On the first Christmas Eve, there were no brightly colored lights on anyone’s homes. There were no visions of sugarplums dancing in any children’s heads as they slept. It was just another night in Bethlehem. But the census had gone out, a command by Caesar that everyone was to be taxed. History was about to change.
Jerusalem, which was effectively the spiritual capital of the planet at this time, was oblivious to the significance of Christ’s birth. To the land of Israel, Jerusalem was a little like what New York and Los Angeles are to the United States today. If anything was significant, then it happened in Jerusalem, in the big city – not in a place like Bethlehem. Besides, Herod had declared himself the king of the Jews.
Then there was Bethlehem itself that seemed to miss the significance of the Lord’s birth. There were a lot of descendants of David in town because that is where David was from. There were other pregnant women in town, and maybe there were even other babies born that night. We don’t really know. Mary was just another poor peasant girl, another statistic. But she was about to give birth to God in human form. History was changing and, by and large, people missed it.
This reminds us of one simple thing: What is often big news in heaven is not always big news on earth. The birth of Jesus was a big event. That is why the heavens opened and the angels began to rejoice as the shepherds watched the scene unfold before their eyes. This was an epic event in heaven. But for most people, it wasn’t a big event on earth.
I find it interesting that this angelic announcement of the Savior’s birth came to shepherds, of all people, because on the social scale, shepherds were almost at the bottom rung. The only people lower than shepherds were those with leprosy. The testimony of a shepherd wasn’t even allowed in a court of law. Although King David was a shepherd at one time, shepherds of the first century were despised in Jewish culture.
But when the shepherds received this message, they said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Luke 2:15 NLT). They didn’t have to go and see. They could have said, “Now that was an impressive performance! That was a great light show. We loved it! We don’t get a lot of entertainment out here, watching over our flocks.” No, they got the message, and they went to see.
The shepherds, and all of Israel, were living in a very frightening time historically. They lived under the tyrant King Herod, who would execute people at will. Not only that, but the Jews were living in occupied territory. The Romans had taken control of their nation. Caesar Augustus had declared himself the savior of the world. They were no longer free to do as they wanted and live as they wanted. They were longing for a military conqueror to come on the scene and deliver them from the power of Rome. They wondered whether Rome would ever leave and whether this violent rule would ever cease.
There was a misconception among the Jews at this time that when Messiah arrived, he would establish his kingdom physically on earth then and there. But they missed the fact that before he would come as a conquering king, he would first come as a suffering Savior. Then suddenly angels arrived and told the shepherds not to be afraid. The Messiah had come.
If there had been a proper public relations firm in charge of this event, they would have announced this message first to Caesar, not to the shepherds. Maybe they would have had an angel walk up to Caesar and say, in Donald Trump fashion, “Caesar, you’re fired. You are no longer savior of the world. Stand down and make room for the real king.” Or, the angels could have appeared to the high priest, telling him the Messiah he had been waiting for had finally arrived.
But that is not what happened. The angel delivered his announcement to the shepherds, saying, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11 NKJV).
It seems as though every time we read in the Bible of an angel appearing to someone, the angel’s opening words are “do not be afraid” or “fear not.” Why? Because people were always afraid. In fact, when an angel appeared to John the apostle, he fell down and started to worship. But the angel told John, “See that you do not do that! I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!” (Revelation 12:10). The message to the shepherds began with, “Do not be afraid.”
There is a lot to be afraid of in our volatile world today, isn’t there? I could write about terrorism. I could write about rogue nations developing nuclear weapons. I could write about people in our own country who shoot others at will. It seems that every time we turn around, we are reading about another horrific outburst. It can simply cause us to be terrified.
Then there are personal fears: What if I lose my health? What if I lose a member of my family? What if this happens? What if that happens? What if I can’t pay off my credit cards for all this stuff I bought for Christmas? A lot of things run through our minds.
Here is the message of the first Christmas and the message for us this Christmas: Fear not. But it is not only that. It is also, Have joy. “For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy.”
Ray Stedman, an excellent Bible commentator, said, “The chief mark of the Christian ought to be the absence of fear and the presence of joy. … It is that presence of joy and absence of fear that marks our genuine Christianity and proves that we really are what we claim to be.”
Fear is what Christmas came to remove. Now we can have joy in its place.