What did the ancient Hebrew prophets write about the coming of the Messiah, the much-longed for Hope of Israel? And how do those prophecies relate to the story of Christmas?
I realize that many of my readers are not Christians and don’t know the answer to these questions. Some of you are Muslims. Some are Jewish. Some of you follow other religions, and some of you have no religion at all. Thus, some of you may not know why Christmas is not really about Santa or elves or Rudolph or trees or shopping and gifts and malls and Bing Crosby movies. Some of you may be curious about the relationship between ancient prophecy and what Christians celebrate today.
Rather than have me explain it imperfectly, however, let me share with you what the Scriptures teach. I hope it’s helpful.
If you have questions, please feel free to post them on our “Epicenter Team” page…
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The following is a devotional teaching over at Apprising Ministries that touches upon a holiday theme:
Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)
Sounding The Clarion Call To Biblically-Based Prayer
As far back as 2009, in Apprising Ministries articles like Christian Soldiers Standing Up For Jesus?, I’ve been trying to bring to your attention how a kind of Rodney King theology of, “Can’t we all just get along,” has developed and is serving to powerfully pervert the witness of the church visible.
In addition, the embrace of Contemplative Spirituality/Mysticism by many mainstream evangelicals—coupled with a rampant charismania—is crippling Christendom. The resulting timid tolerance is truly the following recipe for spiritual disaster:
First you begin with a great big bowl full of years of shallow self-centered “what does this verse mean to me” Bible studies. Next stir in a large measure of biblical illiteracy, while adding just a small dose of the yeast of refusing to refute error; and then make sure to blend in more than a moderate proportion of women pastors.
To this muddied mix add in an unhealthy amount of the Church Growth Movement’s seeker driven “let’s make church an entertaining experience” smoothly blended together with tasty man-centered “tell ‘em what they want to hear.”
Now ignore it at your leisure; let the bitter batter fester until completely dense, then frost with critical-reasoning skills killing contemplative spirituality, and finally, dabble on top just a touch of postmodern pudding with its embrace of “mystery and ambiguity” a la the Emerging Church.
This is how we now arrive at the current state of mainstream evangelicalism; filled as it is with man-centered silly superstition and subjective experience replacing the robust God-centered Christian faith. Today the visible Christian church world-around is in the throes of deadly spiritual lethargy, not to mention outright apostasy, having been busy constructing The Idol of Evangelicalism.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s really only one antidote. While I don’t agree with all of his theology, I do believe Leonard Ravenhill was right when he tells us what it is:
People often ask me, “Why do you insist on prayer so much?” The answer is very simple, because Jesus did… Jesus went on a mount and He was transfigured. There’s nothing more transfiguring than prayer. The Scriptures say that the disciples went to bed, but Jesus went to pray as was His custom. It was His custom to pray. Now Jesus was the Son of God, He was definitely anointed for His ministry.
If Jesus needed all that time in prayer, then don’t you and I need time in prayer? If Jesus needed it in every crisis, don’t you and I need it in every crisis?… People say, “I’m filled with the Holy Spirit.” If the coming of the Spirit didn’t revolutionize your prayer life, you’d better check on it. Cause I’m not so sure you got what God wanted you to get… Jesus the anointed of God, made prayer His custom.
And so should you and I. As our Master says in our opening text — “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” The Christian is required by the Lord to make the effort to cultivate his relationship with his God. But be of good cheer fellow Christian, that effort to get to know God has already been made by Jesus Himself.
It’s part of a proper understanding of the Gospel to realize that He’s done the work for us. So, this is no legalism; rather, it’s joyful freedom to let His Spirit empower us, as it will be more than worth the time as you come to:
“know the God of [the Bible] and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you…” (1 Chronicles 28:9)
Frankly, if you don’t have this desire, then you do have good reason to doubt whether you are even a Christian in the first place (cf.2 Corinthians 13:5). And God has also told us we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (cf. Philippians 2:12); not to sit still, but actually strive to be like Christ.
In discussing Philippians 2, The Lutheran Study Bible puts it well in reminding us why we can thus press on:
the fulfillment of the imperative to live like Christ is supported by all Christ gives freely: the encouragement, comfort, love, and the mind of Christ, along with the participation of the Spirit…
God’s action is the cause of the Philippians’ salvation and good works. with fear and trembling. The congregation cannot boast its accomplishments, least of all their salvation.
Paul commanded that fear and trembling accompany the lives of believers to keep our rebellious, sinful human nature (Rm. 5:6-10) subdued in the service of God and neighbor.1
The truth is, the life of the genuine Christian can be very hard at times, and especially so in an evil generation like this when men call what is good, evil, and what is evil, good (cf. Isaiah 5:20). Actually, this is a large part of what Jesus is talking about when He says:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross [daily] and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37-38).
