Water to Wine; Cleansing the Temple

John 2:1–22

We’re going to read about the first miracle Jesus performed, and he did so at a wedding. Men wedded between 18–24 and women as early as 13 or 14. A Jewish wedding was a joyful occasion for the bride, groom, their families, and the community. On the wedding day, the bride was taken from her father’s home to her husband in a joyful procession. The bride veiled her face and was surrounded by bridesmaids. Friends of the groom would have led her to her husband, and they were crowned with garlands. After, the couple signed the wedding contract, and the marriage supper followed. The celebration could last an entire day, and friends of the bridegroom would lead them to the bridal chamber. 

When we arrive at the setting, they’re at the marriage supper. Jesus was with his mother and disciples, so this is likely a relative or friend, which may explain why Mary brought the problem to Jesus. Wine symbolized joy: “There is no rejoicing save with wine” (b. Pesach 109a). To not have wine was an embarrassment. Moreover, Jews envisioned the Messianic age as flowing with wine. 

    Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion,

    Streaming to the goodness of the LORD

    For wheat and new wine and oil,

    For the young of the flock and the herd;

    Their souls shall be like a well-watered garden,

    And they shall sorrow no more at all. (Jer. 31:12)

    Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,

    “When the plowman shall overtake the reaper,

    And the treader of grapes him who sows seed;

    The mountains shall drip with sweet wine,

    And all the hills shall flow with it.

    I will bring back the captives of My people Israel;

    They shall build the waste cities and inhabit them;

    They shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them;

    They shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. (Amos 9:13–14)

Scripture is clear that drunkenness is sinful (1 Cor. 5:11; Gal. 5:21). Yet we don’t know to what degree the wine here was intoxicating or not. Nevertheless, what we call wine and what they call wine are different things. People often added water to wine to dilute it when it was strong, and this was what they called wine. “We call a mixture wine although the larger part of the component parts is water” (Plutarch, Mor. 140f; c. first century). The average person who drank in the first century would have considered drinking undiluted wine barbaric. 

Jesus’ reply in verse four might come across as disrespectful, and some argue for such an interpretation, but, at best, we might say it was distant. Addressing his mother as “woman” would have been akin to our “ma’am,” but the second phrase is often disrespectful. This verse and the next seem odd until we further understand. “My hour has not yet come” is another way of saying, “Once I begin miracles, my path to the cross begins.” Mary’s reply was one of full faith. Mary trusts that Jesus will answer her entreaty. Jesus has pots filled with water, and as the master of the banquet drank the water, it turned to wine. This was Jesus’ first miracle. 

At Passover, Jews traveled from all over to go to Jerusalem. They would have gone up regardless of their direction because the city was on a hill. Herod had renovated the temple. Here’s how Josephus described it, 

The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either miind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up that it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was overlaid with gold was of the purest white. (Wars 5.5.6)

The rabbis, who did not like Herod in the least, admitted that “he who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” (b. B. Bat 4a).  

Jesus is in the temple courts (hieron), in distinction from the actual temple (2:20; naos). Interestingly enough, when Paul refers to the church and individual Christian as the temple of the Holy Spirit, he uses naos (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). For the pilgrims who traveled far, the sale of sacrificial animals rendered a service to them rather than having to carry an animal a long distance. Also, considering where one came from, they would need to exchange their local currency with that of Jerusalem to purchase the animals. Previously, this was done across the Kidron Valley on the Mount of Olives. For some reason, it had moved into the temple courts. Jesus’ zeal for the temple was akin to Phineas, who drove out sin from the tabernacle. Because his actions bucked convention, the Jews wanted a sign to justify what he’d done. He foretold of his own temple (body) being destroyed and raised in three days, but they believed he was speaking of Herod’s temple. Even his disciples wouldn’t understand it until he rose from the dead.   

Calling the First Disciples

John 1:35–51

John was a spiritual leader whose sole mission was to point out Jesus, but those who saw in him the mission of God took up with him. This is why John had disciples (v. 35; cf. 3:25–26). As the previous day, John proclaimed Jesus aloud for all to hear (1:36; cf. v. 29), and two of his disciples began following Jesus. What’s of note is that John doesn’t follow Jesus but continues his ministry. Some have argued that Jesus was a disciple of John because he was known in relation to John (cf. Mark 6.14–15; 8:27–28), but John didn’t see it that way (John 3:30). 

One of the disciples that left John to follow Jesus was Andrew, Peter’s brother. The gospel’s author is believed to have been the second, so Andrew and John left the Baptizer to follow Jesus. Andrew goes to Peter and brings him to Jesus. When Simon Peter sees Jesus, he receives a new name—Cephas. Both Cephas and Peter are names meaning “rock.” There’s a lot of significance to this. Jesus said whoever hears his words and does them is like one who builds their house on the rock (Matt. 7:24). Later, Peter is contrasted with the rock upon which the church is built (Matt. 16:18). 

The next day, Jesus calls Philip. Disciples then opted to attach themselves to a rabbi, so Jesus calling disciples was not expected (cf. 15:16). Bethsaida means “place of fishing,” and it’s where Andrew and Peter were also from. This city is one of the most frequently mentioned cities—Jerusalem and Capernaum being more so. A blind man was healed here (Mark 8:22–25), and the feeding of the four thousand occurred in a deserted place nearby too. Yet, the city was cursed because they did not accept Jesus despite the miracles performed there (Matt. 11:21). 

Nathanael isn’t mentioned in any of the other gospel accounts, so it’s been presumed that his name was Bartholomew—the name being a surname (Bar-Tholomais, or son of Tholomaiso)—who’s often linked with Philip (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14). By the first century, Jewish rabbis had puzzled together Scriptures about an anticipated Messiah. He was one of whom Moses spoke (Deut. 18;15, 18) and the prophets predicted (Is. 9:1–7; 11:1–5, 10–12). Nathanael was himself from Cana in Galilee, so it seems odd that he would look down on Nazareth. However, many others questioned Christ coming from Galilee (John 7:41, 52). 

Jesus’ address to Nathanael is ironic. Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel, was a deceiver. Yet, Nathanael, unlike the original Israel, was not deceitful. Jesus’ knowledge of Nathanael points to him being a prophet, which accounts for his response. Jesus promises greater things to come and identifies himself with Jacob’s ladder (v. 51; cf. Gen. 28:12). As the angels ascended and descended on Jacob’s ladder, an indication of divine revelation, so Jesus’ disciples would receive further revelation. It’s often tempting to think “Son of Man” references that Jesus was born of a woman and thus represents his humanity. However, the title is taken from Daniel 7:13 and is a divine title.  

John and Jesus

John 1:19–34

John had previously immersed some Pharisees and Sadducees in the Jordan, but now priests and Levites came to him—inquiring who he was. One reason for the Levites’ arrival was that some expected the Messiah to be from the tribe of Levi. The book of 1 Maccabees reflects the longing for a Levitical kingly Messiah, and many expected him to be a priest. He, first, informs them that he isn’t the Messiah or Christ (1:20). Both terms mean “anointed” and were often used about leaders of Israel, especially kings. In Isaiah, Cyrus is called God’s anointed (Is. 45:1), so the title wasn’t limited to Jesus’ role. However, by this time, the word had taken on a meaning of the savior of Israel, God’s anointed one (cf. Ps. of Sol. 17:32). Elijah came to be associated with the figure because of Malachi 4:5–6. The belief was that either Elijah himself would return and be the messiah or someone like him, which was what John was. The prophet they expected was one like Moses (Deut. 18:15). 

John was none of these, though he was the one like Elijah (Luke 1:17). John cites Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 as an answer—he later tells people that he was to prepare the way of the Lord (John 3:28). Since John was none of the expected people, they ask why he was baptizing, likely because by so doing he was gathering disciples. John points them further to the one who is the come. He will come from among them, and it’s he who’s preferred over John. 

The next day, Jesus arrives at the Jordan—likely from his temptation. John proclaims Jesus to the crowd, and while his account doesn’t include the baptism of Jesus, it points out John’s response to it. While in the previous lesson, we discussed why Jesus was baptized, we see here that it was also for him to be revealed to Israel (v. 31). As we’ve also previously read, Jesus would be the one to baptize with the Spirit. 

Several baptisms are mentioned in the New Testament: John’s baptism of repentance, baptism of fire, baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:9), baptism into Moses (1 Cor. 10:1–2), baptism of the Holy Spirit, and baptism in making disciples. Since only Jesus performs this, we have to look and see what exactly it is. Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus reiterated the promise (Acts 1:4–5), and we see it performed on Pentecost (Acts 2:32–33). There were only two examples in Scripture when this was applied: on Pentecost and Cornelius’ household (Acts 10:44–48; 11:15–18). This baptism enabled apostles to remember what they’d learned and be taught by God (John 14:26). They were also able to perform wonders and signs to accompany their preaching (Acts 2:43; cf. Heb. 2:3–4). Concerning Cornelius’ household, baptism with the Spirit was more to convince the Jews that Gentiles were worthy of salvation, too (Acts 10:44–48; 11:12). Moreover, it was God’s way of acknowledging the Gentiles, and the Jews’ understood that God makes no distinction (Acts 11:8–9).  

Considering the numerous baptism we read about in the New Testament, we must establish a timeline because, by 64 CE, Paul wrote that there was only one baptism (Eph. 4:4–6). Jesus was crucified and ascended to heaven anywhere between 28–33 CE. We like to think that Jesus was born in 1 CE, but he was more than likely born between 4–6 BCE, given the dating of the death of Herod. Gentiles received the baptism of the Holy Spirit some 8–10 years later, putting us at 43 CE at the latest. This is important because by the time Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he stated that there was one baptism leading us to conclude that Holy Spirit baptism was no longer a factor. Just as John’s baptism was for a time and purpose (cf. Acts 19:1–7), so was Holy Spirit baptism. However, the immersion that makes us disciples of Jesus is universal and unending (Acts 2:38–39). 

The Baptism and Temptation of the Lord

Matthew 3:13–4:11; Mark 1:9–13; Luke 3:21–4:13

Jesus’ baptism has been understood as the two births of every believer—one of nature and the other of the Spirit (John 3:3–5). Some have suggested it as a manifestation of the Trinity (Ambrose Luke 2.92) or an example to live to please God (Cyril of Alexandria Luke 11; Cyprian The Good of Patience 6). To argue that Jesus needed cleansing from sin may neglect other passages that speak to Christ’s sinlessness (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). “In receiving baptism Jesus identified with the people of Israel to whom John addressed his message and started on a path that led to the cross.”

Perhaps to build upon the conclusion of his genealogy, Luke transitioned from Christ’s descent from Adam to Jesus being tempted. Whereas Adam was in the Garden of Eden and tempted to sin, Christ entered the wilderness to be tempted and thus overcame the wiles of the same adversary (cf. Rom. 5:12–21; Ambrose Luke 4.7, 14). The three greatest temptations in the Bible were that of Adam and Eve when they ushered in the fall of humanity, that of Job to distrust and curse God, and that of Christ. The frailty of human nature is seen in two, and the triumph of humanity is witnessed in Christ withstanding the powers of darkness.

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, coinciding with the Spirit’s appearance and descent as a dove (Luke 3:22). The descent as a dove would have been understood as the presence of God because the Greco-Roman gods often appeared as winged animals. The dove was the symbol of peace and signified the reconciling ministry of the Spirit. One author wrote, “What is noteworthy here is that the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ life brings him into direct and immediate conflict with the forces of evil. The antithesis between the Holy Spirit and the evil in the world apparently had to be brought to light.”

Whether the forty days were literal or typological is a matter of debate. Still, on the surface, it would seem literal. Forty was undoubtedly a period of testing and trial: God poured rain for forty days (Gen. 7:4, 12); Israel wandered forty years (Num. 14:33; Deut. 8:2); a woman was to purify herself for forty days postpartum (Lev. 12:1–4); Moses (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:9) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) fasted for the same period as Christ too. Of course, it may be preferable to link the fasting of Christ to that of Moses and Elijah, given the upcoming scene on the Mount of Transfiguration. Intertestamental writings highlight Moses (Deut. 18:15–18) and Elijah (Mal. 4:5–6) as eschatological and messianic figureheads. At the same time, some believed that a prophet like either would be the messiah. 

Jesus fasted so that he could know what it was to have a depraved desire, so some believe. Once hungry, Christ was then open to Satan’s work: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus knew and learned (cf. Heb. 5:8) through hunger what it was to be tempted, but through temptation, Jesus shows us what it is like to overcome. He did what we cannot or are unwilling to do. In the temptations, Satan tried to persuade Jesus to become something he was not because God cannot be tempted (James 1:13) to deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13). 

The Lord’s first temptation of hunger would have been enticing, and when people are hungry, they are prone to do the unthinkable (cf. 2 Kings 6:28–29). The identity of Jesus is often a significant theme in the gospels, and Satan is the first to question Jesus’ identity. He did so with the enticement of food—a perceived vulnerability of Christ at the time. Several commentaries categorize the temptations of Christ as “appetite,” “boasting,” and “ambition.” John referred to them as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” in 1 John 2:16. Though Adam was overtaken by each, Christ could not be swayed. After the temptation, Satan departed, as Luke put it, until an opportune time. The next mention of Satan was when he entered Judas Iscariot (Luke 22:3; cf. John 14:30). In Matthew and Mark, angels were attending to Christ similar to Elijah after his forty days of fasting (1 Kings 19:5). Jesus did what we are often too weak to do: he resisted the devil, so Satan fled from him (James 4:7).

Prepare the Way of the Lord

John has arrived, and he’s been preaching repentance. We must remember that though we know nothing about his formative years, he is of priestly lineage. Whatever training John received, his aged parents likely entrusted his care to those who would raise him to be faithful to God. He gets right to work when he steps into the public from the wilderness. While John is a prophet, he’s not just a prophet (Matt. 11:7–9). He’s the one God chose before he was even in the womb. 

John’s activity attracted religious leaders (Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7). Pharisees and Sadducees came, but we don’t read about them in the Hebrew Scriptures. When the Greeks spread Hellenistic culture in Judea, a group arose that wanted to remain faithful to the covenant with God. They were called “the pious.” This group aligned with the Maccabees and revolted in a holy war against the Seleucids. The “pious” later became Pharisees—a name meaning “separate”—while those who retired to the desert became the Essenes. The Pharisees were representatives of the Law—oral and written. While the New Testament somewhat vilifies the Pharisees, their intentions were born of a concern for preserving Jewish culture. They wanted ceremonial purity (Mark 7:7ff) and to protect fellow Jews from transgressing God’s commands (Matthew 12:1–2).   

While their origin is ambiguous, the Sadducees were aristocrats. They were typically priests and differed from the Pharisees by enjoying the favor of the rich. The Pharisees wanted the populace’s confidence (Antiq. 13.10.6; cf. 18.1.4). They argued against the oral law and advocated primarily for the Law as higher than the prophets (cf. Matthew 22:23–33). They were not strangers to conflict with the Pharisees. They did not believe in the resurrection, angels, or that a person has a spirit (Acts 23:6–9; Mark 12:18; cf. Antiq. 18.1.4). Furthermore, they denied fate altogether (Antiq. 13.5.9) and believed a particular contribution should be made for sacrifices and that they should not be funded by the temple treasury. They were undoubtedly supporters of Rome, as witnessed by their support of the Hasmoneans. Because of this support, they enjoyed primary influence within the Sanhedrin—a governing body of seventy-one religious and political leaders for the Jews. Although, they would side with the Pharisees from time to time to be tolerated by the populace (Antiq. 18.1.4). Their political ideology gave them a willingness to compromise, which led to the adoption of Hellenistic tendencies. 

