by Ed Gallagher
What would you do if you learned that you were going to have a baby? Some people would rejoice. Some people would panic. At this point in my life, I’m more in the latter category. I know that because not too long ago my family was told about the opportunity to bring a baby into our home, and my first reaction was utter terror. Babies are a lot of work, and they’re exhausting. Modern American society has developed a sophisticated “family planning” strategy, which often means, “how to avoid having a baby.”
I admire my wife because her first reaction to the prospect of receiving a baby at the start of our fifth decade of life was not utter terror. And I admire Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1 because their first reaction was not utter terror. Neither one of them was in the prime “baby period” of their lives. Elizabeth was too old; Mary was too young. Proper family planning would not have called for either to have a baby in that season of their lives. We often find that God works against human convention, contrary to expectation.
Elizabeth and Mary submitted to, and even rejoiced in, these unusual pregnancies because they understood the significance of these babies. As Mary sang, “from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48), and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, understood that Mary carried within her “my Lord” (1:43). They both knew that the births of their two babies, and especially the younger, was a moment of “good news of great joy” (2:10).
The Birth Accounts
Matthew and Luke both contain accounts of the birth of Jesus, while Luke’s is the only Gospel to narrate the birth of John the Baptist. But the two accounts of Jesus’ birth are very different, as this chart illustrates. (For an early Christian attempt to harmonize the birth accounts, see Epiphanius, Panarion 51.9.9–13.)
|Annunciation to Joseph (1:18–25)|
Herod and visit of magi (2:1–12)
Flight to Egypt (2:13–15)
Slaughter of Innocents (2:16–18)
Return from Egypt (2:19–23)
|Announcement of John (1:5–25)|
Annunciation to Mary (1:26–38)
Mary visits Elizabeth (1:39–56)
Birth of John (1:57–80)
Jesus’ Birth (2:1–7)
Visit of Shepherds (2:8–20)
Baby Jesus at the temple (2:21–38)
Jesus’ growth (2:39–52)
It is difficult to know how all the details fit together, and for the purposes of our study of Luke, we’ll basically ignore Matthew.
The Hopes of Israel
But I will say that Luke and Matthew have one major (but, perhaps, too-often overlooked) feature in common, and that is the prominence of Old Testament themes and imagery in their birth accounts. (See the Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine here.) Such a statement might be a little surprising in regard to Luke since there are hardly any Old Testament quotations in the first two chapters (only at Luke 2:23–24). In fact, as Kavin Rowe (p. 33) has remarked, “The characters and events of the Old Testament are everywhere present and nowhere mentioned.” The only way to understand the significance of John and Jesus is by paying careful attention to the Old Testament, to the promises it contains, to the hopes it instills in God’s people, to the prophecies about a coming salvation. Luke’s language constantly looks back to the Old Testament to inform readers about what this all means.
The very beginning of Luke’s story tells us about an old, barren couple, and we recall—since we know Israel’s scriptures well—other stories about old, barren couples, specifically Abraham and Sarah. (Abraham will be explicitly named a couple times later in Luke 1, in Mary’s song and Zechariah’s prophecy.) There were also other stories of barren women, like Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel (cf. Gen 29:31; 30:22–24), or Hannah (Samuel’s mama; cf. 1 Sam 1) or Mrs. Manoah (Samson’s mama; cf. Judg 13). We know how these stories work: the whole point of mentioning the barren woman is to tell a story about how her barrenness was overturned and she had a son, and not just any son, but a special son, an important son, one who will play an unusual role in God’s plans.
So also this old, barren woman, Elizabeth, with her priestly husband, Zechariah, will have a son. This time, as in the case of Samson (Judg 13), there’s an angel who makes this announcement: the angel Gabriel, who “stands in the presence of God” (Luke 1:19). He tells Zechariah that his son should receive the name John (1:13). God also chose Isaac’s name (Gen 17:19). We are never told why Zechariah’s son needs to be named John. The name means “The Lord is gracious” (or, better, “Yahweh is gracious”). This child will be special, just like Isaac and Samuel and Samson. John’s birth will be an occasion for rejoicing (1:14). Again, like Isaac and Samuel and Samson, John will be a special agent from the Lord (1:15). In his case, this will mean that he should abstain from alcohol—perhaps because (like Samson; Judg 13:5) he’ll be a nazirite from the womb? (Num 6:3)—and instead he will be filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 5:18). What will be his mission?
