Tag Archives: Robert Stein

To Which Generation Does Jesus Refer in the Olivet Discourse? Part 2

Leon Morris, in vol. 3, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries , disagrees with the Brooks interpretation. He writes:

Some see a reference to the people then alive and see the fulfilment in the fall of Jerusalem. The context seems against this, unless, with Plummer, we see the fall of Jerusalem as a type of the end (so Fitzmyer). Many think that Jesus was prophesying the end of all things within a few years and that he was mistaken. In view of his explicit disavowal of knowledge of this point (Mark 13:32), this seems most unlikely. Moreover, as many critics have pointed out, it is impossible to hold that Luke who recorded these words understood them to mean this. In the early church it was often held that the generation of Christ’s followers was meant, so that the elect would persist right through to the end. Others see a reference to the Jewish nation (e.g. Ryle). Some have thought that Luke means us to understand the term in the sense ‘mankind’ (Leaney, Harrington). Lenski draws attention to the frequent use of ‘generation’ in the Old Testament to denote a kind of man, especially the evil (e.g. Ps. 12:7), but also the good (e.g. Ps. 14:5). Similarly Ellis points out that in the Qumran scrolls the term ‘last generation’ apparently ‘included several lifetimes’. It seems that it is something like this that Jesus has in mind. This unusual use of generation concentrates on the kind of people that would persist through to the end. The expression ‘means only the last phase in the history of redemption … The public revelation of the kingdom is just around the corner, but its calendar time is left indeterminate’ (Ellis; cf. Schweizer, ‘since Easter all belong to the generation of the eschaton’).

Robert H. Stein, in , prefers yet a third interpretation:

This expression has been interpreted as referring to (1) Jesus’ own generation, (2) the Jewish people, (3) humans in general, (4) the last generation in history, and (5) Luke’s contemporaries. (Compare how the Qumran community wrestled with the identity of the final generation in 1QpHab 2.7; 7.2.7 and how the ‘final generation’ referred to several generations.) Even though every other reference to ‘this generation’ in Luke can include Jesus’ own generation, it is quite unlikely that here Luke understood ‘this generation’ in this manner because that generation had essentially passed from the scene, and the parousia still lay in the future. The fourth interpretation is so bland as to be meaningless. As long as humanity is present when the Son of Man returns, this by definition must be true; for unlike people in the nuclear generation who wonder if humanity may destroy itself in nuclear war, Luke and his contemporaries had no doubt that the return of the Son of Man would take place in the presence of people. The second suggestion fails to take into consideration that the scene of the coming of the Son of Man is not the ‘land’ (Luke 21:23) of Judea but the ‘earth’ and the ‘nations’ (21:25), so that to restrict the audience here simply to the Jewish people would be to lose sight of the cosmic focus of 21:25–36. Furthermore why would Luke or his readers think that the Jewish people might be wiped from the face of the earth? The fifth suggestion is unattractive to many interpreters since it is obviously wrong. The Son of Man did not come in Luke’s generation. However, in the pursuit of Luke’s meaning one cannot rule out this possible interpretation simply because one does not like it. Nevertheless this interpretation would be strange if in his Gospel Luke was combatting a misunderstanding that the parousia already should have taken place. Luke probably would have been hesitant to date the coming of the Son of Man in such a way.

The third suggestion appears to be the best option. Elsewhere in Luke this expression is used to describe sinful humanity unresponsive to God and oblivious to the possibility of immediately encountering him (cf. 12:16–21, 35–40; 17:26–36). ‘This generation,’ which ignored the coming of the kingdom in Jesus’ ministry, continues in its rejection of the gospel message until the very end. Thus ‘this generation’ of 21:32 stands in continuity and solidarity with ‘this generation’ of Jesus’ day.

We’ll finish up with a couple more scholars in part 3.

 

Commentary on Luke 21 (Jesus Predicts the Destruction of the Temple and His Second Coming)

Early in the Passion Week, as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple precincts, his disciples comment on how majestic and beautiful the temple is. Robert Stein, in vol. 24, Luke, The New American Commentary , remarks, “Under Herod the Great the temple experienced massive reconstruction, which began in 20 b.c. (cf. John 2:20) and continued until a.d. 63. This new temple exceeded even Solomon’s temple in beauty and size and justifiably could have been included among the seven wonders of the world.” The Jewish historian Josephus reported that massive white stones, some as long as 65 feet, were used in construction. These white stones gave the building a brilliant white appearance so that the temple looked like a snow-covered mountain.

