There are prophecies in the Old Testament and a few passages of the New Testament that herald the birth of Christ. But there is really nothing like considering the account of Christ’s birth itself in this time of the year. There is something about the account in Luke 2 and the various events that it records for us that bring joy to God’s people in every age. It is only Luke that deals with the details of Christ’s birth and what happened on that day. For that reason we turn to Luke today to consider the events of Christ’s birth and what they mean for us and our salvation. We do that this year by turning to the praise of the heavenly host of angels that appeared to shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem. We read in Luke 2:13, 14, “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, good will toward men.”
It has been questioned whether these words the angels spoke here in our text were actually a song. After all, our text does refer to the fact that these angels said these words of praise. Notice verse 13: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying….” Yet, when we sing our Christmas carols at this time of year we always refer to the praise of these angels as singing. They sang the words of our text. Is that an embellishment of the account, as many Christmas carols are apt to do? The answer is “no,” in this case it is not an embellishment. We say that for a couple of reasons. First, these angels were praising God with the words they spoke. And although it is true that we can praise God in our words without singing, nevertheless, the term for “praise” in our text speaks of “singing praise”—praises given by the medium of song. Secondly, there was a multitude of angels—a host of angels together. They praised God together—not by means of a hodge-podge of heavenly voices all speaking through one another. They together sang the words of our text. Now, I suppose they could have spoken those words together in a chant, but more than likely they sang the words.
As such, this song is one of praise to God. It does not sing the praise of men. It does not even sing the praise of Jesus, as many of the hymns do today. These angels sang praise to God—the one whose purpose was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. They praised the God of the covenant who in His mercy and grace sent Jesus into this world to fulfill His sovereign will with respect to our salvation. It is God’s praise that we too must sing with the angels.
I. God’s Glory
This entire event that took place on the hills of Bethlehem was a revelation of God’s glory. The glory of God is excluded from the Christmas celebration of most today. They see the baby of Bethlehem, but they forget God altogether. This passage of God’s Word before us today teaches us that the very purpose of God in the birth of His Son was to glorify Himself. That must be our starting point when considering the birth of Jesus Christ! The angels that suddenly appeared on the hills of Bethlehem joined in singing together for that reason: to praise God, we learn in verse 13! Glory to God in the highest! they sang! That says everything about our attitude this season of the year as we commemorate the conception and birth of our Savior. The story of Christ’s birth is not told to become all fuzzy and cozy over a quaint Christmas story being told.
Scripture records this account in order that God’s people might praise God for making their salvation possible through the birth of His Son. Is that the praise that is found in your heart today, dear listener?
You know, the glory of God is a striking thing! God is all glorious. Whether we choose to give God praise for His glory or not does not detract in anyway from His glory. That men refuse today to acknowledge God or even mock God by mocking Christ, that does not make God less glorious. The fact is, whether man chooses to give glory to God or not makes no never-mind to God! It does not make Him less glorious. And that is because of what God’s glory is. It is the effulgence of all of His perfections, all of His virtues. It is the shining forth of God’s majesty and power, of His holiness and goodness, of His grace and mercy, of His truth and righteousness. God is all of His attributes. They make up who He is. God can never be known or viewed apart from these infinite virtues. And when we look upon God, then these virtues shine forth so brightly that to look upon God face to face we would be consumed! He dwells in a light of glory unto which no man can approach. Especially one who is a sinner. To behold that glory of God would not only blind, but also destroy the sinner!
It was this glory that shone forth from the countenance of the angel that brought the message to these shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem. These angels had come down from the very presence of God, and they now reflected in but a small way the glory of God. And it made these shepherds fear and quail before them. “Fear not!” the angel had to tell the shepherds! Do not be afraid! It is this same glory the angels now sing of as they appear in the presence of these lowly shepherds. God is in the highest of all places. He sits enthroned in the heavens above the earth and sky. There in His dread majesty He rules over heaven and earth! There He directs all the events of this world, including the very moment of Christ’s birth and that in order to accomplish His goal, His purpose for all things! God is all glorious as He sits there. The angels acknowledge this glory of God: Glory to God in the highest!
