Luke chapters one and two

Luke 2:1-7

The Time Came for the Baby to be Born

Context

Luke chapter 1 contains the backdrop to the coming of Jesus into this world. It contains plenty of Old Testament fulfillment comments, priests and descendants of David, an angel and two great prophecies – but no Messiah. Mary was promised to be the mother of Jesus. She is a young Jewish girl living in an unimportant town in Galilee. She is betrothed to a man named Joseph. Mary accepted this privilege by saying that she is the Lord’s humble servant.

Chapter 1 concluded with Zechariah’s prophecy of the Messiah. He will come from the house of David, to save Israel from her enemies. He will be a rising sun from heaven to shine on this dark world and make clear the path of peace.

Observation

These 7 verses contain no dialogue. They paint the landscape for the birth of Jesus from the highest people in power to the lowliest servants unable to even score a room among relatives.

Structure

  • 1-3 What Kings do
  • 4-5 What Servants do
  • 6-7 The Quiet Arrival of God’s King

1-3 What Kings do

“In those days…” These would be the days of chapter 1. At the time of John’s arrival.

“Caesar Augustus issued a decree…” Luke gives us some historic data to work with (see Luke 3:1). It’s good to remember that the Christian faith is based on real times and places with real people and is therefore able to be affirmed or disproved. Caesar Augustus was the first Emperor of Rome and great-nephew to Julius Caesar. Like many or all of the emperors, he held the status of ‘son of God’ and the bringer of peace. Without knowing this, and only relying on Luke’s account, we can easily see that Caesar Augustus had power over the whole Roman world and wished to know exactly who was in his kingdom. He was a powerful man and able to order Joseph and Mary.

“This was the first census…” The exact year of this census is unclear since there is little cross-reference material in history to check it against. It’s probable that it was between 6-4 B.C. Josephus talks of a census by Quirinius in 6 A.D. but this is possibly a different census.

“And everyone went to their own town to register.” Here is the backdrop to the birth of Jesus. Augustus the Great was ordering everyone in his kingdom to go and be counted. And the world listened. He is a king established through power-struggle, battle, and political agenda. One of his ‘subjects’ will be born a King because he is.

4-5 What Servants do

“So Joseph went…” The king ordered and so Joseph went.

“…to Bethlehem the town of David…” We already know that Joseph is from the line of David (Luke 1:27) and that the coming redeemer of Israel will come from the house of David (Luke 1:69). Now we have the descendant of David reunited with the birthplace of David. Joseph goes back to the town where Israel’s King is born.

Bethlehem is 9km South of Jerusalem. It is the town where Jacob’s wife Rachel was buried (Genesis 35:19). The story of Ruth and Boaz centres around the town of Bethlehem and they became the grandparents of David. Micah 5:2 proclaims that the Messiah will come out of Bethlehem.

“He went to register with Mary…” So, in only 5 verses, Luke has relocated Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and confirmed finally that Mary is with child. Just as Mary is the humble servant of the Lord, she is the humble servant of Caesar.

6-7 The Quiet Arrival of God’s King

“…the time came for the baby to be born…” Just reflect on how simply and inconspicuously the saviour of mankind enters the world! Luke has been priming us for the arrival of the Messiah and when he comes it is just another baby born into the world.

“…she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” This baby is human and the loved child of Mary. These remarks are simple but important to Mary, as with any new mother. Her son has been born. To any onlooker, this would just be another child, but the reader, Theophilus, knows who this child is.

“She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger…” This baby, the saviour who will take away the sins of the world, is cared for by his mother. What an amazing baby she had held and fed and gone through labour for. With all the great history of the Old Testament – Moses and the prophets writing about the coming redeemer – and here he is in the arms of a poor little girl. And he has no bed to lie in.

“…there was no guest room available for them.” Or ESV: “…there was no place for them in the inn.” The Bible Background Commentary (IVP) provides a helpful conclusion that Mary and Joseph were likely staying with relatives but that so many relatives had returned to Bethlehem that there was no space left in the guest room. The traditional story of inn-keepers turning Joseph away is a fun one but based on an uncertain translation.