He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.Luke 1:16–17
Malachi had prophesied that the appearance of Elijah would precede the “great and terrible Day of the Lord” (Mal 4:5), and so Jews were on the lookout for him (cf. John 1:21). Still today Jews leave out a cup of wine for Elijah during their Passover Seder. John’s birth signaled that things were now moving toward that great and terrible day of the Lord. Elijah was finally making his re-appearance.
Next is a different kind of story, one we haven’t seen before. It’s another story about a woman being promised a son, but this woman is not barren; she’s not even married; she’s a virgin. The same Gabriel comes to her and tells her about her forthcoming son. There’s also a special name for this son, Jesus (1:31), and once again Gabriel fails to explain the significance of the name. Perhaps Mary would have understood that since “Jesus” (or, in Hebrew, Yeshua) means “salvation,” that this Messiah would bring deliverance. The angels tell the shepherds that this baby is a savior (Luke 2:11). At any rate, the connection between the name “Jesus” and “salvation” is made explicit in Matthew’s Gospel (cf. Matt 1:21).
Just like John (Luke 1:15), Jesus also will be “great” (Luke 1:32), but beyond that he will be called the Son of the Most High, and he will receive the throne of David. Gabriel explains: “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:33).
We cannot understand the importance of this Annunciation without referring to the promises to David, promises that enflamed some first-century Jews with nationalistic fervor. A thousand years earlier, God had promised David that his descendants (his seed; 2 Sam 7:12) would reign over Israel forever. At the time that Gabriel visited Mary, no descendent of David had reigned over Israel for half a millennium. David had been Israel’s greatest king, a warrior king who routinely defeated in battle Israel’s enemies. Descendents of David were “adopted” by God as his special sons (cf. 1 Chron 28:6). In a sense, any human king, a descendent of David, could be called a “son of God” in this loose sense. Gabriel’s words to Mary promise the fulfillment of the ancient promises to David; a new king was on his way, in her womb.
The problem is, as Luke has already explained, that this particular birth is impossible because Mary is an unmarried virgin. So, while it may have been impossible for Abraham and Sarah to have a baby at their age (Gen 17:17), and the same for Zechariah and Elizabeth (whose exact age we don’t know), it is even more impossible for Mary to conceive in her current situation. So, she naturally wonders how she’s supposed to go about facilitating the birth of the Messiah. “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (1:34 KJV, which gives a literal translation). Gabriel’s answer reveals that “knowing a man” is quite irrelevant in this case.
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.Luke 1:35
As we saw earlier, the title “son of God” did refer in the Old Testament to the human king on Israel’s throne, but here Gabriel makes it clear that this king to be born of Mary will be “Son of God” in another sense. He will not merely be adopted by God, but God will be his father. Mary will become pregnant through an action of the Holy Spirit. It was not so unusual in the ancient Greco-Roman world to imagine a god fathering a child with a human woman; Zeus was rather famous for doing this. But clearly what Zeus did with women is not what Luke is describing at 1:35. The conception of Jesus is wholly different, instigated by completely different motives.
What Luke (or Gabriel) is describing is the Incarnation of God.
