[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
Despite the humble birth and lowly beginnings of Jesus, God nevertheless brings glory and honor to Jesus, though once again, not in the way most people would expect or imagine.
2:8. In the same country, namely, the region around Bethlehem, there were shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. The presence of shepherds around Bethlehem indicates that these events took place in late September. The events could not have been in December (as traditionally thought) since flocks were not kept in the fields during the winter (Bock 1994:227; Lightfoot 1989:36). This flock of sheep most likely contained Passover lambs which were being tended for sacrifice about five months later (Barclay 1975:22; Edersheim 1988:186; Lightfoot 1989:36). The shepherds themselves were probably quite young, possibly in their teens, as the tending of sheep was generally reserved for boys and young men. Shepherds were viewed as dishonorable outcasts in Israel (Barclay 1975:22; Malina 2003:232; Pentecost 1981:60; Wiersbe 1989:176; contra. Bock 1994:213). Their work not only made them ceremonially unclean, but their work also kept them away from the temple for weeks at a time so that they could not be purified. Though Scripture sometimes refers to shepherds in a positive light, this only shows that God uses the downtrodden and despised to accomplish his will. By announcing the birth of the Messiah to the shepherds first, God was “exalting the lowly” as Mary had proclaimed (1:52).
2:9. While the shepherds were watching over the Passover lambs in the still of the night, suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before them. At first only one angel appears. Tradition says it was the angel Michael, but most modern commentaries favor Gabriel (e.g., Green 1997:131). Around him shines the glory of the Lord filling the night with brilliance. In this way, a miraculous dawn has arrived in the midst of the darkness, symbolizing the birth of the Messiah (Green 1997:132). This brilliance was caused by the glory of the Lord which appeared at critical times in Israelite history: to Abraham in Ur (Acts 7:2), in the tabernacle (Exod 40:34-35), at the inauguration of the temple (1 Kings 8:11), and when the glory departed the temple (Ezek 10:4, 18-19; 11:22-23). Now the glory had returned, but not in the temple, and not to priests and prophets, but to shepherds in the fields (Green 1997:131; Pentecost 1981:61). This reveals that God’s story in Israel will now be continued through Jesus. “Luke thus puts us on notice that the new world coming is of a radically different shape than the former one, that questions of holiness and purity must be asked and addressed in different ways, and that status and issues of values must be reexamined afresh” (Green 1997:31).
As a result of his appearance and the bright light, they were greatly afraid. As is often seen in Scripture, when angels appear before humans, the normal response is fear (Evans 2003:52).
2:10. The angel fulfills his task by proclaiming a message. He first tries to calm the shepherds by saying, “Do not be afraid.” He is not there to strike them dead or to announce judgment. Instead, he brings good tidings. The term good tidings (Gk. euangelion) is often translated “gospel” and means “good news.” The angel is “evangelizing” the shepherds, not in the sense of telling them how to receive eternal life, but in the sense of proclaiming to them an element of the good news, that Jesus, the Messiah, has been born (Evans 2003:52). This good news is rooted in texts from Isaiah (40:9; 52:7; 61:1-2). This aspect of the good news, when it is proclaimed to others, will not cause fear and condemnation, but will bring great joy. Just as the darkness was chased away by the glory of the Lord, the shepherds are to trade their great fear (2:9) for great joy (Green 1997:133). And though the angel was appearing to shepherds, the message he brings is not for them alone, but for all people. The idea of bringing joy to all people was a distinctly Messianic expectation. When the Messiah arrived, all people would rejoice and be glad (cf. Ps 53:6).
2:11. The angel explains that the cause of joy is that the Messiah has been born to you this day. He has been born in the city of David, which in context refers not to Jerusalem, but the city of David’s ancestors, Bethlehem (cf. 2:4). The angel reveals that this child will be a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the only place in Scripture where all three of these terms are found together (Bock 1994:216, 225). These titles must all be read in light of Isaiah 9:1-7 and the claims of Caesar Augustus. Caesar had taken all three terms to refer to himself (Green 1997:134-135). Luke merges imperial claims with Messianic prophecy, and raises up Jesus as the true Savior, who is Christ the Lord. As a Savior He was expected to deliver Israel from their bondage to Rome, and lead them forth to world prominence. “Salvation” as the modern concept of “forgiveness of sins so you can go to heaven when you die” was not in view. “Jesus’ birth calls into question both the emperor’s status as Savior and the ‘peace of Augustus’ that gave rise to that acclaimed status” (Green 1997:135).
