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BI 1073 Story of Jesus / Lipscomb University

Unit 1A

Introduction and Jesus’ Birth


Introduction to the Gospels

  • The four gospels are not biographies in the modern sense of a detailed life story. They record no physical description of Jesus, and little of his life growing up until his ministry begins about 28 AD. They focus a disproportionate amount on events of the last week of his life.
  • The first three gospels are referred to as the synoptic gospels, a Greek word which means “view together.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke follow roughly the same outline of events and can be compared, whereas John records unique events and teachings.
  • These notes will focus on Luke’s gospel with references to the others at times.
  • In the first verses of Luke, he explains his familiarity with other accounts of Jesus. Although we cannot know for sure, most biblical scholars today think that Mark (the shortest and simplest account) was the earliest gospel written, and that Luke used Mark as one source, and perhaps another common source shared by Matthew. Both Matthew and Luke add unique material to Mark’s account.
  • Such judgments are based on the following statistics (Barclay):
    • Out of 661 verses in Mark, Matthew has 606 parallel verses (92%), Luke has 320 (48%).
    • Only 31 verses in Mark do not appear in either Matthew or Luke.
    • Matthew and Luke share about 240 verses not in Mark. This common material is called Q by commentators (for the German word for source). Familiar passages such as the virgin birth, Jesus’ temptations, and the Lord’s prayer are not found in Mark. Most of the parables are not in Mark.
    • About 50% of Luke is unique to this gospel alone, derived from material not found in Matthew or Mark.
    • Matthew’s gospel has unique material as well. Only Matthew has: Herod’s attempt to kill the baby Jesus, Peter walking on water, Judas’ death (which Luke records in Acts 1), Pilate washing his hands, an earthquake rolling away the stone at Jesus’ tomb.
  • The gospel of John records a different set of stories and sayings of Jesus than the Synoptic gospels. In John we find no parables, no mention of the Sadducees, no demons, no baptism of Jesus, no temptations, no transfiguration, no institution of the Lord’s Supper. In Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom of God is only mentioned twice (3:3, 5).
  • Only in John, Jesus is described as the Word who was with God from the beginning. In John Jesus often uses “I am” sayings such as “I am the resurrection” or “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
  • Other unique features in John’s gospel: Nicodemus, Jesus’ disciples baptizing others, raising Lazarus, several trips to Jerusalem rather than just one in the synoptics, washing the disciples’ feet at the last supper.
  • The only event, other than the last days in Jerusalem, that is found in all four gospels is the feeding of the five thousand.
  • Luke, the traditional author of the third gospel and of Acts, was a companion of Paul (Philemon 24), a Gentile doctor (Col 4:10-14), and was with Paul in his last imprisonment in Rome (2 Tim 4:11). Certain passages in Acts, often called the “we” passages (Acts 16:10-17, 20:5-15, 21:1-18, 27:1-28:16) seem to indicate that the author was traveling with Paul during those times in his journeys.
  • In the 4th century, church historian Eusebius wrote: “Luke has left us … two medical books whereby not our bodies but our souls may be healed” (Eccl. History 3.4).



