Luke 2.8-11 - Good news of great joy

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Good News of Great Joy” – Luke 2:8-11

Preached by Pastor Phil Layton on Christmas Eve 2006 at Gold Country Baptist Church


God’s grace often appears in an unexpected place, and this story is a prime example. 

The setting: Verse 8 tells us the shepherds were

“In the same region” – see 2:4

Bethlehem is located in the hill country of Judah in southern Palestine, about five miles south of Jerusalem. [Below is adapted from The Open Bible notes]

-              The region around Bethlehem today is known for its fertile hills and valleys. Its busy marketplaces and religious shrines continue to attract tourists.

-              Bethlehem’s main attraction is the Church of the Nativity, which is supposedly built over the birthplace of the Savior … The present building, erected over the cave area, which served as a stable for the crowded inn, was built by the Roman emperor Justinian I in the sixth century a.d.

-              The city and the church are especially popular as destinations for pilgrims during Christmas celebrations.

-              Bethlehem is also closely associated with King David, Israel’s favorite king. Known as the City of David, Bethlehem is his ancestral home and the site where Samuel anointed David as Saul’s successor.

-              The prophet Micah foresaw the coming of a Ruler in the line of David who would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2).

-              The city was the original home of Naomi, and it served as the setting for much of the Book of Ruth.

-              Other popular attractions at Bethlehem for Holy Land tourists are the fields of Boaz, where Ruth gleaned grain after the fields had been harvested, and Shepherds’ Field, where the angels [may have] announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:8–18).

-              The name “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread,” probably commemorating the reputation of the entire region as a grain-producing center in Old Testament times. How appropriate that Jesus Christ, who is the Bread of Life, was born in a town with such a name.

What do I mean by “unexpected”?

·        That the Messiah would come was not unexpected, there was a growing expectation and hope among faithful Jews that He would come in that day. 

·        The fact that He would be born in Bethlehem would also be expected by any familiar with the prophecy in Micah (John 7:42 shows that even in the crowds who listed to Jesus speak, there was recognition that Messiah would come from the town of David, Bethlehem, so this was not unexpected).  

·        There was even an expectation among some Jews that redemption would come in the night, and many believed the Messiah would come at night, like the Passover in Egypt (as cited by John Gill in his Exposition of Holy Scripture, Lk 2.8).

·        But what was unexpected, and surprising in the story, was that a small group of nameless shepherds in a little field would be the first to hear the news that Messiah was born. 

·        After several hundred years without any scriptural revelation or supernatural visits from angels, Luke begins with visits from Gabriel and in chapter 2, these simple and lowly shepherds are about to see perhaps the greatest number of angels that any human being ever saw from earth

Which begs the question, why the shepherds?


-         Senators or government officials in Rome

-         Caesar Augustus, or the local King Herod, or any other Emperor or king of the world

-         Philosophers in Greece, or great men of the world

-         Religious elite, Rabbis, priests, even High Priest

-         Pharisees, lawyers, elders, Sanhedrin, scribes, scholars of prophecy and the Word

Many have considered and written on this question through the ages, and I want to share with you just 3 of these reasons why God may chosen to send His great heavenly army and choir to proclaim this message first to an anonymous group of simple shepherds. 

One writer sums it up this way:

1. God Usually Does the Unexpected. [Often the opposite way man does things].  He seldom works as we expect, and this actually attests to the authenticity of the story. If you had been a Jewish writer wanting to make up a story about the entrance of the Messiah--the Savior of the World--into human history after two thousand years of prophecy, would you have invented a tale in which He was born in a stable and laid in a feed bin?

Would you have made the announcement to a bunch of shepherds? One Jewish scholar wrote: "[The circumstances Luke records] afford the strongest indirect evidence of the truth of this narrative. For if it were the outcome of Jewish imagination, where is the basis for it in contemporary expectation? Would Jewish legend have ever presented its Messiah as born in a stable, to which chance circumstances had consigned his mother. The whole current of Jewish opinion would run in the contrary direction."

This story is a reminder that God’s ways are not man’s ways.  God usually does His extraordinary work through ordinary people, who faithfully are doing their duties where God has placed them.

J.C. Ryle points out that “Moses was keeping sheep, Gideon was threshing wheat, Elisha was ploughing, when they were each honored by direct calls and revelations from God. Let us resist the suggestion of Satan, that religion is not for the working man. The weak of the world are often called before the mighty. The last are often first, and the first last.” (Expository Thoughts, Lk 2)

Others have pointed out that:

2. Christ Came for the Lowly and Poor

We have old Jewish writings that indicate shepherds were viewed as outcasts, they were with animals all the time and were ceremonially unclean for the temple and religious rituals, they were not considered trustworthy, they were low on the totem pole.

Someone has said “God chooses for his instruments the [low and] humble rather than the high. Our human notions would have pointed to the most illustrious in the land for such a communication as this. But God chose the lowly shepherd, the man of no account in the estimate of the world. So did he act in the beginning of the gospel … and so has he acted ever since, choosing often for the agents of his power and grace those whom man would have passed by as unworthy of his choice. (Pulpit Commentary, 51)

READ LUKE 1:48, 51-53

The gospels say things like

"The poor have the gospel preached unto them."

"The common people heard him gladly."

"Have any of the rulers believed on him?"

"Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes."

