Called to Rejoice
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Recite the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s Gospel.
2. List several evidences of joy or reasons for joy that are found in the text.
3. Read today’s text aloud at a family or work Christmas celebration.
How to Say It
Caesar Augustus. SEE-zer Aw-GUS-tus.
Gaius Octavius. GAY-us Ock-TAY-vee-us.
Julius Caesar. JOO-lee-us SEE-zer.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Dec. 17—Sing a New Song (Psalm 96:1–6)
Tuesday, Dec. 18—Joseph and Mary (Matthew 1:18b–21)
Wednesday, Dec. 19—Traveling to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1–5)
Thursday, Dec. 20—Jesus, Firstborn Son (Luke 2:6, 7)
Friday, Dec. 21—Angels Proclaim the News (Luke 2:8–14)
Saturday, Dec. 22—Shepherds Visit the King (Luke 2:15–20)
Sunday, Dec. 23—Judging with God’s Truth (Psalm 96:7–13)
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
Why Teach This Lesson?
We know that Scripture calls us to live lives of rejoicing. Consider Philippians 4:4 to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” But often that’s easier said than done! How do we maintain lives of joy when circumstances work against us?
The key to being able to live lives of rejoicing is to remember what the Lord has done, what he is doing, and what he will do. What a powerful tool for empowering and stirring up faith! Rejoicing indeed can and should characterize every day of our lives. The God of Heaven who sent his Son to be born in Bethlehem still works in our lives! How could it be otherwise? Does it make any sense to claim that God doesn’t really care much about us today even though he sent Jesus into the world to die on our behalf?
The shepherds had joy at Jesus’ birth. With all the evidence of the Lord’s care we have had since then, how can we not “rejoice in the Lord always”?
A. Close Encounters of a Special Kind
Thirty years ago, the well-known movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind attempted to create the excitement and wonder that would attend the arrival of intelligent creatures from outer space. It is only one of many such movies and TV shows that have tried to imagine an extraterrestrial visitation.
But what of a close encounter, an actual visitation, from the creator himself? What about such an event in real history, not just in science fiction? What would it be like if the greatest being of all came to our planet? What preparations would we make? What excitement would it cause?
Such a visitation, of course, has actually happened. Jesus Christ, through whom the universe was created (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2), arrived on our planet just over 2,000 years ago. He did not come in an armada of spaceships, nor was his coming greeted by world leaders. He came in a way that no one could have imagined: he made his close encounter by being born into the human race through the most humble of circumstances.
B. Lesson Background
Julius Caesar lived from 100 to 44 bc. Before his assassination, he adopted Gaius Octavius as his son. However, the young man had to overcome dangerous foes before he could claim his place as the emperor of Rome. Following the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 bc, the Roman senate conferred on Octavius the title Augustus, meaning “the august one,” in 27 bc.
Until his death in ad 14, Caesar Augustus was one of the most powerful of earthly rulers. But earthly glory is fleeting. Jesus’ birth was little-noticed when Augustus was famous, but now that birth is world-known while Augustus is all but forgotten.
I. Royal Decree (Luke 2:1–3)
A. Caesar’s Demand (v. 1)
1. In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
Luke takes special care to show that Jesus is born at a real time, in a real place. Jesus’ birth comes about during the reign of Caesar Augustus, who serves officially as Roman emperor from 27 bc to ad 14. As ruler of the entire Roman world (a phrase that signifies the known area around the Mediterranean Sea), Augustus has the power to decree an official census to assist in collecting taxes.
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) is credited with the observation, “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Franklin is normally thought of as a smiling, optimistic entrepreneur. But this famous quotation may strike one as being depressing, fatalistic, and negative.
Taxes do seem to be a constant fact of life. People have complained about taxation for centuries. High taxation rates contributed to civil unrest during the era of the Roman Empire. High taxation was one of the factors that resulted in the French Revolution. High taxation rates contributed to the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania in 1794. But comparatively speaking, modern America does not have it that bad. Residents in some countries of Europe pay much more in taxes as a percentage of their income. Yet Americans still like to complain about taxes!
Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to register for their taxes. We may wonder whether those two griped about their taxes while on the way. Do you think that this event shows us God’s sense of humor as he integrates Jesus’ birth with the all-too-human chore of dealing with taxes? —J. B. N.
B. People’s Duty (vv. 2, 3)
2. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
Luke connects the birth of Jesus to events that are well known to people of the time. Even so, the exact year of Jesus’ birth is difficult to determine, and there are various facts to consider. The first is that the birth is during Augustus’s four-decade reign (v. 1), but that doesn’t narrow things down much! The second fact is that Quirinius is governor of Syria. This man had been made “Counsel” in 12 bc, with his governorship coming somewhat later.
A third fact to consider is that the birth of Jesus takes place during the lifetime of Herod the Great (Matthew 2; Luke 1:5). We know from secular history that Herod died just before the Passover of 4 bc. When these and other facts are combined, a reasonable calculation places the birth of Christ in 5 or 4 bc.
This calculation may seem curious to us. We naturally may suppose that Jesus would be born in “the year zero” (even though there is no “year zero”) just by definition, since bc means “before Christ.” The problem is traceable to the work of a sixth-century monk named Dionysius. Our modern calendar is based on his calculations, and unfortunately he made an error of several years.
3. And everyone went to his own town to register.
Every Jewish man has to return to the city of his ancestors to be enrolled. For Joseph this means a long journey in support of a despised Roman tax.
II. Humble Birth (Luke 2:4–7)
A. Joseph’s Situation (v. 4)
4. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
When Joseph first learned that his pledged bride was already pregnant, he decided to give her a quiet divorce (see Matthew 1:18, 19). Only after an angel appeared to him did Joseph agree to keep her as his wife. While Scripture does not state what difficulties he and Mary experienced in Nazareth, it is easy to imagine the gossip they endured as Mary began to “show.”
Now the decree from Rome gives them an opportunity to leave. Their journey takes them some 70 miles southward. But since they are traveling to an elevation that is about 1,250 feet higher than Nazareth, Scripture says they go up from Galilee into Judea.
What Do You Think?
Without overspiritualizing things, when have you noticed God working through the “mundane” events in life? How can we get better at noticing his work around us?
Joseph’s ancestral home is Bethlehem because he is of the house and line of David. Bethlehem is the city where David lived as a boy (see 1 Samuel 17:12, 58). Bethlehem means “house of bread.” This is a fitting meaning for the birthplace for the one who will be “the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48)!
B. Mary’s Situation (vv. 5, 6)
5. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
For Mary the trip is probably both a bane and a blessing. The trip is naturally quite uncomfortable given the advanced stage of her pregnancy. But at least this trip takes her away from the wagging tongues in Nazareth. The virgin’s baby will be born in another town, in welcome privacy.
In obedience to the angel of the Lord, Joseph had taken Mary as his wife. Since he has not yet had intimate relations with her (see Matthew 1:25), Scripture says they were pledged to be married. Mary is now reaching the final days of her pregnancy and so is expecting a child.
Thus by a royal decree issued in far-away Rome, these two make their way to Bethlehem. By a divine decree issued five centuries earlier in Micah 5:2, the birth of their child is predetermined to be in Bethlehem. Little does Caesar Augustus know that he is helping to carry out the plan of God!
6. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,
Perhaps Joseph and Mary complete the journey to Bethlehem before the ninth month of her pregnancy begins. Scripture simply affirms that while they are there the time comes for the delivery of the baby. By human appearances it will be just another baby. But in divine reality the son of Mary is the Son of God.
C. Baby’s Situation (v. 7)
7.… and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Thus Mary gives birth to her firstborn child, which is a son. This is not her only child; there will be other sons and daughters in years to come (see Mark 6:3).
In accordance with the custom of the time, Mary wraps the baby in long strips of cloth. This procedure is intended to keep the baby warm and give him a sense of security. An ancient non-biblical work notes that the baby who would later become King Solomon “was nursed with care in swaddling clothes. For no king has had a different beginning of existence” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:4). The opposite of such care is seen in Ezekiel 16:4.
Various interpretations have been offered regarding the inn that has no room for this family. Perhaps it is a public stopping place with “no vacancy” in the sleeping quarters that are located around the perimeter of the building; therefore, Joseph and Mary can go only to the open feeding area for animals. A tradition dating back to the second century puts the birthplace in a cave.