Jesus responds by telling the disciples that one day in the future, the temple will be destroyed. The disciples then ask Jesus when the temple will be destroyed and what signs will forewarn them. Matthew and Mark report that the disciples asked this question as they sat on the Mount of Olives, after leaving Jerusalem for the day (recall that Jesus was teaching in the temple precincts during the Passion Week). The Mount of Olives overlooks Jerusalem and the temple from the east. The following verses have thus become known as the Olivet Discourse.

In verses 8-19, Jesus then describes a series of events that will occur before the destruction of the temple, but none of them are to be taken as signs that the destruction of the temple is imminent. These events include: 1) false messiahs, 2) wars, 3) earthquakes, 4) famines, 5) persecution of the disciples by Jewish and Roman authorities, 6) betrayal by family members, 7) and even martyrdom for some of the disciples.

Why would Jesus warn his followers about these events? Jesus knows that all these things will occur and he wants his disciples to know that God is in control of all of it. They are part of the divine plan. The disciples must not be led astray by the chaos going on around them. In verses 13-15, Jesus reassures his disciples that when they are brought before the authorities, it is their opportunity to bear witness to everything they have seen with respect to Jesus. Jesus himself will give them the words to speak so that nobody can refute them. In verses 18-19, Luke writes that those who stay faithful to Jesus to the end, despite persecution, are guaranteed eternal life.

One of the most challenging aspects of interpreting the Olivet Discourse is that Jesus is actually answering two questions: When will the temple be destroyed and when will the second coming of Jesus, and consequently, the end of the age (world) occur? These two questions are explicitly asked in Matthew’s version of the discourse. It is likely that the disciples believed that the destruction of the temple, the end of the age (world), and the return of Jesus would all happen in quick succession. Jesus, however, is telling them that the end of the world and his second coming will not occur immediately after the destruction of the temple. There will be a period of time between these two major milestones.

The events that Jesus predicts in verses 8-19 will not only occur before the temple is destroyed, but they will occur throughout the Christian era (i.e., from AD 70 to Jesus’ second coming). Thus, nobody can cite these kinds of events as an indicator that the end of the world is imminent.

Some might question whether the seven events listed above did indeed occur before the temple was destroyed in AD 70. Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary , argues they did:

Various messianic pretenders arose, most notably Theudas (Acts 5:36; Josephus, Ant. 20.97–99, 160–72, 188, who describes other false claimants as well). The war of Israel against Rome began in a.d. 66–67 and was preceded by the growing hostility incited by the Zealots. Famine ravaged Judea, as predicted in Acts 11:27–30, datable to ca. a.d. 45–47 by Josephus, Ant. 20.51–53. Earthquakes shook Laodicea in a.d. 60–61 and Pompeii in a.d. 62 (cf. also Acts 16:26). Persecution dogged believers’ footsteps throughout Acts; internal dissension so tore apart the church at Corinth (1 Cor 1–4) that God even caused some to die (1 Cor 11:30). Numerous New Testament epistles were written primarily to warn against false teachers and perversions of Christianity, most notably Galatians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and Jude.

In verses 20-24, Jesus finally describes the destruction of the temple. When Jerusalem is surrounded by armies, the time is near. The Roman army would indeed surround Jerusalem in AD 66. Jesus advises everyone in and around Jerusalem to flee the city into the surrounding mountains. The city walls will not protect them. Pregnant women and infants will suffer the most, as they are most vulnerable to the suffering caused by war. Jesus predicts that the armies surrounding Jerusalem will finally prevail and that a great number of Jews will die or be captured by the Gentiles. Once this occurs, the age of the Gentiles (the Christian era) will begin. The Gentile Roman army did indeed finally enter Jerusalem and burn the temple in AD 70.

In verse 22, Luke sees the destruction of Jerusalem as fulfilling OT prophecies. Robert Stein comments:

Luke may have been thinking of such OT prophecies that speak of God’s judgment upon Jerusalem due to its sins such as Jer 6:1–8; 26:1–6; Mic 3:12; cf. also 1 Kgs 9:6–9. Whereas the OT prophecies would speak of Jerusalem’s judgment as due to its sins, what those sins entailed is found in Luke-Acts. They involve oppressing the poor (Luke 18:7; 20:47); rejecting its Messiah (13:33–34; 20:13–18); not recognizing the time when God visited and the kingdom was offered to it (19:44); rejecting the gospel message (Acts 13:46–48; 18:5–6; 28:25–28); but above all official Israel’s involvement in the death of God’s Son.

