Luke 2 is really the quintessential Christmas passage. It’s the most complete account of the birth of the Messiah and the text most people associate with Christmas. It’s not, however, simply a story. In Luke’s telling he gives us a picture of how God sovereignly works; of how God is the God of power and glory and yet the God of the humble and unassuming; of how man benefits when God glorifies Himself; and of how the gospel is at the heart of the Christmas account.
As we pick up the story, Mary and Joseph live in their hometown of Nazareth as husband and wife after Mary was found to be pregnant during their engagement. Mary is pregnant, though a virgin. Both Mary and Joseph have been visited by an angel, and both accept the reality of the miraculous pregnancy. Both also – we can assume – live under a cloud of scandal since Mary became pregnant before marriage. Nazareth is a small town later to be called a backwater (Jn 1:46), so it’s not hard to imagine the scorn Mary and Joseph live with.
- Luke mentions both Augustus and Quirinius to show that what he’s about to relate is an actual historical event. This isn’t a myth – it happened in a real place at a real time. There is a little bit of a problem with dates and what we know of Quirinius, however. He won’t be governor in Syria until A.D. 6-7 (per Josephus), which is after this story takes place. We also know that he’ll conduct a census in A.D. 6. Thus, it’s a little confusing as to what census Luke refers here and how Quirinius is involved. It could be that this should read, “This was the census taken before Quirinius was governor of Syria,” which is grammatically possible in the Greek. In the end, it’s impossible to know what’s correct, other than Luke obviously wants to anchor his story in historical fact.
- Quirinius is mentioned because under Roman rule, Judea is in the Syrian province.
- A decision to collect taxes by the emperor in Rome ensures that Jesus will be born in Bethlehem per prophecy. A sovereign God uses the actions of a man – even the most powerful man in the world – to accomplish His ends (Prov 21:1).
- Note how God works – from man’s perspective the timing couldn’t be worse. Either Joseph leaves Mary alone to fight the scorn and questions, or he takes her with him – well along in her pregnancy (at a minimum she’s over three months pregnant since that’s how long she visited Elizabeth) – on a multi-day walk. We oftentimes do not understand why God does what He does, but this story is reassuring for what it tells us about God working out His plan even when it looks to us as if nothing makes sense.
- Another way to look at this is to see God’s mercy in getting them out of Nazareth. Perhaps they welcome the trip because it spares them more shame when the baby is born.
- Yet a third way to consider is that they’ll likely face Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem, and perhaps they dread the possibility of more scorn and shame there.
- Joseph probably isn’t required to take Mary, but perhaps brings her for the reasons stated above. He likely also realizes she’ll give birth before he can get home and so wants to make sure he’s with her for that (the birth of the Messiah isn’t something you casually decide to miss). Note that nothing is said about how they travel. The traditional view that she rides while he walks has no basis in Scripture.
- …engaged to him = she is actually his wife, but the marriage is not yet consummated.
- The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is more than 70 miles (reports vary from 70-90) – probably a 4-7 day journey. Presumably not easy when pregnant.
- No way to know how long they are in Bethlehem before the birth. No reason to think her labor is imminent when they come to town.
- She wraps Jesus herself – apparently no midwife present. They are alone for the birth.
- Inn = could mean a room at a house or some kind of hotel/public gathering place.
- We don’t know if they’re staying in the stable or if they just go there for the birth. They might be staying somewhere where there is no room for privacy during the delivery – that could be what is meant by no room for them in the inn. The traditional view that they arrive in Bethlehem right as she goes into labor and then are cruelly turned away from lodging is not explicit in the text. There could be several explanations for Luke’s words about the inn. It’s important to note that Joseph probably has numerous family members in town – hard to believe they can’t find a place to stay. Also, Luke doesn’t give any indication that anything cruel happens to them (although like all Bible writers, Luke could easily leave something like that out if he deemed it unimportant to the message he wants to communicate).
- An alternate view could be that Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem are horrified by his and Mary’s situation and have not allowed them to stay with them. Hence their only option is the stable.
