December 29, 2013
If you had just seen a multitude of angels, what would you be talking about when you went into town? The shepherds in Luke 2 focused on what the angels had said—their message of a Savior’s birth—and not on the drama of the experience. In this message, Alistair Begg draws our attention to the historical nature of the Gospel accounts. This is evidence that supports belief and demands a response from each of us.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re going to read from the Gospel of Luke and from chapter 2:
“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
We pray before we look to the Bible:
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, the verses to which I’d like to draw your attention are verses 17, 18, 19, and 20. And we’re at the end of what has been a brief series, an Advent series, that began with 2:1 and now ends with verse 20. And throughout we have acknowledged the fact that Luke is providing us here with his record of God’s real entry into actual history. The entry of God—his actual entry into a history that is real. And we began—and we end as we began—by acknowledging the fact that it is the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. The adjective is important: it is the very essence of biblical faith. There are all kinds of notions about faith in faith, but what we’re talking about is the faith that emerges from a study of Scripture, from finding Christ in the Scriptures. It is the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events.
And we affirm that in the awareness that not everybody believes it. And I’d be surprised if, actually, everybody who is here this morning would be prepared to sign off on that statement. That may be for a number of reasons. I can’t go into them all just now. But we recognize that we live in an environment—in a social environment; a philosophical, cultural environment; a scientific environment—that sends a very clear message. And it goes along these lines: that if you want to deal in the realm of facts, you’re dealing in the realm of science. If, however, you move into the realm of religion—or particularly of Christianity—then you immediately move into a realm which is bereft of facts and which is devoid of rationality.
And if you doubt that people would be so forceful as to declare it in that way, let me quote to you from H. L. Mencken, whose quote—the quote that I’m about to read you—has become a classic over the years. He said cynically in his day, “Faith may be defined briefly as [the] illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” “The illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” Bertrand Russell was right with him: faith may be defined as the “firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” Bertrand Russell is also the fellow who said, “Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, [may] the soul’s habitation … be … built.” So, if you’re pondering these things philosophically, I suggest to you that he is not your man. He is not your man. His view of life did not answer his essential questions.
And so, it is important for us to affirm the fact that when we read the New Testament, we’re actually being given evidence. We’re being given information. And it is up to us, as sensible people, to read this information, to consider this evidence, and determine whether we believe in this instance that the one who is providing it—namely, Luke—is actually trustworthy. And the way that we would get to that determination is obviously, first of all, by reading what he has said. And that’s why we took time at the beginning to point out that he was very, very clear concerning his methodology in establishing his Gospel. He had done careful research, he said, in order that he could “write an orderly account” so that his reader Theophilus and all his readers “may have certainty concerning the things” that they had “been taught.” So in other words, he is not calling for some kind of leap into the dark. He is not calling for what is often suggested Christianity is—namely, the exercise of blind faith. He’s actually saying to us that the Jesus of the Gospels is a historically plausible and convincing figure—that when we read these Gospel accounts, we discover ourselves, if we are honest, finding it very, very difficult to set him aside.
Now, the skepticism is not simply from outside the church. Those of you who have read any theology at all will know that it became very fashionable in the twentieth century—emerging from the nineteenth but brought to fruition in the twentieth; it’s not so fashionable today—but nevertheless, there were those who spent a great deal of time and effort and a lot of ink suggesting that we could never know the real historical Jesus; that the Jesus to whom we’re introduced in the Gospels is not the real one, and we can’t know the real one; and the one that we have in the Gospels is an invention, and he’s the invention of those who have decided that they want to follow him. And so, what they have done is they have added to the whole story that which is apparently to induce faith, when in actual fact, the basis of faith is to be found in a consideration of Jesus himself.
So, instead of starting with what the New Testament data gives us and seeing in it the logical beginning for a journey of faith, they’re saying, “No, the faith of those who were 150 years after Christ actually invented and created this, and so the task of theologians and biblical scholars is to dismantle all the funny parts and all the difficult parts and get rid of all of that stuff so you can get back to the real historical Jesus—but we can’t really know him at all.”