Whatever the exact circumstance, it is a humble beginning for the prince from Heaven! The baby Jesus has only a common manger, an animal’s feed box, for his bed.
What Do You Think?
Jesus set aside great power and majesty to become human. What are some ways we can set aside our own personal power or influence? Under what circumstances should we do so?
III. Angelic Announcement (Luke 2:8–12)
A. Unsuspecting Shepherds (vv. 8, 9)
8. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
The scene moves from the manger to the nearby countryside. The focus remains on how humble the setting is. In the surrounding area, there are lowly shepherds who camp in the fields with their sheep. The shepherds are keeping watch over their flocks that night to protect them from predators and thieves.
9. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
If there ever was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, this is it! Along with an angel of the Lord appears the glory, or shining majesty, of God to radiate all around them. The shepherds, as simple peasant folks at the bottom rung of the social ladder, are less ready than anyone to be in the presence of majesty. Their fear is understandable. Their reaction may be compared with that of Manoah and his wife in Judges 13:22. After the angel of the Lord spoke to them, Manoah said, “We are doomed to die! We have seen God!”
B. Unprecedented News (vv. 10, 11)
10. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
An angel is literally a “messenger,” and this angel has a wonderful message indeed. First, the angel quickly offers the shepherds reassuring words: Do not be afraid. Then comes the threefold message: good news … great joy … all the people. The birth of this child is indeed “good news,” the beginning of the gospel. He will bring the world the joy of salvation.
Surprisingly, this salvation will be available not just to those of Israel, but to everyone. Some restrict the phrase all the people in this context to mean only the Jews. The reason is that other accounts mention salvation of “his people” (Matthew 1:21) as Jesus reigns over “the house of Jacob” (Luke 1:33). The prophecies of Isaiah, Amos, and others, however, support the view that the pronouncements include Gentiles. God intends salvation to be for Jew and non-Jew alike (Acts 10:34-35; 11:18).
For All People
The American Civil War was devastating. Approximately 600,000 soldiers died—about 2 percent of the U.S. population. Men fought for various reasons. Some fought to keep slavery; some fought to eliminate it. Some fought for state’s rights; some fought to preserve the union. Some fought to protect their families; some fought against their own brothers.
Four months after the pivotal battle of Gettysburg in 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln went to that small Pennsylvania town to dedicate a cemetery for the honored war dead. In his famous address there, he called attention to the fact that the nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” was then engaged in a war that was testing whether such a nation could endure. He concluded by urging his hearers to be dedicated to ensuring that government “of the people, by the people, for the people” should “not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln’s frame of reference was that government belonged to the people—all the people. The ultimate result of that war was that one class of people could not enslave another class. American liberties were to be for everyone. If a human government can choose that ideal as its goal, how much more so when God’s will is concerned! God is no respecter of persons and shows no favoritism. The message of the angel to the shepherds was that the good tidings of great joy would be to all the people. It still is. —J. B. N.
Visual for Lesson 4
Be sure you have this visual on display as you discuss the phrase, “Glory to God in the highest.”
11. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
When the angel says to you, he signifies that this event is directed even to lowly shepherds. The shepherds know that the town of David is Bethlehem. This newborn baby will be the rescuer for those who need to be rescued, a Savior for those who need to be saved—meaning everyone! While many Jews hope for a Messiah to deliver them from the Romans, God intends that the Messiah deliver them from their sins.
The Savior will be known as Christ the Lord. The title Christ comes from a Greek word meaning “the anointed one.” In Hebrew the word for “the anointed one” is Messiah (John 1:41). Anointing with oil was the Old Testament inauguration ritual for prophets, priests, and kings. As God’s anointed, Jesus will fill all three offices. As the Lord, Jesus will be master over everyone.
C. Unlikely Sign (v. 12)
12. “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
A Jewish commentary on Psalm 23 says, “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of shepherd.” The religious leaders certainly would consider shepherds to be unlearned and ignorant (compare the reaction of the religious leaders to Peter and John—fishermen—in Acts 4:13). Yet the only invited guests to witness the newborn Jesus on this glorious night are shepherds!
