What Angels CelebrateErwin W. Lutzer | December 25, 1994
Selected highlights from this sermon
At the incarnation of Christ, angels are found with the shepherds, giving glory to God and proclaiming peace among the favored.
And today, they continue to celebrate the work of the Savior. God is still seeking lost sheep, and when one sinner is brought back to the fold, the unseen angels rejoice in the heavens.
The Bible does say, “Great is the mystery of godliness.” God was manifest in the flesh, and I believe that God is honored when we contemplate the mystery, when we wonder how it can be that God can stoop so low and become a man to redeem us. We’ve been talking about angels.
This is the third in a series about angels, particularly because they are making a comeback. Again and again, I am impressed that whether on the news or in bookstores, there are so many stories about angels. And sometimes it may be difficult for us to know whether they are authentic stories. And if they are authentic, what kind of angels are we talking about? Good ones or bad ones, because if we begin to initiate trying to probe into the spirit world, we may not be able to tell the difference.
Zechariah received an angel, as we noticed in the first message, and he was not expecting it. If God wants to send an angel, let Him take the initiative and do it. Mary was not expecting an angel, and neither were the shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
What I’d like you to do to help us understand, this morning, is to turn to Luke 2 where we have the most familiar passage probably in the entire Bible. I don’t know how it is at your house, but we always open gifts on Christmas Eve. We do not wait until Christmas Day. You should have already picked up on that by the tie that I am wearing this morning, and known that we already opened up our gifts last night. But whenever we do that, always beforehand we read Luke 2 because that’s what was done in my home that I grew up in. Luke 2 was always read in the German Bible, so we now read it in English as a family, and then we pray together, and then we open our gifts.
Luke – chapter 2: It’s a very beautiful story and I want us to think about the angels bringing the good news of Jesus Christ almost as if this were a Christmas concert. Now we don’t know whether or not angels actually sang or whether they chanted this message, but possibly they sang. And I want us first of all to look at the audience to whom they were singing. We pick up the story in Luke 2:8: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” The audience was the shepherds.
Now why did God choose shepherds to whom this good news should be first revealed? He had so many different options. Why the shepherds? Well, there may be several reasons why it is that the shepherds were the recipients of this angelic message. First of all, it was because they were outcasts. They were considered to be on the lower rung of society. Shepherds were an abomination unto the Egyptians, it says in the book of Genesis, but also they were considered even in Israel to be kind of second-class because presumably almost anyone could take care of sheep, and it was a job that a lot of people didn’t want. It meant that you were away from home for a long time, and it was very smelly. As a matter of fact, some of those men, bless them, apparently lived in the fields for a couple of weeks without taking a bath. And then you have also the smell of sheep and sometimes of goats and you can have quite a combination there. When a shepherd was anywhere near you, you knew it even if you were blind, assuming that all of the other faculties of your body were working perfectly. What was it said in ancient times? “Three hundred yards downwind, fifty yards upwind, and you can tell a shepherd.”
Notice what Jesus was doing. God was bypassing all of the universities, so to speak, and the rabbinical schools. He was bypassing, I should say, the philosophers of Athens, and He was saying, “I am going to go to people who are generally considered low class, and I will reveal the good news to them.” It was revealed to the shepherds because they were outcasts.
There may be another reason why it is that the angels went to the shepherds first. It is because they were shepherds, and even though their profession may have been looked down upon, God knew that His beloved Son would be a shepherd. Jesus was a king, Jesus was a teacher, but He was a shepherd. That’s the way in which He functioned. He said, “I am the good shepherd and I know my sheep, and I am known of mine, and the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And elsewhere He says that there are bad shepherds, hirelings, who, when they see the wolf come, they begin to run and they mislead the sheep. Jesus said, “I’m not one of those shepherds. I am the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd not only gives His life but He gives you life and He does it more abundantly.”