Jesus then describes a future time when there will be cosmic signs: “signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Stein writes,

This metaphorical imagery is frequently found in the OT. Such impressionistic language reveals that God is about to enter world history either for blessing or woe or for both. Again the signs associated with the Son of Man’s coming are cosmic, whereas those associated with Jerusalem’s fall are terrestrial, so that Luke kept these two events distinct. For Luke these ‘signs’ and the ones that follow do not provide a clock or timetable by which one is able to know the ‘times or dates’ (Acts 1:7) of the Son of Man’s coming.

How will Jesus’ followers finally know that the world is coming to an end and that the messianic kingdom is inaugurating? Luke writes, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” This is a clear allusion to Daniel 7:13-14, where Daniel writes,

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

In verses 29-33, Jesus tells a brief parable about a fig tree and its leaves. When you see leaves sprouting on a fig tree, you know summer is near. Likewise, Jesus says, “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

So here is the challenge for us: what are the “things taking place” to which Jesus is referring? It cannot be his second coming, because that means the kingdom of God has begun. So, “things taking place” must be referring to everything else mentioned between verses 8-26. In verse 32, when Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place,” the word “all” cannot be referring to his second coming. “All” must be referring to the other events which must occur before Jesus returns.

As we discussed earlier, all the events recorded in verses 8-24 did occur by the end of AD 70. The generation of Jesus’ disciples would have clearly extended to AD 70, so that generation indeed did not pass away until all had taken place.

The only question left to resolve is whether the events in verses 25-26 occurred before AD 70, after AD 70, or have yet to occur. It is here that biblical scholars differ greatly, for the answer weighs heavily in deciding which generation Jesus is referring to. This topic will be fleshed out in a subsequent blog post.

Regardless of the interpretation of verse 32, Jesus has clearly not returned in power and glory and so we, his followers, are still waiting for that day to arrive. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all exhort Jesus’ followers to be ready at any time for his return. Jesus tells his followers that only God the Father knows the day, so that everyone will be taken by surprise. There will be no warning, so we must all be prepared for his arrival.

Commentary on Luke 19 (The Triumphal Entry)

As we pick up the narrative in Luke 19, Jesus and his disciples are traveling toward Jerusalem for his final Passover festival. The day of the week is Sunday and as Jesus and his party approach Bethany, a village just a couple of miles east of Jerusalem, Jesus sends two of his disciples into Bethany to get a young donkey. Jesus seems to have prearranged the borrowing of the colt with the owners.

The disciples bring the colt to Jesus and place garments on the colt to act as a saddle. Jesus sits on the colt and then his disciples spread additional cloaks on the ground for the donkey to walk on (see 2 Kings 9:13). The other Gospels mention that palm branches were spread out on the ground as well. David Garland, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Book) , notes:

Luke omits the reference to palm branches found in Matthew and Mark, probably because his Gentile audience would not have recognized these as symbols of Jewish nationalism. Palm branches, praise, hymns, and songs are associated with the entrance of Simon Maccabeus into Jerusalem after his victory over the Syrians.

As they descend the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, Jesus’ disciples shout, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest” (see Psalm 118:26)! Since there are likely over one hundred disciples traveling with Jesus, they are making quite a ruckus. Some Pharisees who are on the same road into Jerusalem command Jesus to quiet his disciples, but he refuses to do so and says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

What is the meaning behind Jesus riding on a donkey and receiving shouts of praise from his disciples? Leon Morris, in vol. 3, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries , explains:

They praised God for all the mighty works that they had seen, i.e. those miraculous deeds that Jesus had done throughout his ministry which showed so plainly that he had come from God. Luke nowhere explains the enthusiasm, but Matthew and John both quote the prophecy that Zion’s king would come on an ass’s colt (Zech. 9:9). There can be no doubt but that the multitude saw Jesus’ entry to the city in the light of this prophecy and greeted him as king.

Now a king on an ass was distinctive. The ass was the mount of a man of peace, a merchant or a priest. A king might ride on an ass on occasion, but he would be more likely to appear on a mighty warhorse. Zechariah’s prophecy saw Messiah as the Prince of peace. The Galilean disciples, now streaming up to Jerusalem for the Passover, knew that Jesus had done many mighty works. They had for a long time watched and waited for him to proclaim himself as the Messiah of their hopes. Now they saw him as doing so. He was riding into the capital in a way that fulfilled the prophecy. He was showing himself to be the Messiah. They did not stop to reflect that he was also proclaiming himself a man of peace and giving no countenance to their nationalistic fervour. They wanted a Messiah. And now they saw one.

