Aug 30, 2012

The Infancy Narratives

11 Min Read

The infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus following the prologue are also unique to Luke's Gospel (1:5–2:52). This section of Luke sets the story of Jesus within the context of the Old Testament story. John Carroll explains,

The language, style, and content of the narratives and speeches of Luke 1–2 converge to connect Luke-Acts as a whole with the story of Israel. The impression generated by these chapters is that one has been immersed in the continuing experience of God's people. Yet, Luke 1–2 also announces that the closing chapter in the history of God's people has begun. The hope of Israel is on the verge of realization.1

In other words, Luke uses these introductory chapters to indicate that the fulfillment of all of Israel's eschatological hopes is found in Jesus. All of the ancient promises of redemption are to be realized in him.2:

The infancy narratives of John and Jesus both follow the pattern of promise, fulfillment, and response, but a comparison of the two reveals the superiority of Jesus to John. The narratives begin with the promise of the birth of John the Baptist in 1:5–25. Zechariah, a priest of God, and his wife Elizabeth are an elderly righteous couple, but they are childless (vv. 5–7). While in the Temple burning incense, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah (vv. 8–12, cf. v. 19). He promises Zechariah that he and his wife shall bear a son whose name will be John (v. 13). Gabriel's appearance itself is already a hint of the eschatological significance of these events because Gabriel's only previous appearances in Scripture have been in the Book of Daniel when he explained Daniel's eschatological visions (Dan. 8:16–17; 9:21–23). His appearance here in the infancy narratives of Luke hints that the births of John and Jesus are closely associated with the fulfillment of Daniel's eschatological visions.3

Gabriel tells Zechariah that the birth of John will bring him joy and gladness and that many will rejoice at his birth (v. 14). The child will be great before the Lord and will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, like the Nazirites of the Old Testament, the child is not to drink wine or strong drink (v. 15; cf. Num. 6:2–3). Gabriel then says of John, "And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared" (vv. 16–17). Here Luke sets forth John's role in God's redemptive plan. John is to be a prophet calling God's people to repentance. The reference to Elijah places John's work in an eschatological framework. He is to prepare a remnant for the long-awaited coming of the Lord.4

The promise of John's birth is followed by Luke's narrative of the promise of Jesus' birth in 1:26–38. Again Gabriel is sent to bear the news, but this time he is sent to the one who will be the child's mother, a virgin named Mary (vv. 26–28). Mary is troubled by the appearance of the angel, but he tells her not to be afraid for she has found favor with God (29–30).5 The angel then makes his announcement:

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (vv. 31–33).

Concerning John, the angel had said, "he will be great before the Lord" (v. 15). But of Jesus, he says, "he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High." Zechariah's child will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Mary's child will be the Lord.

The angel Gabriel tells Mary that her child will be given the throne of his father David and that he will reign over Jacob forever in a kingdom without end. This is not a direct quotation of any particular Old Testament verse. Instead it is a summary of several Old Testament prophetic expectations, in particular God's promise to David (2 Sam. 7:9–16; cf. Ps. 89:26–29, 36; Isa. 7:14; 9:6–7; Dan. 7:14).6 The first thing then that Luke tells us about Jesus is that in him the promises made to David will be fulfilled. All the hopes of Israel and the world rest with this child.

Upon hearing the angel's announcement, Mary asks, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" (v. 34). Gabriel responds, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God" (v. 35). The angel tells Mary that her relative Elizabeth, who was barren, has also conceived a son (v. 36). Mary then humbly submits to God's will (v. 38). Although the manner of Jesus' conception is miraculous, the nature of the conception itself is not the focus of the passage. The focus is upon the identity of this unique child. The nature of his conception and the content of the angel's announcement serve to identify this child as the Son of God and the Davidic Messiah.7

Luke continues by recounting Mary's visit with Elizabeth (1:39–45). Upon arriving at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary greets her relative. When Elizabeth hears the voice of Mary, her child leaps in her womb (v. 41). Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims to Mary, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb" (v. 42). She refers to Mary as "the mother of my Lord" (v. 43) and praises her for believing that what the Lord spoke he would certainly fulfill (v. 45). Mary responds with a song that has come to be known as the "Magnificat" (vv. 46–55). She says:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever."

The Magnificat most closely resembles Hannah's song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1–10, but it alludes to numerous other Old Testament texts as well.8 In the song, Mary seems to speak as the representative of the people of Israel.9 Throughout the song, two images of God are seen. God is described as the divine warrior who delivers his people from their enemies. He is also described as the God who is great in mercy toward his people.10

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).11 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."12 Luke's infancy narratives indicate that Jesus is the true Savior. His advent is the true "good news."13

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.

This article is part of the The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology collection.

  1. John T. Carroll, Response to the End of History: Eschatology and Situation in Luke-Acts(Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 49.
  2. See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 47. Mark L. Strauss points out the specific mention of the promises to David in 1:26–38, 68–79; and 2:1–20 [The Davidic Messiah in Luke-Acts (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic,1995, 76)].
  3. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1977), 270–71.
  4. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 99–100.
  5. The phrase "found favor" is common in the Old Testament (e.g., Gen. 6:8; 18:3; 39:21; 43:14; Judg. 6:17; 1 Sam. 1:18; 2 Sam. 15:25).
  6. Strauss, The Davidic Messiah, 88–89.
  7. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I – IX) (New York: Doubleday, 1981), 340; cf. also Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 127.
  8. The opening verses (vv. 46–47) closely resemble Psalm 35:9 and Habakkuk 3:18. The first half of verse 48 echoes 1 Samuel 1:11, while the second half echoes Genesis 30:13. Verse 49 resembles Deuteronomy 10:21. Verse 50 is very similar to Psalm 103:17. Verses 51–53 are similar to 1 Samuel 2:7–8. And verses 54–55 echo several Old Testament texts, including Isaiah 41:8–9; Psalm 98:3; and Micah 7:20.
  9. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 43.
  10. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 102.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I – IX) (New York: Doubleday, 1981), 394.__