Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Birth of the Messiah (Luke 2:1-20)

Introduction

An elder friend and I somehow were reminded of an old joke this past week, which relates to our text. A curious bystander was watching a blacksmith with great interest. The blacksmith was hammering out a horseshoe. He had just finished with a shoe and had placed it aside to cool. Without thinking, the bystander picked it up to look at it more closely, and even more quickly put it down. With a twinkle in his eye, the blacksmith commented, “Hot, wasn’t it?” Not to be made light of, the observer responded, “Nope, it just doesn’t take me long to inspect horseshoes.”

On can say that it doesn’t take Luke very long to report on child births, either, gauging from the length of his account of the birth of our Lord Jesus.25 And remember that Luke’s account of our Lord’s birth is the only inspired account recorded in the gospels. Neither Mark nor John deal with the births or the childhood days of either John the Baptist or Jesus, but begin with the commencement of John’s public ministry. Matthew tells us about the visitation of the angel to Joseph, prior to the birth of Jesus, which caused him to marry Mary, rather than to put her away privately, as he had originally intended. He also informs us about the visit of the magi, of Herod’s attempt to kill the baby, and of the flight of the holy family to Egypt until after Herod’s death. Matthew does not, however, tell us anything about the birth of our Lord, per se. Only Luke describes the events of our Lord’s birth. Thus, when we take note of Luke’s brevity, we see that the only account of Christ’s birth is also a very brief account. This is significant, as we shall seek to show at the end of the message.

Of all of the things which Luke could have told us about the birth of the Lord Jesus, he chose to give a very brief account of the factors which occasioned Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (the decree of Caesar, the census, the fact that the place of Joseph’s birth was Bethlehem), and how nearby shepherds came to witness the Messiah’s advent. These events, by virtue of the fact that they were chosen from many which could have been reported but were not, must be of considerable importance to Christians, especially Gentile believers, including ourselves. Let us seek to learn the meaning and the application of the Savior’s birth, as recorded only by Luke, the divinely inspired historian.

The Structure of the Text

Luke chapter 2 has three major sections. Verses 1-20 depict the birth of Jesus, and the worship and witness of the shepherds. Verses 21-40 feature an account of the presentation of Jesus at Jerusalem, and the inspired testimony of Simeon and Anna. The third and final section of the chapter describes an incident which took place in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old, at which time He remained in the Temple, His “Father’s house,” busy with His Father’s business (Luke 2:41-52).

Our text, Luke 2, verses 1-20, also has three divisions. Verses 1-7 explain the occasion for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and especially for the circumstances accompanying His birth, namely His being wrapped in strips of cloth and being placed in a cattle feeding trough. Verses 8-14 describe the angelic visitation of the shepherds as the occasion for the visit of the shepherds at the birth sight. Verses 15-20 report the shepherd’s visitation and their testimony after having seen the Savior.

The Setting

After the introduction of Luke’s gospel (1:1-4), Luke begins to intertwine the advent of both John the Baptist and Jesus, beginning with the announcements of their births, then their births, and finally some significant insight into a childhood event. The birth of John and the “family feud” over the naming of the child was the subject of our last study.

There are some intervening events reported by Matthew which also help us to understand what is taking place in our text. Matthew’s account of Joseph’s angelic visitation seems to occur shortly after Mary has returned to her home in Nazareth from the home of Elizabeth and Zacharias (cf. Luke 1:39-56). It is my opinion that Mary became pregnant through the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit during her stay with Elizabeth and her husband, Zacharias. On returning home she may have been nearly three months pregnant. Seeing her three months into her pregnancy must have been a great shock and disappointment to Joseph. It didn’t take any expert in biology to know that no woman had ever gotten pregnant by herself, and thus Joseph was forced to conclude that she had had sexual relations with another man. Divorce was unavoidable, Joseph knew, but he determined at least to do this privately, rather than to make a public spectacle of Mary.

