Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Joy to the World!

A few years back, I had an assignment to write an exegetical paper from a passage in Luke. Seeing as it is appropriate for this time of year, the time when we remember and celebrate Jesus coming to earth, being born as a child, I thought I would share it. I will admit, it is a bit dry, but hopefully there is something that you can learn from it.

Luke 2:8-12
8 That night , there were some shepherds staying  in the field nearby, watching  over their flocks 9 when unexpectedly, an angel of the Lord  stood among them. The radiant  glory of God beamed all around them and they were filled with fear . 10 But the angel comforted  them saying “Don’t be afraid. I am here to deliver  a message full of good news and great joy to all people, everywhere !  11 On this very day, in the city of David, a Savior has been born; a Savior who is the Messiah, Christ the Lord . 12 When you look for him , look for a baby wrapped in cloth and resting  in a manger.”

Exegetical Issues
    This passage is a periscope from within a larger context of the birth story of Jesus. We pick up in the story after already knowing that Jesus is born, but now getting a glimpse into how the rest of the world discovers the birth of the Savior. The news is first brought to the shepherds staying in a nearby field. This is consistent with the theme in Luke of bringing up the lowly and focusing on poverty. I focused on the initial interaction between the angel of the Lord and the shepherds in the field.
    There are several manuscripts which say “behold” before the angel of the Lord, however most important manuscripts omit this . Either way, it doesn’t change much other than emphasizing more excitement within this verse. The only other text critical issue could be seen in verse 11, saying “Christ the Lord” instead of “Lord Christ,” though this is also not seen as anything significant. There is also no significant text variance in this passage.

Verse-By-Verse Interpretation
    “8 That night, there were some shepherds staying in the field nearby, watching over their flocks”

    Pointing out that the shepherds were near or in the same region as where Jesus was born points out a circumstantial link between the shepherds and the birth scene . There are several connections to David through this location and profession, (which I will get to later in this section). Living in the field, or “out of doors” was frequently linked to the life of a shepherd; they were known to spend their life in the open air . Watching was kept by turns, so that only one shepherd needed to be awake at a time. The night setting prepares the scene for the spectacular illumination, one of the many juxtapositions displayed in this passage. It also affirms both the unexpected event and the dark predicament of the people of Israel . This watching at night was a natural nightly activity of the shepherds.
    Israel understood themselves as a nation of shepherds compared to their neighbors who are either settled farmers or city dweller . Because of this, the image they used for their God and their king or Messiah was the image of a shepherd. The shepherding occupation held a low place in society. They were classified as thieves and were outcasts, not allowed into the city for they were not trusted by the general public . Shepherds were seen as shiftless, dishonest people who let their flocks graze on others lands . It is important to note that the Angel of the Lord is announcing the birth to the shepherds, rather than to the parents; this gives a double meaning to the shepherds being “outsiders.” They are not only low in regard to society, but they are also outside the circle of Jesus’ family of origin, “This portends the considerable ramifications of this birth, which cannot be conceived as a family affair, and may also anticipate the redefinition of “family” in Jesus’ ministry .”
    There is significant context that we can draw from knowing a little about the shepherds. “The implication of Luke’s story is that Jesus was born at a time when sheep could still be kept in the field—sometime between April and November .” It is interesting that we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th, but it didn’t actually start that way. In the third century A.D. some parts of the church celebrated January 6 as the birthday of Jesus. It wasn’t until the fourth century that the date was displaced by December 25 (it was the date of the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar).
It is fascinating how the reference to shepherds sparks a positive, pastoral image in modern time after hearing how negative their occupation was.  This could be because of the association with the line of David, in the first century.
    Before David became King, he was a shepherd, keeping his sheep, “Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’” (1 Samuel 16:11). David’s origins remained in Bethlehem, “but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.” (1 Samuel 17:15). The very pastures that the angels visited were the same ones that David spent his youth and fought the lion and the bear . God called him away from an occupation of shepherding sheep to become a “shepherd” over the nation of Israel, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” (2 Samuel 7:8). There is often a symbolization used with shepherds to show all who care for God’s people .
    During the time of David’s rule, there was a great longing of Israel for the restoration of the glory. The people hoped for a king who once more should set Israel free. David did much more than just rule the people; he represented the immortal grandeur of the heart of humanity seeking after God . The birth of Jesus represents a new richness of significance as we link it with the long, long needs and yearnings of the centuries that have gone.
    In just one verse, Luke is able to pack in context; developing further Jesus’ connection with David and Bethlehem, and, second, graphically picturing Jesus as one sent to the lowly and outcast.

