Luke describes the coming of Jesus as good news for the entire world, for people of every race, age, gender, ethnic group, and social position. With John the Baptist as His prophetic forerunner, Jesus came as the Son of God and as the Messiah, the King descended from David, who defeats the evil one and brings salvation and healing. As Jesus served and taught the people and proclaimed good news, the religious leaders opposed Him. Jesus went to Jerusalem as the suffering servant, proclaimed judgement on the nation before being executed as a criminal, then rose from the dead to fulfill God’s plan and launch His Spirit driven mission to all the world. The risen Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, is the Savior of the whole world.
The opening of both Luke and the Book of Acts make it clear that the two books are to be regarded as a single work in two volumes. Luke was one of Paul’s most loyal followers. He was well educated in Greek culture and a physician by profession. Luke may have been a gentile convert but if so his knowledge of the Old Testament was extraordinary. He most likely wrote from Rome, beginning while Paul was in prison. It seems that he continued to write until he was caught up to the present time, waiting for the conclusion of Paul’s two year case. Luke wrote to someone addressed as Theophilus, possibly a non Christian Roman official but definitely a person of high position and wealth. Luke’s gospel is the most comprehensive of the four and was written to strengthen the faith of all believers and to answer the attacks of non christians. Luke tells us in his prologue that it was his desire to provide his readers a clear and coherent presentation of the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. One of the things Luke focuses on is Jesus’ concern for the poor and the oppressed. He also highlights Jesus’ interest in diverse ethnic, religious, economic and social groups. As we read, here are some themes to look for. The first is the universality of the gospel. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection emphasizes that the Good News of the gospel is intended for all people. Concern for social outcasts is another of Luke’s themes. Luke’s gospel underscores Jesus’ particular concern for social outcasts, women, and the poor. Jesus first public sermon focuses on Isaiah 61:1-2 in proclaiming good news, freedom, healing and release for these very people. Third is the theme of repentance. The vocabulary of repentance is prominent in Luke as we see in the parable of the prodigal son, the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, and the story of Zacchaeus. Repentance requires a fundamental reorientation toward God, which then leads to reconciliation of humanrelationships. Lastly, the theme of wealth. Luke stressed theethical aspects of the Christian life, making it clear that repentance involves a change in attitude that reveals itself in the manner in which a person handles money.
Luke spends the first four verses setting out his purpose for writing. Others have written accounts but Luke also wanted to write an accurate account. These four verses are some of the finest literary Greek in the New Testament. As a good historian Luke has carefully investigated everything in the history of Jesus from the beginning in order to present a reliable historical account. The name Theophilus means “loved by God or one who loves God”, and it is most likely a personal name. These first two chapters give an account of Jesus’ birth and introduce key themes that will appear later in Luke-Acts. The announcements and birth stories for John the Baptist and Jesus run side by side, showing their parallel roles in bringing God’s salvation. At each point, Jesus is shown to be greater. John is the forerunner, announcing Jesus’ coming. Jesus is the Savior. King Herod reigned from 37-4 B.C. and he ruled over Judaea, Samaria, Galilee, and much of Perea and Syria. The events that occurred in verses 5-25 most likely occurred about 6 B.C.
The priesthood of Israel was divided into 24 divisions, with each priest serving 2 weeks but not consecutively. Lots were cast to determine where a priest would serve. Both Zechariah his wife Elizabeth were direct descendants of Aaron, the first high priest and Moses brother. It was considered especially pious for a priest to marry a woman from a priestly family. In some respects Zechariah and Elizabeth were like Abraham and Sarah. Elizabeth was barren and they had no children. This brought much social stigma and shame. Zechariah had been given the honor of being the priest who would light the incense on the golden altar of incense. Typically this honor was only given once in a priests lifetime. For Zechariah this would have been a high point in his life and career. After lighting the incense the priest would go out into the courtyard and bless the people gathered there. The blessing was the same one we use todayfrom the book of Numbers. The hours of lighting incense were 9:00 and 3:30. This was the evening lighting of the incense. The angel of the Lord appeared at the most sacred time in Zechariah’s life. Zechariah was standing at the altar of incense right in front of the curtain that kept the the Holy of Holies apart from everything else. At this point Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear. Both fear and awe are common reactions when some one sees an angel or experiences the presence of God. What follows next also happens each time. The angel said fear not! This angel had come with amazing news. Zechariah and Elizabeth would finally have a son! Many would rejoice at this news and at his birth. They were to name this son John, which means “The Lord has shown favor”. This favor came to Zechariah and Elizabeth through their son and to the Israelite nation through the Messiah, whose coming John would announce. John was set apart as a Nazarene, just like Samson. There would be no drinking of wine or fermented drinks. Often Nazarites vows were temporary but in John’s case it would be for his lifetime. John would turn many people back to the Lord,and one more thing. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. God had big plans for this son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
The prophet Malachi predicted that God would send Elijah before the time of God’s salvation. John fulfilled this role by preparing the way for the Lord’s coming. Zechariah had big doubts about the angels announcement. The angel announced his name, Gabriel, who stands in the presence of the Lord. And he let Zechariah know that the Lord has sent him with this good news but because Zechariah doubted there would be consequences. Zechariah would not be able to speak until the child had been born. And because he was making signs it may well be that he was deaf as well. While all this was happening the people were waiting for Zechariah to come out and bless them. He came out but could only make motions and the people believed he had seen a vision. When his week of serving was over he returned home to Elizabeth. Shortly after he returned home Elizabeth became pregnant and went into seclusion. Luke gives us no reason for this and there is nothing required by Jewish law that would cause her to go into seclusion. Some believe she may have gone on a spiritual retreat to honor God for answered prayer.