That’s what makes the conception of Jesus different from the conception of John. John’s conception is very much parallel to the conception of every “special” child in the Old Testament, as we have seen. In such instances, there’s no doubt that the child to be born will be fully human, not at all divine, not immortal. But that’s where the Annunciation of Jesus is different from all the other angelic announcements of long-awaited pregnancies. First of all, Mary has not been waiting for a pregnancy. In fact, that’s probably the last thing on her mind. And, second, this child will not be just like any other person except with a special mission from God. This child is the product of God’s direct action within the womb of this young woman, without the contribution of a human father. That makes Jesus different from all the other biblical stories of pregnancies brought about by God. Again, one might think that the birth of Jesus is something like what we read about in Greek mythology: Hercules (or Heracles) was the son of Zeus and a human woman. But the story associated with the conception of Hercules—Zeus disguised himself as Amphitryon, husband of Alcmene, so that he could sleep with the woman—makes the conception of the child merely a byproduct of the union between Zeus and Alcmene. The story is about Zeus’ lust and deception and the on-going tension (to put it kindly) with his own wife, Hera. There is nothing of this in Luke 1:35.
One more point about this verse: the incarnation of God as described by Gabriel has affinities with certain things we read in the Old Testament, but differences, too. There are several stories in the Old Testament that depict God as embodied. (See Sommer’s fascinating, academic study.) Think about those three visitors that ate with Abraham in Genesis 18, or the manifestation of God (again, in the context of a meal) in Exodus 24, where the text says that Moses and Aaron and others “saw the God of Israel” (v. 10). These stories about God as embodied are similar to Luke 1, which also involves the embodiment of God. But, none of those Old Testament stories describe the incarnation (or, enfleshment) of God. It’s not like God became a human in Genesis 18. Rather, he temporarily manifested himself in human, physical form. In Luke 1–2, God becomes a human. God experiences growth in a woman’s womb, experiences birth, experiences aging, and eventually experiences death. There are similarities with stories of God’s embodiment in the Old Testament—and, indeed, many Christians throughout history have interpreted these Old Testament stories as previews of the incarnation, as pre-incarnate appearances of the Christ—but the incarnation of Christ in the Gospels is unique.
Mary’s response (v. 38) in her precarious situation is a model of faithfulness.
Mary travels to visit Elizabeth—whom she now knows to be pregnant (Luke 1:36)—and immediately Elizabeth recognizes not only that Mary is herself pregnant but also the exalted status of the fruit of her womb (see again Rowe, pp. 34–49).
Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?Luke 1:43
The Magnificat and the Benedictus
These are the titles traditionally associated with Mary’s song (Luke 1:46–55) and Zechariah’s prophecy (1:67–79), taken from the first Latin word of each poem: magnificat (“magnifies”) and benedictus (“blessed”).
The themes of the poems are, perhaps, unexpected. They seemingly have very little to do with Christmas. There’s nothing about peace on earth and goodwill to men (that comes later; 2:14)— almost the opposite. Mary sings:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones.Luke 1:51–52
These words are much more … what? militaristic? polemical? aggressive? … than the Christmas carols to which we’re accustomed, whether “Winter Wonderland” or “Deck the Halls” or “Silent Night.” Mary interprets her situation as an action by which God is bringing justice to the world, setting at naught the usual markers of power. In that way, Mary’s song is very much like Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving upon the birth of her son Samuel, a prayer that also omits any mention of the child and instead dwells on God’s character and power.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.1 Samuel 2:4–7
Hannah sees that ultimately God calls the shots in this world, and he is concerned for justice. While it often seems that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, God’s act of mercy toward Hannah—the birth of her son—demonstrates yet again that appearances are deceiving, and that God is interested in setting things right, reversing the injustice so prevalent in the world. God’s choice of Mary as the mother of Jesus (or, can we even say the mother of God?) is the supreme act in the great reversal brought about by the gospel. The very next lines in Mary’s song continue the theme:
…and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.Luke 1:52–53
The birth of Jesus to such a mother in the little town of Bethlehem, with no crib for a bed,1 acclaimed by Shepherds and not kings, shows God as one who lifts up the lowly and nullifies the power of the wicked.
And, of course, all of this is in fulfillment of the ancient promises God has made to his people. Mary concludes:
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.Luke 1:54–55
God promised long ago to Abraham that his descendants would bring blessing to the world (Gen 12:3; 22:18). Mary knows that her child ultimately fulfills these ancient promises.
