It struck me, as I began to read this story once again, that apart from the angels, no one would have understood what the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ meant — not the shepherds, not Joseph, not even Mary. Oh, it would have been quite a puzzle to Mary! She would have wondered how she could have conceived without having slept with a man. But the significance of it would have passed her by. Would she have guessed what was happening because of her familiarity with the Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah's prophecy that "the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son" (Isaiah 7:14)? At best she might have guessed that the child that was born to her might possibly be the Messiah. But she could not have known that for sure. Nor would Joseph have known. He would have simply thought her unfaithful. And the shepherds would not have come to the manger in the little town of Bethlehem if the angels had not conveyed their message.
Moreover, if you will permit me to apply it in this way, it seems to me that apart from the truths which the angels revealed to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds two thousand years ago concerning the birth of Christ — apart from really understanding what they said and meant — undoubtedly, this Christmas, the real meaning of the birth of Christ will pass us by also.
The world won't let us miss the holiday. There will be a little Christian sentiment, some happiness, and much activity. But this is all there will be — until the angels appear with their message. We only understand the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ by revelation. There are five appearances of an angel, or angels, in the Christmas story, and another appearance of an angel to Joseph later to tell him to return to Israel from Egypt. They are:
• The appearance of Gabriel to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist.
• The appearance of Gabriel to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus.
• The appearance of an unnamed angel to Joseph to explain the virgin birth and to name the Child.
• The appearance of first one angel and then a multitude of angels to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem.
• The appearance of an angel to Joseph in a dream to tell Him to take the Child Jesus and his mother into Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod.
Here are five great appearances of angels. And in the center of them — in the appearances of angels to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds — there are the three messages which, more than any other, perfectly explain the true, divine meaning of Christmas.
The first of these important appearances was to Mary. It is recorded in Luke 1:26-38. In these verses the angel first greets Mary, then gives this message: "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:30-33). There are four main points to this short message:
• Mary was to have a Son.
• His name was to be Jesus.
• He would be great, in fact, the Son of God.
• His birth would be in fulfillment of all those prophecies that foretold the coming of the Messiah and His eternal reign over the nation of Israel.
Each of these points is important, of course. But in the message itself, as well as in the context, the emphasis is upon the fulfillment of prophecy and upon the underlying truth that God is faithful. Think of the situation under which the Jews lived at this time. There had been revelations from God in the past. But now, for over four hundred years, the prophetic voice had been silent. Malachi, who lived in the fifth century before Christ, was the last of the prophets. Since his day no one had been raised up to declare the sure word of the Lord. Had God forgotten His people? Had He forgotten His promises? Suddenly the angels appear, first to Zechariah and then to Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, and the word is out: God has not forgotten! The time of fulfillment has come!
I am convinced that this thought was uppermost in Luke's mind as he set about to write this opening section of his gospel. For the chapter begins with the appearance of the angel to Zechariah — in which there is a reference to the closing words of the Old Testament, the words that foretell the coming of Elijah before the Messiah's appearance (Luke 1:17; Malachi 4:5-6) — and it ends with Zechariah's great hymn of praise to God for His faithfulness.... In this hymn, known as the "Benedictus," the aged priest exclaims: "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago...)" (Luke 1:68-70).
So, you see, if Christmas means anything, it at least means this — that God has not forgotten His people. This is the first message that I would leave with you. Do you sometimes feel that God has forgotten you? Perhaps you have prayed for something and have not received an answer, at least not the answer you were waiting for. This can be a very trying experience. But it does not mean that God has forgotten. It is just that His plans do not run on our timetables. Be patient! Trust Him! I have known people who have had deep and fervent prayers answered after the better part of a lifetime has gone by — prayers for the salvation of a son or a daughter, prayers for success in some worthwhile endeavor, prayers for reconciliation with an erring wife or husband. God did not forget! And God has not forgotten you!
Perhaps you are anxious to be delivered from some tenacious sin, but you do not seem to have deliverance. "Has God forgotten me?" you are asking. No, He has not forgotten you. God is faithful. He is able to deliver you from whatever your particular sin may be — alcoholism, unlawful sex, a bad temper, gossiping, pride, selfishness — whatever it is. God is "able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us..." (Ephesians 3:20).
Perhaps you are one who longs for the Lord's return. Things seem to go as they have been going from the beginning, and you want something better. That is good. That has been the cry of God's people from the beginning — "How long, O Lord, how long?" God has not forgotten. Peter tells us that God delays only long enough to call to repentance all whom He has before determined should believe ("He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" see 2 Peter 3:9). Jesus is coming! The God who did not forget us in Christ's first coming will not forget us in His second.
The second message brought by the angels concerning the birth of Christ is the message to Joseph. I am glad that the angel appeared to Joseph and not only to Mary. For you see, Joseph was in a difficult position. The situation would have been difficult for anyone to understand, let alone a man engaged to a woman who was expecting a child. All Joseph could have thought was that Mary had been unfaithful. But the angel appeared and explained to Joseph what was happening. And then — this is what is so wonderful — Joseph believed him. He trusted God and received a great revelation concerning the work of the Savior.
The words of the angel to Joseph confirmed Joseph's authority and responsibility in the naming of Mary's child. So he was told, "...you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Jehoshua, meaning "Jehovah is salvation." Thus, the message to Joseph centers primarily on that great work which Jesus, the Messiah, was to do. He was to save His people. He is the Savior.
It is unfortunate that these great words "savior" and "salvation" have been watered down so much as they have been in our day. But they have. And we need to understand exactly what the biblical meaning of these words is if we are to understand this part of the angel's announcement.
