The Lord's Day Morning
February 8, 2009
“Pondering These Things in Our Hearts”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
We’ll be looking at verses 8-20 today — a passage very familiar to us, especially at Christmastime. It's been a tradition for many years at First Presbyterian Church during the family Christmas Eve Carol Service for the whole of Luke 2:1-20 to be read in the beautiful old King James or Authorized Version, and so there's no telling how many times many of you have heard this passage. One of the real delights in studying it outside the context of Christmastime is that perhaps its overly familiar text can get through to us in ways that it might not when our hearts are filled with the sentiment of the season.
Now throughout this passage that we're going to read today (verses 8-20), the focus of Luke is going to be on Jesus and on the gospel, but the way that he focuses us on Jesus and the gospel is not so much by putting the spotlight directly on Jesus. You’ll notice that in this passage Jesus is mentioned almost in passing. He's the child in the manger, and there's almost no further reference to Jesus in the passage. But the passage is all about Jesus and it's all about the gospel, and the way Luke draws our attention to Jesus and the gospel is to paint three different pictures for us.
First, in verse 8, he shows us a group of shepherds in the hillside around Bethlehem, around Judea, and that's the first scene that he uses to draw our attention to Jesus and the gospel. Then from verse 9 all the way down to verse 14, he shows us another scene. The scene starts with one angel and then expands to a sky full of angels announcing the gospel, and through that scene of the one angel and then the sky full of angels announcing the gospel he draws our attention to Jesus Christ and to the gospel. And then in verses 19-20, again the scene changes. Now it's Mary in the solitude of her own thoughts, and the shepherds leaving the manger scene and heading back to the fields of their labor praising God. And so you have a woman pondering and shepherds praising. Those three scenes — first the shepherds in the countryside, then the angels in the sky praising God, then Mary pondering and the shepherds praising. And through those scenes, Luke draws our attention to Jesus Christ and to the gospel.
So let's look to God in prayer as we prepare to hear His word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. Because it is Your word, because it is breathed out from Your very lips and heart, grant that by Your Spirit we would not treat it as if it were simply the words of men but indeed take it for what it is: the very words of God. We know as well that Your word is powerful and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword, and that it was given to instruct us and to correct us, and to rebuke us, and to train us up in righteousness, and to show us the way of salvation which is by faith in Jesus Christ. So grant that we would hear Your word and respond to it in faith. In Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the word of God:
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest,
And on each peace among those
With whom He is pleased!’
“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Let me ask you a set of three questions. You don't have to answer out loud, don't have to raise your hand…just answer them in your heart and mind and thoughts. What do you think of yourself? How do you see yourself? When you assess yourself, what is your assessment? We come from a land where everybody is “good people.” We’re all good folk. Is that how you think about yourself — ‘I'm a good person’?
I'm not just asking a self-image question, by the way. I'm not asking about your self-perception. There may well be some of you here who have a hard time having a positive assessment of yourself because of experiences you've had in your life. I'm asking a little bit different question. Because even if we have a bad self-perception, it's interesting that we have still a tendency to justify ourselves. We still want to look good in the eyes of others. We are very quick to defend ourselves when we sense that we're being falsely accused. So let me ask the question this way: As you think about yourself, do you see yourself as a sinner? Is that part of how you assess who you are?
I have a friend who very often (it's not just a show and it's not just an excuse…he really means it) — he says of himself often, “I am the worst sinner I know.” He doesn't use that to excuse his sin, but he does that to sincerely describe a state of mind and heart; that is, he has reckoned with his own sin and he knows himself intimately and personally to be a sinner, and therefore stands in need of the grace of God and ought to be one who shows mercy to others.
So, do you see yourself as a sinner? And do you understand the implication of that? That's my first question for you. How do you think of yourself, and do you see yourself as a sinner?
