The First Witnesses of the Good News – Luke 2:8-20
By: Alistair Brown
Luke has begun his gospel with surprises:
– Zechariah and Elizabeth are surprised that they will have a child in their old age.
– Mary is more than surprised that she will have a baby while still a virgin.
Luke’s third surprise is less startling, but only a little. Like the other stories, this involves an angel, and then it goes further. Moments later there’s a whole angelic choir! To a bunch of shepherds out in the hills who thought nothing more exciting could happen all night than a sheep or two going astray, this was quite an event.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
This story breaks down into four main parts.
1. The least likely of first witnesses.
Jesus was born in a place normally occupied by animals. It was no palace or mansion; and there was certainly no doctor and probably no midwife. The circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth were humble and risky.
Nothing was different from that when it came to the first visitors. In or near Bethlehem, God had many options of who to bring, but he sent his angels to summon shepherds. That is surprising.
We romanticize these men who sat through the night on the hills to guard their sheep, but the people of those days had a very different view of shepherds. Shepherds were not trusted. They were considered dishonest and unreliable, and caring for animals made them unclean before the law. So, no-one mixed with them, no-one liked them, no-one respected them. Most people were glad they spent their time out on the hills. One modern writer adds: “Thus the most obvious implication is that the gospel first came to the social outcasts of Jesus’ day.”
Years later, Jesus sat in Levi’s home enjoying dinner with a large group of people all rejected by society. Chief among the outsiders at that meal were tax collectors. They taxed good Jews and gave the money to the Roman occupying force – that is, except what they pocketed to make themselves wealthy. Everyone hated them. A man of God would never associate with tax collectors. But that evening Jesus was at the tax collectors’ dinner party. The Pharisees made no secret of their disapproval. Jesus answered them: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
Jesus’ ministry was to the people society rejects, to those others look down on, to those with a deep need not met by ordinary religion. That ministry didn’t wait thirty years. It began within hours of his birth when unclean, unwanted shepherds were told the good news and brought to the stable as first witnesses of the birth of the Savior.
2. The announcement that had to be made.
I have seen a whole audience in a cinema jump in shock or surprise when something dramatic happens. Maybe the killer suddenly leaps out of the shadows. Maybe the rope holding someone secure suddenly breaks. Maybe the real bad guy in the story suddenly reveals his true colors. Maybe the shark suddenly rears out of the water, its jaw gaping and grabs someone from the boat. Across the whole cinema there’s a corporate cry of horror. Something very unexpected has just happened. But here’s the odd thing – these things are not unexpected. We came to see a horror film or a disaster movie… What else did we think was going to happen!? But still we’re shocked.
How much more then the shock and horror of the shepherds when the whole sky lit up and an angel appeared, because not for one second out of a million years were those shepherds expecting that. The worst they anticipated was that a sheep might stray and they’d have to bring it back, or a wild animal could attack and they’d have to fight it off. It never got more dramatic than that on the hillside near Bethlehem.
But not that night! “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (v. 9).
Moments later the whole heavenly army was there to add choral singing:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (v. 14)
The angel told the shepherds not to be afraid and shared a message of good news. But even if that helped the shepherds stop quaking, they still had to be overwhelmed. Who wouldn’t be shocked? They were utterly enveloped in bright light, spoken to by an angel, and sung to by a massive heavenly band.
But God was introducing his Son, and that would not be done with a whimper but a loud shout of praise.
Since at least the Middle Ages and right into modern times, the arrival of royalty or rulers has been announced by a fanfare, almost always of loud brass instruments like trumpets or horns. A fanfare shuts everyone up, gets their attention, and the magnificence of the music is a sign that someone of great importance is now present.
God’s son was now in the world, so here come the angels with a fanfare and an announcement. What was happening was so significant, it had to be proclaimed loudly and magnificently.
Near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry he entered Jerusalem. People crowded around as he rode into the city on a colt. They spread their cloaks on the ground in front of him and they praised God for all the miracles they had seen. They shouted:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38)
The Pharisees were furious. This was unacceptable. Some told Jesus to make the disciples keep quiet.
Jesus replied: “I tell you… if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40).
You could silence the people, but then the rocks would proclaim him. That moment was so important. Jesus was so important. Praise and thanks had to be given.
