Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Dr. A.T. Robertson taught at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, for over 40 years. Looking in my library for commentaries to use in preparing this year’s Christmas sermons, I found Robertson’s translation of Luke. On the first page is my Grandpa’s name, A. B. Hill, dated September 18, 1928. Precisely two weeks earlier, he had married my grandmother. I will use Grandpa’s copy of Robertson’s translation of Luke to read our Scriptures from.
Luke 2:8 (Robertson) Now there were shepherds in the same region living in the open fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.
The incarnation of Jesus, the enfleshment of God, is the most important event in human history. Augustine, who studied the world’s religions before following Jesus, said the unique teaching of Christianity is, God became flesh.
We would expect an event of this magnitude to have been heralded in palaces and temples, but God chose a different audience. He let shepherds be the first to hear the birth announcement.
Shepherds were lowly, common folk, but God had held them in high regard. Moses, while shepherding a flock, experienced the burning bush (Exodus 3). David, while “tending the sheep” (I Samuel 16:11), had to be retrieved to receive Samuel’s anointing as Israel’s future king. God loved shepherds.
By Jesus’ day, the reputation of shepherds had fallen on hard times. Shepherds migrated with their sheep through open fields, sometimes forgetting the difference between “mine” and “thine.” They were stereotyped as thieves.
The orthodox despised them. Shepherds were at a religious disadvantage, unable to observe all the meticulous hand-washings and purification rites Judaism required. Their unending ritual uncleanness kept them ceremonially unacceptable.
We may be tempted to think God should have chosen to make the most important announcement of all time to prophets, priests, kings, religious leaders, upstanding citizens, or other respectable folk. But to demonstrate He is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), God chose a different audience, reminding us what we deem socially lofty versus socially lowly He considers equal.
Jesus’ birth announcement was made “in the same region” as Bethlehem, to shepherds tending sheep on historic ground. Near here Jacob buried Rachel, the love of his life, Boaz fell in love with Ruth, David shepherded his father’s flocks.
The announcement came while the shepherds were engaged in their secular employment. They were at work, “keeping watch over their flock by night.” The shepherds were nightly staying with their sheep to protect them from thieves, predators, and the elements. The angel’s announcement again sanctified secular labor, reminding us in Eden work was part of the blessing, not the curse. We do ourselves a disservice if we expect to experience the Lord only in a church-house.
An ironic footnote to this announcement is, the religious leaders owned huge flocks of sheep that pastured in the hills around Bethlehem. This made sure they always had near the Temple a large supply of perfect, unblemished lambs. The leaders let people offer these sheep as Temple sacrifices, for a fee of course.
Don’t miss the loveliness in the irony. Near where Temple lambs were birthed, the Temple Lamb was born. The birth of the Good Shepherd who died for sinners was announced to shepherds tending sheep that died for sinners.
Luke 2:9a Then suddenly the angel of the Lord came upon them.
This was probably Gabriel the messenger angel. He had been busy recently, foretelling to Zechariah the birth of John the Baptist, and announcing in advance to Mary and Joseph the virgin birth of Jesus. The angel who had predicted the birth of God was now the one who heralded the fact his own prediction was fulfilled.
Legend says Gabriel will blow the trumpet on Judgment Day. “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God” (I Thessalonians 4:16a, see also I Corinthians 15:51-52).
Since we know Michael will be at hand when Jesus comes, it is logical to think Michael will have the honor of blowing the horn. He is the commander of the angel army, and the fighter, as seen in his protection of Moses’ body (Jude 9).
After Gabriel’s announcement of the birth, the angels stayed busy on Jesus’ behalf throughout His incarnation. They ministered to Him after the wilderness temptation (Matthew 4:11), comforted Him during His Gethsemane agony (Luke 22:43), rolled the stone away from His grave, announced His resurrection (Matthew 28:2,6), and predicted His second coming (Acts 1:11). They were His friends, and are our friends, ministers for us in our times of need (Hebrews 1:14).
Luke 2:9b And the glory of the Lord shone around them.
Phillips translation says, “The splendor of the Lord blazed around them.” The dazzling brilliance proved the angel truly was sent from Heaven by God.
Something inside me cries out, “Oh God, visit us like this again, please. Let things happen among us that are unexplainable by human reasoning.”
The glow around them, reminiscent of the pillar of fire that led Israel in the wilderness, was nothing less than a recurrence of the Shekinah glory that had filled the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and the Temple.
After centuries of having been eclipsed, the glory suddenly reappeared. This time, it was no longer hidden in the secret Holy of Holies, but blazed in an open field, in a secular place among common people.
When Jesus came close to us, we for the first time realized how close we could come to God. The incarnation is the only time God came to us in flesh, but aptly pictures the fact God is always coming to us in spirit. God evermore wants to come out of the distance to light our darkness.
On the day Jesus died, day became as night. The evening Jesus was born, night became as day. He’s been turning people’s night into day ever since.
Jesus brought precisely what people were yearning for. God’s Bethlehem gift was exactly what we needed. We may not know it, but it is true nonetheless. We were all created to hear this story, receive it as truth, and revel in its blessing.
For sinners, the best news would be a message of love from above, from a God in Heaven who forgives sin. This is what Christmas is.