From the earliest days of the church, the number of Gospels was four. In the many centuries since, writers and scholars have added the prophecy of Isaiah as a fifth. In chapter 2 of the first volume of Luke-Acts, the doctor presents angels and shepherds as proclaimers of a sixth. If you want a title for this piece we could call it the Gospel of the Glad Shepherds. What, then, is the substance of the message that they received in the fields and rehearsed to God's flock?
A Humble Gospel
As chosen vessels of truth, shepherds were most unlikely candidates. Two things stand out about Bethlehem's guardians of the flock. The first is their persons: of minimal education, meagre resources, inferior status, suspect reputation and despised religion, readers ancient and modern might be surprised to learn of the kind of folk God's chose to be public witnesses of the Christ Child's supernatural birth; the second is their piety: as joyful obedience suggests, these lowly herdsmen were among those who, like Simeon and Anna and other pious Jews, were among those on the look-out for the long-awaited Messiah.
There is a humbling lesson to learn from these ready recipients of the Gospel: no-one is excluded from salvation by lack of status, money, class or learning. The Good News of God is a leveller of our race. Regardless of who we are, were we come from, or what we have done, whether considered religious or social insiders or outcasts by men, God will welcome us if we will only receive Christ.
A Glorious Gospel
An outshining of God's glory accompanies each advance of redemptive history (to Abram in Ur, Moses on Mount Sinai, and Solomon in the Temple). Yet Moses shiny skin, and Shekinah in God's House, are put into the shadows by the light that now floods fields. Shepherds lift their hands to shield their eyes from rays. The glory of Christ's birth surpasses any glory yet. Glory that excelled attended each stage of Christ's life: at His conception, birth, baptism (in symbol and speech); in His miracles and ministry (Christ's whole life, says John, expounds the glory of I AM); of His transfiguration, resurrection and ascension; yet, without a doubt, His greatest earthly glory emanated from His Cross in those three dark hours of curse - this is the event that previews glorious bliss for us. This glorious declaration gives angels pretty feet (Isaiah 40:1-6). These heralds of light command sinners 'rise and shine' (Isaiah 60:1-2). No wonder shepherds were terrified by this greater-than-halogen halo of hallowed light. The angel speaks, unsurprisingly, to settle jangling nerves.
Is it not tragic that nativity scenes have so numbed us that this glorious Gospel narrative makes little or no impact. We read of the angel, sing Gloria in excelsis, and momentarily think of the shepherds - we think we have the angelic announcement 'done and dusted.' How can we pour over such texts spiritually and not have divine radiance in our hearts? Surely we are blind, and have curiously missed the point, if we wonder if "do not fear" seems a little out-of-place or over-the-top. There is no greater revealed glory than the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. This is a vital piece in the jigsaw of the truth by which Christ's photograph is framed. In this Good News we behold God-in-flesh face-to-face. Only truth in Christ lights up our doomed, dead, darkened state. Ask the Lord to turn up your heart's Gospel dimmer-switch! Pray this flame inside would progressively banish sin and reveal the Savior's form. Bow in the dust till Gospel glory floods your life.
A Joyful Gospel
This angelic announcement was not to sadden but make smile. This joy designed for all, whether native Jews or not, is not minimal but massive. A single shining preacher soon becomes a countless angelic host. A multitude, says Luke, as the largest, flaming, choir in history could well have number hundreds, or even 10,000 upon 10.000: can you see them, above head, ascribing all blessing and glory to God. Such exuberant emotion in heaven had contagion effect on earth - these witnesses strode from the manger, both with a spring in their step and God's song on their lips. Confirmatory signposts and signs filled them, and others, with delight. Sight and sounds in field and town had such an exhilarating effect that hearts and minds began to burst with the Good News of Jesus birth. With wonder angels learned of God's decision to redeem. With rapture they celebrated Christ's conception in Mary's womb. Now with ecstatic utterance they applaud the mystery manifest in two natures of God-Man. Joy of these angels was due in no small part to the fact that they knew that the Word was made flesh to rescue sinful men.
If these elect angels, who never sinned but kept their place, have unbridled joy in God but have never tasted grace, should sinners Christ saves not have a gladness that is more? We may need to confess as we reflect on our gloom that the world, flesh and devil are corrosive chill-joys! Meditate anew on this magnificent truth! Think about God-made-Man until a fountain of joy wells up! Come with reverent fear and stand with Shepherds in those fields! Kneel at the Manger till delight burns in your heart! Marvel at the Manger which will be swapped for a Mangle! Draw water from this source where all true, deep, lasting, spiritual joy is found! Many this week will be thrilled by feasting, drinking, laughter, enjoyment and pleasures all of which are carnal and many of which are sinful. There is solid, lasting, joy, which starts in the Crib and will end on the Cross, which the soul of man craves but the world can never find. Here is a test that the Spirit is at work and that we're truly joined to Christ - we share this Christian joy which earth cannot snatched, a joy that outlast storms, sorrows, sickness and schisms together with trials and tears which may engulf our outward life. What is the source of this joy unspeakable and glory-full merriment?
A Christian Gospel
Neither spokesman nor shepherds should shift the spotlight from this Babe. "Unto you is born" contains a prophetic echo (Isaiah 9:6) and the promise of a deliverer. God gave this child whose veins have royal blood - this son in David's line has been born in the son-of-Jesse's home-town. Perpetual, cosmic, governance now rests on Savior's shoulders: Christ labels his triplex office as God's Anointed Prophet, Priest & King; Lord declares His one person to subsist in two distinct, but united, God-Man natures. 8th-day circumcision (Luke 2:21) hints at His legal submission in active and passive aspects: it started Him down a path, as sinners' Savior-Substitute, which culminates on the Cross, to absorb and exhaust God's curse, which Jesus suffered for us!
