Shepherds and Angels
A Rotation.org Writing Team Lesson Set
Bible Background and Lesson Objectives
Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)
This lesson set primarily focuses on Luke 2: 8-20, the announcement of the angels to the shepherds, and the shepherds' response before and after visiting the manger. Lessons in this set do not dwell on Luke 2:1-7, the Journey to Bethlehem. Other Writing Team lesson sets cover the Journey to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7) and Manger scene (Luke 2:16-20).
Whether you are using a traditional approach or a Rotation approach, Advent is a great time to slow down and focus several lessons on meaty and meaningful portions of the big story -- knowing that "the rest of the story" is being taught elsewhere (especially in worship), and that Advent comes around every year.
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord."
Luke 2:10-11 (NRSV)
- To be able to retell the story of the Shepherds and Angels.
- To be able to define the "good news" which the angels announced and why it brings "great joy."
- To think about how we can become messengers (angels) of the "good news" and commit to that response, instead of merely celebrating Christmas as spectators.
In the first chapter of Luke, Gabriel appears to a poor young girl from Galilee and gives her the unexpected news that she will give birth to the Messiah. In his second chapter, Luke's angel then announces the Messiah's birth to a bunch of stinky shepherds working the night shift. It's the beginning of the great theme of "unexpected good news" ...of a baby who will turn the world upside down by bringing the unexpected news of salvation -- a peace (salvation) that is good news indeed.
The shepherds certainly weren't expecting the news or to be singled out as they were. They probably never thought they'd see the day when the Messiah finally arrived, let alone have the announcement personally delivered to them by angels! Like many of us, they were likely "believers with low expectations." In other words, a perfect target.
In a flash of light, the unexpected news starts to break all around -- news of a Savior and Salvation after God's own heart. Shepherds, a baby in a manger, and a cross. Who would have expected that? And like most initial encounters with the divine, it terrifies them. "Do not be afraid," the angel says, which is more unexpected news! Aren't we supposed to be afraid of God? Well, apparently not, ...not unless you are afraid of a baby, especially one born in a barn. That's the "sign for you" the angel says, the baby is God's "do not be afraid of God" sign. The baby is proof of God's peace to the earth. And that's the unexpected good news worth "going and seeing."
But then what?
After the visit and celebration, after Christmas, what do we do now?
The answer is in this story and in Jesus' teachings. We are God's messengers.* Which is to say, the shepherds must also become angels. That's the secret to understanding the meaning of the shepherds and angels story because the word "angel" in both the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament is the word "messenger." Our job, our JOY is to become messengers of the good news -- to become angels whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves, to whomever we can tell.
Questions for shepherds aspiring to also become angels:
- What is this good news about God that you can share with a friend? A stranger? Your family?
- There were more than one shepherd and angel in the story. Who's in your "host"? Who and with what are you surrounding yourself with to help you grow into and spread the good news?
- What can you do to "show" you believe in Christmas and not just "say" you believe?
- Do others see "the joy" in you? How does believing in the Messiah change you and SPREAD to others?
The good news that's a great joy
What is the good news that the angels announced with such joy? According to Luke 2, verses 11 and 14, the good news is the "peace" on earth that God has sent in the form of Jesus Christ.
- Peace! You expected condemnation, but Jesus brings unconditional love and forgiveness.
- Peace! You expected war, but Jesus brings a new kind of King and Kingdom.
- Peace! You expected to be held to the Law, but the only measuring stick Jesus brings is the rule of love - God's love.
- Peace! Who is this for? Everyone that God favors.
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors."*
(* or simply, "goodwill to all" as in some translations.
See our translation notes at the end of this document.)
Who does God "favor"? (literally: "bless" or "pleased" with) Jesus gave us lots of clues that it's not so much "who" is blessed, but "what" is blessed: Meekness and being hungry for God are blessed, those attitudes are what pleases God. Being "pure in heart" and being like a child of God are what "pleases" God.
These blessings feel like peace to our soul, like shalom to our hearts, like the scene of a child laying in a manger to some shepherds who never thought God would come to them and favor them with such news.
The Greek word for "peace" is eirēnē (ay-ray-nay). It can have various meanings depending on its context, including tranquility, harmony, safety, a blessed state, having nothing to fear. It's root word, eiro, means to "bind together, join, restore." The word "shalom" is its Hebrew equivalent, which in addition to meaning "hello and goodbye," means "reconciliation and restoration."
The Good News is the message that God brings a reconciling peace
(a salvation, forgiveness in spite of our sins)
Need a sign of this peace?
Look for the baby in the manger and the Messiah on the cross.
Want to become part of this peace?
Join the heavenly host in announcing this peace.
No wonder the shepherds wanted to go see this thing that had happened!
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.” ~Luke 2:15
No wonder the shepherds "returned glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen." (Luke 2:20) Christmas is a message you want to announce.
That's the secret to the story, and that's what celebrating Christ's birth is supposed to do to us -- turn shepherds into messengers.
Questions for Shepherds
- At Christmas, are you excited about the birth of Jesus? Or are you content to just celebrate another year of gift-giving and decorations?
- What do you need to "go see," take a closer look at, learn more about this Christmas season?
- Who do you and can you "watch over" (take care of, make a priority in your life) as a way of "showing" the message of God's peace/salvation?
Questions for Angels
The New Testament (Greek) word for "angel" means "messenger."
- What is an angel's job?
- Who are like angels today in your world?
- Who could you be an "angel" to this season of Advent?
- What can you tell a friend about Jesus that would be good news to them?
Questions for the Angelic Troops
Luke 2:13's Greek word for "host" or "multitude" is "stratia" which is a military term meaning "army" or "troops." In addition to suggesting an overwhelming Joy from Heaven (not one voice but many), the use of the military word suggests that angels are prepared, organized, and a force to be reckoned with!
- How is Sunday School (or church) like a "heavenly host"? (power in numbers, learning from each other, supporting each other)
- What could we do to better prepare, get organized, and be a joyous force spreading the message of the true meaning of Christmas this season and afterward?
Questions for Sheep
- What's the problem with sheep? Why do they need "watched over"?
- How is the birth of Jesus "The Good Shepherd" good news to sheep?
- What can you do to show others how to be a good follower of the Good Shepherd?
Fun with Bible Translations
Why your translation of Luke 2 might not match your memory or doesn't say what you think it says!
1. What did the angel really say in Luke 2:14?
Luke 2:14 is one of THE most well-known verses in the Christmas story, and it is also one of the most debated lines of scripture among Bible scholars and translators. It's a great example of why every Bible needs footnotes and why we need to study this story instead of merely relying on our memory or Christmas hymns for what the scripture actually says.
Did the angel say, "on earth peace, goodwill to men" ?
"on earth peace to those whom God favors" ?
"peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased"?
Or did the angel say what the hymns and Christmas cards say it says:
"peace on earth, goodwill to men" ?
The disappearance of "goodwill" in modern translations
Obviously, the differences are not inconsequential. "Goodwill to all" and "to those whom God favors" are quite different.
Most modern translations no longer use "goodwill to men" (or "goodwill to all") simply because that's not what the EARLIEST manuscript of Luke says. It reads, "to those whom God favors."
Fact: Ancient Bible manuscripts do not agree on the spelling of the word at the end of verse 14 which renders it either "goodwill to all" or "to whom God favors." Some manuscripts spell it one way, others spell it another way. Keep in mind that they were all handwritten and hand-copied. The OLDEST known manuscript of Luke says, "to whom God favors."
The amazing thing is that we're only talking about ONE letter at the end of ONE word! The Greek word in question is eudokia. That's the word found in most Bible manuscripts at the end Luke 2:14, and eudokia does mean "goodwill to all." But the PROBLEM is that the EARLIEST KNOWN manuscripts of Luke spell the word eudioka with an "s," as in "eudokias." And the addition of that ONE LETTER "s" remarkably changes the translation of the entire word. That's how "on earth peace, goodwill to all" became "on earth peace to those whom God favors."
Back in 1611, the people who prepared the King James translation ("goodwill to men") simply did not have the earliest manuscripts of Luke in front of them. The earliest manuscript of Luke dates from the 5th Century and contains the spelling "eudokias" ("to whom God favors," or "is pleased."). It is assumed that a later scribe accidentally dropped the "s" and subsequent copies of copies perpetuated the "goodwill" reading. That's not an uncommon mistake between ancient manuscripts. Recognizing this likely mistake, and working on the accepted principle that "earlier" is more authoritative," modern translations favor "eudokias" (to those whom God favors) and relegate "eudokia" (goodwill) to a footnote.
The problem is that all the HYMNS and Hallmark cards out there perpetuate what's now considered a "less likely" translation.
2. Does Your Bible Say "Favored" or "Pleased"?
(and what does that mean?)
Depending on which modern Bible translation you are using, your translation of Luke 2:14 has one more surprise for you.
NRSV and NIV:
"peace among those whom he favors"
CEB, NLT, Good News Bible:
Both "Favored" and "Pleased" are acceptable translations of the Greek "eudokias." But neither may mean what you might casually THINK they mean. Scholarly Bible synonyms of "Eudokias" (favored, pleased) include "delighted with, desired, chosen." And the things is that the meaning of these words have changed over time. "favored" doesn't mean "pleased with" in today's language, but it did to Luke. And neither favored nor pleased seems to mean "chosen" in today's English, even though "chosen" might have been what Luke was thinking of.
Luke gives us a clue to what he means by "favored" in Luke 1:28,30 when the angel Gabriel TWICE uses the word "favored" to describe Mary who seems to have been CHOSEN among women to bear the Messiah, and then Mary turns around in Luke 2 and says "all generations shall call me BLESSED (happy, the delight of the Lord).
Goodwill, favored, blessed, chosen, delight... The angels are announcing God's joy and delight, -- God's "joy to the world."
We have been blessed to receive this announcement, this child, and chosen to share the message with others.
Who does God favor?
YOU, THAT'S WHO,
and God is delighted to choose you!
No matter who you are,
what you have done, or what others have done to you,
or what others think of you,
or who your parents are, or where you live,
or how little or young or insignificant you feel,
or what kind of job you have,
or what field you find yourself in,
I have some really good and joyful news for you.
Born FOR YOU this day...
3. Is it "peace on earth" or "on earth, peace"?
The traditional phrase "peace on earth" is not what's in Luke 2:14. Rather, in Luke the angel says, "on earth, peace." Almost all the major modern translations agree on that. Both are right, sort of, but this is another example of how the modern Christmas culture affects our memory. This is a teaching point about the need for good translations and study, rather than depending on Hallmark for our scripture memory.
4. Speaking of "FALSE Hallmark and Hymn Memories," were the angels singing or speaking? ...And what did they look like?
The idea of angels singing on the night of Christ’s birth has become so popular in our culture that many are surprised to learn that Luke 2 does not use the word "sing" to describe what the angels did. Rather, Luke uses the words "praise" ("aineo") and "saying" ("leygo") which mean, to "speak of, extol, laud," and to "put forth, lay forth, pronounce." He could have used the Greek word for "sing," which is "humneo," but he did not.
So where did "singing angels" come from? Perhaps from some lyricist. "Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation, sing all ye citizens of heaven above." (O Come Let Us Adore Him)
P.S. Luke doesn't mention "harps of gold" either.
5. What about the "host" of angels?
There is a description of an angel in Daniel 10:5-12 which may have influenced Luke's recollection. Daniel describes a shining angel whose voice "sounded like the roar of a multitude" such that it caused Daniel to" tremble" with fear. Daniel's angel even told him to "get back up on his feet and do not fear."
What did they look like? Probably not what you think!
Angels in the Old and New Testament do not have wings. Wings are reserved for describing "creatures" known as cherubs or seraphim. Rather, angels ("malak" in Hebrew and "angelos" in Greek) are typically described as "shining" beings in human form whose appearance initiates fear but who bring good news or help. In both Hebrew and Greek, "malak" and "angelos" literally means "messenger" -- one sent by God, even "ambassadors."
How are we the messengers or ambassadors for Christ?
What light shines forth from our lives and faces when we "leygo" to others about Jesus?
And when we share the message, will we get it "right" ? Or will we perpetuate the Hallmark version?
So which translation to choose??
(Not the Hallmark one!)
In Sunday School, we are supposed to teach from the Bible. That means knowing what's NOT there, as well as what words actually mean.
That also means making sure you're using a good Bible translation for children, and being careful about "storybook" versions which can get the meaning wrong.
If you are using the King James version, be sure to mention the revised translation options which newer editions of the KJV include as approved alternate readings.
If you are using the NRSV, NIV, or similar modern English translation, keep in mind that your students will most likely hear something more like the KJV version from hymns and the Christmas culture we are surrounded by this time of the year.
Links to the Writing Team's Advent Lesson Sets
Isaiah Promised, Jesus Fulfilled, the hope and meaning of "Messiah." The Isaiah lesson set does not reference the birth story according to Luke which is found in the Angels and Shepherds set.
Mary Accepts, Magnifies, and Ponders focuses on Mary's story and response, including the angel's announcement to her and the shepherds' visit to the manger (which is referenced in the Angels and Shepherds lesson set, but not emphasized).
Jesus is Born! focuses on the overall events of the birth story found in Matthew and Luke, including Luke 2:1-7 (manger scene) which is also referenced for context in the Angels and Shepherds set.
Angels and Shepherds focuses on the announcement of the angels to the shepherds and their response. For context, lessons in this set DO reference the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7) and the visit of the shepherds to the manger (Luke 2:8-20).
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