Verse of the Day

Monday, December 24, 2007

Pastor's Sermon Notes - December 23, 2007

The First Noel [note 1]
Shepherds Quake at the Sight [note 2]
The Beginning of the Good News
Luke 2:8-20

[8] And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
[9] 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.
[10] And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
[11] For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
[12] And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
[13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
[14] Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
[15] 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.
[16] And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
[17] And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
[18] And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
[19] But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
[20] And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.


1. A “Harmony” of the Gospels?

Study guides for the Gospels are available which display the four Gospel accounts in parallel columns to show the similarities and differences between them for comparison studies [note 3]. There are so many differences between them that some may question the idea of a "harmony", but they are all viewing the same historical event, the life of Christ, although from different perspectives, and with various purposes. Some authors throughout the subsequent history of the Church have even attempted to combine them into one fluid account. However, that is not the way it was originally recorded by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel accounts were recorded as they were for specific reasons. These four vantage points are the way God wants us to view this history.

2. How the Gospel accounts begin -

The Gospels of Mark and John both open with the baptism of Jesus, not the birth of Christ, although John's prologue is unique in its revelation of the preincarnate Christ as the Creator (Jn. 1:1-11). Matthew and Luke do not get to the baptism of Christ until their third chapters (Mt. 3:13 and Lk. 3:21).

Mark 1:9 - And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.

John 1:1-11 - [1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] The same was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. [4] In him was life; and the life was the light of men. [5] And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. [6] There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. [7] The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. [8] He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. [9] That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. [10] He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. [11] He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Matthew 3:13 - Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.

Luke 3:21 - Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,

Matthew & Luke both begin their Gospels with the birth of Jesus, including His genealogy, the announcements of His conception and birth, and the events precipitated by His birth.

3. The differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts –

Matthew is alone in recording the account of the angelic appearance to Joseph (1:18-25), the wise men coming as joyful worshippers (2:1-12), and Herod as a hateful murderer (2:3-16), including the flight into Egypt by Joseph and Mary with the young Christ child.

Matthew also has a unique emphasis on the birth of Christ as the fulfillment of prophecies found in the Old Testament Scriptures: Mal. 2:7; Hos. 11:1; and Jer. 31:15.

Matthew 2:6 - And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Matthew 2:15 - And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Matthew 2:17-18 - [17] Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, [18] In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Luke goes into much more detail about the events surrounding the birth of Christ than any other Gospel, and Doctor Luke, as a historian, probably interviewed Mary for much of his information. Luke alone records the following [note 4] :

1) The angel Gabriel appearing to John the Baptist's father Zacharias (1:5-22).
2) The annunciation to Mary (1:26-38).
3) Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth, John the Baptist's mother (1:39-56).
4) The birth of John the Baptist (1:57-80).
5) The birth of Jesus (2:1-7).
6) The angelic announcement to the shepherds, and their visit to the manger (2:8-17).
7) The presentation of Christ at the Temple by Joseph and Mary (2:22-24).
8) The reactions to the infant Jesus at the Temple by Simeon and Anna (2:25-38).

4. The Star and the bit parts –

There is only one "Star" actor in this great drama, and it is the Son of God, who has now become also the Son of Man. However, there are many others who have what we may refer to as "bit parts", that are nevertheless significant in their own right. For example, considering the Gospel according to Luke alone attention must be paid to what is revealed about the angels, Zacharias, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna.

5. The Significance of the Part the Shepherds Play –

One of the unique features of Luke's Gospel account that is worthy of our consideration is the part the shepherds play, what they experienced, and how they responded to those experiences in Luke 2:8-20. Many have focused on this unusually dramatic and movingly beautiful aspect to the history of Christ's birth in the past, as may be easily seen by a survey of the legacy we have in our hymnology. (see Appendix)

Let us consider the responses of those who played these "bit parts" to the Incarnation, the First Noel, the Beginning of the Good News:

I. The Initial Response of Wondering (Marveling, Astonishment, Amazement)

Throughout the Gospel accounts of the events surrounding the birth of Christ we encounter words translated as "wondering", "marvelling", "astonishment", and "amazement". This response of "wonder" involved fear, and a failure to understand:

Luke 2:9 - 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.

