Wilcock observes that we have in this chapter three stories from Jesus’ early life:

One comes from Jesus’s earliest days, when he was but a new-born ‘babe’ (Lk 2:12, 16). In the next, he is a ‘child’ (2:40) six weeks old. In the last, he is a ‘boy’ (2:43) approaching his teens.

‘The first is the story of his birth, and of the angel who announced it to the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside, so that they ‘went with haste’ to see the baby in the stable.
‘The second tells how he was brought to the temple at Jerusalem for the customary religious service of Purification, and how the aged Simeon there met the holy family and uttered the beautiful words we know as the Nunc Dimittis: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’.
‘The third describes how when Jesus was twelve he stayed on in Jerusalem, unknown to his parents, after another religious festival; their mild rebuke when they found him was met by a mysterious answer which his mother never forgot, though it was long before she understood it.’  (Paragraphing added)

Wilcock suggests, quite reasonably, that Luke probably learned about these stories from the childhood of Jesus during his likely 2-year stay in Palestine at the time Paul was imprisoned (Acts 21:17ff; 27:1).  Luke very probably used this time to collect material for his Gospel, and would, no doubt, have spoken with Mary, among others.  Luke includes in his Gospel those stories which Mary found most memorable, and which he found most relevant to his overall purpose.

Although Luke devotes only seven verses to the story of Jesus’ birth, it is

a little jewel of economical story-telling, each of its many facets beautifully cut and showing brilliant depths. We could linger over the way Luke brings together the Greco-Roman world of Theophilus (2:1–2) and the Jewish world of 2:4–5, with its religion and supernaturalism; over the sureness with which the histories of these two worlds dovetail in the divine calendar (2:1–6); or over Luke’s eye for meaningful detail (e.g. 2:7—the ‘first-born’, ‘no place … in the inn’).

Wilcock adds that the key characters in these three accounts are mouthpieces of God: an angel voice, a prophetic voice (Simeon), and the voice of Christ himself (speaking his first recorded words).  This is especially significant given the absence of any word from God for over four centuries.  The accounts themselves emphasise what was ‘told’ (2:17–20), ‘said’ (2:33), and ‘spoken’ (2:50) about Jesus.

Bock (Holman Apologetics Commentary) mentions the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives:

Luke’s account differs from that of Matthew in key ways. For example, Luke had Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth prior to the birth at Bethlehem, while Matthew never mentioned the previous residency in Nazareth. Matthew had wise men (magi) visiting Jesus, while Luke instead had lowly shepherds. Matthew noted Herod’s massacre and an exile of Jesus’ family to Egypt, while Luke had them go back to Nazareth directly after the temple visit and never mentioned the massacre in Bethlehem or exile to Egypt. The perspectives from which the events are told also differ, with Joseph being the key figure in Matthew and Mary in Luke.

In the present notes, these differences will be discussed as they arise in the text.

The Census and the Birth of Jesus, 1-7

2:1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. 2:2 This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 2:3 Everyone went to his own town to be registered. 2:4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David. 2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child.

Caesar Augustus – The name given to Emperor Octavian (31 B.C.-A.D. 14) in 27 B.C. ‘Born in 63 B.C. he first gained power with Antony and Lepidus at Julius Caesar’s death in 44 B.C. He gained sole control at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., where he defeated Antony and Cleopatra, who both committed suicide. This brought Egypt into the system of Roman provinces. He thus founded the Roman Empire and ruled with popular acclaim. At his death the Senate declared him a god. Herod the Great ruled as appointed by Augustus, even though Herod originally supported Antony. Herod built temples to Augustus as a god in Caesarea and Samaria.’ (Holman)

A census

Quirinius and 'the first registration'

Luke 2:1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. 2:2 This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

We have here a well-known case of apparent problem in harmonising Luke’s data with that of external and other internal sources.  The objections may be summarised as follows:-

  1. At the time that Augustus issued this degree, Judea was not under direct Roman control, but was a client kingdom ruled by Herod the Great. It is claimed that it would not therefore have been included in any Roman census.  But it is possible that Herod ordered a local census, or that the Roman authorities intervened in this matter.
  2. The available evidence suggests that people were not required to return to their ancestral homes at the time of a census; rather, people registered where they lived.  But it can be plausibly argued that Bethlehem was, in fact, Joseph’s own home, and that he went to Nazareth in order to be betrothed to Mary.  This would explain why Matthew makes no mention of Nazareth.
  3. Joseph would not have been required to take Mary with him; only the male head of the family was required to register.  This difficulty is resolved if the suggested resolution to point 2 above is correct.
  4. Josephus says that Quirinius took a census in AD 6/7 AD.  Quirinius was governor of Syria from 6 to 12 AD, whereas Jesus is known to have been born before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC (cf. Lk 1:5; Mt 2:1,15f). The governor of Syria at that time was C. Sentius Saturninus (9–6 BC) or Quinctilius Varus (6–4 BC).

Various explanations have been proposed:-

1. Some think that Luke was simply mistaken.  Luke Timothy Johnson: ‘Luke’s attempt at synchronism is not entirely successful, as endless technical discussions have made clear. Herod died in 4 B.C.E., and Augustus was emperor from 27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E. So far, so good. But Quirinius was governor in Syria from 6–7 C.E., and the gap can’t be filled. Luke simply has the facts wrong.’  But it is ‘unlikely…that Luke mistakenly connected Jesus’ birth to the AD 6 census, since in Acts 5:36 he refers to this census in its proper context.’ (Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels)

Jonathan Pearce devotes an entire chapter (ch. 6) to demonstrating that according to Matthew, Jesus was born before 4BC (having been born before the death of Herod the Great), creating a ten-year discrepancy with Luke, who has Jesus born around 6AD (at the time of the census under Quirinius).

2. Others think that if ancient, rather than modern, standards of historiography are applied, we can accept that two key events – Herod’s death in 4 BC and Rome’s annexation of Judea in AD 6 (leading to the census of Quirinius) – were remembered with sufficient vagueness to allow for them to be conflated within the narratives.  This is the preferred view of S. Young in DJG 2nd ed. (art. ‘Birth of Jesus’).  However, the conflation of two well-remembered events that occurred a decade apart does seem rather a stretch.

Helen Bond thinks that Luke is mistaken when he says that the census was taken of the ‘entire Roman world’, stating that it was taken only in Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (not Galilee).

3. Still others think that the ‘Herod’ referred to in Lk 1:5 is not Herod the Great but Archelaus, who was also known as Herod the Ethnarch, who reigned in AD 5-6.

4. Another school of thought proposes that Luke is referring to an earlier census that took place under Quirinius.

McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 71, states:

It was at one time conceded that Luke had entirely missed the boat in the events he portrayed as surrounding the birth of Jesus, Lk 2:1-3. Critics argued that there was no census, that Quirinius was not the governor of Syria at that time and that everyone did not have to return to his ancestral home.

First of all, archaeological discoveries show that the Romans had a regular enrollment of taxpayers and also held censuses every 14 years. This procedure was indeed begun under Augustus and the first took place in either 23-22 BC or in 9-8 BC. The latter would be the one to which Luke refers. Second, we find evidence that Quirinius was governor of Syria around 7 BC. This assumption is based on an inscription found in Antioch ascribing to Quirinius this post. As a result of this finding, it is now supposed that he was governor twice – once in 7 BC and the other time in 6 AD (the date ascribed by Josephus). ‘Last, in regard to the practice of enrollment, a papyrus found in Egypt gives directions for the conduct of a census. It reads, “Because of the approaching census it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away from their homes should at once prepare to return to their own governments in order that they may complete the family registration of the enrollment and that the tilled lands may retain those belonging to them.

Three inscriptions are often cited as providing supporting evidence for this.  But most commentators (believing as well as sceptical) find this theory unconvincing.  It is not intrinsically improbably ‘that Quirinius was involved with a census during the last years of Nero. Toward the end of his reign Herod fell out of favor with Rome (c. 8/7 B.C.). This was followed by his sons engaging in an intense struggle for the throne at a time when Herod was extremely ill. All of these factors would allow for the Roman government to take a census in his land in order to assess the situation before his death. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact year of the census, it was probably sometime between 6 and 4 B.C.’ (DJG, 1st ed.)

5. As a variation on the above, it has been suggested that Quirinius did indeed instigate the census during the time of King Herod, but was only able to complete it when he became governor of Syria some years later.  (It is known that censuses could take years to complete – a census that was begun in Gaul around 6 BC took around 40 years to complete.  Luke’s Greek may support this view: ‘This census became important/prominent when Quirinius was governor of Syria’.

Jonathan Pearce (The Nativity: A Critical Examination) expends most of his energy in ch. 7 of that work to exposing the weaknesses in related view that Quirinius was governor at two separate periods.  Unfortunately, he does not even mention other, more plausible explanations (such as point 7, below).

6. The 19th-century commentator Albert Barnes refers to another possible solution, according to which, ‘the passage here means, “This was the first census of Cyrenius, governor of Syria.” It is called the first to distinguish it from one afterward taken by Cyrenius, Acts 5:37. It is said to be the census taken by Cyrenius, governor of Syria; not that he was then governor, but that it was taken by him who was afterward familiarly known as governor. Cyrenius, governor of Syria, was the name by which the man was known when Luke wrote his gospel, and it was not improper to say that the taxing was made by Cyrenius, the governor of Syria, though he might not have been actually governor for many years afterward. Thus Herodian says that “to Marcus the emperor were born several daughters and two sons,” though several of those children were born to him before he was emperor. Thus it is not improper to say that General Washington saved Braddock’s army, or was engaged in the old French war, though he was not actually made general till many years afterward. According to this Augustus sent Cyrenius, an active, enterprising man, to take the census. At that time he was a Roman senator. Afterward he was made governor of the same country, and received the title which Luke gives him.’

7.  Others think that the word prōtē in Lk 2:2 should be translated ‘before’, rather than ‘first’.  F.F. Bruce states that ‘the Greek of Luke 2:2 can be translated: “This enrollment (census) was before that made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  Because of the construction of the sentence (why say that this was the first census, when there was no other to compare it with?), this is not an unlikely reading. In this case there is no problem, since that census of A.D. 6 is well known to historians.’  Wright (Who Was Jesus?, p89 and other publications) agrees.  Garland thinks that the census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was instigated by Herod.  Luke mentioned the later census of Quirinius as a notable historical marker.  (We might add that, from the vantage point of Luke’s date of writing, the time difference between the earlier census and the later, better-known census would not be particularly significant in a culture without general use of calendars).

This is also the view of Blomberg (The Historical Reliability of the New Testament), who writes:

For a while it appeared that new archeological evidence would support a joint rule of some kind between Quirinius and another Roman appointee at an earlier date, but this has not materialized. I am now more inclined to suggest a straightforward alternative translation: “This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria” (NIV mg). Although prōtos elsewhere in Luke always means “first,” the second most common meaning of the word is “before,” and the entire Greek clause is notoriously ambiguous because Luke did not use any articles to help make his meaning more precise. The most literal translation that is still intelligible in English is, “This census was first/ before Quirinius governing Syria” (hautē apographē prōtē egeneto hēgemoneuontos tēs Surias Kurēniou). The text certainly can mean, “This census was the first while Quirinius was governing Syria,” but one would normally expect an article before apographē and again before prōtē if that were Luke’s intention. But we could translate, “This census was before [one] when Quirinius was governor.” The census in AD 6 under Quirinius was particularly infamous because it provoked the failed rebellion by Judas the Galilean. So it would be natural for a biographer or historian to refer to an earlier census with reference to the later, much better-remembered one.

Nolland states: ‘the governorship of Quirinius was an important turning point in Judean history, marking as it did the annexation of Judea, which was made profoundly visible by the census registration with which Quirinius governorship began. That registration was the registration, (cf. Ac 5:37) and it is natural that Luke should distinguish from it a preliminary registration in the time of Herod the Great…This seems better than forcing an earlier governorship on Quirinius and more likely than the contradiction in the Lukan infancy narratives created by an identification of the census here as that of A.D. 6.’ (WBC)

Wright concludes: ‘Luke knew a tradition in which Jesus was born during some sort of census, and that Luke knew as well as we do that it couldn’t have been the one conducted under Quirinius, because by then Jesus was about ten years old. That is why he wrote that the census was the one before that conducted by Quirinius.’

This last interpretation seems best to accord with the available evidence.

In conclusion, it may be stated that:-

The accounts of Jesus’ birth offered by Matthew and Luke have much in common:-

Jesus was born in Bethlehem            Matt 2:1                   Luke 2:2

In time of Herod (d. 4 BC)                  Matt 2:1                   Luke 1:5

Mother: Mary                                      Matt 1:18                 Luke 1:26

Father: Joseph (named the child)      Matt 1:18                 Luke 1:26

But not the biological father               Matt 1:162022     Luke 1:343:23

Brought up in Nazareth in Galilee      Matt 2:22-23           Luke 2:39

From the line of David                        Matt 1:1                  Luke 1:32

We have good grounds for regarding Luke as a reliable historian.  His demonstrable accuracy in the Acts of the Apostles led archaeologist Sir William Ramsay from scepticism to respect in this regard.  It is clear enough that ‘Luke was not confusing this with the one held in A.D. 6 because that was just after the deposition of Herod’s son Archelaus, whereas the context of the birth narrative of Jesus was in the days of Herod the Great.’ (DJG)

See this.

Census – Such censuses had a twofold aim: to conduct a tax assessment and to ascertain which men were liable for military service. Since the Jews were exempt from military service, the first was the most important aim in this case. By AD 6 these censuses were taking place every 14 years, although it appears that periodic censuses were carried out at other times.

Quirinius – His full name was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. He served as consul of Rome, military leader, tutor to Gaius Caesar, and legate (governor). He died in A.D. 21.

Governor of Syria – The governor of Syria is mentioned because the Roman province of Syria included Palestine under its jurisdiction at this time.

There is to be found in this passage a contrast between the earthly pomp of Caesar and Christ’s heavenly glory.

