Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
In this Advent Devotional, we focus on the Songs of Christmas as revealed by God and recorded by Luke in the first two chapters of his Gospel. In order to understand the context of these songs, it is important to set Luke’s writing in its broader context, so that we can not only understand what Luke meant, but also what Luke’s writing means for us today.
The biblical text must first be understand in its original context, because a text will not mean what it never meant. Additionally, once a text’s original meaning is grasped, then it must also be asked what that text means for the people of God today in its application. A text merely understood without being applied comes short of God’s intent for his written Word. Additionally, seeking to apply a text without understanding what the text meant will result in both misunderstanding and misapplication. Illustrations abound of both errors. The Word of God certainly is God’s redemptive-historical unfolding of his providential plan, which means it is information (what it meant), but the Lord also gives it for the intent of knowing and loving him and others, what means one of is purposes is for transformation (what it means).
This is especially important to remember as we live in these days prior to Christmas. Many of us engage in this season, and the reading of this Advent Devotional, following the familiar Christmas story. The story has become familiar, but familiarity does not necessarily equate with faithful. We are often more influenced by legend, myth, movies and carols than we are by the real Christmas story. It is important for us to go back to the biblical text, God’s written revelation of the historical account of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man. There are many ways to do that, and in this year’s devotional we will do that through Luke’s Gospel, specifically through God’s revealed truth uttered by four individuals through song.
Before we look at the songs in subsequent weeks, it is important to step back to consider Luke’s broader themes so that we rightly understand the way these infancy stories fit into Luke’s larger whole, and what all of this says about Jesus.
Luke writes of the “things that have been accomplished among us,” or “those matters that have been fulfilled” (1:1). Jesus did not come into a historical vacuum. He came into a historical context as part of a larger story planned from eternity past which was “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). Jesus’ coming was in fulfillment of God’s promises. The Old Testament consists of Jesus concealed, while the New Testament is Jesus Christ revealed; the Old Testament is the promise of Jesus, the New Testament is the fulfillment in Jesus. In fact, all the Scriptures are about Jesus (24:25-27), and he fulfilled the whole Old Testament (24:44-47). Luke emphasizes this truth through the four songs sung by four key persons – Mary, Zechariah, the Angels, and Simeon – in Luke 1 and 2, captured best by Mary: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors." (Lk. 1:54-55; cf. Matt. 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 23).
These truths were “delivered” or “handed down” from those who “were eyewitnesses” (1:2; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23; 15:3). These eyewitnesses, those who had been transformed by the person and work of Jesus Christ, were “ministers [servants] of the word” (1:2). These transformed eyewitnesses proclaimed the gospel, the very gospel by which they had been transformed and been made eyewitnesses. Building on the message passed on by the servants of the word and seeking to be faithful to the truth of the story handed down through others, Luke “followed all things closely,” or “carefully investigated everything” in order to give “an orderly account” (1:3) of the story of Jesus to Theophilus. Luke's reason for this careful investigation is so “that you [Theophilus and all others who read this Gospel] may have certainty [you may know the certainty] concerning the things you have been taught” (1:4).
What are some of those things they have been taught, those truths Luke highlights and emphasizes in his “orderly account”? First, Luke’s primary purpose in writing this Gospel is to confirm and strengthen the faith of the early Christians and to strengthen them as they live their lives as the people of God who worship the Lord Jesus Christ. This is vitally important for us today. There is significance in both the meant and means of this text of Scripture.
Second, for Luke, and all the New Testament writers, the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3) focuses on the person and work of Jesus Christ. For Luke, his Gospel centers on Jesus and finds its unity in him. In other words, Luke’s Gospel is made “an orderly account” by finding its unity in Jesus, from the initial announcement in the infancy narrative and the songs surrounding the birth of Jesus (chapters 1 and 2), to his ascension into heaven (chapter 24), he is the center of it all.
Third, added to this unifying center in Jesus, Luke was also clear in Jesus’ coming and mission, which were to seek and to save the lost (19:10). This is evident throughout Luke’s Gospel, which he emphasizes in the birth narrative in the first two chapters. Grounded in the history of Israel, Jesus is referred to as the “Christ,” the “Messiah” which places Jesus in the royal Davidic line. This is clearly articulated in the birth narrative (1:32-33, 68-7, 2:8-14). Being in the Davidic line, he will also usher in salvation, also noted in the birth narrative (1:69, 71, 77; 2:30). But Jesus’s ministry is not limited to the Jews in that although he is the Savior who comes from the Jews, he is the Savior for the world (cf. Jn. 4:42; 1 Jn. 4:14), including outcasts and Gentiles (2:32), a truth stated by Simeon.
Fourth, the ministry of Jesus, the second person of the Godhead, is surrounded by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit’s heightened ministry focusing on Jesus reflects the work of the Trinitarian God in the economy of salvation, and reflects the inauguration of the new eschatological age ushered in by Jesus (1:15, 35, 67; 2:25-27).
Finally, the birth narrative is bookended by Luke’s focus on the temple. The birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elizabeth begin in the temple (1:8ff). This section concludes with Jesus and his family in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. At the conclusion of the Feast, Jesus’ parents departed without him. Upon returning to Jerusalem to look for him, they found him “in the temple” (2:46). All for which the temple stood, revealed and represented, Jesus fulfilled (cf. Jn. 2:19-22).
Over the next four weeks we will study, mediate and ponder these Lucan songs. The first we will look at is Mary’s Song, otherwise known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Next we will hear the song of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, also known as the Benedictus. As you will recall, Zechariah was stricken mute because he did not believe the angel Gabriel who said that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son. After John’s birth, Zechariah’s tongue was loosed and he immediately praised God (Luke 1:68-79). Then we will celebrate with the angels as they sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14), the Gloria in Excelsis. After this we will worship with Simeon as he sings of salvation, the appearance of Christ (Luke 2:29-32), known as the Nunc Dimittis. We will conclude the series in the New Year when we sing “A New Song: The Song of Eternity” from Revelation 5 (cf. Psalms 96, 98).
To participate in this Advent Devotional, here are a few recommendations for get the most out of your study and mediation.
With these biblical songs as your foundation, I encourage you in one additional way this season. For many of us, the traditional hymns and Christmas carols are a special part of the Christmas season. Over the years, many of these hymns and carols have been memorized, at least the first verse of the song.