The First Witnesses to the Birth of the Savior – Luke 2:8-20

Linus reading the Christmas Story in the original Charlie Brown Christmas Special is one of my favorite Christmas memories. There is something about hearing the appearance of the angels to the shepherds in the King James Version and hearing phrases like “and they were sore afraid.” But why do the angels appear to shepherds? Why announce the savior’s birth to them first, and not kings or priests?

Linus reads Luke 2Shepherds are sometimes considered “the common folk,” and perhaps representative of the most sinful of people. It is true that Luke especially highlights the poor and shows how Jesus had a special ministry to the downtrodden. But the evidence that shepherds were sinners is late (fifth century AD), and the New Testament always presents shepherds in a good light (church leaders are shepherds, as are Moses and David in the Hebrew Bible).

Perhaps this is the first (of many) examples of the ministry of the Messiah to the lowly, as predicted in another song in Luke. Mary’s son in Luke 1:46-55 predicted the messiah would “humble the proud and exalt the humble” (1:52). That the announcement of the messiah’s birth was made first to a group of shepherds is a remarkable indication that the lowly are “being raised up.”

Since these are shepherds in the vicinity of Bethlehem, it is quite likely that there is a subtle reference to David, a shepherd who became king of Israel. The original leader of the nation, Moses, also spent forty years as a shepherd before shepherding Israel in the wilderness.

The angel appears with the glory of the Lord and announces the “good news” of the birth of a savior. In the Roman world one would expect the “good news” to concern the birth of a son to the emperor or an announcement concerning a great victory over an enemy. But this announcement does not concern the birth of a son to the emperor in Rome, but rather the birth of the real king who will defeat the real enemy of all people, sin and death itself.

The song of the angelic host draws on themes from the Hebrew Bible. The “heavenly host” is an angelic army, or at the very least an uncountable number of angels around the throne of God (1 Kings 22:18). That God should be glorified is not a surprise, nor is the fact that he is glorified in heaven (in the “highest” is euphemistic for heaven.” That God brings peace is also common in the Hebrew Bible, see Psalm 29:11 and 86:8-10, for example.

Those that are receiving this good news are described as those on whom God’s favor rests. “reflects a semitechnical Semitic expression referring to God’s people and having overtones of election and of God’s active initiative in extending his favor” (Nolland, Matthew, 109).  This phrase too is drawn from key texts in the Hebrew Bible, see Psalm 106:4 for example.

But there is also a subtle reference to the Roman Empire here as well. The “Bringer of Peace” in the Roman word was Augustus, the first emperor. It was Augustus who established pax Romana, the peace of Rome. Although this was propaganda (Roman was always at war along the borders), for most people living at the time Jesus was born, the Empire was at peace and secure. This peace was guaranteed by the armies of Rome. Augustus was often called savior on official coinage and the Roman calendar was arranged to mark his birthday. People sang hymns of praise and worship to the spirit of Augustus and the power of his kingdom, Rome.

It is therefore ironic that the angel announced the birth of the real savior of the world who will bring real peace to the world to the young shepherds in near a tiny village in an unremarkable backwater of the Roman Empire. Anyone who puts their faith in Rome and Roman power will be humbled by the sudden appearance of the real King, Jesus.

This is an important message for Christians every year, but perhaps this year it is even more urgent. There is no peace and safety to be found in the government of any empire, whether that is Rome or America. Not human leader can really guarantee prosperity for all. If the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus teaches us anything it should be the very biblical story that God’s kingdom will overcome the kingdom of man, so to rely on the empire of man is foolish indeed!

7 thoughts on “The First Witnesses to the Birth of the Savior – Luke 2:8-20

  1. First of all, a big fan of Charlie Brown, this show is a tradition to watch during the holidays!
    When looking at Jesus’ birth, we can see the foreshadowing and the introduction of His future ministries. In every way, Jesus’ birth shows what He would experience during His ministries and the humility of His life. Jesus being born in an inn and being placed in a feeding trough shows that Jesus did not come for a clean and easy life. As shepherds were told of Jesus’ birth we see a significance and change of those with low social standings to be raised up (Long, 2018). During this time shepherds were known for being common folk, nothing special about them. Some of the greatest leaders in the Bible though were shepherds, even David who is traced back through Jesus’ genealogy. The angel delivering this good news would often be viewed as the birth of an emperor or victory over an enemy. In this case, the birth was a king, but not in the eyes of men, yet. Jesus would also defeat sin and death itself later in life. Those at this time may have not known it yet, but it would become. Other significant sayings from this time were the song of the angelic host (Long, 2018). As these are symbols of God’s glory, individuals receiving this good news, and peace in the land through Jesus. It is so important for us to remember this not just during Christmas time but every day. Especially on election years, we have many choices of leaders and presidents, but the most important is Jesus and His power to defeat all sin.

