Good News of Great Joy
Series: Stand-Alone Sermons
Today is the day many observe as Christmas, and we’re happy for the excuse to focus on the birth of Christ, because his birth is good news of great joy.
Luke 1:1-9:50 (Baker Exegetical Commentary), Darrell Bock
Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Luke, J.C. Ryle
Well today is the day many recognize as Christmas, a day set aside to reflect on the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. While we’ve already mentioned the freedom we have in Christ to treat the day as any other, we’re also happy to have an excuse to focus on the birth of Christ. Regardless of someone’s beliefs about Christ, Christmas is a time of year, or even “the holidays” as many call them, that is a happy time for many. It may be because of the anticipation of receiving gifts, as is especially the case for many children. It may be the nostalgia of the music, the tree, the cookies, and the traditions. It may simply be because it means time off work. As we look at this passage from the Gospel of Luke, where the story of Jesus’ birth is recorded, we also find cause for great joy; we even find angels rejoicing. But it’s not for any of the reasons I just listed, nor is it connected to “Christmas”: Remember, “Christmas” isn’t in the passage. But the birth of Jesus is, and so with it is much joy. So rejoice that Jesus has been born, and this passage gives us three reasons to do so: He’s a different kind of ruler, he’s Savior, Christ, and Lord, and he brings glory to God and peace to people.
He’s a different kind of ruler
Our text begins not with the mention of Jesus, but with the mention of Caesar Augustus. Augustus, sometimes better known as Octavian, was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and the first emperor of the Roman Empire. He’s a big deal historically, and he was a big deal then. He was a big enough deal that he could decree that all the world be registered. Now, of course both Luke and Caesar Augustus knew there was a world beyond the Roman Empire, but colloquially, due to Rome’s sense of its own greatness, they would refer to the Roman Empire as “the world.” So a man named Joseph goes to be registered in his hometown. We already heard today that he was betrothed to a woman named Mary, who Luke is very careful to tell us was a virgin. Nonetheless, she received a message from an angel of God that she would give birth to a Son, who she should name Jesus. So Mary received this message from an angel earlier, and sure enough, when we come to chapter 2, we read in verse 5 that Mary was with child.
Now, Luke is careful to note not only that Joseph and Mary went to Joseph’s hometown; he’s careful to note what Joseph’s hometown was: In verse 4 he calls it the City of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. Of course, he could have just said Bethlehem and gotten the fact across, but he’s careful to clarify that Bethlehem is the city of David, and the reason Joseph went there is because he is of the house and lineage of David. And as soon as you hear David, you should think king. David was the greatest king of Israel’s history, who then served as the prototype for all future Israelite kings. And God had promised David that one of his sons would sit on the throne of Israel, and of the increase of his government and of peace there would be no end (2 Sam 7:12-16, Isa 9:7). More specifically, in Micah 5:2 God says this: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” So they go, and we read in verse 6 that while they were there, the time came for her to give birth, and then in verse 7 we read that she did so, giving birth to her firstborn son, another phrase that conjures up images of royalty, wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
So here, under the reign of the most powerful ruler on earth, a firstborn son is born in the city of David, Bethlehem, the place where God promised a ruler would come forth for him. In the verses that follow, the angels will announce his identity more clearly, but in the way Luke tells the story of his birth thus far, he’s dropping overt hints to us that this child was born to rule over Israel. At the same time, he’s dropping overt hints to us that this is a different kind of ruler than Caesar. His father willingly obeyed Augustus’ royal decree; he wasn’t a political revolutionary. And suffice it to say that Augustus wasn’t born in a manger. He didn’t spend his first night sleeping in a trough from which animals eat. But this new ruler did, because this new ruler was a humble ruler, who came for the humble and lowly of the earth. His life principle would be to serve, not to be served.
And so, this is the kind of ruler in whose birth we can rejoice. Perhaps we wouldn’t intuitively consider it cause for rejoicing that we are getting a ruler. Our flesh and our world incline us to want to be our own rulers. But if you realize, as the Israelites did, that you’re always going to be ruled by something, whether it be a foreign government as in their case, or a career, or a significant other, or the need to be praised by others as it is often is in our case, then your greatest joy will come, not from being ruled by nothing, which is impossible, but from being ruled by a humble ruler, who came not to be served, but to serve, who doesn’t need a palace and pomp from you, but who willingly was born in obscurity, in a place where animals feed for you. So rejoice that Jesus has been born, because Jesus is a different kind of ruler.
