In God's good providence, I was present for the birth of my daughter. I was there for the whole process. I witnessed her first breath. It was incredible! And yet, from another perspective, it wasn't really that momentous. Sure, it was important to me and my wife. But to put it into perspective, women have been having babies for a long time. Day after day, month after month, year after year, century after century, women give birth to babies. There is nothing unusual about it.
But there was something extremely unusual about the birth of Jesus, something utterly unique. He was, after all, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. He was the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, who was with God in the beginning, and through whom all things were made.
The holiday that many celebrate this month has the emphasis all wrong. It's not simply a birth that we recognize. It's the Incarnation. It's not simply about a baby boy born in a stable. It's about the eternal Son of God made incarnateGod himself entering human history in the flesh. That's why Luke 2:1-20 is so important.
Luke 2:1-20 is one of the easiest passages in Scripture to gloss over, because we are so familiar with it. We give it a name: "the Christmas story." We tell it every year. But what should stand out as we look at this text? To start with the obvious, what was the time and place of Christ's birth?
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. (vss. 1-6)
Beware of reading this as if it were a fable, a mere children's story, a sentimental, traditional story like "'Twas the Night before Christmas" or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. To be frank, I personally enjoy those stories, along with others like "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas." But Luke 2:1-20 is in an entirely different category than all those stories. For it "is given by inspiration of God, and is [therefore] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17 NKJV). This is not simply "the Christmas story"; it's the Word of God. It's not just a text to read at Christmas time; it's a text you should read anytime.
What does the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture tell us about Jesus' birth? It occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus, emperor of the Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus was a grandnephew of Julius Caesar. His mother was a daughter of Julia, the sister of Julius Caesar. When Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C., his will stated that Augustus would be named both Caesar's son and his heir. And shortly after Anthony and Cleopatra were defeated and committed suicide in 27 B.C., Caesar Augustus was named emperor.
We know from history that Augustus was ruthless during his climb to power. But while in power, he was a wise administrator and excellent organizer. He ruled well, respecting the customs and convictions of those whom he ruled. He was a great builder, and gave to the world many years of peace. After fully forty-one years of a predominantly successful rule, he calmly passed away in A.D. 14 in the arms of his wife.
During those years, Jesus was born. He was born when Augustus ordered a census, the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. When was that? Probably 5 or 4 B.C., perhaps late in 5 B.C. or early in 4 B.C. We don't know for sure, since the Scripture doesn't give us an exact date, but in John 2:20 we learn that the temple had been under construction for forty-six years, and history records that that work was begun in 19 B.C. That means that the first cleansing of the temple, at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, took place in the year 27. Luke 3:23 tells us that Jesus was about thirty years old then, meaning that he was born around 4 B.C. We also know from history that the wicked King Herod I, who tried to have the baby Jesus killed, died himself in April 4 B.C. So Jesus must have been born just prior to that.
But that's all technical stuffnot unimportant, but not the real reason for these details. There are more important things to emphasize than mere dates, most especially the place, Bethlehem. God so ordered even this decree of Caesar Augustus that Mary would give birth, not in her hometown of Nazareth, but in Bethlehem, the city of David. This connection with David is important. The Messiah was to be the descendant of David who would rule upon David's throne. And thus the prophecy of Micah 5:2 makes sense:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
That prophecy, written hundreds of years before Jesus was born, gives a clear indication that God is the God of all history, the God who orders every event of history so that his own purposes are brought forward. 1 Samuel 20:6 calls Bethlehem David's city. David was born there and tended sheep in the fields around the town. And that was the very place where Joseph and Mary would be registered.
It was about ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehemnot far by today's standards. And even then, for Joseph, it wouldn't have been too hard to travel that distance. But he was unwilling to leave Mary alone in Nazareth, and so she had to make the trip in what must have been very difficult conditions for a woman in the latter stages of pregnancy.
"And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth" (Luke 2:6). It was God's appointed time, the fullness of time. We read of such a time in Mark 1:15, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." And Paul writes of God "making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:9-10).
