Traditionally, many Christians read Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth during the season of Advent. My husband and his sister can recite the passage by heart, and it is one of the most common passages for churches and Christian communities to refer to when remembering the birth of Christ.
Luke the physician was a Gentile who accompanied the apostle Paul during his ministry and wrote an account of the life of Christ and the early church following the ascension. An educated and meticulous writer, Luke compiled his accounts from eyewitness sources. Written for a Gentile audience, the gospel of Luke, in my opinion, feels more like modern-day reporting than most other biblical writers, even in the New Testament. He lived in a world that had been transformed by Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection and became the John Watson (to Paul’s Sherlock Holmes) of the first-century church.
To close this year’s Faith and Fiction Writing blog series and as a way to meditate on my own writing why, I’m going to bring you along as I take a closer look at Luke’s inspired work. As Christians all over the world are celebrating the incarnation of our Savior, let’s dig in to the story of Christ’s birth and examine it from a literary perspective.
From the first verse, Luke’s story reads much more like a news lede than a narrative, with a who, what, when, where structure. He is reporting facts, not weaving a fable. From verse one through seven, he records very plainly the circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth, even using the Roman dating system by referring to the governor of Syria during the year of Caesar Augustus’s first census of the region.
Who: Joseph, Mary, and (verse seven) Jesus
What: traveled to register for Caesar Augustus’s census
When: when Quirinius was governor of the province of Syria
Where: from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea
Luke establishes that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he was of the line of David, and he was placed in a manger, the humblest of places, fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.
After this short and sweet report, Luke shifts the scene in verse eight to the outskirts of Bethlehem, to a shepherd community on the fringes of society. Angels frighten them out of their wits to share the gospel, the birth of their Savior, and the shepherds respond to the call and go to see Jesus themselves.
To bookend this portion of the story, Luke reports Mary’s reaction to the shepherds’ reception and her obedience to name him Jesus (Yeshua, which means deliverer) as the angel commanded her in Luke 1:31.
Literary Devices and Themes
The story of Jesus’s birth is part of a greater narrative of the gospel of Luke (and arguably of the entire Bible), and we must keep that in mind while analyzing the devices and themes used in these twenty-one verses.
Worldly Power vs. Saving Grace
One of the most prominent things that jumps out at me in the first few verses of Luke 2 is the juxtaposition between Caesar Augustus and Jesus.
The man who reigned the Roman Empire at the time of Christ’s birth had led a life of violence and military might after the death of his adopted father, Julius Caesar. In Roman culture, a father’s lineage determined the child’s, even if the child was adopted. In fact, many Roman emperors shared no direct bloodline with their immediate predecessor, but adopted their heirs based on merit or favor. Caesar Augustus fought long and bloody political battles to win his throne and put down his enemies. When the dust settled, Caesar was on top, and his rule began the era of Pax Romana that the apostle Paul describes as “the fullness of time” in Galatians 4:4. Caesar represented worldly salvation and human might in a way that would drive the Romans to deify their emperors.
Jesus, by contrast, had a humble start. Born of a virgin and adopted by Joseph, the incarnation of the Word came into the world quietly. No triumph, no servants, no fanfare. No riches or political or military positions. And yet he would undertake the greatest war of all—the battle for humanity to be reunited with their creator God. The circumstances of Jesus’s birth pointed to the fact that Jesus wouldn’t rise to worldly power like Caesar and reinstate Israel as an independent political entity, which the Jews had been expecting from their Messiah. Instead, he would submit to the violence perpetuated by the Pax Romana (crucifixion), die, and be raised from the dead so that all people could have a personal relationship with God.
Jesus’s servitude didn’t undermine his sovereignty. In the second chapter of his gospel, Luke paints a picture of incredible spiritual power wrapped in human weakness that sets a tone for the rest of the narrative. The angels (v. 14) and the shepherds (v. 20) worshiped God and praised him, recognizing what God had promised in sending their Savior. The reality of Jesus’s birth sowed praise in the hearts of men and angels so that they glorified God when they heard of it. The outpouring of God’s love, justice, and mercy, coalescing in the gospel message, evoked a profound expression of gratitude in the people who received it.
In the second chapter of his gospel, Luke highlights the biblical characters’ acts of obedience. While most of us think obedience is just doing what we’re told by authority figures, the heart of obedience is actually threefold. The first step is trusting that the authority figure has your best interest at heart, the second step is consulting them and following their commands as an expression of that trust, and the third and final step is acknowledging their faithfulness through affirmation or praise.
Obedience is difficult because human authority figures often think of themselves and their needs above ours. We learn to disobey when we (sometimes understandably) mistrust those who lead us. Disobedience and mistrust is cyclical in human society. If someone claims that we will take advantage of them, we tend to naturally act (in our selfish and sinful ways) to protect ourselves, and can, if we’re not careful, become untrustworthy. On the flip side, if those we love are determined to trust us and love us, we can often rise to the occasion. God is always good and trustworthy and faithful, and the people in Luke’s account choose to trust and obey his commands.
The shepherds, despite their terror when the angels appeared to them, obeyed God’s order to seek out the Savior. They could have ignored what they heard or kept quiet about what they saw, but they didn’t, and God used their obedience (spoiler alert!) to spread the news even to the political ruler of Judea and wise men from another empire.
Joseph courageously took Mary as his wife after her pregnancy was discovered, but he obeyed God and acted according to the prompting of Caesar. He was likely unaware of the strings God was pulling to place them in Bethlehem or the significance of it.
Mary displayed phenomenal tenacity when she went with her husband to register, likely knowing that she would have to face childbirth without her family and community. She saw the faithfulness of God and was strengthened by the shepherds’ reaction (v. 19). She continued to act in obedience when she named her son Jesus (v. 21) as the angel Gabriel had commanded her in Luke 1.
All these small acts, all these individual decisions, could not have been borne without God’s faithful promise to preserve his people. The emperor-mandated census glorified man, but the act of grace that led to Jesus’s birth glorified God.
Writing and Life Application
Christ came to fulfill prophecy, defy expectations, and bring glory to God through the salvation of mankind. In reading and studying this passage this month, researching the historical context and culture, and referencing Old Testament passages that Jesus came to fulfill, I am forever awed by God’s faithfulness. Even in the face of great trials, oppression, and violence, God never lifted his hand from the hearts of his people. Christ’s birth was the culmination of hundreds of years of God’s preservation of Israel, even after they turned from him and doubted him endlessly. Over and over again he showed his people that he was trustworthy by preserving them despite their own depravity.
Our writing will never be enough. Our own strength was never designed to be enough. God created us to be in relationship with him—for our creative acts to be an expression of that wholeness.
All my life and this year especially, God has preserved me in spite of my shortcomings. My many roles as a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a professional editor, and a writer will never fill the empty place in my soul. Only Jesus can do that. And he has.
Like Luke and his writing, we are molded by the world we live in, but we are not made by it. Let us remember the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord and live by the reality that he has made us more than conquerors.
He has made us writers.