Luke 2:10-14 “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.’”
The people of the western world are still vaguely aware of the events of the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, that he was born in a stable, with shepherds and wise men coming to see him. The outline of the story is kept in the public consciousness through Christmas cards, carols and junior school plays, but what is absent from the public square is the meaning of what happened. There is no ‘exegesis’ – that is the technical term – no explanation, and no interpretation. What was there in the mere birth of a child in a stable with a group of shepherds coming along to see the family to suggest that something of extraordinary magnitude had taken place? Someone has said, “The birth of Jesus to Mary was not self-evident and self-interpreting. It was not obvious. In fact it took a word from heaven, a message which was a divine revelation to understand what had happened. We have to go back to the message of the angel to understand the birth. Without these messengers from God no one would have understood what was happening, not Joseph, not Mary, not Zacharias, not Elizabeth and not the shepherds. God has to speak for us to understand the incarnation.” So let us see how God’s messenger explained the good news that comes to those who understand Bethlehem.
Why do we go to church each Sunday? To hear good news; to keep hearing the most wonderful news that anyone could ever hear; to hear the best news that has fallen on the ears of men and women. At the heart of the Christian faith there lies not a set of principles, not a list of commandments and laws, or some kind of moral code, but at the very heart of the Christian faith is a message of what God has done, a positive affirmation, a statement of some life-transforming facts. What the angel first says is, “I have come to bring you some good news that someone has arrived in the world.” It is in the facticity of that birth of one particular baby boy that all the joy of this good news is concentrated.
Then Gabriel’s message develops so that we learn it is not Mr. Representative Person who has been born, and not Mr. Everyman who has taken his first breath. In other words the message is not a humanistic story that every birth of every child is wonderful and that for an existential moment the shepherds grasped that fact, and were moved by the marvel of a new born baby. No. This baby is special in a different sense from every baby being special to the families concerned. This is a unique child, and the words of the messenger of God which are so familiar to us are powerful because they concentrate on the extraordinary claim of the New Testament as to the identity of Mary’s boy-child. So let us look at the designation of the angel concerning this newborn babe. Let us see the great titles that the angel gives to him.
1. THERE IS GOOD NEWS THAT THE CHRIST HAS BEEN BORN.
In both the Greek translation of the Old Testament and in the Greek New Testament itself this word ‘Christ’ renders the original word ‘anointed one.’ In Hebrew it is the ‘Messiah.’ It refers to someone who is set apart and given a specific office. Jesus is the anointed Prophet sent into the world to bring God’s words to his creatures. He is the anointed King of the line of David, born in David’s town, who will crush the head of the serpent. He is the anointed Priest who will make atonement for our sin by his obedience to death, even the death of the cross. Here is the long promised Messiah. This very baby and no other baby, past, present or future, is the anointed one of God, the one the Old Testament has spoken of again and again, and he is here in Bethlehem, says the angel.
Now one intriguing thing about this title ‘Christ’ is that the Lord himself rarely applied it to himself. Not only that, but he seldom encouraged other men to apply it to him. As you read Luke’s gospel you will see the veil being taken from people’s eyes and they realize who this is who is dealing with them, but soon he is telling them that they are to keep their convictions to themselves. “See that you tell no one this,” he says. He even silences demons who have this conviction. There are sick people whom he has healed and he tells them not to publish abroad what they have experienced. He tells Jairus and his wife not to disclose what went on in their little girl’s room when he raised her from the dead. “We are not allowed to tell you yet what happened,” they must say to inquirers. Yet Jesus does go outside of Israel to Samaria and is peculiarly frank with one woman in Sychar. She said to him, “‘I know that Messiah . . . is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’ Then Jesus declared, ‘I who speak to you am he.’” (Jn. 4:26). He could afford to do that in distant Samaria but not in Israel until the last week with the raising of Lazarus. What is the reason for this?
He needed three years to instruct these twelve young men about the nature of his kingdom without being hunted and threatened with arrest. He needed that amount of time because they themselves shared the Jewish confusion concerning the whole idea of Messiahship. Theirs was an utterly calamitous attitude which assumed that the Messiah was a political figure who was to come and establish an economic, military and political power base in the eastern Mediterranean. In the public imagination their Messiah would teach the Romans a lesson for dealing with God’s chosen people as they had. Their Messiah would establish a great Jewish empire and those in the inner circle would have the chief places in his cabinet. This would be a hegemony of worldly grandeur, political might and economic riches. It would be established by the world’s methods – military muscle and diplomacy.