Meaning

The fulfillment of God’s promises and his kingdom of redemption comes subtly and humbly. Humble parents bringing the child of promise into a world of little certainty. Augustine fought for his reign and measured his success on the size of his kingdom. Mary and Joseph could not secure a crib even among relatives. But the baby of promise came.

Application

  • God shows no favouritism. With the contrast between the rulers of the world and Joseph and Mary, God selected virtual ‘nobodies’ to bring the King of Kings into the world! This is a truth echoed in Acts 10:34 and in James 2. He welcomes all to come to his kingdom and he displays no favouritism toward the rich and powerful. Like Luke 1:48, God is mindful of the humble. Let us not show favouritism.
  • God shows humility. Philippians 2:5-11 gives the nature of Jesus’ incarnation as an explicit example of true humility. In what ways does the poem in Philippians exalt humility?
  • Counting our blessings. Mary and Joseph were far from home, close to the bottom of the social food-chain, and making use of animal food troughs for a crib. And yet they looked after the treasure that God had given to them. They held in their hands the only important thing in the world – salvation. Colossians 2:6-7 points the Christian pathway toward an overflowing of thankfulness. How can you put aside your hardships and give thanks to God for the good things he has done and is doing? Is salvation at the forefront of your mind when you think of praise points?

Prayer of the Week

Father God, help us to be thankful for the things you have done. For bringing peace into this world through your Son and for letting us carry the good news in this world, we give you thanks and praise. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

Luke chapters one and two

Luke 1:57-80

The Lord has come to his people and redeemed them

Context

Luke has been interested in the great detail and backstory of the birth of Jesus. The angel Gabriel first came to an old priest named Zechariah and told him his wife, Elizabeth, would have a baby to be named John. Then Elizabeth’s cousin Mary was visited by the same angel to be told that she will give birth to the Christ to be named Jesus. When the two miracle mothers got together there was crying and praising God and Mary spoke poetically about God’s mercy in remembering his promises to Israel.

We come now to the birth episode of John which also contains a prophesy by Zechariah. He had been made silent because of his unbelief. Now his mouth will be opened with inspiration from the Holy Spirit.

Observation

This section has a narrative layout like Luke 1:5-25 but with an extended prophecy just before the close of the story. The turning point of the story is with Zechariah. Just as he had shown doubt to be the key to the first story, he now displays belief with praises to God. Verses 67-79 may have been the very words he spoke in verse 64.

Structure

  • 57-58 The beginning of John’s birth story
    • 59 The problem of John’s birth story
      • 60-64 The Solution – John is named John
    • 65-66 The response to his name
        • 67-75 Zechariah prophecies about Jesus
        • 76-79 Zechariah prophecies about John
  • 80 The end of John’s birth story

This section closes off the first chapter of Luke and while Luke did not place chapter numbers in his original script, we see this whole chapter as a build up to the opening of chapter 2 when the Messiah comes into the world. Jesus is not the main character of any of chapter 1 and yet his coming is the central theme.

57-58 The beginning of John’s birth story

“…she gave birth to a son.” These verses orient the reader to what is about to take place. The occasion is the birth of her son and this section is concluded in verse 80 with the summary of her child growing up. Over nine months her friends and family had come to grips with an old lady being blessed with a child and they were happy for her. Again, we are simply brought up to date with the characters and climate of the story – the scene is set.

59 The problem of John’s birth story

“…came to circumcise the child…” As per Jewish law and tradition (Genesis 17:12; Leviticus 12:3).

“…they were going to name him…Zechariah…” Theophilus knows that the child was meant to be named John (Luke 1:13) and so as he gets to this part of the story, he hears the problem. It would seem best to give him a family name but Zechariah was not the name told to the father and the father was unable to speak anything to correct it.

60-64 John is named John

“…but his mother spoke up…” The problem is amplified with the discussion between Elizabeth and the people. She wanted John but the people argued their case also.

