Often, in my posts and in my conversations, I have mentioned that Jesus really only had two rules—to love God and to love others. Matthew 22:35-40 tells us that all the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. When we think back to Old Testament Law, we often think of the Ten Commandments, but Jesus’ top two are the essence of all the law handed down from God through Moses. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18) Therefore all the religious experts who challenged Jesus with questions would not only be aware of this, but would have memorized the scriptures that say so. Many of them would have carried these verses in phylacteries that they wore to remind them to keep their religious law.
So it was no surprise that when a religious expert stood up to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, he actually answered his own question by quoting that scripture. (Luke 10:25-28) The expert wasn’t sure he wanted to make such a large commitment, so he decided to see how narrowly he could define the term “neighbour”. (Luke 10:29) In response, Jesus told him the story of The Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:30-37) probably one of the most familiar stories from the Bible. A man walking down a long, steep, narrow, winding road, with lots of places for bandits to hide, is robbed, beaten and left for dead. A priest and later a Levite, two people who would know God’s laws better than most, both crossed the street as they approached the victim to avoid the possibility of becoming ceremonially unclean by touching him. They essentially condemned him to death. Finally a Samaritan came along. Samaritans were despised by the Jews, hated because of their race and because of actions taken by their ancestors generations before. If the victim had been in his right mind, he probably would not have even spoken to the Samaritan. Why should the Samaritan waste his time, and his money, to help this man out? Nevertheless, he did. He carried him to the closest inn and gave the innkeeper the equivalent of two days wages to care for the man. That would have been enough money for about a month’s lodging, but it came with the promise to make up the difference the next time he came by. He would pay whatever it took for the care of this stranger.
Jesus finished the story by rewording the religious expert’s question—not, “who is my neighbour?”, but “which one was a neighbour?” The expert answered, “the one who showed mercy”. And like the Samaritan did, Jesus tells us to go and show mercy to those in need. (Luke 10:37) Compassion has a price, and it is inconvenient. Jesus was well aware of that when He told us to love each other. We may not be able to do this in our own strength, but if our hearts are willing to love and obey God, and therefore love others, God will give us eyes to see their needs, and the strength and resources to meet them. (Philippians 4:13)
About three months after Elizabeth gave birth to John, the emperor, Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that he was taking a census, and everyone needed to go to their ancestral territory to be registered. (Luke 2:1-2) Caesar Augustus was the kind of man who liked to have everything controlled and orderly. He could very likely have used this registration for many purposes, not least of which was taxation. So, Joseph, being a descendant of David, had to go to Bethlehem to register. (Luke 2:3-5) It is not clear whether Mary had to register separately or not. It is possible that Joseph could have registered for both of them, but there are probably several other reasons why Mary accompanied him on his journey, even though it would have been long (a little longer than three marathons) and arduous (through hilly countryside and rough terrain). Mary may not have wanted to be alone at this late stage in her pregnancy, she may have wanted to avoid the risks of public scorn for being in her condition before her wedding ceremony, but I think there is another reason too. Mary knew that she was carrying the Messiah, and she knew that it would soon be time to deliver Him. She also knew that the prophet Micah had said that the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2) Perhaps for that reason she knew that she had to go to Bethlehem with Joseph whether Caesar required it or not.
The time came for her to have her baby, and there was no room in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7) I don’t know what your concept of an inn is, but mine is a lovely big, perhaps Victorian, home with lots of rooms. That was certainly not the case for Mary and Joseph. More likely it was an open, walled area that would provide a safe resting spot for animals and people, and would have a well to provide water for them. And it was full. So they had to find somewhere else. It is very likely that they found a cave that was used to corral and shelter animals. We don’t know that there were any animals there at the time of the birth, because the Bible doesn’t specify, but we do know that there was a feeding trough, which would have been the best place in that situation to lay an infant. Unlike most Christmas plays that you have seen over the years, the manger was probably made of stone, and it would have been left in the cave whether animals were there or not. Mary wrapped her baby in strips of cloth to protect Him, and to keep Him warm and comforted. That is pretty common practice even today for babies who have just left the safety of their mother’s womb.
In the meantime, the rest of the world was going about its business not paying much attention to this poor mother who was giving birth without the benefit of a midwife or a birthing couch. And yet, this was a momentous occasion, so God sent angels to declare it. (Luke 2:8-14) It’s interesting who God chose to tell. Shepherds. Shepherds weren’t considered the upper crust of society by any means. They were more like the outcasts. Because of their profession they were considered to be ceremonially unclean and unreliable. Their testimony was not even accepted in a court of law. And this is who God chose to tell?! By doing so, God demonstrated that this good news of great joy truly was for all people. (Luke 2:10) And He also showed that He does not look at the outward appearance of a man, but at his heart. (I Samuel 16:7)
The shepherds didn’t hesitate. (Luke 2:15) They didn’t question. They set out immediately to find this baby that the angels told them would be lying in a manger. They probably had a good idea where most of those were, but the word translated as found (Luke 2:16) means that they found Him after a search. Then they began to share the news. (Luke 2:17) Think about it. A heavenly host of angels showing up in the field where there were few people around, telling you about a baby who would be the King of Kings. And you find that what they said was true. And you have been waiting for this Messiah for hundreds of years. They found it hard to keep the news to themselves. But they were still shepherds and still considered unreliable, so it’s not surprising that people would be astonished at the news. (Luke 2:18) I wonder how many believed and how many didn’t. Some might have thought they were crazy. It has always taken some amount of faith to believe God. (Hebrews 11:6)
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart, and the shepherds went on their way praising God because everything was just as they had been told. (Luke 2:19-20) Remember that the purpose of Luke’s recording these events was to show his readers that what they had been taught is true. Just as it was their choice, it is also our choice whether or not to believe.
I’m not sure exactly when or why it happened, but somehow since the time I was young an overarching societal attitude has changed. So many people today have a feeling of entitlement. I deserve…. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth felt that way. Both wondered why God had chosen them to fulfill such an important part of His plan. (Luke 1:43, Luke 1:52) They wondered what they had done to deserve such blessing, and they both came to the same conclusion. They had done nothing to deserve the honour that God was giving to them. It was all a gift of His grace.
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary to give her the news that she would give birth to God’s son, he also told her that her relative Elizabeth was going to give birth in her old age. (Luke 1:36) So Mary’s first priority became to go and see Elizabeth. We are told that she went hurriedly. She was doing the journey on foot though, and we know that she was going into the hill country, so it wouldn’t have been an easy stroll. It has been estimated to have taken three days. We are not given the reason why Mary went to Elizabeth right away, but I suspect that she was bursting to talk to someone about all that had just happened to her, and since she got news about Elizabeth from Gabriel, she knew that Elizabeth would understand and would share in her joy. Keep in mind that once Mary’s condition was obvious, there would be a lot of unjoyful reactions towards her. Talking things over with Elizabeth would certainly be a much more pleasant experience.
Not only did Elizabeth rejoice with Mary, but the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy when Mary arrived. Elizabeth and her baby were both filled with the Holy Spirit, and therefore knew that the baby that had been conceived by the Holy Spirit had just entered. Elizabeth, whose husband Zechariah had had a lapse of faith, (Luke 1:18) blessed Mary for believing the Lord. (Luke 1:45) And Mary praised God. (Luke 1:46-55)
When the time came for John to be born, the joy was shared even further. For Elizabeth’s family and neighbours heard the news and rejoiced with her. (Luke 1:58) Rejoicing continued as the naming of the baby resulted in Zechariah getting his voice back. (Luke 1:63-64) And Zechariah praised God. (Luke 1:67-75)
Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah were not joyful because they had received blessings that they felt they deserved, and were getting what they were rightfully due. They were joyful because God had kept His promises, blessed them, and made them each an integral part of His plan. That’s joy worth sharing!
In last week’s post we learned about Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah. (Luke 1:5-25) Six months after Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, conceived the baby who would become the forerunner of Christ (Malachi 3:1), Gabriel visited a young girl named Mary. (Luke 1:26-38) We don’t know exactly how old Mary was, but we can be certain that she was very young. We know that she would have been at least 12 years old, the age at which a young woman could be betrothed, but probably not much older.
It was customary that a young woman would be promised in marriage after her twelfth birthday, according to an arrangement made between the bride’s father and a representative from the groom’s family. At the time of betrothal, a price for the bride would be agreed upon and paid, and the agreement would be binding from that point. The wedding ceremony would take place one year after the betrothal, and until then the bride would continue to live in her father’s household. During that time the bride would be expected to prove her virtue. If she did not remain pure until the wedding day (and afterwards for that matter) she would likely be stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 22:20,21) In any case, the only way to break the betrothal promise was through divorce. It was a much more committed stage in the marital relationship than engagements of today.
