The Old Testament prophets wrote of a messenger who would prepare God’s people for the arrival of the long-promised Messiah. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul looks again at the song of the Benedictus in the gospel of Luke to see this prophecy’s fulfillment in John the Baptist.
The text this morning is one of the most magnificent narratives that we find anywhere in Scripture. It is Luke’s account of the birth of our Lord. You’ve heard this text every Advent season, and I’m sure that you, as I do, never get tired of hearing this narrative. I may a get little tired of preaching from this narrative, but I certainly never tire of hearing it. We’ll be looking at Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth found in Luke 2:1–20. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.
It just doesn’t get any better than this account from Luke’s pen, under the inspiration and superintendence of God the Holy Spirit. This is God’s Word, His truth, announced not only to shepherds in antiquity, but to us this morning. Receive it as the good news of the gospel. Let us pray.
Now, O Lord, as we once again consider the nativity of our dear Savior, we pray that You will condescend to our weakness, to the frailty of our understanding, that we may never be bored by the repetition of this account, but that You would create a flame in our hearts, that every time we hear it there might be fire in our bones because of this great news. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.
The King in a Manger
The first thing we see about Luke’s narrative is found in the opening words. He begins his account by saying, “And it came to pass.” He goes on to speak of the activity of the emperor of the Roman Empire and of Quirinius, the governor of Syria, real people in real places in real history.
This story does not begin with the words, “Once upon a time,” because this is no fairytale. This is sober history, announcing the entrance into this world of our Savior. So, Luke sets his narrative squarely in the context of real history: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
This story, friends, is about three kings. One of those kings sits on the throne as the ruler and emperor of Rome, the greatest power on the face of the earth. The second king sits not on a throne but wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in the manger. This little King is the King of kings. He rules over the king in Rome. The third is the eternal King, the Lord God Omnipotent, who reigns from the moment of His work of creation to the moment of His work of fulfillment of His cosmos. He is the great King who reigns over all things.
The story proximately speaks of an earthly decree issued and executed by the emperor in Rome. That emperor issues a decree that all return to their home cities to be registered for the census in order to be taxed by imperial Rome. This decree is done in obedience to a much earlier decree, even in eternity, when God decreed that His Son would come into this world to do His work of redemption for His people. He would be born at a specific time, in the fullness of time, at a specific place in the village of Bethlehem for a specific mission: to save His people from their sins.
Caesar Augustus, probably the most celebrated of Roman emperors and the second in the long list of them, the successor to Julius Caesar, was called Octavian by name and was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. He was Julius’ favorite, so when Caesar was assassinated and fell at the foot of the statue of Pompeii on the floor of the senate, they read his last will and testament, and he named Octavian as his principal and chief heir. The senate of Rome named Octavian Emperor and gave him the title Caesar Augustus, or sebastos, meaning “the supreme, sublime, majestic one.”
The Jews shrank in horror from this title because they believed that only God was worthy of the title August, and the true August One was in the manger because there was no room for Jesus Augustus in the inn. Caesar Augustus celebrated the memory of his great uncle, Julius, by building a temple in his honor, acknowledging the deity of Julius Caesar. What a foolish mistake. The only deity within the confines of the Roman Empire was to be found in the manger in Bethlehem.
Born into Humiliation
In obedience to the decree of Caesar Augustus, Joseph left his home of Nazareth in Galilee and went into Judea to the city of David called Bethlehem. He did this because he was a descendant of the line of David, and he brought his wife with him.
Roman law did not require that the man bring his wife to register for the tax, and we can speculate as to why Joseph subjected his wife to such an arduous journey. Proximately, the reason is clear. He knew that the time had come for her to deliver, and he did not want her to have to do that without his presence. So, he brought her with him. But the ultimate reason that trumps the proximate one is that it also was decreed from all eternity that the babe be born in Bethlehem. Centuries before, Micah announced: “Thou Bethlehem Ephrathah, though thou be small among the princes of Judah, yet out of you will come the One whom God has anointed” (Mic. 5:2). In fulfillment of this, the day came for her to deliver, and she brought forth her firstborn son, wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.
