Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
~ Isaiah 7:14
But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,
~ Galatians 4:4
And David himself saith in the book of Psalms, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Till I make thine enemies thy footstool. David therefore calleth him Lord, how is he then his son?
~ Luke 20:42-44
The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven.
~ 1 Corinthians 15:47
But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.
~ Psalm 22:6
Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
~ Isaiah 53:1-2
Saying, Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest.
~ Luke 19:38
I create the fruit of the lips; Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the LORD; and I will heal him.
~ Isaiah 57:19
The meek also shall increase their joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
~ Isaiah 29:19
Expository Thoughts on Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 2:1-20, by J.C. Ryle.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
~ Luke 2:1-7
The Birth of Jesus
We have, in these verses, the story of a birth–the birth of the incarnate Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Every birth of a living child is a marvelous event. It brings into being a soul that will never die. But never since the world began was a birth so marvelous as the birth of Christ. In itself it was a miracle–“God was manifest in the flesh.” (1 Tim. 3:16.) The blessings it brought into the world were unspeakable–it opened to man the door of everlasting life.
In reading these verses, let us first notice the times when Christ was born. It was in the days when Augustus, the first Roman emperor, made “a decree that all the world should be taxed.”
The wisdom of God appears in this simple fact. The scepter was practically departing from Judah. (Gen. 49:10.) The Jews were coming under the dominion and taxation of a foreign power. Strangers were beginning to rule over them. They had no longer a really independent government of their own. The “due time” had come for the promised Messiah to appear. Augustus taxes “the world,” and at once Christ is born.
It was a time peculiarly suitable for the introduction of Christ’s Gospel. The whole civilized earth was at length governed by one master. (Dan. 2:40.) There was nothing to prevent the preacher of a new faith going from city to city, and country to country. The princes and priests of the heathen world had been weighed in the balances and found lacking. Egypt, and Assyria, and Babylon, and Persia, and Greece, and Rome, had all successively proved that “the world by wisdom knew not God.” (1 Cor. 1:21.)
Notwithstanding their mighty conquerors, and poets, and historians, and architects, and philosophers, the kingdoms of the world were full of dark idolatry. It was indeed “due time” for God to interpose from heaven, and send down an almighty Savior. It was “due time” for Christ to be born. (Rom. 5:6.)
Let us ever rest our souls on the thought, that times are in God’s hand. (Psalm 31:15.) He knows the best season for sending help to His church, and new light to the world. Let us beware of giving way to over anxiety about the course of events around us, as if we knew better than the King of kings what time relief should come. “Cease, Philip, to try to govern the world,” was a frequent saying of Luther to an anxious friend. It was a saying full of wisdom.
Let us notice, secondly, the place where Christ was born.It was not at Nazareth of Galilee, where His mother, the Virgin Mary, lived. The prophet Micah had foretold that the event was to take place at Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2.) And so it came to pass. At Bethlehem Christ was born.
The overruling providence of God appears in this simple fact. He orders all things in heaven and earth. He turns the hearts of kings wherever He will. He overruled the time when Augustus decreed the taxing. He directed the enforcement of the decree in such a way, that Mary must needs be at Bethlehem when “the time came for the baby to be born.” Little did the haughty Roman emperor, and his officer Cyrenius, think that they were only instruments in the hand of the God of Israel, and were only carrying out the eternal purposes of the King of kings. Little did they think that they were helping to lay the foundation of a kingdom, before which the empires of this world would all go down one day, and Roman idolatry pass away. The words of Isaiah, upon a like occasion, should be remembered, “He means not so, neither does his heart think so.” (Isaiah 10:7.)
The heart of a believer should take comfort in the recollection of God’s providential government of the world. A true Christian should never be greatly moved or disturbed by the conduct of the rulers of the earth. He should see with the eye of faith a hand overruling all that they do to the praise and glory of God. He should regard every king and potentate–an Augustus, a Cyrenius, a Darius, a Cyrus, a Sennacherib–as a creature who, with all his power, can do nothing but what God allows, and nothing which is not carrying out God’s will. And when the rulers of this world “set themselves against the Lord,” he should take comfort in the words of Solomon, “There is one higher than they.” (Eccles. 5:8.)
