What message do Christians have for the world? Once a faithful Christian friend of mine was asked the question, probably as a pointed rhetorical criticism, "why does everything with you always boil down to what is biblical?" It would seem that the critic was unable to understand the world view and character of a Christian, and was inquisitive of the nature, and adamancy, of those views. Events like are opportunities to give an account of their faith, and serve to provide opportunities to spread the good news of the gospel among those who have not yet made room for Jesus in their heart. Those who have not yet experienced the saving grace of God do not and cannot understand the nature of a faith that is continually strengthened by a relationship with Jesus Christ, and though they search for the peace, joy, and assurance that come from faith, they look for it in other places. Christians are engaged every day with events that provide opportunities to show love to those around us, and it is the normal behavior of faith to simply make the little sacrifices for others as each day goes on, sacrifices that mean little to us, but often serve to meet some real need of someone else. It is a behavior that is not quite fully understood by this secular and skeptical world. The message of the Christian to this skeptical and pagan world is one of good news; a news that is so great that those who have come to embrace it have found their lives transformed by God's grace.
Though we hear so much bad news through the media, our lives are still punctuated occasionally with good news that causes us to become excited, and inspires us to share it with others. For example, what would you do if you were diagnosed with cancer, and while all of your friends were praying for you and were deeply concerned for you, it was found that the diagnosis was in error, and you only had some benign condition that is easy to treat? You would surely call all of your friends with the great news and by the time you call a few, you would find the word had already spread as people shared your joy. What are some things that have happened to you that caused you to want to tell everybody about it? Some events might be things like a graduation, engagement, a new job, new house, the birth of a child, etc. Often we will tell of such things, not only to our friends and family, but with anyone who will listen.
What better news is there to share than the most defining event in the life of any Christian: the ultimately fulfillment that comes from turning from this pagan world and accepting God's message of grace? God created every person with the capacity to know Him and have a relationship with Him. There is a place in the heart of every person, referred to many as a "God-shaped hole," that does not find peace until that place is filled with God's Holy Spirit. Such peace is found only by turning to God in trust and faith. This faith and trust brings us to a right relationship with God, even though we continue to struggle with sin. However, it is the event of Christmas that was the beginning of God's plan of forgiveness, and it is that forgiveness that is truly good news.
Many people have heard the story of the coming of the Promised Messiah, but fail to truly understand who He is. To some, He is just a myth. Some are still waiting for the Messiah to come. To many He is the little baby Jesus whose birth is celebrated at Christmas time with Santa Claus, reindeer, and a gift-buying frenzy, without any true knowledge or interest in the real meaning of Christmas or the transforming good news that the event celebrates.
Who is this baby who is the center of the manger scenes?
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
The reign of Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) was a time of relative peace on earth. Referred to historically as the "Pax Romana", it was a period of time when the Roman Empire kept peace throughout a wide region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The Romans built roads and endeavored to keep safe the travelers that used them. This encouraged commerce and interactions among the peoples of the region. It was a time when people's attention turned from basic fears to more personal concerns, including religion. The setting was ripe for the coming of the Messiah. Luke's account depicts Augustus as God's agent, who, by his edict of a census, specifically sets the stage for the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem. Cyrenius is Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, a prominent Roman governor of Syria (6 A.D.) who was in control of the military in Syria under Varus (6 B.C.) and would have directed the census. Recent archaeological discoveries indicate that Quirinius may have been twice governor of Syria, the earlier date being about 6-4 B.C., and the second 6-9 A.D. The first term of Quirinius would fit Luke's account well at this point. Luke is a careful historian as well as an accomplished theologian.
According to the Roman edict, each Jew was to enroll or register in the town that was regarded as his hometown or native city, typically the city of his/her ancestors. The Jew's high regard for their ancestry and the blessing of the land represented by them made this a very workable and practical way to determine the census of the Jews. It also provided a way to organize the census of the entire empire.
