Gospel for Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-20

Exegesis for the Christian Year
by Henry Gustafson

Gospel for Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-20

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes

Wherin our Savior's birth is celebrated

The bird of dawning singeth all night long:

And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,

The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,

No fairy takes nor witch hath power to charm

So hallowed and so gracious is the time.

Shakespeare caught the mood of Luke’s narrative: shepherds in their fields, watching their flocks by night, the birth and swaddling of a baby, the announcement by an angel, the shining of the star, the canticle of the heavenly host, shepherds glorifying and praising God: "so hallowed and so gracious (was the) time."

In this narrative Luke sets forth the wonder of Christmas. The story unfolds in three parts. The first (vv. 1-7) locates the birth of Jesus. It happened when Augustus was Caesar, emperor of the Roman world (27B.C.-14 A.D) (1) It happened in Bethlehem, the city of David, where Joseph and Mary had gone to be enrolled for a census. It happened in a place where there was a manger. Then and there Jesus was born and wrapped in swaddling clothes.

The second part (vv. 8-14) interprets this birth. Using the form of an announcement story Luke tells of the appearance of an angel, of the fear of the shepherds, of the message they were given, and of the sign which confirmed it (2) Added to the announcement is a canticle. A heavenly host joins the angels in offering praise to God for this event and proclaims peace to people with whom God is pleased.(3)

The third part (vv. 15-20) describes responses made to the news of this event. The shepherds checked out the message, found the sign, the babe lying in a manger, and shared the interpretation which they had given. The people marvelled at their words. Mary kept them in her heart and wondered. The shepherds then returned to their work, glorifying and praising God for the event and its interpretation.

For Theophilus and other Gentile Christians, who needed to "know the truth concerning the things of which they had been informed," these paragraphs were written. We will attend mostly to the second section where Luke, using four of the five elements of an announcement story, interprets the event of Jesus’ birth. He hoped that his readers would hear the good news of that message, observe how it evoked a response of worship, and thus perhaps, see "how hallowed and how gracious (was) the time."

The time was a time of fulfillment. In the angel’s announcement the word translated "this day" makes this explicit. It has the nuance of an inaugurated eschatology. "To you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." In the event of that birth the hope for a promised one was realized.

The setting for this announcement was near Bethlehem, where shepherds were watching flocks by night (v.8). That would have seemed appropriate to Theophilus and other Gentile Christian readers. They were familiar from their Scriptures with the biblical stories of David, the shepherd from Bethlehem (I Sam. 16:11); and they

knew the prophetic expectation that out of Bethlehem would come forth a ruler of Israel (Micah 5:2,4). Also as denizens of the Hellenistic world, they would have known that shepherds commonly were present at the births of heroes and gods. (4)

The significance of the shepherds’ presence, however, varied with the different cultures. In the Greco-Roman world, they often appeared as representatives of an ideal humanity. In later rabbinic Judaism they came to be associated with thieves and criminals.(5) To Luke they probably represented the common people, the lowly, the persons loved and befriended by Luke’s Jesus (cf. Luke 19:10).

To them "an angel of the Lord appeared." To speak of the appearance of an angel was a way of referring to the presence of God. For the terms angel and God often were interchangeable.( 6) Thus here, what v. 9 attributes to the angel, v. 15 attributes to the Lord. In the latter the shepherds say: "Let us go ... and see this thing which the Lord has made known to us." To be confronted by an angel of the Lord was to experience God’s glory (v.9). It was to experience the splendor, the brilliance, associated with God’s presence. (7) Luke’s shepherds, relatively free from the artifices of the sophisticated and the pride of intellectuals, were able to open up to a glory that was not their own (cf. I Cor. 1:26ff.).

Confronting that glory the shepherds "feared a great fear" (v.9). This was the standard response to divine appearance in an announcement story.(8) And it was met with words of assurance; "Do not be afraid" (v.10). These in turn were backed up with a reason, the announcement: "For to you is born this day ... a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (v.11).

In the substance of the announcement is the root cause, not only of the shepherds ~returning to their work, "glorifying and praising God," but also of the gladness and worship that have moved people in Christendom through the centuries to celebrate Christmas as a hallowed and gracious time.

