Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Birth of Jesus

We have finally arrived at the New Testament and the birth of Jesus. The promises and prophecies of the Old Testament have pointed us to this hinge moment in history when God came and lived among us. Only two of the gospels (Matthew and Luke) include infancy narratives, descriptions of the events surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus. Today's reading is from the first two chapters of Luke's gospel account, which includes not only the birth narrative of Jesus, but that of John the Baptist as well.

The theological points that could be made about these two chapters are too numerous to expound upon here, but let me address two important themes:

The Temple: The opening section of the birth narrative of John the Baptist (1:8-23) begins in the temple where Zechariah was serving as a priest of the Lord. The conclusion of the birth narrative of Jesus (2:21-38) also takes place in the temple where Jesus is presented to the Lord. At the age of twelve, Jesus is found in temple and declares "I must be in my Father's house" (1:39-52). The image of the temple will be a central theme in the gospel of Luke, a theme which is found in the final verse of the gospel, which describes the disciples as "continually in the temple blessing God." For Luke, the story of Jesus is a continuation and culmination of the story of the covenant relationship between God and his people, of which the temple is significant symbol.

Mary the Virgin: Both Matthew and Luke refer to Mary as a virgin and emphasize the miraculous events surrounding the birth of Jesus. The early church fathers universally accepted the doctrine of the virgin birth as an essential component of orthodox Christianity. This is reflected in the early creeds of the church such as the Nicene Creed, which states that "by the power of the Holy Spirit [Jesus] became incarnate from the Virgin Mary." The doctrine of the virgin birth was not widely challenged until the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. It is important to distinguish the doctrine of the virgin birth from the Roman Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception, which states that although Mary was conceived naturally (through sexual intercourse), she was born without the "stain" of original sin.

Things Unique to Luke's Infancy Narrative:

  • The Story of John the Baptist's Birth
  • The Census Decreed by Caesar Augustus
  • The Journey to Bethlehem
  • The Birth of Jesus in a Manger
  • The Announcement to the Shepherds
  • The Story of Jesus as a Boy in the Temple

As you can see, without Luke's infancy narrative, the annual Children's Christmas pageant would be sorely lacking!!!


  1. What is the lineage between John the Baptist and Jesus?

  2. I think I'm confused now about why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem. I have always thought they were fleeing from King Herod knowing that he wanted all first born boys. Yet what I'm reading tonight says they were there to be counted as descendants of King David in what amounts to a census. My schema could use some help. :)Michele

  3. According to Luke's gospel, Mary (mother of Jesus) and Elizabeth (mother of John) were cousins, which would make Jesus and John second cousins and approximately the same age.

  4. Michelle...great question. It is important to remember that the aim of the gospel writers was not to present a historical narrative, but rather a theological portrait of Jesus. This does not mean that the gospels are not historical, it simply means that the different gospel writers arrange the historical events in such a way as to emphasize their theological perspective.

    In the Old Testament, there were two prophecies about where the Messiah would come from. The two cities referenced by the prophets were Bethlehem and Nazareth. Therefore, both Matthew and Luke want to show how these prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus.

    In Matthew's gospel, Mary and Joseph are from Bethlehem (where Jesus is born), but they have to flee from Herod and ultimately end up in Nazareth (where Jesus is raised). In Luke's gospel, Mary and Joseph are from Nazareth, but go to Bethlehem for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, while Mary and Joseph are there for the census, after which they return to Nazareth. So, as you can see, the gospels of Matthew and Luke present the story of Jesus slightly differently, but both seek to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled the ancient prophecies that he would come from Bethlehem and Nazareth. Hope that helps!