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Getting a Handel on Christmas (7) - Good Tidings

Series: Christmas Series: Getting a Handel on Christmas

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Dec 21, 2003

Isaiah 52:7
Good Tidings

Gospel is a word derived from an Anglo-Saxon word, godspell, which means “the story concerning God.” Especially the story of God's salvation.

In the New Testament that word that is behind our English gospel or between that is the equivalent of the word gospel very often in the New Testament, good news, is the Greek work uangelion, from which we get, evangel, the gospel or evangelism, to tell the gospel, to tell the good news about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now we've already sung about the gospel today. We've sung about the good news in the carols we've been praising God with today, and we've heard the choir sing about the gospel and sing the gospel to us, both in the solos and in the chorus. But I want us to appreciate the content of that gospel message–the stuff of this good news about which we sing at this time of year, but often do not reflect upon. I want us to see why it would have been so exciting, so encouraging for believers to hear this good news announced to them by the angel, and to hear the chorus of heavenly angels singing “Glory to God” because of its announcement. I want us to realize to whom it was surprisingly given, and I want us to appreciate the only proper response to it. So, before we hear God's word read and proclaimed, let's pray for God's Spirit to illumine our hearts and minds as we hear His word read. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, this is Your Word; it comes from Your heart. You wrote it. Help us to receive it then as Your Word, and not merely the word of man. By Your Spirit, help us to understand it and, more than this, to hear it with our hearts in such a way that we believe it, embrace it, and live it. In Jesus' name we ask it. Amen.

Isaiah 52, verse 7. This is God's Word.

“How lovely on the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who announces peace
And brings good news of happiness,
Who announces salvation,
And
says to Zion,
Your God reigns!”

Thus far, the reading of God's holy Word. Now, turn forward with me to Luke, chapter 2 beginning in verse 8. You've already heard this passage sung in the libretto of Handel's Messiah based upon the beautiful language of the King James version. Let's hear it in the New American Standard version.

“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of 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. This will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

I want to focus on three things with you this morning. First, what is the gospel? That is a fairly important question. What is the good news? What is the gospel announced by the angel, proclaimed by Jesus Christ, established by His life and death and resurrection, proclaimed by His disciples, his apostles? What is the message of salvation that we call the gospel? Where does it come from? Where does this good news find its roots? That's the first question I want to ask.

Secondly, I want to ask to whom is it given? I want you to pause and reflect for a moment on those to whom this message first came? It's a little surprising when you consider who this announcement comes to.

And thirdly, I want us to think about the proper response to that gospel How should a person respond to this kind of an announcement? What's God expecting of us in response to His announcement of good news?

Those three things I'd like to meditate for a few moments with you.

I. What is the gospel?
Let's start with the gospel. What is the gospel? Those who appreciate this gospel that we articulate, perhaps, often ourselves in conversation with those who don't know Jesus Christ, or who are wrestling to come to a knowledge of what it is that Christianity teaches about eternal fellowship with the living God. Perhaps we articulate it ourselves; perhaps we sing about it and don't think about it. What are the roots of this gospel? As we ask the question, What is the gospel? I want us to consider three things briefly.

First of all, what does the Old Testament teach us about the gospel? Secondly, what was thought when a person heard the words “good news” in the Roman world around the time of Jesus Christ? And thirdly, what does the New Testament teach us about the gospel?

Let me ask you to take your Bibles and turn with me all the way back to II Kings 7:9. The phrase good news is used repeatedly in the Old Testament. It is from the Old Testament, perhaps especially from Isaiah that the gospel writers of the New Testament draw some of the rich substance of the proclamation that they want to make about Jesus Christ, but the first use of the word good news in the Old Testament begins in a fairly depressing situation. Do you know when the first usage of good news occurs in the Old Testament? It's when the Philistines are announcing the death of Saul, and they actually cut Saul's head off and send it back into the land of Philistia, and they pronounce to all the people the good news that their enemy is dead. That's a common use of good news in the Old Testament, in Roman times, and in the New Testament. That is, the good news of victory of one's armies against one's enemies.

