Luther’s Notes on the Gospel: Christmas Eve’ – Nativity of Our Lord

Luke 2:1-14
New King James Version

1 And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

Luther’s Explanatory Notes

This Gospel is so plain that it does not need much explanation, but only that it should be well considered, regarded and deeply taken to heart. And nobody will derive more benefit from it, than those who keep their hearts quiet, reject all things opposite to it and diligently look into it, just as the sun is seen in the smooth waters and powerfully warms, but cannot be seen in rushing and running water. Therefore if you will be enlightened here, see divine grace and wonders, that your heart may be enkindled and enlightened, devout and joyful; then go into quietude, and take this picture deep into your heart and you will see wonders upon wonders.

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

A decree that all the world should be taxed. Here our dear Lord Christ already began to rule in the world, though secretly, and the great Emperor Augustus, together with his empire, must serve him, and by his decree must be the cause that the Virgin Mary, together with her espoused husband Joseph, must go to Bethlehem, and as the prophets had foretold, give birth to the Savior of the world. God rules in such a way, that the world ignorantly must do that which it never could be induced to do knowingly.

The Evangelist mentions Caesar Augustus, in order that the Jews may know that the time for the coming of the Messiah is at hand. For thus it was told (Numbers 24:17f) that Christ should come and appear when the government should have been taken from the Jews. The emperor demanded the submission of life and property, and everyone must pay the provincial tribute; and this taxing also applied to countries which did not properly own them; for they had their own kings out of Judah and their high priests out of Levi, until Shiloh should come, as the patriarch Jacob had foretold. Gen. 49:10.

Thus he is now the man, who was promised to the Jews and given to the world. And now here comes a stranger as governor, all which indicates that the advent of the Messiah is at the door. Out of this history we learn that Christ has come ; for Christ lived and reigned at this time, therefore Christ has certainly come. This strengthens our faith, and the Jews especially should have observed this. But it did not avail them, for they still look for the coming of the Messiah.

The kingdom was divided into twelve tribes, and the tribes must not be intermingled, and were not allowed to intermarry. The Scripture made this arrangement, that Christ should be made certain, and it could not be said, Nobody knows where Judah or Levi are. But Shiloh was to come out of the tribe of Judah. For this reason Joseph and Mary must come to the city of Bethlehem, for David was born there, and at the same place he was also anointed king, and therefore it is also called the city of David, in order that the right David, the Lord Christ, should be born there.


2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenins was governor of Syria.)

When Cyrenius was governor of Syria. Mark how accurately the Evangelist puts his words, that the birth of Christ took place in the time of Caesar Augustus, and when Cyrenins was governor of the Roman empire in the land of Syria, of which Syria, the Jewish country is a part; and it took place during the very first taxing, as this tribute money was never given before; even then Christ should be born, whereby he indicated that his kingdom should not be of this world, nor should he rule over the world in a worldly manner; wherefore he subjects himself and his parents to the worldly government.


3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

All went to be taxed. God says in Haggai 2:7-8, ” I will shake heaven and earth, when the desire of all nations shall come.” This is fulfilled on that day: The heavens were moved; that is, the angels which are in heaven praised God in song (verse 13 f) And the earth was moved; that is, the people on earth, when every body arose and there were journeyings.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

Joseph went to Bethlehem. See here what very simple and ordinary things take place on earth, which are so highly regarded in heaven! From the whole narrative it is evident that these people must both have been very poor. They were the very lowest and despised; they had to give way to every body, until at last a stable was as signed to them. No one notices or knows what God performs in the stable; he passes by the great houses and splendid apartments, he lets them eat and drink and have good cheer, but this consolation and treasure is hidden from them.

The Evangelist says, Joseph also went with Mary “who was espoused to him.” Why does he add, “Who was espoused to him?” It would not have been good if he had said, his wedded wife, for it would have had the appearance as if she were not a virgin. Therefore he says she was his wife no further than that she was espoused and promised to him. Here the Virgin had to risk her honor, that she should no longer be called a virgin, and not only her honor, but also her life, which is done when we believe on Christ, give him the honor and condemn our own works and merits.


6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

The days were accomplished. The Evangelist doubtless intended to describe this history to us, who are so cold, in such a way as to warm our hearts a little, because our Savior was born into the world in such a miserable manner. Bethlehem deserved to have sunken into the abyss of hell, because it showed so little honor to its Savior, as to give him only a trough for his cradle and a bench bolster for his pillow. Thus the world is not worthy to give a lodging to its Creator. This king presents himself in this form of his birth to show that he disregarded the world, but intended to begin another manner and kingdom; yet he will nevertheless be in the world, is born at Bethlehem and has a natural mother, has a manger and swaddling clothes, uses the world, though he is born under the reign of Caesar Augustus, and Caesar Augustus has the power and rule in Bethlehem. Thus also there is no Christian on earth who does not use the world; but in the way in which St. Paul teaches. 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31.

