Inaugural Lecture - Center for Classical Theology - REGISTER
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Angels and Shepherds

The Sounding Joy: Four Reasons to Rejoice in Jesus’ Arrival

Luke’s infancy narratives provide the most detailed description of Jesus’ birth and its surrounding events. The Gospel writer records the angelic announcements of John the Baptist’s birth to Zechariah (1:5–25), then Jesus’ birth to Mary (1:26–38). Mary’s song of praise (1:46–56) and Zechariah’s prophecy (1:67–80) are wondrously recounted. The births of John the Baptist (1:57–66) and that of Jesus (2:1–8) are not left to the reader’s imagination.

Throughout, the author expresses the mercy of God (1:50, 72) and the salvation of God (1:47, 69) visible in the coming of Jesus. Have you noticed, though, the theme of joy that pervades the narratives in Luke 1–2? Joy occurs more often in Luke than in Matthew and Mark combined and is a motif that Luke desires to see connected to Jesus’ arrival. Observe the notes of joy documented by Luke. The angel told Zechariah that “Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth” (1:13–14). When Mary greeted Elizabeth and Elizabeth heard the greeting, John the Baptist “leaped for joy” in Elizabeth’s womb (1:44). Mary responded by “rejoicing in God her Savior” (1:47). The time came for Elizabeth to give birth and when her neighbors and relatives “heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her” (1:58). Simeon and Anna bless God in worship for revealing the Christ (2:26). As the angel proclaims to the shepherds, “good news of great joy” is present in the birth of the baby lying in a manger.

It could be argued that Luke 1–2 provide an explanation for why joy and Jesus’ arrival go together. For our purpose, I will only examine Luke 2:8–20–the account of the shepherds and the angels–to give four reasons why we should rejoice in Jesus’ arrival.

Four Reasons to Rejoice in Jesus’ Arrival

1. Our problem is solved by God’s action (vv. 8–12). 

Verse 8 reads, “In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock.” The shepherds are doing their normal nightly function–rotating and keeping watch of the sheep–when an angel of the Lord appears to them (v. 9). This appearance makes the shepherds are the first witnesses of Jesus’ birth outside of Jesus’s family. It may be that the sheep they were tending would be used in temple sacrifices due to the relatively close distance (6 miles or so) between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

What we do know is that shepherding was a lonely occupation and shepherds were among the lower class in Israel. As likely poor, unimpressive, uneducated, and social outcasts, their presence in this passage represents and foreshadows how ordinary people are able to respond positively to the gospel message. They are not the group we would expect to receive the most important announcement in history. Caesar Augustus and Governor Quirinius, mentioned at the beginning of Luke 2, are not the first recipients of this best of all news. The angels did not first appear to priests or rulers, scribes or Pharisees. Shepherds, who are at the bottom of the scale of power and privilege, are to the first hear about how God became a man.

In this ordinary evening as the shepherds are doing their ordinary routine, “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (v. 9). Angels play a prominent role in Luke 1–2, mentioned 15 times. The angel here is not named, though it could be a reference to Gabriel who was named three times in Luke 1 (vv. 11, 19, 26). The appearance of the angel causes trepidation among the shepherds. They feared a great fear. God’s presence is manifested in the angel’s appearance and the shepherds have the same response we see throughout Scripture when sinners experience God’s presence: trembling. That’s what sinners do when they are exposed to the holiness of God. The shepherds’ terror recalls the response of Zechariah in 1:12 where he “was terrified and overcome with fear” and resembles that of Mary when she was deeply troubled (1:29) when an angel appeared. Their terror testifies to our greatest problem: we are sinners. We need God’s mercy and salvation because we are rebels unable to appease God’s wrath. We need someone else “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79).

