Luke 2:8&9 “And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”
1. IT WAS TO SHEPHERDS THAT THE NEWS OF THE INCARNATE GOD FIRST CAME.
Today, with the state of sheep farming in Wales, shepherds are increasingly rare. If I should meet a man on the train out of Aberystwyth and it turned out that he was a shepherd then I would feel both respect and envy for him. What a demanding and remarkable job that is. It seemed to us preachers what an advantage the late Douglas MacMillan, that mighty Scottish preacher had, in that he had been a shepherd. We Bible readers bring that 21st century admiration for shepherds into this chapter with us. There have been those who have fostered such an attitude; they have represented these shepherds in the fields near the stable where the Lord Jesus was born with some kind of rustic nobility, an ideal existence of primitive rural simplicity, an echo of distant Eden, far from dark Satanic mills. Some of the greatest artists the world has ever seen – painters like Constable and Reubens – have portrayed beautiful scenes of the Christ child surrounded by shepherds, men of intellect. Again, there have been preachers who have suggested that the reason for the appearance of the shepherds here at the beginning of this gospel was for Luke to plant within us the thought that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was born in the stable in Bethlehem surrounded by the shepherds’ fields. Yet others have pointed out that Bethlehem was the place of David’s lineage, and when we first meet David in the Bible he is a shepherd looking after the sheep of his father Jesse, courageously driving off the bear and the lion who would destroy them.
Of course, the shepherds pictured on Christmas cards all look like Charlton Heston with wide-eyed, cute shepherd boys in tow, but I have to tell you that shepherds in the first century were not at all as they have been described, not like Douglas MacMillan nor like a Hollywood film star. We need to go back a little into Scripture and dig for a moment or two to the time when Israel first migrated to Egypt, back in the days of Joseph and Jacob and his sons, all of whom were shepherds. Joseph had been abducted and sold while searching for his brothers who were tending their sheep. Those shepherd brothers were a merciless bunch of men. The children of Jacob were a nomadic people, but the Egyptians weren’t. They were settled agriculturalists, and when the families of Jacob entered the land of Goshen they presented a foreign lifestyle to the Egyptians. There was a culture clash between the local people and these immigrants who lived every day with animals carrying about with them in their clothes the stink of the sheep. In the clean-shaven courtrooms of Egypt, shepherds with their straggly beards and odours stood out. Goshen wasn’t all that near the population centre of Egypt and the Egyptians were quite glad of that fact. There is a very pointed observation in the last verses at the end of chapter forty-six of Genesis. Joseph is rehearsing with his brothers what they are to say to the Pharaoh when Joseph introduces them to him; “When Pharaoh calls you in and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you should answer, ‘Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.’ Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians.” Joseph warns his brothers that they are not going to merge naturally with the irrigation farmers of the Nile delta.
So shepherds weren’t high up on the social scale in Egypt, and that reputation clung to them for century after century, and not just in Egypt but in Jerusalem. Shepherds were not to be trusted. They were often the victims of some fairly cruel stereotypes – like blondes today. People would comment to one another if the sheep being herded along the side of the road really belonged to those shepherds’, or whether some of them had been ‘nicked’ by them in the middle of the night. It was surely difficult to be absolutely certain whose sheep they were. In a Jewish book called the Mishna, familiar in the first century and so at the time of Mary and Joseph, buying from shepherds food and clothing was forbidden because they were probably stolen goods. By Jesus’ time they were held in such low esteem that they weren’t allowed to give court testimony in judicial or civil cases, because they were judged to be utterly untrustworthy men. Shepherds were despised; they were considered ‘unclean,’ and so they were banned from entering various homes; they couldn’t enter the courts of the temple in Jerusalem because they weren’t ceremonially ‘clean’ men.
I suppose that an analogy I can make to the name first century shepherds had to some group today is the unsavoury reputation those men have who work on the traveling fairs, on the dodgem cars, rocket rides and ghost trains that move around the country from town to town. They are hardly considered paragons of virtue. That too might be a bit unfair – just like the bad reputation every single shepherd carried 2000 years ago, but there was a truth in it. Certainly they were about as low on the social scale as it was possible to get. There weren’t many shepherds who were members of the equivalent of Alfred Place Baptist Church in the first century.
