THE FIRST CHRISTMAS AND THE FIRST FAMILY – PART II
THE BIRTH OF
JESUS AND ANNUNCIATION TO THE SHEPHERDS IN LUKE
I. In contrast to the birth of John the Baptist, the Nativity of Jesus was in humble circumstances that would surprise the world. God speaks some messages in language the world understands (e.g., miracles, the overthrow of tyrants), but the most important events generally occur in subtle, mysterious ways.
A. Jesus was probably born in 5 or 6 B.C. This time comes from the Gospel according to Matthew, and in particular the reference to Herod being king, but dying within 2 years of Jesus' birth. Herod reigned as king of Judea and the surrounding from 37 to 4 B.C. Thus Jesus would have been born towards the end of that time.
Our current calendar reflects a slight miscalculation by pseudo- Dionysus.
B. The background is the census that Augustus Caesar (or Octavian) had taken for the whole Roman, empire.
1. The universal
census that the Gospel refers may have been a shorthand for a
series of orders that the Emperor Augustine (27 B.C. - 14 A.D.)
to the kings and governors under him, to get a count of their nations.
See Zondervan Handbook to the Bible (1999) 600; Warren Carrol, The
Founding of Christendom (1999) 302-303.
2. Augustus did
have two censuses of Roman citizens in 8 B.C. and 14 A.D. However,
Joseph was presumably not a Roman citizen. It is possible that
the governor of Judea took the occasion to enroll all of the people,
as well as Roman citizens.
3. Luke describes
the census to the time when Quinrius was governor of Syria. Quinrius
became governor a little later, about 6 A.D., although he may also have
been the governor before 8 B.C. Luke feels no need to distinguish
between his time as governor and earlier times in lesser offices. For
it appears that he was a dominant influence in the area throughout the
entire period, and thus may have been referred to as governor even when
he was not strictly speaking holding that office.
4. In any case, by referring to the census under Augustus and the governorship of Quinrius, Luke is drawing a dramatic contrast between the powers of the world, and the power of God, who became man in the small town of Bethlehem.
- At the time
of Augustus, he was hailed as "a Savior who made war to cease" and
considered the worldly messiah. See Fr.Robert Kairs, "The Gospel
According to Luke," ch. 43 in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary
para. 29:1. However, by the time Luke was writing his Gospel ,
the imperial cult had become badly damaged due to the infighting and
civil wars of corrupt emperors such as Nero and Caligula and assassinations
of Emperors. Luke is pointing to the true path to peace.
were also usually, although not always, taken to increase ones power
over the people, as with the Doomsday Book, the record of a census taken
by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. See The
Founding of Christendom302. King David had taken a census
of the people, probably for this reason, and later realized that it
was a sin. See 2 Sam. 24; 1 Chron. 21. Here again there
is the dramatic contrast between the powers of the world and the power
Jesus will have to welcome people to himself.
B. Bethlehem was a minor town of about 500 people about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. But it was also David's hometown, and thus the family town of St. Joseph.
1. The prophet
Micah had spoken of a king coming from Bethlehem to establish the great
kingdom of God. Micah 5:1ff. Its name means "house of
bread," which would be fitted for one who would bring to us the bread
2. Although Bethlehem
is about 70 south of Nazareth, the journey would have been about a hundred
miles because the land in between Galilee and Judea was Samaria, and
thus hostile to Jews. The way they travelled from Galilee to Judea
was to cross the Jordan travel south east of the Jordan, and then recross
in the area near Jericho. The journey, which was similar to the
one that families would make to Jerusalem, would take several days.
3. When they arrive in Bethlehem, Joseph cannot find proper housing, and indication that even the best of people (and perhaps especially the best) suffer disappointments and seeming failures.
- There would
probably have been only one inn at Bethlehem. That sort of building
typically had two floors and housing of differing sizes and comfort.
The animals were typically kept either in a cave next to the inn, or
in a manger in its courtyard.
- This difficulty
in finding housing reflects the fact that his own people were turning
him down, very possibly because he took the pregnant Mary as his wife.
C. By being born in a manger, Jesus was taking on what the world would consider the least likely circumstances for rising to be the Savior. But He thus fulfills the example of David, who also seemed to be overlooked until Samuel anointed him. See 1 Samuel 16.
- The common images
of a donkey and a cow in the stable are both from early Christian art
and from the beginning of the prophesy of Isaiah, who said that the
donkey and ox recognize their owner, but the people do not recognize
their Lord. See Isaiah 1:3.
1. One irony
is that an animal (a sheep or two turtle doves) are sacrificed to "redeem"
the firstborn son and consecrate him to God. Here, the firstborn
will later be sacrificed for His people to raise us from an animal state,
subject to sin and death, to the level of the sons. See Ex. 13:2-16.
2. The passage
also implies the connection between heaven and earth. For Jesus
is the firstborn of Mary, and also the firstborn of God. See Col.
1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 1:5.
II. The Shepherds and the Angels
A. It is fitting that the first witnesses to the new king would be shepherds in a field. For David was a shepherd and was herding flock when the prophet Nathan came to Jesse's house in Bethlehem to find God's new king. See 1 Sam. 16:1-13.
- Like Bethlehem itself,
the image of shepherds receives great honor from Scripture, but was
largely ignored until Jesus' day. See Micah 5:1-3; Ps. 23, 80;
Is. 40:11. The prophets sometimes contrasted the shepherd God
would send with false shepherds, i.e., negligent leaders of His people.
See Ezekiel 34:5-23; Zech. 11:15-17.
- Shepherds were
not considered part of regular society because they were semi-nomadic,
and could not fully keep the Sabbath rest, nor the other rituals.
But God chooses those who are least in the world as the best witnesses.
- In that area
of the world, it is common to graze sheep at night to avoid the hot
sun. In any case, at least some of the shepherds would have had
to stay awake to prevent the sheep from wandering or being eaten or
B. The angel and the glory of God appear to the shepherds, who go from fear to thrill.
The shepherds understandably show great fear, for they are being brought
into a realm vastly above their nature. See Judges 6:22; Isaiah
2. The angel again comforts them and tells them rejoice. Luke again bringing in the theme of joy.
4. Then the multitude of angels appears, giving praise to God and a promise to earth.
a. The multitude
of angels visible on earth went far beyond the visions of the Old Testament,
which on rare occasions portrayed a multitude of angels in heaven.
See 1 Kings 22:19; Ps 29:1; Job 1. But to have a host of angels
visible on earth was a greater gift than even the great figures of old
had received, except possibly Jacob. See Gen 28:10ff. In
2 Maccabees there are a visions of several angels assisting the people
of God in combat, but not vast numbers. See 2 Macc. 3:22ff., 5:2ff;
b. As one
would expect, the angels call for all people, human and angelic, to
give glory to God in heaven. But they also add that upon all people
of the earth His favor may rest. There is a theme throughout Luke
of God showing forth the Gospel to all peoples.
C. The sign of the
newborn infant likely reflects the prophesy of Isaiah 7:10ff, but adds
the unexpected element of the child being born in a manger.