Why Did Jesus Come?
Explore the Bible Series
December 20, 2009
Background Passage: Luke 2:1-35
Lesson Passage: Luke 2:8-15, 25-35
My mother loved the Christmas season. In her later years, she decorated in October (!), in joyful anticipation of the celebration of Jesus’ birth. By the time the family arrived in December, Mom had “decked” all the halls: Christmas tree, nativity scene, colorful lights, and packages around the tree. She set a beautiful table with festive decorations and special Christmas dinnerware, and the aroma of carefully prepared turkey and ham, dressing, various kinds of pies (pumpkin for me), and her famous “pink salad” (especially for her). Since I was a child, Mom made me some special sugar cookies, with green food coloring and shaped like wreaths. After Mom died, my wonderful daughter Heather (all my daughters are wonderful), kept up the tradition by making me some of these delicious cookies. Even though we all love my Dad dearly, Christmas just doesn’t seem the same without Mom.
After Christmas supper, the family gathered in the formal living room for a brief time of reverent reflection and the sharing of gifts. Dad usually asked me to read the Christmas Story from Luke Two, and then he would lead the family in prayer. Even in the midst of all the food and gifts, Mom and Dad never let us forget to worship the Lord Jesus.
These ruminations may read like the sentimental reflections of an aging man (I turn fifty-five on the day we will study this lesson—December 20th), but I think it’s more than that. Of course, I remain grateful for the happy memories of many Christmases with my family, both in Texas and Saint Louis, and I treasure the making of new memories with my beloved wife, three wonderful daughters, two fine sons-in-law, and the smartest, cutest grandson in Texas; but we must never forget that Christmas is more than memory-making.
While the Gospel According to Matthew contains a brief reference to Jesus’ birth, only Luke provides the narrative we have grown to treasure, the story of Bethlehem. Some scholars (Amy Jill Levine, Marcus Borg, and Michael Grant) question the historical accuracy of Luke account, especially as it relates to the material in Matthew. Indeed, they assert that these accounts manifest irreconcilable discrepancies and do not reflect actual historical events; rather, Luke Two reveals, according to these scholars, the interpretive conclusions of the Christian community many years after the life of Jesus
The historical integrity of the Gospel of Luke emerges very early in the narrative and much is theologically at stake for Christians. Frankly, this passage makes clear, unmistakable historical assertions, assertions that historians can either affirm or deny, based on sound, scholarly evidence. The story, in my current understanding, gives no indication of having emerged from the imaginative creativity of the Early Church. Why, for instance, would the Christian community take such great pains to provide the historical setting of Jesus’ birth (references to a census by Augustus and the governorship of Quirenius). If the Early Church fabricated this story, wouldn’t their impulse have been to avoid such historical reference points? Luke’s assertions would have proven easy for his first readers to affirm or discredit. Of course, a thorough assessment of Luke’s historical reliability remains far beyond the scope of this lesson, but many scholars regard Luke as an excellent historian (See, for instance, A.T. Robertson’s significant study on Luke’s integrity, Luke the Historian). Until convinced otherwise, I remain convinced of the historical integrity of Luke’s account.
I. Historical Setting of the Birth of Jesus (vv. 1-7)
A. Political Circumstances Surrounding Jesus’ Birth (vv. 1-2)
1. Caesar Augustus (Octavian) ruled Rome from 31 B.C. to 14 A.D. He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and he assumed full imperial power 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 his taxation in their ancestral hometowns. Joseph and Mary, both from Davidic descent, traveled to Bethlehem, in Judea. Luke reveals that the holy couple journeyed, from Galilee to Bethlehem (this seems consistent with Matthew’s account). Here Mary gave birth to the Christ child, apparently in a stable (the reference to the manger indicates Mary gave birth in makeshift quarters; a very ancient tradition claimed that Jesus was born in a cave that was used as a stable).