  Read Luke 1:1-4

  • Luke probably wrote his gospel sometime between 60 and 90 AD.
  • Because truth was important to Luke, he searched the evidence about Jesus, and seems to have used Mark as one of his sources. Most likely he learned much from his traveling companion Paul, and probably spoke with many eyewitnesses. Today we have the written records of these witnesses who saw Jesus firsthand. The Bible does not tell us, “Close your eyes and believe.” Just like Luke, we too should investigate seriously Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God; we do this through careful study of the scriptures.
  • The fact that Luke admits to “investigating everything” in no way challenges Christian belief that his writing was inspired by God. The Bible never gives an explanation of the process of inspiration. God could just as easily guide a person’s research.
  • Luke’s claim to write an orderly account (v. 3) doesn’t mean strictly chronological. For example, Luke reports John the Baptist’s arrest before describing Jesus’ baptism by John (3:19-22). In Acts 11, Luke inserts the story of Herod’s death along with earlier events. Luke is more concerned with logical or topical order to stress theological points. All three gospels rearrange material according to the themes they want to stress.
  • Luke wrote his gospel and Acts to a man named Theophilus, meaning “friend of God.” Luke addresses Theophilus as “your excellency.” This person was possibly a high official, and some speculate that Luke wrote his two books as a defense of Christianity, perhaps even as a defense for Paul at his trial in Rome, which occurred after the concluding events in Acts. It’s also possible that Theophilus was a fictitious name referring to Luke’s audience in general, all those who are friends of God, since these books assume a larger readership than one person.
  • Luke is the only Gentile author included in the NT. With his gospel and Acts, Luke wrote over one-fourth of the New Testament, more than any other writer.


Births of John and Jesus foretold

 Read Luke 1:5-25

  • With thousands of priests available, most were not active full time at the temple, but all were ancestrally qualified to serve, being descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first high priest of Israel. These men were allowed to offer incense perhaps once in their lives, so this was a special privilege for Zacharias.
  • Traditionally the priest would pray for the coming of the Messiah and the deliverance of Israel. In his official role as priest, Zacharias was probably not offering a personal prayer for a child at this time; at least the text doesn’t say so.
  • John (Ioannes in Greek or Yohanan in Hebrew) was a common name meaning “Yahweh has been gracious.”
  • Abstaining from wine was required of priests on duty.
  • “Filled with the Spirit” is a sign of divine appointment before birth (see similar OT examples of Samson, Jeremiah 1:5). Luke shows a close connection between the Spirit and power; but note that John doesn’t have miraculous power, only the power of his message of repentance.
  • Luke mentions the Spirit 17 times in the gospel and over 50 times in Acts, compared to Matthew (12), Mark (6) and John (17).
  • John is compared to the prophet Elijah who was to come again to prepare for the day of the Lord (Mal. 4:5-6, Matthew 11:14, Mark 9:13). From the beginning the gospels rely on the reader’s knowledge of the Old Testament, alluding to it many times.
  • Ironically, Zacharias’ silence is both a sign to aid faith and a rebuke for lack of faith.
  • The angel Gabriel appears four times in the Bible: twice in Daniel (8:15f, 9:21) and twice in Luke, also appearing to Mary. (In Matthew the angel who appears to Joseph to announce the birth of Jesus is not identified.)

