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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Luke 2



Verse 1


(1) There went out a decree.—The passage that follows has given rise to almost endless discussion. The main facts may be summed up as follows:—(1) The word “taxed” is used in its older English sense of simple “registration,” and in that sense is a true equivalent for the Greek word. The corresponding verb appears in Hebrews 12:23. It does not involve, as to modern ears it seems to do, the payment of taxes. The “world” (literally, the inhabited world, οἰκουμένη, œcumenè,—the word from which we form the word “œcumenical” as applied to councils) is taken, as throughout the New Testament, for the Roman empire. What Augustus is said to have decreed, was a general census. (2) It may be admitted that no Roman or Jewish historian speaks distinctly of such a general census as made at this time. On the other hand, the collection of statistical returns of this nature was an ever-recurring feature of the policy of Augustus. We read of such returns at intervals of about ten years during the whole period of his government. In B.C. 27, when he offered to resign, he laid before the Senate a rationarium, or survey of the whole empire. After his death, a like document, more epitomised—a breviarium—was produced as having been compiled by him. There are traces of one about this time made by the Emperor, not in his character as Censor, but by an imperial edict such as St. Luke here describes. (3) Just before the death of Herod, Josephus (Wars, i. 27, § 2; 29:2) reports that there was an agitation among the Jews, which led him to require them to take an oath of fidelity, not to himself only, but to the Emperor, and that 6,000 Pharisees refused to take it. He does not say what caused it, but the census which St. Luke records, holding out, as it did, the prospect of future taxation in the modern sense, sufficiently explains it. (4) It need hardly be said that the whole policy of Herod was one of subservience to the Emperor, and that though he retained a nominal independence, he was not likely to resist the wish of the Emperor for statistics of the population, or even of the property, of the province over which he ruled. (5) It may be noted that none of the early opponents of Christianity—such as Celsus and Porphyry—call the accuracy of the statement in question. St. Luke, we may add, lastly, as an inquirer, writing for men of education, would not have been likely to expose himself to the risk of detection by asserting that there had been such a census in the face of facts to the contrary.

Verse 2

(2) And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.—Here we come upon difficulties of another kind. Publicius Sulpicius Quirinus (“Cyrenius” is the Greek form of the last of the three names) was Consul B.C. 12, but he is not named as Governor of Syria till after the deposition of Archelaus, A.D. 6, and he was then conspicuous in carrying out a census which involved taxation in the modern sense; and this was the “taxing” referred to in Gamaliel’s speech (Acts 5:37) as having led to the revolt of Judas of Galilee. How are we to explain the statement of St. Luke so as to reconcile it with the facts of history? (1) The word translated “first” has been taken as if it meant “before,” as it is rendered in John 1:15; John 1:30. This cuts the knot of the difficulty, but it is hardly satisfactory. This construction is not found elsewhere in St. Luke, and his manner is to refer to contemporary events, not to subsequent ones. It is hardly natural to speak of one event simply as happening before another, with no hint as to the interval that separated them, when that interval included ten or twelve years. (2) Our knowledge of the governors of Syria at this period is imperfect. The dates of their appointments, so far as they go, are as follows:—

B.C. 9.—Sentius Saturninus.

B.C. 6.—T. Quintilius Varus.

A.D. 6.—P. Sulpicius Quirinus.

It was, however, part of the policy of Augustus that no governor of an imperial province should hold office for more than five or less than three years, and it is in the highest degree improbable that Varus (whom we find in A.D. 7 in command of the ill-fated expedition against the Germans) should have continued in office for the twelve years which the above dates suggest. One of the missing links is found in A. Volusius Saturninus, whose name appears on a coin of Antioch about A.D. 4 or 5. The fact that Quirinus appears as a rector, or special commissioner attached to Caius Cæsar, when he was sent to Armenia (Tac. Ann. iii. 48), at some period before A.D. 4, the year in which Caius died—probably between B.C. 4 and 1—shows that he was in the East at this time, and we may therefore fairly look on St. Luke as having supplied the missing link in the succession, or at least as confirming the statement that Quirinus was in some office of authority in the East, if not as præses, or proconsul then as quætor or Imperial Commissioner. Tacitus, however, records the fact that he triumphed over a Cilician tribe (the Homonadenses) after his consulship; and, as Cilicia was, at that time, attached to the province of Syria, it is probable that he was actually “governor” in the stricter sense of a term somewhat loosely used. St. Luke is, on this view, as accurate in his history here as he is proved to be in all other points where he comes in contact with the contemporary history of the empire, and the true meaning is found by emphasising the adjective, “This enrolment was the first under Quirinus’s government of Syria.” He expressly distinguishes it, i.e., from the more memorable “taxing” of which Gamaliel speaks (Acts 5:37). St. Luke, it may be noted, is the only New Testament writer who uses the word. Justin Martyr, it may be added, confidently appeals to Roman registers as confirming St. Luke’s statement that our Lord was born under Quirinus.

Verse 3

(3) All went to be taxed.—As a rule the practice in a Roman census was to register people in their place of residence; but this was probably modified in Palestine, in deference to the feelings of the people. After the death of Herod and the division of his kingdom, such a method as that implied hero could hardly have been feasible, as the subjects of one tetrarchy would not have been registered as belonging to another, so that here again we have not an error, but a special note of accuracy.

Verse 4

(4) Unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.—St. Luke’s way of speaking of the town agrees with that in John 7:42. It would appear to have been common. It had never ceased to glory in the fact that it had been David’s city.

Of the house and lineage of David.—Others also as, for example, Hillel, the great scribe—boasted of such a descent. What, on one hypothesis, was the special prerogative of Joseph was that the two lines of natural descent and inheritance—that through Nathan and that through Solomon—met in him. (See, however, Note on Luke 3:23.) It is possible that the two nearly synonymous words, “house” and “lineage,” may have been used as referring to this union.

Verse 5

(5) To be taxed.—Literally, to register himself.

With Mary his espoused wife.—Many of the best MSS. omit the substantive: “with Mary who was betrothed to him.” The choice of the participle seems intended to imply the fact on which St. Matthew lays stress (Matthew 1:25). She went up with him, not necessarily because she too had to be registered at Bethlehem, but because her state, as “being great with child,” made her, in a special sense, dependent on Joseph’s presence and protection.

Verse 7

(7) She brought forth her first-born son.—On the question whether anything may be inferred from the word “first-born,” as to the subsequent life of Mary and Joseph, see Note on Matthew 1:25.

Wrapped him in swaddling clothes.—After the manner of the East, then, as now, these were fastened tightly round the whole body of the child, confining both legs and arms.

Laid him in a manger.—A tradition found in the Apocryphal Gospel of the Infancy fixes a cave near Bethlehem as the scene of the Nativity, and Justin Martyr finds in this a fulfilment of the LXX. version of Isaiah 33:16, “His place of defence shall be in a lofty cave.” Caves in the limestone rocks of Judæa were so often used as stables, that there is nothing improbable in the tradition. The present Church of the Nativity has beneath it a natural crypt or cavern, in which St. Jerome is said to have passed many years, compiling his Latin translation (that known as the Vulgate) of the Sacred Scriptures. The traditional ox and ass, which appear in well-nigh every stage of Christian art in pictures of the Nativity, are probably traceable to a fanciful interpretation of Isaiah 1:3, which is, indeed, cited in the Apocryphal Gospel ascribed to St. Matthew, as being thus fulfilled.

There was no room for them in the inn.—The statement implies that the town was crowded with persons who had come up to be registered there—some, perhaps, exulting, like Joseph, in their descent from David. The inn of Bethlehem—what in modern Eastern travel is known as a khan or caravanserai, as distinct from a hostelry (the “inn” of Luke 10:34)—offered the shelter of its walls and roofs, and that only. It had a memorable history of its own, being named in Jeremiah 41:17, as the “inn of Chimham,” the place of rendezvous from which travellers started on their journey to Egypt. It was so called after the son of Barzillai, whom David seems to have treated as an adopted son (2 Samuel 19:37-38), and was probably built by him in his patron’s city as a testimony of his gratitude.

Verse 8

(8) Shepherds abiding in the field.—The fact has been thought, on the supposition that sheep were commonly folded during the winter months, to have a bearing adverse to the common traditional view which fixes December 25 as the day of the Nativity. At that season, it has been urged, the weather was commonly too inclement for shepherds and sheep to pass the night in the open air, and there was too little grass for pasturage. In summer, on the other hand, the grass on the hills is rapidly burnt up. The season at which the grass is greenest is that just before the Passover (Mark 6:39; John 6:10); and, on the whole, this appears the most probable date. The traditional season, which does not appear as such till the fourth century, may have been chosen for quite other reasons—possibly to displace the old Saturnalia, which coincided with the winter solstice. It is noticeable that the earliest Latin hymns connected with the festival of Christmas dwell on the birth as the rising of the Sun of Righteousness on the world’s wintry darkness.

Keeping watch.—Literally, keeping their night-watches, as in Matthew 14:25. Who the shepherds were, or why they were thus chosen as the first to hear the glad tidings, we cannot know. Analogy suggests the thought that it was an answer to their prayers, the fulfilment of their hopes, that they, too, were looking for “the consolation of Israel.” We may venture, perhaps, to think of the shepherds of Bethlehem as cherishing the traditions of David’s shepherd-life, and the expectations which, as we know from Matthew 2:5, John 7:42, were then current throughout Judæa—that the coming of the Christ was not far off, and that Bethlehem was to witness His appearing, as thus gaining a higher spiritual receptivity than others. The statement in the Mishna that the sheep intended for sacrifice in the Temple were pastured in the fields of Bethlehem, gives a special interest to the fact thus narrated, and may, perhaps, in part, explain the faith and devotion of the shepherds. They had been rejoicing, at the Paschal season, over the spring-tide birth of the lambs of their flocks. They now heard of the birth of “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Verse 9

(9) Came upon them.—The Greek verb, like the English, implies a sudden appearance. The form of the angel was probably, as in Mark 16:5, that of a young man in white apparel. (See Note on Luke 1:12). The wings of angels are, without exception, an after-thought of Christian imagination, those of Isaiah 6:2, Ezekiel 1:6, Revelation 4:8, being connected with the mysterious figures of the cherubim, the “living creatures” seen in apocalyptic vision.

The glory of the Lord . . .—The word suggests the thought of the Shechinah, or cloud of intolerable brightness, which was the token of the divine presence in the Tabernacle and the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-11; Isaiah 6:1-3). (See Note on John 1:14.) Never before had there been such a manifestation to such men as these. What had been the privilege of patriarchs and priests was now granted to shepherds, and the first proclamation of the glad tidings was to those who were poor in their outward life as well as in spirit.

Verse 10

(10) Fear not.—It is worth noting that this is almost the normal accompaniment of the angelic manifestations in the Gospel (Matthew 28:5-10; Luke 1:13; Luke 1:30). They were intended to lessen, not to increase the dread which men feel on being brought into contact with the supernatural world.

I bring you good tidings.—The verb is formed from the word for glad tidings, which we translate as “gospel”—i.e., good spell, good news.

Which shall be to all people.—Better, to all the people. The words point, in the first instance, to the joy which shall be for Israel as God’s “people,” and as such distinguished from the other “nations” of the world. (Comp. Luke 2:32.)

Verse 10-11

Good Tidings of Great Joy

And the angel said unto them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.—Luke 2:10-11.

1. To the evangelist and to Christian faith the coming of Jesus into the world is the great event in its history. We divide time into the Christian era and the era before Christ. Yet we cannot be sure of the very year when Christ was born, any more than of the very year when He died; and though St. Luke was anxious to date the birth precisely, as we see from Luke 2:1-2, there are unsolved difficulties connected with the census which we have simply to acknowledge. That the Day-spring from on high visited the world to give light to them that sit in darkness is undoubted, though we may not be able to tell the hour of its rising.

The narrative of St. Luke is the most wonderful and beautiful in Holy Scripture, and has always touched the hearts of men. Not that Christmas, as we call it, was from the beginning the great festival of believers. On the contrary, the great festival of the early Church was Easter, the day of the resurrection. It was not till the thirteenth century that the infant Christ and the manger came to have the place they now hold in the thoughts and affections of Christians, and this was greatly due to the influence of Francis of Assisi, who visited Bethlehem and wept with holy joy over the lowly birth of the Saviour. He diffused his own devotion when he returned to Italy, and great artists found in the stable and the manger, the ox and the ass (borrowed from Isaiah 1:3), the mother and the Child, the shepherds and the angels, the highest inspirations of their genius.

2. It is long since the shepherds near Bethlehem beheld in the clear eastern sky the glory of the Lord, and heard the voice of the heavenly messenger proclaiming, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” Centuries have rolled by, but the lustre of that night has not passed away. The tones of that message have been caught and repeated by an increasing number of God-sent messengers. They swell in volume and majesty and power until now from all parts of the world the grand chorus resounds, filling the air with its message of joy and hope and faith and love, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!”


The Circumstances

1. The Shepherds

There were many great men and many wealthy men in Palestine. There were scholars of the most profound and various learning. There were lean ascetics who had left the joys of home, and gone away to pray and fast in deserts. But it was not to any of these that the angels came, and it was not in their ears that the music sounded; the greatest news that the world ever heard was given to a group of humble shepherds. Few sounds from the mighty world ever disturbed them. They were not vexed by any ambition to be famous. They passed their days amid the silence of nature; and to the Jew nature was the veil of God. They were men of a devout and reverent spirit, touched with a sense of the mystery of things, as shepherds are so often to this day. Is it not to such simple and reverent spirits that God still reveals Himself in amplest measure? How fitting it was, too, that shepherds should be chosen, when we remember how the Twenty-third Psalm begins, and when we reflect that the Babe born in Bethlehem was to be the Good Shepherd giving His life for the sheep.

The Lord manifested to the sage, the sovereign, is now manifest to the shepherd. This last was peculiarly significant of the genius of Christianity. The people need Christ. They have their share of sin, suffering, sorrow. They deeply need the grace, consolations, and strengthening of the Gospel. The people are capable of Christ. Without the intellectual distinction of the Magi, or the social eminence of Herod, they have the essential greatness of soul which renders them capable of Christ and of His greatest gifts. The people rejoice in Christ. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen.” From that day to this a new glory has shone on all common scenes, a new joy has filled the common heart that has been opened to the Prince of Peace, the Saviour of the World.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Gates of Dawn, 357.]

2. The Place

It is generally supposed that these anonymous shepherds were residents of Bethlehem; and tradition has fixed the exact spot where they were favoured with this Advent Apocalypse—about a thousand paces from the modern village. It is a historic fact that there was a tower near that site, called Eder, or “the Tower of the Flock,” around which were pastured the flocks destined for the Temple sacrifice; but the topography of Luke 2:8 is purposely vague. The expression, “in that same country,” would describe any circle within the radius of a few miles from Bethlehem as its centre, and the very vagueness of the expression seems to push back the scene of the Advent music to a farther distance than a thousand paces. And this view is confirmed by the language of the shepherds themselves, who, when the vision has faded, say one to another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing that is come to pass”; for they scarcely would have needed, or used, the adverbial “even” were they keeping their flocks so close up to the walls of the city. We may therefore infer, with some amount of probability, that, whether the shepherds were residents of Bethlehem or not, when they kept watch over their flocks, it was not on the traditional site, but farther away over the hills.

