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A Savior Is Born! - Part 3

Tom Pennington • Luke 2:1-20

  • 2019-12-15 AM
  • Sermons


This morning we turn to Luke's gospel, Luke 2.

You know, those of us who live in America, even though we have been disengaged from Britain for 200 years, we still find ourselves fascinated by British royalty. It's interesting to see all of the pomp and circumstance and tradition that surrounds the monarchy. In fact, when British royals are born there are actually centuries of traditions that must be followed. A number of years ago I read an article in the BBC about some of those and how they began. The article read like this:

When the future king Edward VII was born to Queen Victoria on the 9th of November, 1841, the rules governing the announcement of royal births were practically set in stone. This great and important news was immediately made known to the town by the firing of the park and tower guns. But even before the guns have been fired or the gazette published, news had already been spreading by word of mouth.

Now some of you ladies will have a hard time considering this, but the article goes on to say,

It was the custom of having cabinet ministers in attendance for royal births which led to the news leaking. The practice of politicians acting as witnesses and verifying royal births began with the birth of King James II's son in 1688. There had been rumors that the baby had been stillborn and replaced with an impostor, smuggled into the royal birth chamber in a warming bedpan. So at Edward's birth an official announcement was still made, despite at least 80 witnesses at the birth, in order to confirm that a legitimate son had been born. The values placed on succession and lineage means it is vital for all royal births to be officially recorded.

You know, as I read that article I was stuck with the contrast in Luke's account of the birth of Jesus Christ. You're immediately struck, as you read it, with its quiet simplicity. This was the royal birth above all others. And yet rather than in a palace, this royal Son was born in a cave used for sheltering and feeding animals. Rather than an entourage of witnesses consisting of the great people of the nation, only His poor and obscure parents, Mary and Joseph, were there to witness it. In fact, Jesus' actual birth happened quietly and unnoticed by anyone but the two of them. But it wasn't God's plan for His birth to remain anonymous. For the human birth of His only Son, God had planned the greatest birth announcement in history. It's recorded for us in Luke 2.

Now the last two weeks we have been studying together Luke 2:1-7, which provides us with the historical record of the birth of Jesus Christ. And we looked at that passage in detail and saw that Luke intentionally structures it to prove to us that Jesus met all of the qualifications to be the long-promised Messiah. He was born at the right time, in keeping with Daniel's prophecy in Daniel 9. He was born to the right family, the family of David, so that He could qualify to be the heir to the throne. He was born in the right city, as Micah the Prophet had prophesied back in Micah 5:2 that He would be born in Bethlehem. And He was born in the right circumstances, as had been laid out by God Himself.

Now as I've noted for you in the last couple of weeks, almost certainly, Jesus our Lord was born in a cave under what is now the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This is how that cave appears today. But next to it, in an adjacent cave (where Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate), you get a picture of more of what the cave would have looked like in the first century, the time of Jesus' birth.

So that is the historical record of the birth of Jesus. We've examined it together. But today and next Sunday, as we prepare our hearts for celebrating Christmas, we come to Luke 2:8-20. And here we leave the historical record of the actual birth, and we come to the divine announcement of the birth of Jesus Christ. The divine announcement. Let's read it together. Luke chapter 2. You follow along as I read beginning in verse 8:

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened… the angel said to them, "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 [Christos, who is Messiah] 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 hosts praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased."

When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, "Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us." So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as he lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as [it] had been told them.

Now I noted for you in the last couple of weeks that Luke, in the first 4 verses of his gospel, explains why he wrote this gospel. He explained that as he wrote to a man named Theophilus, probably a high Roman official, he wrote so that he could know with certainty the historical foundation on which his faith in Jesus Christ rested. It serves the same purpose for us as well. Luke assures us in the preamble to his gospel that he had carefully investigated and researched everything that he includes in this gospel. In fact, most scholars agree that, in terms of the birth record, he had interviewed Mary and probably one or more of the shepherds as well in those days that he was with Paul in the coastal city of Caesarea, there not very far from where these events transpired. It's from Luke's interviews with those key characters in this story that we learn the details of what happened the night of Jesus' birth. It's also how we learn about this announcement of Jesus' birth that we've just read together.

