Rejoice in God’s Gift

 

Week of December 25, 2011

 

Bible Verses:  Luke 2:8-20.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson presents the joy in the Christmas story.

 

Rejoice in Hearing:  Luke 2:8-14.

 

[8]  And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. [9]  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. [10]  And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. [11]  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. [12]  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." [13]  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, [14]  "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"  [ESV]

 

[8-9]  Jesus Christ was born in poverty and obscurity. Although He was the Son of God and the Savior of the world, His birth was largely ignored. On the night He was born His mother had to lay Him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn. The welcome that Jesus did not receive had spiritual significance. It showed that He was coming to live among sinners and demonstrated the humility that led Him to the cross. But it was not right for His advent to go unrecognized. His birth was the most important event in the history of the universe! Somehow it had to be celebrated. It also had to be explained, so that people would understand that God the Son had become a man to save sinners. So God sent angels to tell people the good news. What is even more surprising than the appearance of angels is that the first people to hear this good news were shepherds. Why did God choose these men to be the first to learn the true meaning of Christmas? Shepherds were outcasts, and thus their presence at the manger shows that salvation is for everyone. We tend to romanticize the shepherds, especially since there are so many good shepherds in the Bible, but they did not enjoy a very good reputation in their day. Because they lived out in the fields, they were unable to keep the ceremonial law, and thus they were treated as unclean. They were also regarded as liars and thieves, which is why their testimony was inadmissible in a court of law. Shepherds were despised. With the exception of lepers, they were the lowest class of men in Israel. Yet these were the men God wanted to hear the gospel. Like everything else about the birth of Christ, this upsets our expectations. We tend to think that God is for the good people, when in fact He is for needy sinners who are desperate for grace. As Mary sang in her Magnificat, Jesus came to bring down the thrones of the mighty and exalt those of humble estate [Luke 1:52]. Who better to exalt than lowly shepherds? What the shepherds saw out in the fields that first Christmas night absolutely terrified them: And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear [9]. The shepherds saw a burning light that pierced the night-black sky. It was nothing less than the glory of God, reflected in the radiance of one of His holy messengers.

 

