Robert Jeffress - Back To Bethlehem
Hi, I'm Robert Jeffress, and welcome again to "Pathway to Victory". In just a few weeks, Christians around the world will pause to celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. But often the busyness of the holiday season can distract us from its true meaning. Today we'll pause our hectic schedules to reflect on the remarkable story of Jesus' birth and the beauty of God's plan to redeem mankind. I delivered this message in April, when Christmas was more than eight months away. Today, I hope it helps us to remember to keep our eyes on Jesus in the midst of this eventful holiday season. I've titled today's study "Back to Bethlehem". On today's edition of "Pathway to Victory".
I have some breaking news for you. Only 258 shopping days left until Christmas. Now just saying that in jest I can tell sends panic throughout the congregation. I mean, you can't help but fast forward to December and trying to navigate through the crowded malls and the unending Christmas parties and being together with those family members with whom there's a strained relationship. No wonder that by the time December 25th finally rolls around, we're all fatigued and tired of Christmas. You know, it's trite, but it's nevertheless true. So many times the distractions of the holiday season cause us to lose sight of what Christmas is really about. The entrance of the Savior of the world into the world. That thought gave me a little bit of comfort when I was preparing this week's message.
In our study of Luke we've come to Luke chapter two, and I have to admit to you I wasn't that excited about this week's message. Not because of the content, but because of the timing. I mean, how do you preach the Christmas story when it's 78 degrees outside? I mean, don't you kinda need to have a little chill in the air? You need to have the lights, the decorations, the holiday music to get in the Christmas mood to really appreciate Luke chapter two. And yet I wanna suggest to you today that perhaps the best time to look at the story of Christ's birth is not around the holiday season when it gets lost with everything else. But perhaps the best time to examine what this story really is about is a day like today. And so today I'm gonna invite you to take your Bibles and turn back to Luke chapter two as we take a journey back to Bethlehem to talk about the most important birth in human history.
Now I want you to think of Luke's account of this birth as a play in three different acts. Michael, this is a three-act play. And it begins in act one not in Bethlehem but it occurs hundreds of miles away from Bethlehem in the seat of world power. Then it wasn't New York City or Washington, DC. The seat of world power was Rome. The story begins, you know it well. "Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria".
Now, why does Luke give us all of this historical background? Remember he was writing this as a letter to a man named Theophilus, a lover of God, probably a recent convert. And he was trying to show Theophilus that the story of Christianity is not rooted in fantasy or fable, it is rooted in historical fact. And the setting for this story is something everyone was well aware of when Luke wrote this letter. 60 years earlier, Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, had issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire world for the purpose of taxation.
Now, the Roman government was very methodical in how they were gonna conduct this census. The head of each household would go back to the place of his birth where the family records were kept in order to register for the census. So if you were a head of household and you lived in Nazareth, but were born in Jerusalem, you'd go to Jerusalem. If you lived in Jerusalem, but were born in Nazareth, you'd go the opposite direction. And this is where we see Joseph and Mary, this couple we met last time. Joseph was the head of the household and so he was commanded to go to the place of his birth. He lived in Nazareth but he was commanded to go to his birth place, which was Bethlehem.
Look at verses four and five. "And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth", that's up in the north, down to the south, "To Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child". Remember last time, the angel had just come, Gabriel to Mary and said, "You're going to give birth to the Savior". Now we've skipped about eight or nine months and now at this point Mary is pregnant, very pregnant, and they're on their way to Bethlehem.
Now what I want you to think about for a moment is how God used natural events to bring about his supernatural plan. Think about this. With one stroke of the pen, Caesar Augustus, hundreds of miles away, the most powerful man in the world, with one stroke of his pen he signed an edict that would have ramifications he could've never imagined. Little did Caesar know that when he signed that order, it would cause a man named Joseph whom he had never met, to travel to a little village called Bethlehem Augustus had never heard of, in order that Joseph's wife might give birth to the king of the universe. A king whose followers within just a few hundred years would topple the entire Roman Empire.