I want us to look at this announcement, because here within it Luke records for us several remarkable details about the divine birth announcement of God's Son. Let's look at these details together and how they bring this story not only to life, but they bring the reality of it, the point of it to bear in our hearts and lives. First of all, I want you to notice the unlikely audience: who God chose. The unlikely audience for this announcement of the birth of His Son. This is recorded for us in verses 8 and 9.

You see, the birth of Christ is remarkable not only for what happened, but also for what didn't happen. It's remarkable for its utter simplicity, for its complete lack of pomp and ceremony. So before we look at the text and the unlikely folks who were invited, I just want you to think for a moment about those who were not invited to be present at the birth of Jesus Christ. There were no Roman political figures there to welcome the Son of God. Herod the Great could often be found nearby in Jerusalem or six miles south of Bethlehem at Herodium, one of the great palaces that he built and one that he loved. But he wasn't included in this announcement. Quirinius, the governor of Syria, the one that we learn early in this chapter had executed the census decreed by Caesar Augustus, he wasn't there. No Roman officials had come from the Roman town of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, sort of the headquarters of Rome in Palestine.

But none of the leaders of Israel were there either. I mean, Jerusalem was only 3 to 5 miles from Bethlehem, but not one member of the seventy members of the Sanhedrin (not a single Pharisee, not a single scribe, not a single Sadducee) was there that night. I mean, not even the political leaders of Bethlehem. Bethlehem was a small village in the first century, maybe a thousand people. Even the leaders of Bethlehem were not there to greet the birth of Jesus. And remember the reason that Mary and Joseph find themselves in Bethlehem. Every Israelite had been required to return to his and her ancestral town to register for the census. Some of the most important and influential people in Israel were those who could trace their line back to David. David was from Bethlehem. That means, on this very night, some of the most important people in the nation (the rich, the powerful) were in Bethlehem, but none of them were invited to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Instead, God chose a most unlikely audience for the divine birth announcement. Look at verse 8: "In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night." Notice, these shepherds were keeping their sheep in the same region. Likely, based on the geography of the land, this was probably just east of the city of Bethlehem. In fact, the traditional shepherd's field is about 2 miles away from the village proper. It would have been in these fields that Boaz met Ruth, and years later it would have been in these very fields where David grew up and kept sheep himself. They were in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night.

Now some have cited the fact that these shepherds were living out in the fields to argue that that means there's no chance of the traditional season of the year, the winter, as the time of Jesus' birth. Instead, they argue, it must have been in the spring, because, normally, shepherds didn't stay out in the fields during the winter months. Well that may be true of portions of Israel, but Jewish authors tell us that sheep were, in fact, kept in the fields near Bethlehem throughout the year. In fact, according to rabbinic writings, sheep that were to be used for sacrifice at the temple were kept year-round in Bethlehem. So here we have, probably, (as I mentioned to you the last couple of weeks) an annunciation to Mary in the spring, and Jesus' birth sometime in the winter, very possibly December. And they are keeping their sheep.

And notice, Luke tells us these events unfolded at night. During the daytime the sheep were allowed to graze in the fields, but at night they were placed into crude pens or even rock sheepfolds to protect them from thieves and from predators. On that winter night there were several shepherds keeping watch of this flock together. Now as seems reasonable to us, the normal plan in such cases was for each of them to take a watch of the night. Each one would take one watch, and the others then would sleep as they kept guard. So the first announcement of the birth of Jesus Christ came to these shepherds near Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

To us living 2,000 years removed, and with all of the traditions and the songs of Christmas, that just seems natural. But if you had lived in the first century, it would have seemed anything but natural. In fact, if you read this account and it was the first time you had read it, you would have been shocked by the ones God chose to witness the birth of His Son. It is true that two of Israel's leaders, both Moses and David, had served as shepherds. And it's also true that in the Old Testament God Himself is referred to as Israel's Shepherd. But frankly, in everyday life shepherds were despised. This is increasingly true in the post-New Testament era. In fact, the Talmud cites several reasons for this.