One person who has been responsible for watering down the biblical meaning of the word "salvation" is Paul Tillich, the German-born American theologian. Tillich developed his understanding of salvation from the meaning of the Latin word salvus, which underlies it. Salvus means "healthy" or "whole." So, according to Tillich, who popularized this approach in his three-volume Systematic Theology and in his lectures, salvation can therefore be applied "to every act of healing: to the healing of sickness, or demonic possession, and of servitude to sin and to the ultimate power of death" 1 It means "reuniting that which is estranged, giving a center to what is split, overcoming the split between God and man, man and his world, man and himself. 2 This basic approach to salvation has been picked up in an avalanche of books on pastoral counseling, Christian psychiatry, and the cure of souls.
The difficulty with this approach does not lie in the thought that the biblical view of salvation is unrelated to such themes. In fact, the opposite is the case. For there are many references to salvation as deliverance from disease (Matthew 9:21; Luke 6:19; 18:42; James 5:15), captivity (Philippians 1:13,19), or physical death (Mark 13:20; John 12:27; Hebrews 5:7). The difficulty lies rather in the fact that today, if only because of the impressive achievements of medical science, this approach inevitably fails to distinguish between the salvation that God alone can bring and that salvation which men are apparently providing for themselves. What, for instance, is the difference between that wholeness experienced by a member of the church in the course of a counseling session with his minister and the wholeness gained by an atheist as the result of his session with a reputable but non-Christian psychiatrist? Unless our way of talking about salvation makes distinctions here, our interpretations inevitably fall short of the biblical conceptions.
Another example of modern tendencies to reduce biblical salvation to human dimensions is the increasing emphasis upon the social aspects of the Christian gospel conceived in opposition to evangelism as traditionally understood. Beyond any question, the gospel of Jesus Christ has important social implications. Christians are to be active in many efforts to achieve social justice, improve the life of the poor and minister to the needy. But that is not what the Bible is talking about when it talks about salvation. In fact, the Bible would not even support the view that the world is capable of being redeemed socially apart from the supernatural intervention of God in history. What are we to say to such theories? No doubt, these examples of the reduction of the biblical view of salvation to human dimensions are not equally bad. Some even contain good emphases. Nevertheless, each of them fails at the most important point — the great fact that salvation in the biblical sense is by God alone — and tries to encourage the age — old desire of man to save himself, which is impossible. If man could save himself, then there would have been no need for Jesus Christ to be born. There would have been no need for His life, His death on the cross, or His resurrection. On the other hand, if man cannot save himself spiritually — if he is headed for an eternity without God and is unable to reverse his condition — then Jesus Christ had to come. His birth was necessary. And the promise of the angel — "for He will save His people from their sins" — are the greatest words of the entire Christmas story. Jesus fulfilled that promise when He died for your sin and rose again for your justification.
Have you seen that truth in the story? Have you recognized yourself as a sinner? Do you know that you have fallen short of God's standards and that nothing within you will ever be able to move up to the fulfilling of them? If you have, then you understand your need of a Savior and are at the place where you can receive Jesus as the One who died to save you. Let your prayer be the cry of the publican: "God be merciful to me, a sinner!" As you pray that prayer, you will find that God has already been merciful in Jesus. And you will enter, perhaps for the first time, into the Christmas story.
Finally, there is the appearance of first one angel, than a multitude of angels to the shepherds as they were in the fields around Bethlehem. Like the message to Mary, this message also has four parts:
• The proclamation of great joy to all people.
• The annunciation of Christ's birth.
• The sign by which the Baby was to be identified.
• The doxology in which glory is ascribed to God and peace is declared to be man's heritage.
Also, like the message to Mary, it has an important emphasis which, in this case, is the proclamation of joy. The angel said, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy..." (Luke 2:10).
Joy is a wonderful thing; it is an appropriate part of Christmas. I wonder if you have experienced joy at this season. I am not referring to activity, of course. There is much activity — but many go through these activities in a joyless way. Nor am I referring to happiness. Happiness is a wonderful thing at Christmas — shopping, decorating, entertaining, mailing cards — but it is the world's virtue, and like all the world's virtues, it quite easily passes away. Happiness is related to circumstances. When circumstances are right, there is happiness; but when the source of happiness departs, happiness goes with it. It is not this way with joy. Joy is of God. It is based upon what God has done, and it is given to the Christian by God and is sustained by God. Nothing destroys joy except sin.
I covet that kind of joy for you. I would like you to have the experience of entering into the kind of joy that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds had on that first Christmas morning. Did they have joy? Of course they did! But the circumstances were not good. Mary and Joseph were far from home, in a strange town without even a room to themselves in which Mary could give birth to the Child. But I imagine that the joy of this couple on this occasion was the greatest this world has ever seen. Why? Because it came from God and was centered in the birth of the Savior. If you know this joy, then you can go on, as the angels did, to give glory to God; and you can possess that peace of heart and soul which transcends understanding.
The messages of the angels do not reinforce our secular views of Christmas. Instead they carry us deep into the mind and counsels of our great God. The first message is a message of the faithfulness of God. The second concerns the salvation of men. The third message is of the outcome, which is joy for man and glory for God. Have you heard these messages and appropriated them for yourself? To do so is to participate in the Christmas story.
1. Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Volume I, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), page 146.
2. Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology Volume 2: Existence and the Christ. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), page 166.
Revised 2007, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. All rights reserved.
All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the New International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission