EXEGESIS: LUKE 2:1-20. THE BIRTHS OF JOHN AND JESUS
Note the parallels between the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist:
"Elizabeth... gave birth to a son" (1:57).
"(Mary) gave birth to her firstborn son" (2:7).
"Her neighbors...rejoiced with (Elizabeth)" (1:58).
The angel told Mary, "I bring you good news of a great joy" (2:10).
"They all marveled" (Elizabeth 1:63).
"All who heard it wondered" (Mary 2:18).
"All who heard them laid them up in their heart" (Elizabeth 1:66).
"But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart" (2:19).
But the rejoicing of Elizabeth's neighbors at the announcement of Elizabeth's pregnancy (1:58) is greatly overshadowed by the angelic presence at the birth of Jesus. The heavenly chorus sings, "Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men" (2:14).
LUKE 2:1-3. IN THOSE DAYS
Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.
"Now in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus" (v. 1). Just as he did in chapter 1, Luke places these events in their historical context. While Matthew places the birth of Jesus against the background of Herod's reign, Luke places it against the background of the Roman Empire.
The contrast between Augustus and Jesus could hardly be greater. One lives in splendor in the capitol of the world while the other is born in a stable in a minor colony. The irony is that most people remember Augustus today only because of this mention in Luke's Gospel. Every year, when they hear the words, "Now it happened in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled," they hear them as the lead-in to the Greatest Story Ever Told-the story of the birth of the greatest king.
"This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (v. 2). The purpose of an enrollment (or census) would be to insure that everyone is accounted for and is required to pay taxes. Luke's purpose is to place Jesus in Bethlehem, the City of David, at the time of Jesus' birth.
LUKE 2:4-5. JOSEPH ALSO WENT UP OUT OF NAZARETH INTO JUDEA
4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.
"Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem" (v. 4). This is a journey of eighty-five to ninety miles by the shortest route (through Samaria). Whether on foot or riding a donkey, the trip would take several days and would be difficult for a pregnant woman. To bring the journey into perspective, think of a place eighty or ninety miles from your home. Then imagine walking that distance-and then walking the return trip. Even mounted on a donkey, it would be an unpleasant journey.
"to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem" (v. 4b). This journey explains how Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, in accordance with Micah 5:2. Matthew tells the story somewhat differently, having Jesus born in Bethlehem-then going to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath-and finally going to Nazareth after Joseph was warned in a dream (Matthew 2). There are two cities of David:
Luke does not mention the appearance of the angel to Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25). He tells us only that Joseph and Mary are betrothed-and traveling as a couple-and that Mary is pregnant. Matthew gives Joseph a more prominent role. In Luke, Joseph is nearly invisible.
LUKE 2:6-7. WHILE THEY WERE THERE
6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a [d]manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
"She gave birth to her firstborn (prototokon) son" (v. 7a). Luke provided so much detail in his first chapter about the annunciations to Elizabeth and Mary and the birth of John that we are surprised to find that he reports the birth of Jesus so sparingly.
Luke uses the word prototokon (firstborn) rather than monogene (only-as in John 3:16). This suggests the possibility of other children later.
Even today, the firstborn often has a special place in the parents' hearts. In that culture, the firstborn is invested with special rights of inheritance and holds a prominent place in the household.
"She wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough" (v. 7b). Luke mentions the manger three times (vv. 7, 12, 16), emphasizing its importance. It is the sign that confirms the angels' pronouncement (v. 12). The bands of cloth are not the sign, because they are typical of newborn babies. The manger, a feeding trough, unusual as a baby's crib, is a distinctive sign (Tannehill, 65). The manger contrasts starkly with the grand and glorious signs generally ascribed to the birth of an emperor.
"because there was no room for them in the inn" (Greek: katalumati) (v. 7c). The word "inn," which suggests a place of public accommodation, is not an adequate translation of katalumati, which is the same word translated "guest room" in 22:11. The typical home is joined to a manger which is used for storage or to shelter animals. Above the manger would be a room that could be used for guests. Given his ancestral connections to Bethlehem, Joseph would expect to obtain lodging in such a room on his return to Bethlehem, but he arrives after accommodations are full. Therefore he and Mary spend the night in the manger area where the birth takes place (Ringe, 41-42).
Luke places Jesus in the midst of those whom he will serve-the poor-the marginal-the vulnerable. He begins life in a borrowed feed stall and, later in life, will warn a prospective disciple that he has no place to lay his head (9:58).
The owner of the house would act differently if he understood that the baby is destined for greatness. He would make room, even if it meant giving the Holy Family his own room-but he does not understand the significance of this baby. Spiritual opportunities come to us in this way. It is not easy to recognize Jesus in the face of a homeless person or a Third World baby or a prisoner, but that is where we often meet him. God provides us with daily opportunities to meet Christ face-to-face.