The shepherds are not to fear, though. “But the angel said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people’” (v. 10). Why are the shepherds not to fear? Because the angel brings a message of joy and not judgment. Though judgment is rightly deserved by those who have rebelled against God, joy is going to be experienced by God’s people because, in Christ, peace with God exists (v. 14). In Jesus, the sinner’s great fear of condemnation has been replaced by great joy in God. In Jesus, the sinner's great fear of condemnation has been replaced by great joy in God. Click To Tweet

The angel continues, “Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The good news has everything to do with who Jesus is. He is the Davidic King, born in the city of David, that is Bethlehem (2:4; cf. 1:32). Jesus is a Savior born for sinners, who is the true judge and deliverer of God’s people.[1] By identifying Jesus as “Savior,” the angel is calling attention to Jesus’ divinity and equality with the Father, who was called “Savior” by Mary in 1:47.  Jesus is also the Messiah, the Christ prophesied of old. He is the anointed one and awaited one who fulfills all the expectations and prophecies of the OT. He is the Lord. The title “Lord” in the OT is very often used as the covenant name for God. So Jesus is not simply the Messiah of the Lord but Messiah who is the Lord. Jesus possesses God’s Saviorhood and Lordship. He is the Sovereign One who rules over all the universe as King.

In each Christological term, the angel is declaring Jesus as greater than Caesar Augustus and every earthly king. The angel proclaims Jesus as the true Son of God, the only Savior who can and has overcome our sin problem through his life, death, and resurrection. Advent reminds us that our Savior is on the scene in biblical history and will return to complete his work of salvation. The saving acts of God anticipated of Yahweh in the OT are realized in the coming of Jesus. Why should we rejoice in Jesus’ arrival? Our problem–that we are sinners who deserve the just wrath of God–has been solved by God’s action.

 2. Our participation is enabled by sovereign election (vv. 13–14).  

Upon the angel’s declaration of good news, a multitude of angels erupts in praise. Verse 13: “Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!”

The heavenly army ascribes God glory in heaven for his saving work and declares spiritual peace on earth for God’s people. We rightly understand that peace with God is a consequence of being declared right through faith in Jesus. For those willfully put their trust in Christ, they have peace with God, as Romans 5:1 articulates. In verse 14, a nuance of our peace with God is stated: “peace on earth to people God favors.” In short, this favor refers to the doctrine of election. God’s work of sovereign choosing precedes our faith. In the order of salvation, predestination leads to justification. Salvation, then, is not a reward for those who have goodwill, but a gracious gift to those who are objects of God’s saving affection. Peace on earth will be experienced by those who have been numbered from eternity among God’s chosen people.

For Charles Spurgeon, the renowned Baptist preacher of the 19thcentury, the doctrine of unconditional election was of such enormity for him that he states he went from a child to a man in the faith by understanding it. Listen to Spurgeon recount his first experience of God’s sovereign election.

One week-night, when I was sitting in the house of God, I was not thinking much about the preacher’s sermon, for I did not believe it. The thought struck me, How did you come to be a Christian? I sought the Lord. But how did you come to seek the Lord? The truth flashed across my mind in a moment—I should not have sought Him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so? Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that He was the Author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me, and from that doctrine I have not departed to this day, and I desire to make this my constant confession, “I ascribe my change wholly to God.”

Embedded in this most famous Christmas text is the overwhelming truth that God has loved His people with an unbreakable love of God that began in eternity past and will carry forward into eternity future. God’s love for His people never had a beginning and it will never have an end. His favor on the elect was not predicated on anything in them but everything in Him. Rejoice afresh this season because our peace with God and joy in God has been secured through the gracious, unconditional choosing and favor of God.

3. God’s promises are not a thing of fiction (vv. 11–12, 15–17).

Luke 2:8–20 breaks into two parts. Verses 8–14 record a heavenly response to the angelic pronouncement. Verses 15–20 record an earthly response to the angelic pronouncement. Verse 15: “When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the manger.”

The angel promised a baby lying in the manger (2:12) and the shepherds find that very scene upon their journey. Jesus, the Son of God, was born in a feeding trough, in an animal room. Though he was born as king, he was not reared in a palace. From his earliest moments, Jesus’ humble origins pointed ahead to his humiliating death in the place of sinners. He condescended at every point in his life and death.