Let’s Return To Our Lord And Join Him In The Battle For The Souls Of Men
This is the actual Jesus of the Bible; which is the only One there is. More than ever, let us really be a family in Christ—united around our Savior and Lord—Jesus of Nazareth. the King and Commander of the Army of the living God, which is a real good reason to come home into His Church and to worship your Lord with your fellow soldiers.
With all the confusion of Law and Gospel today, I offer that it becomes vital for us to understand the proper distinction of each. For in this way, the Christian church can once again truly become God’s Lighthouse to shine the light of His glorious Gospel into the putrid postmodern darkness of the spiritual wasteland into which our world wallows.
The Good News is there’s repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ Name for all who will come. And so, the question I would ask The Ecumenical Church Of Deceit (ECoD): “Is it Him you love; or, perhaps it’s the caricature of Christ that you spiritual slackers have created.” Some say: “Well, I witness by my lifestyle of Christian ideals; and that speaks for me. I’m a silent witness.”
But as Dr. Walter Martin (1928-1989) used to say: “Yeah, you’re so silent, no one even knows that you are a witness.” Don’t you know that there are all kinds of atheists, skeptics, and non-Christian cultists who live ethical lives; that really proves nothing. Our word “witness” comes from the Greek word martyr; and no one would have lost their lives for Christ if they had kept their mouths shut.
You know, to hear most “Christ-followers” talking today, you’d think it’s actually our duty to live as comfortably as we can; with the least possible conflict, and then to enter heaven for our “eternal rest.” I ask you; what exactly is it these people will be resting from? Yet even more rest? The fact is, the true Christian life in this fallen world is one of constantly striving for Jesus against the warfare of satanic forces.
Now just think about most people’s concept of God for a moment. This mystic mush god of love that creates a mankind, who then pays him/her/it virtually no mind lest he/she/it “intrude” into their lives. So after enjoying all the creature comforts in this life, they then get to live in an Edenic paradise? Seriously, anyone who believes that really needs to have their spiritual head examined.
You see, the Bible tells us to — Fight the good fight of the faith (1 Timothy 6:12). What the genuine Christian witness needs today are men and women of courage and with the character to accept our God’s exhortation to — Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him (2 Timothy 2:3-4).
Then further — I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed… (Romans 12:1-2). And finally, we are to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3, NKJV).
We could never do any of this on our own; however, what we can do is allow Christ in us to transform us. Let me encourage you dear Christian, this would be the greatest gift we might give our Savior, and it is really the only thing Christ Jesus our Lord and King may truly want on the day we celebrate His birth:
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
And as we survey the current playground battlefield, things are so pathetic today that we are even witnessing the Seeker Driven attractional megachurches, the neo-liberal cult of the Emergent Church, and the spiritually whacked Word Faith wingnuts, actually merging right back into the apostate Church of Rome. So, let me ask you a question: Do you remember those “Christian soldiers” who marched out “as to war?”
My O my, they really were quite impressive once; weren’t they…
The Lutheran Study Bible, Edward A. Engelbrecht, General Editor, [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009] , 2035 [n. Phil. 2:1-12]. ↩
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.
10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.
18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.
19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The pastoral scene described in this section actually conveys more theological significance than is sometimes realized. Both the words of the angel and the symbolism of what happened have theological implications.
8 There may be several reasons for the special role of the shepherds in the events of this unique night. Among the occupations, shepherding had a lowly place (cf. Str-B, 2:114). Shepherds were considered untrustworthy and their work made them ceremonially unclean. Thus the most obvious implication is that the gospel first came to the social outcasts of Jesus’ day. This would accord with a recurring emphasis in Luke. Moreover, it may be significant that in the Lord’s instructions to Nathan about giving David the covenant, the Lord reminds David, who was to become Messiah’s ancestor, that he was called from the shepherd’s life (2 Sa 7:8). Finally, in both Testaments shepherds symbolize those who care for God’s people, including the Lord himself (Ps 23:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 23:1–4; Heb 13:20; 1 Pe 2:25; 5:2). The shepherds of Luke 2 may, therefore, symbolize all the ordinary people who have joyfully received the gospel and have become in various ways pastors to others.
That the shepherds were out in the fields at night does not preclude a December date, as the winter in Judea was mild. But, of course, the text says nothing about the time of year. The traditional date for the nativity was set, long after the event, to coincide with a pagan festival, thus demonstrating that the “Sol Invictus,” the “Unconquerable Sun,” had indeed been conquered. December 25 was widely celebrated as the date of Jesus’ birth by the end of the fourth century. January 6 was also an important date in the early church, held by many as the occasion of the arrival of the Magi and known as Epiphany. (See Oscar Cullmann, “The Origin of Christmas,” in The Early Church [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956], 21–36; and Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas [Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1995].) Morris, 84, suggests that if the birth did take place in winter, the shepherds may have been raising sheep for sacrifice at Passover a few months later.
