Date: July 28, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Series: The Gospel according to Luke
Scripture: Luke 2:1–2:21
You might say that our passage today needs no introduction. The Christmas Story, as its often called in Luke 2, is surely one of the most familiar passages in Scripture. Bethlehem, the manger, angels and shepherds – it’s all very familiar. These events are well known, so perhaps we don’t need an introduction.
And yet, I would say that while most people are familiar with the events of the Christmas Story, we still often overlook the purpose. Remember that God, through his Word, always intends to act upon our lives. Scripture is the Living Word of God, and through his Spirit, God uses his Word not merely to narrate events, but primarily to transform the lives of his people. And that is certainly true here in Luke 2. There is a purpose beyond narrating familiar events. Notice how Luke sets up the story, with Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem, the City of David. Bethlehem was a small town but one with massive expectations. The OT prophet Micah said a King would come from Bethlehem, and this King would hold sway over the entire world.
And that’s it, that’s the greater purpose behind these familiar events. Luke 2 is the declaration that God himself has come into this world as King, and he has come with the call, the demand even, that we orient our lives around who he is and what he has come to do. It’s about more than shepherds and a silent night in Bethlehem. The Christmas story is fundamentally a call to allegiance – a call to worship and obey the One who is born as creation’s King.
And so, it is that theme of allegiance to the King that will frame our time today. What Luke narrates here is the coming of the King, but as we’ll see, there are three different perspectives as to who this King is. First, we’ll note the Humility of the King – that’s vv1-7. Then, we’ll note the Glory of the King, vv8-14. And finally, we’ll consider Our Witness to the King, vv15-21. Three scenes, each connected with kingship, but all coming together to call us to reorient our lives around the Lord Jesus. Let’s start, then, in vv1-7 with the Humility of the King.
The Humility of the King
In the first of a few surprises, Luke doesn’t begin his account in Bethlehem, the City of David. He begins in Rome, the City of Caesar Augustus. V1 places Jesus’ birth squarely in a global context, as Caesar Augustus orders a census of all his subjects in the empire. Now, Luke gives us all sorts of historical background about this census, and I’ll let you read the literature on all the fascinating background. It’s pretty extensive.
But for our purposes, we should note that this census is a display of Caesar’s power and authority. He can order the known-world to be counted, and the known-world obeys. That is some kind of authority, and that is part of Luke’s point. Jesus’ birth takes place in the shadow of a powerful ruler who can seemingly make the world do his bidding.
But in contrast to that global power, notice where Luke turns his attention in v4 – to a solitary couple, Joseph and Mary, journeying from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I hope you catch the contrast in these opening verses. On the one hand, we have mighty Caesar, who has the authority to command the world it seems. And on the other hand, we have a solitary couple, in an out-of-the-way part of the world, probably just trying to get through this census so they can go home. You could not find people who are more different – mighty Caesar on the one hand; lowly Israelite family on the other. From all appearances, then, it seems that Caesar is running the show, and everyone else is subject to him.
But then something wonderful happens in v6. Luke gives us one of those rare moments in Scripture where the curtain of redemptive history is pulled back, and we’re allowed to see the divine purpose behind human events. Notice the simple but stunning news in v6 – “And while they were there [that is, in Bethlehem], the time came for her to give birth.” Very quietly, what we witness here is the sovereign providence of God. Just to remind you, providence refers to God’s active role in governing, sustaining, and directing all things in his creation, and that’s what we witness in v6. Caesar’s census serves God’s purpose. Here’s what I mean:
The OT clearly said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem – Micah 5.2 – but Mary, you’ll remember from chapter 1, lives in Nazareth, some 90 miles away. How, then, will Mary get from Nazareth to Bethlehem? By divine providence. Caesar’s census serves God’s purpose.
But it gets better. Not only has God orchestrated the census, he’s also done so at precisely the right moment in time. Think about it. Mary could have given birth on the journey – 90 miles is a long way to go for an expectant mother. She could have given birth before they left, or even after they got home. But she doesn’t. Through providence, the census brings Mary to Bethlehem at precisely the right time. In other words, these events are not happenstance or accidental. These events are purposeful. In fact, that’s why Luke gives us all this background – so we’ll see that Caesar is not sovereign. God is. Caesar is but an instrument in God’s hand – an instrument whom God will use to bring the True King into the world.
Before we go on, brothers and sisters, let’s remind ourselves of what is true. We do not live in a world run by chance, and we do not live a world run by the powerful, whether those powerful be in Rome or in Washington DC. No, we live in a world run by a providential heavenly Father. And as we see here in Luke 2, his providence is always purposeful – it accomplishes his will. His providence is always precise – he orchestrates every detail with meticulous wisdom. And his providence is always perfectly timed – he’s never late. Purposeful, precise, and perfectly timed – brothers and sisters, that’s the God who oversees our world. Even better, that’s the God who oversees our lives, down to the number of hairs on our heads.