And so it almost seems to me as if God said to the angels, “Angels, find some shepherds because my Son is going to be one.” And so the angels went and found some shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
There may be another reason why it is that the audience was the shepherds that day. First, of all it was because they were outcasts. Secondly, it was because they were shepherds. Thirdly, because of the flocks! It is generally believed that the flocks that they were taking care of were flocks that were used in sacrifices. And so many sacrifices were needed almost every day. In fact, everyday a lamb was killed on the altar. On special days, more than one lamb was killed. Sometimes many animals were slain, and people often purchased lambs from priests to make sure that they had one that qualified so that they would have something to offer. And so these flocks that they were looking after were sacrificial or temple sheep. And it may well be that the angels came to the shepherds because they wanted to remind themselves and the shepherds that in 30 years’ time, this kind of sheep will not be needed, because Jesus Christ is going to come as the Lamb of God and give Himself as a sacrifice, and He will be the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. And so that whole sacrificial system will no longer be necessary. And so despite all the scribes and the Pharisees that existed in Jerusalem and all the possibilities in the larger cities of the world, God says, “Tell some shepherds.”
And I’m reminded that God said that because it says in 1 Corinthians 1:26 that not many wise are chosen – a few wise but not many. Not many noble are chosen. A few noble are chosen but not many. Not many who are wealthy are chosen, but a few. But God has chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the things that are wise that no flesh would glory in His presence. God says, “I want to reveal myself to the most lowly – to shepherds,” so that everyone will know that He is included in the Good News.
There is a story of a man who was drunk. He didn’t know where he was but he wandered around and soon he came across something warm, and decided that that would be a good place to spend the night, and so he slept there. And when he awoke he heard Christmas bells, and discovered that He had spent the night sleeping next to a cow. It was rather humiliating, but then he was reminded that Christ Himself was born in a manger. And that gave him hope, and the reminder of Christmas gave him the hope that he needed to come to a generous forgiving God.
And if you are here today, thinking that you have fallen too far or that you are somehow on the outskirts of God’s blessing, I want you to know that you are a special candidate for it because God loves to take the lowly. He likes to do unlikely things that no flesh will glory in His presence. Well, that is the congregation to whom the angels sang.
Let’s look at the angels themselves. It says in verse 9, “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.” We don’t know who that angel is. Possibly it was Gabriel who broke the good news to Mary as recorded in the previous chapter, but the Bible doesn’t tell us. But here is an angel of the Lord who suddenly stands strong, brilliant and holy, and the glory of the Lord flashes around these shepherds, and they are terribly frightened, the Bible says.
Once again, it is so interesting today that appearances of angels seem to be very unfrightening to people. They just kind of accept it, but these revelations were so startling that they were terribly frightened even in those days, and we generally think that they were very primitive believing in superstitious things. That may not be true, but they believed easily in superstitious things, and we know that this particular account, of course, is not superstition. But nevertheless, they were terribly frightened, and an angel appears, glorious, strong and powerful! And then along with the angel, there is an entire choir that chimes in. In verse 10 it says, “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.’” That’s the good message.
And then you’ll notice there appears with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host. They all begin to chime in and praise God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
Notice this angelic choir participating in this event on earth. Will you remember that there is nothing of greater interest to heaven than the sorrows and joys that people experience here? And we may think that something is happening on earth that is inconsequential, but all of heaven is taking note. You’ve heard me say that Dr. Louis Sperry Chafer used to say that a secret sin on earth is an open scandal in heaven. That which we do secretly is known to the angels. It is known to demons. It is known to God. It is a big deal. And even though this event seemed to be so silent and so unannounced, the angels know about it, because they know that the focal point of all of God’s prophecies have pointed towards it. And the angels, as we mentioned last time, saw the great distance from which God had come. They saw the humility of God, and they were amazed – amazed at God’s humility and at man’s pride.
And so we find that the angels now are rejoicing together in the gift of Jesus Christ to fallen sinners. You know, this is a very interesting account because it reminds us of the fact that angels can speak. Sometimes we wonder how it is. We think that angels belong to some kind of a spiritual realm somewhere and they could never have contact with human beings, or they could never communicate with human beings. Here they communicate in a language that the shepherds can understand. They can take the form of humans and speak like humans. Satan did that too with Jesus Christ, actually quoting verses of Scripture, of all things. And I suppose that the angels never have to learn German or French or English. They know all of these intuitively, and they can sing and speak in any language that is known upon the face of the earth. How wonderful and gifted they are.