First of all, because of the nature of their work. Shepherds tended to be a lower class of people and therefore were looked down upon by the larger culture. Secondly, they were, again by virtue of what they did, nomadic. They were always wandering from one place to another, seeking to find new and fresh pastures for their sheep required by their occupation, and so they didn't live in homes. They were, rather, usually tent dwellers and living from place to place. Thirdly, that meant that they were often suspected of stealing from the people nearby where they kept their sheep. In fact, most suspected shepherds had a hard time, as they wandered looking for pasture, distinguishing between mine and thine. It was so bad, in fact, that the rabbis included shepherds in their list of occupations known for stealing and cheating. It would be eventually forbidden to buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd, because it was assumed that the shepherd had stolen it. It was not his own. A fourth reason shepherds were despised is that as a group they were so dishonest that an individual shepherd was not allowed to serve as a judge or even a witness in court. It was assumed they would be lying. Another reason that shepherds had such a bad reputation was because of their lack of religious commitment. Shepherds as a class were under the ban of the rabbis because of their necessary isolation from normal religious observances. They had to be with their sheep. They had to be out, away from where religious worship took place, and so their manner of life rendered any sort of strict, legal observance of what was required of Jewish males impossible.

And so they had a terrible reputation. Just to sort of draw that into a conclusion for you, the Midrash, an ancient Jewish commentary on the Old Testament, says this, "No position in the world is so despised as that of a shepherd." One rabbi asks with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one can explain the fact that God is called "my Shepherd." In other words, in view of just how bad shepherds were, how would God even stoop to take such a label on Himself?

And yet shepherds were the only ones that God invited to the celebration of the birth of His Son. Think about that. John Calvin, in his commentary, writes this:

It would have been to no purpose that Christ was born in Bethlehem, if it had not been made known to the world. But the method of doing so, which is described by Luke, appears to the view of men very unsuitable. First, Christ is revealed but to a few witnesses, and that too in the middle of the darkness of night. Again, though God had, at His command, many honorable and distinguished witnesses, he passed by them, and chose shepherds, persons of humble rank, and of no account among men.

So understand, if you had read this story, if you had heard it in the first century, you would have been shocked by the choice God made. But don't miss the point. It was in fact God's choice. God choose the shepherds intentionally. It was no accident that they were the ones to hear the announcement of the birth of Christ and, as we'll see next week, to come to genuine faith. No, God did it on purpose, and He did it to make a point. And that is that spiritual salvation is never merited or earned. It is always by grace. And those God chooses, according to 1 Corinthians 1, are "not many wise," that is, not many of the academic elites; "not many mighty," that is, not many of the powerful and influential people of our world; "not many noble," those who by birth have rank and nobility. Instead, Paul says God has chosen "the foolish," "the weak," "the base" and "the despised." He really says it this way: the nothings and the nobodies. That's who God chooses. Why? First Corinthians 1 says, "So that no [one] may boast before God." And that's exactly why God chose the shepherds.

We're just like them. Don't miss the lesson in whom God chose as the unlikely audience for the announcement of the birth of His Son. The lesson is, God chooses on the basis of grace and not merit. And we're just like them. We too are utterly unworthy to receive God's grace. We too are unworthy to worship the Son of God. And like them God has shown us grace in spite of what we are, in spite of what we deserve. He has announced to us the good news of the birth of His Son.

Verse 9 goes on to say, "And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened." Now if you'll remember, earlier in Luke's gospel we learned that it was Gabriel who had made the earlier announcements to the characters in this story. He's the one who had announced the birth of John to Zacharias. It was Gabriel who announced the birth of Jesus to Mary. It's possible this was Gabriel as well, although the text doesn't tell us that. It just says it was an "angel of the Lord." When most people in our world think of angels, there are several images that come to mind. They think of some, you know, cute, chubby little cherub, or they think of a woman or an effeminate man. But in the Bible when an angel appears, fear is always the response, and it was here as well. An angel shows up and they are terrified.

But the angel was not the only cause for their fear. Notice verse 9: "And the glory of the Lord shone around them." Along with the appearance of the angel came this blinding display of the glory of God. Now why did God do this? Well, think about it for a moment. Sometimes in Scripture angels would appear in the form of human males, in a way that they weren't even recognized as angels. In fact, Hebrews says that in the days of the first century there were angels who made appearance and were not even recognized. But God didn't want that to happen on the night of the birth of His Son. He wanted the shepherds to know that this was an angel and that what the angel said came directly from God. God wanted no one to miss that this was a divine announcement. And so the angel appeared, but he appeared surrounded by the glory of God.

