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What do you think the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ birth would think of our modern Christmas celebrations? Most likely, they would be amazed at the way in which our holiday traditions fail to do justice to this amazing event in human history. Yet while we can’t go back in time and witness the events firsthand, we do have reliable accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels. A slow, careful walk through the infancy narratives will give you a glimpse of what truly happened and help us see the birth of Jesus with new eyes.
The First Days of Jesus is divided into three parts: Part 1 covers Matthew’s account of the birth and infancy of Jesus, Part 2 turns to Luke’s account, and Part 3 unearths John’s unique witness. Each part looks at the respective Gospel on its own terms and highlights unique emphases, in addition to comparing the narratives that the Gospels have in common. The study unpacks specific words and phrases in the text and engages with the political and social context of the biblical events.
Above all, this study is devotional. To interpret the narratives on Jesus’ birth rightly, our hearts need to sing in worship to our God who put on flesh and dwelt among us. It is our hope and prayer that The First Days of Jesus will lead you to this kind of encounter with Jesus through his Word.
The First Days of Jesus, Foreword and Introduction (available free here).
Many think of Christmas as “the most wonderful time of the year.” But why? When you take a closer look at the reasons why people celebrate Christmas, it turns out that Christmas is often more about commercialism than Christ. If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably realize that the reason we do much of what we do at Christmas is cultural tradition, not Christ. This observation is not meant to produce an Ebenezer Scrooge-like disdain for Christmas traditions; rather, it is to highlight the differences between traditional Christmas celebrations and the reality and significance of the incarnation.
If we want to know the true significance of Jesus’ incarnation, we need to pay careful attention to the original context of the birth narratives in the Gospels. These narratives are reliable and based on eyewitness accounts, but they don’t look exactly like the Christmas card and Nativity scene renditions of the event.
This closer look requires both a vertical and a horizontal reading. A vertical reading means reading each narrative “as a self-contained story in its own right” (21). A horizontal reading means “exploring how each presentation relates to the others in a complementary fashion, jointly witnessing to the same historical reality, statements, and events” (22). This study also aims to be exegetical, historical, and devotional. It is exegetical in that it pays careful attention to the words in the text; it is historical in that it situates the birth narratives in their first-century context; and it is devotional in that it aims to draw us closer to God (22–23).
The book summary for this course was written by Mark Baker and edited by Andreas Köstenberger. Mark Baker is a Ph.D. student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at Christ Church and Dean of Faculty at Paideia Academy, both in Knoxville, TN.
The First Days of Jesus, chapters one through four.
The Long-Awaited Messiah: Son of Abraham, Son of David
Think about the genealogy recorded in Matthew 1:1–17. If we, in our 21st-century Western context, were tasked to write the beginning of the New Testament, we probably would not have started with such a list of names. While this approach may seem foreign, the timeline recorded in this genealogy has much to say to us. Matthew’s genealogy goes all the way back to Abraham, around 2,100 BC. We know from the Old Testament that it is Abraham’s offspring who was going to be a blessing for all people. There would be a kingly ruler who would come from Abraham’s line, who would be honored worldwide (Genesis 49:10). Over one thousand years later, around 1,000 BC, these promises were realized through David’s kingship. And yet, God issued an even greater promise: a descendent of David would rule on his throne forever.
As the timeline progresses, some might have wondered if God’s promises had failed. The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell in 722 BC, and the Southern Kingdom was conquered and sent into exile between the years 605 and 586 BC. Where was the Davidic king now? Though God eventually brought a remnant of his people back to the land, the Old Testament ended with the messianic promises unfulfilled, still looking forward to God’s provision of salvation. With this background in place, Matthew’s genealogy explodes with new meaning: Jesus is the true seed of Abraham, the son of David, who will reign forever and ever!
There are four specific features of Matthew’s genealogy that deserve further comment. First, the first two words of Matthew’s Gospel, biblos geneseōs (“The Book of the Genealogy”), point the reader back to God’s original creation, thus linking Jesus’ birth with God’s sovereign plan for his creation. Second, five women are mentioned in the account of Jesus’ ancestry: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. For a first-century genealogy to mention women at all is out of the ordinary; for these women (besides Mary) to be outsiders with a touch of scandal is astonishing. Third, the genealogy also breaks normal form in introducing Mary: Jesus is specifically mentioned as the biological son of Mary but not of Joseph. Finally, the divisions of fourteen generations between major sections of salvation history shows that God is sovereign over all time and history.
