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Go to Bible: Luke 2
“decree.” The Greek is dogma (#1378 δόγμα), and here it means an imperial declaration which had the force of a law and carrying civil penalties for disobedienc. For more on dogma, see commentary on Acts 16:4.
That Caesar’s decree was issued is a fact of history, but in this section of Luke it reminds us of the worldly and civil powers of this age that have been, and with the birth of Christ will be in a new and more sharply focused way, in conflict with the ways of God.
“Caesar Augustus.” The introduction of Caesar Augustus here is more than a historical note to set the basic time period and explain why Joseph went to Bethlehem when he did. Luke 2:1-14 has a lot of information and vocabulary that directly contrasts Augustus to Jesus Christ. The noted New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says, “…the point Luke is making is clear. The birth of this little boy [Jesus] is the beginning of a confrontation between the kingdom of God—in all its apparent weakness, insignificance and vulnerability—and the kingdoms of the world” (Wright, Luke for Everyone).
Octavius, better known as Caesar Augustus (September 23, 63 BC – August 19, 14 AD ), reigned from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, his adopted son Octavius was named as heir. It took many years and battles for Octavius to be recognized as sole emperor, although he himself rejected the normal titles given to rulers and called himself Princep Civitatis (roughly, “First Citizen of the State”). His reign ended the Roman Republic and was the first stage of the Roman Empire. In 27 AD the Roman Senate gave Octavius the title “Augustus,” from the Latin word augere (“to increase”) and the title is roughly equivalent to “Great,” “Majestic,” “Illustrious,” “Venerable.”
Augustus was a very effective leader. He greatly enlarged the empire; set up client states on the borders of Rome to protect the empire from external invasion; reformed taxation; built a network of roads that connected the empire and better allowed for trade, travel, and the swift movement of the army; established the official bodyguard-army known as the Praetorian Guard, created official police and firefighters for the city of Rome, and built and/or refurbished many buildings in Rome, including temples, baths, theaters, and much more. Knowingly or unknowingly, we still recognize Caesar Augustus every year, because in 8 BC the month of August was named after him.
It is in the general context of what Caesar Augustus accomplished that we see in Mark 1:1 and Luke 2:1-14 the conflict between the world and the Word; between the “son of god” (Augustus) and the Son of God (Jesus Christ); and between the worship of “the gods” (the Emperor Cult) and the worship of “God” (the Father of Jesus Christ).
For one thing, Augustus declared that his adopted father, Julius Caesar, had been deified at death and thus was a god, and so Augustus became known as a “son of god.” Also, the reign of Augustus began what historians refer to as the Pax Romana (“Peace of Rome”) a period of over 200 years in which there were no large-scale wars within the borders of the Roman empire (although there were constant border wars as the Romans enlarged the empire). Thus, Augustus was hailed as one that brought an end to war and thus issued in peace on earth. Furthermore, due to what Augustus had accomplished, he was referred to as “savior” by the people, and he was also called by the common Roman title, “lord.” Also, the birth of Augustus was said to be the beginning of the “good news” to the people of the world because of what he accomplished. The Priene Calendar Inscription says, “the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [euaggelion; “good news”] for the world that came by reason of him” (translation from Wikipedia. The text of the Priene Calendar Inscription can be found in many sources).
But Luke 2:1-14 shows us that it was angels who brought the true euaggelion, “Good News” to earth (Luke 2:10), and it was not about the birth of Augustus, it was about the birth of Jesus Christ who was the only begotten Son of God (Luke 2:11; Mark 1:1). Furthermore, Jesus, not Augustus, is the real “Savior” and “Lord” (Luke 2:11), and it is only Jesus Christ who can and will bring genuine peace on earth (Luke 2:14).
The contrast that is set forth between Caesar Augustus and Jesus Christ in Mark and Luke is not nearly as clear to us today as it was at the time of Christ. In Augustus’ day people were actively proclaiming him “lord” and “savior,” building temples to him and saying he brought peace to earth. We do not experience that today, but it was part of daily life in the time of Christ, and thus the wording of Mark and Luke forced people back then to make a choice—and still today, 2,000 years later, Mark and Luke still call out to people to make a choice. Who is the “Lord”? Who is the “Savior”? Who brings peace and prosperity to earth? And who has the power to give everlasting life? Is it the world? The world wields civil power and it offers peace and prosperity and fun and excitement. It promises much but like its god, the Devil (2 Cor. 4:4), it delivers little or nothing and its end is annihilation.
Jesus Christ is the true Lord and Savior. He lived a humble life of service and self-sacrifice, and he offers that to his followers (Matt. 16:24-25). But he also offers inner peace, a purpose-filled life, and joy. Most of all, he offers everlasting life in a wonderful new body, with wonderful people and he and God all together in a wonderful place. That is the real “Good News.”
“all the inhabited world.” In the time of the first century the Roman Empire was the entire known “world.”(top)
|Luk 2:2||- (top)|
“his own city.” This is not the city in which the person lived, but the city in which they were born.(top)
“Joseph also went up.” There is no indication that the Roman government demanded people leave their homes immediately after the decree was made and begin the journey to their ancestral homes. People were apparently given many months in which to arrange their lives so they could go to their ancestral home to register for taxation. But Joseph took the need to travel to Bethlehem to be registered as an opportunity to escape the social pressure and judgment that certainly must have existed in Nazareth, so he took Mary with him and stayed in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus Christ.
“Bethlehem.” It is quite common in Christian teaching today to hear that Jesus was born in a small insignificant town in Israel, a “nowhere town” in “nowhere Israel.” That is simply not true. Although biblical Bethlehem was a small town, it was one of the most famous towns in Israel. Besides, it was not at all unusual for a town like Bethlehem, which was close to the western edge of the Judean Wilderness and quite arid, to have a smaller permanent population.
Bethlehem was seven miles south of Jerusalem, and it was still famous as the birthplace of King David and called “the city of David” nearly 1,000 years after David had died. Furthermore, the eyes of Israel remained focused on Bethlehem through the centuries because the prophet Micah foretold the Messiah would be born there (Micah 5:2). In addition, a trade route went south from Jerusalem through Bethlehem that then continued south to the famous city of Hebron, where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had lived and where David had been anointed king by the tribe of Judah (2 Sam. 2:4). The trade route then continued on south to Beer-sheba, and then southwest to Egypt. So Bethlehem was not some “sleepy little town” that was “out of the way.” It was a famous town on a well-traveled trade route only a couple hours walk from Jerusalem.
In Hebrew, “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread,” and that was true in more ways than one, for not only was the area of Bethlehem a fruitful place to grow grain that was then ground into bread, but as the birthplace of the Messiah the name “Bethlehem” was typological because Bethlehem was the place where “the Bread of Life” came into the world.(top)
“along with Mary.” Tradition states that Joseph walked and Mary rode on a donkey, but there is no evidence of that, it is only tradition. While Mary may have ridden on a donkey, it is also possible she walked. The journey, if down the Jordan Valley and up from Jericho, would have been about 90 miles, while if they traveled the road directly through Samaria, which many people did, would have been about 70 miles. Donkeys were expensive, and while Joseph may have owned one, it is also possible that because Joseph was poor he could not afford to own a donkey (for example, he could not afford a lamb for a birth sacrifice; cp. Luke 2:24).
“had been betrothed.” Matthew 1:20, 24 make it clear that by this time Mary was already Joseph’s wife. Why then does the text emphasize the betrothal here and not the marriage? The answer is because the couple’s union had not yet been consummated; they had not as yet had sexual intercourse (Matt. 1:24-25) (Hendriksen).
This verse highlights a biblical custom that is hard to see in English. The Greek verb mnesteuō (#3423 μνηστεύω) is in the perfect (past) tense, passive voice. In the ancient Near East, betrothal, the promise of marriage, usually was a contract between the parents of the groom and the parents of the bride. Marriages were arranged, and often many years before the couple was of marriageable age. The perfect tense, passive voice verb shows that the betrothal, the engagement, was something that happened to Mary, not something she did. She did not “get engaged,” her engagement happened to her. This is a much different picture than modern western courtship. The problem with the English translation “had been betrothed” (or “had been engaged”) is that is how we say it when someone used to be (“had been”) betrothed, but is no longer betrothed because the engagement was broken off. Thus it is very hard to produce the truth that is in the Greek text into English without giving the wrong idea. On balance, we decided that communicating that Joseph and Mary were betrothed at the time was more important than trying to produce the custom that the engagement had happened to Mary in the past but risk people thinking they were not still engaged.
“was pregnant.” The Greek word is egkuos (#1471 ἔγκυος), a compound word from the preposition en, “in” and the word kuō, the womb. It literally means, “to have in the womb” (Louw-Nida). It simply refers to being pregnant. It does not refer to how far along the pregnancy was. The King James Version and a couple other English versions support the traditional Christmas story by translating egkuos as “great with child.” That is an unwarranted translation, because the Greek word simply means, “to have in the womb,” “to be pregnant.” It shows us Mary was pregnant, but does not tell us how far along she was. Joseph was a wise man, and wisdom would dictate that he would not travel with her when she was on the verge of giving birth. While it is true that at that time it was difficult to tell exactly when a woman would give birth, if she gave birth on the road that would be exceedingly difficult for the family, so if she had started early contractions, or Braxton-Hicks contractions, it is unlikely Joseph would have traveled with her. Actually, since both Joseph and Mary knew the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy, and since they had relatives in Bethlehem and were both a “royal” couple who would have been gladly received by many homes, they almost certainly would have allowed plenty of time to be in Bethlehem.(top)
“while they were there.” The Greek is more literally, “in their being there.” This is well translated as, “while they were there,” which is the translation in most English versions. Note that this verse makes it clear that they had not just arrived that day. The specific Greek phrase occurs in three other verses besides this one, and it does not refer to just arriving or just starting something—it refers to being “in” the middle of something. In Luke 5:12 Jesus was visiting a town when a man came to him to be healed. He had not just arrived at the town, he was “in” it. In Luke 9:8 the disciples came to him “while” he was praying. He had not just started, he was in the midst of prayer. Similarly, in Luke 11:1 Jesus was “in” prayer, and when he had finished a disciple asked a question.
The point is that Joseph and Mary had not just arrived in Bethlehem, as the traditional Christmas story teaches. They had been in Bethlehem a while, but the Bible never says exactly how long.(top)
“firstborn son.” The word “firstborn” (prōtotokos, #4416 πρωτότοκος) here foreshadows the birth of Mary’s other children. She had at least six besides Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, Judas, and at least two daughters (Matt. 13:55-56). Jesus was God’s “only begotten” son, but Mary’s “firstborn” son. Mary and her sons, Jesus’ brothers, are mentioned in Luke 8:19.
“no space for them in the guestroom.” The Greek is: διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι. [διότι (because) οὐκ (not) ἦν (there was) αὐτοῖς (for them) τόπος (a place) ἐν (in) τῷ (the) καταλύματι (guestroom)]. Young’s Literal Translation (1862), which is similar to the REV, reads, “there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.” Some more modern versions are similar: the CEB (Common English Bible, 2011) reads, “there was no place for them in the guestroom” while the NIV2011 reads, “there was no guest room available for them.”
The traditional story of the birth of Christ has Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem late in the day or perhaps even at night, desperately seeking lodging because Mary is in, or about to be in, labor, only to find there are no vacancies in the inn. Upon receiving no help from the people of Bethlehem, they retire to a stable (some traditions say the stable is in a cave), where Mary gives birth and Jesus is placed in the manger from which the animals eat. However, this understanding of the nativity stems largely from extra-biblical works and tradition imported into the gospels, rather than study of the biblical record itself. The actual story of the birth of Christ was that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem some time before Jesus was born, were taken into a home there, most likely that of a relative, and Jesus was born in the home in the normal way of village birth. This will all be explained below.
Much misinformation about the birth of Christ came from a document that was widely circulated in Christian circles in the early centuries of the Christian era. It is referred to by scholars as the Protevangelium of James, and it is likely from the third century AD, although it is possible, but not likely, that it dates as early as 150 AD (see Wilhelm Schneemelcher, editor, New Testament Apocrypha, “The Protevangelium of James,” pp. 370-388). This is the first document scholars are aware of that refers to Jesus being born close to Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem, although in the Protevangelium, Jesus is born in a cave before Joseph and Mary even reach Bethlehem. Other traditions started because the way people lived in Israel at the time of Christ was not known in the West as the traditions formed. So, for example, in the West, mangers are in stables, so the tradition started that Jesus was born in a stable even though the Bible never says that. Many homes at the time of Christ had mangers in the house.
In order to see what really happened when Christ was born, we will need to glean facts from both the Greek text and the culture of the ancient Near East (which, by the way, existed in many parts there until quite recently). Too often the Greek text alone has been used to try to reveal biblical truth. The Greek text alone is not enough to rebuild the truth of the biblical events for a very simple reason: when something in a culture is usual, well known, normal, or “standard operating procedure,” it is not written about in detail. For example, if I write a letter to a friend about visiting my mother at Christmas, I might say, “I drove to her house.” I would never write: “I went to Mom’s house in my car, which is a large metal and plastic mobility device on wheels, with a gasoline engine that starts when an ignition key is turned and I made it move by pedals on the floor, (etc.).” It would be ridiculous to write that because everyone in today’s culture knows what I mean when I say, “I drove to Mom’s house.” Perhaps 2000 years from now, if culture has changed so much that only a few historians know what a car is, they might wish we described our driving in more detail, but that is not necessary today. In the same way, things that were part of the everyday culture of the Bible times were not described in detail in their writings. We have to learn about the ordinary things of ancient life by piecing together details from many texts and writings, by using archaeology to study the material a culture left to us, and by studying any cultures that still live the same way they lived in biblical times.
The Bible makes it clear that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for some number of days before Mary gave birth. In fact, they could have been there for weeks. It seems logical that Joseph would not wait until Mary was uncomfortable in her pregnancy to take her to Bethlehem. The impression that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem very close to Mary’s time to give birth comes from Luke 2:5 in the King James Version, which says Mary was “great with child,” but that is a mistranslation of the Greek text influenced by the traditional Christmas story. The Greek text says only that Mary was pregnant and does not indicate how far into her pregnancy she was. Luke 2:6 (KJV) then says: “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” R. C. H. Lenski writes: “This was not the day of Joseph’s and Mary’s arrival…” (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel, p. 126). Many good commentaries make the point that Joseph and Mary did not arrive in Bethlehem the night Mary gave birth, but, scholarship does not often have the power to overturn tradition, with its well-entrenched stories, songs, and paintings. But if Mary and Joseph arrived some time before she gave birth, why was it that “there was no room for them in the inn”? Surely Mary and Joseph could have found a suitable place to give birth to the Messiah in their days in Bethlehem—and they did.
Before we look at the mistranslations of “room” and “inn,” however, let us look at some reasons Joseph and Mary could have found a place to stay. (These reasons are also enumerated in Kenneth Bailey’s, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 25, 26) First, Joseph was returning to his town of origin. Historical memories are long in the Middle East, and family support is very strong. For example, Paul knew he was a descendant of Benjamin the son of Jacob, but Benjamin had lived more than 1500 years before Paul. Once Joseph announced that both he and Mary were descendants of families from Bethlehem, many homes would be open to them.
Second, both Joseph and Mary were “royals,” from the royal line of David. David is so famous in Bethlehem that it is called, “the city of David” (Luke 2:4). Being from that famous family would have meant that most homes would open their doors to him. Third, in every culture women about to give birth are given special help. As Kenneth Bailey puts it: “Was there no sense of honor in Bethlehem? Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed. To turn away a descendent of David in the city of David would be an unspeakable shame to the entire village” (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 26). If for some reason Bethlehem was so totally filled with guests and visitors that no one would open their homes to Joseph and Mary, their relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth lived only a short distance away, in the hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39 – NASB), and Joseph and Mary could have gone there with only a little effort. In fact, Mary had visited Elizabeth early in her pregnancy (Luke 1:40). So Joseph and Mary could have found adequate housing and care if they needed it.
Another reason we know Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus were being well taken care of is that when the shepherds arrived, they saw the family and their new-born Messiah and then left. God’s people had waited thousands of years for this Messiah, and if the baby Messiah was not in good circumstances the shepherds would have immediately been confused and offended, and taken the whole family back to their own homes. The fact that they left the Joseph, Mary, and Jesus where they were shows they were satisfied that their Savior was being well taken care of.
Joseph and Mary were not rejected by a local hotel that had its “no vacancy” sign turned on. The phrase “no room in the inn” is a mistranslation that continues to support a very serious misunderstanding about the birth of Christ. Two Greek words we must understand to properly interpret the biblical account are topos (#5117 τόπος; usually translated “room”), and kataluma (#2646 κατάλυμα; usually translated “inn”). The word topos occurs more than ninety times in the New Testament, and does not refer to “a room,” but simply a place or space in a given area. In this case, there was no “space” available for Joseph and Mary in the kataluma. What is the kataluma? It does not refer to a commercial lodge, or inn, but simply means a “lodging place” or “guestroom.” Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon says of kataluma: “lodging place. The sense inn is possible in Luke 2:7, but in 10:34 Luke uses pandocheion, the more specific term for inn. Kataluma is therefore best understood here as lodging or guest-room.”
To properly understand the birth narrative of Jesus Christ, it is vital that we understand that the normal Greek word for “inn” is pandocheion (#3829 πανδοχεῖον), and it refers to a public house for the reception of strangers (caravansary, khan, inn). Pandocheion was not only used by the Greeks, but was used as a loan-word for “inn” or a commercial lodging place in Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, and Turkish. Pandocheion is the word Luke uses in the parable of the Good Samaritan when he wanted to refer to a public inn (Luke 10:34).
In contrast to the public inn, the pandocheion, when Mark and Luke use kataluma in their Gospels, it means “guest room” (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). When finding a place to eat the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus tells them to say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room [kataluma], where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (Luke 22:11). So in both Mark and Luke, the kataluma is a room in a man’s house. Luke also uses the verb form of kataluma, which is kataluō (#2647 καταλύω), and means “to find rest or lodging.” In the record of Jesus and Zacchaeus, Jesus goes “to be the guest” at Zacchaeus’ house, not at a public inn (Luke 19:7). So Luke also uses the verb such that “to stay in the kataluma” indicates lodging at someone’s house. So the text is telling us that at the birth of Jesus, there was no “space in the guestroom.”
To understand the birth of Christ there are also some features of common houses in the Middle East that we must understand. One custom was that it was very common for houses in the Middle East to have a guestroom where guests, and even strangers, could stay. Even poor people could have a guest room because it did not have to be furnished or have an adjoining bathroom and shower. People did not generally sleep on beds, but traveled with their own blankets that they slept on at night, so sleeping arrangements were no problem. Tables and chairs were not used in the common homes of first century Palestinians, and the bathroom was a pot, or a place outside. So the average guestroom was simply a small, empty room, offering shelter and a place of safety. The guestroom provided privacy for the guests as well as the family.
Showing hospitality to strangers has always been a huge part of Eastern life, and the Bible has quite a few records of people showing hospitality to strangers. For example, Lot housed two strangers (Gen. 19:1-4), and the man in Gibeah housed strangers (Judges 19:19-21). The Shunammite woman wanted to show hospitality to Elisha and had a guestroom built on her roof just for him (2 Kings 4:10). Giving hospitality was important enough that it became a command for Christian leaders (1 Tim. 3:2). The Eastern custom of giving hospitality continues in the modern Moslem culture, and thus one of the five pillars of the Moslem faith is to be quick to entertain strangers. The home Joseph and Mary stayed in had a guestroom, but it was being used by other guests.
The second thing we must understand is that it was common for people to bring their animals into their houses at night. They did this to keep them from being stolen and to protect them from harm. Usually, the floor of the family dwelling was raised up somewhat, and the animals were in an area that was a little lower (see Fred Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, p. 34; Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 28-33). John Nolland writes: “…it is best to think of an overcrowded Palestinian peasant home: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof (frequently to be distinguished from the family living quarters by the raised platform floor of the latter)” (John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary, p. 105).
When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem they were taken into one of the local homes, most likely of a relative. However, there was no space available for them in the kataluma, the guest-chamber. Therefore, the family made room for Joseph and Mary in their own living quarters, and the baby Jesus was placed in a manger in the home, which would have been filled with clean hay or straw and would have been the perfect size for him.
The fact that the record says there was no room for them in the guestroom does not mean that Joseph and Mary had just arrived. Lots of people would be traveling to Jerusalem for the registration, and even more if this was around the time of Rosh Hashanah and the Feast of Tabernacles, which it likely was. Many scenarios are possible. One is that the guestroom had been occupied for weeks, which at that time of year would not have been out of the ordinary. Another is that when other people arrived for the registration or the feast, that Joseph and Mary moved from the guestroom into the main house because they were closer relatives or to better care for Mary. The Bible is simply letting us know that Jesus was placed in the manger in the house because the family guestroom was occupied.
Understanding the birth narrative in this way highlights another important aspect of Eastern hospitality. In the East, guests were given special treatment of all kinds, including behavior that seems very extreme to us. For example, in the record of Lot and the two strangers, Lot would have handed over his own daughters to the mob before surrendering his guests (Gen. 19:8). The people whom Joseph and Mary stayed with would not displace their guests from the guest room, but instead inconvenienced themselves, and gave the young couple space in their own living quarters.
Another thing we need to know is that Mary and Joseph would not have been alone when Jesus was born. Actually, Joseph would not have been there at all, while the women of the household, along with the women of the family staying in the guestroom, most likely the village midwife, and perhaps even wise and experienced women from the neighborhood, would have been present. Joseph and the other men of the household would have graciously left the house to the women while Mary gave birth, something that was completely normal for birth in a village in Israel. Someone with a modern Western mindset may say, “Well, the Bible does not say those other women were there.” Of course not. We remind the reader that if something was normal for the culture, it was not usually written about. The details of a woman giving birth are never given in the Bible. No serious Bible student should insist that the women in the Bible who are mentioned giving birth (and there are dozens of them) did not have other women present to help them just because those helpers are not specifically mentioned in the text. That would be absurd. No details of Jesus’ birth are given in the Bible because births were a “normal” part of life, and no first-century reader in Palestine would expect anything different than what usually happens with a village birth. In fact, if the women of the household had not been there to help Mary, that would have been so unusual and seemingly coldhearted that that fact probably would have been written in the Bible.
Thus, what actually happened at the birth of Jesus is considerably different than what is commonly taught in Christian tradition. It is not that Bethlehem was full of cold-hearted townspeople who refused to take special care of a family about to give birth. Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem some time before she gave birth. The guestroom of the people who gave them lodging was full, so the family opened their own home to them and took them into their living quarters. When Mary gave birth, in the late evening or the night some days later, the men left their own home to accommodate her and give her privacy, and no doubt baby Jesus was born in quite usual circumstances, most likely with the village midwife and no doubt helped by the women of the family. Shortly after, the new baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, dedicated to God, and placed in a perfect spot, the manger in the home. That same night the angels announced to shepherds in nearby fields that the Christ had been born, and they came and saw the baby, and announced his birth to the whole village and surrounding area. [For information on the Magi and the Christmas story, see commentary on Matthew 2:1. For more information about the shepherds, see commentary on Luke 2:16].
John Schoenheit of Spirit & Truth Fellowship International teaches on “An Overview of the Christmas Story.”
The birth of Christ is a very important subject, and the traditional Christmas story surrounding it not only contains a large amount of error, but it also presents a cold, hard, and lonely picture about the circumstances of Jesus’ arrival. In reality, his birth was an account of love, warmth, giving and sharing, and obeying God.
In this teaching on The Real Christmas Story, John Schoenheit explores this familiar record in a deeper, more accurate light—understanding the customs, time and place, and the not-often-known details that truly make the birth of Christ such an inspiring and wonderful account.
“shepherds.” The Bible never specifically says why the angels and the glory of God appeared to the shepherds, but the evidence is that it was to tie the shepherds at the birth of Jesus Christ to the record of king David who was a shepherd and a type of Christ. David was a well-known type of Christ, and the Bible calls the Messiah by the name of “David” in Jeremiah 30:9; Ezekiel 34:23, 24; 37:24, 25, and Hosea 3:5 (see commentary on Ezek. 34:23). Theologians sometimes refer to Jesus Christ as the “greater David.” David was a shepherd and taken from the flock to lead Israel (1 Sam. 16:11-13), and here in Luke 2:8-18 God announces the birth of the “chief shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4) and the true king of Israel to shepherds. Furthermore, those shepherds were very likely watching their sheep that night in some of the very same fields that David had watched sheep in some one-thousand years earlier. After all, since David was a shepherd from Bethlehem and shepherds moved their flocks regularly, there is every reason to believe that David shepherded his flocks in the same fields that the shepherds were standing in on the night of Christ’s birth.
In order to properly understand the shepherds’ role in the record of the birth of Christ, it is important to clear up some misconceptions about them. For one thing, it has occasionally been taught that shepherds were insignificant and mistrusted, so God appeared to them as part of the whole traditional but erroneous “Jesus born into unfortunate circumstances” narrative (cp. commentary on Luke 2:7). In that narrative, angels appearing to poor mistrusted social outcasts showed that insignificant people are significant with God. While it is true that supposedly insignificant people are significant with God, that is not why God announced the birth of His Son to the shepherds. Shepherds were not generally mistrusted in the biblical world, in fact they were usually well respected.
It is also taught and espoused in song, that besides being mistrusted social outcasts, the shepherds at Jesus’ birth were “poor shepherds” (e.g., “The First Noel”). But shepherds were like any other people in most of the trades in Israel. There were poor shepherds with few sheep and rich shepherds with lots of sheep. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are examples of shepherds with lots of sheep who were certainly wealthy. There was generally no middle-class in biblical Israel. A very small percent of the population was quite wealthy while the majority of the population lived day-to-day with only a little in reserve, and another small part of the population was truly destitute people who survived only because of the help of others. Given that social scenario, there is no reason to assume the shepherds outside Bethlehem were especially poor. In fact they were likely fairly well off.
It was part of God’s plan that the shepherds would begin to spread the news about the Messiah, because the angel said to them, “I bring you [the shepherds] good news” that would then be “for all the people” (Luke 2:10). The shepherds understood their role on this night of the Savior’s birth and immediately after seeing the baby they began to spread the word about the new Messiah (Luke 2:17-18). This leads us to conclude that the shepherds were men of faith and successful enough to be well respected in the general area. After all, if someone who is known to be untrustworthy and unsuccessful comes to you and tells you a story about an army of angels and the glory of God announcing the long-awaited birth of the Messiah, are you likely to believe them? The fact that God chose the shepherds to be the first evangelists of the Good News supports the conclusion that they were men who were respected and believable. Thus, the biblical and social evidence is that the shepherds were successful men of faith whose testimony was acceptable among the general population in Israel.
Shepherding in Palestine involved a lot of work, planning, and courage. Sheep require constant oversight, care and guarding. For example, in Israel the water sources dry up or flood with the seasons, and the pastures are constantly changing, so planning ahead, knowing where to go, and then moving the flock are part of the job, which is why shepherds were usually nomads (cp. Gen. 37:17). Also, the sheep graze on the hillsides right next to farmer’s fields, so the shepherds must constantly watch that the sheep do not move into the growing grain, as that could be very expensive (cp. Exod. 22:5). Also, sheep are in constant danger from wild animals and thieves, which was why the shepherds at the birth of Christ were out at night watching the sheep, Facing down a hungry wolf or thief with just a club was dangerous and took great courage (cp. John 10:11-13). David acquired part of his courage to fight Goliath from his experience guarding his sheep, and in fact he had to defend them from a lion and a bear (1 Sam. 17:34-37). Also, the sheep sometimes got hurt or even hurt each other (cp. Ezek. 34:21), so the shepherd must also know basic animal first-aid. Other skills a shepherd needed to have would have been knowledge of breeding and successful birthing, how to shear the sheep, and how to keep them safe and unblemished. Also, there is evidence that many of the sheep used as sacrifices in the Temple were cared for in Bethlehem, and although we cannot be sure, it is certainly possible that the sheep the shepherds were watching were being raised to be sacrificed in the Temple. Since the shepherds in Palestine provided some of their lambs as Passover lambs and other sheep for Temple sacrifice, they had to be diligent to keep them unblemished, which was something that non-Jewish shepherds did not have to worry about. Although shepherding involved a lot of sitting-and-watching time, a good shepherd in Palestine was diligent, skilled, and courageous, not lazy.
Given all that, where does the teaching that shepherds were social outcasts and mistrusted in Israel come from? It seems to have come from only a few ancient sources. One was Aristotle, who viewed shepherds as lazy. But while that was Aristotle’s opinion—and perhaps his experience in Greece—anyone who sees the effort and personal risk that responsible shepherding takes in Israel knows that what Aristotle said did not apply in Israel. Aristotle lived in Greece over 300 years before Jesus was born, and he was not speaking about shepherds or shepherding in Palestine.
The other main sources for the idea that shepherds were social outcasts are the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud. The Mishnah is a collection of sayings of the rabbis, written between 200 and 250 AD. The Babylonian Talmud came much later, around 500 AD, and is a collection of rabbinic interpretations of the Mishnah. But we must keep in mind that the Mishnah and Talmud were composed long after the time of Christ and in an environment that was antagonistic to anything that supported Christianity—and one of the biblical records that clearly supported Christianity was the shepherds’ testimony that the Christ had been born.
Furthermore, the Jewish leaders who wrote the Mishna and Babylonian Talmud had other reasons for denigrating shepherds besides anti-Christian sentiment. The tasks involved with shepherding meant breaking many of the “commands” (actually “traditions”) that the Jews had set up as part of their religion. For example, shepherds had to keep tending their sheep on the Sabbath, which did not seem to be “work” to Moses but was eventually considered work to the later religious leaders. Also, if a sheep wandered off on the Sabbath, a shepherd may have had to go more than a Sabbath day’s journey to find it. Those kinds of behaviors irked the religious leaders and caused a bias against shepherds.
Thus, although Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud have a few sentences—and only a few sentences—against shepherds, there is evidence that those statements do not reflect what the average person at the time of Christ thought about them, and there is evidence that shepherds were, in fact, well respected.
There is reliable biblical and extra-biblical evidence that, in general, shepherds were trusted. For example, in both the literature of the ancient Near East and the Greek and Latin literature, the word “shepherd” was often used for political leaders and kings. In fact, “they often appear in Hellenistic bucolic poetry as representatives of an ideal humanity” (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke). J. M. Creed gives the names of some famous ancient people whose birth and childhood were associated in history and mythology with shepherds, including Romulus and Remus the founders of Rome, Mithras, and Cyrus the Persian (The Gospel According to Luke, MacMillan and Company, London, 1950, p. 31).
As well as the extra-biblical Greek and Latin evidence about shepherds, the Bible also speaks favorably of shepherds. God is referred to as a shepherd (Gen. 48:15; Ps. 23:1; 28:9; 80:1; Isa. 40:10-11), and so is Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus was called a “shepherd” in prophecy before he was born (Gen. 49:24; Ezek. 34:23; 37:24; Zech. 13:7); then he referred to himself as “the good shepherd” during his ministry (John 10:11, 14), and he is still called a shepherd after his death and resurrection (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4). If shepherds were known as dishonest social outcasts, there would be no reason the New Testament would refer to our Lord Jesus as a shepherd.
Many of the great people of the Bible were shepherds, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and the prophet Amos (Amos 1:1). The kings and leaders in Israel were called “shepherds” because of the way they cared for the people (2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7; 1 Kings 22:17; 1 Chron. 11:2; 17:6; 2 Chron. 18:16; Ps. 78:71-72; Jer. 3:15; Zech. 10:2). The prophet Jeremiah referred to himself as God’s shepherd (Jer. 17:16). Also, God said of the Persian king Cyrus: “He is my shepherd and will perform all my pleasure” (Isa. 44:28). But it is doubtful if calling a king or leader a “shepherd” would have been common if shepherds were mistrusted social outcasts. Also, in the prophecies of the future kingdom of Christ on earth, the Bible says God will set up godly shepherds over the people (Jer. 23:4).
More biblical evidence that shepherds were respected is the fact in the New Testament, the word usually translated as “pastor” (Eph. 4:11) is the word “shepherd” in Greek, and is translated “shepherds” in several English versions (cp. CJB; DBY; ESV; Rotherham; Young’s Literal Translation). Would God really designate one of the most respected church positions as “shepherd” if to be a shepherd implied being a mistrusted social outcast? Thus, examining all the evidence supports the conclusion that the shepherds in the record of the birth of Christ were godly men of faith who were looking for the coming of the Messiah, who were successful businessmen, and who faithfully communicated to the community around Bethlehem what they had seen from God.
There are important lessons we can learn from the shepherds. One is that they were obviously waiting for and expecting the Messiah to come, just as we Christians should be. Another is that they understood their God-given commission to spread the Good News about the birth of the Messiah, and they obeyed that commission. Christians also have a God-given commission to spread the news about the Messiah, and we should follow the example of the shepherds and obey that commission.
What happened to the shepherds? The Bible does not say, but it is likely that they had died by the time Jesus started his ministry about 30 years later. There is no indication anyone tried to seek them out to confirm their testimony that the Messiah had been born, nor is there any indication they tried to join the followers of Christ before or after his death.
“living out in the fields.” This is a good indication that Jesus was not born at Christmas time. It would generally be too cold in Bethlehem in December to keep the sheep in the fields at night. They would be brought into a sheepfold and some kind of shelter. Many scholars think Jesus was born around September, and Ernest Martin (The Star that Astonished the World) gives some good evidence that it was in September of 3 BC.(top)
“suddenly stood before them.” The Greek verb translated “suddenly stood before” is ephistēmi (#2186 ἐφίστημι). Ephistēmi can mean to “be near or close to,” or it can emphasize the suddenness of an event, or it can combine both meanings, as it does in Luke 2:9 and mean “to suddenly be near.” The meaning of standing “near” is in verses such as Luke 2:38 and Acts 22:20, and the meaning of “suddenly” is in verses such as Luke 21:34 and 1 Thessalonians 5:3. The combined meaning of “suddenly be near” occurs here in Luke 2:9, in Luke 24:4 when the angels appeared to the women at the tomb, and also in Acts 12:7 when the angel appeared to Peter in prison.
For the accuracy of the Christmas story and our understanding of angels it is important to note that the angel was standing on the ground in front of the shepherds, he was not flying or floating above them. Alexander MacLaren correctly observes, “The angel speaks by the side of the shepherds, not from above” (Exposition of the Scriptures).
That the angel (and later the army of angels; Luke 2:13) appeared on the ground and not in the air is the way angels generally appear to people in the Bible. For example, we see angels appearing on the ground when the angels came to Sodom and stayed with Lot (Gen. 19:1-3), when one came to Samson’s parents (Judg. 13:3-15), or appeared to Zechariah in the temple (Luke 1:11), or appeared to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), and in many other places as well (cp. Gen. 16:7-11; 19:1-3; 32:2; Exod. 3:2; Num. 22:22-35; Judg. 2:1-5; 6:11-13; 13:3-6; 1 Kings 19:5-7; Dan. 3:24-25, 28; Zech. 1:10-11; 3:3; Matt. 4:11; 28:2-6; Luke 1:11-20, 26-38; John 20:12; Acts 5:19; 10:3-7; 11:13; 12:7-10; Rev. 22:8-9).
