Who Was at ‘the First Noel’ and What Does That Mean?
Clarence L. Haynes Jr.Contributing Writer
We love to sing the song “The First Noel.” Just as a reminder, here are some of the lyrics:
The First Noel, the Angels did say Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay In fields where they lay keeping their sheep On a cold winter's night that was so deep
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel Born is the King of Israel!
According to this article, the word, “Noel,” which is commonly synonymous with Christmas carols and cards, has multiple root meanings. The French word, nouvelles, means, “news.” The English root of the word comes from the word, nowel, which means “shout of joy.” The word Noel, for Christians, means Christmas.
Have you ever considered who was present at this first Noel and what did that mean for them? I want to look at this first Noel, and explore some things that maybe people don’t often consider. To do that, I want to look at the people who were there: shepherds, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. And, I want to consider what this means for you.
Honestly, this article may be filled with more questions than answers, but I believe they are worthy questions for all of us.
Let’s begin our understanding of what’s going on at the first Noel by looking in the Gospel of Luke:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. – Luke 2:9-11
As many times as you read the story of the birth of Christ, we always read it looking backward. For a moment, why not put yourself in the place of the shepherds.
Imagine an angel of the Lord appearing to you. I am confident in saying your response and mine would be just like the shepherds…terrified. However, what started in terror ended in rejoicing because the good news was that the Savior had been born.
Can you imagine hearing those words for the first time? Some scholars have suggested that these shepherds watched over sheep that were used for sacrifice. If this is true, then they were familiar with the law and the requirements of the law.
Could it be possible that these shepherds understood more than anyone what a savior meant to the nation of Israel? They may have been amazed that no more sacrifices were going to be needed—because the one who was the true lamb of God had come.
One of the things we know from this story was that Joseph was a man of character and he cared about Mary and her reputation. If you remember, when he found out she was pregnant, he sought to divorce her quietly which was a protection to Mary.
Yet on this night of Jesus’ birth, Joseph is holding in his arms a child that was his but wasn’t his. I know we don’t often use this language in referring to Joseph, but he was Jesus’ stepfather.
This simple fact alone makes the statement in Hebrews even more amazing:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses - Hebrews 4:15
If you have ever been raised by a stepparent or maybe even adopted, then you are in good company—because Jesus was, too. Joseph was tasked with the responsibility of being a father to a child that was not naturally born to him. If you are a stepparent or have adopted children, then you can be comfortable knowing that you were actually represented at the first Noel.
One of the things we know about Mary is that she held things close to her heart. After the shepherds were visited by the angel here is what happened.
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. – Luke 2:16-19 (emphasis added)
Have you ever considered what Mary pondered?
It’s important to remember that Mary was most likely only a teenager when she gave birth to Jesus. (You know every mother makes a fuss about their firstborn. However, I have two kids, and the heavens never opened with angels rejoicing over their births…now, back to Mary).
Imagine giving birth to a child that you know would be the Savior of the world.
I am sure, like every mother, she had her visions of what the life of her child would be like, but did she fully understand who this Jesus was? I wonder...did Mary really know and comprehend what he would do? Did she realize that this one who she gave birth to was born to die not just for the sins of the world but for her sins as well? Did she understand that him going to the cross would be to save her soul and to secure her salvation?
Pondering Mary may not have said much during these moments, but she held them dear to her heart. We may not know exactly what Mary pondered in her heart, but I wonder if years later, as she saw Jesus dying on the cross, if she ever thought back to that first Noel.
For Jesus the first Noel meant that the fulfillment of the plan that was established from eternity past was coming to fruition. God said in the garden:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. – Genesis 3:15
This was the very first prophecy concerning the coming of Jesus. At the first Noel, what was spoken thousands of years before had now come to pass. Obviously, as a human baby, the weight of this was not on his shoulders at that moment. Like every other baby, he got the opportunity to be a little one and not have to worry about his ultimate destiny. That would come later in his life.
What Did the First Noel Mean to You?
There are many ways to think about this, but again, I want to point to the things people don’t often focus on. Here are two things this means for you:
1. People are part of God’s plan. Jesus doesn’t get to the cross without Mary and Joseph and the first Noel. God needed or used a vessel to complete his plan. I find it interesting that in God’s great plan he decided to charge two simple people like Mary and Joseph with the responsibility of raising Jesus.
He didn’t have to do it this way, but he did.
This matters, because God is still doing the same thing. He uses simple people like you and me to help advance his plan and fulfill his will on this earth. Think about it, God allows you the privilege to cooperate and participate in his eternal plan. He gives you the ability and the right to do his will on the earth. He could have done it any other way but he didn’t.
You should consider it a high honor that God would include you as part of his plan.
2. People are why he came in the first place. The whole point of Jesus’ birth was so that he could redeem us. The purpose of his life was to bring him to a place of death. The purpose of his death was to bring us to a place of life.
If it wasn’t for God’s great and amazing love for us, there would never have been a first Noel. When you understand the lengths that God went through to secure our salvation...it is a forever reminder of how much he truly loves you and me.
As we enter the Christmas season, and you are reminded of the Christmas story, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to consider it from different angles and perspectives. Most of all, remember that ultimately God was doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
That is truly the greatest gift ever given to humankind.
Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, author and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He has spent more than 30 years serving the body of Christ in various capacities and has just released his first book, The Pursuit of Purpose. If you have ever struggled trying to find God’s will, this book will help you discover the different ways God leads you into his perfect will. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.
This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!