But in the Old Testament, especially, good news becomes associated with God's victories over God's and His people's enemies. In the passage you have before you, if you turned to II Kings 7:9, there is one example of it. You remember the story. Samaria is under siege by the and there is famine in the city of Samaria; there is no food. The people are beginning to starve to death and the Syrians are intent against them, and there is no hope. In the middle of the night, God causes the sound of armies to come into the ears of the Syrians and they panic and they think Israel has hired the Hittites and the Egyptians and they are about to descend upon us in the middle of the night. We’d better get out of here. And so they abandon camp. They leave everything behind. They leave food behind, they leave clothes behind, they leave tents behind, they leave weapons behind, and they get. Meanwhile, there are these lepers, and they've been doing some calculations. They figure they are going to die; they’re going to starve to death in the city of Samaria. And so they say, “Look, why don't we go out to the enemy camp and ask some of the enemy soldiers for food? Because what can they do? Kill us? We’re going to die anyway. So, instead of dying of starvation, we're going to take a chance and go out and ask them for some food.” So they go out and get to the camp and what do they find? They find lots of food and no enemies, and they begin eating to heart's content. This is great. Four lepers, a gazillion pounds of food and they are just having a wonderful time. And then they realize, “We can't keep this to ourselves. We've got to go back to the city and tell the people there's food to be had here.” What do they say in II Kings 7:9? They said to one another, “We’re not doing right. This day is a day of good news.” You see, God has won a victory for His people. In this case, His people literally have not lifted a finger and He has driven their enemies away. It's a day of good news. In the Old Testament, you see, good news means the message of God's victory for His people just like He performed in this case.

Now, turn forward to Isaiah 52:7. You can keep your finger in Isaiah for in just a moment, we're going to turn forward just a few chapters for our third example. The second thing that good news is associated with in the Old Testament is the message of God's reign. That, despite the fact that God's people may seem to be oppressed, forgotten, and downcast because of the control of those who hate them, their enemy; yet God reigns and He will bring the victory for His people. That's what is being told to us in Isaiah 52:7. “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news who announces peace, and brings good news of happiness who announces salvation and says to Zion your God reigns.

Now, as a matter of fact, the gospel has been preached in the Old Testament since Genesis 3:15, ever since God said to the serpent that he would bruise the seed of the woman's heel, but the seed of the woman would crush his head. The gospel has been preached in the Old Testament.

But in Isaiah 52, the gospel is flowering in a particular context. It had been some 400 years since David reigned on the throne of Israel. And now, in the time of Isaiah, the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom have not only been sundered, but the northern kingdom has been lost completely. And Judah is beset by all her enemies and will, very frankly, in a few years after Isaiah's time of ministry, be taken off in exile to Babylon. When she comes back out of Babylon, she is not going to come back to Palestine under the rule of the Davidic king; she's going to come back to Palestine with her once proud people under the rule of foreign dictators. This will be the case for 500 years. When the message of salvation which we have heard announced in Luke 2 is given, it is given while the people of God are yet under the domination of foreign rulers, the Romans. And Isaiah is saying here that God has not forgotten His people and that He is going to send messengers on the mountains with good news that God reigns and that God will save His people from all their foes. This is a hope in the midst of hopelessness for Israel.

And so, in the Old Testament, the good news is the message of God's reign, His sovereignty. No doubt the people of God envisaged this promise, this prophecy being manifested in some kind of a Davidic king, just like David 400 years before had defeated all his enemies with armies and restored rule and established rule in Jerusalem. No doubt they conceived salvation coming in that way. We’ll see a little twist on that today, but they were expecting this good news because it is used here in Isaiah 52:7 of the message of the messenger that is bringing news of the victory and the reign of God on behalf of His people.

