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Extraordinary News to Ordinary People
Verse Commentary on Luke 2:8-20

Jirair Tashjian


Augustus and Jesus--the emperor of the mightiest nation in the world, and a Jewish boy born in a feeding trough. The contrast couldn’t have been greater. When Augustus became emperor, there was a glimmer of hope that he would bring peace and salvation to the world.

Luke begins the story of Jesus’ birth with a reference to Caesar Augustus (2:1). True peace did not come through Augustus as people hoped. Will it come through this One who was born in a manger?

1. Great Joy for All the People (2:8-12)

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

8. There were shepherds . . . in the fields nearby. The joyous event was not announced to dignitaries in palaces but to lowly shepherds working the night shift. This is in keeping with what Mary says in Luke 1:52, that God "has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble."

9. Angel of the Lord. The Greek as well as the Hebrew word for angel can simply mean a messenger of God, whether human or supernatural. Angels in the OT often appeared as human beings (Genesis 18:1-2). Jewish belief in angels as supernatural beings developed sometime between 400 B.C. and the time of Jesus.

The glory of the Lord shone around them. In the Bible God’s presence is often symbolized by intense light, fire, or lightning. The glory of God is often associated with the tabernacle or the temple in the OT (Exodus 40:35). But God is certainly greater than any symbol we can use of Him. Luke connects the birth of Jesus with the OT by using OT language and imagery.

10. Whenever an angel of the Lord appeared, the typical reaction was fear, and the response of the angel was, "Do not be afraid." The same thing happened earlier with Zechariah and Mary (1:11-13, 28-30). This was also the case in the OT (Judges 12:22). Luke was following a familiar pattern.

I bring you good news, all one word in Greek, means to evangelize or to preach the gospel. Here at the birth of Jesus the angel of the Lord was already proclaiming the good news of the gospel. But why is this good news? And why is it of great joy? The answer will be given in verses 11-12.

For all the people. Use of the definite article "the" makes this a reference to Israel. However, Gentiles are also included in God’s salvation. Simeon will make that point a little later in 2:32.

11. Luke is fond of the word today and uses it repeatedly to mean the present period of salvation brought about by Jesus (4:21; 5:26). Salvation is not something to be expected only in the future at the second coming of Jesus or in heaven after death. It can be experienced here and now. "Today salvation has come to this house," says Jesus to Zacchaeus (Luke 19:9).

Luke’s three favorite titles for Jesus appear in this verse: Savior, Christ, and Lord. In Luke 1:47 Mary calls God her Savior. But now the angel applies that title to Jesus, thus attributing to Jesus the same qualities that belong to God. It is ironic that Roman emperors and other rulers were also called saviors.

In Acts 2:36, Peter says that God made Jesus both Lord and Christ by raising him from the dead. But Luke wants to make it clear that Jesus was destined to be Christ and Lord even at his birth.

Originally, Christ was the Greek word for the Hebrew term Messiah, which meant anointed. In the OT David was anointed as king. Later kings usurped the royal throne without bothering with a divine anointing. Israelite prophets longed for a king who would be truly anointed of God to do His bidding.

Jesus identified himself as the anointed of the Lord when he quoted the words of Isaiah 61:1, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:17-21).

The third title given to Jesus is Lord. In the OT this title was used for Yahweh, the almighty God. But now this new-born, helpless infant is called the Lord. What a paradox! The irony of it all is that the mighty Roman emperors were also given the title Lord.

The angel told the shepherds that this Baby was born in the town of David. As descendant of David, Jesus was to be a king. Here is another link between the story of Jesus and the OT.

In Luke 20:41-43 Jesus asks, "How is it that they say the Christ is the Son of David? . . . David calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?" Jesus was not necessarily denying his Davidic ancestry. It is rather a question of how. It was by God’s own will and purpose that Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed king, Lord and Savior. He was not merely a king as was David.

12. A sign to you . . . a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. An angel of God had already appeared with the announcement of Jesus’ birth. Shortly in this passage, a heavenly host will light up the Judean skies and will fill the air with their praise (vv. 13-14). What further need is there for a sign? One is tempted to see God’s sense of humor here: an infant who was supposed to be the Messiah born in a feeding trough!

The sign was not merely to help the shepherds find the Baby. Luke does not tell us how the shepherds were to find the right manger; presumably, there were hundreds of them. The point of the sign is to confirm to them that this One is indeed the promised Messiah. The shepherds could have been easily disappointed with the primitive conditions of this birth. Here was the Messiah born in surroundings strangely familiar to them--a manger. Could it be that the Messiah was at home with lowly shepherds rather than emperors and kings?

2. Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth Peace (2:13-14)

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

13. Heavenly host. The picture here is that of a heavenly army surrounding the throne of God. Such symbolic description of God’s glory and majesty was familiar to readers of the OT (1 Kings 22:19). Luke is again using OT language to link the birth of Jesus with the OT.

14. The hymn of praise sung by the heavenly host consists of two lines. The first line is about God: Glory to God in the highest. These same words of praise will appear again toward the end of Jesus’ ministry when he enters Jerusalem riding on a colt. The crowd of disciples will praise God with similar words, except that then they will chant "peace in heaven" instead of peace on earth (Luke 19:38). Why the change?

To find the answer, we first need to consider the second line of the angelic hymn, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests. The elusive peace promised by the Roman Empire was now being offered through Jesus to all people on earth. This peace has its roots in the Jewish idea of shalom, which means wholeness. To be whole means that one has right relations with God, with other persons, and with oneself. In this sense, peace is another term for salvation from sin.

But will peace be realized through Jesus? Later on in Luke Jesus will say, "Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division" (Luke 12:51). Luke’s point in the story of Jesus is that not even God can bring peace automatically into the world. Peace was certainly offered through Jesus, but it all depends on how people respond to God’s offer.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem toward the end of his ministry, he wept over the city and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes" (Luke 19:42).

The offer of peace is to all on whom God’s favor rests. This does not mean that God favors a select group of people. The meaning is rather that all humankind are the subject of God’s favor and can have peace. The new age of salvation has come in Jesus, and it is for all. But a decision must be made to accept it or reject it.

3. Wonder, Reflection, and Praise (2:15-20)

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

15. The shepherds said to one another. In Greek the verb is literally "they kept saying," which shows urgency.

16. The shepherds hurried off to Bethlehem, indicating their earnestness. The test of their faith was their immediate obedience.

Mary is named first, then Joseph. Mary is the focus of Luke’s account rather than Joseph.

And the baby, who was lying in the manger. In contrast to the heavenly fanfare in the previous scene, the birth of Jesus couldn’t have been more down-to-earth. Had the shepherds not heard the angel’s words or seen the heavenly host, they wouldn’t have guessed there was anything unusual about this Child or his parents. This miraculous Son of God was born in ordinary and mundane surroundings. Without God’s revelation to the shepherds, a baby in a manger would have meant very little to them.

17-18. In verses 17-20 we find three different responses to divine revelation. First, there were those who were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. Amazement or wonder is a normal response to what God does, but it isn’t the same as faith. In fact, it could even be a sign of unbelief. The synagogue crowd in Nazareth "were amazed at the gracious words" of Jesus, yet a little later they tried to kill him (Luke 4:22, 19). After the resurrection of Jesus the two disciples on the Emmaus road were filled with wonder, but were still skeptical (Luke 24:41).

19. In contrast to the Bethlehem people, Mary represents another response to divine revelation. She treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Mary had already heard the words of the angel Gabriel about the Baby she was to bear. And now she heard the report of the shepherds. But apparently, she was still puzzled. She needed time to fathom the meaning of it all. Some time later, when she and Joseph found the 12-year old Jesus in the Temple, Luke tells us that Mary responded the same way--"treasured all these things in her heart" (Luke 2:51).

The last time Luke specifically mentions Mary is in Acts 1:14, where she is among the 120 in the upper room praying and waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Luke implies that throughout the lifetime of Jesus Mary struggled with the questions of faith, particularly during the dark days of Jesus’ death (note the words of Simeon to Mary in Luke 2:34-35). She did not truly comprehend it all until after the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. But all the while, she continued to reflect on the difficult issues of faith. Mary represents Christians who desire to believe God, but have honest questions and doubts. Luke has a high regard for thoughtful persons such as Mary.

20. The climax of the story is the response of the shepherds. Now their human voices were added to the heavenly host, glorifying and praising God. This is the ultimate response to divine action. The shepherds, being Jewish, worshiped God rather than the infant in the manger. The idea that Jesus himself as Son of God was also worthy of worship became clearer after his resurrection. The Magi, on the other hand, who were Gentile, were more at ease to worship the child Jesus (Matthew 2:11).

The things they had heard and seen . . . were just as they had been told. The praise and worship of the shepherds came after two previous events: divine revelation given by the angel, and verification by the shepherds. The word of revelation was confirmed by what they experienced at the manger. The shepherds’ praise was not a hysterical, emotional response to the spectacular heavenly phenomenon. Their praise was the result of what they personally verified at the manger.

-Jirair Tashjian, Copyright © 2018, Jirair Tashjian
and The Christian Resource Institute - All Rights Reserved
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