The passage from Thanksgiving to Christmas is a wonderful time of the year. The leaves fall and the air grows cooler. The sky is clear and the days grow shorter. Our thoughts change from hearts thankful for bounty and blessing to hearts adoring of incarnation and salvation. We are witnessing growing unbelief and secularization of this most Christian season but, to believing hearts, this is the time to remember and say, “thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15).
The Christmas story is found for us in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. Mark and John had different purposes when they wrote their inspired accounts. Matthew’s account is the natural conclusion to his long genealogy and primarily contains the confrontation between King Herod and the wise men and Herod’s terrible result. Luke gives the most detailed account of the birth of Jesus in the eighty verses of chapter one followed by the beautiful “Christmas” account of chapter two. Who hasn’t heard it read on Christmas eve, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed?”
As a pastor I’ve had to bring messages about Christmas every year for a lot of years! Personally, I would be satisfied with reading Luke’s account every Christmas and making as few comments about it as possible. But since we usually care for a little more variety, we search for a different way to look at the story from year to year. This year, as our folks know by now, I will follow Luke’s account by emphasizing the godly characters he weaves into the Christmas story, as well as Luke’s inspired record of their messages. Here are a few of the highlights.
Luke’s words (1:1-4)
How important and striking are the first four verses of Luke’s gospel! No other New Testament book begins in such a way. Charles Erdman wrote, “This preface is a perfect gem of Greek art; even in the English version it loses little, if anything, of its literary charm.”1 Here Luke not only explains why he is writing to his acquaintance, Theophilus (“that thou mightest know the certainty of those things”), but gives in a forthright manner how he was writing under inspiration of God (“It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first”).
Luke explains that many people who lived in the time of Jesus attempted to write or preserve the accounts of Jesus’ life but were not inspired as the very apostles. While Matthew and John were apostles, Mark and Luke were also “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” Bishop J.C. Ryle of Liverpool, England, wrote a hundred years ago,
It is enough for us to know that Luke wrote by inspiration of God. Unquestionably he did not neglect the ordinary means of getting knowledge. But the Holy Ghost guided him, no less than all other writers of the Bible, in his choice of matter. The Holy Ghost supplied him with thoughts, arrangement, sentences, and even words. And the result is, that what St. Luke wrote is not to be read as the word of man, but the Word of God (1 Thes. 2:13). Let us carefully hold fast the great doctrine of plenary inspiration of every word of the Bible. Let us never allow that any writer of the Old or New Testaments could make even the slightest verbal mistake or error, when writing as he was ‘moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21)2
How different is Luke’s approach than much of what the world says today! I was given a 2017 edition of National Geographic whose cover story is “The Search for the Real Jesus.” This tired old approach has been around for a hundred years or more. It tries to separate the man, “Jesus of Nazareth,” who really existed, from the Jesus Whom the Bible depicts, or, the “Jesus of faith.” Why is it that people would rather have an ordinary man who lied about his identity, died as a Roman criminal, and is still dead, than have the Jesus that the Bible describes? Can anyone explain the history of Christianity from a mere mortal? If Jesus is not the person the Bible depicts, then He was a liar or delusional and so were His followers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, and all the rest.
There is more manuscript evidence for the Jesus of the Bible, more archaeological evidence, more historical evidence, and even more reasonable evidence, than for any other person or event in history. It is no accident that God allowed Luke to write the longest chapter in the Bible concerning the birth of His Son. The virgin birth of Christ (Christmas), and the bodily resurrection of Christ (Easter) are the most attested facts of history.
Of the innumerable angels God created, Gabriel is one of only a few names we know (yet God knows them all by name as He also does the stars, Psa. 147:4). Gabriel, “who stands in the presence of God” (vs. 19), makes his New Testament appearance in Luke’s long chapter to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist and to Mary the mother of Jesus.
To Zechariah Gabriel announces that Elizabeth will have a son in her old age (vss. 11-20). Though this is not a virgin birth, it is a miracle in the order of Abraham and Sarah when Isaac was born in their old age. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, however, is a miracle of a different sort because as a virgin she will have a Child Who is very God of God. Elizabeth’s son (John the Baptist) will be a product of human reproduction speeded up by God. Human birth happens all the time but not when people are well beyond child bearing years. Fish and bread are multiplied constantly in God’s world, but not the way Jesus speeded up the process at the feeding of the 5000 and 4000. But no one is born of a virgin in this world. This is a kind of miracle that has no parallel in our natural process. When Jesus walked on water, there was no natural parallel to that kind of miracle either.
When Zechariah and Elizabeth were young they had prayed for a child but God did not grant their request at that probable time. No doubt, Zachariah had forgotten all about it. On this day he is chosen by lot to burn incense in the holy place, something that happens only once in a priest’s life-time. As he is performing this sacred privilege, Gabriel appears next to the altar of incense (where prayers are offered) and announces that Zechariah’s prayer has been heard! Zechariah, though realizing he is in the presence of a heavenly being, still doubts that such a thing can happen and is rewarded with muteness for his unbelief. Nevertheless, John is born of Elizabeth in her old age.
Gabriel’s appearance and prophecy to Mary is quite different. When she is told of this extraordinary event that will happen, though she is allowed a question, hers is not in doubt but only in wonder and awe at God’s choice of such a lowly woman. In the end Mary only says, “be it unto me according to your word.” But here is something unique in Luke’s account also, the most detailed description of the virgin birth in the Bible. This is how Gabriel describes it, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (vs. 35).
