The Sign and the Song
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The Sign and the Song

Luke 2:12–17  (ID: 2996)

Against the backdrop of the powerful Roman Empire and the reign of Caesar Augustus, God chose for Jesus to be born in humble circumstances, announcing His birth to a group of common shepherds. In this message, Alistair Begg explains that the sign of Jesus’ humble beginning foreshadowed His death and burial. The peace with God proclaimed by the angels is found by those who see with the eyes of faith and make room for the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.

Series Containing This Sermon

Good News, Great Joy

Luke 2:1–32 Series ID: 27401

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke and to chapter 2. We have taken these first twenty verses of Luke 2 as the framework for our studies in these Sunday mornings throughout the month of December. So we have this morning and next Sunday left, all being well. And we’re going to read from verse 8 through to verse 16.

Luke 2:8:

“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. 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.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’

“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.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

We pray together:

Our great God, we bow before you. Some of us are very familiar with these verses. Others of us have never given them any consideration at all. But now, together, we turn to you and ask for your help by the Holy Spirit, so that our minds may be utilized to think properly, that our hearts may be softened and opened to the truth that we consider, and that our lives might be brought into line with that which is made known to us in this great good news, so that we might be converted and changed and conformed to the image of Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

The words to which I would like to draw your attention are those which begin at the twelfth verse: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Now, we’ve been considering these events as recorded for us by Luke, and we’ve tried to say to one another, to remind one another, that the events that are here for us in Luke’s Gospel belong to a time that can be precisely defined and belong to a geographical area that can be equally defined.

And we’ve tried to remind one another of this because of the prevailing notion in our culture, which, whenever we have opportunity to speak concerning the infancy narratives, the birth of Jesus, the pushback so frequently is, “But why would you really be paying any attention to that? Isn’t that simply a mythology, a bunch of old stories from a very long time ago?” And we have tried to recognize that Luke, fulfilling the role not only of he who writes the good news of the Gospel but also of one who writes with historical accuracy, so that we might be able to say, “Well, funnily enough, we’ve been thinking a lot about this in our studies, and we realize that it has to do with real people in real time and in real places.”

And that’s why when we began at the beginning of Luke chapter 2, we tried to pay attention to the way in which Luke decides to tie things in to the position and the role of Caesar Augustus. It was, from a human perspective, on account of the fact that Caesar Augustus had ordered a census for the entire Roman Empire that Mary and Joseph found themselves arriving in Bethlehem. And it is against the background of the powerful authority of this Roman emperor that the humility and the humiliation of the coming of Jesus is displayed. And Luke is choosing to do this very purposefully. He does it again at the beginning of chapter 3, as we noted, when he begins the ministry of Christ, and once again, he starts with about three verses establishing the historical context, and so that the Gospel readers would understand that out of which it had come.

Now, Augustus was regarded highly. Those of us who remember from history will know that his given name was Octavian. He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. He was given the name Augustus, which means “worthy of adoration,” at a very early stage. And he proved worthy of adoration. He was responsible politically for establishing the Pax Romana, the peace which lasted for a fair amount of time, and his rule and his ability to secure his boundaries and to provide for his people afforded him all kinds of accolades. So, he’s a big man. He’s a big man in world history. And he is the big man who heads up chapter 2.

It is against the background of the powerful authority of this Roman emperor that the humility and the humiliation of the coming of Jesus is displayed.

He was revered for all of these things, and ancient inscriptions which have been uncovered by the archeologists actually have interesting quotes on them. Let me give you just a couple of sentences. In one from 9 BC, the inscription declares that the birth of Caesar Augustus “gave the … world a whole new aspect” and “from his birth, a new reckoning of time must begin.”[1] That’s how significant he was regarded as in the context of his day. He broke into the world, he broke into time, and he was actually regarded as a savior. Indeed, the title “Savior” was given to him; it was also given to Zeus, it was given to others.

So the idea of a savior was not something that was alien to the thinking of people at this time. The real question was, Is there really a savior? And is there a savior who can save to the very depths of our humanity? And although he didn’t necessarily support his own veneration as a god during his lifetime, he did actually make sure that he reasserted the divinity of his adopted father Julius Caesar and therefore allowed himself to be referred to as “son of god,” paving the way for deification after he had died.[2]

Now, I don’t belabor that just for filler, because, strikingly, it was not then to Augustus in the height of his power that the angelic message came. I mean, you would think that after a brief consideration of his status, that if an announcement concerning something as significant as this was going to arrive anywhere in that context, surely it would come to his jurisdiction. But no, the angelic announcement comes “to certain poor shepherds in fields [where] they lay.”[3]

What is Luke doing here? Well, he’s beginning to announce the way in which God works. And all the way through his Gospel, he’s going to make it clear that while people might expect that God would be peculiarly interested in those who had status, those who were powerful, those who were mighty, in actual fact, again and again, he goes for the least and the last and the left out. He works in a way that we might not anticipate him working. To “you,” to the shepherds, “is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” It is into an environment in which the emperor was regarded as lord that we have the announcement of the arrival of one upon whose shoulders will be the government of the very world, the one who is the Wonderful Counselor, who is the Everlasting Father, who is the Mighty God, who is the Prince of Peace.[4]

Now, all of that, then, has been unfolding and leads us to the statement made by the angel and the reminder to them of what they might expect. And so, in verse 12, I want you to notice the sign. The sign. I just have three points. They all begin with s: the sign, the song, and the significance. So you’ll know exactly where we are. And I usually spend longer on the first, as you know. So don’t be unduly upset. We’ll catch up in time.

The Sign

The sign. This sign appears in first reading to be entirely straightforward and yet quite unusual. I always tell my wife when I’m studying—in fact, I said it to her just yesterday, I think it was, or the day before—“The easy passages are always the hardest. And the harder passages are always the easiest.” And this is, if you like, an easy passage. I’ve known these verses since I was very small, and many of you have as well. And so, when I came to it, I knew my next verse had to be verse 12: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And so I wrote down “The Sign.” And then all I had was a big blank sheet. And then I said, “Well, it’s a sign. Of course it is.” Well, you can’t just keep saying it’s a sign. You have to say something about the sign.

And then I said to myself, “Well, what kind of sign is it?” Is this a sign in order to produce belief? Is this the kind of sign to which John refers in his Gospel when he, towards the end, says, “All of these things that were done, and there were many more signs that Jesus gave which are not recorded in the Gospel,” that “these are recorded in order that you might believe, and that by believing you might have life in his name.”[5] So I said to myself, “Is that the kind of sign that it is?” But, of course, that would be the sign of the turning of water into wine, the sign of the transformation of Lazarus, the sign of the calming of the water. This doesn’t look anything like that, does it? “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths.” “You’ll find a baby in a nappy”—or, as you say, “in a diaper.” “You will find a baby in a diaper.” Well, really? That doesn’t seem like very much. What kind of sign is this?

Well, then I thought about it some more, and I said, “Well, clearly, it’s not a sign in order to produce belief, but rather, it is a sign in order that they might recognize who this child is, recognize where they might find him, and recognize who he is.” So when they would have gone into Bethlehem, they would have known that “we’re looking not in a palace, we’re not looking for a child in royal robes, we’re not looking for somebody who lives in a big house and in an ornate bedroom, but we’re actually looking for somebody in a cave, or in a shed, or amongst the animals.” So that would, of course, narrow their search.

Now, we’re not told whether they hit it first time, bull’s-eye, the first time they asked. But we must imagine that they went into town as they were bid to do, saying, “We’re actually looking for a baby, and he’s wrapped in swaddling cloths.”

To which anybody would have replied, “Well, you haven’t exactly narrowed your search on that basis, have you? Because after all, who ever had a baby and didn’t put it in diapers?” “He will be wrapped in swaddling cloths.” Ah, but he will be laid “in a manger”!

“We’re looking for one that’s probably out amongst the animals. Do you have it?”

“No, why would we put my baby amongst the animals? Get out of here, you crazy shepherds! What are you coming waking me up in the middle of the night like this for? Put the baby in a manger? Whoever heard of such a thing! Get on with you!”

They must have said to one another, “Are you sure we’re on the right track here?”

Says, “Yes, oh, for sure we are. The angel told us expressly, ‘And lying in a manger.’” And, of course, they eventually come upon him, and they recognize him on the basis of the sign. It’s not unusual to have a baby in swaddling cloths. It is unusual to have a baby in a manger.

But I don’t think that exhausts it either. I don’t think it’s a sign that is simply to provide for recognition. I think it is a sign in order to give to them an inkling of Luke’s purpose here as he is explaining the way in which God works. You see, they would have to be struck by how vastly different is this child in a manger from the power and majesty of the Roman Empire, from this Caesar Augustus figure, from the person who establishes the glory of his name and the might of the empire, and the vast contrast between the announcement about he who is “born … in the city of David” being “a Savior,” being Messiah, being “Lord.” “Savior, Messiah, Lord: you will find him in a manger.”

Our consideration of the infancy narratives has always inevitably to push us forward to Calvary, to take us from this cradle in a manger to this Jesus on a cross.

What? You will find the creator of the universe in a manger? On what basis did they proceed? The fact that the Lord had made it known to them, verse 15: “Let us go … and see this thing [which] has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” The shepherds realized that this was a divine visitation. They realized that they were proceeding on the basis of God’s word. But nevertheless, they were looking for the Savior, for the Messiah, for God himself in Christ, wrapped up in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.

Well, we tried to set this up by singing our hymn, didn’t we? “Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor, all for [our] sake[s] [became] poor.”[6] And Paul writes about it, and he says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for [our sakes] he became poor.”[7]

Now, in this brief descriptive statement, we see the love of God displayed. The love of God displayed—that here we begin to get the insight into a God who comes to his people who have rebelled against him. As John puts it, “He came [to] his own, and his own received him not.”[8] The people of God turning their back on him, looking down through the centuries, figuring things out on their own. Despite their rebellion, despite their disinterest, still he comes down through the years.

Jesus, my Savior, to Bethlehem came,
Born in a manger to sorrow and shame;
… it was wonderful, blest be his name,
Seeking for me, for me.[9]

Jesus came seeking to save those that are lost.[10]

That’s why our consideration of the infancy narratives has always inevitably to push us forward to Calvary, to take us from this cradle in a manger to this Jesus on a cross. And very quickly in church history, iconographers and artists combined these two scenes. And if you know anything of Christian art, religious art, you will have seen evidence of this. And what they did was they saw in this place—in this altar, as it were, in this manger scene—they saw a foreshadowing of Christ. If it is accurate that Christ here is in a cave, then they saw him in this cave in light of him being in that cave. To what am I referring? Well, here in verse 7, they wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger. In Luke chapter 23, they wrapped his body in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb.[11] And they said, “Here in the swaddling of Christ in these cloths is the picture of that in which he was one day swaddled. From one cave to another cave.”

But you know, only the eye of faith can look on each scene and find in it God. Wouldn’t you agree? Only the eye of faith can follow the shepherds to this scene in Bethlehem, in a manger, and look inside and say, “Oh, there is the creator of the universe. Oh, there is Messiah, there is Savior, there is God.” Only with the eye of faith! And only with the eye of faith would a man or a woman look on the bloody remains of the body of Jesus in between two thieves outside a city wall and say, “There is the Messiah of the world, there is God, there is Lord, there is King.”

So, loved ones, if you do say that, then get down on your knees before you go to sleep tonight and bless God that he opened your blind eyes and softened your hard heart and made you one of his own and included you in the company of those with whom he is well pleased. Because by nature our response is to say, “There is no chance that that child in there is God. There is no chance that that man up there is the Savior of the world.” Only by grace, through faith, will the sign in its simplicity introduce us not to belief but to recognition, and to interpretation, and finally, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to woo us and win us by the love of God: “Oh, that you would love me like this! Oh, that you would prepare a gift for me like this! Oh, that you would marshal all the hosts of heaven in order to announce it for me! I can’t believe you love me.”

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
[And] oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
[And] the mighty gulf that God [spanned].[12]
“Love was when God became a man.”[13]

The Song

The sign. Secondly, the song: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying…”

Now, I noticed something yesterday that I hadn’t noticed before—namely, that it doesn’t say anything about singing. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,” not “praising God and singing.” “Well,” you say, “you don’t want to pause on that for long, do you?” No. But it just makes me think, you know? It would really have spoiled one of our Christmas carols: “Hark! The Herald Angels Said.” It doesn’t have the same ring to it, you know. “Hark! the herald angels said, ‘Look at Joseph in his bed.’” You know, I mean, it wouldn’t work! It wouldn’t work. But you just need to pay attention. Why do we say it’s a song? Well, throughout church history, it’s always been a song, hasn’t it? That Christianity has always viewed the speech of the angels here as bursting forth in song, that the use of their resources to herald the arrival of the King has been the foundation of hymnody.

Now, it makes sense that the multitude of the heavenly host should arrive to reinforce what has been said. The angels have been thrust to the ground with great fear. They’re gradually getting back up to their feet: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Okay. So far, so good. “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a bab[e] wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And I imagine one of them nudging his friend, saying, “Are you kidding me? ‘Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Christ the Lord.’ We’re gonna find him in a manger?” And so the reinforcements are immediately sent, and here they appear: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,” reinforcing what this single angel had said. “I’m here to let you know this good news of great joy. You’ll find him in a manger.” “Wow!” And suddenly the reinforcements appeared. The Redeemer has come, and the angels of heaven are there to announce it for them.

There is glory, and there is peace. It’s an appropriate response that the heavens should ring with the glory of God. Because, remember, “the heavens declare the glory of God; … the firmament [shows] his handywork.”[14] Therefore, with the revelation, with the apex of the self-revelation of God, surely the heavens would be filled with his glory once again. Here is the glory of God in all of its beauty, in all of its truth, in all of its love, in all of its justice, in all of its purity. And the angels sang, “Glory to God, and on earth peace.” The Pax Romana is about to be dwarfed by the coming of he who is the Prince of Peace. Epictetus, the first-century pagan, observed very helpfully, “While the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace” of heart, “peace from passion, grief, and envy.”

So, the people are living. They’re living in a political realm that has granted to them a measure of security. They are essentially walking in darkness, and into the darkness a light shines. That light shines in such a way that it reveals the darkness in which they live—not simply the darkness of an environment that is without God, but a darkness that shines into their hearts. And so we discover that the peace of God that is referenced here—“on earth peace among[st] those with whom he is pleased,” or “peace [amongst] those [up]on whom his favor rests,”[15] or—it’s one of the most difficult little phrases. As you consider a variety of New Testaments in English, you will find that to be the case.

But what is being said here? Well, the peace of God that invades a life is on the basis of the discovery of peace with God. You see, there is a direct relationship here with “glory to God in the highest” and “peace on earth.” Today, our newspapers are filled with all kinds of attempt at peace: peace between husbands and wives, peace between family members, peace between nations, and so on. But this first-century observer is right: no matter how well we do at trying to establish that kind of peace, until we discover what it is to have peace with God, we’re not going to discover the peace of God.

And the story of peace that is conveyed throughout the Gospel of Luke—indeed, throughout the Bible—is the story of a peace that is brought about by the intervention of God himself. Because as individuals, the Bible tells us we are alienated from God. We’re separated from God. We’re separated on account of the fact that we have broken his law, that we’ve offended against him, that we are indifferent to him, that we’ve decided that we will try and fix everything in our own way. And so we try to find peace in our own way: peace through stuff, peace through a bottle, peace through whatever it might be. But we’re not going to give any glory to God. No, but you see, without the glory that is due to God alone, unless we are there, we will never discover the peace that he provides.

The Significance

So, let me finish in this way, because we need to come to significance. Let’s say something along those lines.

“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds” then “said …, ‘Let[’s] go … 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 bab[e] lying in a manger.” It’s interesting that they didn’t say to one another, “Well, you know what? Let’s give it a couple of days till all this settles down, and we’ll go over and check it out later on.” No, what an amazing announcement that has been made! What a discovery, that “we’re going to have the opportunity now to go and see the Messiah of the world.” Here is God, breaking into time. Here is he who is Lord and Savior. And they came “with haste.”

Now, I’ve preached to you for a long time, many of you. And I’ve said these things to you hundreds of times, if not thousands. And many of you still walk out the door. And in your mind, presumably, you say, “I think he’s got a point,” or “I think the Bible has a point, but you know, I’m gonna get to that later on.” You will never be converted from the position of detached curiosity. When God opens your eyes, when God softens your heart, you will do as these shepherds did. You will proceed directly to the place where you might meet him. You will not allow another hour to pass in your life, you will not allow another day to elapse in the calendar of your existence, if and when he opens your eyes and shows you that this thing that you’ve known about for a long time is directly related to your dispeace, to your dysfunction, to your lostness, to your sin, to your rebellion, and that it is a manifestation of his love that he has been so patient with you as to allow you to keep walking away from his grace again and again and again. And they came “with haste” and they “found … Joseph, and the bab[e] lying in a manger.” No, if they discovered peace, they discovered it in Jesus. If you would discover peace, it is to Christ you need to go.

