Who Is Jesus?

Explore the Bible Series

September 12, 2004


Background Passage: Luke 2:1-52

Lesson Passage: Luke 2:8-20,47-51


Personal Note:  Last week, several people asked me about the claim, made in Luke 1:15 and 41, concerning John’s filling with the Holy Spirit.  Verse fifteen records the prediction of the angel that John the Baptist would be filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb.  The second verse mentions that Elizabeth’s baby leaped within her womb when Mary entered the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth.  Luke attributed the movement of the fetus to the filling of the Holy Spirit.  What do these texts indicate about the filling of the Holy Spirit as it relates to this unborn child?


William Hendriksen suggested two possible explanations for this difficult issue.  First, Hendriksen surmised that perhaps the texts should be understood as a hyperbole; that is, Luke employed a literary phrase to declare that the Holy Spirit filled John all of the prophet’s life.  In my judgment, the verses seem to indicate something more remarkable than this first view allows.


Second, Hendriksen asserted that interpreters should not press the text too hard; thus, the passage simply describes a natural event.  He explained a five-fold progression of events.

(1)   Mary greeted Elizabeth.

(2)   Elizabeth heard the greeting.

(3)   The fetus within Elizabeth’s womb leaped with joy.

(4)   Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, responded to the greeting.

(5)   Elizabeth interpreted the movement of the baby as a sign of joy.

If one takes this view, the event follows a very common pattern for expectant mothers; this is, Elizabeth felt the discernable movement of an unborn child at an important moment. 


While both of these views seem plausible, Hendriksen’s closing observations seem most helpful.  Apparently, something mysterious and profound occurred when Mary entered the presence of Elizabeth.  The Scriptures shroud this event in mystery, and perhaps modern believers should refrain from speculating beyond the simple statements of the Bible. 


This lesson (September 12) focuses on the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. The remarkable birth narrative recorded in Luke certainly indicates that this was no ordinary child.  Furthermore, the accounts of his circumcision (vv. 21-40) and subsequent visit to the Temple for his Bar Mitzvah at age twelve (vv. 41-51) reveal the utter uniqueness of this boy. 





I.                   The Historical Setting of the Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7)

Note: Contemporary liberals question the historical accuracy of the story of the birth of Jesus as recorded in Luke.  In particular, scholars like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Michael Grant believe that the nativity narratives recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke manifest irreconcilable discrepancies and do not reflect actual historical events; rather, Luke 2 reveals, in the minds of these liberals, the interpretive conclusions of the Christian community many years after the life of Jesus. 


The historical integrity of Luke comes to the forefront very early in this gospel narrative and much is theologically at stake for contemporary Christians.  Frankly, this passage makes clear and unmistakable historical assertions. This story gives no indication of having emerged from the imaginative creativity of the early church. Why, for instance, would the early Christian community have taken such great pains to provide the historical setting of Jesus’ birth?  Wouldn’t their impulse have been to avoid historical references to Caesar Augustus and Governor Quirinius?  Luke’s assertions would have been easy for first century readers to either affirm or discredit.  Of course, it is beyond the scope of this lesson to provide a detailed defense of the text, but conservative scholars regard Luke was a splendid historian, and, thus, the details of the nativity should be regarded with great respect and reverence.

A.    The tax registration decreed by Augustus (Luke 2:1-2)

1.      Caesar August (Octavian) ruled Rome from 31 B.C. to 14 A.D.  He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and he assumed full power in Rome when his troops defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium.  Consistent with his policy to allow considerable self-rule in conquered territories, Augustus permitted the Jews to register for this taxation in their ancestral hometowns. Joseph and Mary, both of Davidic descent, traveled to Bethlehem in Judea.

2.      Quirinius (Cyrenius) served as governor of Syria at the time of Christ’s birth.  Secular sources affirm that this man governed Syria from 6 to 9 A.D.; however, this date does not fit the historical context of the birth of Jesus.  In recent years scholars have uncovered an inscription that refers to a man fitting the description of Quirinius who served as governor of Syria at an earlier date; thus, it appears that this Roman ruler governed Syria at two different times, one coinciding with the birth of Jesus.