That is what we sing today too! We sing it out loudly and powerfully from hearts that are overwhelmed with, consumed with, the glory and majesty of our God. We sing of praise to God, we extol Him for His glory because God has revealed that glory to you and me in the birth of His Son. Believers rejoice in that when considering the birth of Jesus Christ! God has revealed to them what so many cannot see. Unbelievers cannot see the glory of God in anything, especially not in the birth of Christ. They are not able to see it! But God in His good pleasure has chosen to reveal to His people what He has hidden from the wise and prudent of this world. The wicked are wise in their own conceits. They do not seek after God. They do not see in Jesus a Savior sent to do God’s will. They ascribe an altogether different meaning to Christmas. But we see God’s glory revealed in the very birth and in the very face of our Lord Jesus Christ.
How? In the most beautiful of ways. A humble handmaiden of God—a virgin born into the fallen, yet royal, line of David was visited by God in the highest. She conceived in her womb that holy thing which is the very Son of God made flesh. This virgin’s name was Mary. She was espoused to a man named Joseph. The two of them made their way from Nazareth, their hometown, to Bethlehem, a little village just a few miles south of Jerusalem. Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that all the world should be taxed and that therefore everyone must register for it. Mary and Joseph were of the line of David, who was himself born in Bethlehem. God, who lives in the highest and directs all things according to His sovereign will, chose this moment in all of history to fulfill all the prophecies of old. God did all of this in order to glorify Himself in all the earth.
So it was, that Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem and, finding it filled with people who were there for the same reason as they, found refuge in a cattle stall. There was no room for them in the inn, just as there is never any room in the heart of fallen man for the Christ child. While in that cattle stall—and we know the story well—Mary went into labor, and by the end of the day had given birth to an infant son. To keep the child warm, Joseph wrapped Him in swaddling clothes—long linen cloth—and then, to relieve Mary of the stress, laid the baby in a manger to rest.
In this way, the King of all the earth was born into extreme poverty.
No nice white sheets and sterilized room. The earth did not sing and dance at His birth. Humanity did not break out in hosannas and joyful chorus. The palace in Jerusalem was not decorated with bright ornaments and lights and red ribbon against green holly. We see Jesus, born into poverty in order that we who are spiritually poor might become rich!
But there in that manger we see the revelation of God’s glory! The world did not see it then, nor does it see it yet today. That is why the story is embellished with quaint little manger scenes. There are shepherds around a tiny manger with an image of Christ in it. There are three Magi (as if anyone knows if there were 3); there are peaceful looking sheep; and, oh yes, let us not forget a little drummer boy. But then, why bother with a manger scene. St Nicholas or Santa Claus with Rudolph and the other reindeer—these really do a better job in revealing what Christmas is all about. The wicked world does not see God’s glory revealed in that manger. That lowly birth of our Savior does not make the season bright!
But we see the glory of God revealed to us there! There is no doubt that we see and full well understand the shame that surrounded the birth of our Savior. Not only was He born in a cattle stall, but, what is more, the glory that was Christ’s as the Son of God was veiled over in human flesh. Christ looked like any other baby boy as He lay there in that manger. Who could see in His face the very Son of God—divine? But we who believe look upon that Christ child with the eyes of faith! And we see Him for who He really is! He is God with us—our Immanuel!
God has manifested Himself in our flesh. The Son of God came down from His glory on high and visited us poor sinners. He did this in order that He might deliver us from our sin! We were lost! We were lost and condemned in our sin. The only thing we deserved from God is condemnation and death. God’s curse lay upon us. But God in His great mercy and grace sent forth His Son in order to redeem you and me from sin and death. God in His great love for us sent His Son in order to satisfy His justice and make us righteous before Him.
But do you see what all of these are, fellow believers? All these are the attributes of God that together make up His glory! All these virtues, all these perfections of God are evident in the birth of Jesus! And it is for that reason that the birth of Christ is in fact the very revelation of God’s glory! In Him all the virtues of God are shown to us! For that reason we praise God today. Glory to God in the Highest! Now, we can understand why the angels were singing the praises of God there in the hills of Bethlehem.
