The Gospel Message in Luke's Story of the Nativity - Chapter 1
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Introduction  |  Chapter 1  |  Chapter 2   |   Chapter 3   |  Chapter 4   |  Chapter 5   |  Chapter 6   |  Chapter 7

This commentary on Luke's story of the Nativity was written by Rev. Harry Colquhoun who has generously given permission for presentation on this site. Copyright ©

                                                                         Chapter 1

We have mentioned the fact that Luke’s story of the nativity of John and Jesus is a story with a long history to it. It is a story that can only truly be appreciated when seen and understood in the light of the past, and, as this study will indicate, in the light of certain key events drawn from the lives of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel.


The emphasis on the historical element in Luke’s writing can first be seen, for example, in the fact that Luke traces the lineage of Jesus all the way back to “Father Adam” (Lk. 3:23-38). This is his way of telling us that the story of Jesus had been a central part of God’s unfolding plan for mankind from the beginning—from the appearance of Adam, the progenitor of the race. (This is just the kind of emphasis we would expect in one who was a Gentile Christian.) Matthew, the Christian Jew, on the other hand, who writes for a Jewish audience (yet without denying the point Luke is making) traces the story of Jesus back to Abraham, the “Father of the Faithful.” This, for him, is the place where the story of Jesus has its significant beginning (Matt. 1:10). 


Whether it be Matthew or Luke, however, both stress the central point that everything in the past leads right up to Jesus. It is the moment to which everything in the past points, and the event in which everything in the past finds its fulfillment.


                As we also indicated in our opening chapter, Luke presents us with a portrait of Christ that had been developed over time. Each detail therefore has a particular Gospel resonance to it that reflects the developed insights and ideas we find throughout the New Testament, yet of the insights and developed Christian thought of one person in particular: Paul. This should not surprise us since Luke and Paul were close associates, Luke having accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys. We can be sure that a lot of mutual exchange would have taken place during the times they were together and that Luke would have gained much from the insights of one who could be justifiably regarded as the Architect of New Testament thought. Paul, we note (in 11 Pet. 3:15,16) was held in high esteem in the Early Church as a gifted thinker and expounder of the Christian faith. Part of our responsibility in this study, therefore, will be to explore the significance of Luke’s details in the light of the rich world of Christian thought he has incorporated into his details.


                Let us look, first of all, at the historical details surrounding the births of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel, and then compare/contrast them with the details surrounding the births of John and Jesus. In later chapters we see how particular details drawn from the lives of Samson and Samuel impact on the stories of John and Jesus. Most importantly, an examination of the earlier details will provide us with the interpretive key to help us understand and appreciate the stories of John and Jesus.


Birth Details: Parallel Features


 The first thing that strikes us about the Isaac, Samson, and Samuel birth stories is that each has a familiar pattern to it. This pattern itself appears to reflect a particular type of faith language the Biblical authors developed (and which Luke subsequently adopted) as a means of expressing what the respective authors, through the eye of faith, see as the hand of God at work in living history of their people.


(Since we will be studying these stories closely, a re-familiarization with each of the stories is recommended. A good reference Bible usually makes the connections between the Old and the New Testament stories.)



Parallel Features of the Stories:

1.        Angelic Announcements:


       With but one exception, an angel appears to inform the future parents that God is going to bless them with the gift of a child. The importance of this feature lies in the fact that these are the only birth stories in the Bible having this distinction. The angel, we notice, is said to “come from God” (from God’s immediate presence). The presence of the angel signifies that God’s own hand will be in this event in a very special way. The angels, in this context can be seen as symbols of divine revelation; what they speak is reveled truth, the truth of the works and ways of God that is open to those who have the eyes and ears to receive it.


2. Miraculous Circumstances:


                We next notice that each of these births comes about through exceptional (miraculous) circumstances. The men in question are mostly old; in Abraham’s case, very old indeed. Of the five women, four of these are barren, and two of these both old and barren. Mary’s case is special, and also in contrast to the other births in that the birth is to be a virgin birth.


                The above are the most obvious features that the stories share. There are, however, others that are less obvious, more inferential in nature, but important nevertheless.  We will be discussing these additional features at length, comparing and contrasting one story with another.