I know that doesn’t resolve all of life’s questions, and it certainly doesn’t make everything better instantly. But this truth should encourage us to trust the Lord. The storms of life will continue, but the truth of God’s providence is like an anchor that holds us steady in the storm. Purposeful, precise, and perfectly timed – and therefore, brothers and sisters, we can trust him.
As we look back at our passage, we see the culmination of God’s providence in v7, as the True King is born. Look at v7, and note the humility of this birth – “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Now, it’s hard not to have those familiar Nativity scenes in mind as you read v7. But if you were reading this for the first time, what would stand out to you is the lowliness, the humility of this situation. Mary and Joseph are likely in an outdoor shelter that travelers would use to house their animals overnight. And that manger is not the nice little hay-filled box with warm light flickering all around. It’s a feeding trough – dirty and probably quite smelly too. But those are the circumstances in which God’s King comes into this world. He comes in humility.
And listen, even in Luke’s Gospel, this is rather stunning. Think about the angelic appearances in chapter 1 and the sense of expectation that God was up to something. Think about the songs of Mary and Zechariah – how they were rich with hope that salvation was coming soon. The entire opening chapter has been building expectation, and where has that expectation taken us? Not to a palace with servants attending to every need, not to Rome with mighty Caesar counting his tax dollars. No, all the expectation of chapter 1 has brought us to a feeding trough, and there in those humble circumstances, we find the Lord of Glory in human form.
Brothers and sisters, the reason I’m emphasizing this is because the humility of Jesus’ birth is actually very instructive. Again, these details are not incidental or accidental. These things are purposeful. The humility of Jesus’ birth helps us see the truth about who Jesus is and how he will save his people. Consider what we confess to be true about Jesus – He is the eternal Son of God, glorious and co-equal with his Father in power and authority. And yet, the Son did not consider his glory something to hold on to. Instead, the Son laid aside his glory and took on human form. That’s the miracle of v7 – the Maker becomes Man, the Creator takes on the form of his creature, the Sustainer of all things now sustained by his mother’s care. That coming together of glory and humility – that illustrates the Incarnation of Christ. The humility here actually gives us great insight into Jesus’ person – that though he is God, he has humbled himself in order to dwell among us.
But the humble circumstances also teach us about how Jesus will accomplish his mission. Consider what we confess to be true about Jesus’ work – He has come to save his people, but not through a display of power that overthrows the Romans and overwhelms his enemies. No, Jesus will save his people by humbling himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. There is perhaps no lowlier place to be born than a feeding trough, and there is certainly no lowlier place to die than a cross. And the Lord Jesus, in humility, endured both. The lowliness of the manger actually prepare us for the humility of the cross.
So before we rush past the manger scene, thinking we’re familiar with what happens, we should pause here in wonder. We should pause in worship that the Son of God would humble himself to such a point – and that he would do so for us and for our salvation. From beginning to end, this King – God’s King – is marked by humility, but that humility is foundational for our salvation.
The Glory of the King
That’s the first scene Luke gives us here in chapter 1 – the Humility of the King. Beginning in v8, however, we see the truth on the other side of the spectrum – the Glory of the King. Now, this second scene is truly full of glory, and we’ll get to that point in just a moment. But before the glory, the surprising theme of humility continues. Notice who receives the first announcement of the King’s birth – not significant or prestigious people living in a palace somewhere. No, the first announcement comes to shepherds. Notice v8 – “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” It is difficult to overstate the simplicity of this moment. These shepherds are just working-class guys, doing their job. If you wanted to create a buzz, then these are certainly not the kind of guys you’d pick. It’s not that shepherds were despised – that idea has been overplayed sometimes in talking about this passage. It’s just that shepherds were ordinary, perhaps even forgettable.
But as we look at v9, we find that while the shepherds are lowly, the message they receive is anything but. Beginning in v9, Luke narrates a series of glorious revelations, one after the other. In fact, let’s focus for a minute on each of these revelations, so that we can better appreciate the glory of this moment. First of all, you’ll notice the shepherds see the glory of heaven. Look at v9 – “And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” The key phrase there is the glory of the Lord. That’s an OT phrase that was used to describe God’s presence dwelling among his people. And that’s the glory of this moment for the shepherds. It’s not just the angel that is remarkable – it is the glory of the Lord that is truly stunning here, God’s presence shining around them. The shepherds receive a glimpse, a little sliver of the glory of heaven.