 Read Luke 1:26-38

  • Luke’s account focuses on the angel’s announcement to Mary, whereas Matthew describes the angel’s announcement to Joseph, who is reassured that Mary has not been unfaithful to him during their engagement period.
  • Although the Bible doesn’t give Mary’s age, during this time the normal age of a Jewish girl for betrothal was 13. This betrothal, usually lasting one year, was as binding as marriage (more serious than today’s engagement). Matthew refers to Joseph as Mary’s husband even though they were not officially married yet. Joseph could have had her stoned for adultery if he had not believed the angel’s message.
  • Both Matthew and Luke describe Mary as a virgin. The Greek word virgin is parthenos, the same name given to the Greek goddess Athena, the virgin goddess, which is why we call her temple the Parthenon.
  • Technically we should speak of a virgin conception, not a virgin birth, as Jesus was born in the normal way. Certain heretics in the 2nd century called Gnostics taught that Mary remained a physical virgin after Jesus’ birth, and that the Christ child was only a spirit which did not pass physically through her womb. Gnostics did not believe that Jesus was truly human. All physical matter was evil and so God could not have assumed the form of flesh as a man. The early church condemned such beliefs as heresy.
  • Jesus’ name, Yeshua in Hebrew, is the same as Joshua, and means “God saves” (see Matt. 1:21).
  • The angel tells Mary, “He will be great,” but not in the way the world measures greatness. As Jesus later teaches, the one who would be great in the Kingdom of God will serve others (22:26-7).
  • Mary asks, “How will this be?” not “How can this be?” Unlike Zacharias, she does not question the truth of Gabriel’s pronouncement, but only admits her lack of understanding how it will happen.  There was no precedent for a virgin conception in biblical history.
  • Some critics of Christianity compare the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth to pagan myths of divine-human intercourse, but there really is no comparison. Greek myths depict Zeus or Apollo as divine rapists, forcing themselves on mortal women. In contrast, Luke’s narrative is quite asexual.
  • The phrase “nothing is impossible with God” reminds us of Abraham and Sarah having a child in their old age (Gen 18:14) as well as Elizabeth having John in her old age.
  • Mary’s response is a great example of submission to God’s will, much like her son’s in his garden prayer: “Yet not my will but Yours be done” (22:42).
  • Thomas Merton, a popular Roman Catholic writer in the 20th century, acknowledged that non-Catholics have good reason for believing that many Catholics treat Mary “as an almost divine being in her own right, as if she had some glory, some power, some majesty of her own that placed her on a level with Christ Himself. … But this is all completely contrary to the true mind of the Catholic Church. … Mary’s chief glory is in her nothingness, in the fact of being the ‘handmaid of the Lord,’ as one who … acted simply in loving submission to His command, in the pure obedience of faith.”  (sourceLinks to an external site.)
  • The veneration of Mary in Roman Catholic tradition began very early. In a non-biblical text called the Protevangelium of James (ca. 140 AD) the writer claims that Mary was devoted to a life of virginity from an early age, lived in the temple, and spoke to angels on a daily basis — none of these ideas are found in scripture.
  • The angel declares Jesus’ divine sonship before identifying him as Messiah. Today we use the titles “son of God” and “Christ” (the Greek word for messiah) almost interchangeably, but Jews in the first century would not have considered these terms synonymous. They were expecting an ordinary man as Messiah who would rule on a literal throne, not the Son of God. This is a new revelation in the NT not found in the prophecies of the OT.

Additional discussion:

  • Messiah (mashiah in Hebrew) or Christos (Greek) means “ anointed one” and is found 38 times in the OT.
  • Messiah in the OT refers to high priests (Lev 4:3; Ps 84:9; Dan 9:25), patriarchs (Ps 105:15), even Cyrus the ruler of Persia when he serves God’s purposes in sending the people back to their land after the Babylonian exile (Isa 45:1). All these men were anointed by God for a special role.
  • Most frequently the term messiah refers to Israel’s king (1 Sam 2:10, 2:35, 16:6, 24:6; Ps 2:2, 18:50, 89:38). As long as Israel had a king, “anointed one” referred to its present ruler (Collins 24, Fergusson 37).
  • Surprising to most Christians, the OT does not use messiah as a title for an expected king in the age to come. The OT does prophesy the coming of Christ, but in terms other than messiah; for instance, the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 foretells of the sacrifice that Jesus would make, suffering for the sins of the people, but the text does not describe this person as the Messiah.
  • Only later in literature written after the OT (200 BC) did Jews begin to use the term messiah for an expected political leader, a king like David in the age to come. Several texts from this period (called the Apocrypha) look forward to the time of the Messiah.
  • No passage prior to the NT anticipates the messiah would be the Word made flesh (John 1:14). In the OT, “Son of God” doesn’t necessarily imply divinity: son of God refers to the king (2 Sam 7:14); sometimes refers to our relationship to God as our creator by nature (Adam, Luke 3:38) or in the NT it may refer to our adoption as sons through faith in Christ (Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26, 4:5). The OT does not anticipate that the “Messiah” would be the Son of God in the divine sense. This is a new revelation in the NT and not what the Jews were expecting.

