Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

9. The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-10)*

“Cyrenius was governor of Syria”. Says an old commentator, with evident weariness: “Volumes have been written about this one verse”-and since his day volumes more. The essential facts are these:

The decree from Caesar Augustus “that all the world should be taxed” was really one of a sequence of censuses taken every fourteen years in the Roman provinces. It is known that Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, but at a date which cannot possibly fit the year of the birth of Jesus. For this reason critics have been very ready to assume Luke’s inaccuracy and a late date for writing of his gospel. But through the researches of Sir William Ramsay the historical dependability of Luke has been substantiated over and over again, so it is surely wise to assume that Luke is correct here also until clear proof to the contrary is available. Actually it has been found that at this particular time (about B.C. 5, according to conventional reckoning) Quirinius did hold some important office in Syria such as might well be described as “Quirinius ruling”.

It is possible that the text should be read as meaning: “This was the first census when Cyrenius was ruling in Syria”, as though implying (what is known to be true) that at a later time there was another census under his governorship-which later census was evidently done Roman style and provoked a bitter rebellion led by Judas the Gaulonite. But on the earlier occasion Herod the Great was wily enough to dress up this political event in a Jewish guise, by holding it at the time of a Jewish feast and by insisting on all registering as members of their own particular tribe of Israel. Almost certainly, according to Exodus 30:11-16, the payment was made of the half-shekel of “atonement money ... for the service of the tabernacle”. So the priests in Jerusalem would co-operate with enthusiasm, but for poor men like Joseph it would be a heavy tax on slender resources.

Why Mary also?

So, because of the census, Joseph betook himself to Bethlehem to be enrolled, “because he was of the nouse and lineage of David”. There seems to be a tautology here, for either word would suffice. Was it Luke’s intention to emphasize that not only was Joseph in direct line from David but also that he was legal heir to Mary’s side of the family?

But why was he accompanied by Mary? Since the time of her delivery was near, was it not wiser that she remain at home? Various explanations are available: To save Mary from an environment that would be rife with rumour about her. So that Jesus might be officially registered as belonging to the line of D*avid. Because Mary was an heiress in her own right, and must therefore register. Because Joseph and Mary intended to make a fresh start, settling in Bethlehem or some other place. The reason might be any or none of these. But the basic reason was an angelic constraint on the mind of a great Roman emperor nearly 1500 miles away, leading him to order that this census be organized in this particular way. Robert Roberts writes very well on this (Nazareth Revisted p. 33a).

Because so many people were travelling, the inn on the outskirts of Bethlehem was filled to capacity. This place was “the habitation of Chimham” (the Hebrew word means “a place for strangers”; Jer. 41:17). It was so called because it had been founded by the son of Barzillai (2 Sam. 19:37) when he was at the court of David, to commemorate the hospitality shown by his father to David at the time of Absalom’s rebellion (2 Sam. 17:27-29).


But now there was no shelter for the greater Son of David (cp. Jud. 19:15). It is even doubtful whether the manger in which Jesus was laid was in the yard of the inn. The words of the angel to the shepherds: “Unto you is born this day...” and “Ye shall find the babe...” might well imply that it was in the shepherds’ bothy where the Lamb of God was born. So those seeking to identify the birthplace of Jesus should look for remains of “the tower of Eder”, “the tower of the flock”, somewhere on the (northern) outskirts of Bethlehem (Mic. 4:8; Gen. 35:21). When Joseph and Mary saw the tower, did they recall the Micah prophecy and ask permission to lodge there? The tradition that Jesus was born in a cave seems to have been a precarious inference by the early church from Isaiah’s words: “He shall dwell in a high cave of a strong rock: bread (Bethlehem) shall be given him, and his water shall be sure. Ye shall see a king with glory” (33:16,17 LXX).

It has been a popular idea that, because the text says: “She (Mary) laid him in a manger”, it was a birth free from pain and distress. But Micah’s prophecy (with more than one fulfilment) seems to imply the opposite: “Now why dost thou cry out aloud? is there no king in thee?... for pangs have taken thee as a woman in travail. Be in pain, and labour to bring forth, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail” (4:9,10). If Matthew can insist that the passage four verses further on (5:2; Mt 2:6) had a fulfilment in the birth of Jesus, then this also, surely.

