Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,
says Yahweh of Hosts. Zechariah 4:6
Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in! Who is this King of Glory?
Yahweh of Hosts: He is the King of Glory. Psalm 24:9-10
Two events are interwoven here: the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus. Luke intends to suggest that in these two events and what flowed from them, a new epoch began in human history. This was not only a new epoch, but the decisive epoch of all history. As history had its beginning in the creation of "the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1), here is the beginning of the saving process whereby God is to create "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13; see also Isa. 65:17 and Rev. 21:1).
This section has been called the "Gospel of the Infancy." The title is apt, for these stories are truly gospel. Throughout the whole section, like an overture to a symphony, runs the theme: God brings salvation. This is clearly seen in the names of the two boys whose birth is promised. "John" means "The LORD is gracious," and "Jesus" means "The LORD is salvation." In line with these names, God is the actor throughout. Man only waits, hopes, trusts, receives. Zechariah and Elizabeth are past the age when they can have a son. God does the impossible and graciously gives them a son. Mary has not known a man, yet God gives her a son. The shepherds, held in contempt because of the low economic level of their employment, are joyfully surprised at the gracious announcement of the angels. Simeon and Anna have spent their lives in one long, disappointed "looking for the consolation of Israel" (2:25, 38), but now they can give "thanks to God" (2:38), saying, "My eyes have seen thy salvation" (2:30). Man can only wait, hope, receive, praise. Salvation comes from God alone. But salvation comes! Here is "good news."
Each of the central characters in this first section is faced with the unbelievable. "How shall I know this?" asked Zechariah (1:18). "How can this be . . . ?" said Mary (1:34). "What then will this child be?" queried the people at John's birth (1:66). "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see," said the shepherds (2:15). And the people to whom they spoke "wondered at what the shepherds told them" (2:18). Simeon and Anna had spent their lives waiting for the fulfillment of a long-delayed hope. Now the unbelievable is happening--"the consolation of Israel" has come.
Is not all this designed as a fitting introduction to Luke's story? Theophilus, to whom this Gospel is dedicated, knows of the Christian faith, but needs to know the certainty of the things in which he has been instructed (1:4). Luke deftly introduces him to others who, when faced with the unbelievable "good news" about Jesus, needed certainty.
There is much in these chapters which is hard to believe. For the candid reader, however, it is the disbelief of joy (see 24:41). There are angels. There are miraculous births. There is singing in the heavens. There is prophecy. There are songs among men. The supernatural is written large across the face of these stories. This could all be shrugged off with a sophisticated air. But the thoughtful reader will ask himself: Why should it not be so? If the Spirit of God, who "in the beginning" moved over the face of the waters to bring created order out of chaos (Gen. 1:2), was again active to create a new world of righteousness in the midst of broken humanity, is it surprising that miraculous things should happen? Would it not be more surprising if they did not?
Note how sober and controlled the supernatural element is. There is miracle here, but none of it is attributed to the human actors--no, not even to the baby Jesus himself. Other stories of Jesus' childhood, which the Church rejected, tell all sorts of marvels supposedly wrought by the baby Jesus. But here, although it is clear that Luke believes this baby to be divine, he presents him as just a baby like other babies. Heaven here breaks into earth, but the facts are sober and simple.
The background against which Luke pictures Jesus' birth is in great contrast to the event itself. The place of his birth is determined by a decree of Caesar Augustus. Augustus is emperor of the world. Men worship him and call him "savior" (see the Introduction). Here is human might at its zenith. By contrast, the babe of poor, subject parents is human weakness at its lowest. Yet Luke is hinting already what history finally confirmed: Salvation lies not in the emperor, but in the Babe! The lordship of Caesar must yield to the Lordship of Jesus.
Another feature of the background here is the Temple. Heretofore, the Temple in Jerusalem was the place where God's presence was known. It was a magnificent building, with a long and sacred history, dear to the heart of every Jew throughout the world. Jesus was brought into this magnificence as a helpless infant to be dedicated to God--just a babe among hundreds of other babes brought there yearly (2:22-38). But in Simeon's song (2:34-35), one can already sense a conflict between what the Temple then represented and the purpose of God in this child. Salvation is to come no longer through the Temple, but through the babe born in the manger. God's presence will henceforth be found in him whom the angels called "Savior" (2:11).
Thus Luke sets his story in the framework of the two great rivals of Christianity in the first century--the Roman Empire and Judaism. Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. Salvation is in Jesus, not the Temple. With this double affirmation, Luke sends his Gospel out to the Gentile world as a call to faith.