Stories of a Special Kind: the Old Testament Stories as a Special Faith Language


                What then can all this mean? It surely can be no coincidence that Luke’s stories look so remarkably similar to the Old Testament stories in their crucial features. It appears quite obvious that Luke has built his stories using the earlier stories as models, much like an architect would use an earlier model on which to build his own boat or house. The advantages to following this course, as we will discover, are many and we will explore these as we go along.


                Our first step, however, in interpreting the John and Jesus stories, is to recognize that the Old Testament birth stories (on which Luke’s stories are built) as stories of a special kind which express special truths. Essentially it is a language which uses the language of miracle to express ideas about events and outcomes that are (through the eye of faith) traceable to the hand of God. And so it is in keeping with this tradition that Luke tells his story.


                We can, however, see better what this faith language means when we turn to a specific story, the story of Isaac. Isaac, we will remember—as the story has it--was born to Abraham and Sarah when Abraham was about one hundred years old and Sarah well beyond child-bearing age. God, however, had promised Abraham that he would bless him with a child, and that from this child a great nation (numberless as the sands of the seashore) would come into being. Since, however, no child came (Sarah proved to be infertile) Abraham turned to Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, as the natural solution to the problem. The handmaiden bore the child, Ishmael. This, however, is seen as a humanly contrived (lapsed-faith) solution; the resolution of a problem that essentially lies beyond human means to solve. The aged parents are then visited by an angel who promises them the gift of a natural born child. To Sarah’s surprise (but not to the surprise of Abraham) she conceives and bears a child.


                This story, we believe, is, in its own way, a parable which expresses what the devout in Israel felt about Israel’s origin and continued existence as a nation. (Sarah’s laughter symbolically represents—from the strictly human perspective—the incredulous nature of Israel’s story.)


                From scripture we can gather the special feeling the Hebrew people had about themselves. They felt that the God of heaven and earth (the true God) had chosen them in the mystery of his will (from all the families of the earth) to be a people unto himself. They saw themselves as God’s own special possession, the apple of his eye (Duet. 32:10). They felt that, of all the peoples of the earth, God had chosen to make himself known to them, and in consequence of their election, had granted them the gracious gift of the Law to guide them in their walk with him. Such blessings, they also felt had been bestowed upon them and given them for a purpose. The privilege had a responsibility attached to it. As Isaiah expressed it, God had chosen them to be “as a light to the nations.” They had been entrusted with a mission to the Gentile world, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners from the dungeon, and from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa. 42:6,7). Through Israel, God would bring the Gentile world to a saving knowledge of himself.


                While his statement should probably be understood symbolically, Isaiah even speaks about Israel as a nation that God, in a special act of creation, had formed for himself (Isa. 43:1). The reader will notice that the language echoes Genesis 2:7 where the creation of man is described. We do not know whether the writer intended his statement to be understood symbolically or literally, but either way his statement reflects the very high sense of destiny this nation had about itself.


The sense of being the specially chosen finds expression in true wonder. The devout Hebrew cannot help asking himself why God should have chosen to bestow such favor on his people (the littlest people in the world). In comparison to the nations around them, they were a “nothing” people. Yet, in a mystery of divine will, God had chosen them, and, out of nothing as it were, had created for himself a people worthy of praise. Paul we can see reflects his Hebrew heritage when he celebrates the God “Who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17).


 Furthermore, as history itself testified, what Israel accomplished as a nation, she could not have accomplished on her own. It is obvious that a Divine Hand and a Divine purpose had been at work in fashioning and molding her; in leading and guiding her, and in supporting and sustaining her. Without God’s help she could not have survived the hostilities of a world that had sought to swallow her up and annihilate her. As a small nation surrounded by larger and hostile nations, she had been preserved by the mercy and grace of God.


The Isaac story, we can say, expresses both the human impossibility but also the miracle and wonder of Israel’s existence. It was plain to the mind that Israel could not have given birth to herself as a nation. She was but a few, insignificant grains of sand on the vast seashore of life. She was a rootless, nomadic people, essentially a nothing people—and from nothing, nothing comes. As our story has it, the barren cannot bring forth, and old age brings nothing but sterility and death. What this nation faced--a nation not even in embryo--was annihilation. There was no future for this people—no matter how or in what way she may have tried to create one for herself (the handmaiden option). Had not God been in what she was, her name would have been absent from the annals of human history. In God she had her beginning, and only in and through the instrumentality of God’s grace and favor did she flourish and continue to exist.


