Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In the Temple: Luke 2

In Summary: Taking a fresh read at Luke 2, this stood out to me: while we frequently go here for the Christmas story, much more happens in the Temple than happens in Bethlehem. Let’s take a look at the whole chapter, then we’ll focus on the Temple.

First, we see Luke set the historical stage by giving a date reference. Do you see it? It’s in the first two verses. Just because he does not use a calendar set up like ours does not mean there’s no date here. For the typical Greco-Roman reader, historical time was framed around major events more than specific dates. After all, the Roman calendar started with an event: the founding of the city. The narrowing down within the year was not as important to Luke’s initial audience as it is for us. We have major debates over the date and season for the birth of Christ, partly because we read Luke for clues that he did not include.

Second, we see Luke move rapidly through the birth of Jesus. The Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us (John 1), gets a verse: Luke 2:7. I would suggest that Luke includes the birth narrative out of necessity, but the point to be drawn is the apparent mundane nature of Jesus’ birth. Just a boy, born on the road while His parents obeyed Caesar’s decree. One possible reason for this? It was common among the mythologies and legends of Greece and Rome (keep in mind, much of Greek mythology was simply adopted over into Roman mythology) for important people to have bizarre births. And with those bizarre births came the question: Why didn’t anyone pick up on this strange birth? Luke is, perhaps, explaining to Theophilus how obscure Jesus’ birth was, in relation to the Empire, and excusing Theophilus for not knowing.

As a practical aside here, we Christians often hurt our relationship with the world around us by being aghast that they don’t know what we know. We should consider Luke and emulate him here. Explain things to remove ignorance rather than run about lamenting it.

Third, we see the angel of the Lord, and we see the heavenly host, and they are praising Jesus. Luke has no record of the Magi. He draws the extremes of the spectrum: shepherds and heavenly warriors. In society of the time, it doesn’t get much lower…or higher. And both are present.

Finally, though, we move out of Bethlehem. Actually, it only takes 20 verses, half of which aren’t in Bethlehem anyway. Then we go to the Temple, to Nazareth, and back to the Temple. The Temple is the setting for the bulk of the chapter.

In Focus: We see Jesus in the Temple at two major times in His life, at about 40 days and at 12 years old. The first time, He is met by Simeon and Anna, who acclaim Him as Messiah. The second time? This is the famous moment where He points out that “He must be about His Father’s business.”

These segments in the Temple give us an important focus for the life of Jesus. We see here that the Glory of God has come to the Temple again, just as it did the first Temple in the days of Solomon. We also see another important factor: Jesus was there. Right there. He was seen, knowable, and real. He does not appear at the point of His baptism or at some other random moment: Luke describes Him at birth, circumcision, purification, and attaining adulthood. This is all the childhood of Jesus that we need to see: enough to establish His existence in those years.

In Practice: What can we do with this? First, we can note that God worked in the Temple, where He had worked many times before. If there is a place where God’s Word is consistently proclaimed and attended to, then we should not surprised to see God work in lives there. Here it is the Temple, but where is it now? Perhaps the local church, where God’s people consistently gather to look to the Word? This is where our effort and attention should focus: Bible-teaching, Bible-practicing local gatherings of believers. Whether you have a building or not is not the issue at hand, but the heart is.

Second, we see that Jesus went through the ordinary stages of growth for a Jewish lad of the first century. If it was necessary for the Messiah to do this, then why do we expect to short-circuit ordinary methods of growth and maturity ourselves?

In Nerdiness: Much debate comes among the nerdy set about what we can know about the exact date of Christmas from this passage. Well, first, let’s be clear: Christmas is December 25. End of story—because it’s a religious festival date set initially by the Constantine-era Church.

The date of the birth of Christ is another matter entirely. It is most likely not December 25: there are 365 days in a year, so if you just pick at random you’ve got a 1/365 chance to be right. Further, historically the calendars have shifted a few times through the years. Here are the factors, though, to be considered:
1. The time of the announcement to Zacharias of John the Baptist, which leads into the proclamation to Mary.
2. The time when shepherds would be in the fields near Bethlehem, unless the Angel of the Lord goes to shepherds elsewhere in the “region,” which is Judea, in which case it’s a meaningless addition.
3. The overall cycles of life and when other events occur that allow you to work backwards to the birth of Christ.

What do we know, then? Not much. Scripture is not clear about the timing and the date—not beyond the year. It’s certainly not worth the angst that some people pour out over it, as if celebrating the birth of Christ on any given day is worth dividing the people of God. Take the time to celebrate…or don’t, as Scripture contains no command to do so. But don’t think we know what we don’t…

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