Elizabeth is six months into her pregnancy when the angel Gabriel was sent to a young virgin named Mary. She lived in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. Gabriel came with an astounding message. God had chosen Mary to be the bearer and mother of His Son. Try wrapping your head around that. Like Zechariah, Mary was fearful and confused. She was betrothed to Joseph, a descendant of King David. That is significant because the Messiah was supposed to be a descendant of King David. The angel told Mary that this child was to be named Jesus. Twice now Gabriel had visited people announcing upcoming births and he has provided the names for these children . Jesus means “The Lord saves”. Verses 32-33 echo God’s covenant with David (2Samuel 7:11-16). This is the foundational promise of the coming Messiah. Mary first words were how? How can this happen? Mary did not ask for a sign so this does not signal unbelief. She accepts her role but doesn’t understand since she is still a virgin, engaged but the marriage had not been consummated. It would be the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus conception would be miraculous. That is all the detail there is. Scholars believe Luke received this from Mary firsthand. This may have been all she could provide. Gabriel also shared that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was expecting a child and a few days later Mary left for a visit. Perhaps Mary needed to clear her head. Maybe she needed Elizabeth’s advice on how to tell Joseph. It could have been that because of the circumstances surrounding the two pregnancies only the two of them could freely talk and relate to shared experiences. Both of these women are faithful but Elizabeth almost seems to have some insider information. When Mary arrived, after what was at least a four day journey, and greeted Elizabeth, her child leapt within her. That would be one thing but listen to what Elizabeth said. She wondered aloud why the mother of HER LORD had comet to visit. Precious few people knew Mary was expecting, but Elizabeth already knew Mary was carrying the Son of God.Mary responded with a song, one of three in the birth narrative.
Mary’s song is called the Magnificat, and it sounds a lot like Hannah’s song found in 1Samuel 2:1-10. Mary knew from the angels visit on things would never be the same. She went from being a very poor unknown Hebrew girl to the most honoredwoman in the world. She recognized that God is the Holy One, set apart and unique from everything and everyone else. He is powerful but also merciful. Verses 51-53 show a reversal in the end time when those who have abused power will be judged and those who have suffered persecution will be exalted. The idea of Israel as God’s servant is a theme found frequently in the Book of Isaiah. Mary also recognized that God’s actions in her life were based on commitments He made centuries before. Gabriel’s words to Zechariah recalled God’s covenant with David and here Mary refers to the covenant with Abraham.
God commanded that every Israelite male should be circumcised at 8 days old. This signified the child’s incorporation into the covenant community of Israel. Zechariah still could not speak and the people at the temple for the naming of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son were going to name him after his father but Elizabeth said no, his name was to be John. Zechariah confirmed this and because of his obedience his senses were restored. The people were awed and wondered who this child might be, given what they had just witnessed. Zechariah sang the second hymn in the birth narrative. This is called the Benedictus, meaning blessed or praise. The presence of the Holy Spirit allowed Zechariah to sing this song. Like Mary, this song is one of praise to the Lord. God has visited and redeemed His people, a reference to the exodus from Egypt. The horn is a sign of power. God has raised up a Savior from the line of David, fulfilling the promises He had made. Being saved from their enemies showed the hope of the people, looking for someone to rescue them from the Romans. Instead Jesus brought saving from sin, the evil one, and death. And then Zechariah turned his focus to his infant son John. He would be the one to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. John would be the prophet of the most high, the last of the Old Testament prophets. John’s task was to prepare the people to repent, and tell them of the one who was coming. The morning light was about to break through. Remember that Messiah was described as a light shining in the darkness. Because John’s parents were old they most likely did not live to see him preaching in the wilderness. His wilderness was probably west of the Jordan River and southeast of Jerusalem. This was a place of testing as well as a spiritual retreat and preparation.
Having described John’s birth Luke gives a parallel account of Jesus’ birth with emphasis on His lowliness. Jesus may have been the glorious Messiah but He entered the world in humble circumstances. Caesar Augustus reigned from 27B.C.-14A.D. He declared a census to register the people for tax purposes. Quirinius was governor from 6-4 B.C. And 6-9 A.D. History shows that there were three other censuses at the time, Syria, Gaul, and Spain. Why not Judea? Jesus was born between 6-4 B.C. And Herod died in 4 B.C. Going to their hometown meant Bethlehem because both Mary and Joseph were descendants of David. Bethlehem was a tiny village 5 miles south of Jerusalem, the place where Micah 5:2 predicted the Messiah would be born.We are familiar with the story. We have heard it on Christmas Eve for much of our lives. We have seen Linus center stage with his blue blanket wrapped around his head telling Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about. It is easy to skim over this as we read. Don’t! It is rich. Look for something you might not have seen before. If you have already read this for today, stop and read it again. Notice Luke only uses one verse to record Jesus’ birth, but 38 verses to tell the surrounding story. There was no place to stay so Mary and Joseph made do with a stable or cave. And the Son of God was wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in the feeding trough for the animals He was sharing a shelter with.
