(there is no audio this week, we apologize for this, the full manuscript of below)

For the past three weeks we’ve lingered over Advent themes in the Old Testament prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In these prophets of old we saw God promise rescue, redemption, and restoration to His exiled people. A promise that would one day be fulfilled with God Himself coming to them. This week we step out of the shadow lands of the Old Testament and into the realities and fulfillments of the New Testament, specifically Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a passage loaded with one main contrast: everything about God – because of who He is in Himself and what He’s done in His might – reveals His great glory and demands the utmost of reverence and awe. Yet, when this God became flesh and dwelt among us, His birth was anything but glorious, it was a lowly and His humble entrance.

Before describing this event in chapter 2, Luke begins his gospel account by describing the circumstances of two sets of parents, their two songs of praise, over their two natural births, that brought forth two divine messengers, who would preach one grand message from God.[1]These two cousins born into the world in at the start of Luke’s gospel are two of the most famous men in history: John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

Our earlier Advent candle lighting reading was 2:10-14, to get the sense of it let’s now see the whole of Luke 2:1-21.

The Setting Described (v1-5)

“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.”

Immediately v1 tells us of a decree from the king, Octavian or Caesar Augustus. Octavian was quite the king in the eyes of his subjects. He defeated Antony and Cleopatra, stopped the civil wars within Rome, and was the first Caesar to be given the title of ‘Augustus.’ He was so highly honored during his 42 year reign that some cities in the empire worshiped him, calling him the ‘savior of the world.’[2]Many held that his birthday, September 23rd, was such a special day it ought to be the day Rome begins a new year.[3]Well, by and large it was Octavian who created much of the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) that spread throughout the empire that would soon aid the Apostle Paul in his missionary endeavors. He isn’t the only king mentioned in this passage though. In v4-5 David gets a double mention. This is intentional because it continues to pull on the thread Luke began in chapter 1. The angel Gabriel told Mary in 1:32 that her child would be given “…the throne of his father David”, and Zechariah praised God in 1:69 that He had raised up a horn salvation within the house of David.[4]So naturally, as chapter two begins the decree goes out and Joseph, of the lineage of David, heads off to be registered in Bethlehem, the city of David.

How ironic that God would use a king so highly revered and so wrongly worshiped to prepare the way for the true King who deserves the highest reverence and deepest worship. It was this first decree Octavian made, referenced in v1-3, that unknown to him put all the necessary parties in the places they needed to be for the birth of Christ the King. All it took was a word from him and people all over the empire began traveling to the cities of their heritage. What he thought he was a move to strengthen his grip on the empire was actually just one small part of God’s sovereign plan to bring His Son into the world. And that’s exactly what we see next.

The Son’s Entrance (v6-7)

“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.”

It’s a weary task to travel 80 miles by foot or donkey when you’re nearing the end of pregnancy, it’s a greater weariness knowing that you have to make this journey for the purposes of registering so Caesar could inflict higher taxes on you, and it’s an even greater weariness to arrive at your destination and find no place to stay. This isn’t surprising, all the other people had come for the same reason they had come, to register. So from place to place they went asking for a room, and even though it was clear how pregnant Mary was no one gave up their lodgings for them, leaving them without accommodation. This weariness was Mary and Joseph’s lot. But soon their great weariness turned to great joy. Being unable to find a room they turned elsewhere and found a stable (some say a cave), and in that lowly place a high and holy birth took place.

We call this the Incarnation, the first Advent of Christ, the moment when God became flesh. The contrast is astounding to witness. This baby deserved the best of lodgings in the grandest of accommodations. He deserved to have every person and every creature come and worship Him. He deserved an entrance with royal accompaniment. He deserved everything this world and those in it have to offer. Why? Because this baby was the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the Creator of the universe, the Maker of all things, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the exact representation and radiance of the Father’s glory, sharing in His nature all the perfections and attributes of God.[5]The Dutch Theologian Herman Bavinck describes the incarnation like this, “It is completely incomprehensible to us how God can reveal Himself…eternity in time, immensity in space, infinity in the finite, immutability in change, being in becoming, the all (as it were) in that which is nothing. This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged.”[6]Puritan Stephen Charnock said the same like this, “What a wonder that two natures infinitely distant should be more intimately united than anything in the world…That the same person should have both a glory and a grief; an infinite joy in the Deity, and inexpressible sorrow in the humanity; that the God upon the throne should be an infant in a cradle; the thundering Creator be a weeping babe and a suffering man…”[7]There are some places in Scripture that are downright shocking to read. Among them all, Luke 2 though simple and brief, would rank near the top of the list.