Now, it’s up to you. You are sensible people. I’m going with Joseph Ratzinger on this. It’s the last time I’ll quote him for a while. But this is what Ratzinger says: “Isn’t it more logical, even historically speaking, to assume that the greatness came at the beginning, and that the figure of Jesus really did explode all existing categories and could only be understood in the light of the mystery of God?” You are sensible people; you have to examine these things for yourself. What this theologian is saying is, “Is it not far more plausible that this Jesus broke the boundaries of everything that people conceived of?” And so the mystery that attaches to it is unfolded in these things and that the Jesus of faith is the Jesus of the Gospels.
Within in two or three decades, they were singing hymns that affirmed these truths. If you do your research, you will find it to be true. They were singing about Jesus being equal with God, about him emptying himself, about him becoming a man, about him dying on a cross, about him being exalted to the highest place. Those of you who know your Bible know that Paul is quoting that in Philippians chapter 2: “Though he was equal with God, he did not think of equality with God as something to be grasped, but he made himself of no reputation, and taking the form of a servant, he was made in the likeness of man and became obedient unto death—even death on a cross.” That’s what they were singing within thirty years of the death of Jesus.
Now, I know that I have said this again and again. But I want to. I feel I need to. Because as I listen to many of my congregation engage with people—and I don’t mean this as a disservice to you—but you’re leading with emotion far too much. You’re leading with stories far too much. You are forcing people to dismiss the message you seek to convey by the way in which you communicate it. And you need to understand that what we’re dealing with here and what we’re confronting our friends with—lovingly, kindly, but forcefully—is the fact that they cannot press us back into a corner, suggesting that we are now involved in some irrational and blind faith, a leap into oblivion and in the dark. They do not necessarily accept what we say, but let’s at least be able to say to them, “Have you read the evidence? Have you rejected it because you’ve read it and found it wanting, or have you rejected it because of what everyone else is saying about it?” Come on, now; read it for yourself.
And it’s everywhere! Last week in the Wall Street Journal, they reviewed one book called Jesus: The Human Face of God. You perhaps read it. And the reviewer was in good company when he stated, “Either [the New Testament Gospels] are true or they are a collection of precious fables. There is no [middle ground].” So we’re either involved in the greatest con trick the world has ever seen, or we’re dealing in the matter of historical reality. That’s a pretty big divide between those two positions, isn’t it? “Upon a life I did not live, upon a death I did not die; another’s life, another’s death: I stake my whole eternity”? Yes!
And the shepherds made haste. They wasted no time in scurrying off to Bethlehem. And when they looked into this manger’s scene, they looked into the face of God. Here in this baby, what Caesar Augustus proclaimed of himself—namely, a great champion of peace and a savior—is far more significantly enveloped and developed in the defenseless and powerless child that is now making his bed amongst the animals and is visited by the shepherds.
The shepherds, you see, are unlikely recipients of the news. We said that. And they’re also unlikely in assuming the role of the first evangelists. If we were inventing a Gospel, I’m not sure that we would use shepherds as the key to getting the word out. After all, they weren’t regarded as particularly reliable. No, this does not have the marks of mythology. This has the marks of history. This is not poetry.
So, notice—and I’ll move quickly—first of all, notice that the shepherds testified. Verse 17: “And when they saw it, they made known the saying”—“the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” What was the saying? Well, you go back to verse 10: “Fear not, … 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 when they saw it,” verse 17. What is the “it”? Well, go back up to verse 15: “this thing that has happened”—a real event, in all of its dimensions. “When they saw it,” when they came there and found it just as they’d been told, then “they made known” what? “They made known the saying.” “The saying that had been told them.”