John’s address of these two groups is telling (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8). Jesus used this exact phrase when addressing the Pharisees (Matt. 12:34; 23:33). To call someone a serpent was insulting and associated with moral deficiency because vipers were believed by the ancients to devour their mothers which may indicate that John intended to convey to the crowd that they were “unfaithful to their heritage” as Jews. Their corruption and satisfaction with the status quo weren’t what God wanted. 

Before John immersed those who came to him, he sternly warned them that their lives be transformed and that the outcome of their faith shines forth in the bearing of good fruit (cf. Origen Luke 22.6). John’s baptism was unique because he administered it when washings (cf. Heb. 6:2) were typically self-administered (2 Kings 5:10, 14; cf. Zech 13:1). Proselyte baptism, from Gentile to Jew, was self-administered but was a one-time observance much like John’s. This baptism was meant to be understood as a conversion. The purposes of John’s baptism of repentance may be summed up as:

  ●   Expressing repentance and turning to a new way of life.

●   Mediating divine forgiveness.

●   Purification from ritual and moral uncleanness.

●   Foreshadowing the ministry of the expected Lord.

●   An initiation into the “true Israel” and not a closed community.

●   A protest against the temple establishment since it took place in the Jordan (Matt. 3:6, 13; Mark 1:5, 9; John 1:28).

If John intended to relay that they were unfaithful to their heritage, he would have further reiterated this belief by adjuring them to not claim their physical heritage as Abraham’s descendants. Since God could raise descendants from Abraham from stones, the Gentiles coming to faith should not be a considerable surprise. Only those showing worthy fruits of repentance would escape the fire.

To demonstrate those worthy fruits of repentance, the crowd asked John what must be done to illustrate those worthy fruits of repentance. Everything he told them to do infers that their pre-repentance behavior was immoral and sinful. Being a hoarder of clothing and food neglected one’s, fellow man. Tax collectors were to gather what was required and no more. The soldiers were to be content with their living and stop robbing people. Each of those addressed dealt not only with stewardship but with a divorce from materialism. Stewardship is a common theme in Luke’s Gospel and is often approached through sharing and even liquidation. Those necessary sacrifices were needed to follow Jesus in his mission because being tied down by materials hindered the complete devotion Christ demanded in spreading the Gospel.

John’s reference to unstrapping the Lord’s sandal has often been interpreted as the work of a slave toward their master. However, it may have been about the marriage custom of the bride to unstrap her husband’s sandal (Gen. 38; Ruth 4:7–8). Holy Spirit baptism is not the same as water baptism because Christ isn’t recorded as having baptized anyone (cf. John 4:2). Long before John the Baptist preached the baptism with the Spirit, the prophets foretold a heavenly outpouring of God’s spirit that would take place in the days of the coming kingdom of the Messianic era (Isaiah 32:15; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28–29). The unmistakable act by which John would know the administrator of Holy Spirit baptism, the Lord, was the one on whom the Spirit would rest (John 1:32–33; cf. Acts 2:33).

Out of the Wilderness, Came John

Around thirty years have passed since Jesus and his family returned and settled in Nazareth. Mark begins the story of the gospel at this point (Mark 1:1). Scholars agree that Mark is the earliest gospel account, followed by Matthew, Luke, and John. Another commonly held view is that Mark wrote his account specifically for the Romans, and we know he was in Rome with Peter (cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Therefore, it might be acceptable to suggest that Mark wrote what Peter preached. “Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel in Rome … After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on his preaching to us in written form” (Iren., Against Heresies 3.1; c. 200 CE). 

Nevertheless, writing to the Romans, Mark introduces his account as “the beginning of the good news.” When a Roman envisioned the “good news” (Gr. euangelion), they related it to the Emperor. Mark now presents a new Emperor, Jesus the Anointed, the Son of God. The Emperor was the son of a god, but Jesus was the Son of God. The rhetoric is not without intent to sway the minds of the Romans away from Empire and Emperor to Kingdom and Christ. Employing popular Roman propaganda language distinguishes the two, and those who follow King Jesus must esteem him above all else. 

Luke now gives us a historical time frame of this period (Luke 3:1–2). The fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign was 29 CE. The Jews were under the shadow of a Roman rule having the Gentile governor Pontius Pilate exercising sovereignty over them. Having two high priests named explains the former selected the latter as his successor (Antiq. 18.4.3), so Annas was likely high-priest emeritus. During this time, “the word of God came to John.” This phrase is suggestive of the work of a prophet (cf. Jer. 2:1; Ezek. 3:1; Hos. 1:1–2). During these times, when Jesus was in Nazareth, John came preaching (Matt. 3:1). 

What was it like during this time? Roman governors had occupied the province of Judea as early as 6 CE. Yet, they were ignorant of the Jewish religion. Because of this, the display of the image of the Emperor often kindled the fury of the Jews. Judea was unique because it wasn’t required to worship the Emperor of Rome. Instead, Romans requested them to make offerings to God on behalf of the Emperor (Joseph., Against Apion 2.77; Philo, Embassy to Gaius 23, 40). Because Jewish religion also entailed governance, Roman authorities allowed autonomy in respecting Jewish customs, which the Sanhedrin enforced. Any political matter had to be handled carefully since that might fall under Roman interests. 

From the first when Judea had a Roman governor, Jewish resistance groups formed. Judas the Galilean incited a revolt against the Roman occupiers. While unsuccessful, a political party called the Zealots began due to his efforts. This group prized liberty above all else and only recognized God as their true ruler. Notably, during 26–41 CE, outrage against the Romans was often nonviolent. You might imagine the sentiments of Jews during this period, but it was then that John arose on the scene.  

John came preaching a baptism (cf. Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38) of repentance in preparation for the kingdom of God denoted an eschatological message, but Josephus saw it as something more than that by not relaying to baptism the mere washing of the filth from the flesh (cf. 1 Peter 3:21). 

…for that the washing would be acceptable to [God], if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (Antiq. 18.5.2) 

People came from Judea and Jerusalem to receive baptism at the Jordan River. It may be that the two thieves on the cross were among this crowd. However, John’s baptism differs from Jesus’s (Acts 19:1–5). Jewish baptism differed from John’s in some measure. Yet, what may have been difficult for some religious leaders was how John used baptism because the symbolism of the baptism was the final of three steps for Gentiles to convert to Judaism. Since Jews were rather proud of their national identity and heritage, the religious leaders might not have been as keen on John’s baptism. Repentance, as defined, should be thought of as a change of mind and, therefore, of actions. The purpose of the baptism was for conversion after one repented.

Isaiah 40:3 to describe John was precisely how the Essenes used the passage to prefigure the preparation of the coming Messiah (1QS 8.12–14). John prepared for Jesus by reconciling God’s people to the Lord (cf. Mal. 4:6). That John came as a herald was customary when preparing the way for the king (cf. Iliad 1.376–94, 2.59). Luke used a more extended version of this passage than the other Gospel writers. What likely led Luke to use the more extended version by using “every” and “all flesh.”

John’s depicted as the new Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet (Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8). Elijah, like John, wore simple clothing, ate simple food, delivered a message to God’s nation, and had a significant female enemy. Yet, he unabashedly gave the word of the Lord to Israel. In the end, it resulted in his death. Before then, however, he would see and baptize the Christ whose way he proclaimed.