Second set of questions: What do you think about the gospel? What do you think about the gospel? Do you think about the gospel? Are there times in the midst of talking about football and life, and baseball and life, and basketball and life, and everything else and life, that you think about the gospel? And when you do think about the gospel, what do you think about? Are there aspects of the gospel that you find your heart gripped by, and that you enjoy rehearsing to yourself? Or perhaps you enjoy talking about them in conversation with your dearest Christian friends? What do you think about the gospel?
Third set of questions, following on that second one, what do you think about at all? What do you ponder? I love the question that Derek often asks us: “What do you think about when you’re not thinking about anything?” That's a really good question! What do you think about when you’re not thinking about anything…when you haven't planned to think about anything, when nothing is pressing upon you to think about at any given particular time, in those sort of blank spaces that pop up once every seven and a half months, what do you think about when those five seconds of quiet come? What do you ponder? And while you’re thinking about what you ponder, ask yourself this question: What is it that you get excited about? What do you praise? What occupies your thoughts when you’re not thinking about other things, and what deeply moves you in this life?
Well, I want to suggest to you that this passage has a lot to say to us about each of those three groups of questions and issues. In this passage, Luke is pointing us to Jesus the Messiah and to the gospel, but he does it by showing us three scenes, and in those three scenes we're confronted with the content of those issues that I've already raised for you. So let's walk through the passage together and see how the first scene (in verse 8) speaks to us as sinners; how the second scene (in verses 9-14) shows us the gospel and five glorious aspects of the gospel that we ought to be pondering; and how the third scene (verses 19-20) gives us a model for how we ought to be pondering and praising God. So let's look at each of these three things.
I. God is gracious to sinners.
First of all, in verse 8, we see something of how gracious our God is to sinners. Now you may be looking at verse 8 right now, and you may be saying to yourself, “Ah…Ligon…I'm missing this. I'm not sure how verse 8 speaks to God being gracious to sinners.” Well, let's look at verse 8: “In the same region there were shepherds out in the field….”
Now that's as far as you need to go, because you may or may not know that shepherds were not held in the highest esteem in their culture. Shepherds were not allowed to give testimony in courts of law in Israel in this time because they were thought to be notorious liars. Shepherds were as a class not trusted as particularly honest people with other people's sheep. Apparently shepherds had a reputation of having a difficulty in discerning the difference between mine and thine, and they were apt to liberate yours and bring it into theirs. I remember a professor of mine in college who talked about Scottish shepherds on the north side of the border who would often look across the border at those English sheep who had never had the privilege of grazing in the lush pastures of Scotland. And they would often liberate those English sheep, so that they might enjoy the experience of the Scottish countryside! Well, apparently that is a time-honored problem amongst shepherds, and shepherds in Palestine were known for swiping a sheep or two that didn't belong to them.
Now let me hasten to say there is nothing in this passage that indicates that these particular shepherds were anything other than devout men. In fact, their response in this passage to the revelation that they received from the angels is model. They do exactly what you would want any godly person to do when the gospel is shared and when the glory of God's good news is announced, but they were from a class of people who were generally despised.
One of the reasons this class of people was generally despised was that they weren't very involved in the religious services of their day. You see, shepherds because of their very profession came into contact with unclean animals and with dead animals, and that often rendered them ceremonially unclean and unable to participate in the services of the temple. Interestingly, it's very likely that this flock that was being shepherded by this group of shepherds was designated for use in the temple sacrifices. If we are to believe what the rabbis tell us from this time, flocks that were this close to Jerusalem were all devoted for the sacrificial system, and yet these shepherds themselves, though they were raising animals that were to be used in the sacrificial system, because they were unclean because of coming into contact with unclean animals and with dead animals, very probably infrequently would they ever be able to be involved in a public service of worship.
If you could, imagine how good church-going folk in Israel might have thought about folks who weren't so faithful in going to church. They were looked down upon, they were held in suspicion, and for these other reasons they were not highly esteemed. And yet, where does the announcement of the angel come? Not to the king; not to his court; not to the temple priests (the Sanhedrin and the Sadducees); not to the Pharisees, the very rigorous Bible-believing elders that led the local synagogue movement. To none of them does this announcement come. It comes to shepherds. And in that very announcement of the angels coming to those who are not highly esteemed by their contemporaries and those who are frankly considered amongst the sinners…to them the announcement comes. And I believe that in that very fact, by considering the people to whom this joyous announcement is first made, we learn something about our gracious God. And it's something that will be played out in the rest of the gospel.
