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A Closer Look at Christ’s Birth - A Study of Luke 2:1-14

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

Most of us have heard Luke's account of our Lord's birth many times. We've attended many Christmas services, sung many Christmas hymns and carols, and listened to many sermons based on this wonderful text. But in this sermon, my goal is to lead you to take a closer look at the birth of Christ by going through Luke 2 verse by verse. My hope is that by the time we are done you will have a better understanding and a much greater appreciation what actually occurred when Christ was born and what that birth means for each of us.

Luke 2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register.

All those even vaguely familiar with Luke's Christmas story have heard of Caesar Augustus and his famous decree. It was this decree that sent Mary in the ninth month of her pregnancy 80 miles south to Bethlehem, along with husband Joseph. But could such a thing have really happened? Do we have any proof from historical sources outside of the Bible that the Roman emperor ever authorized a census? Yes, we do.

"Caesar Augustus" reigned as emperor of the Roman empire from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. (Or 727 A.U.C. to 767 A.U.C.), 41 years in all. The grandnephew of Julius Caesar (100- 44 B.C.), his real name was Gaius Octavius and he lived from 63 B.C. to 14 A.D. Because Julius Caesar had legally adopted Octavius as his son, Octavius took the name "Caesar" from Julius, which in later years became a name almost equivalent to "emperor." "Augustus" is a Latin term that means "worthy of reverence."

Caesar Augustus's reign was marked by peace and security - the famous Pax Romana - as well as lavish building projects throughout the empire. In addition, according to Paul Maier, Augustus had such an intense interest in religion within his realm that, if not for his other great achievements, he might have gone down in history as a religious reformer. In his day, belief in the traditional Greco-Roman pantheon had decreased dramatically as philosophical skepticism grew and a growing number started joining the foreign mystery religions. Augustus was convinced that belief in the old gods had made Rome great so he set out to encourage his subjects to return to the worship of these gods and goddesses. He restored eighty-two temples in Rome alone! He became the pontifex maximus (highest priest) in the state cult.1

 

What exactly was it that Caesar Augustus decreed, according to Luke 2:1? The King James Version of the Bible says, "that all the world should be taxed." Most other translations say something like "that all the world should be registered" (NRS) or "that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world" (NIV). The Greek verb is apographo, that literally means to "enroll" or "register" as in an official listing of citizens.2 What was it then, a census or a taxing? Both: It would have been a census taken in part for the purpose of assessing taxes. But only in part. Augustus was very interested in the number of citizens in his empire; he was especially interested in whether that number was growing. This probably was the primary reason for the census (see below).

But what of the census that Luke 2:1 speaks of? Is there any record in history, outside of the Bible, that Augustus ever issued such a decree? Yes. As a matter of fact he authorized three censuses during this reign. How do we know this? The three censuses are listed in the Acts of Augustus, a list of what Augustus thought were the 35 greatest achievements of his reign. He was so proud of the censuses that he ranked them eighth on the list. The Acts of Augustus were placed on two bronze plaques outside of Augustus's mausoleum after he died.

The three censuses were in 28 B.C., 8 B.C., and 14 A.D. In all probability the one in 8 B.C. is the one the Luke mentions in the Christmas story. Even though scholarship normally dates Christ's birth between 4 and 7 B.C., the 8 B.C. census fits because in all likelihood it would have taken several years for the bureaucracy of the census to reach Palestine. For example, we know of a provincial census in Gaul that took 40 years to complete, though, admittedly, this is an extreme example.

The only apparent difficulty with identifying the census that Luke mentions in the Christmas story with the one in 8 B.C. is, ironically, something Luke seemingly intended to clarify the dating. He tells us in 2:2 that "this was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governing Syria." Seems simple. All we have to do is find out exactly when Quirinius was governing Syria and then we will know exactly when the census was given, right? Right. But the problem is, according to records available to us, Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6-7 A.D. eleven years too late!

We know this because ancient historians have quite a bit to say about our man Quirinius. Roman historians Tacitus, Seutonius, and Dio Cassius, as well as Jewish historian Josephus all wrote of him.3 His full name was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (d. 21 A.D.), who was what the Romans called a "new man." This means that he came to hold his political office on the basis of his own merits rather than by family tradition. It was through his military conquests in Cilicia and elsewhere that Quirinius had been exalted by the emperor to the holding of governor in Syria in 6-7 A.D.