[10-11]  This was such a frightening experience that the first thing the angel had to tell the shepherds was not to be afraid. And the angel told them why they should not be afraid: Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord [10-11]. Every word in the angel’s announcement was important. The words fear not offered reassurance. The appearance of an angel is always a terrifying experience, and the shepherds needed to know that they were safe. The angel had come to give them good news, and the word he used for this is the Greek word for proclaiming the gospel. The words of the ancient promise were starting to come true: good news was being preached to the poor [Isaiah 61:1]. An angel was preaching the gospel to shepherds. The good news brought great joy. It was the real joy of Christmas that God had become a man to save His people. This joyful good news was for all the people. At first it may seem that this promise refers to all people everywhere. After all, good news for all people is a biblical truth. Jesus is the Savior of the world, the only Savior there is, and this good news is for everyone. That is not the meaning of this phrase, however. The angel did not say “all people,” but “all the people,” and the definite article distinguishes these people from others. So what people did the angel have in mind? Elsewhere in Luke this phrase refers specifically to the people of Israel. In those days “the people” was a common and general term for the Jews. Of course the good news is not just for the Jews. Later in the chapter we find that it is also for Gentiles. But the angel gave the good news to the Jews first. As the Scripture says, the gospel is to the Jew first and also to the Greek [Rom. 1:16]. The joyful news was about the birth of a baby. By the time we get to the end of Luke, we will discover that the good news also includes a death and a resurrection. It is the gospel of the cross and the empty tomb. But here we are given the good news of the manger. A child is born! A Son is given! The angel was making a birth announcement about a boy of flesh and blood. And the good news was unto you. Here the good news takes on personal significance. The angel was doing something more than telling the shepherds what happened; the angel was also telling them why it mattered. Ordinarily, a baby is born to a family. They are the ones who receive the gift of the child’s life. In this case, however, the child was for the shepherds and for their salvation. But He was not for them alone. Jesus is for everyone who receives Him by faith. To this point the angel had given the shepherds good news, but without actually identifying the child. To do this, the angel listed four titles and announced that they all came together in one person. Who was this child? He was the son of David, to which the angel alluded by mentioning the city of David, meaning Bethlehem. This is now the sixth time that Luke has mentioned David’s name. The child born was David’s royal son. He was also the Savior. This is another special title in the book of Luke, which uses the language of salvation more than any other Gospel. A Savior is a deliverer – someone who rescues people from death and destruction. This implies that we need a Savior, which of course we do. The deliverance that God brings may come in the form of physical deliverance, but it is also spiritual. Jesus came to save us from sin, Satan, and the righteous wrath of God. He delivered us by dying on the cross for our sins and then rising again to give us everlasting life. This was more than the shepherds understood, of course, but by saying that Jesus was the Savior, the angel was telling them to look to Jesus for whatever salvation they needed. Then Jesus is the Christ. Eventually this became part of the Savior’s name, but it is really a title. Christ is the Greek term for Messiah, which signifies the Savior that God had always promised to send. Literally, the Christ is “the anointed one.” God had always promised that one day He would send a Savior to end all saviors, and this Messiah – this anointed one – would save His people forever. The Jews had been waiting for this for centuries, but now the angel proclaimed that the Savior had come, making the great confession that Jesus is the Christ. The last title the angel gave to Jesus was Lord. This term of honor points to His deity, and to His sovereign rule over our lives. Jesus is the Lord God. Luke has already used the term Lord more than a dozen times, and always with reference to the Lord God. But this was the first time that the words Christ and Lord had ever been brought together. It was an unprecedented combination: Jesus is the Lord Christ. This meant that the promised and anointed Savior was none other than God Himself, appearing in the flesh. Savior, Christ, and Lord – Jesus was given the highest titles that can be given. Savior points to His role as deliverer; Christ points to His office in terms of the Promised Anointed One of God; and Lord indicates His sovereign authority. The good news for the shepherds was that this child was born in Bethlehem to be their Savior and their God. They never would have known this unless God revealed it to them. If the angel had not appeared to them while they were out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, the shepherds never would have come to Christ. This shows how much we need the preaching of the gospel. To understand what God has done, we need to have someone explain it to us [Rom. 10:14]. By itself, what God had done could not save the shepherds, or anyone else. They needed to know what it meant by faith, which could only happen by divine revelation. This is how God saves us: not simply by sending Jesus to be our Savior, but also by preaching us the gospel so that we can believe in His saving work.

 

[12-14]  To help the shepherds believe, God gave them a sign to confirm His promise, much like the signs He gave to Mary and Zechariah. How would the shepherds know for sure that they had the right child? Which one was the Christ? All they had to do was find the baby who was lying in a manger. The point of this sign was not so much what Jesus was wearing, which was common enough, but where He was sleeping. The angel had to tell them this, because otherwise they never would have believed it. Who would ever expect to find a baby in a manger, especially one who was given to be our Savior, Lord, and Christ? The shepherds would not find the child couched in royal splendor, as they might have expected, but lying in poverty. This was the humiliation of the incarnation, that the Son of God humbled Himself to save us. We can recognize Jesus the same way that the shepherds recognized Him: by His humility. After giving the shepherds the good news of the gospel, the angel punctuated his proclamation with praise. But he did not do this alone: Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! [13-14]. This is the third Christmas carol in the Gospel of Luke. Like the others, it was spoken rather than sung, yet it was written in a poetic form that has often been set to music. And like the other lyrics, it is commonly known by its first words in Latin: Gloria in excelsis Deo – Glory to God in the highest. What makes this song different from the others is that it was sung by a chorus of angels. It was not a hymn that rose up from the earth, but an anthem that came down from heaven. For this reason, the Gloria gives a fuller revelation of the true divine glory of Jesus Christ. God the Son had always enjoyed the adoration of angels. But now God was sending His Son into the world, where He would be despised and rejected unto death for the salvation of a lost and fallen race. This was the most glorious demonstration that God had ever made of His grace. Therefore, it was only right for Him to receive the highest praise. Imagine what joy it must have been to sing in that angelic choir. The skies opened up and the countless chorus streamed from the courts of heaven – an army of angels revealed in all its glory. They were praising God on earth as they had always done in heaven. Imagine what joy they had in worshiping the newborn Christ and saying Glory to God. God was highly glorified in sending His Son to be our Savior. The Christmas angels saw this glory and revealed it to the shepherds so that we could see it too. Then the angels pronounced a benediction. The coming of Christ was not just for the glory of God, but also for the good of humanity. So after giving glory to God in the highest, they proclaimed peace on earth. This meant peace with God, first of all. Until we have peace with God, we cannot have any true peace at all. Our sins cry out against us and we are afraid to die, because deep down we know that we deserve judgment. But Jesus came to give us peace with God by paying the penalty that our sins deserve. Once we have peace with God, we can have peace with one another by the power of His Holy Spirit. We no longer have to push to get our own way, but we can wait for God to work. This peace is not for everyone, but only for the people whom God is pleased to bless. The phrase with whom he is pleased is almost a technical phrase in first-century Judaism for God’s elect, those on whom God has poured out His favor. The peace of God comes according to His sovereign pleasure. The shepherds are the perfect example. They did not choose God; God chose them. They had to respond in faith, of course, but it was by the sovereign grace of God that they heard the good news.

