The birth of royal children has historically garnered a lot of attention. It is big news. When Princess Kate is pregnant, it becomes a major news item—for the entire nine months and long after the child is born. The other day I came across a news article about how she hunts spiders with her children. That is fine. But newsworthy? Yep. We are now bombarded with the news of the pregnancy of Duchess Meghan. When it comes to royal children, they get, well, the royal treatment.
This was not so much the case with the birth of ultimate royalty. Though the birth of the King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ, was the most important of all, his arrival did not make the headlines. Though heaven thrilled at his birth, earth for the most part was unmoved—except for a few shepherds. But that was by design—God’s design.
We are studying Luke’s narrative of the Christmas story; that is, the mysterious and glorious incarnation. We are doing so with a view to being gospel-centred in a season that is often either humanistically secular or unhelpfully sentimental.
We have looked at the good news announced (1:26–38) and the good news affirmed (1:39–56). In this third section, we have the arrival of the good news: “a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (v. 11).
The first section emphasises faith in this good news, the second section emphasises fellowship in this good news, and the third (2:1–20) emphasises the fulfilment of the good news. God keeps his promises, and he does so according to his schedule.
As we have observed, the Christmas narrative is so familiar to us that sometimes we miss the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest. That is, we can miss the point. We find ourselves reading this account and assuming we know all that there is to know, while there is actually so much more! If, that is, we will pause long enough to contemplate.
I received an email the other day from a brother who has been listening to a series of sermons from Exodus that preached several years ago. He said that he turned to these because he has “been meditating on Psalm 119 [about the law] and can’t seem to break away from it.” These words struck me. How many of us do this? O that we would! And at this time of year, how helpful it will be if we meditate on this inspired piece of history recorded by faithful Dr Luke.
In the text before us, I want to focus on the fulfilment of God’s promise concerning the good news of the birth of the Saviour. It was one thing to promise the incarnation, and another to believe that it would take place. But it is quite another for this promise to come to pass. In this passage, we read of the fulfilment of God’s promise.
God’s fulfilment of his promise, with the birth of Jesus Christ, provides much encouragement and exhortation for those who follow Jesus as his disciples. But it also removes every excuse from those who are not following him. It calls such to come and adore him.
The Sovereign’s Decree
The text opens with a royal decree:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.(Luke 2:1–7)
A Taxing Time
Solomon teaches us, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). Daniel reminds us, that God rules over the kingdoms of this world. He mentions “dominion” fourteen times in his book and, in one of its most well-known passages, he records God’s humiliation of Nebuchadnezzar, who had to learn the hard way “that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (4:25).
Kings have a hard time with this. As one former United States Senator recently said, “Those in Washington DC who travel the highway of humility don’t face heavy traffic.” In other words, hubris, rather than humility, often characterises those who are in positions of political authority. So it was with Caesar Augustus.
Octavian (his given name) ruled the Roman Empire from 30 BC to 14 AD. He was perhaps the most powerful human being alive when Jesus was born. He was the most important Roman Emperor to date, as he was the first man to be declared Emperor over the entire Roman Empire. The title “Augustus” means precisely that: the august one—distinguished, eminent, respectable, celebrated, acclaimed, renowned. But those with eyes to see will note a more august one in this chapter: a baby named Jesus. Though the world was focused on Caesar, heaven was focused on Christ. This is a good lesson for each of us.
Sproul informs us that Augustus strengthened the Empire through massive building programs, by regulating commerce and trade, and by strengthening the military. It was during his reign that the famed Pax Romana (Roman Peace) commenced. He was a very successful statesman. Shortly before his death he declared, “I found Rome bricks, and I made it marble.” Humility was not one of his virtues. In fact, it was during his reign that Roman emperors first assumed the title Dominus et Deus (“Lord and God”). It was under Augustus, in other words, that emperor-worship commenced. Therefore, this registration for taxation was not simply a fiscal matter; rather, it was a faith issue for, as Josephus notes, at the census “the whole Jewish people swore an oath of loyalty to Caesar.”With the birth of Jesus, two kingdoms were coming into enormous conflict. As Christ’s kingdom would later advance, this matter of emperor-worship would lead to much suffering, both for Jews and later for Christians.
The ambition of Augustus proved costly for his subjects, since progress requires money. And when a government needs money, taxes are implemented. This was the historical reason behind his decree that the entire Empire be taxed.