Now this word "glory" in Greek as well as in Hebrew often refers to the splendor associated with God's visible presence. In the Old Testament, you remember, there was that display of the presence of God that was blazing, blinding light. In Hebrew, the Shekhinah. That glory cloud first appeared, you remember, attending God's personal presence as He accompanied Israel from the Exodus in Egypt and then continued through much of her history. You find that glory cloud landing on the tabernacle, that tent that symbolized the presence of God among His people. And then later when Solomon built the temple itself, you find that glory cloud representing the presence of God, present in all of its power and might. But Ezekiel records that because of centuries of rebellion and centuries of idolatry, that visible display of God's glory permanently left Israel about 600 years before Jesus Christ. And it never appeared again until that winter night. Two years or within two years after the birth of Jesus Christ it would appear again to guide the Magi to the house where Jesus was living in Bethlehem. Fast forward 30 years later. This glory cloud would again appear at Jesus' transfiguration and then at the ascension in Acts 1. And the very next time that human beings will see the glory cloud will be at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

But at that first Christmas night, the blazing cloud of the visible presence of God appeared, and it brilliantly lit up all the night around the shepherds. It's perfectly understandable, then, that verse 9 records, "they were terribly frightened." That's why the angel begins his message in verse 10, "Do not be afraid." So understand that as Luke recounts this story for us, he begins with these poor, despised shepherds as the unlikely audience that God chose to whom He would announce the birth of His Son. And there is in that announcement, there is in that choice, an amazing story of divine grace.

Next Luke records for us the divine commentary: what God said. This is verses 10-14. Now notice, the angel begins his message (as I noted) in verse 10: "Do not be afraid." Literally, "Stop being afraid." It's interesting that's so often God's response to humanity when He visits them with His presence, either personally or through an angel. You see, those of us who know and love Him, we ought to fear God in the sense of being in awe of Him, being afraid to displease Him, afraid to disobey Him. But we are not to live in slavish terror and dread of Him. As we saw in Romans 8:15, "[Christians,] you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! [Papa] Father!'" First John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love [that is, when you understand God's love for you] perfect love casts out [that kind of] fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love." So after an angel or God Himself appears to man, the first words most often spoken are these: "Do not be afraid."

The angel continues in verse 10: "I bring you good news." That translates one Greek verb that Luke uses more often than any other New Testament writer. Let me start with the noun form of that word. It's not used here. The verb form is. But the noun form is most familiar to us, because the noun form of this Greek word is often translated as the gospel. Now our English word gospel comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word godspell, which simply means a good story. It translates, however, the English word gospel translates the Greek word euangelion, which simply means a good message or good news. That's the noun often translated gospel. But the verb, which is here in our text, means to announce good news. In secular Greek it was used to announce really important events. For example, it was used to announce a victory in battle or the birth of a child to the emperor. In Scripture, this noun and this verb came to be used almost exclusively of the good news of spiritual salvation through Jesus Christ, the good news of spiritual rescue through the Promised One.

This good news was promised in the Old Testament Scriptures. Go back to Isaiah, the Book of Isaiah, chapter 61. This is one of several texts in the Old Testament where in the Septuagint—that is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. The Septuagint was translated 100-200 years before our Lord's time, and it was the Bible of the New Testament era. When they translated this passage in Isaiah 61 into Greek, they used this same word euangelion, the idea of announcing the good news. Notice what Isaiah writes in Isaiah 61:1: "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring [here it is] good news to the afflicted; He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners." What is this passage about? Well, it is a prophecy of the coming Messiah. And you remember, in Luke 4 when Jesus spoke in His hometown synagogue in Nazareth, He read this very text. And He closed the scroll of Isaiah, and He said to the hometown crowd, "Today this [passage is] fulfilled in your hearing." This verse describes Me, Jesus said. He says I have the Spirit of God upon Me, Yahweh has anointed Me, I am the Messiah and here's My mission: "To bring good news." And He's not talking about news of a political kind. He's talking about spiritual news. He said it's fulfilled today in your hearing. So in other words, He told the crowd in Nazareth, I have good news for you who are spiritually afflicted: God has sent Me to bind up those of you who are spiritually brokenhearted; He sent me to proclaim liberty to those of you who are captive to your sins, who are slaves to your sin. Liberty to captives. So this good news, this gospel of spiritual rescue, it was promised in the Old Testament.