These shepherds were not wimps. They, like David, even as youths, could take on bears, lions, and anything that threatened their flocks with slings, knives, or even their bare hands if necessary. They were outdoorsmen, who worked 24/7 at providing for and protecting their flocks. They did their jobs day in, and day out, one day following another, until....until one day, unlike any other day before or since, until their working, and believing, and thinking was stopped and shaken, interrupted and rattled, by a visit that defied expectation or rationalization. What they saw and heard took them totally by surprise, and could not be explained away through any of the antisupernatural schemings of modern man. Only one initial response was appropriate, and they responded accordingly.

Consider also the response of those who were informed of these events by the shepherds:

Luke 2:18 - And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

Joseph and Mary themselves shared in this response:

Luke 2:33 - And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.

Notice the response to the youthful Jesus in the Temple later in this chapter:

Luke 2:47-50 - [47] And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. [48] And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. [49] And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business? [50] And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.

Is there not something here that should elicit a sense of wonder and awe, that should cause us to marvel, to react in amazement, and with astonishment? If we are ever going to respond in wonder, is it not here at the birth of the Son of God come as the Son of Man in a manger? This day that changed all of human history, this central event in the ongoing Creation, ought to cause our jaws to drop, our eyes to bug out, and our minds to spin! If it does not, we should at least share in the shepherds' fear, and be "sore afraid", for there is something wrong with us otherwise! Where are the "wise guys" of our age? Where is the know-it-all skeptic and the humanistic philosopher who spoof at any suggestion of the supernatural when confronted by the glory of God, and the preaching and praising of angels? How would they have responded if they had been in those fields with the shepherds? And, now, when they sit in their armchairs in the ivory towers of academia, and lounge in their studies as Monday morning critics, they may find it easy to explain away this history, but in so doing they demonstrate their inability to wonder, and the numbness of their infidelity. This is no time to nit-pick, this is a time to stand in awe!

The shepherds did not stop there, they did not stand there in residual fear when the angels departed, but sought out the sign that had been revealed to them. And this elicited:

II. The Followup Response of Glorifying (Praising)

The shepherds could not help but tell others what had happened, what they had seen and heard:

Luke 2:17 - And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

They became the first witnesses to the Incarnation, worshipping God for what He had done, and praising Him to others for what they had experienced and learned:

Luke 2:20 - And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Anna's response when she saw the Christ child in the Temple was precisely the same:

Luke 2:38 - And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

When confronted by the wonders of God, our awe, our astonishment and amazement should produce worship, glorying in God, glorifying him in praise, praising him to all who would hear! This is not something that we can or should keep to ourselves. There should be a joyful excitement, an enthusiastic reporting, a bubbling over in worship in response to this greatest gift in history! This will not be kept a secret any longer! Christ is born, the Savior has come, the Son of God has become the Son of Man, the King of kings and Lord of lords is here!

And yet, there is still in that wonder and awe, in that amazement and astonishment, those things that we do not understand. There is that which transcends human knowledge, reasoning, and thought here, and there always will be. The greatest mystery of mysteries is how God could become Man, how the Person of the Son of God could take on flesh, and live as the Son of Man. There is that here which defies explanation and rationalization. We face the frontier of human ability to know here, or nowhere. Human intellectual pride is here humbled like nowhere else. And it is well that we acknowledge this limitation, this inability, even while we proclaim the tremendous facts that we can be sure of from God's own revelation of this mystery.

But, we may still include that which we do not now comprehend in the third phase of our responding to the revelation of the Incarnation to us by God, even as the "bit players" of that history did. We may join with Mary in:

III. The Reserved Response of Pondering (Keeping)

Luke 2:19 - But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

We should remember, and remembering we should ponder. We should meditate on mystery, and meditating we should grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We should expect always to ponder, and never to arrive at a full understanding of the depths of such a mystery. We are finite, and the depths here are infinite.

We do not need to understand, or to be able fully to explain, every aspect of such a wonderful revelation in order to be able to worship God by glorifying Him, and praising Him to others. We are not so different from the shepherds, or Joseph the carpenter, or Mary herself. They knew fear and wonder; they knew what it was like to be astonished, and to question. We should share in all of these responses. We should place ourselves into their places in these Gospel accounts, and understand that we have much in common with them. Our responses to the records of these events should be no different than their's were. We should respond to the Incarnation, the mystery of mysteries, by wondering, glorifying and pondering. All of these responses should be part of the ongoing experience of the Christian life for every child of God.