What is the mood in which the story should be read? Subtly, but surely, Luke suggests this to the reader. Of Zechariah we are told that he "did not believe" (1:20). Mary, on the other hand, is "blessed" because she "believed" (1:45). Does not this striking contrast, introduced at the very beginning of the story, suggest that the mood in which the Gospel is to be pondered is one of faith? It is Luke's way of putting what Jesus said to Thomas: As you examine the evidence, "do not be faithless, but believing" (John 20:27). Another element of a proper mood is to be seen in the circle of those to whom the "good news" came. They were simple-hearted, devout people, "righteous before God" (1:6), "looking for the consolation of Israel" (2:25) and "the redemption of Jerusalem" (2:38). To the devout the deepest mysteries of life are revealed. Therefore, let the reading of the story be accompanied by devoutness. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8). Furthermore, read the story with a will to face the evidence. The shepherds, surprised by angels, might well have turned away from their message, either because they thought it an idle tale or because they feared to pursue anything so frighteningly supernatural. Instead, they said, "Let us go . . . and see" (2:15). To the reader who ponders Luke's entire story in this threefold mood, the end of the way is the road to Emmaus, where he stands in holy awe with the two travelers who exclaimed: "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road?" (24:32).
Luke tantalizes us with his date. "In the days of Herod, king of Judea" (1:5). Herod reigned from 37 to 4 B.C. Exactly when during this period did this happen? Luke is more interested in the meaning of what he describes than in precise dates. (Although the exact date of Jesus' birth is unknown, it was several years prior to the year A.D. 1. This discrepancy came about through a mistake in revising the Christian calendar in the sixth century.)
John the Baptist stemmed from an old priestly line on both sides of the house (vs. 5). "Righteous before God" is not meant in an absolute sense (vs. 6). "Walking in all the commandments . . . blameless," indicates that the righteousness of John's parents was that of devout Old Testament folk who took God's Law seriously and sought to obey his known commandments. They were still in need of the "righteousness of God" which is "apart from law . . . through faith in Jesus Christ" (Rom. 3:21-26).
The childlessness of the couple was in no sense a punishment, for they were well pleasing to God. It nevertheless weighed heavily on their hearts, for Elizabeth speaks of it as a "reproach" (1:25). The Jews considered the gift of many children to be a sign of God's blessing (Pss. 127:3-6; 128:3-4). They likewise considered childlessness to be a sign of God's displeasure (1 Sam. 1; 2 Sam. 6:23). One of the deepest reasons for this lay in the fact that since ancient Israel by and large lacked a clear doctrine of personal life after death, emphasis was placed on the belief that a man lived on in his posterity. Thus he could share in the coming glory of Israel, when God would fulfill his promises to her. To be childless, then, meant to be "blotted out of Israel" (Deut. 25:5-6; 1 Sam. 24:21), and thus to miss the future glory God had prepared for his people. Sometimes this led to the adoption of extreme measures to have children (Gen. 30:1-13; Isa. 4:1).
In their personal experience Zechariah and Elizabeth represented the bitter disappointment of generations of pious folk who were earnestly "looking for the consolation of Israel" but found it forever delayed. Ever since the return of the nation from the captivity in Babylon, more than five centuries before, hope had risen again and again, only to be beaten down. Pious living, hopeful waiting, praying--all for what? God makes good promises. But will he ever fulfill them? It was with this supreme question on his mind that Zechariah entered the Temple.
It was the priest's duty to enter the "holy place" to officiate at the altar of incense, while the people waited outside for his blessing following the offering (Exod. 30:1-8). The rising smoke of incense was associated with prayer (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3-4). Hence the people, as well as the priests, "were praying" (vs. 10). In this solemn moment, there appeared to Zechariah an angel. The position "on the right side of the altar" (vs. 11) suggests a place of honor befitting the dignity of the heavenly messenger (see 22:69; Acts 7:55; Eph. 1:20; Heb. 1:3).
Was this purely a subjective experience? It would be easy so to think. Two things, however, should be kept in mind. First, if this is just a subjective experience, it is strange, indeed, that Zechariah would believe in the reality of the experience and yet disbelieve the message it brought. Secondly, can we be sure that angels have no reality? "Angel," in the Bible, often means simply "messenger." Here, however, since the angel is later named (1:19), it is clear that Luke means this as a real appearance of a specific angel. Can we be sure that Luke was wrong? Or can we dismiss all this as poetry? Can we be certain that God has not created intelligent beings who, in an existence quite unlike ours (20:34-36), offer him the service of perfect obedience which we men deny him? Is it not wisdom to stand reverently before the mystery of angels, assuming that we do not know enough to deny their existence, and rejoicing in the fact that God may have "many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands" (Rev. 5:11), who serve him day and night, through whom more things on this earth--yes, even in our own lives--may be wrought "than this world dreams of?"
Fear was the first reaction of Zechariah to the appearance of the angel. Save for those who think God to be some sort of vague, beneficent Presence, this is not surprising. The Bible always pictures it thus (1:29-30; 2:9-10; Rev. 1:17). The approach of the holy God would be our total undoing were it not for his own gracious words, "Do not be afraid" (1:13, 30, 74; 2:10; Rev. 1:17). But we mut bow before the awful majesty of his holiness in fear, before his words of grace can be spoken.
The angel's announcement to Zechariah is called "good news"--gospel! (1:19). The good news had a twofold aspect. It involved God's gracious action for the redemption of the world, and the special part that the family of Zechariah was to have in this. "Your prayer is heard," said the angel (1:13). What prayer? Hardly prayer for a son. Both Zechariah and his wife were past the age to have children (1:7, 18), and surely had ceased praying for what they now regarded as impossible. And if he had still been praying for a son, would he have objected when the angel said his prayer was answered? Furthermore, would Zechariah have been engaged in purely personal prayer in this most solemn moment of his priesthood? It is more likely that in this high hour, as Israel's representative before God, he was praying for the redemption of Israel. Then, too, had the angel's word been directed to his prayer for a son, it would have been more natural to say: "Your prayer is heard. You wife will bear you a son." The place of the and between the two parts of the sentence, however, suggests that two separate things are involved. First, your prayer for the redemption of Israel is heard. Second, as an instrument of preparing the way for this redemption, you will have a son. God offered Zechariah more than he had dared ask!
The name, manner of life, and mission of this son are all significant. John means "The LORD is gracious." Here begins God's gracious fulfillment of his promises of redemption. John will live as a Nazirite (1:15), one who is given wholly to the service of God (Num. 6:1-21; Judges 13:2-5; 1 Sam. 1:11). His mission is to fulfill the prophecy of Malachi with which the Old Testament ends, that one like Elijah would arise to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah (Mal. 3:1; 4:5-6). Elijah was the prophet who, with thundering decisiveness, when the true religion well-nigh perished through the efforts of the pagan queen Jezebel, recalled Israel to faithfulness to God (1 Kings 17-21). Before Messiah came, another would arise "in the spirit and power of Elijah" to call Israel to repentance. The faithful fathers could once more look on their posterity without shame, because Israel would turn from her disobedience and become a people prepared for the Lord (1:17).
The people, waiting in the court of the Temple, wondered at Zechariah's delay. When, upon his appearing, he was unable to pronounce the priestly benediction, they knew that something unusual had taken place. Zechariah made no effort to reveal the announcement which he had received. Nor did Elizabeth. She shut herself up for five months, hiding her secret with the mystery of her husband's dumbness (a judgment on his unbelief, vs. 20), until ridicule of her hope could be silenced by her appearance (1:24-25).
This announcement of the birth of the forerunner shows us that the Old Testament was not wasted. Israel had been unfaithful. Her doom was shortly to come. Yet God worked through the remnant of the faithful in Israel to achieve his purpose. "Your prayer is heard," was God's word to this remnant (1:13).
Six months after the announcement of the birth of John, the same angel appeared to a young woman named Mary, of an obscure village of Galilee, Nazareth. Here, as before, the story is indifferent to the angel's appearance. It deals only with his mission. The greeting of the angel, "O favored one" (vs. 28), has been interpreted by the Roman Church to mean that Mary was "full of grace" which she in turn could bestow. This is an impossible interpretation. The only other place in the New Testament where this word is used it means clearly grace "bestowed" (Eph. 1:6). Mary, then, was favored not because of what she was in herself, but because the Lord was with her (vs. 28), and because she had "found favor with God" (vs. 30). She was not "mother of grace" but "daughter of grace." She was full of grace which she had received, not full of grace which she had to bestow. Mary's reply to the angel's announcement (vs. 34) clearly indicates that she was to have a son before she was married. Efforts of the Roman Church to interpret the expression, "since I have no husband," as meaning, "I never will have a husband," are out of the question. Mary is engaged to be married. Joseph refrained from marital relations only "until she had borne a son" (Matt. 1:25). Mark, Matthew, and Luke all plainly tell us that Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3; Matt. 13:55-56; Luke 8:19).
The description of Mary's coming child identifies him definitely as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. His name is to be Jesus, "The LORD is salvation." Like John he will be "great." The omission, however, of the expression, "before the Lord," used of John (vs. 15), sets Jesus in a special relation to God, as does the description "the Son of the Most High" (vs. 32). Jesus' position as heir of "the throne of his father David," and the eternity of his reign, clearly point him out as Messiah (2 Sam. 7:12-16; Isa. 9:6-7; Ps. 132:11-12; Daniel 7:14; Hosea 3:5).
