Tidings of Great Joy

ALL FOUR GOSPELS RECORD THE portion of Jesus’ trial when Pilate examined Him, asking, “‘Are You the King of the Jews?’” Jesus testified that He was: “‘It is as you say’” (Matt. 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3). In John’s gospel, we have a fuller account of this discussion: When Pilate questioned, “‘Are You the King of the Jews?’” Jesus answered: “‘My kingdom is not of this world. . . . My kingdom is not from here.’” Pilate exclaimed, “‘Are You a king then?’” Jesus declared: “‘You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth’” (John 18:33–37).

Jesus was born not only to be the King, but to testify to the truth that He was the King! He was born to rule this world — and God would establish His Son’s reign on earth through the Cross. But Jesus also came here to proclaim the truth about Himself, that He was the Son of God, so that all the people might believe in Him and be saved by Him.

When Jesus was born, two sets of heralds were sent forth to proclaim the joyous news of the birth of this great King, whose kingdom was not of this world. How fitting that the first messengers themselves — the angels and the shepherds — were in no way representatives of any worldly kingdom. The mighty angels came from heaven’s magnificent realms; the lowly shepherds were the humble of the earth, men who were living outside, guarding their only material wealth. No, there was no earthly splendor displayed by the heralds of this newborn King.

On the night when Jesus was born, when the shepherds were out in the fields near Bethlehem keeping watch over their flocks, they beheld the glory of the Lord. “An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid” (Luke 2:9). The shepherds beheld a being and a glory so awesome that they were filled with fear and dread. Later, an entire heavenly host appeared with the angel, and the shepherds beheld angelic splendor seldom seen upon this earth. They were given a glimpse of the glory of heaven; they were overwhelmed by the glory of the Lord; they heard heaven’s host singing and praising God.

But as amazing as these sights and sounds were to their eyes and ears, these were not the greatest glories of that night. The angels were simply messengers. It was the message that they brought from heaven — the Word of the Lord — that was more glorious! The shepherds heard from the lips of an angel the glory of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a Gospel filled with grace and truth, “‘good tidings of great joy which will be to all people’” (Luke 2:10). God’s greatest promise had been fulfilled that night! The long-promised Savior had arrived! The angel proclaimed: “‘There is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ [the Messiah] the Lord’” (Luke 2:11).

But as gracious and as glorious as God’s Word to them was, this also was not the greatest glory of the Lord that night. The Word of the Lord spoken by the angel sent the shepherds to an ordinary human baby: “He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him” (Isa. 53:2). The newborn King announced by the angels had neither heavenly glory nor earthly majesty. He was just a funny-looking, wrinkled, swaddled baby — born sadly in a stable, wrapped meanly in rags, and placed humbly in the food trough for the animals. The shepherds had been given a sign by the angel, that they would find a baby lying in a manger. Without that sign, the shepherds would not have recognized Him as the Messiah, so common was His birth, so lowly His looks. But in this Child was the greatest display of the glory of the Lord, for the Son “is the brightness of [God’s] glory and the express image of His person” (Heb. 1:3). What the shepherds beheld in this Child was a veiled glory, but nothing less than the glory of God incarnate!

Christ’s lowly birth was just the beginning of His humiliation in this world. Although He was “in the form of God, [He] did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:6–8). For this reason Christ was born. What the shepherds saw when they looked at the baby lying in the manger was the beginning of the humiliation of the Son of God. What they beheld was the first glimpse of that most terrible glory — the crucifixion of the Christ.

The shepherds, who first beheld the glory of the Lord by sight in the appearance of the angel, ultimately beheld the glory of God by faith as they looked upon the newborn Babe, believing that He was the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord! They believed the words the angel had spoken to them. They believed the Word of God! Their faith was expressed in their actions. First they hurried to Bethlehem to see what the Lord had told them. Then they “made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child” (Luke 2:17). The Gospel was now being proclaimed, not by the voice of an angel, but through the voices of men. Finally, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). Worship was the shepherds’ response to the angels they had seen, the Word of the Lord they had heard, and their encounter with Christ!

We, too, must believe the message of the angels. We also must follow the example of the shepherds: We must believe the Word of the Lord and the Gospel of Christ spoken to us. We must seek the Savior and look upon Him, but not by the side of the manger. We must seek Him at the foot of the cross, and we must look to Him dying there to save us from our sins. Jesus Himself said: “‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved’” (John 3:14–17). Having looked to Christ on the cross by faith, having placed our trust in the Word of the Lord, we, too, like the shepherds, must go our way through life, spreading the word concerning the Savior, and glorifying and praising God for all the things they heard and saw that night, and for all the things we have seen and heard about Christ.

Copyright © 2002 Ligonier Ministries-Tabletalk Magazine