Although angels can appear to people while being in mid-air (1 Chron. 21:16), that is not usual and not what happened here in Luke 2:9. It was the sudden presence of the angel and the bright light of God that frightened the shepherds, not the fact that the angel was suspended in the air. Furthermore, the army of angels that suddenly appeared “with the angel” were on the ground also (Luke 2:13), just as they were on the ground when God’s angel army filled the hills around Elisha (2 Kings 6:17).
What an honor and privilege it must have been for those angels to be present at the birth of the Messiah. They had put up with the constant flow of evil coming from the Devil and his demons for thousands of years and were very aware that God’s whole creation was in pain due to the Devil and the consequences of the Fall. Now at last they knew the Messiah was born and that deliverance from evil and the restoration of all things was in sight.
“frightened with great fear.” In the Greek text this phrase is the figure of speech polyptoton; the same root word used with different inflections, in this case one being a noun and the other a verb (Cp. Bullinger, Figures of Speech).(top)
“Look!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!).
“the people.” Often the Greek word laos (#2992 λαός) is used to designate specifically the Jewish people. This is the case here; laos is to be understood to mean the people of Israel (Cp. Lenski). If God had wanted to refer to the Gentiles and everyone he could have used the plural, “the peoples” (e.g. Luke 2:31; Rom. 15:11), or “all nations” (panta ta ethne: Matt. 28:19). For scriptures where “the people” clearly refers to the Jews, see: Matthew 13:15; Mark 7:6; Luke 1:68; 2:10; John 11:50; 18:14; Acts 3:23; 7:17; 13:17; 13:24; 13:31; 21:28; Hebrews 7:11; 7:27; 9:7; 9:19; 11:25.
Here in Luke 2:10, by extension this announcement is good news to all people everywhere (Luke 2:31-32), and the future “will be” is prophetic to this effect, but here the angel is speaking to the shepherds in a way they would understand, of Israel’s long awaited messiah (cp. Luke 1:68).(top)
“this day.” The Jewish day began at sunset; hence the angel was telling them what had happened sometime after sunset that evening. Jesus had been born after sunset.
“in the city of David.” The angels could have said, “in Bethlehem,” and been perfectly accurate, so why call Bethlehem, “the city of David” in this instance? The angels were announcing the birth of the long awaited Messiah, and the mention of David’s name and his ancestral home also brought back to mind all the wonderful Messianic prophecies spoken about the Messiah by David and the prophets. The Psalms of David are full of Messianic prophecies and references to the Messiah, and no doubt many of them would have been the subject of discussion as the shepherds walked (hurriedly walked) from the fields into the town of Bethlehem.
“the Savior.” We have translated this with “the,” although the Greek lacks the definite article. As Lenski says, “The relative clause [“who”] makes ‘Savior’ definite.”
“Messiah and Lord.” These words function like adjectives in the Greek, describing the Savior (Cp. Lenski). These adjectives are descriptive of the baby, showing that he has both the properties of being the Messiah and the Lord. To translate the phrase as, “who is Messiah the Lord,” misses this point. We use the term Messiah here instead of “Christ” to make it clear that what the angels were saying. The angels were expressing that the “Messiah,” the “Anointed One” had been born, and the text needs to make that clear.(top)
“the sign.” It was not “a” sign, as though there were many signs, but “the” particular sign given the shepherds by the angel. In Luke 2:16, this finds its fulfillment when the shepherds find the baby in “the” manger. Cp. Lenski.(top)
“the heavenly army.” The Greek word translated “army” is stratia (#4756 στρατιά). Robertson (Word Pictures in the New Testament) writes: “A military term for a band of soldiers common in the ancient Greek.” We do not see any good reason to translate stratia as “host” in modern versions. In the times of the King James Version (1611), the word “host” often referred to an army, but that use of “host” has almost completely fallen out of use, and very few modern readers would read “host” and think “army.” Nevertheless, due to tradition, and also due to the theology that “God is in control and the Devil can only do what God allows him to,” many modern versions still use “host.”
This heavenly army of angels would have almost certainly been standing on the ground on the hillsides where the flocks were—the area around Bethlehem is very hilly. Many paintings and Christmas cards depict this army of angels having wings and hovering in the air, but that is not likely. With the exception of Zechariah 5:9, no angel in the Bible has wings, and they almost exclusively appear looking as if they were humans, and standing on the ground. For example, when the heavenly army protected Elisha, “the mountain was covered with horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17 HCSB).
It is worth noting that Luke 2:13 does not say something like “a great company of angels,” were at Jesus’ birth, but instead describes them as “a multitude of the heavenly army.” God and His angels had been waging war against the Devil and his angels (cp. Matt. 25:41) for millennia, and the whole creation had been groaning in pain, waiting for the redemption the Messiah would bring (Rom. 8:19-23). Now the Messiah had been born, and as the future commander and chief of all of God’s armies, it was fitting that the angelic army of God would show up at his birth to pay tribute to the newborn Redeemer.
[For more on the war between God and the Devil, see commentary on Luke 4:6. For more on the Devil being the god of this age, see commentary on 2 Cor. 4:4. For more on the names of the Devil that describe his characteristics, see Appendix 14, “Names of the Devil.” For more on Adam and Eve getting the crafty nature of the Devil, see commentary on Romans 7:17. For more on the future Kingdom of Christ on earth that will not have the Devil present, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more on the future restored earth being called “Paradise,” see commentary on Luke 23:43].(top)
“Glory in the highest heavens to God. This first phrase of Luke 2:14 has only four words in the Greek text, and what they mean is not debated by scholars. Nevertheless, most modern versions say, “Glory to God in the highest,” which does not communicate well to the modern reader, and in fact can be confusing.
Scholars agree that the idea of the verse is that it is the angels and spiritual beings who dwell in the highest places who give glory to God.
The word “highest” is a common Greek word, hupsistos (#5310 ὕψιστος), and it is an adjective describing the highest place, or the highest rank. As an adjective, it needs a noun to fully complete its sense. We would say, “Glory to God in the highest places,” using the italics like the KJV, NASB, and ASV, to show that “places” is not in the Greek text but added for clarity. “Glory to God in the highest heavens” is a good translation. The “highest heaven” in this phrase is contrasted with the earth, a lower place, in the next phrase. Thus there is glory “in heaven,” and peace “on earth.” The birth of the savior was a cause for the spiritual beings of the highest heavens to glorify God, because the savior is not only the redeemer of mankind, but of the very universe itself, which is under bondage and decaying (Rom. 8:20-23). This same phrase, “in the highest heaven,” is also used in Luke 19:38.
The phrase “highest heaven” does not imply there is more than one heaven, with one heaven being higher than another, but rather the phrase uses the word “heaven” in its biblical sense: “heaven” is always plural in Hebrew and often plural in Greek. English readers do not get to see that because the translators almost always say “heaven” even when the Hebrew and Greek reads “heavens.”
Both the Hebrew and Greek texts indicate that “the heavens” are a vast realm, with higher and lower parts, which is what we see in part when we look up. We know the moon is “lower” than the sun, and the sun is “lower” than the stars, but even so we consider all of what is above us “heaven.” People in Bible times said, “the heavens.” Thus, the “highest places” or “highest heavens” refers to the highest places in the heavenly realm and by extension to the exalted spiritual beings who dwell in the highest part of heaven. This alludes to the fact that there is a hierarchy among spirits, with some being more powerful or prominent than others, something we see in other places in the Bible as well. This verse is saying that all through the heavens, even to the highest parts, there is glory given to God at the birth of the Messiah.
“on earth peace among people with whom he is well pleased.” This phrase in Luke 2:14 differs in different translations of the Bible. For example, if we compare the King James with the New American Standard Bible, the KJV reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” but the NASB reads, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” There is a big difference between the meanings of these two versions. Is God’s peace to some people, or all people? The difference in translation is due to the way this verse was copied from one Greek manuscript to the next at some early date in history. The copying of one manuscript to another is referred to as the “transmission of the text,” and sometimes mistakes were made in copying, just as can happen today when someone copies something. Thankfully, due to the extensive number of early manuscripts available today, computer technology that allows very accurate comparison of the texts, and the hard work of scholars, the modern Greek text of the New Testament is quite accurate.
The problem in translating Luke 2:14 has to do with the very last word in the Greek text of the verse, which in some manuscripts is eudokias (a genitive) and in others eudokia (a nominative). Debates raged hot and heavy for centuries as to which reading was original, with scholars on both sides arguing for their point of view. The debate continued through the early 1900’s, subsided during the middle of that century, and today is considered settled by textual scholars. This is in part due to a better understanding of the development of the Greek text over time, and in part due to the discovery and coordination of more Greek manuscripts, including a discovery in the Dead Sea Scrolls (first discovered in 1947). Thus, the modern versions of the Bible, such as the Amplified Bible, ESV, NIV, NRSV, and more, all say something that parallels the NASB shown above. The reading eudokias, which is the genitive case, is clearly the original reading, and the variant, eudokia, was created when the “s” was dropped.