Our Lord wanted to disassociate himself absolutely from that. He was not that kind of Messiah. He has no worldly Kingdom, no economic power, no weaponry, no political privileges to grant to his supporters. This Messiah has none of that, in fact the whole concept was utterly abhorrent to him. He has a reserve, a reticence, and a low profile, and yet he does tell the woman at the well, “I that speak to you am the Messiah.” It was not that Jesus utterly rejected the Messianic idea and considered himself a simple teacher and healer. He acknowledged that he was the one and only Messiah; the angels and apostles call him this frequently, and yet it is an interpreted Messiahship. Jesus does not allow men and women to have made up their own ideas about what a Messiah is and to impose that on him. He gives them three features about this Christ:
i] Firstly, the messianic kingdom Jesus was setting up was very different from other kingdoms that they had been familiar with. He told them that his kingdom was not of this world at all. It wasn’t political; it didn’t have borders, immigration officials and customs officers. It was entirely and utterly a spiritual kingdom. It confers upon its inhabitants spiritual privileges exclusively. It doesn’t make them wealthy and powerful landlords. What it does is involve them in such privileges as these, a spiritual birth from above so that they are given the right to enter the kingdom; justification before God so that their sins are pardoned and they are declared righteous in Christ. They are adopted into the family of God as his sons and heirs. They are assured of God’s love. They are given peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase in grace, an imminent entry into Paradise when they die, and the hope of being raised from the dead at the end of the world system.
This stable-born Messiah is confronting all the expectations of his own day and he is telling them, “I cannot meet your longings for military and political expansion. I have only spiritual privileges.” That is what the church in any age says to the world. That is what Luther saw at the time of the Reformation when he was sick at heart and disgusted at what he met in the city of Rome and the power of the Papacy, that the professing church had wandered far from the New Testament and had lost the truth of Jesus the Messiah. We in the church today have no wealth, no social prestige, no place in the sun, no music programme, no techniques which will solve all the phobias and neuroses of men and women while leaving their hearts unregenerate and in a state of alienation from God. We can only offer to men and women Jesus Christ the Saviour, and if they don’t want him there is no alternative agenda. We can only offer the forgiveness of sins, the love of God, the indwelling power of God and the hope of everlasting life.
We say to the world, “Don’t come into the church on the basis of misunderstanding. You won’t find what you think you need here or in any gospel congregation. We have only every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ to offer you, and that is where we draw the line.” We have no right to turn the church into a social club or a singing society. We must not turn it into an organization for the preservation of a language and a culture. It must remain what the Christ made it, a spiritual kingdom where men receive glorious enduring spiritual blessings.
ii] Secondly, under Jesus’ Messiahship greatness is going to have a special meaning. There was an occasion when his disciples were arguing with one another as to who would be Number One in his kingdom. The mother of the sons of Zebedee asked him privately if they could have the top places and sit each side of him. Maybe John had ambitions about being Prime Minster, and James that he could become the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They had their own concepts of what greatness was, and Jesus has to tell them frequently that his kingdom is not like that. Under his Messiahship the greatest must be the servant of all. Greatness is displayed in kneeling down and washing and drying the feet of one’s fellow men. Time and again we have to call the Christian church back to that, because it tends too easily to ape the world’s own social structures, to establish corridors of power and prestige. It builds empires; it elevates men and erect pedestals on which it places them; it asks them to have larger than life personalities, to look like film stars, and dress in designer wear or sumptuous cloaks and put on headgear which is a virtual crown. It carries some around on a chair. We ask them to make pronouncements like kings, and speak infallibly like God. It encourages the quiver of excitement at seeing them emerge at the front of the assembled hosts. We forget that in the church there must be only the people of God; there is none who can say that it is below him to wash the feet of another. There is only the greatness that consecrates every talent, and every single aptitude and position to the well-being of the great Christian cause.
iii] Thirdly this Messiah is not going to spread his influence by the methods of the world. The Messiah’s reign is not going to grow by carnal methods. It will not be spread by a holy war, the use of the sword, the suicide bomber and the jihad. It is not going to multiply by diplomacy and economic strength. It will not be helped by marketing, and sound bites, and entertainment. The Lord refuses to stoop to such means to bring in his Messianic kingdom. The Christ came into the world of Jewish expectation and he dropped a bombshell. The Messiah must suffer! He will be delivered into the hands of men and who will be the ones killing him? The chief priest of Israel will murder the Messiah. The elders will agree with the plot; the scribes of the Sanhedrin will be fully paid-up members of the conspiracy, bribing the false accusers and getting the death sentence passed. The very leaders of Jewry will cause the Christ to be killed. That is the only way the Messiah’s kingdom will be established, by way of humiliation, and by sin-bearing, and by enduring the anathema.
