Usually one of the last things associated with Christmas is fear and certainly not “great fear.” Yet, in The Gospel According to Luke, the author emphatically declares that on the night of Christ’s arrival, the shepherds were greatly afraid (Luke 2:9). And these shepherds were not wimps. They spent many nights in darkness fending off predators as they defended and protected their sheep. Yet, on the night of Jesus’ birth, they were “megas” – the Greek word for “greatly” – afraid! What started as a typical night quickly changed as an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them (Luke 2:9). It is interesting that both the angel and the glory are said to be “of the Lord.” The angel of the Lord certainly could have been responsible for causing some fear. In Luke 1:11-12, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias, and when Zacharias saw the angel, “he was troubled and fear fell up-on Him.” In Luke 1:29, Mary was troubled when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. But it is interesting that even though Zacharias and Mary experienced fear when they saw the angel, neither of them were said to be greatly afraid. When the angel of the Lord appeared the to shepherds, they too would have experienced fear. But it is when the angel of the Lord is connected with the glory of the Lord that the shepherds experienced great fear!
Consider for a moment why the all-consuming, perfect and holy glory of the Lord would produce great fear. First, think of Isaiah’s response to seeing the glory of the Lord: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips.” The word “woe” describes a passionate cry of despair because of impending danger and judgment. The words “for I am undone” mean that he is about to perish or be cut off or destroyed. Isaiah was greatly afraid because he understood what his sins deserved when confronted with the glory of the Lord. Second, think of the often quoted memory verse found in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” And just four verses earlier, we read how all the world is guilty before God. The perfect glory of God exposes our sinfulness and the just judgment that our sin deserves.
It is this great fear that causes the shepherds to truly comprehend the “great joy” that the Christmas message from the angel of the Lord contained. Again, back in Luke 1, both Zacharias and Mary received a message of joy from an angel (Luke 1:14; 28), but the message that the angel of the Lord brings in Luke 2 is great joy. The angel of the Lord pro-claims to the shepherds why their message is one of great joy: “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Without the great fear produced by the glory of the Lord causing the shepherds to recognize that they were under the impending judgment of God, the shepherds would have no need for a Savior. The reason why so many people miss the Christ-mas message of great joy found in our Savior is because they have never been greatly afraid in light of the glory of the Lord!
Without the great fear, the shepherds would not have understood the great joy! When we understand our condition in the presence of the glory of the Lord, we will be ready for the gracious proclamation from the Lord and we will find great joy in the Savior, Christ the Lord! Luke 2 is a testimony of God’s amazing grace. It is His grace that “taught our hearts to fear and grace our fears relieved.”