There is a pretty good chance that you have watched the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. And if you have, you know that the climax of the movie is when Linus recites the words of Luke 2:8-20 about the Shepherds in their fields watching their flocks by night. This passage records the angels of Heaven announcing the birth of the Redeemer to Shepherds. The story is filled with drama and intrigue.
As we read through this passage we can’t help but ask a question: Why announce the birth of Jesus first to Shepherds? These men were blue collar workers. It would be like angels appearing to workers on an assembly line in a factory today. It’s not that such people are insignificant (far from it). However, it doesn’t seem like the kind of people to whom you would make such a significant announcement.
Perhaps that is precisely why the angels appeared to the Shepherds. Maybe God’s choice of the Shepherds was sending an important message: the birth of our Savior was not for the elite or the initiated, He came into the world for everyone.
Let’s set the scene. It was night and I imagine the Shepherds sitting around a campfire while the sheep were safe and secure. They were probably visiting and maybe telling stories like most of us would do in that situation. Maybe they were making dinner. Sometime during the night we are told “the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them”. When the Bible uses phrases like this it refers to a brilliant light or fire that surrounds (or represents) the presence of God. This light was not like a full moon on a cloudless night or even a streetlight. I imagine the intensity of a high powered spotlight or searchlight. Maybe it was similar to when someone shines their bright headlights right into your eyes. It is blinding and painful.
I would love to know what the men saw when their eyes began to adjust. I suspect they did not see a cherub like figure like many of the pictures we have seen of angels. I suspect this was a larger than life figure obviously supernatural in origin. We don’t know what the angel looked like but we do know what the angel said,
“I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)
The single angel told them he had come to announce “good news” that would bring “great joy”. So this was not an announcement of Judgment or a warning of impending doom. Something wonderful was happening, something that was going to change their lives both now and forever. This news was so great it would cause them to celebrate and give thanks.
It is hard for us to understand the incredible nature of this announcement. Israel had been waiting for a descendent of David who would come and rescue Israel for close to 1000 years. (Think about how we would feel if an angel told us we were on the threshold of the Second Coming of Jesus).
The time of anguish and waiting was about to end. The 400 years of silence when there was no word from God was over. God had come near and was born in Bethlehem. But this was not just good news to the Jews. The angel announced that this is good news for ALL people. That includes you and me.
The angel wanted the Shepherds to know it is true so the angel tells them how to verify what is being said. The baby would not be hard to find. They wouldn’t find him in the palace or even in a local dwelling. He would be found in a stable lying in a feed trough for animals.
The angel does not command the Shepherds to go and see but it certainly was an invitation. It is the same invitation that is extended every Christmas: it is an invitation to come and see the Savior. With our cards, our songs, and our programs we are saying to the world, “Come and behold Him, born the King of Angels”.
Jesus is not hard to find today either. You don’t have to make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, all you need to do is open your eyes and your heart. If you will turn to Him, you will discover that it is good news. . . it is the best news.
I suspect the Shepherds were already on overload. Their minds were racing, their hearts were beating but the announcement wasn’t over.
13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
Suddenly, the one angel is joined by a vast host (a giant army) of angels. It must have been an unimaginable moment. The finest and largest IMAX theatre could not convey the wonder of that moment. Even Disney can’t do this moment justice!
The angels joined in saying (or singing) “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased”.
I wonder, did they repeat this over and over? Was it shouted or was it whispered? Did it sound like a celebration (like a cheer in a football stadium) or was it filled with wonder like when you step into one of the great cathedrals of the world and are stunned by the sense of reverence in the place?
Let’s look at the song of the angels.
The Song of the Angels
Glory to God in the Highest. We must never forget that the star of Christmas is not a man in a red suit who brings presents; it is not the wise men; the shepherds; or even Mary and Joseph. The true star of Christmas is the Lord God Almighty. It is the story of His faithfulness, His love, His mercy, His grace, His power, and His Supremacy.
God made us and made everything that we have and enjoy in life. We rebelled against Him. We ignored Him and refused to submit to Him. We acted (act?) as if we were God and we fight others to see which of us can dominate the other. We have lived our lives trying to overthrow the rightful ruler of our universe. Our attacks may be subtle or they may be aggressive but we all rebel.
Yet, God did not toss us aside. He didn’t destroy us so He could start over. He did not ignore us. Instead He patiently pursued us. He pointed us to a future rescue plan. And at Christmas that rescue plan was initiated. God took the form of man . . . He became one of us. He entered our world not as a King but as a baby in the most humble of circumstances. Why? Because He wanted to reach us and to bring us to Himself.
This is why the angels praise God . . . because He deserves that praise. He deserves it from the angels and He deserves it from us. Glory to God in the Highest! Praise Him for His incredible love and faithfulness. Praise Him for His endurance and patience. Praise Him for His plan of rescue!!!
And peace on earth . . . What is the peace the Angels talked about? Is it world peace? We have all heard the stories of armies having a Christmas truce and hearing both sides singing Christmas carols before the hostilities resume. Did Christ come so we can all just “get along”?