II. Man’s Peace
It is that knowledge of God’s glory that brings peace to the heart of every true believer. The song of the angels is that of glory to God, but there is also that last part of the song of the angels: “And on earth, peace, good will toward men.” Never, of course, may these two parts of this song be separated. The moment they are, error is at the doorstep. Never can true peace be separated from the glory of God revealed in Christ. As soon as these are separated, the kind of peace of which one thinks is a false peace. Unbelief does not—it cannot—understand this. How often this very verse is mentioned in the unbelieving world’s false conception of peace! Glory be to God because He desires through Christ to bring peace to the earth! Peace on earth! And added with this is the idea that God has goodwill toward every man or person! This same wrong conception of peace is proclaimed by many churches that misinterpret this song of the angels, as well as many other passages of Scripture. God in His goodwill toward every man, it is said, desires to establish peace on earth! The only reason God is unable to accomplish His purpose is that man stands in the way of the peace God desires for us in His goodwill toward men!
That is the message many wish to convey at this time of year. That is how they interpret this song of the angels, especially around this time of the year. People understand peace merely as an end to world strife, strife between nations, strife between races, strife between social classes, and so on. Peace is solving the problems of this world: the economic problems, the problems with sickness and disease, the problems of starving people. Peace is giving money to the downtrodden and the homeless—those who are not as well off as we are. Then everyone will be happy, and that goodwill of God will be shown by us toward all men. And the world will be at peace.
Do not misunderstand me, believers should show pity toward others. They certainly may help those who do not have it as good as they do. I do not deny this. One would be a cold, hard person not to feel for others in their need—especially those whom God places in one’s path. But true peace does not consist in these things. There is no peace to the wicked, God says through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. Christ says: I came not to bring peace to this world, but a sword! There is no true peace found in sin! There cannot be. It is sin that destroys all true peace. As long as it is around, there will not be peace.
Peace is attained only through that child born in Bethlehem, and not through the example of that child, but by the death of that child. But ought we to think about the suffering and death of Jesus Christ at this time of year when we rejoice in His birth? To think of Christ’s suffering and death now? It’s a time of joy! We should not extinguish our rejoicing in this season by speaking of Christ’s death! Ah, we cannot help but see the suffering of Christ in His birth. He was born into this world suffering the humiliation that comes with the Perfect One, the all glorious One, being born into the flesh of sinners. Besides, the death of Christ is not a reason for mourning. It is the very joy of the season! Christ was born into this world as our Savior! He takes on Himself our sin and carries it away! We see our Savior in Bethlehem! And with that salvation He brings us peace! The peace that comes from salvation from sin is the true joy of the season because it alone is true peace. Deliverance from sin and being restored to God’s favor bring peace to a weary heart that is burdened with sin. “On earth peace, good will toward men!”
That phrase in the angels’ song is so misused! Perhaps it is so because that is not the best translation of the Greek text here. The wording of our translations is not necessarily wrong in itself. God does, in His great love and mercy, bring peace to this earth in Christ—though the vast majority of people do not receive it. It is true that in Christ God’s goodwill is shown toward men—be it not every man. So the translation is not erroneous when properly understood. But it is still not the most accurate translation. Rather, the angels sang these words: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace toward men of God’s good pleasure.” You see, God’s peace is not given to everyone. God grants His peace only to those who are in Christ Jesus. Those who are in Christ Jesus are those whom God has chosen as His own. They are the people of His good pleasure. This is true because these are the only ones for whom Christ died. Only those whom God leads to Christ find joy and peace in Him.
Now we know what the angels sang of that night! Now we know of the joy that they had and we know the message they sang. To God be the glory for what He has done! Peace be to God’s people chosen in Christ Jesus unto salvation. Peace to you and me, fellow believers! That is what we hear in the song of the angels. We are God’s treasure and He finds His pleasure in us! He loves us. He knows our sin and our misery. In the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, God reveals to us His virtue and grace! And we are saved! We sing with the angels this season of the year: Glory be to God! To Him be all the praise, honor, power, and dominion for ever and ever! May His name be glorified in all the earth! May His will and good pleasure be fulfilled!
And “on earth, peace, toward men of His good pleasure!” Peace be to you who rejoice with me in the salvation God has made possible through the birth of His Son. May you experience not a mere earthly joy, but peace in your hearts—amidst all the trials and afflictions, amidst all the pains and sorrows—all the failures, but also with all the successes and victories, in all the works of your hands in this new year. Peace be unto you and joy from our all glorious God, who has revealed His glory to us in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ!