Lesson 3: “Unto You Is Born … a Saviour”
Purpose: To encourage class members to rejoice in the birth of Jesus Christ and follow the example he set in his youth, “[increasing] in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”
To achieve this purpose we will review the events of Christ’s birth and youth, and also consider our sources (that is, discuss some of the differences between Matthew and Luke, to whom and why the two gospels were written, and how an awareness of those factors can help us better understand and make their testimony of Jesus Christ our own).
Imagine that you are a father whose little girl has run into a door, hard, and now has a huge goose egg on her forehead. As part of coping with that accident, you make three telephone calls:
The first one is to your doctor. Your communication is very clinical: you report whether or not your daughter lost consciousness, and whether or not there was any bleeding, and you ask the doctor for treatment advice.
The second call is to the receptionist at your office. You tell her that you have a family emergency and won’t be in to work that day.
The third call, made a few hours later, is to your little girl’s grandmother. You tell her what happened, and report that your daughter is feeling fine now, that she ate a good lunch, and that she’s outside riding her bicycle as if nothing had ever happened.
Three communications, all about the same event, but quite different from each other. Why are your calls so different from each other? How do you choose what details to tell each person? [Reinforce suggestions by class members that you have a different purpose for each call, and you choose the details that will best accomplish that purpose in each case.]
Today we will be talking about the birth and youth of Jesus Christ. Our information on those events comes from two different sources: Matthew 2 and Luke 2. Yet although these two chapters are both concerned with the same events, they are as different from each other as are the phone calls of our imaginary father. As we talk about those differences, let’s keep in mind why they are different, and how those differences help us better understand who Jesus Christ is, and why he came as a baby into the very world that he, as God, had created.
Scripture Discussion and Application
1. Jesus Christ is born.
2. Angels and many others rejoice at Jesus’ birth.
3. Wise men come to worship the child Jesus. Herod seeks to kill him.
4. Guide by the Father, Jesus prepares in his youth for his ministry.
Both Matthew and Luke were written after A.D. 70 – 70 or more years after the events recorded in their early chapters, when most or all of the mortal witnesses to those events would have been long dead. In addition to divine inspiration that we have to assume they were working under, the authors of these two books would have been drawing on accounts that were known in the Christian Church. It is possible that both men had access to copies of the gospel of Mark, since Mark had been written first and both Matthew and Luke appear to be quoting from Mark in many places. Both Matthew and Luke, though, contain material that does not appear in Mark at all, so both authors must also have been drawing on oral teachings both about the events of Jesus’s life, and what those events meant.
Both Matthew and Luke were writing long enough after the fact that their gospels are not in any sense like a diary or newspaper that tries to record all the facts as they happen – instead, each man selected the incidents that suited his purpose, and added his own explanations and commentary to make the points that he had in mind.
Remember, too, that the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written separately and independently: there was, of course, not yet any New Testament – it wasn’t like they were intentionally writing two chapters of the same book. Each gospel was a complete book itself, intended to be read and understood by itself.
Since it’s been barely three weeks since these chapters of scripture have been the daily focus of our thoughts and songs and artwork, we won’t need to refresh our memories much, I trust!
Matthew 1 presents a highly structured genealogy of Jesus which serves to connect Jesus to three significant events in the Jewish past: The genealogy begins with Abraham, the great patriarch who stands at the head of Hebrew history. A count of 14 generations (some less-significant ancestors are omitted, evidently to create the balanced structure Matthew wanted) brings the genealogy to David, the greatest of the Israelite kings and the high point of Israel as a nation. Another count of 14 generations brings the genealogy to the captivity in Babylon, the low point of Israel’s existence. Finally, another count of 14 generations brings the genealogy up to the birth of Jesus.
Why do you suppose Matthew chose to begin his account that way, not only with a genealogy itself, but with a structured genealogy that points to Abraham, David, the captivity, and the birth of Jesus? (First answers will probably be the usual “To prove Jesus was the legitimate king of Israel.” Try to draw out the additional idea that Matthew wants his readers to keep in mind the history of Israel, and connect Jesus to that history.)
The genealogy is followed by a brief account of the birth of Jesus. The account is only seven verses long, yet it is filled with allusions to the Hebrew scriptures that Matthew expected his readers to recognize. We don’t have time to go through them all, but let’s look at a few.