9 First a single angel (cf. 1:11, 26) appears; the multitude of angels does not appear till v. 13. The shepherds’ terror recalls that of Zechariah (1:12). It was not just the angel that terrified them but the visible manifestation of the glory of God—something neither Zechariah nor Mary had seen. This glory is a signal that God will again act on behalf of his people (9:31; cf. John J. Kilgallen, “Jesus, Savior, the Glory of Your People Israel,” Bib 75 : 305–28). As in 1:13 and 1:30, the angel speaks reassuringly.
11 The angel’s announcement includes several of the most frequently used words in Luke’s gospel (see Notes)—a fact that shows the tremendous importance of the angelic pronouncement. It is a bold proclamation of the gospel at the very hour of Jesus’ birth.
The constellation of christological titles here is important. Implicitly, once again, Jesus is David’s son. The term “Savior” is especially important in this context when Augustus (v. 1) also claimed to be the savior of the world. Likewise, “Christ the Lord” affirms the unique lordship of Christ. The arrival of a new ruler is clearly presented. Thus in this whole section Luke shares his perception of major themes that support the declaration: the time has come (“today”) for the fulfillment of the prophetic expectation of Messiah’s coming.
12 The “cloths” (KJV, “swaddling clothes,” from the verb sparganoō, “to swathe,” GK 5058) would constitute a “sign.” Babies were snugly wrapped in long strips of cloth, giving them warmth, protection of extremities, and a sense of security in their newborn existence. The combination of a newborn baby’s wrappings and the use of the manger for a crib would be a distinctive “sign.” Perhaps they also imply that in spite of seeming rejection, symbolized by the manger, the baby was the special object of his mother’s care. In Ezekiel 16:1–5, Jerusalem is symbolically described as a heathen child who was neglected from birth until God rescued and cared for her. She had not been given the usual postnatal care and so was not wrapped with strips of cloth (Eze 16:4). But Jesus was not so neglected. On the other hand, the “sign” might be only the strange circumstance of the newborn child’s being in the manger at all. If one moves further in the Lukan narrative, this “sign” may also point to the burial scene of Jesus, in which linen becomes yet another “sign” (cf. J. Winandy, “Le signe de la mangeoire et des langes,” NTS 43 : 140–46).
13 “Suddenly” (exaiphnēs, GK 1978), along with cognate words, often describes the unexpected nature of God’s acts, especially the eschatological events. Malachi had predicted the sudden coming of the Lord to his temple (Mal 3:1). Now the angels suddenly announce his arrival at Bethlehem. The Spirit’s coming at Pentecost was sudden (Ac 2:2), as was the appearance of the Lord to Saul on the road to Damascus (Ac 9:3). Mark 13:36 and 1 Thessalonians 5:3 describe the suddenness of future events.
The “heavenly host,” which often meant heavenly bodies in the OT, refers here to an army or band of angels (cf. 1 Ki 22:19).
14 The doxology “glory to God in the highest” is the climax of the story. Its two parts relate to heaven and earth respectively. In Luke’s account of the triumphal entry, the crowds say, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (19:38). In Ephesians 3:21, Paul ascribes glory to God, not now in the heavens but “in the church and in Christ Jesus.” Verse 14b is best translated as in the NIV: “and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” For reasons discussed in the Notes, “good will toward men” (KJV) is inaccurate. Luke emphasizes the work of Christ on earth. (See also Jesus’ own declaration that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” [Lk 5:24].)
The “peace” here is that which the Messiah brings (cf. 1:79). Those whom Jesus healed or forgave on the basis of their faith could “go in peace” (7:50; 8:48). This peace surpasses the Pax Romana that Augustus had promised (cf. Allen Brent, “Luke-Acts and the Imperial Cult in Asia Minor,” JTS 48 : 411–38).
Those on whom God’s “favor” (eudokia, GK 2306) rests are the “little children” to whom God graciously reveals truth according to his “good pleasure” (10:21; the only other use of eudokia in the Gospels, except for the parallel in Mt 11:26).
15–16 Luke does not say that the angels disappeared but that they went “into heaven” (v. 15), an expression typical of his attention to spatial relationships (cf. comments on the ascension at 24:51, where the same words appear in what is probably the original text; cf. Ac 1:11). The realization of God’s promise (“this thing [rhēma] …, which the Lord has told us about”) is expressed also in v. 29: “as you have promised” (kata to rhēma sou, lit., “according to your word”). Luke combines the phenomena of ancient (v. 15) and recent (v. 29) prophetic words, thus emphasizing the connection between the old and new ages, the Jewish orientation of the gospel and the reality of the heavenly in the earthly. Both the idiomatic particle dē, which conveys a note of urgency (BDAG, 222) expressed in the NIV’s “let’s go” (v. 15), and the words “hurried off” (ēlthan speusantes, v. 16) heighten the sense of excitement and determination that propelled the shepherds to the baby’s side.