 Read Luke 1:39-56

  • Elizabeth’s unexpected pregnancy in her old age serves as a sign to Mary that God can accomplish anything.
  • This song seems too well constructed to have been spoken spontaneously by a simple girl of 13. Possibly Mary composed it years later, after having time to reflect on this wonderful event, and Luke inserts it here.
  • “Nowhere can we better see the paradox of blessedness than in the life of Mary. To Mary was granted the blessedness of being the mother of the Son of God. … And yet that very blessedness was to be a sword to pierce her heart. … To be chosen by God so often means at one and the same time a crown of joy and a cross of sorrow. The piercing truth is that God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy but for a great task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it.” (Barclay) Do we pray that God will choose us in such a way, knowing the consequences of being chosen may not always be pleasant?
  • Notice throughout the contrast between humble and proud, hungry and rich. Compare the themes to Hannah’s song (1 Sam 2). God favors the downcast of society.
  • Luke includes more social commentary in his gospel than do Matthew and Mark: see Jesus’ preaching good news to the poor (4:18), focus on Jesus’ dealings with “sinners,” outcasts of society, tax collectors, Samaritans, Gentiles, women, those on the margins of society. Luke saw in Jesus’ coming a great reversal of the world’s value system.
  • A 2000 year old Jewish prayer from the Talmud, which orthodox male Jews are supposed to say every day, states, “Thank God that I am not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” All of these would have been considered lesser persons to a Jewish male at that time, but Luke goes out of his way to emphasize their place in the new Kingdom. In Acts 16 (also written by Luke) all three are represented. Lydia the business woman who sells precious purple fabric is the first convert in Philippi. Paul and his companions stay at her house, and the new congregation meets there. Next Paul rescues a demon-possessed slave girl from her masters, and is thrown in jail for ruining their business. When he and Silas are freed by the earthquake, the jailer (a Gentile) converts to faith in Christ. Throughout his gospel, Luke will emphasize the role of those overlooked by society.
  • Jesus’ birth calls for an economic revolution as well as a spiritual one. “A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each person is out to amass as much as he can get. A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away” (Barclay). Throughout the Bible, God shows great concern for the poor, whereas too many Americans look down on the poor and blame them for all their problems. Can those of us who live in the most affluent country in the world afford to ignore the challenging implications of Mary’s prayer?

 Read Luke 1:57-80

  • Although the story of John’s birth precedes it, the focus remains on Jesus’ coming, as Zacharias’ song is messianic in tone.
  • “Forgiveness of sins” was John’s message, thus this is the salvation meant, not political salvation from the Roman empire (77). Jesus did not meet the expectations of many Jews who looked for an earthly king who would defeat their enemies and restore their national independence.
  • Before his ministry, John spent time in the desert. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s, the community of recluses at Qumran has drawn much attention. Some writers speculate that John was a member of that community, but there are several reasons against this idea. The Dead Sea Scrolls teach a message of separatism from the religious center in Jerusalem, a theme absent from John’s preaching. He practiced one baptism for repentance, whereas the Qumran sect performed daily ritual washings for religious purity. The Scrolls display a legalistic concern about rituals; John’s message emphasizes repentance and basic morality.

