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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible
Luke 2

 

 

Verses 1-52


Birth and Childhood of Jesus

1-5. The census of Quirinius. There are two historical difficulties in connexion with St. Luke's mention of the census of Quirinius: (1) There is no direct evidence, except St. Luke's statement, that Augustus (31 b.c.-14 a.d.) ever held a census of the whole Roman empire. (2) Quirinius was not governor of Syria at the time of our Lord's birth (about 7 or 6 b.c.), but either Sentius Saturninus (9-6 b.c.), or Quinctilius Varus (6-4 b.c.).

As to (1), the absence of direct confirmatory evidence ought not to be sufficient to discredit a statement which is made as a result of careful enquiry, by a nearly contemporary author who is honestly striving to be accurate (Luke 1:3-4), and which is in itself credible, and in accordance with Augustus's character and methods of administration. In 8 b.c. he carried out a census of Roman citizens throughout the empire, and it is quite possible that he also planned a general census, which, however, owing to administrative difficulties, was not completely executed in every part of the empire. (2) Although Quirinius was not governor of Syria in 7, 6 b.c., he may have been there as 'legatus Cæsaris' to conduct the census, or more probably to carry on the war with the troublesome tribe of the Homonadenses. It was not unusual, when a province was in a disturbed state, for the civil and military administration to be placed in different hands. It is probable, therefore, that, when our Lord was born, Saturninus or Varus was at the head of the civil, and Quirinius of the military, administration of Syria. Quirinius was civil governor of Syria some twelve years later (6 a.d.), when he carried out the well-known census of Acts 5:37, mentioned also by Josephus ('Ant.' xviii. 1.1, 2. 1). It is known, however, from an inscription discovered at Tivoli, in 1764, that he held office in Syria at an earlier date, when he subdued the Homonadenses, and for this exploit was honoured by two 'supplicationes' (solemn thanksgivings to the gods), and the decorations of a triumphing general. We may conjecture, therefore, that this was in 7, 6 b.c., at the time when, according to St. Luke, the earlier and less-known census took place.

1. Augustus] The first Roman emperor. His actual reign dated from the battle of Actium 31 b.c. to his death in 14 a.d. Taxed] RV 'enrolled.' This enrolment was perhaps simply a census or numbering of the inhabitants. The second enrolment under Quirinius in 7 a.d. was for purposes of taxation, and excited a rebellion (Acts 5:37).

2. Cyrenius] RV 'Quirinius.'

3. Into his own city] It was a fixed principle of Roman government to respect the feelings and even the prejudices of subject peoples, and Herod, being a foreigner whose rule was barely tolerated by patriotic Jews, had every reason not to give offence. He enrolled his pagan subjects, therefore, in the Roman manner, but allowed the Jews the privilege of being enrolled in their place of origin according to their family and tribe.

5. His espoused wife] RV 'who was betrothed to him.' Yet they were probably married, because it was contrary to Jewish custom for betrothed persons to live together, and Joseph would wish to protect Mary by making her his wife as soon as possible.

6. 7. The Nativity. See on Matthew 2:1. There is an inward fitness that He, who for our sake emptied Himself of His glory, should be born in a stable and laid in a manger, but assuredly it would never have occurred to any one, Jew or Christian, to invent such a story, which accordingly may be accepted as authentic history. By the manner of His birth Jesus showed His sympathy with the hard lot of the poor, and His contempt for human splendour. He also gave a foretaste of His future manner of life, when He was despised and rejected of men, and had no place to lay His head.

7. Firstborn] A technical term among the Jews, signifying 'that which openeth the womb' (Exodus 34:19.), and not implying the birth of other offspring. That St. Luke uses it in this technical sense is clear from Luke 2:22, Luke 2:23. No room] It is clear from Matthew 2:11 that as soon as the enrolment was over, and the crowds attending it had dispersed, Joseph and Mary obtained a house in Bethlehem, intending to settle there permanently, since it was the most fitting place for the residence of the Messiah.

8-20. Announcement to the shepherds, who visit the Holy Family. As Jesus was born in a stable, so His birth was first announced to peasants, in token that the gospel was meant for the poor and ignorant, as well as for the rich and learned.

8. Shepherds] David himself had been a shepherd at Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:11). The flocks at Bethlehem were destined for the Temple sacrifices, and the shepherds who kept them occupied a higher social position than other shepherds, who were considered outcasts by the scribes because of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances. There was a Jewish tradition that the birth of the Messiah would be proclaimed from the 'Migdol Eder,' 'the tower of the flock,' which lay near Bethlehem on the road to Jerusalem (Edersheim).

10. To all people] RV 'to all the people' (of Israel). There is here no express mention of the Gentiles.

11. A Saviour] The spiritual sense is certainly prominent here—'a Saviour from sin and death.' This title of Jesus is rare in the Gospels, being found only here and in John 4:42 several times in Titus and 2 Peter.

Christ the Lord] RM 'Anointed Lord.'

12. Shall be a sign] RV 'is the sign.' The unusual sight of an infant in a manger would be a sign that the angel had spoken the truth.

