Chapter 2 - Commentary on Luke's Gospel

2:1-5 The Census

2:1-3 The Roman emperor Augustus Caesar reigned from 31 BC to 13 AD. His 'world' was the Roman empire, and the term "registered" implies a numbering (as in Hebrews12:22) or census. This was not for the collecting of taxes since these were farmed out to the hated local tax collectors. Quirinius was not officially installed as governor of Syria till 6 AD, but Luke knew that he was already functioning as military commander of the region when Jesus was born. Roman citizens were registered in the towns where they lived, but the emperor probably wanted an exact count of the troublesome Jewish population by their tribal groupings. Luke was very careful about dating the events he records (3:1-2), as he explained (1:1-3).

2:4-6 The result of this decision by the emperor was that Joseph was entered in the Bethlehem census records as from the tribe of Judah and from the Messianic lineage of David. Joseph was apparently the only remaining heir to that royal line. By then Joseph had accepted Jesus as his own son (Matthew 1:20-21), and so Jesus was given the legal right to be the anointed King (Messiah) of the Jewish people (for the word 'betrothed' see the note on 1:27).. This royal title had to be kept secret for obvious reasons (see Matthew 2:4-5, 16). But genealogies (especially of the royal line) were very carefully kept by the Jewish people, and Jesus' title is given in Matthew 1:1-16. This must have been public knowledge, and if it could have been questioned the Jewish authorities would easily have rejected Jesus' claim to be Messiah. As it is, there is no evidence that this right was ever questioned in the Jewish nation at the time or since then. And, except for what is preserved in the Bible, all Jewish genealogical records were destroyed in the fall of Jerusalem (70 AD).

2:7 Mary was a virgin when the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:35-36), and his parents did not begin a sexual relationship till after the birth (Matthew 1:25). Subsequently other brothers and sisters were born (Matthew 12:46, 13:56, Mark 6:3). Some suggest that these brothers and sisters were from a previous marriage, or by Joseph having to take in the widow of one of his brothers (Deuteronomy 25:5, Matthew 22:24). Swaddling clothes were strips of cloth wrapped around the arms and legs of a baby (Ezekiel 16:4). The inn which did not serve meals, and provided only a place to bed down, was full due to the influx of others coming in for the registration. We imagine the inn keeper having mercy on the couple and letting them use a feeding trough usually used by animals. Tourists to Bethlehem are shown this stable as located in a limestone cave, which was often the practice in that area.

2:8-20 The Announcement to the Shepherds

2:8-9 The first announcement of the birth was made to hired hands who had to sleep out to protect sheep from predators at night, and these men would have been among the most despised and poor in the land. The shepherds were terrified by the shekinah light of God (as was Saul on the Damascus Road, Acts 9:3, see 1 Kings 8:11). The angel was perhaps recognized as "dressed in a white robe" (Mark 16:5). The rabbis translated Gabriel's visit to Daniel (lit. "When he was tired out") giving the interpretation that Gabriel was in "swift flight." Based on this unlikely translation artists have always given wings to angels as if they had to fly swiftly like birds from place to place. It is true that in Isaiah's vision the seraphs who attended the Lord had six wings, and "with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew" (Isaiah 6:2). But whatever the imagery of seraphic wings might mean, we should not imagine Gabriel and other angels (messengers of God) needing to beat their wings to move through the air on their errands.

2:10 Mark mentions the good news as beginning with John the Baptist (Mark 1:1), and Matthew has the good news beginning with Jesus' preaching (Matthew 4:23), but Luke puts the first good newsing (the verb from evangelium meaning evangel or good news) at Jesus birth. The "good news of great joy" was to be for "all people" (2:32). This serves as a good test of a religion or ideology. Would it result in joy for all people?

