This article first appeared in the December 15, 2011 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.88, #6).
"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. This taxation brought Joseph to the little town of Bethlehem. It was the custom for taxes to be paid in the city from which one's family originated. Since Joseph was of the house of David, he went to Bethlehem, the city of David, to perform his civic duty.
Mary accompanied him. Mary was Joseph's espoused wife. This means that she was legally married to Joseph. However, as was the custom, she and Joseph did not know each other as husband and wife. They were in the period of waiting until the wedding feast. But Mary was great with child. Joseph was not the father of this child. This child had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. The child she carried was the long-awaited Christ.
While in Bethlehem Mary gave birth to her son. This was the most unusual and wonderful birth in all history. It was most unusual in that Mary gave birth as a virgin. But more amazing yet was that through this birth the Son of God came into human flesh.
All that is mentioned of this miraculous birth is that "she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn" (v. 7).
The birth of such a wonderful child must be announced. And so an angel from heaven was sent to make known His birth. Interestingly, the angel came with these glad tidings not to the princes of the land or to the teachers of the people but to lowly shepherds outside of Bethlehem, keeping watch over their flock by night.
The heart of this message we consider for this mediation.
A sharp contrast!
From the angel the shepherds learned of the birth of a great person. "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
A Savior had been born! A Savior is a deliverer, one that delivers from woe and brings happiness.
The people under Roman rule had come to call their emperor, Caesar Augustus, savior. But Caesar was no savior at all. At best he relieved the physical poverty and oppression of some. More likely he added to the distress of the lands he conquered. He was probably hailed as savior because he demanded such from the people.
The angel announced the birth of a true Savior—one that would truly deliver the people from their woe and misery and bring them a happiness that no Caesar ever could.
This babe was a true Savior because He is Christ, the Lord.
He is Christ, the Anointed One. This means that He is the One ordained by God to be His prophet, priest, and king. Jehovah had long ago promised to send such a Christ. All the Old Testament prophets, priests, and kings were shadows and types of the great Anointed One to come. As the Anointed One this babe born in Bethlehem would bring the salvation of God to mankind.
Emphasis falls, here, on the kingly office of the babe. He is Christ, the Lord. A lord is one who owns and thus rules another. So it is with Christ. He is the Lord King, as his forefather David was addressed by Bathsheba, "Let my lord king David live forever" (I Kings 1:31). In addition, He was born in the city of David. This calls attention to the fact that He is the promised son of David, whose kingdom God will establish forever. Under His rule and in His kingdom the people of God will find their salvation. His salvation, therefore, far exceeds anything that Caesar could bring.
In sharp contrast to this was the lowliness of His birth. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. That is mentioned twice—once as Luke describes the birth of Christ in verse 7 and again by the angel that announces Jesus' birth to the shepherds in verse 12. The meaning is clear. He was wrapped in a blanket that was secured with a band. He was laid in a feeding bunk. How the latter came about is explained earlier in this chapter. There was no room in the inn. Mary and Joseph therefore had to resort to a stable, probably one of the caves on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
How unusual that one destined to such greatness was born in such humble circumstances!
An important sign!
According to the angel, the swaddling clothes and the manger were to serve as a sign to the shepherds.
The Bible speaks a great deal of signs. A sign was something unusual that served to prove the truth of what was either spoken or promised. The sign also depicted in some way that which it was designed to prove. All of Jesus' miracles were signs that verified and depicted Jesus as the Savior. According to Isaiah 7:14 the virgin birth of Christ itself was a sign: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Sometimes people would ask for a sign because what they were told stretched their faith. Zechariah, for example, asked for a sign because he struggled to believe the angel's promise that he and his wife would have a son in their old age who would be the forerunner of the Christ. And he was given a sign. He was made deaf and dumb as a sign of his unbelief.
The angel also gave a sign to the shepherds. He had just announced the birth of the most unusual, important person in all history. Now God verified this fact to the shepherds and to the church of all ages by a sign.
We read not of a sign but of the sign. The sign that the angel gave is the sign of God that the Savior, who is Christ the Lord, has been born.
The sign is that he was to be found wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
This serves as a sign exactly because it clearly points to the very way in which this baby would establish His glorious kingdom and bring salvation to the people of God.
This sign makes no sense for those who look for an earthly kingdom and salvation. Most of the Jews in Jesus' day looked for an earthly kingdom and salvation. They sought a restoration of the glory days of David and Solomon that would bring earthly wealth and power to Israel. Many in the church today look for an earthly kingdom of God. They envision a heaven here on earth in which all the ills that have plagued mankind through history are finally overcome.
The lowly manger birth of Jesus does not point to such a kingdom. Were the work of Jesus the establishing of an earthly kingdom with an earthly salvation and glory, we would expect a baby born in a royal palace, attended by some unusual circumstance that would have impressed even the royalty of the world.
The lowly birth of Jesus can serve as the sign of a Savior who is Christ the Lord only when we understand that the kingdom Jesus came to establish and the salvation He provides in it are heavenly and spiritual.
The kingdom of God is heavenly and spiritual.
It is a spiritual realm in which Christ rules the hearts and lives of men in such a way that they willingly bow before Him and serve Him as King. It is a kingdom of righteousness in which only the righteous are citizens and in which they serve God in righteousness, according to His law. It is a kingdom in which the righteous live with God in intimate friendship and fellowship to enjoy Him forever. It is a kingdom that has its beginnings in this age but finds completion in eternity in a new creation. It is a kingdom in which, when it is complete, there will be no pain, no sorrow, no night, and no tears. It is a kingdom in which we find our salvation. And that salvation is a wonderful deliverance from sin and death.
Jesus' lowly birth serves as a sign of how Jesus will establish such a kingdom.
Jesus establishes His kingdom and brings salvation to God's people only on the basis of atonement. He must take the sins of the people upon Himself and bear all their punishment. He must also walk in perfect obedience and righteousness for them.
This work of atonement would consume His entire life, culminating at the cross.
Jesus' lowly birth serves as a sign of this great work of atonement necessary to establish the great kingdom of God. It pointed to the greater poverty of our sin into which Christ came. It ultimately pointed ahead to the cross.
A proper recipient
It is interesting that this sign was given to lowly shepherds and not to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
The shepherds were part of the elect remnant present in Israel that looked in faith to the coming of the Savior. Their faith is seen from the fact that they sought out the Christ child and then spread abroad what they had seen and heard. This stands in sharp contrast to the unbelief of the leaders of the church who neither sought out the Christ nor spoke about Him.
The babe of Bethlehem had been born for the salvation and welfare of these shepherds. That is the force of the angel's message: "unto you is born this day...a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
And so the sign was also given to these shepherds. What astounding things were said of this child! They needed a sign to confirm their faith. They would find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
These lowly, uneducated shepherds perceived the meaning of the sign. That is because they saw it in faith.
And with a faith reassured by this sign the shepherds joyfully spread abroad all that they had seen and heard.
We too must look upon this sign with the eye of faith. When we do so, we will see the great Lord King sent to establish the everlasting kingdom of God in which we and the church of all ages find the salvation of God.
Do you see it?
Then follow the shepherds in joyfully spreading the good news of our Savior's birth and work.
Rev. James Slopsema (Wife: Joan)
Ordained: September 1974
Pastorates: First, Edgerton, MN - 1974; Randolph, WI - 1982; Hope, Walker, MI - 1986; First, Grand Rapids, MI - 1995; Emeritus, July 2014Website: www.firstprchurch.org/
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