That leads into the second revelation – the glory of grace. You’ll notice in v9 the shepherds are afraid, and rightfully so. The revelation of God’s glory is frightening without explanation. But the angel quickly dispels their fear in v10, and it does so with a message of grace. Notice v10 – “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” That phrase bring you good news is simply the verb for preaching the gospel. That’s why the shepherds shouldn’t be afraid. This isn’t a message of judgment. This is a message of good news.
But notice then how the angel defines this good news. It is good news of great joy. Again, we find that the OT helps us understand the point. In the OT prophets, the idea of great joy was connected with the coming salvation of God. You’ll find it throughout the book of Isaiah. In fact, Isaiah 35 is a good example. What will happen when the glory of the Lord shines on his people? They will break out in joy, Isaiah says, and they will see that God has come to save them. That is the message the shepherds receive here in Luke 2. It is the glorious announcement that God, in his grace, has drawn near to save his people.
And so, what we should see in the shepherds is a living illustration of the surprising grace of God. Think about it. The shepherds have nothing with which to commend themselves to God. They were not wise, significant, or powerful men. But suddenly and without explanation, grace interrupts their lives with this good news of great joy. This is the grace of God. It is surprising, unexpected, free, and wonderful. The shepherds illustrate what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1 – that God chooses what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. This is how God works, brothers and sisters, and how fitting that lowly shepherds would help us see the glory of grace.
The angel’s revelation continues, and in v11, the shepherds hear the glory of the Messiah. Notice what the angel says, v11 – “For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” You could preach an entire sermon or two on just this verse. This is jam-packed with incredible truth. But I want us to focus on the three titles the angle uses for Jesus – Savior, Christ, and Lord. Each one is significant on its own, but taken together, they are astounding.
Savior is one of Luke’s favorite titles for Jesus – he uses it more than Matthew and Mark. But while the title is frequent, the point is striking. To put it simply, the OT very clearly presented God as the Savior of his people. When you read the Psalms and the Prophets, it is God who is coming to save. But here in Luke 2, it is Mary’s Son, Jesus, who is called the Savior. Jesus will fulfill God’s work. Jesus will take on himself the title that Scripture uses for the Lord God. Jesus, then, is the Savior.
Next, the angel says the Child is the Christ. He is the Messiah, the long promised Son of David who would defeat God’s enemies, save God’s people, and reign over God’s kingdom forever. All the OT prophets were waiting for this Figure, the Messiah, and the angel now announces to the shepherds that the wait is over. The Child in Bethlehem is the Christ.
But the last title brings it all together. The angel says that Jesus is the Lord. Now, remember who is speaking to the shepherds. This is a heavenly angel, a being who dwells in the very presence of the Lord God himself. If an angel calls Mary’s Child the Lord, then surely we’re meant to see the connection between Jesus and God himself. This Child is God in the flesh. Jesus is the very Son of God, the Lord even, now dwelling among us in human form.
I don’t mean to suggest that the shepherds put all these things together so that they perfectly understood Jesus to be both God and Man. But I do mean for us to see that the truth about Jesus Christ has been proclaimed and believed from the very beginning. He is truly human – born of Mary and like us in every way yet without sin. And he is fully God – declared by an angel to be the Lord himself. The shepherds, then, hear the glory of the Messiah.
Finally, to bring it all together, the shepherds hear the glory of salvation. After a sign from the angel in v12, the shepherds receive a final revelation. Notice vv13-14 – “And 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!’” Essentially, an army of angels joins in, and they combine to sing God’s praise to the highest degree. This is the only proper response to what has happened – God receives the glory for what he has done.
But you’ll also notice the angelic choir sings of peace on earth among those with whom God is well pleased. The peace in view here is the peace of salvation. This is how Jesus will save his people – he will bear God’s wrath on the cross, he will make atonement for sin, and as a result, there will be peace. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,” Paul says in Romans 5, “we have peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Now, we should be clear that this peace is not a general, universal experience. Notice this peace comes to those with whom God is pleased. That’s the same as saying this peace comes to those who receive God’s grace. It comes to those who believe the truth about Jesus Christ. This is not a general, vague idea of peace. This is redemptive peace, justifying peace. This is salvation, in other words. The shepherds hear the glory of salvation.
Let’s put all these pieces together from the angel’s announcement. What do the shepherds see and hear? The glory of heaven, the glory of grace, the glory of the Messiah, all culminating in the glory of salvation. The humble King born in the manger is also the glorious King who has come down from heaven to save his own. What a wonderful picture, brothers and sisters, of the fullness of Jesus Christ – humble enough to save, yet rich enough to reveal God’s glory.
