Testimony of the Shepherds – an Enduring Sign

The Shepherds and the Angel

A Christmas Day Meditation

This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

 

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”


When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.


When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

(Luke 2.12-18)

I often get the impression that many unbelievers think that if they themselves personally had a sign from God they would believe. Which leads them to wonder why God doesn’t give more signs.

This whole line of questioning of God’s use of signs makes me wonder – if you think God needs to provide you with a sign, if he did, would you believe him? As I’ve demonstrated previously, unless you’re already inclined to believe, the likely answer is no.  Signs are a type of evidence. And unless you’re willing to believe what the evidence is pointing to, no amount of evidence will persuade you. Even so it appears to me God has left evidence more powerful than a sign. But before we can understand it, let’s look first at how God uses signs:

God’s Use of The Double Sign

When God wants to make a point really clear, he uses what I call a double sign. The double sign is a supernatural sign followed by a natural sign – and the second sign can only be recognized because you’ve first seen the preceding supernatural sign and received a message on how to identify it. We see this type of sign in the call of Moses at the burning bush.

The first sign was the supernatural appearance of God at the burning bush (Ex 3.2-3). The second sign was a natural sign – Moses leading God’s people out of Egypt to worship him at the mountain of the burning bush. (Ex 3.12)

Notice the qualities of the signs:

  • The sign is fleeting. It don’t last long (Moses wasn’t long at the burning bush; Israel wasn’t long at Mt. Sinaii.)
  • Only a few people see them. (In Moses’ case it was only one)
  • God proclaims what he is about to do and confirms it with a natural sign
    (God promises deliverance for his people – and provides physical evidence as proof – worshipping at the mountain)
  • Unlike the first sign which you merely witness, the second sign requires your participation
    Moses had to lead the people out of Egypt, then to Mt. Sinai

Notice these are the same qualities we see at the announcement of the nativity:

  • The sign is fleeting. (The announcement of the angel/angels doesn’t last long; The visitation of the baby in the manager is not long)
  • Only a few people see it. (The Shepherds)
  • God proclaims what he is about to do and confirms it with a natural sign
    (God promises deliverance for the entire human race and provides physical evidence as proof – the baby in the manager – where he could be worshipped)
  • Unlike the first sign which you merely witness, the second sign requires your participation
    The Shepherds had to go search and find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

Let me point out again, if you’re not inclined to believe the supernatural sign, you’ll almost certainly not believe the natural one. The gospel of Luke tells us about a supernatural sign -an entire army of angels appears with the angel giving the announcement. (Luke 2.13) And it’s clear only the shepherds saw them – because the people in the surrounding towns (whom they spoke to) clearly did not see them – they were “amazed” at what the shepherds were saying.  It appears quite intentional that the first (supernatural) sign was meant only  for a select few. And those few were willing to believe.

Notice the second sign – the natural sign – requires more faith than the first. The second sign is not merely an event you receive: the viewing of a supernatural event. The second sign requires participation. It requires faith enough to place yourself in the correct place to see the sign. In this case, faith to search for the child, and faith to believe it means what the angel says it means once you see the sign. It makes sense that God would limit the supernatural sign to those with enough faith to believe what they see and act on the second sign. And clearly the shepherds did believe. And since the second sign requires more faith and specific knowledge, it also makes sense that it is given to the same group that sees the first sign.  The shepherds showed their faith by participating in the second sign by finding the baby in a manager. And in their excitement told others.

Now when you compare the number of people given the second sign who saw the sign fulfilled (the baby in the manger) with the number of people in the world that need to be saved who didn’t see the baby in the manager (basically everyone else in the world)that’s a very, very small number of people who saw the second sign. 

So again we must consider, why is God so selective in who he allows to see signs? I suspect two reasons. The first I gave above – unless you’re inclined to believe God, you’re not going to believe the signs (either of them) either – and so they would be wasted.  And God is not wasteful. (John 6.12) The second reason for limiting signs is this: God has another type of sign he wants to give. A more enduring sign.  Jesus put it this way:

I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
(John 14.12)

Jesus says those who believe will do not only what he’s been doing, but will do greater things “than these.”  What are the “these” he’s referring too? No one has surpassed the miracles Jesus did, clearly it’s not that.  Jesus said he came to testify to the truth (John 18:37) and that his disciples must also testify to the truth (John 15:27).  Could testifying to the truth of Jesus be the “greater thing”,  a greater, enduring sign God wants to leave?  That would appear to be the case especially when you consider the explosive growth of the first century church .[1] What about the fact that we personally didn’t see the signs? And the fact that it was so long ago – how can we be witnesses?

