The Christmas Story and a Biblical Paradigm for Manuscript Transmission

Turning to the familiar passage describing the circumstances surround the birth of Jesus Christ in Luke 2, we want to examine the role the shepherds played in relaying an inspired message to those within their sphere of influence and especially the trust God placed in them.

Our first observation is that the shepherds represent the vast majority of all those God has called upon to serve Him. Most of the work of the Church throughout history has been performed by unnamed saints, just as the shepherds are unnamed. Within their epoch of time, believers lived with their families, friends, and acquaintances serving the Lord but have long since passed into glory.

And secondly, the shepherds represent most saints who had little if any formal theological training. The shepherds were not trained as were the lawyers and Pharisees in theological matters. They were simple men, common men of day, engaged in the humble and menial task of shepherding sheep. This post will argue that the capacity for the saint to recognize and comprehend the word of God has been underestimated by the academic elite and that God’s choice of shepherds to receive the inspired announcement gives an exegetical basis for that assertion.

Given these introductory observations we conclude that the individuals God trusted with an inspired, other-worldly message lacked both notoriety and specialized training, and that through the history of the Church these two characteristics are shared by most of the saints in the service of the Lord.

So what did God trust them with? God entrusted the shepherds with clearly comprehending the announcement of the birth of His Son. The angel of the Lord spoke to them with the full expectation and assurance that these humble, untrained men would understand what the angel would say. The angel spoke in words the shepherds understood, diction, grammar, and syntax that was not too complex for shepherds to understand. Understanding the angel did not take any special training. The angel spoke of things familiar to them – the city of David, v. 11 Bethlehem. Swaddling clothes, what you would expect a baby wrapped in, v. 12, lying in a manger, v. 12 – every shepherd knew what a manger was, which is to say, that the inspired words were suited to the shepherds. This is also the case made for the nature of the inspired written text. The language was suited to the reader and hearer in such a way that it could be easily understood.

We know what the angel said a transferal of the words of God because the angel’s words are part of the inspired record. The shepherd’s themselves say that it was the Lord that made these things known to them. Simple shepherds understood the word of God through the angels, while under duress and without any specialized training. That is, God speaks to the common man, the common man can fully comprehend the words, and this can be accomplished on an individual basis without institutional augmentation. For the shepherds, the entire episode was oral. They heard the spoken word of God and clearly understood.

Not only did God entrust the shepherds with the comprehension of the inspired announcement, but they were entrusted to act on the announcement to be the first outside witnesses of the birth of His Son, Jesus Christ – “let us go and see.” The announcement entailed a consequence for the shepherds. Having received the angelic announcement, they were to act upon it. A sign was given them to know they were at the right place.

It’s interesting to note, that the message was not rendered differently by each shepherd. What was known and agreed upon corporately. The fact that everyone heard the same thing, agreed on the same thing, and acted cohesively was a wonderful work of God’s grace in their lives. That is, the comprehension of God’s Word creates unity with such certainty that it will motivate the whole to a single purpose. This in turn speaks to the unity of the Church as it trusts a standard sacred text. A standard sacred text leads to unity in faith and action.

The shepherds hurried to confirm the message and found things exactly as they were told. They acted on the word of an angel fully believing that the angel spoke for God and what they were being told was absolutely true. We learn that the trust the shepherds had in the word of God, for believers, is inherent in the word. The angel did not have to make a case for the announcement’s truth; it was true because it was the word of God and as such announced a work of God. Because God said it, it is completely trustworthy, indeed, so trustworthy that it is worthy of faith to believe. We also learn that when God speaks, He makes it clear for everyone to understand. The angel’s message was not convoluted or opaque. When the announcement concluded none of the shepherds said, what was he trying to say? or I just don’t get it.

Do you think if the Sanhedrin had divine forewarning of the angel’s coming, that they would have sent shepherds to greet them? or would they have sent the best and brightest of the Hebrew scribes. After all, interaction with angels is not place for the common shepherd; to interact with heavenly beings, they would argue, requires a skill set only obtained by elite scholars. Besides, shepherds are too ignorant, they would just get it all wrong anyway. We need to send someone more reliable, more trustworthy to engage in this kind of work. And this is what we are told every day by evangelical text critics. The common saint is too unskilled to interact directly with providentially preserved word of God; they would just get it wrong, believe the wrong thing, trust the wrong thing, live their lives according to the wrong thing, act on the wrong thing, when all along it was the shepherd, the common man, that God trusts to get His most solemn work done. If critics were in the field that Christmas morning, after the announcement, they would have never made it to the manger. They first would have written an article and submitted it to a prestigious journal questioning the validity of what they saw, fearful of being overly dogmatic while maintaining their academic good standing. Simple faith and trust in God’s word is not their forte.

What should we learn from this?

1.         God uses the weak things of the world to confound the wise

1 Cor. 1:26-29, “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:That no flesh should glory in his presence.

2.         God loves the common man – he made so many of them. God loves the Church and through the Word/Church/Holy Spirit dynamic God is driving redemptive history toward eschatological consummation. This dynamic works, though in part comprised of the common saint, because of the common man’s willingness to believe God’s word as taught by the Spirit.

3.         Being the common man makes you perfectly suited to be a servant of God – no specialized training is necessary to have a pivotal role in God’s eternal plan. God will use you. There were no scholars in the field the night the angels appeared, but “these men, at the bottom of the social scale in Israel, were chosen as the first preachers of the new-born King.” Pulpit Commentary

Published by Dr. Peter Van Kleeck, Sr.

Dr. Peter William Van Kleeck, Sr. : B.A., Grand Rapids Baptist College, 1986; M.A.R., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1990; Th.M., Calvin Theological Seminary, 1998; D. Min, Bob Jones University, 2013. Dr. Van Kleeck was formerly the Director of the Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, Grand Rapids, MI, (1990-1994) lecturing, researching and writing in the defense of the Masoretic Hebrew text, Greek Received Text and King James Bible. His published works include, "Fundamentalism’s Folly?: A Bible Version Debate Case Study" (Grand Rapids: Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, 1998); “We have seen the future and we are not in it,” Trinity Review, (Mar. 99); “Andrew Willet (1562-1621: Reformed Interpretation of Scripture,” The Banner of Truth, (Mar. 99); "A Primer for the Public Preaching of the Song of Songs" (Outskirts Press, 2015). Dr. Van Kleeck is the pastor of the Providence Baptist Church in Manassas, VA where he has ministered for the past twenty-one years. He is married to his wife of 43 years, Annette, and has three married sons, one daughter and eighteen grandchildren.

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