The Victorious Messiah
We saw last week that the promised Messiah would be God’s eternal King, God himself come to earth. Now, like we saw, for the war-torn first readers of Isaiah’s prophecy, this would have been a wonderful promise indeed—God is coming to save us! The question is, Save us from what? Their immediate thought would of course be that he’s coming to save us from oppression. The perfect King is coming, from the line of David, and he will bring us back to the glory days of our once great king! So the way in which the Messiah actually came is meant to shock us—the circumstances around the birth of Jesus show us two main things: they show us that Jesus did not come to save his people from what they thought; and that he did not come to save his people in the way that they thought.
The angels’ announcement of Jesus’s birth is a text most Christians know well; it’s one we read every Christmas. And for good reason: this text is remarkable—not just because Luke wrote it after scrupulously investigating the matter and collecting eyewitness accounts of what happened. This text is remarkable because of its juxtapositions—in the angels’ announcement of the birth of Jesus, we see the majesty of the Christ’s coming, as well as the humility with which he came. So I’d like to simply take their announcement piece by piece, in the hopes of helping us see the magnitude of what they’re saying. So let’s start reading together in Luke chapter 2, starting at verse 8.
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.
So before we get into what the angel tells the shepherds, let’s take a second to think about the appearance itself. Jesus has just been born in Bethlehem, and no one is the wiser: no one in the city is aware of the monumental event that has taken place. The religious authorities, who had studied the Messianic promises most of their lives, who supposedly knew all the signs of the Messiah’s coming, didn’t notice a thing. So God takes it upon himself to make this incredible announcement, and he does so by sending an angel to a group of shepherds on the outskirts of town. It’s fairly easy for us to imagine angels, because we live in a time in which the cinema can produce spectacular special effects reasonably easily. Even if these effects pale in comparison to what the real thing must have been, we can at least kind of wrap our minds around it.
Imagine what it must have been like for a bunch of shepherds in first century Israel—guys who have never seen anything remotely in the realm of the fantastic. Can you imagine how terrifying it must have been? Luke says that an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. We don’t have time to go into detail here, but this is no small statement. The glory of God was the visible manifestation of his excellence and power, and every time people in the Bible see it, it is a terrifying sight.
So you have an angel on one side, a being unlike anything the shepherds would ever have seen, and on the other side, we have this angel bringing with him the glory of God himself—the visible manifestation of his power and excellence. This is something which would petrify any of us if we ever saw anything close to it. So the angel tells the shepherds not to be afraid, then tells them why. So we’re going to take what the angel says piece by piece.
1) The Child of Victory (v. 10-11)
10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news…” Do not be afraid, BECAUSE I HAVE GOOD NEWS! I bring you GOOD NEWS! So it’s not just “We’re not going to kill you;” this is “We’ve got good news! Amazing news! Earth-shattering, astounding, life-changing news!”
It is good news of great joy. It is so strange how in most people’s eyes Christianity has become synonymous with joylessness—with strict rule-keeping and asceticism. And not just joylessness for Christians, but for other people as well. Jesus was a man who spent the bulk of his time with prostitutes and tax collectors (in other words, people whom their culture viewed as the lowest of the low); but his followers have become known for judgmentalism and rejection, not only not communicating the joy of this message to those who need Christ, but effectively making them feel less welcome, less deserving to meet Christ than we ourselves are. And even among us—if you’ve grown up in church, think back and ask yourselves, How many Christians do I know who are miserable most of the time?
So I hope we can see that somewhere the message has derailed. There is an inextricable link between the message of the gospel and great joy in those who have received it. Imagine you receive a letter in the mail saying you have inherited a million euros—all you have to do is come to this address across town on this date and we’ll write you a check. And you respond to this news by saying, “I can’t believe I have to go all the way across town—like I have nothing better to do!” There is a right way and a wrong way to respond to good news. We have to see that this is GOOD NEWS of GREAT JOY—there is no good news without the joy! If our hearts do not respond with great joy, then we haven’t understood the good news!
Next: Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. In other words, the coming of the Messiah is not exclusive. It is not meant for only a certain class of people. And God doesn’t only prove this in the future, in Jesus’s ministry, but also in the very moment of the angels’ announcement. God proves that this good news of great joy is for all the people by making it so that the very first people to hear the news of his coming is a group of lowly shepherds—men who were on the very bottom of the social ladder. This is good news for all kinds of people.
And this is good news is for ALL PEOPLE. Up to this point in human history God had only dealt with one people group: his chosen people, the people of Israel. But this Messiah isn’t only the Jews’ Messiah—he is the Messiah of all people. It is true that not everyone to whom the gospel message is announced will receive him, but this announcement, made to lowly shepherds, should be enough to prove to us that the coming of this Messiah is and should be announced to everyone. No one is too sinful, too weak, too far, too low, too poor, or too unintelligent to have access to him; and no one is too perfect, too strong, too close, too rich or too brilliant to need him.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David… The prophet Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, David’s hometown (Micah 5.2). In addition, the Messiah was not only to be born in David’s city, but also of his line. In 2 Samuel 7, the prophet Nathan speaks to David on behalf of God, saying (v. 12), I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. What began as a prophecy concerning David’s son Solomon took on much greater significance: God promised a kingdom which would never end. Another Son of David would rule for all eternity and build a very different temple.
