• We celebrate the coming of Jesus to earth each year at Christmas time. But what were the impressions, responses, and transformations of those involved in the very first Christmas? In this series we'll look at those first impressions, and in them, learn how we can and should respond to the reality that God in the Person of Jesus came to earth to bring transformation to human beings who respond to His love and grace.
1. The Angels' View (Luke 1:5-20, 26-38; 2:8-15)
  • We don't know a lot about angels. Yet they were involved in the Advent. What was their view of this most important event as interested bystanders? As messengers? As heavenly cheerleaders? As worship leaders? As interpreters? Let's see what insight the Scriptures provide.
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • Angels are supernatural beings created by God to serve Him. Luke 1:11, 26; 2:9
  • God has communicated His message of salvation to human beings (among other ways) through angels. Luke 1:16 & 17, 31-33; 2:10 & 11
  • We can join angels in praise to God for His plan of salvation. Luke 2:13 & 14
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • What do you think of the responsibilities of angels and how can they be an example of you of how to relate to God?
  • What is the message of salvation that the angels brought to humans, and how should we respond to that message?
  • What is the place of praise to God in the midst of the news of the plan of salvation?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • Why did God choose Zechariah, Mary and the shepherds to use and through whom to reveal His plan of salvation through Jesus?
  • Why was Zechariah troubled at the appearance of the angel?
  • Why was Mary troubled at the appearance of the angel and the angel's message?
  • What is it about angels that their appearance strikes fear into human beings?
  • Describe Zechariah's reaction to the message of the angel? Why was Zechariah doubtful, and was his “punishment” appropriate?
  • Describe Mary's reaction to the message of the angel? Describe the shepherds' reactions to the angel?
  • Compare the reactions of Zechariah, Mary and the shepherds. Who exercised more faith? Who would you have expected to exercise more faith and why?
  • What did these three messages say about salvation and the Messiah? Why would that message have excited the angels?
  • Describe the approach and the characteristics of the angels and how they delivered their messages.
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • How do you think you would react if confronted by an angel (that is, not an angel disguised as a human)? Would you be afraid and why?
  • What is the role and function of angels? What can you say about their relationship with God by looking at these verses?
  • Would you be excited to hear good news? If good news were delivered to you by an angel, would you believe the news or not?
  • What does it mean to you to be prepared for the Lord?
  • What spiritual lessons do you think Zechariah learned during nine months of not being able to speak?
  • Do you consider yourself a “favored one” of God? If yes, why, and what does it mean to be favored by God?
  • What specifics about the Messiah can you list from the messages of the angels in all three scenes?
  • Can you say, like Mary, “let it be to me according to your word.”?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
We all know the Christmas story about “the baby Jesus born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger.” And every year, we return to the story to celebrate the Incarnation, the coming of God in the Person of Jesus Christ to live among every day humans to bring them to Himself. In this series, we want to take ourselves back to those days, and to look at the Incarnation from the viewpoint of the angels, the shepherds, the wise men from the east, and Mary and Joseph. And at the end of that journey of different viewpoints, we want to look at our own view of Jesus' coming to earth; what does it mean in general, and what does it mean for us personally.

The first viewpoint we will look at is that of the angels. But before we look at the angelic view in the text, we need to understand some basic facts about angels. Most basically, angels are spiritual beings created by God before He created the heavens and earth. They have no bodies in a material sense and hence are not visible, but can appear and assume a visible form from time to time as we will see in this study. They have personality since they have intellect, will and emotions. Their main task is to serve God, and in fact, the Greek word “angel” means “messenger.” They are powerful, but not omnipotent; they are knowledgeable, but not omniscient; they can only be in one place at a time. There are apparently different ranks and classifications of angels. For example, the angel Michael is called an archangel. They exist in the unseen spiritual world in which they accomplish their tasks, and are seen by humans only when God's will and purposes make it appropriate that they be seen. 

The text provides us with three scenes involving an angel or angels: scene one involves Zechariah; scene two involves Mary; and scene three involves some Jewish shepherds.

