Amid the excitement of advent and the busy activity of nativity plays and carol concerts, it is good sometimes to reflect more deeply on what our Biblical texts actually tell us about the birth of Jesus. To think about how the two different evangelists who chose to write about Christ’s nativity presented their material. What they included and what they did not; their style and mode of presentation; and what these opening chapters tell us about their larger stories about the life of Jesus.
This is precisely what we did tonight at Putney Methodist Church, as we listened to, and then reflected upon, the opening chapter of Luke’s gospel. We heard it read by David Suchet, in his excellent audiobook version of the NIV, to allow us the opportunity to really soak in the text. We then spent time discussing our thoughts and questions. What follows below is my summary of our discussion, with some editing and additions.
The first thing that we noted was how much of this chapter felt quite ‘Old Testament’. There are fewer explicit quotations than Matthew, who seems almost obsessed with the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy but allusions abound. Perhaps most notably to the story of Abraham (Gen. 11-21). Mary, like Abraham, is described as a “servant” of the Lord (Gen. 17:17, 18:11-12 / Luke 1:38, 48); she shows humble obedience, like so many faithful Israelites before her (e.g. 1 Sam. 1:11, 25:41); and has found favour with God, like Noah, Gideon and other scriptural heroes (e.g. Judges 6:17 or 1 Sam. 1:15).
Elizabeth and Zechariah are also very similar to both Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18), and Hannah and Elkanah (1 Sam. 1). All faithful Israelites, older in years, and longing for a child. God hears their prayers and responds with a seemingly miraculous birth, bringing forth a child destined for a vital role in God’s plan of salvation.
There are other important links to the Old Testament as well. A significant portion of the action takes place in the Temple, where Zechariah serves as a “descendant of Aaron” (Luke 1:5). There is no questioning here of the role of sacrifice or predictions about the destruction of the Temple (as we find in Luke 21:20-24). Instead, we seem to be in the same world as the high priests of the Old Testament, with Zechariah carrying on an unchanging tradition dating back centuries.
We also noted the beautiful songs within this opening chapter: the song of Mary, the Magnificat (1:46-55), and that of Zechariah, the Benedictus (1:68-79). Songs do not really feature much in the New Testament but they abound in the Old Testament. Someone has listed them all here, and they include songs sung by Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15), by Deborah and Baruk (Judges 5), by David (2 Sam. 1:17-27) and many others. The books of Psalm, Lamentations and the Song of Songs are literally full of songs!
Crucially, this chapter serves as a vital bridge between the Old and New Testaments in the role it gives to prophecy. The experience of Zechariah, named after one Old Testament prophet, seems to have been clearly foreshadowed by another, Malachi:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. (Malachi 3:1)
The prophecy then goes on to describe someone who acts in a very similar way to that of the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist, whose fiery ministry will be like “a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Mal. 3:3). The age of the prophecy was meant to have ended, but here, Luke clearly shows us, it is active once more. Even an old man like Zechariah is now prophesying, like the sages of old (Luke 1:67).
Finally, Luke emphasises the continuity between his gospel and the Hebrew scriptures in a way that is hard for us to spot in our English translations. That is his use of Greek. Luke was clearly a very well-educated and literate man, whose grammar and syntax is amongst the best in the New Testament. His opening prologue (Luke 1:1-4) is a highly polished and stylish piece of writing that would place him in the same literary league as many of his famous Graeco-Roman contemporaries. However, from 1:5 to 2:52 he switches style, and his Greek becomes deliberately anachronistic, aping the Greek of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures that was widely used at this time by Jews). It is as if I suddenly started dropping ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s into my blog post!
This was a very deliberate decision by Luke – a skilled, and careful author. He wanted his first readers / listeners to treat his opening chapters as a continuation of the Hebrew scriptures, with which they were so familiar. This was the same story, of the same God, he seems to be saying, intervening in the life of his world, just as dramatically and forcefully as he had done before, with a very similar cast of characters. Only at 3:1 does he slip back into the Greek of his own day, and many scholars have noted how you could quite easily start Luke’s gospel at that point. He is emphasising that now a new chapter has begun in the story of God’s people; one with a glorious new central character – the long-promised Messiah, God’s own son, Jesus!
We also noted, though, that this opening chapter very much anticipates what is to come in the rest of Luke’s gospel. It acts as a ‘taster’ for many of the themes we shall encounter again in the book. For example, Jesus begins his life in a backwater hamlet, Nazareth (1:26), born to a lowly woman of no family (1:27). Throughout Luke’s gospel, God’s chosen Messiah will continue to demonstrate a great concern for the poor and those on the fringes of society, clearly demonstrating that salvation has come to all.
We also see clear evidence of Luke’s especial interest in the role of women in the ministry and life of Jesus. Unlike Matthew, he emphasises Mary’s role in the story, actively saying ‘yes’ to God and being a vital part of his plan for universal salvation (1:38). Women will continue to play an important role afterwards: funding Jesus’ ministry (8:1-3); caring for him (10:38-42); acting as virtuous examples (15:8-10); and remaining with him faithfully to the end (23:27-31, 24:1-12).
It is through the agency of the Holy Spirit that Mary will conceive (1:35) and the chapter also reflects the vital role that the Holy Spirit plays in Luke’s account of Jesus. It fills John the Baptist (1:15, 17, 80), Zechariah (1:67), Simeon (2:25-27); and the early church (e.g. Acts 2:1-4), and supremely Jesus is a man of the Spirit – conceived by it, empowered by it (3:22) and baptised in it (3:16). Mary’s over-shadowing by the Spirit (1:35) also links her not only backwards to some of the dramatic appearances by God in the past (e.g. Ex. 16:10, 24:15-18) but also forward to the Transfiguration (Luke 9:34) and Pentecost (Acts 1:8).
Crucially, though, in this passage Luke makes his Christology – his answer to the key question ‘who is Jesus?’ – clear in a number of ways. He establishes that Mary’s child is much greater than John the Baptist. There are obvious parallels between the two annunciation stories (Luke 1:5-25 / 1:26-38). While John may be destined to be “great” (1:15), though, and both will be filled with the Holy Spirit, the titles and relationship applied to Jesus far outstrip those attached to John. He will be David’s true successor, but also much greater than him. David was an adopted son of God (Ps. 2:7) and beloved of YHWH, but Jesus is the actual Son of God. Not just a “Son of the Most High” (1:32) but explicitly the “Son of God” (1:35); a unique relationship to God.
Luke also makes clear that Jesus is the Messiah anticipated in scripture. Specifically, we see Jesus being connected to the great Davidic line of kings, a crucial part of contemporary Messianic expectation. Gabriel is explicit that he will be given “the throne of his ancestor David” and that he will reign over Jacob forever (1:32-33). In Jesus, the promise made to David of a throne that will be established forever is fulfilled (2 Sam. 7:12-16; cf. Dan. 7:14).
Finally, he makes a clear distinction between the virgin birth of Mary, on the one hand, and Elizabeth and other miraculous births in the Old Testament (Gen. 18:14, 1 Sam. 1:20, Jdgs. 13:3, Luke 1:5-25). In the latter cases, God intervenes to help those who are struggling to bear a child, while Luke makes clear that Mary is not only young but capable of producing children with Joseph of her own (Acts 1:14). More than that Joseph, will play no part in the child’s conception, a point underlined by his virtual absence from Luke’s narrative (see 3:23 and compare with Matt. 1:18-25).
There is much more we could say about this one, fascinating chapter of Luke. However, I hope that what I have written has demonstrated the riches of our scriptures and how there is so much we can learn from the Bible by studying it together. Most importantly, I hope that these few paragraphs have demonstrated how the story of God’s salvation cannot be broken down into neat ‘halves’ or chapters. The Old and New Testaments are all part of our stories. The story of how God has never left his people alone in the darkness but has kept sending prophets and guides to show us the way, most importantly in the person of his son, Jesus Christ. That story continues today, as women and men across the world continue to be filled with the same Holy Spirit that filled Zechariah and Mary, challenging injustice and bringing joy and hope. I pray that we may know our place in that great story, and know the power of the promise of the coming Christ in our lives, this Advent season and always.