Many have wondered about the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies. The most plausible explanation is that Matthew’s version is a “dynastic document,” whereas Luke’s version is more biological. In other words, “Matthew provides the legal line of royal inheritance; but those who wish can connect this lineage with Luke’s physical line by means of two adoptions” (42).
God With Us, Born of a Virgin
We have seen that the biblical narrative as a whole points to Jesus as the seed of Abraham, the son of David. But what evidence is there in the Gospels themselves that Jesus truly fulfills these important roles? Among many other pieces of evidence, the birth narratives present “miraculous events and supernatural announcements” in order to show that “Jesus was not just a son of David; he was the long-awaited descendant of David who would fulfill God’s promises to his people” (46).
One of the key miraculous events of the birth narrative is the virgin birth itself. This event has often been surrounded by controversy, and even now new publications appear that doubt the historicity of this event. Despite these detractors, there are five reasons why Christians should treasure the virgin birth. First, Scripture clearly testifies to it. If we deny the virgin birth, we are denying the reliability of the Word of God. Second, it emphasizes the deity of Christ. The fact that Jesus had no biological father points to his divinity. Third, it also emphasizes the humanity of Christ. The divine Son really put on flesh and dwelt among humans, beginning with his conception and birth. Fourth, it reinforces the sinlessness of Christ. If Jesus were the natural-born son of Joseph and Mary, it would be difficult to understand how Adam’s guilt would not be passed on to Jesus. Fifth, it highlights the nature of grace. Our salvation does not come from our own efforts; rather, it comes from God’s supernatural initiative.
Another important connection pertaining to the virgin birth relates to the relationship between the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 and the virgin birth itself. The original context of Isaiah’s prophecy was an encouragement to the Israelites of Isaiah’s day: By the time this child was old enough to speak and discern between right and wrong, the danger from Syria would be over (56). The Hebrew word for “virgin,” ‘almah, can also mean “young woman.” The original referent of the ‘almah was probably “the prophetess” of Isaiah 8:3, and Isaiah’s own son most likely fulfilled the prophecy. Matthew then indicates that the virgin birth constitutes a double fulfillment of that prophecy (Matthew 1:23). Matthew rightly recognizes that there is more to Isaiah’s prophecy than could be fulfilled by Isaiah’s son. Jesus is the only one who can truly uphold justice and righteousness forever (Isaiah 9:7). What a beautiful picture of God’s work on our behalf!
Conflict Between Two Kings and Two Kingdoms
The beginning of Matthew 2 tells us that Jesus was born during “the days of Herod.” Who was this Herod? “Herod was a famous, dangerous, brilliant, paranoid, successful, cruel, lucky, and long-living king” (63). The Romans ruled over Judea, and Herod served the Romans as a client king from 37–4 BC. The historical records are fairly clear that Herod died some time during 4 BC, which means that Jesus must have been born before then, most likely some time in the years 6 or (perhaps most likely) 5 BC.
Matthew 2:1–12 records the well-known story of the interchange between Herod and the wise men. The wise men show up in Nativity scenes and Christmas songs, but we need to be diligent to make sure our ideas of the wise men come from Scripture, not from contemporary culture. For example, although Matthew tells us of three distinct gifts, nowhere does it say that there were three wise men. In addition, the wise men did not visit Jesus on the same night as the shepherds; they came later, perhaps as much as a year later, as by then Jesus and his parents live in a “house.”
Though we may need to “unlearn” some of these popular beliefs, there are also rich theological truths we can learn from the appearance of the wise men. First, the coming of wise men from the East is a powerful picture of the worldwide scope of Jesus’ salvation. Second, the wise men provide a powerful contrast with King Herod. Whereas these influential men came to worship the true king, Herod was threatened by the appearance of another king. Every Christmas (and indeed, every day!) we must answer the same question for ourselves: Will we bow the knee to King Jesus, or will we fight for our own rights?
Exile, Holocaust, and Nazareth: Prophecies Fulfilled
Matthew 2:13–23 is composed of three different episodes that are based on three events that fulfill Old Testament expectation. The first is the reference to Hosea 11:1–3 indicated by the phrase “out of Egypt I called my son.” What is Matthew doing by connecting this event early in Jesus’ life with this passage in Hosea? Essentially, Matthew helps us see that Jesus typologically fulfills many aspects of the history of the nation of Israel. For example, Jesus chose twelve disciples replicating the pattern of the twelve tribes of Israel. He was tempted in the wilderness for forty days; Israel was tempted in the wilderness for forty years. He was baptized in the Jordan River in a way that is meant to parallel Israel’s “baptism” in the Red Sea coming out from Egypt.