We know from history that a census was conducted every fourteen years by Rome, but this one included a tax. Augustus was committed to building his kingdom, but God was orchestrating all these things “in those days” (v. 1) for the purpose of establishing his kingdom, through his promised King. In other words, the real Sovereign in this story was not Caesar Augustus but Yahweh Adonai, the Lord God. Augustus assumed that he was in charge when, in fact, he was merely a pawn. God was moving the pieces in order to checkmate this king by his appointed King, Jesus.
A Devoted Demeanour
It is worth considering the demeanour of Joseph and Mary. They obeyed the authority that was over them. When the decree came, they submitted.
They left their hometown and travelled the 160 kilometres to Bethlehem, the town of their lineage. Did they think such taxation unjust? Perhaps. Yet, like Joseph of old, the new covenant Joseph seemed to be content to rest in the sovereignty of God. Augustus may have meant this for selfish reasons, but God meant it for good (cf. Genesis 50:20). And, like Joseph of old, this Joseph would know the experience of God being with him, with his dear wife, and with his special Son (cf. Genesis 39:2, 21, 23).
There is an important lesson for us here about the transcendent and imminent rule of God in the affairs of men. Though most historians are blind to this reality, Luke was not. He knew that the sovereign decree of Almighty God was behind the decrees of men. The good news—the gospel—arrived in a historical context. It always does.
As we face political turmoil in our own land, as we feel the onslaught of oppressive taxation and an increasing assault on our God-given freedoms, we need to meditate on the truth that God is in control. We need to heed the counsel of David who wrote, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!” (Psalm 37:7).
Look what God is doing in place like the UAE and India. Look what he has and is doing in your own life to bring you to Christ. Consider his hand in your trials, your friendships, and your local church.
Like Joseph and Mary, life for those bearing Christ can be extremely difficult and painful: betrayal, oppression, affliction, and the like. Yet we need to look beyond the immediate and see the hand of the ultimate. In doing so we will respond with meekness, strengthened by faith. May our God-centred, gospel-centred Christmas equip us to look beyond Caesar to the higher throne.
The Fullness of Time
We continue to see the unseen hand of God behind the words of v. 6: “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” “There,” of course, was Bethlehem (v. 4). In God’s sovereign plan, he ordained the conception and birth of Joseph to be in the lineage of David, whose lineage was traced to Bethlehem. This was necessary, for Messiah had to be born of the seed of David (2 Samuel 7). That is, his genealogy had to be traced back to David. This occurred by the lineage of both Joseph (Matthew 1:1–17) and Mary (Luke 3:23–38).
But further, Micah long ago had prophesied the birthplace of Messiah (Micah 5:2). Therefore, the words “the time came” (“the days were completed,” NKJV) are pregnant (excuse the pun!) with meaning.
God had so orchestrated history that time was filled to overflowing for Messiah to be born. Everything was in place; all that was left was to get the baby to the prophesied place. God used taxes in order to bring about the arrival of the good news!
From what I have read, there was no requirement that Mary accompany Joseph to the revenue office. But she went. Why? Perhaps because Joseph did not know how long he would be gone, and he did not want to leave Mary behind to fend for herself. Remember that she would have been the object of scorn and so, as a loving husband, he desired to protect her as much as he could from unnecessary hurt. Whatever the reason, the King was at work and Mary made the trip. Prophecy was fulfilled. The King of kings was born in the city where Israel’s great king had been born.
“Bethlehem” means “house of bread.” While there, Mary went into labour and gave birth to the one who would identify himself as the Bread of life. Amazing providence of an amazing God!
Christian, be encouraged that every detail of your life, including the hairs of your head (or lack thereof) are ordained by God. So, armed with confidence in one who is greater than Caesar, be like the good man whose steps are so ordered by the Lord that you will not stumble on your way (Psalm 37:23–24), regardless of God’s destined Bethlehem for you.
Are you single and desiring marriage? Are you concerned about the future? Do you face the struggles of a single parent? Are you facing a dreaded diagnoses? Are you staring down the barrel of financial uncertainty or unemployment? Are you living with serious hardship or facing challenges in the church? Be assured that God is at work. He knows the end from the beginning because he has ordained it. Trust him to fulfil his glorious purpose for you.
Firstborn Among Many
Luke informs us that Mary gives birth to her “firstborn son.” This is significant phrase for, in Jewish culture, the firstborn son was to be offered to God in the form of a redemption or ransom offering. In other words, the firstborn son belonged to God. And this one especially (see Genesis 4:4; Exodus 13:1ff; etc.).
Perhaps Luke wants us also to realise that “firstborn” implies later sons. We know from the Gospels that Jesus had brothers and sisters. We can therefore dismiss the myth of Mary’s perpetual virginity.