Thirdly, the good news is used in the Old Testament of the message that will be brought by the Messiah Himself. It's not just that a messenger will tell about God's victory. It's that the Messiah Himself will bring a message. Turn with me to Isaiah 61:1. This is the passage that Jesus quoted in his home church, if I can put it that way. When Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth to explain to them who He was, He quoted from this passage. This is what is says.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me because He has anointed Me to bring good news to the afflicted. He has sent Me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners.”

Can you imagine the reaction of the people gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth when Jesus closed the scroll and said, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing. I am here. The Messiah is here. I am He, and I am here to proclaim good news and set the captives free.” You see, there is a rich background to the Old Testament hope of the good news. The good news symbolizes for people in a half millennium of bondage and servitude that God is going to send the Messiah to set them free.

Now, move forward to Roman times. In the time of the Empire, the term, good news, would have had a common currency. That is, it would have been understood by anyone in the sway of the Roman world. For instance, when Roman generals would win victories for the nation, the victories would be announced in Rome and all the provinces as good news. It was a technical term attached to celebrations of victory. Furthermore, it was also used interestingly, of what the Romans believed were communications from their gods, especially through the oracles. As the Roman people would go and visit an oracle, looking for a word from their gods, they would often refer to those words as good news. It's interesting, because God is really going to speak the word of good news in contrast to the false words from the false gods of the Romans, and yet He uses that language that would have been understandable to anyone in the Roman world; they would recognize that God is communicating a revealed word to His people.

Thirdly, good news was associated with the cult of the emperor, the imperial cult, the imperial worship of the emperor. When the emperor's birthday came around, a proclamation of good news was given.

Now, into that world comes the announcement that we have heard sung and read today in Luke 2. Turn there for a moment. What is the good news according to the New Testament? The good news is the glad message of God's salvation won by Christ and preached by our Lord and His followers.

Look at Luke 2:10-11, “Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all people, for today in the City of David, has been born a Savior.” Here we see the announcement from an angel to these shepherds, that God's promise from Isaiah 52:7, God's promise from Genesis 3:15, God's promise from Genesis 12:1-3, has been brought to pass in the birth of Jesus Christ. This announcement is the substance of this good news. We apply it to the gospels, we talk about the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the gospels we call them, because they contain this message: the message that Messiah has come. Can you imagine the joy that would break upon the hearts of the people of God, under oppression for 500 years, when they hear that the day of their liberation has come. “Today has been born, in the City of David, a Savior who is Messiah the Lord.” That is the announcement that the angels give, and it brings together hundreds of years of hope fulfilled for the people of God. No wonder there was such a response of joy in those who heard that message. Their hopes had finally come to fruition. This is the culmination of the long ago made prophecies of God, and this good news is expanded throughout the New Testament, elaborated, but it boils down to this: the glad tidings of the life, the full and free salvation through Christ to sinful men.

Paul sums it up in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Isn't that glorious? The gospel is an announcement of God's victory, but as Paul summarizes it, he summarizes it in such a way as to highlight that the way God's victory is won is not through a Messianic King leading massive armies against the Romans until they are expelled from the land of Palestine, but it is through the life, crucifixion and death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Son of God comes into the world to bear sin because our real enemy is not the Romans, it's ourselves; it's our sin. And he deals with that sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

That is the good news of the victory of God. That is how God accomplishes this victory through Jesus Christ. Of course, that's hinted at in the very announcement of the angels. Everything makes sense when the angel says, “Don't be afraid. I'm bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. For in this day in the city of David is born a Savior who is Messiah, is Lord.” Up to that point of the announcement, everything makes sense. Here's what doesn't make sense. When the angel says, “OK, and here's the sign. Here's how you’re going to know. When you see Messiah, the Lord He is going to be in a gigantic palace surrounded by hoards of attendants.” Nope, it doesn't say that. Kings of nations are going to be gathered around Him. It doesn't say that. Here's how you’re going to know it. He's going to be wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding trough.