 

Rejoice in Going:  Luke 2:15-17.

 

[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." [16]  And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. [17]  And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.  [ESV]

 

[15-17]  The angels’ departure leads the shepherds to discuss what they have heard, and their discussion resolves into the decision to go to Bethlehem in order to see this very thing that God has made known. The announcement sets off a chain reaction. First, the shepherds respond in faith and go to find the child [16]. They tell others what caused them to seek the child [17]. The shepherds’ response in faith and testimony is similar to Mary’s instant response to the word in 1:39. The shepherds’ reaction causes the audience to react to their testimony [18], which in turn leads to a response by Mary [19]. The shepherds move hastily to find the child. What the shepherds see is exactly what the angel promised, a baby lying in a manger. The shepherds reflect a vibrant faith, where the sequence is God’s word, faith, and then testimony. When God’s word comes to pass, testimony should follow. When they had seen the sign of the baby in a manger, the shepherds made known all that the angel had said about the child. Mary, Joseph, and others hear that this child shall be a Savior for them, Christ, the Lord. The full understanding by people will come later. But for now to the voices of the angels are added to the testimony of humans. What they see and hear, they report.

 

Rejoice in Treasuring:  Luke 2:18-20.

 

[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.  [ESV]

 

[18-20]  Different people responded to the good news in different ways. Everyone agreed that it was amazing. But this is not to say that everyone believed them. People were surprised by the shepherds’ story, and they probably talked about it for months afterwards, but this does not mean that they all came to faith in Christ. People wonder about all kinds of things that they never fully believe. Many people have the same response today. They think that Christmas makes a great story, but they wonder if it’s all true. They are just not sure. This baby that was born in Bethlehem – is He really the Savior and the Lord? Some people wonder, but they cannot keep wondering forever. Either the good news of great joy is true, in which case we should believe in Jesus Christ, or else the whole thing is a myth, in which case there is no one to save us from our sins. Mary’s response went deeper. Luke tells us that she treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. The adoration of the shepherds must have been a great encouragement to Mary. What they said about the city of David, and about her child’s identity as Lord and Christ, confirmed the promises that God had made to her some nine months before. Mary believed the shepherds, but she did not fully understand what they were saying. The word treasure indicates that she was holding on to the words of the gospel by faith. But the word ponder shows that she still had some things to think about. This word refers to a person who is puzzled by what they have heard but keeps it in mind in order to understand, often with divine help, its meaning. Mary had a faith that was seeking understanding. The story of the shepherds ends with a great and glorious joy: And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God [20]. This is what the gospel does: it brings us to faith in Jesus Christ, and this, in turn, leads to witness and worship. First we come and see, and when we know for sure, we go and tell, glorifying and praising God along the way.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         Why did God send His angels to shepherds? What four titles did the angels give the shepherds about this baby in a manger? What is the meaning of each of these four Christological terms: Son of David, Savior, Christ, and Lord?

 

2.         What is the meaning of the phrase: peace among those with whom he is pleased?

 

3.         Compare and contrast the reaction of the people, Mary, and the shepherds to the angel’s announcement of who this baby was. Note that the birth of Jesus brings a variety of responses, just as it does today. Jesus is the great watershed event of history; how one responds to Him determines their eternal destiny. How are you responding to this baby … in a manger?

 

References:

Luke, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker.

Luke, Robert Stein, NAC, Broadman.

Luke, volume 1, Philip Ryken, REC, P&R Publishing.