The entrance of Jesus into this world is against the backdrop of humiliation. There was no place for Him to lay His head. In fact, as an adult, He would say, “The Son of Man has no place to lay His head” (Luke 9:58). He never had a place to lay His head that wasn’t borrowed from someone else.
So, the cloak of shame and humiliation is spread across this babe, wrapped in these rough, bandage-like strips of cloth and placed either in the niche of the rock used as a feeding trough for the animals or in a crude cradle of some sort. Humiliation in His entrance into the world; humiliation in His exit from the world.
At the very moment when the babe is wrapped in the cloth of humiliation, the Father is not satisfied that the circumstances of the birth of His Son be only in terms of humiliation. They must also be accompanied with exaltation. That shame must be balanced with glory. Not in the manger, not in the cave or the stable where they were, but on the outskirts of the village.
Out in the fields were the lowest people of the land, the shepherds, keeping their flocks at night. They were living outside, sheltered by crudely built huts, overlooking and superintending the flocks that belong not only to them but to others as well. They would watch these flocks through the night, taking turns sleeping and keeping vigil over their sheep, lest the sheep be attacked by wild animals or rustlers.
Out there on the plains, where the sheep were watched that night, it was quiet. It really was a silent night. As most of the shepherds were sleeping in that silence, there would only be an occasional punctuation of the silence by the bleating of a sheep, but that would be it for the noise.
Suddenly, with no prior announcement, no warning, no human messenger coming out to them, shaking them awake and saying: “Watch out! This night is an incredible night. You won’t believe what’s going to take place in just a few moments!”—out of nowhere, an angel from heaven appeared to whatever shepherds were awake. An angel of the Lord stood before them, accompanied by the glory of God. The glory of the Lord shone around them.
Almost every time there is a theophany, an outward visible manifestation of the invisible God in the Old Testament, we see the theophany accompanied by the presence of the Shekinah. The Shekinah was the blazing, refulgent, blinding glory of God himself. When that glory was visible on this planet, people hid their eyes from it, they were overwhelmed by it, they were driven to their knees in front of it, because there was nothing in nature that could compare to the Shekinah glory of God. These shepherds tending their flocks, taking their naps, were suddenly interrupted by an angel of the Lord, bathed in the Shekinah glory right before their eyes.
Do Not Be Afraid
Those who were asleep before the angel appeared did not stay asleep. We can be certain that they were roused immediately from their dogmatic slumbers to take part in this sound and light show that filled the plain. Luke gives us the notation that when the Shekinah glory appeared, the shepherds were “greatly afraid.”
I like the old King James Version, which says, “They were sore afraid,” because it’s one thing to be afraid, but it’s quite another to be sore afraid. When you are sore afraid, beloved, you are afraid. You are afraid like you’ve never been afraid in your whole life. Who wouldn’t be trembling in fear at the manifestation of the glory of God at that moment? But the angel speaks and says the most frequent negative prohibition in the New Testament that comes from on high: “Fear not. Don’t be afraid.”
It seems in the New Testament record of the life of Jesus that almost every time He came into the presence of His disciples, instead of saying, “Peace be with you,” or “Hello,” or “Good morning,” or “Good afternoon,” He would have to say, “Don’t be afraid,” because nothing is more common for fallen creatures than to be terrified in the presence of God.
Every time I hear this negative prohibition, “Don’t be afraid,” I can’t help but think of my days of teaching nineteenth-century philosophy. I had the unenviable task of teaching the work and writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, the existential nihilist, who said that there is no meaning to life. Everything is an exercise in futility. All there is at the end of the day is das Nichtege, nothingness.
At the same time, Nietzsche, in his biological heroism, called for the superman, the Übermensch, to demonstrate what he called, “dialectical courage.” He said, “The superman is the man who builds his house on the slope of Vesuvius.” He sends his ship into uncharted seas. He’s afraid of nothing. He’s defiant. He challenges this meaningless world in which he lives, and he lives his life in the spirit of dialectical courage.