So when Gabriel visited Mary before her wedding day and told her that she was going to give birth to a son, she would very possibly have been under the age of 13, and would have, as Luke tells us, never been intimate with a man. (Luke 1:34) Naturally she would wonder how what Gabriel was predicting could happen. Although she had been frightened when the angel first appeared, she had recovered enough by this point to ask. Note that, unlike Zechariah, she did not doubt that it could happen or would happen; she was just curious about how. So Gabriel told her that the baby would be conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Now remember, Luke was writing this account after Christ had completed His ministry on Earth. It is very likely that Luke got this information from Mary herself, but he was writing to people who needed to be convinced that what they had been taught was true. And immaculate conception was out of the ordinary; it has never happened before or since. So, although Mary hadn’t asked for a sign, as Zechariah had, Gabriel gave her one, and Luke recorded it for his readers. Gabriel told Mary that her relative Elizabeth had conceived in her old age even though she had been barren. (Luke 1:36) If God could create life in someone who was too old, certainly He could create life in someone who was too young. After all, nothing is impossible with God. (Luke 1:37)
Imagine all the things that may have been going through Mary’s mind. Her people had been expecting the Messiah for centuries, but they didn’t know when He would appear, or how, and it had been four hundred years since a prophet had spoken. Now an angel (an angel!) has appeared to her, to tell her that she would be used by God to bring the Messiah into the world. Why would God choose her? I believe that God chose her because she was devoted, available and willing. Her response to Gabriel: Yes. I am here to do what God wants. Let it happen as God wishes it to. (my paraphrase of Luke 1:38) Mary knew that becoming pregnant before her wedding day was going to create problems for her with her people, but she trusted God, and God used her to bring Jesus to Earth to be the Saviour for all of us.
I like Doctor Luke. He was not only educated, but rather academic in personality. I can relate to that. He was not an eyewitness to the birth or ministry of Jesus, but he wanted to understand and report his findings to others, so he did a research project. That’s what I do here, on a smaller scale, every week. Critics may say that because Luke didn’t know Jesus, his report is not reliable. However, he spoke with the people who did know Him after all of the events of Jesus’ life on Earth took place, so he had a different perspective on the whole matter. And he was evidently meticulous and methodical in his work. He wanted to pass on to Theophilus, and to anyone else who would read his document, a detailed and chronologically organized report, so that he and they may know that the things they had been taught were true. (Luke 1:1-4)
This chronology begins, not with Jesus, but with Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-25), the couple who would become the parents of John the Baptizer.
One day, Zechariah, a priest, was chosen by lot to burn incense in the holy place inside the temple. This was not a place with public access. Only priests who were chosen, and when they were chosen, could enter. Because of the number of priests and the schedule that was followed for serving in the temple, it was unlikely that a priest would have this privilege more than once in a lifetime. Theoretically, if it is a lottery, anyone has the chance to win, but if you believe that God is in control of the universe, you know that He makes the choice. (Proverbs 16:33) This day He chose Zechariah because He had a message for him. God sent His angel Gabriel to give him the news that Elizabeth would have a son. Zechariah had trouble believing this because physically they were well past the point of childbearing. Zechariah should have known better because, after all, he would have been well acquainted with how God had provided a child for Sarah, (Genesis 11:30, Genesis 17:19, Genesis 17:21, Genesis 21:2) Rebekah (Genesis 25:21) Rachel (Genesis 29:31, Genesis 30:22) Manoah’s wife--the mother of Samson (Judges 13:2-3) and Hannah--the mother of Samuel. (I Samuel 1:2, I Samuel 1:20) Don’t be too hard on Zechariah though. Can you imagine how his mind must have been swimming with all that had happened that day? Nevertheless, Gabriel took away Zechariah’s ability to speak. This served not only as a punishment for his lack of faith, but also as the sign he had asked for in Luke 1:18. Surely it would remind him that God was all-powerful.
Zechariah, like Elizabeth, would have felt the disgrace of childlessness. It would have been a well-known fact to the people around him. So when he didn’t come out of the temple in a reasonable amount of time, there was quite possibly speculation that God had struck him down for his sin. Perhaps this is why Luke takes pains to assure us that both Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in the sight of God. (Luke 1:6) But the people weren’t aware of all that at the time. They only knew that Zechariah was a long time coming back. What were they to do? Having permission to enter the inner sanctum of the temple was not a common thing. They couldn’t just go in and check on him. I can just imagine what the chatter was like after they finished their prayers and they were still waiting. When he did emerge, though, and couldn’t speak, the people started to realize that something pretty spectacular must have happened. I wonder how much they understood from the signs that Zechariah gave them.
