Today, we are concluding our four-part series on the birth account of Jesus. We have been looking at each time that an angel appeared and said, “Fear not.”
Luke chapter 1 records for us the angelic birth announcement of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. Gabriel appeared to the priest Zechariah as he was ministering in the temple and told him to fear not for his wife Elizabeth was to have a child in her old age. And just as Gabriel promised, Elizabeth got pregnant and John the Baptist was born.
Luke chapter 1 also records Gabriel’s visit to a young virgin named Mary six months later. Gabriel told her to fear not for she was a recipient of God’s favor. He told her that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her and she would conceive and give birth to a Son, Jesus, who would be the Son of God.
Matthew 1 records an angelic visit to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed husband. He had decided to divorce Mary when he found out she was pregnant. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him to fear not to take Mary as his wife because the child growing in her was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph was told to name him Jesus because he would save his people from their sins.
And now we come to Luke chapter 2—the birth of this important child. In this post, we’ll be using the Christian Standard Bible—a newer translation that I feel often has more faithful wording to the original Greek. And, it’s always good to read a different version of an account we are familiar with—it helps us to see it in a new light, or at least to pay more attention than we might otherwise.
Luke 2:1–3 1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered. 2 This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So everyone went to be registered, each to his own town.
First of all, I want us to notice that this is real history. Luke doesn’t start out by saying, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” or “Once upon a time.” No, it’s “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered. This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.” A specific time and a specific place with specific named people. These events really happened. The Bible records true history.
Christianity is rooted in history—in real historical events and real people. It’s not just a religion, a faith, a creed, a belief, a set of good moral teachings. Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the Bible and on the reality of the events—particularly the birth, life, miracles, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Over and over the Bible’s history has been shown to be true and accurate. So don’t dismiss these events as myths or fairy tales. They are real history, and if true—and they are true—they are relevant for every person reading this; in fact, to every person on earth.
Luke 2:4–5 4 Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David, 5 to be registered along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was pregnant.
So, Joseph and his pregnant betrothed left Nazareth, up in Galilee, and headed south to Bethlehem, in Judea, just a few miles from Jerusalem. This was a journey of 80 to 100 miles, and there were a couple routes they could have taken. Given the terrain and their mode of transportation, it could have taken them 7–10 days to get to Bethlehem. We are not told how pregnant Mary was, or that she rode on a donkey, or any details of this journey.
But one thing I don’t want us to miss is the time, place, and circumstance of Jesus’ birth. God had decreed that the Messiah, the Son of David, would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. And now, we have a secular king—Caesar Augustus, the most powerful king of the known world—calling for a census at just the right time to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. This fulfilled a prophecy given 400 years earlier.
Micah 5:2 Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are small among the clans of Judah; one will come from you to be ruler over Israel for me. His origin is from antiquity, from ancient times.
The Messiah, the coming ruler of Israel, this one from ancient times—speaking of his divinity—was to be born in Bethlehem. The king, who would sit forever on the throne of David, would be born in the same city that David was born in.
Scripture tells us that, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the Lord’s hand: He directs it wherever he chooses” (Proverbs 21:1). God was in control of the details of Jesus’ birth, just as he was in control of the details of his death.
So, what happened once the couple arrived in Bethlehem?
Luke 2:6–7 6 While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 Then she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped him tightly in cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Next, the text tells us that while the couple was in Bethlehem for the census, Mary’s time to deliver came, and she gave birth to her firstborn Son. Now, I want to clear up a few misconceptions about Christmas—misconceptions that we get from Christmas carols, Nativity scenes, holiday movies, and greeting cards.
First, notice that it says, “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” Mary most likely did not give birth the night they arrived, as many movies depict, but sometime during their stay there.
Next, we are told that she wrapped her newborn son tightly in cloth and laid him in a manger. A manger is an animal feeding trough. Why would she do this? We all know it was because the local inn was full, so the innkeeper told them they could stay around back in the barn with the animals. Right? Wrong.