And she brought forth her firstborn son. How could God show his goodness in a greater degree, than by taking upon himself flesh and blood, not despising the natural secrecy and honoring nature in the highest degree in the place where Adam and Eve disgraced it most; so that hence forth that also is divine, honorable and pure, which in all men is the most ungodly, shameful and impure.

Despised as this birth is on earth, it is a thousand times more honored in heaven, as the account of this birth teaches. But this angel message, however, was very necessary; for if Christ had been born twenty times, it would yet have been in vain, if we had not known anything of it. That the woman had brought forth a son, would not have been known or regarded by anyone. Indeed it may have affected her motherly heart in such a way, that she thought nothing would come of it.


8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Keeping watch over their flock by night. By the night it is indicated that all the world is in darkness as to the future, and that no power of reason can know Christ; it must be revealed from heaven.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

Luke now introduces the angels, and does not desire to relate the his tory completely in his own words, which he says are too feeble, the angels must do it. The angel says, “He lies in the manger;” again, ” Fear not.” This is an excellent sermon, which we should diligently hear yet at this day. The first part describes the history and how it came to pass, and these words require real faith. He is the true Savior, whom the prophets foretold; namely, the Messiah who is born. And then he says, this Messiah is also a “Lord,” and extols the person that is born and lies in the manger, who was despised by the Bethlehemites and those of the whole surrounding country.

Augustus and Cyrenins are sitting in darkness, but the child Jesus shines through the preaching of the angels, and the light is spread out before the shepherds. And the Child is born that we should rejoice on account of it. When a stock agent gives out mining shares it causes joy, and should that not cause joy, when God gives his Son to the bosom of Mary?

The angels have three harmonies; they are much better choristers than we are; they say, “Glory to God in the highest.” This is their song which contains short, but incomprehensible words; the voice is not great, but the singers are mighty and innumerable. Therefore, though this may appear simple and common, yet we should not hear it with fleshly, but with Christian ears.

The glory of the Lord shone round about them. St. Luke calls this light the “glory of God,” to indicate the manner of the Gospel, that it is a heavenly light which shows forth only the honor of God. But what an honor it is, that the angel of God comes to the poor shepherds. How above measure does God honor those who are despised by men and care not to be despised. His eyes see into the depth and low liness, as it is written, “He sits above the cherubim and sees into the deep.”


10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Fear not. These words are very well expressed. The angel, seeing that the shepherds are very much alarmed at the unusual splendor, addresses them joyfully and says, “Fear not.” These words are spoken to such hearts as are distressed, cast down and have otherwise no consolation, and are in such cares, fears and dejection, as though God was angry with them. For this alone is the principal cause of all fear.

Good tidings of great joy. The angel wished to preach to them a sermon that would take hold; therefore he does not say I bring you news of a great, unusual and wonderful work or history, of which, how ever, as poor common people they could not yet have known anything, or on account of which they should rejoice or concern themselves; but, I proclaim and bring to you pure “joy” and not simple, but “great joy,” and a joy, not of great riches, power, freedom or a quiet life on earth, but over a new and comforting birth.


11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

Herewith the angel wishes to form these thoughts in our hearts: The devil has shamefully disgraced and possessed me and all men; but the treasure, which God has given me, is unspeakably greater; namely, that God, my Lord, does not merely possess the human race, or live therein, just as the devil possesses men, but he himself becomes true man, that thus God and human nature become one person in Christ. The devil cannot come so near to a man. For though he possesses a man, yet the man remains man, the devil remains devil, and they are two distinct persons and nature. On the other hand, the Son of God took upon himself human natures. Now let a man consider how ennobled we are, that the human nature has attained to such honors.

A Savior. But now, in addition to this natural joy over such honor and glory, this comes yet, of which the angel further speaks, that this child Jesus shall also be our “Savior.” This is the principal part, and expresses the true cause why we should rejoice; as if he would say, Rejoice, for now you are blessed, and your misery is at an end.

The angel addresses these words to the distressed, needy hearts, and not to the full, secure hearts, who trust upon their own righteousness. Therefore this proclamation is comforting to them. No one rejoices over this, unless he feels the need of a Savior.

Unto you. He says unto “you,” not unto us angels, is Christ born; that is, a man, become like you. Now, whoever is a man, and born, may and should also receive this “born” Savior.

In the city of David. But that the angel further adds that this Savior is born in the city of David, and calls him Christ the Lord, he directs us with these words into the Scriptures. But especially does the angel call this little child “Christ a Lord.” Here he distinguishes between saviors. There are many kinds of saviors (see Judges 3:9; 2 Kings 13:5, and 14:27) but the angel says here, I proclaim to you a joy over a Savior, who is your, and no common Savior. He is the one of whom all the Scriptures speak.

Christ. The word Christ means, the Anointed One; that is, a king and a priest.

