so because God had chosen these humble men to receive an announcement for the ages.
The announcement comes in two stages. First, vv. 9–12 describe…
The Message from the Angel of the Lord (vv. 9–12)
The Greek text emphasizes the fact that his angel appeared suddenly surrounded by the glory of the Lord. Imagine the scene. These shepherds are sitting in the dark like they did every night. It’s relatively quiet and calm, and all of a sudden an angel appears and with him the glory of the Lord. This angel should not be confused with the OT Angel of the Lord, who was Christ. This angel was not God, but he was a messenger from God. We don’t know exactly what appearance he took, but we know that he was surrounded by the glory of the Lord. This is the Shekinah glory that plays a significant role in the OT. It represents the presence of God that was with Adam and Eve in the garden, that descended on Mt. Sinai and led Israel through the wilderness, and that dwelt in Solomon’s temple. It was more than just a really bright light. It represented the actual presence of God. The shepherds were naturally afraid. Now certainly, they were startled by what was happening, but their fear was primarily due to power of God’s glory. Anytime God’s glory appeared in Scripture, people always responded the same way. Think of Moses at the burning bush or Isaiah’s vision of God.
Then v. 10 tells us that the angel spoke. He began by telling the shepherds not to be afraid. This was because he had not come with a message of judgment; instead, the angel had come with “good news” that would bring “great joy.” Interestingly “good news” translates the verb euangelizomai. It was commonly used to announce the birth of a royal heir or the coronation of a new king. But in the NT it becomes the key term for the announcement of the gospel. The good news of the gospel had arrived that very day, and this was not a cause for fear. It was a cause for great joy! Notice that the angel adds that this good news of great joy wasn’t just significant for a few people; rather, the announcement would bring joy to “all people.” In this particular context, the angel is thinking especially of the nation of Israel, but of course the announcement is significant for the entire world.
And so the Christmas story is a story of great joy. All of us who have received salvation need to step back from the chaos of the holidays and simply rejoice. Maybe you find yourself down in the dumps today because you are missing a loved one or because you can’t be with family today or because Christmas has been exhausting this year. I certainly don’t want to minimize your suffering, but no matter how hard your circumstance may be, if you know Christ, you have reason today for great joy because the Savior was born for you. I would urge you to fight through the pain that you feel and to see the incredible grace God has demonstrated and rejoice, give thanks for Christ and the gospel. Maybe you are just distracted. You’ve been running hard, and you have big plans for this afternoon and this week. Stop and rejoice. The birth of Christ is a cause for great joy.
Then in v. 11 the angel gives the reason why we should have great joy. This verse includes a when, a where, and a what. The when is today! The angel tells the shepherds that an event of historic proportion had just happened. And it had happened in their backyard, in the “city of David.” The angel uses this name to again draw attention to the significance of the event. The child who was born was a descendant of King David, and he would fulfill the great promises God had made to David.
The what of the announcement is contained in three significant titles. The child is the Savior, the Christ, and the Lord. Savior simply means deliverer. It is a significant title for a couple of reasons. First, it was very significant for God’s promises to Israel. Notice the prophecy of Zacharias about Jesus in 1:68–75. God had promised Israel that one day the Messiah would deliver the nation from its enemies and bring spiritual revival. Zacharias understood that the baby who would be born to his wife’s relative Mary would be the one to bring this deliverance. Of course, Jesus has yet to fulfill this promise. But one day in the Millennial Kingdom he will deliver Israel and bring a tremendous spiritual revival among them. But the primary significance of this title for us is that Jesus brought spiritual salvation. In Matthew 1:21, an angel told Joseph they were to name the baby Jesus because “He will save His people from their sins.”
We live in very unsettled times. Our country is divided, and there are awful events in the news every day. As well there are many places in our country and around the world where people are living in extreme poverty without the basic necessities of life. And one day the Savior is going to fix all of that when he brings in a perfect kingdom where peace, mercy, and justice will reign. But you must understand that there is a much bigger problem in our world than war and poverty. It is sin. All of us are sinners who deserve the eternal judgment of God. And the Scriptures are clear that there is nothing any of us can do to solve that problem. Being at church today will not take away your sin. Caring for the poor or being a good family man won’t either. You can’t remove your sin because you can never measure up to the infinite perfection of God. You have a serious problem. But the fundamental reason why the Christmas story is a cause for great joy is because Jesus came to save sinners. When he died on the cross, he took the punishment for sin so that if you believe on him and him alone for forgiveness, he can be your Savior. If you’ve never done that, I hope you will see Jesus today, not merely as a helpless baby but as a Savior who can deliver you from God’s judgment. Jesus can be your Savior if you believe on him.