The means by which the birth of Jesus is to be accomplished is described with exquisite spiritual insight. There is no hint whatsoever of any physical act. There is no procreation, as in pagan myths, resulting from the union between a god and a woman. Jesus' birth is the creative act of the Holy Spirit pictured as the overshadowing of the power of the Most High (vs. 35). The word "overshadow" is the same word used of the cloud out of which the voice spoke at the Transfiguration (9:34). In both places it refers to the cloud in which God's glory was manifested (Exod. 40:34-38; see also Exod. 13:21; 14:19-20; 16:10; 19:9; 34:5). The cloud of God's glory made his presence visible to men, yet at the same time hid him from the eyes of men and preserved the mystery of his being. It both revealed God, and concealed him. So, the birth of Jesus is the mysterious event whereby God revealed himself in a creative act whose nature is totally hidden from us. It calls for worship, not explanations.
To encourage Mary's faith, she was given the sign that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, was also the object of God's grace in the gift of a miraculously conceived son. Furthermore, the angel made obvious reference to the gracious act of God in the gift of a son to Sarah (vs. 37; see also Gen. 18:14). This was not only to encourage Mary's faith, but to indicate that her child was to be the final fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, that by him "all the families of the earth will be blessed" (Gen. 12:3, margin; see also Gen. 15:1-6; 17:15-21; 21:1-7). Jesus is the culmination of all that God has been doing since the days of Abraham.
Mary's response was one of full surrender, which most great paintings of the Annunciation have captured. The announcement made to her could well have had frightful social consequences. In the Jewish custom of that day, an engagement was as binding as a marriage. To be God's servant, Mary had to expose herself to the misunderstanding of Joseph (Matt. 1:18-25), to the possible loss of her reputation and the curse of being considered a sinful woman, and to possible death by stoning (Deut. 22:23-24). She risked all this in surrender to the will of God.
Mary hastened off to visit Elizabeth as the angel had suggested. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in a moment of extreme emotional exaltation, Elizabeth recognized in Mary the mother of Messiah (1:39-45). If her own miraculously conceived son was the promised forerunner (1:13-17), who else could Mary's son be but the Messiah whose way her son was to prepare?
Mary responded in what has come to be known as the "Magnificat," which is the first word of her song in the Latin Bible. Her words combine rejoicing over her own exalted position (vss. 47-49) with the consciousness that through her God is fulfilling his promise to Israel (vss. 54-55). Jesus is not only her son, he is Abraham's offspring (Gal. 3:15-16), he is "great David's greater Son." Mary's hymn also combines God's might and his mercy (vss. 49-50). It is built up largely out of Old Testament materials (see particularly 1 Sam. 2:1-10). Its leading thought is of the inbreaking of the Kingdom to which the whole Old Testament had been pointing. All existing order will be turned upside down, all present standards of measurement will be reversed (vss. 51-53). This, however, is all the result of God's mercy (vss. 50, 54). But how this is to be done--through the suffering and death of the child of promised birth--is not yet hinted. The expression of the hope is purely Old Testament in form. These early hymns go back very near to the original sources, and were comparatively untouched by later Christian theoogy.
Two questions plague the modern mind concerning the story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus. What is its origin? and What is its meaning for Christian faith? Many have seen its origin in a combination of Old Testament prophecy and pagan legend. The Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14 speaks of a virgin conceiving a son. There were also pagan legends about the procreation of children through relations between gods and women. To account for Luke's story of the Virgin Birth on such grounds, however, would seem to fly in the face of the facts. Even though Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 in his account, Luke does not. Luke's story is so different from Matthew's that it indicates a belief in the Virgin Birth in the Early Church quite independent of Isaiah 7:14.
As to pagan legends, two things are clear. First, the New Testament, as the Old, rejected pagan mythology as demonic. It would hardly, then, in this crucial instance, call on pagan mythology to explain the birth of Jesus. Secondly, a comparison of the story with pagan myths makes it impossible to believe that they have the same origin. The myths are crude, sensual, revolting. Luke's story is delicate, spiritual, uplifting. Neither the ideas nor the language bear any relation to pagan stories.
It is more natural to accept Luke's story as the description of transcendent fact, like that of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection, which are facts, but go far beyond mere facts. When eternity touches time, real events take place, but they go far beyond our poor powers of understanding. Furthermore, the creation of such a myth was quite unnecessary, for no direct mention is made of the Virgin Birth in the New Testament save in the accounts of Matthew and Luke. A high view of Jesus was quite possible apart from the Virgin Birth.