LUKE 2:8-9. THERE WERE SHEPHERDS IN THE SAME COUNTRY
8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.
"There were shepherds in the same country staying in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock" (v. 8). If there is one verse of scripture that speaks of Christmas, this is it. That God would choose shepherds to receive word of the Incarnation is as surprising as his choice of the Israelites-or the young lad, David-or Mary-or a baby-or a manger. There could be no greater distance than that between Augustus (v. 1) and the shepherds (v. 8). It is also quite a distance from Matthew's Magi to Luke's shepherds.
Shepherding is a lonely, dirty job, and does not attract people with better options. Shepherds find it difficult to observe religious obligations. Who will watch the sheep while they attend synagogue services? How can they be faithful in their ritual observance? In a society where such observances separate the good from the bad-the desirable from the undesirable-people do not want shepherds for neighbors or sons-in-law. Still, David, who was also born in Bethlehem, had been a shepherd, and he had become their greatest king. Well, one might say, The Exception Proves the Rule.
David was a shepherd before he was a king, but his humble status as a boy-shepherd was highlighted by his father's failure to consider that David might be the chosen one (1 Samuel 16:1-11), and was surely one of the reasons that David was chosen. The scriptures speak of God as a shepherd (Psalm 23:1, 28:9; 80:1), but that metaphor does not bring to mind God's power and glory but his loving heart and pastoral care.
Barclay notes that Temple authorities maintain flocks of sheep in the vicinity of Bethlehem because of its proximity to Jerusalem and the temple. He believes that these shepherds might be the ones who look after those special sheep designated for sacrifice in the Temple. If that is true, the "shepherds who looked after the Temple lambs were the first to see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Barclay, 17). On one hand, that is an attractive possibility. On the other hand, it diminishes the ordinariness of the shepherds that may be the reason that God chose them.
"Behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified" (v. 9). This is the third annunciation by angels, the first being to Zechariah (1:5-20) and the second to Mary (1:26-38). In each case, the recipient of the annunciation responds by praising God (1:46-55; 1:67-79; 2:20).
"the glory of the Lord shone around them" (v. 9b). The word "glory" is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things-but it is used especially to speak of God's glory-an aura associated with God's appearance that reveals God's majesty to humans.
Christ shares God's glory. The glory of the Lord was revealed at his birth (Luke 2:9; John 1:14). His disciples, Peter, James and John, will be privileged to see Christ's glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (9:28-36). Christ's cross will be necessary so that he might "enter into his glory" (Luke 24:26; see also Philippians 2:5-11). The Gospel of John in particular speaks of the cross as Christ's glorification (John 12:23; 13:31-32). Jesus spoke of returning "with power and great glory" (Luke 21:27).
At the Transfiguration, the glory of the Lord will be revealed to the inner circle-Peter, James and John. There, too, the disciples will be terrified when the cloud envelops them. No wonder that these simple shepherds are terrified as they experience the glory of the Lord in their simple surroundings in the middle of nowhere.
"and they were terrified" (v. 9c). Today angels are usually portrayed as attractive young women, and are often portrayed as coming to make someone's wishes come true. The reality is that the appearance of angels represents Godly power and is a fearsome thing.
LUKE 2:10-14. I BRING YOU GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY
10 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; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased."
"Don't be afraid" (v. 10a). These are the same words used by the angels in the annunciations to Zechariah (1:13) and Mary (1:30)-(see also 5:10; 12:7, 32).
"I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people" (v. 10b). Luke is a Gentile. In Luke-Acts, he shows Roman centurions in a good light (7:1-10; 23:47) and records Peter's vision that opened the church to Gentiles (Acts 10). Here, at the beginning of this Gospel, he establishes that Jesus is for all the people-not just the people of Israel.
"For there is born to you, this day" (semeron-today) (v. 11a). Luke uses this word semeron several times in an eschatological context: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing"(4:21). "We have seen strange things today" (5:21). "Today salvation has come to this house" (19:9). "Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (23:43).
"a Savior" (v. 11b). The word "Savior" suggests that the people are in need of salvation. They would agree that they need saving, but would define their need in nationalistic terms. They feel that they need a messiah to save them from the Romans. Jesus, however, has come to save them from their sins (1:77; 5:20; 7:47; 11:4; 24:47).