Let us notice, lastly, the manner in which Christ was born.He was not born under the roof of His mother’s house, but in a strange place, and at an “inn.” When born, He was not laid in a carefully prepared cradle. He was “laid in a manger (that is, a feeding trough for the cattle), because there was no room in the inn.”
We see here the grace and condescension of Christ. Had He come to save mankind with royal majesty, surrounded by His Father’s angels, it would have been an act of undeserved mercy. Had He chosen to dwell in a palace, with power and great authority, we should have had reason enough to wonder. But to become poor as the very poorest of mankind, and lowly as the very lowliest–this is a love that passes knowledge. It is unspeakable and unsearchable. Never let us forget that through this humiliation Jesus has purchased for us a title to glory. Through His life of suffering, as well as His death, He has obtained eternal redemption for us. All through His life He was poor for our sakes, from the hour of His birth to the hour of His death. And through His poverty we are made rich. (2 Cor. 8:9.)
Let us beware of despising the poor, because of their poverty. Their condition is one which the Son of God has sanctified and honored, by taking it voluntarily on Himself. God is no respecter of people. He looks at the hearts of men, and not at their incomes. Let us never be ashamed of the affliction of poverty, if God thinks fit to lay it upon us. To be godless and covetous is disgraceful, but it is no disgrace to be poor. A lowly dwelling place, and coarse food, and a hard bed, are not pleasing to flesh and blood. But they are the portion which the Lord Jesus Himself willingly accepted from the day of His entrance into the world. Wealth ruins far more souls than poverty. When the love of money begins to creep over us, let us think of the manger at Bethlehem, and of Him who was laid in it. Such thoughts may deliver us from much harm.
Notes on 2:1-7
1. Caesar Augustus. This is that Octavius who, after the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium, took the government of the Roman Empire into his own hands and was the first Caesar or Roman emperor.
3. Everyone went to his own town to register. Quesnel remarks, “Augustus imagines that he is busy advancing the glory of his name, and the lustre of his reign. And yet his orders, by means of others more pow- erful and absolute than his, become subservient to the accomplishment of prophecies, of which he is altogether ignorant—about the birth of a King whom he will never know, and about the establishment of a monarchy, which will subject his and all others to itself. This is what happens in all ages, and people take no notice of it.”
7. She wrapped him in strips of cloth. On this expression the Fathers and most Roman Catholic writers have built the idea that our Lord’s birth was a childbirth without labor or pain. Such an idea is, to say the least, an unprofitable conjecture. There is nothing mentioned here which a mother, in Mary’s position, in an eastern climate, might not have done for herself without help. There is no need to imagine or invent miraculous circumstances in our Lord’s incarnation besides those which are fully revealed.
The Shepherds and the Angels
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
~ Luke 2:8-20
We read, in these verses, how the birth of the Lord Jesus was first announced to the children of men. The birth of a king’s son is generally made an occasion of public reveling and rejoicing. The announcement of the birth of the Prince of Peace was made privately, at midnight, and without anything of worldly pomp and ostentation.
Let us mark who they were to whom the tidings first came that Christ was born.They were “shepherds abiding in the field near Bethlehem, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” To shepherds–not to priests and rulers–to shepherds–not to Scribes and Pharisees, an angel appeared, proclaiming, “unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The saying of James should come into our mind, as we read these words–
“Has not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him.” (James 2:5.) The lack of money debars no one from spiritual privileges. The things of God’s kingdom are often hidden from the great and noble, and revealed to the poor. The busy labor of the hands need not prevent a man being favored with special communion with God. Moses was keeping sheep, Gideon was threshing wheat, Elisha was ploughing, when they were each honored by direct calls and revelations from God. Let us resist the suggestion of Satan, that religion is not for the working man. The weak of the world are often called before the mighty. The last are often first, and the first last.
