Sermon preached on Luke 2:1-39 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 06/20/2021 in Novato, CA.
From Nazareth and back again, a Savior’s story. This is how Luke has framed this memorable and beloved account of the birth of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Verses 1-4 open with the setting that resulted in the relocation from Nazareth in Galilee down to Bethlehem in Judea. Our passage ends with verse 39 recording their return to Nazareth. What also is paired and contrasted in these framing verses is the decree of Caesar with the Law of the Lord. It is the decree of Caesar in these opening verses that bring Mary and Joseph and Jesus in utero. In contrast, we see our passage ending in verse 39 that describes how the Law of the Lord kept them for a time there in Judea, before returning to Nazareth. Joseph and Mary’s attention to both the decree of Caesar and the Law of the Lord become the context for these events here in Judea.
Let me pause for a quick side note. As we find this material so framed by Luke, I do point out that Matthew’s account of these events gives us various other details that Luke did not record for us. While Matthew’s account can be easily harmonized with Luke’s account, my goal today is to focus on what Luke draws to our attention and not in providing a harmonization of the gospels on these events. In fact, that will be my practice in general as I preach through Luke. I want to preach you Luke’s account and not just teach a consolidated summary of all the data we have on Jesus. If, along the way you have harmonization questions, please feel free to ask me. But in general, I will try to focus my Luke sermons on what Luke has chosen to draw our attention to and his specific emphases and perspective. So then, Luke draws our attention on Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in a story of their going from Nazareth and back again in the context of them looking to heed both the decree of Caesar and the Law of the Lord.
In our first point, then, let us spend some time considering this decree of Caesar and its implications for the events of our passage. Starting in verse 1 we find that Caesar Augustus issues this decree for a registration. This Emperor Augustus, also known as Octavius, was the first official emperor of the Roman Empire, following the dictatorship of his uncle Julius Caesar. He reigned from 30 BC to AD 14. He put an end to the civil wars among Rome and is credited for ushering in the Pax Romana, an era of international peace within the Roman Empire for some two hundred years. It is often noted how the providence of God chose such a time as this for Jesus to be sent into the world. This time of such peace, along with its efficient system of roads, a common language, and more, made for a great environment for the gospel to rise up and begin to be spread to the world. In God’s providence, he picked such a time to initiate the accomplishment of his plan of redemption in the sending of his son into the world.
So then, not only in general, but even in the particulars of this registration, we see the hand of providence to fulfill God’s promises. Long before, through the prophet Micah, God foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Yet, as we saw last chapter, Mary was living in Nazareth of Galilee, but Bethlehem was in Judea. If you remember your geography, Judea was the region in the south, then north of that was the region of Samaria and then north of that was the region of Galilee. That’s roughly 100 miles between Nazareth and Bethlehem. Yet God desired the Messiah to be from Nazareth yet born in Bethlehem. And so, God then providentially made use of Caesar’s decree to bring pregnant Mary with Joseph down to Bethlehem.
So think of the practical aspect of this for Mary and Joseph. Surely, this government mandate was not something they would have been excited about. For them to travel that distance when Mary was literally about to give birth was surely a hardship. It was a burdensome and imposing decree, to say the least. They literally just make it in time to Bethlehem before she gives birth. And then, they can’t even get proper accommodations since the inn was full, probably due to the government registration. They end up having to stay in a stable where Mary gives birth and has to lay the baby in a manger. Yet, they faithfully obeyed the decree of Caesar, despite the hardship and imposition it reflected. And God used that in order to fulfill his word that the Messiah would be born in the Bethlehem, the city of his forefather King David.
As I mention commendably their submission to the civil government, I might take an aside and say their submission to the civil government was not absolute, nor should it have been. In Matthew’s account, we go on to learn that it was tyrannical King Herod that then tries to kill baby Jesus and after being warned in a dream they flee to Egypt. Likewise, in Matthew’s account, when they return from Egypt, the reason they ultimately settle in Nazareth was because Herod’s son Herod Archelaus was reigning, and they were again warned in a dream of him too and so that is why they move back to Nazareth. The point of my aside is to say that while Joseph and Mary were commendable in their submission to Caesar’s registration mandate, their allegiance was not absolute and there came a time shortly thereafter where they had to flee the government which tried to persecute them unjustly. But Luke doesn’t tell us about that. Instead, we see their commendable submission to Caesar which God makes use of to orchestrate his master plan of having the Christ born in Bethlehem, praise be to God!