Before I move on, though, let me just point out something so obvious it’s easy to miss. Luke records the birth of Jesus as though it really happened. It happened in the same world in which Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome and Quirinius was governor of Syria. We rejoice that Jesus has been born because it really happened. Christmas, for many, warms their hearts the way Pokémon cards warm my heart. They take us back to our childhood, we pass them on to the next generation, and it doesn’t really matter whether Charizard and Blastoise exist. So, for many, it doesn’t really matter whether Jesus Christ was born, or who he was. But Jesus is not a Pokémon. He really was born. If that weren’t the case, we couldn’t rejoice that he is a different kind of ruler, because he wouldn’t be ruling anything. But since he truly was born, we rejoice that he’s a different kind of ruler, and we rejoice because he’s Savior, Christ, and Lord.
He’s Savior, Christ, and Lord
After recording Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watching over their flocks by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. The glory of the Lord, in this case, is a bright light, the same bright light we read of in earlier parts of the Bible that is described when the presence of God fills the temple. Now imagine being a shepherd keeping watch over your flocks in the middle of the night, in a world without artificial light. It would be very dark, and you would have no reason to expect to see any light at that time unless something cataclysmic were happening. You wouldn’t think, “Maybe it’s a car’s headlights” because there were no cars. On the other hand, there were stories of the Bible of appearances of God accompanied by this great light. So they see this angel of the Lord and a great light around him, and what is their natural response? They were filled with great fear, verse 9 tells us.
A few things we can observe about the shepherds, then: First, they were shepherds, meaning they were not the upper crust of society. They were of a humble or lowly social position, much like Jesus, as we have already seen. We also see they were faithful in that work: They were keeping watch over their flocks by night. They weren’t busy trying to climb the ladder, busy trying to become Caesar; they were living the life the Lord had assigned them. They not only occupied a humble and lowly position in society, but they had humble and lowly hearts that did not lust after worldly exaltation and glory, nor grumbled about their lack of it, and we only see that more clearly in that when they saw the angel, they were afraid. This likely indicates that they had some awareness of their own sinfulness, their own unworthiness, their own lack of glory, in comparison to the glory of the Lord which now shone around them. Their response, in other words, was not one of “Ah yes; an angel, we would expect to keep company with such.” It was one of fear.
And it is to such people that the angel then says, “Fear not.” There are stories in the Bible of angels coming to execute judgment, but that’s not why God sent this angel. He could tell the shepherds to fear not, not because they weren’t as bad as they thought they were, not because deep down they really were quite good people who just needed to stop being so hard on themselves, but because he came to bring good news of great joy. The past few Sundays we’ve been together we’ve been looking at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, and we saw that joy is one of them. It’s a state of gladness or happiness, and the shepherd says the message he’s come to proclaim is one that has the power to produce not only happiness, but great happiness, not just for some people, but for all people, even for humble, lowly, shepherds.
Why? Because unto you, yes, even unto you, humble as you are, is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. The service this king came to render was the service of salvation. He is a savior. It is fitting, then, that this angelic announcement would come to shepherds. Typically when a child is born, who would you expect to be notified first? Family, right? But this child was not merely born unto a particular family; his birth is good news of great for joy for all people. For a ruler, then, you might expect the next people to know of his birth, beyond family, would be others in the ruling class. But here shepherds, commoners, find out first, because this child was a different kind of ruler, who came to save, and therefore it makes sense that his birth would be announced to those who know they need a savior. Caesar Augustus doesn’t think he needs salvation. In fact, we even have inscriptions from the time that suggest at his birth, he was declared a savior! He doesn’t think he needs a savior because he thinks he is the savior of the world, as do the other citizens of Rome.
But the shepherds aren’t citizens of Rome. They’re Israelites, and at that time, all Israel was under the thumb or Rome. So, one way in which a humble Israelite felt they needed salvation was that they needed salvation from Rome. And before Rome, they’d needed salvation from Babylon, and before Babylon, they’d needed salvation from Egypt. So in chapter 1, in the passage just before this one, Zechariah, another humble Israelite, says that God was sending a savior so that “we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,” so that they, being delivered from the hand of their enemies, might serve the Lord without fear (Luke 1:71-74). So, on the one hand, the Israelites who had been born again of God’s Spirit before the coming of Christ, who served him with sincerity, needed salvation from their enemies, so they could do what they wanted: Serve the Lord without fear. So the good news of great joy was that now the Savior had come who would save them from the hand of their enemies so that they could serve the Lord without fear all their days.
