Luke 2:4
We now pass from the person of the forerunner to that of his greater Successor. The priest's son was great, but the Virgin's Son was greater. John was a great gift to the world, as every true reformer must be; but a Savior is God's supreme Gift to the children of men. Now, in this narrative before us we learn -

I. HOW THE WILL OF EVEN HEATHEN MONARCHS IS MADE TO FULFIL THE WILL OF GOD. The Divine will, expressed seven centuries before this time by Micah the prophet (Micah 5:2), was that Jesus should be born in Bethlehem. But until a short time before his birth appearances seemed to show that he must be born in Nazareth. When lo! Augustus, the heathen emperor at Rome, demands a census, and the Jewish families must enrol themselves at the tribal cities. This simple circumstance, whose purpose was the levy of men or the levy of money, brought Mary to Bethlehem in time to become, in the appointed place, the mother of the Lord. It surely shows the full command which God has over the wills even of those who are not his worshippers. He is the Sovereign of all men, whether they like it or know it or not. Cyrus was his shepherd, although he did not know God (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:4); and Augustus orders a census and "keeps books" in subservience to Divine purposes and fulfillment of Divine promises.

II. HOW LITTLE WELCOME DID THE WORLD GIVE ITS NEW-BORN SAVIOR. The birth in Bethlehem was the most important birth which ever took place in our planet. Had the world appreciated the advent, it would have heralded it on every shore; but so little wisdom was there in the world that the precious Child had, so to speak, to steal into the world in a stable and among the cattle. It was humiliating to be born, even had palace halls received him; but how humiliating to be born in the common cattlepen, because there was no room for Mary in the inn! And yet, in thus making his advent, he identified himself not only with the poorest, but also made common cause with the beasts. They, too, have benefited through Christ being born - there is less cruelty to animals in Christian than in other lands; and the religion of love he came to embody and proclaim will yet do more to ameliorate the condition of the beasts. Meanwhile let us notice how sad it is if men have no hospitality to show to Jesus, but still exclude him from their hearts and homes!

III. THE FIRST GOSPEL SERMON WAS PREACHED BY AN ANGEL. The importance of the birth at Bethlehem, if unrecognized by man, is realized by angels. Heavenly hosts cannot be silent about it. They must begin the telling of the glad tidings. If we suppose that the shades of night threw their mantle over Mary when the Babe was born, then it would seem that interested angels looked for an immediate audience to hear the wondrous story. Where shall one be found? The inn is full of sleepers or revellers; they are not fit to hear the message of peace and joy. But outside Bethlehem in the fields are shepherds - humble men, doubtless, and despised as in all ages. Still, they are kind to the sheep - "saviours," in some sense, of the dumb animals they tend and feed - and now in the night watches they are awake and watchful. Here, then, is the angel's audience. Does it not instruct preachers to be content with very humble hearers, and it may be sometimes very few hearers? An audience may be most important, even though few and despised. But we must next notice the message of the angel. Coming with dazzling light, perhaps the Shechinah-glory encircling him, he first scared the poor shepherds. They were "sore afraid." It was needful, therefore, that he should first put to flight their fears, and then proclaim the glad tidings of a Savior's birth, which gospel is intended for all people. The sign also which he gives is that the Babe shall be found in swaddling-clothes and lying in a manger. It is a message about a Savior in apparent weakness but in real power. Such is the gospel. It is a message about a personal Savior, who, in spite of all appearances, is "the Mighty God, the Father of Eternity, and the Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). We must "preach Christ" unto men if we know what it is to preach the gospel. Again, we must notice the angelic choir. The angel has arranged for a "service of praise" along with his preaching. There is the angel's sermon and then the angels' song. The sermon is short, but its contents are of priceless value. The same may be said of the angels' song. It speaks simply of "glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased" (Revised Version). It must have been a melodious service - such music as heavenly harmony secures; angelic choristers doing their best to interest and elevate a few poor shepherds. Another lesson, surely, to those who would "sing for Jesus." The preaching of the gospel should be backed up by the singing of the gospel. Praise has its part to play as well as preaching and prayer. It was at the praise part of the dedication service in Solomon's temple that The glory of the Lord appeared (2 Chronicles 5:11-14).