It is difficult, and very often impossible, for us to fix the precise locality of these sacred scenes, these bright points of intersection, where Heaven’s glories flash out against the dull carbon-points of earth; and the voices of tradition are at best but doubtful guesses. It would almost seem as if God Himself had wiped out these memories, hiding them away, as He hid the sepulchre of Moses, lest the world should pay them too great a homage, and lest we might think that one place lay nearer to Heaven than another, when all places are equally distant, or rather equally near. It is enough to know that somewhere on these lonely hills came the vision of the angels, perhaps on the very spot where David was minding his sheep when Heaven summoned him to a higher task, passing him up among the kings.1 [Note: Henry Burton.]

3. The Time

The time is significant. Night is the parent of holy thought,—the nurse of devout aspiration. Its darkness is often the chosen time for heavenly illumination. When earth is dark, heaven glows. The world was shrouded in night when Christ came, and into the thickest of its “gross darkness” His light burst. Yet the unobtrusiveness of His appearance, and the blending of secrecy with the manifestation of His power, are well typified by that glory which shone in the night, and was seen only by two or three poor men. The Highest came to His own in quietness, and almost stole into the world, and the whole life was of a piece with the birth and its announcement. There was the “hiding of His power.”

Christmas hath a darkness

Brighter than the blazing noon,

Christmas hath a dullness

Warmer than the heat of June,

Christmas hath a beauty

Lovelier than the world can show:

For Christmas bringeth Jesus,

Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,

Birds that sing and bells that ring;

Heaven hath answering music

For all Angels soon to sing:

Earth, put on your whitest

Bridal robe of spotless snow:

For Christmas bringeth Jesus,

Brought for us so low.2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Verses, 54.]

4. How simply the appearance of the single angel and the glory of the Lord is told! The evangelist thinks it the most natural thing in the world that heaven should send out its inhabitant on such an errand, and that the symbol of the Divine presence should fill the night with sudden splendour, which paled the bright Syrian stars. So it was, if that birth were what he tells us it was—the coming into human life of the manifest Deity. If we think of what he is telling, his quiet tone is profoundly impressive. The Incarnation is the great central miracle, the object of devout wonder to “principalities … in heavenly places.” And not only do angels come to herald and to adore, but “the glory of the Lord,” that visible brightness which was the token of God’s presence between the cherubim and had been hid in the secret of the sanctuary while it shone, but which had for centuries been absent from the Temple, now blazes with undestructive light on the open hillside, and encircles them and the friendly angel by their side. What did that mean but that the birth of Jesus was the highest revelation of God, henceforth not to be shut within the sanctuary, but to be the companion of common lives, and to make all sacred by its presence? The glory of God shines where Christ is, and where it shines is the temple.

And now the day draws nigh when Christ was born;

The day that showed how like to God Himself

Man had been made, since God could be revealed

By one that was a man with men, and still

Was one with God the Father; that men might

By drawing nigh to Him draw nigh to God,

Who had come near to them in tenderness.1 [Note: G. MacDonald, “Within and Without” (Poetical Works, i. 52).]


The Preface to the Message

1. Reassurance

“Be not afraid.” This was the first bidding sent from heaven to men when Jesus Christ was born. It was no new message of reassurance; again and again in a like need a like encouragement had been vouchsafed: to Abraham, to Isaac, to Gideon, to Daniel, to Zacharias, the same tranquillizing, helpful words had come from the considerateness and gentleness that are on high. But to the shepherds of Bethlehem they came with a new power and significance. For now they had their final warrant upon earth; those attributes of God, those truths of the Divine Nature upon which the bidding rested, had their perfect expression now in a plain fact of human history. The birth of Jesus Christ was the answer, the solvent for such fears as rushed upon the shepherds when “the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them.” They feared, as the mystery and stillness of the night were broken by that strange invasion, what might follow it. “And the angel said unto them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.” Within that glory was the love of God; and all that it might disclose must come from Him who so loved the world that He had sent His Son to be born, to suffer, and to die for men. There must, indeed, be awe in coming near to God, in realizing how near He comes to us: but it is like the awe with which even earthly goodness, greatness, wisdom at their highest touch us; it is not like our terror of that which is arbitrary and unaccountable. God dwells in depths of burning light, such as the eyes of sinful men can never bear: but the light itself, with all it holds, streams forth from love, and is instinct, informed, aglow with love.

These words which the angel spoke were but anticipations of the words with which Jesus Himself has made us familiar. They were His favourite words. He might have borrowed them from the angel, or more likely given them to the angel in advance. We hear from His own lips continually—“Fear not.” He meets us at every turn of life with that cheery invocation. He passed through His ministry day by day repeating it. It was the watchword of His journey and warfare. The disciples heard it every time they were troubled, cast down, and afraid. When they fell at His feet trembling, He lifted them up with the words “Fear not!” When their ship was sinking in the storm, they heard the cry “Fear not!” When they shivered at the thought of all the foes and dangers which awaited them, there came reassurance with the voice, “Fear not, little flock.” When He was leaving them, one of His last words was: “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

Christ has been speaking that word ever since. He came to speak it. He came to deliver man from those fears. He smiles upon our fears to-day. He almost laughs them away in the sunshine of His power and confidence. The Incarnation is God’s answer to human gloom, despondency, and pessimism. What are you afraid of? it says. Am I not with you always to the end? And all power is given unto Me in heaven and on earth. You are afraid of your sins? Fear not! I am able to save to the uttermost. You are afraid of the world, the flesh, and the devil? Fear not! I have overcome the world, and cast out the prince of the world. You are afraid of your own weakness? Fear not! All things are possible to him that believeth. You are afraid of life’s changes and uncertainties? Fear not! The Father hath given all things into My hands. You are afraid of death and bereavement? Fear not! I have conquered and abolished death. You are afraid of all the ominous signs of the times, the perils of religion and the shakings of the Church? Fear not! I am the first, the last, the Almighty, and the rock against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.1 [Note: J. G. Greenhough, Christian Festivals and Anniversaries, 207.]

Thought could not go on much longer with its over-emphasis of the Atonement and its under-emphasis of the Incarnation without losing its relation to human society. The Atonement, as something done for and upon man, leaving him not an actor but a receiver, threw him out of gear with the modern idea of personality. This idea was rather to be found in the Incarnation, the inmost meaning of which is Divine Fatherhood and obedient Sonship. It means Christ, not dying for man to fill out some demand of government, but living in man in order to develop his Divineness, or, as Bushnell phrased it, that he might become “Christed.” It was getting to be seen that whatever Christianity is to do for man must be done through the Incarnation; that is, through the oneness of God and humanity, the perfect realization of which is to be found in the Christ.2 [Note: T. T. Munger, Horace Bushnell, 399.]

2. Universal joy

The angel’s message matches with the Jewish minds he addresses. The great joy he proclaims is to be, not for all people, but for all the people—that is, Israel; the Saviour who has been born in David’s city is the Messianic King for whom Israel was waiting. This was not all the truth, but it was as much as the shepherds could take in.

The Jews said, There is a Gospel—to the Jews. And when the Gospel went out beyond the Jews the Roman Catholic Church said, There is a Gospel—to the baptized. And they collected them together by the thousand in India, and sprinkled water on them, so as to give them a chance to be saved. Calvin, who has been condemned for his doctrine of election, by it broadened out the Church idea of salvation. When men said, Only Jews can be saved, when men said, Only the baptized can be saved, Calvin said, Anyone can be saved. It is for those who have been baptized, and for those who have not been baptized; it is for those who are Jews, and for those who are Gentiles; it is for those who are old enough to accept the Gospel, and it is for the little children not old enough to accept the Gospel. God can save anyone He will. That is the doctrine of election. And now we are growing to a broader view than this. It is not for the Jew only, but for the Gentile; not for the baptized only, but also for the unbaptized; not for the elect only, but for the non-elect, if there could be any non-elect; not only for those who have heard it, but for those who have not heard it. This is the message of glad tidings and joy which shall be for all people. It is salvation for “all people.”1 [Note: L. Abbott, in Christian Age, xli. (1892) 84.]

How could I tell my joy to my brother if it were not a universal joy? I can tell my grief to the glad, but not my gladness to the grieving. I dare not spread my banquet at the open window, where the hungry are passing by. Therefore, oh! my Father, I rejoice that Thou hast sent into my heart a ray of glory which is not alone for me. I rejoice that Thou hast given me a treasure which I need not hide from my brother. I rejoice that the light which sparkles in my pool is not from the candle, but from the moon. The candle is for me, but the moon is for all. Put out my candle, oh! my Father. Extinguish the joy that is proud of being unshared. Lower the lamp which shines only on my own mirror. Let down the lights that make a wall between myself and the weary. And over the darkness let there rise the star—Bethlehem’s star, humanity’s star, the star that shines for one because it shines for all.2 [Note: G. Matheson, Searchings in the Silence, 52.]


The Message

1. “There is born … a Saviour.” A Saviour! What a thrill of joy must have shot through the hearts of these astonished men as they listened to the word of wondrous import. A Saviour! Then indeed man is to be saved! Through the long, dark, weary ages man had been groaning in miserable captivity to the tyrant powers of sin, and nothing was more evident than this, that he had lost all power of saving himself. Now, at last, another is going to undertake his helpless cause. He who of old heard the cry of the Israelites in Egypt under the taskmaster’s whip, and saw the anguish of their heart while they toiled under the cruel bondage of Pharaoh—He who sent them a saviour in the person of Moses, and who subsequently again and again delivered them from their enemies by raising up a Saviour for them, He had at length undertaken the cause of ruined humanity, and was about to deliver a sin-bound world. A Saviour, and the champion of our race, was actually born and in their midst, ready soon to enter on His mysterious conflict, and to work out a complete deliverance, a full salvation. This was indeed glad tidings of great joy. This was the dawning of a new epoch. The Day-spring from on high was surely visiting a darkened, sin-shadowed world.

The birth of any man child is an interesting event—another added to the many million lives, to the multitude which none can number, who are to stand before the judgment-seat of God; another life from the birth-source, which shall flow on through the channel of mortal life, the gulf of death, and the underground channel of the grave, to the boundless ocean of eternity:—for, once born, one must hold on to think, and live, and feel for ever. Such is the birth of every one who has his time to be born behind him, and his time to die before him still. But how intensely interesting the birth of that child whose name is called “Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” but for whose birth we all must have died eternally, and but for whose birth, it would have been better none of us had been born.1 [Note: Life of Robertson of Irvine (by A. Guthrie), 256.]

Christ goes out into the world. He heals the sick, He feeds the hungry, He comforts the afflicted. But in all the healing and helping this one message He repeats, in different forms, over and over again: “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” They let down a paralytic through the roof of a house before Him, and this is His message: “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” A woman kneels before Him and washes His feet with her tears and wipes them with the hairs of her head, and this is His message: “Go in peace, and sin no more.” They nail Him to the cross, and His prayer breathes the same message: “Father, forgive them.” There hangs by the side of Him a brigand who has gone through sins of murder and robbery. He looks upon him with compassion, and says: “This day thou shalt be with me in paradise.” He is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is more than healing the sick, more than feeding the hungry, more than clothing the naked, more than educating the ignorant; this is taking off the great burden under which humanity has been crushed.1 [Note: Lyman Abbott.]

2. “There is born … Christ.” He was born the Messiah, the Anointed One of Israel. To Israel He came fulfilling all the ancient covenant promises, and bringing with Him the “tender mercies of our God.” He is that Seed of the woman announced and promised to Adam and Eve in the garden, whose mission it was to bruise the serpent’s head. He was and is that Seed of Abraham “in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed”, of whom Balaam prophesied and said, “I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.” He was and is the One whose day Abraham saw afar off and was glad. He was and is that Wonderful Counsellor of whom Isaiah prophesied, the root out of a dry ground, whose “visage was so marred more than any man”; who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, on whom the Lord caused all our iniquities to meet; the “prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren” whom Moses foresaw and whom he bade all Israel hear; the Stem of Jesse; the Branch of Zechariah; the Messenger of the Covenant and the Sun of Righteousness, arising with healing in His wings, whom Malachi foretold as being nigh. He is the sum and substance of all the ceremonial sacrifices and feasts of the Jews; in a word, He is that One of whom Moses in the Law and all the prophets did speak and all the Psalmists sang.

He might have come in regal pomp,

With pealing of Archangel trump—

An angel blast as loud and dread

As that which shall awake the dead …

He came not thus; no earthquake shock

Shiver’d the everlasting rock;

No trumpet blast nor thunder peal

Made earth through all her regions reel;

And but for the mysterious voicing

Of that unearthly choir rejoicing;

And but for that strange herald gem,

The star which burned o’er Bethlehem,

The shepherds, on His natal morn,

Had known not that the God was born.

There were no terrors, for the song

Of peace rose from the seraph throng;

On wings of love He came—to save,

To pluck pale terror from the grave,

And on the blood-stain’d Calvary

He won for man the victory.1 [Note: N. T. Carrington.]

3. “There is born … the Lord.”

(1) In the Child born at Bethlehem we find God.—How steadily do the angel’s words climb upwards, as it were, from the cradle to the throne. He begins with the lowly birth, and then rises, step by step, each word opening a wider and more wonderful prospect, to “that climax beyond which there is nothing—that this infant is “the Lord.” The full joy and tremendous wonder of the first word are not felt till we read the last. The birth is the birth of “the Lord.” We cannot give any but the highest meaning to that sacred name, which could have but one meaning to a Jew. It was much that there was born a Saviour—much that there was born a Messiah. Men need a deliverer, and the proclamation here is best kept in its widest meaning—as of one who sets free from all ills outward and inward, and brings all outward and inward good. The Saviour of men must be a man, and therefore it is good news that He is born. It was much that Messiah should be born. The fulfilment of the wistful hopes of many generations, the accomplishment of prophecy, the Divine communication of the Spirit which fitted kings and priests of old for their work, the succession to David’s throne, were all declared in that one announcement that the Christ was born in David’s city. But that last word, “the Lord,” crowns the wonder and the blessing, while it lays the only possible foundation for the other two names.

If, on the one hand, man’s Saviour must be man, on the other, He must be more than man; and nothing short of a Divine man can heal the wounds of mankind, or open a fountain of blessing sufficient for their needs. Unless God become man, there can be no Saviour; nor can there be any Christ. For no mere humanity can bear the full gift of the Divine Spirit, which is Messiah’s anointing for His office, nor discharge that office in all its depth and breadth. Many in this day try to repeat the angel’s message, and leave out the last word, and then they wonder that it stirs little gladness and works no salvation. Let us be sure that, unless the birth at Bethlehem was the Incarnation of Deity, it would have called forth no angel songs, nor will it work any deliverance or bring any joy to men.

A God in the sky will never satisfy men and women upon earth. God on the mountain will never suffice man on the plain. True, it is much, very much, to know that God is in heaven, “The high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity,” above earth’s petty discords and changing views and selfish passions. But this falls short, pitiably short, of man’s demands. It is, at best, an icy creed, and not, by itself, the warm, loving creed of the Christian. For it leaves a gulf between God and man, with no bridge to pass over. It is the difference between Olympus and Olivet. What—so the heart will ask—is the good of a God “above the bright blue sky,” when I am down here upon earth? What intimatcy can there be between “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity” and an earth-born being such as I am? How could the missionaries persuade men that such a God loved them, cared for them, felt with them? How, indeed, could God Himself so persuade men, save by coming and living among them, sharing their lives, experiencing their temptations, drinking the “vinegar and gall” which they drank, suffering in the flesh as they suffered? There was no other way. Hence the Incarnation. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

It is related of a celebrated musician that, when asked to compose a National Anthem for the people of another country, he went and lived with them, studied them from within, shared their poverty, became one with them that he might become one of them, and was thus, and only thus, enabled to express their feelings in his music. This is what God did at the Incarnation.1 [Note: E. E. Holmes, The Days of the Week, 42.]

