THE GOSPEL OF LUKE
THE BIRTH NARRATIVES
The Birth and Childhood of the Christ
When we come to Luke 2, we come to the great mystery of the ages, God becoming man. Throughout the first chapter of Luke we saw Luke's emphasis on Mary being a virgin, that is, Jesus being born of a virgin. The virgin birth does not have to be true; however, if Jesus is God the Son, then it has to be true. The resurrection is the proof, evidence that Jesus is God the Son; the virgin birth is the necessary attendant fact if Jesus is God the Son. If the virgin birth is not true, then Jesus is just a man, a great man to be sure, but nevertheless nothing more than a man. If Jesus is God the Son, then whereas Mary is His mother, only God can be His Father.
THE BIRTH OF JESUS IN BETHLEHEM (2:1-7)
In Luke 1 we see that Mary is from Nazareth in the northern part of Israel. Before she is about to give birth, Caesar Augustus issues a decree mandating that all the world should be taxed. From Caesar's viewpoint all the world referred to the Roman empire, stretching from France in the west to Israel in the east. This "taxation" took the form of people returning to their ancestral homes probably for the purpose of registering themselves and their families so that they could be taxed; it probably also served to help the Romans create a data base for future drafts for the army. This specific taxation occurred during the administration of Quirinius, Roman official operating out of Syria to the north of Israel. The date would have been approximately 4-6 BC.
Luke mentions this historical dating first in order to show once more that the God of Jesus Christ, His Father, is Lord over all the nations, even over the emperor of the greatest empire until the British empire of the late 1800's. Caesar Augustus' uncle and patron, Julius Caesar, had been intrigued with the idea of his being divine, a concept imparted to him by Cleopatra and her Egyptian beliefs. Octavian had his name changed to Augustus because "august" implied his deity. How ironic that no matter how high Caesar exalted himself, he was never nothing more than an instrument in God's hands. God is using Caesar to ensure that His Son is born in Bethlehem, the ancestral home of David. Why Bethlehem? First, because it was only fitting that David's son would be born in the birthplace of David. Second, in order to fulfill His promise (Micah 5:2) that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Notice though how God takes the evil in the world and uses it for good. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the Roman empire was good. It was good at administration, and it was good at building roads. Yet under its administration at least 1/3 of the world was in the bonds of slavery. The roads were built in order to transport troops more rapidly from one end of the empire to the other in order to silence cries for freedom. No one likes to be taxed, especially those who are being taxed by oppressors. Yet God takes this horrible event which uproots families from their homes and their jobs, and uses it for His purpose--to ensure that His Son is born in Bethlehem. God does not need only good circumstances to accomplish His will. If God can use a self-deifying oppressive tyrant to do His will, He can use the negative circumstances in your life to accomplish His will.
Normally just men would travel to the designated cites for registering for the tax; however, in the case of Joseph, Mary his betrothed travels with him. She may have traveled with him first in order to escape the vicious tongues of the neighbors who were suspicious of the tale of the virgin birth and second because she was near the point of delivery and needed Joseph with her.
What is interesting about the notice of Joseph is that so little attention is paid to him. When Joseph is mentioned, it is normally in order to remind us that he was of the house and lineage of David. Joseph was the legal heir to the throne of David. As we shall see later, Mary was a blood descendant of David; however, she most likely was not in line to ascend the throne. On the other hand, Joseph was. Although Joseph is not Jesus' biological father, he is nevertheless Jesus' legal father. As a result, because of Jesus' legal relationship with Joseph, Jesus is the true heir to David's throne. This legal relationship fulfills God's promise to David that One of his descendants would ascend his throne and reign forever and ever (2 Sam. 7:12-16). Joseph as a human being is important; however, his relationship with Jesus elevates him to a new and greater significance.
While Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem, the time comes for her to deliver. Because there is inadequate space in the normal lodgings for this delivery, Jesus is born in an animal enclosure, wrapped with cloths, and laid in a manger. The animal enclosure may have been a barn; however, it most likely was a cave in one of the hills surrounding Bethlehem. The cloths (swaddling clothes) would have been bandages wrapped tightly around the baby in order to keep its limbs straight. Ancient practices recommended this in order to help the baby's limbs grow properly. The manger most likely would have been a trough for feeding cattle, carved out of stone, and measuring approximately 3-4 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 3 feet high.
THE VISIT OF THE SHEPHERDS (2:8-20)
At the same time that Jesus is born, some shepherds are out in the fields watching over their flocks. Since weather dictated what time of the year flocks were taken to the fields, the time of this event was between March and November. (Christians celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 because at that time of the year, the day is getting longer, while the night is getting shorter.) Suddenly an angel of the Lord (Gabriel?) appears to them. When they become afraid, the angel tells them not to fear. Why? Because he is not bringing a message of terror but of good news! What is the content of this good news? On this very day a Savior has been born in the city of David. This Savior is none other than Christ the Lord. God has given them a sign: this baby is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
The first element in this gospel (good news) is that a Savior has been born. This implies that we are in dire need of a Savior; otherwise, why would Jesus come as a Savior? He has not come as a Judge. Jesus never came for the purpose of condemning the world. The only reason people receive condemnation is that they have rejected Jesus as Savior and would prefer to have Him as a condemning Judge (John 3:17). The second element in this good news is Jesus has come as the Christ. Jesus is the One christened/anointed with God's Spirit so that He can bring about the kingdom of God.
The third element in this gospel is that Jesus is the Lord. Notice that Christ the Lord explains the meaning of the word "Savior." Because Jesus is Christ the Lord, He is the Savior. An evangelist recently implied that you could basically have Jesus as Savior and yet not accept His Lordship. Now where did he come up with that? It is true that we all fail from time to time; however, the truth is that Jesus comes to us in no other way than as Lord. When the Roman jailer asked Paul what he had to do to be saved, Paul replied: "Believe in the LORD Jesus and you shall be saved" (Acts 16:31). The essence of salvation is submitting to Jesus as Lord of your life. When I do that, I experience salvation.
Normally, when we read that the angel gave the shepherds a sign, we say that it means that he gave them a description of the baby so that they might recognize Him. There would be few babies in Bethlehem that evening; of the babies, few would be wrapped in swaddling clothes since only the youngest were wrapped like this. Yet even fewer, surely only one would actually be lying in a manger.
The word "sign" though means more than this. A sign in the NT is a window in this world which allows you to look into the world of God. The sign allows you to see the things of God. What is this sign, and what does it tell us about God? The sign is the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. This sign gives us insight into who God is, a God of humility. Only a humble God would leave the glories of heaven to become a real, little baby. He really became a little baby. He wasn't in the manger teaching calculus to Mary and Joseph. Jesus wasn't simply in the form of a baby. He became the most vulnerable and defenseless of all creatures, a baby. The baby calf is walking within a few hours after it has been born. It can seek out its mom and find milk. Not the human baby. It is totally dependent and helpless. That is what God became in Bethlehem.
The fact that this sign points to the humility of God is reinforced by the people the angel first appears to. He does not appear to the high and mighty of the earth. Although rich magi later appear, the message is given first to shepherds. God appears to people on the lowest rung of of society, shepherds. Although David's being king has romanticized for us the idea of shepherds, shepherds were not romantic figures in the 1st century AD. They were considered liars and thieves, people whose testimony would never count in a court of law. Yet by appearing to the shepherds, the angel is communicating to us that Christ is for all people. If God includes shepherds in His kingdom, He wants to include all people, including you and me.
After delivering this message, the angel is joined by a heavenly multitude. The Greek of this verse implies that heaven basically emptied its halls. All the angelic hosts of heaven wanted to get involved in this act. Who would have ever thought that God much less becoming a man would actually even become a baby? They are full of awe and amazement, and wish to join in praising God for this marvelous act.
The angels cry out: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will." The angels praise God the Spirit who has overshadowed Mary and brought about the incarnation of Jesus. They praise God the Son who has lovingly obeyed His Father by leaving the courts of heaven and becoming a Man. The angels praise the Father. Why? Because behind all of what Jesus and the Spirit are doing stands the Father. Jesus did not come to earth on His own initiative. Jesus came at the behest of the Father. Jesus' humility and love for mankind are nothing less than a reflection of the Father's humility and love for mankind. This glory ascends to the highest reaches of heaven. As far as the heavens extend, so extend the praises of the angels.