But Jesus was a firstborn in another, more profound way: he was the firstborn from creation (Colossians 1:15). The meaning is not that he was created. Rather, it reveals that he is preeminent over all. The incarnate Son of God stands at the apex of all that we both can and cannot see. He is both the Creator and the goal of all creation.
Swaddled for the First Time
Mary “wrapped him in swaddling cloths.” This was customary. It enabled the baby to keep warm and feel secure. It is a tender picture. It is also a humbling picture.
In Ezekiel 16, God referred to his choosing of Israel to be his special people. He speaks of finding her when she was a newborn and forsaken; in fact she had not been swaddled. The picture is that God personally swaddled her. Here, the true Israel was swaddled. But, in contrast to old covenant Israel, the true Israel will never disappoint.
It perhaps could be noted that Mary doing the swaddling may also highlight that she and Joseph were alone. There was no family or friend to assist Mary as she endured the travail of childbirth. Though Mary gave birth to the one who would one day remove the curse of sin, she felt the pain of the curse pronounced in the Garden so long ago (Genesis 3:16). And she felt it, apart from Joseph (praise God for this man), all alone.
Kent Hughes vividly describes that night:
Seat and pain and blood and cries as Mary reached up to the heavens for help. The earth was cold and hard. The smell of birth mixed with the stench of manure and acrid straw made a contemptible bouquet. Trembling carpenter’s hands, clumsy with fear, grasped God’s Son slippery with blood—the baby’s limbs waning helplessly as if falling through space—his face grimacing as he gasped in the cold and his cry pierced the night.
Andrew Peterson captures something of the sorrow of this picture in his song Labour of Love,
It was not a silent night, there was blood on the ground;
You could hear a woman cry in the alleways that night,
on the streets of David’s town.
And the stable was not clean, and the cobblestones were cold,
and little Mary, full of grace, with the tears upon her face,
had no mother’s hand to hold:
It was a labour of pain.
Having Christ in your life does not immediately delivers you from the effects of living in a fallen world under the judgement of God. But thank God we can face the hardships because the good news arrived.
This was the first, but not the last, time that Jesus would be wrapped in cloth by another (see 23:53). Both times, the body of Jesus was lovingly wrapped. Both times, Jesus was in a position of dependence on another. Both times, we see the humiliation of Jesus. Both times, his being wrapped points to the good news. Both times, his being wrapped points to his willingness to be placed in the hands of humanity. Both times, his being wrapped would point to the need for God’s power for the gospel to come to pass. That is, both times would have required much faith to believe that this person could fulfil what was prophesied and promised of him.
And yet, he did. In fact, he would be loosed from his final swaddling to never be swaddled again. This is great encouragement to Christians, for one day we will be “swaddled” by another. We will die. But thank God his good news arrived and we are prepared to die.
“Away in a manger, no crib for his bed.” So wrote Martin Luther. The song highlights the humble surroundings of the incarnate God. Jesus may have been born in a cave, or in a humble home surrounded by livestock, or elsewhere. Coming to his own, he was not received with the glory that was his. If those in Bethlehem later discovered his identity, I am sure they were horrified. Let’s not make the same mistake. Let him in—today.
The Shepherd’s Delight
The scene shifts to another significant historical event: the announcement of the good news to a group of shepherds, and their faithful response. As we will see, these shepherds fulfilled their role in the Christmas story.
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 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. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 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!”(Luke 2:8–14)
Despised but Honoured
We should keep in mind that in the ancient world, as today, shepherds were among the most disadvantaged, if not despised, of people.
Shepherds in Israel were considered ceremonially unclean (because of their duties) and therefore were, for the most part, cut off from temple worship and the various religious festivals during the year. Further, they were not permitted to give testimony in a court of law due to suspicions about their character. They were often described as practicing the philosophy of “what is yours is mine!” And yet, God often singled out shepherds for his work.
Someone has written about God’s “love affair with shepherds.” Consider how God seems to have a special place in his purpose and affection for shepherds.
For example, consider Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob; Moses, God’s chosen leader through whom he would deliver his people; David, the great warrior-king; and Amos, the shepherd prophet. Of course we think of the Lord who is our shepherd (Psalm 23) and the Lord Jesus Christ the chief and great Shepherd of the sheep. Therefore, those entrusted to care for the local church are referred to by this tender, though often equally despised, term—“shepherd” or, more commonly, “pastor.” And perhaps this is the reason that the first people on earth made aware of the arrival of God in the flesh, the very first people who heard the gospel, were shepherds. As Liefeld comments, “The shepherds of Luke 2 may symbolize all the ordinary people who have joyfully received the gospel and have become in various ways, pastors to others.”