Regarding Jesus saying the very stones would cry out, Robert H. Stein, in vol. 24, Luke, The New American Commentary , writes:

The most likely [interpretation of the verse] is, ‘If the disciples would stop their praising of God and his Son, then the stones would take their place and cry out praise in their stead.’ Nothing can detract from this day. There may be an allusion here to Hab 2:11. Whereas earlier Jesus had given a command to silence, this day there was no silencing the welcoming of the Son of David, Israel’s King.

As Jesus approaches the city, he pauses and weeps. In verses 42-44, Jesus prophesies that the city of Jerusalem will be surrounded by an enemy army and besieged. Eventually the army will break through the walls and destroy the city and everyone inside it. This would all happen because Jerusalem rejected her Messiah, Jesus. Leon Morris remarks,

The Jerusalemites did not know the things that make for peace. There is irony here for the name ‘Jerusalem’ has ‘peace’ as part of its meaning (cf. Heb. 7:2). But those in the city of peace did not know what made for peace! Especially important in the Hebrew understanding of peace (which carries over into the New Testament) is its emphasis on peace with God, right relationship between the creature and the Creator, as a necessary ingredient in true peace. It was this that the people of Jerusalem had failed to realize. And their failure to get to grips with the message of God was now final. These things, Jesus says, are hid from your eyes.

Roughly forty years later, the Roman army besieged and destroyed Jerusalem in the war of AD 66–70. David Garland cites the Jewish historian, Josephus, as he describes the details of the war:

Josephus portrays in great detail the terrible and gruesome suffering of the inhabitants of Jerusalem during the three-year siege of the city. Many died by a terrible famine. Others were killed by desperate bandits within the city. Thousands were slaughtered by the Romans when they breached the walls. Josephus claims that eleven hundred thousand perished during the siege and ninety-seven thousand were taken captive. Though the number is almost certainly grossly exaggerated (it may have been between one-quarter and one-half million), these numbers reveal the horrible sufferings the city will experience.

When Jesus finally enters Jerusalem, he goes to the temple complex and drives out those buying and selling merchandise in the Court of Gentiles. Morris explains:

Jesus found traders in the temple. Some were changing money (only Tyrian coinage was accepted for the temple offerings, and other coins had to be changed into this currency); others were selling sacrificial animals. They were apparently plying their trade in the court of the Gentiles, the only place in the temple where a non-Jew could go to pray and to meditate. If the temple system was to carry on it was necessary that such facilities be provided. But it was not necessary that they should be in the temple precincts, and it is this to which Jesus took exception. He began to drive out those who sold. Luke does not mention those who bought nor the money-changers, but Matthew and Mark tell us that he dealt with them as well. Jesus upbraided the traders by pointing out the difference between their dishonesty (cf. Jer. 7:11) and the true nature of the temple as a house of prayer (cf. Isa. 56:7).

Jesus appears at the temple complex, during the next few days, to teach. Although the ruling Jewish authorities want him arrested and executed, his popularity prevents them from seizing him in public. They will have to find another way.

Commentary on Luke 10 (The Good Samaritan)

Jesus is teaching and, within the crowd, an expert in the Old Testament stands up to challenge him. He asks Jesus a common question among Jews of the day: What do I do to guarantee I will be accepted into the kingdom of God when the end of the age arrives?

This question most likely references the description of the end times in Daniel 12:2. Daniel wrote, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” The lawyer wants to see how Jesus will answer this question, probably hoping to catch Jesus in an error.

Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer and asks the lawyer what his reading of the Law is on this important subject. The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, which effectively command a person to love God and love his neighbor. Jesus commends the lawyer for his answer. Robert H. Stein, in vol. 24, Luke, The New American Commentary, provides some interesting background:

The expert’s answer consisted of two OT passages. The first (Deut 6:5) was called the Shema because it begins ‘Hear, O Israel.’ A devout Jew would repeat it twice each day (Ber. 1:1–4). In the Shema three prepositional phrases describe the total response of love toward God. These involve the heart (emotions), the soul (consciousness), and strength (motivation). The Synoptic Gospels all have ‘heart’ and ‘soul,’ Matthew omits strength, and all add ‘mind’ (intelligence). The second OT passage in the lawyer’s answer is Lev 19:18. It is found also in Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; and Jas 2:8. In Luke the two OT passages are combined into a single command, whereas in Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39 they are left separate. Whether these two OT passages were linked before Jesus’ time is uncertain. They appear together in the early Christian literature. That this twofold summary was basic to Jesus’ teaching is evident by its appearance in his parables (Luke 15:18, 21; 18:2; cf. also 11:42, where ‘justice’ equals ‘love your neighbor’).