Here "betrothed" refers to the contractual but unconsummated marriage. This type of betrothal (kiddushin, Heb.) was as binding as marriage and could be terminated only by divorce. "Swaddling clothes" were narrow strips of cloth wrapped tightly around an infant, a tradition of the poorer social classes. That Christ was born and placed "in a manger" led to the tradition that He was born in a stable. Early tradition indicates that He was born in a cave, which may have been used as a stable. Some have said that he more likely may have been born in a cave, since animals were kept in caves. However, since the scripture indicates that Jesus was born inside the town of Bethlehem, he may have been born in a typical one-room farmer's house that contained two parts, a lower room that housed the animals, and an upper room that was used by the people for eating and sleeping. The manger would be a feeding trough in the lower room. It is interesting to note that the upper room that was used for Jesus' final Passover could be the same type of setting.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
The fact that there were shepherds in the fields at this time has led to much speculation as to the time of Jesus' birth and the purpose of the sheep. Shepherds tended sheep in the fields from March through November. Either Jesus was born in these months, or these were special sheep, maintained outside of Jerusalem so that they would be readily available for temple sacrifices. If this latter thought is true, the meaning of the message the shepherds would hear was that much more meaningful to them, since they were to be given the initial announcement of the birth of the Messiah, the Lamb of God. Note also that, because of their vocation, shepherds were considered unclean and could not take part in temple worship without ritual cleansing. They were despised by the people, considered untrustworthy, and unable to testify in a court of law. They were close to the temple in their vocation, but far away from it in true practice. They were an example of the outcasts that Jesus came to save. It is, however, these people who were probably as ready as anyone to hear the good news of the coming of the Messiah. They were not caught up in the arrogance of their own religion, nor were they rich and self-assured. Tending sheep left them much time to talk and explore their beliefs. It is easy to speculate that God had already prepared their hearts for the good news that was about to come.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
Try to describe the scene. What would be a typical night's activity for a shepherd? Typically, they would take turns sleeping while one watches the quiet night. What happened on this particular night? What was it that frightened the shepherds? Godís promise of a nation to Abraham waited about 400 years (14 generations) when the nation of Israel was incubated in Egypt, and led back to Canaan by the Glory of the Lord in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire. For another 400 years (14 generations), the Glory shown over the tent of the tabernacle, and for another 400 years (14 generations), the Glory shown over Solomonís temple in Jerusalem. However, while Judah was taken into captivity (2 Kings, 2 Chronicles), Ezekiel saw in a vision the pillar of fire, the symbol of God's presence, rise up and leave the temple. This started another 400-year (approximates here) period of darkness when God's glory did not appear. Nor, were there any prophets raised up to bring a word from the Lord. The prophecies were complete, and the stage was set for the Glory to return to the shepherds, the Glory that is a symbol of God's presence with mankind, a Glory that would come to rest over the manger in Bethlehem, just as it had rested over the tabernacle and the temple.
Needless to say, this awesome display of God's presence was frightening to these Shepherds, again people who were not considered worthy of even entering the temple, the place attributing God's presence to man.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
The messenger from God first sensed their fear, and told them not to be frightened. Though the message was for all people, to whom did God reveal it through the messenger? God delivered His message to Israel, fulfilling His promise to Abraham. Unlike the rest of the world, Israel was waiting for this Messiah, though few understood who the Messiah was to be. Israel had returned from the exile to Jerusalem, but experienced 400 years of cold and dark silence during which God's Word and Godís Glory were seemingly gone. For 400 years the fire failed to come down on the Day of Atonement to consume the sacrifice given in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple. Rather than witness Godís consumption of the sacrifice, the High Priest had to clean up the rejected sacrifice himself. Faith in God had been replaced with rules and rites of religion. Love for God had been replaced by man's legalistic ritual law and the hatred for one another that such legalism engenders. Religion had become a meaningless drudgery with no pointed future. God's glory had been gone so long that it was literally given so little thought that Israel did not even recognize it when it returned. The scriptures reveal that this was the return of God's glory. What greater message could come to Israel than the return of Godís presence?
The Greek word that Luke uses for ďgood newsĒ is evangellion, the word from which we get the word evangelism. The good news is the birth of the long-waited for Messiah, the Chrisos, the Anointed One, the One through whom God would bring Himself to man. All of the experience and all of the prophecies recorded in the Old Testament pointed to this event. Had the people understood the prophecy, the message brought to the shepherds would have indeed been received as good news by all people.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
What was the sign that the messenger gave to the shepherds that they would recognize the truth of their news? They would (1) find a baby, (2) dressed in the swaddling clothes of the poor, and (3) the baby would be in a manger, in a feed trough. This setting would be unique in Bethlehem, and probably not that difficult to find.
God had entered the world in the most humble of beginnings. Jesus was born to an unwed mother, an outcast from Nazareth: a community so despised that its name was in itself considered an insult. The family was so poor that the child was laid in a feeding trough in a stable when there was no room for them in the inn. Just as the inn had no room for the Messiah, the people who filled it and the rest of the community was so busy going about their daily routine that they also had no room for Him. They were hoping for a different Messiah, a Messiah of their own making.
