What the Angels Said (Luke 2:1–20)

Illustration of the angels appearing to the shepherds, which is the key passage for our sermon.

So, have you ever seen angels? Some have. Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Let me tell you my angel story and then we’ll look together at a well-known biblical angel story.

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Here it is, the heart of the Christmas story. And right there in the middle of it are the angels giving a supernatural flavour to a very human and humble account of the birth of a child to a struggling young married couple in a stable.  

Scripture tells us that angels, though unseen, are very much around us and are there to help us in our lives. Hebrews 1:14 says they are sent to serve those who will inherit salvation. 

So, have you ever seen angels? Some have. Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Let me tell you my angel story.

My Angel Story

It was the spring of 1978 and Kathy was pregnant and near delivery of our third child. Since I was the only doctor at our mission hospital in Zambia, I did not want to deliver my own wife, so we decided to drive out to the city. Unfortunately, it was the rainy season and we faced 400 miles of muddy roads. 

When we got to a particularly desolate stretch, the car slid off the road and we sank deep in mud and couldn’t get out. Then the gravity of the situation hit me. So few cars were on that road, and even if one came how could they help us? With a pregnant wife and two little toddlers, we were quite helpless. All we could do was pray. 

But no sooner had we started to pray, then we saw two vehicles coming toward us. They were Land Rovers—brand new Land Rovers—police Land Rovers.  I had never seen a new police landrover in the bush. Usually they were all older vehicles and in bad repair.

The vehicles pulled up beside us and out popped four Zambian police officers. Again, I was amazed because they were in dress uniforms, all clean and new, like they were ready for the parade ground. 

“Sir, how can we help you?”, the lead officer said.  

“As you can see, I’m stuck. Please help us get back on the road because I have my wife about to deliver our child.” I replied. 

“Of course”, he said. Then these four men got down into the mud at the back of the car and together they lifted as I held the wheel. And sure enough, out we came. The dress uniforms of the men were covered in mud and their shoes oozing with it, but they were happy nonetheless at their hard won victory. We thanked them warmly. “Don’t leave the middle of the road as you go” was their parting words as they drove off.

Then Kathy and I looked at one another and marvelled at the timing of our rescue and the totally out of the ordinary look of our rescuers. We quickly arrived at the conclusion in unison. We have just seen angels!

Another Angel Story

Today we want to highlight the message of the angels to the shepherds. And we will consider their message in three parts: The salutation, the sign, and, finally, the song.

The Salutation

So, let’s pick up the story of Luke 2 in verse 8 where we find shepherds out in the fields near Bethlehem working the night shift in the care of their flocks, those same fields where a thousand years before David, the shepherd King, watched over his flock. 

It was a  quiet night on the job until the sky around then is lit up in dazzling glory and an angel appears over their heads. Who was the angel? It was most likely Gabriel, the archangel, who appeared to Mary before she conceived. 

Understandably, these men are frightened, so the angel first tells them to calm down, no need to be afraid. It’s not bad news, but good news, joyful news that will bless all people. He may have meant the people of Israel, but I think he was thinking of the whole world. Then he proceeds to make a wonderful announcement.

“Today in the town of David (that means Bethlehem) a Saviour has been born to you;  he is Christ the Lord.”

The birth of any baby is a wonderful thing—it is truly a celebration of life.   But this was not just any baby as his name testifies. This is the Lord Jesus Christ. Each part of his name brings fresh insight into the greatness of this baby.      

Name #1: Saviour

Consider the name Saviour. This name is what he was declared to be right from his birth. In fact, it was God himself through the angel, Gabriel, who said to Joseph,

“You are to give him the name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:20–21

You see, the name Jesus is an abbreviated form of the Old Testament name of Joshua which means, God our Saviour. That is what Jesus means: God our Saviour.  

Name #2: Christ

Consider the second name: Christ. Christ means messiah, anointed one, chosen one. If he was declared to be Jesus the Saviour at his birth, he was declared to be Messiah, the chosen one, the anointed one, at his baptism.   

After John the Baptist baptized him in the Jordan River, the Spirit descended on him like a dove, thus anointing him as God’s chosen one. After the baptism, it says of John, “I have seen and testify that this is God’s chosen One” (John 1:34).

Name #3: Lord

Now, consider the last name: Lord. Lord means the one who has all the power and authority, the one to whom we are to submit. If he was declared Jesus Saviour at his birth, and Christ, the chosen one, at his baptism, then it was Peter, on the day of Pentecost following his resurrection, who declared him as Lord.  

Listen to Peter’s words in Acts 2:36: “Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

This was the announcement of the angel. This is his name: A saviour, who is Christ the Lord! Do you know him? Is he your Saviour, your chosen one, your Lord?

The Sign

The angel, having announced to the shepherds the news of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, then proceeds to tell them how they might find him. So he gives them a sign: “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

This sign, this bit of information, was so important that it is repeated three times in the text, in verses 7, 12, and 16.

