In this prophecy, as originally given, the hope and expectation concerns restoration of the greatness and supremacy of the Davidic throne.
At the point of writing, Israel's situation is oppressive: note the implicit violence of the language of "yoke," "bar," "rod," and "boots" in verses 4-5.
Verse 4's reference to "Midian" is a recollection of story of Gideon's defeat of Midian (Judges 7:15-25).
Verses 6 onwards celebrate the birth of a new David (perhaps, at the time of writing, the birth of Hezekiah). Christian readers of these verses have read these verses as perfectly correlated with the birth of Jesus and his subsequent growth to be the adult preacher and leader of the Kingdom of God
11: In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the grace of God has appeared (been manifested) to the world. "Bringing salvation to all" is enigmatic: does it imply that all will be saved? At the very least it is stating that the salvation the Saviour brings is available to all humanity.
12: The coming of the Saviour (the birth and life of Jesus Christ) and the expectation of his return to earth (v. 13) creates a "present age" in which we (followers of Jesus Christ) need to know how to live. Paul thus speak of the same "grace of God" which has saved us also working within us to train us to "renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly."
13: This training scheme (so to speak) endures "while we wait for the blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ." Christ is unseen in our midst during this time but we will know when he comes in glory because it will be manifest among us. Note the rare occasion here when Jesus Christ is identified within the New Testament as God.
14: Who is Jesus Christ? Three notable characteristics are mentioned in this verse.
First, "who gave himself for us" (see also Galatians 1:4; 2:20; Ephesians 5:2; 1 Timothy 2:6). Christ came for our sakes and in his coming gave himself over to death that we might live.
Secondly, "redeem us" or, in the context of Paul's day, buy us out of slavery (to Satan, to sin): see also Romans 3:24; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:20; 7:23; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Mark 10:45). Christ gave himself in costly sacrifice that we might be redeemed.
Thirdly, "purify for himself a people of his own": see also Deuteronomy 7:6-8; exodus 9:5-16; 1 Peter 2:9. Christ came to restore and enlarge the people of God, according to the promises made long ago to Israel (see above, Isaiah and Psalm readings).
There is a wonderful but quite technical debate within the first few verses of this passage concerning the reference to Quirinius and thus to the time of this registration (census). In short, the debate concerns whether we can match what we know of Quirinius as a Roman official and the time when we think Jesus was born (according to Matthew's chronology which places Jesus' birth before the death of Herod the Great). See here for a discussion of the issues.
We can be sure about what Luke is attempting in these first few verses. First, he is locating the birth of King Jesus in the world ruled by another king, the Roman emperor Augustus (1). The whole story of Luke-Acts tells us how the king born in Bethlehem, via the preaching of his apostles, became a rival king to the Emperor in Rome itself. Secondly, he is explaining how Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. Jesus who grew up in Nazareth) nevertheless was born in Bethlehem, some distance away (2-4). Thirdly, he is connecting the birth of Jesus as king with the house of David, the greatest King of Israel (4, 11).
Of course for there to be a baby there needs to be a birth, and with the preliminaries of time and place out of the way, we finally read that Jesus is born (6-7). Note how the specific location of his first days/weeks of life "in a manger" is a tiny detail within these verses. Do we make too much of this when we talk much of Jesus being born in a stable, seemly unwanted in the inn? Nevertheless, in a passage mentioning Augustus and David, the reference to Jesus being placed after birth in a feeding trough underlines the obscurity of Jesus' beginning to his life: he is born in Palestine (at the edge of the Roman Empire), in Bethlehem (an insignificant village relative to the great city of Jerusalem) and placed in a manger (outside of ordinary human residency).
Why do we then meet shepherds (8-14) as the first people, in Luke's telling, to greet the newborn king? Obviously we must speculate as Luke gives no hints. But shepherds in the context of associating Jesus with King David (the shepherd king) suggests that shepherds are very appropriate as a group to recognise the new Shepherd King Jesus.
They are good shepherds, incidentally, because in the middle of the night they are "keeping watch over their flock" (8) Understandably they are afraid when unexpectedly an angel appears, the glory of the Lord shines around them and they hear a voice (9-10). Everything here, including the fear, is redolent of many instances in the Old Testament when the angel of the Lord appears to a person or a couple or a group. As then so now the first words of the angel are "Do not be afraid" (10). The angel has not come to judge the shepherds but to announce good news to them and to ask them to be part of the celebration of that announcement, which is "good news of great joy for all the people" (10-11).