It is evident that the Jews were anticipating the coming of a military King who would come in pomp and power. Kings took a throne after they had demonstrated their rite of succession. Jesus came in quite the opposite manner, a manner that brought with, not pomp and power in man, but much rejoicing by the messengers of God. Suddenly many of the heavenly host appeared to express praise, saying "peace toward men of Godly will". This one-verse hymn has been titled the Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Latin for "glory to God in the highest"), and is known to almost everyone in Western culture, though few really understand or desire to appreciate its message. Like the ancient Hebrews, the world today is looking for their Messiah in other places, fully willing to attempt to replace Godís call to repentance and faith with the frenetic frenzy of commercialization that today characterizes Christmas.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
What did the shepherds do when the angel left? They probably talked among themselves of their amazement, verifying one another's testimonies. Then they resolved to follow the angel's command to go see the Christ child. It is interesting to note that they may have left the sheep unattended. We do not know if one or more shepherds stayed behind. Certainly, they were all awake, so those who would have been sleeping would have been free to go.
The words "came with haste" refer less to speed than it does to the manner and intent of their travel. The word refers to going straight toward a destination, as though they cut across the fields, yards, and fences to get to their destination rather than take the longer more traveled roads. Also, the word "found" implies that they did have to search for the baby. Their act of asking around town for the whereabouts of a newborn baby served to spread the word of the birth. They did find the baby as the angel had said, witnessing the unique setting of the baby, wrapped in the poorest of fashion, resting in a feeding trough. After they left Joseph, Mary and Jesus, they started telling everyone who would listen about what they had seen and heard. People were amazed. We know that the word of the baby, started by the shepherds, ultimately made it all the way to Herod, the Jewish king appointed by Rome, who then considering the child a threat to his authority, and sought to kill Him.
But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. 21And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
It is evident that the details of this event were known to Mary, who cherished them. Over the years of watching her son grow to a man, minister to the community, only to be murdered by its religious leaders, these events became more meaningful as the events transpired. From the wording we see that Luke may have directly, or indirectly, learned of the details of the event from her. Much of Luke's gospel is written from first hand knowledge and from information given to him from first-hand witnesses, including Mary.
The shepherds then returned to their sheep, and to any others of their group who may have been left behind. The details of their conversation would be interesting to know. What we do know is that they were filled with praise for God and fully believed all that they had seen and heard.
"Eight days" indicates the time for the circumcision, and usually, the naming of a male child (Genesis 17:12; Leviticus 12:3; Luke 2:11). God's law ever precedes man's finest medical discoveries. Normally, in the blood of infants, the coagulants reach their maximum effectiveness on the eighth day after birth, something the ancients could not have known. The act of circumcision is yet another indication that Joseph and Mary were devout in their attitude toward their heritage and faith. Though we know nothing of what happened to Joseph in later years, it is quite evident that he was overtly and unquestioningly obedient to God.
And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
A woman who bore a male child was considered unclean for 33 days. A female child required a cleansing of 66 days (Leviticus 12:1-8). During that time she could not enter the temple. Consequently, it was after this period of time that Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple for the traditional dedication. This dedication was a ceremony that included a blood sacrifice and statements of commitment to the Lord, Jehovah.
(As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) 24And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.
It may be important to note the use of the word, holy. Various Old Testament scriptures (e.g. Num 18:15, 1 Sam. 1:24-28) refer to the holiness of the first born, a holiness that refers to the separation of one for God's purpose. It was through the first-born male that the blessing of Abraham was to be propagated. "A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons" is the offering prescribed for the poor in connection with the religious purification of a new mother (Lev. 12:6-8). The turtledove is a small type of pigeon. It was not practical for Joseph and Mary to bring the sacrifice from Nazareth. Consequently, an industry developed for those who traveled to the temple, one where money changers would take Roman coin from the travelers in exchange for temple money that could be used to purchase animals for sacrifice. Merchants were then available to take the temple money in exchange for animals for sacrifice. These money changers and merchants came to reside in the outer court of the temple, displacing its intended purpose as a place of worship by Gentiles and others who could not enter the temple. Lambs were sold to those who could afford them; likely coming from the flocks tended by the shepherds we have just met.
And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.
At a time when it seemed that there was no one who had room for the coming of the Messiah, we meet a resident of Jerusalem, named Simeon. The "Consolation of Israel" is a standard rabbinic description of the Messianic age (Isaiah 40-55), the time when Messiah would minister to God's people. Simeon is one of the few in Jerusalem who are described as "just and devout." Simeon understood the prophecies, and like the rest of Israel was waiting for the coming of the Messiah. However, Simeon clearly understood who the Christ Child is. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Simeon had the resource of the agent of God's power to understand His purpose. All Christians have appropriated this same power when they turn their heart and life over to God through Jesus Christ, and likewise, all Christians can know who Christ is, just as did Simeon.