Act one of this play begin in Rome. Act two, we go to a small inn in Bethlehem. Look at verses six and seven. "And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for Mary to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped him in cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn". Isn't it interesting only two verses record the most important birth in history? C.S. Lewis had it right when he said, "The greatest miracle of all time is not the atonement or even the resurrection. The greatest miracle is the incarnation. God becoming flesh".
Paul said it this way in Philippians 2 in talking about Jesus Christ. "Although he existed in the form of God, he did not regard his equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in the appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross". The final act of this play occurs on a hill outside of Bethlehem. Look at verse eight. "And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night". The shepherds were tending their sheep.
Now most people don't realize this story probably did not take place in December. It was probably most likely in a day right now in the spring, March or April. It was probably very close to passover time. It's very probable that these shepherds were taking care of sheep that would soon become the passover lambs that would be used as a representative of the coming Savior.
Now you have to know something about shepherds to appreciate what is going here. Shepherds represented the lowest rung in the Jewish culture. Shepherds took care of dirty and smelly sheep. And because they did so, they were dirty and smelly themselves. There was no sure deodorant back then to take the stench away. So if you were gonna have a party, guess who you would never invite to your party. They never made it to any a-list parties, the shepherds. They were the outcast of Jewish society. Isn't it interesting that God chose to make his announcement of the Savior's birth not to the political leaders in Rome, not to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. He chose to make this announcement to the smelly, dirty shepherds.
Look at how it came about, verse nine. "And the angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terribly frightened". I would think so. Imagine you're out there in the darkness when suddenly Gabriel appears. And Gabriel said to them, "Do not be afraid". Notice how that's his entering line every time he runs into somebody? "Don't be afraid", they had every right to be afraid. "For behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will be for all the people: for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord".
Well, there were many babies probably born that night in Jerusalem, in all of Israel. So to be more specific, he gave the sign, verse 12. "And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger". And suddenly the single voice of Gabriel gave way to a multitude, thousands perhaps, tens of thousands of angels in the heaven saying, verse 14, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace".
Now, if you have the King James version is says, "Peace, goodwill toward men". That's a very unfortunate translation. Even though it's the translation we're used to and we see plastered on Christmas cards everywhere. "Peace, goodwill toward men". That makes it sound like God is simply giving a generic blessing to everybody. Peace, y'all. Goodwill to everybody. That's not what the text says. What the text really says is what the New American Standard translates it. "Peace among men with whom God is pleased".
Ladies and gentlemen, the only people who are at peace with God and peace with themselves are those who have accepted the forgiveness that Christ comes to offer. Romans 5:1 says, "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ". The only one who enjoys peace with himself and, more importantly, peace with God are those whose sins have been forgiven by Christ Jesus. Verse 15 says, "And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven that the shepherds began saying to one another, 'let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing which had happened which the Lord has made known to us'".
Isn't it ironic to you that when the religious leaders in Jerusalem heard the news, how did they respond? "Tell me something exciting". They stayed right where they were. But when the shepherds, the lowest rung of society, heard it, they went with haste. This is the first instance of a Christmas rush in history. They went quickly to see this thing. Verse 16, "They came in haste and they found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as he lay in the manger". Look at verse 17. "And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told to them about the child". Verse 20, "And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard, just as had been told them".
You know, there is so much I could say about this. But I want you to go back to verses 10 and 11 for just a moment. Look at the announcement of Gabriel. "And the angel said to them, 'do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will be for all the people: for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior'", underline that, a Savior, "Who is Christ the Lord". Someone has said if man's greatest need had been instruction, God would have sent a teacher. If our greatest need had been for a law, God would have sent a legislator. If our greatest need had been for money, God would have sent an economist. But our greatest need is for forgiveness, and that's why God sent a Savior. For unto you is born this day a Savior, a Savior.