The second Old Testament reference is Jeremiah 31:15. The original context of Jeremiah 31 is the Babylonian exile. When Jeremiah proclaims that “Rachel weeps for her children,” he is poetically referencing the sorrow of the events of the exile, but this sorrow is felt in the context of a coming joy that will far exceed the current sadness. By connecting the massacre of the innocents under Herod and the violence of the Babylonian exile, Matthew is also indicating that God’s people can experience a joy that has now come in the person of Jesus.
The final Old Testament quotation is perhaps the hardest to interpret. Matthew 2:23 reads, “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.” The most immediate problem is that it is hard to locate the Old Testament reference for the quote. But there are two important details to note that will help for understanding this passage. First, Matthew tells us that the word was spoken by the prophets (plural). This makes it possible that Matthew is drawing from several different prophetic expectations, not one single quote. Second, the Hebrew word for “Nazareth,” ntzrt, is similar to the Hebrew word for “branch,” ntzr. This linguistic connection could refer to the messianic Davidic branch in Isaiah 11:1.
All in all, Matthew’s birth narrative gives an edifying picture of how Jesus fulfills Old Testament expectation: “He is the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God, Immanuel, a new Israel, and a new Moses” (90). Even this brief glimpse of the early days of Jesus through the lens of Matthew has provided a more compelling and soul-satisfying picture of Christmas than anything our contemporary culture has to offer.
The First Days of Jesus, chapters five through ten.
Two Miraculous Conceptions
Luke 1:1–4 tells us that his Gospel is undergirded by a robust historical method. The evangelist affirms that the narratives about Jesus on which he draws are based on eyewitness testimony. He also states that he personally investigated the events concerning Jesus’ life so that he could write an “orderly account” for Theophilus, most likely his literary (Roman) patron.
We saw that Matthew’s Gospel opened with a genealogy to connect the New Testament with the Old. Luke focuses on the birth of John the Baptist to make the same point. John was “the final representative of the Old Testament era,” so for John to prepare the way for Jesus, we see the greatest of the Old Testament prophets making the way for Jesus who would inaugurate the new covenant (99–100).
The infancy narratives in Luke chronicle two miraculous conceptions, but Jesus’ conception is more miraculous than John’s. Whereas Elizabeth was quite old, Mary was a virgin. Similarly, the annunciation of Mary’s conception far surpasses everything Gabriel said about John the Baptist: “Jesus would be called the Son of the Most High and would receive David’s throne and reign over a kingdom that would never end” (105). What is more, Mary’s humble response to Gabriel’s announcement serves as an excellent example for all Christians as to how we should humbly receive God’s plan and call for our lives.
God at Work Again at Last! Deliverance for Israel
Luke 1:39–56 contains two key sections. The first is the meeting of John and Jesus, both still in their mothers’ wombs. This key paragraph shows that the two miraculous conceptions are not only parallel but also related.
The second section is the Magnificat, the beautiful poem or hymn found on the lips of Mary. Critical scholars often claim that hymns such as this were composed at an earlier date and unrelated to the events recorded in the Gospels. Because the Magnificat is so carefully crafted, they object, how could someone like Mary make it up on the spot? But this point is unfounded because Luke never claims the hymn was original to Mary. Rather, she could have sung a previously composed hymn and applied it to the specific historical details of her situation. This conclusion fits well with the Semitic parallelism that is present in the hymn.
In terms of content, this hymn declares that Jesus will do seven things, four positive and three negative:
Though these actions express both God’s blessing on his people and his judgment on the wicked, Mary shows that all seven actions are worthy of praise and glory. This list also parallels the ancient Greek translation (Septuagint) of Psalm 89:10. What an amazing picture of salvation: God will be faithful to his covenant promises given in the Old Testament by sending Jesus to bring salvation to his people!