17–18 Then they “spread the word” (v. 17) and became the first evangelists of the Christian era. Luke’s observation (v. 18) that those who heard them “were amazed” (ethaumasan, GK 2513) is the first of his many comments on the enthusiastic response to the messianic proclamation. The next occurrence is when Mary and Joseph “marvel” at what Simeon says about their child (v. 33). In v. 47 everyone is “amazed” (existanto, GK 2014) at Jesus’ answers in the temple discussion. The initial reaction of the audience to Jesus’ opening declaration in the synagogue of Nazareth that the prophecy of Isaiah 61 was at that moment fulfilled was amazement (4:22; cf. 8:25; 9:43; 11:14, 38; 20:26; 24:12, 41). There are also passages that use other words to describe a similar response (e.g., 4:15, 36; 5:26).
19 In contrast to the overreaction of the people, Mary (hē de Mariam, “Mary on the other hand”) meditates on the meaning of it all (cf. v. 51; cf. also Ge 37:11). Unlike her response in ch. 1 that includes a lengthy prophetic speech (vv. 46–55), the events that are unfolding are moving beyond Mary’s ability to comprehend (cf. Mary F. Foskett, A Virgin Conceived [Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2002], 135).
20 Just as the seventy-two disciples “returned [hypestrepsan, GK 5715] with joy” after their preaching mission (10:17), so the shepherds “returned [hypestrepsan], glorifying and praising God.” It is clear that in Luke this spirit of doxology is the proper response to the mighty works of God (cf. 5:25–26; 7:16; 13:13; 17:15; 18:43; 23:47; similar occurrences in Acts).
9–11 The significant terms characteristic of Luke that occur in these verses include εὐαγγελίζομαι (euangelizomai, “bring good news,” GK 2294 [always in the verbal form in Luke]); χαρά (chara, “joy,” GK 5915), which occurs more often in Luke than in Matthew and Mark combined; λαός (laos, “people,” GK 3295), used 35 times in Luke against 14 in Matthew and none in Mark (with Luke using it some 47 additional times in Acts); σήμερον (sēmeron, “today,” GK 4958), which occurs more in Luke than in Matthew and Mark combined (see comments at 4:21 for its significance in Luke); σωτήρ (sōtēr, “Savior,” GK 5400), used only by Luke among the Synoptics; and κύριος (kyrios, “Lord,” GK 3261), which occurs 95 times in Luke out of 166 in the Synoptics. The word δόξα (doxa, “glory,” GK 1518), which occurs in v. 9 and reappears in v. 14, is also distinctively Lukan. Along with the verb δοξάζω (doxazō, “glorify,” GK 1519), Luke uses it more than the two other Synoptics combined.
14 In the KJV, “good will” is the subject of the clause because the KJV followed the Textus Receptus, which has the nominative εὐδοκία (eudokia, GK 2306). However, the oldest MSS have an added sigma (ς), indicator of the genitive case (εὐδοκίας, eudokias). The inadvertent omission of the small elevated half circle that was customarily used to indicate customarily used to indicate the genitive sigma is more likely than the addition of a sigma. On the principle that the harder reading is more likely the original one, the genitive should be assumed, since a nominative would read more smoothly. And since similar phrases describing people “of [God’s] good pleasure” are now known from hymns in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QH 8.6; 12.32–33; 17.10), there is no difficulty in accepting this reading. More recently an Aramaic text from Cave 4 with a syntactical structure even closer to Luke’s has confirmed the matter (Fitzmyer, Semitic Background, 101–4). It is also more in accordance with the doctrine of grace than is the idea that those of “good will” are rewarded with peace (cf. Metzger, 111).
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 10: Luke-Acts (Revised Edition)
ESV Study Bible
2:9 the glory of the Lord. The bright light that surrounds the presence of God himself, sometimes appearing as a cloud, sometimes as a bright light or burning fire (cf. Ex. 16:10; 24:17; 40:34; Ezek. 1:28; Rev. 21:23).
2:10 fear not. Cf. 1:13. I bring you good news is Greek euangelizomai, the verbal form of “gospel.” great joy. Cf. 1:14.
2:11 a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. These three titles reveal the greatness of Mary’s son. For “Savior,” cf. 1:69; Acts 5:31; 13:23. “Christ” is Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah.” It is a title rather than a name (cf. “the Christ,” Acts 5:42; 17:3). The astonishing announcement, probably not fully grasped by the shepherds, is that this Messiah who has been born as a baby is also the Lord God himself.
2:13 a multitude of the heavenly host. Thousands of angels.
2:14 Glory to God in the highest. The angels proclaim the news about Jesus: the eternal, omnipotent Son of God has just taken “the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7), for “the fullness of time” has now come, and God has “sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5). peace. The peace of salvation that God gives through his Son (see note on John 14:27). Jesus is the “Prince of Peace” prophesied by Isaiah (Isa. 9:6). among those with whom he is pleased. God’s gift of “peace” will come not to all humanity but to those whom God is pleased to call to himself.