In short, the angel’s proclamation that this child has been born in the city of David is significant because it shows that God is fulfilling the promises he had made to the patriarch David centuries before. God is remaining faithful to his promises.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ… This “Christ” is the Messiah (“Christ” is not a name at all, but a title, meaning Messiah). The Messiah was the promised Savior of the Jews. The Jews had expected the Messiah to come and free them from oppression: like we saw last week, they had constantly been handed over by God to foreign powers as judgment for their sins—first Assyria, then Babylon, and now Rome.
But all those foreign occupations and exiles were meant to teach the Israelites a deeper truth: they were all slaves to a master far more dangerous, far more cruel, than Babylon or Rome. They were slaves to their sin, to their rebellion against God, and much more than they needed someone to save them from Rome, they needed someone to save them from the eternal consequences of their rebellion.
So the promised Messiah would be that Savior. He would come to save the people from their sins. And not just this people, but all people (as we saw), for all people are slaves to sin, whether they know it or not. It’s sometimes hard to realize that we are all by nature slaves to sin, so think of it this way: we are what we love. We are what we desire. Whatever we desire most is what will win—we will do and act in accordance to whatever holds that place in our hearts. And God tells us that none of us by nature desire the one thing that is genuinely worthy of our desires—none of us by nature desire him. So no matter what we want, no matter how good it seems to be, if we don’t want it for God’s sake, to the praise of his name, we want it sinfully, and thus are slaves to sin. As Saint Augustine famously (and very correctly) wrote, “He loves Thee too little, who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.” So whether or not we would categorize ourselves as “bad people,” we need a Savior. We need the Messiah. And the good news of great joy to all of us is that on that day, a little over two thousand years ago, he came. He was born.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This child, this baby, is not only the Messiah; he is not only the Savior; he is the Lord. That is, this baby is the one who created all things, and thus this baby has authority over all things; this baby is the one who deserves our obedience and has the authority to demand it; and when we sin, this baby is the one we sin against. This baby is our King, and he won’t stay a baby forever; before long he’ll be able to talk; he’ll give us guidance, direction, and yes, commandments. He may seem harmless now, but just wait: he is the one who will grow to change the entire ethical, religious and political world in which he lived; he is the one who will have a greater influence on humankind than any other man who lived; and he is the one who one day will return riding a white horse, with his robe dipped in blood, a sword coming out of his mouth and a tattoo on his thigh (Rev. 19.13-16). Although he looks like an ordinary baby, don’t be fooled: his baby is the Lord. Don’t be fooled by his size or momentary inability to do anything on his own; this is the most powerful being who has ever or would ever live, and he will be victorious.
2) The Means of Victory (v. 12)
12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this announcement comes when the angel tells the shepherds how to recognize the baby. Swaddling cloths are not uncommon—we swaddled Jack as a newborn—but a baby lying in a manger (which at the time was essentially a feeding trough for animals)? Think of what it would be like today for a woman to give birth on the street in Paris, and to lay her baby in an old, dirty blanket she found balled up in the street, because that’s all she could find. That’s what this was like. These are beyond humble circumstances; these are humiliating circumstances.
Couldn’t God have done better? When he finally sent his King, could he not have set him up in better circumstances? Of course he could have—so the question is, Why didn’t he? It’s as if God has gone out of his way to make Jesus’s birth as unflattering as possible. Which of course is exactly what he’s done.
When theologians talk about Christ’s coming to earth, they call it “the incarnation.” The point of the incarnation is that rather than waiting for man to finally be good enough to reach God, God came down to us. And he didn’t come as a rich man, because otherwise we might be tempted to think he came to save only rich men. He didn’t come as a powerful warrior, because otherwise we might be tempted to think his victory would be gained through violence, through political warfare. He came small; he came defenseless; he came dependent—just like us all. But his size and his dependence on his parents should not blind us to the striking reality that there was indeed a war going on, a war not between heaven and earth, but between heaven and hell (so to speak).
To help us get the feel of this, try this picture: the classic Nativity scene, with the baby lying in the manger, and his exhausted parents nearby…and in among the cows and lambs, a huge, red dragon waiting for the right moment to pounce on the manger and eat the baby. Have you ever seen a manger scene in a church with the red dragon? Ever seen that on a Christmas card? Of course not. But he was there. In Revelation 12 John describes his vision of what was actually going on at the birth of Christ (Rev. 12.4-5): And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron [Jesus], but her child was caught up to God and to his throne…
In other words, Satan was waiting for the incarnation, waiting to pounce on Jesus and win the day; but he didn’t pull it off. At the cross he dealt a blow to Christ—or, to use the dragon imagery, the dragon finally managed to swallow the baby. But in swallowing the baby whole, he swallowed his own poison. Jesus returned from the dead after three days, effectively striking Satan to the heart and signaling the beginning of the end.