Let me ask you this question; when God addressed all the angels the day after his Son had been born did he say to the archangel, “Now go and tell people in the world that my blessed and eternal Son, the Lord of glory has been become incarnate as the Saviour” and did he leave it up to Gabriel to come to the decision where he would go and whom he would tell? Then as Gabriel thought of the wonder and marvel of it all, did he ponder concerning the first to whom he would break the news like this, “I’ll first of all go to the high priest in Jerusalem”? – in some ways the equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury of his day. That would be a very good choice, would it? Or perhaps Gabriel might decide to go to the scribes in Jerusalem, the teachers – or, if you like, the preachers who were full of learning and wisdom? Perhaps you’d have gone to them. Or perhaps he’d have gone to the Sanhedrin, the seventy elders who ruled the theocratic state of Israel, now in tension with the occupying force of the Roman Empire. Or perhaps he’d have gone to the Pharisees, the strictest Jewish interpreters of all legal aspects with regard to Judaism, and who were constantly talking about and looking for the Messiah. Least of all, left to himself would Gabriel have thought, “I’ll go to a group of shepherds on a Judean hill.” And very least of all would all the host of heaven cry, “Us too! We’re all coming to rejoice with you all that our Lord has been born. We are all going to proclaim our joy before the . . . shepherds?” Left to themselves they’d choose to sing before a discerning audience full of the mighty and good and great of the world on such an auspicious occasion.
Am I making myself clear? Gabriel would never have chosen to go by night with this wonderful news to a dark hillside, to shepherds fighting sleep as they kept watch over their flocks. Gabriel needed to be told by Jehovah Almighty to speak to them, and so did all of the angels when God said, “Now all of you go! Worship me as you surround some shepherds on the hill outside Bethlehem.” The first people who heard the message of the birth of God’s Son, the Saviour, the Messiah, were the most despised people in that society. Isn’t that amazing? Born in a cave, and shepherds, of all people, the first to know who the baby was.
Now as you think about that for a minute or two you may begin to see that this decision of God to preach to shepherds is a cameo portrait of the very gospel itself, isn’t it? Hadn’t Mary herself already seen that God was working in this way? She had praised God in The Magnificat responding to Gabriel’s announcement of her own pregnancy: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.” Again, do you remember how Paul says as he writes to Corinthian Christians (with their tendency to self-congratulation at their abundant gifts) that God doesn’t actually call to himself many people who are mighty or many who are noble, but that he tends to call things that are not – nonentities, men and women who are regarded as the off-scouring of the world in order that all the praise, glory and honour for the blessing that comes to them and through them should be given to God alone. If God hadn’t decided to give it to them they wouldn’t have had it. I am saying that there is a reminder of gospel grace in the very fact that shepherds – of all men – heard the word of the incarnate Jesus on the hillsides of Bethlehem. It was for the very worst sinners that the good Shepherd came seeking and saving. Not the righteous.
I am saying that in the choice of the ones favoured to be first to hear the gospel God is showing us his amazing grace. Luke chapter two is a portent of things to come. The righteous people of Aberystwyth don’t think they have any need of a Saviour. This terrible self-righteousness and self-confidence blinds them to the good news of a Saviour born, because they don’t relish this particular message; “ . . . but we don’t need a Saviour.” But God in his grace and mercy came at the very beginning to a group of worthless men in the eyes of the world, and to them he first announced the fact, “My Son has arrived.” It underlines how our God is one who reaches out to the most trashy and despised people. His mercy is so great. And if we know today that we’ve been redeemed by that mercy, it speaks volumes about our own self-discovery. We’ve looked into our own hearts and we’ve seen something ugly there, and we’ve realized that we are sinners, and the conviction has really got under our skins. We stood in need of grace; God alone could give us that grace. We have discovered that, and what is more it has changed our whole view of the people around us. There is within us a new spirit of compassion and a longing for the people who are around us to know the One who is our Saviour. Those who know God’s grace show God’s grace to those who need God’s grace. So God works in the recipients of his grace a motivational energy to reach out to sinners. ‘God saves sinners’ is a wonderful summarization of the truth of God’s gracious gospel, and it’s illustrated even in God’s announcement to these shepherds in the hillsides. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”