IV. THE AUDIENCE PUT THE PREACHING TO AN IMMEDIATE TEST. The shepherds, as soon as the angels passed away, went at once to Bethlehem. They were resolved to see for themselves. There was a risk in this, for the sheep might be endangered in their absence; but they resolve to run the risk if they can see the Savior. "Never venture, never win." Hence they came with haste to Mary, and gaze with rapture on her Child. They see and believe. They are ready to accept this "little Child" as the Savior of the world. A little Child was leading them! Next we find them becoming his witnesses. They tell all who will listen to them what the angel said, and what they consequently had been led to Bethlehem to see. Having found a personal Savior, they cannot but proclaim him to others. One who listened to their story and profited by it was Mary. She pondered their sayings in her heart. The shepherds have become important witnesses for the incarnate Savior. So should all be who have really seen him by the eye of faith. But yet again, the shepherds, like the-angels, burst into praise. "They returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them." This is the real end of gospel preaching when it leads the audience up to praise. Hence this is represented as the chief employment of the redeemed. Experience is only perfected when God is praised.

V. WE SEE HERE A HUMAN SUCCEEDING AN ANGELIC MINISTRY, It does seem strange that such a gospel should not be preached by angels. That they are anxious to do so appears from this narrative. We may be sure that they would esteem it highest honor to proclaim the message of salvation unto man. But after short visits and short sermons, the angels are withdrawn, and these poor shepherds spread the glad tidings, telling in a very humble way what they have seen and heard. It is God's plan, and must be best. It is those who need and have found a Savior who are best adapted to proclaim him to others. A human ministry is more homely and sympathetic and effectual than perhaps any angelic ministry could be. Besides, a human ministry is less cavilled at and objected to than an angelic would be. We thus learn at Bethlehem important lessons about preaching to humble audiences, and out o£ them manufacturing preachers. The angels were doubtless satisfied as they looked down upon the shepherds who had listened so eagerly to their story, and saw them becoming preachers in their turn. To multiply Christ's witnesses is the great work of preachers whether angelic or human. - R.M.E.







Which is called Bethlehem.
The town is picturesque in the highest degree. Its fortified walls have long vanished, but its position on a long, narrow ridge, has confined it to the limits of three thousand years ago, and its houses, very probably, are just the same in appearance as those of the time of David, or even earlier. In fact, we have before us an old Jewish city such as men inhabited in the Bible ages. But its picturesqueness is the best of it, for the streets are as far from being clean as those of other Eastern towns. Rivulets of abomination run across them or stand in puddles, for scavengers are unknown, and the masterless, homeless dogs cannot eat all the garbage. The main street is largely occupied by workshops, or rather arches, with no window, which is not much loss in such a climate. Looking in, one sees that the floor is covered with men sitting cross-legged, hard at work making carved rosaries from the stones of the Dora palm, or the common date, or olive wood; crosses from fig-wood, stained black; fancy trifles from the asphalt of the Dead Sea; endless souvenirs of the town in olive-wood; but, above all, cutting medallions from the mother-of-pearl oyster-shells of the Red Sea, or engraving them with the story of our Lord from His birth to His death. In this one art alone there are, perhaps, 500 workmen engaged. The staple industry of the town is in fact the manufacture of endlessly varied mementos of Bethlehem to be sold, after they have been blessed by the priests, to the pilgrims. This being a Christian town, the wives and daughters often sit with their husbands or brothers: a strange sight in the East, but one that goes far, by what it suggests, to account for the general prosperity. The buildings show that no masons could be better than the Bethlehemites, though there are not many good houses except in the front street and even this has its better and its worse end. Inside, some are, of course, very superior to others, and it is the same with the workshops. Here is one, where men and women are busy making beads for rosaries. All the men are on the ground, cross-legged; the women sit on low pieces of wood, their bare feet visible outside their dress. Mat baskets, or large wooden bowls, of beads cut from olive rods, are on the ground; one man saws a small piece of wood fixed upright in a vice, another turns the beads at a most primitive lathe, driven by a cord stretched on a bent fiddle-stick arrangement. The work-bench consists of some beams on the ground, but one man has a vice fixed in the earth, and is filing something vigorously; the women have fiddle-bows of their own, but the string is a fine saw to cut the beads apart. The long stick which they dissact with this tool rests on an upright, and is held straight by the left hand. The workshop of Joseph at Nazareth could not have been simpler, or, I might say, ruder, for this one seems originally to have been a small cavern in the hillside, the front being filled in, except the door, with masonry, to fit it for its present purpose. The roof is ceiled with a coating of reed-stalks, which sadly needs repair; the walls are in their natural roughness; the floor is the limestone; the door might have been made by one of Noah's carpenters, so roughly is it put together. A woman outside, with a nearly naked child astride her shoulder, he, r forehead and neck bright with coins, is looking in, with ourselves, at the busy scene. Turning up one of the short, steep side lanes, I found a second street parallel with the principal one, but dirtier. At some points, on the lower side of the main street, houses extend a short way down the hill, with stairs outside. One I noticed with the stone wall built on the edge of the limestone, so that the view was uninterrupted to the bottom of the valley. A very rickety hand-rail guarded the inner side; such a rail as the whole West could not match; made of natural wood, rough, bent, gaping, set on the steps, held in its place one knew not how. Stairs and house alike were built in arches; the wooden railing alone vindicating the rude backwardness of the East. Two women sat grinding corn on the landing above the first flight; a young woman and a young man were enjoying an interview lower down, and a miserable-looking old woman surveyed the world from above.