The angel said to the shepherds that day: "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." (Luke 2:10-11)

Let us join in the praises of the angels, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Good tidings! Great joy! Christ the Lord is born a babe and a Savior! Glory to God, glory to God in the highest! Thank Him, and praise him for the Prince of Peace come to earth, and for His good will toward men in making peace with those who were at war with Him [note 5] in the only Way it could be made [note 6]! Only God could do this, this Wonder of wonders! Glorify Him! Ponder what is worthy of eternal contemplation!

Appendix: The Revelation to the Shepherds in Hymnology

“Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong?
Say what may the tidings be, Which inspire your heavenly song?”

[“Angels We Have Heard on High”, source unknown, verse 2.]

“Shepherds, in the fields abiding, Watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing, Yonder shines the infant Light:”

[“Angels, from the Realms of Glory”, by James Montgomery, verse 2. Note: The truth may be more accurately represented “…God as man is now residing…”. See J. Gresham Machen’s The Virgin Birth of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), pg. 391, “To these modern men the incarnation means that God and man are one; to the New Testament it means rather that they are not one, but that the eternal Son of God became man, assumed our nature, by a stupendous miracle, to redeem us from sin.”]

“The first Noel the angel did say,
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay a-keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.”

[“The First Noel”, old English carol, verse 1.]

“While shepherds watch’d their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around, And glory shone around.
“Fear not, “ said he; for mighty dread,
Had seized their troubled mind,
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
To you and all mankind, To you and all mankind.””

[“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”, by Nahum Tate, verses 1-2.]

“Shepherds saw the wondrous sight, Heard the angels singing;
All the plains were lit that night, All the hills were ringing.”

[“Gentle Mary Laid Her Child”, by Joseph Simpson Cook, verse 2.]

“Who is He in yonder stall, At whose feet the shepherds fall?”

[“Who Is He in Yonder Stall?”, by B. R. Hanby, verse 1.]

“Come, all ye shepherds, ye children of earth,
Come ye, bring greetings to yon heavenly birth.
Hasten then, hasten to Bethlehem’s stall,
There to see heaven descend to us all.
Angels and shepherds together we go,
Seeking this Savior from all earthly woe.”

[“Come, All Ye Shepherds”, Bohemian folk song, trans. Mari Ruef Hofer.]

“so toiling men and spirits bright, A first communion had,”

[“A Thousand Years Have Come and Gone”, by Thomas Toke Lynch, verse 2.]


[1] Old English Carol.

[2] Joseph Mohr, “Silent Night, Holy Night”, verse 2.

[3] An interesting history of Gospel harmonies was done by M. B. Riddle in his "Introductory Essay" published with Augustine's work The Harmony of the Gospels, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, ed. M. B. Riddle, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.; reprint of 1886 original by Christian Literature Publishing Co., New York), Vol. VI, St. Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, pp. 67-70. Riddel traces this history of harmonies of the Gospels from Tatian's "Diatessaron" (circa A. D. 153-170), through Eusebius' "Canons" (4th c. A. D.), Augustine's work (early 5th c. A. D.), and the work of Calvin and others during the Reformation (16th c. A. D.), to those being done in his own day in the 19th century. This is available online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library,

Harmonies of the Gospels are available today in English, Greek, and both (Greek-English). The English editions vary as to the English translation they use, whether they harmonize just the three Synoptic Gospels, or all four, and whether they set up their harmony as parallel columns or as a running account. The following are examples of some prominent English harmonies in use today: Synopsis of the Four Gospels, English Edition, ed. Kurt Aland (n.p.: United Bible Societies, 1982); A Harmony of the Gospels for Students of the Life of Christ, by Archibald Thomas Robertson (New York: Harper, 1950); and A Harmony of the Gospels with explanations and essays, by Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978). Many Gospel harmonies are now available on the internet, and may be located by simply entering "harmony Gospels" in a search engine.

[4] The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, 5th ed., ed. Frank Charles Thompson (Indianapolis, IN: B. B. Kirkbride Bible Co., 1988), pg. 1679, "Condensed Cyclopedia of Topics and Texts", #4308-a, "Key to the Tree of Jesus' Life and Harmony of the Gospels".

[5] Romans 5:10 - For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. Romans 8:7 - Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.

[6] John 14:6 - Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

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