Everyone went to his own town – ‘A journey to the ancestral home would have fit Jewish practice, so that the custom was done in a culturally inoffensive manner. (2 Sam 24) This was important, since the tax itself would have been a painful reminder of Israel’s position before Rome.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

To register apographo ‘primarily signifies “to write out, to copy;” then, “to enroll, to inscribe,” as in a register. It is used of a census, Lk 2:1, RV, “be enrolled,” for AV, “be taxed;” in the middle voice, Lk 2:3,5, to enroll oneself, AV, “be taxed.” Confirmation that this census (not taxation) was taken in the dominions of the Roman Empire is given by the historians Tacitus and Suetonius. Augustus himself drew up a sort of Roman Doomsday Book, a rationarium, afterwards epitomized into a breviarium, to include the allied kingdoms, appointing twenty commissioners to draw up the lists.’ (Vine)

“Augustus imagines that he is busied in advancing the glory of his name, and the lustre of his reign. And yet his orders, by means of others more powerful and absolute than his, become subservient to the accomplishment of prophecies, of which he is altogether ignorant, – to the birth of a king whom he will never know, – and to the establishment of a monarchy, which will subject him and all others to itself. This is what happens in all ages, and men take no notice of it.” (Quesnel, quoted by Ryle)

Joseph…went up from the town of Nazareth…to Bethlehem – An authentic touch, given that Bethlehem is sited on a ridge, somewhat higher than the site of Nazareth.

There is no mention of a donkey!  As France notes, even with a donkey it would have been a long and hazardous journey.

‘Luke relates how it happened, that Christ was born in the city of Bethlehem, as his mother was living at a distance from her home, when she was approaching to her confinement. And first he sets aside the idea of human contrivance, by saying, that Joseph and Mary had left home, and came to that place to make the return according to their family and tribe. If intentionally and on purpose they had changed their residence that Mary might bring forth her child in Bethlehem, we would have looked only at the human beings concerned. But as they have no other design than to obey the edict of Augustus, we readily acknowledge, that they were led like blind persons, by the hand of God, to the place where Christ must be born. This may appear to be accidental, as everything else, which does not proceed from a direct human intention, is ascribed by irreligious men to Fortune. But we must not attend merely to the events themselves. We must remember also the prediction which was uttered by the prophet many centuries before. A comparison will clearly show it to have been accomplished by the wonderful Providence of God, that a registration was then enacted by Augustus Caesar, and that Joseph and Mary set out from home, so as to arrive in Bethlehem at the very point of time.’ (Calvin)

He went there to register with Mary – Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes) says that ‘in the Middle East, men usually represent their families in any official or legal matters. Why did Joseph take Mary with him to Bethlehem for the registration? The easiest explanation is that he was unsure what might happen to her if he left her in Nazareth without his presence to protect her. It behooves us to see Joseph as a hero of the story without whose courage and understanding of the prophets there would have been no Christmas story to tell.’

‘Thus we see that the holy servants of God, even though they wander from their design, unconscious where they are going, still keep the right path, because God directs their steps. Nor is the Providence of God less wonderful in employing the mandate of a tyrant to draw Mary from home, that the prophecy may be fulfilled. God had marked out by his prophet-as we shall afterwards see-the place where he determined that his Son should be born. If Mary had not been constrained to do otherwise, she would have chosen to bring forth her child at home. Augustus orders a registration to take place in Judea, and each person to give his name, that they may afterwards pay an annual tax, which they were formerly accustomed to pay to God. Thus an ungodly man takes forcible possession of that which God was accustomed to demand from his people. It was, in effect, reducing the Jews to entire subjection, and forbidding them to be thenceforth reckoned as the people of God.’ (Calvin)

Mary, who was pledged to be married to him – ‘Mary and Joseph are living together and traveling as man and wife, but Luke speaks of them (v 5) as “betrothed.” This is probably to suggest, in line with the Matthean tradition (Mt 1:24–25), that although they lived together they had no sexual union prior to the birth of the child that Mary was carrying.’ (Nolland)

Mary was expecting a child – The AV (‘great with child’) may give the impression to some readers that she was heavily pregnant, and approaching the time of delivery.

Jonathan Pearce (The Nativity: A Critical Examination, p83) ridicules the idea that a heavily-pregnant Mary would have even attempted such a journey, and that, if she had, the discomfort would have induced labour while she was still in transit.  But this is to uncritically assume something that the text does not say.  Pearce says, ‘She is heavily pregnant, of that, there is no doubt.’  But there is nothing in the text to suggest that she is ‘heavily pregnant’: ἔγκυος simply means ‘pregnant’.  And, according to v6, she does not give birth ‘on arrival’ in Bethlehem, but ‘while they were there’.

Luke does not tell us what stage of pregnancy Mary had reached.  Murray Harris reasons:

‘We can infer she was beyond her first trimester, because after learning of her imminent conception (Luke 1:31, 35) Mary had stayed with her relative Elizabeth “for about three months” before returning home to Nazareth (Luke 1:56). On the other hand, it is extremely unlikely that Joseph would have risked taking a full-term woman on a prolonged journey. After all, the journey from Nazareth in the north of Palestine to Bethlehem in the south covers some ninety miles, and for fit adults it would take at least six days.’ (Navigating Tough Texts, p37f)

Harris continues:

‘Imagine Mary sitting side-saddle or astride a donkey, swaying gently from side to side under Joseph’s watchful gaze, until the terrain was so uneven that the pregnant Mary was given an uncomfortable jolt. Would she survive the rigors of this arduous pilgrimage? Both Joseph and Mary would have taken heart as they remembered the divine assurance each had received about the safe birth of their child (Matt 1:21; Luke 1:31, 35).’

Murray Harris tells us that that ‘the participle in verse 5 (ousē, “being”) may simply be adjectival: “(and she) was expecting a child.” But it could be causal, indicating that Joseph went to Bethlehem “because she was pregnant.” In this case, Joseph was concerned that Micah 5:2 be fulfilled by the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. A third option is that the participle may well be concessive in sense, indicating that Joseph went “even though/in spite of the fact that she was pregnant.”’ (Navigating Tough Texts, p38)

2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

While they were there – not, as is usually assumed, ‘upon arrival’. They had been in Bethlehem for an indefinite period – perhaps days, or even weeks – of time prior to Mary going into labour. Thus the familiar image of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, being unable to find a place to stay on the night of arrival, and thus relying on an emergency shelter, has no basis in the text itself. (DJG)

She gave birth to her firstborn, a son – ‘Midwives normally assisted at birth; especially because this was Mary’s first child, it is likely (though not clear from the text) that a midwife would assist her. Jewish law permitted midwives to travel a long distance even on the Sabbath to assist in delivery.’ (NT Background Cmty)

Yet more emphatically, Eddie Arthur insists that the birth would not have been a young woman giving birth to her first child on her own:

In a communal culture, like first century Palestine, no one would have left a girl on her own in this situation. The local women would have rallied round to support her and there would be experienced midwives there to advise Mary and to help out when help was needed. It wasn’t a modern-day hospital, with formally trained staff, but these women would have seen lots of babies born and they knew what to do.

The fact that Luke refers to the baby as ‘her [not their] firstborn son’ carries a hint of the virginal conception.

Additionally, the reference to her son as ‘her firstborn’ implies that she went on to bear other children.  See Mt 8:19; cf. Mark 6:3.  However, Johnson remarks that ‘the term prōtotokos does not demand more than one child.’

Stein comments:

The reference to Jesus as the “firstborn” does not preclude Mary’s and Joseph’s later having had children as “only” (monogenēs) would, but it need not require the birth of other children either. An ancient grave inscription that speaks of the deceased as having died while giving birth to her “firstborn” son proves this (cf. also 2 Esdr 6:58; Pss. Sol. 13:9; 18:4). In light of the later references to the “brothers and sisters of Jesus” (Luke 8:19–21; Acts 1:14; cf. Mark 6:3; etc.), Luke probably used “firstborn” instead of monogenēs because he knew of other sons. Luke clearly did not want to indicate that Jesus was Mary’s only son, or else he would have used monogenēs. In addition Matt 1:25 strongly implies that Joseph and Mary lived in a normal marital relationship after Jesus’ birth.

Nolland notes that ‘the birth account itself is spare in the extreme. The birth is like any other birth. It is the origin (Lk 1:35), identity (Lk 2:11), and destiny (Lk 1:32–33) of the child that are significant.’

‘There lieth he, the Lord of glory without all glory. Instead of a palace, a poor stable; instead of a cradle of state, a beast’s cratch [a manger]; no pillow but a lock of hay; no hangings but dust and cobwebs; no attendants but in the midst of animals.’

(Lancelot Andrews)

Wrapped him in cloths – showing care and tenderness, in contrast to the baby mentioned in Eze 16:4. The ‘swaddling clothes’ were long strips of cloth used to keep babies’ limbs straight so that they would grow properly.  Mary probably brought them from Nazareth in readiness for the birth.  These cloths were not ‘rags’, as perhaps implied in the line of the Christmas carol ‘all meanly wrapped in swaddling bands’.

Placed him in a manger – often assumed to have been in a stable, or perhaps a cave, or possibly outside.

The traditional idea Jesus being born in a stable probably stems in part from a messianic reading of Isa 1:3 – ‘The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’

But, as the following notes suggest, the most likely location would have been at one end of the main (family) room of the house.

‘Many of the details supplied in Christmas tellings of this story do not come from Luke. There is no indication of a long search for a place to stay or of an insensitive innkeeper who made Mary and Joseph stay outdoors. The text merely describes the arrival in simple terms: She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

France clarifies what Luke does, and does not, say about the physical circumstances of Jesus’ birth:

Luke’s mention of a “manger” has led most Western readers to assume that Jesus was born in a stable, and that idea has become fixed in our Christmas traditions, even though Luke does not speak of a “stable.” Rather, an ordinary Palestinian village home was a one-room house in which the animals were kept on a lower level (not in a stable), with the mangers set along the side of the family’s living area. The manger was therefore part of an ordinary living room, and there is no basis in Luke’s account for the sentimental idea that Jesus was born excluded from human society. Since Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home, we may assume that they were staying with relatives.

A church is sited on the presumed site of the nativity. Steps on either side of the altar lead down into a cave, where the birth is said to have taken place. The splendour of the setting should not be allowed to hide the reality of the event itself.

There is an early tradition that Jesus was born in a cave:

‘The present Church of the Nativity, lying at the west edge of the hill that marked the old city, was erected over a large rock cave, some 12 × 3 meters in size. This cavern is one of several that were located near houses and served as stalls or for storage of supplies (cf. Lk 11:33) in the first century. Already at the beginning of the second century, the local tradition was so well established that Hadrian (in c. A.D. 135) made the cave into a sanctuary to Adonis in order to eliminate veneration of it by Jewish Christians (ELS 83ff.). Jerome still remembered the original “manger” (phatnē) of Luke 2:7 consisting of a rock groove with plain clay walls (ELS 91) in a sidecave some 3 × 3 meters in size (GBL 2.847).’ (DJG, 2nd ed., art. ‘Archeology and Geography’)

In any case, we may contrast the physical circumstances and environment of Jesus’ birth with modern birthing rooms, and even with ancient practices, which would normally involve the presence of a midwife.

‘Importance is not a matter of one’s environment or the supposed status that things bring. Rather, importance is a function of one’s role in God’s work. Jesus is important not because of the setting of his birth, but because of who he is before God. For one moment, the center of God’s activity resides in an animal trough. The dignity of this event comes from the person lying at the center.’ (Bock, NIVAC)

No room in the inn

'No room at the inn'?

Luke 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

So translated by AV, ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, God’s Word, Good News.

NIV – ‘…because there was no guest room available for them.’

New Living Translation – ‘…because there was no lodging available for them.’

The word kataluma normally meant guest room, although it could mean house or inn. Luke’s use of the definite article (‘the inn’) offers some support for understanding this is an ‘inn’, rather than a ‘guest room’.  However, it has been doubted whether there would have been an inn in Bethlehem in Jesus’ day since it was not on any major road, and inns normally were to be found only on major roads, especially the Roman ones (but cf. Jer 41:17, which does not refer to a place in Bethlehem). Furthermore, when Luke wants to speak of a commercial inn he uses pandocheion Lk 10:34 referring to an establishment found on the major road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Also, when Luke uses the word kataluma in his Gospel Lk 22:11, cf. 1 King 1:18), it clearly does not mean an inn but a guest room. (DJG)

Stephen Carlson argues that the phrase does not mean, ‘no room for them in the kataluma‘, but ‘no room in the kataluma’ (i.e. no place to lay the baby).  This would be consistent with the suggestion that they did stay in the kataluma, but that there was insufficient room for her in that room for her to give birth.

Bailey quotes an older researcher: ‘Anyone who has lodged with Palestinian peasants knows that notwithstanding their hospitality the lack of privacy is unspeakably painful. One cannot have a room to oneself, and one is never alone by day or by night. I myself often fled into the open country simply in order to be able to think.’

Considerable doubt is cast, therefore, on the traditional picture of Joseph and Mary being turned away from an ‘inn’ because there were no vacancies there.

‘It becomes more likely that by kataluma Luke means either house or guest room, and the latter translation must have the edge precisely because in the vast majority of ancient Near-Eastern peasant homes for which we have archaeological and literary evidence, the manger was within the home, not in some separate barn. The animals as well as the family slept within one large enclosed space that was divided so that usually the animals would be on a lower level, and the family would sleep on a raised dais (Bailey). In this particular case, we should probably envision Mary and Joseph staying in the home of relatives or friends, a home which was crowded due to the census being taken, a home where Luke tells us there was no longer any room in “the guest room” (noting the definite article before the noun). Consequently, Mary gave birth to her child perhaps in the family room and placed the baby in the stone manger. This means that a good deal of the popular conception of this scene has no basis in the text. In particular, the idea of Mary and Joseph being cast out from civilized accommodations and taking up temporary residence in a barn is probably based on a misunderstanding of the text.’ (DJG)

Since they had traveled to Joseph’s ancestral home, it is likely that he had relatives in Bethlehem, and that he and Mary would have found lodgings with them. But because of all the other people who had come to the town because of the census, there was no room left in the guest room. They therefore were crammed with the rest of the family on the upper level, and Mary laid here new-born baby in the stone manger amongst the animals on the lower level.