14. The 'Gloria in excelsis' (Glory.. in the highest), in which the hosts of heaven praised God for His wondrous love to mankind shown in the Incarnation, was expanded into a morning hymn as early as the 2nd cent., and has been sung in the Communion service of the Western Church for many ages. Taking the old reading of the AV, the hymn, which consists of two lines, maybe thus paraphrased: (1) The angels are praising God in highest heaven for Christ's Nativity. (2) On earth men enjoy peace with God, and peace and goodwill with one another. But the reading of the RV ('men of good pleasure') is preferable, and the meaning is, (1) The angels are praising God in highest heaven for Christ's Nativity. (2) There is peace on earth (peace with God and peace with one another) among men to whom God shows His favour by this wondrous birth.

The hymn goes beyond the words of the angel, in declaring that God's favour in Christ is extended to all mankind.

19. Mary's was a quiet and reflective nature: cp. Luke 2:51. These two vv. suggest that it was from her the information contained in these chapters was derived.

21. The Circumcision. Although our Lord was sinless, He was subjected to a rite which symbolised the putting off of the sinful lusts of the flesh. Although He was the Son of God, it behoved Him to be made a child of God through the covenant of Abraham. Now first His redeeming blood was shed, and the pain of the Circumcision was a foretaste of Calvary: cp. Matthew 3:15; Romans 8:3; Hebrews 2:17; Galatians 4:4; Under the new covenant the sacrament of Holy Baptism (the circumcision made without hands, Colossians 2:11) has 'fulfilled,' and taken the place of circumcision.

22-38. The Purification and Presentation in the Temple. Women after childbirth were unclean, for a boy forty days, for a girl eighty days. They were then bound to present an offering for Purification, viz. a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon for a sin offering. Poor women might offer two pigeons, as the mother of Jesus did: see Leviticus 12:2. A firstborn son was presented to God and redeemed with five shekels of the sanctuary (10 or 12 shillings), Exodus 13:2; Numbers 8:16; Numbers 18:15 is. Neither of these ceremonies necessitated personal attendance of the mother in the Temple. A woman could offer her sacrifices of purification by proxy, and a firstborn son could be presented, and his redemption price paid to a priest anywhere. Joseph and Mary went to the Temple because they were near, and because they loved the house of God.

22. Her purification] RV 'their purification,' i.e. either, (1) the Jews' purification, or (2) the purification of mother and child. Strictly speaking, however, only the mother (not the child) was ceremonially unclean.

25-35 Simeon and the Nunc Dimittis] Simeon belonged, like Zacharias and Anna, to the class of humble and devout Jews who 'looked for the redemption of Jerusalem,' and whose type of piety was very different from that of the scribes: see Luke 2:37, Luke 2:38. To such persons the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant and the spiritual teaching of the prophets had been a true preparation for Christ, and consequently God shed abroad among them the gift of prophecy, and revealed to them truths to which the doctors of the Law were blind.

25. Devout] more exactly 'God-fearing.' The word is peculiar to St, Luke (Acts 2:5; Acts 8:2; Acts 22:12). The consolation of Israel] a common expression among the rabbis for the Messianic age. 'So may I see the consolation' was a usual form of oath.

26. The Lord's Christ] the same as 'the Christ of God' (Luke 9:20), i.e. 'Him whom God has sent as the Messiah.'

29-32. This beautiful hymn (usually called the 'Nunc Dimittis'), which has been used in the evening service of the Church since the 4th or 5th century, is in thorough harmony with the spirit of this Gospel. It expressly includes the Gentiles in Christ's Kingdom, in accordance with the OT. prophecies.

29. The meaning is, 'My master and owner, now thou givest freedom to thy slave by a peaceful death, according to the prophetic word that thou spakest' (Luke 2:26). Simeon regards his release from the toils and troubles of life as an enfranchisement from slavery, a change to a state of freedom and rest. In peace means 'in a state of peace with God.'

30. Thy salvation] is practically personal, meaning the Messiah.

31. All people] RV 'all peoples,' i.e. all the nations of the earth.

32. A light, etc.] RV 'A light for revelation to the Gentiles,' i.e. the Messiah is the Light of the Gentiles, sent by God to reveal His truth to the heathen world. He is also the glory of the chosen people, because all nations in glorifying the Messiah will glorify the nation from whom the Messiah springs. 'In those days ten men of all languages of the nations shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying we will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you' (Zechariah 8:23).

33. Joseph and his mother] RV 'his father and his mother.' Since Joseph filled the place of a father to Jesus, he was naturally called his father: cp. Luke 2:27, 'the parents.'

34, 35. These vv. contain the first hint in the NT. of the sufferings of the Messiah, and of His holy mother.

34. Behold this child, etc.] This child will divide Israel into two opposite camps. Some will reject His claims. To such He will be 'a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence' (Isaiah 8:14), i.e. the occasion of their spiritual ruin. Others will accept His claims. Such He will raise through their faith to a higher spiritual life, which may be rightly called a resurrection (rising again) from death to life.

35. Yea, a sword] This prophecy was fulfilled when Mary saw her Son rejected, condemned, insulted, scourged, and crucified.

That the thoughts] i.e. that the true characters of men (as shown in their reception or rejection of Jesus) may be made manifest.

36-38. Anna the prophetess also recognises Jesus as the Messiah, and speaks of Him as such among those who 'looked for the redemption of Jerusalem.' Her manner of life is described in detail, because she is a type of the 'widows indeed' of the Christian Church (1 Timothy 5:5), who did not marry again, but devoted themselves to works of charity and piety.

36. Prophetess] The title shows that Anna was known as a prophetess before this incident. Other instances of prophetesses are Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Huldah, and the daughters of Philip. Aser] RV 'Asher.' It is clear that members of other tribes than Judah and Levi returned from the Captivity.

37. If she was married at 12, which is possible in the East, she must have been 103 years old. Departed not] i.e. was unfailing in her attendance.

38. All them that looked, etc.] see on Luke 2:25-35.

39. Return to Nazareth. St. Luke represents the Holy Family as returning to Nazareth immediately after the Purification, without any allusion to the visit of the Magi, or the flight into Egypt. This seems to indicate that he did not use St. Matthew's Gospel.

40. Growth and spiritual development of Jesus. The information may have been gained from the mother herself. Waxed strong in spirit] RV omits 'in spirit.'

Filled with wisdom] lit. 'becoming full of wisdom': cp. Luke 2:52, 'increased in wisdom.' As Jesus was perfect God and perfect man, so He possessed completely the attributes of both natures. As God He knew all things, but as man He 'waxed strong (in spirit), becoming filled with wisdom,' and 'increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.' As an infant He possessed the knowledge proper to an infant; as a boy, that proper to a boy; as a man, that proper to a man; as the anointed Messiah (Luke 3:22), that proper to one commissioned to establish the Kingdom of God on earth; and as the ascended and glorified Redeemer, that proper to one who, as man, and not simply as God, rules the entire universe (Matthew 28:18). What this means we may not be able to say, but we may rest assured He still feels for man, and understands his needs. Although it was always possible for Him who was God as well as man, to draw, if the needs of His mission required it, upon the inexhaustible stores of His divine knowledge (cp. John 1:48), yet it was His usual custom to obtain His information through human channels and from human sources, and, even as a teacher, to use chiefly the ample stores of His super-naturally enlightened human knowledge. This supernatural enlightenment far exceeded both in range and in penetration that granted to the greatest of the prophets—it was the knowledge which was granted to the Incarnate Son for the purpose of communicating to man the Father's perfect and final revelation; but it was limited in accordance with its object, and did not embrace matters which it was inexpedient for man to know, and therefore for the Incarnate Son to reveal: see on Mark 1:32, and cp. Acts 1:7.

40-52. The boy Jesus in the Temple. We know nothing directly of the childhood of Jesus except this one incident, which is recorded entirely for the sake of the remarkable utterance in Luke 2:49.

41. As women were not obliged to attend, Mary's regular keeping of the feasts is a mark of special piety: cp. Luke 2:22.

42. Twelve years] Jesus accompanied His parents for the first time, because He was approaching his thirteenth year, in which He would become, by Jewish custom, 'a son of the Law,' i.e. subject to its obligations.

43. Tarried behind] Jesus was probably staying with friends, and thought that His parents would remain in Jerusalem for the whole Passover week. Instead of this they seem to have left after two days, as was often done.

46. After three days] They spent one day looking for Him in the caravan, one day in the return journey to Jerusalem, and found Him on the third day. Doctors] i.e. scribes or rabbis. Among the famous men who may possibly have been present were the aged Hillel and Shammai, Rabban Simeon, Gamaliel, Annas, Joseph of Arimathæa, Nicodemus, Johanan ben-Zacchai, Caiaphas. It is said (but it is not certain) that there was a synagogue within the Temple enclosure, where members of the Sanhedrin gave public instruction on sabbaths and festivals. Hearing them] not teaching them, as the Apocryphal Gospels say.

49. How is it] 'Not a reproof, but an expression of surprise. He is not surprised at their coming back for Him, but at their not knowing where to find Him.' About my Father's business] This translation is possible, but that of the RV, 'in my Father's house,' is more probable. The words mean: 'There is only one place in Jerusalem where I, the. Son of God, might be expected to be found, and that is in my Father's house.' The utterance shows that even at this early age Jesus was conscious that His true father was not Joseph (as His mother's words seemed to imply, Luke 2:48), but God.

50. Understood not] The lapse of twelve years during which no miracle had occurred, had partly obliterated the impression made by the remarkable circumstances of the Nativity. This and the next v. furnish another indication that St. Luke's information was obtained from St. Mary.

51. Was subject] The evangelist guards against the possible supposition that Christ's words in Luke 2:49 were intended as a repudiation of His parents' authority over Him.

52. See on Luke 2:40.

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Luke 2:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/luke-2.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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