Does this mean that Luke is in error? Not at all, especially when he shows himself to be such a careful historian throughout both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, his other historical work. Besides, we believe Luke's Gospel to be inspired by the Holy Spirit!

The key to solving this alleged puzzle, is in the phrase "first census" in the sentence, "This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governing Syria." What does Luke mean by a first census? One theory offered is that the Greek word for "first" (prote) is sometimes translated "prior to" or "before." This is a viable solution because the Greek text of Luke 2:2 can indeed be translated, "This census was before Quirinius was governing Syria."

A second theory is that by saying "first census" Luke is telling his readers that there was another census that Quirinius oversaw. Was there a second one? Yes, and Luke mentions it in the Acts 5:37! The second census mentioned in Acts would have taken place in 6 A.D. Since it is well known that the Romans often held provincial censuses every fourteen years, then that would mean that the "first census" the one at the time of Christ's birth, would have been held in approximately 8 B.C. if the fourteen year census cycle was in place at this time. The problem with this second solution is that Luke is specifically saying that the first census (the 8 B.C. one) took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria and from all available extrabiblical sources, he wasn't. According to E.M. Blaiklock, however, evidence has been found that shows that Quirinius was in Syria for an earlier tour of duty, right around the time that Christ was born. He wasn't there as governor but in some other leadership capacity.4 Therefore, it is possible that Luke is alluding to this in 2:2.

Of the two theories the first has more to commend it, in my opinion. Ultimately, however, Luke was much closer to the historical sources and claims to have "investigated everything carefully" (Luke 1:3) and he did this under the Holy Spirit's inspiration. The bottom line is that the evidence that we have points to 8 B.C. as the date when the "Christmas census" would have been authorized.

So much for dating the census. What about motivation for it? Do we have any clues from the historical sources about what might have motivated Caesar Augustus to issue his censuses? Perhaps one. Roman historian Dio Cassius tells us that Augustus was so concerned about the declining marriage and birth rate in his empire, that he passed legislation that made promiscuity a crime, that penalized bachelors in their right to inherit, and which bestowed political advantages on fathers of three or more children.5 Because of his demonstrated concern about marriage and birth rate in his empire, it is likely that one of the reasons that Augustus authorized the censuses was to see whether his legislation was working, or, at the very least, to see how birth rates fared.

Some scholars have scoffed at the notion that people in faraway Palestine (such as Joseph and Mary) would have had to travel to their ancestral birth place for a census. But we have evidence to show that such traveling was indeed done with a Roman census at least in Egypt. A Roman census document, dated 104 A.D., has been discovered in Egypt, in which citizens were specifically commanded to return to their original homes for the census.6 Another census document from 119 A.D. has been found in which an Egyptian man identifies himself by giving (1) his name and the names of his father, mother, and grandfather; (2) his original village; (3) his age and profession; (4) a scar above his left eyebrow; (5) his wife's name and age, his wife's father's name; (6) his son's name and age; (6) the names of other relatives living with him. The document is signed by the village registrar and three official witnesses.7
 

2:4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David

Joseph "went up" even though he was traveling south because Jerusalem and Bethlehem was of a higher elevation. Bethlehem is 2300 ft. above sea level.

At first glance Luke appears to be rather verbose in the way he describes the travels of Joseph and Mary. But Luke was apparently writing with a non-Jew in mind (Theophilis; 1:3) ; he is obviously wanting his readers to be able to identify the towns that he mentions. He mentions not only towns, but also the territories that they were in. Luke had already mentioned Nazareth in Luke 1:26.

Though we know from Joshua 19:15 that there another Bethlehem in Zebulun, it is unknown whether this other Bethlehem would have existed at the time of Christ's birth. Luke's careful prose by which he locates Bethlehem specifically in Judea was probably for the sake of Theophilos, who would have been unfamiliar with the geography.

Bethlehem (this Hebrew word means "house of bread") is first mentioned in Genesis 35:19 it was there that Rachel was buried and this is repeated by Jacob in Gen. 48:7. Ibzan, one of the Judges, came from Bethlehem, and he also died and was buried there (Judges 12:8,10). Elimelech, the husband of Naomi was from Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1). To Bethlehem Naomi and Ruth returned, and here Ruth eventually married Boaz and became the grandmother of Jesse (Ruth 1:19; 4:11).

Micah 5:2-5 had long before prophesied that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem and this fact appeared to be well known among the chief priests and scribes (see Matthew 2:4-6; John 7:41-42.). That the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem "makes sense" in that the Messiah was to be the "son of David" (2 Sam. 7:12-13). Bethlehem was the place where David had been born and raised (1 Sam. 16:1), and where he had tended his father's sheep and protected them from the lion and the bear (1 Sam. 17:12- 15; 17:34-37).

The Roman emperor Hadrian utterly destroyed Bethlehem and the surrounding area in 135 A.D. and attempted to desecrate every holy place to Christians and Jews. He planted a grove dedicated to Adonis over the grotto/cave in Bethlehem where Jesus had been born. The Church father Origen mentions that he visited the spot in the early 200's. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine built a church over the spot where Christ was supposedly born in 326 A.D. Justinian rebuilt a larger basilica on the spot of Constantine's church in the 6th century A.D. because the earlier church had mostly been destroyed. Part of the original nave still exists, according to Maier in "Fullness of Time."

Micah's description of Bethlehem as "small among the clans of Judah" would still have been true at the time of our Lord's birth. Every indication is that the town of Bethlehem was a tiny and humble little village, little thought of or considered by anyone considered great. It's great claim to fame was its history, that it was the birthplace of David, and it's future, that the Messiah would be born there (though how well known this was by the people is unclear).

2:4-5 -- because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

This passage clearly says that Joseph was a physical descendent of David. David, of course, had a number of wives, but according to Matthew's Gospel, Joseph was descended through Bathsheba (Mt. 1:6). The passage also says "to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, with him." Would Mary have been registered if she was not of the house of David? The Egyptian census document of 119 A.D. would seem to suggest a positive answer, since it shows the wife of Horos, being enrolled with him. So this passage does not prove that Mary was a descendent of David.

Does any passage prove this? Some think Luke 1:27, others the genealogy in Luke 3:23ff. But since Joseph was not the real father of Jesus, if Mary was not a physical descendent, then Jesus would have been a "son of David" legally only, not in fact. But to be the son of David as prophesied, Mary had to have been a descendant of David.

Mary, as in Luke 1:27, is described as engaged to Joseph. The Greek word mnesteuo refers to the state of betrothal or engagement before marriage. It is well known that Jewish engagement was tantamount to marriage. To break off a Jewish engagement was viewed as divorce. The Greek word gameo is normally used for marriage. So the question is, had Joseph and Mary consummated their marriage before they arrived in Bethlehem so that they were now husband and wife? Matthew 1:24 seems to settle the issue since Matthew says that Joseph took Mary as his wife before Jesus was born.

2:6-7 "And it came to pass that while they were there, the days were fulfilled for her to give birth."
 

We often assume that Mary gave birth to Jesus the first night they arrived; but this is not necessarily so. All we know is "while they were there" Jesus was born. It could have been several days or even more. But such precise knowledge is not necessary for us to know. Matthew 2:11 tells us that by the time the magi arrived, they had moved into a house.

"And she gave birth to her son, the firstborn."

There is no indication that Mary had any help in giving birth. Husbands did not normally play the role of midwives. Palestinian women often did use physicians or midwives but then again, they often did not.8 No midwife is mentioned in Luke's account. "She" gave birth, "she" wrapped him in cloth strips, "she" laid him in a manger. There is absolutely nothing in this text or any other text that speaks of Christ's birth that suggests that His birth was anything but normal. Mary would have gone into labor, would have encountered the pains of childbirth; Jesus would have born naturally as all children at this time. Any accounts that speak of Jesus passing miraculously through the walls of the uterus must be dismissed as pious superstition that detracts from the reality of our Lord's incarnation and human nature.

What about the phrase, "the firstborn" which Luke places in apposition to "her son"? What is the point of including this? Perhaps to highlight (again) that Mary was a virgin. Or perhaps to suggest that Mary had other children after Jesus, that He was just her firstborn. Or perhaps to stress the special place that firstborn sons had according to Mosaic Law. From Exodus 13:2 on, God stressed that all first born males were to be set aside to Him, and were His, in a special way. They were to do this because God had already sanctified to Himself all first born (Num. 3:13; 8:17).

"And she wrapped him in cloths"

The Greek word is espargonosen: she "swaddled" him, she wrapped him up in long strips of cloth, normal care for a newborn child. We put our newborns in diapers the ancients put them in swaddling cloths.
 

"And laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn."

All agree that Bethlehem would have been filled to overflowing because of all those coming "home" for the census. All small village like Bethlehem was simply not equipped to host this many out-of-towners coming at once. This, rather than some inhospitable innkeeper (who is never mentioned in the text, by the way) would have been the reason why there was no place for them in the inn. The "inn" (Greek kataluma) can mean either a "lodging place" or a "guest room/dining room" (Mk. 14:14). Pandacheion is another Greek word translated "inn" in Luke 10:34 in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

If not for the one little word "manger" (Greek phatne) we would not know where in Bethlehem Jesus was born. The Greek word can mean either a "stall" where animals are kept or a "feeding trough" from which animals are fed. The word occurs four times in Luke 2:7,12,16; 13:15. In the last occurrence, it probably means "stall," since animals were not tied to feeding troughs (were they?). The fact that Luke says three times that Jesus was "laid in" doesn't necessarily help. The traditional picture of Jesus lying in a feeding trough in a stall of some kind is probably accurate for where else would a feeding trough be but in a stall? The manger could have been made out of stone or wood, we just don't know.

The opinion that says that the manger in which Jesus was born was located in a cave (rather than in a barn or in a room adjoining the inn) is an old one and it is supported by the geographical features of Bethlehem: to this day there are caves throughout the hills of Bethlehem.

In his Dialogue with Trypho, the church father Justin Martyr wrote about 150 A.D. "But when the child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed him in a manger" (78).

In his Against Celsus, the father Origen wrote around the mid-third century A.D., "With respect to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, if any one desires, after the prophecy of Micah and after the history recorded in the Gospels by the disciples of Jesus, to have additional information from other sources, let him know that, in conformity with the narrative of the Gospel regarding his birth, there is shown in Bethlehem the cave where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshiped and reverenced by the Christians" (Book I, Chapter 51).

In the final analysis we cannot say for certain whether the manger in which Jesus was laid was in a building or a cave, but the evidence for the cave seems the stronger of the two.

Who was there when Jesus was born? As far as we know, only Joseph and Mary. Given the fact that Bethlehem was their ancestral home, they would have had at least distant relatives there. Were any relatives there on the scene when Jesus was born? It is unlikely, because if Joseph and Mary had found relatives, it seems probable that they would have invited the Nazareth couple into their home. But since Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem for the census, isn't it likely that their relatives in Nazareth would have journeyed with them and these relatives would have been with Joseph and Mary when Jesus was born? Yes, it is likely. But Luke doesn't mention them. They might have gone at a different time. We don't know. That is why I said that as far as we know, on the basis of the text, only Joseph and Mary were there when Jesus was born. Not even animals are mentioned, though it is almost certain there would have been some in a stable!

2:8 -- "And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night."

These unnamed shepherds will forever have the honor of being the first ones outside of the holy family to hear of the birth of Jesus! More than this, according to Luke's Gospel, it wasn't an accident that the shepherds heard about it first; God ordained it! God wanted them to be the first. For it was to them that he sent His angel. But why them? Why shepherds?

These shepherds of Bethlehem are often referred to as "lowly" and many are amazed that God would have revealed the good news of the birth of Jesus to such lowly and coarse and plain people. They were "lowly," I suppose, if by lowly we mean that they did not have high social standing or wealth. They were not wealthy or well known. But theirs was an honored profession and had been in Israel for thousands of years. After all, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been shepherds; so had Moses and David. In fact, a thousand years before, David had been a shepherd on the very hills that these shepherds were now on. It was David who wrote the beautiful 23rd Psalm, that pictures the Lord as his shepherd, and God's people as the sheep. Later, our Lord Himself referred to Himself as the "Good Shepherd, that lays down His life for the sheep" (John 10:11). And one of the first names in the New Testament given to leaders of Christian congregations was "shepherd," for that is what the "pastor" really means (Greek - poimen). So perhaps it was quite fitting after all that the angel preached this good news to shepherds first!

There is one other possible reason why the angel told these shepherds first. Some of the rabbis held that according to Micah 4:8, that the Messiah would first be revealed at Migdal-eder, the "tower of the Flock." Tradition identifies Migdal-eder with a shepherd's village just outside of Bethlehem called Beit Sahur -- a place where or near where these shepherds might have been. So perhaps the reason that the angel went to the shepherds first was because it had been prophesied in Micah 4:8.9
 

2:9 -- "An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified."