Let us mark, secondly, the language used by the angel in announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds.He said, “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
We need not wonder at these words. The spiritual darkness which had covered the earth for four thousand years, was about to be rolled away. The way to pardon and peace with God was about to be thrown open to all mankind. The head of Satan was about to be crushed. Liberty was about to be proclaimed to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind. The mighty truth was about to be proclaimed that God could be just, and yet, for Christ’s sake, justify the ungodly. Salvation was no longer to be seen through types and figures, but openly, and face to face. The knowledge of God was no longer to be confined to the Jews, but to be offered to the whole Gentile world. The days of heathenism were numbered. The first stone of God’s kingdom was about to be set up. If this was not “good tidings,” there never were tidings that deserved the name.
Let us mark, thirdly, who they were that first praised God, when Christ was born.They were angels, and not men–angels who had never sinned, and needed no Savior–angels who had not fallen, and required no redeemer, and no atoning blood. The first hymn to the honor of “God manifest in the flesh,” was sung by “a multitude of the heavenly host.”
Let us note this fact. It is full of deep spiritual lessons. It shows us what good servants the angels are. All that their heavenly Master does pleases and interests them. It shows us what clear knowledge they have. They know what misery sin has brought into creation. They know the blessedness of heaven, and the privilege of an open door into it. Above all, it shows us the deep love and compassion which the angels feel towards poor lost man. They rejoice in the glorious prospect of many souls being saved, and many brands plucked from the burning.
Let us strive to be more like-minded with the angels. Our spiritual ignorance and deadness appear most painfully in our inability to enter into the joy which we see them here expressing. Surely if we hope to dwell with them forever in heaven, we ought to share something of their feelings while we are here upon earth. Let us seek a more deep sense of the sinfulness and misery of sin, and then we shall have a more deep sense of thankfulness for redemption.
Let us mark, fourthly, the hymn of praise which the heavenly host sung in the hearing of the shepherds. They said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”
These famous words are variously interpreted. Man is by nature so dull in spiritual things, that it seems as if he cannot understand a sentence of heavenly language when he hears it. Yet a meaning may be drawn from the words which is free from any objection, and is not only good sense, but excellent theology, “Glory to God in the highest!” the song begins. Now is come the highest degree of glory to God, by the appearing of His Son Jesus Christ in the world. He by His life and death on the cross will glorify God’s attributes–justice, holiness, mercy, and wisdom–as they never were glorified before. Creation glorified God, but not so much as redemption.
“Peace on earth!” the song goes on. Now is come to earth the peace of God which passes all understanding–the perfect peace between a holy God and sinful man, which Christ was to purchase with His own blood– the peace which is offered freely to all mankind–the peace which, once admitted into the heart, makes men live at peace one with another, and will one day overspread the whole world.
“Good will towards men!” the song concludes. Now is come the time when God’s kindness and good will towards guilty man is to be fully made known. His power was seen in creation. His justice was seen in the flood. But His mercy remained to be fully revealed by the appearing and atonement of Jesus Christ.
Such was the purport of the angels’ song. Happy are they that can enter into its meaning, and with their hearts subscribe to its contents. The man who hopes to dwell in heaven, should have some experimental acquaintance with the language of its inhabitants.
Let us mark, before we leave the passage, the prompt obedience to the heavenly vision displayed by the shepherds.We see in them no doubts, or questionings, or hesitation. Strange and improbable as the tidings might seem, they at once act upon them. They went to Bethlehem in haste. They found everything exactly as it had been told them. Their simple faith received a rich reward. They had the mighty privilege of being the first of all mankind, after Mary and Joseph, who saw with believing eyes the new-born Messiah. They soon returned, “glorifying and praising God” for what they had seen.
May our spirit be like theirs! May we ever believe implicitly, act promptly, and wait for nothing, when the path of duty is clear! So doing, we shall have a reward like that of the shepherds. The journey that is begun in faith, will generally end in praise.
Notes on 2:8-20
8. Shepherds living out in the fields nearby. It has been argued from these words that our Lord could not have been born on Christmas day because it was not the custom of the Jews to keep flocks in the field in winter. It may be doubted whether the argument is quite conclusive (see Genesis 31:40 where Jacob complains about the cold nights). However, it is an undeniable fact that the precise month or day of our Lord’s nativity is not known. Every month in the year has found its advocates in the conjectures made on the subject. There is no certainty about it. Had it been good for us to know the day, God would have told us. For keeping Christmas we have no authority but that of the church.