Young Jesus at the Temple

For the first couple years of his life, Jesus was born and lived in Bethlehem until Joseph received a dream warning him of Herod’s intention. Thus far, Joseph’s dreams have led him to care for Mary and Jesus. His first dream was the word that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that he shouldn’t put her away. His second dream warned that Herod sought Jesus’ life. His fourth dream was an angel telling him how Herod died (Matt. 2:19), and his final dream was urging him to go to Nazareth to avoid Archelaus (Matt. 2:22). When Herod died, his kingdom was divided among his three sons; Archelaus ruled Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (Edom) from 4 BCE–6 CE. Herod Antipas ruled Galilee, where they’d settle. Philip headed the region northeast of Galilee. 

Nazareth was an agricultural village fifteen miles west of the Sea of Galilee and likely where they’d previously dwelt (Luke 2:4). Nazareth was a despised city (John 1:45–46), and some have likened Jesus being called a “Nazarene” to the prophecies that he was despised and rejected. However, the Hebrew term netzer is the shoot or branch of Isaiah 11:1. Matthew’s gospel already began by listing Jesus as a descendant of David (Matt. 1:1), so the ending of this first section of Matthew concludes with him being called a Nazarene, which may have been a play on words. Nevertheless, from here onward, Jesus is often referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. 

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Due to this narrative being unique to Luke, Mary may have been one of Luke’s sources. This would explain why she is often addressed after Gabriel appears to her. Each scene after her angelic visit revolves around further confirmation of what the angel told her. Mary even remained with Elizabeth until John’s birth came and, I suppose, was one of those present at his circumcision and naming (Luke 1:57–59).

●       Gabriel’s initial message to Mary included Elizabeth’s son’s information as a part of Mary’s promise (Luke 1:28–38).

●       Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled exclamation upon Mary’s arrival confirmed that Mary was the mother of Elizabeth’s Lord (Luke 1:41–45).

●       Mary’s Magnificat responded to Elizabeth’s exclamation, which acknowledged her being “blessed” for all generations for bearing the Son of God (Luke 1:46–55).

●       Mary remained with Elizabeth until John was born to witness the unfolding of what was told to her (Luke 1:57–63).

●       Zacharias’ blessing of God and prophesying point to John’s mission in the life of Christ as indicated by Zacharias’ speaking of a servant from David’s house when he was of Aaron’s (Luke 1:64–79; cf. 1:5–6).

●       The shepherds arrive at the manger to tell Joseph and Mary what they saw, and she treasured those things in her heart (Luke 2:15–20).

●       Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms, blesses him, and then tells Joseph and Mary what the Holy Spirit revealed (Luke 2:25–35).

●       Though it’s unknown what she said, Anna, the prophetess, began to thank God and speak of Jesus (Luke 2:36–38).

Each of these scenes appears to be directed at Mary because she remains the narrative’s focal point, as evidenced by the repeated statement that she treasured all things in her heart (Luke 2:51).

Despite individual scholars claiming this section is fiction, history would attest otherwise as to its probability. Jewish males began their education at a young age and progressed as they aged: “At five years of age for Scripture; at ten, for Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments; at fifteen for Talmud” (Pirke Aboth 5.22; cf. Nid. 5.6; Meg. 4.6). Jesus, being twelve, would have been naturally curious. Still, the nature of his inquiry shone forth his understanding to the astonishment of the scholars. Moreover, some Bible characters had extra-biblical sources attesting to their prowess as youths: Moses had excellent knowledge as a child (Antiq. 2.230; Philo Moses 1.21); Samuel prophesied at twelve (Antiq. 5.348), and Abraham supposedly distanced himself from his idolatrous father at two weeks old while at fourteen he instructed farmers on livestock and sowing to avoid ravens (Jub. 11.18-24). This was also a characteristic of Greco-Roman figures in literature (cf. Philostratus Vit. Apoll. 1.7; Plutarch Alex. 5; Cicero 2.2; et al.).

Since Roman society was so infatuated with Augustus, Luke may have sought to counteract the god-like esteem of a ruler. Augustus was deified by the time of Luke’s Gospel and was often called “lord” or “savior,” so Luke intended to show that it was Christ who was Lord and Savior rather than Augustus or any other emperor (cf. Horace Carm. 4.5). The very name “Augustus” meant something more extraordinary than human, and the month of August in our calendar is a tribute to him. In the first century, temples were dedicated to Augustus and Julius Caesar to depict them as gods. The imperial cult was a thorn in the side of Christians, which brought about widespread persecution since believers would not call Caesar “lord” or burn incense to him (cf. Mart. Poly. 8.2). Jesus, however, was to reign on David’s throne as the God. 

The birth of Augustus was prophesied and marked by omens. A politician had a dream and, upon meeting young Augustus, identified him as the savior of Rome. The politician (Quintus Catulus) and Cicero dreamed that he was in the lap of and endowed by Jupiter (Zeus), thus making him the “son of a god.” Julius Caesar selected Augustus as his successor (Seutonius Aug. 94). One historian writes, “It is … certain that both Luke and his readers knew of Caesar Augustus, and quite probable that they also knew of at least some of the stories, legends, and traditions that had gathered around him.”  

After this scene in Jesus’ life, the focus turns back to his mother, Mary. They left Jerusalem to return home. After four days, they found him in the temple and were astonished at his comprehension. The point that Mary had not fully understood all the angel told her about her son is further emphasized in verse fifty. They didn’t understand him even though Gabriel said to her that he would be called the “Son of the Most High.” They might have thought that Jesus spoke about Joseph as his father when he meant God because Joseph is identified as his “father” (v. 48).

A problem with this text is that Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, which leads some to believe that Jesus was more human than divine or a created being and not eternal. Those at the Council of Nicea faced this same argument, where Arius believed that Jesus was a created being, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, to the contradiction of John 1:1–14. I prefer the explanation of Millard Erickson on the incarnation:

While he did not cease to be in nature what the Father was, he became functionally subordinated to the Father for the period of the incarnation. Jesus did this for the purposes of revealing God and redeeming humanity. By taking on human nature, he accepted certain limitations [cf. Luke 2:40, 52; Heb. 2:10] upon the functioning of his divine attributes [e.g., omniscience, omnipresence, etc.]. These limitations were not the result of a loss of divine attributes but of the addition of human attributes [and their limitations].

The Scriptural Inaccuracy of Your Nativity Display

Luke 2:8–38; Matthew 2:1–18

Luke’s Gospel emphasizes that God continually looks at those often overlooked by society—the shepherds being but another example. The terms “good tidings,” “savior,” and “the Lord” were all used regarding Caesar Augustus in Roman propaganda. Yet, it was specific to Romans while this good news was “for all the people” (v. 10). The doxology (v. 14) may be juxtaposed to Caesar Augustus’ Pax Romanum because only Christ can bring one peace (John 14:27; 16:33; Phil. 4:7). Each time an angel gives this message of Christ, they figure prominently in these portions of the story of Jesus’ life.

For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Heb. 2:2–3) 

The shepherds made known what angels told them. Mary treasured these things, suggesting she may not have understood them. This treasuring occurs again in Luke 2:51, which indicates her pondering on others’ testimonies because multiple testimonies made for an exact case in the Jewish legal system. 

After having Jesus circumcised (vv. 22–24), she was then to wait thirty-three days before being purified once more (Lev. 12:2–6; cf. Exod. 13:2–12; Num. 18:15). The nature of Mary’s sacrifice indicates her poverty. Still, she brought along with her Jesus to present him to the Lord for his service, much like Hannah did with Samuel (1 Sam. 1:22–28). In, perhaps, yet another message of reinforcement for Mary appeared Simeon—a righteous and devout man. Simeon had God’s Holy Spirit upon him, so he would know the “consolation of Israel” when he saw him. This is the fifth reference to the Holy Spirit, so Luke wanted to prove—as he would later write in Acts (cf. 2:16–21)—that Mary lived in the last days before the coming kingdom, or reign, of God. Simeon now saw with his eyes what he believed in faith—the salvation of God (Augustine Sermon 277.17). 