There are a few among the rich or noble or influential or wise who have humbled themselves to be exalted (ex: wise men in Matthew 1)

But 1 Cor. 1:26 says: "there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God." (1 Corinthians 1:26-29, NASB95)

Martin Luther wrote:

“If Christ had come with trumpets sounding; If he had a cradle of gold, His birth would have been a stately thing. But it wouldn't comfort me. So, He had to lay in a poor girl's lap and be scarcely noticed by the world. In that lap I can come to see Him; In this way He now reveals Himself to the distressed. Yes, He would've had greater fame, if He'd have come in great power, splendor, wisdom and high class. Yet, He will come some day, in another way, when He comes to oppose the great nobles. But now He comes to the poor, who need a Savior. Then He will come as judge to oppose those who oppress the poor now.” (Selected Quotations of Martin Luther)

Note the prophecy of the Messiah in Isaiah 61, which Jesus read during His first sermon in Galilee:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me

To proclaim good news to the poor; to set free the downtrodden

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor …

It is fitting that the Messiah’s birth be proclaimed to poor and downtrodden shepherds

3. The Shepherd and Sheep are some of God’s Favorite Images of Grace

They were in the same fields from which David had been graciously called to tend God's Israel, about 1,000 years earlier.

"David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s flock at Bethlehem." (1 Samuel 17:15, NASB95)

In fact, when God gives the Covenant to David about one of His descendants who would rule, He reminds David in 2 Samuel 7:8 that he was called from a shepherding background. 

In Psalm 23, the LORD is our Shepherd.  The prophets spoke often of how the Shepherd would graciously guide God’s people.  In John 10, Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd.

In Luke 2, it is possible, if not likely that these sheep were being raised to be sacrificed in the temple.

And it is to these men that God announced the Savior, the Messiah who Isaiah promised would be not only a Shepherd and leader, but would Himself be like a sheep led to the slaughter.  The Scriptures say Christ would later fulfill the Passover lamb and sacrificial system, and it is those shepherds raising lambs who could best appreciate what it meant when Jesus was called “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

And this leads us to the second point in our outline …



The shepherds had the proper response at the end of verse 9 – fear of God.

In the Greek it’s literally “they feared a great fear” - a Semitic idiom which intensifies the main idea, in this case their fear (NET Bible)

“sore afraid” in old KJV, Greek word mega, mega-fear

The Angel gives the standard angel introduction in verse 10 “Do not be afraid”

"Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John." (Luke 1:12-13, NASB95)

"But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God." (Luke 1:29-30, NASB95)

The force of the grammar is actually “stop being afraid” (not “never be afraid”)

Fear is the necessary starting point until the good news is received.  Fear of the Lord is the beginning, not a later byproduct.  Faith and fear go together, and faith itself is never to be divorced from this to a purely intellectual thing. 


Note: The shepherd’s response is the proper starting point for the good news – it starts with fear because of our sinful unworthiness in light of the glory of God. 

The gospel is only good news to those who first know the bad news.  And we have to realize that the bad news is not just about the problems in our society, this bad news is about us – we are the bad news.

READ ROMANS 3:10-18, 23

Notice the indicting statement “there is no fear of God before their eyes”

ROMANS 6:23, 10:9-10

If you have never done this, today is the day. 


Read Luke 2:10-11 again.

The hymn says it beautifully:

While shepherds watch’ed their flocks by night, all seated on the ground, the angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around …

“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind; “glad tidings of great joy I bring to you and all mankind.”

“To you in David’s town this day is born, of David’s line, the Savior who is Christ the Lord, and this shall be the sign”

The very mention of the word Savior reminds us that we can’t save ourselves, and that we need a Savior.  Even Mary, who the Roman and Eastern churches wrongly exalt to great position as without sin, she recognized her need for a Savior.  SEE 1:46-48

“Great” joy is mega again in the Greek, just like their fear was mega-fear in verse 9.  Their mega fear was to be replaced with mega joy, maximum joy!

This joy is, according to verse 11 is because the Savior has been born.  The “you” in that verse points to the shepherds, and the reference to people primarily and initially refers to God’s people. But Luke’s gospel was not only for Israel, it was written for the Gentiles, the nations, and there is hint here of what would be declared later, that this message is for all. 

What must we know to be saved, and experience this mega joy eternally?

You first need to believe who Jesus is, and what He came to do, you need the right Jesus.  Jesus is not Santa Claus, He’s not just a Mr. Fix It who exists for you as a super therapist, He didn’t come to boost our self-esteem, or meet all our psychological needs or wishes, He didn’t come to make us healthy and wealthy.  He came to save those who recognize their utter sinfulness and hopelessness and who in humble repentant faith are trusting 100% in Jesus Christ ALONE as their Lord and Savior.  It is only by grace, not grace plus what we do, grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, plus nothing, minus nothing.  The only works that please God are the works of Christ in His life, death, and resurrection.

There are 3 words in verse 10 that are a good starting point for the true Jesus:

Savior – this word is usually used of God, and therefore emphasizes that Jesus is not only the only Savior and only way to heaven, but Jesus is fully God

Christ – this is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah and emphasizes His role as anointed ruler and fulfillment of the O.T. prophecies

Lord – this emphasizes His sovereignty, deity, and that He must be master over our lives.

An intellectual belief is not enough, and we should be careful about using phrases not in the Bible like “accept Jesus into your heart” or “say ‘yes’ to Jesus” – the good news is more than that. 

I think it’s better to use the language Jesus Himself used to speak about His purpose and ministry.


TURN TO LUKE 5:27-32

A lot of people want to know when Jesus was born, but we don’t know the exact date or year.  The more important question is not when, but why did Jesus come?  This is the question that does not get enough emphasis during Christmas.

Jesus came to earth to call sinners to repent.  Not primarily just to live among us and be a good example and so that we would have sentimental feelings of Christmas spirit, but He came for the purpose of redemption, to seek and save the lost (who recognize their lost condition) and give His life a ransom for many who would repent and believe.  And you have to recognize you’re sinners in need of repentance, that you can’t be like the religious people in verse 30.  May our gracious and sovereign God be so kind as to draw you in this manner today.

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