The Lord in the city of David. The angel says this on account of the haughty ones, (1 Corinthians 1:26) that none should see and understand it, but the poor sinners. This “Lord” lies in the manger, and has nothing of his own, and the angel says of him, that he is Lord, and innumerable angels come and kneel before the poor little child, and these majesties say that he is the Lord, and call their Lord our Lord and our Savior. Should this not encourage our hearts?

Our Savior. He is our Savior, not the Savior of the angels; but he is not only our Lord, but also the angels’ Lord; these are now with us, and we with them, this Lord’s domestics; they count themselves at the same time with us as belonging to this Lord, that we men, who were before the servants of the devil, are now received into citizenship with the dear angels. They might justly be proud, because they are much nobler than we men; but one observes no pride among the angels.


12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

If Christ had come with the sound of trumpets, and had lain in a golden cradle, then it would have been a great thing. But this would not have been consoling to me; but he was to lie in the arms of a poor maiden and be disregarded by the world; then I can come to him. But when he shall come again on the last day it will be otherwise; he will then come against the great multitude.

What kind of heart the shepherds must have had! They must have been entirely filled with the Holy Ghost, that they believed it; otherwise they would have ridiculed it.

This angel-sermon, the first in the New Testament, from which all others are derived, is such a combustible tinder-box, by which our cold hearts can at all times be newly enkindled and warmed; yea, such a spring and fountain which shall forever and ever refresh us in our heat and thirst, as a fountain of living waters unto eternal life.

These words of the angel require faith, which believes this to be true. This faith is not simply that you believe the history to be true, but that you believe Jesus was born also for you.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Glory to God in the highest. As the sermon was a divine master-sermon, so also is this a beautiful, divine master-song, the like of which the world has never heard.

First comes the honor of God; there we should also begin, in order that God may be praised and honored in all things, as he who does, gives and has all things. By the instigation of the evil spirit, Adam stole this honor and appropriated it to himself, and no vice is so deep-seated in all men as this thirst for honor.

As if the angels would say, Formerly there was nothing else in the world, but blasphemy and idolatry. But now the people will no more care for their own holiness or righteousness, and they will look neither to father nor mother, neither gold nor money; but accept this one Savior and hold to him with their whole heart.

Glory to God in the highest. Honor is given to the very highest God, and he receives his proper service when the people, together with the angels, honor him with true and right divine service. Yet the devil and death have indeed been in the world, insomuch that innumerable divine services have been held. All of which is called divine service, and yet it was pure idolatry and contrary to the second commandment. But now begins the true divine service, and the true honor is paid him again, in that we assume the right position toward him.

In Christ dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and through him we know the Father, and we thank God, praise and honor him. This takes place when we believe on Christ, give him the honor and condemn our own works and merits.

In the highest. Such fruit begins when God is honored “in the highest;” not with outward works, which can not rise up into heaven; but with the heart, which rises and soars from the earth, up to such a gracious God and Father, with thanksgiving and glorious confidence.

Peace on earth. This must be understood, first, That they wish and prophesy that it shall be so in future with those who know and have re ceived this child, and that there shall be welfare, prosperity and happiness on earth. For what is it where Christ is not? There must be discord, as Solomon says, (Proverbs 13:10) “Only by pride cometh contention.” But now the angels promise and console us, that such devilish tyranny shall cease and Christians shall lead a fine, peaceable life, and each one shall cheerfully do the best for the other. For in the Hebrew language, peace means every thing that is good.

On this subject. the prophets have also prophesied, (Isa. 11:6ff) that when the Messiah shall come, the lion and the lamb shall lie down to gether and good peace shall be on earth. For when our Lord God shall have this honor, then all creatures shall be our friends. Otherwise all creatures are at enmity with us. (Romans 8:19ff) The creature shall only serve the children of God, who have been brought to the Lord Christ. And especially should Christians also have peace with each other, they should be content and helpful to each other. This we must also see with spiritual eyes. For otherwise by reason of natural depravity one is apt to fall into anger, hatred, envy and enmity against another; but with those who are found faithful to Christ, all creatures rejoice, whereas before they were impatient and served others unwillingly.

Good will toward men. The good will or approbation might be understood of the divine good will and approbation, which he has towards men through Christ. But we will take it here as the good will which men have from this birth. But it does not speak here of the good will which performs good works, but the approbation and peaceful heart, which is content with whatever befalls him, whether it be good or bad. For the angels see very well that the greatest number will have nothing to do with this child Jesus, and that those who truly believe on Jesus and have peace, will be persecuted.

This should be a pleasure and gratification, and put us in good spirits, because men shall be in peace with God and all creatures. Where faith prevails there will be such happy people, and all this (such as meeting with wild beasts) will be but child’s play to them. (Psalm 91:13) Where the Son of God is, there are also his holy angels, who let their might and strength be seen. There will then be no fear, sorrow, or oppression, but everything will be sweet and lovely. While the soul has begun this through faith, and remains steadfast therein, the body also will experience the same peace.

Luther’s Explanatory Notes on the Gospels, pp. 189-195.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.