And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lordís Christ.
I once heard a preacher refer to Simeon as living as an immortal until the coming of Christ. Simeon is described as one who was continually filled with the Holy Spirit and was in a right relationship with both people and with God. Verse 25 indicates that he had such a strong belief that the Messiah would come in his lifetime that God had revealed to him that, indeed, he would see the Messiah. Like Methuselah who was promised to live until Noah's flood, Simeon may have lived many years awaiting the coming of the Messiah. However, God's plan is never superseded by the acts of man ... Simeon was born in the generation that the Messiah would come, so immortality is not an issue. The issue is God's grace and His love for Simeon whom God honored for his faithfulness.
Likewise, Paul had a similar faith that Jesus would return in his own lifetime, but unlike Simeon had not had such an event revealed to him. We can and should also have such belief and faith in God's promises. Jesus said that no one, even He, knows when the time of His returning would be, and that we should be ready. Simeon was an example of one who was ready.
And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,
It is identified that Simeon "came by the Spirit" into the temple. Sensitive to the still-small voice of the Holy Spirit, Simeon knew that he needed to go to the Temple immediately. One of the primary functions of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian is that of leading and directing. A Christian is one who has surrendered his/her self-will to God and who looks to Him for guidance. The Holy Spirit is then available to that individual through prayer and discernment. God reveals much of His will and purpose through His Word, and through the peace that comes from knowing the truth. Simeon was sensitive to Godís purpose and call in his life, and was prepared when Godís call came.
Simeonís return to the temple coincided with "the custom of the law" that required that in the case of the firstborn there was a payment of five shekels for "redemption" from priestly service, which could be paid after the first month of the child's life. This law required Mary and Joseph to bring the baby Jesus to the temple.
Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, 29Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: 30For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, 31Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; 32A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. 33And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. 34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; 35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
The Spirit led Simeon to come into the temple courts at this time. Furthermore, he recognized the child as the Messiah. Without hesitation, Simeon took the child in his arms and made several statements:
1. He was ready to go meet his God, because the promise is fulfilled. (vv. 29-32) Simeon's song, called Nunc Dimittis (Latin for "now you let depart," after the first two words of the Latin translation of Simeon's song), exhibits his knowledge of Isaiah 40-55.
2. Through Jesus is the salvation of God.
3. The salvation of God is provided to all people. This is a very astute observation, since the Jews rejected the scriptures that opened God's grace to the Gentiles.
4. Jesus has come as a light to the Gentiles. This not an acceptable concept to the theo-elitist Jews.
5. Jesus is the Glory of Israel. This is another play on words, indicating Jesus is the light; the Shekinah Glory, the presence of God in the world.
6. Jesus would be the stumbling block to those who would reject God. "The fall and rising of many" indicates that those who reject the Messiah will be cast down, while those who accept Him will rise through salvation.
7. The statement, "that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed," reveals that Simeon understood that it would be through Jesus that the world would be judged.
8. Spoken to Mary, Simeon prophesied of the crucifixion, the event that would break Mary's heart.
God had set in place His plan for salvation. Simeon understood that plan and clearly stated that plan as he consecrated the Christ child in the temple court. How is the world to know of that plan? How is the gospel of Jesus presented to the lost world? An innkeeper, ignorant of the identity of a young couple declared that he had no room for them. Likewise, many today have filled their lives with that which the world has to offer, and are so overwhelmed by its power that they too fail to see the Messiah. For them, Christmas is a time to spend all of their discretionary time and money on presents for one another without any real understanding of why they are doing it. Initially, small gifts were given at Christmas as a reminder of the gifts given to the Christ child by the Magi. Their very purpose was to remember Christ.
Is there room in your heart for Jesus? The testimony of Simeon is the testimony of every true Christian: Jesus is the salvation of God for all people, the means by which all people can be saved from the eternal consequence of their bent to sin. This is the message of the Christian to all who will listen and believe that more would come to know God through the saving act of Jesus, and be saved from eternal separation from Him. For, the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life for those who place their faith and trust in Jesus. Simeon had to wait for the Messiah, but for us He is already here. Let us not get so busy with the events of the world that we close the door to Jesus. Rather, let the evidence of our faith be bright enough to provide an opportunity for us to share the good news with others.