And so the angels who saw Jesus Christ’s creation of the world, saw Jehovah take the worlds and throw them into existence, and the angels that were there during the fall of man will now see the agony and the poverty of Christ, and they are not ashamed to tell shepherds, and to associate with shepherds the good news. And they sing this wondrous song.
Well, very briefly, we have looked at the audience, which is the shepherds. We’ve looked at the singers who are the angels. What about the song that they are singing? Glory to God in the Highest! That, of course, is the focal point of everything, is it not? In fact, the Bible teaches us that God works all things after the council of His own will, and you and I exist, not that we might be happy, and not that life might even treat us well (although we would all like to have life treat us well). It is that we exist for the glory of God! We exist that we might contribute to the wonder of who He is. And if you are wondering what the purpose of life is, that’s what it is.
Isn’t it tragic indeed for some people to think that the purpose of life is to go through to make as much money as you possibly can so that you can have a wonderful retirement, and then suddenly you discover that it is cut short by disease, by accident, by some kind of death, and it is all futile? The answer is we exist to the glory of God. And every drop of water testifies to the glory of God. Every flower magnifies God, but no matter how much nature might sing, it must become silent. When God becomes flesh it must no longer sing, for now there is a song that cannot be comprehended. It is so great and so wonderful that there is no song like the song of the incarnation. Great is the mystery of godliness. God was manifest in the flesh.
And then notice it says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” That phrase incidentally is capable of a number of different interpretations. The King James you remember says, “Good will towards men.” My translation, which I just read says “Peace among men with whom He is pleased.” The NIV translates it, “Peace to men on whom His favor rests.” I like that translation. Peace upon those on whose God’s favor rests.
You see, it wasn’t just simply peace on earth, good will towards men or have some good luck and I wish you the best. Do you believe that not everybody is blessed because of the coming of Christ? Not everybody benefits because of the coming of Christ. And certainly there has been no peace on earth since Jesus Christ has come. In fact, Simeon said, regarding Jesus, that this child is set for the rise and the fall of many in Israel. Jesus Christ, on the part of some, will exalt them. On the part of others He will be their judge and humiliate them. It depends upon those on whom His favor rests. Those who respond to the Son are given eternal life, but those who do not respond to the Son are not given eternal life, but the wrath of God abides on them.
Well, we pick up the rest of the story in verse 15. It says, “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. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
There are several things that we could contemplate. One is that I’ve often thought about the question of whether or not anybody believed the shepherds when then left Bethlehem. The Bible says that they told everyone and others wondered at what was told them. I wonder whether anybody believed. But you know, to the shepherds it didn’t make any difference because they had seen the angels and they had seen exactly what the angels predicted. They had seen the baby in the manger, and that’s all that mattered. It didn’t faze them, though others may not have believed. They were convinced they had seen the Messiah, the Christ.
Another question I think that we would like to find out some day, maybe in heaven because the Bible is silent on it. I’ve often wondered whether these shepherds maybe met Jesus later on. Thirty years later when Jesus would begin his public ministry it’s possible that some of these shepherds were still alive, and they may have thought to themselves, “This is the one whose birth we had the privilege of heralding to all those who were in our path. We lived at the time that we saw the Messiah, the King of hosts, God in the flesh, and now He has been revealed. It may well be that they had seen Him, or saw Him, at a later date.
Well, after the music dies away in the hills of Bethlehem, after the angels go on back into heaven (because as soon as their duty is done, they disappear), we read that the shepherds want to, in effect, reenact the glory and the wonder that they had seen in verse 20. They went back, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen just as it had been told them. And that’s your responsibility and mine today. It is to make sure that we share with everyone else the glory and the wonder of Christ, not Jesus tacked on to other religions, not Jesus who is simply a part of some other kind of a religious system, but a Christ who stands alone because the gap that stands between Jesus Christ and all other religious options is infinite and unbridgeable.