2:15 the Lord has made known. The Lord himself, not the angelic intermediary (v. 9), is the ultimate source of the revelation.
2:20 Having seen the infant Jesus, the shepherds began glorifying and praising God just as the angels had done (vv. 13–14).
MacArthur Study Bible
2:8 shepherds. Bethlehem was nearby Jerusalem, and many of the sheep used in the temple sacrifices came from there. The surrounding hills were prime grazing land, and shepherds worked in the area day and night, all year round. Therefore it is not possible to draw any conclusion about the time of year by the fact that shepherds were living out in the fields.
2:10 Do not be afraid. See note on 1:12; cf. 1:65.
2:11 city of David. I.e., Bethlehem, the town where David was born—not the City of David, which was on the southern slope of Mt. Zion (cf. 2Sa 5:7–9). a Savior. This is one of only two places in the gospels where Christ is referred to as “Savior”—the other being Jn 4:42, where the men of Sychar confessed Him as “Savior of the world.” Christ. “Christ” is the Gr. equivalent of “Messiah” (see note on Mt 1:1). Lord. The Gr. word can mean “master”—but it is also the word used to translate the covenant name of God. Here (and in most of its NT occurrences), it is used in the latter sense, as a title of deity.
2:13 host. A term used to describe an army encampment. Christ also used military imagery to describe the angels in Mt 26:53 (see note there). Revelation 5:11 suggests that the number of the angelic host may be too large for the human mind to fathom. Note that here the heavenly army brought a message of peace (v. 14).
2:14 the highest. I.e., heaven. peace. This is not to be taken as a universal declaration of peace toward all humanity. Rather, peace with God is a corollary of justification (see note on Ro 5:1). among men with whom He is pleased. God’s peace is a gracious gift to those who are the objects of His pleasure.
2:18 all who heard it wondered. Wonderment at the mysteries of Christ’s words and works is one of the threads that runs through Luke’s gospel. Cf. vv. 19, 33, 47, 48; 1:21, 63; 4:22, 36; 5:9; 8:25; 9:43–45; 11:14; 20:26; 24:12, 41. See note on v. 20.
2:20 praising God. Luke often reports this response. Cf. v. 28; 1:64; 5:25, 26; 7:16; 13:13; 17:15–18; 18:43; 19:37–40; 23:47; 24:52, 53.
1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.
2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,
5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In comparison with the complex narrative in ch. 1, the actual birth narrative of Jesus is brief. In it Luke stresses three things: (1) the political situation (to explain why Jesus’ birth took place in Bethlehem); (2) the fact that Bethlehem was the town of David (to stress Jesus’ messianic claim); and (3) the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
The mention of Caesar Augustus may not only be for historical background but also to contrast the human with the divine decrees. A mere Galilean peasant travels to Bethlehem ostensibly at the decree of the Roman emperor. Actually, it is in fulfillment of the divine King’s plan, which is reflected in Luke’s frequent reference to what “must” (dei, GK 1256) be done.
Related to this is the understanding that all these events took place within the context of the imperial rule. This may serve as a contrast to Judas the Galilean and his movement that refused to operate within the prescribed power structure (Josephus, Ant. 18.4–5; cf. J. Massyngberde Ford, “Reconciliation and Forgiveness in Luke’s Gospel,” in Political Issues in Luke-Acts [ed. Cassidy and Scharper], 87). It may also be understood as an implicit challenge to the imperial power, as the imperial system is now being used to bring fulfillment to the OT promises that point to the birth of the Lord of all.
1 Augustus became the leader of the Roman world in 27 BC. That Luke uses the emperor’s Latin title, Augustus, instead of the expected Greek Sebastos (GK 4935)—a title known to Luke (cf. Ac 25:21, 25)—demands an explanation. Moreover, the transliterated form of Augustus does not appear in Greek literature prior to Luke. According to Royce L. B. Morris (“Why ΑΥΓΟΥΣΤΟΣ? A Note to Luke 2.1,” NTS 38 : 142–44), Luke uses Augustus to avoid the sacred connotations the term Sebastos may evoke in the minds of his Greek audience.
In the ancient world, a “census” was usually taken by the ruling power for two reasons: (1) to provide an accurate account of the size of its military strength and (2) to update the record for taxation purposes. The oppressive nature of the imperial rule is again evoked by this mention of the census.
2 Luke clearly intends to secure the historical and chronological moorings of Jesus’ birth. Ironically, it is precisely this that has led some to question Luke’s accuracy.
The first census (i.e., enrollment prior to taxation) known to have occurred under the governorship of Quirinius took place later (i.e., AD 6) than is usually reckoned as the time of Jesus’ birth. Reference to this census is found in both Acts 5:37 and Josephus (Ant. 18.26). Many have supposed that Luke confused this census of AD 6 with one he thinks was taken earlier but which lacks historical support. The most satisfactory solutions that have been proposed follow.