The term Christ is the Greek word christos and means “Messiah,” that is, the Jewish deliverer. Finally, the term Lord does not refer necessarily to the fact that this Messiah was divine, but to the fact that He would be King and Ruler. In Greco-Roman culture, the term Lord referred to one’s patron (Green 1997:135). The term can refer to God (cf. Deut 32:15; 1 Sam 10:19; Mic 7:7; Hab 3:18; Pss 24:5; 25:1), and in fact, some manuscripts indicate that “Christ the Lord” should be translated “the Lord’s Christ.” However, it seems best to take this as “Christ the Lord,” referring to Christ the King of Israel (Bock 1994:227-228). This would be especially significant for the shepherds, as they were most likely tending their sheep in the fields around King Herod’s immense summer palace. Possibly, as they heard that a new Lord or “King” had been born, their eyes shifted to the palace.
2:12. The angel tells them that this king will not be found in the palace, but elsewhere. He gives them asign for how to find this newborn King. Signs were a way given to the Jewish people as a way to verify the truth of what a messenger had told them (Exod 3:12; 2 Kings 19:29; Isa 37:30). The sign for these shepherds is that they will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. One reason Luke put so much emphasis on swaddling clothes and the manger in verses 1-7 is that they serve as a sign for the shepherds (Pentecost 2003:61). But beyond that, the location of the Messiah, not in rich robes, but in swaddling clothes, and not in a palace, but in an animal feeding trough, revealed to the shepherds that this Messiah, though a King, would be for people like them, the poor and humble, rather than for the rich, powerful, and mighty. The Kingdom of this Christ would be the antithesis, the exact opposite, of the kingdoms of this world, like that of Caesar Augustas.
2:13. Upon finishing the angelic pronouncement, suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God. The one angel is now joined by a multitude. Their appearance probably made the night shine brighter than the day, and with their glorious light, they gave praise to God. Generally, when a child was born, the friends and family of the woman would gather around the home and sings songs of joy and celebration. Since Joseph and Mary were not at home, this celebration would not have happened. However, with the angels, God provided an even greater choir to sing at the birth of Jesus (Barclay 1975:23).
2:14. The words which the angelic multitude sang were “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” The message was more good news. Glory was to be given to God because through this babe, lying in a manger, God had offered peace to earth. Though Caesar Augustas wanted to be hailed as god, and though he was praised for inaugurating the Pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome,” the Kingly Messiah was offering peace to the whole earth (Evans 2003:53; Keener 1994:194). This peace was not enforced by power and might, but came through humility and service. It was true and lasting peace, because it was inner and spiritual. The Stoic Philosopher Epictetus said, “While the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief and envy. He cannot give peace of heart for which man yearns more than even for outward peace” (Wiersbe 1989:176).
However, this peace is not automatic or universal. Though offered to all people of earth, not all will experience it. The text of 2:14 might be better translated, “…and on earth peace to men of good will.”Men of good will is almost a technical term for God’s elect, for those who live according to God’s will, and would include the God-fearers mentioned by Mary in 1:50-53 (Bock 1994:220). In other words, only people who follow God’s commands will receive this peace (Evans 2003:53; McGee 1983:253). Though all the world clamors for peace, it comes only to those who live according to the will of God in this world.
Isaiah 48:22 says that there is no peace for the wicked. Those who live in wickedness and sin will never have this peace, because peace only comes to those who live as God intended. Instead, peace with God comes through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1), and by living according to the will of God (Eph 2:14-18). This understanding helps resolve the statement of Jesus in Luke 12:51 that He did not come bring peace to the earth. Only those who were following God according to His will would find peace; for the rest, there would be no peace.