- Regardless of why they are where they are, isn’t it interesting that they’re specially chosen by God to bring the Messiah into the world, and yet nothing appears to be very easy or fortuitous about the whole process? They do exactly what they’re supposed to do, and obstacles seem to pop up almost from the minute the angel leaves Mary until the baby is born. God NEVER says, “Follow Me and life will be easy.”
- No way to know what time of year this is, but the sheep grazing at night may mean it’s a warmer time of year. [December 25th will be chosen by the church as the date for Christmas because of pagan festivals that occur around the winter solstice which the church commandeers for a religious holiday.]
- Shepherds are working-class men toward the bottom of the social ladder. Their work often precludes them from participating in religious activities or abiding by the ceremonial law, thus they are largely scorned and excluded from community life. They are not trusted and are not allowed to testify in legal proceedings.
- Interesting that probably the two greatest leaders in Israel’s history spent time as shepherds. Moses served his father-in-law for 40 years as a shepherd after fleeing Pharaoh’s court (and being raised in a culture that despised shepherds – Gen 46:34). David was a shepherd when Samuel anointed him king. And though Jesus – the Son of David – will be a carpenter, He will call Himself the Good Shepherd. It is entirely fitting that God announces His Son to shepherds. By the same token, it’s also extremely odd to announce the biggest news in world history to men who have very little influence on or connection to their culture (more on this later).
- In every instance of man confronting God’s glory in the Bible, man reacts in fear.
- We tend to picture the angel and the host of angels as being in the sky, but the text just says they appear to the shepherds (and ‘heavenly host’ just means that’s where they’re from). This might be an even more intimidating scene if the angels are standing among the shepherds.
- Good news of a great joy for all people – the scope of this announcement can’t be overstated. On this night, everything in all of creation, in all the universe, for all time eternal – changes.
- The kingdom of God has invaded the world of men.
- There may be other newborns in Bethlehem, but only one in a manger.
- The angels worship God. It’s almost as if the shepherds are an afterthought – the angels no longer communicate, they praise. The angels’ own announcement causes them to worship. Their own words overwhelm them – what’s at stake overwhelms them – and they worship the One who sent them.
- What a huge contrast between the glorious angelic announcement and what the shepherds find when they come to Mary and Joseph. You expect them to question how this baby could be the Messiah, but apparently they don’t. Humble men of low social standing may not see anything wrong with the Messiah being announced by angels but born in a stable.
- The shepherds don’t just see the baby and go on their way, they also spread the word. They can’t keep the events of the night and the news from the angels to themselves. It’s too amazing and wonderful to keep hidden.
Applications and Thoughts
Now that we better understand the story, let’s go back to the scene with the shepherds and get to the heart of what the Christmas message is. Look at verse 14. You know what that is? That’s the gospel in one verse. Glory to God in the highest – that’s the ultimate purpose and effect of redemption. Yes, God so loved the world that He gave His Son, but the Son’s death was foreknown and foreordained before the foundation of the world (I Pet 1:20, Rev 13:8). Redemption was ordained before creation and creation’s purpose was to glorify the Creator. Thus, the ultimate purpose of the gospel is to glorify the Redeemer. Jesus will say that everything He does, He does to glorify the Father – this would include His death and resurrection. [And as is always true, man benefits when God glorifies Himself.]
But the verse doesn’t end there, does it? The angel goes on to say that there will be peace on earth among men with whom God is pleased. This is the second part of the gospel. Man will be reconciled to God. That’s what the peace is – he’s not saying that there will be peace between men on earth. He’s saying the Messiah comes to bring peace between man and God. And the fact that He brings peace presupposes what? That apart from redemption, man is at war with God. But the baby in the manger will reconcile man to God and restore man’s created purpose. What’s not spelled out – but is implicit in the message – is that the peace will be won through the death and resurrection of the Redeemer.