So they’re dealing here not in fabrication. They’re not dealing in invention. They’re dealing, actually, in revelation. Here are a group of ignorant shepherds doing what they do. When I say “ignorant,” I don’t mean that in a demeaning way. They were ignorant of this dimension—until it was disclosed to them. How could they know these things apart from the revelation of God? This is not the invention of fertile imagination. This is somebody reporting the saying as it “had been told them.” They show up verifying what had been said was there, and it was. And then they said, “And this is why we’re here, because we were told by the angel it’s ‘good news, great joy for all the people, because unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, who is God.’” And they provide for Mary and Joseph corroborating evidence, if you like.
God has shone into their darkness with the light of his truth. He has brought into the openness things that were previously out of their sight. He has provided them with a knowledge that they didn’t have. He has taken them into his confidence by showing them his glory. And we, like the shepherds, are in need of revelation. Where do we have that revelation? Well, we actually have it in the word that was spoken. And they made known the things that were said. And those things that were said became part of the research project of Dr. Luke—that when he verified the data with the eyewitnesses, he found that there was a confluence of truthfulness that ran through the whole thing. So he wrote it down in order that sensible people might consider the narrative, and in considering the narrative, they may be absolutely convinced of the veracity and usefulness and life-transforming impact of the things that they had been taught.
We’re actually in the same place. Isn’t it actually wonderful how the confidence of heaven is in the Bible? Otherwise, we would have to say, “Well, we never saw angels. Well, we never were there. That never happened to us. What have we got to go on?” You’ve got to go on the exact same thing that they had to go on: the Word of God, revelation. The story of the Bible is the story of revelation and redemption. God discloses himself, he reveals himself, and he redeems men and women.
And the shepherds apparently did not choose to spend a lot of time on the drama that was involved. They presumably mentioned it, but it is on the message that the angels proclaimed. Because, after all, the news of a birth is perfectly ordinary. A tremendous effort to go to, to send an angel out of the sky and say, “A baby has been born.” Say, “Wait a minute! A lot of babies have been born. What news is there in that?” In fact, the coming of Jesus into the world would mean nothing apart from the accompanying explanation. What would anybody have done with that, apart from the explanation? Who is he? Immanuel, God with us. Why is he here? Because he’s Jesus. He’s the Savior. Wilcock wonderfully says, “It is one of the glories of the Christian faith that it comes not only by sign but … by speech—by images, indeed, so that the message may be powerful, but also by words, so that it may be plain.” So we’re not left here with sort of speculative notions. We’re provided here with actual statements, with verifiable data, that forces us to make decisions.
So, the shepherds testified. I spent too long on that, but we’ll speed it up. Secondly, the hearers wondered. The hearers wondered. That’s verse 18: “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds [had] told them.” Well, Mary and Joseph heard it, and they must have wondered. It was a reinforcement of the visit of the angels both to Mary and to Joseph. And it was, to all who were surrounding and all who were later hearing, that this child who had been born was none other than Savior, Messiah, and God.
Now, if you think about that, that was a dramatic statement in that day, and it is a dramatic statement in our day. It’s truly wonderful. The nature of wonder is found in this: it’s found in the fact of the identity of the child. And we’ve never, ever plumbed the depths of Christmas until we recognize that we are encountering he who is Savior, who is Messiah, and who is God.
Now, one of the things that we’ve offered as an encouragement to reading your Bible is Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening. And when you get to the twenty-sixth day of the year, if you ever venture into this, in the evening of the twenty-sixth day of the year, you discover that his comments of that evening are on the verse 18, which is our verse right now: “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds [had] told them.” And I leave you for the enjoyment of it later on; gives you something to look forward to. But he begins, “We must not cease to wonder at the great marvels of our God.” And here’s a little snippet of it:
That God should consider His fallen creature, man, and instead of sweeping him away with the broom of destruction should Himself undertake to be man’s Redeemer and to pay his ransom price is indeed marvelous! But to each believer redemption is most marvelous as he views it in relation to himself. It is a miracle of grace indeed that Jesus should forsake the thrones and royalties above to suffer ignominiously below for you. Let your soul lose itself in wonder.