Could I have a volunteer read the words of the angel to Joseph in verses 21-23, please:
21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.
22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
Matthew intends this announcement to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14:
14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
The wording of the announcement as given by Matthew no doubt would have echoed in Jewish ears the wording of other birth announcements in the Old Testament. We have, for example, God’s announcement to Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son:
19 And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.
and also Hannah’s declaration of the birth of her long-prayed for son:
1 Samuel 1:20:
20 When it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the Lord.
All of these verses, and others, would have come to the minds of a certain class of Jewish readers, who spent their lives memorizing the scriptures and drawing parallels like these. Those readers, or hearers, would have also been intimately familiar with the stories of revelatory dreams in the Old Testament – Joseph’s dreams of the stars and sheaves bowing down; Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream of the seven thin cattle devouring the seven fat cattle; Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and so on.
So why would Matthew be so intent, do you suppose, on drawing his listener’s attention to events of the Old Testament, when he is introducing the coming of the new covenant?
Let’s go on to chapter 2, with its account of the visit of the Magi to the home of the young child Jesus. There is so much in this story, isn’t there, that we would like to know more about but which the story doesn’t tell us! Who were the Magi, really? Where exactly did they come from? How many were there? How did they recognize the meaning of the new star they saw? But Matthew doesn’t tell us any of that – only that they came, from the east somewhere, that there were at least two but possibly many more, and that they recognized – somehow – that the star signified the birth of one who would be king of the Jews, and that their explanations to Herod were so convincing that when he “had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Why do you suppose “all Jerusalem” was troubled by the declaration that a future king had been born? (Frankly, I don’t know, unless it was the possibility that the comfortable world of the present ruling class would have been disrupted. In any case, the Magi were convincing enough that the court “and all Jerusalem” believed them.)
The visit of the Magi brings about two important consequences, briefly told, about which we would also like to know more: Herod determines to kill the prophesied king by slaughtering all the young male children in the prophesied area, and, to save the child Jesus from this slaughter, Joseph is warned in another dream to take Jesus and Mary to safety in Egypt, where they remain until Herod is dead.
Since Matthew doesn’t tell us all the details we would like to know about these extraordinary incidents, we have to ask why, exactly, he included them in his gospel when none of the other gospel writers did. The answer to that is found in the many fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy that Matthew packs into his brief account of these events.
One of these prophecies concerns Bethlehem as the birth place of the great king to come. Matthew’s readers would, of course, be familiar with Bethlehem as the birth place of David, the greatest king of the past. But they also would have been familiar with Micah’s prophecy of Bethlehem as the birth place of the future king.
2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephrata, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.
One of the Jewish commentaries on this verse from Micah, a longer, more detailed variant of the scripture, is even more explicit:
And you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, you who were too small to be numbered among the thousands of the house of Judah, from you shall come forth before me the anointed One, to exercise dominion over Israel, he whose name was mentioned from of old, from ancient times.
Back to the question we’ve asked and answered a couple of times: Why would Matthew have drawn such explicit attention to this prophecy while telling of the events of Jesus’s birth?
Matthew also chooses to tell us of the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem. It is a poignant story, one that shows us the lengths that evil men will go to to destroy the Savior before he can accomplish his purposes, and also the overwhelming power of God that protected the infant Jesus in his helplessness. But Matthew has reasons for including this story beyond its being part of Jesus’s biography. He refers to the grief of the mothers whose sons, unlike Mary’s, were not protected:
17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Here Matthew is again pointing back to the Old Testament, this time to Jeremiah 31, by quoting a painful statement:
31 Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Ra[c]hel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.
The context of this verse from Jeremiah is the captivity of Judah by first Assyria and then Babylon. Ramah is a small village about six miles north of Jerusalem, on the road that the captives from Jerusalem would have had to pass on their way to captivity. It is also near the site of the grave of Rachel, wife of Israel – one of the mothers of the entire Israelite nation – who poetically watches her children being stolen away.
The emotional power of that image of mothers who cannot be comforted after losing their children is part of a longer account in Jeremiah 31 describing “the future days of God’s new covenant with his people, when he will restore them to their land, forgive their sins, and bless them with peace and prosperity.” By drawing the attention of his listeners to that image of Israel’s loss of her children, Matthew inevitably also drew their attention to the prophesied rescue by a coming king.
Matthew also fashions his writing to show that Jesus’s life explicitly fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy:
… that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.
