Luke’s story of the nativity of John and Jesus is
perhaps the best known story of the Bible. It is a story that gets
re-told every year in pulpit readings at Christmas time and
re-enacted in Christmas pageants. It is also a story that has been
widely popularized by some of the most loved and cherished of the
Christmas Carols. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Noel. Noel,” and
“While Shepherds Watched Their Flock by Night” are but three of the
many carols inspired by Luke that come to mind. It is also a story
that has found its way into the hearts of the people through its
celebration in the great art of the world.
In this study we will be presenting the idea that
Luke has used the birth stories of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel as
stories on which to build his nativity story of John and Jesus.
Luke, we believe, had good reason for doing this in that he sees
these stories as model stories which the Old Testament writers
constructed as a means of expressing their own understanding of the
works and ways of God. (We explore at length what this means in the
next chapter.) As a further feature of this linking process on
Luke’s part, we will also be drawing some important parallels
between the lives of Samson and Samuel and the lives of John and
Jesus. This additional linking will help to shed some important
light on the ministries of John and Jesus.
The historical details of the Old Testament are, to a great extent, the
“recounting of the great and gracious deeds of the Lord.” When the
Israelites looked back on their history, they could see that it was only
by the mercy and grace of God that they had been brought into being as a
people by God and that the hand of God had guided and protected them down
throughout the centuries. They could look back and identify those special
occasions when God had intervened to save his people. It is this special
understanding that we find reflected in the pages of the Old Testament,
and it is this same understanding, but now from a Christian perspective,
that we find expressed in the Gospel story.
We can say that, for many people, life simply “goes on,”
with one day simply following another, and that whatever happens to them
is seen as the result of good or bad planning on their behalf, or just
simply the result of luck or circumstance. There is no hand of God at work
behind the scenes, no divine design working itself out in the personal
details of their lives.
Those who view life through “the eye of faith” see things
much differently. They sense the hand of divine Providence and see a
Higher Power at work in the world and in their own lives. The stories that
we find in the Bible are stories that reflect this special understanding,
this vision of faith. It is not just simply a belief, “something to hold
on to,” but a conviction that grows out of their personal experiences of
life. We will see what this means when we look at the stories themselves.
When we examine the details of Luke’s story we recognize the work of
a careful and highly creative writer. The incorporation of so much
detail has the apparent intention of adding breadth and depth to his
story, giving it a panoramic dimension that we do not find elsewhere
in the New Testament. Even the smallest details, consisting often of
only allusions to past events and characters provide us with an
important historical perspective from which to view the story of
Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing in his story should be missed. Most
importantly, through the intricate connections he establishes
between the past and present, our author helps us see how God’s work
in the past leads up to the appearance of John and Jesus on the
world stage and helps us see the Advent of Christ as the culminating
act of God’s saving mercy.
Before we get underway with an examination of Luke’s nativity story,
however, there are some important questions we have to ask
ourselves, questions that we normally ask of any writer. The basic
questions here, we feel, have to do with the how, the when, and the
why of Luke’s writing, for it makes a great difference how a story
is told, when it is told, and why it is told. We have already
alluded to the how-- that is, Luke’s story as a story built on Old
Testament models—but let us add to this (as part of the how) some
thoughts regarding the perspective of the story.
It is important for the reader of the Gospel story to realize that these
are not ordinary stories but stories of a special kind. People may
approach these stories with the understanding that they are about to read
a straightforward account of a person’s life: when and where he was born,
how he lived his life and what contribution he made to life, and where,
when and how he died. Having read such details, they would then feel that
(if the account were accurate at all) that they had a fair understanding
of the person’s life, who he was and what he was. Unfortunately the Gospel
stories are not written in such a straightforward fashion, and to approach
them in this way would probably be to misunderstand them
In this respect the reader of the Gospel story needs to realize that
he/she is being presented with an interpretation of the life of Christ as
seen or viewed from the perspective of one who is a Christian. It is a
believer’s story, and not the kind of story we would find written in a
newspaper by a reporter who was interested in reporting only the “facts”
of the story, and certainly not one that would have been written by a
detractor of Christ.
Jesus, we need to realize, was a highly controversial figure who in his
ministry provoked contrasting responses in people. Just how controversial
his life was can be seen from the fact that while his ministry did meet
with success in its earliest stages and he was successful in gathering a
small but faithful band of disciples around him, his message was, in the
end, largely ignored by the populous and he himself rejected by the
religious authorities. These were the same authorities who successfully
agitated for his death on the ground that he was a false prophet--the
anti-Christ, in fact—the gainsayer or “adversary” whose intention it was
to lead the people astray.
Needless to say, the Gospel writers saw Jesus in a completely different
way, seeing him as the true teacher and interpreter of the Law (they
called him “Master”), as the looked-for Messiah, and the Author of
salvation for God’s people. It is this picture, this vision of faith,
then, that the Gospel writers in general present us with, the only true
perspective, as the writers would have it, from which to view the life of
Jesus of Nazareth. In this respect, Luke writes as a believer, as one who
is intent upon presenting us with a story that reflects his own vision of
The When of the Story:
It is important for the reader to realize that Luke is
telling his story many years after the events he is writing about took
place. (The time most favored by commentators is 80 A.D., although some
prefer a date a little earlier and some a little later.) We note, for
example, that he tells us in his words introduction (Cpt. 1:1-4) that he
himself had not personally witnessed the things of which he was about to
write, but goes on to assure us, his readers, that his account is based on
the testimony of reliable witnesses—an intriguing admission of itself
which leaves us really wondering who these witnesses were.