The issue of the correct reading of the Greek text being settled, we still must translate the text into English in the best way possible. Along with the glory that the angels of heaven give to God, there is to be peace on earth. But to whom? The Greek phrase is only three words, and is literally translated, “among men of goodwill.” The truth being communicated is that there is peace from God to people with whom He has goodwill. Modern versions try to express this idea, but often with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, the point is that God’s peace is not to everyone; it is for those people who have turned their hearts to Him. This fits perfectly with the Old Testament prophecies and predictions of the coming Messiah, who was foretold to be a warrior for God, delivering His people while destroying His enemies. Furthermore, Jesus said, “Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).
The peace that God’s people will enjoy is clearly linked in prophecy to the destruction of those who oppose God. It is undeniable that the lives of godly people would be more peaceful if there were no wicked people on earth. The people of God will enjoy peace in the future in part because Jesus Christ will destroy the wicked and unrepentant. Scripture never says that the ungodly or unsaved have peace with God. Romans 5:1 says, “…we [Christians] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It does not say, “Everyone” has peace with God. The Church Epistles thus echo what the Old Testament and Gospels proclaim: that the peace of God is for those who have believed in God.
Although it has been many centuries since Christ came and there is still not peace on earth, God’s plan of peace on earth will one day be fulfilled. Some day in the future Jesus Christ will come to earth and fight the Battle of Armageddon and conquer the earth, and the prophecies will be fulfilled: his kingdom will fill the earth (Dan. 2:35), and “of his government and of his peace there will be no end” (Isa. 9:7). Thus it was appropriate that on the day of Christ’s birth some 2,000 years ago, the angelic army of heaven descended to the earth and proclaimed to mankind, “Glory in the highest heavens to God, and on earth peace among people with whom he is well pleased” (Revised English Version).(top)
“thing.” From the Greek rhema (#4487 ῥῆμα), which can mean, “a word or message,” or “the event that the word describes, a thing or event” (BDAG). Here in verses 15, 17, and 19 it refers not to the words themselves but the whole event being described by the message. The shepherds wanted to go see the event the angel’s message described, not go see the words. Likewise, in verse 17 the shepherds speak “about” (Greek: peri #4012 περί) the rhema, which shows that they were not just making known the message’s content, but “told the whole story” (Lenski), they made known “about” the message, i.e., all about the angels, the sign, and having found the child. Lastly, in verse 19, Mary does not just store up the angel’s words about the child in her heart, but pondered the entire event.(top)
“the baby lying in the manger.” Because Jesus was now in swaddling clothes and in the manger, the arrival of the shepherds would have been some time after the actual birth of Jesus. The women helping Mary would have cleaned things up after the birth, and gotten the mother and baby boy ready for the men to see. The men, outside celebrating the birth of a boy, would have come in to see him, and shortly after the shepherds would have arrived too. It would not have been hard to find the house in a small village like Bethlehem. Jesus would almost certainly been the only boy born that night in the village, and it was customary to have a big celebration with music and food when a boy was born. The shepherds could have easily followed the noise to where Jesus was born.
One of the ways we know that Jesus was born in a loving household that was taking good care of him, and not in a stable, was that the shepherds were godly men who had been awaiting the Promised Messiah. Immediately after the angels left them, they “went with haste” to Bethlehem, and after they saw the child they were so excited they told the people of the area about him, and then they went back to their work, “glorifying and praising God.” If those godly shepherds saw that Jesus and the family were not being well cared for, they would have been scandalized and immediately invited the family to their own homes and treated this promised Messiah like the royalty he was.
The noise of the celebration about Jesus’ birth was customary and would have led the shepherds right to the house where Jesus was born. It was common custom that when a baby boy was born there was a huge celebration, but when a baby girl was born there was no celebration. That was because boys added to the family and girls took away from it. It was customary that when a young couple married, they lived in the boys parent’s home (usually a room was added, or a room built on the roof, and that custom continues today in much of the Middle East). Also, unlike Europe, it was the girls side of the family that paid the dowry in the biblical world. So while a boy brought another female to help, and grandchildren, and money, into the family, the girl cost the family what it took to raise her, then cost them money to have her married, and then she left the family. [For more information on the birth of Jesus, see commentary on Luke 2:7]. [For information on the Magi arriving over a year later, and not being present at the birth of Christ, see commentary on Matthew 2:1.(top)
“it.” Literally, this verse reads “having seen, they made known.” Some versions supply “it” (ESV; KJV) or “this” (NRSV; NASB), while other versions supply “him” (NIV; NET) or “them” (HCSB). The difference in translation effects whether they saw the fulfillment of the sign of the child lying in the manger (“it” or “this”), or they simply saw the child and his parents (“him” or “them”). It is clear from the context that “it,” meaning the fulfillment of the sign, is what the shepherds saw and this made them go and make it known. Verse 16 employs the definite article “the,” indicating that they found “the” manger, namely, the one just foretold by the angel in verse 12, and having seen it they went and made the event known.
We do not know how late at night Jesus was born, but there was always a great celebration among family and friends when a baby boy was born. There is nothing in the text to indicate that the shepherds had to wake the townspeople up in the middle of the night; many people in the village would have been awake and rejoicing that a baby boy from the line of David had been born in the City of David.
“about.” For the significance of peri, see commentary on Luke 2:15; “thing.” The shepherds did not just tell others what the angels said, they told “about the message,” that is, they told the whole story about the angels, the light, what the angels said—the whole picture. However, we should not miss that the emphasis here in the text is “the message,” not the whole event. The Bible does not say, “the shepherds told what happened,” they told about “the message.” While that included how the message was delivered, the great truth is what the message itself contained, which was the Messiah, the Savior of the world had been born. Of course the shepherds knew it would be years before the baby grew and fulfilled his God-given purpose (which they misunderstood at the time), but even so, they knew their salvation was near, and they may have thought it could perhaps happen even while they were alive (we don’t know the age of the shepherds), and they would have told everyone that the Savior had been born. At that time, no one really knew the Messiah would come twice; once to die and once again to conquer the earth and set up his kingdom on earth.
The message is always more important than the way it is delivered. The angels and the great light were very powerful, but the really important thing was that the Messiah had been born.
“message.” From the Greek rhema (#4487 ῥῆμα). See commentary on Luke 2:15; “thing”.(top)
|Luk 2:18||- (top)|
“things.” From the Greek rhema (#4487 ῥῆμα), see commentary on Luke 2:15, “thing”.(top)
|Luk 2:20||- (top)|
“eight days.” The eight days required by Genesis 17:12. The child had to be circumcised on the eighth day, which is precisely the day when the clotting factor prothrombin is the highest in a newborn baby. Until the eighth day Vitamin K levels, which produces prothrombin, are insufficient and any surgery before this could produce hemorrhaging. Out of love, our God ordered that the circumcision rite be done precisely on the eighth day, the only time in a baby’s life when prothrombin levels are above 100%.
“We should commend the many hundreds of workers who labored at great expense over a number of years to discover that the safest day to perform circumcision is the eighth. Yet, as we congratulate medical science for this recent finding, we can almost hear the leaves of the Bible rustling. They would like to remind us that four thousand years ago, when God initiated circumcision with Abraham...., Abraham did not pick the eighth day after many centuries of trial-and-error experiments. Neither he nor any of his company from the ancient city of Ur in the Chaldees ever had been circumcised. It was a day picked by the Creator of vitamin K.” (Dr. S.I. McMillen, None of These Diseases, p. 93.)(top)
|Luk 2:22||- (top)|
“will be called holy to the Lord.” This command to consecrate the firstborn male was from the Mosaic Law. Quoted from Exodus 13:2, 12.(top)
“A pair of turtledoves.” Quoted from Leviticus 12:8. This verse contains important information concerning the timing of the events of the birth of Jesus. According to Leviticus 12:8, a woman was only allowed to bring a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons as a sacrifice after childbirth if she could not afford a lamb. Mary’s cleansing and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple would have been 40 days after the birth of Jesus (Lev. 12:2-4). Mary and Joseph would have made the 7 mile walk with Jesus from Bethlehem to the Temple in Jerusalem to present Jesus only because Bethlehem was so close to the Temple. Women were not expected to travel far after childbirth. After presenting Jesus and making the sacrifices, they went back to Bethlehem, where Joseph had no doubt found work. The Magi would arrive on the scene almost two years later. Had they already come and been with the shepherds at the manger, as tradition teaches, then the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, that they brought would have made Joseph and Mary far too wealthy for her sacrifice of the doves or pigeons to be accepted by God. The idea that Joseph and Mary would not have brought a lamb because Jesus was the lamb cannot be substantiated. They, of all people, would have kept the Levitical Law.(top)
“Look!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!).
“deeply religious.” The Greek is eulabes (#2126 εὐλαβής); see commentary on Acts 10:2; “godly man.”
