And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.…
We now pass from the person of the forerunner to that of his greater Successor. The priest's son was great, but the Virgin's Son was greater. John was a great gift to the world, as every true reformer must be; but a Savior is God's supreme Gift to the children of men. Now, in this narrative before us we learn -
I. HOW THE WILL OF EVEN HEATHEN MONARCHS IS MADE TO FULFIL THE WILL OF GOD. The Divine will, expressed seven centuries before this time by Micah the prophet (Micah 5:2), was that Jesus should be born in Bethlehem. But until a short time before his birth appearances seemed to show that he must be born in Nazareth. When lo! Augustus, the heathen emperor at Rome, demands a census, and the Jewish families must enrol themselves at the tribal cities. This simple circumstance, whose purpose was the levy of men or the levy of money, brought Mary to Bethlehem in time to become, in the appointed place, the mother of the Lord. It surely shows the full command which God has over the wills even of those who are not his worshippers. He is the Sovereign of all men, whether they like it or know it or not. Cyrus was his shepherd, although he did not know God (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:4); and Augustus orders a census and "keeps books" in subservience to Divine purposes and fulfillment of Divine promises.
II. HOW LITTLE WELCOME DID THE WORLD GIVE ITS NEW-BORN SAVIOR. The birth in Bethlehem was the most important birth which ever took place in our planet. Had the world appreciated the advent, it would have heralded it on every shore; but so little wisdom was there in the world that the precious Child had, so to speak, to steal into the world in a stable and among the cattle. It was humiliating to be born, even had palace halls received him; but how humiliating to be born in the common cattlepen, because there was no room for Mary in the inn! And yet, in thus making his advent, he identified himself not only with the poorest, but also made common cause with the beasts. They, too, have benefited through Christ being born - there is less cruelty to animals in Christian than in other lands; and the religion of love he came to embody and proclaim will yet do more to ameliorate the condition of the beasts. Meanwhile let us notice how sad it is if men have no hospitality to show to Jesus, but still exclude him from their hearts and homes!
III. THE FIRST GOSPEL SERMON WAS PREACHED BY AN ANGEL. The importance of the birth at Bethlehem, if unrecognized by man, is realized by angels. Heavenly hosts cannot be silent about it. They must begin the telling of the glad tidings. If we suppose that the shades of night threw their mantle over Mary when the Babe was born, then it would seem that interested angels looked for an immediate audience to hear the wondrous story. Where shall one be found? The inn is full of sleepers or revellers; they are not fit to hear the message of peace and joy. But outside Bethlehem in the fields are shepherds - humble men, doubtless, and despised as in all ages. Still, they are kind to the sheep - "saviours," in some sense, of the dumb animals they tend and feed - and now in the night watches they are awake and watchful. Here, then, is the angel's audience. Does it not instruct preachers to be content with very humble hearers, and it may be sometimes very few hearers? An audience may be most important, even though few and despised. But we must next notice the message of the angel. Coming with dazzling light, perhaps the Shechinah-glory encircling him, he first scared the poor shepherds. They were "sore afraid." It was needful, therefore, that he should first put to flight their fears, and then proclaim the glad tidings of a Savior's birth, which gospel is intended for all people. The sign also which he gives is that the Babe shall be found in swaddling-clothes and lying in a manger. It is a message about a Savior in apparent weakness but in real power. Such is the gospel. It is a message about a personal Savior, who, in spite of all appearances, is "the Mighty God, the Father of Eternity, and the Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). We must "preach Christ" unto men if we know what it is to preach the gospel. Again, we must notice the angelic choir. The angel has arranged for a "service of praise" along with his preaching. There is the angel's sermon and then the angels' song. The sermon is short, but its contents are of priceless value. The same may be said of the angels' song. It speaks simply of "glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased" (Revised Version). It must have been a melodious service - such music as heavenly harmony secures; angelic choristers doing their best to interest and elevate a few poor shepherds. Another lesson, surely, to those who would "sing for Jesus." The preaching of the gospel should be backed up by the singing of the gospel. Praise has its part to play as well as preaching and prayer. It was at the praise part of the dedication service in Solomon's temple that The glory of the Lord appeared (2 Chronicles 5:11-14).
IV. THE AUDIENCE PUT THE PREACHING TO AN IMMEDIATE TEST. The shepherds, as soon as the angels passed away, went at once to Bethlehem. They were resolved to see for themselves. There was a risk in this, for the sheep might be endangered in their absence; but they resolve to run the risk if they can see the Savior. "Never venture, never win." Hence they came with haste to Mary, and gaze with rapture on her Child. They see and believe. They are ready to accept this "little Child" as the Savior of the world. A little Child was leading them! Next we find them becoming his witnesses. They tell all who will listen to them what the angel said, and what they consequently had been led to Bethlehem to see. Having found a personal Savior, they cannot but proclaim him to others. One who listened to their story and profited by it was Mary. She pondered their sayings in her heart. The shepherds have become important witnesses for the incarnate Savior. So should all be who have really seen him by the eye of faith. But yet again, the shepherds, like the-angels, burst into praise. "They returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them." This is the real end of gospel preaching when it leads the audience up to praise. Hence this is represented as the chief employment of the redeemed. Experience is only perfected when God is praised.
V. WE SEE HERE A HUMAN SUCCEEDING AN ANGELIC MINISTRY, It does seem strange that such a gospel should not be preached by angels. That they are anxious to do so appears from this narrative. We may be sure that they would esteem it highest honor to proclaim the message of salvation unto man. But after short visits and short sermons, the angels are withdrawn, and these poor shepherds spread the glad tidings, telling in a very humble way what they have seen and heard. It is God's plan, and must be best. It is those who need and have found a Savior who are best adapted to proclaim him to others. A human ministry is more homely and sympathetic and effectual than perhaps any angelic ministry could be. Besides, a human ministry is less cavilled at and objected to than an angelic would be. We thus learn at Bethlehem important lessons about preaching to humble audiences, and out o£ them manufacturing preachers. The angels were doubtless satisfied as they looked down upon the shepherds who had listened so eagerly to their story, and saw them becoming preachers in their turn. To multiply Christ's witnesses is the great work of preachers whether angelic or human. - R.M.E.
Parallel VersesKJV: And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.