Let that sink into your heart and soul. Jesus entered the world at precisely the time that God ordered, for he orders all the events of time and history. Take comfort in this, in the midst of your own life. God is in control of everything, from the momentous occasion of Jesus' birth to the most seemingly insignificant aspect of your life or mine.
Notice also the manner of Christ's birth. This is so familiar. He was born in a manger. There was no room at the inn. He was born in a stable, where the animals lived. "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" (Luke 2:7).
But one thing ought always to strike us. We should consciously banish from our minds the images of all the cute manger scenes displayed in our age. There was nothing remotely cute about this. It was dirty, smelly, and utterly humiliating! This element of Christ's humiliation cries out loudly. Jesus, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, became man. In itself, that was a humiliation. It would have been humiliating even if he had been born with all the earthly splendor of a mighty king. But he was born with none of that splendor. And, all the more lowly, he was born among the animals.
This is how our Shorter Catechism describes his estate of humiliation: "Christ's humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time" (Answer 27).
Our Savior endured unspeakable humiliation, didn't he? And it is underscored by the manger scene. The book of Hebrews gives us an insight into the reason for such humiliation:
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers. (Heb. 2:10-11)
"Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (Heb. 2:17-18). He was humiliated and made like us, like the lowest of men, so that in his humiliation, in his suffering, he would become a merciful and faithful high priest.
And so Paul would write these astounding words: "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).
Do you ever think about your own humble circumstances and find yourself getting discouraged? Do you think that your own troubles are too overwhelming and overbearing? If so, then think more deeply about Christ's humiliation. For he was rich, as rich as can possibly be. He was the Son of God. But he made himself poor. He made himself poor for you. He humbled himself, even to the point of an impoverished birth, so that he could give to you the riches of his eternal inheritance. And, dear friends, "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18).
Next came the birth announcement. You know what they are like today. Friends and family receive a notice in the mail with all the specificsthe date of birth, the weight, the length, and of course the nameoften accompanied by a picture of the newborn.
But Jesus' birth announcement didn't come in the mail. Instead, we read about the messengers of the announcementthe angels! They are unfallen, spiritual creatures who live in the presence of God in heaven. The angels of the Lord, they are called. First one angel appeared, and then a whole multitude. "And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear" (Luke 2:9). "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God" (vs. 13).
The shepherds were afraid, and rightly so. Rightly were they terrified of the glorious splendor of God's presence reflected even dimly by the angelic creatures. The glory of the Lord shone around them. Every fallen creature should be smitten with a sense of utter unworthiness when brought into the presence of the glory of God. Remember Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (Isa. 6:1-5)
That's the proper response. God is not casual or comfortable, and we ought not to be casual in his presence. Even in the New Testament we read, "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:28-29).
This baby's birth announcement was made by God himself, through his own personal messengers, the great angels. But notice also the recipients of the announcement. It came to the lowliest of men, not to the high and mighty. "And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them" (Luke 2:8-9).
Shepherds were despised in that day. They were looked down upon and even denied certain civil rights. For example, they weren't allowed to give testimony in court. But the first proclamation of the fact that the Messiah had been born was made to poor, downtrodden shepherds.
Remember Jesus' own words (Luke 4:16-21), saying that he fulfilled this prophecy recorded in Isaiah 61:1-2:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.
Jesus came to preach to the poor! 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 says, "For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God."
There is no room for human pride in the gospel. Right from that first announcement of Jesus' birth to the poor shepherds, there has been no room for any man to boast in himself. It is all of grace. Salvation is all a work of God; "it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). "Therefore, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord' " (1 Cor. 1:31).
I hope you see the importance of this. Consider your calling. Jesus did not come to you because you were someone important. The birth of Jesus Christ is announced to you because you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (see Rev. 3:17). You and I are among the foolish things of the world. God has called us to himself so that in us he might put the wise to shame.
