While reading various commentaries, I came across the idea that Matthew tells the Christmas story from Joseph’s perspective while Luke tells it from Mary’s. In Matthew 1, Joseph was trying to figure out what to do after finding out that Mary was pregnant. It was then that an angel appeared to him in a dream to explain God’s plan. In Luke 1, Mary was surprised by the visit of an angel who announced that she would be the mother of Jesus.
When we come to Luke 2:8-20, we find two other perspectives. They are the perspectives of the angels and shepherds. With an attempt to organize our thoughts, we will first look at the Message given by the angel (2:8-12), and then the Response to that message (2:13-20).
- The Message (Luke 2:8-12)
If you grew up going to Sunday School, you may have memorized portions of this chapter at some point in your life. When our children were in elementary school, they learned Matthew 1:1-20. I can still remember them quoting it at Christmas time during the school program.
The reason they memorized this passage was because of the wonderful message it talks about. However, before we read about the message, we should take a look at the people to whom the message was given.
a. Who received the message? (Luke 2:8)
In the same area where Jesus was born, there were some shepherds who were out in the fields with their sheep at night. At this time, “‘shepherds were despised people. They were suspected of not being very careful to distinguish ‘mine’ and ‘thine’; for this reason, too, they were debarred from giving evidence in court’ (Strack-Billerbeck, in loc.)” (Geldenhuys 115).
You kind of get the idea that shepherds were the blue collar, uneducated people who were from the wrong side of the tracks. People didn’t have much respect for shepherds, but this didn’t stop God from sending the angel to them. “To shepherds—not to priests and rulers,—to shepherds—not to Scribes and Pharisees, an angel appeared… . The things of God are often hid from the great and noble, and revealed to the poor” (Ryle 56).
“The question is still asked skeptically as to why these shepherds should have been selected for the angel’s announcement. The answer is as simple to the believer as it ever was: because God found them the kind of people to whom he could communicate such news” (Lenski 127). As we will later see from their response to the message, these shepherds were people who recognized the Lord and who would rejoice at what God had done.
b. Who gave the message? (Luke 2:9)
We are not told the name of the angelic messenger. What we are told is that it was an angel of the Lord who arrived with the glory of the Lord all around him. Remember how Moses’ face shone after spending time with the Lord? This was the case with this angel of the Lord. Having come from the presence of the Lord, he was still reflecting the glory of God.
Imagine being one of the shepherds at this point. All is dark except for the small fire. The stars are visible in the dark sky. All is quiet and uneventful when suddenly this angel appears with all the brightness of God’s glory! This severely frightened each one of them. They probably fell on their faces and wondered what was going on.
c. What was the message? (Luke 2:10-12)
Thankfully, the angel was aware of their fear as he told them that they shouldn’t be afraid. His message was not one to cause fear but rejoicing! The angel “states first the effect and then the cause, first the joy and then the birth that produces the joy” (Lenski 129). In other words, he told them that something wonderful was going to make them joyful before even announcing what it was.
As the shepherds slowly raised their faces from the ground, they looked through squinted eyes at the angel and listened. What was it that would replace their fear with joy and bring joy to all people?
A Savior has been born.
The angel announced to the shepherds what Joseph had been told earlier. This was not a Savior from foreign rule; He was a Savior from sin.
Matt. 1:21 – “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
“The spiritual darkness which had covered the earth for four thousand years, was about to be rolled away. The way to pardon and peace with God was about to be thrown open to all mankind” (Ryle 56-7). Thankfully, Jesus came to save us from our sins and their dire consequences.
He is Christ the Lord.
When we read these titles, they often go in one ear and out the other because we see them so often. But to the shepherds, this would have pointed out something special about this child. He was not just a Savior, but would be the Christ and the Lord. Christ is the Greek equivalent of Messiah and Lord is who God is. The shepherds would have understood these titles as descriptions of who He was. Jesus was the promised Messiah and He would also be God.
He is in a manger.
What the angel said next must have surprised the shepherds. The angel announced that the shepherds would find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. “‘The sign’ is the very feature about this babe which the shepherds would least expect after the high titles they have heard from the angel. That is, however, what makes this feature ‘the sign'” (Lenski 132).
The message was that the child born in Bethlehem was the Savior, Messiah, and Lord. He was the One whom they had been looking for all those years since the original prophecies in the Books of Isaiah and Micah. However, we mustn’t stop at just the facts. We need to apply who Jesus is to our own needs.
All of us have need of what Jesus came to be. We all need a Savior because all of us are sinners. The Bible says that we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. It also says that the wages of our sins is death. So all of us, despite our best efforts, have no ability to save ourselves from the penalty of our sins. Thankfully, God sent His Son to become a baby who would grow up, teach the truth, and eventually save us from our sins by dying on the cross. This is the joyful message that the angel proclaimed to the shepherds.
Now, how did they respond?
- The Response (Luke 2:13-20)
In this section, we will look at the response of three groups. Surprisingly, perhaps to us, is the fact that the shepherds were not the first to respond.
a. How did the angels respond? (Luke 2:13-14)
While the shepherds were considering how to respond to the angel’s message, a “host of angels appeared suddenly around the one angel who had made the announcement. … Thousands of angels appeared and filled the expanse of the sky.” (Lenski 133).