Luke now turns to a prophetess. His treatment of women differs from the other Gospel writers: consider Mary (Luke 1:26–38, 46–56), Elizabeth (1:39–45, 57–66), Anna (2:36–38), the widow (7:11–17), the sinful woman (7:36–50), the women who accompanied Jesus and financed his ministry (8:1–3), the healing of a woman and Jairus’ daughter (8:40–56), et al. Anna’s appearance and rejoicing at Jesus has been thought to be expressive of salvation being available to women too (cf. Bede Homilies on the Gospels 1.18; Origen Luke 17.9). This was a sentiment later shared by the apostle Paul (Gal. 3:28).

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From the time the wise men (magi) saw the star until Herod learned their deception was under two years. Nativity displays show the wise men coming to the manger, but the text reports that they went to the house where they were (v. 11). Even the term “young child” indicates a toddler more than a newborn infant. Also, there are often three wise men in nativity displays, but the text doesn’t say how many came (cf. vv. 1, 7). History has numbered three wise men based on the three gifts given to Jesus—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—as well as a sixth-century Greek treatise that gave three names as Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar (Excerpta Latina Barbari 51b). But, again, we don’t know how many there were, so we cannot say for sure. There could have been three or thirty or three hundred. 

Joseph receives another message from an angel that Herod is seeking the life of Christ. They fled to Egypt and remained there till Herod died. Matthew uses a passage about Israel for Jesus, demonstrating that Jesus embodies Israel. What Israel was meant to do is done in Christ. Herod’s cruelty and paranoia led to the murder of male children two years and younger. This is referred to as the massacre of the innocents. He was just under six miles from where Christ was born, and he wouldn’t search for him to worship him. The wise men came from a distance that took them a significant period to travel, and they continued searching for Jesus. Sometimes those closest to Jesus are farthest from him. Jeremiah initially meant the weeping of Rachel to relate to a period of captivity in Babylon and the murder of children during the invasion of Judea. All mothers were portrayed as Rachel, weeping for their sons being killed and led into captivity. Herod is acting as Pharaoh did—killing all male children.

The Birth of Jesus

The only time of the year that the birth of Jesus receives attention is usually at Christmastime. Some people are content to leave Jesus in the manger for the rest of the year, forgetting that he grew to be an adult, ministered for three years, and gave his life for humanity. Before we get to the adult Jesus, we learn about the Incarnation of Christ. This miraculous event was told to Mary by the angel Gabriel, and now it occurs. But, first, let’s pause to address the matter of Christmas.

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We know that Jesus was born in the days of King Herod (Matt. 2:1). However, Josephus recorded that Herod died in 4 BCE (Antiq. 17.8.1), and another vital record of the year of Christ’s birth would have been the census mentioned in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:1). Quirinius served two terms as governor of Syria: the first term was from 4–1 BCE, and the second term was during 6–11CE (Schaff History of the Christian Church 1.2.16). Therefore, Jesus must have been born between 4–6 BCE because Herod had all male children murdered two years and younger (Matt. 2:16). 

The earliest suggested date of Jesus’ birth comes from Clement of Alexandria (ca. 160–220), an Egyptian theologian. When Clement lived, the Gnostics were a sect that sought to advocate tenets of Greek philosophy and sacred doctrine. While many sects of Gnostics seemed to have existed, one particular belief among many was that anything material was inherently evil. They agreed that Jesus was “manifested”—from the Greek term epiphaneia (Epiphany). The discussions of when Christ was manifested led ultimately to his birth date since some argued that Christ’s birth was his manifestation. Clement wrote that May 20th was the likely date. He also suggested April 19th or 20th as possible dates.

Clement acknowledged an Egyptian Gnostic group called Basilideans. They held that Christ’s baptism was the date of his manifestation or Epiphany and designated January 6th as the particular date. This date became the agreed-upon date for Christmas in ancient Christianity. They celebrated not Christ’s birthday but his baptism. Joseph Kelly explained that Christians believed Christ was baptized on his birthday in his book, The Origins of Christmas. These two events made January 6th significant since it was the date of his birth and baptism, so they taught. John Cassian, the fifth-century Balkan Christian, is recorded to have agreed with this sentiment.

Around this time, some North African Christian scholars began disagreeing with January 6th and proposed March 25th. Since this was at the time of the spring equinox, and since this time was symbolically held to have represented rebirth, Hippolytus (ca. 170–235) considered this date as that of Christ’s death and the anniversary of creation itself. Hippolytus linked creation and Christ’s death and the redemption it brought. Tertullian (ca 160–220) held this same view. While March 25th wasn’t advocated by either of these two as Christ’s birthday, others regarded it as such. Another African came along and rebutted March 25th and suggested March 28th as Christ’s birth date instead. A part of the justification was given by Malachi 4:2 and the mention of the Sun of Righteousness. They interpreted the Sun as being Jesus. They also believed that the Sun was made on the fourth day of creation, and that must have been when Christ was born and resurrected. Hence March 28th was thought to have been the fourth day of creation that coincided with his birth and resurrection. In the third century, Julius Africanus listed December 25th as Christ’s birth date as a matter of chronology. Unlike many before him, Africanus argued that Christ’s birthdate wasn’t the date of his Incarnation. Instead, Christ’s Incarnation was the date of his conception nine months before on Marth 28th. Thus December 25th was born and eventually chosen as Christmas. At this time, it wasn’t a festival but only a chronological understanding.

A fourth-century Christian, Gregory the Theologian, wrote that Christians celebrated Christ’s birthday, then, as a way to tell the story of how God wanted to restore humanity through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus who came in the flesh. Christians, so Gregory wrote, celebrated God coming to man so that man might return to God by putting off the old person to put on the new person renewed after Christ through baptism (Oration 38.4). Furthermore, he encouraged that the celebration not be observed as the heathens observed their festivals. “Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, not enervate the nostrils with perfume, or prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin” (Orations 38.5). To read Gregory’s words is to understand that any Christmas celebration was meant to exalt Jesus and distinguish Christianity from paganism through the very festival itself. 

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(Matthew 1:18–25) Betrothal, the husband’s acquisition of a wife, preceded the marriage proper—when the husband took the wife into his home. This could last up to a year, and usually, the bride’s father arranged the betrothal and dowry price, and for women, as early as twelve years of age was the time they were betrothed (B. Yebam. 62b). This relationship period was considered marriage and could only be dissolved by divorce. When Mary was found pregnant, Joseph wanted to divorce her in secret and not make an issue of the whole thing. Yet, in a dream, an unnamed angel instructed him otherwise. The name “Jesus”(Greek)  means “God saves”—in Hebrew (Yehoshua).  Interestingly enough, this name is Joshua and is the Hebrew equivalent of Jesus.

God informed His people that they’d be saved in the days of the Messiah (Jer. 23:5–6). Jewish readers wouldn’t have understood this as personal salvation from sin but as political salvation from an enemy in the first century. They prayed for the day when God would deliver His people from their enemies. Since the exile, Israel had been a vassal state of Persia, Greece, and Rome. Accompanying this salvation was a new covenant and forgiveness of sin (Jer. 31:31–34). The first Joshua was the military savior, but Jesus was the spiritual savior who gave liberty from the guilt and consequence of sin (Rom. 3:23–24; cf. 6:23). While primarily for Israel, this salvation is extended to all humanity (John 3:16–21). Since we will all die and face the Judge, we can obtain salvation and be justified before the Judge or ignore it and be sentenced by the Judge (Heb. 9:27).

