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?
Shepherds 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!