When God opens your eyes, when God softens your heart, you will do as the shepherds did. You will proceed directly to the place where you might meet him.

Incidentally, don’t get all off track when someone says to you, “Look at all the wars in the world. If Christianity worked, there wouldn’t be any wars in the world.” That’s just silliness. There’s nowhere in the Bible that it talks about all the wars in the world being stopped as a result of the coming of Jesus—not until the day when the lion lies down with the lamb,[16] not until the day when all things are put to rights. And in the meantime, man’s rebellion against God is revealed in the disquiet and discomforts of our everyday existence. And into time has come the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our society this morning is sagging—sagging—beneath the burden of emptiness. Every person with any kind of sensible ability to think knows that whatever the incurable sickness of our world is, it does not lie in economic inequity. It does not lie in the superficial things that we’ve tried for decades and centuries to fix. It lies in the fact that we are by nature at war with God and God at war with us. And into that warfare he has sent the one who is the Prince of Peace, and in whom there is peace, and without whom there is no peace. This is a peace that isn’t found in something; it’s a peace that is found in someone. And it is a peace that pursues us, seeks us, comes knocking on the door of our lives through books we read and friends who talk to us, and every so often through a sermon that’s preached.

But you remember what gave rise to this whole scenario, this whole manger thing. Why was he in a manger in the first place? Why is he in a feeding trough? Why is the God of heaven in a feeding trough? ’Cause there was no room anywhere else. There was no room. He made the entire universe! “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … Without him nothing was made that has been made.”[17] He made the universe, and when he came to his universe, there wasn’t a sensible place for him to be. What kind of thing is this?

Well, let’s be honest: in many of our lives, it’s an apt metaphor, isn’t it? ’Cause we have no room for him either.

No room for the baby at Bethlehem’s inn,
Only a cattle shed,
No room on this earth for the dear Son of God,
Nowhere to lay his head.
Only a cross did they give to our Lord,
[And] only a borrowed tomb,
[And] today he is seeking a place in your heart;
Will you still say to him, “No room”?[18]

You’ll fill your emptiness up with something. Your substitute gods will never satisfy you. You were made for a relationship with God himself. He calls out to you. He loves you.

Let’s pray together.

Let me remind you of our offer of a New Testament, a copy of the Gospel of John, the opportunity to talk or pray with you about these things. But just in case we never, ever get to that point, just in case you want to make haste, as it were, and follow along with the shepherds, just cry out to God from where you are. You can be honest and tell him; he knows, in any case—that we haven’t loved you; we haven’t obeyed; we haven’t really paid much attention to you to all. And we marvel that you would love us in Christ. We confess to you that we have broken your law, that we are sinful, that we need a Savior, and we want for you to be our Savior. We want to say simply, “Come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee.”[19]

I’ve discovered that God actually hears those childlike prayers. It usually takes some time before I ever discover that anyone has done so, but that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you hear God’s voice. And today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your heart.[20]

Lord Jesus, look upon us in your mercy, we pray. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 59.

[2] Pope Benedict XVI, 77–78.

[3] “The First Noel” (1833).

[4] See Isaiah 9:6.

[5] John 20:30–31 (paraphrased).

[6] Frank Houghton, “Thou Who Wast Rich beyond All Splendor” (1934).

[7] 2 Corinthians 8:9 (ESV).

[8] John 1:11 (KJV).

[9] “Seeking for Me” (1878).

[10] See Luke 19:10.

[11] See Luke 23:53.

[12] William R. Newell, “At Calvary” (1895).

[13] John E. Walvoord, “Love Was When God Became a Man” (1970).

[14] Psalm 19:1 (KJV).

[15] Luke 2:14 (NIV).

[16] See Isaiah 11:6.

[17] John 1:1, 3 (NIV).

[18] H. M. Jarvis, “No Room” (1947).

[19] E. S. Elliot, “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne” (1864).

[20] See Hebrews 3:15.

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.