(G. Geikie, D. D.)

The entrance to the Church of the Nativity faces an open space; the promenade of older Bethlehemites, and the playground of younger. Old marble pillars lie side by side in one part of it, and serve as a seat for the weary or idle, and a centre of activity for urchins, who must clamber over something, even in the city of David. The old arched gateway into the church has been long ago filled up with heavy square stones, to resist attack, and now the only entrance is by a small door, less than three feet broad, and hardly four feet high; but it is well that the proudest have to stoop in entering a building so venerable. Contemporary evidence proves that it was built by order of Constantine, so that it is the oldest church in Palestine, perhaps in the world. Within,you are in the presence of sixteen centuries, and tread ground hallowed by the footsteps of nearly fifty generations of believers in the Crucified One. You find yourself in a small, bare porch, once approached through a spacious quadrangle on the open space outside, with covered ways, lined with rows of pillars, in front and at the sides, and provision for baptism and oblation in the centre, From this, three spacious arched gates led into the ancient porch, which ran along great part of the west end of the church; but two of the gates have been entirely built up, and, as we have seen, only a very small doorway, is left in the third, for fear of the Mahommedans. The porch is dark, and is divided by walls into different chambers. Inside, the venerable simplicity is very impressive. You face the east end, which is 170 feet from the western wall, and, proceeding to the centre, find yourself under a nave which rises in a pointed roof about thirty feet over the capitals of the great pillars, nineteen feet high, which support an aisle on each side. A clerestory, with five arched windows at each side, admits abundant light. The aisles are flat-roofed, supported in the centre by a row of eleven massive pillars, while another row of the same number holds up the straight beams of the lofty nave, the windows over which correspond to the spaces between the columns below. Once elaborately painted, there is now little ornament left on them, except some faint indications of former pictures of saints, and armorial bearings and mottoes, left eight hundred years ago by the Crusaders, with whose greatest chiefs it was a great matter to have their names emblazoned in the church of the Nativity. The columns, each one mighty whole, are of reddish limestone with white veins, and rest on great square slabs, the capitals being Corinthian, and the architraves very simple. The pointed roof of the nave was once richly painted and gilded, but this glory has long ago departed; and the spaces between the high windows at its sides were formerly covered with marbles and mosaics, but though the marbles remain, the mosaics survive only in fragments. When perfect, these represented, on the south side, the seven immediate ancestors of Joseph, the husband of the Holy Virgin. Above them, concealed by curtains, are niches containing altars, on which books of the Gospels rest; and on a line with these is a strange mosaic of coloured glass, on a gilded ground, representing a huge plant, the creation of some one's brain long ago, not the imitation of any natural growth. A short way down the aisle stands the ancient baptismal font, eight-sided, with an inscription in Greek on a table below, over a small sculptured cross "(Given) as a memorial, before God. and for the peace and forgiveness of the sinners (who presented it), of whom the Lord knows the names." Humble enough I But all the more likely to be noted above. It brings one in mind of the dying request of the once imperious Alfonso de Ojeda, erewhile the haughtiest knight of Castile, yet in the end lowly before his Saviour — that they should bury him at the entrance to the Cathedral at Havana, that every one, as he went in, might tread on the dust of so unworthy a worm. A wall on the east side of this many-pillared square space, runs across aisles and nave alike; the