Historically, Luke was far closer to the facts than we are, and we have nothing but his story to go on. There is no reason, intellectual or religious, historical or theological, why faith cannot accept Luke's story reverently and gladly as fact.
Having said that, however, the question must still be faced of its meaning for faith. At this point, much misunderstanding must be cleared away. If we accept the New Testament story, we must use it in New Testament ways. First, we must be content to put the Virgin Birth in its New Testament position in the whole structure of faith. It is not the foundation on which faith rests, but a part of its crowning glory which itself rests on the foundation. Had the Virgin Birth been a part of the foundation of the faith, it is difficult to see how the Early Church could have taken its gospel to the world for years without the slightest mention of it. Neither in the preaching of the Early Church recorded in Acts, nor in the theology set forth in Paul's letters, is anything whatsoever made of the Virgin Birth. The Church had a complete saving gospel, which Paul called "the power of God for salvation" (Rom. 1:16), without the slightest mention of the Virgin Birth.
The bedrock foundation of the faith is the resurrection of Jesus, not the manner of his birth. Paul wrote, "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Cor. 15:14). He did not write this about the Virgin Birth. The clearest way to see this is to look at the Gospels themselves. Mark has no story of Jesus' birth yet he tells of the Resurrection. If we had only Mark, would we have a gospel? Most assuredly. On the other hand, Luke and Matthew both tell of the Virgin Birth. Suppose we left the birth stories in them but eliminated the Resurrection, would we have a gospel? Clearly, No. This indicates, then, the different place the birth stories have in the structure of faith from that of the Resurrection.
Since this is true, neither Jesus' deity nor his sinlessness rests on the Virgin Birth. Rather, the Virgin Birth rests on them. The first use made of the Virgin Birth in Christian history was to prove the humanity of Jesus, not his deity. The earliest heresy in the Church was that which denied Jesus' real humanity. To this the Church replied, Jesus was a man for he was "born of woman" (Gal. 4:4), in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Neither the New Testament nor the Early Church ever rested Jesus' deity on his birth. For them he was designated "Son of God in power . . . by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:4). As to Jesus' sinlessness, no point was ever made either by the New Testament or the Early Church that Jesus was sinless because of the method of his birth. Jesus' sinlessness was not a theological theory, but a fact of his human experience. Jesus was sinless simply because he did no sin (John 8:46; Heb. 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22-23). To argue that Jesus was sinless because he had no human father is unbiblical and to be rejected. This sort of thing leads to the Roman Catholic logic that has to make Mary sinless in order to preserve the sinlessness of Jesus by an untainted birth. The New Testament knows of no such thing.
Another approach wholly contrary to the New Testament is to try to prove the Virgin Birth scientifically, by what scientists call parthenogenesis. This is the biological term describing procreation in plant and animal life without union of the sexes. The argument runs: It is now possible to prove scientifically that a child might be born to a human mother without male fertilization. Hence, Jesus could have been born without human father. Since this passes under the cloak of science, and the modern mind is conditioned to believe anything that science is supposed to have proved, many are reassured in this way about the Virgin Birth.
Actually, such reassurance is not only far from the biblical faith, it misses entirely the meaning of the Virgin Birth. If one could prove scientifically, in a fashion that a panel of creditable scientists would unanimously approve, that Jesus was actually born without human father, one would have proved nothing about the New Testament meaning of the Virgin Birth. All that such an investigation would prove is that a boy came into the world without benefit of father. The New Testament faith is that in the birth of Jesus, God came into the world! This is something quite beyond a biological fact. And it can neither be proved nor disproved by science. It is rather something to be believed, or disbelieved. There is no proof, only testimony. One must believe that in the Virgin Birth God entered human life redemptively, and that he did so for me!
What, then, is the religious meaning of the Virgin Birth in Luke's Gospel? First, it shows that Jesus' coming was God's action, not man's. God alone brings salvation! In a normal birth, man participates with God in his creative work. But salvation can never be wrought by the will of man. Man does not help God save him! God begins, continues, and completes the work of salvation. Man can but believe, surrender, accept, praise, serve, as did Mary. God came to earth without human choice or aid.
Again, the Virgin Birth suggests that in Jesus, God began the creation of a new humanity. Just as the first Adam came directly by the creative act of God, so Jesus, as the "last Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45; Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:22), came directly from God as the beginning of a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). The chain of cause and effect was broken. Here was the creation of a new order of life, the eternal order, which could not be captive to death as the order of the old Adam was. It is this new creation to which the Virgin Birth testifies.
