In our last study we studied Luke 1:39-80. We found two sections in those verses, namely, a visit by Mary to Elizabeth and an account of the birth of John the Baptist. In this study we study the birth of Jesus. In 2:1-7 there are several serious historical questions that arise because secular records do not confirm all of the information. We know that Augustus was emperor from 31 BC until AD 14. So that isn’t a problem. But according to Roman records, Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until AD 6-9, about a decade after Jesus’ birth. So that is our first historical problem. Secular records don’t support the idea that Quirinius was governor of Syria when Jesus was born. However Quirinius was made a Roman consul in 12 BC, which would have given him authority over Herod’s kingdom at the time of Jesus’ birth, even though he was not the governor of Syria at the time.
A second historical question arises over the “first registration” in verse two. The registration would have been for tax purposes, because that was the primary purpose of any census in those days. But there is no secular record of a census by Quirinius prior to his becoming governor of Syria in AD 6. However a couple of things could account for that. One, the available Roman records are not complete. And two, the word “first” may have referred to an early census that never was completed. Due to the lack of technology, it took years to complete a census in Roman times.
Third, the necessity of Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem to register raises a question, because the Romans registered people at the place of their residence, not the place of their origin. But since Judea was a Jewish vassal kingdom rather than a Roman province, they would have done the census using Jewish rather than Roman methods. It also is possible that Joseph may have owned property in Bethlehem, which would have required his presence there. At any rate, it is clear that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for family reasons.
Fourth, some think it is a problem that Mary accompanied Joseph on the trip when her pregnancy was so advanced. But we must remember that the people in that culture were not as attuned to medical risks as we are in our culture. Luke, who was a physician, certainly doesn’t seem to have thought anything negative about it. If Mary had no legal reason for going, she may have accompanied him for personal reasons.
The language “first-born son” in verse seven strongly implies that Mary had other sons. The Roman Catholic Church believes that Mary was a perpetual virgin and that Jesus was her only child. Thus they say that Jesus’ brothers and sisters mentioned in Matt. 13:55-56 were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage. But they do not make convincing arguments that such is the case. A “manger” was, of course, a feeding trough for animals, though neither Luke nor Matthew says that animals actually were present at the birth of Jesus.
There also is a tradition that you may have heard, namely, that Jesus’ birth took place in a cave. Indeed the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over a cave. But that tradition can only be traced back to the second century, and the actual location of Jesus’ birth probably is unknown.
In verses 8-14 Luke tells us about angels appearing to shepherds who were watching their flocks in the fields. Shepherds were at or near the bottom of the social scale in Israel. Their job was dirty, fairly lonely, and not well paid. The flocks were kept in the fields from April to November, but occasionally were out there at other times of the year. So this information isn’t really helpful in deciding the time of year that Jesus was born. At night the shepherds took turns guarding the flocks from thieves and wild animals.
The night of Jesus’ birth an angel, accompanied by God’s glory, appeared to certain shepherds and frightened them (v. 9). But the angel quickly told them not to fear and announced to them the good news of the birth of the Savior, Christ the Lord. The term “Savior” was ascribed to God in the Old Testament. And we find it ascribed to both God (Luke 1:47) and Jesus in the New Testament (many places). Clearly in the New Testament God is saving his people through Jesus. “All the people” at the end of verse 10 probably originally meant Israel, but Luke, by the time he wrote his Gospel, likely understood it to include Gentiles as well.
Notice in verse 12 that the angel told the shepherds the baby would be a confirmatory sign for them. That is to say, the baby would confirm the truth of the revelation they had been given. Now it is quite possible that Jesus was the only child born in Bethlehem that night, because it was a fairly small village. But even if another child or two had been born there that night, Jesus would have been the only one to be found in a manger.
In verses 13-14 we see that a more immediate sign is given. Suddenly a multitude of the heavenly host appears with the angel, and they begin to sing glory to God in heaven and to proclaim peace on earth for those whom God favors. The Hebrew shalom carries the idea of well being and health as well as peace. It is the same here. Peace means more than an absence of strife. It includes all of the benefits associated with a relationship with Christ, especially salvation from sin and death.
The last segment of the section, verses 15-20, tell us about the visit of the shepherds to the newborn Jesus. Notice in verse 15 that Luke identifies the heavenly host, or army, as angels. After the heavenly display, the shepherds decide to check out the sign they had been given (v. 15). So they head to Bethlehem, “with haste” Luke says, to find the child. And they found him in a manger, just as the angel had said they would. Then verse 17 tells us that the shepherds “made known what had been told them.” It isn’t at all clear whom the shepherds told, but they did immediately share the good news of that wondrous night.
In verses 18-20 we see three reactions to the birth of Jesus. The first reaction is that of those who heard the story of the shepherds. They were amazed, and rightly so. It was an astounding story. The second reaction is that of Mary. She “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” And the third reaction is that of the shepherds. They glorified and praised God for all that they had been privileged to see and hear.
Turning to application, I want us to think about what it was like to be involved in the events of the Savor’s birth. Interestingly, we are told very little about the participation of Mary and Joseph. Joseph undoubtedly gave as much aid to Mary as he could, as Jesus was born, but we are told nothing about that. Likewise Luke is silent about the role of Mary, the mother, except for a statement that she gave birth to Jesus, wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger. We also are told that she pondered the events of that night in her heart.
Two groups, namely, shepherds and angels, get all of the attention. The angels acted as messengers and worshippers. Since we are not angels, we cannot identify with their role. But we can try to put ourselves in the place of one of the shepherds.
Imagine that you are out in the field minding your own minimum-wage shepherding business when an angel gloriously appears and announces the birth of the Savior. Would you be frightened as the shepherds were? Would you believe what the angel had to say, as the shepherds did? Would you have followed up and gone to Bethlehem to check out the angel’s story? And finally, would you have spread the news all around the area as they did?