The birth of Jesus from a virgin was the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. Some believe Jesus is the only fulfillment of this prophecy, but that wouldn’t have brought comfort to Ahaz in the immediate context of Isaiah 7 if something far off was meant. Nevertheless, Jesus is a fulfillment of this prophecy on the macro-level but not on the micro-level. The Hebrew term in Isaiah could mean a virgin, but it was a young woman more often. Matthew borrowed from the Septuagint, which, in the place of almah, is the specific term parthenos (“virgin”). Jesus’ presence on earth was indicative of God being with his people. Joseph awakens and changes his mind based on what the angel told him. Note that the angel is unnamed, though some have said it’s Gabriel, given Luke 1. 

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(Luke 2:1–7) The reign of Caesar Augustus brought the Pax Romanum (“peace of Rome”) after years of civil war. What’s noteworthy is that Caesar Augustus’ reign had a Messianic aura about it, so when Luke mentioned him in light of the story of Christ, Luke proposed that Jesus was the actual Messianic figure. The ancient Roman poet Vergil (of the Augustan era) wrote a national epic of ancient Rome entitled Aeneid after its chief character Aeneas—a name borrowed from Homer’s Iliad (cf. book 5). Therein Aeneas strives and struggles to fulfill his destiny by arriving on Italy’s shores—Rome’s founding act. In his epic and his other works, Vergil specifically “prophesies” about the reign of Caesar Augustus as the anticipated reign of the Roman people.

Here is the man so often promised you,

Augustus Caesar, a god’s son, and bringer

Of a new age of gold to Saturn’s old realm

Of Latium. He will take our rule past India,

Past Garamantia, past the solar pathway

That marks the year, where Atlas hefts the sky

And turns the high vault set with burning stars. (Aeneid 6.791–97, trans. Sarah Ruden) 

Vergil’s epic was published in 19 BCE, so by the time of Luke’s Gospel, the notion of Caesar Augustus being a “Messiah” was firmly implanted in the Roman mind (cf. Ecl. 4.4–52). Augustus’ reign was synonymous with peace and prosperity. Still, Jesus’ rule in the kingdom of God would solidify the very concepts of peace and prosperity.

The purpose of Quirinius’ census (cf. Schaff Hist. of Church 1.2.16; Eccl. Hist. 1.5) was likely for a tribute or direct tax. Luke may indicate that Quirinius was governor around 6 BCE. If it was during this time, it shouldn’t be confused with Josephus’ account of when Judas the Galilean arose in rebellion (Acts 5.37; cf. Antiq. 18.1.1ff). Joseph going to his ancestral home may have been sensible to paying taxes. He may have had ancestral property (cf. Lev. 25:23–28) in Bethlehem that could have been rented out to relatives. However, if Joseph had ancestral property, one might suggest that he would have stayed there instead of permitting Christ to be born in a manger. 

The term translated “inn” is elsewhere translated as “guest room” (Luke 22:11). Still, the word given as a proper, commercialized “inn” is used in Luke 10:34 of the Good Samaritan’s hospitality to the injured traveler. The term for “manger” isn’t a barn with stalls as we might envision it. Instead, the “manger” was often an adjacent room to a family room where people sheltered animals. If Joseph had ancestral property (cf. Christiad 3.546–47), he would have expected to stay in the “guest room” if he had rented the dwelling. However, if this was the assumption when he and Mary arrived, the “guest room” was occupied.

Two Miraculous Conceptions

1:5–25

Zacharias was serving at the temple. As a priest, he was a son of Aaron, and his wife was too. He and his wife were careful to live in a time of tumult (Dio Cassius 49.22; Macrobius Saturnalia 2.f.11). Zacharias was chosen to burn incense and have proceeded this way:

“The incensing priest and his assistance now approached first the altar of burnt-offering. One filled with incense, a golden censer held in a silver vessel, while another was placed in a golden bowl burning coals from the altar. As they passed from the court into the Holy Place, they struck a large instrument (called the Magrephah), at the sound of which the priests hastened from all parts to worship and the Levites to occupy their places in the service of the song. At the same time, the chief of the ‘stationary men’ ranged at the Gate of Nicanor. Such of the people were to be purified that day. Slowly the incensing priest and his assistants ascended the steps to the Holy Place, preceded by the two priests who had formerly dressed the altar and the candlestick and who now removed the vessels they had left behind and, worshipping, withdrew. Next, one of the assistants reverently spread the coals on the golden altar; the other arranged the incense. Then, the chief officiating priest was left alone within the Holy Place to await the president’s signal before burning the incense. It was probably while thus expectant that the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias. As the president gave the word of command, which marked that ‘the time of incense had come,’ ‘the multitude of the people without’ withdrew from the inner court and fell before the Lord, spreading their hands in silent prayer.” (Edersheim, The Temple

When the angel appeared to Zacharias, he was notably startled and with good reason. One story of offering “strange fire” resulted in the death of the priests (Lev. 10:1–2; cf. Exod. 30:9), so perhaps Zacharias wondered if he and his offering were pure? On the other hand, it could also be that his distress resulted from the reverent fear that many lacked in his time. Regardless, Gabriel assured Zacharias that he would not lose his life.

Gabriel was the angel who stood before the Lord (Luke 1:19; cf. Number Rabbah 2.10). Whenever he appears in scripture, he is Messianic in his message (Dan. 8:15–27; 9:20–21). When he appeared before Daniel, it was evening, so when he appeared before Zacharias, it was evening as well (Luke 1:11). Luke pointed out that he stood to the right of the altar of incense, which would have been nearer to the entrance of the holy of holies. Since Zacharias saw him standing there, he may have very well believed that Gabriel came from the presence of God.

One must consider that Zacharias, as a priest, might have been a Sadducee because the priests and Levites typically were of this sect (cf. Acts 5:17; 23:8). Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, spirits, or angels (Luke 20:27; Acts 23:8). If he were a Sadducee, Zacharias would have thought that his posterity would have been his sense of immortality on earth. For an angel to have given this revelation would have been a contradictory belief to him. Regardless if he were a Sadducee, God removed reproach from him and his wife amongst their villagers—that of not having a child. However, due to the aged priest’s unbelief, he was struck dumb and thus unable to offer the closing benediction: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24–26). Barrenness was named among the great reproaches by the rabbis. Seven types of people were believed to have been excommunicated from God. Chiefly among those was the Jew who had no wife or whose wife was childless. Furthermore, according to Jewish law, a man could divorce his wife for childlessness. These factors allow us to appreciate Elizabeth’s gratefulness all the more.

1:26–38

Timing from Elizabeth’s gestation, Luke recorded that in the sixth month of her pregnancy, Mary, who was likely in her early or mid-teens, was visited by Gabriel with the message that she would bear the Son of God. This fact would later give rise to the doctrine known as Theotokos, which means “God-bearer.” Hippolytus or Origen may have named this third-century doctrine, but Alexander (bishop of Alexandria) used the term for the first time. The Council of Ephesus (c. 431), which emphasized the oneness of Christ, and the Council of Chalcedon (c. 451), which stresses the twoness of Christ’s nature (cf. Phil. 2:5–11), accepted its usage. Theotokos was a way of affirming the full deity of the Son of God from his conception in the womb.  

The promise to give Jesus the throne of his father David reiterated God’s commitment to David: “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:16; cf. Gen. 49:10). This was how the early Christians understood the reign of Christ (cf. Acts 2:30–31; 7:49). When Luke referred to God as “the Most High” and Jesus as his Son, Luke may have been counteracting the pagan belief that Zeus (Jupiter) was the most high and that Apollo was his son (cf. Acts 16:17). Whereas Zeus consorted with mortals to produce offspring, God overshadowed Mary with the Holy Spirit to make his son so that Mary remained a virgin—a belief distinguished in the early church to avoid portraying Israel’s God as one of the pantheon (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 33).