2. IT WAS ANGELS WHO BROUGHT TO THE SHEPHERDS THE NEWS OF THE INCARNATE GOD.
It was night time and the shepherds were keeping an eye on their sheep mainly to protect them from being stolen by other shepherds; maybe it was lambing time and the new born in particular would need to be guarded from foxes and mountain lions. All is peaceful; there’s the bleating of a lamb or two. It’s a typical winter night and today no one is sure of the actual date, maybe it was in January.
These men had done this throughout their lives, and there was nothing whatsoever significant about this night. No one said, “There’s something in the air.” No one had goose pimples, and then, utterly out of the blue, an angel appeared to them. It was as staggering to them as though at this moment an angel should appear here. He stood before them; he was not hovering in mid air, and initially it was just that one particular angel. Soon he was joined by an innumerable company of angels all standing on the grass in the fields amidst the sheep and the shepherds, along the paths, on the little walls, everywhere, hundreds of thousands of them stretching out in every direction, the hills were carpeted with angels. God first sent one, and then when that angel had addressed the shepherds God told the heavenly hosts, “Now you may all join Gabriel there.” Remember Jesus saying that he could call for twelve legions of angels to deliver him. A legion numbered between 3,000 and 6,000 men. The book of Revelation speaks of their numbers in terms of ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands.
So one angel appeared initially to confront all the shepherds, and then he spoke to them – what must it be like to hear the tongues of angels? We don’t think about angels very much; some in the professing church might be a little embarrassed by them, but angels remind us that the worldview of the Bible is utterly different from the worldview of the culture in which we live. The world view of our neighbours and friends is one which believes it was just an incredible chance that the universe was made, that Jesus comes from an amoeba like the rest of us, that there are no ultimate standards of right and wrong, that everyone has to work out for themselves how to behave, and what may be right for one is wrong for another. Our friends believe in Saturday night lotteries, in horoscopes, in never walking under ladders, and in touching wood when they’ve said something good, in aliens from outer space who built the pyramids, and in children turning into angels should they die.
The biblical world view is very different, that this is a world created by God alone, a fallen world, men and women of this world have been given the ten commandments by which to live, a world which is going to be judged, a world visited by the Son of God who by his life and death has taken away the sin of the world, a world in which the gospel is preached and men and women are urged to repent and believe. This world is one to which God is constantly sending his messengers, and very infrequently angels have taken on physical form. Men have bumped into an angel not realizing that that is what this person was. You frequently hear the saying that no one is ever more than ten metres from a rat; the Christian will remember that he is never more than ten metres from the presence of an angel. This morning as we worship God we are being joined (as we are at every service) by glorious angels praising our Lord’s name. They love to attend godly services of Christian worship, but they will never draw sinners’ attention away from Christ to themselves. They would die rather than do that. They are fascinated by the redemptive purposes of God. The gospel in all of its ramifications is something which the angels simply glory in. They sing their praise at the sheer wonder, at the sheer glory, at the sheer mystery, at the sheer incomprehensibility of the fact that their Lord was sent by his Father to the world for the redemption of sinners, that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day. What joy the gospel gives them. How they delight to hear preaching that magnifies their Lord.
The first time I ever heard John Murray preach was in Seminary Chapel mid-morning service in Philadelphia in 1961 and his text was Psalm 91:11&12 “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” It was the first time I had heard a sermon on angels, and this was long before the trickle of fanciful books on the subject entered the evangelical church and opened it to angelolatry. During the sermon Mr. Murray had said “You were driving along in the car and then lost control of it, and a terrible crash seemed certain, but amazingly nothing awry happened. There wasn’t even a scratch on the car. What happened? God sent his angel to guard you on the way.” I remember the sermon today almost as well as I did then.