But that wasn’t the only thing from which Israel needed salvation. Zechariah also says in chapter 1 that salvation consists in the forgiveness of the peoples’ sins. It would be terribly misleading to think of Israel as a nation filled with people who wanted to serve the Lord with sincerity, but who simply were prevented from doing so by Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and the like. And we know that from Israel’s history. The fact is, God did deliver them from the hand of their enemies in Egypt, so that they might serve him without fear, and instead of serving him, they made false gods for themselves, and served them. That’s why they ended up back under the power of a foreign enemy in Babylon, and what their story demonstrates is that they, like all of us, are sinners. Therefore, the savior we need will not merely be one who saves us from enemies who want to prevent us from serving the Lord; he will also save us from the curse God’s law pronounces on our refusal to serve the Lord, in that he will provide for the forgiveness of our sins. Rejoice, then, that just such a Savior has been born.
And rejoice that he is Christ the Lord. The Christ is the Greek word for Messiah, which means “anointed one.” Its origins are in Psalm 2, where we read of the LORD and his anointed, who has been begotten of God and appointed to rule the nations. So in the title of Christ, the angels give a name to that at which Luke hinted: This child is a ruler, God’s own promised ruler, who will rule not only over Israel, but over all nations. And it is fitting that he do so, because he is the Lord. Now Lord was a title that could be applied to earthly kings; the Romans would even confess that Caesar is Lord. Yet even then, it has divine connotations, and in the one other place we see it appear in this passage, do you remember to whom it referred? It referred, in verse 9, to the angel of the Lord, which is indisputably a reference to God. Now that very angel says the child who was born is the Lord. How could the angel of the Lord look at the child and say, “That is the Lord”? It could be because the child born was God the Son, eternally begotten of God the Father, who in being born, took on human flesh, and became what he was not, without ceasing to be what he was: God of God, Light of Light eternal, very God, begotten not created, as we sang today. Rejoice because in the birth of Christ, God himself has come to save his people. And rejoice, finally, that he brings glory to God and peace to people.
He brings glory to God and peace to people
After they instruct the shepherds how to find this Savior, Christ the Lord, suddenly more of the angelic host appear to the shepherds, and in verse 14 we read they said: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased. First, they say glory to God in the highest. God is infinitely and essentially glorious, but here the angels ascribe glory to him for something he has done. He has heard the cries of his people, as we sang already today: From our fears and sins release us. He has sent the Savior to deliver us from the hand of our enemies and to purchase for us the forgiveness of our sins. He has kept his promises. He promised that to a people sitting in darkness, a great light would shine, that unto them would be born a child, of whose government there would be no end, who would be born in Bethlehem as a ruler of his people. Now a bright light has shone on shepherds working in darkness, and to them has been announced the birth of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Glory to God in the highest! He has heard the cry of his people, he has kept his promises, he has sent the Savior, and better still, he himself has come as our Savior.
This glory is given to God in the highest because he dwells in the highest place, above Caesars, above the earth itself, above the visible heavens, the sky, the stars, the planets, the galaxies. In the highest, Jesus’ birth brings glory to God, but it also has a real effect down here, on earth, for the angels also sing peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased. We already saw it is good news of great joy, one of the fruits of the Spirit of which we spoke just a few Sundays ago, and now we encounter another: peace, a peace that this text tells us will be on this earth for those with whom God is pleased. When we talked about peace a few weeks ago, we said that the counterfeit of biblical peace is detachment. It’s an attempt to cultivate a restful and quiet disposition away from the earth, by detaching from the earth or escaping the earth. On a kind of crass level, it’s the peace of a video game or a YouTube video, that gets your mind off the earth for a bit, and so helps you clam down. And we pointed out then the limitation: At some point, you still have to come back to earth.
On a more sophisticated level, this is the hope many religions hold out: A nirvana, an escape from the earth. Even the secular scientists today have sometimes forecasted a hope for us away from earth, on Mars. And sometimes Christians have even misrepresented Christian hope in that way, as though it were an escape from the earth to a purely spiritual existence. The assumption in each case is that the earth can’t be changed, and we know the earth isn’t at peace, so we must escape the earth. But this Savior, Christ the Lord, is a better Savior. He came to bring peace on earth, not peace away from it, and his birth is exhibit A, proving that’s what he came to do. Though he is the eternal Son of God, who enjoyed the peace of the highest heavens, where the angels gathered around his throne and he shared in the glory of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, he did not stay there and simply tell us how to reach him, so that we might escape the earth and enjoy that peace too. That’s what much of religion does: It tells you how to climb the ladder, how to follow the path, to peace away from the earth. But only in Jesus do we see peace coming down the ladder, from heaven to earth, so that there might be peace on earth.