It was at this point in time that the angel visited Joseph in a dream, Matthew tells us (Matt. 1:18-25), informing him that Mary had not had an illicit union, but that the child she was to bear was God incarnate, Immanuel. As a result of this revelation, Joseph took Mary as his wife, providing for her and protecting her, and later serving as the father of the miracle child she bore.

Mary became Joseph’s wife in a very different way, due to the nature of her pregnancy. Normally, a Jewish man and woman became husband and wife by their physical union. As a part of the wedding ceremony the husband and wife went into their tent, and emerged after the union was consummated sexually. Mary could not have had such a marriage ceremony, for Matthew has told us that they had no sexual relations until after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25). Thus, when Matthew refers to Mary and Joseph as being married, he speaks functionally, for from this time on they lived together as husband and wife. But when Luke speaks of this couple, on their way to Bethlehem, he speaks of them as though they were still engaged, and yet to be married. Leave it to a doctor to be so technical. He was technically right, however, for it was only after the birth of Jesus that Mary and Joseph consummated their marital union and became husband and wife in the precise sense.

The Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem
(2:1-7)

Luke takes up the account of the birth of Jesus with a report of the conditions into which God’s Messiah was born, and the human reasons for them. These first 7 verses are very “secular” in appearance. There is no mention of the hand of God, nor of any particular “spiritual” activity. Indeed, the section ends with almost a note of human tragedy. To think of it, the Son of God, covered with rags and placed in a cattle feeding trough! How inappropriate, we might protest. How tragic! This might be so, apart from the “other side of the news,” which is found in verses 8-20. The very circumstances which seem to pathetic, so sad, are those which prove to be most significant. Let us first look at the secular side of the news, and then press on to the spiritual dimension.

Verses 1-3 provide a secular explanation for the pathetic plight of the Christ-child. Caesar had proclaimed a decree, which required a census, undoubtedly in preparation for a later taxation.26 Registering for this census must have been a very painful act, not only because doing so was inconvenient, but because it was a reminder that while God’s people, Israel, were in the land of promise, they were not free; they were under the rule of a pagan power. A Roman law, made by a pagan potentate, compelled the Israelites to comply. The insistence of the Jews that they were subject to no one (John 8:33) is thus shown to be a blatant denial of a painful and sensitive fact.

Quite honestly, the information supplied in verses 1-3 is of little interest to the contemporary Christian reader. Who cares which Caesar was responsible for the census, or even that there was one? Who cares about Quirinius? In my opinion, Theophilus, the initial recipient did. The term “most excellent,” which Luke uses in chapter 1 (v. 3), is also used by Luke three times in Acts (23:26; 24:3; 26:25), each time in reference to a political official of high standing. This suggests that Theophilus, too, was a man of high political office. Luke’s information, while of little interest to us, must have been significant to Theophilus. Among other things, Luke was showing the historical roots of the Christian faith. Unlike the appearance of the other “gods” of false religions, whose appearance was couched in “once upon a time” terms, the coming of the Christ was a real event in real time.27 The facts Luke has provided were important to a man whose faith was to have historical validity.

In the final analysis, the decree of Caesar was divinely intended to cause one couple to make a long difficult journey from their home town of Nazareth in Galilee to the place of their birth, Bethlehem in Judea. The ancient prophet had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, a fact that was well known to the Jews:

And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet, ‘AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER, WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL’” (Matt. 2:4-6, citing Micah 5:2).

Luke’s purpose, however, is not to emphasize the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, as Matthew would do, for his gospel is written to a Gentile, who is probably not familiar with the prophecies of the Old Testament. Luke’s purpose is to show the humble circumstances of the Messiah’s birth.28 Thus, Luke informs us that Joseph and Mary made their way to Bethlehem, which would have been at least a three day journey of more than 60 miles. Nazareth was located in Galilee, to the north of Judea. As Luke informs us, the journey to Bethlehem was “upward” (“And Joseph also went up from Galilee,” 2:4) because Bethlehem was in the hills, just six miles south of Jerusalem, 100 feet higher, at an altitude of 2,704 feet. The journey was not an easy one, especially for a pregnant woman, nor was the occasion a happy one, for the census was undoubtedly a prelude to a tax and Mary and her husband would be far removed from friends and family29 if the baby were to arrive while they were in Bethlehem.

