Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
This passage can be broken into two parts. Luke 2:1-7 is an account of the birth of Jesus. Luke 2:8-20 is an account of the shepherds who first heard the good news of Jesus’ birth.The second section can be broken into two smaller parts as follows: 2:8-14 (the angels’ announcement) and 2:15-20 (the shepherds’ response).
In Luke 1:26-38 the angel announces that Mary would give birth to a son and name him Jesus (meaning, God will save). Her son would be given the historic throne of David in a reign without end. In contrast to this Davidic king, Luke 2:1-20 opens with a reminder that world power was located in Caesar Augustus, the man who had conquered all the factions of the republic and then turned them into an empire under his sole control.
He issued the order that all the people of the world (e.g., from current day Spain all the way east to Palestine and then south into Egypt and current day Libya) be registered (a word denoting having one’s name put on a list, often for the purposes of paying taxes; “registering” is emphasized by its use four times in seven verses). Joseph and Mary need to go to Joseph’s ancestral town, Bethlehem, to register. Jesus, like David, will be born in Bethlehem (1 Samuel 17:12). The baby will not be born in the city where David’s power was located, Jerusalem, which is also known as the city of David (2 Samuel 5:6-9). Instead, Jesus will be born in the city that Micah 5:2 describes as “too little to be among the clans of Judah” (ESV). Once again in this narrative, God chooses the smaller and less powerful over places of status and position.
In contrast to Augustus, Joseph is from a backwater town in the Galilee in a small province distant from the seat of power, yet he is also a descendant of David, the most illustrious king in the history of Israel. While in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth, wrapped the baby in strips of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn (most likely referring to a guest room in a family’s house rather than a commercial inn). The new king is born in humble circumstances,1 but this should not lead the reader to forget that God orchestrates these events.
The angel announced that Mary would give birth to a son. Here in this passage, this happens just as the angel foretold. God continues to be the active agent in the birth of his son who will bring about the eternal kingdom of God. While Augustus may appear to exercise world-dominating power, the text turns our attention to the power of God to bring about what he has announced and promised.2
On the same night that the baby is born, a delegation is sent to announce his birth. The angel’s proclamation to the shepherds (another contrast with the power of Caesar Augustus) has five elements. First, they are not to be fearful but rather joyful. Second, what they are about to hear is “good news” for everyone. Third, a savior has been born. Fourth, the savior is the anointed one of God. Fifth, the baby in the manger is the “sign” that affirms the truthfulness of this proclamation.
Fear is the regular experience of people in this narrative who encounter angels (cf., 1:12, 30) but in each instance the person discovers that God has attended to them. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary all receive a child. The shepherds will receive a sign. Each of these receive a reason for celebrating God’s attention to them, and the shepherds too are told that the news they are about to receive is exceedingly good and joyful news and therefore is nothing to fear.
The good news is “for all the people” (verse 10). This news is not only for the Jews but also for all people. This will be reiterated in 2:32 when Simeon announces that Jesus is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (ESV).3
The joyful good news is that a Savior has been born. In the age of Augustus, when power is rooted in imperial Rome, and when the emperor was acclaimed as a savior,4 the angel announces the arrival of the real savior. This should, however, be set not only against the backdrop of Roman power but also against the backdrop of the Old Testament. There we find over and over that God is the real savior, the real deliverer. God is the one who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, delivered Israel from her enemies, raised up David and other kings to fight Israel’s battles, and brought Israel back from exile. Now, God has brought his proclamation to Mary to fulfillment, and God has brought his promise of a savior to completion.
Indeed, this Savior is the Christ, the one anointed and chosen by God as the descendant of David who will deliver Israel from here enemies.
Where are the shepherds to find this baby? In an animal’s feeding trough in Bethlehem. Lowly status is emphasized again. The angel’s proclamation ends with the sudden appearance of a multitude of God’s heavenly messengers praising God and declaring God’s glory, God’s blessing of peace on the earth, and God’s favor.5 Once again, the emphasis falls on God’s blessing and favor rather than on human action or capacity.
In response to the announcement they have received, the shepherds got up and went to see if what they had heard was true, and they found all of it to be so. When they had seen the sign for themselves, they could not keep silent about all they had heard and seen. And their testimony about the child caused an extraordinary impression among those who heard it. Finally, just as the angels praised God, so too the lowly shepherds returning to their work in the fields also praise God for all they had experienced.
1For more on the theme of kingship, see the commentary on Luke 1:26-55.
2Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 126.
3For more on the theme of “good news for all,” see the commentary on Luke 2:22-38.
4Green, Luke, 133.
5For more on theme of “glory” in see the commentary on Luke 2:8-20.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
By your greatness you became small, by your power you became powerless, by your limitlessness you became limited. Through the birth of your son, we can live in your light that shines on a world transformed by the limitless power of your love. Amen.
Silent night, holy night ELW 281, H82 111, UMH 239, NCH 134
Away in a manger ELW 277, 278, H82 101, UMH 217, NCH 124
O little town of Bethlehem ELW 279, H82 78, 79, UMH 230, NCH 133
What sweeter music Michael Fink