Bailey explains why he thinks that the thoughts conjured up by the traditional of ‘no room at the inn’ are probably wide of the mark:-

  1. Joseph was returning to his ancestral home.  He only needed to explain who he was and most homes in the town would have given him a welcome.
  2. Joseph was of royal blood.  He was descended from King David, and Bethlehem was known as the ‘City of David’.  That connection, too, would have assured a welcome in the town.
  3. In that culture, as much as in any other, a woman about to give birth would have been given special attention.  The community would have ensured that adequate shelter was found and suitable care was provided.  To do otherwise would have caused unspeakable shame.
  4. Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, lived not far away.  If adequate shelter could not be found in Bethlehem, then they might have been able to travel that short further distance.  The fact that they did not suggests that adequate shelter was, in fact, provided in Bethlehem.
  5. As previously noted, the text does not say that Mary gave birth immediately upon their arrival in Bethlehem, but rather, ‘while they were there’.  Thus, it is likely that Joseph has sufficient time to make arrangements for adequate shelter and care.

Other Scripture references assume the kind of one-roomed house and associated domestic arrangements implied here.

In Judges 11:29-40, Jephthah makes a rash vow that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house.  He would fully have been expecting one of the animals to emerge, but is shocked to see that it is his own daughter.

In Mt 5:14f, the lamp gives light ‘to all in the house’.

In Lk 13:10-17, Jesus reminds his critics that they would, every day (including the Sabbath) untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it to water: again, the underlying assumption being that the animal would have been kept in the house over night (for that was where the manger was situated), but that it would have been unthinkable to leave it there during the day time.

With preachers in mind, France (We Proclaim the Word of Life) comments that ‘it is easier to envisage Jesus as truly “one of us” if his entry into the world was in such an ordinary domestic scene rather than in the abnormal setting of a stable or cave.’

‘[T]o advocate this understanding is to pull the rug from under not only many familiar carols (‘a lowly cattle shed’; ‘a draughty stable with an open door’) but also a favourite theme of Christmas preachers: the ostracism of the Son of God from human society, Jesus the refugee. This is subversive stuff. When I first started advocating Bailey’s interpretation, it was picked up by a Sunday newspaper and then reported in various radio programmes as a typical example of theological wrecking, on a par with that then notorious debunking of the actuality of the resurrection by the Bishop of Durham!’

France adds: ‘The problem with the stable is that it distances Jesus from the rest of us. It puts even his birth in a unique setting, in some ways as remote from life as if he had been born in Caesar’s Palace. that’s the message of the incarnation is that Jesus is one of us. He came to be what we are, and it fits well with that theology that his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Palestinian home, just like many another Jewish boy of his time.’

Ian Paul concurs: ‘In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention. This should fundamentally change our approach to enacting and preaching on the nativity.

Even if we should not assume that Jesus was born in abject poverty and neglect, it is nevertheless reasonable to conclude that Christ is identified with the poor and the homeless from the very beginning of his earthly life. See Lk 2:24/Lev 12:6-8 for evidence that the family was poor, and 2 Cor 8:9 for the contrast between the riches which were his by right, and the lowliness of his earthly existence.

Does it matter?

Hints have already been given as to why all this matters.  However, let Ian Paul summarise:

1. It demonstrates how, even with important parts of Scripture, we find it hard to read what Scripture actually says.

2. It also shows how easily we impose our own assumptions on the text, rather than reading it in its context.

3. Resistance to the evidence shows how powerfully traditions have a grip on us, and resist revision.

4. Most importantly, the ‘traditional’ reading that Jesus was born in a stable actually distorts the story of Jesus’ birth, and mutes the central message of the Christmas story—that Jesus wasn’t born in a place where we can happily visit once a year, and then forget about. Rather, he comes to the centre of human life, and cannot so easily be romanticised or ignored.

(In addition to the work by Bailey, see this by Ian Paul, and also Croteau, Urban Legends of the New Testament, chapter 1.)

Birth anticipates burial?

‘Can the threefold, deliberate phrasing in the Greek of, “wrapped him in cloth strips, placed him in a manger, because there was no place” perhaps anticipate the same threefold rhythm of “wrapped him in linen cloth, placed him in a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had yet been laid” (Lk 23:53) so that birth and burial mirror each other?’ (Luke Timothy Johnson)

The Shepherds’ Visit, 8-21

2:8 Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.

And there were in the same country children keeping watch over their stockings by the fireplace.

And Lo! Father Christmas came upon them; and they were sore afraid.

And Father Christmas said unto them: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people who can afford them.  For unto you will be given great feasts of turkey, pudding and cake; and many presents, wrapped in bright paper, lying beneath a tree adorned with tinsel, coloured balls and lights.

And suddenly, there will be with you a multitude of friends and relatives, praising you and saying: “Thankyou very much, it was just what I always wanted.”

And it shall come to pass as the relatives and friends have gone away into their own homes, the parents shall say one to another, “Oh bother! What a mess to clean up! I’m tired, lets to to bed and clear up in the morning.  Thank goodness Christmas comes just once a year!”

And they go with haste to bed, wondering what Christmas is really all about.

(Green, Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, slightly adapted)

Shepherds living out in the fields nearby – We do not know, of course, at what time of the year our Lord was born. It has often been said that Jesus cannot have been born during the winter, because the Jews did not usually keep flocks in fields in winter (they would normally be kept outside between April and November).

It has sometimes been thoughts the shepherds were a despised class; but, according to Bock, this was not so until later times.  But the scene does show that God reveals himself and his plans to ordinary people.  ‘Those “on whom God’s favor rests” include those whose claim to fame may be nothing more than that they wake up each day and pursue a living in service to God.’

‘According to the Mishnah, livestock within a certain circumference of Jerusalem were reserved for sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. Bethlehem lay within that circumference, and the shepherds may have tended flocks appointed for that purpose.’ (Edwards)

‘Jesus’ birth itself almost certainly did not occur on December 25. This date became attached to the celebration of Christmas later because it coincided with a Roman holiday known as Saturnalia, when Christians had time off work to worship. Perhaps Jesus was born in the spring when shepherds would have been watching their flocks by night because lambs might be born.’ (Lk 2:8) (NAC on Mt 2:1-2)

Taking God at his word

‘The shepherds didn’t ask God if he was sure he knew what he was doing. Had the angel gone to the theologians, they would have first consulted their commentaries. Had he gone to the elite, they would have looked around to see if anyone was watching. Had he gone to the successful, they would have first looked at their calendars.  So he went to the shepherds. Men who didn’t have a reputation to protect or an ax to grind or a ladder to climb. Men who didn’t know enough to tell God that angels don’t sing to sheep and that messiahs aren’t found wrapped in rags and sleeping in a feed trough.’

Max L. Lucado

For the working man

‘The saying of St. James should come into our mind, as we read these words: “Hath not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he hath promised to them that love him.” (James 2:5.) The want of money debars no one from spiritual privileges. The things of God’s kingdom are often hid from the great and noble, and revealed to the poor. The busy labor of the hands need not prevent a man being favored with special communion with God. Moses was keeping sheep,—Gideon was threshing wheat,—Elisha was ploughing, when they were severally honored by direct calls and revelations from God. Let us resist the suggestion of Satan, that religion is not for the working man. The weak of the world are often called before the mighty. The last are often first, and the first last.’ (Ryle)

Shepherds: a despised class?

It is sometimes thought (and said, by preachers) that shepherds were a despised class in Israel at this time.

This opinion has been voiced by scholars both old and new.  For example, Butler (2000) wrote, ‘Shepherding had changed from a family business as in David’s time to a despised occupation.’  Stein (1992), wrote: ‘In general, shepherds were dishonest and unclean according to the standards of the law. They represent the outcasts and sinners for whom Jesus came.’

Ian Paul quotes Randy Alcorn:

In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers.

The external evidence for this, however, is rather thin.

It is true that Aristotle said that of all people, ‘the laziest are shepherds, who lead an idle life.’  But Aristotle was Greek, and not Jewish, and he was writing 300 years before New Testament times.

The Mishnah – a collection of sayings of the Jewish rabbis dating from just before the time of Christ to about 200 AD – contains one statement indicating that shepherds were despised.  The Babylonian Talmud – dating from around 500 AD – records more rabbinic statements of this nature, but is too late to be a reliable guide to attitudes in New Testament times.

The internal evidence, on the other hand, rather indicates that shepherds were not a despised class, even though they would have been regarded as rather lowly and ‘ordinary’.

According to Luke 2:18, people were ‘astonished’ when the shepherds related to them what they had been told about the new-born baby.  But there is no hint here of surprise that the message had been entrusted to members of some underclass.

Overall, the biblical portrayal of shepherds is positive.  Abraham, Moses and David were all associated with shepherding.  God himself is represented as a shepherd in Gen 49:24; Psa 23; 80:1; Eze 34:12 and elsewhere.  In the New Testament, Jesus is described as a shepherd in Mt 2:6; 26:31, and describes himself as such in Jn 10:11.  Then again, Heb. 13:20 and 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4 refer to Jesus as a shepherd.  Finally, church leaders are called to shepherd God’s flock, Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2.

In his commentary on Luke, Joel Green comments that the shepherds, although they were peasants, could hardly have been despised by those who relied on them for the sacrificial system.

Mainly based on: Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions (B&H Academic), David Croteau.

2:9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified.

An angel of the Lord – ‘The same expression is used of Gabriel in 1:11, and presumably indicates Gabriel here.’ (Edwards)

The glory of the Lord shone around them – ‘The Hebrew word for “glory,” kabod, means “weight,” that which is heavy and substantial, whereas the Greek word for “glory,” doxa, is nonmaterial, meaning “splendor” or “brightness.” Despite the different connotations of kabod and doxa, both are associated with radiant light. Luke describes the flash of light at Paul’s conversion (Acts 26:13) with the same word for the radiance of the Lord here.’ (Edwards)

Note the contrast between the darkness of v8 and the light of v9 (recollecting Isa 9:2), and also that between the ‘terror’ of the present verse and the joy of the next.

‘The glory of the Lord is also associated with the tabernacle and, later, the temple (Ex 40:34–35; 1 Kgs 8:11; 2 Chr 5:7; Ps 63:2). Surprisingly, that glory does not appear in the temple in nearby Jerusalem. Nor does it shine around the manger and the newborn child. Instead, it appears in an open field to lowly shepherds faithfully keeping watch over their sheep.’ (Garland)

Contrast: angels and shepherds

‘Creation has no more mysterious and exalted beings than angels, who represent the testimony of the heavens to what is occurring. Moreover, there are no more “normal Joes” in ancient culture than shepherds. They represent the lowly and humble who respond to God’s message, for their vocation is seen positively in Scripture (Matt. 18:12; Mark 6:34; Luke 15:4; John 10; Eph. 4:11; Heb. 13:2; 1 Peter 2:25). Thus, heaven meets and greets the average person through the angelic announcement to these pastoral figures.’ (Bock, NIVAC)

The supernatural element

‘Such detail is hard for many in the modern world to swallow. But the modern world has a strange love-hate relationship with the supernatural. Many dive into astrology, believing in forces at work behind the stars, but they pause at angels. They deny the existence of these unseen forces, but only until a crisis comes and they cry out to them out of their helplessness. They challenge the existence of the God of the Bible, but rush headlong into bookstores to discover the latest about the spirits at work in nature or devour the most recent New Age craze.’ (Bock)

A glimpse into another world

The appearance of angels gives a glimpse into another aspect of reality, into activity which is otherwise going on behind the scenes.

‘When Paul says in Ephesians 6:12 that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, we learn something about invisible but real forces with which we must deal blindly unless we walk in the faith. We must realize that not every spiritual force in the world is a good one that roots us in our relationship to God, as these angels in Luke 2 (see Eph. 2:2!). Hebrews 1:14 tells us that good angels are ministering spirits who serve God. We cannot see them, but they do labor on our behalf, and in that we can rejoice.’ (Bock, NIVAC)

2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: 2:11 Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord. 2:12 This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Who was afraid of whom?

Bible commentator William Hendriksen, while expressing some sympathy for artistic representations of biblical scenes, rightly asks if some images of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20) give the correct impression.

Take, as an example, ‘Good Tidings’ by the artist William Plockhurst.

‘The sheep are huddled together in some kind of pen. Right near them are a few shepherds. Leaning against one of these sturdy men is the faithful shepherd’s dog. One of the shepherds is peering into the sky. His eyes are focused upon a descending angel. That heavenly visitor resembles a kindly looking and very pretty young lady. Her hairdo is neat, fairly short, and with bangs! She is dressed in a lengthy white gown. Clutching her robe is a baby angel, and in the background one sees a few additional curly-headed angelets.

Looking at this pictorial representation, and then turning to Scripture and reading the words, “Do not be frightened,” one cannot help asking himself, “Who was afraid of whom?” As far as the painting is concerned, does one not rather receive the impression that the robust shepherds are shouting to the nice young lady, “Come on down; don’t be afraid of us; we’ll not harm you”?’

(New Testament Commentary)

“Good news of great joy” – ‘The announcement of good news (εὐαγγελίζομαι) was a term familiar to the ancient audience from Roman propaganda. It was used for the glad tidings related to the birth of an heir to the emperor, his coming of age, and his accession to the throne. The term will be completely redefined by the gospel story of Jesus.’ (Garland)

‘The spiritual darkness which had covered the earth for four thousand years, was about to be rolled away. The way to pardon and peace with God was about to be thrown open to all mankind. The head of Satan was about to be bruised. Liberty was about to be proclaimed to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind. The mighty truth was about to be proclaimed that God could be just, and yet, for Christ’s sake, justify the ungodly. Salvation was no longer to be seen through types and figures, but openly, and face to face. The knowledge of God was no longer to be confined to the Jews, but to be offered to the whole Gentile world. The days of heathenism were numbered. The first stone of God’s kingdom was about to be set up. If this was not “good tidings,” there never were tidings that deserved the name.’ (Ryle)

“All the people” – all the people of Israel; the whole nation.  The gospel is “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16).  The universal significance of the birth, however, will declared in the announcement of ‘peace on earth’, and again in v32.

