Everyone knows the popular Christmas story passage found in the first part of Luke Chapter 2 about the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. Many people miss the Christmas story found in Chapter 1. ◊
During these weeks preceding Christmas, we all will hear the well-known Christmas story recounted in songs, cards, books, and other media. Yes, Away in a Manger, Silent Night, O Holy Night, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, etc. , etc. – Jesus as a baby humbly born as He enters human history. A special story that stands up to historic scrutiny. But in emphasizing the mainline story, another story is often missed or glossed over. A story just as miraculous as it reveals the supernatural power and hand of God in an orchestrated sequence of big play events.
If you read the 4 accounts of the birth and/or early life of Jesus in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each take a different tack in terms of focus and level of detail.
- Matthew – in Chapter 1 Matthew presents the genealogy of Jesus, then briefly tells the story of Joseph and Mary and references the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:23 (“his name shall be called Emmanuel”). In Chapter 2 he details the story of the Wise Men, the treachery of King Herod, and Mary and Joseph’s escape to Egypt (and return to Nazareth in the district of Galilee) with their baby Jesus.
- Mark – in Chapter 1 Mark completely skips over any recitation of the birth or young life of Jesus. He begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus (when he was 30 years old), and then the early beginnings of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. By Chapter 2 Mark is describing Jesus’ early miracles and teachings.
- John – like Mark, in Chapter 1 John goes directly to the ministry of John the Baptist. Unlike Mark, he is higher level in scope and message (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.) By Chapter 2, John also quickly delves into the first miracles of Jesus and the first encounter in the temple.
But it is the historian and doctor Luke who provides greater detail in the presentation of the popular Christmas story of the birth in Bethlehem and the intersection of angels and shepherds in the fields. He does all of that in early Chapter 2. In Chapter 1, however, he gives us further background on Mary as well as the details surrounding the birth of another child, John (who would become John the Baptist), and his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth.
It is this story which is understated and lesser known, understandably forever in the shadow of the greater story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it is what I would call a great Christmas story rarely told.
Luke the Reliable Historian Storyteller
No other New Testament writer sets the stage like Luke does in the opening lines of Chapter 1:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
Luke can be trusted in the research and interviews conducted to compile the Book of Luke. By the way, the person (Theophilus) mentioned is unknown specifically but scholars deduce him to be person of import at this time as the cited recipient of Luke’s written documented work of the life of Christ.
The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
In Chapter 1, Luke writes a fascinating account of an incident occurring within the Temple in Jerusalem involving Zechariah, a righteous priest, advanced in years. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. (Luke 1:11). Zechariah has an encounter with the angel Gabriel delivering news that he and his wife Elizabeth (also advanced in age, well past child-bearing years) will have a child they are to name John.
Zechariah is told very specific information about this child:
He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:14-27)
Unfortunately, Zechariah expresses doubts and is stricken mute, but only temporarily until the child is born 9 months later. Six months into her pregnancy, his wife Elizabeth is visited by her kinswoman, young Mary, who has just had her own angelic encounter with Gabriel and told that “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:15)
Mary acquiesces obediently and retreats to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth in the countryside of Judah for 3 months. It is there that the two woman have a Holy Spirit moment together with Elizabeth exclaiming: “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Luke 1:43-45)
The baby John is then born. After a debate about the child’s naming, Zechariah’s speech is restored when he emphatically declared on a written tablet that “His name is John.” (Luke 1:63) Zechariah is then filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied boldly of God’s coming redemption and his child as the prophet of the Most High. (Luke 1:67-79).
A Larger Story
Yes, John is a contemporary of Jesus, a cousin even, born just months ahead of Him. What we see here in these opening chapters of Luke is God’s intervention at several levels in the affairs of man to bring about man’s restorative redemption. All component parts of the Christmas story are great and wonderful, particularly when seen and appreciated as part of the larger great and wonderful Christmas story.
Do you understand the larger Christmas story?
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. – Luke 1:80