The four Gospels all tell the story of the life of Jesus, but none of them begin with his birth. The Gospel of Mark begins with the preaching of John the Baptist, and Jesus is already an adult. Matthew’s Gospel begins by tracing the family tree of Jesus all the way back to Abraham. John’s Gospel begins with the creation of the world, and in lofty, theological language, John tells us of the existence of Jesus, ‘the Word,’ even before creation.
The Gospel of Luke begins with the story of a country priest. Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth lived out in the hills of Judea. They were common folks, not the type you would expect to make history; and they would have been forgotten if it wasn’t for Luke. None of the other Gospel writers even mention them. They all make a big deal about this couple’s famous son, John the Baptist, but none of the others say a word about this simple country pastor and his wife. And Luke would not have had to go into this part of the story either. It is not an essential part of the life of Christ. But Luke had a thing about common people. He had a special love for them. You can see this all the way through his Gospel. Luke tells us details that none of the others include.
For example, Matthew tells us about the Magi (Wisemen) who came to see Jesus. These were important, upper class people. They journeyed a great distance to see this newborn King. They could afford to travel in an age when few people even dreamed of that. They brought gold and other expensive gifts, and were even invited to the palace to visit King Herod. Matthew tells us about these celebrities, but he has not one word about the humble manger.
Luke tells us of Jesus’ other visitors—shepherds, from the lower class, and not very trustworthy. People often assumed that since shepherds were so poor, they were probably all thieves, so one had to be careful around shepherds. It was, in fact, illegal to purchase anything from a shepherd, so certain were the authorities that anything in their possession must be stolen property. And a shepherd’s testimony was not admissible in court. Even their word was considered no good.
Yet, who did God select to be the first to hear about and proclaim the good news of the birth of Jesus? Shepherds. Matthew doesn’t tell us that part, but Luke does. And they apparently did a fine job of it, because it says in chapter two that the people were amazed when they heard the shepherd’s story.
And, of course, it is Luke that tells us about the tough luck Mary and Joseph had the night Jesus was born—no room in the inn, the Savior wrapped in nothing more than strips of cloth, and a manger for a bed. These were poor people, having a bad night, with no one to help them; and Luke wants to make sure we know that part of the story.
Luke did not ignore those in power. He dated his story by telling us what Caesar ruled at the time, who the Roman governor was, and the name of the Jewish king. But these big shots are mentioned only in passing. The rulers were getting all the headlines then, but Luke knew where the real history was being made. He knew that God was doing his main work that night not in Rome, and not even in Jerusalem—but in the small town of Bethlehem and out in the countryside, with Elizabeth and Zachariah, Joseph the carpenter, the young bride Mary, an innkeeper, and the shepherds.
In fact, in one place in the story, God uses these powerful rulers simply to set the stage for the big plans he had for His little people. In the first chapter we are told of the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah, the son of David. That is well and good, but everyone knew that the Messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. The problem is, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth—60 miles away, and any good Jew would be wondering about that. This birth had to be in Bethlehem, not Nazareth, and people in those days did not travel unless it was absolutely necessary. And so we read in the opening words of Luke 2: “In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed, and everyone was required to go to his hometown to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” Caesar Augustus probably went to his grave thinking he took that census to make sure he wasn’t missing anyone on the tax rolls. But here we learn the real story. God was using Caesar, way over there in Rome, in all his temporary glory, to make sure the Messiah would be born in the right place, Bethlehem, just like the prophet Micah, seven centuries earlier, said he would.
Even in the way Luke tells the story, he is teaching us something. John, in his Gospel, tells us that if he would have written down everything Jesus said and did, the whole world would not contain the books. So all the Gospel writers had to select those parts of the story they most wanted to tell us about. And by his selection and arrangement of these stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, Luke is telling us some things about the importance of common people who obey God. He’s teaching us something about power, and how all power is with God, and how God uses that power. Luke is beginning to tell us about what kind of Messiah Jesus would be—one not born to royalty, but to common people. As a man, Jesus would be very comfortable spending time with all sorts of people, even the worst of them—a habit that often got him into trouble in a society that was very strict about who one did and did not associate with. Jesus spent his time not in big auditoriums, but with individuals—healing a leper here, giving sight to a blind man there, and then restoring a woman with a troubled spirit. Jesus took the time to pay attention to these people.
Luke loves this about Jesus, and he never tires of telling this amazing story of how the God of the universe would have time to stop and talk to a beggar.
Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt
Luke 18:35-42 — As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord, I want to see,” he replied. Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.
—Away in a Manger, verse three.