But in order for that peace to come to us, his peace would first have to be broken. He was, after all, coming from heaven, where there was peace, to earth, where there was not peace. His birth was not in the peaceful confines of a warm bed in his home, but away from home, in a feeding trough. And he would have to then face God’s enemies to establish peace. But instead of waging war on Caesar Augustus and the imperial agents, Jesus allowed himself to be killed by them. And in the end, though they handed him over to be crucified, they didn’t act alone. It was God’s own people, the Israelites, working with them, who put Christ to death. Our lack of peace with God, our hostility toward God, and our hostility toward one another, showed itself in that when God came, we killed him. But instead of fighting back against us, he gave himself willingly, and prayed for our forgiveness from the cross. He died under the power of God’s enemies, and he died bearing our sins, under the curse of God’s law, so that we could be freed from our enemies and forgiven of our sins. He then rose from the dead, and ascended to the position of greatest glory, to the proper position for the Lord, far above Caesar, to a throne that would, and indeed has, outlasted Caesar’s, so that now whoever receives and rests upon him will be saved.
Receive and rest upon him, and he will save you. Your sins will be forgiven, and God will fill you with the joy and peace Jesus came to bring. You will have peace with God, and because you will have peace with God, you will be able to enjoy peace on earth. What’s that look like? On the one hand, it means your conscience can rest. Though you are guilty of sin, and though you will continue to be guilty of sin, Christ paid for your sins, and therefore all your sins, past, present, and future are forgiven. All the ways you fall short of God’s perfection are forgiven. That’s good news of great joy that brings peace on earth, even while we still live on this earth and struggle against sin. That’s one way Jesus brings peace on earth to our consciences. Another is that as we see that God is for us, as we enjoy peace with him, we also receive power to stop fighting against him. The Spirit of Jesus in us goes to work putting to death our flesh, so that sin is progressively weakened in us. As that process continues, sin progressively goes from being a roaring lion to an annoying gnat, and our peace grows with it, even on earth.
That’s a bit on sin, but what about our enemies? It doesn’t seem like we’ve been delivered from their hands yet, does it? To the contrary, it’s been the normal experience of Jesus’ people that when they receive and rest upon him, the world increases its opposition to them, and God does not spare them that opposition. But in Christ, here’s what God does do on this earth: He frustrates the plans of our enemies so that all the evil they do to us ultimately works for our good. Caesar Augustus’ decree was used by God to bring the Savior. The crucifixion of God’s Son, the worst evil God’s enemies could muster against him and his people, was used by God to accomplish our salvation. As one hymn puts it, “Storms may howl, and clouds may gather. All must work for good to me.” God further promises to be with us when we face our enemies, giving us the incredible assurance that whatever they can do to us, nothing they do can separate us from his love in Christ Jesus our Lord. And he gives us hope, that because we were reconciled to him when we were his enemies, he can also reconcile our enemies. Throughout the world, you can see peace on earth as Christians from warring tribes gather to worship the same God and take the Lord’s Supper together. And because Christ was risen from the dead, he assures us that even those enemies who refuse to be reconciled to God, who sometimes even “win” over us in this world and put us to death, will not claim the final victory, because one day we will be raised with Christ, in new bodies, just as he was, to live with him in a new earth, while our enemies will be cast out from the earth. In that day we will be finally and forever free from our enemies, to serve the Lord without fear forever. This Savior brings glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, but we cannot stop there. The peace on earth he brings is for a specific group of people: Those with whom God is pleased.
Who are these people? A more literal way of translating it would be the people of God’s good pleasure. Jesus speaks of them in Luke 10, and there he calls them “little children” in contrast to the “wise and understanding.” It’s interesting, you know; not only did the angels not announce Jesus’ birth to his earthly family first, not only did they not announce his birth to royalty first, but they also did not announce his birth to the priests first. Caesar thought he needed no savior because he was the savior, so why would the angels announce the birth of the Savior to him? And, like him, the priests of Jesus’ day didn’t think they needed a savior because they saw themselves as wise and understanding, so why would the angels announce the birth of the Savior to them? Instead, he comes to the shepherds, and later in the Gospel of Luke, to little children, to show us who the kinds of people are with whom God is pleased: It’s the humble, the lowly, the Israelites who know they’re oppressed, the poor of the earth who know they’re needy, the sinners who know they’re sinners. The birth of Jesus Christ is good news of great joy to all people because all people are sinners in need of a Savior, but only those who believe they are will hear this message as good news of great joy, and therefore only they will experience peace on earth.
So if you want the joy and peace that the birth of Christ brings, if you want a joy and peace that will outlast the buzz of a new Christmas gift, that will outlast the Christmas season, and that will outlast the even deeper buzz of time with family and friends, the first step is to humble yourself. Ask God to impress upon you a sense of his glory, and humble yourself before him, as the shepherds did before the angel of the Lord. Acknowledge how much greater, how much more glorious he is, than you. Acknowledge how holy he is, and how sinful you are, receive and rest upon Christ the Lord as the Savior you need, and the good news of his birth will be good news of great joy to you, and will bring you peace on earth.