Episode 21 - The Shepherds, part 1

December 24, 2013

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God could have announced the birth of Jesus to the elite ruling class in Jerusalem, but He chose to tell the outcasts of Jewish society. A lowly band of shepherds were the first to hear of the birth of "Christ the Lord" in Bethlehem. This episode discusses the political and military implications of the weighty phrase, "Christ the Lord" and links it to the developing story of the Gospels.

An extended supplemental episode on the meaning of "Messiah" / "Christ" can be watched here.

This video is part of the Opening Up the Gospels series.

Hey I'm Josh Hawkins and this is Episode 21 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the last three episodes I've looked at the birth of Jesus and today I want to continue looking at this scene by moving forward perhaps just a few hours after He was born. Let's go back and set the stage again for a second - we're in a small cave in Bethlehem in Judea, the region in southern Israel. And even though our Christmas carols so confidently declare it, we don't really know if Jesus was born at night time or not. But Mary has had Jesus, she's recovered enough to clean Him, swaddle Him, and lie Him in the feeding trough. It's crazy - Luke 2 verse 7 gives the implication that Mary did it - there's no mention of midwives or any other help and it seems like she was deprived of all the normal comforts for the birth of Jesus. And now she is resting and Jesus is probably sleeping in the feeding trough. Imagine the emotions flooding her and Joseph's hearts - maybe some measure of disappointment, but joy, relief, wonder, and perplexity... And there He is - Jesus, the Son of God, the future king of Israel, God incarnate Himself, the creator of all things, lying there. The same one who was clothed with light as a garment and hidden inside a cloud of smoke and fire at Mount Sinai is now in a feeding trough, completely unrecognized and in such poverty and humility. Now as we look at today's scene, we'll see that things are about to get unusual again. It's been at least 9 months since Gabriel had visited Mary, and perhaps 6 months since an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream. To the people of Nazareth, Mary and Joseph were suspects in a scandal. But to everyone else who didn't know any of the story, they were just an ordinary couple. So was there even anyone in Bethlehem who could sympathize with the turmoil and unrest in their souls on the day Mary was in that cave having contractions? Yet on the day of Jesus' birth, God begins to make the story much more public. But who He starts telling the story to is actually pretty shocking. We'll get to that in a little bit. But here we have yet another appearance of a heavenly messenger - an angel of the Lord appears to shepherds in the fields just outside of Bethlehem. Let's pick up today in Luke 2 starting at verse 8: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for 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.” (Luke 2:8-11) Let's talk about shepherds for a second. We're not so familiar with them in our culture today, but in first-century Israel, shepherds were among the most despised people in society. The very nature of their work kept them from celebrating the feasts and participating in the religious life of the whole nation. They were virtual outcasts. Now this specific band of shepherds were tending their sheep somewhere in the fields near Bethlehem. Remember, Bethlehem is not all that far from Jerusalem. Some scholars have proposed that these specific sheep were intended for sacrifice in the Temple because of their proximity to Jerusalem and because sheep destined for sacrifice were the only ones who were kept in open fields year round. So if it was winter time as some have speculated and there are sheep out in the fields nearing Jerusalem, I hardly have to even mention the deep significance here. Jesus, the one just born in Bethlehem, would be the lamb of God, the one sacrificed to take away the sins of His people, just as the angel spoke to Joseph in his dream 6 months prior. So it's now night, according to the passage - probably just a normal, cold night. This angel appears to the shepherds and the first thing he says is "don't be afraid". I don't know about you, but I am sure that would not be all that much comfort to me if I saw an angel. But this has to be more than just a calming word for the moment. He's saying "don't worry, I'm not here to bring a message of judgment or rebuke". He goes on and says "I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." There are three key phrases here I want you to see: 1) Good news 2) Great joy, and 3) for all the people. I won't develop these in detail, but each of them have profound significance. The Greek word we translate as "good news" or "glad tidings" here is the same word that is translated "gospel". This is a clear reference to the Old Testament, specifically Isaiah 40 verse 9: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”” (Isaiah 40:9 ESV) If you remember back to Episode 15 and Episode 4, I also talked about Isaiah 40 linking it to Zechariah's prophecy about his son John. He said John would "go before the Lord to prepare His ways", referencing Isaiah 40 verse 3. We'll look more at what this means when we look at John the Baptist's ministry, but the main thing I want you to see here is how Isaiah 40 is a very important Old Testament passage to understanding the story of Jesus and the Gospels, and that the "gospel" or the "good news" that Isaiah says that the messenger is speaking is "behold your God!" Now if that is the context of the word "gospel" in Isaiah, what exactly is this good news that the angel is telling these shepherds? He expounds on this "good news" and says: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11) This is such a loaded statement that I am sure the shepherds did not grasp the full meaning of. But for the readers of Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts (because remember back in Episode 9 we looked at how Luke and Acts are paired together), the meaning would be