Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Mary became pregnant with Jesus (1:31), the God-man, through the power of the Most High, the miraculous conception (1:35). After receiving this news and acknowledging her trust and dependency on the Lord, she visited Elizabeth, her relative (1:39-40), who was in her sixth month of pregnancy (1:36). After arriving and greeting one another, Elizabeth notes John leaped for joy in her womb at the voice of Mary, in reality in the presence of the Messiah, Jesus (1:41-45). Mary responded in song, known as the Magnificat (1:46-55).
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months (1:56) at which time Elizabeth and Zechariah gave birth to John (1:57-66). In spite of requests from their family, Elizabeth insisted on naming him John. When they asked Zechariah, he agreed in writing that his name would be John (1:59-63). Immediately after writing John, “his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. . . . Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied (1:64, 67). Zechariah’s blessing of God, his prophecy is his song, the Benedictus (1:68-79).
Mary sang her song after the announcement of her miraculous conception (1:46-55). Zechariah sang his song after the birth of John, their son (1:68-79). Six months later it was time for Mary to give birth.
The Historical Context
Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the whole Roman Empire (2:1). This decree calls for the registration of provincial citizens for the purpose of assessing taxes. All those who lived under Rome’s authority were required to register. The decree was issued by the Roman leader, Octavian, Caesar Augustus, the great nephew of Julius Caesar. He came to power as the Roman dictator in 27 BC, and reigned until his death in 14 AD.
Luke portrays Augusts as the unknowing agent of God, whose decree leads to the fulfillment of the promise made by God long ago, that a special ruler would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-2). This occurred while Quirinius was governor of Syria (2:2). Luke places Jesus’ birth in history, in the context of world history. It is not just part of history, it is about to make history because all people be affected. Even though the exact date of the census is not known, the fact of the birth is certain!
This meant Joseph had to return to his ancestral home to register, and Mary, his betrothed, accompanied him (2:3-5). They traveled to Bethlehem, the town of David, because Joseph was from the house and line of David. Luke makes the connection to Old Testament promises, which fulfills prophecy. On the human level, all of this seemed to be senseless and useless, nothing but a bother to a man with a pregnant woman who was not even yet his wife. And yet, they were all engaged in the process of fulfilling prophecy that had been spoken by God 500-750 years earlier.
At the right time, in the fullness of time, while in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus and he was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger because there was no room in all of Bethlehem (2:6-7). Once again – this is not a mistake. It took place at just the right time: When the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4). God is behind the timing of events, and the time is always perfect. These humble beginnings are also part of God’s plan for it becomes the sign by which the shepherds will recognize the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
After Jesus’ birth, an angle of the Lord appeared to shepherds to inform them of this good news (2:8-9). Not only did Jesus have a humble beginning, but his birth was announced first to humble and lowly shepherds (cf. 1:38, 52; 4:16-18), whose testimony was oftentimes not accepted in the court of law as credible. This means that if this was a fabrication, the birth would have been announced to credible witnesses. Instead, in the providence of God, and because it is a valid historical account (Lk. 1:3), it is recorded as historical fact: the angel appeared to the shepherds. The context in which the angel appeared was that “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (2:9), which illumined the darkness of the night sky, a reference to the Shekinah glory (Ex. 16:10).
The Theological and Doxological Response
The announcement of Christ’s birth was given by an angel: “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 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’” (2:10-12). The shepherds were frightened. The angel calms their fears. The angel’s appearance is not for judgment, but for bringing good news. He communicates the wonderful event of Jesus’ (“Christ the Lord”) birth, which is good news and results in great joy for all people (2:10). The sign is that they will find a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger (2:11).
The angel’s message contains six major truths regarding the birth of Jesus. First, the announcement is “good news.” The term for good news is gospel. The gospel is something God has done in sending his Son to be the Savior. Second, this birth which is good news causes “great joy.” The greatest joy in the world is that the Lord Jesus Christ became a man, the God-man. God delights to send his Son to be the Savior of the world” (Jn. 4:42; 1 Jn. 4:14). This also informs us of what ought to bring us true joy. Third, this fact has a bearing on “all the people.” This good news of the gospel is not only for the shepherds, but this is good news of great joy for all people. The gospel, the coming of Jesus is for all people, the hope and peace for the world. Fourth, the reason the message is good news and is cause for great joy is because “this day” the birth of “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” has occurred. Fifth, the birth of Christ the Lord is in the line of David, a Davidic king (2 Sam. 7:8-16; 1 Chron. 17:11-14), and the fulfillment of a prophecy, as he will be born “in the city of David.” Finally, the truth of all the angel communicated with them will be authenticated with a sign – a babe lying in a manger.
After the angel pronounced the birth of “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11), joining the angel was a “multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying” (2:13) (known as Gloria in Excelsis): “"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (2:14)!
You will notice there are three word pairs: glory-peace, heaven (highest)-earth; God-men. The KJV translates this verse as follows: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Note the three part division: (1) Glory to God in the highest, (2) and on earth peace, (3) good will toward men. Rather, it seems that the two-part division as reflected in the ESV (and NASB, NIV, NLT) is more accurate: (1) Glory to God in the highest, (2) and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
This verse, the angels’ song, did not address the “good will” to be manifested on earth by human beings toward one another (KJV). Although that is not bad or wrong, the text does not teach that it is a horizontal reference. It does not refer to the “good will” as the disposition required of human beings to be recipients of the peace, “peace among men of good will,” as if we earn God’s peace by being good natured, neither does it refer to the “good will” or esteem that some people might enjoy among others. Rather, good will was to be understood of God’s “good pleasure” given to those whom God has favored with his grace (cf. Mary in 1:28, 30). This becomes a common phrase, albeit a technical phrase in first century Judaism, for God’s people, his elect, those on whom God has poured out his favor. God is the one who offers and grants peace, and those who are the recipients receive God’s peace through his grace.
In sum, the angels’ message consists of two major truths. First, God is glorified for who he is and for what he has done. The heavens rejoice and praise God for the outworking of God’s salvation, the unfolding of redemptive history culminating in the birth (and life, death, ascension and return) of Jesus, the Savior, Christ the Lord. Second, peace is extended to those upon whom God’s favor, his grace, rests. The people to whom God draws near through Jesus will experience the life and peace God bestows, which has vertical implications such that we are now at peace with God (Rom. 5:1), and also horizontal implications, in that we are now at peace with one another (Eph. 2:14-17). This is good news of great joy for all people.
Worship was the response to this announcement of good news. After the angels departed, the shepherds went to Bethlehem and found Mary, Joseph and the baby (2;16), just as they had been told (2:20). They responded obediently to the message given by God through the angels. Immediately they began to tell others about this good news. They spread the word (proclaimed) about the arrival of the Savior who is Christ the Lord. People were amazed at what they heard (2:17-18). Mary treasured these things and pondered them in her heart. She worshipped God privately and in the quiet of her heart (2:19; cf. Ps. 95:6-7). The shepherds returned to their fields glorifying and praised God. They worshipped corporately, publicly and boldly (2:20; cf. Ps. 95:1-2).
Here are some questions as we ponder over and pray through the truths expressed in the angels’ song:
May we receive the good news with great joy and worship, and may we share that good news with all people! O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!