“comforting.” Cp. Young’s literal translation. Paraklesis (#3874 παράκλησις) has a large semantic range including “encouragement, exhortation, appeal, and comfort.” Most translations go with “consolation.” In this situation, however, “comforting” seems to get more at the heart of it. In the harsh reality of Roman control, Simeon was waiting for all that the Messiah would bring: plenty of food, peace, protection from enemies, etc. This would come as great comfort to a hurting nation.
“holy spirit was upon him.” The Greek text has no article “the.” This holy spirit was the gift of God that He gave to some believers before Pentecost. [For more information on the holy spirit and uses of “holy spirit,” see Appendix 11, “What is the Holy Spirit,” and also see Appendix 6, “Usages of ‘Spirit’”].(top)
“revealed to him.” See commentary on Matthew 2:12.
“holy spirit.” The context shows that this refers to the gift of holy spirit rather than the Father who is the Giver. For in the verses before and after, “holy spirit” is clearly referring to the gift. Further, although the Greek has the articles “‘the’ spirit ‘the’ holy” there are instances where having both articles can refer to the gift (Mark 12:36; Luke 3:22; 10:21; John 14:26; Acts 2:33; 5:32; 10:44; 10:47; 11:15; 15:8; 19:6). In this case, “the holy spirit” refers to the holy spirit that was upon him that had just been mentioned in the previous verse. [For more information on the uses of “holy spirit,” see Appendix 6: “Usages of ‘Spirit’”].
“Messiah.” The Greek word is christos, which is usually translated as “Christ” but also can mean “anointed one” or “messiah.” Here we translated it “messiah” because Simeon was a Jew looking forward to the comforting of Israel, which would mean, in part, that he was looking forward to the coming Jewish messiah and messianic age.(top)
|Luk 2:27||- (top)|
|Luk 2:28||- (top)|
“Master.” The Greek is despotēs (#1203 δεσπότης) meaning master or lord, and it refers to someone who has legal control and authority over others, such as subjects or slaves (cp. 1 Tim. 6:1; Titus 2:9). Thayer points out that it was “strictly the correlative of “slave” doulos, and hence denoted absolute ownership and uncontrolled power” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon). It also refers to someone who controls a thing, hence, an “owner.” It is used both as a title for God (Luke 2:29; Acts 4:24), and a title for Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 2:1; Jude 1:4). Whereas despotēs denoted absolute power and control, kurios, “lord,” has a more general meaning applicable to the various relationships in life, which is why we see kurios used even as a term of address equivalent to our polite way of addressing strangers as “Sir” (cp. KJV Matt. 13:27; John 4:11; John 5:7; etc.).
“according to your word.” The word spoken of in Luke 2:26, that he would not see death until he had seen the messiah.(top)
|Luk 2:30||- (top)|
|Luk 2:31||- (top)|
Quoted from Isaiah 42:6.
The salvation and everlasting life given by the Messiah was not just for the Jews, even though many of them thought that it was. The first prophecy of the Messiah is the one God made to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:15, and that was thousands of years before the Jews existed. About 2000 years after that first prophecy of the Messiah, God promised Abraham that all the people of earth, not just the Jews, would be blessed through him (Gen. 12:3). Then God repeated that promise to Isaac (Gen. 26:4); and to Jacob (Gen. 28:14). Besides those promises, the Old Testament had a number of verses that spoke of Gentiles being included in the Messianic Kingdom, which meant they were granted everlasting life (Ps. 102:15; Isa. 2:2-4; 19:23-25; 42:6; 49:6; 51:4-5; 56:3-7; 60:3; 66:18-21; Ezek. 39:21, 27; Micah 4:2; Hag. 2:7; Zech. 8:22).(top)
|Luk 2:33||- (top)|
“Take notice!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!).
“appointed.” The Greek is keimai (#2749 κεῖμαι), which has a number of meanings, including, to be set in place, thus to lie, or be set; to be placed on something; to exist or have a place; to occur, appear, or be found; to be appointed or destined. Although some translations go with “destined,” we did not feel that was the correct meaning, and is very close to “predestined.” Jesus was human, and as a human could have failed in his mission. God “appointed” him as Messiah, but Jesus had to rise to the occasion, and walk out his appointment and calling. So does each Christian.
“to cause.” The eis (#1519 εἰς) in this verse has a causal meaning. Compare NIV and HCSB translations.
“falling and rising.” These are translated from the Greek words ptosis (#4431 πτῶσις) and anastasis (#386 ἀνάστασις). Louw-Nida translates ptosis—usually rendered “falling”—as “to suffer destruction or ruin, with the implication of having formerly held a position of eminence.” Anastasis is used everywhere else in the New Testament, 39 times, to indicate “resurrection.” We were sorely tempted to translate it thus here as well, but did not because the word can also mean “rising,” and is used that way in the LXX, and because the anastasis here seems to include a broader sense of “rising” than just resurrection; although we are quick to add that resurrection is clearly implied here by Simeon. Hence, a narrower translation would be “for the destruction and resurrection of many in Israel.”
The Greek is ambivalent to whether it is the rise of some and the fall of some, or whether everybody falls and then rises. The greater scope of scripture points to the former. However, due to the ambiguity of the Greek, there is the implication that many will fall before they rise, as is the case with the Apostle Paul who first stumbled because of the Lord, then rose up to seize eternal life.
“that will be continually opposed.” “Will be” is supplied because it is a prophecy regarding the future. “Continually” (cp. Williams) comes from the present tense of the verb, in this case a durative present indicating continual action (See commentary on 1 John 1:7 for more on this usage of the present). The Greek is antilegō (#483 ἀντιλέγω). It has two distinct meanings: to be spoken against, or to be opposed. Both fit here, and thus the Greek gives a fuller sense than can be given in English. Christ will be spoken against, but more than that, he will be opposed in general in every way. Jesus is, and always has been, opposed and spoken against by those who will not submit to God’s rule and rules. Robertson (Word Pictures in the New Testament) writes: “Spoken against (antilegomenon). Present passive participle, continuous action. It is going on today. Nietzsche [the German philosopher who was known for the phrase, “God is dead”] regarded Jesus Christ as the curse of the race because he spared the weak.”
There is certainly a sense in which the entire life of Christ was a sign. Jesus Christ himself is a sign that is continually opposed. The sign also can refer to the resurrection of Christ. As Christ told the Pharisees who were asking him for a sign:
The sign of Jonah was to be the sign for that generation, and this sign was opposed by the Jews (e.g., Matt. 16:21-22; 27:62-64); it makes sense then that the resurrection of Christ was partly what Simeon was referring to.
If the resurrection was the sign, then this verse indicates Christ was “appointed” beforehand for this, which is why God could not take “this cup” from him in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Having been appointed for this, Christ was the “Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8 NIV).(top)
“broadsword.” An unusual word for “sword,” occurring only here and in the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16; 6:8; 19:15, 21). The Greek is rhomphaia (#4501 ῥομφαία). It has several meanings. It was a large sword, usually two edged, which was used by non-Greek-speaking peoples, especially the Thracians. We can rightly refer to it as a “broadsword.” Also, rhomphaia was used of a long Thracian javelin, and also a kind of long sword usually worn on the right shoulder. The word appears very often in the Septuagint, and was the word used for the sword of Goliath. This long, broad, two-edged sword would pass through Mary’s soul as the life of her son developed. The fact that it can refer to a Thracian spear also points to one of the final acts of violence towards her son when the Roman soldier pierced Christ’s side with a spear (cp. Thayer; BDAG).
“soul.” The Greek word often translated “soul” is psuchē (#5590 ψυχή; pronounced psoo-kay’), and it has a large number of meanings, including the physical life of a person or animal; an individual person; or attitudes, emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Here it refers to the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of Mary. With all that happened to Jesus in his life, she would feel as if she had been pierced by a sword. [For a more complete explanation of “soul,” see Appendix 7: “Usages of ‘Soul’”].(top)
“Anna.” It is an amazing demonstration of the love God has for His people that He would reveal to both Simeon and Anna that the Christ was in the Temple. The Temple was very segregated, with courts for the men, and courts for the women. The only way to get the word effectively to both groups was for God to tell both a respected man and a respected woman that the Christ was there.
