The Coming of Jesus
The Gospel of Luke was written primarily to the Gentiles. Luke himself was a Gentile (implied in the context of Colossians 4:10–14), as was Theophilus, to whom the Gospel is addressed.
In addition to being a physician, Luke was a meticulous historian. In introducing the Gospel, Luke places Jesus in real history; that is, he puts the story in the historical context of its times: Herod was the king of Judea (Luke 1:5), Augustus reigned over the Roman Empire (Luke 2:1), and a priest by the name of Zacharias was exercising his turn in the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 1:5, 9). In chapter 3, Luke mentions six contemporary dates related to the ministry of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus.
Thus, Luke places the story of Jesus in history—real people, real times—in order to dismiss any idea of mythology with his narrative. His readers must stand in awe and wonder at the fact that Jesus is real and that through Him God has invaded history with the “ ‘Savior, who is Christ the Lord’ ” (Luke 2:11, NKJV).
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, April 4.
Acts 1:1 tells us that before Acts was written, its author wrote a “former account.” This, and the fact that both accounts were addressed to Theophilus, helps lead us to conclude that one author was responsible for both books. The two accounts can be viewed as parts 1 and 2 of “Origin and History of the Christian Church.” Part 1 is a narrative of the life and work of Jesus (the Gospel of Luke), and part 2 (Acts of the Apostles) is an account of the spread of the message of Jesus and of the early church.
Luke was aware of many who had written about the events that had shaken the city of Jerusalem and beyond—the events concerning Jesus Christ. The sources for such literary works included many “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2, NKJV)—a clear reference to the disciples and other contemporaries of Jesus. Luke himself had an exposure to these witnesses and ministers (such as Paul and other apostolic leaders) and possibly also to the Gospels written by Mark and Matthew. Luke, obviously, was not an eyewitness to the Jesus story, but he was a credible and authentic convert to Christ.
Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, presenting Jesus as the Great Teacher, the fulfillment of prophecy, and the King of the Jews. He often referred to Old Testament prophecies being fulfilled in Christ. Mark wrote to a Roman audience about Jesus, the Person of action. Luke, a doctor and a Gentile, wrote to the Greeks and the Gentiles about the universal Jesus—the Savior of the world. Luke mentions that the purpose of his writing is twofold: to present an “orderly account” (Luke 1:3, NKJV) and to provide certainty to the great teachings of the new era. Certainty about truth, as in Jesus, is one goal of his Gospel.
For nearly four hundred years after Malachi, divine silence marked the history of Israel. With the birth announcements of John the Baptist and Jesus, the divine silence was about to be broken.
The birth stories of John and Jesus have parallels. Both are miracles: in the case of John, Elizabeth had gone well past the child-bearing age; in the case of Jesus, a virgin was to bear the child. The angel Gabriel announced both birth promises. Both announcements were received in a spirit of wonder, joy, and surrender to God’s will. Both babies were to grow and become strong in the Spirit (Luke 1:80, 2:40).
But the mission and the ministry of the two miracle babies were distinct and different. John was to be a preparer of the way for Jesus (Luke 1:13–17). Jesus is “ ‘the Son of God’ ” (vs. 35) and the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies (vss. 31–33).
“The birth of a son to Zacharias, like the birth of the child of Abraham, and that of Mary, was to teach a great spiritual truth, a truth that we are slow to learn and ready to forget. In ourselves we are incapable of doing any good thing; but that which we cannot do will be wrought by the power of God in every submissive and believing soul. It was through faith that the child of promise was given. It is through faith that spiritual life is begotten, and we are enabled to do the works of righteousness.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 98.
The miracle of John had a decisive purpose in God’s dealing with His people. After 400 years of prophetic absence in the history of Israel, John did break forth into that history with a specific message and with a decisive power. John’s mission and message was “ ‘to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’ ” (Luke 1:17, NKJV). He was to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the one to prepare the way for the mission of Jesus.
The birth of Jesus Christ was no normal event. It was marked in God’s eternal calendar, and “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4, NKJV). It is the fulfillment of the first promise God made after the entrance of sin in Eden (Gen. 3:15).
Six months after Gabriel announced to Zacharias the coming birth of John, he announced to Mary of Nazareth an even greater miracle: that a virgin will “ ‘conceive . . . and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus’ ” (Luke 1:31, NKJV).