1:39–45

When Mary visited Elizabeth, after the baby leaped in her womb, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She affirmed what Mary had listened to a short time ago. However, Mary may not have fully understood what the angel meant. 

1:46–55

The Magnificat is what this praise is often called because that is the first word in the Latin Vulgate of this passage. Following the model of Hannah’s song (cf. 1 Sam. 1:11; 2:1–10), Mary used a similar style and pattern for her praise to God at this revelation. Ralph Martin says of this song that it is “a sublime confession of the faithfulness of God to His servants.” In this song, Mary praises God: 1) for looking on her lowly estate (vv. 48, 52), 2) for her being called blessed by all generations (v. 48; cf. 1:42, 12:27–28), and 3) for God’s reign over (a) our hearts (v. 51), (b) kings and rulers (v. 52), (c) the poor (v. 52) and rich (v. 53), and (d) the faithful (v. 54). Mary, in Luke, is certainly given an amount of attention that Protestants deny her, which may suggest that she ought to be looked upon with more tremendous admiration than rejection because of others’ actions towards her. She is undoubtedly “blessed.”

1:57–66

At John’s birth were two matters common to any newborn Jewish boy: his circumcision and naming. According to the Law, John was to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life (cf. Gen. 17:10–12). When the time came for him to be named, the common practice would have been that John receives a family name (cf. Luke 1:59, 61). However, as the angel mandated, Elizabeth acted by having him named “John.” Those present at his birth could not imagine him having any name other than that of his father or another male from his family. When the popular custom was questioned, those present deferred to the mute father. However, by writing on a tablet, Zacharias declared his son’s name “John.” In Semitic cultures, names were more than mere titles by which one was called. Instead, names were typically based upon a person’s character or a physical trait, such as Esau and Jacob. Esau meant “hairy,” and Jacob meant “heel grabber,” which was indicative of his deceitfulness. So when the Lord wanted the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth named “John,” it was because John’s name meant “God is gracious.” This was the person and ministry of John—God’s graciousness to humanity.

When the scene of John’s birth closed, he went to dwell in the wilderness until his appearance much later (Luke 1:80). However, John’s formative years are as obscure as Jesus’. What is known about John from Scripture is that he came like Israel’s greatest prophet of all—Elijah (Mal. 4:5; cf. Luke 1:17). The person of John the Baptist is given in Malachi 4:5. Within this passage is the fact that God would send Elijah to turn the hearts of God’s people back to Him. An appropriate commentary on John’s person as Elijah is given in the Intertestamental writing, where this passage is almost quoted verbatim in Sirach 48:10–11. Therefore, John’s purpose was to return before the coming of the Messiah to reconcile God’s people to Him.

Since John the Baptist was likened to Elijah, we must ask ourselves how the two were alike. We  may make several comparisons. First, they both endured a period of preparation: Elijah at the Brook Cherith and John in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:3; Luke 1:80). Second, they dressed alike in modest clothing that would have been worn by the poor of their respective days (Matt. 3:4; 2 Kings 1:8). Third, they preached sharp, short messages (Matt. 3:7–12; 1 Kings 17:1). Finally, they had powerful foes: Elijah had Jezebel and John had Herodias and Herod Antipas. Elijah spent his ministry trying to convince the Israelites to turn away from Baal and turn to God. His name means “my God is Yahweh.” This was the entire focus of his ministry—making Yahweh the God of Israel. John’s ministry was one of reconciliation amid religiosity. His name was indicative of his ministry—God’s grace.

1:67–79

The Benedictus is named thus for the same reason as Mary’s Magnificat. Zacharias’ prophecy, or psalm, is as concerned with redemption as Mary’s song but with a greater emphasis on ceremonial worship (vv. 68–75). Zacharias also alluded to John’s ministry (v. 76f). Once unmuted, Zechariah exclaimed praise to God via the Lord’s Holy Spirit, whereas the human wisdom which failed to comprehend God’s promise at his service in the temple resulted in dumbness. Perhaps now Zechariah understands what he was unable to earlier—that his son would be the forerunner for the Savior of humanity.

1:80

Since virtually nothing is known about the formative years of John’s life, one is left to speculate what aided him in becoming the prophet of God that he was. Since John’s parents were elderly when he was born (Luke 1:7), a reasonable probability exists that he received instruction from his priestly father. However, since we do not know how long Zacharias lived after the birth of his son, we may only assume. John may have received some sort of informal training directly from any other number of sources. However, most Jews that were observant of their religion would have spent time in the synagogue receiving instruction. The instruction they received would have been unlike that which John displayed. Moreover, the synagogue’s teaching was tainted by Pharisaical traditions and dogmas. Still, some education may have been from there.

Another consideration would be the probability that John was an Essene. Several sources attest to the possibility of this fact. The facts that would support this theory are: 1) the Jewish historian Josephus recorded that this sect adopted orphans (Wars 2.8.2 [120]), and supposing that John’s parents may have died and left him an orphan makes this fitting; 2) How John used Isaiah 40:3 was similar to the usage found in the Dead Sea Scrolls in which it was seen as the mission of those of the community to prepare the way of the Lord; 3) the practice of baptism common among the Essenes; 4) the wilderness activities of both (cf. Luke 3:2), and 5) the ascetic tendencies of John compared to that of the Essenes. While these supporting arguments are not conclusive arguments that John was an Essene, the evidence is striking. However, another possibility exists. John may have been a member of the Essenes, but he may have grown discontent with their activities. The focus of the Essenes was inward and not an evangelistic focus. Various other sects are identified in biblical and extra-biblical literature (cf. Acts 24:5). Some were not within the immediate area of the Dead Sea, while some migrated to and from that area. Whatever the case is, we do not conclusively know the influence under which John may have grown, but he was led by the Spirit when he arrived in Judea.

Gospel Genealogies

Matthew 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38

Twenty-first century Westerners care very little about genealogies. Typically, when folks grow old and gray, they begin to research their lineage. Genealogical research almost seems cultish and something reserved for the elderly. Yet, to ancient Easterners, they were very important. 

For our forefathers did not only appoint the best of these priests, and those that attended upon the divine worship, for that design from the beginning, but made provision that the stock of the priests should continue unmixed and pure; for he who is partaker of the priesthood must propagate of a wife of the same nation, without having any regard to money, or any other dignities; but he is to make a scrutiny, and take his wife’s genealogy from the ancient tables, and procure many witnesses to it; and this is our practice not only in Judea, but wheresoever any body of men of our nation do live; and even there, an exact catalogue of our priests’ marriages is kept; I mean at Egypt and at Babylon, or in any other place of the rest of the habitable earth, whithersoever our priests are scattered; for they sent to Jerusalem the ancient names of their parents in writing, as well as those of their remoter ancestors, and signify who are the witnesses also … those priests that survive [war and invasion] compose new tables of genealogy out of the old records, and examine the circumstances of the women that remain. (Josephus, Contra Apion 1.7)

Understanding how and why genealogies were made help account for the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts. Aaron Demsky of Bar Ilan University proposes that two types of genealogies existed—linear and segmented. Linear genealogies often list descendants up to ten generations as a matter of biblical family law (cf. Deut. 23:3–4) or as a literary device to abbreviate a story. Shorter linear genealogies often introduce biblical figures such as Saul, Ezra, and Mordechai. Segmented genealogies divide a person’s heritage into brother branches or children of different wives, showing the kinship between tribes or clans. These maternal and filial branches reflect the tribal areas for the purposes of redemption (Num. 26:52–56; Jer. 32:7). Furthermore, in instances of polygamy and concubinage, the primary wive’s offspring are distinguished as first heirs from the other wives or consorts. 