“What kind of a sign was this?”, the shepherds might ask. Couldn’t you be more specific? You see, Bethlehem was not a tiny place. It was a community of several hundreds of people at least. Some have estimated a few thousand.  And many of the people who lived there were sheep farmers, so there were many, many places where this baby could be. 

Homes in that time often had two levels and the lower level where the kitchen and general work room was also served as a place for the young animals of the herd to find shelter on a cold night, so a manger would commonly be there. 

In that hilly, rocky area there were homes built over natural caves and so the lower room of the house was a cave. As an aside, the early church believed that Jesus was born in a cave. Now this baby could be in any one of such dwellings. Did the shepherds have to hunt around for the baby? Maybe.

But there is another possible answer. Ancient records show these shepherds in the area around Bethlehem were not your ordinary shepherds taking care of ordinary sheep. They were charged by priests at the temple in Jerusalem, which was only 8km away, with raising sheep for sacrifice in the temple.

Every day the burnt offering required two lambs, one for the morning, and one for the afternoon offering. They had to be perfect sheep, without spot or blemish. And so these sheep were given extra care, especially when they were bearing young. The ewes were delivered at  a central place, a shepherd’s  watch tower on the northeast edge of Bethlehem called  Eder Migdol.  It had a raised area where the shepherds could look out over the valley to see their sheep, and a lower, cave-like area for the birthing floor.  

A verse in Micah refers to this place. 

As for you, watchtower of the flock, stronghold of Daughter Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you. Kingship will come to daughter Jerusalem. 

Micah 4:8

This verse is especially meaningful since in Micah 5:2 we have the prophecy of the Saviour being born in Bethlehem.

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times.   

Micah 5:2

These shepherds were trained to identify the lambs without spot as they were born, to wrap them in cloths for protection and to put them safely off the birthing floor in the stone feeding trough or manger.  

So, if true, the sign was a very clear and specific one for the shepherds who saw the angel. Only one place fits the bill, Eder Migdol. Notice, the shepherds said, “Let us go and see” not “Let us go and search for.” Therefore, the sign has deeper meaning. This baby was indeed the lamb of God, born for sacrifice, the holy and spotless one, who alone was qualified to die for our sins.  

As John the Baptist said: Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Just as the  sign made it easy for the shepherds to find the Saviour, likewise seekers for truth today don’t have to look hard. The truth is clear for all to see. There is no saviour like Jesus, who loved you enough to die for you. You can meet him at the cross where he became the sacrificial lamb to pay for your sins.

The Song

The final word from the angels was an anthem of praise sung by an angelic choir. How wonderful would that have sounded!

They were praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

So, in the angel’s message we see a progression. The salutation was all about the name of the baby, his exalted identity. The sign was all to do with the purpose of his coming, to be the lamb of God, the Saviour of the world. 

This third section, the song, gives us the outcome of it all. Because Jesus is who he is, and did what he did, God is glorified in heaven and on earth, and peace is made. In other words, because Jesus honoured God, peace comes to us.

First, we must consider the glory that came to God from Jesus coming to earth as a baby, then offering himself as a sacrificial lamb for us.

A passage in Philippians says it all:

Who (Jesus) being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own advantage. Rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

   Philippians 2:9–11

You see, the first purpose of life is to glorify, to honour the one who gave us life, and that is God. These verses tell us that of all who have ever lived, none honoured his God more than Jesus. That is what the angels were singing. “God, you are being honoured by this baby in the manger, who is none other than the Son of God.”

Then comes the next phrase as a consequence of the first: “And on earth peace.”

How many people have yearned for this, dreamed of it, worked for it, died for it, and yet we still have no peace on earth. Jesus brought real hope for peace because through faith in him we have peace with God  and peace in our hearts. The peace on earth awaits Jesus’ return when he will reign as king over this world.

The prophet Isaiah says, “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will  be no end” (Isaiah 9:7).

So, the result of Jesus work of glorifying, of honouring God brings peace on earth to those on whom his favour rests. That means that not all will enjoy his peace, only those who trust and follow him will experience this peace.

Are you trusting this Jesus who is this Saviour and Lord?

Also there is a great lesson for those of who trust the Lord. We must make personal application of the angels’ song. 

Dear friends in Christ, are you living for the glory of the Lord? Is it his honour that you are seeking in every area of your life or is it your own? At this moment, as you have been reminded about Jesus’ commitment to glorify God, you can make a renewed commitment as well: Lord, I commit to honour and glorify you in all my life.   

When I commit to glorify God in heaven with my life, then, and only then, will I experience the peace that God intends for me to have in my heart. When I choose to follow his ways in order to honour him, then I will experience this blessing of heavenly calm in my soul.  

“The fruit of righteousness will be peace;  its effect will be quietness and confidence forever” (Isaiah 32:17).