It is quite possible that these shepherds were tending some of the very sheep that would be sacrificed at the next Passover (particularly if this was in December). How symbolic. They were soon to meet the Lamb of God who would once for all take away the sin of the whole world.
The Glory Returns
Luke informs us, “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” This is significant.
You may remember that, some four hundred years earlier, God’s glory departed the Temple (Ezekiel 10). Israel’s unfaithfulness resulted in God leaving them. At this point in history, as we have previously noted, nothing had changed. Israel remained spiritually unfaithful. They were as sheep without a shepherd. This night, with the arrival of Jesus, that would begin to change. God was fulfilling his promise of a greater glory (Haggai 2; etc.).
With the coming of Jesus Christ to earth, the glory of God returned in the person of Messiah (Hebrews 1:1–2). His glory continues to dwell on earth through the body of Christ, the church. This account reminds us that shepherds therefore need to keep watch over their flocks. As they do, the glory of God will be manifested.
The Glorious Gospel
In response to the fearful response of these tough shepherds, the angel said, “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 Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” This was, literally, the first announcement of the good news. It came through an angel. But soon, this message would become the responsibility of those who experience the good news, those saved by it (see 1 Peter 1:10–12).
Again, it should be observed that the gospel came to a group that was, for the most part, despised, or at the least disregarded by society. There is hope for all of us!
“All the people” probably has immediate reference to the nation of Israel. The shepherds were merely the firstfruits of a greater harvest, for the first church would be Jewish. God was fulfilling his promises (see Isaiah 54:1ff). He still will (see Romans 11). And you?
The Baby is Lord
The terminology used by the angel is unique and significant. “Christ the Lord” is not used elsewhere. Literally, the angel was saying that this Jesus was the God-anointed Messiah and that this Christ was the Lord. And an angel would know. After all, they surround the throne of God. Take his word for it. The babe in the manger was none other than the sovereign Lord.
In a wold of fake news, believe in this true and good news!
Access to the Anointed
Bethlehem was not a large town, and even today it remains smallish. Yet there was certain to be more than one baby. How would the shepherds know which one was the Lord? By the sign of this baby, Christ the Lord, lying in a feeding trough. That would be unusual. But it would also mean that this Saviour, who was Christ the Lord, would be approachable. Thank God there was no room for them in the inn! These largely despised shepherds would probably have been denied access to an inn or to a private home. However, the humble surroundings provided them access to the glory of God.
This matter of access is, in many ways, the summary of the gospel. God becoming man enabled humanity, in the words of John, to literally “Behold his glory” (1:14–18). God becoming man invites us to “draw near,” as the writer to the Hebrews exhorts (4:16; 7:19, 25; 10:22; 11:6). God becoming man encourages us to “come and see” and, like the haemorrhaging woman, to reach out and to touch him. What fools we are to refuse to come!
Let All the Angels Worship Him
Immediately another amazing thing occurred: “a multitude of the heavenly host” appeared, “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’”
Historically, the heavenly host symbolised warfare. These angelic soldiers were sent at God’s bidding for spiritual warfare. But, here, they were a host of peaceful and peace-bearing messengers (see Hebrews 1:6). These angels were proud of, and proud for, their God.
The message they brought has been translated different ways, but the essence of the message is praise to God for his saving favour shown to lost men and women, boys and girls. God’s saving favour is gracious rather than meritorious; it is particular, rather than universal.
None Good, No Not One
Some translations leave one thinking that there are good people who deserve God’s favourable response. This is not what the host were saying. Rather, they were praising God for his glorious grace (Ephesians 1:5–10). “With whom he is pleased” means those towards whom God is pleased to show “goodwill.” The host of angels were praising God, not men. They were glorifying God for his sovereign favour that he shows to undeserving sinners. That is, according to God’s goodwill, he saves sinners whom, like Mary, he has chosen to bless (1:28): objects of undeserved eternal favour, rather than objects of deserved eternal condemnation.
The good news arrived on the wings of grace. These shepherds were not worthy of this good news. Yet God chose them and sent messengers to them. Like everyone else, they were sinners in need of God’s grace, if ever they would be reconciled to him; if ever they would have peace with him.
We should have a spirit of gratitude to God. He who is in the highest has stooped to the lowest. “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
Peace I Give To You
This good news arrived declaring peace. Geldenhuys writes,
The birth of the Christ bears the richest significance to the world—it brings peace, real peace, on earth. When Christ was born, some form of external peace (the “Pax Romana”) did prevail. But, as was declared by Epictetus, the pagan thinker of the first century, “while the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief and envy. He cannot give peace of heart, for which man yearns more than even for outward peace.
