By Sam E. Stone
Of the four Gospel writers, Luke is the one who gave the historical details and setting of Jesus’ birth. With careful research and guided by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, he recorded the wonderful news of Christ’s birth and how those who first heard about it were encouraged to give glory to God.
Joseph and Mary had gone from Nazareth in Galilee down to Bethlehem of Judea, the town of David. Centuries before, the prophet Micah had predicted that the Messiah would be born there (Micah 5:2). God used the decree of a pagan ruler to bring about the fulfillment of this prophecy. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, they were unable to find lodging at an inn (the normal place to stay). When Jesus was born, he was laid in a feeding trough used for animals.
In a field near Bethlehem, shepherds were watching over their sheep throughout the night. In this very region, King David himself had cared for sheep when he was a boy (1 Samuel 17:34). “While shepherds watched their flocks that night,” an angel appeared. The glory of the Lord shone around them. The Shekinah (bright cloud) glory symbolized the Lord’s presence (Exodus 24:16; Matthew 17:5). The shepherds’ reaction was like that of almost everyone who ever sees an angel—immediate and great fear.
Typically the first words spoken by an angel upon greeting people are, “Do not be afraid” (see Luke 1:13, 30). The heavenly messengers brought good news, a term that comes from the root word from which we get “gospel.” God’s gift was intended for all the people in all of the world (John 3:16). The angels told the shepherds, “A savior has been born to you . . . the Messiah, the Lord.” 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.
The angels then provided a sign to confirm their message to the shepherds. “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” What a sign! Where else in Bethlehem could you see this? This was too great an announcement for just a few angels to make. Something this significant called for a great company—a large band of heavenly messengers (1 Kings 22:19). First they offered glory to God in the highest heaven (see also Psalm 148:1). Then they heralded the good news to humankind.
Jesus had been predicted to come as “the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). He brings peace between God and people, between people and each other, and between people and their consciences. Such peace is for all who accept God’s Son as Lord.
When the angels departed, the shepherds immediately said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” They wanted to witness this event personally. Upon arrival at the manger, they found everything exactly as it had been described to them. When they had seen him, they spread the word . . . all who heard it were amazed.
The shepherds have been called “the first evangelists.” They told their good news to everyone they met. How could they not do so? Like the lepers in Samaria (2 Kings 7:9), they found such news too good to keep to themselves. People were impressed not only because of what was said but also because of who said it (compare Acts 4:13).
No doubt Dr. Luke interviewed Mary, Jesus’ mother, in preparing to write his Gospel (Luke 1:3). He simply declared, Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. So much to absorb! J. W. McGarvey contrasted Mary’s silence with the shepherds’ talkativeness, adding, “It is the duty of Christians both to ponder and to publish.”
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Such praise to God was certainly appropriate. All the words of the angels, like all the predictions of the prophets, had been fulfilled with Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. As the Christmas carol puts it, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.