When you come to the New Testament record, it becomes the focus of the ministry of the key figures. In fact, turn to Luke 3. And You'll notice at the beginning of Luke 3 you have a record of the ministry of John the Baptist. And for a number of verses you have a description of what his ministry was like in great detail. But when Luke wants to summarize the ministry of John, the forerunner of the Messiah, notice how he does so in verse 18. Luke 3:18: "With many other exhortations [John] preached the gospel [the good news] to the people." That was the focus of the ministry of John.

It was also the focus of the ministry of Jesus. Turn back to Matthew. Matthew 4:23: "Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and [here's a summary of His teaching ministry] proclaiming the gospel [the good news] of the kingdom [you can belong to My spiritual kingdom instead of the kingdom of Satan]... healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people." Turn over to Mark's gospel, Mark 1. And again, you see that this is the focus of the ministry of Jesus. Mark 1:14:

Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the [good news] of God [the gospel from God]… saying, "The time is fulfilled... the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news."

So understand, then, that this news, this good news was promised to come through the Messiah in the Old Testament. And when you come to the New Testament, you see it as the focus of John's ministry; you see it as the focus of Jesus' ministry as well. So when Scripture uses the word gospel in either its noun or its verb form, it's referring not to just ordinary news. You know, we use the phrase good news to refer to everything from "I'm picking up lunch today" to the birth of a child. That's not how the New Testament uses it. It uses it as the best news fallen man could ever receive, the greatest announcement ever made, the birth of history's greatest King, the greatest victory ever accomplished on this planet. It is the good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ.

Now the Scripture presents the gospel in three ways. And it's really important for you to understand these. First of all, the gospel, you should think of it as an announcement to be believed. That's our text here in Luke 2. The angel makes an announcement to the shepherds that he expects them to receive, to believe. So the gospel is an announcement to be believed. But secondly, the gospel is an invitation to be accepted. In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul talks about the gospel, and he says he's been sent as an ambassador for Christ, presenting that gospel. And this is how he puts it. He says, and so I "beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." He says, listen, the gospel is not just an announcement to be believed, the gospel is an invitation to be accepted: I beg you, be reconciled to God. It's an announcement to be believed. It is an invitation to be accepted. And thirdly, it is a command to be obeyed. We just read it in Mark 1. Jesus came preaching the gospel, and how did He put it? "Repent." That's a command. That's something we are to do. Something we're to obey. Turn from your sin. Turn from what you know is rebellion against God. Jesus said, you want to be part of My spiritual kingdom? It starts here. You have to be willing to turn 180 degrees from the life you're living and follow Me. Repent and "believe." That too is a command: believe the gospel, believe the good news. And so understand, then, that the gospel is an announcement to be believed, it is an invitation to be accepted, and it is a command to be obeyed.

The gospel is the good news that through His Son—through His Son's perfect life, His life of perfect obedience to God's Law; through His Son's substitutionary death; and through His Son's resurrection, which was God's approval on His work—that through His Son, God has made a way to forgive man's sin, to restore man to His favor, to renovate his nature and to give him eternal life. And all of those blessings come to us by grace alone through faith alone in the work of Christ alone.

No wonder the angel says (notice verse 10), "I bring you good news of great joy." He says my exceptional news, my good news is going to be a source of, literally, the Greek text says, "mega joy." Again, Calvin writes, "These words show us that until men have peace with God and are reconciled to Him through the grace of Christ, all the joy they experience is deceitful and of short duration. The commencement of real joy is to perceive the fatherly love of God toward us in Christ, which alone gives tranquility to our minds." Folks, there is no greater joy than the knowledge that you have been spiritually rescued in Jesus Christ. Even our Lord Himself said in Luke 10:20 to His disciples—you remember, He'd given them power to go out and preach, power even to work miracles, power to cast out demons. And He says to them in Luke 10:20, "Do not rejoice... that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven." There's no greater joy than that. Good news of great joy.