Three words stand out interpreting the announced event. They are "Savior," "Christ," and "Lord." Each has a functional significance and each came to be used as a title for Jesus.

The most frequently used of the three was Christ. Like the Greek christos and Hebrew meschiach, the word means "anointed one." There had been many anointed ones in Israel’s history. They included prophets, priests and kings. Most prominent among them were the successors to the Davidic throne. In the days of Jesus and the early Christian movement many expected one of these successors, some Davidic Christ, to rise up and deliver the people (Luke 20:41; Mark 13:21). The Book of Acts names a number of possible messiahs or christs: Judas, Theudas, and the Egyptian (Acts 5:33ff.; 21:38). Josephus tells us of the role which these and other would-be-messiahs played.

That Jesus claimed to be one of these christs is doubtful. The title’s national and political baggage made it unacceptable to him.(9) When others confessed him as the Christ, "he charged . . . them to tell this to no one" (Luke 9:21). The veto, however, did not work. The messianic excitement of the times imposed on him an identity which he rejected, and yet for which he was crucified . He was crucified as a king (Mark 15:26; Luke 23:2,38). The title on the cross ... "King of the Jews" linked him with a national political goal that he would not own. His kingdom was not of this world.

Early on, however, Jesus’ followers came to call him Christ. And they found in their scriptures allusions to a kingly model, which they used to support their practice. Thus here, in his reference to the "city of David", Luke reminds his readers of the belief that Bethlehem was the place where a ruler like David, would be born (Micah 5:2). His use of the word "this day" was a reminder of a coronation psalm (Ps,2:7): "You are my son, today I have begotten you." And his language in the statement: "Unto you is born ... a Savior ... Christ, the Lord" recalls that of Isa. 9:5-7: "To us a child is born; to us a son is given ... and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ And of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over his kingdom...." Clearly Luke is tapping into sources referring to a Davidic, kingly, Christ.(10).

However, those sources, so important to the many who were longing for a national, political liberation, were not adequate. His description of Jesus’ life and ministry gave little support to hopes for a national restoration. More important for Luke, when giving content to the Christ title, was the tradition of the eschatological prophet (Acts 7:37). (11) This non-royal messiah, anointed with God’s spirit (Isa.61:lf.), often, in late Judaism, was linked with the prophet Samuel. With his priestly traits and teaching function he was referred to as the "Christ" and viewed as "a light to the Gentiles." And sometimes his image was blended with the coming of Elijah. (12)

This prophetic model, propagated by a group of instructors in the law and in the synagogue, (13) was most useful to Luke. The picture of an eschatological messenger, anointed by God’s spirit, a bringer of good news to the poor, a liberator of the oppressed, a proclaimer of the coming of God’s rule, who effects a new covenant community, is a light to the Gentiles, and a bestower of peace (all ideas associated with this prophetic model), are most helpful to Luke in filling out his depiction of the ministry of Jesus.

The idea of rejection, of prophets being repudiated along with the message they proclaimed, was also a piece of this messianic tradition. It knew that to call a people to repent, to change, was to invite hostility. The Jesus that Luke describes did just that and was crucified. But as Luke saw it his crucifixion helped confirm him as the true eschatological prophet (Acts 7:51-53), the one whom God had raised up and made both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:32-36; 4:27ff.). He saw this Jesus as one who from the beginning had been anointed by God’s spirit (Luke 4:16f.) at his baptism in the Jordan (Acts 10:38) and even before, at his birth (Luke 2:26ff.).

All of these texts show that for Luke the title Christ or Messiah was tied not to some national, political hope, but to the model of the eschatological prophet. Jesus fulfilled this prophet’s role. And the event at Bethlehem was the birth of this Christ; the birth of God’s agent for bringing a new form of salvation, a non-political, non-national salvation, to humankind. This was the good news of great joy, not only for Luke’s shepherds, but for his readers, past and present.

In addition to the title "Christ" Luke’s angel used "Lord" for this child. That would have seemed appropriate to many of Luke’s readers. They lived in a world where, as Paul observed, there were "lords many" (I Cor. 8:6). It was a title readily ascribed to a variety of heroes and gods, to Cyrus, Romulus, and Remus, Sarapis, and Mithras.