What is dialectical courage? Well, what Nietzsche meant was this: dialectical courage is contradictory courage. It’s irrational courage. Nietzsche would say: “Life is meaningless. Be courageous, even though your courage is equally meaningless.” That is, he could give no sound reason for inviting anyone to be courageous or fearless.
Not so in the New Testament. Jesus says to His followers, “Be of good cheer.” Life is meaningless—no! Be of good cheer. This is not dialectical joy. He gave a reason for that command. “Be of good cheer,” Jesus said, “for I have overcome the world.” Long before He said those words, the angels gave a reason. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid.” Why not? “Because I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.”
“Do not be afraid, because there is born to you.” They must have been thinking, “To us, to the shepherds?” The angel said: “There is born to you. Unto you a child is born. Unto you, despised shepherds, a Son is given. Unto you this day is born in the city of David a sōtēr, a Savior. Don’t be afraid, for this is the birth-day of the One who will save you. This is the day your Savior is born. Not only is He the Savior, but He is Christ the Lord.”
The shepherds understood the meaning of the word Christ, the New Testament translation of the Old Testament word for Messiah. Today, your Savior is born. Today the Messiah is born. Today your Lord is born in Bethlehem, and this will be the sign. You must go and look, see the sign, because the sign is significant. You’re going to find a baby wrapped in cheap cloth, not on a throne, but in a manger.
Glory Seen and Told
No sooner had the angel made his announcement than this single messenger from heaven, perhaps Gabriel, is surrounded by the entire heavenly host. There was with the angel a multitude of the army of angels that inhabit heaven and surround the presence of our eternal God. It’s not Zacharias who is singing. It’s not Mary who is singing. It’s the angels who bring a chorus from heaven saying, “Glory,” doxa. “Glory—augustness—to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
This was the first singing of the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Don’t you love to sing the Christmas carols? Don’t you love that hymn, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” with the refrain of the angel’s song, “Gloria in excelsis Deo”?
So it was, Luke tells us, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven that the shepherds began to speak to one another: “Did you see that? Did you hear that? To hear the heavens open and that choir of angels singing gloria? What are we doing standing here? Let’s go right now! Let us now go even unto Bethlehem. Let’s see this sign that the angel has just announced.”
They came with haste and found Mary and Joseph. But they weren’t coming to see Mary. They weren’t coming to pay homage to Joseph. They were coming to see the babe lying in the manger. Once they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying that was told them concerning this child. They told every single person they knew. They didn’t just try to live a good life after that and have people come up to them and say, “What’s changed you from a sin-blistered soul into a valorous saint?” They didn’t just do evangelism by example. They opened their mouths. They told everyone what they heard and what they saw, and everyone who heard it marveled at the things that were told them by the shepherds.
Mary Pondered These Things
You wonder how long the shepherds marveled. You wonder how long the excitement lasted, the duration of their zeal and happiness from their experience, which had to be a converting experience. Maybe every Christmas they made mention of it.
Not Mary. Mary kept these things, everything that she saw, everything that she heard, she kept it and pondered it in her heart. Eight days later, when she took the child to the temple for circumcision, she pondered that. When the boy was twelve and confounded the doctors in the temple, she pondered that. Every night that she tucked her son into bed, she pondered these things. She pondered them to the day she stood at the foot of a cross and watched Him die. She pondered that until Sunday morning came and He arose, not in humility, not in shame, not in disgrace, but in glory, in triumph, in exaltation.
The shepherds left doing two things: praising God and glorifying Him for everything they heard and seen. That’s the lot of the Christian, to give glory and honor, dominion and power and praise. We join the angels saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive the fullness of the glory of God.” That’s Christmas. Let’s pray.
Father, how we thank you for this day of days when we can ponder those things that you have wrought in the Christ child, who remained not a child but grew in wisdom and stature, who was crowned as the King of Glory. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.