Do you remember? Three times in the Gospels — in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (one time in Matthew 9:13, repeated in Mark and Luke), Jesus says, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” In other words Jesus is saying, ‘I didn't come for people who think that they’re already righteous. I came for people who are sinners.’ Now Jesus was not suggesting that there is really a class of people who are not sinners. He's just suggesting that there's a class of people who think that they’re not sinners. There is a class of people who think that they don't need the grace of God, and sadly, in Israel's time and our own, some of those people are people who are very religious. And Jesus is saying, ‘I've come for sinners, like those shepherds that so many of you despise and look down on. Those are the kinds of people that I announce the good news to.’
And I want you to pause and think about this for a second, friends, because it's hugely important. Entitlement…entitlement…a sense of our entitlement kills gratitude. If we think we are owed the grace of God, if we think we deserve the mercy of God, then we will never ever be grateful for it and we’ll never be ready to receive it. It's only someone who knows that she needs grace who is in a position to appreciate grace offered. It's only when a person knows that he needs the mercy of God that the mercy of God is sweet. And that is so important for us to realize. If our understanding of ourselves is that we're pretty good people and that ‘Of course God will cut us some slack; that's His job, after all; He's here to forgive us’…then we will never ever adequately understand grace, and we may not understand the gospel at all.
You know the new members before you today just rehearsed those words that we are “sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure.” I want to remind you, friends, that that means that you can't be a member of First Presbyterian Church if you’re a good person. We don't allow good people to be members of First Presbyterian Church. The only people who can be members of First Presbyterian Church are sinners–and sinners that not only admit that they’re sinners, but sinners who say, ‘I justly deserve God's displeasure.’
You know there are lot of people in the world today who think that God's reputation is on the line if He is not gracious to them. You know…‘If God's not compassionate and gracious and forgiving towards me that will ruin His reputation, because after all He owes me mercy and grace. And if He doesn't show me mercy and grace, well, then His mercy and grace may be called into question.’ Well, the very first thing we say as members of this church is that we deserve God's just displeasure. We don't deserve His mercy and His grace. We do deserve His just displeasure. And so when He shows us His mercy and grace, it's the most surprising and overjoying thing in this world.
Until you realize that you’re a sinner, you’re not ready to respond to the glorious, unexpected, lavish grace of God held out in the gospel, and we learn that from the very announcement of the angels to these shepherds who were looked down upon as sinners by their contemporaries. God came to them in the angels with the gospel. God sent His Son to go to just those kinds of people. If you look at the context of Jesus’ saying in Matthew 9:13, it's in the context of people who were very religious, saying, ‘Jesus, why are You eating with those sinners?’ And Jesus’ response is, ‘Well, as a matter of fact, I came for sinners. I came for people who know that they need forgiveness of sins. I did not come for people who are self-justifying… self-righteous, not needy.’
And my friends, I want to ask you this: Does that reality that you’re a sinner, that you stand in need of grace, does that have a radical impact on everything in your life? The way you look at God, the way you look at yourself, the way you look at others? The way you treat others? Our God is a gracious God and He reaches out to sinners, and we see it in verse 8.
II. Angels, who need no forgiveness, love the gospel.
There's a second thing I want you to see in this passage. In verses 9-14, it becomes very apparent to us that the angels love the gospel. Now, they’re not announcing every aspect of the gospel. You don't get to the truths of the gospel that the Apostle Paul encapsulates in
I Corinthians 15:1-4, but they do announce five really important aspects of the gospel in their song. Listen to their language and look at what they say.
