And the angel said unto them, “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
When Jesus, the Savior of all mankind, was born in Bethlehem, the greatest Christmas Gift ever was bestowed upon the whole world by our loving heavenly Father. But this momentous event went unnoticed by almost everyone in the world at that time. The shepherds to whom the angel spoke the words recorded in the above-quoted text did not know that night was special in any way prior to the herald angel’s appearance. It was, of course, very important for them and everyone else, to hear about the Messiah’s birth. Consequently, after the shepherds had seen the Baby Jesus, “they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:17), namely, that a “Savior, which is Christ the Lord” was “born…in the city of David.” Those who were familiar with the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament would have immediately understood that this was an important message (if they believed it to be true). But since so many of the Jews at that time were expecting the Messiah to be an earthly king and deliverer, it is uncertain how many of those who heard the news from the shepherds understood the full importance of it.
So also today, though the Gospel can be heard in so many different places during the month of December paraphrased in the religious Christmas carols that are sung, yet the true meaning and importance of the words are lost on most of the hearers. In order for the Christmas message to be recognized and truly appreciated as “good tidings of great joy,” it is crucial to understand the great blessings that Christ brings to all mankind. Thus the hearers of that Gospel first need to understand their corrupt spiritual state, their complete unworthiness and helplessness before the Lord, and the dreadful consequences of their sins. And that is the important spiritual instruction that comes from God’s holy Law, “for by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20; see also 7:7).
Not a single person on earth can escape the Law’s verdict that he is guilty of breaking God’s Commandments and worthy of eternal condemnation! “What things soever the Law saith, it saith to them who are under the Law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Romans 3:19). “As many as are of the works of the Law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them’” (Galatians 3:10). That curse of the Law is eternal hell-fire (Mark 9:43–48), “outer darkness” with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” for all eternity (Matthew 25:30, 46). Now if a person realizes from God’s Law that this is the judgment he has merited on account of his innumerable sins in thoughts, desires, words, and deeds, he should also know from the same Law that no one is free from the corruption of sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20), that all people have, therefore, merited the “wages” (Romans 6:23) of eternal death in hell, and that it is impossible for man to save himself “by the deeds of the Law” (Romans 3:20; cf. Galatians 3:11a). “Whosoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). Thus the holy Law of God shows sinful man no hope of salvation at all in the keeping of its precepts but only the perpetual debt he owes to God for his failure and inability to keep them! Thus the debtor, faced with wrath and punishment, may, as did the man in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 18:25-26), desperately seek “patience,” “compassion,” and “pity” from the Lord as his only hope of deliverance. But the Law does not show him such attributes in God, which only exist “in Christ” and are revealed only in the Gospel. The Law only brings man to the “dead end” of being unable to justify himself. In this way “the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto [up to] Christ” (Galatians 3:24), preparing our hearts to seek and to receive rescue on the part of someone other than ourselves, namely, from Christ revealed in the Gospel.
Now the shepherds knew the Law from the Old Testament Scriptures, and already recognized their sinful unworthiness, which is why they were “sore afraid” at the appearance of the holy angel (Luke 2:9). Accordingly, this messenger of the Lord did not first need to employ the Law as a mirror, but immediately soothed their trembling hearts, saying: “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” The Baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem and laid in the manger, as announced by the angel, is here identified as “a Savior,” for His chief work is saving sinful mankind from sin, death, and the devil. Referring to Him as “Christ,” the angel directly told the shepherds that the Messiah, whom the prophets in the Scriptures had long foretold, had now been born. Though born as a true human being, the Baby Jesus was also identified by the angel as being true God—calling Him “the Lord.” That the Messiah was both God and man in one person was crucial to His work of redeeming the world (Hebrews 2:14–15) and was also clearly foretold in the Old Testament (“a child…the mighty God,” Isaiah 9:6). Even the fact that Jesus was born “in the city of David,” Bethlehem, was a fulfillment of messianic prophecy. “Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be Ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).
Because of the many messianic prophecies that the Lord had given His people, the shepherds presumably knew about the person and work of the Savior even prior to the announcement of Jesus’ birth by the angel. But what joyous tidings these were that the Redeemer of the world had finally come! That the shepherds received those glad tidings with joy and excitement is evident by the way they went to find the newborn Savior “with haste” (Luke 2:16). How sad it is that the Gospel of Jesus’ birth does not always fill us with similar joy and excitement! Instead of always coming with great enthusiasm to the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, we may be tempted, because of our sinful flesh, to regard such blessed opportunities to see the Christ Child with our eyes of faith as inconveniences during a hectic time of year. But we should never grow tired or bored of the Christmas narrative, even though most of us have heard it many, many times before. If we truly recognize our miserable, sinful condition, and acknowledge the punishment that we have deserved by our transgressions and iniquities; and if we appreciate the gift of God’s grace in Christ Jesus through which our souls are saved eternally, then we will certainly rejoice to hear again and again of the great love of God that sent His only-begotten Son into the world for our salvation (John 3:16; I John 4:9).