Part of the reason I’m using the Christian Standard Bible version this morning is because of the way it translates verse 7. Notice that it says she laid him in a manger “because there was no guest room available for them.” What? But where’s the innkeeper turning them out to the cold? Where are the lowing cows and the sheep? And where’s the little drummer boy?
I don’t want to spoil your Christmas, but many of our Christmas traditions come from the imaginations of movie directors, book authors, and hymn writers. So, what’s going on here? The explanation of what happened is fairly simple.
First of all, Bethlehem is Joseph’s ancestral home. He probably had family living there. And even if he didn’t have family, the Middle East is known for its hospitality. No one is going to let Joseph and his pregnant wife sleep on the streets, or put them out in the barn. Also, Bethlehem was a small village. One archaeologist estimated the population to be 300 at this time—I doubt that it had a public motel. Joseph and Mary were no doubt invited into someone’s home.
Back in the first century, houses were often built with two or three levels. On the top level was where guests stayed—it was called the kataluma, the upper room, or the guest room—that’s the word that’s used here—that’s the room we are told that was already occupied when Mary’s time to give birth came. With all the travelers because of the census, I’m sure many homes were full.
The lower level was the where the family lived. The lower level was also where the animals stayed at night. They would be brought inside, into the lower level of the home, for warmth and protection. Mangers—feeding troughs—were very common in this lower level where the animals were kept.
So, since the guest room was full, Mary must have given birth in the family’s living quarters, down by the animals, and she had to put her newborn son in one of those feeding troughs, either a stone one or maybe a wooden one. That is a much more historically accurate picture of what happened on that holy night, 2,000 years ago.
But, if you’re paying attention, you should have a question right about now. If God could move the heart of the Roman emperor to arrange events so that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, couldn’t he have arranged it so that there was a guest room for this couple and Jesus didn’t need to be laid in a stinky manger? Of course he could have. But he didn’t. And that means that there was purpose behind this turn of events—there was a reason that God wanted Jesus to be laid in a manger.
Now we come to the final angelic announcement in the Nativity account.
Luke 2:8–14 8 In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.”
While this seems like old news to us who have heard it a hundred times, it is radical. God dispatches an angel, actually a multitude of them, to announce, the Good News of the birth of his Son, the Messiah. But what’s really interesting is who God sends the angel to.
Think about it. If the Son of God is being born on earth, who would we normally think that God would choose to announce it to? I think he’d probably go to royalty – “Let’s announce it to the kings. Or, at the very least, let’s go to some religious leaders, to some of the Pharisees, or the scribes, or the Sadducees. Let’s announce this to the mighty and the wise, to the rich and the powerful!” But instead, God sends angels to make the announcement to some shepherds.
But what you may not understand is that shepherds in first century Israel were one of the most disrespected groups of people around. The job of a shepherd was so low that a father, if he had to have a family member do it, would give the job of shepherding to the youngest son. And it was more often reserved for slaves.
One historian noted that shepherds were not trusted and could not be admitted in court as witnesses. People were discouraged from buying milk or wool from a shepherd on the assumption that it would be stolen property.
In fact, according to the religious system, shepherds were considered to be in the class of “sinners” along with tax collectors and other despised people.
How do you think that made the shepherds feel? I imagine they felt unworthy, like outcasts—not good enough for God. I’m sure they also felt like they didn’t measure up; they couldn’t even keep the Sabbath. They had to work on Saturdays—they were on the job 24-7.
I imagine they also felt dirty. They were physically dirty, for sure—nomads wandering around the Judean hills for weeks or even months at a time with smelly sheep. But I’m sure they felt spiritually dirty, too—unacceptable to the good religious folk.
You might be reading this today, and maybe you feel like these shepherds. You don’t measure up. You feel inadequate. You feel unworthy. If people only knew the things you’ve done. You look around at those at church and you see smiling faces, nice clothes, and people who don’t have any problems. Right?