Let us now turn in our second point to consider their submission to the Law of the Lord, also described herein as the Law of Moses. We see this for starters in verse 21. On the eighth day after Jesus was born, they have him circumcised. That was what the Mosaic Law required, per Leviticus 12:3. For Jesus to be circumcised is to have the sign of the Mosaic covenant applied to him. And for him to be circumcised into the Mosaic covenant is to obligate him to keep whole of that Mosaic law. That’s part of the significance of being circumcised into the covenant, as Paul reminds us explicitly in Galatians 5:3. In fact, Paul makes this point specifically for Jesus in Galatians 4:4, that Jesus was born under the law. Galatians 4:4, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.” Why? Paul says, “to redeem those who were under the law”. So, we should not miss the significance here of Jesus being circumcised. Yes, it does show the obedience of Mary and Joseph to the Law of God. But more so, it tells us that Christ was born under the law in order to fulfill the law for us. Jesus would live a life in perfect obedience to his obligation to keep the law. Jesus’ positive righteousness is an important part of our salvation and we find testimony to it right here, even in regard to his parent’s actions. He was born under the law to be circumcised like this. But in his keeping of the law, he kept it even for us. Because we who are united to Christ have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. Praise God for his active obedience which is us for us our righteousness.
So then, Mary and Joseph’s adherence to the Law of God doesn’t end there. As we read starting in verse 22, they then continue to follow the law in terms of its requirements for purification post-birth. The law deemed the mother ceremonially unclean after the birth of a son for 40 days, at which point they were to give an offering for their purification. This is described in verse 24 when it mentions the offering of two birds. Actually, the law ordinarily required a lamb and a bird for the offering for a newborn son, but allowed for alternatively just two birds if the family was poor. In other words, we see here that Mary and Joseph and thus Jesus were poor. That Jesus of royal lineage both according to his humanity and his divinity came in such poverty is another aspect of his identifying with our sufferings and a part of his passive obedience by which he took on our miseries.
There is actually another offering subtly mentioned here as well. It’s in verse 23 when it speaks of how every firstborn male is to be called holy to the Lord. That hearkens back to Exodus 13 where God says that due to God’s claim upon the firstborn, Israel was to redeem their firstborn. The cost of this redemption was a five-shekel offering. So, this too is part of Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the Law of God in our passage.
This obedience to God’s Law then sets the context for more wonderful things God would do in this passage in moving God’s redemptive plans forward through Jesus. These offerings we just described would have to be offered in the temple in Jerusalem. Thankfully, since Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that was a rather convenient trip of 6 miles or so. If they had been coming from Nazareth, it would not have been so convenient to say the least. But it’s there at this time at the temple that God does more wonderful things by the Holy Spirit. I refer to their encounter with this Simeon and then this Anna. We don’t know anything about Simeon and Anna apart from this passage. But we see the Holy Spirit working through them.
With Simeon, we learn that he was a godly man who had been waiting for the consolation of Israel. That word “consolation” refers to receiving comfort. God had promised he would comfort Israel by coming to them in the Messiah. God had revealed to Simeon that he would live to see the coming of the Messiah. That’s what verse 26 says, that he would not see death until he saw the Lord’s Christ. Remember, that the word Christ is the Greek word for Messiah, meaning Anointed. Simeon would live to see the Lord’s anointed. And here that comes to pass as he beholds Jesus presented at the temple. And notice it was the Spirit that brought him that day into the temple to have this encounter with Jesus and the parents, verse 27. And by the Spirit, Simeon has no problem recognizing Jesus as the long-awaited Christ coming in the lineage of David. Simeon looks past their poverty and sees his Lord and his Savior. I remember back to King David’s initial selection and recognition by the prophet Samuel. All of David’s older brothers were brought before Samuel who would have easily thought a number of them looked like good choices for a king. But God made Samuel wait until the youngest David was there, because God told Samuel he sees what man doesn’t see. God told Samuel that he was looking for David’s heart, not his outward status. So too, Simeon looks past the relative humility of Jesus to recognize by the Spirit the coming King. That being said, Simeon by the Spirit also recognized the coming suffering that would come to Mary in light of Jesus, verse 35. This prophecy surely has in mind the cross. Simeon then, by the Spirit recognizes the coming glory but also the suffering ahead for the Christ child.
So then, with this Anna, we see a prophetess who also greets Mary and Joseph and Jesus there at the temple. That she is a prophetess also implies the Holy Spirit at work through her. She too had apparently long-awaited the Lord’s salvation in her decades of faithful service and fasting and prayer at the temple. Surely it was then the Spirit prophesying through her in verse 38 when she thanks God and speaks of the coming redemption of Jerusalem that would happen through the Christ child. And notice how Anna’s prophetic words are not directed just to Mary and Joseph. She is speaking of this to all who were waiting for such salvation. So, she sees Jesus and starts to tell others about him too! Those words would have encouraged the faithful and also exhorting any who were wandering or any outsiders who had heard her words.
As some application here, isn’t this what church is all about? Mary and Joseph come to the temple in order to do their obligatory acts of worship. And what happens? God is glorified, Mary and Joseph are built up, and others are encouraged and edified. These three things are the result of Mary and Joseph’s obedience to God’s law in their acts of worship at the temple. And my point of application is that this is typical for us still today. When we go to church, we should expect to see that God is glorified and praised and ourselves and others built up and encouraged.