Did the host of heaven marvel at the mystery and humility of God's glory veiled in flesh? With whole-souled adoration they herald divine love that brings many sons to God by the offering of His Son. Never tire of hearing of the Person, Work and Offices of God's Mediatorial Prince and the Saviour of the World. Christmas is a time to re-catechize His church (whether Larger or Shorter) by pouring over and teasing out the glorious facts and comforting implications the Prophet, Priest and King of all His saints. Only the crucified, risen, God-Man can save us from Satan's venomous snake-bite. Christ is all we need for pardon, purification and perseverance as His sheep.
A Signified Gospel
As so often is the case, God adds a sign to His Word. This was not to create shepherd-belief but to confirm and cultivate faith already present and evidenced by haste. This angelic sat nav coordinate also served to specify and identify the Christ, the only baby of Bethlehem who, attended by his parents, lay swaddled in a trough. It is proof to them and us and also deepens our faith - it had a certain 'sacramental' value to mark this infant as the Lord. If, as Hendriksen thinks, the season was mid-winter, the flocks in the fields were earmarked for Passover: later when the sheep would be taken up for 'The Feast', their handlers preached the truth and announced Messiah's birth. From that moment on, they put Zion on high alert - a fresh Davidic coronation could be expected within three decades.
In these times of declension we might imagine faith is strange: how healthy to remind our hearts that Christians stand on the side of truth. A cloud of witnesses exists to Christ's virginal conception and birth - the facts of the case are far too well-attested, numerous, and concrete to be waved away as fiction or dismissed at human imagination. The thing that is so strange is that so few people now believe, or that the faithful are so shy or slow to share their faith. Look with your heart, gaze on this sight and trust, and pray for conviction to grow, to make you bold to speak, and brave to spread these glorious facts. Imitate shepherds who could not hold the Good News in - as gently, lovingly, urgently and prayerfully as you can, be sure at this season to use this account as a means of grace to spread their Gospel far and wide. Ask the Lord Jesus, now crucified and enthroned, to open eyes in hearts to the reality of truth about His birth and death.
A Peaceful Gospel
As Epictetus declared, the Pax Romana of Augustus, gave outward peace from war on land and sea - what it could never do was to quell the inward strife of envy, passion and grief. This angelic host declared peace with God through Christ, whose spontaneous result is friendly mutual human relations. This is no general promise of "Goodwill to all men" but a particular reality for the elect "with whom He is pleased" in Christ (Ephesians 1:5). It is this reconciling peace, effected by the Cross, through forgiveness of sins, which is the objective, lasting, reality, undented and undaunted by earth, for which man in turmoil yearns. "It is the work of Christ" says Geldenhuys, " to bring peace into all human relations – in man’s relations to God, to himself (his own feelings, desires, and the like), to his life circumstances (calamities and trials), and to his fellow-men. According as Christ is honoured and is given admission to human lives, to that extent peace on earth, which He came to bring, becomes a glorious actuality. In so far as people live outside Him, the earth remains in a state of disorder and strife without real peace" - Geldenhuys, The Gospel According to Luke, NICONT series, 112-113. Taste God's peace. Share God's peace. Enjoy God's peace. Pursue God's peace.
A Believed Gospel
As I already mentioned, these shepherds were exceptional for patient perseverance in their Messianic hope. Their response to the Gospel, announced by the Angel, was compliant and swift: it seems that though Bethlehem was at some distance from the flocks - either they left one of their number in charge or they committed their flocks to God, abandoned them in the night, and headed straightway to the Christ. The language they use applauds and announces faith: they trust in the Word, which God made known to them, and know the thing has happened, then act upon the truth. They search for the child not in houses or in inns but among adjoining sheds - they expect to see a child in a manger dressed in impoverished strips. Their faith is evangelistic - they make Good News known to anyone who hears, making many wonder and causing parents to ponder. The object of the faith of the shepherds is The Lord Himself - the Christ who fulfils God's promises and who brings God's saving Kingdom in. Their faith came from hearing, and hearing from the Word, they believed the Gospel message and become sole testators to the incarnation of Christ.
A Cherished Gospel
The shepherds should be commended for responding to the Gospel. They show us the least response that is required to such momentous events. Yet, Mary the mother of Jesus, by her example, reveals our greatest need is to study these matters in depth - she squirreled truth away like acorns, stored them up as heart treasure, and mulled over them continually, until faith was born, matured, and stabilized, and became fruitful in her life - and this growing, learning, disciple, faith all began with Jesus' birth. This is a vital part of the proper picture of Christ. Without incarnation there is no true Mediation or atoning crucifixion which becomes mere apparition. Marvel at the glory, marvel at the humility, marvel at the sign, marvel at the news - the commander of angels has been lowered for a time, to redeem and raise men up above lofty heavenly hosts. May the Spirit give strength to all who ask to become better students of this truth, and indeed every Gospel fact - may the means of grace be cherished until the morning star of His truth dawns, glows, and shines with luminescence in our souls.
At this festive season, as you look out on the fields, will you remember this Sixth Gospel According to the Glad Shepherds - the Good News of Christ's birth which was first announced by angels? Does it bend your knee? Does it blind your eyes? Does it thrill your soul? Does it lead to Christ? Does it not prove true? Does it make you delight and go-off to pursue peace? Does it not firm faith? Surely He is worth steady study of the truth - as you gaze at God's glory, in the face of Jesus Christ, may you know the Spirit's joy flooding peace into your homes!