First of all, look at verse 11. There they say, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” Now already they’re talking about what? Jesus’ fulfilling Old Testament prophecy. What's the city of David? Bethlehem. Where in the Old Testament is it said that Messiah will be born in Bethlehem? Micah. Micah tells us that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, and so the angels are excited about the fact that in Jesus the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah are being fulfilled. It's very interesting that in it the preaching of the gospel in the book of Acts, it almost always starts right there, with Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. And they’re excited about that! They’re singing about it!
Then, look again at verse 11. Who is this who has been born? “The Savior, who is Christ.” Now, Christ is not just a last name for Jesus…Jesus His first name, Christ the last name. It's a very important title. It means Messiah. What they’re saying is that the Messiah, Jesus, has been born, and He is our Savior. He is the anointed one, the Messiah that God had prophesied in the days of the Old Testament. And so the gospel is announced that Jesus is not only fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, but He is the Savior Messiah. And the angels are excited about this!
And then if you look again at verse 11, it doesn't stop there. “…a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Now again, that is not a description that Jesus simply is our Master, though that is true. The word Lord in the Old Testament very often is the name of God. Do you remember when Moses encounters God at the burning bush and God is telling Moses that he is to go to the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘God has sent me to deliver you out of the hand of Pharaoh’? Do you remember that one of the excuses that Moses gives is, ‘Lord, who am I going to say is sending me? What's Your name? I don't know Your name.’ And God says, ‘You tell them that I Am that I Am sent you. Tell them that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sent you, and His name is I Am that I Am’…the short version of which is Lord. And so when the angels announce that the Savior who is Messiah the Lord is born, they are announcing the divinity of Jesus Christ is at the very heart of the gospel.
And then again, if you look at verse 12, they speak of the condescension of Christ in the humiliation of the incarnation. Christ the Lord, the Savior is born, but at the end of verse 12 where is He placed? In a manger. Now how's that for a juxtaposition? A Savior who is Messiah the Lord, God in the flesh, is born; and He's born in a manger. So they announce the humiliation of Christ as part of the gospel, and they announce that Jesus has come in order that we might enjoy the peace of God, the total favor and well-being that only God can bestow.
Look at verse 14. What do they sing? “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace on those on whom His favor rests.” So they announce the peace of God, and it's really striking, isn't it, what happens here? Who is it that announces peace? Look back in verse 13: “Suddenly there was with [this one angel] a multitude of the heavenly hosts.” Now, you know that in the Old Testament, heavenly hosts can refer to the stars — the hosts of heaven, because there are a lot of them up there. But that can also refer to whom? To the legions, the armies of God's angels. That's what it's referring to here. Suddenly with that one angel was a heavenly army.
Now you need to understand, my friends, that this army of angels is far more powerful than a billion atom bombs. This army of angels could have incinerated every human being on earth, should God have appointed it to. This army of angels is far more powerful than anything that you can possibly conceive, and this army of angels is here to announce what? Peace. Normally we don't send the army to announce peace! Normally we send the army to kill people and break things. This army comes to announce peace. And I think in the very announcement of peace by this army, we're reminded that one day that army will come again with Jesus and then it will be too late for sinners. Now…now is the time to stretch out the hand and to receive a free, gracious, peace offered. Then it will be too late.
But these angels, you understand, they’re excited about the gospel! [Now you say, “Ligon, it's their job! It's their job to make this announcement! It's their job to sing praises to God!”] Understand, friends, the angels never go through the motions. You and I may go through the motions, okay? There may be days when we're here singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” and our minds are a million miles away and we're mad at one another, and we're going through the motions. The angels never do that. When the angels say, “Glory to God in the highest,” they mean it and they are genuinely excited about the gospel! And I want to tell you this, my friends: these angels ought not be more excited about the gospel than you and me. Because these angels didn't need to be forgiven. They were without sin. These angels didn't need Jesus to die for them. They were without sin. These angels had never rebelled against God. You and I have. We ought never let the angels outpraise [us] for the gospel. These angels are excited about the gospel; we ought to be more excited about the gospel.