Verse 11 piles on the titles for Jesus! He is "A Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord." With these three titles the angel is saying that the newborn baby is the full fulfilment of all Old Testament prophecies about the one who would come to restore Israel (see, again, our passage from Isaiah above, as one such prophecy). And "Lord" is particularly significant as it equates Jesus with God himself (since the exclusive name of the God of Israel, YHWH, is translated by the same Greek word, kyrios, in the Greek Old Testament).
Verse 12 adds a little to the meaning of the manger. How will the shepherds know where to find this baby? (Remember, no GPS, no cellphones in those days!) Presumably more than one baby was born at that time. But only one had been placed in a manger. The others would have been in their cots and cribs in their homes. A few questions in the nosy, gossipy community of Bethlehem and the shepherds would have easily found the baby-in-a-manger.
With a final burst of song, verses 13-14, the angels were gone and the shepherds were on their way to Bethlehem (15). But what a burst of song it was. What would we give in the world today for the simple matter of "peace"?
From the heart of God (verses 1, 18) comes the Son of God to be one of us (verse 14). As one of us, this Son, who is also the Word of God (verse 1), that is, the disclosure or revelation of the otherwise unknowable God, lived in a hostile world, in which the choice to accept or reject the Son is made (verses 10-13). Since the Son who is the Word has been with God from the beginning (i.e. before creation, verses 1-2), the Son has always been a lifegiver, a bringer into being of all things (verse 3) and this lifegiver has come into the world to bring life, the kind of divine liveliness that is also light in the darkness of the world which is naturally hostile to God (verses 3-5, 9).
All this inspiring, awesome talk of God (theology) and of the Son of God (Christology) is a very big picture approach to God at work in the world, a form of theological-cosmological narrative, but this reading connects to the other gospel narratives which are forms of theological-historical narratives by virtue of reference to John (the Baptist) in verses 6-8. John is the "witness" who is not the light but testifies to the light.
But to see Jesus is to see much much more than an historical person. Through Jesus we see the glory of God (verse 14), in fact through Jesus we see as much of God as we can ever see as humans confined to the dimensions of ordinary life (verse 18).
ALTERNATIVELY: one comment on Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
What kind of news drives the shepherds to leave their flocks in the middle of the night to race to a stable to worship a baby? To call the news 'good news' is accurate - that is the meaning of 'gospel' - but not very helpful. A better sense would be to call this news the 'best news ever.' All the good news in the world - the birth of a new baby, a promotion with massive pay rise, the All Blacks winning the World Cup three times in a row ("Come, 2019!!") - falls well short of the news which sets the shepherds racing to the stable. They hear the best news ever. We hear it too in our four readings. Isaiah, centuries ahead of the actual birth date of Jesus, celebrates the best king ever. The psalmist celebrates God as the best God ever and sneaks in a preview of God coming to earth. Paul writing to his friend and colleague Titus reminds him that what happened in the birth of Jesus was nothing less than the appearance of the generous, unconstrained love of God which brought salvation for all (v.11).
In Luke's gospel the angel announcing this best news ever says it is of 'great joy for all the people' (v. 10). There is that word 'all' again. What on earth could the best news ever be when it is best news for everyone?
Going back to Titus, Paul lays out this best news ever in terms of our relationship with God. What state is that relationship in for humanity? What state is that relationship in for you and for me? If all were well there would be no need for talk of salvation, for peace and goodwill. But all is not well. The relationship has been broken. Instead of peace there are wars between countries and bitter conflicts between individuals. Instead of prosperity for all there is a growing gap between rich and poor. Instead of sober, pure living we inhabit a world drenched with pornography and awash with liquor and drugs.
It is a wonder God has not washed his hands of us and left us to our own selfish devices. Or even wiped us from the face of the earth. That would be bad news. Instead we have the best news ever,
"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.'
God is not deterred that we have rejected him and spurned his will for our lives. Instead God has entered our world, hiding his glory, taking on the ordinary life of a baby who will grow to be a man. That man will die on a cross a death which absorbs all the bad stuff so the rift between us and God can be healed. Only with that healing can the world itself be healed.
Each Christmas we pause to celebrate this gift from God full of possibility for a new world. The challenging edge to this message is what we are going to do about it for the next 364 days! Something or nothing?
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