Lowly shepherds are given the "good news" that a baby who was "Christ the Lord" had been born in Bethlehem. Before they could even compose themselves, Luke 2 tells us that a multitude of the "heavenly host" appeared to them in the sky in a valley just outside Bethlehem. But are these angels really choirs that are "sweetly singing o'er the plains"? The answer the Bible gives may surprise you. Find out in this episode!
Hey I'm Josh Hawkins and this is Episode 22 of Opening Up the Gospels. In Episode 21, we journeyed just outside of Bethlehem to the fields where shepherds were tending their flocks. Night had fallen and inside the crowded town, a sleeping newborn, probably only a few hours old at this point, was lying in an animal feeding trough inside a dark cave. But back out in the field, an angel had appeared to some of the shepherds tending the sheep who were probably destined for sacrifice in the temple. The angel told the shepherds some "good news" that in the city of David, in Bethlehem, a Savior was born, who is Christ the Lord. We developed the meaning of those very significant words in the last episode, so if you missed it, go back and check it out. Let's pick up today in Luke 2: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:11-12 ESV) The angel announces that the sign of this remarkable proclamation was a baby swaddled in a feeding trough. In other words, the angel is saying "this is how you know you've found the baby I'm talking about - you're going to see him in a place where you wouldn't normally see babies." Just think about how strange this must have been to them. This is the future king of Israel who will subdue all of their enemies and cause them to dwell in safety, and this is God in the flesh, and the angel says "you'll find him in a feeding trough where animals eat." We're so familiar with this story that what's actually going on here really doesn't strike us anymore. It's like the angel is saying "hey, go to this neighborhood, you're going to find a baby lying in a gutter next to the street, or you'll find a baby in a bucket in a back yard. That's the sign for you." My goodness. What does this say about Jesus and what He is like? His humility is just absolutely breathtaking. Now remember, these are shepherds, the outcasts of society. They're the first to hear this good news of Christ the Lord being born. Think about that. Out of all of the seemingly important people living in Jerusalem - all the way from Herod to the religious leaders and Jewish authorities, God picked a band of shepherds to hear the news first. I'll get to this in a second. Before the shepherds make their way to Bethlehem to see this baby who is the king of Israel and the God of Israel, something absolutely unprecedented happens: And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13–14 ESV) Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke says that suddenly a multitude of the heavenly host appeared with the angel. There are so many unique things about this scene. First, in the Bible, when someone sees an angel, they typically see one angel. But in this case, the shepherds see a multitude of the heavenly host. A possible parallel could be the story in 2 Kings 6:17 with Elisha and his prayer to open his servant's eyes to see the all the horses and chariots of fire all around. The second unique thing, most of the time, like in Revelation 4 and 5 and Daniel 7, the location of a multitude of angels is in heaven. But here, this is so rare - the shepherds were seeing the heavenly host on the earth. They were just in a valley outside Bethlehem! This is so dramatic! And the third unique thing is what these angels were doing. It's absolutely unparalleled anywhere else in the Bible. Every time you see an angel coming in the Bible, they're either delivering a message or killing people - that's pretty sobering, I know - like when the angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrians in 2 Kings 19 or the angel in David's day killing people after the census in 2 Samuel 24. But what begins as just one angel here turns into a multitude of them. And what are they doing? They aren't killing or delivering a message. Even though our Christmas songs say that these angels were heavenly choirs that were singing, Scripture never actually says that. They are all worshipping however (which doesn't have to mean singing, right?) and they're saying "Glory to God in the highest". Oh, this is so awesome. But we have to to ask another question - what are the "heavenly host"? In modern terms, we often times use the word "host" to describe a large number of something - for example, we might say: "I have a host of things to get done today." But a closer look at the Greek word used in this passage is highly revealing. The word used by Luke is (στρατιά) stratia, a word that in classical Greek denoted an army or a company of soldiers. In other words, we shouldn't be looking at this large group of angels as a choir "sweetly singing o'er the plains". We should hear the military overtones with the word and see it in context to the story so far. Somehow Christmas just got a lot more frightening. So if the shepherds saw an angelic army in the skies, why is an army saying "on earth peace among those with whom [God] is pleased"? Well remember, in a dirty feed trough in Bethlehem, the long awaited future king of Israel, the king of Israel who will deliver them from their enemies, is lying swaddled and cold. And the one lying there is more than just the Messiah - he is God himself and was visiting His people. The stunned angel onlookers see more than just another baby there. They behold their commander in chief - not as the mighty conquering "captain" as He was seen throughout the Old Testament, but as a helpless baby whose cries fill the night air. Instead of the angel armies arriving for the great and terrible Day of the LORD as the prophets often announced in passages like Isaiah 13:9; Jeremiah 46:10 and Joel 2:1-11, the angels were proclaiming peace! It was not yet time for the final judgment. In saying "peace among those with whom [God] is pleased", the army was praising God and heralding a time of amnesty for all of humanity. This accords so well with the story thus far and makes far more sense of the humility and lowliness that God came in and that He would ultimately display through His death on the cross. About 30 years later, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming an urgent message of repentance for the forgiveness of sin as we'll see in Luke 3. God was visiting His people Israel and a window of opportunity for repentance had been opened for them. He was giving time, saying "the day of the Lord is soon... you're not ready, but there's a window open for repentance. So turn." Let's keep reading in Luke 2: When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:8–20 ESV) Well, we don't know how the shepherds actually searched for Jesus, but with the town filled with people for the census and the likelihood of the birth of Jesus inside of a cave, it probably was not all that difficult to walk into the small town and find a baby in a feeding trough. Again, that's just not where you find babies. So they find Mary and Joseph and Jesus lying in the manger. We have no record of what the interaction was like between Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. What did they say? How did they introduce themselves? How did they recount the story of the angel and the army in the fields? What was it like for the shepherds' rough, callused hands to touch the soft baby skin of God's little face and He lay in the bosom of a frightened young girl? The passage says that Mary treasured up what they said and pondered it in her heart. Oh, what was it like for her remembering this night when Jesus was 2, and then 5, and then 10, and then 20 and then 30? As I close this episode today, focus your heart on this. Why did God do the birth of Jesus this way? What does this say about what He's like that He chose shepherds to be the first people to know about His birth? He had angels, I mean, a LOT of angels, appear to them. The first people to hear of the newly born king and God in the flesh were outcasts in Israel. We're often guilty of thinking about God in ways that aren't even close to how He reveals Himself in the Bible. We're really into popularity and power and human significance, and we think God is like that. But at every point in the way Jesus came, He's screaming "no, I'm not like that!" I mean, God could have so easily sent angels to Caesar or Herod or the high priest, and we think that seeing a multitude of the heavenly host would be pretty compelling. Like we think "well, they could show up to the big important guys and then maybe they just wouldn't go on to try and kill Jesus later or something." But that wasn't God's plan. He came to the humble ones. Let this story and the Gospels shape your theology of what God is like. Because even today, we still think the most powerful thing that could happen would be angels showing up to the White House or the Senate or something, and we'd say "wow, that important guy got a visitation, we're on the verge of revival!" But that's not how God does it. The Gospels are going in the exact opposite direction, and this has to shape our understanding of what God is like. Well, next time we'll continue in Luke 2 and look at Jesus' presentation in the Temple. You may be wondering, "hey, what about the wise men? Didn't they show up the night of His birth?" The answer to that is "no, they didn't". And you'll see why in a few episodes. Stay tuned, and if you've missed any of the episodes, you can always find them all on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. God bless, see you next time!