(1) Quirinius had a government assignment in Syria at this time and conducted a census in his official capacity. Details of this census may have been common knowledge in Luke’s time but are now lost to us (cf. E. M. Blaiklock, “Quirinius,” ZPEB 5:56). An incomplete manuscript describes the career of an officer whose name is not preserved but whose actions sound as though he might have been Quirinius. He became imperial “legate of Syria” for the “second time.” While this is ambiguous, it may be a clue that Quirinius served both at the time of Jesus’ birth and a few years later (cf. Mark Smith, “Of Jesus and Quirinius,” CBQ 62 : 278–93).
(2) The word prōtē can be construed to mean not “first,” as usually translated, but “former” or “prior.” The meaning of v. 2 is then, “This census was before that made when Quirinius was governor” (Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1965], 23–24; cf. Marshall, 104). As noted by Brook W. R. Pearson (“The Lukan Censuses, Revisited,” CBQ 61 : 282), since “each and every aspect of the census as it is described by Luke has close parallels in other parts of the Roman Empire, we would do better to take a plausible grammatical solution which accords with the evidence rather than to ignore the evidence on the basis of shaky grammar.”
(3) The existence of two “Quiriniuses” is also a possibility that must be noted. A recently discovered coin has the name “Quirinius” on it, and this coin places this Quirinius as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia during the time of Jesus’ birth. Other evidence points to the popularity of this name. Thus the existence of yet another Quirinius becomes a real possibility (cf. John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991], 154).
Furthermore, it is scarcely conceivable that Luke, careful researcher that he was (1:1–4), would have stressed the census—a piece of information relatively easy to verify—unless he had reasonable historical grounds for doing so. (See further F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974], 192–94; Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, 98–104.)
3 It was customary to return to one’s original home for such a census. The census as described in the British Museum papyrus 904, dated to AD 104, explicitly notes such a requirement. This decree allowed Mary and Joseph to return to Bethlehem, the city of David.
The phrase “everyone went to his own town” may recall a similar phrase that appears in the discussion of the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus: “each one of you is to return to his family property” (25:10). In the light of Luke’s interest in the Year of Jubilee (cf. Lk 4:19), this phrase may contribute to the theme of fulfillment in Luke’s eschatology (cf. G. D. Kilpatrick, “Luke 2:4–5 and Leviticus 25:10,” ZNW 80 : 264–65).
4–5 Luke does not say how long in advance of Jesus’ birth Joseph left for Bethlehem or why he took Mary with him. It is possible that he used the emperor’s order as a means of removing Mary from possible gossip and emotional stress in her own village. He had already accepted her as his wife (Mt 1:24), but apparently they continued in betrothal (v. 5, “pledged to be married”) till after the birth. The text neither affirms nor denies the popular image of the couple’s arriving in Bethlehem just as the baby was about to be born. Luke simply states that the birth took place “while they were there” (v. 6). Since she had stayed three months with Elizabeth, Mary was at least three months pregnant. It is possible that they went down during her last trimester of pregnancy, when the social relationships in Nazareth would have grown more difficult. They may have stayed in a crowded room in the home of some poor relative till the birth of the baby necessitated their vacating it for privacy and more space. Any such reconstruction is, however, merely speculative.
The emphasis on the Davidic line (v. 4) recalls the promises of the throne of David in 1:32, 35, and the focus on the house of David in 1:69 (cf. 1:27). Moreover, the allusion to Micah 5:2 in reference to the expected exalted role of Bethlehem can also be heard. Green, 127, further notes the prophetic element in these verses as the “provisional nature” of Roman rule is revealed.
7 The word katalyma (GK 2906), usually translated “inn,” may mean a room (e.g., the “guest room” used for the Last Supper [22:11], referred to as an “upper room” in 22:12), a billet for soldiers, or any place for lodging, which would include inns (cf. L. Paul Trudinger, “ ‘No Room in the Inn’: A Note on Luke 2:7,” ExpTim 102 : 172–73). It is not, however, the usual Greek word for an inn—pandocheion (GK 4106), to which the Good Samaritan took the robbery victim (10:34). As the etymology of the word—pan (“all,” GK 4246) and dechomai (“receive,” GK 1312)—suggests, inns accepted all kinds of people, often the worst. Stories were told of discomfort and even of robberies at inns.
Luke could have painted a sordid picture, had he so desired. Instead he uses the general word for a lodging place and states the simple fact that when Mary’s time came, the only available place for the little family was one usually occupied by animals. It may have been a cave, as tradition suggests, or some part of a house or inn. Even today in many places around the world farm animals and their fodder are often kept in the same building as the family quarters. The eating trough, or “manger,” was ideal for use as a crib. Luke does not seem to be portraying a dismal situation with an unfeeling innkeeper as villain. Rather, he is establishing a contrast between the proper rights of the Messiah in his own “town of David” (v. 4) and the very ordinary and humble circumstances of his birth. Whatever the reason, even in his birth Jesus was excluded from the normal shelter others enjoyed (cf. 9:58). This is consistent with Luke’s realistic presentation of Jesus’ humanity and servanthood.