The truth is, all around the church, and for certain all around your community, are people who are hurting, who have difficult marriages, who battle depression, who struggle with addiction, who are fighting powerful sins, who have backgrounds that would make you blush. And that’s exactly why Jesus came! Jesus said he didn’t come for the righteous, but for sinners. He came to be a Savior—and a savior saves those who need saving, those who can’t save themselves.
At church we put on our smiles and pretend everything is OK. But we are all in the same boat. We are all broken people—sinners who need a Savior. And the beautiful thing is, there is no sin too great that God can’t forgive it. There is no person so dirty that God won’t accept him. And there is no sin so strong that Jesus can’t break its power.
That’s why the angels appeared to shepherds. That’s why Jesus was laid in a manger. Because he came for the despised, the marginalized, the humble, the broken. He came to save people like us.
The text tells us that these shepherds, in the presence of an angel of the Lord, with the glory of God shining around them, were terrified. I can only imagine. The Greek says they had mega phobia—great fear! We can’t really blame them for being in great fear at the appearance of a mighty angel and the glory of God.
But the angel was not there to terrify them or destroy them, but to give them some good news. So, the angel said, “Fear not!” Or, “Do not be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
What I find cool is that while these shepherds were experiencing great fear (mega phobia), the text says that the angel came instead to give them great joy (mega chara). The good news of the birth of Jesus is meant to turn our fear into joy.
We no longer need fear death. We no longer need fear God’s displeasure, God’s judgment, because of the good news that a baby was born who is our Savior, Messiah, and Lord. Jesus said that he came not to condemn, but to save. He came not to strike great fear in our hearts, but to bring great joy to our souls.
Then the angel said to these shepherds: “Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you”—for lowly shepherds, for the unworthy, for the inadequate, for the dirty, for the weak, for the powerless—that’s who Jesus was born for.
What God values is so different from what we value. We value strength, wealth, degrees, status, power. But God values none of those things. In fact, it is often those things that keep us from a relationship with God. To come to Christ we must humble ourselves, leave behind out status, our pride, our accomplishments, our degrees, our money. We must come as little children, as poor shepherds, with humility and simple trust, acknowledging our unworthiness.
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Jesus often shocked the religious leaders of his day. And he often did so using parables. Most of you know probably know the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
Luke 18:9–14 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus came to save sinners; he came to humble those who exalt themselves, and to exalt those who humble themselves before him.
The apostle Paul is an example of a man who no doubt was filled with religious pride, who had wealth and position and status as a Pharisee. But God humbled him, and Paul learned what little value those things have in God’s eyes. Here’s what Paul wrote:
Philippians 3:4–6 4 If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; 6 regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless.
That’s quite a resume. Some of us could make our own list of accomplishments, achievements, our pedigree, our righteousness. But listen to what Paul did with all his fine upbringing, good works, and law-keeping.
Philippians 3:7–9 7 But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them as dung, so that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith.
Jesus’ birth was announced to terrified, lowly shepherds—the refuse of society—because that’s the people whom Jesus came to save—those who admit that they are sinners, those who admit that they need saving, those who humble themselves and put no confidence in their own goodness or their own good deeds.
The Significance of the Sign
The angel then says that the sign that the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord had been born would be that the shepherds would find a baby lying in a manger—an animal feeding trough. This must have sounded CRAZY to these shepherds! You would think that the Messiah, the promised Savior, the Lord himself would come in glory, be born in a palace.
But God went low that he might save people. He sent his Son to be born and laid in a feeding trough. And he announced Jesus’ birth not to the rich, to the famous, to the wise, to the high and mighty, but to lowly, despised shepherds. That’s how God came to save people.
And Jesus went as low as dying on the cross as a criminal. That’s how much God loves the world; those are the lengths that God would go to reconcile lost sinners to himself.
The People God Favors
There’s one last phase I’d like us to look at in this passage, verses 13 and 14:
Luke 2:13–14 13 Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!”
The birth of the Son of God deserved an angelic multitude to praise God. They shouted, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!”