By his own testimony, then, Luke is telling us that he had
not been a member of the original founding Christian community but had
been converted to the faith at a later time. He had heard through others
the “glad tidings of Jesus Christ” (his favorite term for the Gospel) and
had embraced its message for himself. From his own writing we gather he
found the story to be life-altering and life-enhancing. (John, we notice,
calls his life in Christ “abundant life.”) While not stated in as many
words, then, we should recognize that behind Luke’s story of Christ is the
story of his own Christian journey; the story of his own discovery of the
“glad tidings” of Jesus Christ. And so now, as a “minister of the word” (LK.
1:2) in his own right, Luke proclaims through the lips of men and angels
his own “tidings of great joy to all the people” (Lk. 2:10).
We need also to recognize, as far as the nativity stories are concerned,
that the portrait of Christ that we find presented in these narratives is
a portrait that had taken shape over time as the Church reflected more and
more on the Old Testament scriptures. (I believe that it is to this
process of continual enlightenment that Luke is referring when he speaks
of the Risen Christ opening the minds of the Emmaus’ travelers to
understand the scriptures: Lk. 24:45) and also to the parting promise
Jesus gave to his disciples that the Holy Spirit would be their Teacher
and help them recall what he [Jesus] had said and done (Jn. 14: 15, 26).
This process of Spirit-led reflection is amply illustrated in Luke’s story
of the Nativity and particularly in the smaller and finer details of the
Let us remind ourselves that the Bible of the Early Church
was the Old Testament itself, and that all Christian doctrine and teaching
is built upon the Christian understanding of the Old Testament scriptures.
It was always assumed and understood when the Church referred to
“Apostolic Authority” (the teachings of the apostles) that the Apostolic
Authority was itself firmly based on the teachings of the Old Testament
and firmly supported by the authority of the Old Testament. It is of the
Old Testament, then, our writer is speaking when he informs us that, “All
scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for
correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
We get a hint of this Spirit inspired reflection in other New Testament
scriptures when, for example, the writer to the Ephesians informs us that
what had been hidden in the past had, through the Spirit, been revealed to
Christ’s holy prophets and disciples (Eph. 3:5). The mystery of the past
had been lifted and God’s predestined plan for mankind revealed. God’s
plan for man in Jesus Christ, the Church concluded, had been put in place,
even before the creation of the world (Eph. 1:4). And in another place we
find Paul saying that God had been moving according to a predestined
time-table: “When the time had fully come,” says Paul, “God sent forth his
Son” (Gal. 4:4).
We should say that little is known about Luke himself. All
we know is that tradition has ascribed the authorship of this Gospel to
someone called Luke, the same Luke, apparently, who wrote the Acts of the
Apostles (see the opening verses in both books.) In Colossians reference
is made to “Luke, the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14). The name Luke also
appears in 11 Tim 4:11, and Philemon, vs. 24.
The Why of Luke’s Story:
Luke’s story is a story being told for a very specific
purpose. His story is a missionary document, a sermon of a particular kind
that proclaims the Christian faith and the Christian message.
This is a story written by a disciple of Christ who writes with the
intention of sharing his faith with his readers in the hope that they,
too, will come to embrace his faith and find the blessing that such faith
brings. John can be said to speak for all the Gospel writers when he tells
us: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the
Son of God, and that believing you may have life through his name” (Jn.
It is for this reason that the writers call their message
the “Gospel;” that is, the “good news” or “glad tidings” of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel story, therefore, is not a story that has been written because
people may find it entertaining, informative, or interesting (although it
undoubtedly has such qualities) but a story that has been written with a
missionary purpose in mind. From the perspective of the writer, the story
of Jesus is a story not just simply worth hearing about, but a story worth
believing in. In the infancy story the writer is leading us, not simply to
a manger, but to the feet of the Savior of mankind.
It is with these understandings, then, that we should
interpret the details presented by Luke (circumstances of birth)
surrounding the births of John and Jesus—with the larger priority given,
of course, to the birth of Jesus.
One final note. One should understand that the nativity
story is only the beginning part of Luke’s story, Act 1 of the Gospel
Drama, we could say. As such, the reader has to go into the story as a
whole to connect what he/she encounters in the early part of the drama
with what comes later in the unfolding details of the drama. In other
words, what is given expression in the beginning of the story anticipates
or foreshadows what comes later in the story. The work then has to be
approached as a whole and considered as a whole. It is a life story, the
meaning of which is to be found in all the details from birth to the
resurrection itself. Luke’s story is also a story with several main themes
to it. The writer introduces these themes into the early part of his story
and then given further expression to them throughout the rest of his
story. The work, then, has to be approached as a whole and considered as a
whole. As readers, it is futile for us to read the nativity story in
isolation from all that follows. We will, accordingly, be going into the
Gospel in detail to discover for ourselves the implications of the details
we find in the nativity of John and Jesus. In other words, we shall see
how these things play out in his story as a whole.
In his story, Luke is inviting us, as the Master invited
his disciples, to launch out into the deep; to leave the safer shallower
shores for the deeper waters, with the realization that it is in the
deeper waters that the greater rewards, the deeper truths of the Christian
faith, are to be found.