The Virgin Birth also attests the fact that Jesus was born as God's Son and Messiah, and did not become so at a later time, as for example, at the Baptism or the Resurrection. He did not achieve Sonship by good behavior. He was not accepted as God's Son as the reward for spiritual accomplishment. He was not a mere man promoted to a special relation to God. He was God's Son and Messiah from the beginning. This One born of the Virgin Mary existed with God from all eternity. His birth was a real incarnation, a real coming of God himself into human flesh.
We may sum it all up by saying that in Jesus' birth by a Virgin there is something inherently right, something wholly congruous with all that Jesus was, and is, and shall forever be. Here is abiding mystery and glorious suggestiveness which does not yield itself to argument and proof. It summons to worship and faith. The surest path to the acceptance of the mystery of his birth is to believe the mystery of his Person.
The birth of John was a stirring event. It was a sign of God's "mercy" (vs. 58) that a child should be born to Elizabeth in her old age. How great that mercy was, however, in choosing him as the forerunner of Messiah, the people did not know. That is still the secret of the parents, save as Zechariah hints of it in his song of praise. Because of the strangeness of the events, "marvel" and "fear" and rumor ran rampant (vss. 63-66). In the light of the strong Messianic hope in the hearts of the Jews at that time, and the obvious special relation of God to this boy's birth, it is not surprising that all should wonder, "What then will this child be?" (vs. 66).
The prophetic song of Zechariah (vss. 68-79) is couched in Old Testament terms, saying nothing about John's work as a baptizer, nor his future martyrdom, nor the sufferings of Messiah whose way he was to prepare. This strongly suggests that it truly reflects what was in Zechariah's mind at that time, and has not been colored by later events.
This song, the Benedictus, named for its first word in the Latin Bible, is divided into two parts. The first (vss. 68-75) deals with the salvation now about to break in through the coming of the Messiah in the child of Mary. In accord with God's promise to the Fathers through the prophets (vss. 70, 73), he is now about to redeem his people (vs. 68). The redemption is called a "visit," a mighty intervention of God after a period of apparent inactivity, to save his people and overcome his enemies. It is also described as raising up "a horn of salvation," an Old Testament figure of strength, based on the might of the horn of a wild bull (Pss. 18:2-3; 132:17; Ezek. 29:21). Salvation is to come through a member of "the house of his servant David" (vs. 69), thus fulfilling the Messianic promise made to David.
In what would this salvation consist? As the first Exodus from Egypt released them from their enemies so that they could serve God in the way he commanded (Exod. 5:1-3; 7:16; Ps. 106:7-12), so this would be a new Exodus, whereby they would be free of Roman demands which kept them from serving God according to his will. There is no note of vengeance on enemies, only freedom from them, so that "without fear, in holiness and righteousness" (vss. 74-75), they could serve God. This suggests that there was a spiritual nucleus in Israel who saw that salvation must consist not only in political but also in religious deliverance.
The second part of the Benedictus centers on the mission of John. He is "the prophet of the Most High" whose function it is to prepare the hearts of the people to receive God's "visit." This is to be done by proclaiming "the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of . . . God" (vss. 76-78). Repentance which leads to forgiveness is John's message (3:3), whereby the people were prepared to receive Jesus. It is significant that Jesus' first disciples were followers of John (John 1:35-51). The final picture of the Messianic salvation is that of the rising of the sun. God's people have been sitting in darkness, like travelers who cannot move at night. Psalm 107:10-14 pictures their darkness as that of manacled prisoners, sitting in the very "shadow of death." But now the dawn comes, to light their way out of captivity and distress into God's "way of peace" (vs. 79). The Messianic Age for which Israel has hoped so long is breaking in. John heralds the coming dawn. Jesus is the "sun" who bursts over the horizon in splendor (see Mal. 4:2). They do not yet know that it will be the splendor of a cross.
John dwelt apart, in the wilderness, which was a favorite training ground for God's servants (vs. 80). Moses had his training there (Exod. 3). The whole nation spent a period of forty years there, where they received their law and their worship (Exodus and Deuteronomy). It was fitting that he who prepared the people for the new Exodus should spend his days of preparation in the wilderness. It has been remarked that in God's Kingdom, the wilderness is often more important than the universities.
The story of the birth of Jesus is the most amazing "good news" (vs. 10) ever to fall on human ears. Here is the hinge on which history turns, the dividing point between old and new, the single event which gives meaning to all other events. And yet, how naturally it is told. Two verses suffice to tell all that took place at the birth (vss. 6-7). Nothing unusual happened, save that the child was born in a stable, had a cattle trough for his first cradle, and his mother was probably unattended (vs. 7 implies that Mary herself wrapped him in swaddling cloths). "How silently the wondrous gift is given!" The birth of a baby, like millions of other babies, save poorer and more unnoticed than most--and God has entered human life! Would it have been told this way if it were not true?