2:11-12 The good news begins with the birth among humans of the Messiah King Lord of Hosts who was known as reigning in the Old Testament period (Psalm 2:2, 5:1-2, 8:1, 9:7-8, 11:4, etc. Isaiah 13:1, 6-9, 14:22, 19:4, 22:5, 12, 24:23, 26:8-9, 30:15, 33:5-6, etc.). The shepherds are given the astonishing news that this great Lord of Hosts can now be seen as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger.

2:13-14 Hearing this quite unexpected information a multitude of angelic beings from the "heavenly host" (army of heaven) appear, and the shepherds hear them praising God. The NRSV chooses the reading "Peace on earth among those whom he favors" and another translation is "peace, good will among people."We might prefer "the peace of God's good will among humans on the earth."

2:15-18 The shepherds immediately went into Bethlehem that night, and found Mary and Joseph and the baby. Luke does not tell us what they said to the parents, but the shepherds announced the astonishing news in the village to the great astonishment of everyone.

2:19 A literal translation would be "Having pondered these words, Mary kept going over them in her mind" (Greek imperfect tense).

2:20 The shepherds apparently went back to minding their flocks, but they continued (Greek present continuous tense) giving glory to God and praising him for what they had heard and seen. The wording suggests that Luke may have interviewed some of these aged shepherds still living in the area of Bethlehem.

2:20-38 The Presentation in the Temple

2:21 The circumcision of male children was done the eight day (Genesis 17:12). Paul explains it was meant to be an outward sign of heart faith (Romans 2:28-29, see Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4). Apart from his physical circumcision, we are given no other anatomical details about Jesus' body. We do not know the color of his hair, his eyes, his skin, whether he was tall or small, whether he had a beard or mustache. This means no one can claim to be like the Messiah in terms of outward appearance. The child was named Jesus as the angel Gabriel had instructed Mary at the time of his conception (see note on 1:31).

2:22-24 By Jewish law a woman had to be purified thirty-three days after the birth of a male child, (after a female child it was 66 days) and at that time a sheep had to be offered as a sacrifice. If the family could not afford a sheep, then two doves or pigeons were offered (Leviticus 12:2-8), as Luke carefully points out was the case with Joseph and Mary. As Paul explained, "God sent his son, born under the law, in order to redeem (free) those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children" (Galatians 4:4-5). This means that in his birth the Messiah submitted to the Jewish sacrificial laws of the day, without approving those ancient rituals which have no relevance to us as children of God.

2:25-26 We have noted that after a period of prophetic silence for 400 years after Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist "was filled with the Holy Spirit" and spoke in typical prophetic language (1:41-45). Mary also spoke or sung the Magnificat in the style of one of the Psalms given to David by the inspiration of the Spirit (1:46-55). As did Zechariah (1:67). Now Luke introduces us to Simeon who was expecting God's intervention to console (comfort) his people, and the Holy Spirit of Old Testament prophecy was upon him. By the Spirit he knew that he would be able to see the Messiah before he died.

2:27-28 Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit to come into the temple exactly at the moment when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus into the temple to perform the rituals that were required (see 2:22-24). He knew by the Spirit that this was the Messiah he was told to expect, and without hesitation he took the baby in his arms and spoke or sang prophetically the song we call the Nunc Dimittis (Latin for "Now you are dismissing," which translates the first two words of the song).

2:29-30 Now was the time for Simeon to end his service in this life because he had finally seen the Messiah (God's salvation), as he had been told.

2:31-32 But this revelation would not just be for him, or the Jewish people, but for all peoples of the world (as in the third strand of the covenant with Abraham, Genesis 12:3, 18:18, 28:14). The glory of the Jewish people is the Messiah who is the light of the world (see note on 1:79). Paul tells us the day will come when the Jewish people as a nation will come to see this (Romans 11:25-27, see Luke 21:24).

2:33-35 To the astonishment of Joseph and Mary Simeon blesses them, but he warns Mary that her child will be both believed and rejected, the heart thoughts of people will be revealed, and Mary herself would have her own heart pierced as she stood by the cross (as reported in John 19:25-27).