Some Christians mistakenly believe that Jesus is advocating a salvation by works in this passage, but the commands to love God and love your neighbor are completely compatible and consistent with salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Stein expands on this topic:

To love God means to accept what God in his grace has done and to trust in him. Faith involves more than mental assent to theological doctrines. Similarly, love is not just an emotion. Both entail an obedient trust in the God of grace and mercy. The response of love to God and of faith in God are very much the same. This intimate association between love and faith is seen most clearly in Luke 7:47, 50. For Luke, as for Paul, salvation was by grace (Acts 13:38–39) through faith (Luke 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42), but this faith works through love (see Gal 5:6). At times the aspect of faith may need to be emphasized and at other times love.

Theologian Norman Geisler reminds us, in Systematic Theology, Volume Three: Sin, Salvation, that

True faith involves love, which is the greatest commandment: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matt. 22:37). Unbelievers ‘perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved’ (2 Thess. 2:10). Paul speaks of ‘faith working through love’ (Gal. 5:6).

The lawyer, however, demands clarification from Jesus on who exactly counts as a neighbor. Instead of giving the lawyer a direct answer, Jesus delivers a parable. In brief, a Jew traveling alone from Jerusalem to Jericho is accosted by robbers and left for dead. An Aaronic priest and a Levite both pass him by without helping, but a Samaritan stops to help him. The Samaritan also transports him to an inn and pays for him to stay several weeks until he heals.

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was remote and dangerous. It was a 3,000 feet descent along a 17- mile road. There were plenty of places for robbers to hide.

Once the man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead, a temple priest (a descendant of Aaron) happens by. Why did the priest fail to help the man? Leon Morris, in vol. 3, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, speculates:

Since the man was ‘half dead’ the priest would probably not have been able to be certain whether he was dead or not without touching him. But if he touched him and the man was in fact dead, then he would have incurred the ceremonial defilement that the Law forbade (Lev. 21:1ff.). He could be sure of retaining his ceremonial purity only by leaving the man alone. He could be sure he was not omitting to help a man in need only by going to him. In this conflict it was ceremonial purity that won the day. Not only did he not help, he went to the other side of the road. He deliberately avoided any possibility of contact.

A man from the tribe of Levi then comes upon the man, but he also continues without helping him. Robert Stein explains:

The Levite was a descendant of Levi who assisted the priests in various sacrificial duties and policing the temple but could not perform the sacrificial acts. Luke was not suggesting that since the Levite’s duties were inferior to those of a priest he might have been more open to help because the problem of becoming defiled was less acute. Rather he was emphasizing that neither the wise and understanding (10:21) nor the proud and ruling (1:51–52) practice being loving neighbors.

Finally, a Samaritan man arrives and has compassion on the injured Jew. He binds his wounds and treats them with wine and oil. Wine was used for cleaning wounds, due to the alcohol in it, and the oil was used to provide pain relief.

The Samaritan goes even further, though. He places the man on his donkey and carries him to an inn where he can rest and heal. He offers enough money to the innkeeper for the man to be able to stay for several weeks.

The fact that Jesus uses a Samaritan as the hero in the parable is shocking to his audience. It is worthwhile to remind the reader of the history between the Jews and Samaritans. Stein writes:

The united kingdom was divided after Solomon’s death due to the foolishness of his son, Rehoboam (1 Kgs 12). The ten northern tribes formed a nation known variously as Israel, Ephraim, or (after the capital city built by Omri) Samaria. In 722 b.c. Samaria fell to the Assyrians, and the leading citizens were exiled and dispersed throughout the Assyrian Empire. Non-Jewish peoples were then brought into Samaria. Intermarriage resulted, and the ‘rebels’ became ‘half-breeds’ in the eyes of the Southern Kingdom of Judea. (Jews comes from the term Judea.) After the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, the Samaritans sought at first to participate in the rebuilding of the temple. When their offer of assistance was rejected, they sought to impede its building (Ezra 4–6; Neh 2–4). The Samaritans later built their own temple on Mount Gerizim, but led by John Hyrcanus the Jews destroyed it in 128 b.c. (cf. John 4:20–21). So great was Jewish and Samaritan hostility that Jesus’ opponents could think of nothing worse to say of him than, ‘Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?’ (John 8:48; cf. also 4:9).

