Context and Themes

This coming Sunday is the Second Sunday of Advent in lectionary cycle C, the year when the Gospel of Luke is the primary source of our gospels. In yesterday’s post we covered the historical people mentioned in the first two verses. Today, we consider the context in scripture.The principal divisions of Luke’s Gospel are:

Prologue (1:1–4)
Infancy Narrative (1:5–2:52)
Preparation for the Public Ministry (3:1–4:13)
Ministry in Galilee (4:14–9:50)
Journey to Jerusalem: travel narrative (9:51–19:27)
Teaching Ministry in Jerusalem (19:28–21:38)
Passion Narrative (22:1–23:56)
Resurrection Narrative (24:1–53)

Here in the beginning of the Gospel, we should be especially aware of the Infancy Narrative that immediately precedes our Sunday gospel. A more detailed outline of that section might be:

  • The Announcement of John’s Birth: meeting Zechariah And Elizabeth and the events leading  up to the birth of John the Baptist (1:5–25)
  • The Annunciation: the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary (1:26–38)
  • The Visitation: Mary’s Visit to Elizabeth: their meeting and Mary’s Response to God’s favor – the Magnificat.  (1:39–56)
  • The Birth of John the Baptist and Zechariah’s response to God’s favor – the Benedictus (1:57–80)
  • The Birth of Jesus (2:1-20)
  • The Presentation of Jesus In the Temple (2:21–39)
  • The Growth of Jesus, Son of God (2:40–52)

As the outline shows, Luke’s narrative of connecting the promises of the OT to the fulfillment in the NT has very personal lynch pins: the interweaving of John and Jesus as a movement from promise to fulfillment.

Critical to our understanding of the role of this narrative section is the solemn declaration: “… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” (3:2) This is a narrative flashback to the intertwined accounts of the births of John and Jesus in 1:5–2:52 and presents the first in a series of ways in which the appearances of John and Jesus here are deeply rooted in that earlier material. We left John as a maturing boy in the wilderness, awaiting his public appearance to Israel (1:80). He is still in the wilderness but now at the threshold of his public ministry. He is the “son of Zechariah,” a reminder of the awe-inspiring intervention of God leading to the birth of a son to Zechariah and Elizabeth, too old to have children. The mention of Zechariah also ushers back into view the promises to Zechariah from Gabriel and Zechariah’s own celebration of God’s eschatological visitation, both underscoring John’s role in the restoration of Israel (1:14–17, 68–79). It is a quite economic way to lay the groundwork for his depiction of the adult John: he is the one foretold, the divine gift whose birth has already brought honor to his disgraced mother, and the prophet.

In the background of our Gospel, lies the identities of John and Jesus already presented in earlier chapters. John was to be “prophet of the Most High” (1:76), a role he now fulfills; and Jesus was to be designated “Son of God” (1:35)—an identity affirmed by God (3:21–22), confirmed by Jesus’ heritage (3:38), allowed but perversely interpreted by the devil (4:3, 9), and embraced as a mission by Jesus (4:1–13).

As Joel Green (159-160) points out, there are other themes, first raised in the earlier chapter that appear in our account include:

  • the wilderness (1:80; 3:2, 4);
  • the on-going reference to Isaiah 40 which proclaims God’s universal salvation (1:17, 19, 76; 3:4–6, 18);
  • The universality of God’s desire that all be saved (1:55, 73; 2:1–2, 10, 14, 31–32; 3:1, 6);
  • the role of John as one who prepares the way (1:14–17, 76–77; 3:4–6);
  • the activity of the Holy Spirit (1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25–27; 3:16, 22, 4:1); and
  • repentance and forgiveness of sins (1:16–17, 76–77; 3:3, 8–14)

Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997)

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