The historical situation in which Luke sets the birth of Jesus has long been the subject for debate. Jesus lived in Nazareth, in Galilee. Why, then, was he born in Bethlehem of Judea? Some have seen Old Testament proof-texting at work here. Micah said something about Messiah's birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Therefore, it is alleged, Matthew and Luke contrived to have him born there to fulfill this prophecy. Of Luke this can hardly be said, for he makes no direct use of the Micah prophecy. Furthermore, the Jewish conceptions of the Messiah were varied, and in some of them Bethlehem played no role (John 7:27). Hence, it was not really necessary to have Jesus born in Bethlehem to believe in him as Messiah.
Former study failed to find an enrollment under Quirinius earlier than A.D. 7, although Jesus was born likely somewhere between 7 B.C. and 4 B.C. (see the discussion of 1:5-25). More recent study, however, has produced evidence tending to support Luke in his historic facts. It is known that the Romans forced owners of property to return to the place of the possession to have it recorded for tax purposes. These enrollments sometimes took years--40 years in Gaul!--for they were strongly resisted. It is quite possible that the enrollment under Quirinius was begun long before A.D. 7, and that Luke's historic facts are exact.
To be overly concerned about this, however, is to miss the point of Luke's reference. He was not at all interested in giving us the precise date of Jesus' birth. He was rather doing something much more profound. He was giving us the clue to the meaning of history. By the decree of Augustus the Messiah was born where God had chosen. In setting the Babe over against the Caesar, Luke is proclaiming that God is Lord of history. History is ruled not by fate, nor by the will of man, but by God. Not Caesar, but Christ, is Lord (vs. 11).
Jesus' birth is set over against the Caesar, too, because Jesus is "a Savior" (vs. 11). Augustus was called "savior." His word was called "gospel" (see the Introduction). But Augustus' "good news" would ultimately turn to bad news. His "salvation" could not meet the deepest needs of men. His kingdom could not last. Here was the true "Savior," sent from God, who should meet men at the deep level of "the forgiveness of their sins" (1:77). "Of his kingdom there will be no end" (1:33).
The birth of Messiah was not first proclaimed in Caesar's halls nor in Herod's palace, but to humble shepherds in the fields. Here began the total reversal of the values of this world, of which Mary spoke in the Magnificat. Heaven's richest treasure was given to "those of low degree" (1:51-53). "I bring you good news . . . for to you is born . . . a Savior" (2:10-11). The news was for "all the people" (vs. 10), but they would have to become as humble as these shepherds to receive it, yes, even as "a child" (18:17).
The angel's description of the newborn Babe involved three things: his function, his office, and his dignity (vs. 11). His function was to be "Savior," which he himself later described in the words: "For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost" (19:10). His office was that of the "Christ," or Messiah. He was to be King over God's people, fulfilling all the rich promises for which Israel had been waiting through the centuries (2 Sam. 7:12-16; Matt. 2:1-2). His dignity is seen in the word "Lord." This is the word used in both Old and New Testaments to describe God himself. Here is the One in whom God has appeared in human history to establish his Lordship over the entire universe (Phil. 2:11; Eph. 1:20-21; Col. 2:9-10, 15).
The sign given to the shepherds to confirm the "good news" of the angel was strange, but full of meaning (2:12). The cry of a baby, the smell of a stable, the age-worn trough of stone, the crunch of dry hay--not here would men have expected to find their Deliverer. Not in this fashion would men have looked for God's visit to earth. But this was the angel's sign--"a babe . . . swaddling cloths . . . a manger."
The song of the "multitude of the heavenly host" is difficult to translate (vs. 14). The difficulty is with the word "pleased." Does it refer to a disposition of men toward God which is pleasing to him? Or to a disposition of God toward men? Recently discovered parallels in the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that the expression means "men of God's favor." Hence, there is glory to God and peace among men on earth, because it pleased God, in his grace, to send his Son into the world. The peace is not political peace, nor sentimental good will, for Jesus came not to "bring peace, but a sword," even dividing families over loyalty to him (Matt. 10:34-39; Luke 12:51-53). It is rather the peace of a right relation to God, through the forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:77).
The shepherds went to investigate the sign offered by the angel, and found just what they had been told--parents, a Babe, and a manger. They rejoiced in what they had found, and told others of the appearance of the angels to them in the fields. Those who heard "wondered at what the shepherds told them" (2:18), impressed and amazed, perhaps touched with superstitious wonder, but finding nothing in the Babe to confirm the report, or to stir their hopes. Mary, on the other hand, found that what they said accorded with what the angel had announced to her (1:31-33). She kept her secret, pondering all in her heart, awaiting the child's growth and manifestation (vs. 19). As a devout member of Israel, she had the child circumcised at the end of eight days (Jesus was born a Jew, born "under the law," Gal. 4:4; see Lev. 12:3), and gave him the name commanded by the angel--Jesus (vs. 21). In this name she expressed her faith and hope, for it means, The LORD is salvation."