Much of the imagery which has become a part of the Christmas and nativity tradition has been supplied by our “filling in the gaps” of Luke’s account. What we are told is that there was not room in the “inn,”30 which resulted in the baby Jesus being wrapped in rags or strips of cloth and placed in a cattle feeding trough for a crib. We do not know that Jesus was born in a stable, or in a cave. The feeding trough could have been borrowed, so that the baby may have been born under the stars. Mary may have preferred the privacy. The trough would have provided a soft place for the babe to sleep and the strips of cloth, wrapped around the child, would have kept the cold out, especially if the holy family was “camped” in the open, out in the elements.

The Angelic Announcement
and the Late Night Visit of the Shepherds
(2:8-20)

So far as we have been informed by Luke, it would be difficult to see the hand of God in these events. Mary and Joseph appear only to be an unfortunate couple who are forced to make an undesired and unpleasant journey to Bethlehem, and it is there, tragically, that Mary gives birth, in the most miserable of circumstances. Our conclusion, if it must be made here, would likely be, “How sad!” “How pathetic!” “How unworthy of the Israel’s Messiah, the King of the Jews!”

The two key descriptive statements of Luke in verse 7 are now taken up, and their spiritual significance is pointed out in the verses which follow. Mary and Joseph just “happen” to be nearby a field in which some shepherds are tending their flocks. It may very well be, as some have suggested,31 that these flocks were the animals which were raised to be sacrificed in Jerusalem. These shepherds would also be looked down upon by their countrymen. Shepherds, as you will recall, were “loathsome” to the Egyptians (Gen. 43:32; 46:34); they were also poorly thought of by their own brethren. Geldenhuys reminds us that,

“Shepherds were despised people. They were suspected of not being very careful to distinguish ‘mine’ and ‘thine’; for this reason, too, they were debarred from giving evidence in court” (Strack-Billerbeck, in loc.).”32

In spite of their poor reputation as a class of people, these shepherds seem to have been godly men, men who were looking for the coming of Israel’s Messiah. All the others of those who were directly informed of the birth of Messiah in Matthew and Luke were described as godly people, and so it would seem to be true of the shepherds as well. After all, news of His coming would not be “good news of a great joy” (v. 10) unless they were seeking Him. The haste of these shepherds to the place of Christ’s birth (vv. 15-16) also testifies to their spiritual preparedness and eagerness for the coming of Messiah. This is in contrast to the response of the Jerusalemites to the news of Messiah’s birth, as prophesied in their Scriptures and announced by the magi:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him (Matt. 2:1-3).

To these humble shepherds the angel of God appeared in a blaze of glory, which caused them to be greatly frightened. The angel assured them that he brought them good news, and told them of the birth of Messiah.33 This was to be the cause for “great joy” for all the people. I take it that by this the angel meant that all people, all the nations, and not just Israel, would benefit from His birth. Suddenly, the angel was joined by a host, an army, of angels, singing a song of peace.34 Here was divine confirmation of the angel’s announcement.

The angel had promised a sign to the shepherds. The sign was that they would find the child wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a cattle feeding trough (v. 12). The sign was not designed to convince the shepherds of the truth of the angelic announcement. Surely the splendour of the angel, compounded by that of the heavenly host, was convincing enough. I believe that this “sign” was for the purpose of identification. From Matthew’s account of the Bethlehem slaughter (Matt. 2:16-18), it is apparent that there were a number of babies in Bethlehem at the time. The way that they would recognize God’s Messiah was by His swaddling clothes and by His unusual “crib.” No other child would be found in such a setting.