It also could have made sense to some strict monotheists, to people who had been brought up in the synagogue circles of the diaspora and were acquainted with the apocalyptic thought of the time. They could use the title not only for Yahweh but also for someone whom Yahweh had sent. "Behold, I send a messenger before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will pardon your transgression; for my name is in him" (Exod. 23:20f.). The title "Lord" (kurios, in Greek, mara(n), in Aramaic), understood as a name for God, could be conferred on God’s envoy.

In the apocalyptic writings, both Enoch and Moses, envoys whom God had taken up, were given the name "Lord." God’s own name. Moses was called "Lord of all prophets." And to Enoch all seventy of the names of God were given. He was granted power, authority and lordship over all of creation. Thus, in the circles of some diaspora synagogues and apocalyptic thought, the name of God was set upon God’s messengers. Yet never did this use threaten a clear monotheistic faith.(14).

Compatible with this practice was the way of speaking about and addressing Jesus in the early Christian communities. There, the title "mara" was used when praying for Jesus’ return: thus "marana tha," ("Our Lord, come!" I Cor. 16:22). In the community of the Q source Jesus appeared as a prophetic messenger and miracle worker, and was called "Lord" (Luke 10:17). The Apostle Paul, in a teaching context (I Cor. 7:10) used the same address: "To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord." These uses of the title "Lord" for Jesus by the early Christian are in line with the messenger tradition of Judaism and compatible with their monotheism. Paul was clear about this, distinguishing between the one God, the source of all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ, God’s agent of creation (I Cor. 8:6).

This idea that a title used for God could also be given to someone whom God sent illumines also the use of the Christological affirmation of Phil. 2:9-11.

Therefore God has highly exalted him

and bestowed on him the name

which is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bow...

and every tongue confess that

Jesus Christ is Lord

to the glory of God the Father.

Here, the "name that is above every name" is set upon the prophetic messenger, Jesus. He is called by God’s own name ... the Lord.

Luke used this title for Jesus after the resurrection. In Acts he shows Peter telling his hearers that this Jesus, whom they crucified, God raised and made "both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:32-36). And this title, used only once in the gospel of Mark (11:3), became for Luke the main title, not only for the risen Christ but also for Jesus in the earlier phases of his story. Luke retrojects the title into the narrative of Jesus’ ministry and uses it even of his infancy: in his description of Elizabeth’s encounter with Mary ... "the mother of my Lord;" and in the angel’s announcement to the shepherds. (15)

In this birth narrative the word "Lord" is used both for God (v. 15) and for Jesus(v. 11). Yet, Luke is not challenging monotheism. Rather, like others in the Jewish Christian community, he presents Jesus as one upon whom God has set God’s own name. To acknowledge Jesus is to acknowledge God (cf. Luke 12:8f.; also John 13:20). For he is the Lord. He speaks for God. And as Lord, kurios, he has authority over his servants, douloi. He has the right to call them to account, the right to direct and to guide them. He has the power to save them.

Luke’s understanding of this title and its widespread use reflect an experience of faith expressed elsewhere in the Early Church: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9f.). To know the Lordship of Jesus was to be involved in a saving relationship. This, in part, was the good news of great joy which Luke’s readers were invited to experience.

The remaining title given the child by the angel in Luke was "Savior." "Unto you a Savior is born...." Luke’s readers were aware of many saviors. Included among them were gods, physicians, kings and emperors.(16) Not far from where Luke may have been writing was an inscription hailing Caesar Augustus as "savior of the whole world." (17 ) This Augustus was the very ruler by whose reign Luke located Jesus’ birth. He had brought peace to the world, the pax Augusta and in gratitude people celebrated his birthday and remembered the gift of peace received in and through him. An inscription from Priene read: "The birthday of the God has marked the beginning of the good news through him for the world."(18) Doubtless, many of Luke’s readers were familiar also with the remarkable work of the well-known Roman poet, Virgil, The Fourth Eclogue (40 B.C.). It speaks of an age to come in which the "virgin of peace" would return and in which a child, the "descendent of the gods," would be born. With his coming, Virgil wrote that "our guilt will disappear, the earth will be freed of its fear and there will commence his rule over a world made peaceful." For many people in Luke’s world, this hope defined as a savior was what salvation meant. (19)