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  2. The significance of the proclamation of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds was not by accident or coincidence, or even “right place, right time”. Throughout the Gospels, specifically in Jesus’ ministry, and throughout the rest of the New Testament, we see that Jesus did not come to rage a war on Rome and the kingdoms of the earth. We also see that he put himself in the presence of the lowly and the outcasts, the poor and destitute from all over. Many Jews believed that the Messiah was coming to save them from their Roman oppressors, even Herod believed that which was seen when he sent soldiers to kill all the little boys (Matthew 2:3-16). What better king to have though than Jesus? He is the worker of miracles, the saver of souls, the friend to the lonely. He is all these things and more, but his mission was not to conquer earth’s kingdoms and establish his glorious reign here. I am truly thankful for that because this earth is temporary, and its problems are temporary. If He was meant to conquer all in that sense, then wouldn’t he have been born in a palace? His lowly birthplace is another indication that he humbled himself so deeply. It’s likely that the town of Bethlehem didn’t even have an “inn” in the traditional sense like we’re often told about (Strauss, 416). Jesus paints an excellent picture of what true leadership looks like. As you state in the blog, we can’t count on government to make everything perfect. We’re relying on human people to do things only God can do, and that’s bring true peace to this world.

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  3. It’s interesting that you point out the importance of the first witness of the Savior’s birth being shepherds and how that points to not putting our hope and trust in government. This statement made by scripture would almost cue the reader to think that the story would continue to favor the poor, common people of Rome, and this Savior would eventually overthrow the government and establish a new kingdom. While this was true, it was not the kingdom the reader would have expected. The reveling of the savior to the shepherds first rather than an important political figure might feel like the first punch your favorite superhero lands on the villain. But unlike a superhero fantasy, the story doesn’t end the way we might think. There isn’t a major fight scene at the end where the political leaders of the day lose and Jesus wins, at least not how we expect, rather Jesus dies, and the victory comes through the resurrection and still no political victory over Rome. The victory was found in God’s kingdom and the hope is found in the future restoration of His kingdom, one in which there is no Roman, American, or any other political organization of man.

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  4. The fact that Jesus’ birth was first announced to Shepherds, and not to those in the upper eschalons of society, could have two other purposes that have not yet been mentioned. Firstly, Jesus became humble (Philippians 2:5-11) to minister and relate to those who were of lowly status. If Jesus came to earth as a wealthy king and favored the rich and famous, those who are poor and lowly would feel as though entrance into God’s family is only for those who are successful on Earth. However, Jesus became nothing to show even the nothings that they are worthy of His love. Secondly, if an infinite host of angelic beings were to announce the existence of a Savior on Earth to the powerful and wealthy, some of those individuals could have thought the angelic host was celebrating them. Others could have sought out the Savior, like the Wise Men did, and brought more gifts (making the family very wealthy), which would have ruined the point of Jesus being born among the lowly. Others still could have acted more like Herod, and sought to kill Jesus before he usurped their power and wealth.

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  5. I think that this story is a great example of how Jesus is helping those who needed it the most at the time. This reminds of the verse James 2:5 which says, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” Although the shepherds are simply common folk, God found favor with them and chose them as witnesses of the birth of Christ. Jesus too throughout his life found favor with many common people, and we see that in the Bible repeatedly. This idea of humbling the proud and exalting the humble makes me think of the future of the world and the return of Christ. There will be world leaders who are corrupt and high in power on Earth, but when Jesus returns the common people who are rich in faith will be exalted. No matter our role or social status here on Earth, we all are equals and and humbled by Jesus.

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  6. I have always liked researching this story in the Bible because there is a lot to learn regarding the angel, who it spoke to when announcing the birth of Jesus, which group of people showed up to visit Jesus first, etc. But one I had not really researched was why the angel went to the shepherds first, and now I know, and it is a pretty cool reason. Of all the people the angel could have gone to first, he chose to go to the “lowliest” people in town. It could have gone to the kings and priests so that Jesus could be showered with expensive gifts and praised highly, but instead it went to shepherds who could not give his much except gratitude and thankfulness. Shepherds were not wealthy but actually considered sinful according to P Longs post. This demonstrates who his birth was truly for. Not only does it represent love for those who are already saved, but also for those who are not already saved. He was born to protect his people and bring even more to him.

    That is also why what the angel said to the shepherds was interesting. He did directly tell his that a king was born, but instead it said the real king has been born. There were many kings who ruled during this time and none of them could live up to Gods expectations, as no one can, and by saying that the real king has been born says a lot. This says that Jesus will do everything the other kings could not do. He will bring people to himself, he will protect the believers and nonbelievers, he will protect the nations.

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