THE OPENING VERSE of this chapter shows how God may use the great ones of the earth, all unconsciously to themselves, for the accomplishing of His designs. The case here is the more remarkable inasmuch as the decree of Augustus was not carried out immediately but delayed until Cyrenius was governor of Syria. Prophecy however had indicated Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah, and the decree of the Emperor came just at the right time to send Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, though subsequently the proceedings were stayed for a time. It was owing to this disturbed state of affairs, no doubt, that the inn was full, and the fact that the infant Christ was born in a stable was a testimony to the poverty of Joseph and Mary for then as now inconveniences can always be obviated by money. It was symbolic however of the outside place as regards the world and its glory which Christ was to have from the outset.
Verses 8-20, are occupied with the episode in connection with the shepherds. This has become so well known in connection with hymns and carols that we are in danger perhaps of missing its full significance. Shepherds as a class, were not held in much esteem in those days, and these were the men who took night duty, unskilled in comparison with the men who cared for the sheep by day. To these exceedingly humble and unknown men the angels appeared. Heaven's secret concerning the arrival of the Saviour was disclosed to such nobodies as these!
The thing becomes even more remarkable when we compare this chapter with Matthew 2. There the scene is cast amongst the great ones in Jerusalem-Herod the king, his courtiers, chief priests and scribes-and they are completely ignorant of this marvellous event for months afterwards, and then they only hear of it through the wise men of the east arriving, men who were complete outsiders as regards the nation of Israel. The explanation is given to us in the words of the Psalmist, "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him" (25: 14). God respects no man's person, but He has respect to humility and integrity of heart before Himself; so He passed by the grandees in Jerusalem, and sent a deputation of angelic beings to wait on a small group of despised night watchmen that they might be initiated into the secret of Heaven's ways. These shepherds were a few of the godly remnant waiting for the Messiah, as their subsequent words and actions show us.
First came the message of the angel, and then the praise of the angels. The great joy of the message centred in the fact that it was as Saviour that He had come. They had had the Lawgiver and the prophets, but now had arrived the Saviour, and He was so great an One as Christ the Lord. This good news was for "all the people,"-not "all people" as our A.V. has it. For the moment a wider circle than all Israel is not in view. The sign of this marvellous event was one that never could have been anticipated. Men might have expected to see a mighty warrior wrapped in garments of glory and seated on a throne. The sign was a Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. But then the sign indicated the whole manner and spirit of His approach to men at this time.
The praise of the angels is compressed into fourteen words, recorded in verse 14-though few in number, words of deep meaning. They put on record the ultimate results that were to flow from the advent of the Babe. God is to be glorified in the highest seats of His power, the very place where the slightest slur cast upon His name would be most keenly perceived and felt. On earth, where since the fall warfare and strife had been incessant, peace is to be established. God is to find His good pleasure in men. "Good pleasure in men," is the rendering of the New Translation. From the moment that sin came in there was no pleasure for God in Adam or in his race: but now had appeared One who is of another order of humanity than Adam, owing to the Virgin birth, which has been so plainly stated in the first chapter. In Him the good pleasure of God rests in supreme measure, as also it will rest in men who are in Him as the fruit of His work. Wonderful results indeed!
To all this the shepherds gave the response of faith. They did not say, "Let us go . . . and see if this thing is come to pass," but "see this thing which is come to pass." They came with haste and saw the Babe with their own eyes; then they bore testimony to others. They could then say, "God has said it, and we have seen it."-the Divine testimony backed by personal experience. Such testimony is bound to have effect. Many wondered, and Mary herself kept these things, pondering them in her heart; for evidently she did not herself yet understand the full significance of it all. As for the shepherds, they caught the spirit of the angels, glorifying and praising God. So there was praise on earth as well as praise in heaven on this great occasion; and we venture to think that the praise of these humble men below had in it a note that was absent from the praise of the angels of His might above.
We are permitted to see in verses 21-24, that all things that the law enjoined were carried out in the case of the holy Child, and when presented to the Lord in the temple two aged saints, walking in the fear of the Lord, were there to greet Him as guided by the Spirit of God. We have just noted how the great men of Jerusalem were totally out of touch with God and knew nothing about Him: there were those in touch with God and they soon new, even though no angel appeared to them. The Holy Ghost was upon Simeon, and by the Spirit he not only knew that he should see Jehovah's Christ before he died but also he came into the temple at the exact moment that the child Jesus was there. So too with old Anna. Her visit was timed perfectly, so that she saw Him.
Reading verses 28-35, we can feel how affecting the scene must have been. The old man addressed God and then addressed Mary. He was ready to depart in peace having seen Jehovah's salvation in the holy Child. He actually went one step further than the angel, for he recognized that God's salvation had been prepared before the face of "all peoples"-the word is in the plural this time. Not only was Jesus to be the glory of Israel but also a light to lighten the Gentiles. It was revealed to him that grace was going to flow beyond the narrow borders of Israel.
It was revealed to him also that the Christ had come to be spoken against. Dimly perhaps he saw it, but there it was-the shadow of the cross when the sword should pierce through Mary's soul. This we learn from his words to her.
We may wonder perhaps that Simeon, having been permitted to live until he actually held the Saviour in his arms, should have been so ready to "depart in peace." We might have anticipated that he would have felt it a tantalizing thing to see the beginning of God's intervention in this way, and yet have to depart before the climax was reached. But evidently it was given to him as a prophet to foresee the rejection of Christ, and therefore he did not expect the immediate arrival of the glory, and was prepared to go.
He announced that the Child would put Israel to the test. Many who were high and lifted up would fall, and many who were low and despised would rise up; and as He would be spoken against and rejected, the thoughts of many hearts would come to light, as they came into contact with Him. In the presence of God all men are forced to come out in their true character, so this feature about Christ was an involuntary tribute to His deity. Moreover Mary herself should be pierced with sorrow as with a sword: a word that was fulfilled when she stood by the cross.
The very aged Anna completes this beautiful picture of the godly remnant in Israel. She served God continually, and when she had seen the Christ, she "spake of Him."
We may recapitulate at this point by summing up the features that marked these pious folk. The shepherds illustrate the faith that characterized them. They accepted at once the word that reached them through the angel, then their own eyes verified it, then they glorified and praised God.
Mary exemplified the thoughtful and meditative spirit, that waits upon God for understanding-verse 19.
Simeon was the man who was waiting for the Christ under the instruction and power of the Spirit of God. He was satisfied with Christ when he found Him, and prophesied concerning Him.
Anna was one who served God continually, and witnessed of the Christ, when she had found Him.
Lastly, there was great care exercised that every detail concerning the Christ should be carried out as the law of the Lord had ordained. Five times over it is stated that the law was observed-verses 22, 23, 24, 27, 39. This excellent feature, we presume must be credited to Joseph, the husband of Mary-this careful obedience to the Word of God.
We are now waiting for His second advent. How good it would be if in our cases these excellent features were strongly marked.
Verse 40 covers the first twelve years of our Lord's life. It conveys to us the fact that the ordinary development of mind and body, which is proper to mankind, marked Him; a testimony to His true Manhood.
This is reinforced too by the further glimpse we are given of Him at the age of twelve years. He was not teaching the learned men, but He was hearing them and asking them questions in such a way as to astonish them as they questioned Him. Here again we see Him fulfilling perfectly that which is proper to a child of such an age, while displaying features that were supernatural. His reply to His mother also showed that He was conscious of His mission. Yet for many years to come He took the subject place in regard to Joseph and Mary, and thus displayed all human perfection proper to His years.
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