The next two titles help explain why Jesus is the Savior. Jesus is the Christ. We probably get a better sense of what the angel meant if we change Christ to Messiah because the terms are synonymous. The fact that Jesus is the Messiah means that he is the promised descendant of David through whom all of the promises of salvation I just mentioned would come. Jesus is the Messiah who will one day deliver Israel and who died and rose again to bring salvation from sin.
Lord Then the angel adds that he is the Lord. This title takes the announcement to a new level that the Jews always struggled to comprehend. The angel tells us that the baby is much more than even the Messiah or the Savior. He is also God. The Christmas story is incredible on many levels, but none more so than this. John 1 tells us that eternal God became flesh, or man, and lived among us. The baby they would find later that night lying in a feed trough, restrained by simple strips of cloth, and looking as helpless as any other baby was actually the Lord of creation.
And so the angel really did have an incredible message for these shepherds. I’m sure they were overwhelmed with what they were hearing, and they were ready to go find the Savior. In v. 12 the angel tells them how to find the baby. The sign he gives is that the baby will be “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” There is a bit of irony in this description. Swaddling clothes were strips of clothe that were used to wrap a newborn baby in order to keep its limbs straight. They symbolize motherly compassion and care. But while this baby was obviously loved by its mother, its location would be quite unusual. They would find the baby in a manger, or some sort of feed trough for livestock. I grew up on a livestock farm, so I’ve seen a lot of feed troughs. Most of them are not sanitary. Even the cleanest one would be a very unlikely place to find a newborn baby. It was so unusual that it would serve as sign that they had found the baby of whom the angel spoke.
Imagine how the shepherds’ minds were spinning at the moment. They were looking at the Shekinah glory and were trying to process this incredible message. Then the scene took another dramatic turn as they received a second incredible message. Verses 13–14 describe…
The Message from the Angelic Army (vv. 13–14)
The word translated suddenly describes something that is both unexpected and highly unusual. There’s not much that is more unusual than what vv. 13–14 describe. The angelic messenger is suddenly surrounded by “a multitude of the heavenly host.” I said army earlier because that’s the idea behind host. The text doesn’t tell us how many angels appeared but it was surely a large number. Verse 13 is describing a royal introduction. Even though Jesus was lying in a feed trough and this announcement was being made to a group of humble shepherds, the royal armies of heaven were celebrating the good news of his birth.
They praised God by crying out the hymn of v. 14. This hymn declares the significance of Jesus’ birth both to God and to man. First, God dwells in the highest heavens. He is supreme, and yet he looked on mankind with kindness by sending Jesus into the world. Therefore, the angels and all of mankind ought to give him glory. In other words we ought to thank him for his kindness and worship him for the power, love, grace, and wisdom he demonstrated through sending Christ to earth and making him a man. We ought to respond the same way today. We should give praise and thank God today for Jesus and for what he means to us. Of course, we ought to do that every day, not just on Christmas. And we ought to do it with full hearts recognizing the incredible grace we have received.