I wonder too, if Elizabeth had trouble figuring it all out after Zechariah came home. Luke doesn’t tell us about their interaction, but we do know that Zechariah couldn’t speak until eight days after the baby was born (Luke 1:59-64), and we know that it was “after some time” (Luke 1:24) that Elizabeth became pregnant. Was that enough time for the people to have moved past this unusual episode on to something else? Was it enough time for Zechariah and Elizabeth to begin to doubt again? We don’t know for sure. Once Elizabeth did conceive, she kept herself in seclusion for five months. I know women today who have had trouble conceiving, and even if they haven’t, they often wait three months before sharing the news. Perhaps, Elizabeth wanted to keep it quiet until she was sure. Perhaps she just wanted to be careful. We don’t have all the details, but of this we can be certain: God had not forgotten His promises to the people of Israel (Malachi 3:1, Malachi 4:5-6, Luke 1:13-16), and He had the power to fulfill them. He still does.
In my post last week, I discussed Jesus’ use of hyperbole. This was a literary device that Jesus used on more than one occasion, and one that was fairly common among the Hebrews of the time. Sometimes, today’s readers interpret Jesus’ words according to our own culture rather than His, and we either take His words literally, or we try to explain them in ways that are more palatable to us. One case of hyperbole that I have often heard explained in a way that attempts to soften it, is the case of the camel going through the eye of a needle. (Luke 18:25) Obviously, if we take that literally, it would be impossible, so Jesus must have meant something else, right?
There are two common explanations for the camel/needle expression. One is that is was a scribal error. The word for camel in the original language was very close to the word for rope. Maybe Jesus really said rope, but the scribes got it wrong. That’s very unlikely, because archaeological evidence shows a very high rate of accuracy in subsequent copies of Biblical texts. But even if it were the case, have you ever tried to get a rope through the eye of a needle? I don’t think that would be any more possible.
The second, and probably more common, explanation is that the “eye of the needle” was the name of a narrow gate leading into Jerusalem—one that was only large enough for a pedestrian to go through. Camels, wagons and the like would have to go through the larger gate. There is no evidence that at the time when Jesus said these words, any gates had been referred to in that way. This is evidently a later explanation which means it wouldn’t be impossible, just very difficult, for the rich man to get into heaven. After all, we want to give him a fighting chance, don’t we?
If you look at the context in which Jesus made this shocking statement—and it would have been shocking to his listeners who were convinced that material wealth was a blessing from God—you will see why He said it. He had just had a conversation with a rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-24) who seemed to think that he was blameless and sin-free. He told Jesus that he had kept all the commandments since childhood. The very fact that he had asked about eternal life indicated that he was a Pharisee, and therefore would have been very intent on following the rules. But the Pharisees always seemed to miss the point, and so did this young man. Through the conversation, Jesus pointed out that he was not keeping the commandments as well as he thought he was. The ones that Jesus mentioned were all commandments that refer to our relationship with others, ones that could be summed up as “love your neighbour”. But this rich young man was not willing to give up his wealth to help the poor, and he was not willing to give it up to follow Jesus either, thereby also breaking the first commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3) You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24) Again, we have to make a choice.
It is just as difficult for a poor man to enter the Kingdom of God if he tries to do it in his own strength or by his own means. The difference is that the poor don’t have quite so much to lose by giving up everything for Jesus, so they are more likely to be willing. A rich man has something else to depend on, a competing offer that he may find more appealing. In either case, it is only by the grace of God that we can be granted eternal life. (Ephesians 2:8-9) In the very next chapter of Luke, wealthy Zacchaeus chose Jesus over his riches. He promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he had cheated four times what he had taken. Jesus rewarded him with eternal salvation. (Luke 19:8-10) What is impossible for us, is possible for God. (Luke 18:27) That was the whole point of the camel and the needle. It was impossible. Except for God.
One more thought on the needle. In the parallel passages in Matthew and Mark, the Greek word that is translated needle represents a sewing needle. Doctor Luke uses a physician’s term that represents the needle that is used for stitching up wounds.