The King James Translation of text makes it sound this way: “Peace on earth goodwill toward men”. However, this is a poor translation. As scholars examine the various Greek manuscripts it turns out that the manuscript used by the King James Bible is not the best manuscript available. Tim Keller explains,
It is almost universally understood now by all translators that the King James took a word which is translated goodwill or favor, and … here’s time for your Greek lesson … they read it as an accusative instead of a genitive case. Let me not get into that any further, but what it means is instead of being translated, “… good will toward men,” it should be translated, “peace toward men to whom God has goodwill, on whom his favor rests.”
So the angel is not announcing peace between warring nations. It is peace between God and men. It is an ending of the hostilities. The war between us and God is over. In the hymn “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley writes “Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” This is not a peace we have to hope for; it is a peace that has already come to all who believe through the work of Christ.
Romans 5 Paul says,
Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. 2 Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory. (Romans 5:1-2)
Because Jesus has come into the world to point us to God’s Kingdom and to give His life as a payment for our sin we can now be made right with God. The sin debt that served as an impenetrable barrier has now been destroyed for everyone who puts their trust in Him. The war between God and us is over and now we have not only become allies, we have become family.
Because of these truths we can know peace in many other areas
- We have peace facing our own mortality. We no longer need to be afraid of the “nothingness” of death. We will live even though we die.
- We have peace about the events of life. This peace is anchored to God’s sufficiency for our every need.
- We have peace when we feel alone because God has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us. We can “fear not” because He is with us.
- We can have peace in relationships because we more readily forgive because we have been forgiven and because we know that we are now brothers and sisters in Christ.
- We can have peace if we are brought before authorities or opponents because of our faith. The Lord promises that He will give us the words to say.
- We no longer fear rejection because “nothing will ever separate us from His love” (Romans 8:38). Keller writes,
Once you’re free from accusation, you can’t get freer from accusation. Once you’re blemishless in his sight, you can’t get more blemishless. Once you’re holy, you can’t get more holy. Once you’re perfect in His sight, you can’t get more perfect. If you could get more perfect, then you weren’t perfect to start with.
Having peace in these areas comes because we first have peace with God. Too many people get this confused. They desire peace in the circumstances of life or in the trials before they will believe in God. These things are a consequence of peace with God, not a means to that peace. This leads us to that last phrase.
The Beneficiaries of This Peace
The promise of the angels is for those “on whom His favor rests”. In other words, these things are true only for those who are true followers of Christ. It is only for believers, not the whole world.
Though lots of people celebrate Christmas, only those who embrace Christ can really understand the blessing of Christmas. Everyone else gets caught up in the presents, the material indulgence and the sentimental traditions. Only those who put their faith in this Jesus will know the peace on earth that Jesus brings. Only true believers really understand the Good News that was proclaimed to the Shepherds.
Simply put, as long as you keep playing at faith; as long as you insist on relying on your own goodness; as long as you think you are “good enough” to go to Heaven, you will not, and cannot, know this peace that transforms human hearts. You can attend church, you can serve on committees, you can go on mission trips, and people can look on you as one who is a “true believer”, but until you surrender all your weapons, justifications, and excuses; until you give up all hope of saving yourself and turn fully to Jesus as your rescuer; your Savior, you will not know His favor.
So, the question this Christmas should be: How do I experience the favor of God that brings me peace with God and then floods into the rest of my life?
The first step is to recognize that you do not have that peace now. Admit that you are at war with God. You must stop pretending that you trust Him. You must stop “playing the game”. Before the war can end we must surrender. We must admit that we have been refusing to trust or rely on Him. We must seek His forgiveness.
Second, you must embrace the true Jesus. It is not enough to “believe in Jesus”. You must believe in the TRUE Jesus, the Jesus who was born in Bethlehem; the Jesus who was fully God and fully man; The Jesus who lived a perfect life and surrendered that flawless life for our sin; the Jesus who lived, who died and was literally and historically raised from the dead. Once you have seen Him for who He is you must run to Him and put all your hope in Him. You must trust His promise and embrace Him as Lord and Savior of your life.
I believe this is what the Shepherds did. They hurried to Bethlehem (when there is such good news you shouldn’t drag your feet). They found the baby just as the angels said, “lying in the manger”. I suspect they bowed before Him.
Since Mary “kept all these things in her heart” it is apparent to me that the Shepherds shared their story. They told Mary and Joseph what the angels said. But they not only told Mary and Joseph, they told everyone what had happened. These men who were usually on the social perimeter were now engaging people to tell them the incredible news that the Messiah had come to save the world.
We are told that they “went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them”. I know I am reading into the story but it sure seems to me that these Shepherds put their faith in the work of this baby. I sense that even though they didn’t understand fully, they already were coming to experience that peace with God.
Once we have met Him it is our privilege, and joy to tell everyone that we meet that God has sent us His Son! Our sin has been paid for! We do not have to fight God any longer! We should do everything in our power to invite others to see Him and trust Him. We do this because we have been changed. We sing along with the Shepherds because we have discovered the good news – the news that is way too good to keep to ourselves.