This statement of the facts can be distorted by pagan thought, denied by unbelieving thought, or misunderstood by uncareful thought. The Holy Spirit gives Gabriel three words that describe the actions of the three persons of the God-head. The Holy Spirit will “come upon” her; the Highest shall “overshadow” her; and the Son shall be “born” of her. I believe that a close look at those three words will yield nothing unusual. They are words for children to understand because there is no way for mortals to understand how God will enter the world through a virgin and take upon Himself full humanity (any more than how Jesus left the world by ascending into the heavens). I don’t understand a natural human birth, that is, how an eternal soul is produced who will live somewhere forever because of the union of a mother and father. How, then, could I ever understand this virgin birth of the eternal Son of God? God tells me in simple language and expects me to trust that it is so. And so I do.
Gabriel had informed Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was already six months pregnant (vs. 36). Mary visited Elizabeth near that time and we may assume that Mary had already conceived Jesus in her womb. When Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, we are told that the “babe” inside Elizabeth “leaped in her womb” (vs. 41) at the presence of Mary. Elizabeth then said to Mary, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vss. 42-43).
A side note here is interesting concerning the word “babe” or brephos. Under inspiration, Luke is describing the embryo inside Elizabeth with this word (in vs. 41 and also vs. 44). Elsewhere in the New Testament this word always refers to a living child. Luke uses it twice in chapter two (vss. 12 and 16) to describe Jesus, once in swaddling clothes and once lying in a manger. Luke also uses it in Acts 7:19 as “young children.” Paul uses it once in 2 Tim. 3:15 when he says of Timothy that “from a child” he had known the Scriptures. Peter uses it once in 1 Pet. 2:2 to describe believers as “newborn babes” who desire milk. How else can we take this than the Holy Spirit designates an embryo as a living human being? It would also be unbelieving of us not to realize that in Mary’s womb was the Life from all eternity!
Mary’s praise to God receives this title from the Latin equivalent of “magnify.” Lenski says, “Mary herself furnishes no cause for Mariolatry. She merely glorifies and praises God for all that he has done and takes a broad view of his saving work. Her hymn is called the Magnificat from the first word of the Latin translation.”3
Elizabeth had called Mary “the mother of my Lord” (vs. 43) signifying her coming faith in Jesus as Messiah. She also says of Mary, “blessed is she that believed” (vs. 45) as Mary says of herself, “And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior” (vs. 47). As Lenski says, there is nothing here to create a worship of Mary. She is a simple but spiritual Jewish girl through whom God would enter the world, that is all.
How different is the text itself from what the Roman church has made of her. Its catechism records,
From among the descendents of Eve, God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. “Full of grace,” Mary is “the most excellent fruit of redemption” (SC 103): from the first instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.
Mary is truly “Mother of God” since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God himself. Mary remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin (St. Augustine, Serm. 186, 1:PL 38, 999): with her whole being she is “the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk. 1:38).
The Virgin Mary “cooperated through free faith and obedience in human salvation” (LG 56). She uttered her yes “in the name of all human nature” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Sth III, 30, 1). By her obedience she became the new Eve, mother of the living.4
William MacDonald says it well as a response to such heresy,
The Bible never speaks of Mary as “the mother of God.” While it is true that she was the mother of Jesus, and that Jesus is God, it is nevertheless a doctrinal absurdity to speak of God as having a mother. Jesus existed from all eternity whereas Mary was a finite creature with a definite date when she began to exist. She was the mother of Jesus only in His incarnation.5
We are told that Mary and Joseph had other children. Matthew records, when Jesus was teaching in Galilee, that His critics said, “Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?” (Matt. 13:54-56). Mary was not immaculately conceived herself, neither was she perpetually a virgin, and neither did she experience an assumption into heaven. She was a virgin Jewish girl through whom Jesus came.
Zechariah comes back into the story late in Luke’s long chapter after John has been delivered. He has been mute and, it seems deaf, since his lack of belief in Gabriel’s prophecy. However, once his mouth is opened again he gives a magnificent testimony to the work of Jesus and also of his son John. Of Jesus he says,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us, that we, being delivered out of the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. (Lk. 1:68-75)
Luke, a later New Testament believer, has no problem quoting this Old Testament saint who gives an Old Testament perspective of the coming of Messiah. Zechariah could not have seen the eventual split between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. To him all the prophecies of Messiah were compacted together, as the prophet Isaiah wrote it,
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish is with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” (Isa. 6:9-10).
This is testimony but precursor to the bona fide offer of Messiah’s kingdom, its rejection by the Jewish nation, and its postponement until a second coming of Jesus in glory. We need not think that the promised “peace on earth, good will toward men” can only be fulfilled in an immaterial, spiritual way in the hearts of believers. No, there will be real peace on earth when Jesus returns and sets up His millennial kingdom. Zechariah said it out of true belief and Luke wrote it out of true inspiration.
And So . . .
Christmas is the believer’s holiday. For those who cannot believe in the incarnation of God in the flesh, it is profane to celebrate the season by talking of miracles, gifts, love, and “the real meaning of Christmas” without any mention of Jesus Christ. It would be better not to celebrate it than to change the truth of God into a lie.
But for those of us who have placed our faith and trust in Him, let us continue to speak of God’s great love though the gift of His Son and look for the blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
- Charles Erdman, The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966) 21.
- J.C. Ryle, Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Books House, 1977) 4.
- R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of Luke (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1946) 84.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (DoubleDay, 1994) Paragraphs 508-511, pp. 142-143.
- William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990) 1372.