Sermon notes for August 17, 2003:
Savior and Lord, Emperor and King, Luke 2:1-52
Luke dates the story of John by reference to the reign of Herod the Great, king of Judea (1:5). But he dates the birth of Jesus by reference to the reign of Caesar Augustus, who has the authority to take a census of the “inhabited earth” (2:1). John’s ministry is confined to Judaism; but with Jesus, Luke’s story enters the world of the Roman empire.
“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed . . . .” (Luke 2:1-52).
Scripture has much to teach us about empires, and the responsibilities of those who live under them. Israel was first organized as a collection of tribes, then as a kingdom, and finally as a subject people under a series of Gentile empires. The ancient Gentile empires were generally favorable to Israel. Nebuchadnezzar protected godly Jews and Yahweh used him to punish ungodly ones. Cyrus the Persian is presented in Isaiah as a Messianic figure who will deliver Israel from captivity. Luke’s portrait of Rome is in keeping with this: Throughout Acts, Rome is favorable to the church, the true Israel.
Empire, however, comes with a temptation: For Jews in the post-exilic period, under the lordship of Gentiles, the great temptation was intermarriage — literal intermarriage with Gentiles and spiritual intermarriage or compromise. Daniel is careful to refuse the food of the Babylonian king (Daniel 1), and Ezra and Nehemiah both struggle to teach the people not to intermarry with the “people of the land.” The same problems of sexual confusion and pressure to compromise and toleration face us in the age of the American Empire.
There is an obvious contrast between the Roman Emperor and Jesus. Jesus’ parents were subjects of a foreign power, not rulers; he was laid in a manger; his “attendants” were shepherds; and his parents were too poor to offer a lamb at the temple during the rite of purification (2:24; cf. Leviticus 5:11-12; 12:1-8).
At the same time, Jesus is also a rival to Augustus. His connection with David is emphasized repeatedly (2:4, 11; cf. 1:27). His birth is announced by an army (“host”) of angelic heralds, and the angels use terms that were familiar from the imperial cult: Augustus’s reign was hailed as the good news that a new era had dawned, but the angels announce the “gospel” of Jesus’ birth. Augustus was believed to be both “Savior” and “Lord,” and His Pax Romana had brought “peace on earth,” but the angels identify Jesus with these titles, and say that He is the one to bring peace. At all these points, Luke makes it clear that Jesus is the true world Emperor, the only one who can bring peace.
HOPE OF ISRAEL
Jesus is also the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel, as both Simeon and Anna recognize. Through the Spirit, Simeon prophesies several things about Jesus. He is the salvation of His people, has come to bring light to the Gentiles, and this will occur through a process of division and conflict (1:29-35). And Anna recognizes that Jesus is the one who bring “redemption for Israel.”
THE FATHER’S BUSINESS
The final episode in this chapter is another of Luke’s stories that foreshadows the whole gospel. Jesus and his parents journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (2:41), as Jesus will later journey from Galilee to Jerusalem with His disciples (9:51). In both cases, Jesus makes the journey for Passover (2:41; 22:1). After Jesus celebrates Passover, he is “lost” (2:43-35; 22:47-23:56), and is “found” three days later (2:46; 24:1-49). People are confused by the whole thing (2:48; 24:19-24), but Jesus explains that it is “necessary” for these things to happen (2:49; 24:50-53).
If Gentile hope for peace and Israel’s hope for salvation are going to be realized, it is “necessary” for Jesus to be “lost” and “found,” to die and rise again, at Jerusalem during the Passover.
For Further Study
1. In the light of Isaiah 1:3, why is it important that Jesus is laid in a manger? “Bethlehem” means “house of bread.” Does this shed further light on the sign that the angels give? See 1:53.
2. An argument to try on a Jehovah’s Witness: Jesus is called “Savior.” Yet, Isaiah insists that only Yahweh is Savior (43:3, 11, 15). Therefore, Jesus is Yahweh. (This might be especially effective since Isaiah 43:10 is one of the JW’s most beloved texts.)
3. Why is it important that Jesus was lost and found at the age of twelve (1:42)?