Updated: Dec 23, 2020
[Commentary for Luke 2:4-19] In our passage, Luke takes us on a great literary journey -- from the lowly shepherds to the highest heaven and back to a lowly baby that no one has room for. Luke establishes his themes of joy, subverted expectations, and God's love for the humble, all culminating in the announcement that a Savior has been born for you and me.
Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:11
Your Favorite Nativity Set
Everyone has a favorite nativity set or painting. What's yours? Why? Bring it with you on Sunday and do a good ol' fashioned show and tell.
[By the way -- I'm convinced that people believe the magi came to the manger with the shepherds because that's the way most nativity sets work. Just note that Luke says nothing about magi, and Matthew says nothing about shepherds. That's because they came at two different times, as Matthew's "after Jesus was born" line indicates. Does it change anything? Not really. Leave that topic for another day; you have plenty else to think about this week!]
If you do anything else, please watch this two-minute clip of Linus reading this week's passage from "A Charlie Brown Christmas":
[Just for fun -- did you notice what Linus what saying when he dropped his blanket?]
This week is the classic Christmas passage we all know and love. I never tire of reading it. And you really don't need to make this passage complicated. Just enjoy it!
But, if you're interested in some side topics for your personal edification, I've put in some sections about some quirky Christmas questions.
Aside: When Was Jesus Born?
For whatever reason, some skeptics seem to think that it's good logic to say, "Jesus wasn't born on December 25, 1 AD, therefore ALL CHRISTIANITY IS A LIE." It's not good logic, but some Christians seem to be quite concerned about knowing the exact date of Jesus' birth. So, let's deal with it.
Let's get this out of the way first: Jesus was probably not born on December 25, 1 AD. The Bible, at least, does not give us any such dates. Instead, the Bible identifies rulers and events (like Augustus Caesar and Herod the Great). And for the most part, that should be fine. If I were to say "the year after the Atlanta Olympics" or "the year of COVID-19", everyone who heard me would know what I was talking about. Unfortunately, today, we want to put a date on the event. In the case of the Olympics, no problem: July 19, 1996 – August 4, 1996. In the case of COVID-19, maybe a problem (not to mention the confusion of it being named "19" even though the primary effects were felt in 2020). And that's what we're dealing with when it comes to precise dates in the ancient world, except thousands of years removed from the actual events.
Aside on Roman calendars. Not the least challenge is the fact that the Roman calendar underwent multiple adjustments after Julius Caesar instituted the "Julian Calendar" in 46 BC (it only had 355 days), not to mention the fact that parts of the empire used variations on that calendar. (In 691 AD, the Byzantine Empire abandoned the Julian Calendar entirely.) In 1582, the Western world switched to the Gregorian calendar. As historians "converted" between the calendars, they regularly found older events to be out of alignment by multiple months.
What about the Year of Jesus' Birth? With that said, we can expect the dates around Jesus' birth to be off by months (due to calendar reconciliation), but some people say that Jesus was born multiple years before 1 AD. What gives?
We trace the "birth" (sorry, bad pun) of the current year division BC/AD (Before Christ/Year of the Lord) to a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who lived around 500 AD. He was very smart, did a lot of important research and translation, and was interested in mathematics. He did a series of calculations from the date of his current Roman consul, Probius Junior, to determine that Jesus was born 525 years earlier (as you might have guessed, we now say that Probius became consul in 525 AD). Here's the problem: Exiguus did not leave any records of how he did his calculations. (Hey, math students: SHOW YOUR WORK!) And we know that Roman records, as good as they were, were inconsistent. If Exiguus worked with one miscopied date, his entire system would be wrong. And he is the sole reason we have 1 AD when we do (an English historian picked up on his records and used it in England, and it became cemented in English records).
So, In What Year Was Jesus Actually Born? Let's just say that proposed dates range from 6 BC to 6 AD. That's a pretty big range. According to Matthew, Herod the Great was alive when Jesus was born and when the magi visited. Most scholars agree that Herod died in 4 BC, which means that Jesus would have been born sometime between 6 and 4 BC (depending on how old you think He was when the magi visited; that's for another day). To me, it's that simple: Jesus was born between 6 and 4 BC. There's a little controversy about the census Luke talks about in our passage which I will address later.
Is It a Big Deal to Know The Exact Year? Well, no. So, our current calendar year is based on a miscalculation by some guy who lived 1500 years ago and worked with sources he did not share. It does not change the historical fact of Jesus' birth. Now, if you really, really want to do an exact 2,000-year anniversary of events in Jesus' life, this might be a bummer to you. But here's my advice: "2,000" isn't actually any more special than "2,004"; it just sounds cooler. We ought to remember and celebrate these things every year (if not every week).