But more than this, the angelic announcement is not simply a message that the means to “get right with God” has now arrived. It is more than the announcement about the birth of the Messiah. While it is this, it is also much more. The angelic message is a war cry from heaven. Though the pagan rulers, greedy for power, money, and fame, have brought the world to the brink of ruin, the Messiah has arrived. And with the Messiah, a rival kingdom has appeared, the Kingdom of Heaven. This kingdom, the angels proclaim, will take over the running of this earth. Under His rule and reign, justice, peace, and righteousness will prevail. This is what is behind the words of the angelic host. Some have argued that Luke does not explicitly challenge Roman leadership (Bock 1994:215). However, Luke has referred to Roman leadership (1:5; 2:1), and all readers of his text, especially Theophilus (1:3), would have understood the numerous and clear allusions to Emperor worship and the claims of Caesar Augustus. The claims of Christ were nothing if not an affront to the identical claims of Caesar.
As an example, consider the following remarks from Paullus Fabius Maximus, proconsul of Asia, when he proposed that the Roman calendar be changed to begin on the birthday of Caesar Augustus:
(It is hard to tell) whether the birthday of the most divine Caesar is a matter of great pleasure or benefit. We could justly hold it be equivalent to the beginning of all things…; and he has given a different aspect to the whole world, which blindly would have embraced its own destruction if Caesar had not been born for the common benefit of all (Green 1997:133)
The provincial assembly agreed to honor Caesar as Paullus suggested, and explained their decision in this way:
Whereas the providence which divinely ordered our lives created with zeal and munificence the most perfect good for our lives by producing Augustus and filling him with cirture [sic] for the benefaction of mankind, sending us and those after us a savior who put an end to war and established all things; and whereas Caesar when he appeared exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good things…and whereas the birthday of the god marked for the world the beginning of good tidings through his coming…(Green 1997:133).
With sentiments like these flourishing in the Roman Empire during the reign of Caesar Augustus, it is easy to see that Luke is clearly writing a gospel that challenges the position and politics of the Roman leadership.
2:15-16. After the angels finished their pronouncement and had gone away…the shepherds discuss what to do. The narrative includes some minor tension at this point. Will the shepherds respond like Zacharias, in doubt and disbelief, or will they respond like Mary, in faith and joy? Luke reveals that they respond like Mary and decide to go to Bethlehem and see the newborn child. They responded with immediate obedience and went with haste. Bethlehem was not a large town, and so it probably did not take long for them to find Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. In a culture where the person of importance is mentioned first, and men were nearly always favored above women, it is significant that Luke places Mary before Joseph (Green 1997:138).
2:17. Seeing the newborn Messiah was not the end of the matter, however. After they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. They became the first witnesses to spread the good news of the Messiah. The shepherds were so excited about what they had seen and heard, they spread the news to all the surrounding regions.
2:18. The result was that those who heard what the shepherds proclaimed marveled at what they heard. Luke is fond of mentioning that people marveled at what they heard and saw (1:21, 63; 2:33; Acts 2:7; 3:12; 4:13). The term marveled (Gk. thaumadzo) indicates wonder, amazement, or astonishment. The term is used frequently by Luke to explain the reaction of the crowds to miraculous events. It occasionally implies belief (2:33; 24:12, 41), but is also used in the context of critical and doubtful surprise (cf. 4:22; 11:38). “At the most it is only a preliminary stage to faith, or, in psychological terms, the impulse which may awaken faith but which may also give rise to doubt’ (Bertram, TNDT 3:39). So it is uncertain if the multitudes who heard the account of the shepherds believed that the Messiah had been born, or if they simply discounted it as a wild story from crazy, gullible shepherds. This may be why there are no further records of other people coming to visit Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Of course, it is just as likely that Luke chose not to write about such visits.
2:19. In contrast to the multitudes who only marveled at what they heard, Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Certainly the shepherds had informed her about the appearance of the angels and what the angel had said. Her response is to think and meditate upon them, and consider the significance of what these events meant. She is with good company in this regard (cf. Dan 7:28; Gen 37:11). She did not take it upon herself to proclaim how blessed and honored she was, but instead, quietly considered the things that were happening to her, and let others praise her. This shows, as the Scriptures say, that as God’s people humble themselves in His sight, He will lift them up (Jas 4:10).
2:20. After the shepherds had seen Jesus, they returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. The task that had initially been given to the angels, that of proclaiming the birth of the Messiah and giving praise and glory to God as a result, was now picked up and carried on by the shepherds.