It feels a bit odd reading how the saviour is born in these verses half way through the year. But the truth is, we don’t really know what time of year they happened – and midwinter is probably the least likely time (shepherds were usually out March to November)! In fact, now is probably a great time to look at these events again and try to see what really took place, and why.
We’ll look at the circumstances of the birth, at the angels’ message, and at the shepherds’ reaction.
Separate truth from fiction (1-7)
We know from the way Luke started his whole book that he’s writing what he believes to be a historically accurate account. You get a feel for that in Luke 2:1-3 [read].
The problem is that what he’s written doesn’t quite seem to tally up with other historical records. Someone, somewhere, seems not to have got their stuff right. Naturally, it’s usually assumed that the Bible is wrong!
What are the issues?
- It’s said that Augustus didn’t decree a census of the whole Roman world. In truth, though, he did have a programme of taking census region-by-region, so that’s no issue.
- It’s said that people didn’t have to return to their ancestral towns. Normally that’s true, but they did for a census in Egypt and (because the Jews were very particular about their land) it’s not unreasonable that they did in Judea too.
- A bigger problem is that Quirinius was governor of Syria in 4-6AD, years after the baby-killing Herod had died in 4BC. Various historical solutions are possible, but unlikely. Most likely, Luke’s posh Greek writing could be translated differently – “This was the first census taken, before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
You might say, “Who cares?”
Bible sceptics will say that if you can’t trust the Bible on the bits you can verify with other historical books, how can you trust the weird, supernatural stuff? So it’s important to know: Luke did his research and what he wrote is true. Sceptics will choose not to believe that, even though there is no direct proof that Luke was ever wrong.
So read Luke 2:4-5.
Mary might have had to go (there may well have been a poll tax on women as well as men), or it could simply be that they agreed she’d go with Joseph because she was so late term. It would be an 85 mile journey, so it’s not a small decision.
And then we get the happy event! Read Luke 2:6-7.
But just as we need to get past the critical scholarly attack, we need to weed out some traditional stuff too!
- There’s no mention of “little donkey on the dusty road”.
- There’s not even an inn, let alone an inn-keeper!
Most likely, they were accommodated in a one-room peasant house. Maybe a Bethlehem relative? Animals kept at one end, with a bit of a step up to the small human quarters. And, as there was no room at the “people end” for a baby to sleep, this one was put in one of the animal feeding troughs – no doubt carefully, lovingly. All wrapped up.
Some Christians get very worked up about the inaccuracies of how the Nativity is told at Christmas. I’m not so bothered, so long as the key elements are told.
But what are they? What’s the most important thing to grasp?
The key truths
There are (at least) three:
- First, the birth at Bethlehem really matters.
- It underlines how Jesus was born into the family of David. That matters because David was promised a descendant who would rule forever – the Messiah.
- It also matters because Micah 5:2 promised that the saviour would be born in Bethlehem. God can use the whims of Roman emperors to move Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem!
- Second, grasp the peasant poverty that Jesus is born into.
- JC Ryle: “Let us beware of despising the poor because of their poverty. Their condition is one which the Son of God has sanctified and honoured by taking it voluntarily on Himself.”
- Thirdly, and most important of all, is to consider who it is laid up in that animal food trough.
- Gabriel had told Mary (Luke 1:32) “He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
- And there he was, Son of God Most high laid in a bed most low. Divine power in human frailty.
- All the hosts of angels of heaven had held their breath as Mary breathed in labour! A Son is born!
These are the really important truths. Keep your donkey, if you want one, just know what matters. And then:
Hear the news! (8-14)
We come to the shepherds: Read Luke 2:8.
These are the first people outside the family to hear about Jesus.
- Not Herod in his palace, 5 miles away in Jerusalem.
- Not the priests, scribes, or teachers of law.
- Not even the “nice” people of Bethlehem.
- Shepherds were scallies. You couldn’t trust them.
- They were rough, skint, and hard.
- It was the job your mum said you’d end up in if you didn’t try hard at school (so to speak!).
And God sent angels to them first. Read Luke 2:9-12.
- So, they were on the night shift.
- And suddenly, everything is lit up – but with the light of another world! The light of the glory of the Lord!