Shepherds where often portrayed in Judaism as drifters and trouble makers. In the Old Testament shepherds are generally viewed positively. These are the people Jesus came to and for. These shepherds stayed out in the fields with their sheep to keep them safe from predators and thieves. When the angels and the multitude of the heavenly host appeared these shepherds, who were minding their own business, were terrified. It was both glorious and frightening, just like with Mary and Zechariah. And once again the angels said, fear not! The angels were bringing good news for all people. This would have been a surprise for the Jews who had a habit of not sharing the things of God with others. The shepherds were being told that Israel’s salvation had arrived and it would ultimately go to all nations. The shepherds would appreciate the paradox and incongruity between the security of the strips of cloth and the lowly circumstances of laying in a manger. A short hymn is sung here, announcing that the Messiah’s coming brings glory to God in the heavens and peace to humans on earth. Peace here means total well being, not just the absence of hostility.
One of the things you will notice in Luke’s account here is that when amazing things happen, Mary keeps them and treasures them up in her heart. Maybe she saved them for later and then reflected on them later, wondering what all this meant for her and for her son. After the shepherds visited , they returned glorifying and praising God; another of the themes in Luke’s gospel. Jewish law required that a baby boy be circumcised at eight days old and this is when he would be named. The law also specified a time of 40 days for boys and 80 days for girls as a period of purification after childbirth for the mother. Once that time was over an offering was made. Every firstborn, human or animal was to be offered back to the Lord. Humans were bought back with a redemption price. They could offer a lamb or if they couldn’t afford it, two pigeons or doves. Mary and Joseph offered the sacrifice prescribed for those who were poor.
Simeon’s story is another one of those rich stories. He was righteous and devout, tuned into the promptings of the Spirit. He had been eagerly waiting for Israel’s consolation, that is awaiting for the Messiah to come and rescue His people. This points to Isaiah 40:1 which promised comfort to Israel after returning from exile. The Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and he was there when Mary and Joseph arrived to circumcise and name the baby Jesus. Simeon took baby Jesus in his arms and praised God. This is the third great hymn of the birth narrative. This song is called the Nunc dimittis. It is Latin for “now dismiss”. Simeon identified God’s salvation as being personified in Jesus Christ. For Him to come was for God’s salvation to come. Simeon acknowledged that’s God had kept His promise that he would see the Messiah. Verse 32 is the first explicit statement in Luke that included both Jew and gentile. Salvation is portrayed as light and it would be a revelation to the Gentiles because they would get to participate in God’s blessing with a fullness that had not been revealed in the Old Testament. Jesus is the glory of Israel because through Him the nation would see the fulfillment of God’s promises. The nations special role in God’s plan would be vindicated. Mary and Joseph were astounded and maybe a bit overwhelmed. Simeon blessed the baby and his parents. He told them their son would cause many to fall and others to rise. It all depended on how people responded to Jesus. The last thing Simeon said was that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul as well. She would suffer much pain watching Jesus be rejected and even more as she stood at the foot of a Roman cross as her firstborn son hung there dying an agonizing death.
There was another elder in the temple, a prophetess named Anna. She came along as Simeon was holding Jesus and praising God, and she joined in, praising the Lord with him. She was in the temple all the time, a reflection of her total dedication to the Lord. Both Anna and Simeon were dedicated and faithful servants of the Lord. So were Mary and Joseph. They went to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Passover. When Jesus was 12 He went with them. At twelve boys began preparing to take their places in the religious community the following year. This is the covenant or bar mitzvah ceremony. With this visit Jesus’ parents were preparing Him to fulfill His role in the covenant community. The family was probably traveling in a caravan with family members and other residents of Nazareth. It was common for people to watch out for each other’s children, so there was no reason to worry…at first. When it came time to stop for the night Jesus was nowhere to be found. Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem to look for Him, but in the meantime Jesus was in the temple relishing time with the religious teachers, listening and asking questions. They too were amazed at Jesus’ knowledge and the questions He asked. I wonder if they remembered this when they heard Jesus teaching later in life.When Mary and Joseph found Him, they didn’t know what to think. They were upset with Jesus but also relieved they had found Him. Jesus’ question to them was another thing to tuck away and ponder later. Did they not know He had to be in His Fathers house? Already Jesus was aware that His greatest loyalty belonged to His Father in heaven. This is the first indication that Jesus knew He had a mission. But we also see that although Jesus recognized His relationship to God the Father, He was obedient to His earthly parents.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W