former ending here, though the nave really extends beyond this line to the east end of the church, which is rounded into a projecting half-circle, or apse; the secret chamber of the Greek altar and choir, for in Greek worship both are hidden from the congregation by a screen. This apsidal end, with two similar semicircles at the two ends of the transept, gives the shape of a Latin cross to the whole building. Descending the steps from the raised floor of the eastern part of the nave, and turning sharply to the left, a half-sunk arched doorway leads you down by thirteen steps to the Chapel of the Nativity; once a rude cave; now paved and walled with marble, and lighted by thirty-two lamps. About forty feet from east to west, it is only sixteen wide and ten high, and, of course, would be totally dark but for the artificial illumination, for it lies immediately under the great choir, at the very east of the church. The roof is covered with what had once been striped cloth of gold; three huge candlesticks, with candles rising higher than your head, stand at the back; and in front, between two marble pillars, a large picture of the Nativity, and some small ones below it, rest on a projecting shelf of marble, forming the altar. Below this is a shrine unspeakably sacred to millions of our fellow Christians. It is semi-circular, arching outwards above, and at most only four feet high. Fifteen silver lamps burn in it, night and day, lighting up the painted marbles which encrust it; and in the centre of its small floor is a silver star — marking the spot, it is believed, over which the Star of the East once rested — with an inscription, at the sight of which, I frankly confess, I wept like a child: "Hie de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est." A Turkish soldier, gun in hand, and fez on head, stood a few steps behind, but I forgot his presence. Pilgrims kneeled down and kissed the silver which spoke a story so infinitely touching, and I did the same. There is no reason, so far as I can see, to doubt that in this cave, so hallowed by immemorial veneration, the great event associated with it actually took place. Nor is there any ground for hesitation because it is a cave that is regarded as the sacred spot. Nothing is more common in a Palestine village, built on a hill, than to use as adjuncts of the houses, the eaves with which all the limestone rocks of the country abound making them the store-room, perhaps, or the workshop, or the stable, and building the dwellings before them so as to join the two.

(G. Geikie, D. D.)

G. Geikie, D. D. .
It need not surprise us that the representatives of such an illustrious ancestry should be found in a station so obscure. In the book of Judges, we find a grandson of Moses reduced to engage himself as family priest, in Mount Ephraim, for a yearly wage of "ten shekels, a suit of apparel, and his victuals." At the present day, the green turban which marks descent from Mahomet is often worn in the East by the very poor, and even by beggars. In our own history, the glory of the once illustrious Plantagenets so completely waned, that the direct representative of Margaret Plantagenet, daughter and heiress of George Duke of Clarence, followed the trade of a cobbler in Newport, Shropshire, in 1637. Among the lineal descendants of Edmund of Woodstock, sixth son of Edward I., and entitled to quarter the royal arms, were a village butcher, and a keeper of a turnpike gate, and among the descendants of Thomas Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, fifth son of Edward III., was included the late sexton of a London church. The vicissitudes of the Jewish nation for century after century; its deportation to Babylon, and long suspension of national life; its succession of high priestly rulers, after the return; its transition to the Asmonean line, and, finally, the reign of the Idumean house of Herod, with all the storm and turmoil which marked so many changes, had left, to use the figure of Isaiah, only a root in a dry ground, an humble citizen of Nazareth, as the heir of its ancient royalty.

(G. Geikie, D. D. .)