Indeed, as the glad tidings of the Christmas Gospel brought to the shepherds continue to comfort and rejoice the hearts of all those who, by the gracious operation of the Holy Ghost through that Gospel, have placed their trust in the Christ-Child, they experience “great joy” in that Savior, “whom having not seen, [they] love; in whom, though now [they] see Him not, yet believing, [they] rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (I Peter 1:8). Moreover, if the glad tidings of Christmas have taken root in our heart, they will affect how we live our lives, including how we talk; “for of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45). Accordingly, our zeal in spreading the Christmas Gospel to others should mirror that of the shepherds; for, after they had seen the Baby Jesus lying in the manger, “they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:17). This is exactly what God wanted those shepherds to do. Remember that the angel specifically told them that the “good tidings of great joy…shall be to all people.” Even though this Savior was the “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2), as the wise men (who were Gentiles) called Him on the basis of divine prophecy (Numbers 24:17-19; Jeremiah 23:5; etc.), He did not come to earth to redeem only the Jews but to save all lost and condemned mankind (Luke 19:10; I Timothy 1:15). Consequently, the news of Jesus’ birth is immensely important for every sinful human being on earth (whether or not most people acknowledge that fact to be true)!
We who have been brought to the saving knowledge of the Christmas Gospel have the great responsibility and privilege of bringing it also to others. Jesus has given us the following commission: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). This, of course, does not mean preaching only the Gospel in the narrower sense without also preaching the Law; for the Law of God serves the important function of showing man his sinfulness and his need for a savior. Thus the Law, working as a mirror, prepares the hearer for the Gospel (Galatians 3:24), through which the Holy Ghost works saving faith in the heart (Romans 1:16; 10:17). It should be our fervent desire to bring the Christmas Gospel to those who are lost in spiritual darkness and walking down the path that leads to eternal destruction in hell, so that they might find in the Lord Jesus their dear Savior from sin (James 5:20). But conveying the glad tidings of the Savior’s birth is much more than merely saying, “Merry Christmas;” for those words have become as empty an expression as, “Have a nice day,” for most people. Rather, the joyous message of Christmas is the most comforting news for poor sinners, namely, that for the sake of the Christ-Child all of their sins are forgiven and they are the objects of God’s love; and all who confide in this Gospel are graciously received by the Lord as His beloved children and heirs of everlasting life in the joys of heaven.
It is only by the grace and power of the Holy Ghost that we have been brought to saving faith in that baby in Bethlehem’s manger—trusting in His merits for our forgiveness and salvation and truly rejoicing in the Christmas Gospel. This did not come about through our own works or worthiness, nor on account of any natural inclination on our part to the Christian religion, because all people in their natural state reject the Gospel as foolishness. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Corinthians 2:14). Consequently, the glad tidings of Christmas are despised by the vast majority of people who are oblivious to their dire spiritual condition on account of their sins and do not appreciate the grace of God manifested in the Christ-Child—thinking of Christmas merely as a time to enjoy holiday decorations, seasonal songs, food, presents, and quality time with loved ones. And while there is a measure of joy that even true Christians can derive from such common Christmas-related activities, yet they cannot compare to the infinitely greater “good tidings of great joy” that we find in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ—the true Christmas joy in the birth of our dear Savior from sin! No earthly Christmas present can compare to the “unspeakable Gift” (II Corinthians 9:15) of God’s grace that was manifested in the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ! Through the working of the Spirit in the precious Christmas Gospel, may we ever grow in our appreciation of the “good tidings of great joy” that “unto [us] is born…a Savior, which is Christ the Lord!”
All my heart this night rejoices
as I hear far and near
sweetest angel voices.
“Christ is born,” their choirs are singing,
till the air everywhere
now with joy is ringing.
Come, then, banish all your sadness,
one and all, great and small;
come with songs of gladness.
Love Him who with love is glowing;
hail the Star near and far
light and joy bestowing!
(TLH 77, vv. 1, 8)
—P. E. B.