All of these things were true of this baby laying in the manger, and what kind of welcome did He receive at His entrance into the world He had made? No one made room for Him. If He had come with royal majesty surrounded by His Father’s angels, it would’ve been wondrous to behold. If He had come with power and great authority commanding the nations to come to Him, it would’ve been marvelous to watch. But to come among the poorest of the poor and the lowliest of the low, this is humility and love that simply surpasses knowledge.[8]Luke’s short and restrained description in v6-7 matches the manner in which Christ was born. He deserved to be welcomed like a Prince but He came into our world as a Pauper.[9]It was the greatest event in the history of the world, yet it largely went unnoticed by most. It would not, He would not, remain unnoticed for long.

The setting has been described, the Son has entered, now see…

The Stunning Response (v8-20)

“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!” 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.”

After the event of universal and eternal magnitude has occurred, the incarnation of the Son of God, does it surprise you that God announces it from the heavens with an angelic host?[10]But to whom does He announce it to? To kings? To rulers, princes, and priests? No. In a similar nature with the lowly birth of Jesus God doesn’t make His announcement to high ‘falutin’ folks or even to the whole world, no, He announces it to just a few shepherds outside the city. These shepherds weren’t honored in this society. The nature of their work did not allow them to keep the ceremonial laws, they were considered to be unreliable and unstable men and because of this they weren’t even allowed to give testimony in courts. Similar to garbage men, janitors, or used car salesmen today, back then there were all sorts of other occupations people would go into before thinking of doing this kind of work. But it seems that God is glad to give the highest of theologies to lowly people, like them, like us. What an honor it remains to be for these despised outcasts of this society to be the first ones who hear of ‘the good news of great joy.’[11]Can you see yourself here yet? There’s something of a mirror for us to look in these shepherds. We were neither strong, wise, pure, clean, beautiful, or worthy of being saved when God looked at us before our conversion. In fact, to the degree that we believe we were once and remain good people, to that degree, we don’t really get the gospel. Because in order to get the gospel we must get who we really are, we must own the title of sinner if we’re ever, by faith, to receive the title of saint.

As you can imagine there are similarities here throughout Scripture. Just as Moses encountered the burning bush, just as the Israelites encountered the great pillar of fire, just as those surrounding the temple as it was finished saw the glory of God come down, just as Isaiah saw the Lord high and exalted and witnessed the threefold holy anthem, just as the three disciples beheld Christ in His transfigured glorious state, just as all of these people didn’t deserve to be recipients of such grace, and just as all of them were filled with fear from knowing it, so too, these shepherds encountered the glory of God shining brightly around them and they too (no surprise) were filled with great fear. This fear of theirs isn’t a slavish or servile fear that horrified, no, it was a fear that’s true and honest and clean and pure, a fear that gives a clear sight as to who God is in His divinity and who man is not in our depravity. It’s a fear filled with awe and reverence and delight, a fear that simultaneously closes the mouth shut in humility and opens it wide in praise. This fear struck the shepherds deeply, which is why the first words from this angel, as angels always do, were, “Fear not…” But it isn’t just a general statement of comfort and consolation, there is content here, reasons why they shouldn’t fear. “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.”

