I. Prologue, Birth, and Childhood (Luke 1:1–2:51)
I. Prologue, Birth, and Childhood (1:1–2:51)
1:1-4 These first four verses serve as a preamble to Luke’s work. He addresses his Gospel to the most honorable Theophilus (1:3), apparently a man of high social standing who perhaps served as Luke’s patron, funding the production of his Gospel, as well as the book of Acts (Acts 1:1). Luke wants Theophilus to be certain of the things about which he had been instructed (1:4), indicating that Theophilus may have been a new convert to Christianity.
Luke sought to compile a narrative about the events that were fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ (1:1). He had not been a firsthand follower of Jesus, but had learned everything from eyewitnesses—those (no doubt including the apostles) who heard and saw Jesus in person (1:2). Like a diligent historian or reporter, Luke had carefully investigated everything and wrote it down in an orderly sequence so that Theophilus and others might read and believe (1:3-4).
1:5 The Gospel opens in the days of King Herod of Judea. Luke frequently emphasizes the historicity of his account by mentioning the rulers who were in power at the time (see 2:1-2; 3:1-2). This is no fairy tale. Also known as “Herod the Great,” King Herod ruled over Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and portions of Perea and Syria from 37 to 4 BC. He was not a Jew but an Idumean whom the Roman emperor had put in power.
Luke introduces his readers to Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth who were from the tribe of Levi and descended from Moses’s brother Aaron. Thus, Zechariah was a priest. According to 1 Chronicles 24:7-18, the temple priests were divided into twenty-four divisions. Each division would serve for two weeks a year at the temple in Jerusalem.
1:6-7 Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful, elderly followers of God (1:6). Nevertheless, they were childless because Elizabeth had never been able to conceive (1:7). This detail reminds us we must never assume that trials and difficulties only come our way because of our disobedience. God often brings or allows suffering into the lives of his people for his glorious purposes and for our sanctification.
1:8-9 On one occasion when Zechariah’s division was on duty in Jerusalem, he was chosen by lot—and thus “at random”—to burn incense in the sanctuary. Remember: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov 16:33). God is sovereign in human affairs. He works through seemingly random processes to accomplish his will. Since God is sovereign, there is no such thing as luck.
1:10-15 While the people outside were praying, Zechariah went inside the temple to offer incense on the altar and was terrified to encounter an angel of the Lord (1:10-12). The divine messenger declared that Elizabeth would have a son whom they were to name John (1:13). Given their age, this would be miraculous. But God’s purposes involved more than simply blessing an elderly couple with a child. This boy would grow to play a special role in God’s kingdom plans. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit even in his mother’s womb (1:15).
1:16-17 In his ministry to the children of Israel, John would turn many back to God and prepare the people for the Lord. The angel’s words show that John would be the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6, in which the Lord promised to send Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children. John, then, would preach in the spirit and power of his Old Testament predecessor (1:17). Jesus later confirmed this when he told his disciples that John was “the Elijah . . . to come” (Matt 11:14; see also Matt 17:12).
1:18-20 In spite of the angel’s words, Zechariah didn’t believe. How could it be possible? For I am an old man, he said, and my wife is well along in years (1:18). In response, the angel identified himself: I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and tell you this good news (1:19). So, in other words, the visitor said, “I’m no third-rate heavenly messenger. I’m an angelic spokesman who serves in the divine presence. God himself sent me! And yet you don’t believe me?” Importantly, Zechariah and other faithful Jews would’ve been familiar with Gabriel’s name. He appears in the book of Daniel, where he explains the prophet’s visions to him (see Dan 8:16; 9:21). Thus, this was no ordinary angel. Since Zechariah did not believe, he would be mute until the prophecy was fulfilled—as a sign that God would bring it to pass (1:20). Zechariah was disciplined for his unbelief.
1:21-25 When Zechariah finally emerged from the sanctuary, he was unable to talk. Because of this and the signs he was making to the people, they knew he had seen a vision (1:21-22). He returned home, and eventually Elizabeth became pregnant (1:23-24). She realized that the Lord had shown favor to her, removing the disgrace associated with being childless (1:25).
1:26-30 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, Gabriel paid another visit. This time he went to the town of Nazareth in Galilee and appeared to a virgin named Mary who was engaged to Joseph, a man who was descended from King David (1:26-27). Gabriel conveyed the Lord’s favor to Mary, but she was deeply troubled (1:28-30). Why would a heavenly being come to see her?
1:31-33 The visitor told Mary she would conceive and give birth to a son, whom she was to name Jesus (1:31), the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “the Lord saves.” He would be no ordinary child. He would be called the Son of the Most High—a carbon copy of his Father, bearing the divine nature. God would grant him the throne of his father David, and he will reign . . . forever in his kingdom (1:32-33). Thus, Jesus would be the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises of the coming Son of David, the Messiah, who would rule forever (see 2 Sam 7:12-16).