When I arrived in my office today, there was a letter from someone. I don’t know; it was unsigned but excoriating the Christian Church for celebrating Christmas. It says that Christmas Day is pagan and it should not be celebrated. Well, one of the things that we can do to make Christmas day special is to recognize that this is the season and this is the day that provides for us a bridge to the world to tell them the true meaning of who Christ is.
Well, let’s ask the question now: What is it that angels celebrate? Angels celebrate Jesus Christ. Angels celebrate the glory of God. They are focused in on salvation as we have learned. The Bible says regarding salvation that these are things that they desire to look into. But there’s something else that angels celebrate.
One day Jesus was being criticized for spending too much time with tax gatherers and sinners. Tax gatherers were hated in those days. We think that the IRS may not always be as kind as it should be, but that’s nothing in comparison to the kind of gouging that tax gatherers did. And as for sinners, this may refer to prostitutes, those who were immoral, whatever the phrase may mean, and Jesus was being criticized by religious people for spending too much time like this. In order to defend Himself, Jesus told three stories. I’ll remind you only of the first two. He said, “Let’s suppose that you have 100 sheep and one of them is lost, and then you go and you find that sheep. When you bring it back aren’t you going to rejoice? In fact, will it not even give you more joy than the 99 who didn’t need to be found?”
If you’ve ever lost a child in a mall you know how thrilling it is to find that child, and at that moment that child means more to you than the other children that don’t need to be found. And Jesus is saying, “If you find somebody who is really lost, and I am with lost people, why are you criticizing me? I’m looking for lost sheep.”
And then Jesus told another story. In ancient times people didn’t go to banks. Sometimes their entire wealth was wrapped up in a little coin. And Jesus said, “If you lose it, and then you sweep your house and you find the coin, aren’t you going to throw a party and invite others to rejoice along with you and to say, “I can rejoice because the coin has been found?”
And then Jesus added this statement. He said, “In the very same way, there is joy in the presence of the angels for every sinner that repents.” That’s what angels rejoice over. Remember that they are independent beings with their mind, emotion and will. They exist among us, and though they are in heaven, they are among us. They are observing our worship here this morning, and they rejoice when they see one person who repents. They say, “Somebody repented. Somebody believed the Gospel. Someone was born again,” and there is a cosmic celebration throughout all of heaven because somebody has been saved on earth. That is the kind of detailed information that they have regarding what goes on in our worship services and in our homes and in our offices. Always observing! Sometimes sad! Sometimes rejoicing, but always interacting with what is happening here on earth!
If you know Christ as Savior, you could make the angels rejoice by your yieldedness and dedication, by your willingness to face the future in His hands. And if you don’t know Him, if you’ve never savingly believed on Christ, but you say, “Well, I believe in Him. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t.” But you believe in Him intellectually but have never received Him as your own personal Savior, today if you do that there will be angels in heaven that will rejoice because they rejoice in Jesus Christ. He is an endless supply of wonder and glory to them. And they rejoice in the work that He did for us. Today I urge you to believe.
Let us pray.
Our Father, we want to thank You today for this story, and we thank You for it not only because it is true but because it is simple and yet profound. It is familiar to us and yet always excites us. We thank You that the angels came to the shepherds at Bethlehem. And thank You for those shepherds who were willing to find out whether what they said was true. And today we admire these outcasts and we would like to be like them. We would like to have their humility, their inquisitiveness, and their devotion – their yieldedness.
We thank You for the angels that you created. Thank You that You sent them on this special mission of communication. Thank You that angels observe us today. We pray, Lord, that in this church angels may rejoice for sinners who are saved. And for those who may not be saved, cause them to believe today.
And before I close this prayer, if you don’t know Christ as your Savior and He is not personal to you, why don’t you tell Him right now. Say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I invite You to be my Savior. I receive You and the gift that You have brought. I receive Your forgiveness. I receive You as my lamb, dying for me. By faith I believe. Amen.