Then the angels declare the significance of Christ’s birth for mankind. There is some debate about how to understand the phrase “goodwill toward men.” It’s probably best to translate this line as, “And on earth, peace toward those on whom God’s favor rests.” As such the final term is not a blessing in addition to peace; rather, it describes who received this peace—those whom God favors, or those with whom he is pleased. It describes those who are saved, those who are the elect. This is very important because when the broader culture recites v. 14, they immediately think of world peace. They think Jesus came to end wars and to unite cultures. But the peace here is not a peace for all mankind; it is a peace that only belongs to Christians whom God has chosen and who believe on him. Therefore, this peace is something much more significant than the elimination of conflict between people. Rather, it is the elimination of conflict with God. It is peace between sinners who deserve wrath and a just God who ought to punish us. This simple statement provides a wonderful summary of why Jesus came. As I said earlier, our sin creates an impenetrable barrier between God and us. And we deserve his eternal wrath. But Jesus came to reconcile us to God through his death, and this gift is available by faith. It might be that you have never seen the birth of Christ in this light. You’ve always just seen the Christmas story as a beautiful example of love, and you’ve never really thought about the fact that you need someone to reconcile you to God. I hope that you will see today that Jesus came to die. And through his death, you can be made right with God. And then fall before him today. Receive his gift of salvation and then worship him with the angels. If you have received this peace, then remember what you are without Christ but what Jesus did to bring you to God. And then glorify God for his incredible mercy.
Notice next in vv. 15–17…
The Shepherd’s Confirmation of the Messages (vv. 15–17)
It seems that just as quickly as the angels appeared, they were gone. And the shepherds again found themselves standing in the quiet darkness of the country. I’m sure their adrenaline was pumping and their minds were racing as they stood in shock over what they had just seen and heard. But they did not stand around long. They took off for Bethlehem intent on finding a swaddled baby lying in a manger. The text doesn’t give anymore details on how they were to locate him. It’s possible that the baby would actually be in their own manger, since they were shepherds. Regardless, v. 16 says that they “came with haste” to Bethlehem and found Jesus just as the angel told them they would find him.
The angel’s sign was confirmed. They didn’t just have a weird dream. They weren’t dishonest charlatans looking to create hype. Rather, the proof of the fact that they actually saw this vision was confirmed in the fact that there actually was a swaddled baby lying in a manger.
As a result, v. 17 tells us that these unlikely recipients of a royal announcement then turned into royal heralds proclaiming the message they had received. They told everyone who would listen that the new baby in town was no ordinary baby. He was the Savior who is Christ the Lord.
The passage then concludes by detailing…
The Response of the Observers (vv. 18–20): Luke mentions three responses.
People in the Community (v. 18):
The key word in v. 18 is “marveled,” and it’s not entirely clear what it means. I think it’s obvious that the shepherd’s announcement created quite a stir. It’s not every day shepherds are running around town saying that an army of angels appeared to them and said that the Messiah is born. This would certainly grab people’s attention. But whether or not they actually believed is another story. It’s probably fair to say that the majority saw it as nothing more than an entertaining tale. They had fun with it, and they may have even hoped it was true, but they did not really think hard about the potential significance of what the shepherds had said. Their response is very different from that of Mary.
Mary (v. 19):
While the community was buzzing with talk, Mary internalized and thought deeply about what the shepherds had said. Since we know the whole story, it’s easy for us to forget that Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t immediately grasp the full significance of his life. Mark 3 tells us that 30 years later she was still trying to figure out God’s purpose for her son, and Luke 7 tells us that John the Baptist had the same struggle. And so when the shepherds relayed to her what the angels had said, she took it to heart and pondered how it fit with the other snippets of revelation she and Joseph had received. Rather than getting caught up in hype like the crowds, she wanted to really understand. Her example is a good reminder for us today because Christmas can easily just turn into a bunch of hype. And we fail to reflect deeply on Christ and the significance of his life. Let’s all be more like Mary and think deeply about who Jesus is and what that means for us.
Shepherds (v. 20):
The shepherds returned to their fields excited. They knew what they had seen and heard, and they had it confirmed when they found Jesus just as the angel had said and probably heard from Mary and Joseph about his virgin conception and the revelation they had received. They had seen Israel’s Messiah, and they glorified and praised God in response.
This account is significant on a number of levels. First, within Luke’s gospel, it is an early confirmation of who Jesus is. Luke tells us that he carefully researched his gospel, and so we know that he only included this story because he was sure it was credible. The personal tone of v. 19 indicates that maybe he heard this story from Mary herself. This isn’t just a great story; it is a true story. And because it is true, it is a powerful testimony of who Jesus is and how we should respond to his birth. Luke’s message is that the birth of Jesus is a cause for great joy because he is the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. So how will you respond? Will you just get caught up in the hype like the crowds in Bethlehem, or will you ponder like Mary and glorify God like the shepherds?