The meanest circumstances of Christ’s humiliation were all along attended with some discoveries of his glory, to balance them, and take off the offence of them; for even when he humbled himself God did in some measure exalt him and give him earnests of his future exaltation. When we saw him wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, we were tempted to say, “Surely this cannot be the Son of God.” But see his birth attended, as it is here, with a choir of angels, and we shall say, “Surely this cannot be the Son of God.” But see his birth attended, as it is here, with a choir of angels, and we shall say, “Surely it can be no other than the Son of God, concerning whom it was said, when he was brought into the world, Let all the angels of God worship him,” Heb. 1:6.
We had in Matthew an account of the notice given of the arrival of this ambassador, this prince from heaven, to the wise men, who were Gentiles, by a star; here we are told of the notice given of it to the shepherds, who were Jews, by an angel: to each God chose to speak in the language they were most conversant with.
I. See here how the shepherds were employed; they were abiding in the fields adjoining to Bethlehem, and keeping watch over their flocks by night, Luke 2:8. The angel was not sent to the chief priests or the elders (they were not prepared to receive these tidings), but to a company of poor shepherds, who were like Jacob, plain men dwelling in tents, not like Esau, cunning hunters. The patriarchs were shepherds. Moses and David particularly were called from keeping sheep to rule God’s people; and by this instance God would show that he had still a favour for those of that innocent employment. Tidings were brought to Moses of the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, when he was keeping sheep, and to these shepherds, who, it is probable, were devout pious men, the tidings were brought of a greater salvation. Observe, 1. They were not sleeping in their beds, when this news was brought them (though many had very acceptable intelligence from heaven in slumbering upon the bed), but abiding in the fields, and watching. Those that would hear from God must stir up themselves. They were broad awake, and therefore could not be deceived in what they saw and heard, so as those may be who are half asleep. 2. They were employed now, not in acts of devotion, but in the business of their calling; they were keeping watch over their flock, to secure them from thieves and beasts of prey, it being probably in the summer time, when they kept their cattle out all night, as we do now, and did not house them. Note, We are not out of the way of divine visits when we are sensibly employed in an honest calling, and abide with God in it.
II. How they were surprised with the appearance of the angel (Luke 2:9): Behold, an angel of the Lord came upon them, of a sudden, epeste—stood over them; most probably, in the air over their heads, as coming immediately from heaven. We read it, the angel, as if it were the same that appeared once and again in the chapter before, the angel Gabriel, that was caused to fly swiftly; but that is not certain. The angel’s coming upon them intimates that they little thought of such a thing, or expected it; for it is in a preventing way that gracious visits are made us from heaven, or ever we are aware. That they might be sure it was an angel from heaven, they saw and heard the glory of the Lord round about them; such as made the night as bright as day, such a glory as used to attend God’s appearance, a heavenly glory, or an exceedingly great glory, such as they could not bear the dazzling lustre of. This made them sore afraid, put them into great consternation, as fearing some evil tidings. While we are conscious to ourselves of so much guilt, we have reason to fear lest every express from heaven should be a messenger of wrath.
III. What the message was which the angel had to deliver to the shepherds, Luke 2:10-12. 1. He gives a supersedeas to their fears: “Fear not, for we have nothing to say to you that needs be a terror to you; you need not fear your enemies, and should not fear your friends.” 2. He furnishes them with abundant matter for joy: “Behold, I evangelize to you great joy; I solemnly declare it, and you have reason to bid it welcome, for it shall bring joy to all people, and not to the people of the Jews only; that unto you is born this day, at this time, a Saviour, the Saviour that has been so long expected, which is Christ the Lord, in the city of David,” Luke 2:11. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed; he is the Lord, Lord of all; he is a sovereign prince; nay, he is God, for the Lord, in the Old Testament, answers to Jehovah. He is a Saviour, and he will be a Saviour to those only that accept him for their Lord. “The Saviour is born, he is born this day; and, since it is matter of great joy to all people, it is not to be kept secret, you may proclaim it, may tell it to whom you please. He is born in the place where it was foretold he should be born, in the city of David; and he is born to you; to you Jews he is sent in the first place, to bless you, to you shepherds, though poor and mean in the world.” This refers to Isa. 9:6; Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. To you men, not to us angels; he took not on him the nature of angels. This is matter of joy indeed to all people, great joy. Long-looked for is come at last. Let heaven and earth rejoice before this Lord, for he cometh. 3. He gives them a sign for the confirming of their faith in this matter. “How shall we find out this child in Bethlehem, which is now full of the descendants from David?” “You will find him by this token: he is lying in a manger, where surely never any new-born infant was laid before.” They expected to be told, “You shall find him, though a babe, dressed up in robes, and lying in the best house in the town, lying in state, with a numerous train of attendants in rich liveries.” “No, you will find him wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.” When Christ was here upon earth, he distinguished himself, and made himself remarkable, by nothing so much as the instances of his humiliation.