Scene One

Zechariah is an old Jewish priest (Luke 1:5, 7) married to Elizabeth who is the daughter of a priest. They were “righteous” in their spiritual walk before God (Luke 1:6). They have no children because Elizabeth was barren; and given their advanced age, there seemed no hope of her having children. This situation was grievous for a Jewish woman as every Jewish woman had the hope of being the mother of the Messiah. Zechariah was about to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem to burn the incense which would be a high point in his life as given the large number of priests, such opportunity only came up once in a priest's lifetime and only then if he was chosen by lot, which Zechariah was (Luke 1:9). So the time came for Zechariah to serve and he entered into the holy place. Quite suddenly, an angel appeared, standing at the right side of the altar of incense (Luke 1:11). The text doesn't say how Zechariah knew this was an angel, but he clearly did know, presumably because there was something about the sight of the angel that revealed he was an angel, not least being that he was there to begin with and had appeared where there had been no one prior. Zechariah was troubled (some translations read “startled”) and he was gripped with fear. One wonders what he was thinking; was it, “What should I do?” or “Is my life at risk here?” or “Why is an angel appearing to me?” Before we get any inkling as to what Zechariah was in fact thinking, the angel speaks to him with words of reassurance, “Don't be afraid.” The angel continues with his message which is that Zechariah's prayer has been heard (Was it Zechariah's on-going prayer that he and his wife would have children? Or was it Zechariah's prayer at the prior moment for the redemption of Israel as he began his task of burning the incense? We do not know, though it seems it was the former.), and that his wife will have a child, that the child is to be named John, that this child will be a joy and a delight to them, and that he will be the cause rejoicing at his birth. Further, this son will be “great before the Lord,” is not to drink intoxicating beverages, will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and will turn the hearts of Jewish people back to God and make them ready for the Lord. (Luke 1:13-17).

Wow! What an amazing word to Zechariah; a word directly from an angel indicating the answer to his prayer for a child, but also an answer to his prayer for the redemption of Israel as this son, John, would lead people back to God and prepare them for the Lord (meaning, ultimately, for the Messiah to come). If anything at all, the angel's words were an indication of the sovereignty of God, and that God has a plan that included Zechariah and Elizabeth through whom He will provide His mouthpiece, John, to turn people back to Himself. One would think that Zechariah, as a priest of God, would be overjoyed. Instead, however, Zechariah asked the angel a question which reflected his doubt and his lack of faith. In fact, Zechariah asked for a sign to prove the truth of what the angel said (Luke 1:18). And he even added a reminder that he and Elizabeth were old, the suggestion being that it was impossible for them to have a child (as if to say to the angel, “Didn't you know that we're too old to have children?”). The angel's reply is to the point; he stated who he was, where he came from, what his responsibility was vis-a-vis Zechariah, and that indeed Zechariah will have a sign – because he did not believe the angel's words, he will not be able to speak until the baby comes at the proper time.

In the angel's reply to Zechariah, we learn his name is Gabriel, that he stands in the very presence of God, and that he was sent specifically to deliver this message of good news. Thus, Gabriel's view of the coming of John, and then of Jesus, is that it is good news, and that it is part of God's plan of redemption to bring together a people prepared for the Lord in righteousness. In short, Gabriel is the heavenly messenger who brings this good news to the human race – the Messiah is on the way! Gabriel's view is thus God's view, and Gabriel is the means by which God speaks His view. God is saying, “I am carrying out my plan of redemption to make ready a people for Myself,” and it involves John whom I am empowering and sending to call people back to Me.” While he seemed stern, as when he said, “I am Gabriel,” one wonders what Gabriel felt as he was delivering God's good news. Was he excited? Was he full of wonder? Was he thankful that he had the privilege of being God's obedient messenger? We do not know. But what we do know is that Gabriel was obedient in His service to God and in that way to be a part of the unfolding of God's plan of redemption.

Scene Two

Mary was a young teen-age (likely between 14-16 years of age) Jewish girl who was engaged to Joseph. In her day, to be engaged was tantamount to marriage except for the physical consummation. Such a “betrothal” could only be broken by death or by divorce. She was from a little place called Nazareth, a non-important small town in Galilee, the province to the north of the province of Judea in which Jerusalem was located. In short, she was from a “back-water” town, and was just a young girl awaiting the time of her marriage. At least six months after our scene one, the angel Gabriel was sent to give a message from God to Mary. We get the sense, as if we didn't get the sense in scene one, that Gabriel was a high ranking angel, sort of God's number one ambassador who is entrusted with God's most important messages. And surely, this message of redemption is the most important message of all!

Gabriel came to Mary and appeared with his message, announcing first that she is favored by God, and that the Lord is with her (Luke 1:28). Specifically, Gabriel said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Can you imagine hearing this, and from an angel? First, there would be the surprise and fear to be in the presence of an angel; and then there would be the words of the message, and what did they mean. All this in the life of a young girl who lived an anonymous life in a no place little town, far away from anything important and from the center of Judaism. What was Mary's impression? She was “greatly troubled” says the text, and couldn't tell what the greeting meant. And based on Gabriel's next words, she was also afraid (which reaction, by the way, seems to be the typical reaction of a human being throughout Scripture when in the presence of an angel not otherwise incognito). Indeed, Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” The angel knows her name! And the angel repeats that she has found favor. Again, what does it mean to be a favored one? It does not mean that she is more special or exalted than any other human. Rather it means that she is the recipient of God's grace, not through her merit but by His sovereign choice. God has chosen to bring the Messiah to earth through Mary, though she doesn't know that as yet, and remains in wonderment at the greeting and its meaning.

As Mary is still troubled at the meaning of the message, and has presumably been calmed by Gabriel's words that she not be afraid (in other words, there is no judgment from God in Gabriel's appearance), Gabriel gives the substance of God's message to Mary, namely that through her will come a son, to be named Jesus, who will be God's Son, heir to the throne of David, reign over the house of Jacob, and have an eternal kingdom. Gabriel is saying that the Messiah will be born through her by the intervention of God into human history, and He will be God on earth in the Person of the Son, and will rule forever. Incredible! Here is Mary being told by a heavenly messenger that she will be the mother of the Messiah of God who will live forever. Unlike Zechariah's response which was motivated by doubt and lack of faith, Mary's response is wonder … how will God do this thing since she is a virgin and therefore cannot have a child? Gabriel gives the answer, and it is that the conception will be the result of God's action; God the Holy Spirit will bring about her pregnancy, and the child will be born and will be called, quite appropriately, holy and the Son of God. Gabriel then shares the news that Mary's childless relative, Elizabeth, has become pregnant in her old age (obviously a miracle) and is already 6 months along. In short, Gabriel says, “nothing will be impossible with God.” God is God and He is all powerful and can bring about anything He desires, including the pregnancy of a virgin young woman with the Messiah, the very Son of God.

Mary's next response is perhaps the most beautiful portion of this text. She says quite simply, (paraphrasing) “I am God's servant and may His will be done to me.” Mary humbly submits to God's will and accepts His purpose to be carried out through her. Note that she does this despite knowing the situation she will be in, namely, pregnant but not by her fiance, Joseph. Jewish law regarding adultery was very strict (technically, she could be put to death), and it will be assumed that she has committed adultery. Undoubtedly Mary doesn't appreciate all the ramifications of being the mother of the Messiah in terms of her reputation, the difficulties in life that may come, and the necessity of Jesus dying on the cross. God does not lay out all of this to her through Gabriel, only that the Messiah, the Son of God, will come through her. And she, with a simple yet profound faith in God, accepts His will as it relates to her, trusting that He will be with her as His grace is upon her. She will have time to think on Gabriel's words about Jesus – that He will be “great” of His own (as opposed to obtaining greatness through some other person or event), that He will have the throne of David (cf. II Samuel 7:12-14; Psalm 2:7-9), that He will be eternal, that He will literally be God's Son and therefore holy as God is holy, that His will be a “supernatural” birth and He will thus be like no other human, and that He will reign.

Gabriel has already given the news of John the Baptist to be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth. He knows that God is in the process of bringing salvation to the human race through the Messiah. And now he has been able to give the news to young Mary, and to know himself (Was it news to Gabriel as well when he received his instructions from God to bring the message to Mary?) what God was about to do. The centerpiece of God's plan of salvation was being revealed and Gabriel had the glad task of bringing that revelation to humanity, first to Zechariah and now to Mary. Christmas in the sense of the birth of Jesus had not yet happened, but Mary was the first to know through Gabriel that it would come, and that it would come through her. Mary, the young woman of God, understood enough of what Gabriel told her to know that God was at work in a remarkable way, and that her role was to voluntarily submit to God's will. May her words, “Let it be to me according to your word,” be ours as well in our response to God who loves us and has brought about salvation as a gift of grace through His Son. We wonder if Gabriel was pleased and glad at Mary's words as they were to become part and parcel of the fabric of the plan of salvation being woven by God. I believe Gabriel was!