Zechariah also mentions “the oath that [God] swore to our ancestor Abraham” (Luke 1:73), but he takes it in a different direction than what we might expect.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we,
being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.Luke 1:72–75
Here again we have a somewhat militaristic or aggressive interpretation of the birth of a child. Zechariah—when he is finally able to speak—sees his son’s birth in terms of God’s redemption of Israel (1:68). It should cause us no surprise that Zechariah connects this redemption to the long-promised Davidic king (1:69), but it might surprise us that Zechariah thinks this king is going to save Israel “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (1:71). What exactly does he think this king is going to do? He apparently thinks the king will establish Israel in safety, defeating her enemies, so that Israel can serve God without fear (1:74–75).
What do you imagine someone listening to Zechariah would have thought about these words? Whatever they thought about the accuracy of Zechariah’s prophecy—is God really going to do these things now and through these children?—they would have understood the hopes that he was communicating. But they wouldn’t have wanted to communicate those hopes too loudly for fear that the Romans might hear. It was those same hopes that eventually led to Jesus’s death, with the charge against him being that he was “The King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38). (Mark 15:26 makes it clear that this is the “charge” [αἰτία] against Jesus.)2 The kingship of Jesus was interpreted as a threat to Rome. And many Jews longed for this exact thing: for the long-promised Davidic Messiah to defeat the Roman enemy and establish Israel as a strong and secure empire.
Maybe Zechariah held this view, as well, but clearly Luke did not. Luke was writing several decades after these events, and he knew very well that the kingship of Jesus was not a direct threat to Roman rule in the way imagined by both Jews and Romans at the time. But Luke included this prophecy within his Gospel because he considered it an accurate account of the significance of these births—whether or not Zechariah himself understood the full import of his own words. God had, in fact, finally sent his king to defeat the enemies of Israel and establish God’s people in security to worship him without fear (cf. Luke 12:4–5). And Luke shows throughout his Gospel Jesus fighting and defeating Israel’s enemies (cf. 13:10–17, esp. v. 18).
Zechariah touches on more themes in the conclusion to his prophecy, and we will briefly touch on them here. His son John will be “prophet of the Most High” who will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (1:76). This description connects John’s role as Elijah (cf. Mal 4:5) with Isaiah’s prophecy in Isa 40:3. John will prepare a people for the Lord by teaching about salvation and the forgiveness of sins (1:77). And this will all result in light breaking out for those in darkness (1:78–79; cf. Isa 9:2; 42:6; 49:6). As should be obvious, Zechariah is very familiar with the ancient prophecies and believes that he is a witness to their fulfillment.
At the Temple
There is so much in the first two chapters of Luke—such theological richness packed into a tight space—that we need to skip over something. (Actually, we’ve already skipped over quite a bit!) It might seem heretical to skip over the actual birth of Jesus in Luke 2:1–7, but we’re going to. My excuse is that we need to pay more attention to the interpretations of the birth in these chapters. What does this birth represent? What does it mean? Mary tells us, and Zechariah, and Simeon, and Anna. It’s to Simeon and Anna that we now turn.
That also means that we’re skipping over the announcement to the Shepherds (Luke 2:8–14), but let’s listen to Linus read it to us, anyway.
Now to the Temple. In accordance with the Torah—Luke (2:23–24) quotes Exodus 13:2 and Leviticus 12:8—Mary and Joseph take their newborn to the temple in Jerusalem, where they meet a man and a woman, who tell them more about the significance of their child.
Simeon comes first. He is introduced as “righteous and devout” and anticipating the consolation of Israel. What does this mean? First of all, notice how this idea of anticipating stands at the beginning and end of this narrative about the temple.