B.     Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (Luke 2:3-7)

1.      Mary and Joseph, as stated earlier, both descended from King David, and, therefore, the betrothed couple traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the registration. The mention of their sojourn in Bethlehem does not contradict Matthew’s assertion that they lived in Nazareth in Galilee.  In fact, the accounts coincide in a perfectly acceptable manner. The young couple were betrothed in Galilee, received separate announcements from the angel concerning the upcoming birth of Jesus, and traveled to Bethlehem for this Roman registration.

2.       While they sojourned in the City of David, the young woman gave birth to her firstborn son in the most humble setting imaginable. Luke recorded that the couple found no room in a local inn and, because the babe rested in a manger, Bible students assume that the couple sought shelter in a stable.  Church tradition records that this stable was located in a cave.


II.                The Angel’s Appearance to the Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)

     The angel appeared to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-12)

First-century Judean culture did not hold shepherds in high regard.  Some scholars believe that these shepherds tended flocks that were intended for Temple sacrifices. The public domain land around Bethlehem was used to pasture sheep that were destined for the Temple offerings.  Apparently, several shepherds gathered their flocks together, perhaps for mutual protection during the night. At first, a single angel appeared to the shepherds.  The Lord’s messenger comforted the fearful herdsmen by assuring them that he brought them good tidings.  The angel informed them that they would find the long-awaited Messiah in Bethlehem.  Though the angel did not command the men to visit the Christ child, the text implies that they would indeed go to Bethlehem to pay homage to the Messiah. 


III.             The Appearance of the Heavenly Hosts (Luke 2:13-15)

A. The sudden appearance of the angels (Luke 2:13)

      The startling appearance of the single angel was now augmented by the        sudden appearance of a great multitude of angels. Modern readers may assume that they expressed their joy in song, but the text uses the word “said” to describe their glorious utterance. 

B.     The chorus of the heavenly hosts (Luke 2:14)

Geldenhuys argued persuasively that the verse should read:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men who are objects of God’s good pleasure.”

C.    The withdrawal of the angels and the determination of the shepherds to

visit the Christ-child (Luke 2:15).

Luke employed a verb tense that seems to indicate that the angels gradually withdrew from the presence of the shepherds.  Moved by the stirring message of the angels, the shepherds purpose to go to Bethlehem to see these things for themselves.


IV.              The Visit of the Shepherds (Luke 2:16-20)

A. The occasion of their visit (Luke 2:16)

      The shepherds did not delay in their quest to find the babe, and they found

the precious family just as the angel had described.  Interestingly, Luke did not provide any details about the encounter between the shepherds and the family of Jesus; rather, the gospel writer seems to respect and guard the holy moments that must have characterized this touching experience.

C.    The witness of the shepherds (Luke 2:17-19)

The shepherds seemed to instinctively sense that they needed to share with others the news of the angel’s message. Their words, however, did not focus on interpretive accounts of their experiences; instead, they centered their attention on the things that had been told to them concerning the child. Their account of these events caused their hearers to marvel at the words they heard.  Mary, perhaps more reserved in personality and bound by her responsibilities as a mother, kept these things in her heart.

D.    The shepherds returned to their flocks (Luke 2:20)

Most Christians do not live consistently in the vortex of extraordinary experiences, and duty demanded that the shepherds return to their flocks. Nevertheless, their encounter with Christ had changed them.  Even the mundane demands of a shepherd’s life were transformed by the joy of worship and praise to God.


Conclusion:  The lesson does not call for our consideration of the circumcision narratives, but these stories yield wonderful insight into the identity of this child born in Bethlehem.  Please read them carefully.


Thoughts for Consideration and Discussion:

1.      Give some thought to the persons to whom God revealed the identity of his glorious Son.  How does this passage in Luke give insight into Paul’s claims in I Corinthians 1:26-31?

2.      What role does history play in our recounting of the gospel to the lost?  What bearing should our understanding of history have on our witnessing?  In what important ways is Christian doctrine grounded in history?

3.      What insight do we gain from this story concerning the observations of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:7b?  The shepherds boldly proclaimed the arrival of the Messiah; yet, Mary pondered these things in her heart.  When should Christians speak boldly, and when should silent contemplation characterize the Lord’s people?