Articles

Reaction to the Baby of Bethlehem

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. Luke 2:17-20

An angel appeared to several shepherds outside of Bethlehem as they tended their flocks by night. He had glad tidings of great joy. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” And there was a sign. They would find this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. In response to this news there was suddenly a multitude of angels praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

In the passage we use for this meditation we learn of the reaction of the shepherds, of Mary, and of the citizens of Bethlehem to the appearance of the angels and their message. There was a positive and a negative reaction. The reaction of the shepherds and Mary was positive. It was the reaction of faith. The reaction of the citizens of Bethlehem was negative. Theirs was the reaction of unbelief.

May our reaction be that of the shepherds and of Mary.

A twofold reaction

There was a positive reaction on the part of Mary and the shepherds.

Mention is made of all that the shepherds had heard and seen. They had heard and seen things that Mary had not. They had seen an angel and had heard his message, which was good tidings of great joy. The Sav­ior had been born in Bethlehem. The angel had even given them a sign. And then a host of angels had filled the heavens glorifying God.

Although Mary had not seen and heard the angels, the shepherds most certainly told her about them.

The shepherds came with haste and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. The shepherd’s haste speaks of excitement, joy, and urgency. Certainly the shepherds told Mary and Joseph all that they had seen and heard.

What the shepherds told Mary was only the culmi­nation of other things she had seen and heard that the shepherds had not. There had been the appearance of the angel Gabriel announcing that she would give birth to the Christ-child as a virgin. There was the prophecy of John from his mother’s womb, when Mary had gone to visit Elisabeth. The babe had blessed Mary and the fruit of her womb. And then there was the appearance of the angel to Joseph instructing him not to put Mary away but to take her as his wife.

And what was their reaction to all these things?

Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. That means she remembered them and reflected on them repeatedly. How precious these things were to her.

The shepherds did this and more. They made known abroad the saying that was told them. The emphasis here is not on the angels that appeared to them but on what they said. Eagerly and joyfully the shepherds published abroad what the angels had told them—the birth of the Savior, the sign of the manger, and the message of peace. And then they returned to their flocks glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

But the people who heard the shepherds wondered. This does not mean that they had doubts about what the shepherds said. The shepherds were honest men. Their report had come on the heels of other unusual things. Just a little over a year before this, the aged priest Zacharias had emerged from the temple deaf and dumb, and the people discerned that he had received a revelation of the Lord after 400 years of silence. And then nine months later the aged Zacharias and Elisabeth gave birth to a child. Unusual things were happening. There was no need to doubt the report of these excited shepherds.

That the citizens of Bethlehem wondered means rather that they were amazed. They marveled and were filled with awe at the report of the shepherds.

But the striking thing is that this wonder did not move them to go see the baby. You might expect the stable to be filled with visitors. Yet we read of none. And when only months later wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, just several miles away from Beth­lehem, asking where he is that is born King of the Jews, no one knew.

This wonder of Bethlehem’s citizens stands in sharp contrast to the reaction of the shepherds and Mary. Obviously Bethlehem’s citizens did not keep these things and ponder them in their hearts. Neither did they glorify and praise God.

A proper explanation

The reaction of Bethlehem was the reaction of unbe­lief.

The nation of Israel was apostate, characterized by unbelief. And this unbelief determined the expectation of the people. They looked for earthly power and wealth. They were under the oppressive rule of Rome. They longed to throw off Roman rule and return to the glory days of David and Solomon. This they ex­pected to have through the Savior God had promised. Understand well, this is not what God had promised in the Old Testament. He had promised a heavenly and spiritual Savior, who would establish a heavenly king­dom through the payment of sin. Yet in unbelief the people had blindly misinterpreted God’s promise. This is characteristic of unbelief. The unbeliever believes what he wants rather than what God tells him. And this is what apostate Israel did so that she looked for an earthly Messiah from the hand of the Lord.

This explains the reaction of the people to the shep­herd’s report. The babe whom the angels announced to be the Christ was born in the lowliest of circum­stances. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and was to be found in a manger. This offended the apostate citizenship of Bethlehem. What could possible come of such a baby? Their Savior must arise out of better circumstances. And so they marvel for a time. But they quickly put it out of their mind.

In contrast, the reaction of Mary and the shepherds was that of faith.

They were part of a small remnant that included Zacharias and Elisabeth, Simeon and Anna. In faith they looked for a spiritual kingdom in which they could enjoy reconciliation with God in the way of the payment of sin.

The lowly stable was no offense to them, but was in keeping with their hope. The angel had cited the lowly circumstances of Jesus’ birth as a sign. It was a sign of a greater poverty, the poverty of our sin and guilt into which Jesus came at His birth—not His own sin and guilt but that of those whom the Father had given Him. This was the only way to establish the kingdom. It is doubtful that Mary and the shepherds fully under­stood the meaning of this sign. Yet it did not contradict their vision of reconciliation with and life with God in a heavenly kingdom.

And so in faith they embraced the babe of Bethle­hem.

A solemn calling

The gospel that was proclaimed to the shepherds by the angels is still being proclaimed today, only more fully. Essentially the whole gospel of salvation was pro­claimed to the shepherds that night. Unto you a savior is born who is Christ the Lord. A sign of His work is a manger. He will bring peace on earth. But the gospel of Jesus’ birth is much fuller now. No, we do not see the angels or the manger. But we see the cross, the resurrec­tion, the exaltation, and the return in judgment. This is the gospel of Christ’s birth.

Our calling is to receive it, as did Mary and the shep­herds. Most today are like the citizens of Bethlehem. They hear the gospel of Christ’s birth. They may even wonder for a time. But the Christ-child and the salva­tion He brings are soon forgotten. That is true even in the Christmas season, when the vast majority focus on the secular rather than on the sacred. This is explained by unbelief that does not seek the salvation of God in Jesus Christ.

Let us by faith seek the wonderful salvation of God that He graciously provides in His Son, Jesus Christ. In that same faith let us keep all these things and ponder them in our hearts. Let us rejoice and glorify God. And let us noise abroad the glad tidings of great joy as did the shepherds.

Slopsema, James D.

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 2014

Website: www.firstprchurch.org/

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