The Romans think of Augustus as savior, because he quelled discord and ushered in the Pax Romana. However, Augustus' peace will prove fragile. After his death, other men will assume power-men like Nero and Caligula-men whose names will be synonymous with treachery and cruelty. The angels introduce a savior who will continue his saving work throughout human history. The Savior of the First Century is also the Savior of the Twenty-first Century. The Savior of Israel is the Savior of the World. "who is Christ (Christos), the Lord" (kurios) (v. 11). Christos is Greek and Messiah is Hebrew-both of which mean anointed. Anointing with oil was used to designate a person for a significant role. In the Old Testament, prophets were anointed (1 Kings 19:16). Priests were anointed (Exodus 40:13-15). Kings were anointed (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:3, 12-13; 2 Samuel 23:1; 1 Kings 1:39). These anointings acknowledged that these people were special-called by God to fulfill the duties of their particular office.
The New Testament speaks of Jesus as anointed (Luke 4:18; John 20:31; Acts 5:42; Hebrews 1:9, etc.). His anointing set him apart for his unique role as prophet, priest, and king.
The sign for which the shepherds were to look was "a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough" (v. 12). As noted above, the strips of cloth were typical garb for a newborn, but the manger was a distinctive sign. There would not have been another baby in the vicinity lying in a manger that night. It was also a sign that God had chosen to work through very ordinary people and things to bring to earth a Messiah who would be accessible to people from every circumstance.
"Glory to God in the highest" (v. 14a). The angels welcome Jesus' birth here. Later, the crowds will welcome Jesus to Jerusalem, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" (19:38)
"on earth peace, good will toward men!" (v. 14b). "The 'peace on earth' bestowed by God did not signal the banishment of human hostility from the earth. It is the 'shalom' of God which is life experienced in all its fullness, richness, and completeness in accord with the will of God" (Nickle, 26).
LUKE 2:15-16. LET'S GO TO BETHLEHEM NOW AND SEE THIS THING
15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, "Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us." 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.
"Let's go to Bethlehem" (v. 15). The shepherds could easily have said, "First, let me find someone to take care of the sheep." They could have said, "I would like to go, but I am needed here." Instead, like the fishermen who will leave their boats and the tax collector who will leave his tax booth, they heed the call. Not content to praise God with their lips, they praise him also with their feet-by going to see that of which the angels spoke. Surely God will not cause them to return to devastated flocks.
"They came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby was lying in the feeding trough" (v. 16). Be careful when reading this verse in public worship, lest you place Mary and Joseph in the manger together with the baby. Pause after Joseph's name.
The shepherds obey the angel's command with haste. More sophisticated people might hesitate. They would know questions to ask and problems to consider. What might they be getting themselves into? What might be the ramifications of their involvement? What precedents will they establish? Simpler folk find it easier to obey-are used to obeying orders-don't feel such a need to be in control-don't have a public image to protect. Simpler folk make better servants, and the Lord needs servants-people who obey.
LUKE 2:17-20. ALL WHO HEARD IT WONDERED
17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
"When they saw it, they publicized widely the saying which was spoken to them about this child"(v. 17). Once we have been privileged to experience God's presence, we then have a responsibility to share that experience with other people-to spread the word-to proclaim the Gospel.
"All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds" (v. 18). Who are the amazed people? Joseph and Mary? Probably! The shepherds? Surely! Also those to whom the shepherds will relate this story in days to come!
"But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart" (v. 19). New mothers treasure nearly everything about their babies, so it is only natural that Mary treasures the amazing story that the shepherds tell her and that she should ponder these things in her heart. God tapped her for a special mission, and she embarked on it willingly. She could not understand from the beginning everything that would follow. As her life with Jesus unfolds, she must wonder about the surprising pathways upon which she finds herself. If God has chosen her to be the mother of the Lord, why a feeding trough? Why shepherds? If there was an angelic chorus, why did they appear to shepherds? Why not her? What will happen next? What does God expect of her?
As with all of us, Mary's story will unfold page by page. Only as she is older and able to look back across the span of her life will she see the whole picture-and, perhaps, understand how her life has fit into God's plan to save the world.
"The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, just as it was told them" (v. 20). Just as very ordinary people later become witnesses to the resurrection, very ordinary shepherds served as witnesses to the Incarnation. Other than the angels, they are the first to proclaim the Good News of Jesus' birth.
There are four lessons which I wish to underscore here, which I believe are taught in our text. Let us prayerfully consider what God has to say to us from this passage.
(1) The sovereignty of God in history. Luke is a historian, and his historical account of the birth of Christ surely seeks to demonstrate the sovereignty of God in history. In the first 7 verses of the text, everything is viewed solely through a "secular" grid. A pagan potentate makes a decree, and the Israelites comply with it by registering in the town of their birth. In the process, a pregnant woman is forced to make a long journey with her husband, and to bear the child far from home and without the conveniences of a home.