“9 when unexpectedly, an angel of the Lord stood among them. The radiant glory of God beamed all around them and they were filled with fear.”

    The word used to say “to come up and stand by” seems to by a favorite Lukan word, used of the arrival of supernatural persons . Due to the fact that the angel who came to visit is referred to as “an Angel of the Lord,” probably indicates that he be equated with Gabriel. Gabriel also appeared to Zechariah  and again to Mary . They were both greeted in the same way . Accompanied with the appearance of the Angel, there is a dazzling display of the glory of the Lord which illuminates the entire area around the shepherds. The word that is used here literally means “to shine around.”   This specific word is only used one other time in the NT at Acts 26:13, “At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me.” The illumination and bright lights are a sign of being in the presence of heavenly beings. It is here that we find a beautiful juxtaposition of night and light.
    The definition of glory is “the splendor associated with God’s perceptible presence , or a luminous quality, frequently a divine attribute”  or “the majesty and splendor accompanying God’s presence .” There are examples of this all over the OT, but some references include Exodus 16:7, 10; 24:17; 40:34; Ps 63:3; Isa 60:1; etc.
It is interesting to point out that the glory of God is seen not around the manger, but around the angels. What does this mean? It is not history, but the Word of God that has splendor. As Bovon said, “Only the Word of the Lord, which cannot be taken captive, can shine forth as theologia gloriae.” From the moment Jesus is born, we are directed towards the story of the cross. The crescendo of the “glory of the Lord” plays up the eschatological relevance of the present happening.
The fear of God in the presence of all his glory can only be great, but Luke leaves no room to doubt that the shepherds were completely filled with it. Fear is a standard reaction to having a divine encounter. There are many people in the Bible who were confronted by God through his angels and their responses all consistently included fear. We find stories of these encounters with Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Jeremiah, Daniel, Zechariah, Mary, Shepherds, Peter, Paul and John.
There are also plenty of times throughout the ministry of Jesus that he has to reassure the person he is with to not be afraid. Even his disciples had this kind of fear and needed Jesus’ assurance; for instance, they were all terrified at the transfiguration of Jesus , as well as when they were at sea and saw Jesus walking towards them .
The definition of the kind of fear used in this passage (phobeo, phobos) is “to tremble or to quake. ” In the OT, fear was often also referred to as a reverence, or to hold in respect.

“10 But the angel comforted them saying “Don’t be afraid. I am here to deliver a message full of good news and great joy to all people, everywhere!”

The response to an interaction with an angel is consistently fear, but the response of God is also consistent: do not be afraid. As soon as they sense God’s desire to communicate with them, the fear subsides. The angelic messenger deals with the fear by assuring the shepherds that God’s intentions are gracious. He also validates the encouragement of telling the shepherds not to be afraid by the content of the message that he brings; they went from being filled with fear, to being filled with joy. This is yet another beautiful juxtaposition held within this passage, “The darkness is showered with brilliance as the people who wait in darkness see a great light (Isa. 9:2). The contrast between the humble setting of the birth and the glory of the angelic announcement could hardly be more dramatic. ”
The joy that is enclosed in this message is so extensive that it banishes all fear. The “great joy” is in order because of the “good news.” Of course, as Bovon states, “’joy’ should be understood metonymically. The good news for all the people is the birth of the son, not the shepherd’s joy.” The verb that is used to “announce good news” is the same verb used for the proclamation of the gospel, and the effects of this good news will be joy for all people. Luke uses this verb for describing the gospel message throughout the book of Acts . Joy and celebration were a sure reaction for the news comprised of everything which the Jews had been hoping and waiting for—a Savior! Soon the good news would bring great joy to people across the entire globe.    
At first, “all people” was meant just for the people of Israel (the word here, laos, referred to Israelites, not to people in general ). It is quite possible that Luke’s desire when describing the angel’s announcement was to emphasize the universalism of the gospel.