Luke 1:58–80 contains the story of John the Baptist’s birth, followed by another majestic hymn, commonly known as the Benedictus. The hymn contains two distinct parts, which has led some scholars to believe it is a combination of two separate hymns, but it is better to understand the hymn as unified. The first part of the hymn draws from David’s in 1 Kings 1:48 on the occasion of Solomon’s succession to the throne. The second half of the hymn refers to a sunrise that will visit God’s people. This unique wording carries a reference to the Davidic term for “branch,” thus alluding to the messianic promises given to David. It also contains an allusion to the wonderful messianic prophecy in Numbers 24:17b that “a star shall come out of Jacob.” Overall, both parts of the Benedictus show the glorious fulfillment of Messianic expectation: “John would prepare the way for Jesus, while Jesus would be the light that would give light to those in darkness and death, the light that would guide his people to the path of peace” (128).
The Humble King is Laid in a Manger
The census in Luke 2:1–7 is “the single most-discussed historical issue in Luke’s entire Gospel” (134). The German scholar Emil Schürer, over one hundred years ago, outlined five major historical issues with the passage:
But these points do not represent the definitive word on the subject. First, though there is no other evidence for an empire-wide census, we do know that Augustus often took censuses, so an empire-wide census would be no surprise. Second, Herod could have modified the Roman census to appease Jews who preferred to go to the city related to their Jewish tribe. Third, while we do not have any other record of a census during the time of Herod the Great, our knowledge of this time in history is quite fragmentary, so silence from other sources does not mean the census could not have taken place. Fourth, in a similar vein, Josephus did not provide an exhaustive historical account. Just because Josephus does not record the census, this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Fifth, Luke’s statement about Quirinius could be translated “This was the registration before Quirinius governed Syria” (138). This isn’t the only possible resolution to the difficulty, but it is possible grammatically and offers a viable solution to this potential problem.
Finally, on a positive note, Jesus’ birth makes some monumental claims. First, the references to Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire show the global scope of the salvation Jesus offers. Second, “This grand opening sharply contrasts with the humble and ignoble setting of the birth. God was going to turn the world upside down, but not in the way people were expecting” (142). We can trust that God will be faithful to his promises, even if his fulfillment is different than what we thought it would be.
The First Witnesses: Shepherds
It is fitting that the announcement of the birth of Jesus was given to shepherds in Luke 2:8–20. Practically, shepherds were nearby and would have been awake at that time of night. Theologically, it is significant that this amazing message was delivered to the lowly and humble in the land.
The message that the angel gives to the shepherds is also theologically significant. Luke 2:10 records that the good news of great joy is “for all the people.” Within Luke’s narrative, “people” indicates that God’s salvation is not limited to the Jewish people but is for all people. This language is similar to Acts 15:14 where James makes this same point. This message of salvation to all the peoples of the earth demands a response: “The shepherds responded with praise, worship, and witness; the people who heard their report responded with amazement; and Mary responded with quiet reflection. How will you respond to the good news of the birth of Jesus, the Savior, the Christ, the Lord?” (153).
Light of Revelation for the Gentiles: Further Witnesses
Luke 2:21–40 gives the account of Simeon’s and Anna’s prophecies about Jesus. Simeon’s prophecy is unique in that it furnishes not only encouraging promises of God’s deliverance but also reminders that God’s people will suffer before final deliverance will come. Anna’s prophecy is distinct in that Luke does not record her actual words. Though the specific utterance is not recorded, the event itself speaks volumes. Anna was part of the ten tribes of the northern kingdom, so even her presence in the temple represents the fact that Jesus will save all Israel, not just Judah.
As we conclude this study of Luke’s infancy narratives, it can also be profitable to compare Luke’s account with Matthew’s account. There are many events that the two Gospels share, although Matthew’s account is given from Joseph’s perspective and Luke’s account from Mary’s vantage point. Some critical scholars have looked at other details and stated that Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels are contradictory. However, these claims are overstated; no biblical author “omnisciently claims to include every detail, nor would it be possible to do so given narrative purposes, space limitations, and costs of writing material” (166–67).
The First Days of Jesus, chapters eleven through fifteen.
Preexistence: The Word Was God
John’s Gospel immediately stands out as different from the others. It doesn’t start out with a birth narrative per se, but it does start out with important beginnings: “In the beginning was the Word.” This opening statement to John’s magisterial Gospel alludes to the original creation account in Genesis. If you look back at Genesis 1, you will see the repeated theme: “And God said ….” God spoke creation into existence. And now, John tells us, the Word was with God and was God. Wondrously and mysteriously, John tells us of two persons, the Word and God, who are both God (both divine) and are one God (they share a divine essence; 177).