“…they made signs to his father…” either they made the common human mistake of thinking that mute people can’t hear either or Zechariah had also lost his hearing – perhaps with age. This is likely.

“His name is John.” Zechariah, who had shown doubt and faltering in his first scene, now comes through with the goods. Short and to the point. John means “God (Yahweh) is gracious”.

“Immediately his mouth was opened…” Luke 1:20 prophesied that Zechariah would be unable to speak until the baby was born and named John. Here the prophecy is fulfilled. Amazingly, the first thing he does is praise God with his tongue and prophecy about Jesus and John, the two miracle babies.

65-66 The response to his name

“Everyone who heard this wondered about it…” Wrapped in a visual prophecy is the spoken prophecy. The people had been observing Elizabeth and Zechariah for nine months now and witnessed a strange event with the opening of Zechariah’s mouth. They could be amazed at that since it was a very strange thing. But the words spoken by Zechariah make up the ‘song’ of verses 67-79. They, therefore, had all the words of his prophecy to wonder about rather than just temporal muteness, aged childbirth and a strange name.

67-75 Zechariah prophecies about Jesus

“…filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied…” What he speaks in verses 67-79 is inspired and revealed by the Holy Spirit. He was taken up by the moment and the Spirit used this occasion to pronounce precise truths about the two babies we have been hearing about.

Verses 68 to 70 contain words like “redeemed” and “salvation” which embrace the New Testament proclamation of why Jesus came – to save people from their sins. But verses 71 to 75 have a very Old Testament flavour where we expect Israel to regain power and peace among the nations – no longer in fear of others but free to serve Yahweh unhindered. This saviour seems to be a conqueror for the favour of Abraham’s descendants.

There is no conflict, however, since there is no such conflict between the Old and New Testament. Zechariah uses language that he understands as fulfillment to the promises made to Abraham and yet they are true also of our Lord and Saviour. He did bring grace and peace from God to the true people of Israel. All who stand opposed to God’s people are promised to be dealt with in judgement while those who run to the redeemer are saved from sin and death. The greatest enemy to be destroyed is death itself. Lookup and listen to Jesus’ own use of the term ‘enemies’ in Luke 6:35; 10:19; 19:27,43; and 20:43.

To appreciate the non-contradiction here, a course like “God’s Big Picture” is invaluable.

76-79 Zechariah prophecies about John

In these verses we have the prophecy of John who will be a prophet of the Most High (God). Here we see language again of “forgiveness of sins” and “mercy of our God”. John’s calling will be to give people the knowledge of salvation. Luke chapter 3 describes the words and ministry of John the Baptist who “exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.” (Luke 3:20).

John will prepare the way for the Lord – to give people knowledge of salvation which means sins forgiven.

Sins forgiven come from the mercy of God as the light of the world comes to shine in the darkness. The world as we know it lives in the shadows of death but God is bringing salvation – proclaimed and prepared by John – and to be received by the people.

Zechariah has come a long way from doubt and uncertainty. He now proclaims the goodness and mercy of God to be fulfilled by his son in proclamation of the Sun! This mute man can now speak and he talks of light shining in the darkness.

80 The end of John’s birth story

This transitional sentence to close off this segment tells us in brief that John went on to be devoted to God. Luke will leave John the son of Zechariah until chapter 3. Luke, remember, is writing about events that have been retold hundreds of times by people and John’s ministry was not done in secret – he was a public figure and well known in Israel.

Meaning

Knowledge about salvation and confidence in God’s mercy are key to the kingdom of God. Zechariah appears now to have no doubt about what is happening. What he proclaims now is that God has come to bring salvation and his son will prepare the way by reminding everyone of God’s promises and the need to desire holiness and righteousness. God continues to fulfill his word and Luke continues to underscore the real life events of his salvation plan.