Matthew packs chapter 2 with other Old Testament prophecies which you can dig out on your own with the help of the Topical Guide. Rather than go through them now, let’s talk about one other aspect of Matthew 2 that would have caused Matthew’s readers to sit up and take notice.
The infant Jesus is protected from death when a wicked ruler orders the slaughter of innocent baby boys. Whose story does that remind you of? What other parallels can you see between the account of Moses and the account of the child Jesus? (Egypt as a land of bondage in Moses’s case, but safety in Jesus’s; Moses was called to go back to Egypt at the beginning of his ministry; both left Egypt for the promised land; both crossed over water – the Red Sea, the Jordan River for baptism – at the beginning of their ministries; Joseph turned aside into the wilderness of Galilee, which Matthew’s listeners may have paralleled with the wilderness traversed by Moses.)
With all of this in mind, what kind of people do you think Matthew had in mind when he wrote his gospel?
Let’s turn now to Luke, chapter 2. Luke chooses to focus on a completely different set of details about Jesus’s infancy and childhood. Other than the Holy Family themselves, who are the most prominent people in Luke’s account? Why were shepherds so honored, do you suppose? How does Luke’s emphasis on the shepherds suggest that his intended audience might be different from Matthew’s intended audience?
If you read both Matthew 2 and Luke 2 together in preparation for this lesson, you may have noticed not just a difference in what the two evangelists wrote, but in how they wrote it. Matthew’s accounts are very sparse in detail; he is scholarly and logical, reasoning with his readers. How is Luke’s account different in this way?
I’ve pointed out that Matthew is particularly concerned with pointing his readers toward Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and that his readers would have been especially familiar with scripture and Jewish law. This does not mean that Luke ignores the law. His listeners are largely Jewish-Christians who knew the culture of the Jews. Luke is careful to note that Joseph and Mary fulfill the requirements of Jewish law when Jesus is born.
Eight days after his birth, Joseph and Mary take care of what ritual? Why might Luke have wanted his hearers to know about this event?
Verses 22-24 tell us of another incident that shows Joseph and Mary’s careful attention to Jewish law.
22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)
24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.
The “days of her purification” refers to the 40-day period after a woman gives birth to a male child. At the end of those 40 days, Leviticus 12 tells what Mary, or any woman, was expected to do:
6 And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest:
7 Who shall offer it before the Lord, and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath born a male or a female.
That law specifies that Mary should have brought a lamb and a pigeon – but we’re told in Luke 2 that she fulfills the law by bringing “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” The explanation for that is also in Leviticus 12:
8 And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles [turtledoves], or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean.
What does this tell us about the financial condition of Joseph and Mary? What about the gifts of the Magi – the gold and frankincense and myrrh? (This is, perhaps, another indication that the Magi did not come to the stable the night Jesus was born, since 40 days later Mary has only birds to offer as a sacrifice.) How might Joseph and Mary have used the gifts of the Magi, once they were given?
Luke 2 also tells us that a priest named Simeon and his wife Anna, recognized Jesus, when he was brought as an infant to the temple, as the prophesied Messiah. This was in fulfilment of a blessing to Simon that he should live long enough to see the coming of the Christ.
28 Then took he [Simeon] him [Jesus] up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,
29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
Jesus had been brought to the temple to fulfill Jewish law, but I’m struck by Simeon’s remark that God has prepared salvation “before the face of all people,” not just Israel. This is a recognition that would have been important to the Christians of Luke’s day, late in the first century, after Paul and other missionaries had begun carrying the gospel to the Gentiles.
Although Matthew doesn’t explicitly say that the Messiah’s salvation is for all people, not just Israel, can you think of anything about Matthew’s account that suggests the salvation is intended for all? (Matthew’s entire focus is on wise men from the east, who are not Israelites. God has blessed them with knowledge of the promised Messiah, and they are the means of preserving his life by their gifts which probably financed the family’s flight to Egypt – God recognizes and blesses and uses all people, not just Israel.)
So to end, can you summarize the people Matthew had in mind when he wrote his gospel? How about the people that Luke may have had in mind? What does this suggest to us about the universality of the salvation brought by Jesus Christ?
[Testify that Jesus is the Christ, that his mission was foretold from the beginning, that he fulfilled those prophecies, that he came to save all men regardless of the circumstances of their lives.]