The virgin birth of Jesus goes against all nature, and it cannot be explained by nature or naturalistic philosophy. Even Mary had her question: “ ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ ” (vs. 34, NKJV). The angel assured her that this would be the work of the Holy Spirit (vs. 35), and “ ‘with God nothing will be impossible’ ” (vs. 37, NKJV). Mary’s immediate and faithful submission was remarkable: “ ‘Let it be to me according to your word’ ” (vs. 38, NKJV). Every human question, no matter how natural or logical, must give way to the divine answer. Be it Creation or the Cross, the Incarnation or the Resurrection, the downpour of manna or the outpouring of Pentecost— the divine initiative demands human surrender and acceptance.
While Mary answered her own question by submission and surrender to God’s sovereignty and eternal purpose, Gabriel assured her with another great answer: “ ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God’ ” (vs. 35, NKJV).
Luke begins the story of the Bethlehem manger with a note of history. Joseph and Mary left their home in Nazareth to travel to their ancestral town of Bethlehem as a result of a census decree of Caesar Augustus, the emperor of Rome, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Such historical details must lead Bible students to appreciate Luke’s submission to the Holy Spirit, so that he would record the details of the Incarnation within the framework of history.
The story of the poor circumstances in which the Lord of heaven incarnated Himself continues with the first visitors the manger had: the shepherds. Not to the rich or the powerful, not to the scribes or the priests, not to rulers and the powers that held sway over the land did the “ ‘good tidings of great joy’ ” (Luke 2:10, NKJV) come, but to humble and despised shepherds. Observe the majesty and the simplicity of the message: A Savior is born to you. In the city of David. He is Christ the Lord, the Anointed One. You will find Him wrapped in swaddling clothes (author’s translation). Heaven’s most precious gift came in such a simple package, as often it does. But the gift brings “ ‘glory to God,’ ” “ ‘on earth peace,’ ” and “ ‘goodwill toward men’ ” (vs. 14, NKJV).
Luke’s record of the angel (Luke 2:9–12) brings out three vital matters of Christian theology. First, the good news of the gospel is for “ ‘all people.’ ” In Jesus both the Jew and the Gentile become one people of God. Second, Jesus is the Savior; there is no one else. Third, Jesus is Christ the Lord. These three themes, so clearly established early in Luke, later became the foundation of the apostolic preaching, particularly that of Paul.
Although writing primarily to the Gentiles, Luke was aware of the importance of the Jewish heritage through the Old Testament. He takes care to link the New Testament story with the Old and provides the scene of Mary and Joseph having the Baby Jesus circumcised on the eighth day and taking Him to the temple in Jerusalem, all according to Jewish law (Luke 2:22–24).
Simeon’s prophecy also predicted two significant features of Jesus’ ministry.
First, Christ is “ ‘destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel’ ” (Luke 2:34, NKJV). Yes, Christ has brought light and salvation to all, but not without cost to the recipient. With Christ there is no neutral ground: accept Him or reject Him, and upon the appropriate response one’s salvation depends. Christ demands exclusiveness; we abide in Him or we do not. Those who abide in Him will rise up and be part of His kingdom; those who reject Him or remain indifferent to Him will fall to the ground and perish without hope. Faith in Christ is nonnegotiable.
Second, Simeon prophesies to Mary, “ ‘a sword will pierce through your own soul also’ ” (Luke 2:35, NKJV). The reference no doubt is to the Cross, which Mary will witness. Mary and all the generations that follow her ought to remember that without the Cross, there is no salvation. The Cross is the hub around which the entire plan of salvation revolves.
Further Study: “Luke, the writer of the Gospel that bears his name, was a medical missionary. In the Scriptures he is called ‘the beloved physician.’ Colossians 4:14. The apostle Paul heard of his skill as a physician, and sought him out as one to whom the Lord had entrusted a special work. He secured his co-operation, and for some time Luke accompanied him in his travels from place to place. After a time, Paul left Luke at Philippi, in Macedonia. Here he continued to labor for several years, both as a physician and as a teacher of the gospel. In his work as a physician he ministered to the sick, and then prayed for the healing power of God to rest upon the afflicted ones. Thus the way was opened for the gospel message. Luke’s success as a physician gained for him many opportunities for preaching Christ among the heathen. It is the divine plan that we shall work as the disciples worked.”—Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, pp. 140, 141.