Why should they not fear? Because the angel has news for them, good news, news so good that it will turn their present fear should into powerful joy. News not only for them but all nations and peoples. What news is this? That the hope of the ages has come, that on this very night, in David’s city, the Savior, the Christ, the Messiah, who is the Lord, has been born! This baby will be easily found, because He’ll be wrapped in cloths and laid and resting in a place that no other baby in all of Bethlehem would ever be found. Not in royal purple, or in a golden crib, no. They would recognize Jesus the way we everyone recognizes Jesus, by His humility.[12]Then in v13-14 out of the invisible realms of glory come a heavenly host, a multitude who forever praised God in the heavens now bursts into a new venue of earth with a new song of praise saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”[13]The meaning is clear. The entrance of this baby demands, calls for, and will result in the highest praise to God and the truest peace among men. Praise to God because God has now fully revealed Himself to His people in His Son. Peace among men because the result of His Son’s work will be to usher in an ocean of lasting peace that makes Caesar’s ‘Pax Romana’ look like nothing more than a drop of water. Man will now praise God because by faith in His Son man can be brought into peace with God, have the peace of God, and work for true peace among men.

Then they left in v15, as suddenly as they came, going back up into heaven. And the shepherds responded in v16 by going into the city, in haste, to find the baby. And however long it took them to find Him, they did, and when they did they witnessed firsthand in v17 the contrast of His coming.[14]The child announced and heralded by angels and the bright glory of God was there before them lying in a feeding trough surrounded by animals. In that setting they shared what they knew about this child. v18 says all those who heard their account were filled with wonder, and v20 tells us after this the shepherds left, heading back out of the city to their flocks glorifying and praising God for all these things. Notice Mary’s response in v19, “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” For Mary, what the shepherds shared that evening was another golden link of the heavenly chain of events that she had been so privileged to experience. To her, the shepherds message was a thing of beauty and wonder, so beautiful and so wonderful that she wasn’t willing to let it go in one ear and out the other. No, she treasured it all up, she preserved it within her so that she could continually return to it to ponder, reflect, and meditate on what had occurred. In this, Mary is quite an example for us, for we too must not be content to allow anything within God’s Word to pass in one ear and out the other. We must treasure, store, preserve it deep within and return to it as often as we can to behold the Lord of glory.

Conclusion:

To end now look at v21, “And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.”

They gave Him the name the angel told them to give Him 9 months earlier. “You shall name Him Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Even from His birth, His death and resurrection is in view. He was born to die, and in dying He would rise, and in rising He would defeat death forever. His birth was lowly, His parents were lowly, His first visitors (the shepherds) were lowly, His life was full of sorrow and grief, and His death was the epitome of humiliating…yet He stamped all this humiliation with exaltation as He rose.

This is good news of great joy to all who believe.

Those of you who don’t believe this good news, look to the shepherds. See that it isn’t enough just to hear of Jesus. His birth in Bethlehem means nothing if He isn’t born in you.[15]The shepherds heard from the angels and sought Him out, and found Him as He is, worthy, beautiful, and satisfying. May you do the same.

Those of you who do believe this good news, look also to the shepherds. After finding Jesus the shepherds saw firsthand what the angels sang of. There in the manger was God’s highest glory, there was man’s truest peace. But there also, was their most urgent mission. Since this moment, all those who’ve come to know this Christ, have sought to make Him known. May you do the same.

Citations:

[1]Thabiti Anyabwile, Exalting Jesus in Luke: Christ-Centered Exposition (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing, 2018) page 36.

[2]Philip Graham Ryken, Luke 1-12 – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2009) page 65-66.

[3]R. Kent Hughes, Luke: That You May Know the Truth – Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015) page 83.

[4]Ryken, page 67.

[5]Ibid., page 69.

[6]Herman Bavinck, quoted in Knowing Christ, Mark Jones(Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 2015) page 25.

[7]Stephen Charnock, quoted in Ibid., page 31.

[8]J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels – Luke (1858; reprint Cambridge: James Clark 1976) 1:52.

[9]Hughes, page 86.

[10]Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke – NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1972) page 111.

[11]Anyabwile, page 43.

[12]Ryken, page 81.

[13]Ibid., page 82.

[14]Geldenhuys, page 113.

[15]Hughes, page 91.

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