Application

  • List all the promises declared by Zechariah in verses 67 to 79 and discuss how they are a reality now and how John and Jesus have changed the world that we know. Which realities do you take for granted and which do you think are still to be fulfilled?
  • Discuss the connections between the Old Testament and the New. Some in your group may be very familiar with how the Old and New testaments complement one another. How would you explain the relationship between the two to an outsider?
  • Pray through Zechariah’s prophesy in your group to simply praise God for his redemption, salvation and light shone into this dark world.

Prayer of the Week

Lord and God, thank you for coming into this dark world to show us your truth. We praise you for Jesus and we thank you for John and Zechariah who prepared the way for your Son. Help us to speak of your salvation and love so that we may guide others to the path of peace. Amen.

Luke chapters one and two

Luke 1:39-56

Why am I so favoured?

Context

Elizabeth, a Jewish priest’s wife, has become pregnant in her old age after a lifetime of barrenness. Mary, her cousin, has been promised to bear a son, not by human means but through the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth’s son will be named John and Mary’s child will be named Jesus. The former will prepare the world for the coming of the latter. Jesus will be the promised king of Israel whose throne will endure forever.

When Elizabeth became pregnant, she began to live in seclusion and five months later, Mary was given her news from God. While Elizabeth’s husband doubted the new he received from God, Mary submitted to the news and believed that God would do it.

Observation

Structure

  • 39-45 Elizabeth’s song
  • 46-56 Mary’s song

39-45 Elizabeth’s song

“…got ready and hurried…” Mary travelled to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home as quickly as she could. She was told by the angel Gabriel that Elizabeth was also carrying a miraculous child and so who better to visit than an older female relative who can give her comfort and guidance and zero grief. If Mary was in any doubt about the news, she may have gone nowhere and waited to see results. But she rushed to see Elizabeth without a hint of being pregnant. Did she rush because of the news of her own child or because of the news that Elizabeth was pregnant? This is unclear but Elizabeth makes it clear that she is the one privileged to have Mary visit her and not the other way around.

“…Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb…” It’s clear from the context (see verse 44) that it was John who leaped in the womb rather than Jesus. Gabriel told Zechariah that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even in the womb. Here we have the evidence that the Spirit of God was igniting the emotions of the baby to be in the very presence of Jesus’ mother. We don’t have the details of Mary’s greeting but it need not have contained any details of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel for the rest of the story to make sense since the Holy Spirit drives the knowledge of John and Elizabeth.

“…Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” One of the primary gifts of the Holy Spirit is the blessing of insight, revelation, enlightenment and such. The prophets only knew what they knew by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is implied that John leaped for joy because of the Holy Spirit in him. It doesn’t take a genius, a doctor, a minister of religion to know and respond to God. It takes the Holy Spirit to see.

“In a loud voice she exclaimed…” The ESV reads, “she exclaimed with a loud cry…” We must register the volume of Elizabeth in her joy! What follows is no monotone statement!

“…the child you will bear!” The NIV implies a future child and would make it possible that Mary is yet to conceive. While it’s not necessary for Jesus to be present or not for the contexts to make sense (since the praise goes to the Lord blessing Mary), the ESV reads better, “blessed is the fruit of your womb”.

“…why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” This reminds me of what John will say in his adult ministry, “…one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Luke 3:16). Elizabeth feels unworthy to have even the mother of Jesus stand before her. Or perhaps more accurately, she cannot believe that she has seen the day when the Lord has come.

“Blessed are you among women…Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” We see here that Elizabeth is beside herself because she is witnessing the promises of God being fulfilled in her presence. Mary is to be blessed among women because of the amazing privilege to be the mother of God’s Messiah. Whether it was every Jewish girl’s prayer to be the mother of the Messiah or not, I do not know and shouldn’t be romanticized.

46-56 Mary’s song

Traditionally, this song is known as the Magnificat (because of the first word in the Latin translation meaning ‘magnifies’). There are four hymns in Luke’s birth narratives and this is the first. It follows the style and themes of Hannah’s song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

“And Mary said…” It’s not important to know if Mary said this right there and then or not. Luke has recorded words that came from Mary.