The idea of expressing ones hopes for the future by the birthday of a child was familiar also to Luke’s Christian and Jewish readers from their own Scriptures. The prophet Isaiah had written: "a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14). And the title "Savior" also appeared. The Bookof Judges used it for persons whom God raised up to deliver Israel from its enemies (Judges 5:9, 15), and in Second Isaiah it was used for God’s own self:

There is no other god beside me,

a righteous God and a Savior;

there us none beside me. (45:21)

Early Christian preaching was influenced by both of these contexts. In Phil. 3:20, Paul wrote: "Our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." The titles here are the same as the those used by Luke’s angel. However, the time reference is different. The text in Philippians looks forward to a future salvific event: "we await a Savior." In Acts, Luke uses this title when writing about work currently going on; the work of the risen, exalted Christ: "God exalted him... as Leader and Savior to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:31); and again: "By raising Jesus" (Acts 13:33) "God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus as he promised" (Acts 13:23), and "through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:38). Thus the giving of repentance, forgiveness and freedom are identified as aspects of the ongoing saving work of the risen Lord and Christ.

In the Synoptics, the title "Savior" is used only once: Here in Luke 2:11, where Jesus’ saving work is related not to his coming again nor to his work as risen Lord, but to the very identity and significance of his person. He was their Savior. In writing about the ministry of Jesus, Luke gave a focal place to scriptural texts highlighting his salvific character. The story of his ministry began at the Nazareth synagogue with his use of Isa. 61:lf. and with his claim of having been anointed by God’s spirit, having been sent both to preach good news to the poor and to set at liberty the oppressed (Luke 4:18). When Luke considers the doubts of Jesus’ contemporaries he accents again Jesus’ salvific work:

Go and tell John...

the blind receive their sight,

the lame walk.

the lepers are cleansed,

the deaf hear,

the dead are raised up,

the poor have good news preached to them (7:22).(20).

Throughout his gospel Luke tells the story of the work that helped earn for Jesus the title "Savior." In a world where Samaritans were despised he showed Jesus telling stories in gratitude to God. In a society which treated women as second class citizens he showed Jesus welcoming them into his fellowship, along with the Twelve, and taking them with him on his travels through the cities and villages of Galilee. In a religious community that excluded sinners, he showed Jesus eating and drinking with them, telling stories accenting God’s care for them, and extending his hospitality and best wishes to them. The Jesus of Luke’s gospel was one who broke through the barriers of nationalism, sexism, and religious chauvinism, who awakened repentance, set people free, who opened communities and brought in peace. Indeed, as Luke stated, he was One who had come "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke19:10).

Confronting the task of beginning the story of this life, Luke found it appropriate to retroject the Church’s title for Jesus, the title Savior, back into the good news of his birth: "unto you is born a Savior." That news is celebrated by the shepherds as they return home, glorifying and praising God, and then attested by the witness of the prophet Simeon:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace...

for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.... (Luke 2:29f.)

Added to the message of the angel is a brief canticle. Most probably it was not part of the original announcement story. Perhaps Luke included it here because of the nuance it adds to the good news of the angel. It is a song by the heavenly host of peace on earth.

This peace is not the same as the peace brought about by Caesar Augustus. It has more in common with the quality of life envisioned in the Hebrew word, shalom, (be whole, be complete). In Luke’s scriptures this word meant not merely the end of hostilities, but rather the well-being that comes from God. To extend this greeting was to express a wish for a life of wholeness, a life lived in accord with God’s will and fulfilled in some ultimate salvation (Isa. 9:6; Zech. 9:9f.): To the prophet, Second Isaiah, it was the mark of God’s messianic rule (cf. II Isa. 52:7), and it included such qualities as harmony, order, security and prosperity. (21)(Isa. 48:18; 54:10; cf. Ps. 29:11; Jer. 16:5).