That first cradle for the infant Son of God was described by the Lord through His prophet: “The ox knoweth his master, the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider” (Is. 1:3). Perhaps also attention should be directed to the prayer of Habakkuk:

“O Lord ... thou shalt be made known between the two living creatures” (3:2 LXX), an allusion to the Glory of the Lord seen between the two ox-form cherubim over the mercy-seat.

These things were not without their symbolic value, as also the fact that Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes”. Here, surely, wrapped in its swaddling clothes is the profound and essential truth that Jesus shared the mortal nature of those he came to save, with all its inherent weaknesses and propensities. The contrast with his resurrection, when the tokens of mortality were left behind in the tomb is very pointed (Jn. 20:6). By contrast (Jn. 11:44), when Lazarus rose to a new life of mortality, “he that was dead came forth bound hand and foot with grave clothes.” If Luke did not intend some meaning of this kind in his account of the Lord’s birth, it is difficult to see why he chose to include such details, when so many others of much greater human interest are omitted. “Thick darkness was the swaddling band” of the old creation (Job 38:9), and now the darkness of our human nature was the swaddling band of the New Creation.

The manifestation of rejoicing angels to the shepherds in the fields nearby is a lovely assertion at the very beginning of the story of redemption that the grace of God in Christ is for the meek of the earth. Jacob, Moses and David were all of them shepherds, and these humble men of Bethlehem were heirs to their faith and godliness. Human pomp and circumstance are cut down to size by the choice of these untutored shepherds to be the first to hear the good news of the Lamb of God: “Unto you is born this day...”

Angelic Announcement

At first only one angel was visible to them, and he accompanied by a manifestation of the resplendent Glory of God, a glory such as men may not behold without a deep awestruck misgiving of their own ability to survive such a presence of heavenly majesty. “They were sore afraid”-literally, “they feared a great fear.” But this was no time for fear, only for rejoicing, for the angel brought good tidings-good tidings of great joy.

The birth of a child into any family is an occasion of gladness. In all human experience, from youth to crabbed age, is there any more unanimous sentiment? But the birth of this child, more than any, meant joy and gladness past describing for all who belong to his family. The angel bade them: “Cease your fear of me”, for was he not bringing them goods news for “all

the people”—that is, for all Israel, for all who are the true Israel of God.

Foretold in Scripture

The message was explicit: Messiah is born this night in the city of David. The very circumstances must have brought to the minds of these godly men a Scripture they longed to see fulfilled: “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed ... O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of luda. Behold your God... He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” (Is40:5,9,11).

Also appropriately, the angel gave the good news in terms of another Messianic prophecy which these unlearned and ignorant shepherds must have been familiar with: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great lignt... Thou hast increased their joy... Unto us a child is born ... upon the throne of David...” (Is. 9:2,3,6)-all these phrases have their counterpart in the angel vision and message.

In those days all Israel looked and prayed for the fulfilment of Isaiah’s sublime prophecies of Messiah. The angel declared that the one who should achieve these things was born that night in Bethlehem. Today Judaism declares that Messiah has not been born yet. And conventional Christianity believes that he was born then but has not and will not turn the prophet’s vision into reality. But to those who believe Jesus to be the Messiah and that the prophecies will very soon find their accomplishment, the message is one of greater joy than even the shepherds could experience, for all their angelic vision. For they believed that the new-born King must grow to maturity before manifesting himself to Israel, but the believer today knows that the signs are ripening faster than that.

“A Sign unto you”

Gabriel had appointed signs for Zacharias, for Elisabeth, for Mary (and for Joseph?). Now he gave a sign to the shepherds also: “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” The sign was the babe himself, and the remarkable circumstances of his birth (cp. ls. 7:14). Similarly in days to come the sign of the Son of man in heaven is to be the Son of man himself (Mt. 24:30). In those days in Bethlehem and its locality there must have been quite a number of mangers for the foddering of animals. These words of the angel seem to imply a manger in the sheepfold used by these shepherds to whom he spoke. They would have little difficulty in going straight to the place, to wonder and adore.