 Read Luke 2:1-7

  • Dating Jesus’ birth is problematic. The common assumption that Jesus was born in 0 AD is incorrect, as the dating system we use today was flawed when it was calculated in the 6th century by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus. Several facts are pertinent in arriving at an approximate date for his birth.
  • Matthew 2 records Herod the Great’s attempt to kill Jesus. Herod died in 4 BC so Jesus must have been born before that time. Herod killed all boys in Bethlehem under 2 years (Matthew 2:16), apparently having reason to believe that Jesus had been born as early as two year before.
  • Caesar Augustus was the first Roman emperor and reigned 27 BC -14 AD. No Roman records of an empire-wide census survive from this period, although there are records for regional census taken in Gaul (modern-day France) and Egypt.
  • Historians have found Roman census records every 14 years from 20 AD to 250 AD. If this pattern was consistent, previous censuses might have been in 6 AD (mentioned in Acts) and 8 BC, so Jesus could have been born as early as then.
  • Quirinius was governor of Syria 6-9 AD. Josephus (Jewish historian 38-110 AD) mentions a census in 6 AD which caused Jewish uprisings, because it meant the annexation of Judea by the Roman empire. Luke refers to this revolt in Acts 5:37. The census was a bitter reminder that the Jews were a conquered people. However, this date would be too late for Jesus’ birth.
  • How do we reconcile Jesus’ birth before 4 BC and what Luke says about Quirinius? The Greek text is awkward in v. 2, but protos may mean not “first” but “former.” The text might better be translated, “This was the former census before Quirinius was governor” to distinguish it from the famous census of 6 AD mentioned in Acts 5 and Josephus [HM, JN, NG, DG].
  • Conclusion: Jesus was born sometime between 8-4 BC.
  • The use of AD to designate years stands for “Anno Domini” which is Latin for “in the year of our Lord.”  AD does not stand for “after death” as some assume. “AD” became widely used by the 9th century.
  • Occasionally today in scholarly works you will see the designation CE as in “1492 CE,” meaning the “common era.”
  • Micah 5:2 foretells of a ruler born in Bethlehem, as was David.
  • Some question why Mary made such a difficult trip in her condition, as Roman law didn’t require registration for the wife. But would Joseph have left his pregnant fiancée behind to face public scandal alone? Joseph had great faith in the message of the angel to believe his wife’s story and to protect her reputation during this time. It’s interesting that in John 8:41 some of Jesus’ critics say to him, “We were not born of fornication,” perhaps implying that he was, based on a rumor about his illegitimate birth.
  • The Greek word translated “inn” could mean any unspecified place to stay; it’s doubtful that a small town like Bethlehem had a commercial inn, as it wasn’t on any major roads. Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem so probably he would have stayed with relatives, but perhaps there was not room in the house itself, and they had to stay in an attached room where the animals were kept at night. Some think that there was “not enough room” because Mary, having a baby, would have been ritually unclean according to Jewish laws, and needed to stay isolated from other people for a time.
  • Luke does not mention the familiar ox and donkey in the manger, seen in most Christmas paintings. These added details were taken from Isaiah 1:3 (read out of context).
  • Christmas is more than likely not the birthday of Jesus, since shepherds were outside with their flocks at night, and it would be too cold in winter. The Bible doesn’t give a date for this event. December 25 was not officially celebrated by the church as Jesus’ birthday until the 4th century. However, there is nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of Jesus at Christmas or anytime during the year for that matter.
  • But we might keep in mind this thought by commentator David Garland: Christmas can easily become little more than seasonal sentimentality, while we forget about the year-round task of following Christ. For many people a cute, speechless baby in a manger is easier to accept than hearing the voice of a risen Lord who commands repentance and obedience.