And so the two most pathetic factors in the birth of our Lord, His “swaddling clothes” and His “cattle feeding trough bed,” prove to be the very things which set this child apart from all others, and which identify Him to the shepherds. But they do more than this; they also identify Messiah with the shepherds. One of the names of Messiah is “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” The circumstances of our Lord’s birth uniquely identified the Lord Jesus with the shepherds. The Lord seemingly had no roof over His head, no house to dwell in. Neither did the shepherds, who, we are told, slept under the stars, as they cared for their flocks (v. 8). Jesus was poor and of no reputation, as were they. And Jesus, who was to be both the sacrificial “Lamb of God” (cf. Isa. 53:4-6; John 1:29) and the “Good Shepherd” (cf. Ps. 23:1; Ezek. 34:23; John 10:14), identified with these shepherds by being found in a cattle feeding trough. Were they considered unclean by virtue of their contact with animals? So was He. What a beautiful picture of our Lord’s humiliation and identification with men, even the most humble of men, rejected and despised men.

Eagerly and with great haste (vv. 15-16) the shepherds went to Bethlehem, where they “found their way to Marry and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.” I think it is important to recognize that the angel announced the birth and the location of Messiah not only so that the shepherds could witness this historic occasion, and to worship their King, but also so that they could tell others—be witnesses—of Messiah’s birth.

Think first of all of the impact of the shepherds arrival and announcement upon Mary and Joseph. Granted, they had both been told that the child, who was miraculously conceived in Mary’s womb, was the Messiah, the promised Savior. But it took years for this to be understood, just as it took years for the disciples to grasp who Jesus was. They continued to wonder and marvel at the things Jesus said and did, not putting everything together until after His death, burial, resurrection, and the promised coming of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 1l6:12ff.). So, too, Mary and Joseph must have been greatly surprised by the shepherds’ arrival and by the report they shared of the angelic announcement and choir. While all who heard this report wondered, Mary, in some special way, “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” In computer terms, her data base of information continued to increase in size and she persistently was processing this material, as to its meaning and implications. I personally feel that it was the arrival of the shepherds which finally brought all the inconvenience and unpleasant circumstances of the birth of Jesus into its true spiritual light. What had once appeared to be only a sequence of unfortunate events, now is revealed to be the hand of God working through history to accomplish God’s will.

The testimony of the shepherds also had a great impact on the people in that area who were looking for God’s Messiah. Luke informs us that the shepherds “found their way” to Mary, Joseph, and the child, but how did this happen? We do not know exactly, but I can at least imagine how it might have occurred in such a way as to make Messiah’s arrival known to a great many people.

To me, the shepherds’ search for the baby Messiah in Bethlehem was like a scavenger hunt. The “clues” they were given were (1) that there was a newly born babe; (2) that the babe was a boy; and (3) that he was to be found in a cattle feeding trough, wrapped in strips of cloth. I can just imagine those shepherds, converging on the town of Bethlehem, in the middle of the night (vv. 8, 15-16), knocking on doors, seeking to find a child meeting these descriptions. One looking on the town from a distance could have seen the whole town progressively lit up, astir with the news which the shepherds brought. From every house where the baby was not found, there was probably another addition to the search party. Perhaps the entire town was awakened and engaged in the search before the babe was found. All of this served to make the news of the Christ-child’s birth known, as well as to create of mood of expectation and curiosity. At some of the homes, at least, there may have been the request to come back with news of where Messiah was found.

After the shepherds found the child and shared with Mary and Joseph what had happened, they probably retracted their steps through the town of Bethlehem, brings all the people up to date on what they had seen. Luke therefore tells us that “all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds” (v. 18). These shepherds, who belonged to a class of society banned from bearing testimony in the courtroom, were the ones God chose to bear witness to the birth of His Son. Why? Because, I suppose, God had always chosen the “weak and foolish” things of this world to confound the wisdom of the wise, and because ultimately it is not the messenger that matters, but the message itself. If Jesus came to bring salvation and deliverance to the poor, the oppressed, and the despised of this world, why not announce it by means of the despised and rejected? The apostles of our Lord were just such men (cf. Acts 4:13).