So that’s the gospel – glory to God and peace with God. Summarized in one verse. If you forget everything else from this lesson, remember that the gospel is present in the Christmas story from the very beginning – it’s proclaimed by the angel. That’s why, by the way, Hark the Herald Angels Sing is one of the best Christmas hymns. Remember the first verse? It’s essentially verse 14:
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Now let’s notice something else about the scene with the shepherds. We already mentioned that they’re not what you’d call influential people or men of high social standing. And the picture the angels paint for the shepherds – a baby in a manger – certainly isn’t glorious or impressive. Yet the announcement itself is anything but humble; angels from heaven appearing in all their glory – glory that terrifies the shepherds – and praising God. Myriads of angels (innumerable, thousands) all worshiping God for what He’s done. It’s majestic and glorious and amazing – something only the God of the universe can do.
The contrast between the angels and the shepherds is striking. And the contrast tells us something about our God and, again, about the gospel. Marvelous glory is presented for the sake of humble men of low social standing. From one standpoint you could say it’s wasted – what’s the point of putting on this display for men who have very little influence on their culture? Don’t you want to announce the coming to men who can most effectively spread the word? Yet it shows that God doesn’t look at people the way we do. He’s not looking for credentials – He’s looking for believers.
[The birth of Jesus in humble circumstances is the perfect beginning to a life that’s almost the complete opposite from what those waiting for the Messiah expect. The Jews expect a conquering hero and instead get a gentle and lowly man who preaches good news to the poor. Almost everything about Jesus – His birth, His words, His lack of political ambition or concern, His followers, those He ministers to, those He condemns – is different. It’s why we as citizens of His kingdom are called to be different too (Matt 5-7).]
And how do the Shepherds react? They believe and go. They aren’t skeptical. No one holds back, no one has to be convinced. The angels leave and the shepherds head to Bethlehem in haste – no questions asked. Now you might say, “Of course they believe – look what they just witnessed!” There’s some truth to that – myriads of worshiping angels definitely make an impact. But think about something: some of the most influential people in their culture are the religious leaders of the day. The types of guys you’d want to have the message. To these men God won’t just send angels, He’ll send the actual Messiah – performing miracles and raising people from the dead – to tell them the good news. And how will they respond? They’ll want to kill Him because He doesn’t abide by their rules and He upstages their standing in the community. And think of someone else who’s even closer to this story – how will Herod react when the wise men come to him? They aren’t angels, but their appearance will be just about as miraculous as they tell Herod about the star they followed. And what will his reaction be? He’ll try to hunt down and kill the new baby king because He’s a rival. You see, God knows what He’s doing in sending the angels to the shepherds. He’s not looking for kings or religious leaders or people of influence. He wants believers, and He wants believers because they are who will be reconciled to God through the Messiah. The humble shepherds – men who understand their need instead of men in love with the world and their place in it – are types of those who will someday accept the Savior; of those who will accept the gospel (I Cor 1:26-31 – “…not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble”).
The shepherds’ response leads us to the last point. Look at verses 17 and 18. The shepherds spread the word but they spread the word about one certain aspect of their night. They make known the statement which had been told them about this Child. The statement is that in Bethlehem there’s been born [for all the people] a Savior who is Christ the Lord. He is the Savior of the world – all people, not just Jews. He’s the Christ – the anointed One, the Messiah. And He’s God – the Lord. The Messiah, our Savior, is here and He’s God in the flesh.
Look how people respond who hear what the shepherds say – they wonder at their words. Why? Because what the shepherds say is staggering. It’s mind-blowing. The ramifications of the message are almost incomprehensible. God has become man? And He’s here to provide salvation to all who accept Him? He’s here to reconcile God to man? THE MESSIAH HAS COME AND HE’S GOD IN THE FLESH????
THIS is the message of the Christmas story. THIS is the reason we get up in the morning. And our response to the reality of the coming of the Son of God – of God in the flesh who dwelt among us – should always be wonder. HOW CAN THIS BE? HOW CAN GOD LOVE US SO MUCH? HOW CAN THE GOSPEL BE AVAILABLE TO ME?? Yes, you’ve heard this chapter and the words of the angel thousands of times if you’ve been a believer for a while. But if you truly meditate on the angel’s message you won’t take the birth narrative for granted or reduce it to an excuse to give gifts.
I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
So what do we take away? Luke 2 is a wonderful Christmas story. But it’s wonderful because at its heart it’s about the gospel.