                The story of Isaac is, as we say, the parable of Israel’s creation and existence as a nation. Her story is the story of God, a manifestation of the divine in and through human history. It needs to be stressed, though, only through the eye of faith is this truth seen and acknowledged. We do know that this faith vision was often lost, especially in periods of arrogance and national self-aggrandizement. In such periods of faithlessness to her past history and forgetfulness of the facts, Israel was tempted to attribute her good fortune to her own efforts--despite the prophetic warning to avoid such presumptuous and fatal attitudes

(Duet. 8:11-17).


The Isaac Story as Part of the Christian Story


                It is worth pausing for a moment to note that the story of Israel’s creation as a people is echoed in the Christian story as a story of divine grace and divine election (Eph. 1:4-6) with the Church itself (encompassing both Jew and Gentile) seen as the creation of a new people of God (2 Cor. 5:17). It is the story of the election, of not simply Israel, but of Jew and Gentile as a people united by the grace of God to a new and living hope in Christ (I Pet. 1:2,3; I. Thess. 1:4). It is a story of inheritance, not of blood—nor of land—but of the inheritance God offers to mankind in Christ: citizenship in the Kingdom of God (Col. 1:12). As part of the Isaac story, the story of the Church is the story of a God “Who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Rom. 4:17).  It is the story of a Creator God who, in a new day of creation, commands the light of Christ to shine abroad in the world in order to lift the darkness and lighten the inner landscape of human life (2 Cor. 4:6). And so it is (in Luke’s symbolic expression of this idea) the darkness of night is banished with the glory of the Lord that illuminated the Bethlehem landscape (LK. 2:9).


To return now to our primary concern (Luke’s modeling strategy) it is, we believe, in a manner that is in keeping with this Old Testament faith vision that Luke tells the story of the birth of John and Jesus, encouraging us to see the John and Jesus stories in the same light as the Old Testament stories.


As a general observation, we can say, for example, that the special circumstances of birth which the stories share point to the fact that each of these “sons of promise’ comes to us from God’s side, and that the story behind each life is the story of God and his continuing care for mankind; that in each event God’s grace and mercy are revealed in a special way. As a further observation, we note that the birth of each is associated with a very special moment in the history of God’s people, much like the Battle of Bannockburn represented a pivotal moment in the history of Scotland. The birth of Isaac, as we have seen, is associated with the birth of Israel as a nation; the birth of Samson, as we shall see, is closely associated with the principal events of the four-hundred year period in Israel’s history known as the Theocracy, and the birth of Samuel with the birth of the Monarchy and the establishment of Israel as a nation-state with its center in Jerusalem. With the births of John and Jesus, we are, of course, dealing with the birth of the Christian Church.


Our purpose of this study, however, will take us beyond the birth details themselves to a consideration of some additional personal connections between individuals that will help us appreciate why Luke would chose to model his story in the manner we have suggested. In the meantime, however, let us point out some distinct advantages Luke gained from following the Old Testament model:


1.         First and foremost, patterning his story in the fashion he does helps Luke’s to express the same kind of truths about John and Jesus that the earlier stories have to say about Isaac, Samson, and Samuel and in so doing furnish us with the interpretive key that helps us to understand the John and Jesus stories.

2.         The patterning also helps create an echo effects, causing the reader to connect the earlier with the later stories.

3.         An additional benefit of the patterning is that it creates a linking effect, helping us to see the John and Jesus events as parts of a great chain of events reaching back into Israel’s past. The linking informs us that the lives of John and Jesus form a vital part of God’s on-going purposes for mankind; that they are, in fact, the final links, the end-events, in that great chain of events arising from the Fall of Man to his restoration in Christ. The God who acted in the past on behalf of his people in the past has acted once more in saving grace—but this time in an act of definitive and unparalled mercy. Luke’s news is news of a Universal Savior.