When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the finite met the Infinite—the temporal, the Eternal. Heaven and earth coalesced, not in semblance, but in reality; not by proxy, but in the wonderful Person that combined the highest characteristics of both. In Him all fulness—the fulness of the Creator and the fulness of the creature—dwelt bodily. All things were gathered together in one in Him—both those which are in the heavens and those which are in the earth—even in Him. His Incarnation was the crowning miracle of grace, as the creation of man was the crowning miracle of nature.1 [Note: H. Macmillan, The Garden and the City, 32.]

“If Moslems,” Lull argued, “according to their law affirm that God loved man because He created him, endowed him with noble faculties, and pours His benefits upon him, then the Christians according to their law affirm the same. But inasmuch as the Christians believe more than this, and affirm that God so loved man that He was willing to become man, to endure poverty, ignominy, torture, and death for his sake, which the Jews and Saracens do not teach concerning Him, therefore is the religion of the Christians, which thus reveals a Love beyond all other love, superior to that of those which reveals it only in an inferior degree.” Islam is a loveless religion. Raymund Lull believed and proved that Love could conquer it. The Koran denies the Incarnation, and so remains ignorant of the true character not only of the Godhead but of God.2 [Note: S. M. Zwemer, Raymund Lull, 140.]

We make far too little of the Incarnation; the Fathers knew much more of the incarnate God. Some of them were oftener at Bethlehem than at Calvary; they had too little of Calvary, but they knew Bethlehem well. They took up the Holy Babe in their arms; they loved Immanuel, God with us. We are not too often at the cross; but we are too seldom at the cradle; and we know too little of the Word made flesh, of the Holy Child Jesus.3 [Note: “Rabbi” Duncan, in Recollections by A. Moody Stuart, 167.]

(2) Though Divine yet is He human.—Behold what manner of love God hath bestowed upon us that He should espouse our nature! For God had never so united Himself with any creature before. His tender mercy had ever been over all His works; but they were still so distinct from Himself that a great gulf was fixed between the Creator and the created, so far as existence and relationship are concerned. The Lord had made many noble intelligences, principalities, and powers of whom we know little; we do not even know what those four living creatures may be who are nearest the Eternal Presence; but God had never taken up the nature of any of them, nor allied Himself with them by any actual union with His Person. He has, however, allied Himself with man: He has come into union with man, and therefore He loves him unutterably well and has great thoughts of good towards him.

The fact that such intimate union of the Divine with the human is possible unveils the essential Godlikeness of man. His nature is capable of receiving Divine indwelling. There is such affinity between God and him that the fulness of the Godhead can dwell bodily in a man. Christianity has often been accused of gloomy, depressing views of human nature; but where, in all the dreams of superficial exalters of manhood, is there anything so radiant with hope as the solid fact that the eternal Son of God has said of it, “Here will I dwell, for I have desired it”? Christianity has no temptation to varnish over the dark realities of man as he is, for it knows its power to make him what he was meant to be.

So we have to look on the child Christ as born “to give the world assurance of a man,” or, in modern phraseology, to realize the ideal of human nature. That birth in the manger was the first appearance of the shoot from the dry stump of the Davidic house, which was to flower into “a plant of renown,” and fill the world with its beauty and fragrance. One thinks of the “loveliness of perfect deeds,” the continual submission to the loved will of the Father, the tranquillity unbroken, the uninterrupted self-suppression, the gentle immobility of resolve, the gracious words, bright with heavenly wisdom, warm with pure love, throbbing with quick pity, as one gazes on the “young child,” and would, with the strangers from the East, bring homage and offerings thither. There is the dawn of a sun without a spot; the headwaters of a mighty stream without stain or perturbation in all its course.

The story tells us that Christ Himself was as poor and as unfamed as the shepherds—yet all Heaven was with Him. No trumpet-flourish told His coming, no posts rode swift from town to town to announce His Kingship. Earth and its glory took no notice of One who was laid in a manger. But far above in the world beyond, where earthly glory hath no praise, and earth no power, and rank no dignity, the Child who lived to love and die for men, was celebrated among the heavenly host. All the courts of Heaven began to praise God for the little Child for whom there was no shelter on earth but a cave in the rocks, Christianity has restored humanity to Prayer of Manasseh 1:1 [Note: Stopford A. Brooke, Sunshine and Shadow, 191.]

“What means that star,” the Shepherds said,

“That brightens through the rocky glen?”

And angels, answering overhead,

Sang, “Peace on earth, good-will to men!”

’Tis eighteen hundred years and more

Since those sweet oracles were dumb;

We wait for Him, like them of yore;

Alas, He seems so slow to come!

But it was said, in words of gold

No time or sorrow e’er shall dim,

That little children might be bold

In perfect trust to come to Him.

All round about our feet shall shine

A light like that the wise men saw,

If we our loving wills incline

To that sweet Life which is the Law.

So shall we learn to understand

The simple faith of shepherds then,

And, clasping kindly hand in hand,

Sing, “Peace on earth, good-will to men!”

And they who do their souls no wrong,

But keep at eve the faith of morn,

Shall daily hear the angel-song,

“To-day the Prince of Peace is born!”2 [Note: J. R. Lowell, A Christmas Carol.]

Good Tidings of Great Joy


Aitken (W. H. M. H.), The Revealer Revealed, 1.

Alexander (W.), Leading Ideas of the Gospels, 148.

Askew (E. A.), The Service of Perfect Freedom, 32.

Austin (G. B.), The Beauty of Goodness, 202.

Blake (R. E.), Good News from Heaven, 1.

Brooke (S. A.), The Kingship of Love, 215.

Carter (T. T.), Meditations on the Hidden Life of our Lord, i. 44.

Channing (W. E.), The Perfect Life, 215.

Collins (W.E.), Hours of Insight, 124.

Craigie (J. A.), The Country Pulpit, 49.

Doney (C. G.), The Throne-Room of the Soul, 95.

Ellicott (C. J.), Sermons at Gloucester, 11.

Greenhough (J. G.), Christian Festivals and Anniversaries, 204.

Hancock (T.), The Pulpit and the Press, 41.

Hare (J. C.), Sermons Preacht in Herstmonceux Church, ii. 167.

Harper (F.), A Year with Christ, 14.

Leathes (A. S.), The Kingdom Within, 1, 15.

Macmillan (H.), The Garden and the City, 31.

Marjoribanks (T.), The Fulness of the Godhead, 44.

Massillon (J. B.), Sermons, 407.

Miller (J.), Sermons Literary and Scientific, i. 211.

Moody (A.), “Buy the Truth!” 29.

Morrison (G. H.), The Footsteps of the Flock, 385.

Murray (W. H.), The Fruits of the Spirit, 201, 485.

Parker (J.), The City Temple, iii. 307.

Peabody (F. G.), Mornings in the College Chapel, i. 76.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xii. (1866), No. 727; xvii. (1871), No. 1026; xxii. (1876), No. 1330.

Thorne (H.), Notable Sayings of the Great Teacher, 250.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), New Ser., xix. (1881), No. 1171; xxi. (1882), No. 1204; xxvi. (1886), No. 1309.

Watkinson (W. L.), The Education of the Heart, 247.

Christian Age, xli. 83 (Lyman Abbott).

Christian World Pulpit, xliv. 161 (J. O. Dykes); lxxiv. 409 (W. D. Lukens).

Homiletic Review, xxxiv. 43 (E. D. Guerrant); xlviii. 459 (W. D. Lukens); liv. 461 (W. A. Quayle); lxiii. 51 (J. Denney).

Verse 12

(12) This shall be a sign unto you.—The sign was not such in itself, but became so by its agreement with the prediction. It was something exceptional that a new-born infant should be found, not in a cradle, but in a manger; still stranger that that infant babe should be the heir of the House of David.

Verse 13

(13) A multitude of the heavenly host.—The phrase, or its equivalent, “the host of heaven,” is common in the later books of the Old Testament, but is there used as including the visible “hosts” of sun, moon, and stars, which were worshipped by Israel (Jeremiah 8:2; Jeremiah 19:13; 2 Chronicles 33:3). In this sense we find it in St. Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:42). Here it is obviously used of the angels of God as forming the armies of the great King. The great name of the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of Sabaoth, was probably intended to include both the seen and the unseen hosts, the stars in the firmament, and the angels in heaven. Its use in the New Testament is confined to these two passages. The Hebrew word is found, in Old Testament quotations, in Romans 9:29, James 5:4.

Verse 13-14

The Song of the Heavenly Host

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased.—Luke 2:13-14.

1. In all the Christian year, in all the secular year, there is not a day that has gained the same heartiness of universal welcome as the kindly Christmas. Though Easter-day is chief in the Church’s Calendar, and though it comes in the hopeful spring with the first green leaves, when the most care-worn know some fitful waking-up of the old light-heartedness, it has never taken such hold of the common mind of our race as has the Sacred Festival that comes in the deadest days of the drear December, when in the wild winter-time “the heaven-born Child lay meanly-wrapt in the rude manger”; when those linked by blood, and early remembrances of the same fireside, but parted the long year through by the estranging necessities of life, strive to meet again, as in childhood, together; and all the innocent mirth, the revived associations, the kindly affection, are hallowed by the environing presence of the Birth-day of the Blessed Redeemer.

Like small curled feathers, white and soft,

The little clouds went by

Across the moon, and past the stars,

And down the western sky:

In upland pastures, where the grass

With frosted dew was white,

Like snowy clouds the young sheep lay

That first best Christmas night.

With finger on her solemn lip,

Night hushed the shadowy earth,

And only stars and angels saw

The little Saviour’s birth;

Then came such flash of silver light

Across the bending skies,

The wondering shepherds woke and hid

Their frightened, dazzled eyes!

And all their gentle sleepy flock

Looked up, then slept again,

Nor knew the light that dimmed the stars

Brought endless peace to men,—

Nor even heard the gracious words

That down the ages ring—

“The Christ is born! The Lord has come,

Goodwill on earth to bring!”

Then o’er the misty moonlit fields,

Dumb with the world’s great joy,

The shepherds sought the white-walled town

Where lay the baby boy—

And oh, the gladness of the world,

The glory of the skies,

Because the longed-for Christ looked up

In Mary’s happy eyes!1 [Note: Margaret Deland.]

In an Oxford College Chapel is a famous Nativity window. From the Infant, lying in the midst, light is made to stream on all around. So, through the Christmas chapter, ending with our text, light streams from the manger on the Christmas feast; tingeing alike its festivity and fun, its tender memories and associations, making it the Child’s Festival of all the year. Children understand it best, with a fulness of feeling and an implicitness of faith they lose in after years; but still to us older ones each Christmas freshens and recaptures something of our childish feelings—in hymn and carol, in family and neighbour greetings, in fireside merriment and kindliness, we feel again the tender softening emotion which was our childish tribute to the day. With shepherds, angels, kings, we once more go even unto Bethlehem, content if only, after failures and shortcomings past, chances missed, friends lost, aims unperformed, we may win and make our own the Christmas prize which the angels glorified and the Infant taught, anchoring our souls at last upon the steadfast dominating Peace which waits on gentle will.

The sacred chorus first was made

Upon the first of Christmas days.

The shepherds heard it overhead,

The joyful angels raised it then:

Glory to heaven on high it said,

And peace on earth to gentle men.

My song, save this, is little worth,

I lay my simple note aside,

And wish you health and love and mirth,

As fits the solemn Christmas tide,

As fits the holy Christmas birth;

Be this, good friends, our carol still,

Be peace on earth, be peace on earth,

To men of gentle will.1 [Note: W. Tuckwell, Nuggets from the Bible Mine, 144.]

2. In its liturgical use the “Gloria in Excelsis” contributed a precious element to the devotions of the Church, as was natural from its heavenly origin and its tone of glory and gladness. It was known as the “Angelic Hymn” (the “Sanctus” being in later time distinguished as the “Seraphic Hymn”). The name in course of time signified not only the words of the angels as used alone, but also the full form of praise and prayer and creed, of which those words became the opening and the groundwork. There are traces of this noble hymn as used in the Church from the most ancient times; and the Alexandrine Codex (close of fifth century) gives it at length at the end of the thirteenth Canticle of the Greek Church, entitling it a “Morning Hymn.” Early Latin translations with differences are found in various quarters, and it seems clear that when the well-known Latin form of the hymn was inserted in the Latin Psalters it was used in the daily or weekly hour services of the clergy.

The introduction of the hymn into the Eucharistic Office of the Western Church has been traditionally assigned to different popes, but it was certainly a part of that Office in the fifth and sixth centuries, and directions are given in the Sacramentaries as to occasions for its use. At times and in places it exhibited doctrinal variations, as in the form given in the Apostolical Constitutions, where it has received a shape possible for Arian use. On account probably of doctrinal diversities the fourth Council of Toledo, a.d. 633, directed that in churches only the primitive angelic words should be sung, without the additions composed, as they said, “by the doctors of the Church.” But this was a local and temporary restriction. The hymn, or “greater doxology,” as it was sometimes called, had its place at the opening of the service as it now has with us at the close. There is a fitness in either position.1 [Note: T. D. Bernard, Songs of the Holy Nativity, 116.]

3. This is not the earliest angelic hymn that is recorded or alluded to in Scripture. At the first creation, too, “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Whatever doubt there may be in respect of those “sons of God” mentioned in Genesis whose apostasy from Him did so much to hasten the flood, there can be no doubt or difficulty in regard of these. The “sons of God” here can be only the angels of heaven, the heavenly host; for there as yet existed no other who could claim, or be competitors with them for, this name. So was it at the first creation; and it might almost seem on this night of the Nativity as if a new creation had taken place, for now again we hear of “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Nor, if we thus judged, should we prove very wide of the truth. There is indeed now a new creation, and a new which is more glorious than the old. In the creation of the world God showed forth His power, His wisdom, His love; but in the foundation of the Church all these His attributes shine far more gloriously forth; and that Church was founded, the corner-stone of it, elect, precious, was securely laid, on that day when the Son of God, having taken upon Him our flesh, was born of a pure Virgin, and was laid in the manger at Bethlehem. Most fitly therefore was that day of the New Creation, which should repair and restore the breaches of the old, ushered in with hymns of gladness; most fitly did “the sons of God” once again shout for joy, and welcome, with that first Christmas carol which this dull earth ever heard, the birth of a Saviour and Restorer into the world.

Handel, entering fully into the spirit of this narrative, represents the angel as singing this announcement; and there can be no doubt that he is right. This was a grand solo sung by one of the leading choristers of heaven. But when the angel had sung his solo, his companions joined in the chorus—“Suddenly there was with him a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of good will.”1 [Note: D. Davies, Talks with Men, Women and Children, v. 385.]