So as we stand and hear the word of this messenger from heaven addressing the shepherds and telling them that the Messiah has been born, then let it be plain in our minds what is the underlying biblical idea of Messiahship. It is this, that here is a person who has come from God, who by his own suffering, his enduring of the anathema and death will establish his Messianic Kingdom. This is the most marvelous institution the world has ever seen. The people inside it are great because they are little people; they are self-effacing people; they have entered his kingdom by a work he has done in their lives so that they hang their heads and say, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” They are in the Kingdom as servants.
2. THERE IS GOOD NEWS THAT THE LORD HAS BEEN BORN.
This baby is, Christ the ‘Lord,’ and in the underlying Greek text it is the word kurios, and there is something staggering about the use of that word in the New Testament because it looks in two directions.
i] Firstly, ‘lord’ was a word used very commonly in the secular world of the day where there were lords many in the men of influence and power who held sway. It was applied to Caesar preeminently; the divine Caesar who was lord. Caesar’s power was absolute; his prerogatives were unchallengeable, his rights and entitlements were beyond question. Men had to bow their knees before him; they were expected to come to him with their eyes downcast; they had to make obeisance and worship him implicitly because Caesar was lord.
Very soon a day would come when that Roman power would say to those Christian believers, “Now you must confess Caesar as lord or else your lives will be forfeit.” Those Christans would have to say, “No, Caesar is not lord. Christ is Lord. Christ is Caesar’s Lord.” Christ had made him and held him in the hollow of his hand. One day that great Caesar would stand a puny prostate trembling human being, stripped of every vestige of his grandeur at the judgment seat of our Lord. There he would answer for all his atrocities, and the slaughter he wrought upon the people of God.
Today men have different designations and different lords. There are millions who say that Allah is lord, and Muhammed is the servant of the lord, and if you do not bow and acknowledge that fact then your life is forfeited, and multitudes have died because they can only confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the Lord of Muhammed, and before him every knee shall bow, and we remind ourselves once again of the tremendous emphasis that the New Testament places on the cosmic supremacy of Jesus Christ. There is a throne above Caesar’s throne. There is a throne above and beyond every throne. We remind ourselves that at the last it is he who has the whole world in his hands. The one empire, the great cosmic kingdom that shall endure for ever and ever, is his. He is the heir of God and heir of all things. He alone is such.
ii] Secondly, ‘lord’ was a word looking at the world of the Jews, and the Jews had their Lord and this word translated in the Hebrew Old Testament the references to Jehovah. It is the divine name, the name that was so holy that the Jews never even pronounced it. There was no Lord like the Jews’ Lord. They claimed, “The Lord our God is one Lord.” Caesar wasn’t the Jews’ Lord, and in 70 years’ time they would die in their thousands and see the city destroyed and their temple flattened as a consequence of their repudiation of Caesar’s claims. “Caesar is not our Lord. God is our Lord. God alone is our Lord,” they said.
However, what the Jews denied and overlooked was that their Lord had already come, because what do we have in the words of Gabriel sent from the presence of God? We have the ascription to Christ of the name that is above every name, the name that was exclusively God’s in the whole outlook of the Jews. The messenger from God is telling the shepherds that the one born in a stable in Bethlehem was none other than the God of Genesis chapter one, the God of the burning bush, the God of Mount Sinai. Christ is that Lord and he is there in a manger. Jesus is Lord. That phrase, “Jesus is Lord” is the earliest single-clause Christological confession of the early church.
You see the marvel of this? He is Caesar’s Lord, and he is the Jews’ Lord and yet he is the baby born in Bethlehem. You go and tell a Jew that the Lord is born . . . God has been born . . . and you would find utter and total repugnance and incomprehension. Yet our faith stands or falls with the truth of these words, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.” The Lord is manifestly seen and heard; Heaven’s beloved Lord is lying in a feeding trough; the Lord of men and angels is in a cave in Bethlehem.
How much comprehension and understanding could there have been, even in Mary herself? This was only the beginning of sorrows, this unlikely place for anyone to find Caesar’s Lord. It is a strange place for shepherds to stumble across God, but one day you’ll find him in a stranger place! You will find this Lord on a hill called Golgotha, near a rubbish dump, crucified between two criminals. What is it we are confessing when we say, “Jesus is Lord”? It is the incarnation of God and the humiliation of the Lord in a life that was to end in the anomaly of impenetrable darkness at noon and the dereliction of Calvary, with men mocking and chanting at the nailed Lord hour after hour, while others gambled, and others looking at his pain unmoved.