5.     The patterning also helps Luke set the stage for the Advent in the same way  

the Old Testament writers set the stage for the births of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel (The implication of the unfolding drama is that whatever takes place takes place under the initiative of God and is, therefore, traceable to the hand of God.)

6.     And, finally, we can say, modeling his story on the Old Testament pattern brings the past to    

life in the events of the recent past. It conveys the notion (in the form of a shared vision) that the God who worked in the past can be seen to have been at work again in and through the lives of John and Jesus—but in a definitive way.


Note on Scriptural Interpretation/ the Story of Isaac:


                A word or two of explanation has to be offered to clarify the interpretation of the stories we have offered above. No one would want to presume as to how God should or should not act, or as to what he can or cannot do. Yet life and experience teach us much about the works and ways of God; about the ways in which God has chosen to act and the conditions under which he acts.


                If the Bible can mean anything to us or have anything to say to us then we have to assume that the realities of life that we face today are the same realities the people of Biblical times faced. We have to assume that they, like us, lived in a world of limited possibilities: what goes up must come down, without food, we die, death is never far away, life itself is fraught with the “wings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  This also involves the assumption that the people in the Biblical world had no special resources available to them, no rabbits they could pull out of the hat that we don’t have, and that the solutions they had available to deal with problems were the same for them as for us. We cannot, in good sense, place them in a never-never world removed from the reality of life as we know it. To do so is to place a barrier between us and them.


                If, however, it can be seen that the world of the Bible is no different from our own, that the realities of life were the same for the people of Biblical times as they are for us, and the solutions to the major questions and realities of life open to them were the same for them as for us, then indeed we can enter into living correspondence with these people and find in their experiences help and inspiration for our own lives. The Bible will indeed have relevance for us because of the relevance of the experiences we share with the people in the Biblical world.


                All of this, of course, is not to deny the cultural differences that exist between the Biblical world and our own. Allowances have to be made for this, and the realities taken into consideration. In a non-scientific world realities are going to be viewed differently. The people in the Biblical world, for example, apparently believed that disease in humans was caused by evil spirits. The cure for such an affliction was exorcism—a driving out of the evil spirits. Yet modern medicine also recognizes that many illnesses are emotionally based (what is referred to as the psychosomatic dimension of illness) and that a cure for the spirit (soul) has its beneficial effects on the body. Ulcers, for example, often have an emotional base to them (although particular bacteria have also been implicated in the disease). Yet it is a condition that can often be helped or cured by lowering or eliminating the stress level of the individual. An intelligent reader will recognize these cultural differences and then seek to understand them within the horizons of his/her own intellectual understanding of the world.


                When therefore we hear about floating axe heads and individuals surviving in super-heated ovens (Dan. 3:26-27) we should accept these as stories of a special kind—as parables or some other kind of literary convention-- having a special message (God’s special care for his people in times of dire difficulty and distress, for example). We can be fairly sure that it was in this light the ancients understood them.


                In the final analysis, the one thing that binds us together with the people of the Biblical world is our faith and trust in God, his goodness and his mercy, his providential care and guidance. We trust, as they did, in that same God who is “from everlasting to everlasting;” in that same God who has been the dwelling place of his people “in all generations.” (Ps. 90:1,2). As Christians, we find God’s love further demonstrated for us in the self-offering of himself in Jesus Christ, the Beloved Son of the Father. As the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last (Rev. 1:11) Christ confirms for us the everlasting love of the Father.


                The above discussion may have taken us a little outside the main scope of our study, yet, in a sense, it is very much related to it in that it deals with the question of interpretation. We have been saying that Luke’s story has to be understood in the light of the Old Testament story to which it is related and on which he has drawn. We are seeking to show that Luke is presenting us with the same kind of faith vision when presenting the Christian story that the Old Testament writers used when speaking about their own.


In our next chapter, we will examine in detail the actual historical connections themselves that Luke establishes between the Hebrew past and the Christian present.


Introduction  |  Chapter 1  |  Chapter 2   |   Chapter 3   |  Chapter 4   |  Chapter 5   |  Chapter 6   |  Chapter 7

This commentary on Luke's story of the Nativity was written by Rev. Harry Colquhoun who has generously given permission for presentation on this site. Copyright ©