In the preaching of the Early Church this peace had to do with ones relationships with God (Luke 7:50; Rom. 5:1), with others (Acts 9:31; Eph. 2:14-17), and with self (Rom. 8:6; Phil 4:7).( 22)

In the teaching of Jesus this peace was associated with salvation (Luke 7:50;8:48). The mission of himself and his disciples was to leave this peace with those whom they visited (10:5). And it represented the quality of life which the departing Christ wished for his followers (Luke 24:36).

The heavenly host had promised peace to those with whom God was well pleased. Later in his gospel Luke identified persons with whom God was pleased. God was pleased with Jesus. This was declared at his baptism (Luke 3:22). God was also pleased with Jesus’ disciples. "Fear not, little flock. it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). It was for this God-pleasing community of Jesus and his disciples, that the heavenly host envisioned this promised peace. And as Luke told the story this was good news of great joy for all the people; for sinners as well as righteous (v. 10)

The last standard element in the announcement story is the sign. "This will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12). The sight of that well-cared-for child was the sign.(23) It confirmed the good news of the angelic message.

For Luke’s readers, past and present that sign has been enriched. Their knowledge of the life and ministry of Jesus, their experience of him as risen from the dead, and their recognition in him as 1) that hoped-for eschatological prophet (the Christ), as 2) God’s own envoy, who could and does bear God’s name (the Lord), and as 3) one who did and does God’s saving work (the Savior) -- all contribute to the significance of that sign received first by the shepherds. Hence, even today, we readers find it possible to share in the shepherds’ joy and gratitude and to confess with Shakespeare’s people: "So hallowed and so gracious is the time."


(1) Luke also says that the birth occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This raises the first of a number of problems with the text. Luke 1:5 and Matt. 2:1 indicate that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Herod died in 4 BC, and Quirinius was governor of Syria from 6 to 9 AD. For discussion of this and other historical questions see Raymond Brown, The Birth of The Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 394ff., and Howard Marshall, "Commentary on Luke"(NIGTC, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 96ff.

(2)Announcement stories characteristically have five elements: 1) an appearance; 2) a response of fear; 3) a message; 4) an objection; and 5) a sign. Cf. Luke 1: 11ff., 26ff. The objection,(number 4), is missing here. Perhaps, obliquely, it is to be found in the last section of the narrative where the shepherds go to Bethlehem to check on the truth of the message.

(3)In support of the reading of this text see Joseph Fitzmyer, "The Gospel According to Luke I-IX " (The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1981). 410f.

(4)Ibid., 39Sf.

(5) Sanhedrin 25.

(6)See also Gen. 2Z~11, 14; Judg. 6:2, 14; Isa. 63:9.

(7)Exod. 16:7,10; 24:17; 40:34; Lev. 9:6,23: Ps. 63:3.

)8)Cf. Gen. 15:1 Dan 1O:12,19~, Luke 1:30; 2:10; 8:50.

(9) Cf. Oscar Cullmann, Christology of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,1959)

(10) Cf. Nils A. Dahl, The Crucified Messiah and Other Essays (Minneapolis: Augsburg,

1974), 23-28.

(11)Cf. Deut 18:15,18; also Zech 4:3,11-14; 4Q Florilegium.

(12) Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus, (New York Crossroad, 1981), 494.

(13) Ibid., 486ff.

(14) 490f.

(15) Cf. Luke 7:13,19; 10:1, 39, 41; 11:39~, 12:42, 13:15; 17:5f.; 18:6 19:8, 31, 34 22:61; 24:3,34. See also J. Fitzmyer, op. cit. 197-204.

(16) W. Foerster and G. Fohrer, "Sozo... ." TDNT, 7 (1971) 965-1024.

(17) R. E. Brown, op. cit., 415.

(18)W. Dittenberger, ed., Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1903-5), II, #458, lines 40-42.

(19) See Appendix IX in R. Brown, op.cit., for a translation of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue.

(20) Cf. Isa. 29~.18f.; 35:5f. 61:1.

(21) Cf. Isa. 48:18; 54:10; also Ps. 29:11; Jer. 16:5; and Charles Talbert, Reading Luke (New York: Crossroads, 1980), 33f.

(22) Also see Gal. 5:22 and Col. 3:15.

(23) The Wisdom of Solomon 7:4-5.