Matthew begins his Gospel with the geneaology while Luke includes it later on. Matthew traces Jesus’ heritage through David to Abraham to demonstrate his Jewishness while Luke goes all the way back to Adam to show that Christ was not only a son of God but was also representative of the human race. Luke’s later placement has been suggested as rebirth since the genealogy appears after Jesus’ baptism. 

Matthew’s numbering is three groups of fourteen which total forty-two while Luke uses eleven groups of seven totaling seventy-seven. The numerology would have been significant to the Jews from Matthew’s Gospel while also to the Gentiles from Luke’s Gospel in the Pythagorean system. Because the numbering mattered, Matthew’s isn’t a complete genealogy. Five kings were omitted. The consonants corresponding to 14 in Hebrew are dalet-vav-dalet—David. The last of Matthew’s listings have only 13 names which has led to the suggestion that the church would have been number 14. 

One of the most popular interpretations to account for the differences between the two genealogies is that Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage while Luke traces Mary’s. One difficulty with this view is that Joseph’s name is listed for both, while Mary’s name doesn’t appear. Given the nature of patriarchal society, Joseph may have been listed instead. Luke’s genealogy begins by listing Jesus’ age of thirty. Counting from this age until his death, three Passovers are observed throughout the gospels which are how we arrive at a death age of thirty-three. Thirty implies maturity—David began reigning at thirty and Joseph entered Pharaoh’s service at thirty. Luke almost gives the caveat by stating, “As was supposed” (3:23). Luke also uses “son of” while Matthew, “begot.” Matthew and Luke state that Jesus was not Joseph’s biological son, so the latter may note that he was the legal son of Joseph, grandson of Heli—Mary’s father, perhaps. A couple of other points of divergence between the two are that Luke traces from Jacob to Heli while Matthew traces from Jacob to Joseph. Also, Luke diverges from David to Nathan (cf. Zech. 12:12), while Matthew has from David to Solomon.  

Matthew’s genealogy begins by citing that it is a geneseos of Jesus—a connection to creation. It was also unusual because it cited women, non-Jews, and morally questionable events. Tamar conceived by presenting herself as a prostitute and lying with her father-in-law. Rahab was a Canaanite, Ruth a Moabite, and Bathsheba was wed to a Hittite and an adulteress with King David. Abraham is often recognized as the first convert, and these women may have suggested a connection between Jew and Gentile. Moreover, Jewish tradition praises these women rather than focusing on their sins as we’d tend to do. 

Some commentators suggest that Matthew gives the royal line of descent while Luke gives the priestly line since Jesus is both King and Priest. Were I to trace my lineages, I could trace to a Chief of the Choctaw and a Scottish Laird, and these are just on my paternal side. To make Jesus’ genealogy a matter of doubting the historicity or inspiration of the two accounts is not necessary when we examine how we might trace our own. Joseph didn’t have two fathers, but one may have been his father and the other his grandfather. In Scripture, grandchildren are often referred to as “sons of” whomever is listed (cf. Matt. 1:1, 20). 

The Gospel of John: A New Genesis

Before John produced a written account, Paul wrote about “new creation.” To the Corinthians, he wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), and to the Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). There are two manners in which new creation appears in the New Testament: as a present reality and a future expectation. The current fact was what Paul and John wrote about in the passages above, and the gospel was in the present tense, but they also each wrote about the future expectation of new creation (Rom. 8:18–23; Rev. 21:1–5). Most of us have owned used things but have referred to them as new. For example, my wife’s car is new to us but preowned. When we bought our home a few years ago, it was new to us but was built in 1984. A new creation in the present tense is similar. 

Until this point (c. 96), John’s gospel had only ever been oral. The former fisherman, now an older man with gray hair, was the last apostle of Jesus remaining. He had seen the church grow by leaps and bounds. He’d testified of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah with signs and wonders. With him was Polycarp, a protege who’d be martyred when in his eighties (c. 156). Jerusalem had been destroyed just over twenty-five years earlier. In the last few years, the Jews assembled in Jamnia (c. 90) to establish a school of religious study of the Jewish Law. According to tradition, one of the first appointed deacons, Prochorus (cf. Acts 6:5), was with Peter, who’d set him a minister of Nicomedia. However, Peter was crucified just before Jerusalem fell (c. 64), so Prochorus joined John and aided him. Now, John was about to send Prochorus to oversee the work at Antioch, but before he was to depart, Prohorus was to help John with one crucial work. 

John had read Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He thought them each well-written and accurate accounts of the ministry of Jesus, though only Matthew was by a fellow apostle. However, the Synoptic accounts overlooked the earlier years of Christ’s ministry. John believed that the church ought to know about this period of Jesus’ ministry since he witnessed it. John wasn’t taking this task lightly because the Spirit had been speaking to him about writing another gospel account.

Nevertheless, as an aged man whose eyesight wasn’t the best and whose hand wasn’t steady, Prochorus would serve as his amanuensis—John would speak, and Prochorus would write. The Spirit had told John, “Write a new genesis,” so John knew what he’d do. So, as Prochorus sat poised at the writing table, John first spoke, “In the beginning.” 

John’s gospel retells the Genesis story, but instead of being separated from God, humanity is reconciled to Him this time. Rather than falling prey to sin and futility, freedom is given through the sacrifice of God on a cross. Yes, Jesus is God, and John identifies him as such in the prologue and throughout. Instead of being ruled by sin, the new Adam, Christ, conquers it so that His new creation can exist and operate in the newness of life. The entire framework of this is accomplished in the guise of the temple. When we read Genesis 1–2, ancient easterners would have read it as God creating a temple in which to dwell. We call it heaven and earth, but the story sounds much like the construction of an ancient temple. Images were placed in the temple, and when God rests, readers/hearers would have associated that with Him taking up residence after a period of conflict. The conflict was ordering creation from chaos. 

God constantly desired fellowship with humanity. His plan to achieve this: He takes on flesh and once more merges heaven and earth in the Incarnation (John 1:1–3, 14). This time, the divine humbles Himself to take on flesh (cf. Phil. 2:5–8). Humans have approached God through the temple for centuries, a sacred space designated where humanity and God met. Before this, it was the tabernacle, and when Jesus came in the flesh, He came to “dwell” (literally, “tabernacle”) among us (John 1:14). God steps out from the Holy of Holies to walk among humanity and redeem it. 

God begins recreation. That is, He’s making all things new. Following the creation story itself, John shows that Jesus is God and created the heavens and earth. The earth was void and without form upon creation, and darkness reigned. This is the beginning of God’s creating a new temple without defilement. In Christ are the fullness of Temple, sacred space, and rest (cf. Matt. 11:28–30). Temple is no longer a building on a specific site but the person of Christ Himself (John 2:19–21). Jesus is redefining Temple for us all because God placed man in His Temple Garden (Gen. 2:8), but now He who sets us notes that we have displaced ourselves. Therefore, He comes to us where we are. 

God spoke light into existence in the first creation to illuminate His temple (Gen. 1:3–5). Living without light would be impossible. The sun and the moon, which give us light, also provide us with power, the sun especially. Today’s excellent discussion is to rely more on things solar-powered, but even forms of energy that are not solar power are powered themselves by the nutrients the sun gives. How cold might earth be without the sun? It would be uninhabitable, that’s for sure, to see a connection between light and life. You can’t have the latter without the former. 

Now, the light of God has come to the world, and John the Baptist’s mission was to declare the light (John 1:6–9). The first day of recreation corresponds to the first day of creation: light. Jesus later said he was the Light (John 8:12; 12:46), and throughout this gospel, we see Him mentioned as such. Jesus asks that we all believe in the light for eternal life (John 12:36). The reconciliation process has begun (2 Cor. 5:18–19), and it takes the face of recreation in Jesus.

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