Just as it had to be given on a hillside beside Bethlehem when God sent his messenger and his angelic hosts because his Son had been born. That news had to be told. The majesty of this new baby had to be proclaimed. The greatness and goodness of the God who would come to earth for our salvation had to be celebrated.
This was an announcement that had to be made.
3. The message, that God is for us, not against.
I know people who never read a newspaper or listen to a news bulletin on TV. “It’s too depressing,” they say. “I don’t want to see all that stuff about wars, or crime and violence, or political fighting, or accidents. Why can’t the media report good news?”
The hard answer given by media experts is that the good stuff usually isn’t news. It doesn’t sell papers or capture viewers, not like death and disaster does.
But the broadcast which took place on that hillside was the most significant news story in all history and it was entirely good news. Sure, there was only a small audience at the time but the fact that Luke captured the story in his gospel puts the viewership over time well into the billions.
And the content is wholly positive. The angel and then the heavenly choir make that very clear:
- This is “good news.”
- It will bring “great joy,” and not just for some but “for all the people.”
- A “Savior” has been born for you.
- That Savior is your Messiah, the Lord.
- God is to be praised to the very highest heaven for all this.
- And let there be peace on earth for all people on whom his favor rests.
This is a marvelous message. It’s a joyful, powerful and overwhelmingly positive message. God is for us. He has sent a Savior for us. He gifts peace to us. This is very good news.
I’ve met people frightened of God. They were brought up to believe that if they took one step out of line, they’d be consigned to the flames of hell. The result? They spend their lives trying to avoid God. They believe God is out to get them, so every instinct is to hide from God.
When Jesus was born, the message the angel brought was different. Instead of seeking to condemn and destroy, God was reaching out in love, seeking every person who knows their need of salvation, and providing the Savior who will rescue and restore them. This for every person who will allow God’s favor to rest on them.
In 1 Timothy 2:3-4 Paul writes about “God our Savior,who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” That is exactly the message the angel brought and the choir celebrated. God loves us, wants us, and has done everything necessary by sending his Son so that he might have us. God is good, and God is for us, not against.
4. The gospel is shared for the first time.
When the angels returned into the heavens, I imagine the shepherds were stunned. “What just happened?” someone would have said. “I think we just heard from angels,” another would have replied. “What do we do now?” would be a third person’s question. And they debated that last question until they reached the obvious conclusion: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (v. 15).
They wasted no time. The sheep were left in the hills while the shepherds went into Bethlehem. The town wasn’t big, and they easily found Mary, Joseph and – just as the angel had said – the baby Jesus lying in a manger. That last detail was important. Babies were not usually found in mangers, so the fact the angel had said this Messiah would be in a manger and, sure enough, so he was – that validated the message. Without that, the shepherds might have thought they had all been hallucinating, and that part of their distorted craziness was the idea that there was a baby in an animals’ food trough. But they came to Bethlehem and there was. Just as the angel had said, Jesus was in a manger. What they’d seen and heard from the angel was true and no hallucination. God’s child really had come.
Amazed and excited, the shepherds retreated away doing two things. First, they glorified and praised God for everything they had heard and seen (v. 20). What they had been told was true, and that meant the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord had come. The One all Israel had longed for through generations was born, and they had seen him. And second, they told everyone they met about this child (v.17). The shepherds were the first ever Christian evangelists. They knew so little, but it was a lot more than anyone else knew – it was the good news that God loves all people and had sent the Savior. And Luke says: “…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (v. 18).
No wonder. It was an amazing story to report, but the shepherds got the news out, and people have been talking and been amazed about Jesus for two thousand years.
Through chapters one and two of his gospel Luke has reported story after story of surprise. Initially that surprise came with fear, but the fear was replaced with excitement and joy:
-For Zechariah and Elizabeth
-For Mary, and eventually for Joseph
-For shepherds who first visited Jesus and then became the first evangelists.
Who would have picked an elderly couple who had given up all hope of having children?
Who would have picked a 13-year-old girl engaged to be married to a righteous man?
Who would have picked shepherds society rejected, with no deep study and no special influence?
God would and God did.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
God’s thoughts and God’s ways are not only higher than ours, they’re better. We would never have thought of any of these details of God’s plan because we would never have thought of the plan. We wouldn’t have thought humans like us were worth saving, but God did. The underlying message of Christmas is of God who is wholly for us because he loves us and has given his Son to get us.
As the angels said:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
 W.L. Leifeld, “Luke,” in Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol. 8 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. F. E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 845.