1:34-35 Mary, of course, was stunned. She was a virgin, asking, How can this be? (1:34). The child would be conceived by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Jesus would be both divine and human—the God-Man. Theologians describe this as the hypostatic union, the combining of a divine nature and a human nature perfectly into one person. “Hypostatic” comes from the Greek word hypostasis, meaning “being” or “person.” The union of two natures in one being. God in the flesh. Thus, he would be called the Son of God (1:35).
1:36-38 Moreover, Mary’s relative Elizabeth had conceived a son in her old age (1:36). All of this could happen because nothing will be impossible with God (1:37). Mary didn’t understand all of the implications for her life, but she humbly submitted to the will of God: I am the Lord’s servant (1:38).
1:39-45 After this, Mary hurried off to visit Elizabeth (1:39). When Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, she was filled with the Holy Spirit and her baby leaped inside her (thus the unborn possesses personhood) (1:41). Elizabeth pronounced blessings on Mary (1:42, 45) and referred to her as the mother of my Lord (1:43)—confirming what Mary had heard from the angel.
1:46-56 Mary responded to all of this by praising God in song for his favor and for his mighty deed on behalf of his people (1:46-55). Mary’s song is referred to as the Magnificat, which is the Latin translation of the Greek word rendered in English Bibles as praises or “magnifies” (1:46). Through his Messiah, God would extend mercy toward those who fear him (1:50). Those who recognize their need can expect good things from the Messiah. But he would also bring judgment, scattering the proud and toppling the mighty (1:51-52). God remembered his covenant with and promises to his people, and he would fulfill them (1:54-55).
1:57-66 When Elizabeth gave birth to John, her neighbors and relatives celebrated the Lord’s mercy with her (1:57-58). Everyone assumed that the child would be named after his father, but Elizabeth insisted that he would be called John (1:59-60). When they asked Zechariah, who was still unable to speak, he confirmed it in writing: His name is John (1:62-63). At that moment, his ability to speak was restored, and he began praising God (1:64). Fear and awe came on everyone as they began to wonder, What then will this child become? (1:65-66).
1:67-80 Zechariah was then filled with the Holy Spirit and answered the question that everyone was asking (1:67). His prophecy of praise is called the Benedictus, which is the first word of the Latin rendering of Blessed is the Lord, the God of Israel (1:68): Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel. He worshiped God for the redemption and salvation he was providing for his people through the Messiah, just as he had promised long ago (1:68-75). As for Zechariah’s son John, he would be a prophet of the Most High who would go before the Lord to prepare his ways as the Old Testament prophets foretold (see Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1). He would introduce Israel to her Messiah (see John 1:29-36). John grew up and became spiritually strong, spending much time in the wilderness and being prepared for his future public ministry (Luke 1:80).
2:1-2 As the time approached for Mary’s baby to be born, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus gave orders for the empire to be registered (2:1)—that is, a census was to be taken for taxation purposes. Augustus ruled from 31 BC to AD 14. This was the first registration that took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. Thus, Luke places the birth of Jesus squarely in the middle of Roman and Jewish history.
2:3-7 As a result of the emperor’s decree, everyone traveled to his town to be registered (2:3). Since Joseph was of the house and family line of David, he had to travel from his home in Nazareth to Bethlehem (2:4), David’s hometown (see 1 Sam 16:1). The distance between the two places was about ninety miles. Mary traveled with him, and while they were in Bethlehem she gave birth to Jesus (2:5-7) in fulfillment of Micah 5:2. Given the number of travelers, there was no guest room available for them, so she resorted to laying her baby in a manger, a feeding trough for animals (3:7). The King of creation, who deserved all honor and glory, had been born into the humblest of circumstances.
2:8-11 Luke reports another angelic visit, this time to nearby shepherds watching their flock at night (2:8). These were shepherds who cared for lambs used as sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem. The unexpected and glorious appearance of the divine visitor terrified the shepherds (2:9), yet he brought good news of great joy (2:10). Not only was the visit unexpected, but the message was too: Today in the city of David (Bethlehem) a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord (2:11). Israel’s Messiah, her anointed and appointed King, had finally come. And God chose to announce his Son’s birth—not to the political or religious leaders of the day—but to a group of humble shepherds. He would be a Messiah for all the people (2:10) and offered as a sacrificial lamb like those cared for by the shepherds. He was born, the angel told them, “for you.”
2:12 To confirm his words, the angel told the shepherds where they would find the Christ child. This infant King wasn’t lying in a palace but in a manger. The shepherds were responsible for making sure that newborn lambs had no defects since the sacrificial animals had to be without spot or wrinkle. So the shepherds would tightly wrap the lambs in cloth to keep them from becoming blemished and injuring themselves. This explains why Luke makes the point that Jesus was wrapped tightly in cloth, since at his birth he was the sinless Lamb of God whose substitutionary sacrifice would take away the sin of the entire world (see John 1:29; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 1:19-20; 1 John 2:2).