You see, from the very beginning of the announcement of the good news we see that Christ's exaltation is going to be accomplished by His humiliation. That the way up is going to be gotten by the way down. That victory is going to be purchased through suffering. That life is going to be gotten through death. From the very beginning of the angel's announcement of the good news, we see that God is going to accomplish this victory in the most unexpected and surprising of ways. So, there's the New Testament good news, the glad tidings of life. Full and free salvation through Jesus Christ to sinful men purchased by the death of Christ and His resurrection. That's what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.

II. Who does the gospel message come to?
So, who does this message come to? Who are the recipients of this good news, this gospel message of the victory of God on behalf of His people? Well, you see it in verse 8 of Luke 2. “In that same region there were some shepherds.” Now folks, we generally have a fairly sentimental view of shepherds. We have lots of them in nativity scenes all over the place this time of year. We think of shepherds in light of Psalm 23, and so we highly esteem them. We have the picture of the Good Shepherd Himself who loves his sheep and lays down his life for them.

But you need to understand that in the time of Jesus, shepherds did not have the best of reputations. The legal code did not allow shepherds to give court testimony before a judge. Why? Because they were notorious liars. Shepherds were not on the list of the most esteemed professions. If you had a list of most esteemed professions, shepherds would not appear on that list. Mark Magee was telling me we had a special kind of workmen, craftsmen, that we needed to help us this fall at Twin Lakes; and the construction company was having a hard time finding that kind of worker. I'm not going to reveal what kind of worker it is in order to protect the not-so-innocent. And Mark said one day this crew of very clean cut, polite gentlemen showed up saying, “yes sir,” and “no sir,” and just obeying every direction. And Mark said, “I know that this could not be the crew. You can tell that they don't know anything about this particular work. Men in this particular profession are not known for their social graces. They are not the folks that you want at your daughter's wedding reception. They’re certainly not the folks that you want marrying your daughter.” And this is how the shepherds were looked upon, and that's the group to whom God announces, through His angels, the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Because Jesus Himself, in quoting Isaiah 61:1, has said, “I have come to declare the good news to the afflicted, to the downcast, to the broken hearted.” Elsewhere He puts it this way. I didn't come for the righteous; I came for sinners.

So if you don't think you need Jesus today, I've got some bad news for you. If you don't think you need Jesus, He didn't come for you. But if you know that you need Jesus, if you know that you are a sinner, if you know that you are downcast, I've got the best possible news. He Himself says, “I come to declare you good news.” God reaches out in the gospel to the very least. And those who have been reached out to know this in our hearts. We know our need. We don't look over there at those wretched sinners. We know that the wretched sinner is right here who has been received and redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ and made to be part of the family of God. And we rejoice when others who are needy are brought into our family too because He came for the afflicted; that's who He comes to. And what's the response to this?

III. What is the proper response to the gospel?
What is the only proper response to this glorious announcement, this redemption in Christ Jesus? Well, there are two responses. There's the response of faith, and there's the response of praise. The only possible response to the glory of God revealed in the incarnation and life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is to trust Him. To trust in Him with all your heart. To cast your hopes on Him. To no longer think that you can be accepted by God apart from Him. To realize that only in Him can you meet God. To trust Him because He is God's stratagem, the only hope of redemption. Apart from Him nothing else matters. Apart from Him there is no hope. And so, the first response of this announcement of the gospel is to trust Him.

The second response is to live a life of praise. When the angels hear the announcement of this angel to the shepherds, it's almost like they break out in praise. They have to break forth with, “Glory to God in the highest!” because of this announcement. It's not simply the announcement that god is finally bringing His Messiah into the world, it's the surprising way in which He is doing it, and it leaves the angels to say, “Glory to God,” and anybody who understands that message is going to want to join in with the angels. That's why Robert Lowery, in 1867, could write, “How could I keep from singing?” If the angels can't control themselves, and have to break into song, surely our response is to sing praises to God. The very thought of The Word's incarnation, the very announcement of the good news, sets angels singing. We ought to follow their examples, and respond in wonder, love and praise to the announcement of this good news. May God help us to do so, even as we sing. Let's pray.

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