And whatever worldly importance you might claim for yourself, you must let it go. Think of how God's grace transformed Paul:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Phil. 3:4-9).
Whatever greatness you may enjoy in the world, you must count as rubbishso that you may gain Christ.
These believing shepherds, despite their lowly condition, knew of the coming Messiah and rejoiced to see his day! They rejoiced because of what they were told in the words of the announcement:
And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a 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." 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!" (Luke 2:10-14).
A savior was born: the Messiahor, in Greek, the Christ. Christ the Lord! This Messiah is the Lord. He is God. And he was born in the city of David.
Those shepherds understood and believed what they heard. This is evident in their response:
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." (Luke 2:15)
But notice most of all what is prominent in this announcement. Not the weight and length of the baby. Nothing about his physical appearance at all. Nothing about being a baby. Rather, the focus of this angelic announcement was the chorus of the heavenly host singing, "Glory to God in the highest."
Glory to God. Glory be ascribed to God! All of this is an outpouring of adoration. Indeed, nothing has glorified God in greater measure than the life and work of the incarnate Christ. It was for his Father's glory that Christ came to earth. It was for his Father's glory that Christ endured the humiliation of being born, and that in a low condition. It was for the glory of God that Christ endured all the afflictions of his life, even unto death. It was for the glory of God that Christ learned obedience through suffering.
And it was for the glory of God that God himself would establish peace among men. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2:14).
Now, there is a technical point here that does affect the translation. Is it "on earth peace among those with whom he is well pleased" or "peace on earth, good will toward men"? Personally, I believe the first translation more accurately represents the original, but either way, the point is that God brings glory to himself by establishing peace between himself and men on earth. He establishes peace between himself and men on earth because of his own "good will," that is, his grace. And he establishes peace between himself and men on earth through the work of his own Son, Jesus Christ.
God establishes peace between himself and men by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross:
[He] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom. 4:25-5:2)
The glory of Christ's birth is not simply "peace on earth" apart from the meaning and message of the cross. Peace with God comes to you only through faith in Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.
What did the shepherds do? In simplest terms, they worshiped Christ! They ascribed to him glory and honor and praise, the worship that is due to God alone, for he was God.
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." And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, 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. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:15-20)
First of all, in delightful obedience and eager devotion, the shepherds went to see Jesus. It was a visit undertaken in faith. They had no doubt about what they had been told. They did not go to confirm or validate or prove what they had been told. They did not want to see if it was true. This was no mere curiosity, nor any sentimental or superficial devotion. They went to Jesus because they believed the announcement of his birth was true. "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us" (vs. 15). "Let's go see him!" And, of course, they did.
Then they made a public proclamation. "And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child" (vs. 17). That's exuberant obedience! They made him known. They talked about Jesus, for they had seen the Messiah. And they proclaimed the very things that they had been told. There were no embellishments or exaggerations. They didn't make anything up; they just told others what the angels had told themand with great effect. "And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them" (vs. 18).
Note also the godly humility and gentle spirit of Mary. "But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart" (vs. 19).
Finally, let the emphasis lie on the concluding verse: "And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them" (vs. 20). This was a public declaration of praise. They praised God for all the things they had heard and seen.
That's what worship is, and that's what this Scripture is all about. It is about worship. It is about a deep and total commitment to adoration. It is about that which is so well emphasized in the familiar carol:
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him born the King of angels;
O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
We don't worship him today by going to Bethlehem in a literal manner. Our worship doesn't require us to make a pilgrimage to the Church of the Nativity. But by faith, in spirit and in truth, we come to Jesus himself! We come and offer to him sincere and genuine expressions of adoration, not just as an annual celebration, but as a way of life.
Jesus was probably not born on December 25; we don't really know what day he was born on. And however you choose to celebrate Christmasor not to celebrate itbe sure that you learn to worship Christ the Lord along with these lowly shepherds. Seek to glorify and praise God for all the things you learn about Jesus as they are revealed to us in Holy Scripture. "O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord."
The author is the pastor of Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Staunton, Va. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2003.