And there were shepherds residing in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Just then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests!” (Luke 2:8-14 BSB)
As we can see, first a single angel appeared to the shepherds, who were surrounded by “the glory of the Lord.” It was an experience that put them in great fear. After some words of comfort by the angel to calm the men and news about the birth of the Savior, a “great multitude of the heavenly host” joined this angel, all of them praising God.
This all must have been astounding beyond comprehension for these simple and unpretentious men who lived the quiet lives of watchers of sheep and who were accustomed to long hours of stillness in the night hours.
We actually have little understanding about how those shepherds must have felt on that night. It is difficult for us to put ourselves in their place andto try to imagine what they saw and experienced. We have seen so many serene nativity scenes of the shepherds with their staffs and long clean robes (white robes with powder blue accents seems to be the favored colors), that it is hard for us to imagine what these men really were like.
I called the shepherds unpretentious, and so I think they were, but these were also rough and probably ill-mannered men. They were of the lowest class of the local society, and their demeanor and appearance no doubt made that obvious. Anyone who has worked with livestock of any kind knows that clean chore clothes do not stay that way very long; and if working with livestock is really a person’s only life, he often does not bother to clean up very much. He carries the odor of sheep or cows with him wherever he goes.
These shepherds lived simple lives and were men who were not accustomed to unusual events coming into their lives. “Today is pretty much the same as was yesterday, and tomorrow will be a repeat of today. The same ol’—same ol’.”
But on that night as they were keeping their eyes on their sheep, the heavens opened up and unexplainable celestial events suddenly began to take place. It is no wonder that they were “sore afraid” (as it is put in the King James’ English) when they saw the angel and the “glory of the Lord.”
What is “The Glory of the Lord?”
Just what is it that you think that they saw? We read of “the glory of the Lord,” but that is the only description that we are given. It is a phrase that appears often in the Bible, usually in the Old Testament.
The first time we see this phrase is when the Israelites were on their forty-year journey in the wilderness. They hadn’t been gone from Egypt that long—just a month or so. But already they were beginning to complain about their living conditions. They were even expressing their regret in leaving Egypt at all, forgetting that they had been slaves in that land.
Although God had given them a pillar of cloud to guide their way by day, and in a pillar of fire to give them light by night, and although they had seen very miraculous signs and wonders surrounding their exodus while they were still in Egypt and at the parting of the Red Sea so that they could cross, their faith in placing their trust in God and in their leader Moses was disappearing fast. Something had to be done.
Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “This evening you will know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the LORD’s glory, because He has heard your grumbling against Him. For who are we that you should grumble against us?” (Exodus 16:6-7 emphasis added BSB)
True to the words of Moses, on the next morning Aaron assembled the people, and as they looked toward the desert, the glory of the LORD appeared in a cloud.
What was it that they saw?
What is Not “The Glory of the Lord”
I have seen great and fearsome clouds that have struck me with awe, billowing high into the atmosphere. Perhaps on some summer evening you have seen giant thunderheads with lightning shooting from cloud to cloud. You have watched as the clouds hurriedly build in height, towering higher and higher, seeming to grow by the second in size and in power. Probably you have also seen some of the images taken by the new James Webb Space Telescope that show us a bit of the manifestations of galaxies and other heavenly bodies of the infinite space beyond our atmosphere. These things fill us with wonder and pure astonishment.
Are we to call any of these phenomena “the glory of God?” They may be a demonstration of the power of God’s creation. The powerful weather systems we see may be examples of the intensity and the raw energy and might of the atmosphere against which we actually have no defense, but what we experience is not the glory of God. If we are in the path of a powerful weather system that, at any moment, may hurl a tornado at us, we may be “sore afraid,” as were the shepherds in the field on that night of Jesus’ birth, but these powerful weather systems are not the glory of God.
Declaring the Glory of God
It may be that these atmospheric and celestial events “declare the glory of God,” as it says in the Psalms, but they do not express God’s absolute and full glory. They may proclaim his words, but they are not a complete representation of His power.
As the Hebrew people left Egypt, they were led by in a pillar of cloud to guide their way by day, and in a pillar of fire to give them light by night. In these pillars of cloud and fire, God led them. These pillars must have been magnificent and astonishing sights, but there is no mention of the glory of God appearing in them. (Exodus 13:21-22)
Another occasion when the Israelite people had a sense of God’s mighty power was at the time when God called Moses up to the summit of Mount Sinai at the time of the giving of the Ten Commandments. As Moses was on the mountain, a thick cloud descended upon the mountain, completely obscuring the top. The cloud was accompanied by very loud blast of the ram’s horn.
Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because the LORD had descended on it in fire. And the smoke rose like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. And as the sound of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him in the thunder. (Exodus 20:18-19 BSB)
The people, standing at the foot of the mountain, stood in great fear of what they were witnessing. It is understandable that God had warned the people that they should be careful not to go up on the mountain or touch its base.
“For,” God said, “Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.”
But the people had no trouble obeying that command, because when they witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sounding of the ram’s horn, and the mountain enveloped in smoke, they trembled and stood a respectful distance away.
“Speak to us yourself and we will listen,” they said to Moses. “But do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”
It is not surprising that they said this. The disciple John walked with Jesus for three years while Jesus was on earth. He sat under his teachings. When John was with Jesus on what we call “the Mount of Transfiguration,” he even witnessed Jesus the man being transfigured into something like his true divine being, when “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 1:2). Yet despite these experiences, when John saw the full glory of Jesus in the Revelation, he writes “I fell at his feet as a dead man” (Revelation 1:17).
This is similar to the experience of Abraham, of Ezekiel and also of Daniel. Moses, when God first spoke to him at the burning bush, was warned by God to not come too near and to take off his sandals.
God told Moses, “The place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Then, when God proclaimed Who He was, “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”
What these men saw was no doubt something of the glory of God—some portion of His glory, but even with these experiences of fainting or falling down as a dead man at the sight of Him, I do not think they witnessed God’s full glory.
I say this because in the later experience of Moses, after several times of meeting and speaking with God, Moses made a daring request.
To See the Face of God
Moses was perhaps so emboldened because after making a request of God that the Presence of God would remain with them, God replied, “I will do as you have asked, for you have found favor in My sight, and I know you by name.”
It was after this that Moses made his bold request: “Please Lord, show me Your glory.”
But this time God replied, “I will cause all My goodness to pass before you, and I will proclaim My Name in your presence, but You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.”
God then continued, “There is a place near Me where you are to stand upon a rock, and when My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” (from Exodus 33:17-23)
The Fulness of God
When both the Old and the New Testament speak of the glory of God, it is a reference to the intrinsic worth of God. The word speaks of what is the value of the very essence of the person of God. This value is beyond what we can even begin to comprehend. Our first reaction to a power that we cannot understand is always fear.
What we see in the above references is that God’s glory, when revealed to men, invokes in them a strong response, and fear is the chief emotion exhibited. They fall on their faces as dead men and even feel that they are about to die.
When Jesus demonstrated a portion of his glory for Peter and Andrew by performing the miracle of the great catch of fish, Peter fell at his feet and proclaimed, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).
Isaiah declared, “Woe is me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips dwelling among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).
In Bethlehem that Night
Back to the night on the hills of Bethlehem, when the glory of the Lord shown around the shepherds, they became “sore afraid.” They were filled with fear. They were terrified! The Greek word used is phobeó. This is an extreme fear that would make the person flee. It is also the word from we get our English word phobia.
When one thinks of these staggering events of that evening as compared to these shepherd herder’s normally quiet life, it is understandable that the first words of the angel to them was to not be afraid. It is almost surprising that they were able to grasp the information that the angel told them about how they were to find the Christ child.
But the part of the message from the angels that I have thought about is regarding what the news of the birth of Jesus means to us as people. First of all, the angel said that he brought to us “good tidings of great joy.” After that, the heavenly host, in their praise to God announced “peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
As I try to imagine what the shepherds must have felt that night; the news that God brought them good tidings of great joy was probably the type of news that they did not hear very much in their daily lives.
Another thing that they probably did not hear was that God was “pleased” with them (at least this was the inference). People in the lower rungs of society usually are not accustomed to someone telling them that they are pleased with them. Usually, they are made to feel like they are a nuisance or that they are in the way.
Yet God did not send His message to people of high social standing. He chose to send His message to these unpretentious men who slept in the fields and smelled of sheep. It was a message of peace.
God still sends his message of peace to the same sort of people. I do not mean to say only shepherds, but to those who are humble in heart. “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” Peter writes (1 Peter 5:5).
It says in the Proverbs, “God mocks the mockers, but gives grace to the humble” (3:34).
Despite what the powerful and influential people of our world would have us believe, peace in our world is not negotiated in the U.N. building, nor is found in treaties made in the highest ranks of government between rival and competing nations.
Peace is found one person at a time. It is not found in the pride of men, but in the unpretentious and lowly of heart. It is found in the simple things of life. Peace is not found in the movers and the shakers of the world, but in the humble and the merciful.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.”
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”