The Bible describes the occasional appearances and activities of angels. Angels are rational, created, spiritual beings that may briefly appear in the form of flesh and blood at certain points in redemptive history. At significant moments in the history of redemption, angels appeared. At creation they were there protecting the route back to the tree of life, guardians of the glory of God. At the time of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, when there was little Scripture there was much angelic activity. At the time of the Exodus, Paul mentions to the Galatians that Moses gave the law by the hand of a mediator through angels. In the stories of Elijah and Elisha there were angels. Isaiah sees them in the temple when he is commissioned by God. In Babylon Daniel learns of the activities of angels. Of course, at the birth of Jesus and on those notable occasions in his life – the temptations, the transfiguration, in Gethsemane and at the resurrection – there were angels ministering to him. During the apostolic period there are the activities of angels – Peter was released from prison by angels.
So the angel of the Lord appeared to these shepherds, and we are told that the glory of the Lord shone around them. It is reminding us that this angel Gabriel had, from the moment of his creation, been in God’s presence. Remember how he addressed Zechariah in the earlier chapter, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news” (Lk. 1:19). I am saying that Gabriel would have been somewhat like Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai, reflecting the glory of God. This angel of the Lord stepped out of the presence of Jehovah into their presence without changing. He appeared to the shepherds in some tangible form, and he had brought with him the glory of heaven – he did not lay it aside – and that glory lit up the fields, the sheep and these men. It illuminated the whole landscape, the glory that came from Almighty God shone around these shepherds as they stood there petrified under the stars in the Judean hills. Moses had once asked to see the full glory of God, but he could never have survived a full display of the glory of God; and, in that anthropomorphic language of Exodus 33, it was not the face of God that Moses sees but the back of God. No man can see God and live.
Now, it’s deeply significant that in the history of redemption there were occasions when God’s presence was manifest in the tent of meeting and the holy of holies and later in the temple in Jerusalem, but in Ezekiel in chapters eight, nine and ten, the prophet Ezekiel describes a grim scene. After the Babylonian invasion, because of the sinfulness and waywardness of Israel, the glory of God had actually departs and leaves the sanctuary, carried on a great chariot, surrounded by Cherubim, it was taken away from the temple precincts and the holy of holies. Jehovah simply walked out on the temple and left it glory-less. Then with the coming of Jehovah Jesus, he entered the temple again at the beginning and the end of his ministries. It had become a den of thieves, needing to be cleaned up and he purified it.
Here in Luke two we read of the glory of God once again shining, not far from Jerusalem, but not in the temple, and not to the priests in the temple. It is shining to shepherds. God is again showing his favour to his ancient people, even to the most unworthy amongst them, to mere shepherds. His word that he will send the Seed of the woman to crush the head of the serpent is being fulfilled in their lifetimes. God’s favour and the return of God’s blessing is now being experienced, and the angel speaks of this reality to these men.
You ask what application all this has to you as this week you return to school or are involved in your children getting back into the autumn routine, or that you will be at work tomorrow, or looking for work. What possible help can my speaking to you about angels be?
i] First of all, that angels, who they are and what they do, remind us of the greatness of our salvation. Angels, we are told, long to look into the things that are the stuff of our worship every Sunday. They hold their breath in awe as they hear what you hear, gasping at what God has done in sending his Son to die on behalf of all his people. Angels themselves cannot experience this, but they are fascinated by what their great Lord has done. Shouldn’t that be a warning to us to fear a barren familiarity with sacred things? We need to be more taken up with the great achievements of our Lord who once accomplished redemption and is now applying redemption to favoured sinners at such cost. Like these angels we should at times hold our breath at the wonders of what God has done for us.
ii] Again, these angels spur us on to respond to the sermons and prayers and hymns of our stated services and worship God more zealously. Baxter cries out, “Angels help us to adore Him. Ye behold Him face to face.” He felt a measure of coldness and formalism was creeping into this worship and when he had cried to the Spirit of God to help him he knew that angels surrounded him in his prayers and praises and he cried to them, “Help me!” Let’s learn from the ministry of angels in their total absorption with our glorious Lord. Let’s be like this invisible host who are with us every Sunday. May God provoke us to worship him with more of our hearts than we do.