1–3 For a negative judgment on the historicity of Luke’s account of the census, see R. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 547–55. A call to take Luke’s historical record seriously can be found in J. Lawrence, “Publius Sulpicius Quirinius and the Syrian Census,” ResQ 34 (1992): 193–205.
7 The significance of Isaiah 66 in early Christian writings has long been recognized. This chapter is also important for Luke. In Luke 2:34, one finds a parallel to Isaiah 66:19. Jesus’ response to the council in Luke 22:68 also alludes to Isaiah 66:4. Building on these parallels, J. D. M. Derrett (“Luke 2.7 Again,” NTS 45 : 263) further suggests that Luke 2:7 alludes to Isaiah 66:1, where the reference to the place where the Lord can rest is found. This would mean that Jesus cannot be contained by that which human hands can build, and he alone is the proper object of worship. The existence of this allusion is questionable, however.
The Expositors Bible Commentary Volume 10: Luke-Acts (Revised Edition)
ESV Study Bible Notes
2:1 The fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem rather than in Nazareth (cf. 1:26) was due to a decree, i.e., an imperial edict (cf. Acts 17:7), from Caesar Augustus (reigned 31 b.c.–a.d. 14). In those days is an imprecise date (contrast Luke 3:1–2), suggesting that Luke did not know the exact year (cf. 3:23). All the world (Gk. oikoumenē) means all of the known, inhabited world that was subject to the civilization and governance of Rome. People were registered for the purpose of taxation.
2:2 the first registration when Quirinius was governor. According to Josephus, Quirinius was governor of Syria a.d. 6–7 and conducted a census in a.d. 6 (which Luke is aware of and mentions in Acts 5:37). But this cannot be the census Luke is referencing here, since it occurred after the death of Herod the Great in 4 b.c., and it is known that Jesus was born during Herod’s reign (cf. Matt. 2:1; Luke 1:5). Various plausible solutions have been proposed. Some interpreters believe that because “governor” (participle of Gk. hēgemoneuō) was a very general term for “ruler,” it may be that Quirinius was the administrator of the census, but not the governor proper. Another solution is to translate the verse, “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria” (see ESV footnote), which is grammatically possible (taking Gk. prōtos as “before” rather than “first”; the Greek construction is somewhat unusual on any reading). This would make sense because Luke would then be clarifying that this was before the well-known, troublesome census of a.d. 6 (Acts 5:37). (One additional proposal is that Quirinius was governor for two separate terms, though this lacks confirming historical evidence.) Though the year cannot be determined with complete certainty, there are several reasonable possibilities which correspond well to Luke’s carefully researched investigation (Luke 1:3–4) and to the historical and geographical accuracy evidenced throughout Luke and Acts. The most reasonable date is late in the year of 6 b.c. or early 5. See further The Date of Jesus’ Crucifixion.
Jesus’ Birth and Flight to Egypt
As the time drew near for Jesus to be born, a mandatory Roman registration made it necessary for Joseph to return to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. There Mary gave birth to Jesus, and later, wise men from the East came to worship him. The wise men’s recognition of a new king, however, troubled King Herod and the ruling establishment in Jerusalem, and Herod the Great sought to kill Jesus. Joseph and his family escaped to Egypt and stayed there until Herod died. When they returned to Palestine, they settled in the remote district of Galilee, where Jesus grew up in the village of Nazareth, to avoid the attention of the rulers in Jerusalem.
2:3–4 Although Joseph was at this time living in Nazareth (vv. 4, 39), his ancestral home (own town) was Bethlehem. They went up … to Judea, since Bethlehem (in Judea) lies on a mountain 2,654 feet (809 m) high. The references to David (1:27, 32–33; 2:11; cf. 1 Sam. 16:4, 13) explain why Jesus was born in Bethlehem (cf. Mic. 5:2).
2:4 The traditional site for Jesus’ birth, a cave/grotto in Bethlehem, was made into a pagan shrine to Adonis in the second century a.d. (under Hadrian). The Constantinian basilica-style Church of the Nativity replaced this shrine in the fourth century, with an octagonal room providing views of the grotto. The fourth-century church, however, was destroyed and rebuilt as the present-day structure in the sixth century.
2:5 betrothed. See note on 1:27.
2:6 the time came. See 1:57. On the surface, political reasons determine where Jesus is born, but the ultimate cause is the God who controls history and who guarantees that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, in accordance with OT prophecy (cf. Mic. 5:2; Matt. 2:1–6).
2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son. The greatest miracle in the history of the world, the eternal Son of God being born as a man, happens quietly in a stable in an obscure village in Judea. Luke’s description is restrained, giving only a very few details. swaddling cloths. In ancient times strips of cloth were used to wrap babies to keep them warm and secure. manger. A feeding trough for animals. The inn, with the definite article (“the”), indicates that this was a specific, publicly known lodging place for individual travelers and caravans. no place for them. The inn was full, since many had come to Bethlehem to register for the census (see note on v. 2).