 Read Luke 2:8-21

  • We shouldn’t romanticize this picture of the shepherds (as do most of our Christmas cards), as they were considered dishonest and unclean. They represent the outcasts of society that Jesus came to save. These men were uneducated about theology, but they told people what they had experienced. We do not need to be experts in the Bible in order to tell others about the story of Christ in our lives.
  • A student once asked, “If shepherds were so notorious, why do we refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd?” The occupation of a shepherd might have been considered lowly in Jesus’ day, but the role of shepherd would not have seemed so to the sheep. They relied on his constant care and guidance.
  • This is the only time in the synoptic gospels that Jesus is referred to as Savior. Perhaps Luke would expect Gentile readers to perceive an important contrast between the humble birth of this savior and another popular “savior,” as Caesar Augustus was commonly called. The following inscription from 9 BC praises the birth of Augustus in similar terms, even using the Greek word which translates as gospel: “Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our lives, has set things in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit mankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and order all things, and he, Caesar, by his appearance excelled even our anticipations, surpassing all previous benefactors, not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and the birthday of the god Augustus was for the world the beginning of good tidings [gospel] that came through him” (Priene Calendar inscription).
  • The “peace on earth” of which the angels speak is not cessation of war and violence, but peace between sinful humanity and a holy God. Believers in Christ no longer must live in fear of God’s wrath upon sinners. The peace of Caesar Augustus, the Pax Romana, was enforced by military might; the peace of God was won by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
  • They placed him in a manger, or feeding trough, not very sanitary for a newborn baby, but they had no other choice.
  • The city of David usually refers to Jerusalem, but here refers to Bethlehem, David’s birthplace. Bethlehem lies about six miles from Jerusalem.
  • The Church of the Nativity stands on the traditional spot where Jesus was born, but there’s no way to prove this was the actual place. One enters the church through a very low doorway, in effect, making everyone bow before entering the birthplace of a king.
  • Matthew 2 gives the account of the visit of the Magi, astrologers who studied the heavens. Unlike the typical manger scenes at Christmas, these wise men did not arrive to see Jesus on his birth night along with the shepherds. Matthew 2:16 suggests that Mary and Joseph had been living in Bethlehem for about two years when the wise men visited. They did not move back to Nazareth until after their journey to Egypt. The Bible does not call these Magi “kings” nor does it say there were three of them, only that they brought three kinds of gifts.
  • Matthew also tells of the family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous plot to kill all boys under two years of age in Bethlehem, not mentioned by Luke. Herod the Great had a bloody reputation, having executed his wife, mother-in-law, and three of his sons. Before his death he ordered that when he died, many prominent Jews were to be put to death as well, so that the people would have reason to mourn.

Jesus’ childhood

 Read Luke 2:22-40

  • Poor families like Joseph and Mary were permitted to offer doves as sacrifice rather than sheep (Lev 12:8). Jesus appeared on earth not as a privileged son of a royal household but as one of the common people. In 2 Cor. 8:9 Paul writes, “Though he was rich, he became poor for our sake.”
  • After childbirth, the law required that the mother remain isolated for over a month (Lev. 12:2-6).
  • Simeon (whose name means “God has heard”) notes that Jesus will be a light for the Gentiles as well as the glory of Israel. But he also prophesies of future conflict about him and the sadness that this will cause his mother.
  • As for the inclusion of Anna in the story: “Luke takes every opportunity to demonstrate the important roles played by women in his story.” The number of important women in Luke is greater than in the other Gospels combined. [MB]

 Read Luke 2:41-52

  • The family attends Passover in Jerusalem, commemorating the exodus from Egypt when the angel of death passed over the firstborn of those who had blood on their doorposts. The conclusion of the gospel records Jesus’ last observance of Passover, at which time death does not pass over God’s firstborn. [DG]
  • (49) Jesus says that “it is necessary” (dei in Greek) that he be in his Father’s house. Luke frequently uses this term to indicate that Jesus acts according to the divine plan (4;43, 9:22, 13:33, 17:25, 19:5, 21:9, 22:37, 24:7, 26, 44, also many times in Acts). Matthew and Mark only use this term once. In the Greek text the word “house” is missing but is implied; the King James Bible says, “ I must be about my Father’s business.”
  • While mostly unrecorded in scripture, Jesus’ home life was a formative time for him. His parents must have set a good example. “ The name for God which came most naturally to the lips of Jesus was Father, and the very use of that word is itself a beautiful compliment to Joseph” (Barclay, Mind of Christ 17).
  • Jesus increased in wisdom, indicating that although the Son of God, he was not omniscient (all-knowing). In Matthew 24:36 Jesus says that even he does not know when he must return to earth, but only the Father knows. Jesus had a human mind with finite knowledge; any prophetic insight he had came from God (see Rev 1:1, “the revelation God gave him concerning what must soon take place”). In Phil. 2:6-7 Paul says that Jesus, in nature equal to God, emptied himself and became a man. This verse suggests that Jesus freely gave up some of the qualities of divinity when he was on earth; for instance, it’s obvious that as a man confined to a physical body, he was not omnipresent as God is, and of course, he was able to die whereas God is immortal.


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