iii] Again, let’s never forget the help angels are to the people of God. “They are ministering spirits sent forth to serve those who inherit salvation” (Hebs. 1:14). One of the means God uses to preserve us in this life and to keep us from harm and danger is the ministry of these angels, whom he has created and redeemed. He guards in all our ways, to fight against Satan, and he protects us and keeps us for glory by the work of angels. You and I might occasionally have had by faith a glimpse like that Gehazi had of the chariots of fire that surrounded him and his master, protecting them from their enemies. The Lord of hosts is with us. That is the application of these things to us all; think on these angels and how wonderful and mysterious and full of glory is the world to come which is full of angels.
3. THE APPEARANCE OF THE ANGELS TERRIFIED THE SHEPHERDS.
“Mighty dread had seized their troubled minds,” the hymnist says. In the Greek it is, “they feared with great fear.” The angel who appeared to them was not appearing incognito as those angels did who appeared to Abraham and Lot. Gabriel brought the glory of God from heaven with him. The holy angel bright plus the glory of heaven suddenly illuminating the whole night scared them stiff. They thought it was the end of the world and they were facing death. “They were terrified” (v.9).
While this fear is not typical of any of the tall tales in evangelical folklore of the last twenty years of hitch-hiking angels and the like this terror is the invariable response in Scripture of meeting with God’s messengers. When God sends his messengers directly from his presence the people they confront never fall over backwards and laugh hysterically or start crowing like cockerels. Their natural response is reverence and godly fear. The reason for the fear of sinners at the presence of a messenger of God is not simply the suddenness of it all but because of the great numinous awe and transcendent holiness and hatred of sin that nearness to God always displays. Men feel their own defilement as never before.
Think of all those occasions of God meeting with sinners. He speaks to Hagar in the wilderness, and what’s the first thing that the angel of the Lord has to say, in Genesis 21:17 to Hagar? “Do not fear.” When Zacharias is in the temple serving the Lord, and the angel comes to him to announce to him that his prayers have been answered, that he is going to have a son, John, who is going to be the forerunner of the Messiah; what is the first thing that the angel has to tell Zacharias? “Do not be afraid.” When the angel comes to Mary, it’s recorded for us in Luke 1:30, what is the first thing that he has to say to her before he announces to her the way that she is going to be used as an instrument in the providence and in the mercy of God to bring the Savior into the world? “Do not be afraid, Mary.” When God goes to speak to Joseph, who has already decided to quietly divorce his wife, because she’s clearly been unfaithful to him; she has broken the betrothal vows even before their marriage has been consummated; she has proven herself to be unworthy of a lifetime covenant commitment. God in his mercy sends his angel to Joseph, and what does he say? “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid.” When the Lord speaks to the shepherds, here in Luke 2:10, his first words are, “Do not be afraid.” In Matthew 28:5, when the angel speaks to the women at the tomb, his first words are “Do not be afraid.” All these people experienced the nearness of the living God and they were frightened. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. How are we to approach God? “With reverence and godly fear” because of the greatness of God, and because of the sinfulness of us his people.
When sinners encounter God, their natural response is to tremble. That’s one way that you can tell the voice of a false prophet when he tells you that coming into the presence of God is a comfy thing, a singularly delightful experience, an occasion that makes the heart light. In the Bible, coming into the presence of God is an awesome thing. It gives you goose flesh to meet the living God in power.
4. THROUGH HIS MESSENGERS GOD BRINGS THE SAME GOSPEL TO US TODAY.
Some of you sigh for a mighty angel to appear here today. What if he came and said to you exactly what I have been saying to you this morning and all the past mornings. What if one of the many angels with us today, nodding their heads at everything which I his messenger have been saying to you, should now make himself known to you and underline to you precisely my words to you, manifesting himself to you as your eyes popped out and saying to you, “Hear these words!” Would it make any difference to you? You’ve not received the truth from me, what makes you think that you would believe it if an angel appeared and spoke the same words to you? Are they true? If they are then why don’t you believe them? If they are not true then why bother to come here again?