Remember what the angel said? "You should call his name Jesus, for he shall", what? "Save his people from their sins". Jesus came to be our Savior. He didn't come to save us from ourselves or save us from the hostility of this world. He came to save us from our sin and the consequences of our sin, the eternal separation from God. That's why Christ came. And notice what Gabriel said about these news. He said, "This is good news". Don't let anybody fool you. The Gospel is not bad news, it's not a message of hate, it's a message of hope. This is good news of great joy, and guess who it's for? It's for all the people. The good news didn't come just to the Jews or gentiles. It's not just for baptists or catholics. It is for everyone. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists. Anyone and everyone who trusts in Christ can be forgiven of his sins.
"I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people". You know, just as Gabriel's good news broke the darkness of that night, the Gospel does the same for you and me. It doesn't matter how dark your situation is right now. Some of you feel like you're in a hopeless situation, you feel like there is no way out. No matter how dark and bleak your situation is, the good news of Jesus' forgiveness bursts through like light and dispels the darkness forever. Paul said when we were lost without hope in this world or the next world, that's when God sent Christ for us. God demonstrated his love toward us in that while when we were yet sinners, he sent Christ to die for us.
You know, Paul had that experience himself. Remember, he was a murderer, a blasphemer of God. But when he was on that road to Damascus, the light of Jesus Christ burst into his life and he was never the same again. And when he talked about that experience until the day he died, he said it this way in 2 Corinthians 9:15. "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift". Paul actually made up that Greek word, indescribable is how it's translated. He just made up his own superlative. Thanks be to God for that incomparable, indescribable, beyond description, that gift of Jesus Christ. What is it that makes the gift of Jesus indescribable, or as one translation says, "Far too wonderful for words"? And more importantly, how are you and I to respond to that story?
I wanna suggest in closing today two principles that I think 2.000 years later inform us of what our response to God's indescribable gift of Christ should be. First of all, God's gift is to be acknowledged, not ignored. God's gift is to be acknowledged and not ignored. Just imagine these shepherds out there in the middle of the night, they see this spectacular sight, thousands of angels praising God, announcing the birth of the Savior. The angels go back to heaven, the day turns back to night. The shepherds look at one another and say, "Boy, that was really something. Let's get back to our sheep now". You wouldn't have imagined such a thing. Such an announcement demanded a response from the shepherds, and it demands a response from us as well. You can't ignore what happened 2.000 years in Bethlehem. You just can't ignore it. God's indescribable gift has to be acknowledged rather than being ignored.
And that leads to a second truth. God's gift is to be shared and not kept. Look at verse 17 for a moment. "And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds". In verse 30, "And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as been told them". Isn't it interesting that the very first evangelists in the entire Bible were not prophets, they weren't priests, they weren't pastors, but they were smelly, dirty shepherds. They were the first ones. As soon as they heard about the birth of Jesus went away as quickly as they could to tell others what they had heard. That's what an evangelist does, he shares the good news.
I mean, think about it. If you have discovered the cure for cancer, if somebody discovered the cure for cancer, would you just keep that to yourself? Of course not, you would share that with anyone and everyone. Ladies and gentlemen, do you realize you and I have discovered the cure to something far more serious than cancer? We have been given the cure to man's greatest problem. His sin sickness, his alienation from God. And you and I have been entrusted with that good news to share with other people about not one way but the only way to find God's forgiveness. Remember what Jesus said in Luke 19:10 about himself? He said, "For the Son of man has come", to do what? "To seek and to save those who are lost". He came on a search and save mission.
And if we are Jesus' disciples, listen to this, if we really claim to be his followers, we're going to have the same heart, to share these news just like the shepherds did with as many people as possible. One writer said it this way. "Jesus not only calls us to come to him, but to go for him". Go into all the world and make disciples. Did you know Jesus issued that imperative five different times? "Go and make disciples. Go and make disciples". We call that, the what? The great commission. It's not the great suggestion. And ladies and gentlemen, the one thing, the only thing you and I were left on earth to do, and that is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible before he returns. God's message is to be shared and not kept.