By Andrew E. Courtis
Luke begins this passage by describing the setting and the scene of our Lord’s birth. He begins by saying, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2:1). Caesar Augustus was born Gaius Octavius 63 B.C. and died A.D. 14. He was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. He has been credited for being a very organized leader. He made wise appointments of generals, and oversaw significant infrastructure. He introduced some helpful reforms and laws that promoted healthy family life. He put in place laws that promoted marriage and child bearing. He even set in place a law that made adultery a crime, though he himself was a thrice-married man. His leadership resulted in a time period of lengthy peace in the empire.
Caesar Augustus was the most powerful man on earth. Of all the things that he did in his influential reign, Luke zeros in on the decree he issued in which all in his empire would be registered. Though this appeared to be a decree with political advantages, Luke would have us know that this decree ultimately came into effect by the sovereign purpose of God. It doesn’t matter what king, president, or prime minister is in power, God is the One who governs this world.
There was a lot happening in the world at that time. But something far bigger was happening that many in the world missed. While Caesar Augustus was seeking organized, influential worldwide control and striving to maintain peace in the world, the true King who brings real peace was born. There is some great wisdom and a practical lesson we can learn from JC Ryle on this matter,
'The heart of a believer should take comfort in the recollection of God's providential government of the world. A true Christian should never be greatly moved or disturbed by the conduct of the rulers of the earth. He should see with the eye of faith a hand overruling all that they do to the praise and glory of God. He should regard every king and potentate--an Augustus, a Cyrenius, a Darius, a Cyrus, a Sennacherib--as a creature who, with all his power, can do nothing but what God allows, and nothing which is not carrying out God's will. And when the rulers of this world "set themselves against the Lord," he should take comfort in the words of Solomon, "There is one higher than they." (Eccles. 5:8.)' - J. C. Ryle.
The significance of this registration issued by the decree of Caesar is that it required Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem “because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4). This is significant because hundreds of years earlier the Scriptures stated that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). So Joseph travels with Mary, who is heavily pregnant, to this town. When they arrived, the time had come for her to give birth (Luke 2:6). Knowing this was the birth of the King of kings, consider the scene in which He was born, “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” (2:7). He was born in humble circumstances and was laid in a feeding trough. This is the Saviour of the word, the King of kings, and Lord of lords. The Scriptures tell us, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
My goal in this message if for us to know, that no matter what goes in in the world around (good and bad), we should remember that there is something far bigger, far superior going on, and we ought to live our lives in response to that. The Lord Jesus Christ is King, and we must respond with adoration and action.
In this message we see two actions to this significant event. While the world continued to go about its normal routines, we learn about a Heavenly Announcement (2:8-14) and the Earthly Action (2:15-20).
1. THE HEAVENLY ANNOUNCMENT (2:8-14)
After telling his readers about the setting and scene of Christ’s birth, Luke points the reader to the fact that “in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (2:8). A huge and significant announcement is about to be made. Going against the worldly convention practices, God chooses to reveal this news to shepherds – not scribes, senators, or sages – shepherds! At that time, when it came to social status, shepherds were at the bottom. The religious elite of they day despised them. This again shows that God often acts in ways that goes against the world’s approval, and it also reveals the far-reaching effects of the gospel. People from all kinds of backgrounds can come and find salvation in Christ. It is not just for the powerful and the prosperous, it is also for the outcasts and the outsiders.
These shepherds had an eye for watching out for the unexpected. They had to be vigilant in their effort so that no predators would take their sheep. However, something came that night that they did not see coming. They had a visitor from Heaven! We are told that “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear” (2:9). This was no ordinary appearance. With the blazing glory of God shining there is no surprise that they were fearful. These would have been some tough guys, and I am sure it would take a lot to scare them. But this appearance did because it was accompanied with the glory of the Lord. When John saw the glory of the Lord he fell to the ground like a dead man (Rev. 1:17). This glory is the greatness of the Lord. The angel then makes a Heavenly announcement to these shepherds. He said,
“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” (2:10-12).
Birth announcements are always exciting. We live in a time when they can be sent through on our phones in a text message or we can learn about it on social media. Some people can be really creative in how they make this announcement. I think this birth announcement tops them all. An angel appears surrounded by the glory of God and announces that a child has been born. In those surrounding regions I am sure there were other babies born that night, but this announcement is concerning the birth of the King. The angel said that “for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (2:10). The arrival of this baby will brings about good news not just for the family and friends, but good news with a global blessing. They are told in clear terms, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11). The good news is that in this small town a Saviour has been born. This Saviour is “Christ the Lord” (2:12). This means that He is the promised Messiah who will come and deliverer His people from their sins.
This is big news. If this wasn’t enough, things get even bigger. We read, “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!’” (2:13-14). The sky was filled with a great number of angels adoring and praising their Creator for this news. This Heavenly choir has come from the throne room of God. The saw the act of the Son of God leave the glory of Heaven and come into this world born of the Virgin Mary. They are aware of a great Divine plan that was formed before the foundation of the world and is now being carried out. They are bursting with joy as they make this announcement. What a sight and what a sound that would have been for the shepherds that night!
Now consider carefully the words of their praise. They said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (2:14). Here they ascribe praise to God and then announce the news that God is going to issue peace on earth to those whom God chooses to show this favour. This peace comes as a result of God’s sovereign grace. It is interesting that the world at that time was experiencing a form of worldwide peace under the leadership of Caesar Augustus. But this peace did nothing to the soul of sinners. The word can promise and promote peace, but it is always short-lived and often shallow. The peace that Jesus Christ brings is the end of hostility between our Holy God and the unholy sinner. This peace is yours if you come to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins! Trust and rest in Christ alone, and you will be covered in this precious peace.
2. THE EARTHLY ACTION (2:15-20)
After hearing this amazing Heavenly announcement, we then learn about the earthly action carried out by the shepherds. We read, “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’” (2:15). These shepherds did something that is to be commended and brings much glory to God. They acted upon what they heard and believe. This is the life of faith. They were so gripped by the news of Jesus Christ coming into the world; they then wanted to see Him.
A lesson for us is that when we hear the Word of God announced to us, we ought to take it so seriously that we respond to it with action. We are not to be mere hearers of the Word; we are to be doers of the Word! “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (2:16) we are told. During this time “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” (2:17-18). These shepherds are also acting as evangelists. A beautiful thing about their evangelism is that it was not a rigid and formulated approach. It was simply the outflow of their desire to see Christ.
When the Word of God grips us, and we respond with obedience to the Word of God, it is only natural that we will be giving a faithful testimony in our words and actions. We don’t know what Joseph and Mary shared with the shepherds when they met. But I am sure they had some amazing conversations about God had done in their lives and what He will be doing in the future. We are told that as the shepherds returned back home they were “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (2:20). What this teaches us is that after they responded to the message of the angels desiring to see Christ, they returned home with a deeper and stronger faith. When we respond to the Word of God in obedience and faith, we walk away with a deeper and stronger faith.
What does this passage teach for us?
Firstly, no matter what is going on in the world, we need to remember that something else ever bigger is going on. Jesus Christ came into the world and is providing peace to lost sinners. As the people of God we are to respond to this good news with lives that are characterized by praise and obedience to Jesus Christ. Our lives are to be a testimony to His saving grace. When people hear us, what do they hear? When people see us, what do they see?
Secondly, we should be like Mary. In the midst of all that has just happened. She received a visit from the angel saying that she will be with child. She gave birth to this child. And shepherds who shared the news of what they heard visited her. Mary gathered all that information and “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19). We will do well to carefully and consistently think about what God has said and is doing, treasure it, and ponder on it.