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Luke 2:1-20 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 2:1-20. THE BIRTHS OF JOHN AND JESUS
Note the parallels between the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist:
• “Elizabeth… gave birth to a son” (1:57). “(Mary) gave birth to her firstborn son” (2:7).
• “Her neighbors…rejoiced with (Elizabeth)” (1:58). The angel told Mary, “I bring you good news of a great joy” (2:10).
• “They all marveled” (Elizabeth 1:63). “All who heard it wondered” (Mary 2:18).
• “All who heard them laid them up in their heart” (Elizabeth 1:66). “But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart” (2:19).
• But the rejoicing of Elizabeth’s neighbors at the announcement of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (1:58) is greatly overshadowed by the angelic presence at the birth of Jesus. The heavenly chorus sings, “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men” (2:14).
LUKE 2:1-3. IN THOSE DAYS
1Now in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 2This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city.
“Now in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (v. 1). Just as he did in chapter 1, Luke places these events in their historical context. While Matthew places the birth of Jesus against the background of Herod’s reign, Luke places it against the background of the Roman Empire.
Gaius Octavius succeeded Julius Caesar as ruler of Rome in 44 B.C. He united warring factions within Rome, ushering in the Pax Romana (Roman peace). To honor his achievements the Roman Senate conferred upon him the title “the August One” or Augustus in 27 B.C (the word “august” means great or awe-inspiring). Thus was born the Roman Empire with Augustus as the first Emperor. He ruled until his death in 14 A.D., a total of 58 years. He was widely acclaimed for bringing peace on earth. The peaceful time of his reign was 27 B.C. to 14 A.D., and Jesus was born right in the middle of those years. Clearly, God used Augustus just as he used Cyrus and other secular figures for divine purposes.
The contrast between Augustus and Jesus could hardly be greater. One lives in splendor in the capitol of the world while the other is born in a stable in a minor colony. The irony is that most people remember Augustus today only because of this mention in Luke’s Gospel. Every year, when they hear the words, “Now it happened in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled,” they hear them as the lead-in to the Greatest Story Ever Told—the story of the birth of the greatest king.
“This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (v. 2). The purpose of an enrollment (or census) would be to insure that everyone is accounted for and is required to pay taxes.
There are problems with Luke’s history. Quirinius will not become governor of Syria until 6 A.D., long after Jesus’ birth. He will conduct a census of Judea at that time. There is no record of a general census of the Roman Empire under Augustus, nor is there any confirming record of a census of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Furthermore, Roman registration did not generally require people to return to their place of birth. Commentaries tend to acknowledge the problem without resolving it. Barclay thinks that Luke simply promotes Quirinius too fast. Quirinius held another post from 10 to 7 B.C., and Barclay thinks that the census might have taken place at that time.
But we ought not allow ourselves to be overly distracted by such details. Luke’s purpose is to place Jesus in Bethlehem, the City of David, at the time of Jesus’ birth.
LUKE 2:4-5. JOSEPH ALSO WENT UP OUT OF NAZARETH INTO JUDEA
4Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David; 5to enroll himself with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him as wife, being pregnant.
“Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (v. 4). This is a journey of eighty-five to ninety miles by the shortest route (through Samaria). Whether on foot or riding a donkey, the trip would take several days and would be difficult for a pregnant woman. To bring the journey into perspective, think of a place eighty or ninety miles from your home. Then imagine walking that distance—and then walking the return trip. Even mounted on a donkey, it would be an unpleasant journey.
“to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (v. 4b). This journey explains how Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, in accordance with Micah 5:2. Matthew tells the story somewhat differently, having Jesus born in Bethlehem—then going to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath—and finally going to Nazareth after Joseph was warned in a dream (Matthew 2).
There are two cities of David:
• Bethlehem, David’s ancestral home (1 Samuel 16:1).
• Jerusalem, which David captured (2 Samuel 5:7, 9) and where he built his palace.