Scene Three

The third scene is almost more amazing than the first two scenes as it involves not only a non-descript and unimportant place (the “field), but ordinary and even somewhat outcast men, a group of shepherds. These shepherds were nameless, whereas Zechariah and Mary were identified. The name of the angel who brought the message of the coming Messiah was also not given, though this angel certainly was carrying out a part of the heavenly task of revealing to mankind that God was about to bring salvation through the Messiah. And when this angel was joined by other angels praising God (Luke 2:13), one has the sense that all of heaven is excited about what God is doing and to be even a small part of this unveiling of the plan of salvation through letting humankind know.

So there are some shepherds who are basically doing their job watching over their sheep at night. What they were doing as they watched, we do not know. But suddenly an angel appeared to them. In this appearance, the text states that “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” (Luke 2:9) This was not stated to be the case when Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and Mary. The word concept of the glory of the Lord is seen all over Scripture and most basically it indicates His presence, His greatness, His ineffable light, His holiness, and His “otherness.” John MacArthur has written that glory is the “shining forth of God.” MacArthur went on to write that glory is to God as brightness is to the sun, as wet is to water and as heat is to fire. In short, glory is the product, if you will, of God's presence and Person, an aura and emanation of His total holiness, power and sovereignty. Thus, the angel appeared, this messenger from God, and with the angel came a manifestation of God's holiness and, by extension, His presence. This glory must have filled the area around where the shepherds were gathered, and in the presence of this glory of God and the angel, they were mortified, which is saying something as shepherds were used to the outdoors and all its dangers as they watched their flocks. Their terror can be described by their fear of judgment being in God's presence, fear of the unknown, and fear of what might happen to them. Clearly, they knew they were in the presence of the Godly and a heavenly creature.

What was the message of the angel? First, as we see in Scripture most often when a human is confronted by an angel, the message is, “Don't be afraid.” Don't be afraid of what? Of God's judgment, of what you don't know, of something happening to them. But the angel's message goes on by way of an announcement, or a proclamation, that there is good news for them, that it is joyful news, and that the news is for all! And the news is that the Messiah has been born, the Savior has come, and he was born in the City of David (Bethlehem) that very day. And the message continues – the sign of this Savior's birth is that He, the baby, is wrapped in swaddling cloths and is lying is a manger. Think about times you've been able to give good news to someone. Weren't you excited to give the news, and particularly before you could make the announcement you could hardly wait because your expectation and your personal joy was at such a high level. Now think of this angel who has presumably been waiting for some period of time (at least15 months, one would think, since that is the length of time from when Gabriel told Zechariah that John would be born and call people back to God and Jesus was born), and has known the Savior was coming. When the angel was tasked to make the announcement to the shepherds we of course do not know. But just the knowing what was happening and then being the angel to make the announcement would be enough to peak the emotions of that angel. That the angel was excited, and that the heavenly angels in general were excited, is indicated clearly when immediately following the good news to the shepherds a “multitude of the heavenly hosts” appeared, as if the curtain was suddenly drawn back on a vision of heaven, all praising God, giving glory to Him, and extending the offer of peace among those on earth with whom God is pleased (Luke 2:14). The text does not say whether these heavenly beings were singing, shouting, speaking as one, or just how they were presenting their praises. I would like to think all of these were in play, and that this heavenly host had also been just waiting for this moment to explode in their praise. After all, God, the God they were created to serve, is bringing about the greatest thing ever, the salvation of mankind by Himself becoming a human being, specifically being born as helpless baby to a totally unknown couple through the working and power of God through Mary, in a back-water town in Galilee, far from the power and influence of the religious authorities. The most spectacular event in history had just taken place, and the angels get to celebrate in front of this audience of lowly shepherds. What a fantastic sight it must have been.

By the time the praise chorus appeared, it seems that the shepherds were no longer afraid. They were excited too, which makes one think that these shepherds were devout in their faith. They basically said to each other, “Let's go see this baby the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15) These shepherds didn't doubt; no, they left immediately to witness first hand the reality of the message from the angel. The excitement of the angels was contagious, and was caught by these shepherds. Would that we would catch the excitement about Jesus that permeated these shepherds at the first Christmas. Would that we would share that excitement with others so that they, too, might come to know Jesus and be reconciled to the God who loves them and who gave of Himself that they might have life.