The Gospel Message in Luke's Story of the Nativity
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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 ©


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 faith.


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 story.


                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. 22:30.


                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.

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 ©