The Infancy Narratives: Part Two — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology
This post is a continuation from The Infancy Narratives: Part One
The birth of John the Baptist and Zechariah’s response are narrated by Luke in 1:57–80. The response to John’s birth is Zechariah’s prophecy, known as the “Benedictus” (vv. 68–79). Zechariah proclaims:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
In the announcement of John’s birth, the angel Gabriel had spoken of John as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. In the Magnificat, Mary had spoken of Jesus as the one in whom Israel’s eschatological hopes rest. In the Benedictus, Zechariah speaks of both John and Jesus, tying their redemptive roles together.i Jesus will be the “horn of salvation” (cf. Ps. 18:2; 132:17; Ezek. 29:21). Jesus is the Messiah, and he will come to the people who sit in darkness and death and will be a light of salvation for them.
The birth of Jesus and the immediate responses to it are narrated in 2:1–40. Luke places the birth of Jesus in its specific historical context. He writes, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (2:1–2).ii Augustus had restored peace to Rome after a century of civil wars. He is referred to in inscriptions from the era as “savior.” His birthday is referred to as the beginning of the “gospel.”iii Luke’s infancy narratives indicate that Jesus is the true Savior. His advent is the true “good news.”iv
Because of the census, Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered (2:3–5). While in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to Jesus (vv. 6–7). Luke then describes the appearance of an angel to some shepherds, who were watching over flocks in a field. The angel declares, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (vv. 10–11). The angel is proclaiming the fulfillment of Isaiah 9:6–7. Jesus is the promised child. He is the Savior. He is the Christ, or Messiah. And he is the Lord. After declaring all of these titles of the child, the angel tells the shepherds, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (v. 12). The paradox here is that Israel’s long-awaited Messiah is to be found lying in a feeding trough.
According to the law of Moses, a woman was considered unclean for forty days following the birth of a child (Lev. 12:2–4). After the forty days, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord as was necessary with all firstborn sons (Luke 2:22–23; cf. Exod. 13:2, 12, 15; Num. 18:15–16). In Jerusalem, they encounter a righteous man named Simeon, to whom it had been revealed that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah (vv. 25–27). When Joseph and Mary present Jesus in the Temple, Simeon takes the child, blesses God, and says, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (vv. 29–32). Simeon here speaks of Jesus as not only the salvation of Israel, but of the Gentiles as well. He is the one who will bless the nations in fulfillment of the ancient promise to Abraham.
Having offered his blessing to God for the birth of the Messiah, Simeon blesses the child’s parents (vv. 33–35). He tells Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Simeon’s first statement recalls the Isaianic prophecy of the stone of offense upon which many will stumble (Isa. 8:14–15). Many will stumble over the claims of Jesus. He will also be a sign that will be opposed. Simeon tells Mary of the anguish she will suffer because of the rejection of her son, a rejection that will culminate in his death.
i John Nolland, Luke 1–9:20, WBC 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 91.
ii A number of historical questions surround these verses. For a helpful discussion, see Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 903–909.
iii Hans-Josef Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 296–98; cf. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 46.
iv Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I – IX) (New York: Doubleday, 1981), 394.