Commentary on Luke 2:15-21
By the time we arrive at the Festival of the Name of Jesus on January 1, the story of the shepherds in Luke 2 might sound a familiar note, especially if verses 15 to 20 were included as part of the lectionary readings on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Only verse 21 is new, so to speak, moving the narrative timeline to eight days beyond the night Jesus was born.
As we ponder the meaning of Jesus’ holy name, we can better appreciate the significance of the shepherds’ response and be motivated to follow their example. Let us begin with the last verse on the naming of Jesus, and work our way back to the shepherds.
Two events are mentioned in verse 21—the circumcision and the naming of Jesus. It is unnecessary to make too much of Jesus’ circumcision. Jesus was, after all, a Jewish male infant. His parents were law-abiding Jews, who had him circumcised on the eighth day, according to God’s command when he established his covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:11-12; Leviticus 12:3).
When naming their son, Joseph and Mary were likewise obedient, following the instructions the angel Gabriel gave Mary to call the boy Jesus (1:31-32). Unlike the naming of John by Elizabeth, which caused quite a stir among the relatives until Zechariah confirmed it (1:13, 59-63), here there was no hint of objection or fanfare, but four simple words: “he was called Jesus” (2:21). The use of the passive voice emphasizes that God, not Jesus’ parents, was the authoritative source of that name.
The name “Jesus”—which means “Yahweh saves”—is holy in every way. Not only does it signify the bearer’s divine status on account of his supernatural conception by the Holy Spirit, it also spells out the specific mission on which his heavenly Father had sent him, that is, to be God’s agent of salvation for Israel, and through Israel, for the whole world (2:11, 30-32; 3:6).
Reading the birth narratives of Luke 1 and 2, we the readers follow the author from one scene to another, picking up important pieces of information to form a comprehensive theological picture. For example,
- In Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, we learn of Jesus’ divine sonship and kingly status (1:31-35).
- In the earlier part of chapter 2, we learn that, for Luke, the city of David refers to Bethlehem (2:4, 11), not Jerusalem.
- While a baby wrapped in bands of cloth is not anything unusual, we learn that one laid in a manger is unusual enough to function as an effective sign for the shepherds to find Jesus (2:7, 12).
- From Gabriel and the angel who appeared to the shepherds, we learn about the many titles for Jesus: Son of the Most High, Son of God, Savior, Messiah, and Lord. Each of these titles serves as a window into Jesus’ identity and mission (1:32, 35; 2:11).
Because we the “omniscient” readers know more about Jesus than the shepherds did when the angelic hosts suddenly appeared to them, we should appreciate all the more their response to the theophany. They reacted to what they saw and heard with genuine curiosity, trust, and active obedience. Compared to them, we have so much more information. We know the rest of Jesus’ story, his earthly ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and where we now stand in light of his second coming. How much more should we respond favorably and faithfully to that which has been made known to us.
Let us now return to verses 15-20 and take a lesson from how these shepherds responded to what they were told.
Imagine that we were the shepherds watching over our flocks in the fields that night. Having just witnessed a display of heavenly glory by the angelic choir, and having been given the good news that our long-awaited Savior had been born, what should we do? We could have said to one another, “Did you see that? What’s that all about? Incredible! Who’d believe us if we can’t prove what we have seen and heard is true? People don’t give a rip about nobodies like us! They’d just laugh or accuse us of lying. We’d better keep quiet and forget about the whole thing.”
Quite to the contrary, even though they were terrified, the shepherds heard the words of the angel and remembered them clearly. Like Mary, who hurried off to find Elizabeth when Gabriel gave her elderly relative’s pregnancy as a sign to validate his message (1:36-45), these men hastened to look for the sign so fittingly made for them—a manger with a newborn in it, wrapped in swaddling cloth (2:11-12, 15-16). How appropriate it was for the Davidic Messiah to be discovered by shepherds in the very city where King David himself grew up as a shepherd boy! Furthermore, their finding Jesus in a manger was a symbolic reversal of God’s indictment of Israel’s rebelliousness at the time of Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib (manger), but Israel does not know; my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3). These shepherds, lowly as they were, did know.
When the shepherds found the holy family, they made known to Mary, Joseph, and those who were present all that was revealed to them (2:17-18). They became messengers of the good news themselves. Mary took their report to heart (2:19), as it confirmed what the angel Gabriel told her at their fateful encounter. As for the shepherds themselves, they returned to the fields praising and glorifying God (2:20). Because they believed the angel, their life would never be the same again.
We, too, are called to proclaim the holy name of Jesus in word and deed, until he comes again. The good news inherent in Jesus’ holy name, that “Yahweh saves,” is desperately needed in our broken world today. May we, like the shepherds, have the courage and integrity to pass on the good news in all its richness and simplicity to anyone God places in our paths.
January 1, 2023