All Heaven Rejoices

But before they could bestir themselves, there came a yet greater manifestation of heavenly joy and glory. All at once a veil was taken away (cp. 2 Kgs. 6:17), and they beheld the great multitude of angels (who had been there all the time) rejoicing and praising God (Ps. 148:2). Beyond the powers of any temple choir (1 Chr. 15:16 ff) they celebrated the glory of the Almighty. “In the highest, glory to God; on earth peace, (His) goodwill among men.” By far the most important Biblical idea behind the word “peace” is not absence of war between nations or of strife between individuals, but “peace with God”- “The Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” And “goodwill” looks back to the Hebrew ratzah, ratzbn so very often associated with acceptable sacrifice. Thus “goodwill toward men” means reconciliation through the greatest of all Days of Atonement. The alternative textual reading: “to men of goodwill”, means the same thing: “peace to men who know themselves reconciled to God through Jesus”.

Well might there be angels’ gladness. This was heaven’s D-day, and ten thousand times ten thousand rejoiced, as at the Lord’s resurrection (Lk 24:52; Mt 28:8) and his ascension (Rev. 5:11,12). Their joy and excitement was not to be restrained. And the fields of Bethlehem echoed with the sound of it. That day the Corner-stone of the New Creation was laid, so the Morning Stars sang together, and all the Sons of God shouted for joy (Job 38:7).

Shepherds rejoice also

It was in no spirit of disbelief that the shepherds talked with great eagerness (Gk.) among themselves. These who had been “keeping careful watch” (a strong Hebraism) over their sheep were now ready enough to leave their ninety and nine in order to find for themselves the Lamb of God (v.8,15,17). There is fair evidence (Edersheim) that sheep for temple sacrifices were kept in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so there may be special symbolism in this! All were eager to go (Ps. 132:;6,7). The true text: “the shepherds also said...” seems to imply: ‘The angels have been to Bethlehem to behold. Have they not not told us’ of a manger and swaddling bands? We too must go.’ Nor did they say: ‘To see if this thing has come to pass’, but: “to see this thing which is come to pass.” They had implicit faith in the message.

There was no question of leaving even one of their number to safeguard the flocks, for that night the sheep had guardian angels.

Together the men made haste through the darkness back to their sheepfold. And-God be praised! — it was even as they had been told. On the hay which they themselves used for sleeping rested Mary, tired with travel and travail. And in the manger lay a baby. It has been very truly observed that in every age it is shepherds who watch their flock by night as well as by day who also see the Glory of the Lord and know the help of angels and enter into the presence of Christ.

He looked like any other new-born baby. But the sign was complete: a new-born child, a boy, a firstborn, wrapped in swaddling clothes (for Mary had travelled knowing there would be need of these), the manger for his crib; and on enquiry the family proved to be of the house of David. So they too praised God, and with restrained eagerness told the story of their experience out in the open fields.

Mary, for all her fatigue, heard their tale with quickened attention and gladness. Along with all the other awe-inspiring happenings associated with the birth of her son, these also-especially the message of the angel and the song of the heavenly host-were stored away in her memory and many a time pondered during the years which followed. There was little these rough shepherds could do to help this travel-tired family in their crude bivouac, so they considerately withdrew-and not unwillingly, for what a story they had to tell! During the next few hours they did their utmost to match the glad praise of the angelic choir with their own and to tell to everybody with as much conviction and rejoicing the good tidings that Messiah, the Son of David, was born in Bethlehem. The common version fails completely to bring out how this account of our Lord’s birth is dominated by the angel’s “good tidings of great joy”:

v.15: This saying which is come to pass.
v.17: They made known the saying which was spoken to them.
v.18: Those things which were spoken to them by the shepherds.
v.19: Mary kept all these sayings.
v.20: it was spoken unto them.
Notes: Luke 2:1-20

Espoused. RV: betrothed; s.w. Dt. 22: 23, a passage which dominates the meaning of Jn. 8: 1-11.
Her son, the Firstborn. Ps.89: 27;Col. 1: 20.

The inn; s.w. 22: 11. Cp. Jer. 41: 17—the same place, probably.

No room. Symbolic of what Jn. 1: 11 says explicitly.
Abiding in the fields, until mid-October, says the Targum.
The heavenly host. Other instructive allusions: Gen. 28: 12; 32: 1,2. In praise: Ps. 103: 20,21; 148: 2. In judgement: Ex. 12: 23; Dan. 7: 10. In protection: Mt. 26: 53; 24: 31.
Even unto Bethlehem. Gk: de is both emotional and imperative. ‘Come! we’ve got to go to Bethlehem’ perhaps conveys the idea.

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