Where Did December 25 Come From? Boy, skeptics love to throw this one around. In their narrative, December 25 actually began as a pagan holiday in honor of the god Mithras or Saturn, therefore Christians are stupid. Wow -- that's good logic. So, let's investigate.
The most important place to start is that the early church did not celebrate the birth of Jesus as a holiday. To them, "birthday celebrations" were of pagan origin. We go hundreds of years before there is any interest in determining the day of Jesus' birth (now called Christmas / "Christ's Mass"). Around 200 AD, Clement of Alexandria mentioned August 28, May 20, and April 21 as the likeliest candidates for Christmas. By 400 AD, Augustine mentioned that a group of Donatists (a group of schismatics) kept December 25 as Christmas.
December 25 is very near the winter solstice, and many pagan festivals were indeed held at that time. There is also evidence that some church leaders did indeed assimilate pagan traditions into Christian ones in order to make it easier for the pagan people to adopt Christianity. If this theory is true, is that a problem? I don't think it is. "All right, you former pagans who now want to be Christians -- this festival where you used to celebrate the birthday of your sun god, well now we want you to celebrate the birthday of the Son of God!" If that's true, I understand why they did it. Symbolically, I also love the idea that after the winter solstice, the days become longer ("light is entering the world"). Plus, what clearer way to tell a people that their "Unconquerable Sun" that they used to worship has indeed been conquered than by replacing him in his own festival? (On an historical note: the earliest this theory appears is in the 12th century. If it were at all true, one would think that anyone would have mentioned it in the thousand years prior.)
Here's another theory for the date of Christmas -- based on the fact that the Donatists who celebrated it were extremely conservative and anti-anything-to-do-with-paganism. There was an early calculation (again -- related to the messiness of the Julian calendar) that Jesus died on March 25 (based on the date of Passover). Well, 9 months after March 25 is December 25. For some reason, certain early Christians were obsessed with the possibility that Jesus died on the date He was conceived. That's a possibility, and there is evidence that the ancient world realized that pregnancies lasted nine months (based on observations of menstruation). That's a strong case that December 25 wasn't actually pagan-inspired.
So, On What Day Was Jesus Actually Born? This is a tougher question; the best clue we have comes from the fact that shepherds were in the fields, which would have been more likely in the spring or fall (but not impossible for a mild December!). You might remember that David (our pastor) preached that Jesus could have been born very close to Passover, and that the shepherds were watching the flocks of lambs that would have been sacrificed at Passover. In their practice, because Passover lambs had to be without blemish, they would take a newborn lamb and wrap in tightly in cloth to prevent it from injuring itself. So, when they saw Jesus lying in a manger wrapped tightly in cloth, they would have immediately understood the symbolism God had showed them.
Is It a Big Deal to Know The Exact Date? Again, no. We don't know the date Jesus was born. The Bible does not say. But we know that He was born. If a person wants to celebrate it on December 25, that's fine. If they want to celebrate it on some other day, that's fine too. (Although at this point, December 25 is so entrenched into our culture that I think it would be a hard change. And unnecessary.)
In summary: Jesus may have been born on December 25, 1 AD or on April 21, 6 BC or any number of days in between. And it is okay that we don't know for certain. The Bible did not make a big deal at all about any of these dates, so we don't need to either. For example, in Luke 3:23, Luke said that Jesus was "about thirty years old when He began His ministry". I can't think of clearer proof that exact dates were not the priority; that these events happened, and that these events happened in human history is what matters.
Aside: Herod the Great
Four years ago when we covered Matthew, I included a section on Herod's family tree. Unfortunately, I don't have that lesson online to refer you to, so I'll copy parts of it here. [Note: I am starting to put up older Sunday School lesson supplements so that I can point you to things you have already taught!] I'm not saying that you need to talk about this on Sunday morning, but I do think that the Gospels make more sense if you know Herod.
Herod the Great is an incredible figure in Israel's history. Luke refers to him in 1:5 to set the historical stage. (Matthew talks about him a lot more.) He was a product of the great instability that preceded Augustus Caesar. Essentially, from 88 BC with the civil war between Marius and Sulla, through the first Great Triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Crassus, Pompey) which ended with Julius being appointed dictator in 46 BC, until the second Great Triumvirate (Octavian, Mark Antony, Lepidus) which resulted in Octavian appointing himself the first Roman Emperor in 27 BC, there was a whole lot of fighting and death. Those who survived, and those who happened to be on the winning side, reaped a lot of benefits. Herod the Great was one of those.
Herod's father, Antipater II, had filled the power vacuum in Judea through conniving and politicking. He also backed Julius Caesar -- which got him killed in 43 BC after Julius was assassinated. Herod just happened to be friends with Octavian (Octavian was kind of like Julius's son), which got him appointed "King of the Jews" by Octavian in 40 BC. (Note: Octavian chose the throne name Augustus Caesar.)
Now, here's where things get interesting. Octavian didn't really like Herod. But he needed someone who was good at manipulation and management to be in charge of the trouble spot that was Judea (remember the Maccabean revolt?). Herod took care of that. His building programs brought great prestige to the region (the temple in Jesus' day was a product of Herod). And he squashed all rebellions ruthlessly.
He was also a paranoid megalomaniac. In the family tree below, those names in boxes are family members Herod had assassinated. Octavian once said, "It would be safer to be one of Herod's pigs than one of his sons." This is why Matthew's audience would not have been scandalized at the order of murdering babies in Bethlehem -- it was expected out of Herod.
Finally, here's where things can be really confusing. Herod had four surviving sons, all named Herod (you can see this on the family tree), and a grandson named Herod. Those are the Herods referred to later in the Gospels and in Acts. What Herod the Great did was divide his "kingdom" between three of his sons (not Herod Philip I) and name them "Tetrarchs". Herod Philip I was the brother mentioned in Luke 3:19 whose wife Herodias was married by the brother Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas was the Herod described in Jesus' ministry. Herod Archelaus did not survive the politics for long. Herod Philip II was the Philip mentioned in Luke 3:1. Oh, it gets worse: Herod's grandson Herod Agrippa I was the "King Agrippa" who had James executed in Acts 12; his great grandson Herod Agrippa II was the Agrippa who interviewed Paul in Acts 25-26. Confused yet?
Here's the point: anything related to politics during the reign of Herod the Great or Herod Antipas would have put the Jews on edge. Some Jews were ready to go to war due to the heavy-handedness of Roman leadership. Some Jews were on eggshells just wanting to survive another day. The tension would have been intense.
And that was the world into which Jesus was born.
Part 1: Fulfilled (Luke 2:4-7)
4 Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David, 5 to be registered along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 Then she gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped him tightly in cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
I covered a good bit of this last week in the introduction to the Nativity story. These are the verses most of us think of when asked to read "The Christmas Story". It was about 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and very-pregnant Mary would not have traveled quickly. [Note: we assume Mary rode a donkey. The Bible doesn't say.]
Here's the main point of this section: (1) to explain why Jesus was born in Bethlehem and not Nazareth, and (2) to reiterate the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth. The more I think about it, the more I am surprised that Matthew didn't mention anything about the census. Putting Jesus in Bethlehem is critical for Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:1). The best explanation would be that Luke had previously released his Gospel, so Matthew didn't think he needed to repeat the story. (But that would go against my theory that Matthew was published first! :) )
[Important aside on the census. In our lesson passage, we skip the verses about the census. They're really important. They put Jesus in Bethlehem, they add a great deal of tension, and they give us an historical setting. There's also controversy: the first census that historians know about under Quinirius happened in 6 AD. That's the year that Herod Archelaus was deposed, and the region was converted into "The Roman Province of Judea". Obviously, a census would be necessary to establish taxes. It stirred up more than a few revolts. It also happened in 6 AD, not 6 BC, leading a number of scholars to conclude that Luke was in error in his account. But Luke mentioned that other census in Acts 5:37, making it unlikely to me that such a careful historian would conflate two events that he clearly knew were unique.
Here's one way of explaining the situation. Augustus Caesar was emperor from 27 BC to 14 AD. In his annals, he mentioned taking multiple censuses of his empire. They would have been extremely problematic in Judea because the Jews thought of themselves as a semi-independent kingdom and thus exempt from such government oversight. Thus, the censuses would have been a bigger deal to the Jews than to other parts of the empire where they may have been seen as commonplace. The word for "first" can also mean "before", so Luke was actually talking about another census that took place before the one under Quinirius that everybody remembers.]
We don't know how long they were in Bethlehem. The assumption is that because the baby was born in a manger, they must have just arrived. That's certainly the narrative we use with our Drive Through Nativity! But it's just speculation.
A misconception that you will want to clear up: the innkeeper was a bad guy. We don't know that there was an innkeeper! The word sometimes translated "inn" is actually just "guest room". It could refer to an inn, but in little Bethlehem visitors were more likely to stay in an ancient "airbnb". But somebody took pity on Mary and found accommodations for her. If it was an "innkeeper", he was actually a good guy and even one of the unsung heroes of the story. As crowded as Bethlehem evidently was, a stable was probably the only place where Mary could have a baby in privacy! The "bad guys" would be Joseph's extended family who took no pity on a pregnant girl. [I wonder if this would be a shunning based on the fact that they weren't married? I firmly believe that Joseph extracted Mary from Nazareth so she would not have to endure the gossip and finger-pointing.]
In that day, animals were regularly kept in the same structure as the family's sleeping quarters. Jesus could have been born in a cave, as some traditions hold, but the Bible doesn't say.
Here's the point of this story: as Son of God and son of David, Jesus was entitled to royal treatment. Instead, He was excluded from that -- there was no room for Him.
