8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 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.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. – Luke 2:8-21 ESV
For the third time in his gospel account, Luke records the appearance of an angel delivering a divine announcement. Zechariah and Mary had both received visits from the angel Gabriel, who delivered to each of them the news regarding the pending births of John and Jesus respectfully. But with the actual birth of Jesus, God sends another angelic messenger to earth to announce the news of His Son’s arrival. And this time, the audience didn’t consist of family members or even close relatives. Instead, God sent His messenger to a group of unnamed shepherds who were “keeping guard over their flock at night” (Luke 2:8 NLT).
Everything about this story is intended to display the sovereign will of God. The timing of every event has been according to His will. God sent each of the angelic messengers with a specific message for a particular individual. And as each divine announcement was made, the pieces of God’s redemptive plan began to fall into place. Now, with the birth of Jesus, God sends yet another angel with a message “for all the people” (Luke 2:10 ESV). The timing of this particular message was the middle of the night and the recipients just happened to be a group of lowly shepherds
Because of our familiarity with this story, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that more than 30 years will separate the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the actual beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. God chose to have His Son born in the obscure and diminutive village of Bethlehem. He selected an unknown and inconsequential Jewish girl to be the mother of the Messiah. Then He decided to have the “good news of great joy” regarding His Son’s birth announced to a ragtag group of men whose occupation put them well outside the ranks of polite society. Shepherds were the garbage collectors of their day. No self-respecting parent wanted their child to grow up to be a shepherd. It was considered a bottom-rung career choice that was a dead-end when it came to financial or social advancement.
And yet, more than 3 decades before His Son would actually begin His earthly ministry, God made the sovereign choice to send an angel to this nondescript collection of nameless men. And their divine encounter would be far greater and more spectacular than anything Zechariah and Mary had experienced.
As these men were enduring yet another long and mind-numbing night of shepherding sheep in the middle of nowhere, their world was rocked by the appearance of an angel. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the dark night sky was filled with a bright light that Luke attributes to the glory of the Lord. The entire hillside was lit up like a scene from Friday Night Lights, and this spectacular display left the shepherds in a state of shock and petrified with fear. But the angel quickly addressed their concerns.
“Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:10-12 NLT
Much to the shepherds’ relief, the angel was there to bring them good news. Based on the circumstances, it would have been easy for these men to assume the worst and to think their lives were over. But the angel was there to proclaim joyful news that even lowly, uneducated shepherds would have understood. The heavenly messenger announced the birth of their Savior, someone he described as the Christ. And this message did not escape the shepherds. The Greek word Christ is the equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah. These Jewish shepherds were being told that their Messiah, Lord, and Savior had just been born in the city of David. The long-awaited Messiah of Israel had finally come.
And as if to put an exclamation point of the night’s proceedings, the angel was suddenly joined by a vast, heavenly army. The night sky was filled with a numberless host of angels declaring:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!” – Luke 2:14 NLT
The angels declare the glory of God because this news was the result of His glory, grace, and goodness. It was God who had chosen to send His Son (John 3:16). This was all the work of God and it had been part of His plan from the very beginning. And with the arrival of His Son, mankind would be able to know true peace for the first time. Jesus was entering a world plagued by sin and marked by turmoil. It was characterized by darkness and under the dominion of the evil one. Jesus would later declare Himself to be the light that illuminates the darkness.
“…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – Luke 3:19 ESV
His arrival was meant to be good news. But the sad fact is that many would refuse to accept Jesus as the light of God. They would continue to prefer living in the darkness of sin rather than accepting the sin-exposing, life-transforming light of the world.
The heavenly hosts declare that God is offering peace, but only to those with whom he is pleased. This is a somewhat confusing statement that can easily be misunderstood. Are the angels suggesting that God’s peace can be earned? Can sinful men be restored to a right relationship with God by doing righteous acts? A better translation of verse 14 is “peace to men on whom his favor rests” (NIV). With the coming of the Messiah, there would be those who believed in Him as their Savior, but there would be many more who would reject Him. Not all would enjoy the peace He came to offer, but as Jesus Himself said, “whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15 ESV). They can be made right with God through faith in the Son of God. They can enjoy restored peace with God by placing their hope and faith in the Savior sent by God.
Whether the shepherds fully understood what the angels had said is not clear. But they sought to know more and left their sheep in order to verify what the angel had told them. Luke records that the men “went with haste” to Bethlehem where they soon discovered the infant, Jesus. It seems likely that they would have found the surroundings of Jesus’ birth to be a bit incongruous. If He was the Messiah and Savior of Israel, why had He been born in such lowly circumstances? Where were the priests and dignitaries? Why had a host of angels announced His arrival, but no one bothered to show up to welcome Him?
But despite all their questions, these men were impacted by what they had heard and seen, and they began to spread the news of Jesus’ arrival.
…the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. – Luke 2:20 ESV
Little did they know that 30 years would pass before anything of significance happened. They probably expected to hear further news of the Messiah’s birth in the days ahead. They must have assumed that word would get out and the arrival of the Savior of Israel would begin to spread. But while their story of the angelic visitation made people wonder, it would do little to change anything about the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel. The people remained in a state of moral darkness. The shepherds went back to their field and flocks. Life went on as usual. And “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19 ESV).
Eight days later, Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised, according to the requirements of the Mosaic Law. At that time, they announced the name of their newborn son. While His name was a common one, its meaning holds particular significance: “Yahweh saves.” This Jesus would be unlike any other Jesus. His was more than a name, it was His identity and mission. He was the Savior of Israel and He had come to earth on behalf of His Heavenly Father so that He might redeem and restore those who were enslaved by sin and death. But for the next three decades, the Messiah would live in relative obscurity among those He came to save. The Savior had come, but His mission had not yet begun. The arrival of the Good Shepherd had been announced to a group of earthly shepherds, but it was not yet time for His work to begin. But that day would come soon enough.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – John 10:11 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.