Conclusion

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 (Rev. 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 us.


25 The simplicity and brevity of this account can be viewed as testimony to its inspiration and divine origin, for such accounts would normally be embellished.

“This story excels by reason of its unaffected simplicity. In it we hear throughout the sound of sober, historical truth. It is like a charming idyll. But although it may claim poetical beauty, it is by no means merely the product of poetical imagination or the forming of legends. Its reserved sobriety forms a sharp contrast to all apocryphal and legendary versions of the occurrences in later times.” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 110.

“‘Such marvelous associations have clung for centuries to these verses, that it is hard to realize how absolutely naked they are of all ornament. We are obliged to read them again and again to assure ourselves that they really do set forth what we call the great miracle of the world. If, on the other hand, the Evangelist was possessed by the conviction that he was not recording a miracle which had interrupted the course of history and deranged the order of human life, but was telling of a divine act which explained the course of history and restored the order of human life, one can very well account for his calmness’ (F. D. Maurice, Lectures on S. Luke, p. 28, ed. 1879).” As cited by Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 46, fn. 1.

“… the circumstances just noted affort the strongest indirect evidence of the truth of this narrative. For, if it were the outcome of Jewish imagination, where is the basis for it in contemporary expectation? Would Jewish legend have ever presented its Messiah as born in a stable, to which chance circumstances had consigned His Mother? The whole current of Jewish opinion would run in the contrary direction. The opponents of the authenticity of this narrative are bound to face this. Further, it may safely be asserted, that no Aprocryphal or legendary narrative of such a (legendary) event would have been characterised by such scantiness, or rather absence, of details. For, the two essential features, alike of legend and of tradition, are that they ever seek to surround their heroes with a halo of glory, and that they attempt to supply details, which are otherwise wanting. And in both these respects a more sharply-marked contrast could scarcely be presented, than in the Gospel-narrative.” Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [reprint], 1965), I, p. 186.

26 There are a number of difficulties which one could deal with in this passage, but which are not crucial to our study. First, there is no record of a law by Augustus which required that a census be held. Second, while we do have an inspired record that Quirinius carried out a census in A.D. 6 (Acts 5:37), nothing is recorded about an earlier census. Geldenhuys, pp. 104-106, has a fairly comprehensive description of the problems found in our text, and some possible explanations. Cf. also Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), pp. 81, 82.

27 Cf. Geldenhuys above, footnote 1.

28 Edersheim writes: “Two impressions only are left on the mind: that of utmost earthly humility, in the surrounding circumstances; and that of inward fitness, in the contrast suggested by them.” Edersheim, I, pp. 185-186.

29 Morris reminds us that Mary and Joseph may have found the necessity of travelling to Bethlehem a welcome opportunity to leave Nazareth, for no one would have believed that Mary’s pregnancy was miraculous:

“We should perhaps reflect that it was the combination of a decree by the emperor in distant Rome and the gossiping tongues of Nazareth that brought Mary to Bethlehem at just the time to fulfil the prophecy about the birthplace of the Christ (Mi. 5:2). God works through all kinds of people to effect His purposes.” Morris, p. 84.

30 “The Greek word [for ‘inn’] is of very wide application … In the LXX. kataluma is the equivalent of not less than five Hebrew words, which have widely different meanings. In the LXX. rendering of Ex. iv. 24 it … certainly cannot mean a guest-chamber, but an inn. No one could imagine that, if private hospitality had been extended to the Virgin-Mother, she would have been left in such circumstances in a stable. The same term occurs in Aramaic form … Delitzsch, in his Hebrew N. T., uses the more common .… Bazaars and markets were also held in those hostelries; animals killed, and meat sold there; also wine and cider; so that they were a much more public place of resort than might at first be imagined.” Edersheim, Life and Times, I, p. 185, fn. 1.