What do you think about the gospel? Are you excited about the gospel? Does your praise of God for His grace in the gospel rival the praise of the angels? We have every reason to praise God more for the gospel than the angels, because we are the beneficiaries of the gospel. And it ought always be in our hearts — the gospel. We ought to be thinking about it. We ought to be thinking about those five things, or one of those five things, or some aspect of the gospel today. It ought to be a part of our life to ponder the gospel.
III. The Good News of the Gospel should cause us to ponder and praise.
One more thing. Look at verses 19-20. The good news shared with Mary and with the shepherds sets Mary a’pondering, and the shepherds a’praising. The good news shared with Mary through the shepherds, and to the shepherds from the angels, sets Mary a’pondering and the shepherds a’praising:
“Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
My friends, the response of Mary and the shepherds, different though they are…the response of Mary and the shepherds is a model of believing response to revelation: pondering the good news, and praising God for the good news.
Now for the men who were at the Men of the Covenant meeting this week, one of the things that Dr. Elkin challenged us to do was to memorize and meditate upon and reflect on the word of God. That's exactly what Mary's doing here. She's pondering the good news. She's meditating on it. And I want to tell you, if you’re meditating on the gospel there is no way that you can feel entitled. And if you’re pondering and praising God for the gospel, there is no way that you can do that from an ungrateful, dimly understanding heart. Mary no doubt was overwhelmed by all the things that she saw and was at the epicenter of, and she expresses her wonder in one way, and the shepherds express their praise and wonder in another way. But they are an example for us.
John Owen, a long time ago, said,
“In the divine Scriptures, there are shallows and there are deeps; shallows where the lamb may wade, and deeps where the elephant may swim.”
Now, he means by that that there are some parts of the Bible that the youngest Christian can understand, and some parts of the Bible that the most mature, most knowing, most studied Christian cannot plumb the depths of. But you know sometimes those points are actually the same points in Scripture. The gospel is one of those points that the youngest Christian may wade in the glory of the gospel, and the most mature Christian may swim in the depths of the gospel and never ever touch the bottom of it. And I love that. I love…there is nothing more encouraging to us than the joy of a young Christian who has just seen his sins, and just seen the Savior, and just trusted in Christ. The excitement, the exuberance, the relief, the joy — it's encouraging. It keeps my old tired heart trusting and young, at least in some spots, to see young believers. I don't care whether their description of what has happened to them is particularly theologically astute. I just love the joy of seeing a sinner forgiven, and who knows the grace of God in the gospel.
And at the same time, it is a joy to see older saints who have been through many dangers, toils, and snares, who are still trusting in the Savior; through sunshine and shadow, they’re still trusting in the Lord. Those things encourage us, and in the gospel both young Christians and mature Christians have matter for pondering and for praise. And so Mary and the shepherds are an example to us. The good news ought to set us pondering and praising. There ought to be nothing that we’d rather think about than God and the gospel. It ought to be a part of our conversation with our dearest and best friends. We ought to be able to talk about all sorts of things common to this life and enjoy them to the fullest, but at least some part of our conversation ought to be focused on the gospel.
Now back to that question again. When you’re not thinking about anything else, what do you think about? Is the gospel ever there? Ever a part of the deepest thoughts and desires of your heart? It was for Mary. It was for the shepherds. Luke gives us much to think about in this passage, my friends. We ought to be a gospel-saturated people, a people who realize that we're sinners and we didn't deserve God to reach out to us in grace. But He did anyway. And we ought not to be [hum…] bored by that. We ought to be overjoyed by that. We ought to be surprised by that. And God in the gospel has given us something that angels love to sing about. We ought to love to sing about it more. And God in the gospel has given us something to ponder and to praise, and we ought to ponder, and we ought to praise God for it.
So let's go to the Lord in prayer and start doing just that.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the gospel of Your dear Son. Grant that we would know that we need it, and grant that we would understand it. Grant that we would believe it. Grant that we would ponder it for the rest of our lives and praise You for it, with both our lips and our lives. In Jesus' name. Amen.