‘The “good news” is focused not so much on Jesus’s birth as such, but on the role he has come to fulfill, as the promised Messiah and the source of salvation. This salvation is in the first instance for “all the people” (Israel), and Luke’s account, unlike Matthew’s, introduces no non-Israelites into the nativity scenes. But the song of the angels also offers a hint of blessing for the whole earth, and Simeon will make this theme explicit in Lk 2:31–32.’ (France)

This announcement ‘indicates that God desires to speak to every person about the coming of Jesus, since all humanity is impacted by his coming’ (Bock, NIVAC).

‘The announcement by an unnamed angel is the third such announcement in the infancy material (see Luke 1:5–25, 26–38). The narrative follows a standard form: appearance (v. 9a), fear (v. 9b), a “do not be afraid” remark (vv. 10–11), and the announcement of a verifying sign (v. 12).’ (Bock)

Bock notes that ‘the birth of the emperor Augustus was announced with a report of “good news” and the arrival of a “savior.”’

Today – Finally, at last, after so many years of waiting.  The term ‘belongs to the lexicon of Luke’s load-bearing theological vocabulary. Its occurrence here announces Jesus’ advent; in Lk 4:21 it is the first word of Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth; at Lk 23:43 it is the final promise of Jesus from the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”’ (Edwards)

‘The prophecy is fulfilled “today,” an emphasis throughout Luke (Lk 4:21; 5:26; 19:5, 9; 23:43). “Today” connects to the yesterday of God’s promises and Old Testament prophecies, which are now being fulfilled.’ (Garland)

The town of David – This is the sixth time that Luke has mentioned David.  Although David was born in Bethlehem, Edwards thinks that this ‘almost certainly’ refers to Jerusalem, as it always does in the OT.  However, the epithet clearly refers to Bethlehem in Lk 2:4, and it would make good sense for it to have the same referent here, just a few verses later.

Nolland agrees that ‘in OT usage Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, is the “city of David” (e.g., 2 Sam 5:7, 9),’ but adds that ‘Bethlehem is the city of David’s origin (1 Sam 16; 17:12; 20:6), and more importantly Bethlehem is connected in Mic 5:2 to the messianic fulfillment of God’s covenant with David’s royal line (cf. at Lk 1:32). Bethlehem is about five miles from Jerusalem and eighty-five miles from Nazareth.’

Saviour – The underlying word (sōtēr) has already been used to refer to God (Lk 1:47).  So also in the LXX it is most frequently used as a divine title (Deut 32:15; Ps. 23:5; 24:5; Isa. 12:2; 17:10; 45:15, 21).

This child will be ‘the one who alone can rescue mankind from its predicament of sin, misery, and mortality, and bring the blessings which will meet all possible needs of men. Thus there is no shadow of irony about the ‘peace-on-earth’ song of the heavenly host (2:14)’ (Wilcock)

‘As in the case of euangelizomai, Luke’s use of this title may also be a reaction to the imperial propaganda that labels Augustus as the sōtēr of the world.’ (Carson & Beale)

Born to you – ‘These words are like the tag on a Christmas present that says “To” and “From.” The angels were placing a tag on the manger that said, “To: the shepherds / From: God.”’ (The Incarnation in the Gospels)

Born of the Father always, born of the virgin once

‘Your faith, which has gathered you all here in this large crowd, is well aware that a Savior was born for us today. He was born of the Father always, of his mother once; of the Father without reference to sex, of his mother without the use of it. With the Father, of course, there was no womb to conceive him in; with his mother there was no male embrace to beget him. By the first nativity from the Father nature was preserved. By the second nativity from his mother the seeds of grace were sown. In the former he retained the majesty of the divine substance. In the latter he took on fellowship with us in our human mortality. And the reason he was prepared to come through this latter birth was so that he might become obedient to the death and by dying might conquer death.’ (Augustine, in ACCS Lk)

Christ the Lord – Simeon, Lk 2:26, had been expecting ‘the Lord’s Christ’. According to the angels, the one who is given is ‘Christ the Lord’ – not merely a messenger from God, but God himself.

‘[Christ] is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Messiah’, and both mean ‘the anointed one, the chosen’. Jesus takes on God’s role of saviour because he is the one whom God has authorized and empowered to carry out the work of salvation.’ (Wilcock)

‘The Lord’ – a ‘staggering’ title, ‘because already, in little more than a chapter, Luke has used the word nearly twenty times as the regular title (which in fact, among Greek-speaking Jews, it was) for the God of Israel himself. What was implied in the message to Zechariah (Lk 1:16f.; cf. Mal. 4:5–6), and what the inspired Elizabeth had hinted (Lk 1:41–43), is now stated expressly by the angel, with equal divine authority.’ (Wilcock)

Savior points to his role as deliverer; Messiah points to his office in terms of the promised Anointed One of God; and Lord indicates his sovereign authority.’ (Bock, BECNT)

‘All this’, comments Wilcock, ‘is focused in Jesus. Through him is to be done God’s saving work, for to him is given God’s authority, and he is himself God come in the flesh: Jesus, the Christ, the Lord. In him, and nowhere else, is salvation to be found. Can we have enough of him, or say enough of him? Shall we not rather, once we have grasped what the angel is telling us about him, follow the shepherds in seeking him with all haste and then making known the wonderful news?’

‘Luke provides through the angel a summation of his Christology: Jesus is of the house of David (royalty), he is Savior (neither Matthew nor Mark use this title), he is Christ (Messiah), and he is Lord. This is the message about Jesus preached by the apostles (Acts 2:14–36).’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

“This will be a sign to you” – ‘When a sign is offered as proof of the good news, it is not what moderns might regard as a sign; that is, something as extraordinary as a heavenly host. Rather the sign is as common as a baby to be found in poor circumstances, lying in a feeding trough.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

There was no star over the manger!
Michael J. Kruger writes:

It’s difficult to find a nativity scene (or Christmas play) without a star over the manger. Indeed, this might be the quintessential symbol of the birth of Jesus.

The problem is there’s no indication the star hovered over the manger on the night Jesus was born. On the contrary, when the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds watching their flocks by night (Luke 2:8–11), they weren’t told to look for a star. They were told to look for something else: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).

The star was given not to the shepherds but to the Magi (Matt. 2:2), who appear to be visiting Jesus at a later time period. How much later is unclear, but the fact that Herod commands all the babies in the region younger than 2 years old to be killed suggests Jesus may have been in Bethlehem for some time.

“Lying in a manger” – This is the third time that this detail has been mentioned (see also Lk 2:7, 12).  Its significance is not difficult to fathom.  As Stein remarks, ‘since the odds of finding another newborn baby boy lying in a manger would be extremely small, this would function as a sign of identity for the shepherds.’  No wonder they had such confident joy, when they found that ‘everything was just as they had been told’ (v20).

We may suppose that the shepherds arrive very soon after Jesus’ birth, for he was still lying in the manger (and, surely, Eastern hospitality would not permit him to left lying there for very long!).  This is in contrast to the magi, who, is seems, arrived some while (perhaps months) later.

2:13 Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
2:14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”

Suddenly – as if a curtain has been raised behind the angelic announcer.

A great company of the heavenly host – or ‘huge army’, for so the word underlying ‘host’ indicates.  Tyndale: ‘sowdiers’; Geneva Bible (1599): ‘souldiers.  ‘An army,’ Bengel remarks, ‘celebrating peace!’

‘So it is highly significant that the “heavenly host” in Luke 2:14 announces peace on earth, that Jesus consistently resists the use of force as a sign of the kingdom (e.g,. Mt 10:7–10, cf. Lk 22:49–51) and that military imagery is not used extensively of the church in the NT. Victorian hymn writers and missionaries loved to picture the church marching into battle with banners waving, but this is unlike Paul. Only once does he pictures discipleship as warfare, and there he explicitly safeguards the metaphor from misunderstanding: “we do not wage war as the world does” (2 Cor 10:3–5).’ (DBI, art. ‘Army, Armies’))

Praising God and saying – Much is made of the angel’s ‘singing’.  The text actually records them as ‘saying’, but the fact that this is done in the context of ‘praise’ is perhaps sufficient indication that they spoke in song.  Paul, after all, could urge his readers to ‘speak to one another’ with ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ (Eph 5:19).

‘[Angels] praised God from the dawn of creation (Job 38:7), sang His glories at the incarnation of Christ (Luke 2:13–14; Heb. 1:6), rejoice now in the triumph of every converted sinner (Luke 15:7, 10), and in the future will join the spirits of righteous men made perfect in heaven to sing of the worthiness of the Lamb (Heb. 12:22–23; Rev. 5:11–12).’ (Ridgley, in A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, p185)

Bock (NIVAC) comments: ‘In the ancient world, if anyone had asked if there was a more important person than Caesar, the emperor and ruler of the vast Roman empire, the answer surely would have been no. Yet it is the birth of a little boy in a rural Judean village that causes the angels to launch into praise.’

“Glory to God in the highest” – in the highest heaven, says Stein, rather than in the highest degree.  Heaven is thrilled by what God has done.  See 1 Pet 1:12.

‘As we behold the sun that shineth to us from their part of the world, so do [the angels] behold the sun of righteousness from our part of the world, even Jesus Christ the Lord, in all the acts of his mediation … with wonder and reverence.’ (Manton)

‘Now is come the highest degree of glory to God, by the appearing of His Son Jesus Christ in the world. He by His life and death on the cross will glorify God’s attributes,—justice, holiness, mercy, and wisdom,—as they never were glorified before.’ (Ryle)

‘Other works of God are for his glory, but the redemption of the world is for his glory in the highest.’ (MHC)

“On earth peace” – ‘Not simply an inner disposition or the absence of war, but evokes a whole social order of well-being and prosperity, security and harmony (cf. Pss 29:11; 86:8–10; Isa 26:3; 32:17; 48:18; 54:10; Jer 16:5; Ezek 34:25–31). In Isa 9:5–6, 52:7, etc, and cf. Acts 10:36, peace is specially linked with the coming messianic salvation.’ (Nolland)

‘It is no surprise when Luke has Peter characterize God’s word to Israel as “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36).’ (DJG, 2nd. ed., art. ‘Peace’)

Of this peace, it has been written:

‘What a contrast this was to the kind of peace that the Romans had to offer. This story began with a decree from Caesar Augustus, which reminds us that this was the age of the Pax Romana, when the Romans often praised their emperor for bringing “peace on earth.” But this peace came at a dreadful cost. Nations were subjugated and plundered, peoples enslaved, the poor oppressed. There was peace and prosperity for some, fear and poverty for others.’

‘Even those who had outward peace in Roman times did not have rest for their souls. The famous stoic philosopher Epictetus—a contemporary of Luke—observed that “while the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief, and envy. He cannot give peace of heart, for which man yearns more than even for outward peace.” Nor could the emperor offer peace with God, which is the most necessary peace of all.’

‘This meant peace with God, first of all. Until we have peace with God, we cannot have any true peace at all. Our sins cry out against us and we are afraid to die, because deep down we know that we deserve judgment. But Jesus came to give us peace with God by paying the penalty that our sins deserve. The Bible says that in Christ, God was “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). And once we have peace with God, we can have peace with one another by the power of his Holy Spirit.’

(The Incarnation in the Gospels)

‘If God be at peace with us, all peace results from it: peace of conscience, peace with angels, peace between Jew and Gentile.’ (MHC)

‘It is the work of Christ to bring peace into all human relations” wrote Norval Geldenhuys: “in man’s relation to God, to himself (his own feelings, desires, and the like), to his life’s circumstances (calamities and trials), and to his fellow-men. According as Christ is honoured and is given admission to human lives, to that extent the peace on earth, which He came to bring, becomes a glorious actuality. In so far as people live outside Him, the earth remains in a state of disorder and strife without real peace.’ (Geldenhuys)

‘Jesus came to make peace; and this he did,

By reconciling the world to God by his atonement.

By bringing the sinner to a state of peace with his Maker; inducing him to lay down the weapons of rebellion and to submit his soul to God, thus giving him the peace which passeth all understanding.

By diffusing in the heart universal good-will to men—disposing men to lay aside their differences, to love one another, to seek each other’s welfare, and to banish envy, malice, pride, lust, passion, and covetousness—in all ages the most fruitful causes of difference among men. And,

By diffusing the principles of universal peace among nations. If the gospel of Jesus should universally prevail, there would be an end of war…O how should each one toil and pray that the great object of the gospel should be universally accomplished, and the world be filled with peace!’ (Barnes)

For preachers and teachers

France suggests that preachers or teachers might

talk about the difference between a home filled with the stillness that arises from cold disinterest and disconnection and a home filled with the real, chaotic, messy joy that comes from satisfying connection, true safety, hard-fought honesty, and unvarnished intimacy. Both families may claim they are experiencing a “happy, peaceful home,” but one is defining peace and happiness as the mere absence of chaos and struggle, the situation that settles in when people stop caring and live in spite of each other. The other is defining these gifts as the hard-won fruit that blossoms when people live for God and each other. This fruit is messy and costly, but precious. Explain that peace on earth is not a matter of God and others merely leaving us alone and free to do as we please. Rather, it is the full reversal of the alienation brought on by sin; it is the restoration of all things begun by Jesus on the cross as he reconciled all things to himself. It will culminate in God and his church dwelling together forever, face-to-face.