Some translations say, “peace on earth, good will toward men.” You’ve probably heard that. But that’s not a good translation. This one is much more accurate—”peace on earth to people he favors” or “to people with whom he is well-pleased.” Who are these angels wishing peace for? What kind of people does God favor? Well, this word, translated “favor” or “well-pleased,” is used one other time in Luke’s Gospel:
Luke 10:21 At that time he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, because this was your good pleasure.”
God is pleased with, he favors, not the wise, not the great, not the intelligent and the mighty, but little children—the humble, the poor, the shepherd-types, those on the margins. That’s why Jesus was born in such humble circumstances.
In many ways, “religion” is the enemy of true Christianity. “Religion” can keep a person from a true relationship with God. Religion didn’t work for the shepherds. It made them feel even more distant from God, more unworthy and dirty and inadequate. Religion didn’t work for the shepherds, and religion doesn’t work for us.
“Wait a minute, Gary. I thought you were a pastor! What are you saying?” I’m saying that God did not send Jesus to bring religion into the world—man has invented that for himself. In many ways, Jesus came to set us free from religion, to give us something better.
You see, the problem with religion is that religion reduces Christianity down to rules—dos and don’ts. If I do the right things and don’t do the wrong things, I feel better about myself. I must be a good person. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t chew, and I don’t run with women who do.” So, I must be okay. And if you do those things, then I have the right to look down on you because I’m holier than you; I’m better than you. I’m more religious than you because I obey more rules than you.
That kind of thinking and that kind of behavior made Jesus angry. He said to the Pharisees, “You’re so focused on the outside while the inside is filthy! Sure, your outside looks clean, but the inside—where it matters—is filthy and rotten!” (Matthew 23:25-28). They had missed the entire point. And it was their religiosity and self-righteousness that caused them to miss Jesus, their Messiah, and to crucify him instead.
Christianity was never meant to be a religion; it was meant to be a relationship with God. That’s why God sent a Person. That’s why God sent Jesus, his Son. That’s the Good News.
We often talk about being missional and reaching our neighbors with the gospel. But we will never reach our community if we think we are better than they are. I’m afraid that in Jesus’ parable, more often than not, we are the Pharisee rather than the tax collector. We pride ourselves on our respectable behavior, our clean language, our nice clothes, our good manners, while the people that Jesus came for—the shepherds—are on the outside, on the margins, not quite good enough.
I believe that these details in this account of Jesus’ birth, recorded by Luke, inspired by God, are here for a reason. They show us how different God’s values are from our own; how different his priorities are from ours.
The good news of great joy is that Jesus came as a Savior to save sinners. No matter how bad you feel you are, no matter what you may have done, Jesus invites you to follow him. He will never cast out anyone who humbly comes to him in faith.
And the great thing is, when you come to Jesus by faith, he takes your sin, your shame, your past, your garbage—he takes it on himself and nails it to the cross—he paid the price for it. And in exchange, he gives you his righteousness, his obedience, his faithfulness. So, when God looks at you, he sees his Son. That’s the good news of the gospel that we celebrate at Christmastime, and all year long.
When you come to Jesus by faith, he takes your sin, your shame, your past, your garbage on himself and nails it to the cross. And in exchange, he gives you his righteousness, his obedience, his faithfulness. Click To Tweet
What gratitude we ought to have this Christmas as we think of all that God has done for us in sending his Son. How we ought to celebrate as we reflect on the birth of our Savior, our Messiah, our Lord. What wonder should fill out hearts as we ponder this Child, who came to take away our sin and give us his righteousness, that we might have a relationship with God now and forever. Hallelujah!
Prayer: God, we repent of any self-righteousness in our hearts. We repent of looking down on others as unacceptable, unworthy, or inadequate. God, break our hearts. Loosen the stranglehold that our pride often has on us. Thank you for your love, your mercy, your grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you took on yourself our sin and shame, and in exchange you give us your righteousness. May we be truly grateful this Christmas season.