Our Witness to the King
The question, then, is how should we respond? Surely, this good news is too astounding to do nothing. That would be foolish, not to mention unfaithful. How should we respond? The answer actually comes from the shepherds in our final scene. Beginning in v15, we see Our Witness to the King. The shepherds waste no time – v15, they head quickly to Bethlehem, and in v16, they find confirmation of the angel’s message. They find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger. Once again, God has done exactly what he said. I hope you’re noticing that theme throughout these opening chapters. Time and time again, Luke is telling us, “God always keeps his Word.”
But then in v17, you’ll notice the shepherds take on a new role. They witness to what God has revealed. Notice v17 – “And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning the child.” In a sense, the shepherds are like early evangelists. Remember, the angel announced good news to them, v10, and now, the shepherds have the privilege of passing on that good news as well. They witness to the reality that the baby in the manger is the Savior, even Christ the Lord.
And the result is just as astounding. V18 – “and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds had told them.” Now, we don’t know who all is present at this point, but there are apparently some people present. But the key is that these people now share in the shepherd’s wonder. They hear the shepherds’ witness, and they too marvel at this mighty work of God. Through their witness, the wonder spreads.
But it goes a little deeper still. Notice Mary’s response in v19. It’s a bit unique, v19 – “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Now, we’ll see this same response from Mary at the end of chapter 2, and I’ll have a few more things for us to note at that point. But for now, I want us to see the connection between the shepherds’ witness and Mary’s treasuring. The one leads to the other. The shepherds report, and Mary ponders. The shepherds witness, and Mary treasures. Do you see the connection? Without the shepherds report, there is a depth of wonder that Mary would miss. The shepherds’ witness deepens the treasure that Mary experiences in the birth of her Son. Or, to say it another way, God has used these lowly shepherds to spread the good news of great joy, even to the point where Jesus’ mother goes deeper in treasuring the things of God.
And then look where it ends for the shepherds. Having seen the Christ and fulfilled their role, what do the shepherds receive in the end? The receive the joy of deeper worship, v20 – “And the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them.” I think that’s beautiful. Not only do the shepherds receive the grace of hearing the good news, not only do they receive the grace of seeing Christ himself, not only do they have the grace of witnessing to God’s word, but now they get to top it all off with deeper joy and worship before God. How kind of God to take lowly shepherds and show them such grace.
Now, if we zoom out for a moment, we can see that the shepherds picture for us the right response to the good news of Jesus Christ. Think about what has happened to the shepherds in the course of this passage. They received the good news, v10. They believed the good news and went to find the child, v15. And then they witnessed to what God said, v17. Do you see it, brothers and sisters? Received the good news, Relieved the good news, and then Witnessed to the good news. That progression is the Christian life in miniature. In fact, I am convinced Luke intends us to identify with the shepherds, and then join them in the same joyful witness.
As believers, we had nothing to commend ourselves to God. But God, in his grace, revealed to us his good news. And by his grace, we believed that good news by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. We believe just what the angel said here in v10 – that Jesus is the Savior who is Christ the Lord. Jesus is the One who laid down his life for his church, the One who atoned for sin once and for all, the One who rose again on the third day, the One who right at this very moment reigns over all things as the Sovereign Lord. That is the good news we have believed by grace.
And now, what should be our response? Like the shepherds, we must witness to what we have received. We must witness to the good news that the Savior has come, and his name is Jesus. Brothers and sisters, there are a number of things we’re called to do as God’s people. There are various seasons to the Christian life, but in the midst of it all, there is this one constant – our calling to witness to Jesus Christ. His glory spreads by his people proclaiming the good news. His gospel brings life to the lost as the church – you and me – witnesses to the gospel truth.
You know, our church doesn’t have a formal evangelism program, and that’s really on purpose. We want our members to be our evangelism program. We want to see each and every one of us living with eyes wide open, taking every opportunity God brings our way to speak with people about the good news of Christ. Sometimes, that might be a one-off conversation at the park or in line at the store. And other times, it might be more ongoing – like a friendship with a neighbor or a co-worker. Whatever the form, our calling is to witness to the gospel.
And I’ll be honest. I’m convicted by these shepherds, and I pray that you are as well. By no means am I trying to guilt anyone into being a witness. The shepherds weren’t compelled by guilt; they were compelled by glory. They saw the glory of God in Christ, and they could not help but speak. The same will be true for us. The place to start is not with guilt, but with a renewed desire to see the glory of Christ, followed by a renewed commitment to make Christ known, wherever God has us.
Would you join me in praying, brothers and sisters? Would you join me in praying that God makes us a church full of faithful witnesses to Christ? And then, with prayerful hearts, let’s be about the work God has called us to do – the glorious work of testifying to the good news of great joy in Jesus Christ.
As we said at the outset, many people know the events of the Christmas story, but few people see the purpose. The King of Glory comes in humility, and in response, his coming calls for our allegiance, our faith, and our witness. May God make us faithful, brothers and sisters, until the day our King returns. Amen.