The theme of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology this year is The Gospel: What, Why, and How?
The PCRT is a ministry of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and was the vision of the late Dr. James Montgomery Boice, long-time pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church.
The service began with the singing of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Following, the choir and orchestra presented Beethoven’s Hallelujah! from Christ on the Mount of Olives.
Hallelujah unto God’s almighty Son!
Praise the Lord, ye bright angelic choirs in holy songs of joy.
Man, proclaim His grace and glory. Halleluja!
Yes, friends, the Protestant faith is historic, reverent, and beautiful.
The message was delivered by Sinclair Ferguson. The title of the message was “The Gospel of Great Joy” and was taken from Luke 2:8-14:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
There was something quite moving about hearing this text read and preached in April. As Dr. Ferguson noted: “Many people are probably too exhausted at Christmastime to rejoice in the gospel.”
In Jesus’ upper room discourse he explained to his disciples that his desire was that their joy would be full. When a pregnant Mary encountered a pregnant Elizabeth, the latter’s baby leaped for joy in her womb. Jesus is a joyful Savior, His gospel is a joyful message, and it is His desire for his people to be a joyful lot. Indeed, the gospel produces joy in the hearts of God’s people.
The angelic announcement to the shepherds in their fields is the proto-euangelion (first gospel announcement) of Luke’s Gospel. And this particular event helps us to understand why it is that the gospel is a message of “great joy.”
1. The great joy of the gospel lies in the identity of the baby.
The baby’s identity is a message of great joy because he is a Savior.
It is likely that the sheep that the shepherds were caring for were raised for the purposes of temple sacrifice. If this is so, then the message of a Savior from heaven would have been particularly relevant for them. They knew about sacrifice. Could it be that they also knew that the blood of these animals over which they watched could not truly forgive their sins? Could it be that they understood that not a single lamb under their care could be their savior?
How marvelous that the angel would say, “a Savior has been born to you.” It would make sense if the angel had said that a Savior had been born to Mary and Joseph. But this Savior was for those humble shepherds. The Savior who was born was for men and women of every nation, tribe, and tongue.
2. There is great joy seen in the wonder of the sign that will point them to the baby.
The baby was to be laid in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. The practice at that time was to bind fast a newborn because of a belief that their limbs would be deformed otherwise. It is a striking thought to consider that the incarnate God was, from the time of his birth, bound for our sake. It is a humble image. It is the sign of the one who humbled himself by “taking the form of a slave and becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
The baby bound in swaddling cloths would become the crucified Savior bound in burial cloths.
When we consider what the Savior has done for us, the lengths to which he reached how can we not have a deep, robust, and enduring joy?
3. There is great joy that comes to the shepherds as recipients of the good news.
How extraordinary that this angelic announcement would come to common men. God is not a respecter of persons. The announcement of the Savior is meant to be heard by all. Certainly the shepherds outside Bethlehem did not think themselves great.
4. The impact of the Savior’s coming on the angel’s joy
How joyful must this have been for the angels! They have no greater joy than to praise their King. The One who the maker of the angles has stooped to be made a little lower than the angels that He might save for Himself a people. They are witness to this unfolding drama of God’s redemptive work.
There can only be glory and joy in the highest when there is peace with God among His people. And there will only be joy on earth when there is glory to God.
Paradise has become a wilderness. It is full of violence and shame. And into this disordered and fallen wilderness the Savior comes to do what Adam failed to do by his perfect obedience. The Savior comes to accomplish what countless lambs and priests could only signal.