Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Grace Protestant Reformed Church in Standale, Michigan.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
The angels brought the message of great joy. This joy was not about fun and games. Nor about health and wealth. But it still was a message of great joy. In fact, it was and is the greatest joy.
Poor shepherds were the first to receive this good tidings. They received it by means of an angel of God. Later, when the Holy Spirit saw fit to put this message into the inspired Scriptures, this same wonderful message goes “to all people,” that is, to all kinds of people.
May we also hear the good news of great joy that was proclaimed in Bethlehem. Remember that the message was so important that it required the appearance of an angel from heaven on earth in order to convey it properly and adequately. Let us hear and see the Word that is come to pass. And let us know the great joy.
The setting was one of great fear. The joy was so great and bright just because it was on the background of the frightening and great darkness. The shepherds had gathered, as they did every night, mingling their flocks and taking advantage of the only opportunity their lonely occupations gave them for fellowship with other humans. This was not a desired job. Usually only the very young and the uneducated had this position.
These shepherds were also believers. They had been given the gift of faith, whereby they held for truth the promises of God’s Word, especially concerning the Messiah, who had been promised as the expectation of Israel. That they were believers is evident from the fact that they were the ones God selected to hear the angelic message of great joy. But they later evidenced their faith when they made haste to see (not whether) that which was made known to them. Further, they excitedly told others what they had seen—they made known the Word that was told them concerning this child.
An angel, in all the brilliant splendor of the glory of God Himself, suddenly burst into the dark night. It was the angel, but more, it was “the glory of the Lord,” that shone around them. This dazzling splendor, which pierced the night’s darkness, was a reflection of the inexpressible, blinding glory of God.
The result for the shepherds was that they were filled with mega-fear. The poor shepherds were caught in the grip of a sudden, paralyzing fear. Yes, it was the fear of the unknown—the fear of such blinding brilliance. But more than that, it was the fear of being destroyed. This happened every time the glory of the thrice holy Creator came upon those who are mere creatures, and then horrible sinners on top of that. The glory of the Most High Majesty makes every member of the fallen human race conscious of his spiritual nakedness—just as it did with Adam after he sinned. God’s glory exposes the deep and dark recesses of our sinfulness, where millions of sins hide. Thus the fear of the shepherds is the fear of facing the judgment, convinced of condemnation.
The message of the angel has the intent of removing the fear of the shepherds.
The first purpose of this heavenly visitor was to interpret what had just happened in a nearby stable. It was something that had never happened before and would never happen again. God revealed the tremendous greatness of His love as He had never done before. A virgin had given birth to God’s Son. This virgin’s conceiving and giving birth to God’s Son must be seen as the fulfilling of a love promise of God—a promise that God had given throughout 4,000 years of history. The infant born in Bethlehem had created the world and had been upholding it in His hands. He had parted the Red Sea and led His people Israel through the midst of the sea. He who was wrapped in rags and laid in a manger was Almighty God united with human flesh.
Further, the message of the angel was intended to remove fear because it reported the birth of a most unique Person: “a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord.” He is “Christ,” that is, God’s anointed servant, sent to do His will. He is born personally sinless and would remain sinless the whole of His life on earth. And He is the Lord, the Lord of lords and the King of kings.
Also it was important for the shepherds to know that this unique child was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, for this is the exact place God had designated in His promises of old. Finally, the angel identified the task of the child to be that of the “Savior.” He came to save from sin. He was not “born this day in the city of David a Savior” in order to teach an alternate pattern of behavior, nor was His purpose to get us in touch with our inner self and enable us to be all we can be. Rather, Jesus is the “Savior,” that is, He came to rescue sinners from the danger of the divine judgment and to secure for them the highest good and eternal life.
“Fear not.” The very first thing out of the angel’s mouth met the great and obvious need of the shepherds. They were “sore afraid.” And remember, their fear was for divine judgment on them because of their sins and sinfulness. To them the angel says, “Fear not.” The “good tidings” that I came to bring to you are the source of “great joy.” And the joy is greater than the fear, as unbelievable as it may seem. The cause of the joy is greater than the cause of the fear! The Savior is greater than all our sin! The angel brought good news, news designed to remove all dread of God, and it was intended to dispel all fears. And the reason for the greater joy? Because unto you is born this day a Savior! The answer to all our fears is found in the incarnate Christ, who came to redeem us from all of our sins.
Such is the joy of forgiveness. Christ the Lord is Savior because He bore the punishment due to us for all of our sins and sinfulness. The “Savior” does not save us out of dire circumstances (being poor, being a shepherd, losing a loved one in death), but He does save us from our sins, and He declares to us the everlasting love of the heavenly Father Himself. He paid the punishment to the uttermost. He paid with His own life and death. The joy of being so completely forgiven removed the fear of God’s judgment. This is the joy of having God, not as our enemy, but as our Friend.
Do you know this joy? This joy does not depend on what you do or do not do. Nor does it depend on the circumstances in which you find yourself. It is the joy of repentant sinners who know that they are forgiven.
This is the real “spirit of Christmas.” It is personal: “unto you.” And it is universal: “to all people.”
While the gift of the Savior is so very real, it is not for every human being, for to some He is “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (I Pet. 2:8). Nevertheless, God gives this greatest joy to all kinds of people, to His elect children out of every nation, tribe, and tongue. This includes Jews and Canaanites, harlots and Moabites. It also is given to these lowly and insignificant shepherds, who were considered to be worthy of nothing.
This joy is personal. We may not have an angel announcing these good tidings of great joy to us, but it is still very real for us. Instead of angels proclaiming this good news, we have it revealed to us in God’s holy Word. It is not that we have to hear an angelic voice, but rather that we hold for truth what God has revealed to us in His Word concerning the squalor and shame of our sins and sinfulness, and also what He has revealed concerning His love in giving His only begotten Son unto us in the squalor and shame of the manger and then of the cross.
This Savior and the joy He brings are for the frightened and humbled shepherds. And He and His joy are for all who are characterized by a spiritually broken heart and contrite spirit, that is, a repentant heart and a spirit characterized by godly sorrow. For “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy” declares that He dwells “in the high and holy place with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15).
The shepherds responded with joy. Let us respond in joy as well. And may we sing: “Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood” be praise in the church, world without end (Rev. 1:5). Rejoice!