What does Luke chapter 2 mean?Luke's account connects Jesus' birth to historical events. Augustus was Emperor sometime between 27 BC and AD 14. However, Quirinius' governorship would have been around AD 6 or 7, which results in questions about what Luke really means here. One possibility involves Luke's use of the Greek term prōtos, which may mean this census was commanded "before" Quirinius' term. Another option is that the census was announced by Augustus prior to Jesus' birth, but not fully implemented until later, i.e., during Quirinius' governorship. As with any government count, this census was meant to calculate taxes and military resources. Mary's soon-to-be-husband, Joseph, is a descendant of David, so they go to Bethlehem to participate (Luke 2:1–5).
It would have been unusual for an unmarried couple to travel together, but the circumstances of Mary's pregnancy are hardly normal (Luke 1:34–35). The family likely realized it would be better for her to be with Joseph when she gave birth. That Mary is in Bethlehem when Jesus is born corresponds to Messianic prophecy (Micah 5:2). A common assumption about the night of Jesus' birth is that Mary and Joseph were coldly turned away from lodging by callous businessmen, so she was forced to give birth in a barn. What's more likely is that there was no room for childbirth in the main living area of the place where they had already arranged to stay. That Mary rests while Jesus lays in a feeding trough is certainly part of His humble beginnings, but it does not mean ancient hospitality somehow skipped them over (Luke 2:6–7).
Throughout history, God has made it clear that human effort and human prestige are nothing when He is not at the center of events. He routinely uses those the world deems unimportant to accomplish great things (1 Corinthians 1:27–28). In keeping with that theme, the first people to hear about Jesus' birth are not kings and scholars. Rather, they are common herdsmen. These ordinary folks are treated to the sight of an angelic choir praising God. Though the angel does not command the shepherds to seek out the newborn King, he does explain how they can find Him (Luke 2:8–14).
When the angels leave, the shepherds naturally react by going to see Jesus in person. There, they explain what has happened. In many cultures, families will set out a series of miniature figures representing the night of Jesus' birth. These nativity scenes almost always include Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherd, and angels. However, they are also often seen with barnyard animals and the wise men from the east (Matthew 2:1–2). Scripture does not indicate there were literal animals surrounding Christ on that night, and the wise men almost certainly met with Him much later and in a different place. Mary makes a conscious effort to consider all that happens. She knows these events are important (Luke 2:15–20).
Mary and Joseph raised Jesus in obedience to the traditional laws of the Old Testament. This included circumcision (Genesis 17:10–12). It also meant following the Mosaic requirements for ritual purity. The rules in Leviticus 12 require a lamb for this rite, but allow a poor person to offer two birds, instead. This seems to be the choice made by Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:21–24).
While in the temple, Joseph and Mary encounter Simeon. We know little about him other than his profound connection to the Holy Spirit. That influence gave him a divine promise: that he would live to see the Messiah. This has led many to assume Simeon was very old when he saw Jesus. However, Scripture never mentions Simeon's age. His reaction is to hold the infant Messiah and offer praises to God. These amaze Mary and Joseph, as Simeon highlights Jesus' role as the Savior of not just Israel, but the entire world (Luke 2:25–32).
Not everything Simeon has to say is happy news. He points out that Jesus' ministry will be a point of division. Even the people of Israel will be sharply divided: between those who do and those who do not accept Him as their Savior. Mary, for her part, will also suffer intense emotional pain, like a sword stabbing into her heart. The most vivid example of this will be her presence at Jesus' crucifixion (John 19:25–27). How people respond to Jesus will reveal the intentions of their hearts (Luke 2:33–35).
Another notable person in the temple on this day is Anna. Scripture does not tell us exactly how she came to be identified as a prophetess (Exodus 15:20; Judges 4:4). She seems to have been known as such prior to her description here. Aged eighty-four, she spends most of her time in prayer and worship. This passage seems to imply that she was led to come to the temple at the very moment Simeon was holding Jesus and responded by telling everyone who would listen about the Messiah (Luke 2:36–38).
Luke often reminds readers that Jesus' experience was fully human. That includes being raised by His family, in Mary's hometown. Nazareth was not held in high esteem by Jews of that era. It was not only considered backwards and low-class, but it was also the site of a Roman garrison. That Jesus will be known as a "Nazarene" is no compliment (John 1:46). And yet, it is there where Jesus will experience a relatively normal childhood (Luke 2:39–40).
Part of Jesus' God-honoring upbringing is participation in required feasts (Deuteronomy 16:16). What happens during the Passover festival is often taken drastically out of context. Jesus is nearly the age of adulthood in His culture, making a trip His family performed yearly, among a large group of relatives and neighbors. It's awkward that Mary and Joseph don't realize Jesus didn't leave the city with the group until the end of the day, but not negligent. A days' journey out, a day to return, and then finding Him is summarized as "after three days." Jesus is discovered in the temple, amazing people with His depth of wisdom (Luke 2:41–47).
Mary is unhappy about how these events have happened. She seems to think Jesus has mistreated her and Joseph, Jesus' adoptive and legal father. Jesus' answer, however, implies that the temple is exactly where she should have expected Him to be. He also refers to it as "[His] Father's house." This implies self-awareness about His divinity and status as the Son of God. Mary doesn't fully understand this series of events, at first (Luke 2:48–50).
Though she doesn't see the full picture yet, Mary continues to trust God. She makes a deliberate effort, once again, to keep all these things in her memory. Luke's comment here doesn't suggest that Jesus only now began to submit to His earthly parents. Rather, this clarifies that Jesus continued to act in submission. He didn't use this moment as an excuse to ignore their authority. This deference, from God Incarnate to His earthly family, clarifies that a call to submission is not a sign of inferiority (Luke 2:51).
Luke also reminds the reader, once again, that Jesus' humanity was entirely complete. He grew, physically and mentally, as he aged into adulthood. Other than a lack of sin (Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22), He was entirely human (Luke 2:52).
Next, Luke's account will leap forward around eighteen years, to the public ministry of John the Baptist. This lack of details about Jesus' early life is both efficient and kind. It keeps Scripture from being packed with irrelevant detail (John 21:25). It also prevents well-meaning parents from constantly comparing their child's growth milestones to those of the Messiah.