The shepherds join in the heavenly chorus of praise. After reporting the message, verse 20 says, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had seen and heard, which were just as they had been told.” “Just as they had been told” is a key phrase. God revealed himself to the shepherds and his words came true. God’s promises are not a thing of fiction. The truthfulness of God’s word expressed in Luke 2 is carried throughout the Bible. Scripture accurately testifies to the birth of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the return of Jesus–as well as every other detail in the canon. Jesus’ incarnation is not a fairy tale or mythological story. His birth happened on real day in history, on a day when Caesar Augustus was the emperor of Rome and Quirinius was governor of Syria. It happened in a real city: Bethlehem. Not in Narnia. Not in Middle-earth. He was born in Bethlehem, six miles from Jerusalem, which still exists.

God can be trusted. Every prophecy will come true. Every threat will be followed up on. Every blessing will be experienced. The shepherd saw and heard exactly as they had been told. They witnessed what happened that day in Bethlehem, which the Lord had made known to them.

Christian, have you not found Jesus to be just what the Bible says he is? This passage says Jesus gives peace—have you not had it? This passage says Jesus gives joy—have you not experienced it? The Bible assures us that Jesus will return from heaven with his powerful angels—will you not observe it? Our joy in God is fixed because the word of God is true. Our future joy is as unwavering as the Scripture. All our hopes in God will come true. God’s promises are not a thing of fiction.

4. Our pondering and praise of God is the church’s eternal occupation (vv. 17–20).

Luke records the shepherds’ response to the testimony of the angel and heavenly host as well as the responses of others who heard the message through the shepherds. Verse 16: “They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying there in the manger. And after seeing them, they reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them.” Within these verses is a theme that runs through the Gospel of Luke: wonder. In Luke 2 alone, there are four references to amazement (2:33, 47–48).

Amazement is experienced by the crowd and Mary, but Luke believes it’s important to distinguish the two responses. Verse 18: “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart.” The contrasting responses caution the reader against amazement with Jesus that does not result in saving faith in Jesus. Verse 18 should be listed with scores of other texts that speak to a curiosity about Christ with no commitment to Christ–an interest that dissolves into indifference. This kind of response does not register the message about Christ as good news of great joy and peace with God. Conversion takes place when pondering goes to praise.

“But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them” (v. 19).

Luke is highlighting Mary’s ongoing deep reflection over the past year. She was visited by the angel Gabriel, she was affirmed by Elizabeth, she conceived a child as a virgin, and now she is given this message from the shepherds. Verse 19 speaks to a type of contemplation that puts thoughts together into an understandable whole. This does not mean her serious meditation gave Mary a full and final understanding. It instead conveys an ongoing meditation on and increased understanding of Jesus’ person and mission.

The shepherds teach us that God is not only to be pondered but proclaimed. The shepherds teach us that God is not only to be pondered but proclaimed. Click To Tweet They are the first evangelists. Luke is adamant that we see this by the communicative language he uses in the final verses. Pleasure, pondering, praise, and proclamation are bound together for the shepherds.

Our pondering and praise is the church’s eternal occupation. God’s infinite excellencies and perfections will forever satisfy our souls. Our Savior is eternally interesting. Jesus’ glory is boundless in measure. Pondering and praising God will be our constant delight. He will never wane in glory and we will never wane in amazement.

We can rejoice because our joy in God is a full joy and a lasting joy—as full and lasting as God himself. It is a joy that needs only one object: Christ. He needs no additions. The subject of our joy is the most reliable reality in the universe and thus even in the most difficult days and periods of life, in Christ, our joy can still be present, even if it’s flickering. Glory will soon compensate for all the pains, distresses, and anxieties of this life.

Because our problem has been solved by God’s action, our participation is enabled by sovereign election, God’s promises are not a thing of fiction, and pondering and praising God is our eternal occupation, Christ’s first arrival ought to be a constant source of joy. So repeat the sounding joy with the angels and shepherds until Christ’s second arrival ushers in full and everlasting joy.


[1] This is one of only two places in the Gospels where Christ is referred to as Savior.

Brandon Freeman

Brandon Freeman is a pastor at Liberty Baptist Church and a PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 2015, he graduated from Ouachita Baptist University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biblical Studies. He serves as the Executive Assistant To the Vice President of Institutional Administration at MBTS.