4. This song of the angels, as we have been used to reading it, was a threefold message—of glory to God, peace on earth, and good will among men; but the better scholarship of the Revised Version now reads in the verse a twofold message. First, there is glory to God, and then there is peace on earth to the men of good will. Those, that is to say, who have the good will in themselves are the ones who will find peace on earth. Their unselfishness brings them their personal happiness. They give themselves in good will, and so they obtain peace. That is the true spirit of the Christmas season. It is the good will that brings the peace. Over and over again in these months of feverish scrambling for personal gain men have sought for peace and have not found it; and now, when they turn to this generous good will, the peace they sought comes of itself. Many a man in the past year has been robbed of his own peace by his misunderstandings or grudges or quarrels; but now, as he puts away these differences as unfit for the season of good will, the peace arrives. That is the paradox of Christianity. He who seeks peace does not find it. He who gives peace finds it returning to him again. He who hoards his life loses it, and he who spends it finds it:—

Not what we give, but what we share,

For the gift without the giver is bare;

Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,

Himself, his hungering neighbour, and Me.

That is the sweet and lingering echo of the angel’s song.

The second member of the hymn celebrates the blessing to mankind, according to the A.V., in the familiar words, “On earth peace, good will toward men”; or, according to the R.V., in the less graceful English, “Peace on earth among men in whom he is well pleased.” The literal renderings would be, in the first case, “On earth peace, in men good pleasure”; in the second, “On earth peace, in men of good pleasure.” Two different readings are thus represented, each of them supported by large authority. The difference is only in the presence or absence of a final letter.1 [Note: T. D. Bernard, Songs of the Holy Nativity, 162.]

Such was the text of the angels on the night of our Saviour’s birth; and to that text our Saviour’s life furnished the sermon. For it was a life of holiness and devotion to His Father’s service, a life spent in doing good to the bodies and souls of all around Him; and it was ended by a death undergone on purpose to reconcile man with God, and to set earth at peace with heaven. Here is a practical sermon on the angel’s text, the best of all sermons, a sermon not of words, but of deeds. Whoever will duly study that practical sermon, whoever with a teachable, inquiring heart will study the accounts of our Saviour’s words and actions handed down in the four Gospels, will need little else to enlighten him in the way of godliness.2 [Note: A. W. Hare, The Alton Sermons, 80.]


Glory to God

1. “Glory to God in the highest.” It is the first doxology of the gospel—brief words, yet bearing up the soul into illimitable regions of thought! Is it a proclamation—“There is glory to God in the highest”? or is it an ascription—“Glory be to God in the highest”? It is both; for ascriptions of praise are also proclamations of fact. Glory given to God is only some manifestation and effluence of His own glory, recognized by created intelligences, and reflected back in adoration and joy. So it is here. In the birth of a Saviour which is Christ the Lord, the mystery of the Kingdom has begun, and the glory of God has appeared. It is a glory of mercy to repair spiritual ruin, of wisdom to solve problems of sin and righteousness, of judgment to convict and condemn the powers of evil, of faithfulness to fulfil promises to prisoners of hope, of grace to conduct a history of salvation, of love to be manifested in the ages to come. This is the glory recognized by the heavenly host in the holy Nativity and celebrated in their responsive praise.

The first words of it are, Glory to God! and a most weighty lesson may we draw for ourselves, from finding the angels put that first. A world is redeemed. Millions on millions of human beings are rescued from everlasting death. Is not this the thing uppermost in the angels’ thoughts? Is not this mighty blessing bestowed on man the first thing that they proclaim? No, it is only the second thing: the first thing is, Glory to God! Why so? Because God is the Giver of this salvation; nay, is Himself the Saviour, in the person of the only-begotten Son. Moreover, because in heavenly minds God always holds the first place, and they look at everything with a view to Him. But if this was the feeling of the angels, it is clear we cannot be like angels until the same feeling is uppermost with us also. Would we become like them, we must strive to do God’s will as it is done in heaven; that is, because it is God’s will and because we are fully persuaded that whatever He wills must needs be the wisest and best thing to do, whether we can see the reasons of it or not.1 [Note: A. W. Hare, The Alton Sermons, 80.]

The religious faith on which my own art teaching is based never has been farther defined, nor have I wished to define it farther, than in the sentence beginning the theoretical part of Modern Painters: “Man’s use and purpose—and let the reader who will not grant me this, follow me no farther, for this I purpose always to assume—is to be the witness of the glory of God, and to advance that glory by his reasonable obedience and resultant happiness.”2 [Note: Ruskin, Epilogue to Modern Painters (Works, vii. 462).]

2. How does the coming of Christ bring glory to God? It displays all the attributes of God to advantage. The general arranges his forces to display his wisdom; the orator arranges his arguments to display his power; the philanthropist arranges his gifts and so displays his mercy. In the coming of Christ we see wisdom and power and mercy displayed in their fullest and sublimest manner. The whole character of God stands out resplendent in faithfulness and love. How many promises were fulfilled, how many obligations discharged by the coming of Jesus! By setting forth God in His highest glory it brings glory to Him.

The glory which lay hidden from eternity in the creative Mind began to disclose itself in the myriad forms of beauty abounding in the inorganic kingdom, in crystals of snow and ice, in sparkle of jewels, in the exquisite hues of precious stones, in splendour of sunrise and sunset, in glint of moonbeam and gleam of star, in cloud, wave and sky—then continued to unfold with ever-increasing beauty and wonder as Life, that great magician appeared, the waving of whose wand inaugurated the organic kingdom, and changed the face of all things into a new Creation. Thus the unveiling of the sublime purpose continued, till through rudimentary forms of sensations, intelligence, and love, in the vegetable and animal kingdoms, it blossomed into completer form in Man, and finally broke into all fruition in Christ the glory of Eternal Love unveiled.1 [Note: L. W. Caws, The Unveiled Glory, 64.]

3. But can God receive increase of glory, more than He has already? Is it not the very idea of God that He is infinitely glorious, and that this He always has been and ever will be? Assuredly so: in Himself He is as incapable of increase as of diminution of glory. But we may ascribe more glory to Him, more, that is, of the honour due unto His name, as we know Him more, as the infinite perfection of His being—His power, His wisdom, His love—is gradually revealed to us. So too may angels; and the heavenly host declare in this voice of theirs that the Incarnation of the Son of God was a new revelation, a new outcoming to them of the unsearchable riches of the wisdom, the power, the love, that are in God; that in that Church of the redeemed which now had become possible would be displayed mysteries of grace and goodness which transcended and surpassed all God’s past dealings with men or with angels.

We have St. Paul in the Epistle to the Ephesians declaring the same thing; that heaven was taught by what was done upon earth; that angels, as they stooped from the shining battlements on high and looked toward this dim speck of earth and on one obscure province of it, and at a little village, and to one lowliest household there, learned about the mind of God things which they had not learned standing upon the steps of the throne and beholding the unapproachable brightness of Him who sat thereon. Can we doubt this? Does not St. Paul declare that he was himself set to proclaim the mystery which from the beginning of the world had been hid in God, more or less concealed therefore from men and angels alike? And why to proclaim it? He proceeds to give the answer: “to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places”—in other words, to the angelic host—“might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God.” Here then is the explanation of the angels’ song, of this “Glory to God in the highest,” this melody of heaven, to bear a part in which they invite and challenge the listening children of men upon earth.

Of God’s goodwill to men, and to all creatures, for ever, there needed no proclamation by angels. But that men should be able to please Him,—that their wills should be made holy, and they should not only possess peace in themselves, but be able to give joy to their God, in the sense in which He afterwards is pleased with His own baptized Son;—this was a new thing for angels to declare, and for shepherds to believe.1 [Note: Ruskin, Val d’Arno, § 253 (Works, xxiii. 148).]

4. The glory thus manifested, apprehended, and given back, is “glory in the highest.” What is intended by this superlative? What noun shall we read into this adjective? Things, places, beings, realms of space, regions of thought, worlds of life? The unexplained word embraces and exceeds all these. At least the angels knew their meaning, cognizant as they are of the gradations and levels of creation, the lower and the higher, the higher and the highest. Men may employ such a word with vague and partial intention; but angels know whereof they affirm, and the single word declares the glory of God in this Nativity to be no secondary manifestation in the common level of human history, but a fresh effulgence of His highest attributes to which the highest heavens respond.

There are some who take the word “highest” to mean that there is glory to God in the highest degree by the coming of Christ. God is glorified in nature—“the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” He is glorified in every dew-drop that sparkles in the morning sun, and, in every tiny wood-flower that blossoms in the copse. Every bird that warbles on the spray, every lamb that skips the mead, glorifies God. All creation glorifies God. Do not the stars write His name in golden letters across the midnight sky? Are not the lightnings His sword flashing from His scabbard? Are not the thunders the roll-drums of His armies? From least to greatest the whole of creation tells forth His glory. But the majestic organ of creation cannot reach the compass of the organ of redemption. There is more melody in Christ than in all worlds. He brings glory to God in the very highest degree.

An Indian rajah has built over the grave of his favourite wife a mausoleum which is one of the wonders of the world. So perfectly and wonderfully is this built that a word spoken at the entrance proceeds from point to point and is distinctly re-echoed until it reaches the very topmost height. So would the angels have it to be in living glory to God. They would have all men praise God for His great love-gift, the praise proceeding higher and higher, gathering in volume as it proceeds, until it surges up against the throne of God, and bursts into the spray of ten thousand songs. Oh, let us praise Him! If angels did who were spectators, surely we ought who are recipients of such blessings. Let us say, “Highest! highest!”

Remember the words of Edward Perronet when dying, and try to catch his spirit:—

Glory to God in the height of His Divinity:

Glory to God in the depth of His Humanity:

Glory to God in His All-sufficiency.

Glory to God in the Highest!1 [Note: W. L. Mackenzie, Pure Religion, 105.]


Peace to Men

“Peace” how precious is the word! There is warmth in it. There is music in it. There is Heaven in it. What pictures it paints! We can see in this mirror-like word a hundred dear delights. A sky without a cloud. A sun whose rays are benignant. Fields rich in harvests, white-washed farmsteads looking cosy and clean on the hills and in the dales, cattle browsing in sweet content, workmen plying their common tasks in undisturbed serenity, no war or battle’s sound creating feelings of dread apprehension in human breasts anywhere. Oh, lovely peace! But other and sweeter images are in that word: men and women find reflexion therein, with happy faces aglow with innocent pleasure, no strife in their hearts, their passions orderly and under correct government, their feelings pure, their emotions, all noble, their aspirations all heavenly, their consciences tranquil at peace with themselves, their neighbours, with nature, and with God. This is the peace that Jesus brings. The angels’ song has set men dreaming, and the dreams are not unworthy; they have dreamt of peace in the workshop, the ending of the unhappy misunderstandings between master and man; peace in the home, the ending of all domestic disquietude; peace in the State, rival parties in unholy rivalry no longer, but all men’s good each man’s rule; peace betwixt the nations, the sword no longer to do its inhuman butchery, and the cannon no longer to be the cause of unspeakable horrors; but, beautiful as are all these dreams, and compassed as they are by the angels’ words, they fall far short of what Christ’s gift involves. The peace He gives is not superficial, but radical: it means, first of all, peace in man, peace at the centre of things. He does not make the profound mistake of beginning at the circumference; He works at the centre. He puts His peace into men, and the charm of it is sighted, and the power of it is felt, and the contagion of it is diffused. He influences the world within, and in that way the world without.

Placed in the midst of Europe, the Emperor was to bind its races into one body, reminding them of their common faith, their common blood, their common interest in each other’s welfare. And he was therefore, above all things, claiming indeed to be upon earth the representative of the Prince of Peace, bound to listen to complaints, and to redress the injuries inflicted by sovereigns or peoples upon each other; to punish offenders against the public order of Christendom; to maintain through the world, looking down as from a serene height upon the schemes and quarrels of meaner potentates, that supreme good without which neither arts nor letters, nor the gentler virtues of life, can rise and flourish. The mediæval Empire was in its essence what its modern imitators have sometimes professed themselves: the Empire was Peace: the oldest and noblest title of its head was “Imperator Pacificus.”1 [Note: J. Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire, 254.]

1. What then is this peace? Let us understand it as a fourfold personal peace.

(1) The peace of an illumined life.—No one can canvass the world’s literature, listen to his fellows, or interrogate his own heart, and be unaware how chafed and bewildered men are apart from Christ. We are capable of thought, but our reflexions are at times of a mutinous and melancholy order. We appeal to what we call the master-minds of the world, but as we note the earnest, far-away look in their eyes, the pallor on their countenances, the grave lines which thought has carved on their foreheads, and the note of interrogation which is ever and anon upon their lips, we are distressed to find that the secret of peace is not in dreaming, inquiring, speculating. We listen to science, and it seems to clash with all our best thoughts and feelings. We feel that there is a God, and it smiles at our weakness and whispers, No, only a Force; we feel that we are greater than we seem, and it talks seriously of matter as though we were only that; we feel we ought to pray, and it laughs at our credulity; we feel that our life is unending, and it points with cruel finger to the grave. Science does not calm us; it chafes us. Where, then, can peace be found? Not in ignorance, for darkness evermore distresses; not in superstition, for error is disquieting; not in unbelief, for men have flung away rare and long-cherished beliefs for the incertitudes of intellectual charlatans, only to find that peace has deserted them; not in literature, for many a book is only the foam of a storm-lashed mind, and not a few are the progeny of a diseased pessimism; not in the voices of the world, for strife of tongues is sadly discomposing. Then where? Thank Heaven, fooled though we be everywhere else, and disappointed with the pretty lanterns which men have hung out to lighten the gloom, we hear the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto me and rest,” and peace steals over us as He gives His gracious and sufficing answers to our sundry questions.

I had a deep peace which seemed to pervade the whole soul, and resulted from the fact that all my desires were fulfilled in God. I feared nothing; that is, considered in its ultimate results and relations, because my strong faith placed God at the head of all perplexities and events. I desired nothing but what I now had, because I had a full belief that, in my present state of mind, the results of each moment constituted the fulfilment of the Divine purposes. I do not mean to say that I was in a state in which I could not be afflicted. My physical system, my senses, had not lost the power of suffering. My natural sensibilities were susceptible of being pained. Oftentimes I suffered much. But in the centre of the soul, if I may so express it, there was Divine and supreme peace. The soul, considered in its connexion with the objects immediately around it, might at times be troubled and afflicted; but the soul, considered in its relation to God and the Divine will, was entirely calm, trustful and happy. The trouble at the circumference, originating in part from a disordered physical constitution, did not affect and disturb the Divine peace of the centre.1 [Note: Madame Guyon, in Life by T. C. Upham, 130.]

At the close of a sermon on the words, “The peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep (Gr. shall keep as by soldiers in a fortress) your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus,” Dr. Duncan came up to the preacher with his own summary of the text, clinching it with his sharp incisive “What?”—his constant mode of eliciting assent to a sentence which in his own judgment was both justly conceived and rightly worded. His beautiful paraphrase of the text was this: “Christ Jesus is the garrison, and Peace is the sentinel.”2 [Note: A. Moody Stuart, Recollections of John Duncan, 218.]

(2) The peace of a purified life.—We have had fair dreams of a peace which passeth all understanding. We have looked on the sea when it has been beautifully placid: of thunder there was none, but the waters made a murmuring music as they broke in cresting waves upon the beach. Can my life be like that? This imagination, can it be saved from the base dreams which are fatal to its pleasure? This memory, digging open long-closed graves and giving a resurrection to painful and hideous incidents, can it ever be satisfied? This conscience, may I ever hope for the silencing of its accusatory voices, the stilling of this inward thunder? This soul, which has so sadly damaged and deranged itself, can its equilibrium and equanimity ever be restored? Thank God, yes; in Jesus Christ we may find life and peace. Too impotent to emancipate ourselves from our bitter past, to free ourselves from, the burden of our sin, to rectify our self-inflicted wrongs, to dispose of the disabilities which are the fruit of our unrighteousness, He comes to our conscience, to pardon our iniquity, to change our nature, to renew our hearts. “Peace on earth”; yes, that is the meaning of Bethlehem and the story of the great humiliation; that is the teaching of Calvary, with its all-sufficient sacrifice; we have peace through the blood of the Cross, and only through that blood.