Their response is recorded almost like a poem or the words of a song. Whether they only spoke or their praise included singing, I don’t know. But the content of their statement says a lot.
Glory to God in the highest – The angels, who had watched the sinfulness of man and also the great love of God, gave the highest glory to God for what had happened. They could think of no other person deserving of the highest praise.
Peace on earth – The angels, who were close to God, knew what kind of peace was needed on earth. While Jesus will eventually reign on the earth and produce a wonderful peace, I don’t think that is what they were talking about. They were talking about peace between God and man through Jesus (Col. 1:20).
Goodwill to men – The angels saw, in Jesus’ birth, God’s favor being extended toward men. This goodwill is something that is offered by God, but only received by faith. Without God’s gift of Jesus that day, that favor would not be available to all.
One more note: Do you wonder why the angels were rejoicing about something that didn’t affect them? Here and in Luke 15:7, we find that those in heaven rejoice when someone repents and is saved.
Luke 15:7 – “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
Apparently, the angels have gotten to know God so well that they rejoice in what God has done for mankind. That makes me feel good. The angels are rejoicing at God’s goodwill toward all who believe.
b. How did the shepherds respond? (Luke 2:15-18, 20)
After giving praise to God for these things, the angels returned to heaven from where they had come. I can imagine that the shepherds were staring after them until all was dark again. Now what? How would they respond?
They believed the message (15).
Not one but all of the shepherds began suggesting the same thing. Let’s go see this thing that has come to pass. There was no doubt in their voices. They believed what God had revealed to them through the angel’s message. “Such an attitude contrasts sharply with that of the religious leaders who knew where the Baby was to be born but did not take the time or the effort to confirm it for themselves (Matt. 2:5)” (Martin 208).
They visited the child (16).
The shepherds got up and ran. Well, it says they came with haste, which means that they moved quickly. I don’t know how old they were or how quickly they could run, but they traveled as quickly as possible. “We … do not know whether they reached the Child the same night or only the following morning and whether they found Him at once or first had to search about for a long time” (Geldenhuys 113). But they finally found the baby just as the angel had told them.
“After some search they found what the angel had told them, Mary, Joseph, and, strange to say, ‘the babe lying in the manger.’ … ‘Lying in the manger’ was only the sign, and this sign verified the truth of all that the angel had said about this child, and all that the host of angels had sung about his birth” (Lenski 137).
They told others about it (17-18).
After seeing the baby just as the angel had promised, the shepherds told everyone they met. Their story became widely known throughout the area. People were amazed by what the shepherds told them. Could it be true? Had a Savior been born? Was this the promised Messiah?
They praised God (20).
The shepherds didn’t care what others thought about their experience. They knew it was true. And this caused them to glorify and praise God for all that they had seen and heard. As they returned to their flocks in the fields, they couldn’t stop praising God for what He had chosen to reveal to them.
c. How did Mary respond? (Luke 2:19)
She pondered what happened. “The idea … is that of throwing things together, comparing, letting one explain and add to another” (Lenski 138). Mary had heard from Gabriel (Luke 1:28-37). She had also heard from Joseph what the angel told him in a dream (Matt. 1:20-21). Now she hears what the shepherds had heard from the angels. All of this must have been overwhelming to consider.
“Was Mary, then, a perfect being who immediately, perfectly and permanently grasped the full significance of the angels’ tidings, the supernatural conception, and so forth?” (Geldenhuys 114) I would say, no. She was a normal human being who had to think through things and react to them just like we all do. Thankfully, she believed what God said, and was used by God to be the mother of the promised Savior.
Today we have looked at the joyful message given to the shepherds by the angel. The message was that a Savior had been born who was Christ the Lord. The responses to this message were wonderful. The angels praised God for extending His favor to mankind. The shepherds rejoiced that the message was given to them and that the Savior had been born. And, finally, Mary responded by thinking about all that had been said.
I wonder how you will respond today? You have heard the story of Jesus’ birth and why He came. But how will you respond? If you have already believed, you may have a big smile on your face as you consider all that Jesus has done for you. I hope that you will not keep it to yourself, but that you will share it with others regardless of their response. The Savior has come for all of us!
If you have not yet believed, let me encourage you to ponder what you have heard today. Think about why the announcement of Jesus’ birth and why He came. Think about the joyful response of the angels and shepherds. And think about your own need for a Savior. Might I suggest that you reread the Christmas story for yourself and continue reading through the Gospel of Luke to find out more about Jesus. I hope that someday soon, you will believe and find the same joy that the angels and shepherds had.
Geldenhuys, Norval, The Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint. 1983, pp. 110-15.
Lenski, R. C. H., The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel, Columbus: Wartburg, 1946, reprint 1951, p. 127-
Martin, John A., “Luke” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983, p. 208.
Ryle, J. C., Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Volume Two Luke, Grand Rapids: Baker, reprint 1977, pp. 55-61.