“to men on whom his favour rests” – ‘The word for “favor” (Gk. eudokia, eudokein) means God’s saving pleasure rather than humanity’s good will whenever used in Luke (Lk 2:14; 3:22; 10:21; 12:32).’ (Edwards)

The following verse by Longfellow may reflect what we might all hope for, but does not faithfully reflect the teaching of this particular verse:-

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said.
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

(“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”)

Peace and goodwill through Christ

‘How noble was the hymn, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and among men good will!” The angels and archangels, thrones and lordships, and the seraphim are at peace with God. Never in any way do they oppose his good pleasure but are firmly established in righteousness and holiness. But we wretched beings, by having set up our own lusts in opposition to the will of our Lord, had put ourselves into the position of his enemies. Christ has abolished this. “For he is our peace” and has united us by himself to God the Father. He has taken away from the middle the cause of the enmity and so justifies us by faith, makes us holy and without blame, and calls near to him those who were far off.’ (Cyril of Alexandria, in ACCS Lk)

‘Peace with God is the grand necessity of a fallen world. To bring in this, in whose train comes all other peace worthy of the name, was the prime errand of the Saviour to this earth. This effected, Heaven’s whole “good will to men” or the Divine complacency [εὐδοκία, cf. Eph. 1:5, 9; Phil. 2:13, &c.] descends now on a new footing to rest upon men, even as upon the Son Himself, “in whom God is well pleased” [εὐδόκησα, Matt. 3:17].’ (JFB)

Heaven touches earth

‘Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born! Today God has come upon earth, and humankind gone up to heaven. Today, for the sake of humankind, the invisible one is seen in the flesh. Therefore let us glorify him and cry aloud: glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace bestowed by your coming, Savior: glory to you!’ (John the Monk, in ACCS, Lk)

‘This is not about peace for those whose “good will” deserves it, but about the unmerited grace of God, which brings salvation to those who enjoy his “good will.”’ (France)

But who are those whom God ‘favours’?  ‘The Greek behind the phrase “people He favors” is anthrōpois eudokias. Rather than designating all humankind without distinction, first-century Judaism used this phrase to designate God’s elect (Marshall 1978, 112)…The people to whom God draws near through Jesus are the special objects of God’s love, even in the midst of his loving all people in the world (John 3:16).’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

Compare with Lk 12:51.

It is clear that this was ‘an outpouring of adoration’ on the part of the angels.  Hendriksen suggests:-

‘These angels, having been associated with Christ in heaven before his incarnation, knew something about his glory, riches, and majesty. See Isa. 6:1–4; John 12:41. They had also become aware of man’s fall. And they had been informed that God had provided a way of salvation for man. Gabriel’s announcement to Joseph—“You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21)—clearly implies this. Did they also know that this work of saving man, while at the same time fully maintaining God’s righteousness, meant that the Father would not spare his own Son; that the Son, though he was rich, for his people’s sake would become poor, vicariously bearing the curse resting on those whom he came to save; and that the Holy Spirit would condescend to dwell in sinful hearts, applying to them the salvation merited by the Son? We can assume at least that the very birth of Christ in a condition of poverty and deprivation must have caused these angels to stand in awe of God’s indescribably marvelous love. Was it not Paul who, when reflecting on this love, cried out, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 8:9; 9:15)? And was not this very love probably included among “the things which angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:12), but cannot fully comprehend?’

‘Imagine what joy it must have been to sing in that angelic choir. The skies opened up and the countless chorus streamed from the courts of heaven—an army of angels revealed in all its glory. They were singing in a new venue, praising God on earth as they had always done in heaven. Imagine what joy they had in going out in the middle of the night and scaring people half to death with the glory of God. They were also singing in a new key, praising God for his grace to sinners. Imagine what joy they had in worshiping the newborn Christ and saying, “Glory to God.” God was highly glorified in sending his Son to be our Savior. The Christmas angels saw this glory and revealed it to the shepherds so that we could see it too.’ (The Incarnation in the Gospels)

2:15 When the angels left them and went back to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, that the Lord has made known to us.”

Angels…shepherds – Edwards comments that the word ‘angels’ occurs at the end of the first clause, and ‘shepherds’ at the beginning of the second, emphasising the contrast between heaven and earth that has been indicated in the previous verse.

The angels had left them – ‘Interestingly, there seem to be only two angelic appearances between Christ’s birth and resurrection: at the beginning of his way to the cross in the temptation (Mark 1:12) and then before the crucifixion itself in Gethsemane (Luke 22:43). This is perhaps because Jesus had to tread his way of atoning self-giving alone, and in his humiliation he is made a little lower than the angels (Heb. 2:9), though exalted far above them by nature (Heb. 1). Yet angels did not withdraw from the scene, for they rejoice at sinners repenting (Luke 15:10) and will hear the Son of Man confess those who confess him (Lk 12:8–9).’ (EDBT)

“Let’s go” – There is a sense of urgency: “Come, on, let’s go…”.

“This thing” – lit,, ‘this word’, although the idea of ‘event’ is not excluded.

“Which the Lord has told us about” – Indicating that the accepted the word of the angel as the word of the Lord.  As Wilcock remarks, this is not merely an event, but an event plus revelation.

‘The narrative is thus driven by the divine announcement of Jesus’ birth rather than simply by the visit of the shepherds.’ (Edwards)

‘The shepherds go to the city of David the shepherd, and the scene is filled with some of Luke’s favorite words: wonder, pondering, making known the revelation, praising and glorifying God. The presence (glory) of God floods the story.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

This is our story, too

‘In a real sense, the story of Jesus is our story, told to us and for us just as if we had been among the angels on that night near Bethlehem. What the angels announced to the shepherds that night is announced on behalf of all humanity. Their journey to see these things should be every person’s journey to see what God is up to in Jesus.’ (Bock, NIVAC)

2:16 So they hurried off and located Mary and Joseph, and found the baby lying in a manger. 2:17 When they saw him, they related what they had been told about this child, 2:18 and all who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said.

So they hurried off – an early anticipation of the response of the first disciples, who left their fishing nets and followed Jesus.

Mary and Joseph – ‘It is unusual for Mary to be mentioned before her husband Joseph. This suggests that Mary’s preeminence as mother of the Messiah was already acknowledged when Luke wrote (so too Matt 2:11).’ (Edwards)

Barclay (DSB) comments on ‘the rough simplicity of the birth of the Son of God. We might have expected that, if he had to be born into this world at all, it would be in a palace or a mansion. There was a European monarch who worried his court by often disappearing and walking incognito amongst his people. When he was asked not to do so for security’s sake, he answered, “I cannot rule my people unless I know how they live.” It is the great thought of the Christian faith that we have a God who knows the life we live because he too lived it and claimed no special advantage over common men.

They found the baby lying in a manger – Wright remarks that, just as a dog might look at a pointing finger rather than at the object being pointed to, so Christmas tradition looks at the manger when it should be looking at what the manger points to.  The truth is that the presence of the baby in a manger confirms the angel’s words, because that is precisely what he had told them.

The shepherds related what they had been told about this child, and all who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said – The appearance of the angels was not only a sign to the shepherds, but also (we may suppose) to those who heard their story, including Mary and Joseph.  The next verse hints at Mary’s puzzlement, and her faith must have been much strengthened by their remarkable experience.  Why the angels appeared to the shepherds, and not to the parents, we cannot say.

v18 reminds us that Jesus was not born in loneliness (in some isolated stable!) but in the midst of life.

Bock (NIVAC) comments on ‘the sense of community and involvement God gives to this event. Though in one sense this is a private moment for Mary and Joseph, in another it involves others, such as shepherds and angels. God is not a God of isolation. He seeks to involve himself with creation. The birth of the Son of God involves the response of all the parts of creation, from those who tend sheep to those who watch over them from heaven.’

2:19 But Mary treasured up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean.

Unlike the Shepherds, Mary had neither heard nor seen a choir of angels at the time of her baby’s birth.  Unlike the Magi, she had seen no guiding star.

‘The Holy Spirit does not overshadow Mary to give her divine insight to understand what everything means. It is sometimes hard to see what God is doing when one is living in the midst of the events. She learns more information from the shepherds who come to see her child. They tell her about the angels and the announcement that the child is the Savior, the Christ, and the Lord.’ (Garland)

France: ‘Unless this is mere speculation on Luke’s part, these comments suggest that he had personal access to Mary, and the fact that his first two chapters focus so consistently on Mary’s experiences (whereas Matt. 1–2 is mainly about Joseph’s) has suggested to many that she was the main source of Luke’s information about the births of John and Jesus.’

But if Mary pondered deeply these remarkable events, how is it that she would later misunderstand her son and even think that he was out of his mind (Mk 3:20-35)?  ‘Luke hinted at the answer in the present verse. Even as Mary was being told extraordinary things about her miraculous son, she was “meditating” (Gk sumballousa) on it all, which connotes trying to combine parts into a whole. Mary was trying to put together all the incredible and unexpected information coming to her, and it is understandable if she did not fully succeed. It is true that the announcement of the special birth led her to expect Jesus was the promised one, but at this time she could not anticipate all that this would mean for Jesus’ future. Recall that throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ followers as well as his enemies were repeatedly surprised and even scandalized by his claims and his actions. This indicates that the Jews had not foreseen many key aspects of the Messiah’s identity and mission. So when Jesus began making claims to divine prerogatives like forgiving sin (Mark 2:1-12), this went beyond what Mary had anticipated. It is in this context that she became uncertain about how Jesus’ life and teachings were unfolding. Rather than suggesting she had not been given direct revelations about Jesus earlier in life, her later uncertainty highlights the unexpected directions Jesus’ Messiahship took.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

Garland cites Brown, who suggests that ‘the interpretation of the parable of the sower might apply to Mary. She represents those who, “when they hear the word, hold it fast in a good and honest heart and bear fruit with endurance” (Lk 8:15).’

2:20 So the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; everything was just as they had been told.

‘The description of the visit of the shepherds to the Holy Family already contains Lukan clues regarding the nature of the community formed by the gospel. The gospel does not result, as does Caesar’s ambition to enroll “the entire Roman world” (v. 1) and promote his pretense of deity, in despotism, subjection, or blind obedience. The new community of the manger results in the coming together of disparate groups who hear and speak, marvel and ponder, glorify and praise, and return to useful work in the world.’ (Edwards)

Everything was just as they had been told – including (and, perhaps, especially, the unexpected circumstance of finding a newborn baby lying in a manger).

No longer a baby in a manger

‘He is no longer in a crib and no longer confined to a manger. He is now seated at the right hand of God, aware of what we do and say (Luke 22:69).’ (Bock, NIVAC)

2:21 At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Jesus’ Presentation at the Temple, 22-24

2:22 Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 2:23 (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord”), 2:24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons.

Evans (UBCS) sets out some of the parallels between the story of Samuel and that of JesusTheir purification – Contrary to the opinion of some critics, Luke is well-informed about Jewish customs. Here, ‘in accommodation to Hellenistic idiom, he has spoken loosely of a purification that pertained only to Mary, as “their purification”.’ (WBC)

According to the Law of Moses – The full conformity of Jesus to the Law is asserted in Gal 4:4. Note the repeated references to the Law in v 23, v24, v27.

Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem – ‘Lev 12 required that a Jewish woman who gave birth to a son should forty days after the birth go to Jerusalem and offer for the purposes of ritual purification two sacrifices in the temple. In the case of a firstborn son there was also a requirement that he be acknowledged as belonging to the Lord in a special way. (Ex 13:2,12,15) In fact the child had to be redeemed by the payment of a fee of five shekels. (Num 18:15-16) Though this payment could be made anywhere in the land, the ideal was to present the child at the temple. (Neh 10:35-36) And when this was done, the purification and presentation would be done together. To use two turtledoves or young pigeons for the sacrifice instead of the usual lamb and one turtledove or pigeon was actually a concession for poor folk.’ (Lev 12:8) (WBC)

Jerusalem – a distance of 5 miles from Bethlehem. ‘Luke is making it clear that Jesus’ parents are not spiritual renegades, but Jews who are sensitive and faithful to the Mosaic law-a point reinforced in Lk 2:40-52, when they will make their customary annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

We may assume for various reasons that the visit of the magi, and Herod’s fury, happened some while later.  Otherwise Jesus would have been put in grave danger by a visit to Jerusalem.

When Jesus died on the cross of Calvary, it was an act not only of the greatest love, but also of the deepest humility, Php 2:8. Yet at the very moment of his death, when evil seemed to have triumphed, and grace defeated, God gave three reminders of the true character and achievement of Christ, the Son of God. There was a supernatural darkness, the curtain of the temple ripped in two from top to bottom, and, strangest of all, the earth shook, and the rocks split, and the tombs were opened and the bodies of many holy people were raised to life, and appeared in Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection.

The fact is that every time we read in the Gospels of some new aspect of our Lord’s humiliation in his human state, we tend to find some reminder of his majesty as the Son of God. When he was born of a poor maiden in Bethlehem, angels announced it in glorious song. When he was hungry and tempted in the desert, angels ministered to him. When he submitted to baptism, a voice from heaven attested his sonship. When in agony in the garden of Gethsemane, once again, he was supernaturally strengthened. When his lifeless body was laid in the tomb, angels watched over it, and heralded its rising. And here: when his mother could only bring a poor woman’s offering to the temple, we find two aged but remarkable witnesses to the true character and greatness of Mary’s first-born son.

Purification – Levitical law stated that after the birth of a son a woman was unclean for the 7 days leading to the circumcision, and must keep away from holy things for a further 33 days (double these for a daughter). See Lev 12:1-5. Medical science generally only discovered the importance of hygiene in relation to childbirth in the 19th century. The purification concluded with a sacrifice, v24, which the mother would bring to the priest at the door of the sanctuary.

The presentation harks back to the Exodus, when the Lord spared the first-born of the Israelites when he slew the first-born of the Egyptians. The first-born thus spared would be required to serve the Lord in a special way, but this function was taken over by the tribe of Levi. The first-born of the other tribes were effectively bought back from the service of the Lord by a payment of a ransom of five shekels, Ex 13:1-2, 11-15; Nu 3:11-13,41, 44f, 47-51, 18:16.