What is this baby to them? What is he to you? Who is he in yonder stall at whose feet the shepherds fall? Who is this child in the manger and infant of Mary? Is he to me, in the depths of my soul, my Lord? Do I fall down before him and say, “My Lord and my God?” Do I mean what I sing, “Lo within a manger lies he who built the starry skies”? Do you sing it because it is rich in its meaning that the Creator of all things took frail flesh and had nowhere to lay his head except a feed trough? Unto you is born such a Christ whom eye has not seen nor ear heard nor has mind of man conceived of. Here is Caesar’s Lord and the Jews’ Lord. You find Almighty God joined to a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, and if you think that that is passing strange and paradoxical then I tell you that one day that same person would hang on Golgotha crying in agony and loneliness, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
There is one who has been in our world who is greater than the world. The Creator of the world once lay in a manger while never ceasing to be the world’s Lord. He continued to be what he had always been but in addition to that he was now something more, a human being, an infant of days. He has become the incarnate God-man for us, and for our salvation and our deliverance.
3. THERE IS GOOD NEWS THAT THE SAVIOUR HAS BEEN BORN.
What does this word ‘Saviour’ mean? It basically means someone who delivers, a person who rescues from danger and brings into a state of safety and blessing. A lifeguard is a saviour; a helicopter pilot is a saviour; a member of a mountain rescue team is a saviour; a fireman is a saviour. Weren’t the shepherds longing for a political saviour who would get them out from Roman dominion?
But in the Old Testament the word ‘Saviour’ was a divine name; to save was a divine prerogative. In Isaiah God says to the world of men, “Look unto me and be saved, all the ends of the earth for I am God and there is none else.” He is the exclusive Saviour. Jonah cried, “Salvation is of the Lord.” Mary has said in the previous chapter, “My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” Creation is an exclusive divine work. Providence is a divine work. Resurrection is a divine work. Judgment is a divine work. Salvation is also an exclusive divine work. Futile is the salvation of a man. This is too divine for angels, too divine for men; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob cannot save; Peter and the apostles cannot save; God alone can save, and God has been pleased to put all salvation into the hands of his Son. There is no part of his salvation in the law; there is no part of it in human merit, reasoning, imagination or desire. There is no salvation in the bare ordinances of the church; it is not in having the Bible or merely in hearing it preached; it is not even in the Holy Spirit alone for he did not fulfil all righteousness for us and die to atone for our sins. Salvation is in Christ alone.
I ask you, ‘What is he a Saviour from?’ Jesus Christ is not God’s appointed deliverer from political oppression, though where he has influence he changes society for the better and democracy can do its work more justly. He is not God’s deliverer from economic oppression and poverty though many a man saved by Christ has been delivered from the poverty he was creating for himself by his wasting ways. I saw the answer to my question ‘What is he a Saviour from?’ carved on a grave in Sutherland in the north of Scotland last Saturday. The gravestone I was reading belonged to a great theologian, John Murray, and the words below his name were, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sin.” He alone saves from sin. If it is pardon for sin you need, then it is found in Christ. If it is deliverance from the vast debt of sin’s wages you need then it is found in Christ. If it is a perfect righteousness to offer to God that you need then it is found in Christ. If it is grace to mature, and transform the whole sinful nature then it is found in Christ, God’s gift of a Saviour who declares that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.
That was the angelic message. “A Saviour has been born to you.” This meant eyes to the blind. “A Saviour has been born to you.” This meant ears to the deaf. “A Saviour has been born to you.” This meant feet to the lame. “A Saviour has been born to you.” This meant cleansing for the leper. “A Saviour has been born to you.” This meant the forgiveness of sins and deliverance from the wrath to come and life everlasting. Such a Saviour is born to you. When baby is born he is born to his parents. He is theirs. When he is the firstborn son of the King then he is born a prince to his people and a future King to them. “A Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” To every single one of you a Saviour has been born. Christ in the flesh – for you to receive as your prophet and priest and king. Christ dead on the cross for your pardon. Christ taking the sting from death that there might be no sting for you. Christ teaching that you might not go on through life in your ignorance. Christ rising as the first fruits of all who sleep – and he’s for you today!
When the Jewish man slayer saw what he had done, accidentally killing his companion, and when he heard the shouts of rage of his family, and the baying for his blood in revenge, then what could he do? Where could he go? There was just one place; the city of refuge. He must flee to it and be saved. Unto you is a city of refuge and it is Christ the Lord. To him you must go immediately.