Hence, sometimes one life will appear to have been almost solely devoted to the more selecting, developing, and energizing another. For example, remember Hannah. Her lot was an exceedingly humble one. It seemed linked with a purpose no more extraordinary than that of a hundred other Hebrew mothers. She came to Eli at least twice in the temple; yet so unobtrusive and so unremarkable was she, that she had each time to introduce herself to the busy man, and repeat her name and errand. To wean the infant Samuel, and bring him a little coat every year, was about all we know of the purpose for which Hannah's life was set in the infinite counsels of heaven. So of Andrew: he was one of the chosen twelve, and there is one pattern of cross that bears his name, because he was martyred upon it. But all we positively read about a man so true and good, is that he brought Simon Peter to Jesus. So of Joseph, the Nazarene carpenter; he shows himself in the early history of the Bethlehem babe; but Scripture, after it has exhibited how useful he was in guarding the reputation of the Virgin-Mother, dismisses him so suddenly that nobody knows where he was buried, or even where he died.

(R. Robinson.)

1. The place where Christ was born is observable. Not Nazareth, but Bethlehem, in accordance with Micah's prediction. We may suppose that the Blessed Virgin little thought of changing her place, but to have been delivered of her Holy Burden at Nazareth, where it was conceived. Her house at Nazareth had been honoured by the presence of the angel; yea, by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost; that house there, we may suppose, was most satisfactory to the Virgin's desire. But He who made choice of the womb where His Son should be conceived, it was fit He should also choose the place where His Son should be born. And this place, many hundred years before, was foretold should be Bethlehem.

2. How remarkable was the providence of God in bringing the Virgin up from Nazareth to Bethlehem, that Christ, as it was prophesied of Him, might be born there. How the wisdom of God overrules the actions of men, for higher or nobler ends than they aimed at. The emperor's aim by this edict was to fill his coffers; God's end was to fulfil his prophecies.

3. How readily Joseph and Mary yielded obedience to the edict and decree of this heathen emperor. It was no less than four days' journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; how just an excuse might the Virgin have pleaded for her absence I What woman ever undertook so hazardous a journey, when so near her delivery? And Joseph, no doubt, was sufficiently unwilling to draw her forth into so manifest a hazard. But as the emperor's command was peremptory, so their obedience was exemplary. We must not plead difficulty for withdrawing our obedience to supreme commands. "How did our Saviour, even in the womb of His mother, yield homage to civil rulers and governors I The first lesson which Christ's example taught the world, was loyalty and obedience to the supreme magistrate.

4. After many weary steps the holy Virgin comes to Bethlehem, where every house is taken up by reason of the great confluence of people that came to be taxed; and there is no room for Christ but in a stable; the stable His palace, the manger His cradle. Oh, how can we be abased low enough for Him who thus neglected Himself for us!

( W. Burkitt, M. A.)

The lowly birth of the Saviour of the worm is —

1. Surprising, when we consider who He is that comes.

2. Intelligible, when we ask why He comes.

3. A cause of joy, when we see for whom He comes.

(J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)

The threefold birth of the Son of God.

1. Begotten of the Father before all worlds.

2. Born of flesh in the world.

3. Born of the Spirit in us.

(F. W. Krummacher, D. D.)

It is necessary for a due celebration of Christmas, that we should recognize the Son of God in the new-born child; for, without this recognition, we should lack —

(1)the full reason for and due appreciation of, this celebration;

(2)we should observe it without the right spirit; and

(3)fail to obtain its true blessing.

(Kuchler.)

The Son of God born in the little town of Bethlehem, a proof —

(1)that the Lord certainly performs what He promises;

(2)that with God nothing is impossible;

(3)that nothing is too mean or too lowly for God.

(Fuchs.)

The festival of Christmas a children's festival; feral.

1. It leads us to a Child.

2. It fills the world of children with joy.

3. Its duo celebration demands a childlike spirit.

(Florey.)

Christ was born in an inn, to intimate —

(1)That He was homeless in this world;

(2)that He was a pilgrim on earth, as we ought to be;

(3)that He welcomes all comers, and entertains them, but without money and without price.

(Matthew Henry.)

1. Without the birth of Jesus, the new birth of mankind is impossible.

2. With it, the new birth is begun.

3. By it, the new birth is assured.

(J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)

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