I also see something else going on in these verses. Great men with great influence think they are making great decisions that affect countless people, but what is really happening is they are fulfilling God's plan for our salvation.
Part 2: Announced (Luke 2:8-14)
8 In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: 11 Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.”13 Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
14 Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!
Luke then goes from one marginalized group (young pregnant women) to another (shepherds). Being a shepherd was a dirty, lonely, and dangerous job. It was unappreciated, and shepherds were often looked down upon because their work made them ceremonially unclean (and apparently some shepherds were disreputable).
But the theological significance of shepherds is everywhere in the Bible, starting with this word from Jacob: "The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day" (Gen 48:15). And consider Psalm 23! Do a Bible search for the word shepherd. I found at least 26 references to God and Israel's leaders as "shepherd" (and the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are filled with accusations that Israel's leaders were like bad shepherds who led their sheep astray). Jesus drove this home in John 10 with "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."
So, in addition to doing work that was critical for Judaism -- raising the sheep that would become the Passover sacrifices -- shepherds also represented a profession that reflected God's own care for His people. Add to that how lowly and humble shepherds were, and it should be obvious not only why God chose to announce His earth-changing news to them but also why Luke wanted to make sure to report it.
As an exercise, compare what the angel said to the shepherds with what the angel said to Zechariah and to Mary. Lots of similarities. One key difference is that the great joy is no longer for an individual or a small group but for all the people.
And what is this news? The angel doesn't dance around: the Messiah has been born. This is the Messiah that the Jewish people have longed for.
[Aside on "Messiah". The word "messiah" just means "anointed one". The Greek translation of that Hebrews word is "Christ". There were lots of prophets and kings identified as anointed ones in the Old Testament, including Elisha (1 Ki 19:16), Saul (1 Sam 9), and even someone like Cyrus (Isa 45:1). But as the Jews were conquered, God began revealing a future Messiah who would combine the roles of prophet, priest and king (for example Jer 33, Ezek 46, Zech 4). In Jewish literature from the time, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is evident that some Jews expected multiple Messiahs -- one being the perfect priest and one being the perfect king. That sheds light on the importance of the angel's message.]
Look at the specific words used to describe this Messiah: Savior and Lord. See it? One person is Messiah and Savior and Lord. This is a lot more than the Jews were presuming. And to find this One in a manger? Not in a palace? That subverts all expectations.
I wonder if that's part of the reason why God sent the first announcement to shepherds, and not the Jewish leaders nearby in Jerusalem. Can't you imagine the chief priests arguing with the angels that they've somehow gotten their information wrong? I can. But it's not a message to argue about; it's a message to praise God for! Glory to God in highest!
To make this clear, a multitude of angels appear ("multitude" just means "large number") praising God for His wondrous gift. The word "suddenly" appears throughout the Gospels in the sense of "unexpectedly" -- God is not acting according to human presupposition. The word "highest" is the literal climax/highpoint of this story, which started with the lowest of the low -- an unmarried pregnant girl, a group of shepherds -- and now travels to the throne of God Almighty high above all things. And then it travels immediately back down to the humblest circumstances on earth -- a newborn baby that the world has no room for. What an amazing literary journey!
About the message: "peace on earth to people He favors" -- It was unfortunately translated in the KJV as "peace, goodwill toward men". That translation makes it seem that Christmas is about some generic goodwill that God has for everyone. And indeed the world wants it to be about generic goodwill. Sing kum-ba-ya, I'm-okay-you're-okay. But that's not how the Greek reads! In the Greek, "goodwill" is not a noun but an adjective. It's not "goodwill to people" but "peace to people of God's goodwill". See the difference?
Christmas is indeed about the free gift of God's love in Jesus to the whole world. But peace with God is for those who receive that gift.
When we lose sight of Christmas as the beginning of the Gospel, and the Gospel as a choice presented to every human being, we miss what Luke's story is really about.
Part 3: Found (Luke 2:15-19)
15 When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the manger. 17 After seeing them, they reported the message they were told about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them.
And the passage ends with what we now call "The Nativity", a beautiful moment in time that every culture has made its own (this painting is Dutch). It is as beautiful and wonderful as you can imagine.
Do this as an exercise:
Think of times you have gone into a maternity ward to visit a mother with her new, healthy baby. Think about those emotions and feelings.
Think of times you have been around someone who just gave their life to Jesus. What an amazing thing to be a part of!
Now, combine those two. The indescribable joy of new life, and the indescribable joy of new life eternal -- all in the same event.
The shepherds become Luke's first evangelists. Mary was also profoundly moved by these events, but her focus turned inward. Luke is not comparing these responses -- both are equally valid. Internal praise (meditation) and external praise (declaration) are both right for the Christian in light of God's amazing and unexpected love for us.
Find a way to do both this Christmas. Merry Christmas!