A leading theme of this passage is the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets by Jesus. The whole of the OT was a preparation for the coming of Christ; and when he came, the old order was not pushed aside, but cherished, obeyed, and fulfilled. Duty, responsibility, and obedience are not highly valued in our day; but here we have an example in the behaviour of Jesus’ parents, an example which he continued throughout his earthly life, Mt 3:15; 5:17; Rom 5:19; Gal 4:4; 1 Pet 2:21.

“Every firstborn male…” – A rough quotation, taking in Ex 13:2,12,15; Num 18:15.

The required sacrifice, Lev 12:6 ff, was a lamb and a dove or pigeon. A second dove or pigeon was allowed instead of the lamb in the case of the poor, and this is the case here.

We do well to remember that Jesus was raised in a poor family, eating the food of the poor, wearing the clothes of the poor, and doing the work of the poor. See 2 Cor 8:9. Such was his humility, and such his insight into the needs and worries of the poor.

The fact that they offer the sacrifice of the poor, hints at the possibility that they had not yet received the Magi’s costly gifts.

The Prophecy of Simeon, 25-35

2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

Simeon – He is often assumed to have been an old man (tradition says that he was 113). Although his age is not stated, verses 26 and 29 do imply that he was of advanced years.

‘Many expositors have believed that this Simeon was identical with Simeon (Shimeon) the son of the famous Hillel, and the father of Gamaliel. This Simeon became president of the Sanhedrin in A.D. 13. Strangely enough, the Mishna, which preserves a record of the sayings and works of the great rabbis, passes by this Simeon. The curious silence of the Mishna here was, perhaps, owing to the hatred which this famous teacher incurred because of his belief in Jesus of Nazareth. Such an identification, although interesting, is, however, very precarious, the name Simeon being so very common among the people.’ (The Pulpit Commentary)

Long before, Matthew Poole had noted this ‘conjecture’: ‘Interpreters have spent much pains in fortifying their conjectures (for they can be no more) that this Simeon was Rabban Simeon, the son of Hillel, the father of Gamaliel, but to what purpose I cannot tell; it can hardly be thought that a man of that note should do such a thing as this so openly, and no more notice be taken of him.’  Matthew Henry took a more favourable view of this theory.

Righteous – upright in character, describing his character towards man. The description is earlier applied to Zechariah and Elizabeth, Lk 1:6, and later to Joseph of Arimathea, Lk 23:50, and to Cornelius, Ac 10:22.

Devout – This word is used only by Luke, (Ac 2:5; 8:2; 22:12) ‘and belongs to the language of Hellenistic piety’ (WBC). Simeon was ‘careful about religious duties’, describing his character towards God. ‘All the persons surrounding Jesus at his birth have a heritage of devotion to God. The testimony to Jesus stands on the shoulders of a series of highly respectable figures.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

Waiting – Gk Prosdechmai = ‘I wait in order to welcome’. Cf. Lk 3:15

The consolation (paraklesis) of Israel – the Messiah, whose coming was expected to be preceded by great woes and who would bring comfort after these. One traditional Jewish prayers is, “May I see the consolation of Israel!” Simeon was one of a small number (cf. Lk 2:38) – including Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna, who kept this hope alive. Cf. the language of consolation in Isa 40:1; 49:13; 51:3; 52:9; 57:18; 66:10-11, which is associated with the future restoration of God’s people. But how difficult it must have been to keep that hope alive, through four hundred years of spiritual famine!

‘This refers to the consolation that would be brought about by the inauguration of the messianic age. Compare Luke 2:26, where this consolation is described as “seeing the Lord’s Christ” (cf. Lk 1:54, 68–75). For Luke this referred not to the fulfillment of Jewish political hopes involving deliverance from their enemies and restoration of David’s throne but rather to the salvation Jesus brought. This is clear when one compares Lk 2:30 with such verses as 19:10. See the discussion at Lk 1:69. Like other devout model believers (Anna, Lk 2:38; Joseph of Arimathea, Lk 23:51; cf. also 12:36; Acts 24:15), Simeon was looking forward to Israel’s consolation (Lk 2:25), i.e., Jerusalem’s redemption (Lk 2:38); the coming of God’s kingdom (Lk 23:51); the Master’s return (Lk 12:36); the resurrection of the just and the unjust (Acts 24:15).’ (Stein, NAC)

‘The return of the Jews from exile is the work of divine consolation (Jer. 31:10–14; Zech. 1:12–13; cf. Exod. 3:7–8). Isaiah in particular emphasizes both literal and spiritual restoration: “Comfort, comfort my people” (Isa 40:1–2; 51:3; 52:9; 66:13).  It is this prophetic language that underlies Luke 2:25. Simeon is waiting for the “consolation of Israel.” This phrase is linked with “the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38; cf. Lk 24:21) and “the kingdom of God” (Lk 23:51). This consolation involves the coming of the Messiah (Lk 2:26) and the revealing of salvation for all nations (Lk 2:29–32).’ (Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology)

The Holy Spirit was upon him – this seems to be a continuous presence, contrasting with the occasional endowments which were more usual in the old dispensation. Note, the fullness of the Spirit can lead to patient waiting, as well as energetic action.

‘Let us not fail to note that this was before the death and ascension of Christ, and the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. We must never forget that Old Testament saints were taught by the Holy Ghost as really as believers after the Gospel was set up, though not in such full measure.’ (Ryle)

Let us take hope from this story. The presence of Simeon in Jerusalem reminds us that there are faithful, godly people in the darkest of times. Faith was at a low ebb when Jesus was born. But still there were some like Simeon, perhaps unnoticed by the world, who were ‘righteous and devout’ and upon whom was the Holy Spirit. True believers may sometimes seem to be in a pitiful minority, but there will always be a Lot in Sodom, a Daniel in Babylon, a Jeremiah in Zedekiah’s court, and a Simeon in Jerusalem. Elijah thought that only he was left, but God still had 7,000 left in Israel, 1 Kings 19:14.

Note well that whereas the birth of Jesus was welcomed by humble shepherds, and by the aged Simeon and Anna, it was rejected by the most powerful forces in Israel – Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes, Mt 2:3-4. Cf. 1 Cor 1:26.

The Christian life involves waiting as well as working. We, like Simeon, are called to live godly lives while we ‘wait’ (same Gk word) for our Lord’s return, Tit 2:12-13.

It had been revealed – indicates divine action, as in Ac 10:22. How revealed? We cannot tell. But here is a reminder that whenever Jesus draws near, unexpected, remarkable, miraculous things tend to occur. When? We do not know. It may have been a long time before: in which case, his faith must have been sorely tried as he grew older and frailer and still had not seen the fulfilment of the promise.

He would not die before he had seen… – lit. ‘he would not see death before he had seen.’ How the sight of Christ changes our view of death!

The Lord’s Christ – the Messiah. See Lk 2:11.

2:27 So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, 2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying,
2:29 “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace.
2:30 For my eyes have seen your salvation
2:31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples:
2:32 a light,
for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

Moved by the Spirit – lit. ‘in the Spirit’, cf. Rev 1:10 “Go into the temple courts now,” whispered the Holy Spirit, “and you will see what you have longed for and prayed for.” The same Spirit who had sustained his hope, now gave him joy in seeing his hope fulfilled. Taught by Spirit of God, he knows that no matter how poor the parents, no matter how humble the circumstances, here is the Lord’s Messiah.

The parents – There is no need to suppose that Luke has forgotten what he has already told us about the virgin birth; nor that he is using a source which is ignorant of that fact. He is simply referring to Mary and Joseph in their legal function and character.

To do for him what the…Law required – offering five sheckels to redeem the first-born, Num 18:15-16.

Took him in his arms – This is thought to be a priestly action (cf. also the ‘blessing’, v34). But it is also a mark of great affection. He holds in his arms a tiny, helpless, infant. But by faith he knows that he holds in his arms the Lord’s Messiah, the Consolation of Israel, the Saviour of the world. Take note of this, when tempted to doubt whom you have trusted. Not just a pale Galilean, a shadowy figure from the past, the object of so much neglect, contempt and ridicule. You hold in your heart the same Jesus the Simeon held in his arms.

Praised God – To hold Jesus in the arms prompts joyful praise and thanksgiving. How much more then he is held lovingly in our hearts, 1 Pet 1:8.

The prayer is referred to in Latin as the ‘Nunc Dimittis’. In it, Simeon praises God for what the birth of the Messiah means both for himself and the world.

“Sovereign Lord” – Gk ‘despotes‘, as in Ac 4:24.

“As you have promised” – and Simeon had nothing else to support him in his hope save the promises of God. But God is always as good as his word. Not one of his promises will fails, despite any appearances to the contrary.

‘Now’ – he is ready to die in peace now that he has seen the baby who will, in time, bring God’s salvation. This readiness to die suggests (although does not prove) that Simeon was an old man).  In the Gk., this word receives emphasis by being placed at the beginning of the sentence.  Stein (NAC) paraphrases: “Now [that salvation, God’s Kingdom, the Messiah has come] dismiss your servant in peace because.”

“Dismiss” – or, ‘release’: a euphemism for death, in the sense of being released from the troubles of life. Like a faithful watchman, he has been keeping his vigil through the long dark night. Now the day has dawned, and his master dismisses him now that his task is done.

“Servant” – or, ‘slave’. The idea is that of the ‘Sovereign Lord’ now setting his servant free.

‘In peace’ – cf. Gen 15:15. Such is the death of a godly person. He has peace with his conscience, and so can bid farewell to his affairs in this world. He has peace with God, and so is prepared to enter the life to come. Death for such a person is ‘gain’, Php 1:21.

Notice how unafraid Simeon is of death. His life’s work is now complete, and he knows where he is going. Death for him will be a change for the better. We too can have the same attitude. We can know that when our working and waiting here are over, we can depart in peace and go to a better land. Faith in Christ removes the sting of death, and holds out a glorious prospect. ‘Those who have welcomed Christ may welcome death’ (Henry).

“My eyes have seen your salvation” – This statement is an act of pure faith. Simeon looks at the baby in his arms and sees – salvation. And how many saw Jesus, as a child, and as a man, and failed to see in him God’s salvation? And so it is today.

“Salvation” – The underlying word is used only here, and in Lk 3:6; Ac 28:28; and Eph 6:17.

God reveals such things, not to the strong and proud, but to the humble and poor, cf. Mt 11:25-26.

‘Those, and those only, can with courage see death, and look it in the face without terror, that have had by faith a sight of Christ.’ (Henry)

“All people” – lit. ‘all peoples’, cf. Isa 52:10. Perhaps refers to the two groups mentioned in the next verse: the Gentiles and Israel.The universal scope of Christ’s salvation will be made yet more explicit in v32. The old man gazes down at the child in his arms and sees in him not just the answer to the hopes of the faithful few; not even the deliverance of a nation, but world-wide salvation.

“A light” cf. Isa 9:2. Also Isa 49:1-26; 9:6,7; Ps 98:3; Mal 4:2.

‘Glory for…Israel,’ but ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles’ recognizes that the Gentiles come to the light from pagan darkness while Israel is already God’s People and by God’s gracious commitment destined for glory…The setting of Jews and Gentiles in parallel here corresponds to the pattern Luke develops in Acts where Jews and Gentiles are seen as parallel beneficiaries of that salvation which is offered in the name of Jesus (Ac 9:15; 11:15,18,20; 14:1; 15:9,16-18; 18:4; 19:10,17; 26:18,23;…The Jews have priority, but salvation is there just as much for Gentile as for Jew.’ (WBC)

“Revelation to the Gentiles” – ‘The Jews were well acquainted with the Old Testament prophecies that spoke of the Messiah’s blessings to their nation. They did not always give equal attention to the prophecies saying that he would bring salvation to the entire world, not just the Jews (see, for example, Isa 49:6). Many thought that Christ had come to save only his own people. Luke made sure his Greek audience understood that Christ had come to save all who believe, Gentiles as well as Jews.’ (Handbook of Bible Application)

2:33 So the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him. 2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. 2:35 Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!”

The child’s father and mother marveled – Although the AV has ‘Joseph and his mother’, modern translations reflect the more reliable text.  The virginal conception has already been stated in Lk 1:26ff.  While Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father, he was so by repute and in law.  See Lk 2:41, 48; 3:23; Jn 1:45.

They had been told the good tidings by the angels; they knew of Jesus’ supernatural conception; they had heard the words of the shepherds. But they could not yet fully grasp the significance of what was happening. This makes Simeon’s faith even more remarkable.

Simeon blessed them – This may be a priestly blessing (see on v28, cf. also 1 Sam 2:20).

“Falling and rising” – Jesus is a rock which may be used either as a stumbling-block or a stairway. Those who proudly reject him will trip over and fall, Isa 8:14-15. Those who humbly accept him will be lifted up, 1 Cor 1:23; 2 Cor 2:16; 1 Pet 2:7-8. Jesus is the watershed of the Jewish nation, and through them of the human race. There is no neutral ground. Yet some who at first rejected, persecuted, and reviled him later repented and believed. Such were some of Jesus’ brothers, like James, and such also was Paul.

“Rising” – used exclusively of resurrection elsewhere in the NT.

“A sign that will be spoken against” – he will point people to God, yet he (and his followers) will be hated for it, Isa 53:3. Why should he be spoken against? Because men love the darkness and hate the light, Jn 3:19. Christ and his cause will always slandered by some, and it is foolish to imagine that we can arrange things (e.g. our worship and outreach) so that this will not be so.

The old man with the baby in his arms sees both the salvation he will bring, but also the rejection.

“The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” – “Thoughts” – all 13 instances in the NT refer to hostile, doubting or vain thoughts. Used elsewhere in Luke exclusively of those whose thoughts were hostile or questioning towards Jesus. Our attitude to Jesus and his suffering declares what we really are. The gospel brings to light our true character. It brings to the surface the enmity to God of some and the spiritual hunger of others.