Luke tells us much about the poverty of Jesus' parents in a subtle way, by describing the offering they made--"a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons" (vs. 24). If a woman could afford it, she was to offer a lamb and a young pigeon or a turtledove. But "if she cannot afford a lamb," then a turtledove or a young pigeon could be substituted for the lamb (Lev. 12:8). How often this had to be resorted to we do not know, but it at least indicates that Jesus' parents were numbered with the common folk.
Luke's emphasis that all was done "according to the law" (2:22, 23, 24, 39) shows how fully Jesus was identified with his people. He was not above the Law, but under the Law, living out a life of complete obedience to God under the conditions common to his people. His coming did not do away with God's Law. That had to be fulfilled either by us, or by God himself for us. The latter is what Jesus came to do (Matt. 5:17-20).
Luke shows the vital connection between the Old Testament and the New by giving us the story of Simeon and Anna and their part in the dedication of Jesus. They represent the best of the Old Israel, "righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel" (vss. 25, 37-38). Their hopes, piety, and prayers were directed toward the future, when God would bring the "consolation" and "redemption" promised by the prophets in the Messianic Age (Isa. 40:1-2). Quickened by the Holy Spirit, Simeon saw in the baby Jesus the Child of his hopes. Taking him in his arms, he broke out in praise to God in what has come to be called the "Nunc Dimittis"--the two first words in the Latin version (vss. 29-35). After blessing God for the personal gift of seeing the Messiah, he spoke prophetically of his mission. The wonder of Jesus' parents at Simeon's words lay in the fact that they went beyond those of the angel (1:32-33), in mentioning his mission to the Gentiles (vs. 32; see Isa. 42:6; 49:6). The mission was spoken of as "a light," not so much a light for pagan minds, but, in the sense already seen (1:79), the light which would guide men out of the darkness of death's shadow into the way of God's forgiveness. (See Isaiah 49:6, where light is equated with salvation.)
The most startling thing about Simeon's words is that they introduce for the firs time the note of sorrow into the story of Jesus' birth (vss. 34-35). All the songs hitherto have spoken only of joy. Here is sadness. God's saving action always produces a crisis, a division, depending on men's response. All Israel looked for political deliverance. Only the Remnant sought spiritual deliverance. It was plain, therefore, that One who came to be a "revelation to the Gentiles" (vs. 32) rather than to conquer them, would be rejected. Many would "fall" over him. He would be "a sign that is spoken against" (vs. 34). The real motives hidden in the hearts of men would "be revealed," for they would have to decide either for him or against him. The outcome would be suffering which would pierce Mary's soul like a sword (vs. 35). Thus early the shadow of the Cross falls upon the story.
The prophetess, Anna, added her word to that of Simeon, speaking of Jesus "to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (vs. 38). This group was small, and the fulfillment of their hopes lay yet more than thirty years away, in a Cross and a Resurrection. But with all the truly faithful in the Old Testament, they "died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar" (Heb. 11:13).
The Temple where Jesus was dedicated was magnificent beyond words. More than half a century was required to build it. It was projected by Herod as a memorial to himself. He determined to make it larger and more glorious than Solomon's Temple. Its dome was covered by pure gold leaf. Its altar and utensils were glittering and majestic. It was the center of all the hopes of every Jew throughout the world. It was filled with priests, busy with their official duties but dull to their spiritual function. To this Temple Jesus was brought. He drew no attention from the officials. Only a few pious folk had their hopes stirred by his presence. Here is the Old Israel in all its outward, official splendor, set over against the New Israel embodied in this Babe. The simple goodness of this Child will ultimately be pitted against all the might of official Judaism. One day he will enter this very Temple in wrath and brand it " a den of robbers" (Luke 19:46). His spiritual authority will be challenged by the official authority of the chief priests and scribes and elders (20:2). One can already feel that the Baby and the Temple cannot well exist together. The first faint echoes of Jesus' later words can almost be heard: "There shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down" (21:6).
The infancy story comes to its close with one of Luke's favorite short summaries, which connects with the story to follow. The lad grew in body, mind, and spirit. All is natural and normal. Here is real "incarnation." God actually became man, taking upon himself all the limitations, weaknesses, necessities of growth, which are the lot of man--all save sin (Heb. 2:17; 4:15).
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