As John continues, he tells us that in the Word was the light of people. This light shines in the darkness, and the darkness “has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Here John continues to allude to the Genesis account and introduces a major theme in his Gospel, the struggle between light and darkness. Even more amazing, the light and the darkness are not equal powers; the light—Jesus—shines in the darkness. John introduces this theme not as a timeless principle but as a historical certainty: “In human history, the light has prevailed. The light has triumphed!” (180).
Witness: A Man Named John
Though the opening of John’s Gospel covers cosmic themes that extend all the way back to God’s original creation, John also shows how the gospel is historically grounded through the ministry of John the Baptist. In addition, the “sending” motif in John is used in four significant ways: (1) the mission of Jesus; (2) the mission of the disciples; (3) the mission of the Holy Spirit; and (4) the mission of John the Baptist (184). John the Baptist is Isaiah’s forerunner, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (John 1:23; cf. Isaiah 40:3).
The other Gospels highlight John the Baptist’s ministry as well, but John’s Gospel provides a different focal point. In the other Gospels, John is primarily the Baptizer, but in the Fourth Gospel, his primary role is that of witness. This shift highlights the “courtroom” theme in John’s Gospel. John depicts Jesus’s ministry as “a gigantic court trial in which a series of witnesses testify against the unbelieving world … in support of Jesus’s messianic claims” (185). Through the words of the Gospel, John’s witness is still effective today, and it beckons his readers—even you—to believe in Jesus, the marvelous light of the world.
Incarnation: The Word Became Flesh
John 1:9–14 refers to the Word as the “true light” who “gives light to everyone.” At first glance, this phrase may seem to indicate universalism—the notion that every single person on earth receives this light. But as John continues, he makes clear that some people receive the light, while many others reject it (John 1:9b). Just as there is a polarity between light and darkness, so John also reveals that Jesus came into the world, yet his own people tragically did not receive him (1:11).
The next description of the Word reveals the major climax of the opening of John’s Gospel: The Word became flesh! This truth is wonderful beyond comprehension. But even though we cannot understand how the incarnation of the Word fully took place, there are some aspects of it that we can appreciate. First, the Word did not abandon his divinity when he put on flesh. Second, “the Word’s enfleshment means a temporary leaving of the glory that the Word had from eternity with God the Father” (194). Third, the Word taking on flesh indicates that Jesus can relate to people in a new way (cf. Heb 2:14–18). These amazing truths illuminate the heart behind Charles Wesley’s famous exhortation to “hail the incarnate deity.”
Culmination: The Law, Grace, and Truth
John 1:16–17 connects the ministry of the Word with the ministry of Moses and the Old Testament law: “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Many readers have been puzzled by the phrase “grace upon grace.” A more literal translation of the Greek might read, “grace instead of grace.” There is a contrast between the law and the Word, between Moses and Christ. Yet the presence of the contrast does not mean that grace was absent from the ministry of the Old Testament law. God’s giving of the law was a gracious act in its own right, and yet the ministry of Jesus has surpassed even the grace expressed in the giving of the law.
Even though John’s introduction to his Gospel is quite different from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, there are also some similar themes: Jesus was often rejected by people; Jesus represents the presence of God; Jesus reveals the glory of the Lord; he shines his gospel light to the nations; and he leads his people to his Father’s house.
The King’s Rejection and Return
Though we tell the story of Christ’s first coming every year, we should not be calloused to the amazing, mysterious, even scandalous reality of God becoming man. Pious Jews trusted that God would come and make everything right again. But no one knew exactly how he would do it. We can’t put God in a box (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18–25, 27–29). Yet these “scandalous” acts should cause worship, not offense, to rise up in our hearts. How could a virgin conceive? How could the eternal, transcendent God enter time and space in the form of a baby? Why would the God-man be born into lowly and despised circumstances? How could Jesus die on the cross? Had God failed in his mission? A careful reading of the Gospels reveals that God did all these things on purpose. The events surrounding Jesus’ birth confront the human heart with a decision. Either you bow the knee to your wonderful, merciful Savior, or you are offended by a God who does not do things your way—There is no neutral, third option. Which will you choose? We pray that this study of Jesus’ birth moves you to align your life with Jesus, the one born of a virgin, the light to the nations, the incarnate Word of God.