When the Jewish man was bitten by a fiery serpent and the paralysis from the poison began its deadly effects in him, the poisonous venom coursing through his veins what could he do? Who or what could save him? A voice cried out, “Look at the brazen serpent over there high on its pole.” He looked and as he looked and looked he was saved. Unto you is a brazen serpent lifted high and it is Christ the Lord. Look to him and be saved. All you sinners look to Christ, the one born to you, lived to you, died to you, rose to you, ascended to you, interceding to you, coming again to you. The Saviour named Jesus has been born for you to receive.
Alas, I have a great problem. What is it? What is the terrible problem I face as a Christian preacher? The problem is this, that I cannot find sinners. My commission is like my Master’s, not to go to the righteous but to sinners, yet I cannot find sinners. I have a great Physician who can heal men’s souls but I cannot find any sick souls to bring to him. There are rarely any sinners who come to Alfred Place Baptist Church (Independent), because I don’t come across any crying out, “Men and brethren what must we do?” There seem to be few unconverted sinners who frequent this building. What a strange congregation this is. It is full of respectable men and women, none of them guilty, none of them on the broad road to hell, although Jesus said many will find that road, none of them depraved in the whole of their natures. We cannot find a single one here. None here who has lost communion with God. None here under the wrath and curse of God. None here liable to the pains of the place of woe. But if I should find one person, one day, then I would say to him or her “I have a Saviour for you.” If I should find one sad individual whose life is not right with God, just one boy or girl, then I would say, “I know someone who can put you right with God.” If I should find someone who has lost the way then I would say to him, “I know someone who can set you on the right path to heaven.” If I should find someone who is saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” I would say to him that there is mercy in my Saviour for you too. Yes Jesus loves you; the Bible tells me so.
If I should find one soul, one single guilty soul who is on the way to a lost eternity, under God’s wrath and judgment and liable to perish then I would say to him, “A Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Is this to be another service in which I cannot find such a sinner? There are students here and some say that they are not Christians but will any say that they are sinners? There are young people here who will say that they are not Christians; will they acknowledge that they are sinners? There are middle aged people who turn up on a Sunday and they are attentive as far as things go but they stop short of confessing that they are sinners.
Sometimes I feel my whole calling is futile, and that all my labour is vain, absurd and ridiculous, because there is no place for me in a world without sinners. There is no place for a message like mine in a congregation without sinners. I often wish God would make some sinners, that he would show them what they are, that they may see their need. My own life cannot bear the scrutiny of the God who is light, whose wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. There is not a good word I can say about myself; I am so often ashamed of myself; I groan aloud so that my best friend asks if I am all right. Is there anyone here with a bruised conscience, a broken heart, some fear of God, who wants his soul restored? If there is just one such person here, then “a Saviour has been born to for you; he is Christ the Lord.”
But the sad thing is that we’re living in a town without sinners, a land without sinners, a world without sinners, because people don’t come to Christ. They know nothing of the melody of salvation. Ah, it’s a great thing to be a sinner because a man who knows he’s a sinner and looks to the Son of God causes joy in heaven. A righteous man does nothing for heaven, but a sinner can make God glad. It’s a great pity we couldn’t all be sinners. It’s a great shame that we couldn’t tell God that we were sinners. It is a great loss to a life that the person concerned doesn’t tell Jesus he needs him to be his Saviour. All I can say is that if somewhere in the anonymity and unknowness around us, somewhere out there, there is just one extraordinary and unusual person who says, “Alas, I am a sinner,” then I can say to you, “a Saviour has been born for you; he is Christ the Lord.” I would say that you are a very privileged and fortunate person if you are a sinner, because Christ is a Saviour of all of such who come to him, and if that one sinner happens to be you then you can come to him now, and take him now, and know something of the new melody of his salvation in your heart.
What may you sing? The song of all the host from heaven who joined the archangel; “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests’” Man’s chief end is to glorify God. How can you fulfil it? By first acknowledging that you are a sinner. In no way can your life be one of glory to God without that. Peace to you, all your life then follows. Hear these great words: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Roms. 5:1&2). There are men and women in this world on whom God’s favour rests. What blessedness is theirs! Heaven has begun on earth in them. Who are they, those on whom his favour rests? Those who have peace now, peace on earth, not “R.I.P,” not resting in peace after death at all but peace now? They are those alone who have seen their sin and seen Christ as the Saviour and cried mightily to him to save them. Cry to Jesus Christ now that he will show you your sin and show you the Saviour, and do not stop crying until he has answered your prayers.
16th September 2007 GEOFF THOMAS