The birth of Christ was surrounded by heavenly announcements to faithful and devoted people who patiently expected the manifestation of the Messiah to redeem Israel. The angel of the Lord appeared to Zachariah, to Mary, and to Joseph in order to announce that the day had arrived when God would send the One promised by the prophets.
Everyone in Israel expected the Messiah to come in glory, yet it was to simple shepherds that the angel of God came to proclaim for the first time the good news that the Savior was born.
Shepherds did not have a good reputation in the first century. They were despised by the people; they were considered to be thieves and could not be trusted to give testimony in a court of law. God chose the despised of the earth to become the recipients of this good news of great joy.
The Announcement of the Good News
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord’” (Luke 2:8–11).
The angel of the Lord appeared to a group of shepherds who were somewhere in Bethlehem keeping watch over their flocks. These shepherds came together at night in order to protect themselves and their flocks against the danger of thieves and animals of prey. While they were together, the divine messenger came to them as the harbinger of good news. At the appearance of the angel, the glory of the Lord surrounded them, bringing fear to their hearts. While the glory of God announced the divine manifestation to the shepherds, their fear was the sign of awe and reverence that humans demonstrate in the presence of the divine.
The divine herald calmed the shepherd’s fears by declaring that he was the bearer of “good news of great joy.” The good news proclaimed by the angel was the gospel. The angel declared that the son of David was born in Bethlehem.
The angel used three words to describe the content of the good news. The child born in Bethlehem was the Savior, the Christ. The first word, “Savior,” was an expression used in the Old Testament to describe God in his work on behalf of Israel: “I am Yahweh, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:3).
Yahweh was the one who saved his people from danger and who protected them from their enemies. Jesus is Yahweh becoming flesh and living among us (John 1:14): “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16).
The second word was “Christ.” Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” The Word “Messiah” means “The Anointed One.” Messiah was the title given to one chosen by God to accomplish God’s work of reconciliation, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
As the Messiah, Jesus fulfilled the hope of salvation anxiously awaited by the people of Israel. The third word was “Lord.” Lord was a title given to describe God in the Old Testament. The word “Lord” was the word used by the early Christian community to declare the divinity of Christ.
The Sign of the Good News
“‘This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth 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 heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” (Luke 2:12–14).
The shepherds understood the message of the angel and they realized that the Messiah had arrived. A sign was given to them, not to promote a stronger faith, but in order to help them to identify the child. Contrary to Jewish belief, the Messiah was not born in a palace, not amidst human splendor, nor with the pageantry of popular expectations. He was born in a stable, placed in a manger, and wrapped in simple clothing.
The child was God’s identification of himself with the shepherd’s humanity; the manger was his identification with their poverty. The Messiah’s poverty was contrary to what they believed about him, thus, the sign would help them identify the child.
As the angel finished his announcement, there appeared with him a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, singing to the Almighty a hymn of praise:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14).
The angels praised God because to him belongs the glory and the honor; his peace is given to those who have been reconciled to him. This peace is one of the gifts the Messiah will bring to people who will receive him when he begins his public ministry
In Search of the Good News
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 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 went quickly to Bethlehem in order to see what the angel had announced. When they arrived at the place where Joseph and Mary were staying, the sign was confirmed to them just as the angel had announced. The shepherds were so marveled with these events that they proclaimed to all the people what they had seen and heard, and the people were amazed with their report. The shepherds then returned to their homes glorifying God for his inexpressible gift (2 Corinthians 9:15).
Mary kept all these things in her heart, comparing the things divinely announced nine months before with the things happening at the present. Her heart was in complete harmony with God’s purpose; she was seeking to understand the way God was working through the life of her son.
The good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself is good news of great joy indeed. The incarnation of God in Christ is the only means by which we can approach God with the confidence that we are accepted. In Christ we know perfect love; in him we find mercy with God. The birth of Christ is evidence of God’s condescending love which made him become human in order to save his creation.
The one who humbled himself and was born in a manger is the same one who now sits enthroned in majesty as Lord and Savior. The coming of Jesus into the world continues to be good news of great joy to many people today.
My book Divine Violence and the Character of God will be published in January 2022. The book deals with God’s violent acts in the Old Testament in light of God’s character as a gracious and merciful God. You can order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. If you want to order the book at 40% discount, send an email to email@example.com and put Divine Violence in the subject line and I will send you information on how to order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. This discount will be available only on pre-publication orders. Once the book is published, the 40% discount will no longer be available.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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