“11 On this very day, in the city of David, a Savior has been born; a Savior who is the Messiah, Christ the Lord.”

    Luke uses the verb for “on this very day,” or “today,” several times throughout the book , often using it to mean the beginning of the time of messianic salvation. It is both a fulfillment of the prophecy and its present relevance, meaning that if we know God in our lives today, we should hear his voice; salvation is in our sight. 
    It is here that for the first and only time in Luke, the word “savior” is used of Jesus . Jesus is referred to as Savior one other time in the Gospels, by the Samaritan who came to believe in Jesus . The combination of the title “Messiah, Lord” is nowhere else in the NT, and the precise meaning is unknown . The name “savior” was often use for the Greeks and Romans to refer to their gods as well as to great military or political leaders. For example, Julius Caesar was called “savior.” Now, the role of Savior as Lord, one who helps or delivers his people, has been transferred to Jesus .
    The title “Christ the Lord” is not found anywhere else in the NT . In Greek, The word for Christ means “Anointed One.” To be anointed meant to be set apart for some special purpose, for example, Moses anointed Aaron and his sons as the first priests of Israel . Lord could also be used of the Roman emperor (and was used of Augustus), but in this case refers to deity; proclaiming that this child was “Lord” meant that God had arrived in human form, he was the one for whom all Israel was waiting.

“12 When you look for him, look for a baby wrapped in cloth and resting in a manger.”

    We see in this verse once again Luke focusing on the theme of poverty. We see the Savior, Messiah, Christ the Lord who is the source and meaning of all life reveal himself in the form of a little child, coming unnoticed into an unknown town. Not even the shepherds had heard of the place where Jesus was born, but they were to go looking for him. The sign given to them by the Angel would not only lead them to find the Child, but it would also attest to the truth of the Angel’s words to the very last detail. It was in simplicity and lowliness that Jesus’ life began, and it was through the simple and low people and places that most of his work would be done.

Significance for Theology and Preaching
There are no similar passages in any of the synoptic Gospels. One interesting thing I did find, however, was that the phrase used to describe the fear the shepherds felt when the Angel of the Lord appeared is the same exact phrase used in Mark 4:41 when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water (they feared a mega fear). While none of the other Gospels contained this story, it remains through the entirety of Luke of the first shall be last and bringing up the lowly. This passage is a beautiful representation of how the Lord of all set the example with His life, starting his mission from the moment He was born.
This passage is the start of Jesus’ incarnational life. From the very beginning, He came to and for those who are considered lowly in this life. This was showed in a couple of different ways throughout the passage, including being born and placed in a manger, and having shepherds be the first to know of his birth (besides Mary and Joseph). Jesus was not born unto Herod, in his palace at Jerusalem, or to Augustus Caesar, on his throne in mighty Rome, and certainly not to chief priests and scribes. No, Jesus was born unto the humble, the lowly, to the expectant hearts; this is the redeeming message. Jesus reveals through his birth, and through the rest of his life that the message is not only that there is a God, but that God comes very near; “To believe that God is a strength sufficient for us is another and still more inspiring confidence. But to believe that God is not only almighty, that he is not only all-sufficient, but that he is God with us, God near, the understanding and the intimate—that is best of all. ”   

Works Cited
"Phobeo, Phobos" TDNT Vol. IX Pg 189; 198-204; 208-211; 212-217.
1, Luke. Luke 1. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002.
Barton, Bruce B., Dave Veerman, and Linda K. Taylor. Life Application Bible Commentary. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997.
Bock, Darrell L. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Bovon, Francois. Luke 1. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002.
Bowie, Walter Russell, Paul Scherer, John Knox, and Samuel Terrien. The Interpreter's Bible. New York & Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1952.
Evans, Craig A. New International Biblical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1990.
Green, Joel B. The New International Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.
Keck, Leander E. The New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
Neale, David A. Luke 1-9. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2011.
Nolland, John. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1993.
Plummer, Alfred. The International Critical Commentary. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1914.
Smith, Jonathan Z., and William Scott Green. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995.
Washington, Harold C. "Fear" ABD. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.

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