2. Sulpicius Quirenius served as governor of Syria, according to secular sources, from 6 to 9 A.D., but Luke mentions an earlier rule (c. 4 B.C.). The governor served Rome faithfully for many years as a military leader, consul, tutor to Gaius Caesar, and legate to Syria. Ancient sources claim that two men served in Syria, near the time of Jesus’ birth: Saturninus (9-7 B.C.) and Varus (6-4 B.C.); however, other materials allow for a brief governorship (perhaps 6 or 4 B.C.). It seems that Quirenius may have served for a brief period fitting Luke’s description.
II. Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem (vv. 8-20)
A. The Angelic Visit to the Shepherds (vv. 8-14): First-Century Judean culture did not regard shepherds highly. These men may have raised sheep for use in the Temple sacrificial system, and they used the public domain land around Jerusalem to pasture their flocks (Bethlehem is located about five miles from Jerusalem). Apparently, several shepherds gathered their flocks, during the night, for mutual protection from thieves or predators. An angel appeared to the men, and great glory enveloped the frightened shepherds. The heavenly messenger comforted the men and announced the birth of the Savior, Christ the Lord; then, other angels appeared and praised the Lord saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace among those with whom he is pleased” (ESV).
B. The Shepherd’s Visit to Bethlehem (vv. 15-16): The shepherds did not delay their quest to locate the babe, and they found the precious family just as the angel had described. Luke did not provide any description of the encounter between the herdsmen and the Jesus’ family; rather, the Gospel writer seems to respect and guard the holy moments that must have characterized this touching experience.
C. The Shepherd’s Witness (vv. 17-20): These men instinctively gave expression to the marvelous things they had seen and heard. The text reveals that they focused their message on the announcement of the angels, and the hearers of the good news marveled at the wondrous things they heard. In contrast, Mary, Jesus’ mother, pondered these things in her heart. This passage indicates two appropriate ways to reflect the glory of the gospel message: praise and quiet contemplation.
III. The Circumcision of Jesus (vv. 21-35):
A. Cleanliness Laws (vv. 22-24): According to the Mosaic Law, parents needed to circumcise their sons eight days after birth (See Leviticus 12:3). Furthermore, the Law considered new mothers unclean for forty days post-partum (See Leviticus 12:1-8), and, at the end of their uncleanness, the Lord directed new families to make a sacrifice of a year-old lamb and a pigeon or turtledove. Because Joseph and Mary were poor, they offered two birds. Some “health and wealth” hucksters may dispute this claim, but the Bible tells us Joseph earned his living as a carpenter, a common artisan. Some scholars believe that Joseph probably worked in Sepphoris, just a short distance from Nazareth.
B. Simeon’s Worship of the Christ Child (vv. 25-35): Though the text does not identify the age of Simeon, church tradition depicts him as quite elderly. Perhaps he had waited many years for the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise of a coming Messiah. Luke says that the Lord promised that Simeon would not die until he had seen the Consolation of Israel. When Jesus’ parents entered the Temple, Simeon took the baby in his arms and broke into spontaneous praise (vv. 29-32; often called the Nunc Dimittis, in reference to the opening words of the hymn, in Latin). Simeon’s poem outlines four great truths.
1. God had kept his promise by letting Simeon see the Messiah, before the old man died (v. 29).
2. God intended the salvation of his people through the person and work of the Messiah (v. 30).
3. God acted according to a divine plan which he had prepared for his people (v. 31).
4. God intended the blessing of the Gentiles through the advent of the Messiah (v. 32).
C. Simeon’s Blessing (vv. 33-35): After concluding his hymn of praise, Simeon told Mary that her son was appointed for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and a sword would pierce her heart. “Rise and fall” may refer to the necessity of repentance for those who would experience the uplifting experience of salvation. Some interpret these words to denote the destruction of those who reject the Messiah, and the salvation of those who follow the Lord. The sword in Mary’s heart clearly describes the anguish she would experience at the death of her beloved son (See John 19:24-27)