“My soul glorifies the Lord…my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…” This poetic form gives two parallel statements. The Lord equals God who is the Saviour. Mary’s soul equals her spirit. She glorifies the Lord God by rejoicing and this will translate into expressions of what God has done later in the song. The point here is that glorifying God is about expressing what he has done. The word for glory is the same for the word magnify. Mary doesn’t aim to make God bigger by inventing amazing truths about him. She is stirred up in her inmost being to praise him for what he has done. God is already big and Mary can’t help but sing about him.

“…for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” God’s glory is not that he stands with the strong but that he is merciful to the lowly. Like Hannah’s song of 1 Samuel 2, Mary boasts how God flips people’s situations around. See verses 50 to 54 where it is the humble that are raised and the poor who are filled.

“…all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is the receiver of blessings, not the giver. All generations ought to take note.

“…for the Mighty One has done great things…” Verses 46 to 49 make up the introduction to Mary’s song which introduce glory and praise to the Lord because he is great and has done great things. Mary is his humble servant. The rest of the song declare what God has done for people such as Mary.

“His mercy…” Glory goes to God because he is merciful and that is credited to him from generation to generation. God is unchanging in that we can be sure about him. He doesn’t reward the great and powerful in their own eyes but rather he shows mercy to those who revere him.

“He has performed mighty deeds…” AKA His deeds are great and can squash the high and mighty. He knows the inmost thoughts of a person and if there is no fear of the Lord in them, they do not receive mercy.

“…brought down…lifted up…” The humble revere the Lord and are lifted up. Rulers may be in power briefly, but they do not stay there. In God’s economy, the powerful are shown to be weak and the weak are shown mercy.

“…filled…empty.” Mary was a poor girl with nothing worldly to offer and yet God has blessed her with the honour of carrying Jesus to birth. He is not interested in wealth or power but in the humble and reverential heart.

“…remembering to be merciful to Abraham…just as he promised…” The theme of promise and fulfillment has been constant in Luke from the very beginning of the chapter. He is writing of all that had been fulfilled in his lifetime. All the promises of a forever king were being fulfilled in Jesus’ birth. Mary is now reminding us that this has been the hope of the Jewish people since the time of Abraham. Israel is described as a single person – a servant of God – who is now being helped, lifted up, filled and shown mercy by the God who keeps his word. God promised Abraham’s descendants in Genesis 12, 15 and 17 that Israel would be great and the world would be blessed through them. A humble nation with nothing to offer, has been shown mercy by God to be able to carry the saviour of the world.

“Mary stayed…three months and then returned home.” This section ends with the small detail that just before Elizabeth was about to give birth, Mary leaves. More of Mary’s story is to continue but it won’t be with Elizabeth. This verse acts as a transition from the song and the two mothers to their separate stories.

Meaning

Who are we that we should be shown favour by God? There are no riches, or gifts, power or promises big enough to obtain the generosity and blessings of God. Mary received grace to be blessed with the saviour. Elizabeth was blessed to be in the presence of the Saviour. Israel, was blessed to be the recipients of the child of God. All Christians who fear the Lord and humble themselves before God receive grace through the promises of God fulfilled in Jesus. Blessed are those who have believed that God will and has fulfilled his promises.

Application

  • Pray through Mary’s song by taking each phrase and speaking to God about them in your own words.
  • The relationship we have with God runs deep. It is our spirit or inmost thoughts which God reads and it is our spirit that yearns to know him and be pleased with him. Mary glorified the Lord with her spirit by reflecting on all that God has done. Be mindful of all that God has done for you, your group, your Christian community and for the salvation of all Christians. Sharing stories of God’s goodness to you personally can help one another rejoice in him.
  • Although Mary didn’t sing this song (I don’t think), it might help to think about the songs we sing as a Christian community since they are our poetic expression of God’s word sung together. Perhaps discuss which songs you particularly like and why. Also, do we need to cultivate our singing more?

Prayer of the Week

Father, we praise you for all that you have done and ask that you would create in us a spirit of thankfulness. Amen.