2:13-15 Yet even though the circumstances of his entrance into the world were lowly, his birth announcement was anything but. Suddenly the angel was joined by a multitude of angels! The army of heaven came together to praise the Lord (2:13). They gave glory to God and announced peace on earth to people he favors (2:15)—to all those who would submit themselves to the Messiah.
The angelic announcement of “peace on earth” repeated so often at Christmastime is not about quiet tranquility or merely the absence of animosity between people. It is a declaration of the coming end of hostilities between a holy God and sinful humanity through the atoning work of the Messiah: peace with God. The Son of God came to pay the penalty for our sin and impute to us his righteousness. Only when “we have been declared righteous by faith,” can “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). Peace among people is only possible when humanity is living at peace with God and submitting to his kingdom rule.
2:16-20 After an announcement like that, it’s no surprise that the shepherds hurried off to find the baby . . . in the manger (2:16). They wanted to see this wonderful truth for themselves! And afterwards, they became the first human heralds of the good news of the Messiah, amazing all who heard it (2:17-18). The shepherds went back to work as changed men, glorifying and praising God (2:20). Mary, however, quietly reflected on the events (2:19). Of all the women in Israel, God had chosen this ordinary, humble young woman to bring the Messiah into the world. God regularly works through the lowly to fulfill his kingdom program (see 1 Cor 1:26-29).
2:21-24 Joseph and Mary fulfilled the law by circumcising their son “on the eighth day” (Lev 12:3). In obedience to the angel’s instruction, they named him Jesus, meaning, “the Lord saves” (2:21; see 1:31). No one was ever more appropriately named! As faithful Jewish parents, they further kept God’s commands by presenting Jesus to the Lord in fulfillment of Exodus 13:2 and 12, and by offering a sacrifice in fulfillment of Leviticus 12:6-8. The kind of animals they offered indicates that Joseph and Mary were poor (see Lev 12:8).
2:25-32 Luke mentions two more humble Israelites who gave thanks to God for Jesus. The first is a righteous man named Simeon who’d received special revelation from the Lord (2:25). The Holy Spirit had promised him that he wouldn’t die until he saw the Lord’s Messiah with his own eyes (2:26). Guided by the Spirit, he entered the temple just as Jesus’s parents brought him in (2:27). Praising God, Simeon took the child in his arms. The Lord had fulfilled his promise, allowing him to see the one who would bring salvation (2:29-30). He would bring light and glory to peoples everywhere—to the Gentiles and Israel (2:31-32).
2:33-35 Simeon also blessed the parents. Then he informed Mary of the effect Jesus would have on many in Israel. Some would fall by rejecting him, and others would put their faith in him and rise (2:34). Though he would be opposed, the hearts of many would be revealed (2:34-35): True colors would be exposed. Unfortunately, there would be more than blessing for Mary: A sword will pierce your own soul (2:35). She would misunderstand her son (2:41-50), think he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21), and experience the grief of his crucifixion (John 19:25-27). But later, after his resurrection, she would know joy (Acts 1:14).
2:36-38 The second person Joseph and Mary encountered that day was an elderly prophetess named Anna (2:36-37). She had devoted her life to the Lord’s service in the temple (2:37). When Simeon concluded his prophecy, Anna began. She thanked God and announced to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem that the Messiah had come (2:38).
2:39-40 Having faithfully accomplished everything that the law of the Lord required, Joseph and Mary returned with Jesus to Nazareth (2:39). The boy grew up and became strong, filled with wisdom, and God’s grace was on him (2:40). In every way—physically, spiritually, and intellectually—Jesus matured in his humanity as God intended.
2:41-42 Jesus grew up in a godly Jewish home, demonstrated by the family’s regular observance of the Passover Festival in Jerusalem (2:41). Luke describes an occasion in which Jesus’s wisdom and grace (see 2:40) was evident even when he was twelve years old (2:42).
2:43-51 When the festival days were over in Jerusalem, Jesus lingered behind, while his parents assumed he was in the traveling party returning to Galilee. They would’ve been in a caravan with many relatives and friends (2:43-44), so it would have been easy to assume Jesus was among the group somewhere. When they realized he was missing, they returned to Jerusalem and found him after three days of searching (2:45-46). He was in the temple, interacting with the teachers and amazing them with his understanding (2:46-47). When his parents asked why he had worried them, Jesus replied, Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house? (2:48-49). They did not understand that he had a unique kingdom mission from his heavenly Father (2:50). Nevertheless, he also had a responsibility to honor his earthly father and mother (see Exod 20:12), so he obeyed and went home with them (Luke 2:51).
Though her young son confused her, Mary kept all these things in her heart (2:51). One day, she would understand. Meanwhile, Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people (2:52). This demonstrates his true humanity. He wasn’t simply God disguised as a man. He had both a perfect divine nature and a genuine human nature that matured as he grew.