2:36-37 Another evidence of the renewal of prophetic activity was an aged prophetess named Anna. In the Old Testament period there had been women who engaged in prophetic ministry by the Spirit (See Miriam, Exodus 15:20, Deborah, Judges 4:4, Huldah, 2 Kings 22:14, and in the New Testament period we have Philip's four daughters who had this gift, Acts 21:9). Anna lived with her husband for seven years, then as a widow till the age of 84. Another reading suggests she had been widow for 84 years after her husband's death, which might suggest the great age of 106

(2:36). During that time she fasted and worshiped in the temple.

2:38 At exactly the same time as Joseph and Mary came into the temple, Anna began praising God (as did the angels, 2:13, the Shepherds, 2:20, Simeon, 2:28), and spoke prophetically about the birth of the Messiah. Anna was heard by a group of others who were also looking for God's intervention (2:25). The word redemption (as in 1:68) is the same word as in the Exodus freeing of slaves from Egypt (Exodus 6:6, 15:13). In that Exodus there was the physical freeing of slaves from bondage. Now the Messiah would free people all over the world from spiritual bondage. Luke tells us this was the topic of discussion on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:31), and Paul also pictures the death and resurrection of the Messiah as the new Exodus (1 Corinthians 10:1-4, see Stephen's sermon at his martyrdom, Acts 7:34-37).

2:39-52 Jesus' Early Years

2:39-40 Though Jesus was born in Bethlehem (2:4-7), Luke makes clear that Jesus' childhood was in Galilee 120 miles to the north in the obscure village of Nazareth. That is where the Messiah was prepared for his mission. This period of physical, mental, spiritual, social growth (see 2:52) was part of being fully man (Hebrews 2:17, 4:15).

2:41-45 As was the practice of all devout Jews, the family celebrated the Passover every year in Jerusalem. That would involve a week of hard walking each way. By the age of twelve Jesus was so deeply interested in all that went on in and around the temple that he was left behind when the group of travelers from Galilee moved away from the city.

2:46- 47 Being fully man Jesus had to learn the Scriptures as we all do by listening to teaching and asking questions. And the way he did this as a boy of twelve astonished all who were there. His understanding is not surprising since "he was filled with wisdom" by the Holy Spirit (2:40).

2:48-50 Rather than being astonished by Jesus' spiritual interest, Joseph and Mary were astonished that he had treated them so badly by staying on in Jerusalem. He explained that "I must be engaged in the things of my Father" (the Greek original), which is the first indication that he was moving out of childhood into his heavenly Father's business.

2:51 But instead of insisting on leaving home, he went back to their authority in the home in Nazareth. Since there is no further mention of Joseph, it seems likely that when he died Jesus had to take over (perhaps in his teens) the family carpentry business. Obviously this willingness to submit to family responsibilities made a great impression on his mother Mary as she reflected on what she had been told at the annunciation (1:35).

2:52 There had been growth before the age of twelve (2:20), but in the next eighteen years there was further increase in the wisdom he received by the Spirit. His brother James probably noticed this (James 1:5). The result was a deepening relationship with the Father and with the community in which he lived.

A Historical Note on Chapters 1 and 2

Many scholars have assumed without evidence that the first two chapter of Luke's Gospel are an invention from a unknown source. The only logic for this seems to be their assumption that babies are not born from virgins. But the first four verses of the Gospel claim that Luke intended to be careful and exact in what he wrote. And the astonishing fact about these two chapters is the careful economy of words that Luke uses. It reads like history. All that is historically questionable is the virgin conception, and the activity of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the people involved. But if the Son of God took birth in our world, what else would we expect? The plain historical facts are given with no attempt to explain them. There is no fanciful theology or moralizing. If these two chapters had been invented to support the ideas of some sect, we would be able to detect what the writer was trying to prove. But Luke claims that he had carefully researched the facts of the coming of the Messiah into our world. And that is precisely what the early Christians knew had happened (Philippians 2:6-7, 1 John 1:1-2).

Chapter 3 .....