“A sword” – Mary’s heart will be pierced by the death of her son, Jn 19:25-27. She will be touched by his suffering, and will bear something of his reproach. What a prospect for a new mother to ponder! Let us remember that the Christian life is not a bed of roses. It is foolish and pointless to devise ways of presenting the gospel which will cause no offense. Indeed, when we have a message which causes no offence we will know that we have forsaken the truth of God.

The Testimony of Anna, 36-40

2:36 There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. 2:37 She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 2:38 At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

A second godly person is led by God to the child in the temple. She is Anna. There are said to be 43 references to women in Luke’s Gospel.

Anna – means ‘grace’.

Prophetess – the only woman referred to in the NT as such. (cp Rev 2:20) However, there were other women who prophesied, Ac 2:17 21:9; cf. 1 Cor 11:5. OT examples include Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Isaiah’s wife.

She was very old – yet had never lost her hope in the Messiah. In Jewish society, older people were respected. Our culture of course, values the energy and beauty of youthfulness over the wisdom and experience of old age. In Jewish society, however, older people were treated with much more respect and dignity. There is strong biblical teaching on old age, which we would all do well to heed. It is sometimes said that children are the church of tomorrow, and it might be supposed that old folk are the church of yesterday. But, all, of whatever age, make up the church of today. In what ways can we recognise this in our own church? God’s plan is for life-long growth in the spiritual life, see Ps 73:26; Pr 4:18.

A widow until she was eighty-four – Married for seven short years, she remained a widow for the rest of her long life. She knew years of loneliness and sadness. Did Paul have Anna in mind in 1 Tim 5:5?

Edwards says that the Gk is ambiguous: the eighty-four years could refer either to her total age or to the period of time that she was a widow (in which case she would have been over 100).

‘Jewish and Greco-Roman culture often viewed widows who never remarried as pious and faithful. Judith, a famous widow in Jewish tradition, was said to have lived as a widow till her death at 105. If one adds the two numbers given in the text here, seven and eighty-four (taking eighty-four as the length of Anna’s widowhood rather than her age), and she was married at the common age of fourteen, one could see her as 105 also.’ (NT Background Commentary)

‘Anna’s old age fits with Luke’s recurring theme of elderly people receiving revelations (Zechariah, Simeon, Anna) or miracles (Elizabeth’s pregnancy) in connection with Jesus. Luke’s reason for mentioning the theme of elderly persons receiving revelations and miracles was to argue that Jesus’ origins were rooted in piety and that God gave faithful people knowledge of his special identity.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

‘She had known sorrow and she had not grown bitter. Sorrow can do one of two things to us. It can make us hard, bitter, resentful, rebellious against God. Or it can make us kinder, softer, more sympathetic. It can despoil us of our faith; or it can root faith ever deeper. It all depends how we think of God. If we think of him as a tyrant we will resent him. If we think of him as Father we too will be sure that “A Father’s hand will never cause his child a needless tear.”‘ (DSB)

She never left the temple… – This may well be taken figuratively; as we might say, ‘She was always there.’ Anna was deeply devoted to the things of God, and gave her time and energy to them. God speaks to, and through, such people.

Fasting and praying – in Anna’s case, these were not done for show, as with so many, but from the heart, cf Mk 2:18. The same act of devotion can be good or evil, depending on the attitude of the heart which performs it. As far as Anna was concerned, in her heart she cherished the hope of redemption which strengthened her in all her trials.

Green points out that ‘fasting constitutes a form of protest, an assertion that all is not well.’

At that very moment – ‘Anna is now at length abundantly recompensed for her attendance so many years in the temple.’ Because she was there all the time, she was there at the right time.

Spoke about the child – ‘Spoke’ – the tense in imperfect = ‘kept speaking’. Her eyes, too, were opened to the fact that this child was the Christ. And she couldn’t keep quiet about it. To all who had been longing for the coming of the Messiah, she proclaimed that God’s redemption had come; that in this baby were wrapped up all their hopes and expectations. Those whose hearts are full of Christ will find it hard to refrain from speaking about him as Anna did.

Before long, no doubt, Simeon, who was so ready to die, and Anna, who was so old and frail, were laid to rest. And the years rolled by and the baby became a child, and the child became a man, and fulfilled in every respect the prophecies that had been spoken at the time of his birth. And those who hated the light put him to death on the cross of Calvary. And as he died, there was a supernatural darkness over the land; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks split, and the tombs were opened. And I just wonder – could it be? That Simeon and Anna were given one more opportunity to witness to the Christ they had watched and waited for so long, who had now completed the work

Until then, let us, with Simeon and Anna, watch, and wait, and work, and pray, in joyful expectation of a Saviour who will return, not as a child in a manger, but as King of king and Lord of lords.

To all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem – ‘The seemingly hopeless exile of her own tribe, the political state of Judaea, the condition-social, moral, and religious-of her own Jerusalem: all kindled in her, as in those who were like-minded, deep, earnest longing for the time of promised “redemption.”‘ (Edersheim)

According to the Ven John Hawkins, Archdeacon of Hampstead,

‘The beauty of the story of the presentation is that in the persons of Anna and Simeon we see a representation and prefigurement of the church that is found in the child that is born of Mary, the priestly and prophetic; male and female; ordained and lay and as such a reminder of the need for these properties within our own church today.’

This would seem to be a rather fanciful attempt to apply the text of our own situation.

2:39 So when Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

They returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth – NIV (1984) – ‘their own town’; so also most EVV.  But a possible translation would be: ‘a town of their own.’

Ian Paul cites Stephen Carlson as believing that ‘Bethlehem was not Joseph’s ancestral home, but his actual family home, for two reasons. Firstly, we have no record of any Roman census requiring people return to their ancestral home. Secondly, he argues that the phrase in Luke 2.39 ‘to a town of their own, Nazareth’ doesn’t imply that they were returning to their home town, but that they then made this their home. We already know this is Mary’s home town, and it would be usual for the woman to travel to the man’s home town (Joseph’s Bethlehem) to complete the betrothal ceremonies. After Jesus is born, they then return together to set up home near Mary’s family.’

No flight to Egypt?

Luke 2:39 So when Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

This statement is held to be at variance with that of Matthew, which states (Mt 2:14) that they took Jesus to Egypt.  But there is nothing implausible about the historicity of an intervening journey to Egypt, given that Matthew and Luke each offer independent and highly selective accounts.

Blomberg notes that ‘the next two verses in Luke summarize twelve years, a period of time much longer than we would suspect if it weren’t for verse 42 specifying the interval. More dramatically still, 2:52 refers to a period of about eighteen years, as 3:23 discloses, as Luke jumps from the twelve-year-old boy Jesus to his life as a man at about the age of thirty. When we recall, however, that ancient biographers often skipped over large, comparatively unimportant stretches of their subjects’ lives, this should not surprise us.’  (The Historical Reliability of the New Testament)

‘Nor’, Blomberg adds, ‘should we assume there is a contradiction between their being guided to Nazareth, which Matthew does not mention until 2: 22– 23, and Luke’s record of their returning to their original home (Luke 2: 39).[ 192] It appears likely that they initially planned to resettle in Bethlehem because the Magi find them living in a home there, possibly up to two years after Jesus’s birth (Matt 2: 11, 16), no doubt to avoid the stigma and ostracism that would have constantly surrounded them in tiny Nazareth.  But, when Herod’s orders to kill the babies in and around Jerusalem forced them to flee and when they learned that the worst of his sons, Archelaus, was ruling in Judea after his death, it was clearly better to suffer some social discomfort back in Galilee than to risk the child’s life again.’

Peter J. Williams explains why it may have been a perfectly plausible editorial decision on Luke’s part to omit this episode:

‘First, it’s important to note that the flight to Egypt need not have been for long. The key thing would have been to get outside Herod’s jurisdiction. To do this they might have gone 200 miles to Pelusium or merely to Ostracine, which was 65 miles closer. Luke’s description of Mary and Joseph’s return to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth in 2:39 reads: “When they had finished everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their town of Nazareth” (NTE). While it doesn’t mention the events of Matthew 2:13-18, it doesn’t contradict these verses either.

‘What if we were to consider a hypothetically rewritten version, as follows? “And when they had finished everything according to the law of the Lord, they went down to Egypt and then returned to Galilee, to their town of Nazareth.” Automatically our attention would be focused on the question of why they went to Egypt. In fact, Luke would have to refocus his narrative in major ways even to make sense of this additional journey. In other words, the objection to Luke’s omission of Egypt is really an insistence that there can be no such thing as précis or authorial selectivity, and that Luke must mention everything significant from Matthew. It’s an approach that is in tension with having multiple accounts in the first place.’

(Bock, in Holman Apologetics Commentary) notes that the flight to Egypt suits the general character of Matthew’s Gospel:

Matthew, whose target audience was primarily Jewish, chose to highlight the trip to Egypt because to Jews the fact that Jesus recapitulated the history of Israel by going to and returning from Egypt is important. This fact was not so relevant to Luke’s Gentile audience, so his narration focused on where Jesus ended up living for most of his childhood and left Egypt unmentioned. Thus readers may be reading too much into Luke if they take his narrative (Luke 2:39) to mean that Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus settled down in Nazareth immediately after they presented Jesus at the temple. Luke may have simply telescoped to a later event.

What should we make of the proposal that Luke simply didn’t know about the journey to Egypt?  In view of the highly selective nature of the Gospels, I tend to be a bit sniffy when writers claim that such-and-such a Gospel writer ‘knows nothing’ of a certain episode in Jesus’ life.  In the present case, however, I think that it is reasonable to suggest that Luke simply didn’t know about the flight in the Egypt.  That would be a reasonable inference from what he writes here.  After all, apart from what Luke records in the closing verses of the present chapter, both he and the other Evangelists ‘know nothing’ about Jesus’ childhood and adolescence.

It is unlikely that Matthew and Luke had access to one another’s accounts.

Jonathan McClatchie surmises that Luke has made an undestandable, but mistaken, assumption based on the information he has been given:

‘The text strongly implies that it was very shortly after the purification that they returned home, whereas Matthew strongly indicates that Jesus’ family remained in Bethlehem for some considerable time after Jesus’ birth and only returned to Nazareth following the flight to Egypt. One might explain this apparent discrepancy? Personally, I think that the explanation that makes the most sense is that Luke’s sources (which may have been written, oral, or a combination of the two) did not contain an account of the coming of the magi, the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem, or the flight to Egypt. I think plausibly Luke’s principle source for his nativity account was Mary. It is a reasonable conjecture that Mary may have told Luke the story of Simeon and Anna in the temple (Lk 2:25-38) before transitioning to the next account by saying something like “And later, when we were living in Nazareth we used to come every year to Jerusalem to the Passover feast.” Perhaps Luke made the natural assumption that they had returned to Nazareth immediately following the presentation at the temple, and thus wrote a transition connecting the two accounts.’


2:40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.

These verses tell us all that we know about Jesus’ childhood. How we would love to know more about the events surrounding his childhood, and his family life in Nazareth!

Edwards remarks that none of the Gospels, nor any other reputable Christian source, records any other detail about Jesus’ childhood and upbringing.  ‘The omission in Matt, Mark, Luke (with the exception of 2:41–52), and John of Jesus’ childhood and adolescence—a time span that typically plays a formative role in biographies—is a clue to the nature of the “gospel” genre. Gospels are not comprehensive biographies in the modern sense, but selective accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching between the baptism and resurrection that claim—and proclaim—saving significance.’  We might add that the scarcity of materials about Jesus’ early makes the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts more understandable: both were being extremely selective in what they included.

Cf. 1 Sam 2:26.

Jesus in the Temple, 41-52

2:41 Now Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year for the feast of the Passover. 2:42 When he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 2:43 But when the feast was over, as they were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 2:44 but (because they assumed that he was in their group of travelers) they went a day’s journey. Then they began to look for him among their relatives and acquaintances. 2:45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.

Scripture draws a veil over many aspects of the earthly life of Jesus. The apostolic teaching about Jesus centred principally on his public ministry. Only gradually did a few details emerge concerning his birth and upbringing; and these would have come chiefly from Mary. Of course, this reserve was not sufficient for those with over-vivid imaginations, hence the plethora of silly stories about Jesus’ childhood which found their way into the apocryphal Gospels.

Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover – The law required adult males (who were usually accompanied by their families) to attend three feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Distance might prevent attendance at all three, but most would manage to be present at the Passover.

The Passover commemorated the night of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, when the angel of God passed over the Israelite homes but killed the Egyptian firstborn, Ex 12:21-36.

Such a visit to Jerusalem would have stirred the heart of any faithful Jew. Jerusalem was the city of their God, and the city of their fathers. Through its gates had passed priests, prophets, and kings. Ps 87:5-7 122:1-5. The festive company from Nazareth would have been swelled by those from other places, all singing the ‘Songs of Ascents’, Ps 120-134.

When he was twelve years old – It was at the age of thirteen that a boy could become a ‘bar-mitzvah’ – ‘a son of the law’, that is, a full member of the synagogue. Some preparation for this would have taken place during the visits of the previous year or two.

We might well ask, with Hendriksen, ‘What can be done today to help children assume their covenant obligations?’

The approach to the temple would have been stunningly magnificent. The temple was a symmetrically proportioned edifice, on the crest of a hill. It occupied a square each side of which was almost 1,000 feet. It could hold over 200,000 people. Its lofty walls were pierced by eight gates. Within the walls ran covered colonnades, or porches. Various towers soared high, including the ‘pinnacle’ mentioned in the temptation narrative. Passing out of the colonnades, you came into the court of the Gentiles, containing a market for the sale of animals for sacrifice, and the money-changers tables. Steps led beyond this to the wall of the temple-buildings proper, with their massive gates. The most splendid of these was the ‘beautiful’ gate, Ac 3:2. This gate led to the ‘court of the women’, upwards from which was the Upper Court, and beyond this again the Sanctuary itself. The Sanctuary was divided into two parts, the Holy Place, with the golden candlestick, table of shewbread, and the golden altar of incense, and the Most Holy Place, which was empty, save for a piece of rock, the Foundation Stone.