Luke does not mention the appearance of the angel to Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25). He tells us only that Joseph and Mary are betrothed—and traveling as a couple—and that Mary is pregnant. Matthew gives Joseph a more prominent role. In Luke, Joseph is nearly invisible.
LUKE 2:6-7. WHILE THEY WERE THERE
6While they were there, the day had come for her to give birth. 7She gave birth to her firstborn (Greek: prototokon) son. She wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for them in the inn (Greek: katalumati).
“She gave birth to her firstborn (prototokon) son” (v. 7a). Luke provided so much detail in his first chapter about the annunciations to Elizabeth and Mary and the birth of John that we are surprised to find that he reports the birth of Jesus so sparingly.
Luke uses the word prototokon (firstborn) rather than monogene (only—as in John 3:16). This suggests the possibility of other children later.
Even today, the firstborn often has a special place in the parents’ hearts. In that culture, the firstborn is invested with special rights of inheritance and holds a prominent place in the household.
“She wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough” (v. 7b). Luke mentions the manger three times (vv. 7, 12, 16), emphasizing its importance. It is the sign that confirms the angels’ pronouncement (v. 12). The bands of cloth are not the sign, because they are typical of newborn babies. The manger, a feeding trough, unusual as a baby’s crib, is a distinctive sign (Tannehill, 65). The manger contrasts starkly with the grand and glorious signs generally ascribed to the birth of an emperor.
“because there was no room for them in the inn” (Greek: katalumati) (v. 7c). The word “inn,” which suggests a place of public accommodation, is not an adequate translation of katalumati, which is the same word translated “guest room” in 22:11. The typical home is joined to a manger which is used for storage or to shelter animals. Above the manger would be a room that could be used for guests. Given his ancestral connections to Bethlehem, Joseph would expect to obtain lodging in such a room on his return to Bethlehem, but he arrives after accommodations are full. Therefore he and Mary spend the night in the manger area where the birth takes place (Ringe, 41-42).
Luke places Jesus in the midst of those whom he will serve—the poor—the marginal—the vulnerable. He begins life in a borrowed feed stall and, later in life, will warn a prospective disciple that he has no place to lay his head (9:58).
The owner of the house would act differently if he understood that the baby is destined for greatness. He would make room, even if it meant giving the Holy Family his own room—but he does not understand the significance of this baby. Spiritual opportunities come to us in this way. It is not easy to recognize Jesus in the face of a homeless person or a Third World baby or a prisoner, but that is where we often meet him. God provides us with daily opportunities to meet Christ face-to-face.
LUKE 2:8-9. THERE WERE SHEPHERDS IN THE SAME COUNTRY
8There were shepherds in the same country staying in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. 9Behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
“There were shepherds in the same country staying in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock” (v. 8). If there is one verse of scripture that speaks of Christmas, this is it. That God would choose shepherds to receive word of the Incarnation is as surprising as his choice of the Israelites—or the young lad, David—or Mary—or a baby—or a manger. There could be no greater distance than that between Augustus (v. 1) and the shepherds (v. 8). It is also quite a distance from Matthew’s Magi to Luke’s shepherds.
Shepherding is a lonely, dirty job, and does not attract people with better options. Shepherds find it difficult to observe religious obligations. Who will watch the sheep while they attend synagogue services? How can they be faithful in their ritual observance? In a society where such observances separate the good from the bad—the desirable from the undesirable—people do not want shepherds for neighbors or sons-in-law. Still, David, who was also born in Bethlehem, had been a shepherd, and he had become their greatest king. Well, one might say, The Exception Proves the Rule.
David was a shepherd before he was a king, but his humble status as a boy-shepherd was highlighted by his father’s failure to consider that David might be the chosen one (1 Samuel 16:1-11), and was surely one of the reasons that David was chosen. The scriptures speak of God as a shepherd (Psalm 23:1, 28:9; 80:1), but that metaphor does not bring to mind God’s power and glory but his loving heart and pastoral care.
Barclay notes that Temple authorities maintain flocks of sheep in the vicinity of Bethlehem because of its proximity to Jerusalem and the temple. He believes that these shepherds might be the ones who look after those special sheep designated for sacrifice in the Temple. If that is true, the “shepherds who looked after the Temple lambs were the first to see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Barclay, 17). On one hand, that is an attractive possibility. On the other hand, it diminishes the ordinariness of the shepherds that may be the reason that God chose them.
“Behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (v. 9). This is the third annunciation by angels, the first being to Zechariah (1:5-20) and the second to Mary (1:26-38). In each case, the recipient of the annunciation responds by praising God (1:46-55; 1:67-79; 2:20).
“the glory of the Lord shone around them” (v. 9b). The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things—but it is used especially to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans.
Christ shares God’s glory. The glory of the Lord was revealed at his birth (Luke 2:9; John 1:14). His disciples, Peter, James and John, will be privileged to see Christ’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (9:28-36). Christ’s cross will be necessary so that he might “enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26; see also Philippians 2:5-11). The Gospel of John in particular speaks of the cross as Christ’s glorification (John 12:23; 13:31-32). Jesus spoke of returning “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
At the Transfiguration, the glory of the Lord will be revealed to the inner circle—Peter, James and John. There, too, the disciples will be terrified when the cloud envelops them. No wonder that these simple shepherds are terrified as they experience the glory of the Lord in their simple surroundings in the middle of nowhere.
“and they were terrified” (v. 9c). Today angels are usually portrayed as attractive young women, and are often portrayed as coming to make someone’s wishes come true. The reality is that the appearance of angels represents Godly power and is a fearsome thing.
LUKE 2:10-14. I BRING YOU GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY
10The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people. 11For there is born to you, this day (Greek: semeron— today), in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ (Greek: Christos—anointed one) the Lord (Greek: kurios – Lord). 12This is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough.” 13Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God, and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest,
on earth peace, good will toward men.”
“Don’t be afraid” (v. 10a). These are the same words used by the angels in the annunciations to Zechariah (1:13) and Mary (1:30)—(see also 5:10; 12:7, 32).
“I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people” (v. 10b). Luke is a Gentile. In Luke-Acts, he shows Roman centurions in a good light (7:1-10; 23:47) and records Peter’s vision that opened the church to Gentiles (Acts 10). Here, at the beginning of this Gospel, he establishes that Jesus is for all the people—not just the people of Israel.
“For there is born to you, this day” (semeron—today) (v. 11a). Luke uses this word semeron several times in an eschatological context: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”(4:21). “We have seen strange things today” (5:21). “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9). “Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43).
“a Savior” (v. 11b). The word “Savior” suggests that the people are in need of salvation. They would agree that they need saving, but would define their need in nationalistic terms. They feel that they need a messiah to save them from the Romans. Jesus, however, has come to save them from their sins (1:77; 5:20; 7:47; 11:4; 24:47).
The Romans think of Augustus as savior, because he quelled discord and ushered in the Pax Romana. However, Augustus’ peace will prove fragile. After his death, other men will assume power—men like Nero and Caligula—men whose names will be synonymous with treachery and cruelty. The angels introduce a savior who will continue his saving work throughout human history. The Savior of the First Century is also the Savior of the Twenty-first Century. The Savior of Israel is the Savior of the World.
“who is Christ (Christos), the Lord” (kurios) (v. 11). Christos is Greek and Messiah is Hebrew—both of which mean anointed. Anointing with oil was used to designate a person for a significant role. In the Old Testament, prophets were anointed (1 Kings 19:16). Priests were anointed (Exodus 40:13-15). Kings were anointed (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:3, 12-13; 2 Samuel 23:1; 1 Kings 1:39). These anointings acknowledged that these people were special—called by God to fulfill the duties of their particular office.
The New Testament speaks of Jesus as anointed (Luke 4:18; John 20:31; Acts 5:42; Hebrews 1:9, etc.). His anointing set him apart for his unique role as prophet, priest, and king.