The Christian may have, must have, an outer life in the world, of training, toning, educating—in fact of “tribulation”; but with equal certainty he has a true life, an inner life, “in Christ.” The character of the inner life—as of the majestic life of the Eternal even in His Passion—is this, “in Me ye may have peace.” Examine, then, some of the conditions of the Mystery of Peace. And think, I have called it (and rightly, have I not?) a mystery. It is no mere acquiring the right of rest by the sacrifice of principle, it is no mere buying of freedom from disturbance at any price, it is no mere “making a solitude” and calling it “Peace.” No, it is an inner condition of soul realized, and blessed; and that it may be ours some conditions must be fulfilled. What are they? Sin must be forgiven, its weight removed, its tormenting sense of ever-reviving power attenuated, the wear and tear of its memories softened and relieved by penitential tears. This is a possibility of supernatural life; this is a result, a blessed outcome of life “in Christ.”1 [Note: W. J. Knox Little, The Mystery of the Passion, 168.]

(3) The peace of a harmonized life.—Not a little of our acutest misery is due to an internecine war which rages in man, and which makes itself felt subsequent to our forgiveness and renewal. The Apostle paints an elaborate picture of it in the seventh chapter of Romans, and calls our attention to that dual self of which every nature consists: the flesh and the spirit, the law of the members and the law of the mind. Both strive for the ascendancy, and full often the battle waxes hot. Virtue contends with vice, pure instincts with unholy tendencies, aspirations of the heavenliest with desires’ the most hellish. Assuredly this is never the life of peace our God intends us to find. The human soul was never meant to be the scene of conflict so terrible. Can it end? Is there a deliverer? Thank Heaven, the Apostle found an answer to his question. With unmistakable clearness his voice proclaims that the strife can end, the discord can cease “the life-long bleeding of the soul be o’er.” Listen to him: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”

Christ comes to restore our whole nature. As the able physician searches into the out-of-the-way places of our body, and shows no mercy to the microbes which would lay waste our earthly house, but drives them thence, so Jesus has no pity for our carnal self. He tears it out root and branch, destroying the works of the devil, and making man at one with Himself and at one with his God. And this is the way of peace: peace at any price is not the will of our Father. We are not to be content with the peace that comes from making concessions to the carnal nature, or with sundry respites from the more serious strife, but only with the peace that comes from the complete rout of the foe, deliverance from bondage to the flesh, the elimination of the law of antagonism, the restoration of our inner life to its original homogeneity. To be spiritually minded is life and peace. And this, too, is peace on earth.

Steep Cliff Bay is now a Christian village. A dramatic incident took place not long ago in the middle of a great native feast in North Raga. The biggest chief of the whole district was present—one of the few then still heathen. He stepped forward, and handing his war-club to the giver of the feast, announced that it was to be chopped up and distributed among the other chiefs as a declaration of peace and good-will.1 [Note: Florence Coombe, Islands of Enchantment, 10.]

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The household born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men!”1 [Note: H. W. Longfellow, Christmas Bells.]

(4) The peace of a solaced life.—We are not allowed to live our life untempted, untroubled. There are stern factors in human experience. There was a shadow even on the cradle of the World’s Redeemer, and the shadows are thick on the lives of many. We are mariners, and while sometimes it is fair sailing, at others fierce euroclydons threaten us with wholesale wreckage. There are times when life seems almost unendurable. The troubles of our hearts are enlarged, hell attacks us with unwonted ferocity, the world seems cold and callous, sorrow grips us like a tiger as if it would draw our last drop of blood. Bereavement sucks all the sunshine out of our landscape, tramples on our sweetest flowers, silences voices which gave us cheer. Alas! alas! for the riddles of this painful earth. Well, blessed be God, here again Christ is more than precious. He understands us perfectly. Has He not been in the thickest shadows? Has He not braved the dreadest storms? Has He not fought the gravest battles? He brings peace to the earth. Wet eyes He touches with kindly hand, broken hearts He comforts and heals, desolat homes He cheers by His presence, reeling lives He steadies and supports by His grace, and in life’s gravest vicissitudes He afford us the secret of tranquillity.

Peace is more than joy: it is love’s latest boon, and her fairest. I hesitate to speak of it: I know so little what it is One may have love in a measure, and joy many times, and yet be but a raw scholar in this art of peace. The speaker here, methinks, should be one far on in pilgrimage; or, if young in years, old and well-stricken in grace. “Well-stricken,” whether the rod have been heavy or light; weaned and quieted, like a child, from a child; or, though it “have burned the hair and bent the shoulders,” still weaned and quieted. “Peace,” what is it? It is what remains in the new heart when joy has subsided. Love, that is the new heart’s action, its beat; joy its counter-beat; peace is the balance, the equilibrium of the heart, its even posture, its settled attitude. It is neither the tide going, nor the tide flowing, but the placid calm when the tide is full, and the soft sea-levels poise themselves and shine—poise themselves because there is such fulness within them; shine because there is so much serenity above them.1 [Note: R. W. Barbour, Thoughts, 2.]

2. Have we any proper sense and feeling of this good-will? If we have, we shall be humble, inasmuch as we are saved, not by our merits, but by the love of God, in spite of our manifold demerits. We shall be thankful; for surely kindness like this ought to fill our hearts with gratitude. God’s love toward us should beget in us love toward Him. Above all, we should be full of faith, trusting that He who has begun so excellent a work will bring the same to good effect; that He who for our sakes gave His only Son to live a poor and humble life, and to die a painful and shameful death, will together with that Son freely give us all things. We cannot suppose it was a pleasure to the Son of God to suffer the pains of infancy, the labours and mortifications and trials of manhood, the pangs of a cruel death. It was no pleasure to Him to quit the glories of heaven, in order so dwell in lowliness and contempt. Why then did He undergo all this? From good-will, to save man. And think you He will leave this salvation imperfect, and so render His incarnation, and birth, and human life and death, of no avail? O no! He must desire to finish His work; He must be anxious to make up the known He has toiled and bled for, by placing in it all the jewels, all the souls, He can gather. He will never be wanting to us, if we are not wanting to ourselves.

Think of it—The love of God! We use those words very ten, and get no comfort from them, but think what human love means,—a perfect oneness of sympathy and will with any near friends, and imagine that purified and intensified to Infinitude! The depth of our misery now is to me a witness of the immensity of the blessing that makes all this worth while.1 [Note: Letters of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, ii. 163.]

3. If we look closely at the expression “men in whom he is well pleased,” we shall observe that this striking and remarkable description of men is parallel with the words used by the Father at the baptism of Jesus Christ. As Christ rose from the Jordan the voice of the Eternal said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). In the text exactly the same phrase is used of men. God is “well pleased in” men as He is “well pleased in” His beloved Son.

But in what sense can God be well pleased with men? He cannot be well pleased with their sins, or even with their folly. No! He is well pleased with men in so far as they are capable of salvation in Christ, are capable, that is to say, of being made Christlike. On the other hand, as He declared at the baptism of Christ in the Jordan, He is well pleased with Christ as being actually and already all that He intended every man to be when He declared, on the sixth day of the creation, that man, the final outcome and masterpiece of the evolution of the world, was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). In a word, Christ is actually what every man is potentially. Christ is the new Head of humanity, “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45). Christ realizes the Divine ideal of man. He is the proof and pledge of what every man may yet become. When the sculptor sees the rough, unhewn marble, he is “well pleased” with it, not because it is shapeless and rough and ugly, and for immediate purposes useless, but because it is capable of being chiselled into forms of enduring beauty and service. The incarnation of the Eternal Word is the definite, concrete, decisive evidence of what human nature can become when sin is eliminated.

Jesus of Nazareth was God and man, not because His physical birth and death took place under conditions impossible to the normal human organization, but on the contrary because having the normal human organization, in its entirety, He realized in and through it His absolute union with God, and became actual fact what all men have it in them potentially to become This divinization of humanity, this “incarnation,” took place in Him at a certain time and place, under special historical conditions, which the gospel narrative enables us partially, but only partially, to reconstruct. The incarnation is not completed, the truth which Jesus proclaimed is not fully revealed, until the whole of mankind and the whole of nature become a perfect vehicle for the life which lived in Him.1 [Note: R. L. Nettleship, Memoir of Thomas Hill Green, 48.]

Not long ago a gentle Christian lady went to a house of infamy in London to see a fallen girl whom she hoped to rescue. The door of that house was opened by one of those ferocious bullies who are employed in such establishments to negotiate between the victims and their clients. For a moment she was terrified at the fiendish appearance of this monster of iniquity. It was a low neighbourhood; she was far from home; she was alone. But, inspired of God, she resolved to appeal to the better self even of that foul and savage man. Taking her well-filled purse out of her pocket, she suddenly placed it in his hands and “I do not like to take my purse about here, will you please keep it for me until I return?” The man was speechless with amazement; a tear burst from his eye. She passed on. In that vestibule of hell she found the girl and arranged for her delivery. After some interval the lady returned to the door, and there was the man where she left him, with her well-filled purse in his hand. He stored it to her, not a single penny had been taken from it. For the first time in his life, probably, he found himself trusted by a lady. It appealed to all the courtesy and nobility that was left, or that was undeveloped, in his nature. He responded at once to that appeal, and proved worthy of that confidence.2 [Note: H. P. Hughes, Essential Christianity, 284.]

Good Tidings of Great Joy


Aitken (W. H. M. H.), The Revealer Revealed, 1.

Alexander (W.), Leading Ideas of the Gospels, 148.

Askew (E. A.), The Service of Perfect Freedom, 32.

Austin (G. B.), The Beauty of Goodness, 202.

Blake (R. E.), Good News from Heaven, 1.

Brooke (S. A.), The Kingship of Love, 215.

Carter (T. T.), Meditations on the Hidden Life of our Lord, i. 44.

Channing (W. E.), The Perfect Life, 215.

Collins (W.E.), Hours of Insight, 124.

Craigie (J. A.), The Country Pulpit, 49.

Doney (C. G.), The Throne-Room of the Soul, 95.

Ellicott (C. J.), Sermons at Gloucester, 11.

Greenhough (J. G.), Christian Festivals and Anniversaries, 204.

Hancock (T.), The Pulpit and the Press, 41.

Hare (J. C.), Sermons Preacht in Herstmonceux Church, ii. 167.

Harper (F.), A Year with Christ, 14.

Leathes (A. S.), The Kingdom Within, 1, 15.

Macmillan (H.), The Garden and the City, 31.

Marjoribanks (T.), The Fulness of the Godhead, 44.

Massillon (J. B.), Sermons, 407.

Miller (J.), Sermons Literary and Scientific, i. 211.

Moody (A.), “Buy the Truth!” 29.

Morrison (G. H.), The Footsteps of the Flock, 385.

Murray (W. H.), The Fruits of the Spirit, 201, 485.

Parker (J.), The City Temple, iii. 307.

Peabody (F. G.), Mornings in the College Chapel, i. 76.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xii. (1866), No. 727; xvii. (1871), No. 1026; xxii. (1876), No. 1330.

Thorne (H.), Notable Sayings of the Great Teacher, 250.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), New Ser., xix. (1881), No. 1171; xxi. (1882), No. 1204; xxvi. (1886), No. 1309.

Watkinson (W. L.), The Education of the Heart, 247.

Christian Age, xli. 83 (Lyman Abbott).

Christian World Pulpit, xliv. 161 (J. O. Dykes); lxxiv. 409 (W. D. Lukens).

Homiletic Review, xxxiv. 43 (E. D. Guerrant); xlviii. 459 (W. D. Lukens); liv. 461 (W. A. Quayle); lxiii. 51 (J. Denney).

Verse 14

(14) Glory to God in the highest.—The words would seem to have formed one of the familiar doxologies of the Jews, and, as such, reappear among the shouts of the multitude on the occasion of our Lord’s kingly entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:38). The idea implied in the words “in the highest” (the Greek is plural), is that the praise is heard in the very heaven of heavens, in the highest regions of the universe.

On earth peace, good will toward men.—The better MSS. give, “on earth peace among men of good will”—i.e., among men who are the objects of the good will, the approval and love of God. The other construction, “Peace to men of peace,” which the Christian Year has made familiar, is hardly consistent with the general usage of the New Testament as to the word rendered “good will.” The construction is the same as in “His dear Son,” literally, the Son of His Love, in Colossians 1:13. The word is one which both our Lord (Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21) and St. Paul use of the divine will in its aspect of benevolence, and the corresponding verb appears, as uttered by the divine voice, at the Baptism and Transfiguration (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5). The words stand in the Greek, as in the English, without a verb, and may therefore be understood either as a proclamation or a prayer. The “peace on earth” has not unfrequently been connected, as in Milton’s Ode on the Nativity, with the fact that the Roman empire was then at peace, and the gates of the Temple of Janus closed because there was no need for the power of the god to go forth in defence of its armies. It is obvious, however, that the “peace” of the angels’ hymn is something far higher than any “such as the world giveth”—peace between man and God, and therefore peace within the souls of all who are thus reconciled. We may see a reference to the thought, possibly even to the words of the angelic song, in St. Paul’s way of speaking of Christ as being Himself “our peace (Ephesians 2:14).

Verse 15

(15) The shepherds.—Some, but not the best, MSS. give, as in the margin, “the men the shepherds,” as if to emphasise the contrast between the “angels” who departed and the “men” who remained.

This thing. . . . which the Lord hath made known.—Literally, this word, or spoken thing. The choice of the Greek word seems to indicate that St. Luke was translating from the Aramaic.

Verse 16

(16) They came with haste.—The scene has naturally been a favourite subject of Christian art, and the adoration of the shepherds is, perhaps, implied, though not stated, in the narrative. The conventional accessories, however, of the ox and the ass, and the bright light glowing forth from the cradle, belong only to the legends of the Apocryphal Gospels. (See Notes on Luke 2:7.)

Verse 17

(17) They made known abroad . . .—The fact must be borne in mind, as tending to the agitation which reached its height on the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem. (See Note on Matthew 2:3.)

Verse 19

(19) Mary kept all these things.—On the assumption that the whole narrative is traceable to the Virgin herself as its first author, these brief and simple touches as to her own feelings are of singular interest. She could not as yet understand all that had been said and done, but she received it in faith, and waited till it should be made clear. It was enough for her to know that her Child was, in some sense, the Son of God and the hope of Israel. The contrast between the simplicity and purity of St. Luke’s narrative, and the fantastic and often prurient details of the Apocryphal Gospel of the Infancy is every way suggestive.

Verse 21

(21) When eight days were accomplished . . .—Hence the Feast of the Circumcision in the Church Calendar comes on January 1st, and so, not without design, perhaps, came to coincide with the beginning of the civil year. The contrast between this and the narrative of John’s circumcision is striking. Here there are no friends and neighbours. Mary and Joseph were but poor strangers, in a city far from their own home. On the name of Jesus, see Note on Matthew 1:21. In St. Paul’s words, “made of a woman, made under the law” (Galatians 4:4), we may, perhaps, see a reference to a narrative with which his friendship with St. Luke must almost of necessity have made him familiar.