They returned – as we must all return from the joyful service of God in the sanctuary to the more mundane duties of our daily lives. But ‘let him who neglects the one, on pretext of attending to the other, ponder this scene. Work and Worship serve to relieve each other, and beautifully alternate.’ (JFB)

The boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem – People would often travel to the festivals in caravans, for protection against robbers. Women and children would be at the front, and the men at the back. A twelve-year-old boy was regarded as almost an adult, and might have been with either group. Mary and Joseph may each have assumed he was with the other. But, in fact, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, engrossed in conversation with the rabbis.

‘What can be done today to make young people so enthralled with their religion that it captivates them and makes them active for Christ?’ (Hendriksen)

They were unaware of it – ‘Since Joseph and Mary were traveling in a caravan of pilgrims, they assumed that Jesus was with the other children (cf. Lk 2:44) and did not notice that he was missing until evening when the people in the caravan would come together again as family units.’ (NAC)

Edwards seems to be guilty of mild spiritualizing of the text where he observes: ‘How easy for moral people, religiously observant people, even his own family, to suppose Jesus is with them. This story is a reminder that moral and religious rectitude do not equate to fellowship with Jesus. Mary and Joseph have observed all the law requires, but they have left Jesus behind.’

2:46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 2:47 And all who heard Jesus were astonished at his understanding and his answers. 2:48 When his parents saw him, they were overwhelmed. His mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” 2:49 But he replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 2:50 Yet his parents did not understand the remark he made to them.

After three days – That is, three days after first missing him. One day leaving, one day returning, and one searching, Jerusalem.

Listening to them and asking them questions – The educational approach of the day favoured the question-and-answer method of discussion. Such an approach has its place today, as a valuable adjunct to more didactic teaching. We can well imagine that there was far more substance in his questions than in many of their answers. Think of the many profound questions Jesus asked during his public ministry, and think too of the answers he himself gave to the questions of others.

In the temple – That is, the temple courts, famous as a place of learning. Paul, too, would study in Jerusalem, under Gamaliel, and would have frequented the temple courts. At the time of the Passover, the greatest of the rabbis would assemble there and have learned discussions. In these discussions they would often return to the theme of the long-expected Messiah. Or, they would discuss questions concerning the Passover itself.

The teachers – the rabbis, experts in the Jewish law.

Everyone…was amazed – at his questions, v26, as well as his answers.

They were astonished – ‘Why were Joseph and Mary surprised by this incident in light of the miraculous announcement of Jesus’ birth (Lk 1:26–38), the angelic message (Lk 2:1–20), and the prophetic pronouncements (Lk 2:21–40)? Mary, despite all these indicators, seems to have been uncomprehending of just who her son really was. Such a failure to understand is also found in the disciples (cf. Lk 9:44–45; 18:31–34; 24:25–26). We should remember, however, that some twelve years had transpired between this event and what had preceded. In the meantime the lack of other stories like this suggests that Jesus’ “silent years” were quite normal. After over a decade of normalcy the supernatural nature of their son and his destiny broke in on them again. As a result they were surprised and once more needed to reflect on these things (2:19, 51). Also possible is that the confusion of Jesus’ parents here involved not so much the identity of their son, i.e., his divine sonship, but rather how his sonship was manifesting itself.’ (NAC)

“Why have you treated us like this?” – What parent does not understand the mixture of reproach and relief in this response!

Here we have the first recorded words of Jesus. The ‘you’ is plural: Jesus is addressing both parents.

“Did you not know…?” – Mary might have been expected to know if, as Edersheim suggests, she had used the occasion of this visit to the temple to tell her son about the events surrounding his first visit.

‘Jesus is not surprised that his parents came back for him; he is surprised that they did not know where to find him.’ (Edwards)

“Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” – or, “Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?” The reference in the original is to Gk. idios – “My Father’s things.” However, the issue was not so much what Jesus was doing, as where he had been. At the age of twelve, Jesus already had a consciousness of his unique relationship with God. In this reply, there is a clear acknowledgement of who he is, and what he must do. But he maintained his obedience to his earthly parents, v51.

In a podcast discussion on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, Jayne Ozanne declares that ‘most translations’ of Jesus’ words here are mistaken, and that the ‘true’ translation would be: “Don’t you know I am behoven to be who I am?”  She then infers from this that it ‘behoves’ all of us to be what God has made us, and that includes our sexual orientation, whether straight or gay.  The premise, however, is unfounded: no translation is possible that does not include the reference to ‘my father’ (‘pater‘).  Two translations are then possible: “I must be in my Father’s house” or, “I must be about my Father’s affairs”.  The conclusion, therefore, is also inadmissible.

This is to be regarded as the climax of this account.

‘The tensions between the claims of physical and spiritual allegiance are evident when Mary speaks of Jesus’ father (Joseph) and Jesus replies in terms of his actual Father (God).’ (DJG)

‘Long before Jesus began his public ministry, Luke revealed that he was aware of his unique relationship to God. Already at the age of twelve he knew that he was God’s Son and that he possessed a unique calling.’ (NAC)

‘Before his birth Mary’s child was already Lord (1:43) and Son of God (1:35), and this was affirmed by the twelve-year-old Jesus (2:49) and would soon be affirmed by God (3:22).’ (NAC)

“I must…” suggests the strong motivation, the inner compulsion which drove Jesus all his life. See Lk 4:43; 9:22; 13:33; 19:5; 24:7; 22:37; 24:26,44. There is a divine decree behind this, Lk 22:22; Acts 2:23, with which our Lord fully and joyfully complied.

‘It is unnecessary to see in this a rebuke or accusation on Jesus’ part. Rather it is better to see this as an expression of surprise. It assumes that Joseph and Mary, due to their previous experiences as recorded in chaps. 1–2, had a basis for understanding Jesus’ unique behavior and relationship to God.’ (NAC)

‘Already at the age of 12 Jesus was both speaking of God as “my Father” and also feeling in inward compulsion to occupy himself with his Father’s affairs.  He knew he had a mission.  His Father had sent him into the world for a purpose.  This mission he must perform; this purpose he must fulfil.  What these were emerges gradually in the narrative of the Gospels.’ (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 25)

“My Father” – Gk pater (not Aramaic abba).  This expression appears to be without parallel; a Jew might refer to God as ‘our Father’, but not as ‘my Father’.  It is possible, then, that this expression carries a hint of the virginal conception, and an acknowledgement that Jesus had no human, biological, father.

‘The first (Lk 2:49) and last (Lk 24:49) words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke refer to God as his Father. Jesus’ intimate and filial relation to God as Father is the center and sum of his life and ministry.’ (Edwards)

‘Similar misunderstandings occurred throughout Jesus’ ministry (cf. Lk 4:22; 9:45; 18:34; 24:5–7, 25–26, 45) and would only be remedied by the resurrection.’ (Stein, NAC)

2:51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. But his mother kept all these things in her heart.

Obedient to them – ‘Luke probably emphasized this in order to avoid the misconception that Jesus was disobedient to his parents in this incident.’ (NAC)

‘Thirty years of our Lord’s life are hidden in these words of the gospel: “He was subject unto them.”‘ (Bossuet) And this, even though he was aware of his own divine sonship, and aware too of his parents’ failure to understand him. Here is an important reminder here of obedience to parents, which modern families would do well to note. True godliness does not despise human relationships or family responsibilities. We should not let our devotion to God’s work undermine our commitment to our families.

His mother treasured all these things in her heart cf. Lk 2:19. Mary remembered, and treasured, these things, although she did not fully understand them. It was this enabled her to relate her experiences to others, including Luke (probably). Here we are reminded of the importance of prayerful meditation.

2:52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and with people.

Jesus grew in wisdom… – Although he was the Son of God, there is no indication that he possessed all knowledge and wisdom from birth (on this, see Mk 13:32). He had an essentially normal upbringing and education. In a Jewish village such as Nazareth there would have been a school called ‘the House of the Book’. Here, a Jesus would have been sent at the age of six to be taught by the rulers of the synagogue. For five years the children were taught the Scriptures, especially the Pentateuch, memorizing it until (in the words of Josephus) they knew it better than their own name. The first book to be studied was Leviticus. What would have been the thoughts of this eager young scholar as he read of the sacrifice which foreshadowed that of the Lamb of God? Unlike Paul, Jesus did not have a university education; yet his wisdom and understanding created a stir now and later, Jn 7:15.

‘There are no human traits lacking to the picture that is drawn of him: he was open to temptation; he was conscious of dependence on God; he was a man of prayer; he knew a “will” within him that might conceivably be opposed to the will of God’ he exercised faith; he learned obedience by the things he suffered.  It was not merely the mind of a man that was in him, but the heart of a man as well, and the spirit of a man.  In a word, he was all that a man – a man without error and sin – is, and must be conceived to have grown, as it is proper for a man to grow, not only during his youth, but continuously through life, not alone in knowledge, but in wisdom, and not alone in wisdom, but “in reverence and charity” – in moral strength and in beauty of holiness alike.’ (Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings I, 161f)

…and stature – The considerable physical endurance he showed later was no doubt built on the foundation of an energetic youth. His voice must have been rich and clear, in order to reach the ears of the multitudes who came to hear him teach. Although his facial appearance is never described, it would have been most attractive, if we are to take Ps 45:2 as our guide.

…in favour with God – So much so, that at the very outset of his public ministry, God can declare, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

A similar description of development and maturation is given of John, 1:80, but without the reference to Favour…with man. Perhaps this reflects a fundamental difference in personality. Jesus’ character was sociable and out-going, whereas John was too stern to be popular. Jesus’ example in this respect is notable. Godliness is by no means inconsistent with courtesy and human warmth.

Note Jesus’ all-round development – intellectual, physical, spiritual and social. A fully human life is balanced and rounded.

‘From this singular story we may gather that Jesus’ childhood was in many respects like that of other children of devout parents—it was a period of growth, development and learning. In particular, it was a period of learning about one’s faith, and as a youth a time for sorting out God’s will from his parents’ wishes. Absent in this story are any traces of Jesus the child miracle-worker, which the authors of the apocryphal Gospels liked to stress. Instead, the one truly remarkable aspect about Jesus in this story is what he knows of God, both of his Word and of his will—a knowledge that astounded both teachers and parents.’ (DJG)

And this full and harmonious upbringing comes to rich fruition in his teaching:

‘The most superficial perusal of the teaching of Christ must convince how deeply sympathetic he was with nature, and how keenly observant of man. Here there is no contrast between love of the country and the habits of city life; and two are found side by side. On his lonely walks he must have had an eye for the beauty of the lilies of the field, and thought of it, how the birds of the air received their food from an Unseen Hand, and with what maternal affection the hen gathered her chickens under her wing. He had watched the sower or the vinedresser as he went forth to his labour, and read the teaching of the tares which sprang up among the wheat. To him the vocation of the shepherd must have been full of meaning, as he led, and fed, and watched his flock, spoke to his sheep with well-known voice, brought them to the fold, or followed, and tenderly carried back, those that had strayed, ever ready to defend them, even at the cost of his own life. Nay, he even seems to have watched the habits of the fox in its secret lair. But he also equally knew the joys, the sorrows, the wants and sufferings of the busy multitude. The play in the market, the marriage processions, the funeral rites, the wrongs of injustice and oppression, the urgent harshness of the creditor, the bonds and prison of the debtor, the palaces and luxury of princes and courtiers, the self-indulgence of the rich, the avarice of the covetous, and exactions of the tax-gatherer, and the oppression of the widow by unjust judges, had all made an indelible impression on his mind.’ (Edersheim)

This story ‘is about Jesus beginning to disengage from parental authority and following the will of his heavenly Father alone, a motif we find in other authentic Gospel material.’ (DJG)

A further eighteen years elapsed before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. As the oldest son, he would have had considerable responsibility in the family and with his father’s trade, Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55. It may be the Joseph died at some point during this period, since we do not meet him again. If this is the case, Jesus would have taken a leading role in providing for the family. He was well acquainted with the joys and trials of family and working life.

Cf 1 Sam 2:26; Pr 3:3-4.

The Boyhood of Jesus

Lk 2:52 ‘And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.’

A unique glimpse into the boyhood of Jesus.

Shows us that his was a true humanity: he became like us, so that we might become like him. Here is a summary statement of his human development.  Similar things are said about Samuel and John the Baptist.

1.  He increased in wisdom – intellectual development

Although he was the Son of God, the Bible does not teach that he was born with complete knowledge and wisdom.  At the age of 5 he would have been sent to school – ‘the House of the Book’.  There he would have been taught the OT Scriptures, memorising large portions of the first 5 books.  He must have been quite a pupil, for his understanding caused a stir at the age of 12, and also later, Jn 7:15.

2.  He increased in stature – physical development

The considerable physical endurance he showed later was no doubt built on the foundation of an energetic childhood and youth.  His voice must have been rich and clear, in order to reach the ears of the multitude that came to hear him teach.  Although his physical appearance is never described, it would have been most attractive, if Ps 45:2 is to be our guide.

3.  He increased in favour with God – spiritual development

Even at the beginning of his public ministry, God could declare, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’

4.  He increased in favour with men – social development.

This characteristic is left out of the description of John, Lk 1:80.  Perhaps John was too stern and severe: people looked on him with respect, but not affection.  But Jesus was friendly, sociable, joyful.  Godliness is by no means inconsistent with courtesy and human warmth.

In Conclusion

It was a fully human Saviour who went to the cross and died for our sins.  I believe in the full divinity of Christ; but I also believe in his full humanity.  It was as a human being that he suffered – that his body was broken and his blood shed.  It was as a human being that he was able to represent us and our needs, bearing the punishment for our sins.  It is as a human being that he is able to sympathise with our every need, being tested in every way just like us, yet without sin.