Thoughts on the First Noel

Luke chapter two might be the most widely read portion of the Bible. Each year during the last weeks of December, Americans dust off their Bibles and turn to the account of what has become known as “the Christmas story,” or as I like to call it, the story of how God sent His Son among us to save us. There are, all told, five characters of prominence in Luke 2.

The Romans. Of course, the Romans represent the earthly government; a government determined to keep doing what it wanted to do even while the King of Jews was born. In Luke chapter two, we see what’s important to any government: Making life hard for its citizens and confiscating even more money from them in the form of ridiculous tax.

The angels. The supernatural appearance of these heavenly messengers heralding their messages of eternal hope set the stage for the birth of our Lord. Of course, God had been telling His people of the Savior’s first Advent for centuries; you could say it was the worst-kept secret ever. But human beings, blinded by sin, never noticed.

The shepherds. To the shepherds the angels appeared, and this time their message was noticed. Really, shepherds were the perfect people for angels to appear to. King David was a shepherd and he was greatly loved by God.

Mary and Joseph. The earthly parents of Jesus set the perfect example of how any parent or any other person should respond to God: In simple obedience. Neither of them possessed all the facts. What was happening to them was unprecedented, yet they did what God wanted them to do.

The infant. No, there was no halo surrounding the head of the Jesus. He was just an ordinary baby, born like countless other babies. There was nothing outstanding about the Baby. That’s how God chose to reveal Himself to man. He still does that today. You can find God in the simplest, most mundane aspects of life.

Humble birth, Luke 2:1 – 7

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. (Luke 2:1 – 3 | TNIV)

The story of the birth of Jesus as told by Luke couldn’t be more different than the same story told by Matthew. In Matthew, we read about the birth of the King of the Jews. We read about how King Herod was so obsessed with finding this new king that he killed an unknown number of young boys in an effort to kill the young King of the Jews. Yet in Luke, the birth of Jesus is presented in an altogether different way. His parents are portrayed as young and being bullied by an uncaring government bureaucracy. Why so different? Luke’s Gospel is a work of history written primarily for Greeks; for intellectuals. Of course, Luke also wanted to present the infant Jesus as the Son of God, but to do so in an educated, orderly account was Luke’s goal. Pastor, theologian and hymn-writer, Joachim Neander, who died far too young of tuberculosis at age 30, wrote something we should keep in mind.

The three great historical nations had to contribute, each in its own peculiar way, to prepare the soil for the planting of Christianity,—the Jews on the side of the religious element; the Greeks on the side of science and art; the Romans, as masters of the world, on the side of the political element.

The three Synoptic Gospels bear Neander’s hypothesis out. Matthew was written to the Jew and therefore stressed elements of Judaism in its account of the Lord’s birth. Mark was written to the Roman and Luke was written to the Greek, with its stress on details, both historical and personal. The Roman Government, under Caesar Augustus decided to tax the world. It sounds like an idea concocted in the halls of Washington DC, but Ancient Rome was just as arrogant as modern America when it came to taxation. The Greek word used for “world” really meant “civilized world,” and the TNIV’s translation, “Roman world” is accurate.

Caesar Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar whose real name was Octavianus, although he took the name Caesar. Augustus wasn’t a name at all but a title. He could have called himself king, emperor, or even dictator, but he chose the more religious title Augustus in an attempt to deify himself. It’s ironic that in his mind, his burdensome tax scheme got people like Mary and Joseph to travel to their various birth places, but really it wasn’t his plan but God’s plan that was fulfilled. Many centuries before Caesar Augustus was a glimmer in anybody’s eye, the Old Testament prophet Micah foretold the birth of the Messiah, referencing where He would be born:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2 | TNIV)

There were actually two Bethlehems and Micah distinguishes between them by adding “Ephratah.” Micah’s prophecy was written an astounding seven hundred years before the event took place. Given the Babylonian Exile and the great Dispersion that scattered the Jews all over the Babylonian and Persian Empires, it’s truly a miracle that a descendant of King David’s would have been born in this particular Bethlehem. The so-called “Christmas Story” is so familiar to us, we don’t realize just how miraculous it was. Caesar Augustus thought his dopey tax scheme was his idea, but little did he know God was pulling his strings so as to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in time for the Son of God to be born.

