Lesson Text: Luke 2:8-20
Supplemental Text: Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 1:18-25; Acts 9:1-6, 17-20; 10:1-23; 16:6-10
Aim: Let the angels’ unexpected message challenge you to investigate the Lord’s work and respond.
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Download a PDF of this week’s lesson material (the Study by Mark Scott, Application by David Faust, and Discovery Questions by Michael C. Mack): LOOKOUT_Dec19_2021.
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By Mark Scott
In an area just southeast of Bethlehem, in a community known as Beit Sahur in the West Bank of Palestine, lies a site known as Shepherd’s Field. Archeologists have found caves and a fifth-century monastery there. This is probably where Ruth gleaned in Boaz’s field (Ruth 2:2), but even more significant, it likely is where the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. The Franciscans keep it beautiful to this day.
Following the prologue (1:1-4) and the birth announcements of John the Baptist and Jesus (1:5-38), Luke recorded what might be called songs of the coming Messiah. There is Elizabeth’s song (1:39-45), Mary’s song (1:46-56), and after the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah’s song (1:67-80). Next was the Christmas story. Caesar’s decree caused Mary and Joseph to journey to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born (2:1-7).
Shepherds were the first people to hear this good news, which came from a very unconventional visitor. The Bible has a love/hate relationship with shepherds. On the one hand, shepherding was a noble occupation. These shepherds may well have been watching sheep that would be used in temple sacrifice. David the great king of Israel was a shepherd, and spiritually speaking, the Lord is our shepherd (Psalm 23:1). On the other hand, shepherds were despised (Genesis 46:34), and they were not allowed in the temple in Jesus’ day.
But while they were keeping watch (guarding) over their flocks at night, an angel of the Lord appeared to them. The phrase “angel of the Lord” appears 11 times in the New Testament, most often in the birth narratives of Jesus and deliverances from prison in Acts (chapters 5 and 12). With the angel came the glory of the Lord. This glory was so brilliant that the shepherds were terrified.
This unconventional visitor told them to stop being afraid and receive the good news (literally, “be evangelized”) and experience great joy. For if this universal Messiah was for all the people, that would include the shepherds. They were told to go to Bethlehem (the town of David) and were given a sign so they could find the Savior-Messiah. The word sign is often associated with miracles. Here it is used in the sense of what it would point to. Every baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes, but not every baby was placed in a cow-feeding trough. That was unusual, and that was the sign.
The unconventional visitor was then joined by a heavenly host of visitors. This angelic choir spoke the praises of God. The glory shone around the shepherds, but all the glory went to God. The highest heaven indicated his supreme authority. Heaven’s peace would come to those whom God would favor which, in this case, were the ragamuffins known as shepherds—a key to Luke’s inclusiveness in his Gospel.
To some extent, the credibility of a message is impacted by the ones who bring that message. You expect a lawyer to bring a legal message. You expect a teacher to bring a lecture. You expect a doctor to bring a diagnosis. But would shepherds bring the greatest news the planet has ever heard? God thought these shepherds would make the best evangelists—though many would think of them as unlikely messengers.
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds resolved to go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened. The word thing is significant. The same word is translated “word” in verse 17 and “things” in verse 19. It is the Greek word rhema. It is the other word besides logos that is usually translated “word” in the New Testament. Often it distinguishes itself from logos as referring to a “spoken word.” While Jesus himself is called the Word—the content of God (John 1:1, 14), his message is often called rhema (Romans 10:17).
These evangelistic shepherds were on the run. They hurried off. Their search was successful. They found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, just as the angels had told them, i.e., lying in a manger. We do not know how long they stayed, but evidently it was long enough to be filled with joy so as to spread this good news.
Four reactions attended these unlikely evangelists. The shepherds spread the word. The people were amazed (caused to marvel). Mary treasured and pondered the events. And the shepherds joined the angelic choir by glorifying and praising God. Shepherds were the first Christmas evangelists, and their message is worth investigating.