“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.”Luke 2:9
This year has brought great fear to many of us. From a deadly pandemic to lost jobs to uncertainty about the future, fear has been the background noise of 2020—a constant in every thought, conversation, and plan. The year has become a meme, where we joke about all the bad that has happened. We say something like, “You know, 2020” and people nod in understanding.
But we don’t have the monopoly on fear. We aren’t the first generation to face an onslaught of hardship. And we certainly won’t be the last.
2000 years ago, the world was ruled by the Roman Empire. Their power stretched from England in the north to Egypt in the south, from western Europe to Iraq in the east. For hundreds of years, this empire ruled much of the world, including the tiny nation of Israel. The Jews wanted nothing more than freedom from their oppressor.
Then one night, on a quiet non-descript hill in the Judean countryside, shepherds were watching over the sheep. Into the darkness an angel appeared. Luke 2 tells us “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (v. 9). These shepherds were the undesirables of Israeli culture; they were despised. Because of their work, they couldn’t keep the ceremonial law, therefore they couldn’t participate in Jewish religious life. They were distrusted and known as thieves. It was to this ragamuffin gang of men the angel of the Lord appeared on that dark night.
And they were terrified. They feared for their lives. Imagine, the glory of the Lord shining all around! Imagine a being of such brilliance appearing out of nowhere! And to despised shepherds, nonetheless.
Yet the angel told them, “Fear not” (v.10). This command is commonly known as the most repeated command in Scripture. Found in both the Old and New Testaments, “Do not fear” is given in numerous situations and circumstances. Whether facing real terror and pending harm or worries about tomorrow’s provision, God’s people are called not to fear. It’s a command often found in the context of divine revelation, such as when God’s people were called to fight a battle or when a prophet warned of pending punishment for sin. It’s a command intended to comfort God’s people and to encourage them to trust in Him.
In the case of the shepherds in Bethlehem, the angel of the Lord tells them why they are not to fear: “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” (Luke 2:10-12). After pronouncing this good news, a great company of angels then burst onto the scene and they all begin praising and worshipping God.
The shepherds go into town to see what this good news is all about; they go to Mary and Joseph and see the baby in the manger. Then they do what all people do who hear good news: they tell everyone about it. And more, they respond to that good news with the fear of the Lord, for they return to their fields, glorifying and praising God. (v.20).
Fear the Lord
There’s a second common command found in Scripture: “fear the Lord.” This command is different from the run-away-in-terror kind of fear the shepherds had at the beginning of the story. Rather, this is a run-to-Someone kind of fear. When the Bible talks about the fear of the Lord, it means a holy combination of awe, wonder, reverence, adoration, love, trust, and worship. It’s the response the choir of angels had as they sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). It’s the response of the shepherds who left their sheep in the fields to see the marvelous news lying in a manger. It’s the response of all who heard the shepherd’s good news.
And it’s the response of our own hearts when we pause this Christmas and consider Immanuel, God in the flesh. God incarnate. The One who was there at the beginning of time, the One who numbers the stars and knows them by name, the One who keeps the storehouses of snow—this One wrapped himself in human flesh and dwelt among us. The God-man entered this fallen, fear-filled world to live the life we could not live and die the death we deserved in our place so that we could be made right with God.
The same words the angel said to the shepherds that night on the hills outside Bethlehem are the same words our Savior now says to us, “Fear not.” Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death. He faced our greatest fear for us—eternal separation from God. He purchased our redemption. He made a way for us to be children of God. He indwells us by his Spirit, one called both the Helper and Comforter. What amazing news!
Though we live in a fearful world and in a fearful time, we have access to the One who is greater than all our fears. He hears us when we cry out to him. He keeps and preserves us from all evil. He comforts us and carries us. Let us turn from our fears and turn toward God with a holy fear—with awe, wonder, adoration, trust, and worship.
Let us sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest!”