Imagine with me for a moment the following scene. It is dark, not too dark though. The stars are brilliant, only a few clouds obscuring some of them. The soft bleating of sheep comes now and again, mixing with the other sounds of the night. It is not too cold out, since it is still part of the warmer seasons. You’re a shepherd, and you are entrusted with a portion of the flock that is being raised for sacrifices in the temple. The flock is fairly large, though it had been larger before the recent Roman taxes. Everyone in the entire nation being forced to return to the place of their ancestors…imagine that? But your father had been born in Bethlehem Ephrathah, and so had his father, and his father…clear back to the return from Babylon.
You grip your staff a little tighter in your hand as you glance towards the ridge off to your left. A lion hadn’t gotten one of your flock in a while, but your cousin lost one just last night. You sigh. There is little glamorous about being a shepherd. You spend all your time during daylight hours in the burning sun, you spend the night either in the field or in the door of the fold, shivering to stay warm. Insults are as commonly thrown at you as the blades of grass one of your lambs is munching now.
It is at that instant and to these kind of people that the angel suddenly appeared in brilliant white and proclaimed his message:
“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”Luke 2:10-14
This light was so brilliant, it was actually described as “the glory of the Lord,” and the shepherds were “terribly frightened” (Luke 2:9). But did you notice the angels message to these particular men and women? It was “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). Before they heard what the messenger had to say, there wasn’t much joyful about being a shepherd. It was dangerous, it was looked down upon, and it was extremely wearisome. But the Lord proclaimed joy to them. Why?
Their situation didn’t change. At least, not their occupation. But with the announcement of Jesus’ birth, the proclamation was made of salvation. This wasn’t a zealot leader who would rise up against the Romans. No, that was not what Jesus had first come to do.
What He had descended to earth to achieve was salvation from sin, and this is why we can have true lasting joy, just like the shepherds. When they heard the words, they ran eagerly to find Jesus in the stable, and then they had to go and tell everybody else all about Him (Luke 2:15-20). Their joy was uncontainable.
Years later, Jesus Himself would tell His followers that the salvation He was bringing was the source of true joy. He had sent them out to preach the Kingdom and call people to repentance. The disciples returned, exhilarated with the fact that they could cast out demons. I imagine Jesus gently smiling at them as He responds with the following words:
Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.Luke 10:20
Having the ability to cast out demonic spirits is something that would excite anyone. But Jesus tells us it should pale in comparison to the joy of knowing we are saved. Peter seems to echo this idea in his first epistle, noting that we who believe in Jesus “rejoice greatly with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
This message of joy did not come first to the wealthy. It didn’t come to the prestigious. It didn’t even come to the religious leaders. Instead, it came to the shepherds: the common, the poor, and the weary. What’s more is that it didn’t even come just to the Jews. Rather, the angel said that it was “for all the people” (Luke 2:10). It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, or even what you are going through. The blessing and gift of salvation is extended to every person who will believe. And when we do believe, we ought to recognize and rejoice greatly in our salvation and deliverance from sin and the penalty we deserve.
So absolutely: the Christmas message is one of abundant joy. With the birth of Jesus, there could have been no crucifixion. And without that, no resurrection, meaning that we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17). But the truth is that Christ did come, He died, and He rose again, all of which must lead us to rejoice.
When everything is stripped away from the holidays—the trees, the presents, the food, all of it—what remains is this central message of the joy of salvation. Christ came voluntarily to redeem us from our sins, all because of His love. He paid the debt we deserve, purchasing our souls for God. All we have to do is believe. And it all came about because Christ Jesus was born so long ago in a little town called Bethlehem.