So then, stepping back, my point in this second point has been to recognize God’s providential blessings and his announcement of his redemption, in the context of the parents’ submission to God’s laws. Like how God fulfilled the prophecy of Jesus being born through the context of them obeying the decree of Caesar, the text also highlights what wonderful redemptive-historical announcements and blessings that come because the parents go to the temple in Jerusalem in obeying the Law of God. The passage ends in verse 39 noting how they performed everything according to the Law of the Lord before they finally return to Nazareth.
In our last point for today, I’d like to briefly point to the fact that Luke records more “new songs” for us today. We noted in chapter 1 the new songs that Luke recorded for us, and we said that the Bible calls for new songs unto the Lord as God does new wonderful acts in redemptive history. So then, we see both the angels’ song in verse 14 and Simeon’s son in verse 29-32. And while Anna’s exact words are not recorded to see if any of them were in poetry, what she is summarized as saying describes what we see in these songs by the angels and Simeon. Anna praises God and speaks of God’s redemptive acts. That’s what we find in these two songs.
Look then at the angels’ song. We see it praise God saying, “Glory to God in the highest.” Indeed, the incarnation of the Son of God who is the long-awaited anointed of the Lord from David’s lineage is glory to God. And not only that, it’s glory in the highest. Only here and at the triumphal entry do we see such exalted language that it speaks of the highest glory given to God. Indeed, in the incarnation and the redemption accomplished at the cross is glory in the highest. And then the verse goes on to speak of God’s redemptive acts when it says “on earth peace among those whom he is pleased.” The angels are recognizing that there is peace, especially peace with God, that will come with the birth of the Christ. This peace will particularly be upon those objects of God’s good pleasure. This is a reference to God’s elect, chosen, people. This divine peace is something that comes to those upon whom his grace and favor rests. That includes the chosen among Israel, including people like Anna, from one of the supposed lost 10 tribes of Israel, being of the tribe of Asher. But she was not lost to the Lord! And it also includes the many elect among the Gentiles. What a wonderful song that signals the long-awaited salvation in the Christ is at hand!
Look then at Simeon’s song. We see it praising God really throughout as it simultaneously describes God’s redemptive workings. Verse 29, he acknowledges that God has kept his word to preserve Simeon’s life until the coming of the Messiah. Verse 30 acknowledges that Simeon has with his own eyes seen this Messiah. Verse 31 says that this is something God has prepared for all to see, which is giving God credit for these saving works. So then, God’s redemptive works are described in multiple ways. He speaks in terms of “salvation” in verse 30. Jesus has come to save God’s people from their sins. That’s a salvation admittedly that many were not expecting as the primary focus on Christ’s coming. Many were waiting to be saved from this or that earthly enemy, like from the Romans. But in retrospect, this was, of course, the greatest enemy God’s people needed to be saved from. It’s why God’s people had fallen under the yoke of enemies over and over again – it was in God’s chastening due to their sin to allow them to fall under such a yoke. Jesus had come to save them. But then notice how Simeon says this salvation will be something for all people to be confronted with. God’s salvation of Israel would be for their glory, verse 32. But that same verse says it is also for revelation to the nations, the Gentiles. What Simeon heralds today about the salvation that is coming in Jesus will be a message for the nations. In the words of Psalm 2, the nations will either submit to Jesus as their king too and also be saved in him, or they will reject him and resist him and fall under his wrath and condemnation. Sadly, there would be many who were of Israel that will choose that same path of rejecting Jesus as King and find themselves not in the glory of God’s salvation but under the wrath of the Messiah. So then what we find in Simeon’s song is what we found in the angels’ song. These two new songs give glory to God and herald his saving work in Jesus to the world.
Saints of God, let me close our message today with a final overarching application. While there are so many wonderful applications that can come from today’s passage, I will give us this one. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. I admit that is a verse that was already on my mind when I came to study this passage. But I couldn’t help but notice how our passage is framed along these lines. The from Nazareth to Nazareth framing is combined with the contrast of the decree of Caesar with the Law of the Lord. In today passage, we’ve seen how Mary and Joseph gave to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. And God worked providentially his redemptive plans through their faithful submission. May we too be encouraged to do the same today. And may we too be blessed in our day to recognize how God’s redemptive purposes continue to work themselves out in the midst of the providential dealings of man. So then, we look to submit in the Lord to the civil magistrate, and to be good citizens in society, while always looking to live for Christ as citizens of heaven. And it is that heavenly citizenship and allegiance that must be our ultimate authority in our life, which especially is means we need to be fulfilling our spiritual duties of worship. That includes gathering as the church for worship where we sing new songs to the Lord, praising God for Jesus, and speaking of the Christ to one another and to the nations. Let us pray for the grace to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. And let us then look for what God will do through that in our day. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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