The sign for which the shepherds were to look was “a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough” (v. 12). As noted above, the strips of cloth were typical garb for a newborn, but the manger was a distinctive sign. There would not have been another baby in the vicinity lying in a manger that night. It was also a sign that God had chosen to work through very ordinary people and things to bring to earth a Messiah who would be accessible to people from every circumstance.
“Glory to God in the highest” (v. 14a). The angels welcome Jesus’ birth here. Later, the crowds will welcome Jesus to Jerusalem, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (19:38)
“on earth peace, good will toward men!” (v. 14b). “The ‘peace on earth’ bestowed by God did not signal the banishment of human hostility from the earth. It is the ‘shalom’ of God which is life experienced in all its fullness, richness, and completeness in accord with the will of God” (Nickle, 26).
LUKE 2:15-16. LET’S GO TO BETHLEHEM NOW AND SEE THIS THING
15When the angels went away from them into the sky, the shepherds said one to another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem, now, and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16They came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby was lying in the feeding trough.
“Let’s go to Bethlehem” (v. 15). The shepherds could easily have said, “First, let me find someone to take care of the sheep.” They could have said, “I would like to go, but I am needed here.” Instead, like the fishermen who will leave their boats and the tax collector who will leave his tax booth, they heed the call. Not content to praise God with their lips, they praise him also with their feet—by going to see that of which the angels spoke. Surely God will not cause them to return to devastated flocks.
“They came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby was lying in the feeding trough” (v. 16). Be careful when reading this verse in public worship, lest you place Mary and Joseph in the manger together with the baby. Pause after Joseph’s name.
The shepherds obey the angel’s command with haste. More sophisticated people might hesitate. They would know questions to ask and problems to consider. What might they be getting themselves into? What might be the ramifications of their involvement? What precedents will they establish? Simpler folk find it easier to obey—are used to obeying orders—don’t feel such a need to be in control—don’t have a public image to protect. Simpler folk make better servants, and the Lord needs servants—people who obey.
LUKE 2:17-20. ALL WHO HEARD IT WONDERED
17When they saw it, they publicized widely the saying which was spoken to them about this child. 18All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds. 19But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, just as it was told them.
“When they saw it, they publicized widely the saying which was spoken to them about this child”(v. 17). Once we have been privileged to experience God’s presence, we then have a responsibility to share that experience with other people—to spread the word—to proclaim the Gospel.
“All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds” (v. 18). Who are the amazed people? Joseph and Mary? Probably! The shepherds? Surely! Also those to whom the shepherds will relate this story in days to come!
“But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart” (v. 19). New mothers treasure nearly everything about their babies, so it is only natural that Mary treasures the amazing story that the shepherds tell her and that she should ponder these things in her heart. God tapped her for a special mission, and she embarked on it willingly. She could not understand from the beginning everything that would follow. As her life with Jesus unfolds, she must wonder about the surprising pathways upon which she finds herself. If God has chosen her to be the mother of the Lord, why a feeding trough? Why shepherds? If there was an angelic chorus, why did they appear to shepherds? Why not her? What will happen next? What does God expect of her?
As with all of us, Mary’s story will unfold page by page. Only as she is older and able to look back across the span of her life will she see the whole picture—and, perhaps, understand how her life has fit into God’s plan to save the world.
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, just as it was told them” (v. 20). Just as very ordinary people later become witnesses to the resurrection, very ordinary shepherds served as witnesses to the Incarnation. Other than the angels, they are the first to proclaim the Good News of Jesus’ birth.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Beker, J. Christiaan, Proclamation 6: Advent-Christmas, Series A (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995)
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Borsch, Frederick Houk and Napier, Davie, Proclamation 2, Advent-Christmas, Series A (Fortress Press, 1980)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., “Luke,” Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)
Gilmour, S. MacLean and Bowie, Walter Russell, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon , 1952)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Keener, Craig S., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Nickle, Keith F., Preaching the Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000)
Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1—9:20, Vol. 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
Wylie, Samuel and McKenzie, John L., Proclamation: Advent-Christmas, Series A, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974)
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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan