Luke 2:1-21, The Birth of the Savior

The Contrast Between Matthew and Luke

[December 28, 2008] One of the first things we notice about the beginning of Luke’s gospel is how different it is from Matthew’s. This is all the more remarkable when we continue reading the gospel of Luke, because it is obvious that Luke had a copy of Matthew’s gospel in front of him as he wrote. If that is so, why are the birth and infancy stories so different? One reason we suggested is that Luke had interviewed Mary herself as an eyewitness source for his gospel.

The two accounts do not contradict. They can be harmonized:

  • Luke 1:5-25    (Gabriel’s visit to Zachariah, conception of John the Baptist)
  • Luke 1:26-56                        (Gabriel’s visit to Mary, conception of Jesus)
  • Luke 1:57-79                        (birth of John the Baptist)
  • Matthew 1:1-25                    (adoption of the unborn Jesus by Joseph)
  • Luke 2:1-39a                        (birth of Jesus in Bethlehem; visit to Jerusalem)
  • Matthew 2:1-22                    (adoration by the Magi and the flight to Egypt)
  • Matthew 2:23 || Luke 2:39b  (move back to Nazareth)

Notice the difference. Matthew’s gospel is concerned with men and the world of men because he is very interested in Jesus’ kingship. He focuses on the lineage of David, and the fear of King Herod. The magi who visit the child are wealthy educated men of high stature, exotic foreigners from Persia who attract much attention.

Luke’s gospel also emphasizes the lineage of David, but in a completely different way. He is concerned with the quiet domestic lives of women and people of low estate like the shepherds. While Matthew presents Jesus in a magisterial way, pronouncing that thus the words of the prophets were fulfilled, Luke shows Him to us in familiar and humble household scenes. Gabriel visits Zachariah in the temple but it does not become public. Since Zachariah cannot speak, it becomes an embarrassment because he is supposed to deliver the blessing. He then goes home to his wife in the country, in humble obscurity. Yet there is greater distance in Matthew. Gabriel only visits Joseph in a dream. In Luke Gabriel visits Zachariah and Mary directly (in a vision, 1:22), and Luke is conscious of their feelings. We see Zachariah’s shock and disbelief, Elizabeth’s joy, Mary’s humility, and Zachariah’s praise. God is active in common domestic settings, in people’s feelings, in their personal lives, in the bodies of the elderly, and present in teenager’s womb.

In other words, Matthew presents us with a great vision in “Biblical” style. What he shows us is important. But Luke takes this vision home—into our homes, if we can appreciate what Luke does.

The Birth (2:1-7)

Last week we noticed that Mary, a pregnant unwed teenager, was present at the birth, circumcision and naming of John the Baptist. That was in the hill country of Judea, near Jerusalem. When she returned home to Nazareth she was in her fourth month, the beginning of her second trimester. Up to that point, Elizabeth and Zachariah were the only ones who knew about the pregnancy, but Mary could not keep it a secret much longer. She told Joseph, her betrothed, who was prepared to break the engagement. We can imagine how painful this must have been. But, as Matthew relates, Joseph chooses to marry Mary and take the child as his own.

Several months later, when Mary is uncomfortably near the end of her third trimester, the new emperor publishes a decree requiring everyone to be registered in the city of their patrimony for the purpose of the tax rolls. This meant that Mary and Joseph—they were both teenagers—had to make the journey to Bethlehem to be registered there. When they arrived, there was no relative to take them in and the inn was full. And Mary goes into labor. They have no choice but to take whatever accommodations they can, and Jesus is born and laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Obviously they are in a stable of some sort and Mary gave birth on the hay. We can only hope they found a midwife to assist in the delivery.

Try to imagine this. Mary has been visited by the angel Gabriel, the angel who stands in the Presence of God, who told her that her Son would be the Son of the Most High and that the Lord God would give Him the throne of David His father and that He would reign over the house of Jacob forever. When you live in rural Galilee and you basically have no property, no credentials, and no connections, it seems grandiose to take the angel’s word for it. Mary has only two things to ground her in reality— the fact that she is now pregnant, though she is still a virgin, and the fact that Elizabeth is also pregnant and knows what is going on with her. Later, Zachariah bursts out with a prophecy at the circumcising of their baby and says that the (secret) Child in Mary’s belly is the Lord God visiting and accomplishing redemption for the people and raising up a “horn of salvation” in fulfillment of the prophets—and that this unborn Child will be the rising sun who will shine on those sitting in darkness and the shadows of death to guide our feet into the way of peace. These words are so amazing, so impressive, yet the circumstances surrounding them are so ordinary.

Mary goes home and Joseph is ready to dump her. But they get married, and far too soon for the gossipy life of a small town, she begins to show. Then she has to travel when she is practically ready to give birth. If the child is so impressive, “the Son of the Most High,” why is everything so difficult? When they get to Bethlehem, she goes into labor before they can even secure a proper room, and she delivers her child, He who will sit on the throne of David forever, in a stable and lays Him in a manger. Imagine how puzzling this must have seemed. “How can it be?” How can it be so difficult? Because that is what poverty is—difficult. There are no magi visiting with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. There are barn animals.

Prophecy is fulfilled and the Messiah is born in Bethlehem, but was it meant to happen in such ordinary and difficult circumstances?

What you want to notice is that the most important event in the history of Israel, the most important event in world history, is taking place in this kind of obscurity, poverty, and difficulty. Our own lives seem very ordinary too, even obscure, and our problems embarrassing and mundane, yet when we become believers in Christ, the most extraordinary thing is happening also in our lives. God is present and active. The fact of our faith means that in a real way Christ is born in us (through the Holy Spirit) and God’s secret history is working itself out in us. Our great difficulty is believing that it actually matters when life continues to be so difficult around us.

We do not know how difficult it was for Mary and Joseph to continue believing the words of angels and prophecy when the reality of their lives was so painful and mundane. In a way it did not matter, because they had so much real life to deal with in the moment. It was not until things settled down that they probably had a chance to think about it. But God soon gave them encouragement. Shepherds from the countryside soon find them and give them astonishing news.

The Shepherds and the Angels (2:8-15)

Shepherds were poor people, and since they worked at night they were held in distrust. They were ordinary laborers of the lower class. Yet they were also responsible people whose ancient vocation was a picture of God’s care for Israel, and the king’s care for his people (see Micah’s prophecy of the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem, 5:4). Jesus later would have great respect for their vocation and would compare Himself to a shepherd. God valued these men and women (yes) in spite of their humble circumstances and chose to visit them through the angel that He sent. It was to such ordinary people that the “good news” (Gospel) of the coming of the Savior—“who is the Messiah, the Lord”—was first announced.

The sign that He is Savior and the Messiah, the Lord—the Gospel of great joy for all people— is that He is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  The sign is the very difficult circumstance itself. The scandal IS the sign. How interesting when we think about our own lives. Do not look for something outwardly amazing. God is at work in our mundane difficulties and problems.

Luke will continue to emphasize throughout his gospel and Acts that the coming of Jesus is the Gospel (2:10; 3:18; 8:1; 16:16; Acts 5:42; 8:25, 40; 10:36; 11:20; 13:32; 14:15; 17:18).

The word of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest” will be repeated by the crowds when Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Then also he seemed too ordinary—riding on a donkey—for the important people to take seriously. Pilate disposes of Him as a nuisance and a convenient example. But here we get a glimpse at the unseen realm of heaven, which always surrounds us though it is invisible. What really matters is what the angels proclaim, not what we see with the “eye of flesh.” What to the people of Bethlehem was an inconvenience, the arrival of two unprepared young people, one of whom is about to give birth, is the matter that turns the ages!

There is a question about how to translate verse 14. It can be either “on earth peace, goodwill toward men,” or “on earth peace to men of goodwill” (depending on the Greek text). According to Jewish usage, however (the angels spoke Hebrew), the Hebrew word “goodwill” (ratzon) refers to God’s goodwill, His intention of goodness: God’s goodwill toward men. The birth of Jesus is good news of great joy for all people because it will bring peace, God’s good will for humanity, as represented by the shepherds. See the discussion on this in Brad H. Young’s Jesus the Jewish Theologian(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), chapter 1, pages 3-12.

The Visit by the Shepherds (2:16-20)

Mary and Joseph were encouraged by the words of the shepherds, who then went around and told everyone who would listen what had happened. The people marveled, for what it was worth, but Mary—Luke tells us—“kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” This is Luke’s hint that the hearer of his gospel also needs to ponder these things. Can we do that? Can we ponder these words, and ponder the invisible worth of Jesus, and how God works incredibly important things in the ordinariness of our lives? The reason for the Scriptures is so that we can ponder them. Do we?

The Circumcision and Naming in the Local Synagogue (2:21)

Jesus was circumcised according to the requirement of Torah in the local synagogue in Bethlehem. Unlike the excitement at John’s circumcision, this event was very ordinary. It marked, however, how Jesus entered the covenant of Abraham. For Abraham, circumcision was a sign of his faith, for it represented the end of his self-will (remember Ishmael). Jesus fulfilled the meaning of circumcision by His life and death. His circumcision also marks the beginning of His faithful adherence to the Torah, the privilege of the children of Israel.


Leave a Reply