When Jesus finishes the parable, he asks the lawyer who was the true neighbor to the Jew who had been robbed. The lawyer, without being able to say the word “Samaritan,” nevertheless identifies the Samaritan as the true neighbor.

The message is clear. The command to love our neighbor crosses ethnic, religious, and national boundaries. Stein comments:

For most Jews a neighbor was another Jew, not a Samaritan or a Gentile. The Pharisees (John 7:49) and the Essenes did not even include all Jews (1QS 1:9–10). The teaching of the latter stands in sharp contrast with that of Jesus.

Jesus commands us to love everyone as we love ourselves, including those whom we consider our enemies.

Commentary on Luke 1-2 (Birth of Jesus)

The traditional view of the Gospel of Luke is that it was written by Luke, a physician, friend, and missionary companion of the apostle Paul between AD 50-60. The Gospel of Luke is part one of a two-part work, with the second part being the book of Acts. Luke-Acts appear to be the only works in the New Testament written by a Gentile.

Michael J. Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains that

Luke writes as a second-generation Christian, claiming not to have been an eyewitness of the events of Jesus’ ministry, but to have thoroughly investigated the events before composing his Gospel (Luke 1:1–4). He writes as both historian and theologian, seeking to provide an accurate and trustworthy account of the events, while confirming the profound spiritual significance of these events.

Wilkins highlights the following purposes for Luke’s Gospel:

Luke’s prologue identifies his general purpose as the confirmation of the gospel, seeking to confirm for Theophilus ‘the certainty of the things you have been taught’ (1:1–4). More specifically, Luke appears to be writing for a Christian community—probably predominantly Gentile, but with Jewish representation—struggling to legitimize its claim as the authentic people of God, the heirs of the promises made to Israel. In defending the identity of Christ, Luke seeks to show that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament and that his death and resurrection were part of God’s purpose and plan. In defense of the increasingly Gentile church, he confirms that all along it was God’s plan to bring salvation to the Gentiles, and that Israel’s rejection of the gospel was predicted in Scripture and was part of her history as a stubborn and resistant people. The theme that holds these threads together is promise and fulfillment. The church made up of Jews and Gentiles is the true people of God because it is for her and through her God’s promises are being fulfilled.

The first twenty-five verses of chapter one of the Gospel of Luke describe an angelic visit to a priest named Zechariah. The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and his barren, elderly wife, Elizabeth, will conceive a child. The child will be a great prophet of God who will prepare Israel for the coming of the Lord. They are to name the child John.

Starting in verse 26, the narrative describes another visit by Gabriel, but this time to a young virgin named Mary. Mary is a relative of Elizabeth, although we are unsure how they are related. Mary is engaged to be married to Joseph, who is a descendant of King David. They both live in a small town of less than two thousand people named Nazareth. Nazareth is located in the region of Galilee, which is part of the kingdom of Herod the Great (see map below). Herod is ruling greater Palestine under the authority of the Roman emperor Augustus.

maps of palestine

Jewish tradition prescribes two stages of marriage: engagement followed by the marriage itself. Robert H. Stein explains in vol. 24, Luke, The New American Commentary:

Engagement involved a formal agreement initiated by a father seeking a wife for his son. The next most important person involved was the father of the bride. A son’s opinion would be sought more often in the process than a daughter’s. Upon payment of a purchase price to the bride’s father (for he lost a daughter and helper whereas the son’s family gained one) and a written agreement and/or oath by the son, the couple was engaged. Although during this stage the couple in some instances cohabited, this was the exception. An engagement was legally binding, and any sexual contact by the daughter with another person was considered adultery. The engagement could not be broken save through divorce (Matt 1:19), and the parties during this period were considered husband and wife (Matt 1:19–20, 24). At this time Mary likely was no more than fifteen years old, probably closer to thirteen, which was the normal age for betrothal.

Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that God has chosen her for a very special role. She will conceive a son and she will call him Jesus. This son will be like no other child that was ever or will ever be born. Gabriel explains to Mary that Jesus “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Jesus will be the Son of God Himself, the promised Messiah, the promised descendant of David who will reign forever. Jesus will fulfill the prophecies found in 2 Sam 7:12–13, 16; Pss 89:4, 29; 132:12; Isa 9:7; and Dan 7:13–14.