Verse 22

(22) When the days of her purification . . .—The primary idea of the law of Leviticus 12:1-6, would seem to have been that of witnessing to the taint of imperfection and sin attaching to every child of man, just as that of circumcision (its merely physical aspects being put aside) was that of the repression or control of one chief element of that sinfulness. Here neither was necessary; but the whole mystery of the birth was not as yet revealed to Mary, and therefore her act was simply one of devout obedience to the law under which she lived. The period of purification lasted for forty days from the birth, bringing the Feast of the Purification in our Church Calendar to February 2nd.

To present him to the Lord.—This, as the next verse shows, was only done according to the law of Exodus 13:2, when the firstborn child was a son. It was obviously a witness of the idea of the priesthood of the firstborn—a survival of the idea in practice, even after the functions of that priesthood had been superseded by the priesthood of the sons of Aaron. The firstborn of every house had still a dedicated life, and was to think of himself as consecrated to special duties. Comp. Hebrews 12:23 as giving the expansion of the thought to the whole company of those who are the “firstborn,” as they are also the “firstfruits” of humanity (James 1:18). As a formal expression of the obligation thus devolving on them, they had to be redeemed by the payment of five shekels to the actual Aaronic priesthood (Numbers 18:15).

Verse 24

(24) A pair of turtle doves.—The law of Leviticus 12:8 allowed these to be substituted for the normal sacrifice of a lamb as a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or dove as a sin-offering, when the mother was “not able” to offer the former. We may see, therefore, in this fact, another indication of the poverty of Joseph and his espoused wife. The offering had, like all other sacrifices, to be made in the Temple. It seems all but certain that this visit to Jerusalem must have preceded the visit of the Magi. After that, it would have been perilous in the extreme, and the narrative of Matthew 2 implies an immediate departure for Egypt after they had left.

Verse 25

(25) Whose name was Simeon.—Some writers have identified the man thus described with a very memorable Simeon in the annals of the Jewish scribes, the son of Hillel, and the father of Gamaliel. He became president of the Sanhedrin, A.D. 13. Singularly enough, the Mishna, the great collection of expositions of the Law by the leading Rabbis, passes over his name altogether, and this suggests the thought that it may have done so because he was under a cloud, as believing in the prophet of Nazareth. On this assumption, his looking for the “consolation of Israel” may be connected on one side with the fact that he, too, was of the house of David, and on the other, with the cautious counsel of Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39. Against this view there is the fact that St. Luke’s way of speaking leaves the impression that the Simeon of whom he speaks was of a very advanced age, waiting for his departure, and that he, who names Gamaliel’s position (Acts 5:34), would hardly have passed over Simeon’s. There was an aged Essene of this name living at the time of Herod’s death, who rebuked Archelaus for marrying his brother’s widow, and prophesied his downfall, and who more nearly fulfils the conditions; but the name was so common that all conjectures are very precarious.

Devout.—The Greek word expresses the cautious, scrupulous side of the religious life, and is therefore used always in the New Testament (Acts 2:5; Acts 8:2; Acts 22:12) of Jewish devoutness.

The consolation of Israel.—This is the first occurrence of this word. In its general use it included the idea of counsel as well as comfort. Here the latter is obviously the dominant thought. We cannot pass over the words without remembering that the Child of whom Simeon spoke called Himself the Comforter, and promised His disciples to send them another, who should bear the same name (John 14:16).

The Holy Ghost was upon him.—The words point to a special moment of inspiration, rather than a continuous guidance.

Verse 26

(26) It was revealed unto him.—The Greek word is the same as that rendered “warned” in Matthew 2:12. It implies a divine oracular communication, but rests on a different idea from the “unveiling,” which lies at the root of the word “reveal.” The message in this case came clearly as an answer to prayers and yearnings.

The Lord’s Christ.—The word retains all the fulness of its meaning—the Messiah, the Anointed of Jehovah.

Verse 27

(27) He came by the Spirit.—Better, as in Revelation 1:10, in the Spirit—i.e., in a spiritual state in which the power of the Divine Spirit was the pervading element.

The parents.—Here, as in Luke 2:33; Luke 2:48, St. Luke does not shrink from reproducing what was obviously the familiar phraseology of the household of Nazareth. In common life it is almost obvious that no other phraseology was possible.

To do for him after the custom of the law.—In common practice, the child would have been presented to the priest who offered the two turtle doves on behalf of the parents. In this instance Simeon, though not a priest (there is, at least, nothing but a legend in an Apocryphal Gospel to fix that character on him), takes on himself, standing by the priest, to receive the child as he was presented. This fits in, as far as it goes, with the idea of his having been an Essene, revered as possessing prophetic gifts. (See Notes on Luke 2:25.)

Verse 29

(29) Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.—It is not expedient to alter the translation, but we have to remember that the central idea is that of the manumission of a slave. The word for Lord is not the usual Kyrios, but Despotes—a word but seldom used of God, and then almost always of the relation of a master and the slave who is such by inheritance or purchase (Acts 4:24; 2 Peter 2:1; Jude Luke 2:4; Revelation 6:10, are the only other instances of its use). Simeon speaks as a slave who, through the night of long, weary years, has been standing on the watch-tower of expectation, and is at last set free by the rising of the Sun.

According to thy word.—The reference is to the oracle which had been uttered within his soul, and was now being fulfilled.

Verse 30

(30) Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.—The Greek word is not the usual feminine noun expressing the abstract idea of salvation, but the neuter of the adjective—that which brings or works out salvation. Its use here is probably determined by its appearance in the LXX. version of Isaiah 52:10, as quoted in Luke 3:6. He saw in that infant child the means of deliverance for the world.

Verse 31

(31) Before the face of all people.—Literally, of all peoples. The word expresses the universality of the salvation which the next verse contemplates in its application to the two great divisions of the human family.

Verse 32

(32) To lighten the Gentiles.—Literally, for a revelation to the Gentiles. The idea is strictly that of the withdrawal of the “veil spread over all nations” of Isaiah 25:7.

The glory of thy people Israel.—Here, again, the language is the natural utterance of the hope of the time, not the after-thought of later years. The Christ whom Israel had rejected was hardly “the glory of the people” when St. Luke wrote his Gospel.

Verse 33

(33) And Joseph and his mother.—The better MSS. give, His father and his mother. The present reading has apparently been substituted for this through feelings of reverence, but it has quite sufficient authority in Luke 2:27; Luke 2:48.

Verse 34

(34) This child is set for the fall and rising again.—The words start from the thought of Isaiah 8:14-15. The Christ is seen by Simeon as the stone on which some fall and are bruised (Luke 20:18), while others plant their feet upon it and rise to a higher life. Primarily the clause speaks of the contrast between the two classes; but there is nothing to exclude the thought that some may first fall, and then, though sorely “bruised,” may rise again. (Comp. Romans 11:11.)

For a sign which shall be spoken against.—Better, “a sign that is spoken against.” In the choice of the phrase, we have again an echo from Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14). The child Immanuel was to be Himself a sign, even as Isaiah and his children were (Isaiah 8:18), but the sign was not to win acceptance. He was to endure the “contradiction” of sinners (Hebrews 12:3). There is probably a reference also to the words of Jehovah (Isaiah 65:2) stretching forth his hands to a “gainsaying” people. The whole history of our Lord’s ministry—one might almost say, of His whole after-work in the history of Christendom—is more or less the record of the fulfilment of Simeon’s prediction.

Verse 34-35

A Touchstone of Character

Behold, this child is set for the falling and rising up of many in Israel; and for a sign which is spoken against; yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul; that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.—Luke 2:34-35.

1. There are choice spirits selected by God, when the times are changing, to stand upon the ridge between two worlds, and to unite in themselves, so to speak, the best promise of the age that is passing by and the first gladness of the age that is coming. Now Simeon the Prophet was one of these men. It was his proud privilege to see the ancient prophecies fulfilled. It was his pathetic privilege to bid the new era welcome, and then himself to depart in peace. He saw the morning clouds crimsoning, and he told his generation what he saw. It was not given him to see the glorious noontide. But for one sublime moment he stood upon the mountain top. And it is well for us, even in this wise age, to know something of what he saw.

Simeon, bravely patient, outlasts the time of silence: while the winds of God blow where they list, and gently stir the surface of his soul, breathing deep to sources of emotion, springs of thought, centres of will, and faculties of being, which all receptive and expectant wait for impulses of life, co-operant with the touch of the Divine. Intuition waits on growing consciousness: things seen afar become defined in detail: thought expands, impression greatens into form and shape: the Christ hath come, the morning breathes, the shadows flee away. Thus there comes a day when he is led under the impulse of the Holy Ghost into the Sanctuary of God. There he sees, he feels, he holds the Christ in likeness of an infant come, the Babe of Bethlehem. He bows before the Vision of the Lord: joyous yet awed he sings of Glory and of Light, Salvation for the World and Israel’s Hope enthroned. And so he saw not death but Christ: and holding Him passed into Life, and felt within his soul the waters rise which satisfy, and fail us not but spring eternally.1 [Note: A. Daintree, Studies in Hope, 76.]

The first pastor of Craigdam—Rev. William Brown, ordained in 1752—was enough to give character to any church.… His grandson, Principal Brown, remembers an old man describing a service conducted by the first minister of Craigdam at Knock, near Portsoy. One thing in the sermon which came to him and was indelibly imprinted upon his memory was the vivid and fervid way in which the preacher used the historical incident of Simeon holding the child Jesus in his arms:—“There did not appear to be much in the old man’s arms, and yet the salvation of the world was dependent upon what was there—all was wrapt up in that Jesus held by Simeon.” Then, holding out his own arms as if embracing that which Simeon esteemed to be so precious, Mr. Brown with tearful urgency of voice cried to the people assembled—“Have you, my freens, taken a grip o’ Jesus?”1 [Note: J. Stark, The Lights of the North, 288.]

Simeon the just and the devout,

Who frequent in the fane

Had for the Saviour waited long,

But waited still in vain,—

Came Heaven-directed at the hour

When Mary held her Son;

He stretched forth his aged arms,

While tears of gladness run:

With holy joy upon his face

The good old father smiled,

While fondly in his wither’d arms

He clasp’d the promised Child.

And then he lifted up to Heaven

An earnest asking eye;

“My joy is full, my hour is come;

Lord, let Thy servant die.

At last my arms embrace my Lord;

Now let their vigour cease;

At last my eyes my Saviour see,

Now let them close in peace!

The Star and Glory of the land

Hath now begun to shine;

The morning that shall gild the globe

Breaks on these eyes of mine!”2 [Note: Michael Bruce.]

2. Simeon looked far into the future, and saw the final goal of Christ’s mission. He regarded Christ’s coming as “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” and the consolation and glory of Israel. But he also foresaw its nearer and more immediate effects. This Child, he says, who is to be the light of the Gentiles and the glory of Israel is also to be as a rock over which many will fall and on which many will rise, a signal for strife and gainsaying, a sword piercing and dividing the very soul, even where the soul is purest, and a touchstone revealing the inward thoughts of many hearts and showing how evil they are. Now, large as the contradiction looks between these two conceptions of the immediate and the ultimate results of Christ’s influence on the world, is there any real contradiction between them? For if the Light is to shine into a dark world, or a dark heart, it must struggle with and disperse; the darkness before it can shed order and fruitfulness and gladness into it. In such a world as this there can be no victory without conflict, no achievement without strenuous effort, no joy without pain, no perfection except through suffering.


An Appointed Test

“This child is set for the falling and rising up of many in Israel.”

The expression is figurative and suggests to our minds a stone or step in a man’s pathway, which becomes to him, according; as he treats it, either a stumbling-block over which he falls, or a means of elevation by which he rises to a higher plane, and which is so placed before him that he cannot avoid it.

1. Jesus Christ is thus inevitable. He is obtrusive. He is there. He forces Himself upon our attention as every universal fact and law must. He is set as fixedly in the firmament of our spiritual and moral life as the sun is set in the heavens. He rides into every world of human interest and concern just as gloriously as the sun comes over the mountains at the break of day. You tell me you know nothing at all about astronomical law. You believe what wise men tell you about the stately march of the seasons and the procession of the planets in regular orbit, and you disavow any knowledge of the inner mysteries of science. In your knowledge or ignorance you accept the fact you cannot alter, the fact that this world owes light and heat and colour and beauty to the sun which God has set to rule our day and night. Jesus Christ is as obtrusive and fixed a fact.

God “prepared” Him: pre-arranged, fore-ordained, and took steps beforehand for His coming; made ready the way before Him by His Law and by His prophets, by a gradual education of the world to desire Him and to find its need of Him; and at last brought Him into it “before the face”—in the sight—“of all the peoples,” of all the races and nations of mankind, so as to be as much “a light to lighten the Gentiles”—a light (more literally) unto the unveiling of the Gentiles; that is, for the purpose of taking off from the Gentiles that “veil” of which Isaiah speaks as “spread over all nations,” the veil of indifference and blindness and hardness of heart—as “the glory of God’s own people Israel.” The eye of the faithful old man was opened to see beyond the confines of his own nation; to embrace in one glance all the kingdoms of the earth in all time and in every place; and to declare that to each and to all Christ comes—comes to take off from them the veil of sin; and to fulfil at last the glorious prediction, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Freeman, the historian, in speaking about the fall of the Roman Empire and the overturning of the throne of Cæsar Augustus by the triumph of Christianity, finds in that event something which he calls more miraculous even than the resurrection of Christ. And certainly it was an extraordinary triumph. Within eighty years of the day Jesus was put to death as a common malefactor, a governor of one of the Provinces of the Roman Empire writes to his Imperial master, and asks, “What in the world am I to do? People are deserting the pagan temple, and are gathering in illegal conventicles to worship somebody who, it was always understood, had a name of infamy—one Christus who had been put to an ignominious death years before.” Would you believe that before another three hundred years had passed, sitting in the seat of Cæsar was a Christian Emperor, and surrounding him a body-guard of Christian stalwarts, men bearing the stigma of Jesus, for they had been tortured and mutilated for their faith. Before another hundred years had gone, the throne had vanished altogether, and in the seat of Cæsar there sat one, and there still sits one, whose only right to be there is that he claims to be there as the Vicar and Vicegerent of Jesus Christ. That was the historic triumph in the early ages. It is a triumph that is repeated every day. Through storm and earthquake and eclipse, through the coming and the going of the generations of men, through the founding and the overturning of Empires, through the migrations of the peoples, Jesus Christ moves steadily on.1 [Note: A. Connell.]

2. Christ’s influence on men corresponds to their attitude towards Him. This is only to say that the spiritual world is not ruled mechanically. If Christ had come from heaven as a resistless influence for good, so that men could not but be bettered by Him, the result would have been mechanical—just as mechanical as anything which is set going by steam-power or by water-power. And yet, even in vegetable or brute nature, some conditions are requisite if physical reinforcements of vital power are to be of real use. The sun and the rain can do little for the sickly or withered tree. The greenest pasturage cannot tempt the dying hind. There must be an existing capacity for being nourished, in the tree and in the animal, if there is to be improvement. Much more does this law obtain in the spiritual world. For, being a spirit, man is free; he can accept or reject even the highest gifts of God. He is never coerced into excellence, any more than he is coerced into wickedness; he is, in the highest sense, master of his destiny. The truth and grace of God act upon him with good results only so far as he is willing that they should do so. God has made man free. He does not withdraw this prerogative of freedom, even when it is used against Himself; and the exercise of this freedom by man to accept or reject even his own highest good, explains the different results of Christ’s coming in different souls.