31 “It is not unlikely that the shepherds were pasturing flocks destined for the temple sacrifices. Flocks were supposed to be kept only in the wilderness (Mishnah, Baba Kamma 7:7; Talmud, Baba Kamma 79b-80a), and a rabbinic rule lprovides that any animal found between Jerusalem and a spot near Bethlehem must be presumed to be a sacrificial victim (Mishnah, Shekalim 7:4). The same rule speaks of finding Passover offerings within thirty days of that feast, i.e. in February. Since flocks might be thus in the fields in winter the traditional date for the birth of Jesus, December 25, is not ruled out. Luke, of course says nothing about the actual date and it remains quite unknown. As a class shepherds had a bad reputation. The nature of their calling kept them from observing the ceremonial law which meant so much to religious people. More regrettable was their unfortunate habit of confusing ‘mine’ with ‘thine’ as they moved about the country. They were considered unreliable and were not allowed to give testimony in the law-courts (SB). There is no reason for thinking that Luke’s shepherds were other than devout men … ” Morris, p. 84.

32 Geldenhuys, p. 115, fn. 1.

33 Our study does not permit us to pursue in depth the terms and phrases of the angel, but below are a few selected comments:

Savior: “… A title used of Jesus here only in the Synoptic Gospels; it is found once in John.” Morris, p. 85.

Christ the Lord: “This renders a Greek expression found nowhere else in the New Testament and meaning, literally, ‘Christ Lord.’ Perhaps we should understand it as ‘Christ and Lord’ (cf. Acts 2:36; 2 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 2:11). The term Christ is Greek for ‘Anointed one,’ just as ‘Messiah’ is our transliteration of a Hebrew term with a similar meaning. Anointing was for special service like that of a priest or a king. But the Jews expected that one day God would send a very special deliverer. He would be not simply ‘an’ anointed by ‘the’ anointed, the Messiah. It is this one whom the angel announces. Lord is used in the Septuagint of God (it is used in other ways as well, but it is the translation of the name Yahweh). Christ the Lord thus describes the child in the highest possible terms.” Morris, p. 85.

Among men with whom He is pleased: “There are problems both of text and translation in the expression translated among men with whom he is pleased (more literally, ‘among men of (his) good pleasure’). But RSV is right over against ‘peace, good will toward men’ (AV), a reading supported by many late MSS. The angels are saying that God will bring peace ‘for men on whom his favour rests’ (NEB). There is an emphasis on God, not man. It is those whom God chooses, rather than those who choose God, of whom the angels speak.” Morris, pp. 85-86.

Peace on earth: “… In the Mediterranean world the birthday of a ruler was sometimes celebrated with a proclamation of the benefits of his birth. An inscription found at Priene, celebrating the birthday of Augustus in 9 B.C., reads in part,

Providence … has brought into the world Augustus and filled him with a hero’s soul for the benefit of mankind. A Savior for us and our descendants, he will make wars to cease and order all things well. The epiphany of Caesar has brought to fulfillment past hopes and dreams. (F. Danker, Jesus and the New Age, p. 24)

Here, Augustus fulfills ancient hopes and brings peace. These benefits are proclaimed on his birthday.” Talbert, p. 32.

“Peace, then, became an eschatological hope (Zech. 9:9-10) and the messianic figure the prince of peace (Isa 9:6).” Talbert, p. 32.

34 “Only once before had the words of the Angels’ hymn fallen upon mortal’s ears, when, to Isaiah’s rapt vision, Heaven’s high Temple had opened, and the glory of Jehovah swept its courts, almost breaking down the trembling posts that bore its boundary gates. Now the same glory enwrapt the shepherds on Bethlehem’s plains.” Edersheim, I, p. 188.

“… In biblical literature heavenly choirs sometimes celebrate future events as though they were already fact (e.g., Rev 5:9-10; 11:17-18; 18:2-3; 19:1-2, 6-8); their song proclaims the benefits that are to ensue: 2:13-14 employs such a heavenly choir.” Talbert, p. 32.

Related Topics: Incarnation