Notice verse 10 goes on to say, "Which will be for all the people." Now the most common meaning of that expression (when it's used as it is here in the singular) is all the people of Israel. And certainly it's true that God through Christ was bringing salvation for His people Israel. Go back to Luke 1. And in verse 69, as Zacharias (John's father) gives this prophecy, as he reflects on the birth of his son and the coming birth of the Messiah, he says this (verse 68):

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

For He has visited us and accomplished

redemption for His people [there's that expression],

And has raised up a horn of salvation for us

In the house of David His servant—

As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—

Salvation from our enemies,

And from the hand of all who hate us."

So there was salvation for the people of Israel, but here the angel has to mean more than just the Jewish people. This message is universal, and that becomes clear later in Luke 2. Look at Luke 2. You remember, after Jesus' birth (40 days after) Mary and Joseph took Jesus the 5 or 6 miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to dedicate Him as the first born to the Lord there at the temple. And while they were there they met a couple of people, but one of them was a man named Simeon. And Simeon had learned that he was going to see the Messiah before his death. Luke 2:28:

He took [Jesus] into his arms, and blessed God, and said,

"Now Lord, You're releasing your bond-servant to depart in peace,

According to Your word;

For my eyes have seen Your salvation,

Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

[And then he makes it clear that this salvation is for everyone.]

A light of revelation to the Gentiles [that is, to the nations],

And the glory of Your people Israel."

In other words, the angel, when he said this "news of great joy which will be for all the people," was giving a universal message. It's Luke's version of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son [His one-of-a-kind, unique Son, in order] that whoever believes in Him [would] not perish, but have eternal life."

So what is this message of good news that creates mega joy and is intended for the entire world? We come to it in verse 11: "For today in the city of David there has been born for you a savior, who is Christ the Lord." That's the heart of the Christian gospel. God's good news to man that through this child God will accomplish total spiritual rescue. This is the one purpose for which Jesus came: to realize, to accomplish, our spiritual rescue. For those of you who were at the concert last night or will come tonight, we'll learn this is why God commanded Joseph to call the Messiah "Jesus." The Greek word for Jesus is a kind of a transliteration of the Hebrew name Joshua or Yeshua. In Hebrew, Yeshua or Joshua means Yahweh (that's God's personal name) is salvation. And so in Matthew 1:21 the angel said to Joseph, "[Mary] will bear a Son; and you [will] call His name [Yeshua] Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins." In John 3:17, the verse right after the most famous verse in the Bible, we read this: God sent His Son into the world so "that the world might be saved through Him." And Jesus Himself said in John 12:47, I came "to save the world," to spiritually rescue people from all over this planet.

Now what exactly does Scripture mean when it speaks of Jesus saving or rescuing us? Well in Hebrew, the word used for saving or delivering is often used of physically rescuing someone from desperate circumstances, from distress, from danger, even from slavery. You'll see an example of it used that way, the Hebrew word, in Psalm 7:1. At times in the Old Testament this word group is also used of spiritual rescue as well. You can see an example of that in Isaiah 45:22. But when you come to the New Testament, the Greek verb save and the noun savior or salvation, those refer primarily to God's rescuing us from the penalty our sins deserve at the judgment. He is a savior.

The crucial point this word makes, by the way, is that God is the One who must rescue us. He is the only One who can. You can't rescue yourself. Whatever circumstances you find yourself in this morning, in the end, you are not a capable savior. And when it comes to spiritual realities, you can't save yourself, and you can't contribute anything toward your salvation. God alone is the only Savior. Isaiah 43:11 says, "I, even I, am [Yahweh], and there is no savior besides Me." Man's spiritual rescue was initiated solely by the sovereign work of the Father. It is accomplished solely by the sovereign work of the Son in His life and death and resurrection. And it is applied solely by the sovereign work of the Spirit to every individual soul. God is the One who has always taken the initiative in man's salvation.

Go back to the very beginning. Go back to the first sin on this planet with the sins of Adam and Eve. What happened? How did they respond to their sin? How did they respond to God in light of their sin? They hid themselves from God. Just like you and I do when we sin. So who took the initiative? The second person of the Trinity, with whom they had previously walked in the garden in the cool of the day, sought them out. And the rest of the Old Testament is a story of God pursing sinners.