And then, in classic Spurgeonic style, he goes on to say that when the heart of a man or of a woman is gripped by this wonder, it will issue in a number of things: one, in “grateful worship”; two, in “heartfelt thanksgiving”; three, in “godly watchfulness”; and four, in “glorious hope.”
“Keep yoursel[f] in the love of God,” says Jude. Are you keeping yourself in the love of God? I’ve been reading Ryle this week, as you can tell. Let me give you another quote from Ryle, under this notion of godly watchfulness. How do I know that I really wonder at the mystery of God’s goodness to me in grace, of the wonder of salvation? Well, one of the marks is not simply in my singing or in the way I do my work, but it is in the way I watch. I watch myself. I guard my heart. This is Ryle to his people:
Do nothing [that] you would not like God to see. Say nothing you would not like God to hear. Write nothing you would not like God to read. Go no place where you would not like God to find you. Read no book of which you would not like God to say, “Show it to me.” Never spend your time in such a way that you would not like to have God say, “What are you doing?”
The shepherds testified, and the hearers wondered, and Mary pondered. I bet she did. It would have been surprising if it said anything other than that she pondered. First, it says she “treasured” these things up. Who knows the thoughts of a mother except a mother? The Bible says, “Who knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of man that is in him?”—so that would be true of a mother as well, and so, who would know the thoughts of another mother? Only God knows what goes on in a mother’s mind. But as a bystander, as an onlooker, it seems that it is a dimension peculiar to a woman—that it is not given to a man to know these things, to experience these things, to enjoy these things, to be discovered, to be uncovered by these things. And if that is true of a birth that produces our own children, what then of this birth that has emerged as a result of being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and God having conceived in Mary this child without ever she’s had any sexual relationships with a man?
Now the shepherds have come, and they’ve added to the story. Now, she’s building up her diary. She’s writing in her journal: “And this evening we had a group of shepherds came in, and they said that they had also heard from God Almighty, and they confirmed to us the story that we have also heard.” And as she puts all of that down, she treasures it, she ponders it. She ponders the providence of God. “Who am I,” she says in her Magnificat, “that you have regarded the lowly estate of your handmaiden—that of all the women that exist in the entire world, you have chosen me to bear Christ?”
No, it would be surprising if it didn’t say something at least along these lines. And if you fast-forward in your mind and you take her song, the Magnificat, from Luke 1, and you take her standing at the cross of this son, and as she looks up on the hands that now are nailed to that tree, she looks on the hands that clutched at her in his infancy. And did she sing the Magnificat again: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior”?
Yes, unto you, Mary, is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Finally, the shepherds, we’re told, returned—verse 20: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” What an amazing thing that they had encountered! What a wonder, that God had intervened in their lives! If they’d been able to, they could have sung to one another, “I cannot tell why he whom angels worship should set his love upon the sons of men.” “I have no way to comprehend what has gone on here,” they would have had reason to say to one another. And if you think about it, the way in which they had encountered this had brought from the lips of the angels the obvious statement: “Fear not.” “Fear not.” In the hymn: “‘Fear not!’ said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind[s].”
Well, it makes me think of C. S. Lewis. Does it make you think of C. S. Lewis? I’m sure it does. And in his book on miracles, where he says, “It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive’. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back” when they’re considering God. Says Lewis,
I would have done so myself if I could—and proceed no further with Christianity. An “impersonal God”—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. … But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord … that[’s] quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children … playing … burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? [And] there comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion … suddenly draw back.
Can I say to you kindly but straightforwardly: if you have spent a period of time, maybe even these last weeks, dabbling in religion; if you have found that as you have begun to push a little here and prod a little there and tug a little here, that the cord is not just coming back to you as it swings out in space, but that there is a tug back at the end of the cord… And the tug back at the end of the cord is the tug of he who came looking for you, loving you, seeking to woo you, seeking to win you, seeking to draw you to himself, seeking to deal once and for all in your mind with the notion that what you’re engaging in is just a leap into oblivion, a great launch into stupidity, a great dimension of darkness, such as only idiot people would ever embrace. And you’re beginning to say, “I’m not so sure that that story is accurate.”
