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Luke 2:15-21 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 2:1-20. THE BIRTHS OF JOHN AND JESUS
Note the parallels between the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist:
• “She brought forth a son” (1:57). “She brought forth her firstborn son” (2:7).
• “they rejoiced with her” (1:58). “I bring you good news of great joy” (2:10).
• “They all marveled” (1:63). “All who heard it wondered” (2:18).
• “All who heard them laid them up in their heart” (1:66). “But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart” (2:19).
• John was circumcised and named on the eighth day (1:59), and so was Jesus (2:21).
But John’s birth was celebrated only by Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives (1:58), while Jesus’ birth is celebrated by “a multitude of the heavenly army praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men” (2:13).
LUKE 2:15-16. LET’S GO TO BETHLEHEM NOW AND SEE THIS THING
15It happened, when the angels went away from them into the sky, that 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 will God expect of Mary? She will learn more when she and Joseph go to Jerusalem for her purification. Simeon, inspired by the Holy Spirit, will tell her:
“Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,
and for a sign which is spoken against.
Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul,
that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (2:34-35).
Luke will mention Mary only two more times: When Jesus was twelve and turned up missing as Joseph and Mary started their journey back to Nazareth (2:42-52)—and when she and Jesus’ brothers come to see Jesus but find themselves standing outside looking in (8:19-21).
We know more, of course. Mary and her little family will have to flee to Egypt to escape the murderous Herod (Matthew 2:13-20). At Cana, she will tell Jesus that the wedding party has run out of wine—and Jesus will respond with what appears to be a gentle rebuke (John 2:4). She will witness the crucifixion (John 19:25-27). She will be among those who gather in Jerusalem in anticipation of Pentecost (Acts 1:14). Not an easy life!
“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.
LUKE 2:21. HIS NAME WAS CALLED JESUS
21When eight days were fulfilled for the circumcision of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
“When eight days were fulfilled for the circumcision of the child” (v. 21a). See 1:59 for a parallel passage telling of John’s circumcision and naming.
The requirement for circumcision of male babies on the eighth day of their birth is stipulated by Genesis 17:12 and Leviticus 12:3. Mary and Joseph are faithful Jews, so they bring Jesus for circumcision on the eighth day in accordance with the law. It is important that Jesus be faithful to the law from the beginning of his life.
“his name was called Jesus” (v. 21b). The name Jesus comes from the Hebrew yeshua, which means “he saves.” It was a common name in that time and place.
In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character. As is obvious from this verse, they also assumed that a name—at least some names—possessed something of the power of the one who wore that name.
While that might sound foreign to us today, it is not. When we talk about a person’s reputation, we are talking about something that expresses the essence of that person. A person’s reputation also conveys a certain power or lack of it.
“which was given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (v. 21c). During the Annunciation, the angel told Mary, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and will call his name ‘Jesus'”(1:31).
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.
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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)
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Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
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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)
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Wylie, Samuel and McKenzie, John L., Proclamation: Advent-Christmas, Series A, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974)
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