Luke – Part 1 – Chapter 2

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The birth of Jesus

Luke chapter 2, verses 1-7
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Commentary

No event in the history of the world has been so celebrated in word and song as the birth of Jesus Christ! Yet this story is told by Luke in a totally undramatic fashion. The significance of what happens here in Bethlehem’s manger was already revealed in chapter 1 with the angel’s announcement to Mary. The actual birth of the babe is told in the simplest words: “she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” So the Son of God enters our world in utter humility and without fanfare.

It was a census ordered by Caesar Augustus, ruler of the Roman Empire from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14, which brought Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The purpose of this census is indicated by the translation in the King James Version: “to be taxed.” Everyone went to his own town to register on the tax rolls. Mary and Joseph made this journey of about 80 miles from their home city in Galilee to the ancient city of Bethlehem, family home of the famous King David. Here this child, whose kingdom would be far greater than that of his ancestor, was born. It was to fulfill God’s Old Testament promise that the Messiah was born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth.

Critics of the Bible have found fault with Luke’s mention of Quirinius as being governor of Syria when this census was taken. Historical records list Quirinius as the governor of Syria about 10 years after the death of King Herod; a census was taken at that time (A.D. 6/7). Since Jesus was born while Herod was king (who died about 4 B.C.), some claim that Luke makes a mistake here. But before coming to this conclusion, one must take into account several possibilities: (1) Luke calls this the “first” census while Quirinius was governor of Syria; Quirinius may have had an earlier tour of duty in Syria, a hint of which is found in an ancient document. (2) Some learned Greek scholars suggest that the word first might better be translated as “prior”; the translation would then be: “this census was prior to Quirinius being governor of Syria.” We moderns hardly have all the facts available to us from two thousand years ago; we dare not stand in judgment of Luke, who writes by inspiration of God’s Spirit and has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (chapter 1, verse 3).

After the birth of Jesus, his mother wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger. The Old English word swaddle (found in the King James Version) means to bind an infant in lengths of bandage. This was the normal way of clothing an infant; today we would “diaper” a child. Only at the end of the story do we find out that the inns were all full in Bethlehem. This necessitated their using a less suitable place for shelter. So it was among the animals that Jesus was born; he was bedded in a manger, a feeding trough for cattle. Is it any wonder that this scene has captured the imagination of artists and poets! But we must not be so fascinated by romanticized versions of this event that we miss its true significance: here is the Word of God made flesh for us and for our salvation. Glory be to God on high!

The shepherds and the angels

Luke chapter 2, verses 8-20
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 of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
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.”
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. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Commentary

We must assume that very few people in Bethlehem were aware of that baby lying in a manger; only Mary and Joseph were in on the secret of his divine origin. That all changes as God goes public with the good news. His salvation is not just for Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary. Jesus Christ is the Savior of all people. The first audience to hear the good news is a band of shepherds living out in the fields near Bethlehem. King David had been a shepherd out on those same fields. Now news of the birth of one greater than David is broadcast to shepherds.

The darkness of night is shattered by the bright light of angelic beings. This is the third appearance of angels in Luke’s gospel. Angels serve as messengers of God to interpret events that would otherwise go unnoticed or be misunderstood. The shepherds are told that the baby wrapped in such ordinary cloths and lying in a manger is none other than the Savior, Christ the Lord!

This is the first occurrence of the name Christ in Luke’s gospel. This is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, meaning “Anointed One.” The word is found, for example, in Psalm 2, verse 2, where we are told that the kings of the earth take their stand against the Lord and against “his Anointed One.” In the Greek translation, one would find the word Christ here. Since it was customary to anoint kings in the Old Testament, the word Christ has reference to the fact that Jesus is a king, descended from David and destined to rule forever. The birth of Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament promise that God would send a king, a messiah, to save his people.

This good news of great joy is amplified by the sudden appearance of a multitude of the heavenly host singing praises to God. Their song is familiar to us from our Sunday worship, where we continue to sing the Gloria in Excelsis (Glory in the Highest). The song of the angels has a double focus: in the highest heavens there is resounding glorious praise to God for his generous gift of a Savior; on earth there is peace for people on whom God’s favor rests. This last phrase differs from the familiar translation of the King James Version: “good will toward men.” The ancient Greek texts of the New Testament account are divided here, which leads the NIV to translate it as “on whom his favor rests.”

As suddenly as the angels had come, so suddenly they left. The shepherds are once more alone with their flocks. But they can hardly go on with their night watch as if nothing had happened. They hurry off to Bethlehem to see this thing that the Lord had told them about.

The angel had given them a sign so that they could recognize the baby: one lying in a manger. What they searched for, they found. We don’t know how long they stayed. We don’t know what was said. But we do know that the shepherds did not keep the news to themselves; they spread the word. Their message was not so much about the baby in a manger; rather, they shared the angel’s message: “A Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” No wonder the people who heard the shepherds’ talk were amazed. They may have questioned whether perhaps these sheep herders were not a bit unhinged. Yet the shepherds knew what they had heard and seen. And they echoed the angels’ praise with their own earthly songs as they returned to their waiting flocks.

Mary’s reaction to all these happenings is much more subdued. We are told that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Her treasures were not any earthly relics—a bit of straw from the manger, the cloth in which the baby was wrapped, or one of the shepherds’ staffs left behind. Her scrapbook of this event was carried within her heart. She turned over again and again in her mind what had happened and was amazed at what a great thing God had done.

Here are the two sides of Christmas: one is very public; the other, private. Both are necessary. We need to go public with the good news; we need to celebrate with word and song; we need to witness to others. But Mary’s example is also for us to follow: what a marvelous thing God has done for me! This child is my Savior from sin and death and Satan and hell. Here is our priceless treasure!

Jesus presented in the temple

Luke chapter 2, verses 21-40
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.
When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

Commentary

Just as John was circumcised and named on the eighth day, so it is with Jesus. Saint Paul takes special note of the fact that Jesus was “born under law, to redeem those under law” (Galatians chapter 4, verses 4 and 5). The circumcision is a part of Christ’s active obedience: he fulfilled the law perfectly in our place. And his circumcision brings to an end the need for us New Testament Christians to practice circumcision as a religious rite in fulfillment of the Old Testament law. In this sense, Christ is truly the end of the law (Romans chapter 10, verse 4).

The angel Gabriel had revealed to Mary what she was to name her child (chapter 1, verse 31). The name “Jesus” comes from two Hebrew words: the Lord (Jehovah) plus save. Matthew chapter 1, verse 21 gives this interpretation of the name Jesus: “He will save his people from their sins.” Truly an appropriate name for this child! Circumcision took place in the home of the parents. We don’t know just where Mary and Joseph might have stayed while they remained in Bethlehem. Undoubtedly, they were able to find more suitable shelter than the stable after the rush of people had left Bethlehem following the census registration.

When Jesus was 40 days old, they made the short trip to Jerusalem for the purification of Mary and the presentation of the child in the temple. The law of the purification of a mother is found in Leviticus chapter 12. A poor person was required to bring two doves or young pigeons as her sacrificial offerings. The law also required that a firstborn male was to be consecrated to the Lord (Exodus chapter 13, verse 2). If the child was not given into the service of the Lord, the parents needed to redeem him by a payment of five shekels (Numbers chapter 3, verses 46 and 47). Mary and Joseph did not make this payment since Jesus was consecrated to the Lord in the fullest possible way. On the 40 day of his life, Jesus is presented to the Lord.

We are now introduced to two very pious and aged persons, Simeon and Anna. They remind us of those other two persons, Zechariah and Elizabeth, whom we met at the beginning of this story of the births of John and Jesus. And just as Zechariah sang a hymn of praise, so does Simeon.

Simeon had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. When Mary and Joseph come into the courts of the temple, the Spirit directs Simeon to do the same. Seeing the child Jesus, he takes the infant in his arms and praises God with the song commonly called the Nunc Dimittis (from the opening words of the hymn in Latin). We continue to sing this song as part of our communion liturgy and in our evening worship (vespers).

Simeon is not really making a request of the Lord—he is making a statement of fact: “You now dismiss your servant in peace.” Simeon’s service in the temple as a watchman waiting for the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises is at an end. The watch is over; the servant can retire in peace. With the eyes of faith, Simeon sees more than a babe in arms; he sees a Savior dying on the cross; he sees salvation for all people, both Israelite and Gentile.

Joseph and Mary marveled at the words spoken by Simeon. But the old man is not finished. He shows insight that could come only by special revelation of the Spirit concerning the destiny of this child. Israel would be divided over Jesus—he would cause some to fall and some to rise. For some, Jesus would be a rock of offense over which they would stumble; for others, he would be the living stone of salvation. Mary would herself witness his suffering on the cross; her own soul would be pierced with the sword.

Simeon passes from the scene to be replaced by Anna, a widow of 84. She had faithfully served the Lord for many years with worship, fasting, and prayer. Now she adds her thanksgiving to that of Simeon’s and speaks of the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Joseph and Mary had much to discuss as they proceeded on their way back to Bethlehem following their visit to the temple. For the time being, they decided to stay in Bethlehem. Luke skips over the story of the coming of the wise men and the flight into Egypt (Matthew chapter 2). He simply reports that after doing everything required by the law of the Lord, Mary and Joseph returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. Here Jesus grew up, becoming stronger day by day, filled with wisdom and the grace of God.

The introduction of God’s Servant

The boy Jesus at the temple

Luke chapter 2, verses 41-52
Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

Commentary

The time between the birth of Jesus and the beginning of his early ministry is sometimes called “the silent years.” There is only one break in this silence, the story of the boy Jesus at the temple. Though this story is included in the second chapter of Luke, it really fits better with what follows in chapter 3. Already as a 12-year-old, Jesus is introduced as the Servant of the heavenly Father. The child who was presented in the temple now takes a seat among the teachers of the Word of God, much to the amazement of the onlookers.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph regularly went up to Jerusalem for the annual feast of the Passover. This feast celebrated the redemption of the people of Israel from Egypt and was observed in the spring of the year. It was the most important of the Jewish festivals, and the law required all males to attend.

At the conclusion of the Passover feast, Mary and Joseph started back to Nazareth, thinking that Jesus was among the group of pilgrims who were traveling together. But at nightfall the boy was nowhere to be found. A frantic search began for the missing son, one which ended three days later when Jesus was discovered in the temple courts. These courts surrounded the temple sanctuary and were used as a place for instruction and study of God’s Word.

Jesus was making quite an impression on the crowd that had gathered. Here was no ordinary boy; his questions and answers showed superior knowledge and understanding. Mary and Joseph were also astonished—and a bit perturbed—when they found him. This is evident from the words spoken by Mary: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

Any parent who has suffered the trauma of a missing child can well imagine what Mary and Joseph experienced. How guilty Mary must have felt for failing to keep closer watch over the whereabouts of this son entrusted to her care by the Lord.

The words that Jesus speaks to his mother here are the first recorded in any of the gospels. Mary had addressed a question to him. He responds with a double question: “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” There is in these questions a gentle rebuke for Mary. She was tempted at times to think of Jesus as an ordinary child, one over whom she had complete control.

Mary had to learn, as also later at the wedding at Cana, that Jesus was directed by a greater will, the will of the heavenly Father, in a way no other child was directed. This was something that Mary and Joseph did not understand. For them it was a learning experience. And for all who witnessed this 12-year-old in the temple, it was a dramatic introduction to the Servant of God.

What Jesus did was not an act of rebellion over against his parents. His complete obedience to them continued to be demonstrated on their return to Nazareth. For Mary this incident added to the treasure stored in her heart. Already she was learning what those words of Simeon meant, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Luke closes out this story by telling us that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men. One assumes that Jesus spent the next 18 years of his life in and around Nazareth working as a carpenter (see Mark chapter 6, verse 3, where the question is asked, “Isn’t this the carpenter?”). We will next hear of Jesus when he is baptized by John in the Jordan River at about 30 years of age (chapter 3, verse 23).