You see, it is the incarnation that assures us that God is a personal God—that he is a God of love and that he is a God of mercy.
You see, it was only, actually, the incarnation that could deal with the fear of the shepherds, and it’s only the incarnation which can deal for you and me with the fear of the invisible, with the fear of the unknown, with the fear of the dark, with the fear of death. Why is it? Because God has set eternity, God has put eternity, in your heart. You know that this life, when it comes to an end physically, is not the end. And the reason you know, and the reason you may wish to deny it, is because you know. And you may be vociferous in your rejection of these things, as many are.
I’ve been reading this book, amongst other books this week, written by a British humorist who is a really vitriolic atheist, and he writes scathingly and blasphemously about these things. And then, as you’re saying to yourself, “I think it’s probably time for me to put this book down, because J. C. Ryle said I shouldn’t be reading anything that God would say, ‘Why are you reading this book?’”—and then, you know, then I turn over the page, after he has just said all these things about why Christians are idiots and only a madman would ever believe in God, and you turn a page, and he says,
But I wish there was a God. I’m sincere when I say that. I am not happy with atheism in and of itself. It doesn’t provide any answers for me. It makes no claim to. … I’d like to develop a faith in God so complete it would enable me to make sense of what I see around me. It would be a fantastic thing to have God in my life. But I can’t seem to get there. And the harder I’ve tried to understand this God, the less I like of what I see.
And in part he is referring to bad Christian testimony—to a kind of knee-jerk, angry, resentful way of suggesting to others that we actually have some good news for them. And our agnostic and atheistic friends are saying, “Well, you could have fooled me that it was good news, ’cause look what it’s done to you.”
He says, “This is what faith is, I suppose. It’s an end to searching. It’s a moment when you decide that you’ve asked enough questions and are ready to make that leap into a place of absolute trust without evidence.” He’s going so well there, isn’t he? Page 63. That is what faith is: an end to searching, a moment when I decide that I’ve actually asked enough questions, and I am ready to leap—not into oblivion, not into darkness without evidence, but I’m ready to leap into the very arms of God; the arms that were spread out on a cross to welcome me; the arms that bore my sin, that bore my punishment, so that it might offer to me a forgiveness that I don’t deserve. It is in this discovery that the truth of Christmas dawns.
Have you had a wonder-full Christmas? I trust so.
Let us pray:
O God, look upon us in your mercy. You are a good and a kind God—how you know each of us, where we stand before you. Help us to take you at your word; to turn to you in acknowledgment of our great need of you; to be prepared to say that we are on the wrong side, that we have messed up, that we are in need of a Savior, that we do need a Messiah, that we do need you, God. And then help us to live in the wonder of all of that in such a way that others may come to follow Jesus too. For it’s in his name we pray. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Lyrics modernized.
 H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Third Series (New York: Knopf, 1922), 267.
 Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (London: Allen and Unwin, 1954), 215.
 Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1919), 48.
 Luke 1:3–4 (ESV).
 Pope Benedict XVI, foreword to Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), xxii–xxiii.
 Philippians 2:6–8 (paraphrased).
 Barton Swaim, review of Jesus: The Human Face of God, by Jay Parini, Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2013, https://www.wsj.com/articles/book-review-8216jesus8217-by-jay-parini-1387824223.
 Horatius Bonar, “Upon a Life I Did Not Live” (1881).
 Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke: The Saviour of the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979), 50.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, revised and updated by Alistair Begg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), January 26 evening reading.
 Jude 1:21 (ESV).
 J. C. Ryle, Thoughts for Young Men (1886), chap. 4.
 1 Corinthians 2:11 (paraphrased).
 Luke 1:48 (paraphrased).
 Luke 1:47 (ESV).
 William Y. Fullerton, “I Cannot Tell” (1929).
 Nahum Tate, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” (1700).
 C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 150.
 See Ecclesiastes 3:11.
 Marcus Brigstocke, God Collar (Bantam Press, 2011).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.