Do you know this peace with God? Do you know this peace of God? If you respond to his saving favour in his Son, you will.
Christian, focusing on the arrival of this good news fuels your peace.
The Saviour Declared
In the final section of our text, we read of the Saviour declared:
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.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.(Luke 2:15–20)
The Shepherds’ Response
There is no indication that the angels had instructed them to go to Bethlehem, but as soon as the heavenly host departed, the shepherds made the decision to go and find this amazing baby in a feeding trough.
When God sends us the good news, we are fools if we do not respond. When we do respond, then more light is given, and more joy is experienced. These shepherds exemplify this.
They made the trip to Bethlehem (no doubt after securing their sheep) and searched for the sign of the Saviour. They found him—and, by the way, were not joined by the wise men! Beware Christmas card theology.
The shepherds made known to others what the angels had revealed: This is Messiah—the Lord—and through him sinners can be at peace with God. That is, they gave testimony concerning what heaven had declared. This is interesting, especially in light of the historical prohibition of shepherds giving legal testimony! Sproul says, “Their testimony, although worthless in the law courts of the day, was valued by God. He entrusted to them the first human proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They heard the gospel, they came to Christ, they saw, they believed and proclaimed.” God has a way of turning things upside down.
When God changes us through the good news of his Son, then, like the hymn says, we are compelled from within to “tell out my soul.”
Those who heard the report of the shepherds were amazed. They marvelled. They were astonished. We don’t know what they did with this message. Did any of them seek out Jesus? Perhaps. We are not told. We are responsible to communicate, God is responsible to convert.
Mary’s response to the visit by the shepherds is significant and instructive. Luke informs us that “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.’ Sproul comments, “She … pondered them as she nursed her child, nurtured him in youth, and watched the unfolding of his career as an adult.”
It is helpful for us to realise that, though Mary believed the word from heaven that she would conceive and bring forth Messiah, nevertheless, her faith, like yours and mine, was a work in progress. Mary was not gullible; she was thoughtful—and therefore she was faithful. There is much for us to learn from her example.
Having Jesus Christ in your life will give you plenty to meditate on, including what he is up to during difficult times. Having Christ in your life should make us thinkers. O that Christians would meditate on God’s truth! Don’t be gullible; don’t be social-media’d to death! Read. Pray. Consider. Choose faithfulness to Christ!
Let us adopt Mary’s motto for our life: “Let it be to me according to your word” (1:38).
The Shepherds’ Return
“The journey begun in faith will generally end in praise”. Ryle was spot on. This is how it was for these shepherds, and how it can be for you and me.
Someone has commented that the shepherds returned to their old jobs after this amazing experience. But we can be sure that they did not return as the same men. They were transformed by the arrival of the good news in the flesh. Further, along with their old jobs, they now had a new vocation: to be witnesses of what they had heard and seen. We read that they returned glorifying and praising God. This is a repeated theme in Luke’s Gospel (4:15; 5:25–26; 7:16; 13:13; 17:15; 18:43; 23:47; 25:43). It should be in our lives as well—if we have responded, like the shepherds, to this gloriously gracious good news. Then we too will be characterised by vocalising praise and glory to God; we too will be characterised by vocalising our faith. John Blanchard observes, “They were not professional preachers or great scholars, but they could share what they knew.” So can we. So must we.
We need to keep before us the gospel truth proclaimed first by the angelic host, and then by these shepherds. But we must also remember that the reason God can show favour to sinners, is because the baby who laid in the manger, grew up always as God’s favourite. And he did so, because his life – his thoughts and deeds – were always favourable to God his Father. That is, Jesus is our Saviour because he never sinned.
By his life, Jesus Christ, the Lord, earned favour for us. But further, God’s firstborn son died in the place of hell-deserving sinners.
Someone observed that the life of Jesus was characterised by there being no room for him in the inn. And that he lived his life being rejected. The only place where there was room for him was on the cross. Thank God for this.
But he did not remain either there, or in the grave. No, he rose from the dead for all who will make room for him; for all who will vacate their lives for him, alone.
Jesus Christ the Lord is called “the firstborn from the dead” (Revelation 1:5). Why? Because all who trust in him alone for forgiveness of sins, all who are then reconciled to God, will one day rise from the dead in glory. The old grave clothes of a sin-cursed body will, like the shroud of Jesus, be unwrapped and discarded forever. And we will forever live in the glorious favour of God.
This is good news. It arrived two thousand years ago. It has once again arrived in our hearing today. Believe it and leaving glorifying and praising God.