Many assume that this angel was Gabriel, but Luke doesn't tell us his name. And if it was Gabriel, it seems strange that Luke would specifically name him when he appeared to Zacharias and to Mary, but not here to the shepherds. But whatever the identify of this nameless angel (forgive me, dear Lord for wanting to make a name for myself, when this glorious angel is content with delivering the message while remaining nameless!), his appearance was frightening. When this angel of the Lord "appeared" to them, we are told that "the glory of the Lord shone around them." God's glory often appeared as brilliant light in the Scriptures (see Isaiah 60:1; Ezekiel 1:28; 10:4; Matthew 17:5; the light that blinded Saul/Paul Acts 9:3; 22:13;) the exalted Jesus who appeared to John in Revelation, "his face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance" Rev. 1:16; also as a cloud (Ex. 16:10; 40:34) or as a consuming fire on top of Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24:17), and such was the case here; the light must have seemed even greater as it contrasted with the darkness of night. In any event, the shepherds were, as the Greek phrase has it, "afraid with a great fear." They were absolutely terrified. Zacharias was afraid when he saw the angel; Mary was troubled. The shepherds were scared out of their wits!

2:10-11 -- "But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."

This is a very specific and a very special joy. It is a great joy. A joy far above any mere earthly joy. The joy announced in verse 10 is spelled out unmistakably in verse 11: Today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you; he is none other than Christ the Lord.

The great joy is: "A Savior has been born for you; the babe lying yonder in the feeding trough is the Savior of the world." That the baby born to Mary was to be a Savior, had, of course, already been revealed to Joseph. Hadn't the angel said to Joseph in a dream, "She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21)? But now this great joy, previously revealed only to Mary and Joseph, was being revealed to the shepherds: The Savior who had been sent to save us from our sins had been born!"

Now there had been many little saviors throughout the history of the Old Testament. In the book of Judges God raised up little saviors called judges who saved God's people from various enemy nations that had conquered the Israelites and enslaved them. (Judges 3:9; 3:15 - the Greek Old Testament actually uses the word for "savior," soter in these verses). These little saviors saved God's people by defeating the enemy, by removing the enemy from the midst of the land.

The good news of great joy is that not a little savior, not just any savior, but the Savior, the long-awaited Christ the Lord has been born. The Messiah! Immanuel, God Himself now in human form. For no little savior, no merely human savior, would be enough to remove the enemy that this Savior came to remove. For this Savior, Jesus the Christ, came to save us from the enemy of sin, our sins, the most frightening, the most incredibly invincible of all enemies that has ever confronted humankind. Only this Savior could defeat and remove our sin. But that is what He did. That was the reason for His birth and life.

A wonderful one verse commentary that completely summarizes what Christmas is all about is 1 Timothy 1:15: "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst". To this needs to be added another marvelous Gospel passage: "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). Jesus Christ conquered sin by His atoning death on the cross; only He did that or could do that. If our works also partially save us then we become saviors alongside Jesus, which robs Him of his glory as well as being patently false. The very fact that we need a Savior means that we cannot save ourselves in any way. Either Jesus is our Savior, totally, or we or someone or something else is.

2:12 -- "This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Having announced the good news to the shepherds, the angel proceeds to give them a "sign": they will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. What exactly is this business about a "sign"? The Bible is full of references to signs that God gave to His people. In general, a sign, in the sense that it is used here in Luke 2:12, is a visible and physical proof and reminder of a verbal promise that God has made. God makes a promise, pledges to do something, and then gives a visible sign as a sort of an additional guarantee that He will do or has done what He has promised.

For example, after the flood God promised Noah that He would never again flood the entire earth; He then gave the rainbow as a sign, as a proof and reminder that He had promised this and would keep His word (Genesis 9:11-13). Another example is the sign of circumcision that God gave to Abraham and his male descendents, a sign to prove and remind them of the covenant that God had already made with Abraham (Genesis 17:11). A third example, is the several signs that God gave to Moses. God had already told Moses that He would deliver His people from Egypt. Moses asks, "What if they don't believe me?" God proceeded to give Moses several signs that would prove that what God had spoken was true and would come to pass: (1) the sign of Moses' staff becoming a serpent; (2) the sign of Moses' hand becoming leprous; (3) the sign of turning some of the water of the Nile into blood (Ex. 4:1-9). According to God, the purpose of the signs was "so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers-- the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob-- has appeared to you" (Ex. 4:5). A fourth example is the miraculous sign that God gave to King Hezekiah. Hezekiah was on his deathbed when he cried out to God in repentance. God heard his prayer, and through Isaiah the prophet, promised Hezekiah that he would recover and live another fifteen years. Hezekiah asked for a sign to prove that what God had said will truly come to pass. As a sign that His word would come true, God turned the shadow on the sundial back ten steps (2 Kings 20:8-11).

One of the most celebrated signs in the Old Testament is also the one that appears to be most closely related to the sign of Luke 2:12. Isaiah 7 records that God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz to tell him that the plans of the king's enemies (to destroy Jerusalem) would not come to pass; but that, in fact, God would destroy these enemies. Having made this promise to Ahaz, Isaiah encouraged Ahaz to ask for a sign, again, to prove that what the Lord had said would come to pass. Ahaz refused to ask, claiming that to do so would be to sinfully test the Lord. Isaiah responded to this misguided piety with the now famous words: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14) -- a passage that ultimately refers to none other than Jesus Christ, of course!

Notice that all signs are visible proofs given to strengthen faith in God's Word and promise, to prove or remind God's people that what He has spoken has happened or will happen. Some signs are miraculous (a staff turning into a snake; a sundial turning backwards; a virgin giving birth), while some others are within the bounds of nature (the rainbow; circumcision). But all signs are unusual and out of the ordinary.

All of this helps us to understand God's word to the shepherds, "And this shall be a sign to you . . ." A newborn baby lying in a manger (truly an unusual thing!) is God's sign to the shepherds that what He has told them through the angel is true.

2:13 -- "Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel,"

The phrase "heavenly host" has puzzled some commentators because sometimes it is used to refer to heavenly creatures such as angels (1 Kings 22:19); and sometimes it is used to refer to stars and planets, which the pagan nations wrongly worshiped (2 Chronicles 33:3; Acts 7:42). Actually the word "host" is a word that in the Greek Old Testament most often means "army." So the phrase a "great company of the heavenly host" is describing an incredibly large number of heavenly creatures, probably angels, but not necessarily limited to angels.

This vast number of heavenly creatures must have filled the sky. Luke tells us that they appeared to the shepherds "suddenly." One second they were not there, the next second there they were!

2:13-14 -- praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

What the heavenly hosts do when they suddenly appear is praise God. The text says that they spoke this praise, rather than sang it. Comment on glory, "the highest" is another way of saying "heaven." (Since it is neuter - used three other times in this sense). The result of the birth of Jesus is glory to God in heaven and peace to men on earth.

1. To men of good will (Vulgate; Wycliffe)

2. [God's] goodwill toward men - In the birth of Christ, God's good pleasure is manifested to men. God's good pleasure among men [me] God's gracious attitude is manifested and revealed through the Babe of Bethlehem.

3. Peace to men on whom God's favor rests; Peace among men with whom he is pleased. Peace for those he favors

4. Peace to men of good pleasure (who have received God's kind intention in Christ)
 

Is it objective peace for all or subjective peace for those are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1)
 

1 . Paul L. Maier, In the Fullness of Time (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 6.

2 . Other than its occurrences in Luke 2, the only other occurrence of apographo in the New Testament is Hebrews 12:23 " to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect" (NAS).

3 . See Tacitus, Annals, II, 30; III, 22, 23, 48. See Seutonius, Tiberius x1ix; See Dio Cassius 1iv, 48; See Josephus, Antiquities 17:355; 18:26; 20:102. See also Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, (Princeton, 1964), 234-238.

4 . E. M. Blaiklock, "Quirinius," The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, gen. ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 6.

5 . Dio Cassius, Roman History, lvi, 1-10. Dio Cassius tells of one occasion when Augustus was so vexed by the declining marriage and birth rates that he strode into the Forum, separated the married men and bachelors he found there into two different groups and then let the bachelors have it: "What shall I call you? Men? But you aren't fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! . . . What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? . . . You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!" Quoted in Maier, In the Fulness of Time, 6.

6 . This is cited in Maier, Fullness, 4, who is quoting from A. H. M. Jones, ed., A History of Rome through the Fifth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), II, 256f.

7 . Maier, Fullness, 4.

8 . Ibid., 33.

9 . In this section on the shepherds, I am indebted to Paul Maier's excellent treatment in Fullness, 44-45.