- We all jump at things that scare us. This would have been terrifying. But the angel had good news.
- When he said “I bring you good news” you could even translate it “I evangelise you” – it means the same!
Three remarkable words
And the good news (the gospel / evangel) is summed up in three words applied to a newborn boy: Saviour, Messiah, Lord.
- The angels had adored the Son of God from the first morning of Creation, and now they get to share him with grubby humanity.
- The angels know how much you need Jesus.
You need a Saviour. Your sins separate you from God and put you under his judgment.
- Your heart is naturally inclined away from him and you can’t possibly save yourself. You don’t deserve it anyway.
- But God the Son came into the world to save you.
And he’s Messiah, Christ. He’s the promised king who will reign over his people forever.
- He will defeat evil, Satan, sin and even death.
- He will grant eternal life to his people so that he might reign in glory and splendour with them forever.
And he’s Lord.
- Notice the light that shone around that night? The “radiance of the glory of the Lord”?
- He is Son of God Most High; he is Lord, who rules with goodness and wisdom, with power and majesty.
- And his people bow the knee in happy submission because he is so good, wise, and powerful.
All the more remarkable, then, that the angel says you’ll find him wrapped up in an animal food trough in Bethlehem.
Jesus brings glory to God
But the revelation isn’t over: Read Luke 2:13-14.
“Glory to God in highest heaven”
- Jesus reveals the glory of God to us; the glory of the Lord shines into your darkness as clear as it did that night.
- God is glorified in his astonishing grace!
- The Son didn’t have to leave the dazzling wonders of eternal splendour!
- No-one forced him to become human, to be born poor, and to suffer humiliation and indignity as he did.
- God is glorified in his Justice too.
- Jesus came into the world to live a perfect life, specifically so that he could die as a sinless substitute in your place.
- That show his Justice: He can both forgive you and be just at the same time by taking the punishment your sins deserve himself. He came to die.
- Which means God is glorified in his astounding love.
- He loves you. 1 John 4:8-10 God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
Christ’s birth brings glory to God in highest heaven. And – praise God – peace on earth.
Peace of heart and mind; peace with God. He brings peace for the poor, the weak, the uneducated, the untalented, the scally. If you ever feel lower than other people, ever feel inferior or down-trodden, remember the shepherds.
Churches can sometimes feel like they’re not for poor people, or the uneducated. But you’re called to Christ, not to church. Remember that God is glorified in highest heaven for stooping down, stepping down into humanity, to lift you up. So:
Hurry to Jesus (15-20)
As soon as the angels leave, the shepherds don’t hang around. Read Luke 2:15-16.
- They didn’t try to analyse their group hallucination (because they knew it wasn’t one). They just hurried.
- And there he was, in a manger, as they’d been told.
Would you like a peek into heaven?
- Imagine there was a window that would only be open to you for a few minutes.
- You look through and you see astonishing, wonderful sights. You glimpse the radiance of the Lord’s own glory – mostly hidden from you even through that window, lest you die!
- Imagine! You’d drink it in!
- And your heart would break and ache when the window closed – you’d never be the same again.
What do you think you’d be like, after that? Read Luke 2:17-20.
The scally shepherds had heard the news from the angels and now they’d seen this child with their own eyes. The immediate thing they did was to tell everyone what they knew.
- No tracts. No PowerPoint presentations or websites.
- They had been given a glimpse of glory and they’d seen a child in a manger.
- And they knew that that child was Saviour, Messiah, and Lord.
- That child brought glory to God in the highest, and all the armies of angels were thrilled at what God had done – and would yet do through Jesus.
Good news for you
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to share in the joy and thrill of the angels?
Can you imagine hurrying to see Jesus with the excited urgency of the shepherds?
Isn’t it right to be astonished like everyone the shepherds spoke to, hearing who this Jesus is?
And won’t you be like Mary, keeping these things in your heart and thinking about them often?
The Son of God Most High left eternal splendour to enter the most humble of human cots. He did it willingly because he loves you. Today, Jesus is your Saviour, your Messiah, and your Lord.
He lives, ready to grant life to all who come to him, ready to forgive in light of his own sacrifice.
And all who come can join in with the angels: Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.