These are not a problems because we have a reliable source: Those who did see the signs. So once again it comes down to a matter of faith – do you believe them?  And thus we are in a similar position as the people who heard the testimony of the shepherds in person: are you willing to believe the testimony?

Unless you have faith, hearing the testimony of the shepherds in person won’t make you any more inclined to believe if you’re not already inclined to believe.  Similarly,  if you have faith, you don’t need to hear it from the shepherds personally or see the sign yourself. (John 20.29)   You can take the truth of the existence of God’s sign on the testimony of those who did see the sign – the shepherds. You can accept the testimony on the basis that you know that God is faithful and true,  (Rev 3.14) and it is he who has revealed the sign to whom he desired. The question becomes – will you believe the testimony? More importantly – do you believe enough to participate in the second sign as the shepherds did? The shepherds had to both find the child, then tell others. In our case the child has already been found. We merely need to tell others.

When you believe the sign through the testimony of the shepherds, and participate by telling others  – you too become a sign to all around you. A sign that is ongoing, a living one – like one candle lighting another. Your participation becomes part of an enduring sign – a sign which is testified to by all who live by faith. (2 Cor 5.7)

God’s Enduring Sign

This is the approach God took with the people of Isaiah’s day. Consider what he told them:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.  …


I have revealed and saved and proclaimed– I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God”.
Isaiah 43.10a; 12

God tells his people twice that they are witnesses. What are they witnesses to? God had set the context back in verse 2:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
(Isaiah 43.2)

This appears to be a clear reference to the Exodus – passing through the parted waters (Ex 14.21-22); and through the Jordan river (the crossing with Joshua after the Exodus) (Josh 3.13; 16-17). The mention of fire appears to be a prophetic use concerning events in the book of Daniel. (Dan 3.27)[2] But Isaiah is prophesying some 700 years after the Exodus. Clearly the people of Isaiah’s day were not eye witnesses to the miracles of the Exodus. But as the people of God who both believe and have the reliable testimony of eye witnesses,  God regards them as witnesses. Should he regard us any less so with regard to the signs of the nativity?

And so it is with us. Though we are two thousand years past the birth of Jesus, and we did not  personally witness the signs of God – we have the reliable testimony of those who did see them and “spread the word”. (Luke 2.17)  Likewise God has made us witnesses.  God intends for us to participate in the sign. So we who believe are – as in days past – his servants whom he has chosen to know, believe, understand and because we do – testify.  And in so doing become part of the enduring sign of those events 2000 or so years ago in Bethlehem. We are the sign of what he has done – our testimony is woven into the testimony of all the saints to become an enduring sign of the nativity.

I urge you to take the responsibility seriously.  Tell the true story of Christmas to everyone you can .  And tell it every way you can:  post nativity scenes around your home (not snowmen and sleighs). Tell your kids the real story of Christmas – and leave out Santa and the reindeer. If you’re into Greeting cards, send ones that point to the nativity – not merely wish a happy holiday season.  And of course as a Christian – your greeting should be “Merry Christmas” – not “Happy Holidays.”  Why do people oppose saying Merry Christmas? Because everyone knows it’s another small testimony to the second sign – the natural sign – the Baby in the manager – Immanuel – God with us. It re-enforces the enduring sign. And some would prefer that truth not be told, and not be confronted with a sign.


Duane Caldwell |December 25,  2018 | Printer friendly version


Notes  

1. Commentators see the “greater works” as works of conversion. But conversion of course starts with a testimony to the truth, so their explanation is pointing in the same direction.

Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (In the New International Commentary on the New Testament), Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971 pp. 645-646

Merrill C. Tenney, The Gospel of John (In The Expositors Bible Commentary), Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981 pp. 145-146
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2. At least one commentator also sees this as referring to the events of Daniel:
Geoffrey W. Grogan, Isaiah (In The Expositors Bible Commentary), Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986 p. 260

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