Sunday School Lesson for December 23, 2001
Celebrating a Birth (2:1-7)
Luke begins the birth narrative by setting forth the historical/political situation into which the Savior appeared. He records that a "decree" was "issued" by "Caesar Augustus" regarding a "census" of the "entire Roman world." "Augustus," whose original name was Gaius Octavius, was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. He was given the official title "Augustus," meaning majestic, in 27 B. C. by decree of the Roman senate. A census such as the one he ordered was conducted about every fourteen years. According to verse 2, this one was instituted while "Quirinius was governor of Syria," or approximately 5 or 6 B.C. It is very likely that there was an interval of time between the ordering of the census and its actual commencement. In those days Judea was a part of the Roman province of Syria and would naturally fall under the authority of Quirinius. Clearly Lukeís purpose here is to show that God is indeed the Lord of history, and that "the actions of the emperor in far-away Rome do but set forward the divine plan and purpose" (Leon Morris. The Gospel According to St.Luke. TNTC. 82). I. Howard Marshall also sees a specific purpose for including details related to the census: "[The census] serves to place the birth of Jesus in the context of world history and to show that the fiat of an earthly ruler can be utilized in the will of God to bring his more important purposes to fruition" (Luke, NIGTC, 97-98).
According to the rules of the census, the head of each family was to return to their ancestral city in order to be counted. Since Joseph was from the "house and line of David" he had to report to "Bethlehem," also known as the "the town of David" (note that Bethlehem is referred to as "Davidís city" in 1 Samuel 20:6). His journey from Galilee would cover about 80-90 miles and take four days to complete. Luke does not indicate why it was that he took Mary along with him since she was not required by law to go the Bethlehem. However, we may reasonably conclude that since she was already "expecting a child," though they were not yet married, he "used the emperorís order as a means of removing Mary from possible gossip and emotional stress in her own village" (Walter Liefeld. Expositorís Bible Commentary. Vol. 8. 844). William Hendriksen believes that "Joseph was too kind a person to allow this [slander, accusation, and gossip] to happen. Besides, he wanted to be with her when the child was born" (Luke, 142). Some have observed that Maryís safe arrival at Bethlehem in the latter stages of her pregnancy was of itself a great miracle of God (Marshall, 106).
While in the city of Bethlehem the time for the delivery of the baby arrived. Verse 7 indicates that when she had given birth to Jesus "she wrapped Him in cloths, and placed Him in a manger." These words reveal that Mary had no help in the birthing process. The "cloths" referred to here were long strips of fabric that were wrapped around the child several times until the entire body was covered and protected from the elements. They also served to keep their arms and legs straight (Marshall, 106). Luke also notes that the Lord was born "in a manger" or feeding trough for cattle. That there was "no room for them in the inn" may indicate that officials of the Roman government who had descended upon the little town to enact the census took up all the available rooms in the city. Lukeís description suggests that Christ was born in just such a cave where animals were often housed, or in a poor home which was shared by both humans and animals. Marshall notes that a tradition traced to the second century located Jesusí birth in a cave. This scene reveals that Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus experienced "obscurity, poverty, and even rejection" at this most critical hour in their lives (Morris. 84).
Celebrating a Savior (2:8-14)
Luke mentions that some "shepherds" were in the fields at that same time "keeping watch over their flocks at night." Morris observes that it is very likely that these shepherds were pasturing flocks that were destined for the temple sacrifices at the time of Passover a few months later. Though Luke makes no mention of the time of year, the traditional date of December 25 could very well be accurate since flocks intended for sacrifice would be in the fields at this time. Typically, flocks were kept outside from April to November and "occasionally in suitable locations during the winter" (Marshall, 108).
Many New Testament scholars have argued that shepherds in Israel were of a lowly class and were notorious for their unreliability and lack of integrity. In fact, Jewish courts of law would not receive the testimony of shepherds. This makes the announcement of Christís birth all the more significant, especially in the light of Isaiah 61:1-2óa text quoted by Jesus during His public ministry. Isaiahís promise that "good news" was to be "proclaimed to the poor" certainly finds initial fulfillment in the announcement of Christís birth to these "poor and downtrodden shepherds" (Hendriksen, 149).
Luke states that while the shepherds were tending their flocks "an angel of the Lord appeared to them." The sight of the angel and the vision of the "glory of the Lord" caused the shepherds to become "terrified." This is similar to the experience of Zacharias (1:12) who also encountered an angel of the Lord. Verses 10-12 record the reassuring words of the angelic messenger:
Celebrating a Personal Expereince (2:15-20)
Following their encounter with the angel, the shepherds determined to proceed directly to Bethlehem to "see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." Having made their way to the city, the shepherds found Mary and Joseph and "the baby, who was lying in the manger." These actions indicate that the shepherds believed they had received a message directly from the Lord, and were so sure of its importance and truthfulness that they were willing to "risk disbelief and even ridicule" (Hendriksen, 157). Note that they communicated to Mary and Joseph the facts concerning their previous encounter with the angel.
Verses 19- 20
Luke tells us that Mary, upon listening to the report of the shepherds, "treasured up" and "pondered" all that she had been told. In verse 20 the scene ends with the return of the shepherds to their fields in the spirit of worship, joy, and gratitude to God for "all the things they had heard and seen."
Major Themes for Application and Discussion
One: What is the significance of the fact that Luke details the ordering of the census by Augustus? Why is this important to the Christmas story?
Answer: It reveals that Christís coming to earth was a part of an eternal plan carried out by God who is Lord of time and history. This passage shows that Christ was born at the right time in perfect harmony with Godís eternal plan. Consider the following passages:
Two: Luke has also taken great pains to reveal the fact that Christ was born into a poor and lowly family. What is the spiritual significance of this? In other words, what does this have to do with the ministry of Christ and the message of the gospel? Consider the following passages:
Answer: Christ has come to save those who are spiritually poor and needy, and destitute of any righteousness of their own. Thus, from beginning to end, salvation is wholly of Godís grace and mercy.
Three: The announcement to the shepherds of Israel is also a dramatic element of Lukeís account of Jesusí birth. Why do you think he included this in his gospel? The following passages may help you with your answer:
Answer: It reveals Christ as the Friend and Savior of sinners. It is on behalf of sinners that He came to earth.
Four: The theme of glory is also a significant part of the Christmas story. Why is this such a central point of the gospel message? Study the following passages:
Psa 24:7 Lift up your heads, O gates, And be lifted up, O ancient doors, That the King of glory may come in!
Isa 6:3 And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.
John 16:14 He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you.
2 Cor 4:4 in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Answer: It reminds us of the fact that the ultimate purpose for everything is the glory of God.