A departure from the perfect will of God was an absolute necessity if God wished to make a perfect or a good race of men. It is true God could have made men who would have had no choice but to serve Him, whose love would have been the result of law, whose worship a necessity of their condition; but would you care for a man who was made to love you, compelled to serve you? How then could God be satisfied with service that would not even satisfy the wants of our human nature? If love is to be real love, service real service, it must be voluntary and spontaneous; men must be free to give or withhold it. Now even Omnipotence cannot reconcile two absolutely antagonistic thin. It is past even the power of God to let a man have free will and yet not have it, to make men free and yet slaves; and if God gave men free will, then in the long run it was a dead certainty that some one so endowed would put up his own self-will again the will of his Father and exercise the gift which might make him worthy to be a son of God in a way that would drag him down to be impure and evil.1 [Note: Quintin Hogg: A Biography, 309.]


A Signal for Contradiction

“A sign which is spoken against.”

A sign is a signal. In the Scripture use, it denotes something or some one pointing to God; to God’s being, and to God’s working. Thus a miracle is a sign. It points to God. It says, God is at work: this hath God spoken, for this hath God done. And thus Christ Himself is a sign. He came upon earth to point to God. He came to say by His words, and by His works, and by His character, and by His sufferings, “Behold your God!” But the sign, like every other, may be, and commonly is, gainsaid spoken against. For one who accepts it—for one who, because Christ, sees and believes in and lives for God—many cavil; many reject and many neglect the Gospel. This has been so always, by most of all, when He was Himself amongst men. Then indeed gainsaying ran into open violence; and the Son of Man, despise and rejected of men, was at last given up into the hands of wicke men, to suffer death upon a cross of anguish and infamy.

1. Jesus roused the bitterest opposition of those whose falsit He exposed. Do you think it likely that Pharisaism and Jewis intolerance, the pagan gods and the thousands whose living depended on idolatrous worship, or the existing schools of thought the Stoics and Epicureans, liked being pushed out of the way A vast amount of interested selfishness and of honest conservatism necessarily opposed Christ—fought and died to keep Him out Compare Jesus washing His disciples’ feet with the mood Tiberius surrounded by an army of informers and abandoned to vile debauchery, and think what must inevitably happen before Christ is received as the King of Rome. Call to mind the amphitheatres of the Roman Empire, the hosts of slaves, and think what changes must take place before the cross could be elevated as the divinest of symbols. Read the description of the immorality then common, not in the lines of indignant satirists but in the admitted antecedents of the people who formed the first converts to Christianity, and think what changes in public opinion, what open collisions between classes, what terrible inner struggles in the individual soul, must needs occur before one soul could turn to Him who puts duty for pleasure, self-control for indulgence, self-surrender for self-gratification; who tells each one of us that we must die to live, die to our lusts, die to our tempers, die to our self-importance, die to the flattering idea of our own righteousness and goodness.

There came a man, whence, none could tell,

Bearing a touchstone in his hand;

And tested all things in the land,

By its unerring spell.

And lo, what sudden changes smote

The fair to foul, the foul to fair!

Purple nor ermine did he spare

Nor scorn the dusty coat.

Of heirloom jewels prized so much

Many were changed to chips and clods,

And even statues of the gods

Crumbled beneath its touch.

Then angrily the people cried,

“The loss outweighs the profit far,

Our goods suffice us as they are,

We will not have them tried.”

And since they could not so avail

To check his unrelenting quest

They seized him saying, “Let him test

How real is our jail.”

But though they slew him with a sword

And in a fire his touchstone burned,

Its doings could not be o’erturned,

Its undoings restored.

2. He offered Himself as a Saviour under an aspect incredible and offensive. He demanded an utter renunciation of human righteousness; He asked them to give their whole confidence to One who should die in weakness and agony upon the shameful tree.

For nearly three centuries, of course with varying intensity, the name of Jesus of Nazareth and His followers was a name of shame, hateful and despised. Not only among the Roman idolaters was “the Name” spoken against with intense bitterness (see the expressions used by men like Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny), but also among His own nation, the Jews, was Jesus known as “the Deceiver,” “that Man,” “the Hung.” These were common expressions used in the great Rabbinical schools which flourished in the early days of Christianity. How different is it all now!

“Where can we find a name so holy as that we may surrender our whole souls to it, before which obedience, reverence without measure, intense humility, most unreserved adoration may all be fully rendered?” was the earnest inquiry of his whole nature, intellectual and moral no less than religious. And the answer to it in like manner expressed what he endeavoured to make the rule of his own personal conduct, and the centre of all his moral and religious convictions: “One name there is, and one alone, one alone in heaven and earth—not truth, not justice, not benevolence, not Christ’s mother, not His holiest servants, not His blessed sacraments, nor His very mystical body the Church, but Himself only who died for us and rose again, Jesus Christ, both God and man.”1 [Note: A. P. Stanley, Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, i. 34.]


A Sword in the Soul

“Yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul.”

1. Simeon saw that the work of salvation would in some mysterious way be the work of a warrior, and that the same sword as wounded Him would pierce the heart of His mother also. This vision of a coming battle did not lessen his faith in victory, but it moved him to speak of things which were not in the salutation of the angel to Mary, or in the song which the shepherds heard by night. Jesus is the prepared Saviour, and will finish the work given Him to do; but He will not be welcomed by all Israel. He will not fail nor be discouraged, but He must first suffer many things and be despised and rejected of men. Mary is highly favoured among women, and all generations will call her blessed, but the highest favour she will receive is to be a partaker in the anguish of her Son. The greatness of her privilege, and the exaltation of her hopes are the measure of her future dismay, while her Son advances to His goal through contradiction and death. “Yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul; that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”

In the huge temple, deck’d by Herod’s pride,

Who fain would bribe a God he ne’er believed,

Kneels a meek woman, that hath once conceived,

Tho’ she was never like an earthly bride.

And yet the stainless would be purified,

And wash away the stain that yet was none,

And for the birth of her immaculate Son

With the stern rigour of the law complied:

The duty paid received its due reward

When Simeon bless’d the Baby on her arm;

And though he plainly told her that a sword

Must pierce her soul, she felt no weak alarm,

For that for which a Prophet thank’d the Lord

Once to have seen, could never end in harm.1 [Note: Hartley Coleridge.]

2. Must not the prediction that a sword would pierce through her soul also be a reminder that her unique position as the mother of the Saviour did not exempt her from the probation through which all had to pass who listened to the teaching and beheld the mighty works of her Son? But the commentators, with a unanimity which is unusual, resort to another interpretation. From Origen to Sir William Ramsay, they bid us find in the simile of the sword a picture of the sufferings which the career of the Christ would of necessity entail upon His mother. There is more difference of opinion when the attempt is made to determine the special nature of the sufferings which are foretold, the particular incident of her career to which the words apply. Some, with reason, as it would seem, leave the reference vague and undefined. The Christ was a great Reformer. He was the leader of a religious revolution. He was therefore certain to meet with fierce opposition from the votaries of the ancient traditions and the ancient faith. He was a sign which would be spoken against. His life would inevitably be one of sorrow; and, with every anguish of her Son, the mother’s heart would be torn. Others becoming a little more precise, would have us think of some unknown eclipse of faith, by which the Virgin’s confidence in the Divine mission of her Son was clouded. Epiphanius, with no less imagination, will have it that Simeon foresees her martyrdom. But the dominant view, stereotyped in the words of one of the few Sequences which still remain in the Roman Missal, finds in the mention of the sword piercing her soul an allusion to the agony of the Mother as she watched her Divine Son hanging upon the cross, and dying the malefactor’s death—

Stabat Mater dolorosa

Juxta crucem lacrimosa,

Qua pendebat Filius,

Cuius animam gementem

Contristantem et dolentem

Pertransiuit gladius.

3. The higher the privilege, the deeper will be the wound. “The nearer to Christ, the nearer,” from the very first, “to the sword.” The more real her title to be the “Blessed among women,” the more real the anguish which would crush her spirit as she awoke to the cross which was to be the crown of His mission. The more genuine the love which treasured up the angels’ song as she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,” the more intense the disappointment which “sought him sorrowing,” not once, but again and again, and failed to find Him in His true being till Calvary and the opened sepulchre have made all things plain.

Those who have seen Holman Hunt’s “Shadow of the Cross,” will remember how Mary is employed when she gets the first awful premonition of what her Child’s fate is to be. She is engaged—so the painter fancies her—looking into a coffer, where the gifts of the wise men are preserved, feasting her eyes on the beautiful crowns and bracelets and jewels, so prophetic, as she thinks, of what her Son’s after-destiny is to be. And then she turns, and what a contrast! There, in shadow on the wall, imprinted by the western light, she sees her Son stretched on a cross! What a sight for a mother to see! As she looks, the solemn, mysterious words of Simeon flash through her heart, “Yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul.” Against that awful destiny her mother’s heart rises up in arms, and it was, I believe, this love, this misguided love, that led her to seek to keep back her Child from His mission, and point Him into a path of glory, not of shame; of royalty, not of sacrifice; of a crown, not of a cross.1 [Note: W. M. Mackay, Bible Types of Modern Women, 325.]

O Holy Mother, pierced with awful grief,

Oppressed with agonizing, nameless fears,

Beyond all human power of relief

Are these thy tears.

Thy tender, spotless, holy Babe lies there—

Is He unconscious of thine agony?

Doth He not even now thy burden share,

Thy sorrow see?

His Body sleeps; but ah! that sacred Heart

Is to His loved one’s anguish still awake;

He only consolation can impart

To hearts that break.

The holy Babe awakes! In mute surprise

(As He would say—“Mine hour is not yet come”);

He gazes in His blessed Mother’s eyes

In pity dumb.

And once again her heart doth magnify

Rejoicingly, her Saviour and her Lord:

Yea! e’en before her tearful cheeks are dry

Is He adored!

Almighty Father, Thou hast veiled our sight,

The future Thou hast hidden from our eyes,

Great is Thy mercy! Lead us in Thy light

To willing sacrifice!2 [Note: M. Hitchin-Kemp, The Ideal of Sympathy, 19.]

4. The pierced soul is at length healed. That is the thought Titian so beautifully renders in his glorious “Assumption of the Madonna” in the great Venetian Gallery. The framework of the picture is but legend; its truth is eternal. It depicts the soul of Mary as it passes, after life’s sorrows, into the presence of God. The artist has painted her upturned face as it first catches sight of her Lord. It is a face of exquisite sweetness and beauty. And it is the face of the first Mary, the Mary of the Magnificat. Perfect faith is there, perfect joy, unsullied gladness. The piercing of the sword is now for ever past. But what most of all shines out from it is its sweet adoring love—the love no more of a mother for her child, but of a ransomed soul for its Saviour. The lips, as they open in rapture, seem to be framing the words sung long ago, but now uttered with a deeper, richer melody than was possible to her then: “My spirit doth rejoice in God my Saviour.”

O Lady Mary, thy bright crown

Is no mere crown of majesty;

For with the reflex of His own

Resplendent thorns Christ circled thee.

The red rose of this passion tide

Doth take a deeper hue from thee,

In the five Wounds of Jesus dyed,

And in Thy bleeding thoughts, Mary.

The soldier struck a triple stroke

That smote thy Jesus on the tree;

He broke the Heart of hearts, and broke

The Saint’s and Mother’s hearts in thee.

Thy Son went up the Angels’ ways,

His passion ended; but, ah me!

Thou found’st the road of further days

A longer way of Calvary.

On the hard cross of hopes deferred

Thou hung’st in loving agony,

Until the mortal dreaded word,

Which chills our mirth, spake mirth to thee.

The Angel Death from this cold tomb

Of life did roll the stone away;

And He thou barest in thy womb

Caught thee at last into the day—

Before the living throne of whom

The lights of heaven burning pray.1 [Note: Francis Thompson.]


A Revelation of the Heart

“That thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”

1. Men’s inner life cannot be hid in Christ’s presence. By their treatment of Christ Himself, men will show what they are. The veil will be stripped off them—such is the figure—by their own language and their own conduct towards Christ. By their estimate of His character, by their appreciation or disparagement of His holy life and mighty works and Divine doctrine—by their acceptance or rejection of Him whose appeal was ever to the conscience of man, as in the sight of a heart-searching God—men will disclose their true disposition; will show whether they love the world, whether they echo its lying voice, whether they desire darkness lest their deeds should be reproved, or whether, on the, other hand, they are brave to see, and bold to confess the truth, whether they have an ear to hear the voice of God, and a will to follow Him whithersoever He goeth.

The artist Rossetti has a picture in the foreground of which is a modest Oriental house, Jesus sitting in its room, His face just visible through a window. Along the street in which it stands is merrily hurrying that other Mary. I mean the Magdalene. She is arrayed in loosely-flowing garments, and her hair hangs dishevelled about her shoulders. With her is a troop of rollicking and revelling companions. The picture has all the suggestion of complete abandonment. But, just as she is to rush past, the woman’s eye meets—what? Through the window the eye of Christ, clear as crystal, and cutting as any knife. It holds her, and tortures her. On her face is graven blank horror and dismay. The harlot is filled with self-loathing and self-contempt. Through Jesus the thoughts of her heart are revealed in their hideous and revolting shape. “She trembles like a guilty thing surprised.”1 [Note: F. Y. Leggatt.]

2. Christ comes to heal as well as to reveal. His coming to men in His humanity, as Jesus of Nazareth, or coming to men in a preached Gospel, as the Living Saviour, is the one great test of men’s moral condition, of their attitude towards God. He is the revealer of all hearts; and, for the most part, the revelation is humbling—it would be hopelessly humbling were it not that the revealer is also the Redeemer; and He reveals and humbles only as a necessary preparatory condition to redeeming. The sterner side of Christ’s work is necessary; but the necessity arises from His persistently carrying out the purposes of Divine love. A man must be brought to “know himself,” as only Christ can show him himself, before he will even care to know what Christ can be, and would be, to him. Blessed are all they who have stood in the testing light of Christ and been shown up to themselves. He who falls in presence of Christ is surely raised up by the hand of Christ. He who probes also heals.

Lockwood had a religious mind, and retained through life his faith in the Christianity his parents had taught him. The chatter in the magazines about such matters had never interested him, and not even the symposia of eminent men, paid three guineas a sheet, about immortality had engaged his attention. He knew enough about human nature to know it was deeply wounded somewhere, and sorely stood in need of a healer.2 [Note: A. Birrell, Sir Frank Lockwood, 192.]

I was reading a while ago a little book in which the author told the story of his own life, and in the preface he had written: “This is a book with but one intention—that in being read, it may read you.” That is what might be said of the influence of the Gospels. They are the story of a life; but, in being read, they read you. They report to you, not only the story of Jesus, but the story of your own experience. It is not only you that find their meaning; but, as Coleridge said, they “find you.” In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul tells the same story in a striking figure. It is, he writes, as though the Christian were set before a wonder-working mirror, in which was reflected the glory of God. At first the image of this glory dazzles the beholder, and he puts a veil between it and himself; but gradually, as he looks again into the mirror, he discerns his own features reflected back to him, but touched with something of that glory which was itself too bright to bear, until at last his own image is changed into the image of the Divine likeness, so that the looker-on becomes like that on which he looks. “Beholding,” the Apostle says, “as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image … by the spirit of the Lord.” That, he thinks, is what may happen as one looks steadily into the mirror of God. It is not that he shall be all at once made perfect, but that by degrees the veil shall be drawn away before the magic glass, and he shall see his imperfect thoughts touched with the glory of God’s intention, until that which he is changes before him into that which he prays to be, as by the Spirit of the Lord.1 [Note: F. G. Peabody, Sunday Evenings in the College Chapel, 28.]

