1.3 Synoptics -- The Birth of Jesus: Luke
Luke gives us the birth of Christ in its full setting -- minus the Magi, however. In fact, without Luke’s account, we would have no Christmas celebration at all. Consider for a moment how much of Western culture – art, music – depend on Mat 2 and Luke 1-2.
Luke starts with a long prologue about Zechariah and Elizabeth, with angelic prophecies about John. The fact that John was the son of a priest gives continuity with and validation of the existing priesthood and sacrificial system. And it was in the Temple that the angel appeared to Zechariah. Unlike Jesus (“can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46)), John’s origins gave him impeccable credentials later to launch his message of repentance.
The angel’s word to Zechariah emphasized the importance to the Jewish people of John’s ministry, but there is no indication of a wider application:
"Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God" (Lk 1:16).
Likewise, his words to Mary at the Annunciation:
"The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (Lk 1:32-33).
In the Magnificant, Mary’s psalm of thanksgiving, she praised God for His mercy to the poor and hungry, and to Israel:
"He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers" (Lk 1:54-55).
Finally, there was the prophecy of Zechariah upon the birth of John:
"He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David" (Lk 1:69).
"to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death" (Lk 1:79).
This last verse is the closest we get in Luke 1 to declaring that the coming of the Messiah will reach far and bless many. Yet nothing in all this burst of revelation explicitly includes the Gentiles.
The second chapter of Luke covers the birth of Jesus. Instead of wise men from afar, however, we have shepherds from close by. The angels summoned them:
"Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Lk 2:10).
The meaning of the invitation is not so much “all people” in a racial sense, although that is possible, but mainly social class. As the wise men in Matthew signified the international import of the Incarnation, so the announcement to the shepherds showed Jesus’ solidarity with the poorest and most marginal people. The two accounts do not conflict, but complement each other. For instance, the rejection of Jesus by Herod and his advisers in Matthew is counterpoised by the eagerness of the shepherds in Luke to “go to Bethlehem and see.”
Nevertheless, Luke brings the Gentiles in late in the story. Joseph, Mary and Jesus traveled to Jerusalem 33 days after Jesus' birth in accordance with the laws for purification following childbirth (Lev 12:2-8). An old man, Simeon, who was looking for the Messiah to come, took Jesus in his arms and prophesied:
"For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (Lk 2:30-32).
Here at last we have an explicit reference to the universal impact of the birth of the Messiah. The precedents of Simeon’s prophecy are found in Isaiah:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned (Isa 9:2).
"I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles" (Isa 42:6).
"I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth" (Isa 49:6).
In this prophetic declaration, both Isaiah’s and Simeon’s, there is harmony between the glory of Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles. It is not, as elsewhere stated, a picture of vengeance on the nations. Israel’s vindication is not at the expense of the Gentiles. There may be vengeance and judgment, but so far as the Messiah Himself is involved, He brings light to those who have been rejected for generations.
Thus we see that both Matthew and Luke speak to the Gentile issue even at the start of their Gospels. To the Roman world they are saying, “Pay attention now. These events are not just of local interest to Jews. This message is going to have a worldwide impact.” The two authors accomplish their purpose in very different ways and report different events. Yet the wise men in Matthew underscore the prophecy in Luke: deed and word harmonize. At last, God’s purpose of redemption is expanding beyond the narrow scope of one nation.
Luke appends his version of Jesus’ genealogy following Jesus’ baptism by John. It forms the coda to his Introduction to Jesus’ life, the preliminary to His ministry. The differences between the genealogies of Matthew and Luke are the subjects of extensive analysis and commentary:
a. Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry back only as far back as Abraham, Luke goes back to Adam.
b. both lists are identical between Abraham and David, but then differ greatly. Matthew has Jesus as a descendant of Solomon, but Luke traces Him to Nathan, a lesser non-royal son of David.
c. Matthew includes 4 women in the records, plus Mary.
d. Luke lists 40 generations from David to Joseph, Matthew only 25. It is believed that Matthew summarized the genealogy.
e. the popular idea that Luke gives the genealogy of Mary and not Joseph is only one of several theories, all of which are outside the scope of this study.
The important point is that both Matthew and Luke, unlike Mark and John, were very concerned to link Jesus to His Jewish ancestry, and in Luke’s case, to all of humanity. It would have been helpful if they had agreed on their historical sources. The fact that they didn’t creates problems for later readers, but at least shows that even the Synoptics drew on different traditions. The truth is that historians are never happy. If two sources agree, they discount the material as being derivative of some lost prior authority. If the sources disagree, they then decide that one is more credible than the other, or sometimes neither is.