Benjamin Franklin once said that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. For twenty-first century North Americans, it would probably be safe to add a third: Christmas. Come what may, when December (or for some, November or October) rolls around, Christmas decor goes up, Christmas music comes on, and atheist and evangelical alike start shopping.
Because Christmas is a fixed feature on both the secular and the ecclesial calendar, it presents some unique challenges for the Church:
For pastors, the Christmas season is an annual exercise in homiletic innovation as they wrack their brains for something to say about Jesus’ birth that they didn’t say last year.
For everyone: Whether you occupy the pulpit or the pew, you have probably heard the Christmas story so many times that it can seem predictable and (dare we admit it?) commonplace. After all, we know the story by heart.
Or do we? The New Testament contains two tellings of the “Christmas story”: Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2. However, when most of us think of the Christmas story, we think of neither Matthew nor Luke’s narrative, but rather a combined story that brings together elements from both Matthew and Luke. We can see this tendency in the typical nativity scene, which contains:
Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus (Matthew and Luke)
An angel (neither at the manger; both elsewhere, but at different places in the story)
Of course, there is nothing wrong with nativity scenes, and ultimately there is nothing wrong with combining Matthew and Luke’s stories. The real problem comes when we put these stories together before understanding what each says on its own. In point of fact, Matthew and Luke have told two quite different stories. When we read each account on its own merit, all sorts of interesting insights emerge. Once we have done this, then we can see what the two might say together.
Because my dissertation work centers on Luke’s birth narrative, I’ve spent the last few years living in Christmas. This has helped me to see the true richness of these stories. In this post and the ones following it, I will draw out some of the unique contributions of Luke’s birth narrative. My hope is to provide fodder for fresh preaching, teaching, and application of Luke’s birth narrative, so please, borrow from these at will. It would fill me with great joy to deliver your congregation or Sunday school class from another Advent series based on Elf or A Christmas Story.
Luke: Miracle Babies in Parallel
Perhaps the most striking difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives is that Luke is telling a story about two babies, not just one. Luke has arranged his narrative so as to set the birth of John (the Baptist) alongside that of Jesus. This concept of placing the lives of two individuals in parallel was a known practice in the ancient world. For instance, in his work Parallel Lives, the ancient writer Plutarch tells the stories of twenty-three famous Greeks, each paired with a famous Roman. After recounting the life of each individual, Plutarch compares the two, drawing out how each illuminates the life of the other.
Similarly, Luke places the births of John and Jesus in parallel, inviting the reader to compare and contrast these two babies. Although it would be wrong to call John a foil for Jesus—Luke obviously has great respect for John—the overall effect of the comparison is to underscore the greatness of Jesus. This can be seen simply in the amount of space Luke devotes to each: Although the birth-announcements to Zechariah and Mary are roughly equivalent, by the time we reach the youth of John and Jesus, the focus has clearly shifted to Jesus. Whereas Luke summarizes John’s youth in a single verse (Luke 1:80), he tells a whole story about Jesus at age twelve (Luke 2:41–52).
To note all of the fascinating similarities and differences between John and Jesus in Luke 1–2 would take several more posts (or maybe even a small book!). In this post, I would like to focus in on Gabriel’s birth announcements to Zechariah and Mary in Luke 1 to show how Luke uses parallelism to explain the identity of each baby.
John: Prophet par excellence
Luke begins his birth narrative by introducing John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Both are Israelites with priestly roots, both are righteous, and both are “advanced in years”—far too old to have children by normal means.
While Zechariah is completing his service in the temple, the angel Gabriel appears and announces that the elderly couple will have a child. Gabriel’s birth-announcement follows the typical OT pattern (cf. Genesis 16; 17; 18; Judges 13):
1. Angel appears
2. Person is afraid or bows
3. Angel delivers a message from God
4. Person gives an objection
5. A sign is given
Gabriel’s message (part 3 above) clues us in to the identity of the baby: he will be a prophet like Elijah who prepares the people for God’s arrival (Luke 1:16–17). Elijah was, of course, known as one of the greatest OT prophets, and Malachi 4:5–6 (which Luke alludes to) expected Elijah to appear before the day of the Lord. John, then, will be a prophet of prophets who ushers in the YHWH’s return to his people.
Not surprisingly, Zechariah expresses his doubts that he and Elizabeth will be able to conceive. In accordance with the OT pattern, Gabriel gives him a sign: Zechariah will be mute until these things happen, because Zechariah did not believe him.
Jesus: Eternal Davidic King
When we turn to Jesus’ birth-announcement, it is impossible to miss the similarities. It is based on the same OT pattern, and likewise involves a miraculous birth. However, the proverbial bar has now been raised: Jesus’ mother is not an elderly woman with a husband to match, but a virgin!
Jesus’ God-given vocation also surpasses that of John: Gabriel proclaims that Jesus will be not a prophet, but the Son of God who will rule on the throne of David forever—a fulfillment of God’s promise to David that his throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:12–17; see also Psalms 2, 110).
Finally, whereas Zechariah apparently doubted Gabriel, Mary accepts the angel’s word and submits to God’s will: “I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Luke’s Tale of Two Babies and Why It Matters
As Luke’s authorial camera pans back and forth between John and Jesus, we increasingly gain a sense of both continuity and fulfillment: What God is doing in Jesus is inextricably connected with what he has done for his people in the Old Testament. And yet, in Jesus God is doing something that brings the story of Israel to its climax. As God’s prophet par excellence, John comes to prepare the way for one who—as he himself admits—is greater than he (Luke 3:16). This greater one is none other than the promised Davidic king who will reign forever, the Son of God.
In sum, Luke’s tale of two babies reminds us of the following:
The story of Israel. Many stories compete for our attention during Advent: Santa Claus, Rudolph, your own story of trying to get the you-know-what for so-and-so, etc. Luke reminds us that our Christmas is part of a larger story that began with Adam, found its climax in Jesus, and continues today. So as many narratives vie for our allegiance this Advent, may we be reminded of the real story—the true reality—and take our place in it.
The surpassing worth of Christ. The differences Luke highlights between Jesus and John remind us of the glory that belongs to Jesus. He is more than Elijah. He is more than John. He is God’s Son, now glorified, who sits enthroned as King over all. This is an incredible blessing, but as Hebrews reminds us, it also demands an appropriate response (Heb. 1:1–4; 2:2–3). God spoke reliably through the prophets and expected a faithful response—how much more so for the revelation of his Son? As the Father will remind us later in the gospel, “This is my Son…listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).
Our call to faithful obedience. In concert with the previous point, Mary’s faith in God’s promise encourages us to follow her example. As we will see in coming posts, Mary’s obedience is not merely an act of individual piety. Her “yes” heralds the advent (!) of God’s King and kingdom—an event that will truly turn the world upside-down. As God speaks this Advent season, may we—as Mary—hear the word of God and act upon it in faith, expecting God to do great things with our “yes,” however larger or small it may seem.
Questions for further study:
- What are other similarities between John and Jesus in Luke 1–2?
- What are other differences between John and Jesus in Luke 1–2?
- What was Luke’s purpose in portraying John and Jesus in this way? How might he have expected this to affect his listeners? How should it affect us?
Image attribution: mikosca / Thinkstock