A Touchstone of Character


Bernard (T. D.), The Songs of the Holy Nativity, 139.

Brooke (S. A.), The Early Life of Jesus, 37.

Carter (T. T.), Meditations on the Hidden Life of our Lord, i. 80.

Cox (S.), Expositions, iv. 16.

Edgar (R. M.), The Philosophy of the Cross, 35.

Griffin (E. D.), Plain Practical Sermons, 449.

Gurney (T. A.), Nunc Dimittis, 132.

Hall (E. H.), Discourses, 213.

Hutchings (W. H.), in Sermons for the People, ii. 131.

Lawlor (H. J.), Thoughts on Belief and Life, 31.

Liddon (H. P.), Advent in St. Paul’s, 245.

Mantle (J. G.), The Way of the Cross, 19.

Peabody (F. G.), Sunday Evenings in the College Chapel, 19.

Potts (A. W.), School Sermons, 185.

Tholuck (A.), Light from the Cross, 9.

Tymms (T. V.), The Private Relationships of Christ, 12.

Vaughan (C. J.), Christ the Light of the World, 43.

Christian World Pulpit, xlviii. 40 (A. M. Fairbairn); lviii. 5 (A. Connell); lxiv. 413 (S. O. Tattersall); lxv. 154 (F. Y, Leggatt).

Verse 35

(35) A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.—The word used for “sword” here, occurs also in the Apocalypse (Revelation 1:16; Revelation 2:12, et. al.), but not elsewhere in the New Testament. It was the large barbaric sword used by the Thracians, as distinguished from the shorter weapon of Roman soldiers. The announcement of the special sorrow that was to be the Virgin Mother’s portion, comes as the sequel to “the sign that is spoken against,” the antagonism which her Son would meet with. We may find fulfilments of it when the men of Nazareth sought to throw Him from the brow of their hill (Luke 4:29); when she came, as in anxious fear, to check His teaching as the Pharisees charged Him with casting out devils through Beelzebub (Matthew 12:46); when she stood by the cross, and heard the blasphemies and revilings of the priests and people (John 19:26).

That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.—This was conspicuously the result of our Lord’s earthly ministry. It brought out latent good, as with publicans and harlots and robbers, rich and poor disciples, and the common people, who heard Him gladly; latent evil, as with Pharisees and scribes and rulers. And what was true of His work then, has been true in greater or less measure ever since. Wherever Christ is preached, there is a manifestation of the thoughts of men’s hearts, of their secret yearning after righteousness, their secret bitterness against it. It may be noted, however, that the Greek word for “thought” is almost always used in the Greek with a shade of evil implied in it.

Verse 36

(36) One Anna, a prophetess.—The fact is in many ways remarkable. We find a woman recognised as a prophetess at a time when no man is recognised as a prophet. She bears the name of the mother of the founder of the School of the Prophets, identical with that which the legends of Apocryphal Gospels assign to the mother of the Virgin. She is named, as if it were a well-known fact, as having been the wife of Phanuel, and she is not of the tribe of Judah, but of Aser. That tribe, then, though belonging to the Ten that had been carried into exile by Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17:6), had not been altogether lost. Some, at least, of its members survived and cherished the genealogies of their descent, as one family of the neighbouring tribe of Naphthali are said to have done at Nineveh (Tobit 1:2). In that family also we find the name of Anna (Tobit 1:9).

Seven years from her virginity.—The words are emphasised (1) as expressing chastity prior to marriage, and (2) as excluding the thought of a second marriage.

Verse 37

(37) A widow of about fourscore and four years.—The better MSS. read, “up to the point of fourscore and four years,” pointing to the fact that this was the duration of her widowhood. Assuming her to have been married at fifteen, this places her actual age at 106. She had lived through the whole century that preceded the birth of Christ, from the death of John Hyrcanus, and had witnessed, therefore, the conquest of Judæa by Pompeius, and the rise of the Herodian house.

Which departed not from the temple.—Probably some chamber within the precincts was assigned to her, as a reputed prophetess, as seems to have been the case with Huldah (2 Chronicles 34:22). Her form, bent and worn, we may believe, with age and fastings, had become familiar to all worshippers at the Temple. She, too, was one of the devout circle who cherished expectations of the coming of the Christ.

Verse 38

(38) Gave thanks.—The word so translated occurs here only in the New Testament, but it is found with this meaning in the LXX. version of Psalms 79:13.

That looked for redemption in Jerusalem.—The better MSS. give, “the redemption of Jerusalem,” the phrase being the counterpart of the “consolation of Israel” in Luke 2:25. Both the verbs “gave thanks” and “spake” imply continued, and not merely momentary action.

Verse 39

(39) They returned into Galilee.—Filling up the narrative from St. Matthew, we have to insert after the Presentation, the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the Infants, and the flight into Egypt. It seems probable that St. Luke was not acquainted with St. Matthew’s narrative, nor St. Matthew with St. Luke’s. Each wrote from what he heard, or found in previous existing narratives, more or less incomplete, and hence cannot readily be brought into harmony with the other. Here the parents return to Nazareth as their own city. In St. Matthew the return appears to be determined by their fears of Archelaus. It is possible that, though previously domiciled at Nazareth, they may have thought of settling at Bethlehem, and were deterred from doing so by the cruelty of Herod and his son.

Verse 40

(40) Waxed strong in spirit.—The better MSS. omit the last two words.

Filled with wisdom.—The Greek participle implies the continuous process of “being filled,” and so conveys the thought expressed in Luke 2:52, of an increase of wisdom. The soul of Jesus was human, i.e., subject to the conditions and limitations of human knowledge, and learnt as others learn. The heresy of Apollinarius, who constructed a theory of the Incarnation on the assumption that the Divine Word (the Logos of St. John’s Gospel) took, in our Lord’s humanity, the place of the human mind or intellect, is thus, as it were, anticipated and condemned.

The grace of God was upon him.—The words seem chosen to express a different thought from that used to describe the growth of the Baptist. Here there was more than guidance, more than strength, a manifest outflowing of the divine favour in the moral beauty of a perfectly holy childhood.

On the history of the period between this and the next verses, see Excursus in the Notes on Matthew 2.

Verse 41

(41) His parents went to Jerusalem.—The law of Moses required the attendance of all males at the three feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Exodus 23:17; Deuteronomy 16:16). The dispersion of the Jews had, of course, relaxed the obligation for those who lived at a distance; but it was still more or less generally recognised by those who dwelt in Palestine, and the school of Hillel held the Passover to be binding upon women as well as men. The yearly journey to Jerusalem may therefore be taken as an indication of devout obedience, not without its bearing on the thoughts of the child who, during those visits, remained behind in the home at Nazareth.

Verse 42

(42)When he was twelve years old.—The stages of Jewish childhood were marked as follows:—At three the boy was weaned, and wore for the first time the fringed or tasselled garment prescribed by Numbers 15:38-41, and Deuteronomy 22:12. His education began, at first under the mother’s care. At five he was to learn the Law, at first by extracts written on scrolls of the more important passages, the Shemk or Creed of Deuteronomy 2:4, the Hallel or Festival Psalms (Psalms 114-118, 136), and by catechetical teaching in school. At twelve he became more directly responsible for his obedience to the Law, and on the day when he attained the age of thirteen, put on for the first time the phylacteries which were worn at the recital of his daily prayer. (See Note on Matthew 23:5.) It was accordingly an epoch of transition analogous to that which obtains among us at Confirmation. It was, therefore in strict accordance with usage, with perhaps a slight anticipation of the actual day, that the “child Jesus” should, at the age of twelve, have gone up with His parents to Jerusalem. If the conjecture suggested in the Notes on Luke 2:8, that the birth of our Lord coincided with the Paschal Season, be accepted, He may actually have completed His thirteenth year during the Feast; and so have become, in the fullest sense, one of the “children of the Law,” bound to study it and know its meaning. This at least fits in with, and in fact explains, the narrative that follows. In the later Maxims of the Fathers (Pirke Aboth) two other stages of education were marked out. At ten, a boy was to enter on the study of the Mischna (= “comments”), or body of traditional interpretations of the Law; at eighteen, on that of the Gemara (= “completeness”), or wider collection of sayings or legends, which, with the Mischna, made up what is known as the Talmud (= “learning,” or “doctrine”).

Verse 43

(43) The child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem.—The words do not imply that He intentionally stayed behind. If we deal with the history on its human side, the probable course of things was this:—The Passover Feast lasted seven days; on each of those days, after the first, we may well believe the “child Jesus” was seeking wisdom to do His Father’s work at the hands of the appointed teachers who “sat in Moses’ chair.” This had become habitual. He went, as usual, when the Feast was over; but Joseph and Mary, instead of seeking Him there, took for granted that He had started with the other boys of the same age who had come from Nazareth. He was therefore left in the strange city by Himself, finding shelter for the night, probably, in the house where Joseph and Mary had lodged during the feast, and spending the day, as before, in drinking in the wondrous things of God’s Law, and asking questions which showed that He demanded more than traditional or conventional explanations. His question, “Wist ye not . . .?” implies that they ought to have known where He would be.

Joseph and his mother knew not of it.—The better MSS. read, his parents, the alteration having probably been made in the received text on the same ground as that in Luke 2:33.

Verse 44

(44) Supposing him to have been in the company.—The company was probably a large one, consisting of those who had come up to keep the Passover from Nazareth and the neighbouring villages. It is not certain, but in the nature of things it is sufficiently probable, that the boys of such a company congregated together, and travelled apart from the others.

Verse 46

(46) Sitting in the midst of the doctors.—A chamber of the Temple was set apart as a kind of open free school. The “doctors” or teachers—famous “doctors of the Law” (Acts 5:34)—sat “in Moses’ seat;” the older students on a low bench; the younger on the ground, literally “at the feet” of their instructor. The relation between master and scholar was often one of affectionate reverence and sympathy, and was expressed by one of the famous scribes in a saying worth remembering, “I have learnt much from the Rabbis, my teachers; I have learnt more from the Rabbis, my colleagues; but from my scholars I have learnt most of all.” It is interesting to think that among the doctors then present may have been the venerable Hillel, then verging upon his hundredth year; his son and successor, Simeon; his grandson, the then youthful Gamaliel; Jonathan, the writer of the Chaldee Targum or Paraphrase of the Sacred Books; and Shammai, the rival of Hillel, who “bound” where the latter “loosed.”

Both hearing them, and asking them questions.—The method of teaching was, we see, essentially and reciprocally catechetical. The kind of questions current in the schools would include such as, What is the great commandment of the Law? What may or may not be done on the Sabbath? How is such a precept to be paraphrased; what is its true meaning? As the Targum of Jonathan included the books of Joshua, Judges 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets, the questions may probably have turned also on the meaning of prophecies, the expectations of the Christ, and the like. The legends of the Apocryphal Gospels make the wisdom of the child Jesus take a wide range over astronomy and other sciences.

Verse 47

(47) At his understanding and answers.—The first word seems to point to the discernment which showed itself in the questions as well as the answers. The egotism of Josephus leads him to speak of himself as having, at the age of fourteen—when he too had become “a child of the Law”—caused a like astonishment by his intelligence; so that the chief priests and principal men of the city used to come and consult him upon difficult questions in the interpretation of the Law (Life, c. 1). The fact is so far interesting as showing that the class of teachers retained the same kind of interest in quick and promising scholars.

Verse 48

(48)Behold, thy father and I have sought.—The latter clause expresses a continuous act, We were seeking thee; and our Lord uses the same tense in His answer.

Verse 49

(49) Wist ye not . . .?—This is, as it were, the holy Child’s defence against the implied reproach in. His mother’s question. Had they reflected, there need have been no seeking; they would have known what He was doing and where He was.

About my Father’s business.—Literally, in the things that are My Father’s—i.e., in His work, the vague width of the words covering also, perhaps, the meaning “in My Father’s house,” the rendering adopted in the old Syriac version. The words are the first recorded utterance of the Son of Man, and they are a prophecy of that consciousness of direct Sonship, closer and more ineffable than that of any other of the sons of men, which is afterwards the dominant idea of which His whole life is a manifestation. We find in a Gospel in other respects very unlike St. John’s, the germ of what there comes out so fully in such words as, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I also work” (John 5:17), “I and My Father are One” (John 10:30). The words are obviously emphasised as an answer to Mary’s words, “Thy father.” Subject unto His parents as He had been before and was afterwards, there was a higher Fatherhood for Him than that of any earthly adoption.

Verse 50

(50) They understood not the saying.—We are apt to think that they should have understood, and sceptical criticism has seen in this a contradiction to the previous history of the Annunciation and the Birth. Twelve years, however, of the life of childhood after the outward pattern of that of other children, may have dulled the impressions that had then been made; and even if they, in part, understood the words as referring to the marvel of His birth, they were still in the dark as to what He meant by being “about His Father’s business.” As it was, though it was the first flash of a greatness more than human, it was but momentary. It faded into “the light of common day,” and life went on in its quiet and simple fashion as before. It is clear, at any rate, that the writer of the Gospel was not conscious of any inconsistency between the later and the earlier narratives of the childhood of the Christ.

Verse 51

(51) Was subject unto them.—There was, therefore, in the years that followed, no premature assumption of authority—nothing but the pattern of a life perfect in all its home-relationships. In such a household as that of the carpenter of Nazareth, this subjection must, in the nature of things, have involved much manual and menial work—a share in the toil alike of the workshop and the house.

His mother kept all these sayings.—The repetition of words like those of Luke 2:19 is significant. The twelve years that had passed had not changed the character of the Virgin Mother. It was still conspicuous, more even than that of Joseph, for the faith which accepted what it could not understand, and waited patiently for the solution of its perplexities.

Verse 52

(52) Jesus increased in wisdom and stature.—Here again we have nothing but a normal orderly development. With Him, as with others, wisdom widened with the years, and came into His human soul through the same channels and by the same processes as into the souls of others—instruction, e.g., in the school of Nazareth, and attendance at its synagogue—the difference being that He, in every stage, attained the perfection of moral and spiritual wisdom which belongs to that stage; there being in Him no sin or selfishness or pride, such as checks the growth of wisdom in all others. In striking contrast with the true record of the growth of the Son of Man, is that which grew out of the fantastic imaginations of the writers of the Apocryphal Gospels. There the child Jesus is ever working signs and wonders; fashions into shape Joseph’s clumsy work; moulds sparrows out of clay, and claps His hands and bids them fly; strikes a playmate who offends Him with dumbness, and so on ad nauseam.

In favour with God and man.—This, it will be noted, is an addition to what had been stated in Luke 2:40, and gives the effect while that gave the cause. The boy grew into youth, and the young man into manhood, and the purity and lowliness and unselfish sympathy drew even then the hearts of all men. In that highest instance, as in all lower analogies, men admired holiness till it became aggressive, and then it roused them to an antagonism bitter in proportion to their previous admiration. On the history of the eighteen years that followed, see Excursus on Matthew 2.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Luke 2:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 29th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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