unequivocally clear because the same two phrases "Christ" and "Lord" are used to describe Jesus right in the early part of the book of Acts, specifically Acts 2:36. So we see these two words describing Jesus in Luke 2 and in Acts 2. These two words are not just synonyms. Each of them have a very specific meaning as they are applied to Jesus. Before I talk a little bit about that, recall back in Episode 14 where we looked at how Mary's song in Luke 1:46 to 55 prophesied that God was her _Savior_ who would show strength with His arm and put down the mighty from their thrones. Then in Episode 15, we looked at Zechariah's song in Luke 1:67 to 79 who said that God would raise up a horn of _salvation_ for Israel, to _save_ them from their enemies and from all those who hate them. I want you to see that this whole idea of a "savior" is filled with military and political imagery. It's "earthy" and has so much to do with the people of Israel. While the title of "Savior" does have to do with our sins, for Jesus to be "the Savior" of Israel and ultimately of the whole world means so much more than just the Him being the one who dies on the cross to forgive our sins. If you notice, the cross isn't even in the context of the passages in Luke 1 and Luke 2 when a "savior" is talked about. Here's where we have to remember the setting just a little bit to help us feel a bit more on what the shepherds were thinking. Israel was under the oppression of Rome, there was no king ruling on David's throne in Jerusalem per the promise in 2 Samuel 7, and it seemed like there was no hope for them. This helps us understand the significance of the first word that the angel uses. "Christ" is a very specific word that was political in nature, because it was applied to the kings of Israel. I want you to catch this. The word "Christ" is just transliterated from the Greek word "Christos". In the Old Testament, the equivalent Hebrew word was "Mashiyach", or "Messiah". The word just means "Anointed", but this was the word that was used as the throne name of the kings of Israel. The word "Messiah" or "Christ" was more than a name like "John" or "Jack" and it was more than a title like "sir". To be "the Anointed" or "the Messiah" or "the Christ" meant you held an office, like we call President or Prime Minister or King today. Now this may be a new idea to you, but let me give you an example you may already be familiar with. Applying a "throne name" to kings in ancient culture was fairly common. Think of the word "Pharaoh" - it was the word applied to all of the kings of Egypt. To be "Pharaoh" meant that you held an office. The word just means "big house", but it was the name that the kings of Egypt took for themselves. When one died, the next one took it. Similarly, the word "Christ" or "Messiah" or "Anointed" was applied to the kings of Israel. First, Saul bore it. Then David. Then Solomon. Many years later, Jeremiah gives it to King Josiah. We see this throughout the Old Testament. We would say "King David" or "King Solomon", but in essence, the Bible is saying "Messiah David", "Messiah Solomon", "Messiah Hezekiah" and so on. And though it may seem very strange to our western evangelical ears because we have a preconceived idea of what "Messiah" or "Christ" means, this is profoundly biblical - we've just lost the meaning of the word in translation and made it out to be Jesus' last name or the title of the guy that died on the cross for our sins. There's so much more that can be said about this, so be sure to check out the link to the supplemental video in the description below. So you might now be asking, alright Josh, how does this apply to the message to the shepherds? Well, again, remember the setting. Israel was under the oppression of Rome, looking for that final king per 2 Samuel 7 who would be of David's lineage and who reign from Jerusalem forever. And so for the shepherds to hear the angel's words that someone who was born that would be "Christ", or "Anointed", they wouldn't have thought "wow, that's a cool last name" or "sweet, I knew I needed saving from my sins". They would have heard "the king of Israel" has been born in the city of David, because again, that's the "Christ" was - an office that somebody held, specifically, the office of the king of Israel. Do you see the political implications here? And do you feel the connectedness to the context of Luke 1 with Mary's song and Zechariah's song? They would have understood that this child who was born would be the promised king who would save Israel from her enemies and reign from David's throne in Jerusalem. As we'll see as we move along through the Gospels, this fundamental declaration and promise about who Jesus was and what He would do as the king of Israel was not redefined or modified. The only thing that the people did not understand was that the true Messiah, the Christ, the promised king of Israel would first have to suffer before He actually reigned from Jerusalem. Now the final word that the angel uses with the shepherds is the word "Lord". Though the shepherds wouldn't have understood the full implication of this being applied to Jesus, the word used was in fact an affirmation of His divinity. Remember, the "good news" that the messenger of Isaiah 40 was to proclaim to the cities of Judah was "behold your God". It wouldn't be explicit and clear to everyone until Jesus' ascension, but it's so important to see that right from the beginning here, the angel is affirming that the baby lying in the feed trough in Bethlehem is in fact the one true God of Israel. So what is the good news that the shepherds hear? That a baby has been born in Bethlehem who is to be the king of Israel and who is the God of Israel. And His name, as we know it, is Jesus of Nazareth. Well, we're out of time for this episode and we'll pick this up next time. I know I threw some very important and perhaps some new things at you in this episode, so go back and relisten to it if that's helpful to you. As always, you can find all of the episodes on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. See you next time, and God bless.

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