[Simeon was] anticipating the consolation of Israel.Luke 2:25
[Anna told] about the child to all who were anticipating the redemption of Jerusalem.Luke 2:38
There were ancient Jews who were longing for (anticipating) God’s action, and they might express that hope in terms of the consolation of Israel, or the redemption of Jerusalem. Remember that Zechariah also was hoping for redemption (1:68), which would come by way of the Messiah (1:69), who would deliver Israel from their enemies (1:71). In the case of Simeon and the people to whom Anna spoke, we can’t know exactly what they were hoping for, how they imagined the consolation of Israel or the redemption of Jerusalem, but I would not be shocked to learn that they thought it would entail the overthrow of the Romans. After all, Simeon already knows that he will live to see the Messiah (2:26), which most people (everybody?) interpreted in militaristic ways. The son of David would be just like his father David in killing the enemies of God (cf. 1 Sam 18:7). Or so they hoped.
Perhaps like Zechariah, Simeon’s words may have meant more than he knew. Taking up the infant Jesus, the (elderly?)3 man proclaimed:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.Luke 2:29–32
Whatever Simeon may have been thinking, those who heard him might well have thought about salvation in physical terms, as in Israel being saved from the foreign oppressor, just as long beforehand God had saved his people from Egypt. Whereas such a salvation might well enlighten the nations about the nature of Israel’s God (after all, that was part of the point of the exodus; cf. Exod 7:5; 9:16), the child Simeon held would serve as a “light for revelation to the Gentiles” in a different way, or, at least, Jesus revealed to the nations things about God that salvation from the Romans would not have done.
So far so good. But what Simeon says next entails the first hints that this whole story might contain some darker elements.
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.Luke 2:34–35
It is not clear at this point in the story what this prophecy might mean, but it is ominous. This little baby is “destined … to be a sign that will be opposed.” Perhaps someone at the time would have said that the Messiah would be opposed by the enemies of God, and that the Messiah would bring about “the falling and rising of many in Israel” in the sense that those Jews who have been complicit with Roman rule (such as the Herods) would come on hard times. Greg Carey (p. 29) points out that several of the parables that Jesus later tells (especially the ones unique to Luke’s Gospel) “depict sudden turns of fortune and the dramatic consequences of human decisions.” We can think of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) or the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) or the Pharisee and Publican (Luke 18). So, interpreted narrowly, maybe Simeon just means that the wicked in Israel would receive their just desserts. But that last line is hard to interpret so positively: “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Things are going to get worse than this young mother hitherto imagines. This somber declaration only hints at the coming tragedy.
That’s all in the future. For now, as with the birth of any baby, there is only rejoicing. And so we end with Anna, the elderly prophetess who worshiped in the temple “with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37). Anna traced her ancestry to the tribe of Asher, one of the northern tribes, and so she here represents in incipient form the “all Israel” that God had promised to gather together under his king David (see, e.g., Ezek 37:21–25).4 As we mentioned earlier, Anna becomes an evangelist, speaking about Jesus to those she meets who were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).
Redemption is coming.
Angels make several announcements in Luke 1–2: to Zechariah, to Mary, to some shepherds. What do these angels say is about to happen?
The widow Anna speaks about the child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). What does the phrase “redemption of Jerusalem” mean, and what does that have to do with this child? Can you think of Old Testament prophecies about the redemption of Jerusalem? Do you think Anna might be thinking of something like Isaiah 2:1–4?
Summarize Mary’s song at Luke 1:46–55. What does she say that God has done? What does she mean by that?
Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1:67–79 has similar themes to Mary’s song. How does Zechariah describe what God is about to do, and why he is about to do it?
When Simeon sees the infant in the temple, what does he think is the significance of this child?
(1) But Luke probably does not locate the birth in a stable. Listen to Mark Goodacre’s podcast here, or see the academic article by Stephen Carlson—to which Goodacre refers—here.
(2) For ancient evidence for such inscriptions announcing the causes for the crucifixion, see David W. Chapman and Eckhard J. Schnabel, The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 292–98.
(3) Luke doesn’t actually tell us that Simeon is old, but he does think he’s going to die soon, it seems (2:26, 29).
(4) For more on Anna and the significance of her tribe, see Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 77–107.