You might expect that when God has something important to announce, he would tell it to prominent religious leaders and have them pass it on to the rest of us. Surprisingly though, when Jesus was born, the news of his birth was given first to shepherds.
What was their reaction? We'll find out today on Truth for Life as Alistair Begg teaches from the opening verses of Luke chapter 2. So God came not to a princess but to a lowly maiden, not to the home of a high-ranking officer but to the home of the village carpenter, and not, as we now see, to the halls of learning but to the fields of shepherds, and to a group of individuals who, as a class, were actually despised by those who were religiously orthodox in their day. The shepherds were not anywhere close to the top of the social spectrum. And in religious terms, they didn't fare much better.
On account of their duties, they missed far too many of the services, and they tended to wash their hands a little less than they were supposed to in relationship to the ceremonial and judicial law. And yet, despite that, when God dispatches his angelic host, it is to the fields he sends them. And it is, as we have seen, directly to this group of shepherds, the one of whom the angels sing their message to the shepherds is one who, in the years of his manhood, is going to stand upon the stage of human history and take to himself, as one of the descriptions of his person, nothing other than that of a shepherd.
It will be this one of whom the angels are singing that will stand and say, I am the good shepherd, and I know my sheep, and they know me. At this point in time, when a son was born into a Jewish home, or at least into a Mideastern home, it was a cause of great celebration. I wish I could say in all honesty that when a girl was born into the home, it was a cause of equal celebration. It was not. That was a mistake, something that we wouldn't want to emulate.
But nevertheless, the distinction was clear. And the birth of a son brought out the minstrels. And friends and neighbors would gather at the home of the individual in order to make music and to sing songs. Mary and Joseph, of course, have moved from the locality in which they are most known, best known, and have found themselves now in at least marginal obscurity in a different place altogether.
And so the likelihood of the people from the community showing up at the door of this particular dwelling is not very high. And so God arranges his own celebration and sends the heavenly minstrels to fill the night sky and to sing the songs of celebration at the birth of this child. And if we might think reverently and correctly about the scene in heaven, the Father dispatches the angelic host at a precise moment in time, saying to them, Now, I want you to go to the fields around Bethlehem. I want you to greet this particular group of shepherds, and I want you to magnify and glorify my Son who has now been born. It's a quite remarkable thought that the covenant of redemption into which the Father and the Son and the Spirit had entered in all of eternity now comes to birth in the experience of the incarnation, and the Father is still judicially involved in it all and dispatching these angels at his behest. They come to these shepherds not, you will note, when they were involved in peculiar acts of devotion, but when they were simply going through the routine of their lives.
We don't want to pause there unduly, except for a moment to note what I'm saying. That God came to them not because they were particularly pious—they weren't. Not because they were uniquely religious—they were not. Not because somehow they had a standing and a status amongst others in their day—they didn't.
Indeed, in one sense, they had nothing going for them at all—these fellows on the night shift, on the Judean hillside. And God comes not to reward their devotion but to meet them in their place of business. Some would say that that is true in relationship to their attendance at worship. They were coming to worship, and they were not particularly devoted.
Indeed, if anyone could have seen their heart seen into our lives, they would have known that we weren't particularly interested in it at all. We stood when we were asked, we sat when we were told, we sang when we were supposed to. We did our best to get into it, but really, we were far away from everything, and then God came and pared back our hearts and spoke into our souls.
God does that. And in the experience of the birth, followed by the announcement, we then said we would deal with the reaction. And the reaction to the birth and the announcement we are given is on the part of two groups and one individual. One group are the shepherds, the other group is those whom the shepherd's told, and the individual, of course, is Mary. Let me say a word about Mary. I'm not going to say much about those whom the shepherd's told.
I spend most of my time on the shepherd's, and even then it will not be a long time. A word about Mary. Verse 19, Mary treasured up all these things, and she pondered them in her heart. I really like Mary, don't you?
The more I've been studying Luke's Gospel, the more I'm looking forward to meeting Mary. This is one remarkable woman. Think of the experience that she had. Think of the drama that entered her life with the appearance of the angel, and the stirrings within her womb, and the experiences of motherhood with yet ever having had the physical encounter with a man. She is in one sense very ordinary, and in the other breath incredibly extraordinary. She is undemonstrative in all that we see of her, and yet she is uniquely sensitive. Her circumstances must surely have been the butt of cruel jokes.
She must have lived, at least through some of these months, in Nazareth with snide remarks, aware in the marketplace of whispered allegations, noticing the furtive glances of people as they look down at the ground rather than catch her gaze. And somewhere in all of that she draws deeply upon God. She renews her strength.