Notice the contrasts between the birth announcement of John the Baptist and of Jesus. Stein writes:

John was ‘great in the sight of the Lord’ (1:15), but Jesus is ‘great’ (1:32), and his greatness is unqualified. Whereas John is later described as ‘a prophet of the Most High’ (1:76), Jesus is the ‘Son of the Most High’ (1:32). Whereas John’s birth was miraculous and had OT parallels, Jesus’ birth was even more miraculous. John’s conception, like that of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel, was miraculous; but Jesus’ conception was absolutely unique. It was not just quantitatively greater; it was qualitatively different. Whereas John’s task was to prepare for the Coming One (1:17, 76–79), Jesus is the Coming One who will reign forever (1:33); and whereas John was filled with the Spirit while still in the womb (1:15), Jesus’ very conception would be due to the Spirit’s miraculous activity in a virgin (1:35–37).

Mary asks Gabriel how she can become pregnant if she is still a virgin. Gabriel answers that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” her and cause her to conceive. Gabriel does not explain how the Holy Spirit will cause her to conceive a child, but the clear implication is that the child will not have a human biological father. Jesus would be set apart for the service of God, thus he would be the “holy Son of God.”

Gabriel then tells Mary that her elderly relative Elizabeth is already miraculously six months pregnant. For God, nothing is impossible! Recall that this language is similar to what God told Abraham when Sarah laughed about conceiving a child in her old age (Gen 18:14). Mary, unlike Sarah, simply accepted the message from God and said “let it be to me according to your word.”

The remainder of chapter one records the birth of John the Baptist, the great prophet who would one day prepare the way for Jesus.

Chapter two, verses 1-21, present the famous Lukan birth narrative with which every Christian is familiar.

The Roman emperor Augustus Caesar frequently commissioned tax censuses to be taken in the various provinces of the Roman Empire. Evidently there is a census taking place around 4-6 BC. Joseph and Mary travel from their home in Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem, a distance of about ninety miles. Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and we have already learned that Joseph is a descendant of David. It seems quite plausible that the reason Joseph travels to Bethlehem for the tax census is because he owns property there. Mary and Joseph may have been born in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth later in life. With a tax census underway, they would need to return to their property so that it could be counted in the census.

After they had arrived in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to Jesus. She wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him in an animal feeding trough (manger) because there is no room in the inn. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth have been distorted over the millennia, so let’s take a closer look at what happened.

It is highly unlikely, given the importance of hospitality in first century Jewish culture, that Mary and Joseph would be unable to find a place to stay while they were in Bethlehem. It is much more probable that they were staying with family or friends. A typical house at this time consisted of a single story with two rooms, one being a guest room. Take a look at the floorplan below, taken from David A. Croteau’s Urban Legends of the New Testament.

floorplan

According to Croteau, the Greek word translated as “inn” in verse 7 is better translated as “guest room.” So verse 7 should read “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guest room.”

The guest room in the house they were staying must have been occupied by other guests. Therefore Mary and Joseph were sleeping in the family room along with the household owners. Now why in the world are there animal troughs in the house?

It was very common at this time for domesticated animals to be kept in the house with the owners. Croteau explains the typical arrangement:

A first-century house in Israel would have a large family room where the family would eat, cook, sleep, and do general living. At the end of the room there would be some steps down to a lower level, going down only a couple of feet. That lower level would be the ‘animal room’ of the house. There was no wall separating the rooms, just one room with two parts: the family room and the animal room. They would construct it so it slanted slightly toward the animal area for easy cleaning because the exterior door would be in the animal area. On the raised surface in the family room would be a feeding trough for the larger animals carved out of the floor. The larger animals in the animal area, like a cow or a donkey, could walk over and eat out of this trough. The smaller animals, like sheep, would have a smaller manger that would be carved out of the floor in the animal room, or the family might have a wooden trough that could be brought inside.

Given these conditions, Croteau argues that the manger Jesus was laid in was most likely the large feeding trough in the family room.

Verses 8-20 record the famous story of the angelic visitation to the shepherds. The shepherds are tending sheep at night, in an area not too far from Bethlehem. Some scholars speculate that these shepherds are caring for the lambs that will be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem, but we can’t be sure. Since shepherds only tended sheep at night during warmer months, it is likely that this took place between the months of March and November.