Suppose that every year God sent an angel and he appeared in New York at the plaza of the United Nations building and he declares his annual message that Jesus is Saviour, Messiah, and Lord. It is shown on TV all over the world and there is a huge crowd and wonderful applause as he finishes. People fight for a ticket to be there, especially to get on the platform and have their photograph taken standing next to him. So there would be nobody in the world who doubted what happened in Bethlehem so long ago. Nobody questions who Jesus is, and as the years pass, it’s not a surprise when the angel appears. At last many people forget to switch on their TV sets to watch him; they are too tired after lunch or they’ve decided to go out for a walk. “The same old message as last year . . . ‘tell me the old old story’.” They even forget to make a DVD of the angel and they just glance at the report of his speech on page seven of the paper the next day. Anyone can get the composite album of 50 years of the angel’s appearances. It’s not selling now as well as it used to sell . . .
Then, one day, as the angel was making his usual announcement, a child blurts out one of those embarrassing questions for which kids are famous: “So what?” At first, everyone is aghast at such a question. Then it begins to sink in. So what? Even if angels come, even if everything they say is true, so what? What difference does it make? As long as we’re preoccupied with the angel, as long as we’re looking for a supernatural display of divine power, we’re going to miss the impact of the incarnation. The appearance of Christ isn’t first of all about angels in the sky; it’s about a baby in a manger. It’s not about God dazzling us with his splendour; it’s about God the Son laying aside his splendour to become a humble infant.
Jesus was born bloody and wriggling in a wooden manger, and he died bloody and writhing on a wooden cross. In between he grew up in the family of a lowly woodworker. He befriended shame-filled prostitutes and respectable teachers alike. He rubbed shoulders with lowly fishermen and lofty synagogue rulers. He showed his love to helpless widows and powerful army officers. He knew hunger as well as feasting, laughter as well as grief. He knew loneliness and betrayal and rejection and pain. He became one of us in every way, he made our situation his own, and ultimately he took the sins of a broken world upon his shoulders and suffered hell on our behalf as he hung on the cross.
That’s why the coming of Jesus matters. That’s why the Son of God became one of us. He plunged all the way down to the depths of our misery and bound himself to humanity in every way. Then he rose back out of the depths, lifting humanity up with him into the life of God. In Jesus, God understands people fully, and he saves them completely. The Lord Jesus came to enter our misery, to walk with us in the midst of it, and ultimately to lift us out of it. What you and I need, then, isn’t a sentimental break from reality, and it’s not a dazzling angel to remove our doubts. We need God with us. We need God to convince us that he loved us so much he became one of us. We need him to convince us of our sin and to help us receive the salvation that only the God/man, Jesus Christ, can provide.
As David Geddes says. “In short, we don’t need an angel to change our minds; we need Christ to change our hearts. We need the Lord’s help to recognize our sin and helplessness, we need his help to look to Jesus as the only one who can rescue us, and we need the Lord’s Spirit to be at home in our hearts. If you still want a visible display of God’s power and glory, you’ll get your wish. The day is coming when you’ll see all the glory you can handle—and more. Jesus is coming again, this time not as a humble baby but as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. The glory of God will be blazing forth from him, and his angels will be with him. That sight of angels with Christ at their head will be more dazzling than anything the shepherds saw in the fields around Bethlehem. You will meet Jesus, and it will be astounding. But I know that Jesus has a reason for not coming back just yet. A lot of people aren’t ready to meet him, and Jesus is giving them time to repent and get ready for his coming. The glory of his face will be the supreme joy of all his people, but it will be the ultimate horror for those who never knew him.”
Before you meet Jesus as the Lord of glory, you first need to trust the baby in the manger, the friend of sinners, the reject on the cross. You need to accept the miracle of God’s self-humiliation, and all that he went through for us. Trust in Jesus Christ as the only one who can deliver you from your sins, save you from hell, and make you right with God. Welcome the Spirit of Jesus into your heart. Once you’ve accepted what Jesus did for you in his first coming, and once his Spirit comes into your heart, you’ll be ready to meet him when Christ comes again in glory.
2nd September 2007 GEOFF THOMAS