By Sam E. Stone
Of the four Gospel writers, Luke is the one who gives the historical details and setting of Jesus’ birth. With careful research and guided by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, he records the wonderful news of Christ’s birth and how those who first heard about it were called to rejoice. No doubt Luke interviewed Mary, Jesus’ mother, in preparing to write it (Luke 1:3; 2:19).
The Baby’s Birth
Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. The Romans were the dominant world power when Jesus was born. By using the emperor’s name and a specific event in his reign, Luke established the accuracy of his account. A. T. Robertson noted,
“Papyri and inscriptions have confirmed Luke on every point in these critical verses (2:1-7).”
All the people went to their place of ancestral origin to have their information recorded. This meant going to the city where their forefathers had settled when Joshua divided the land years before (Joshua 13-18). Joseph went up from . . . Nazareth . . . to Bethlehem. He and Mary went up in elevation, but down in direction, coming from the northern region of Galilee to the southern area called Judea. Bethlehem, the town where David was born (1 Samuel 17:12; 20:6), is located about six miles south of the capital city, Jerusalem. Luke does not tell us how much time elapses between the arrival of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.
The travelers could find no room available where they could stay that night. This is not surprising since many others were probably returning for the census as well. Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son. By describing Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn,” Luke obviously suggests that she had other children later (see Matthew 12:46). The infant was placed in a feeding trough used for animals. It could have been located in a barn or cave.
The Angel’s Message
The nearby fields were in the same region where David cared for sheep when he was growing up. Some of the present flocks could have included the very lambs that would soon be offered as temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. The shepherds took turns watching the sheep throughout the night, protecting them from thieves or predatory animals.
Suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared. Unlike the messenger sent to Zechariah and Mary, this angel is not named. The Shekinah (bright cloud) glory symbolized the Lord’s presence (Exodus 24:16; Isaiah 6:1-3; Matthew 17:5). The shepherds’ reaction was that of almost everyone who sees an angel—immediate and great fear (see Luke 1:12; 1:30; 24:5). “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” “Good news” comes from the root word that gives us “gospel.” Instead of naming Bethlehem, the angel identifies it as “the town of David.” Jesus would later be known as the “Son of David,” with all its Messianic significance. This is the only place in the Synoptic Gospels where “Savior” is used in reference to Jesus. Later Paul used the term frequently, since it would be more meaningful to Gentiles than “Messiah,” a Jewish term.
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel. This was too great an announcement for just a few angels to make. Something this significant calls for “a great company”—a large band of heavenly messengers (1 Kings 22:19). First they offered glory to God in the highest heavens (Psalm 148:1). Then they heralded the good news to mankind. Jesus had been predicted to be the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
The Shepherds’ Journey
When the angels left, the shepherds quickly decided to go into Bethlehem. They were eager to witness this miraculous event personally. They . . . found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. Everything was just as the angels had told them. After they found Jesus, they spread the word! The shepherds have been called “the first evangelists.” They told their good news to everyone. How could they not do so? Like the lepers in Samaria, they found such news too good to keep to themselves (2 Kings 7:9). People were impressed not only because of what was said but also because of who said it (compare Acts 4:12).
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.