The angel announces that he has good news for the nation of Israel (that is what Luke means when he says “all the people” in verse 10). The good news is that the promised Messiah is born in Bethlehem (city of David), just as the prophecies predicted. Recall that the events of the book of Ruth (she is an ancestor of David) took place in Bethlehem, and that David grew up in Bethlehem.  Michael J. Wilkins writes,

The announcement of good news (euangelizomai) is a common verb for Luke and has its roots in Isaiah’s announcement of end-time salvation (Isa. 52:7; 61:1). There is also an interesting parallel in an inscription found at Priene celebrating the birth of Augustus. The inscription calls him a ‘savior’ and says that ‘the birth date of our God has signaled the beginning of good news for the world.’ Both of these backgrounds could have had significance for Luke, who has just referred to Caesar Augustus (2:1) and for whom Isaiah’s portrait of salvation plays a leading role (2:32; 3:4–6; 4:18–19). Though Augustus is acclaimed by many as the world’s god and savior, Jesus is the true deliverer.

The shepherds are to go to nearby Bethlehem and search the houses until they find a newborn baby laying in a feeding trough. Given that Bethlehem is relatively small, the shepherds wouldn’t need long to find the baby. When they find this baby, they will know that the angelic visitor has spoken the truth.

The angel is then joined by a multitude of other angels who praise God for the birth of the child. Once the angelic chorus ends, the shepherds immediately hurry to Bethlehem to find the baby. They do indeed find Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, and they proceed to spread the word about this miraculous child, the promised Messiah.

Why did God choose shepherds to be the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth? Many important biblical characters were shepherds, including Abraham, Moses, and David. In addition, God is often compared to a shepherd (e.g., Ps 23:1, Gen 49:24, Ps 80:1). It seems only fitting that shepherds would be the first witnesses to the birth of Jesus. Shepherds were also in a lower economic class, so God was demonstrating that the good news was for the poor and humble, not only for the rich.

Are the Synoptic Gospels Interdependent? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 we looked at Professor of New Testament Daniel Wallace’s first two arguments for the interdependence of the synoptic gospels (the first three gospels).  Now we pick up with his third and fourth arguments.

The third argument is the agreement in parenthetical material.  Wallace quotes Robert H. Stein, who wrote, “One of the most persuasive arguments for the literary interdependence of the synoptic Gospels is the presence of identical parenthetical material, for it is highly unlikely that two or three writers would by coincidence insert into their accounts exactly the same editorial comment at exactly the same place.”

Wallace gives examples of these parenthetical statements:

One of the most striking of these demonstrates, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the use of written documents: “When you see the desolating sacrilege . . . (let the reader understand) . . . ” (Matt 24:15/Mark 13:14).  It is obvious that this editorial comment could not be due to a common oral heritage, for it does not say, “let the hearer understand.” Compare also Matt 9:6/Mark 2:10/Luke 5:24; Matt 27:18/Mark 15:10.

The fourth argument is Luke’s preface:

Luke begins his gospel in a manner similar to ancient historians: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative . . . it seemed good to me also . . . to write an orderly account for you . . . .”  In the least this implies two things: (1) Luke was aware of written (and oral) sources based on eyewitness accounts; (2) Luke used some of these sources in the composition of his gospel.

Wallace again quotes Robert Stein to summarize what conclusions come from these four arguments:

We shall see later that before the Gospels were written there did exist a period in which the gospel materials were passed on orally, and it is clear that this oral tradition influenced not only the first of our synoptic Gospels but the subsequent ones as well.  As an explanation for the general agreement between Matthew-Mark-Luke, however, such an explanation is quite inadequate. There are several reasons for this.

For one the exactness of the wording between the synoptic Gospels is better explained by the use of written sources than oral ones.  Second, the parenthetical comments that these Gospels have in common are hardly explainable by means of oral tradition.  This is especially true of Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14, which addresses the readers of these works! Third and most important, the extensive agreement in the memorization of the gospel traditions by both missionary preachers and laypeople is conceded by all, it is most doubtful that this involved the memorization of a whole gospel account in a specific order.  Memorizing individual pericopes, parables, and sayings, and even small collections of such material, is one thing, but memorizing a whole Gospel of such material is something else. The large extensive agreement in order between the synoptic Gospels is best explained by the use of a common literary source.  Finally, as has already been pointed out, whereas Luke 1:2 does refer to an oral period in which the gospel materials were transmitted, Luke explicitly mentions his own investigation of written sources.