Next, whatever else this act of Jesus portends, it signifies that God is bringing peace to mankind. God has to become man in order to die for man. Since man got himself into this messy situation, man must get himself out. Man cannot die for himself and be saved since he is a sinner. Only a perfect man can make this sacrifice; therefore, God becomes man because only perfect man can make the ultimate sacrifice. The result is that peace now exists between God and the people who accept the gift of Christ. No matter what may happen in life, things are now OK between God and His people.
After receiving the angel's message, the shepherds immediately scurry off to Bethlehem where they find the baby just as the angel had said. After finding the baby, they in their turn spread the good news. The people who hear the shepherds "wonder" at this good news. Mary on her part ponders what has just happened. The shepherds return to their flocks praising God.
Notice the reactions of the people. They are either spreading the good news about Jesus, being amazed at this good news, or else pondering the good news. These are not tepid reactions. They indicate that something profound has just happened and should not be easily dismissed. It's not like: "That was cool, let's see what's going to happen next." Instead they try to digest what they have just experienced. These are LIFE-changing events and need to be treated this way. We're so much in the mode of going from football game to football game, child's activity to child's activity, social event to social event. It is time we stop, ponder the amazing thing that God has done for us in Christ, and then share this good news with others who have not heard it.
JESUS' PRESENTATION IN THE TEMPLE (2:21-40)
In this passage we see Joseph and Mary visiting the temple first to have Jesus circumcised and named, and second to have Mary purified from the birth effects. While in the temple the holy family is met first by Simeon and second by Anna. Both are listed as righteous Jews, filled with God's Spirit, who have for all practical purposes made their home in the temple compound, waiting for the coming of the Messiah ("the consolation of Israel"). Simeon not only calls Jesus "the consolation of Israel" because one of His major functions as Messiah is to give comfort to Israel from her true enemies of sin, death, and Satan, he also informs Mary that her son is going to cause many in Israel to rise and fall, and is going to be the source of great pain for Mary. The proud Pharisees will fall spiritually because instead of accepting Jesus as the Messiah, they stumble over Him and His calls for them to repent from their wickedness. On the other hand, Jesus will lift the poor in spirit who respond positively to Him and His message. Jesus will bring great pain to Mary because of the sufferings she will see Him experience on the cross.
Notice the theme that is running throughout Luke: Zacharias and Elizabeth are righteous; Simeon is righteous; Anna the prophet is righteous. Did they ever make mistakes? Of course they did. Is their past being held against them? Not necessarily. At the present time they are righteous. They are seeking God wholeheartedly. The result? God blesses the first 2 of them by giving them a son to be the forerunner of the Messiah and blesses the last 2 by allowing them to see Jesus, the hope of the ages. Does living for Jesus pay? Luke's answer is a definite yes.
JESUS IN THE TEMPLE AT 12 YEARS OF AGE (2:41-52)
The last episode in the birth narratives deal with Jesus' visit to the temple when He is 12 years of age. Why does Luke even mention this episode? The primary reason is Jesus' response to His parents after they "rebuke" Him for treating Him so. His response? "Did you not know that I had to be about My Father's house" or "be about My Father's business." The point is that at least by the age of 12 Jesus had a clear consciousness of His unique relationship to God the Father. He does not call God "the Father" but rather "My Father." He is fully aware by this time that He is God the Son in a unique relationship with the Father.
Moreover, this gives us insight into the intervening years between the time of Jesus' birth and the launching of His public ministry 30 years later. They are not times of idleness. Rather Jesus is growing and maturing spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Is He sitting down designing the next universe to be formed? No. Although He is God, He has limited Himself so that He is also truly Man. In each stage of His life, He is perfect for that stage. When He is 12, even though He is a perfect 12-year old, He is not the person He will be 18 years later; He will mature and grow even more during the next 18 years. These 30 years are times of quietly maturing and growing in every aspect of human life.
Are these wasted years? No. They are critical in the sense they are necessary for the full development of Jesus. We act as if every moment is not chalk full of "meaning" and action, then we're wasting our lives. Quiet growth and maturity are not wasted. Some people are premature in their ministries. They're not ready yet; for this reason Paul says that a pastor must not be a new convert (1 Tim. 3:6). In order to have the kind of impact that God wants us to have, we need to be patient and allow Him to mature us into the kind of minister He wants us to be. God never wastes time. Jesus spent 30 years in seclusion. Was it a waste? Look at what He did in 3-years time. In those 3 years He changed human history. He changed our lives. Apparently the 3 years were quite long enough.