Knowing that the shepherds can hardly believe their ears, the angel voluntarily gives them a sign: when they arrive in Bethlehem they will find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. The swaddling clothes are to be expected on any newborn baby; the manger as a baby bed is not. The sign is to confirm to them, when they find the baby, that everything the angel says about him is true. Shortly thereafter, they find Jesus just as the angel predicts (v. 16).
IV. Divine Praise (Luke 2:13, 14)
A. Glorious Multitude (v. 13)
13. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
What Do You Think?
Should we seek signs today? Why, or why not?
[Hint: enrich your discussion by considering Mark 13:22–27; John 4:48; 20:30, 31; 1 Corinthians 1:22, 23; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; and 2 Thessalonians 2:9.]
No earthly dignitaries are on hand to welcome the arrival of God’s Son. Even if there were, would they know what words to say? So God provides his own welcoming party in the form of a heavenly host. This happens suddenly, as the one angel is joined by a great company of angels. In the Old Testament such words typically identify an army of angels, who serve the Lord of Hosts (Psalms 103:21; 148:2). Scripture does not state whether this host fills the sky or stands on the hills that surround the shepherds.
This host has an additional message. Their voices join to praise God for the great thing he has done. What God had planned from the beginning is taking place. What the prophets had prophesied, even without understanding the full import of their own words, is being fulfilled. And what the angels have longed to look into (see 1 Peter 1:10–12) is finally coming about. No wonder the heavenly host is summoned to rejoice!
B. Glorious Message (v. 14)
14. “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
A primary message of that first Christmas is Glory to God. To say this is to proclaim that he who dwells “in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16) has sole claim to glory. To God alone belong all majesty, radiance, and splendor. He is the Lord of Heaven and earth; he is God in the highest. In Heaven, glory is given to God; on earth, peace is extended to us.
Peace is more than the mere absence of conflict; it is the presence of everything that is necessary for one’s well-being. This peace will come to the world through the prince of peace. Rome had brought a military peace that would later permit the early Christians to spread the gospel. The peace mentioned here, however, is a peace between God and people. For one of the greatest peace pronouncements in the New Testament, see Romans 5:1.
What Do You Think?
You see in a shopping mall parking lot a festive holiday banner that reads Peace on Earth. How does the original context of that phrase help us avoid misinterpreting it?
The phrase on whom his favor rests indicates that God shows favor to those who accept his grace.
A. Close Encounter in Bethlehem
With their words ringing in the ears of the shepherds, the angels departed and returned to Heaven. No heavenly messenger had ever proclaimed such a glad message. To the world had been born a Savior, Christ the Lord. We should join the humble shepherds in their excitement and amazement. This is a message that calls everyone to rejoice.
What Do You Think?
What Christmas tradition causes you to rejoice most in the meaning of the Christmas message?
The message of the birth in Bethlehem is far more than the mere sweetness of a baby. The real message of Christmas is the coming of the Son of God to live (and give) his life as the Son of Man. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). This is the miracle of the incarnation.
Jesus came to have a close encounter, an intimate participation in our world. He came as a baby, helplessly swaddled in tight strips of cloth. He came as a human to face hunger and thirst, temptation and persecution. He wept real tears; he bled real blood; he died a real death on the cross; he gained a real resurrection.
In all this, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). He “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus knew what it was to be a man. He came to earth to be Immanuel—“God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
B. Close Encounter in Heaven
Jesus came to live with us on earth so that one day we can live with God in Heaven. His close encounter with humanity makes possible our close encounter with God later. Revelation 21:3 foretells the day when, “He will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
Because of the messages of Christmas and Easter, we can look forward to the day when we shall join the angel’s praise: “Glory to God in the highest.” Christmas calls us to rejoice in the coming of our Savior. Christmas calls us to rejoice in the gift of God’s grace.
Thought to Remember
The gospel is still good news of great joy for all people.
Father, we praise you for sending your Son to bring us salvation. May our hearts rejoice as we hear again the good news. As Jesus came to dwell among us, we long for the day when we shall dwell with you. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2007-2008. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing, 2007, S. 147