When you come to the New Testament, you find it filled with examples of God seeking sinners. Think of the story of Paul in Acts 9. Listen, Paul wasn't looking for Jesus Christ. Think of Zaccheus in Luke 19. Luke 19:10, Jesus says this: "The Son of Man [referring to Himself] has come to seek and to save that which was lost." To seek means to pursue. He came to pursue and to rescue.

God still pursues sinners today. In fact, my prayer is that He is pursuing sinners right here, right now. How does He do that? How does God pursue people today? He does so through the announcement of the message of the good news of the birth, perfect life, sacrificial death and resurrection of His Son. In fact, turn to 2 Corinthians 5. I mentioned this passage a few minutes ago. Look at 2 Corinthians 5:18. Paul says,

Now all these things [all these spiritual gifts of grace] are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has [now] committed to us [Paul says] the word [or the message] of reconciliation.

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, [it's] as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Listen, if you're here this morning and you're not a follower of Jesus Christ, this is a reminder that the gospel is an invitation for you to accept. God is pleading with you through the Word of God here: we beg you, be reconciled to God. Why wouldn't you?

So what is that message of reconciliation? What is that message that accomplishes our reconciliation with God? It's found in verse 21: "He [that is, God] made Him [that is, Christ] who knew no sin [there's no sin in Him, but God made Christ who knew no sin] to be sin on our behalf." In other words, on the cross God treated Jesus as if He were a sinner. In fact, let me put it more personally. On the cross God treated Jesus as if He had lived the life, committed every sin of every person who would ever believe in Him. "[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." Not only did God credit the sins of everyone who would ever believe to Christ and for those six dark hours treated Jesus as if He had lived our lives, but then in a miracle of grace and a great exchange, He takes the perfect life of Jesus Christ, 33 years of absolute perfection in thought and word and action, and He credits that to our account. And from this day forward He treats us as if we had lived that life. That's the gospel. And when you hear that message, in that message God is seeking sinners to rescue them. If you'll respond to it today, you can be rescued.

So at Jesus' birth, Luke tells us, the angel made clear to the shepherds the purpose of Jesus' life. Don't miss this. Jesus didn't come to be a teacher of morality. He didn't come merely to be an example of the kind of life you should live. He didn't come here as a social reformer correcting all of the social ills of the first century. He wasn't a political reformer, who through either violence or nonviolence came to overthrow the political establishment. Jesus came to be the Savior of the world. He came to seek and to save individuals who were spiritually lost, those who had no relationship with their creator. He came to save His people from their sins.

Christian, as you celebrate Christmas in the week and a half before us, I want you to remember, in the clutter of all the tradition—and they're wonderful. I love traditions. We have plenty of them in our household. But don't forget the reason He came. He came from God on a divine rescue mission, a mission to rescue you from the verdict you would have received at the judgment (guilty!), and to rescue you from the sentence that that verdict would have brought for all eternity. Instead, He took that verdict on Himself. And for those hours on the cross He received what you deserved, so that now you receive what He deserves. That's what you celebrate at Christmastime.

And if you're here this morning and you've not believed in Jesus Christ, understand this. God is pleading with you today through exactly the same message the shepherds heard that night. Here's the heart of Christmas: "There has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." That is an announcement to believed. That is an invitation to be accepted. And that is a command to be obeyed. Let's pray together.

Our Father, we thank You for the simplicity of Your Word, and yet its incredible beauty, its magnificence. Lord, we are pointed to worship through these simple words that remind us of the magnitude of Your grace in Jesus Christ. Lord, may those of us who are believers, may You take the truths that we're learning from the announcement of the birth of Your son, and may they permeate our worship in this season. Lord, may our hearts be filled with these great truths, and may our mouths be filled with praise. May our hearts overflow with gratitude for all that You have accomplished. For there has been born for us a Savior who is Messiah the Lord.

And Father, I pray for those who are here this morning who are not followers of Jesus Christ. Perhaps they came in knowing that, or perhaps they came here thinking that they are, but you've shown them that the reality isn't there. Lord, I pray that You would open their hearts to hear and to respond to the gospel. May they see and hear the announcement and believe it. May they hear the invitation and accept it. May they hear the commands to repent and believe and obey it even today. We pray in Jesus name, amen.