She is able to mount up with wings like an eagle. She is able to run and not grow weary. And in the experience of the prophets, she is able to walk and not be faint.
Her personality, as we are able to deduce it from the text of Scripture, would at least be characterized by these things. She is calm. She's deep. She is spiritually receptive.
She's strong, steady, persevering, tender. And in my mind's eye, I can see her smile, just a quizzical smile, feeling so alone, feeling so misunderstood, feeling so overwhelmed and so bewildered, not simply with the physicality of it all but with the drama that surrounds it, and then to be on the receiving end of the visit from these dusty-footed shepherds with their gnarled faces and sunburnt skin, who tell her that they are down here in Bethlehem because they were going about the routine of their lives. And an angel came, and she smiled ever so slightly to herself. She said, The angel's back. And they said, And there was an angel choir that gathered, and they sang of this Son of yours.
And in her yearbook for her senior quote, she chose, I'd like to ponder that, if I may. Well, that's merry. What about the reaction of the shepherds?
Let me give you just four words. First of all, you'll notice their decision in verse 15. Now, it was when the angels had left them that they made the decision, because clearly nobody was saying much or going anywhere while this particular choir was singing. And then their decision halfway through the verse, Let's go, they said, to Bethlehem. Let's go to Bethlehem. If someone had said, Let's go, I doubt anybody would have said, Where?
There wasn't a question. We're on our way to Bethlehem. Why are we going? Well, let's go and see this thing that has happened. It's an interesting phrase, that, this thing that has happened.
Thing and things comes up quite a lot in Luke's Gospel. Now, if there was any one of them that was at all disinterested, he'd say, Why would we leave our responsibility to go see a baby? Have you never seen a baby before? After all, we're producing lambs left, right, and center here. It's not a lot different, the cynic might have said, the skeptic. There's no point in buzzing off just for that. I mean, goodness gracious, I've seen plenty of babies in my time.
I don't see why we should go. Leave the sheep to see a baby? Now, you see, the key is in the final phrase of the verse 15. Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has told us about. Which the Lord has told us about.
You see, verses 6 and 7, in all of their pristine simplicity, would mean very little to anyone, including the shepherds, minus the word of explanation, which follows in the word of the angel. And so they followed through on their decision. And verse 16 tells us that they hurried off, and they found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger. So we go from decision to discovery. Their discovery is that things are just as they were told they were going to be.
It is this, more than anything else, which convinces them they're on track. The sign was told them, This will be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
So there were a couple of distinguishing things. It wasn't simply that they were going into Bethlehem looking simply for a baby. There probably were a number of babies around at that time in Bethlehem, and they would need to narrow their search somewhere. And we presumably think of them not going directly to the place. There is no indication that they were given the details as to street number and so on.
They were told this happened in Bethlehem, and so they would go. They said, We're looking for a baby. And then the person would come to the door and say, Do you think this is it?
No, that couldn't possibly be it. Why not? Well, you've got it in that thing there. This baby we're looking for is not going to have one of any nice clothes on like that. We're looking for one that's wrapped in cloths. Oh, well, this one was wrapped in cloths earlier.
Yeah, but that can't be the one. Thank you. See you around. And off down the road they go. We're looking for babies wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Anyone around here got a baby in a manger, and finally they come, and there it is, exactly as they had been told.
What a staggering contrast, huh? Between the angelic chorus and the manger scene. I don't mean to play with the text, but I can only imagine that there is at least one or two of these shepherds who are not as into it as some of the rest, and the cynical ones on the end are going, That was a pretty big buildup for this, wasn't it? They come walking in, and they look, and what do they have? They have a baby, wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger.
No one said, Hey, good work, George. Thanks for bringing me down. This is a drama in itself. Now, were they simply showing up at the manger, looking and going, That sure is a baby?
No. Because the significance was not in the baby in terms of its physicality, but it was in the facts that had been given them concerning this baby. Verse 17 takes us from discovery to declaration. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.
You'll notice that. There is a whole sermon here, which we will leave for now. When they had seen him, they spread the word. Now, without doubt, there were conversations between these shepherds and Mary and Joseph.
They must have filled in the blanks for each other. They would have told Mary and Joseph what had been going on in the fields. Joseph would have told the shepherds in turn the word of the angel to him all these months ago.
Mary would have said—and this has been my experience as well—she may have filled in with a little about Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist. And then they began to spread the word. And you will notice that all who heard were amazed, verse 18. They were all amazed at what the shepherds said to them. This word, amazed, is a recurring word in Luke.
He likes it. You'll find it again in verse 18, verse 33, verse 47. You'll find it in verse 22 of chapter 4, and you'll find it a whole host of other places. Well, why were they so amazed? What was so unusual? Because they told the word, spread the word concerning—now, notice the phrase again—"what had been told them about this child, and all who heard that were amazed." Now, you have to backtrack through the text and say, well, then, what had been told them about the child? And that's where you get back to verses 10 and 11, and you're back with good news and great joy and Savior and Christ and Lord. So they were not describing the amazing characteristics of the child. They were describing the child within the context of the amazing declaration of the angels.
Now, isn't that what the prophet Isaiah does in Isaiah 53 as he predicts the coming of Christ? And he says of him, halfway through verse 2, He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, Nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. So the amazement is not in his physicality, and yet still in our endeavors to make much of Christ, what do we do? We make much of the physicality and the personality and the capacity of those who speak for a Christ who had nothing majestic or beauteous about him that would immediately attract people to him.
Come and hear our terrific speaker on Tuesday. He is very clever, and he is very tall, and he is very handsome, and he is very winsome. Oh, I'm sure you will be attracted to him. And perhaps if we can attract you to him, we will be able to attract you to him who had nothing to attract us to him at all. Does that not strike you as being a little faulty?
Of course it is. And so we have created a cult whereby we attract people to people and fail to attach people to Christ. I say to you again, the angel came not to the halls of academia, not to the royal palace, not to the high-ranking officials of the land, but to a peasant girl, a carpenter man, and a bunch of dirty shepherds.
That's their declaration. And finally, notice their devotion. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, notice again, which were just as they had been told. Irrespective of the reaction of people to their witness, they would now be employed in worship, back to their flocks, with deep new emotions. Heaven above is softer blue, and earth around is sweeter green, and something lives in every hue that Christless eyes have never seen, and birds with gladder songs overflow, and earth with deeper beauty shine as a result of a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.
And if redemption does not affect the way a man treats his dog or his lambs or his kids or his colleagues, his redemption is a fiction. You see, we ought not to think of the shepherds now when we think in terms of worship, saying to ourselves… And every so often they were putting the sheep in a pen, and they were saying, Now let's have a worship time together. And so they all got together and held hands and said, All heaven declares the glory of the… They may well have done that, but that's not the totality of worship, is it?
That's a privilege that is given to us when we gather together. But all of our days and all of our times and all of our lives and all of our encounters are to be worship. When you think of it in terms of prayer, the same is true. Have you made the amazing discovery that prayer is not somehow or another putting certain sentences together with your eyes closed at a certain time in the day for a remotely few number of minutes?
Have you encountered that? It's such a liberation when we understand that as Christians we're indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is God and is naturally in touch both with the Father and with the Son. And therefore, the Holy Spirit lives in my life, and He walks with me, and He talks with me. And every morning when I awake, I know that He's there, and I believe that He's there.
And while I may go to a special place for a special time and read a special book, whether I do or whether I don't, whether I do that and something or not that and something, He is with me all the time and all my days. The shepherds understood that, and it changed them. We have a story to tell to the nations that will turn their hearts to the right—a story of peace and gladness, a story of love and light. For the darkness shall turn to the dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright. And Christ's great kingdom shall come on earth, a kingdom of love and light. God meets with us in the routine encounters that make up our daily lives, and in the process, He profoundly changes us.
We're listening to Alistair Begg on Truth for Life. This extraordinary story of the Lord Jesus' birth, along with His life, His death, His resurrection, and His ascension—that's the story we love telling here at Truth for Life. The Savior has entered the world by God's grace, and it is good news of great joy for all people. You are hearing today's message, along with hundreds of thousands of others all around the world who are learning with you because of the prayers and the giving that comes from your fellow listeners. Truth for Life is 100% listener-funded, and Alistair is here to share his thoughts on partnership with this ministry in the Gospel.
Yes, thanks, Bob. You know, when we study the Bible, there's a direct correlation between grace, gratitude, and giving. The grace of the Lord Jesus stirs our hearts, makes us thankful, and out of a thankful heart, the grace of giving comes. I mention that because if you haven't considered giving to the cause of the Gospel through Truth for Life, we would really appreciate your partnership, particularly at this time of year. The reason being that your support provides us with the resources needed to enter 2023 with a great sense of prayerful expectation. Bob will tell you how to get in touch.
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I'm Bob Lapine. When an old man in the temple named Simeon identified the infant Jesus as the people's long-awaited savior, not everybody jumped on board. And of course, many still reject him today. Join us tomorrow to hear why. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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