I mentioned earlier that Luke has deliberately narrated the events surrounding the birth of John the baptizer and Jesus the messiah in an interleaved form, in order to compare and contrast each of the stages in the unfolding of the event. And since John's birth came six months before Jesus', and John was to be Jesus' forerunner, at each stage Luke tells the story of John followed by that of Jesus.
In some ways I am reminded of the birth of Esau and Jacob. Esau was the older of the fraternal twins, and emerged from the womb first. But Jacob, emerging later and grasping Esau's heel, would eclipse him. John later would say of Jesus: "He must increase, but I decrease." Yet John's being eclipsed was not unpleasant to him: rather he rejoiced in the one who would come after him, yet be ranked above him—one whose sandal latchet he declared himself unworthy to loosen for him. The greater one came second and in greater glory. But would the greater one's mission have been possible without the lesser who faithfully went before?
Since Luke deliberately counter-posed each phase for us to compare, let us compare the story of John's birth and circumcision (1:57-80) with that of Jesus (2:1-38).
In a single verse (1:57) Luke tells of John's actual birth, whereas seven verses (2:1-7) are needed to describe the birth of Jesus. John was born in Zechariah and Elizabeth's home town. Jesus was born in the town where King David had been born, but it was not his parents' own home town, which was Nazareth in the north. As a result, John was laid in a cradle in the home he would grow up in. Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a feed trough used for oxen, because there was no room for the couple and their baby in the inn.
In 1:58 Luke tells of those in the town who rejoiced with John's parents at his birth. Luke says that they rejoiced at God's mercy to Elizabeth who had previously been barren, and now they rejoiced with her. These neighbors "heard" about the birth through ordinary human channels. In 2:8-20 Luke tells of shepherds who heard of Jesus' birth not through ordinary human channels, but by the appearance of an unnamed angel who announced the birth of "a Savior, who is the messiah, the Lord" (2:11). This Savior, born on this night, was for "all the people", i.e., Israel, which included these shepherds ("for you" v. 11-12). It was "good news of a great joy" (v. 10). Suddenly the sky was filled with a "multitude of the heavenly host" who praised God for this wondrous gift. When the shepherds arrived at the scene of Jesus' birth, they saw him lying in the feed trough and his parents caring for him. Luke says nothing about what they might have said to Joseph and Mary, or what questions they might have asked them, or what gifts they might have left for the child. Such matters didn't interest Luke. For him what was important was that the shepherds obeyed the message they had heard and came by faith to the birth scene. This allowed them to see and understand the promise and to make "known the saying which had been told them concerning this child," which was that he was to be Israel's Savior, the messiah, and the Lord (v. 11). People who heard the shepherds' witness were amazed (v. 18), and the shepherds themselves returned to their work, but with praise to God for what they had heard and seen.
The shepherds provide in Luke's account a picture of the typical believer's experience when he or she comes to faith by hearing the good news ("gospel") from God's messengers ("angel" in Greek means "messenger"). The world doesn't stop. It doesn't necessarily mean they quit their current jobs or leave their hometowns and families. Quite often they simply return to their jobs and careers, but the world is different to them. Now they know God and his Son. Now they are forgiven and reassured about what life is really about. Before the office, desk, cubicle, counter, studio or kitchen where they spent their workdays was a place of drudgery. Now it is filled with joy and praise. Before they worked for a paycheck and sought to satisfy a supervisor. Now they work to please a Lord who loves and protects them.
Both John (1:59) and Jesus (2:21) were circumcised. This is theologically, as well as historically, important to Luke. For it shows that God did not forget his covenant with Israel or his promises to Abraham, to whom he first gave the command to circumcise his sons on the eighth day (Genesis 17:10-14).
It is also a vivid illustration of what Paul meant in Galatians when he wrote:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (Galatians 4:3-7 NRSV)For by undergoing circumcision Jesus was truly "born under the law," even though Abraham's circumcision antedated the giving of the law of Moses. And Jesus' "under the law" status was emphasized by the second act of his parents: offering a sacrifice required by Israel's law in the temple for his "purification" (2:22-24). By being himself circumcised, Jesus made it possible through his redeeming death for both Jews (circumcised) and gentiles (uncircumcised) to receive adoption into one family as as children of God.
It was at John's circumcision that his father was able to express his confidence in God's promises through the angel and the giving of the name John (1:59-66). The miracle of Zechariah's faith and the return of his speech caused amazement and praise to God among the witnesses to the circumcision. This then was followed by Zechariah's Spirit-inspired hymn of praise called the Benedictus (1:68-80). Luke doesn't say that John was circumcised in the temple in Jerusalem. It may have been a private affair in his home town. Joseph and Mary had their firstborn son circumcised also on the eighth day and named Jesus, as the angel had directed them to do. This may also have occurred in Bethlehem.
But Luke closely associates the circumcision with an event which occurred shortly thereafter. The couple traveled north from Bethlehem to make a sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. It is said to have been a sacrifice required by the law of Moses for the purification of mother and baby. "Purification" here simply means the clearing of the obligation to make the sacrifice, not that mother and child were actually defiled, as Luke makes clear by citing the passage from the law (2:22-24). It was a sacrifice required only at the birth of the firstborn male child.
In the temple area they came upon a holy and devout man of great age, who spent his days worshiping in the temple, and to whom God had revealed that he would see the Lord's messiah before he died. Although Luke doesn't say so, Simeon was probably a retired priest (see the law for retirement of Levites at age 50 in Numbers 8:23-26). Seeing the baby Jesus, he took him in his arms and uttered the inspired words of Luke's final canticle, called the Nunc Dimittis "Now let your servant depart in peace (i.e., die happy), because my eyes have now seen your salvation … a light for revelation to the gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel." Here it was not shepherds, but an old man who affirmed God's good news, and instead of the townspeople who marveled at the shepherds' words, it was the parents themselves. "Revelation" to the gentiles, to whom the only revelation previously available was that through nature (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:18-32))—for they had no inspired Scripture as Israel did (Psalm 19:7-13)—and "glory" to Israel, because the Savior was the capstone of all the revelation and salvation that God had given through them for the world.
Have you said your Nunc Dimittis to God? If you have heard the gospel of Christ, the good news of his life, death and resurrection, which offers to you forgiveness of your sins and eternal life, then like Simeon you have "seen" the Lord's messiah before dying. It is something for us all to thank and praise God. "Now I am at peace, O God. Now I am ready to depart and be with Christ. But while I live, I will sing your praises and declare what a marvelous God and Savior you are." Is this your song as well? I truly hope so. This is a good season in which to sing such songs. It is the season that we remember the greatest birth ever.