MacArthur Study Bible
2:1 Caesar Augustus. Caius Octavius, grand-nephew, adopted son, and primary heir to Julius Caesar. Before and after Julius’ death in 44 b.c., the Roman government was constantly torn by power struggles. Octavius ascended to undisputed supremacy in 31 b.c. by defeating his last remaining rival, Antony, in a military battle at Actium. In 29 b.c., the Roman senate declared Octavius Rome’s first emperor. Two years later they honored him with the title “Augustus” (“exalted one”—a term signifying religious veneration). Rome’s republican government was effectively abolished, and Augustus was given supreme military power. He reigned until his death at age 76 (a.d. 14). Under his rule, the Roman Empire dominated the Mediterranean region, ushering in a period of great prosperity and relative peace (the Pax Romana). He ordered “all the inhabited earth” (i.e., the world of the Roman Empire) to be counted. This was not merely a one-time census; the decree actually established a cycle of enrollments that were to occur every 14 years. Palestine had previously been excluded from the Roman census, because Jews were exempt from serving in the Roman army, and the census was designed primarily to register young men for military service (as well as account for all Roman citizens). This new, universal census was ostensibly to number each nation by family and tribe (hence Joseph, a Judean, had to return to his ancestral home to register—see note on v. 3). Property and income values were not recorded in this registration. But soon the names and population statistics gathered in this census were used for the levying of poll taxes (see note on Mt 22:17), and the Jews came to regard the census itself as a distasteful symbol of Roman oppression. See note on v. 2.
2:2 Quirinius was governor of Syria. Fixing a precise date for this census is problematic. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius is known to have governed Syria during a.d. 6–9. A well known census was taken in Palestine in a.d. 6. Josephus records that it sparked a violent Jewish revolt (mentioned by Luke, quoting Gamaliel, in Ac 5:37). Quirinius was responsible for administering that census, and he also played a major role in quelling the subsequent rebellion. However, that cannot be the census Luke has in mind here, because it occurred about a decade after the death of Herod (see note on Mt 2:1)—much too late to fit Luke’s chronology (cf. 1:5). In light of Luke’s meticulous care as a historian, it would be unreasonable to charge him with such an obvious anachronism. Indeed, archeology has vindicated Luke. A fragment of stone discovered at Tivoli (near Rome) in a.d. 1764 contains an inscription in honor of a Roman official who, it states, was twice governor of Syria and Phoenicia during the reign of Augustus. The name of the official is not on the fragment, but among his accomplishments are listed details that, as far as is known, can fit no one other than Quirinius. Thus, he must have served as governor in Syria twice. He was probably military governor at the same time that history records Varus was civil governor there. With regard to the dating of the census, some ancient records found in Egypt mention a worldwide census ordered in 8 b.c. That date is not without problems, either. It is generally thought by scholars that 6 b.c. is the earliest possible date for Christ’s birth. Evidently, the census was ordered by Caesar Augustus in 8 b.c. but was not actually carried out in Palestine until 2–4 years later, perhaps because of political difficulties between Rome and Herod. Therefore, the precise year of Christ’s birth cannot be known with certainty, but it was probably no earlier than 6 b.c. and certainly no later than 4 b.c. Luke’s readers, familiar with the political history of that era, would no doubt have been able to discern a very precise date from the information he gave.
2:3 own city. I.e., the place of tribal origin.
2:4 Nazareth … Bethlehem. Both Joseph and Mary were descendants of David and therefore went to their tribal home in Judea to be registered. This was a difficult trek of more than 70 mi. through mountainous terrain—a particularly grueling journey for Mary, on the verge of delivery. Perhaps she and Joseph were conscious that a birth in Bethlehem would fulfill the prophecy in Mic 5:2.
2:5 engaged. See note on Mt 1:18. Matthew 1:24 indicates that when the angel told Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, he “took her as his wife”—i.e., he took her into his home. But they did not consummate their marriage until after the birth of Jesus (Mt 1:25). Therefore, technically, they were still betrothed.
2:7 firstborn. Mary had other children subsequent to this. See note on Mt 12:46. cloths. Strips of cloth were used to bind a baby tightly. It kept the baby from injuring sensitive facial skin and eyes with its own (often sharp) fingernails, and was believed to strengthen the limbs. This is still the custom in some Eastern cultures. The absence of such cloths was a sign of poverty or lack of parental care (Eze 16:4). manger. A feeding trough for animals. This is the source of the notion that Christ was born in a stable, something nowhere stated in Scripture. Ancient tradition held that He was born in a cave (possibly one used as a shelter for animals). But no actual description of the location is given. no room for them in the inn. Possibly because many were returning to this ancient town to register in the census.