Luke then lifts the veil, showing us that all of these seemingly sad events occur in order that God's Messiah might be born in the vicinity of some shepherds, and in conditions which set Him apart from all other babies in Bethlehem. These shepherds are guided to the Messiah by a divinely appointed angel and an angel choir, so that they serve to edify and encourage Mary and Joseph and to announce Messiah's birth to all who live in that area.
You will note that no mention is made of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah 5:2 is specifically mentioned by Luke because the recipient of the account, Theophilus, is a Gentile, who probably holds a high-level political position. While Theophilus would not be particularly in the prophetic fulfillment aspect of the birth account of Luke, he would be greatly impressed to learn that God is sovereign, and thus able to achieve His purposes and fulfill His promises by means of pagan powers, even the highest political power of that day-Caesar. Theophilus would be very impressed by this fact, which Luke is careful to reveal.
(2) Luke provides us with a lesson in the communication of the gospel. Luke is writing an account of the gospel here, and in doing this very well he provides us with some lessons in communicating the gospel to others. Luke passed up the opportunity to highlight the fulfillment of Micah 5:2 because it would not have as much impact on his Gentile recipient as it would have had on a Jew. Luke emphasized the sovereignty of God over history and over a heathen king, which would have had a great impact on Theophilus. In what he has done and not done Luke teaches us that we dare not change the gospel, but we should carefully chose to focus on those details of the gospel which will have the greatest impact on our audience. Thus, the need for more than one gospel is once again apparent.
(3) Luke's account of the birth of Christ reminds us of the principle of proportion. We have already pointed out that Luke alone records the details of our Lord's birth. Only one gospel in four describes the birth of Christ, while all four carefully depict His death. To press this point further, only a very few verses describe the events surrounding the birth of Christ while several chapters of each gospel are devoted to a description of the arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, resurrection and ascension of our Lord. The principle of proportion teaches us that much time and space is devoted to what is most important, while little time and space is given to that which is of lessor import. On the basis of this simple principle we would have to conclude that the death of Christ is more important to the gospel writers than His birth. Why is this so? Because it is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ that saves us, not the babyhood of Christ. Granted, Christ had to take on human flesh before He could reveal God to men and save them, but it is His atoning work on the cross of Calvary that saves us.
Why, then, is the Christmas story so important to many today, even those who do not believe in Christ for salvation? Because, I fear, the babe in the manger is far less threatening than the Christ of the later gospels, who interprets and applies the Law, who condemns sin and who speaks of faith in His blood. The baby in the manger is sweet and cuddley, and "controllable." The baby in the manger is a kind of "God in the box," a God whom we are comfortable to approach, to think about, even to worship. But the Christ hanging on the cross is not a pretty picture, He is not one to whom we are drawn, who evokes in us warm and fuzzy feelings. Many have made much, too much, of the babe in the manger because this is the kind of "god" they wish to serve, a "god" who is weak, who is helpless, who needs us, rather than a God who is sovereign, and who demands our obedience, our worship, our all.
What kind of God do you serve, my friend? What is the Christ like whom you worship? Worshipping the "babe in the manger" is not enough, for this is only the way He came. The way He will be for all eternity is the way He is described by John in the book of Revelation:
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us, and released us from our sins by His blood, and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father; to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. BEHOLD, HE IS COMING WITH THE CLOUDS, AND EVERY EYE WILL SEE HIM, EVEN THOSE WHO PIERCED HIM; AND ALL THE TRIBES OF THE EARTH WILL MOURN OVER HIM. Even so. Amen (Revelations 1:4-7).
According to Revelation and the prophecies of the Bible, the Jesus who came the first time as a little baby, is coming again, as an avenger and as a righteous judge, to punish the wicked and to reward the righteous. This may not be the kind of Jesus you wish to think of or to serve, but it is the same Jesus that came to Bethlehem. His second coming will be vastly different from His first appearance. Then, He came to humble himself, to die on the cross, and to save. Next time, He comes to judge. Are you ready to face this Jesus, to fall before Him in worship? This is the Jesus of the manger. This is the coming King. I urge you to accept Christ as He came the first time, as your Savior, and then to wait for Him eagerly, to come the second time, to make things right, to establish His kingdom on earth, and to rule over all creation. Let us learn from Luke's account that the babe in the manger is the Savior of the world, whom we must accept as our Savior.
(4) Finally, we learn that God's purposes are often achieved through suffering, and that God's purposes in our suffering are often not immediately apparent. All of the suffering, inconvenience, and discomfort that was occasioned by the decree of Caesar was not immediately recognized as the sovereign hand of a loving God, who was bringing about His purposes, in a way that was for the good of those who suffered. Let us learn from Mary and Joseph that those seemingly "secular" sufferings of life are most often instruments in the hand of God, which time or eternity will make clear to u