“from when she was a virgin.” Stating it this way emphasizes the purity of Anna’s life, and simultaneously shows that this was her first husband. She lived with this man seven years, until he died and she became a widow; she did not take another husband, but remained a widow until she was 84 here at the temple scene. See commentary on Luke 2:37 for controversy regarding Anna’s age.(top)
“as a widow until the age of eighty-four.” There are differences among commentators and translators as to whether Anna was eighty-four years old, or was a widow for eighty-four years on top of her seven years of marriage and the time before she was married. The Greek can be understood either way. It reads literally, “and she a widow up to eighty-four years,” which could mean she was a widow for eighty-four years or she lived as a widow up to her eighty-fourth year. On the former view, if she was married at age 14 then she would be 105 (14+7+84=105) (Hendriksen). KJV and HCSB go with the interpretation of an older Anna: e.g., “and was a widow for 84 years” (HCSB). However, we have sided with translations such as ESV and NIV, which suppose the younger age. Hendriksen provides a good summary of the arguments and sides with our translation. As he points out, verse 37 portrays Anna as being very active, daily in the temple performing the service of religious duties, praying, and fasting. This is much more likely to be the case if she were 84 rather than 105.(top)
|Luk 2:38||- (top)|
“And when they had completed everything required by the law of the Lord.” This is one of the very many places where the word “and” does not indicate that the two events connected by the “and” happened in immediate succession; the “and” simply continues the narration. Another thing that had to be completed after the offering for sin was Jesus’ trip to Egypt. When we put the events of the other Gospels together with this verse, we can see that Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem after Jesus was born until they went to Egypt, and they went from there to Nazareth.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:4, 11). Joseph and his family still would have been there forty days later when they had to travel the seven miles (11.2 km) north to Jerusalem to present Jesus in the Temple and offer a sacrifice (Luke 2:21-24; Lev. 12:1-8). They were still in Bethlehem when the magi arrived eighteen months to two years later (Matt. 2:8). There simply is no evidence that they left Bethlehem and went back to Nazareth then went back to Bethlehem again in that time, and no reason for them to have done so. After the magi left Bethlehem, Joseph took Mary and Jesus and went to Egypt (Matt. 2:14). He stayed there until Herod was dead and then went back to Nazareth (Matt. 2:15, 23).
A major key to the chronology of the birth of Christ is the phrase in this verse, “when they had completed everything required by the law of the Lord.” The word “law” is the general use of “law” meaning the whole Old Testament, and thus “everything required by the law” refers to all the things in the Old Testament spoken about the Christ, whether it was in the Torah (the five books of Moses), the prophets, or the writings. The Greek phrase kata ho nomos, often translated “according to the law,” in this context refers to the things in the law, or things required by the law (cp. BBE, CEB, CJB, NIV, NJB, NLT, NRSV, and see commentary on Galatians 3:29). Part of what was in the law that had to be fulfilled by the Messiah was that he had to be called out from Egypt (Matt. 2:15; Hos. 11:1). Remembering that, we can see that Luke 2:39 is a kind of summary verse that mentions the trip to Egypt simply by saying they fulfilled everything required by the law.
In summary, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and his parents stayed there for perhaps as long as two years after he was born, then they went to Egypt to escape Herod. They left Egypt when Herod was dead, and settled in Nazareth.(top)
|Luk 2:40||- (top)|
“the feast of the Passover.” Passover is one of three feasts—Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles—that required all adult Jewish males to go to Jerusalem (Exod. 23:14-17; 34:22, 23; Deut. 16:16). The imperfect tense of “went” shows they habitually went; compare Hendriksen’s translation: “His parents were in the habit of going to Jerusalem.” Since only males “of mature age” were required to go, that Mary also attended shows us Mary and Joseph were a devoted couple (See Hendriksen).(top)
“according to the custom.” For explanation of customary trips to Jerusalem, see commentary on Luke 2:41.(top)
“of the feast.” There is a question as to whether this phrase belongs in verse 42, “according to the custom of the feast,” or in verse 43, “completed the days of the feast.” The Greek could be read either way; NRSV, NASB, HCSB, KJV, and ASV go with “custom of the feast,” while NIV, ESV, and NET take it to go with verse 43. We believe it should be taken with verse 43 because if left as “custom of the feast” then there is no genitive subject to complete the genitive absolute started in verse 43. Further, it strikes us less likely that they would be said to go to Jerusalem according the “custom of the feast” when in reality it was the Mosaic Law that dictated customary visits to Jerusalem, not “festival custom” (NAB translation).(top)
“diligently searching.” The Greek word is anazeteo (#327 ἀναζητέω), comprised of the word for seeking, zeteo (#2212 ζητέω), with the intensifier ana. Louw-Nida translates anazeteo as, “to try to learn the location of something by searching for it (presumably somewhat more emphatic or goal-directed than in the case of ζητέω).” We have brought out the intensified meaning of the Greek by the translation “diligently searching.” This seems especially justified here given the situation of a missing child, and Mary’s admission to being “greatly distressed” in Luke 2:48.(top)
“diligently searching.” See commentary on Luke 2:44.(top)
|Luk 2:46||- (top)|
|Luk 2:47||- (top)|
“Look here!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!).
“astonished.” This is a very powerful word; from the Greek ekplesso (#1605 ἐκπλήσσω). It designates an overwhelming astonishment: “to cause to be filled with amazement to the point of being overwhelmed” (BDAG). After days of diligently searching for their missing child, Joseph and Mary are flooded with emotions at his discovery.(top)
“Why….” These are the first recorded words of Jesus.
“must be.” Jesus, as the Messiah, “must be” in his Father’s house, where he would learn about his Father.
“in my Father’s house.” This is a common Greek idiom, and does not mean “about my Father’s business” which has been popularized by the KJV. The Greek is en tois tou patros mou (ἐν τοῖς τοῦ πατρός μου), which literally translates as “in the of Father of me,” The phrase is an idiom; it does not make sense literally, and idiomatically it means “in my Father’s house.” At 12 years old, Jesus knows he is the promised Messiah and the Son of God, and he told his parents that he “must be” in his Father’s house, the Temple. He was surprised that they would think he would be anywhere else. This verse shows a little of the workings of the mind of a 12 year old who is the sinless Son of God. As a 12 year old, he is appropriately disconnected from the pain his absence would cause his parents, but as the Son of God he already felt the mission of God working inside him and knew he must be in the Temple, and he was sitting at the feet of the great teachers there listening to them, asking them questions, and learning from them (cp. A. T. Robertson, Word Picturesin the New Testament).(top)
|Luk 2:50||- (top)|
|Luk 2:51||- (top)|
“in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” This verse mentions three things that Jesus kept increasing in as he grew and matured: wisdom, stature, and favor with God and people.
As to wisdom, Jesus was a fully human person and he came from the womb with no knowledge or wisdom, and he had to acquire it as he grew, and acquire it he did. He needed to become aware of who he was as the Son of God, what his mission and destiny was, that he would one day rule the world, and that he would have to pay for the sins of mankind by suffering and then ultimately by dying. Joseph and Mary would have been his primary teachers, but there would have been others as well, and then as he continued to grow he would have learned how to read and then learned from the Scripture itself.
As to stature, Jesus was 12 years old in Luke 2, and he would have continued to grow and develop into a strong young man. He would not have been particularly tall or handsome, because Isaiah makes the point that he was not attractive to people because of his good looks, majesty, or beauty (Isa. 53:2).
As to favor with the people around him, as Jesus grew and acquired knowledge, wisdom, and social skills, and because of that the people around him would have admired him and shown him favor. As to favor with God, as Jesus grew and matured he would have constantly deepened his relationship with God. His knowledge of God and the Old Testament would have grown and led to godly thinking and character. His prayer life would have deepened, and he would have had an ever-deepening understanding of what he was called to accomplish in life, Also, his knowledge of the Law and the lessons in the Bible, and his obedience to the Law and commitment to do what was right in God’s eyes would have led to continued nurture and favor from God. Even though Jesus was the Son of God, he had to grow by experience like anyone else does, and God’s favor upon him would have provided more and more varying experiences and opportunities for growth. Jesus never sinned, but making a mistake and learning from it is not a sin, and surely that happened to Jesus just like it did to other young people.
The fact that Jesus “kept increasing…in favor with God” is very good evidence that Jesus Christ was not God or a member of the Trinity, but was what the Bible says he is: the only begotten Son of God, the last Adam, a man approved by God. “God” does not need to increase in favor with God, in fact, he cannot. The members of the Trinity cannot grow in favor with each other. Trinitarians teach that Jesus was “God in the flesh,” a member of the Trinity, but “God,” by definition, has favor with God so this verse does not even make sense if Jesus is God. Trinitarian doctrine is that it is the “human part” of the God Jesus that grew, but that is not what the Bible says. In fact, it does not even say that Jesus grew in favor with the Father, he grew in favor with “God.” Trinitarian doctrine is that Jesus was 100% God and 100% human, and had both natures in his one flesh body, and the human part grew. But that is never stated in the Bible, it is manufactured to support the doctrine of the Trinity. Furthermore, if the “two natures” theory was correct, the God part of Jesus would have known about the human part, and the human part known about the God part, so how could the human part grow? It would have had immediate and constant access to the God part, and would have had no need and even ostensibly no ability to grow. God does not grow in knowledge or “favor with God.”
Luke 2:52 is simple and straightforward. Jesus was a fully human being, fathered by God and born of the virgin Mary, and so when he was born he was a helpless, innocent, and ignorant as any other human baby, and over time he grew in his wisdom, his stature, and in favor with both God and other people. [For more on Jesus not being God, see Appendix 10, “Jesus is the Son of God, Not God the Son”].
“man.” The word is plural in Greek and refers to all humankind, both men and women (cp. Acts 24:16).(top)