The first Christmas carol was sung by angels.
Before the heavenly choir arrived, a single angel of the Lord appeared in the sky and hovered above a group of frightened shepherds who were guarding their flocks in the cool night air. However, it was not just the angel that surprised the shepherds—suddenly midnight was turned into midday. “The glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (Luke 2:9). The angel spoke to them, telling them not to be afraid but to receive with great joy the news they were hearing: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
After the angel told the shepherds how they could identify the newborn child, the heavenly choir appeared.
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2:14). Whether the angels actually sang or just chanted, either way their shouts of praise were the most melodious harmony the shepherds had ever heard.
Let’s recreate this glorious scene.
Visualize for a moment the lead angel, perhaps Gabriel, who is mentioned by name four times in the Bible, always as the messenger of God. Then we can imagine the sky filled with innumerable angelic beings giving praise to God. The delight of the angels should amaze us. They derive no direct benefit from Christ’s coming, and yet they rejoice as if our salvation were their own! The fact that we are sinners who deserve judgment, but instead receive mercy, fuels their curiosity and appreciation for God’s ingenuity and undeserved grace. After all, sinners will not only enter Heaven as saints but will be exalted as “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”! Such undeserved privileges given to sinners fascinate the angels, and they derive joy from the marvel of our redemption.
To paraphrase the great 19th century preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, these angels were present at creation; they had seen Jehovah fashion the planets and speak the stars into existence. But now when they saw God step from His throne and become a baby, they lifted their voices in rapturous wonder and praise. They are totally free of envy; Jesus would later say that they rejoice when one sinner repents and believes the Gospel.
Who was their audience? If we’d been in charge of spreading a most glorious message to the world, we might have been tempted to reveal it to the religious elite in Jerusalem, or to the philosophers of Athens, or to the power brokers of Rome. But to our surprise, the first to hear that the Savior had arrived were the shepherds.
In that culture, shepherds were regarded as outcasts. In Egypt, for example, shepherds were described as abominations (Genesis 46:34). Yet God, contrary to human reasoning, has always chosen that which is weak and despised to confound the high and mighty. God often chooses the most unlikely to be His. He wanted to say right from the beginning that salvation is for everyone, beginning with the most hopeless and rejected.
Perhaps these shepherds were caring for temple sheep, the animals used in the sacrificial system of the day. If so, God might have instructed the angels: “Find some shepherds and bring them the news, because my Son will become known as the Good Shepherd who will become a sacrifice for others.” Unlike the sacrifice of these sheep, His sacrifice—His blood—would take away the sin of the world.
The angels assured the shepherds that their fear would be replaced by joy. “Do not be afraid,” the first angel assured them: “I bring you news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Fear came into the world because of sin, and now He who came to take away our sin has come to assure us that we need not fear any longer. Christ has come to take God’s enemies and turn them into His friends. As Spurgeon put it: “That manger was the place where the treaty was signed whereby warfare should be stopped between man’s conscience and himself; man’s conscience and his God.”
No greater act of kindness could be offered but that God should offer His Son to us. Thus the nature of God and the nature of man need not be permanent enemies. Though we have been cursed by sin, we now are blessed—for God has come to be one of us to secure our reconciliation.
What do we make of the angels’ message of hope in a world racked by war? Today their message of peace is lost in a world bent on having its own way. The constant threat of terrorism, a possible nuclear skirmish in the Middle East and economic uncertainty are daily the stuff of headlines. Meanwhile our nation is spiraling into a sea of moral oblivion, political correctness and spiritual lethargy. Countless Christians are being martyred for their faith throughout the Middle East and other countries of the world.
In these uncertain days we must renew our confidence and trust in the message the angels brought to the world. At His first coming in Bethlehem, Jesus did not bring peace to the world but rather made peace available to all who would believe in Him. But at His Second Coming—at His glorious return—He will fulfill His promise of bringing “peace on earth” just as the angels foretold.
This is not a time to retreat but to renew our faith in the One who came in weakness but will return in strength; the One who came as a baby but will return as a King; the One who was cradled in the arms of His mother but will return to split the Mount of Olives in two and then judge the world (Zechariah 14:1-4).
Yes, the Jesus of Bethlehem is the Jesus of Mount Calvary; He is the Jesus of the empty tomb and the glorious ascension; He is also the Jesus before whom “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
The angels can sing about our redemption, but they cannot sing about theirs. In that day when we share Heaven with them, we will sing a song even greater than that sung at Bethlehem, for the redemption they proclaimed will have become our reality.
Well might the shepherds hasten to Bethlehem to see this baby and worship Him. May we be found at their side, knowing that He came as a child to redeem us so that when He returns as King we will be found worthy to return with Him, rejoicing in His undeserved mercy and amazing grace. ©2012 Erwin W. Lutzer
Erwin w. Lutzer is the senior pastor of Moody Church, in Chicago, ill. He is also a teacher and author. Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984.