We sometimes glide over the stupefying doctrines that are entailed by the Christmas miracle. We are accustomed to the story, and so we simply nod our heads at the familiar words and phrases. But if we are listening, actually listening, the whole thing should bring us up short. “Wait, what?”
“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 Beth-lehem, 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 2:15–20).
Summary of the Text
This story is one of the familiar ones, and so we all could probably tell it again ourselves without any prompting. But there are a few things that perhaps we have not noticed.
The shepherds at Bethlehem were keeping watch over their flocks by night (v. 8). One of the things that Bethlehem was known for was as the place where sacrificial sheep were raised. The Temple was only a few miles away, and all the sheep that were sacrificed there had to come from somewhere, and one of those places was Bethlehem. And how fitting it was for the Lamb of God (John 1:29), slain before the foundations of the world (Rev. 13:8), to be born there in Bethlehem—the place where sacrifices came into the world.
When the angels appeared, the shepherds were terrified (v. 9). After the angels had delivered their glorious message, the shepherds looked at one another and said that they needed to go and see this thing (v. 15). And then it says that they came with haste (v. 16). They hurried, they ran, like disciples running toward an empty tomb. They found Mary, and Joseph, and the baby in a manger (v. 16), and then tumbled out telling everybody what the angels had told them (v. 17). Everyone who heard their account wondered (v. 18). They marveled. They were astonished (thaumazo). Mary pondered on all of it (v. 19), and the shepherds returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all of it (v. 20).
So consider the emotional tilt-a-whirl that the shepherds experienced that night. First terror, which is why they had to be told not to fear (v. 10). Then whatever emotion accompanies excitement and haste (v. 16). Then they told everybody about it (v. 17), and the recipients of their news were astonished (v. 18). And then the finale for the shepherds was giving glory and praise to God (v. 20).
The Central Miracle
But angels in the sky, as remarkable as that is, were nothing compared to what dawned on the people of God later on. The signs and portents that accompanied the birth of the Christ were of course appropriate, which is why God sent them. But they were all pointing to the central miracle of all history, which was the miracle of the Incarnation.
Fully God, Fully Man
When we talk about this miracle, we cannot draw pictures of it, or reduce it to a formula that we can understand. We can describe what the exact miracle is, but we cannot do the math, and we cannot “show our work.”
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity . . .
Jesus was born into the world, just like the rest of us. He was a baby boy, who needed to be carried down into Egypt. All the faithful accounts we have of Him include descriptions of his genuine humanity. He was no apparition. He had fingernails. Jesus walked places (John 1:36). Jesus got exhausted (Matt. 8:24). Jesus ate meals (Mk. 14:18). Jesus put clothes on in the morning (Matt. 9:20). Jesus sang songs (Matt. 26:30).
Jesus lived this manifestly human life among the Jews, who were the most fiercely monotheistic people ever. But after His ministry was apparently ended by His agonizing death on the cross, He was declared, with power, to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4), a place where both natures are recognized.
And so then this band of faithful Jews began worshiping their late rabbi as if He were God. But this is not a distortion of the Lord’s teaching because He plainly anticipated it. “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Thomas confesses it when his doubts were removed. “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). The fundamental Christian confession is that Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9), and so we are to call upon Him. And why? Because, Paul says, quoting Joel 2:32, whoever calls on the name of Jehovah, YHWH, shall be saved. That is why we call upon Jesus. He is Jehovah.
Two natures, human and divine, united in one person, Jesus of Nazareth. What is predicated of either nature can be predicated of the person also, but what is predicated of one nature cannot be predicated of the other. We cannot say, for example, that an attribute of Deity is having black hair. And yet these two distinct natures are brought together in what theologians call the hypostatic union, which is the great miracle.
If seeing the miracle of the fish made Peter sink in fear (Luke 5:8), what should contemplation of this miracle do in us?
Christmas Fear and Astonishment
We all know that there is a kind of religious fear that is negative. It holds people captive to the devil through fear of death (Heb. 2:15). We know that perfect love casts out fear because fear has to do with punishment (1 John 4:18).
But there is another kind of fear that is wholesome, and which is the clean source of many graces.
“Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; And let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he shall be for a sanctuary; But for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken.”
Isaiah 8:13-15 (KJV)
Jesus Himself feared, and this is why His prayers were answered (Heb. 5:7). The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever (Ps. 19:9). We are told to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). It is the grace of God which enables us to fear Him (Heb. 12:28). The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him (Ps. 147:11). So if you want God to take pleasure in you, then fear Him.
We are forgiven by the Lord, so that we might fear Him (Ps. 130:4). It was the fear of the Lord that made Cornelius so generous (Acts 10:22, 31). The fear of the Lord, in other words, is the source of all kinds of goodness.
Like the wise men, kings shall come to the brightness of our rising (Is. 60:3). And we will see, and flow together, and our hearts will fear and be enlarged (Is. 60:5).
It doesn’t matter who you are, how great or how tiny. If you fear God, you are under His blessing. “He will bless them that fear the Lord, both small and great” (Psalm 115:13; cf. Rev 11:18). This is not surprising, given that the fear of the Lord is the key to answered prayer. “He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him: He also will hear their cry, and will save them” (Psalm 145:19).
And so if you are thinking rightly, you should want this season to be filled with forgiveness and generosity. You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). And God so loved the world that He gave . . . (John 3:16). This is the God we love, serve, and fear. Imitate the shepherds. Make haste.