IV. The angels’ doxology to God, and congratulations of men, upon this solemn occasion, Luke 2:13, 14. The message was no sooner delivered by one angel (that was sufficient to go express) than suddenly there was with that angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts; sufficient, we may be sure, to make a chorus, that were heard by the shepherds, praising God; and certainly their song was not like that (Rev. 14:3) which no man could learn, for it was designed that we should all learn it. 1. Let God have the honour of this work: Glory to God in the highest. God’s good-will to men, manifested in sending the Messiah, redounds very much to his praise; and angels in the highest heavens, though not immediately interested in it themselves, will celebrate it to his honour, Rev. 5:11, 12. Glory to God, whose kindness and love designed this favour, and whose wisdom contrived it in such a way as that one divine attribute should not be glorified at the expense of another, but the honour of all effectually secured and advanced. Other works of God are for his glory, but the redemption of the world is for his glory in the highest. 2. Let men have the joy of it: On earth peace, good-will toward men. God’s good-will in sending the Messiah introduced peace in this lower world, slew the enmity that sin had raised between God and man, and resettled a peaceable correspondence. If God be at peace with us, all peace results from it: peace of conscience, peace with angels, peace between Jew and Gentile. Peace is here put for all good, all that good which flows to us from the incarnation of Christ. All the good we have, or hope, is owing to God’s good-will; and, if we have the comfort of it, he must have the glory of it. Nor must any peace, and good, be expected in a way inconsistent with the glory of God; therefore not in any way of sin, nor in any way but by a Mediator. Here was the peace proclaimed with great solemnity; whoever will, let them come and take the benefit of it. It is on earth peace, to men of good-will (so some copies read it), en anthropois eudokias; to men who have a good-will to God, and are willing to be reconciled; or to men whom God has a good-will to, though vessels of his mercy. See how well affected the angels are to man, and to his welfare and happiness; how well pleased they were in the incarnation of the Son of God, though he passed by their nature; and ought not we much more to be affected with it? This is a faithful saying, attested by an innumerable company of angels, and well worthy of all acceptation, That the good-will of God toward men is glory to God in the highest, and peace on the earth.
V. The visit which the shepherds made to the new-born Saviour. 1. They consulted about it, Luke 2:15. While the angels were singing their hymn, they could attend to that only; but, when they were gone away from them into heaven (for angels, when they appeared, never made any long stay, but returned as soon as they had despatched their business), the shepherds said one to another, Let us go to Bethlehem. Note, When extraordinary messages from the upper world are no more to be expected, we must set ourselves to improve the advantages we have for the confirming of our faith, and the keeping up of our communion with God in this lower world. And it is no reflection upon the testimony of angels, no nor upon a divine testimony itself, to get it corroborated by observation and experience. But observe, These shepherds do not speak doubtfully, “Let us go see whether it be so or no;” but with assurance, Let us go see this thing which is come to pass; for what room was left to doubt of it, when the Lord had thus made it known to them? The word spoken by angels was stedfast and unquestionably true. 2. They immediately made the visit, Luke 2:16. They lost no time, but came with haste to the place, which, probably, the angel directed them to more particularly than is recorded (“Go to the stable of such an inn”); and there they found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. The poverty and meanness in which they found Christ the Lord were no shock to their faith, who themselves knew what it was to live a life of comfortable communion with God in very poor and mean circumstances. We have reason to think that the shepherds told Joseph and Mary of the vision of the angels they had seen, and the song of the angels they had heard, which was a great encouragement to them, more than if a visit had been made them by the best ladies in the town. And it is probable that Joseph and Mary told the shepherds what visions they had had concerning the child; and so, by communicating their experiences to each other, they greatly strengthened one another’s faith.
VI. The care which the shepherds took to spread the report of this (Luke 2:17): When they had seen it, though they saw nothing in the child that should induce them to believe that he was Christ the Lord, yet the circumstances, how mean soever they were, agreeing with the sign that the angel had given them, they were abundantly satisfied; and as the lepers argued (2 Kgs. 12:9; This being a day of good tidings, we dare not hold our peace), so they made known abroad the whole story of what was told them, both by the angels, and by Joseph and Mary, concerning this child, that he was the Saviour, even Christ the Lord, that in him there is peace on earth, and that he was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, and born of a virgin. This they told every body, and agreed in their testimony concerning it. And now if, when he is in the world, the world knows him not, it is their own fault, for they have sufficient notice given them. What impression did it make upon people? Why truly, All they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds, Luke 2:18. The shepherds were plain, downright, honest men, and they could not suspect them guilty of any design to impose upon them; what they had said therefore was likely to be true, and, if true, they could not but wonder at it, that the Messiah should be born in a stable and not in a palace, that angels should bring news of it to poor shepherds and not to the chief priests. They wondered, but never enquired any further about the Saviour, their duty to him, or advantages by him, but let the thing drop as a nine days’ wonder. O the amazing stupidity of the men of that generation! Justly were the things which belonged to their peace hid from their eyes, when they thus wilfully shut their eyes against them.
VII. The use which those made of these things, who did believe them. 1. The virgin Mary made them the matter of her private meditation. She said little, but kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart, Luke 2:19. She laid the evidences together, and kept them in reserve, to be compared with the discoveries that should afterwards be made her. As she had silently left it to God to clear up her virtue, when that was suspected, so she silently leaves it to him to publish her honour, now when it was veiled; and it is satisfaction enough to find that, if no one else takes notice of the birth of her child, angels do. Note, The truths of Christ are worth keeping; and the way to keep them safe is to ponder them. Meditation is the best help to memory. 2. The shepherds made them the matter of their more public praises. If others were not affected with those things, yet they themselves were (Luke 2:20): They returned, glorifying and praising God, in concurrence with the holy angels. If others would not regard the report they made to them, God would accept the thanksgivings they offered to him. They praised God for what they had heard from the angel, and for what they had seen, the babe in the manger, and just then in the swaddling, when they came in, as it had been spoken to them. They thanked God that they had seen Christ, though in the depth of his humiliation. As afterwards the cross of Christ, so now his manger, was to some foolishness and a stumbling-block, but others saw in it, and admired, and praised, the wisdom of God and the power of God.