Jesus’s birth marked the beginning of war. It was the beginning of an invasion, an infiltration of God’s forces into enemy territory. The Son of God, second person of the Trinity, snuck in behind enemy lines…and won. He dealt the death blow to Satan by doing the one thing the devil never expected: rather than punishing his rebellious children, he took their place and was punished for them. This baby would do what was required of him to obtain the victory and be seated on the throne.
3) The Shout of Victory (v. 13-14)
And the victory of this baby is so sure that after the announcement of his birth (as if that weren’t enough), there is an ear-splitting shout of victory: 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God… Just in case the shepherds weren’t impressed enough, the angel who has been telling them all this is joined by a multitude—innumerable angels just like him, singing and shouting and praising God, saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Naturally, this glory should frighten us, as the sight of the angels frightened the shepherds, because it highlights the reality of the immense gap between ourselves and the holy God of the universe. I hope you realize this: you are so far below the glory of God that on your own, you may never hope to be united to him. Neither can I. None of us can. Even for the most perfect human being who ever lived, the gap between him and the glorious God of the universe is infinitely wide.
No matter our station, our salary, our culture or our upbringing, we have all rebelled against a holy God. We have preferred our own desires over his; we haven’t believed that what our Creator commands of us is better for us than what we want; we have even refused to acknowledge his existence! We stand before him guilty, and there is nothing we can do to make up for that fact. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3.23).
But here’s the good news: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” God, being rich in mercy, made himself the lowest of men, in order to unite us to him. His coming was not exclusive; it was not only meant for the rich, or the learned, or the qualified. He came in the form of an ordinary baby, in a stable, born to parents of modest means. And his birth was announced to simple shepherds, the lowest men on that culture’s pecking order. God came to the dregs of society, to make himself visible to all men, that all men might have the chance to see and know him. We cannot get to him, which is why he came to us. We cannot be good enough for him, which is why he was good enough for us. Jesus lived the perfect life we should have lived, and died the death that we deserved, in order to unite us to God. No one is too low for Christ’s coming. No one is too sinful for his sacrifice to cover. He came to us, and brought us peace, and became our victory.
4) See the Messiah
Seeing the glory of God changes a person. It changes the way we see God. Francis Schaeffer, speaking about the experience of the shepherds hearing the announcement of the birth of Christ and then seeing that baby themselves, writes, “While the reality of all this was upon the shepherds, I think prayer would have been an exceedingly simple experience. Communication with God would have become easy because they had seen the supernatural. For if the shepherds heard the angels, why shouldn’t God now hear the shepherds?”
In the same way, seeing the glory of God changes how we see ourselves. Schaeffer continues, “Having seen the glory of the heavenly host, could a shepherd any longer think of himself as the center of the universe, expecting all things to get out of his way? The glory would have been too overwhelming. Facing the glory of heaven, the shepherds of Bethlehem surely would not have thought that they could drive their little cart through all the universe, stamping harshly upon God’s place.”
So God’s call to us through this text is to see the glory of God in Christ. Obviously we can’t see him physically; he was born, he lived, he died, he resurrected, and he ascended into heaven. He’s not here physically with us now. Which is why God gave us Luke, and gave us the Holy Spirit. He gave Luke the ability to investigate effectively, and then the Holy Spirit breathed out his Word perfectly into Luke’s hand and mind, so that even if we can’t see Christ’s body today, we can see him!
When he was born, we saw him; when the shepherds received the announcement of the glory of the Messiah’s birth, we saw him; when they traveled to see this simple baby in the manger, we saw him. So as we meditate on Christ’s birth this weekend, please don’t just think about the metaphysics of it; please don’t examine this philosophically. SEE him. Read this text again, and keep going. See Christ there, in the pages of his Word, and know that all the other writings collected in this book are about him.
See the Messiah. See his glory, know that he has come to you, and that since he came to you, you can come to him. Since you have seen him, he can see you. Since you have heard him, he can hear you. Don’t let Christmas be about presents, or even about family. Those are secondary considerations. Christmas is about Jesus. So celebrate Jesus. Let every light on every street remind you what you’re celebrating. Let every gift under the tree remind you of what the greatest gift really is.
See the Messiah. Know him for who he is. See the baby in the manger for who he is. Those tiny hands belong to the one who created the universe. In the body of this tiny, ordinary-looking baby, we have glory incarnate. If you have seen the glory of the incarnate Christ, how can you continue thinking of yourself as the center of the universe? You can’t—his glory is too overwhelming. So see your Messiah. See your Savior. Know him for who he is, and worship him for who he is. Love him for who he is. Be thankful for who he is. He is the gift. Love him, and receive him. Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord… “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!