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:6 – 7 | TNIV)

The Bible doesn’t tell us how far along Mary was when Joseph took her with him bound for Bethlehem, or even why he took Mary with him (other than to fulfill Bible prophecy). One scholar thinks Joseph was looking for a good excuse to get pregnant Mary out of town to avoid the inevitable gossip and the emotional stress of being so pregnant. While it is true they were married, she was farther along than she should have been! The Bible also gives no indication that the couple got to Bethlehem “in the nick of time.” In fact, it’s more than likely they arrived in town in plenty of time for the census but then stayed there until long after Jesus was born.

The popular image of Mary and Joseph being holed up in a barn or cave is more myth than reality. While there would have been no room in local inns due to the presence of Roman soldiers and officials in town to work the census, the couple probably stayed in Joseph’s family home, or the home of some close relative. Back in those days families stayed upstairs while some animals were housed downstairs during the night. That’s probably where they stayed, and Jesus was indeed put in a manger or trough, which Mary used as a crib.

Announcement in the sky, Luke 2:8 – 20

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10 – 12 | TNIV)

We all know that angels appeared to a bunch of shepherds at night and that they were the very first people to whom the Good News had been told. They were also the first people to visit Jesus. But why shepherds? Among all the occupations of the ancient world, the lowliest was that of the shepherd, followed by the fisherman. Shepherds were thought to be a untrustworthy lot because their job involved keeping ceremonially unclean animals. But in keeping with the recurring theme of Luke’s Gospel, the Good News came first to the social outcasts of the day. But really, the shepherds of Luke 2 have come to symbolize all the ordinary people of all time whose lives have been touched and changed by the Good News.

The message of the angelic choir tells us more about God than anything else:

Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14 | TNIV)

The “peace” on earth and “goodwill toward men” have to do with God. Of course, there is no peace on earth today, and there won’t be until Jesus comes back the second time. But for all those who have found Jesus as the Lord and Savior, they are at peace with God. That’s the peace of justification by faith, and that’s the peace that the angels were singing and praising God about. The birth of Jesus made this kind of peace between God and man possible. And that goes for goodwill toward men. It’s not goodwill between men, but toward men. Again, because God sent His Son, born of a virgin, into our world, goodwill now exists between God and redeemed man. The angels understood this, even if we don’t. The song of the angels gets lost in the Christmas story, but taken on its own, their song is the song of salvation, telling of what Jesus did for sinful man.

And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:16 – 19 | NKJV)

The reaction of the shepherds to seeing the fulfillment of what they had been told by the angels is amazing on so many levels. These simple men, to whom the Good News had first been told, themselves became the first evangelists, telling others the Good News. Think about their message and you’ll realize how powerfully they had been touched. They literally threw off all constraints to tell a story so fantastic, who would believe it? But when people are touched by God; when a person catches the faintest glimpse of God’s glory, they can’t keep quiet about it. Recall this incident form the Old Testament, involving some lepers who had made an amazing discovery.

Then they said to each other, “What we’re doing is not right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace.” (2 Kings 7:9 | TNIV)

Similarly, the apostle Paul couldn’t keep the Gospel to himself.

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16 | TNIV)

And so the over-the-top reaction of the shepherds maybe wasn’t so over-the-top, after all! Their excitement propelled them to tell others. Are you as excited about Jesus as they were? Something to think about: The angels came and went. The great heavenly choir’s performance and show didn’t last. But the message of the angels did, and the shepherds took their message and told to anybody and everybody in Bethlehem. They didn’t keep this good news to themselves. Yet we keep the Good News to ourselves all the time, don’t we? Just think about all the people in your life who need to hear the Good News about Jesus and about what He can do for them. Have you told them yet? They’ll be just as amazed as the people of Bethlehem were at the testimony of the the shepherds.

But, we are told, Mary kept “all these things in her heart.” It may seem odd that Joseph’s reaction to all this isn’t given, but Luke is telling Mary’s story, and, in fact, he probably heard it from Mary herself. For Joseph’s side of the story, you can read Matthew’s account. But Mary thought deeply about all the things that had happened to her this night. To her, this was truly a sacred night; a night of miracles, and she thought long and hard about it. You get a tiny glimpse of this woman’s character and temperament and you realize that she was the perfect choice to give birth to the Son of God. We don’t worship Mary and we don’t exalt her. But she must have been a woman of simply amazing character. She was calm, deep, very spiritual, and certainly full of grace.

The first Noel has never been repeated, nor will it be. But one day, our Lord will return in glory, but not as a baby in manger. This Christmas season, it’s good to remember how it all came about, but we also need to remember that Christmas was just the beginning of a much larger event: The glorious Second Coming.

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