Did you know that there is a scary part of the Christmas story? (I know, I’ve never seen that part included in the children’s Christmas play either.) For the shepherds spoken of in Luke’s Gospel, part of the story was actually downright terrifying. Luke 2:8-9 says,
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” (ESV)
Remember, this was the night watch – the shepherds were “keeping watch over their flock by night” (v.8). It was dark outside, probably very cold, and all of a sudden there was before them “an angel of the Lord.” The Greek word in v.9 that is translated as “appeared” in the ESV has the idea of overtaking someone or coming upon them suddenly. And v.9 also tells us that “the glory of the Lord shone around them” as well. (As if the angel were not enough already!) In Acts chapter 9 we are told that the glory of the Lord was so bright that it actually knocked Saul (later known as Paul) to the ground (v.3-4). Later in Acts 22:6 Paul says that this took place at “about noon” – the middle of the day! How bright would a light need to be at high noon to knock someone to the ground?!?
So how did the shepherds react to all of this? They were terrified – afraid for their lives! Verse 9 literally says that they “feared a great fear.” Why were they afraid? Was it just because they were startled? The angel himself was certainly a big part of it. You have to understand that angels in Scripture are not little Hallmark card cherubs – the real McCoys would look very out of place on a Valentine. They are powerful spiritual beings. In v.13 when Luke describes the heavenly choir as “a multitude of the heavenly host” he is using military imagery. It was an army of angels. The heavenly host praising God for His glory and grace probably sounded a lot more like a company of Marines drilling on the parade field than a soprano boys choir.
And it was not like the shepherds realized that it was an angel of the Lord and then relaxed, saying, “Whew! It’s just an angel!” Far from it! It is no coincidence that this is already the 3rd time in the book of Luke where an angel appears to someone bearing a message of the gracious favor of God, only to have to tell them not to be afraid (Zechariah – the father of John the Baptist – Luke 1:13, Mary, the mother of Jesus – Luke 1:30). Angels are powerful servants of God who are fearsome to behold.
But the shepherds were also afraid because “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (v.9). They were ultimately afraid because they were sinners in the presence of a holy God. The glory of God is terrifying to sinners – and we are all sinners. Even the prophet Isaiah, when he got a glimpse of the glory of the LORD in a vision, cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”(Isaiah 6:5). When we are faced with the glory and holiness of God we suddenly realize that we ourselves are anything but holy. Outside of Christ we all have good reason to fear. If you are outside of Jesus Christ, you are unholy. And Hebrews 12:14 says, “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (NIV). In the King James Version 2 Corinthians 5:11 says, “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” That is why later in that same passage Paul described himself as an ‘ambassador for Christ,’ imploring with sinners on behalf of God to be reconciled to Him (v.20).
So why then was the angel able to rightly tell the shepherds not to be afraid? Was it because they were actually really good people? Was it because they were religious enough? Were they wrong to be afraid? None of the above. The only reason that the shepherds were rightly able to “fear not” (v.10) was because of the message that the angel brought. In v.10-12 we read,
“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.””
Who was this baby Jesus and why was His birth such good news for sinners? First, He is the “Savior” (v.11). He came so that sinners like you and me could be made right with a holy God. And He did that by dying in our place on the cross and taking the wrath of God that we deserve upon Himself so that we might be forgiven and accepted as righteous in God’s sight! Second, Jesus is the “Christ” (v.11). That is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word, “Messiah,” which means “anointed one” or “chosen one.” Jesus is the One who was the foretold and promised Redeemer all through the pages of the Old Testament. He is the centerpiece of all of human history, and the only Mediator between God and man. Third, this Savior is also “the Lord” (v.11). This baby in the manger who would grow up to be a man, lead a perfectly sinless life, suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, die, be buried, and rise from the dead on the third day is none other than the Son of God Himself! That is the good news of the gospel! God is for us in the Savior, Jesus Christ!
That is the good news that turned the “great fear” of the shepherds (v.9) into great rejoicing in the Lord (v.20). Only the gospel can do that! Only the message of Jesus Christ can take away the terror that sinners rightly feel in the presence of a holy God and replace it with great joy in His presence at being forgiven and accepted by Him through faith in Jesus. Only the message of true peace on earth (v.14) can bring such joy to the heart of a sinner.