Story of the New Testament - Lesson 2
By Curt Niccum
The Birth of the Messiah in Matthew and Luke
Background Information for the Teacher
- The student can explain the importance of allowing each of the Gospels to have its own voice. As a result, the student should be able to give reasons why Matthew and Luke record the early years of Jesus differently.
- The student can show the benefit of combining the Gospel accounts. An important byproduct of this process is a clearer picture of the "historical Jesus." Students, therefore, should be able to combine the narratives of Matthew and Luke to discover the chronological order of Jesus' early life.
- The student can identify some of the problems associated with reading ourselves into the biblical narrative.
- You will need to have a picture showing the common depiction of Jesus' birth. Renaissance paintings work well and can easily be found in books or on the internet. (The internet address for one is provided below.) This picture should be large enough for the entire class to see. Otherwise, you may want to make copies for distribution, but beware of copyright infringement.
- If you decide to split the class into small groups or have individual students work on the picture, paper for making notes will be helpful. Otherwise items the students identify can be written on a chalkboard.
The birth of Jesus marked a special point in the history of God's activity in human history. Matthew and Luke record different events surrounding his birth in order to emphasize particular aspects of the Messiah's arrival.
Lesson Plan for Conducting the Class
Introduction: (15-20 minutes)
- Organizational matters (taking roll, etc.)
- Evaluation of previous lesson: Have students share how during the previous week they lived out one of the parallels with the Old Testament studied in the first lesson (i.e., what did the student do last week that exhibited circumcision of the heart, offering one's body as a living sacrifice, or any of the other "new and improved" ways of doing God's will).
- Prayer and/or song: The song "Lord, We Lift Your Name on High" would be appropriate to the theme, as would many songs normally sung at Christmas time. Prayer topics could include thanksgiving for the sending of Jesus, appreciation for the different Gospel records, and guidance in allowing God to speak through each Gospel writer.
- Have the students (individually, in groups, or as a class) compare a picture of Jesus' birth with the accounts found in Matthew 1:18-12 and Luke 2:1-20 (passages assigned for reading the previous week). They should list all of the discrepancies they can find on a sheet of paper or the blackboard. (One could have a competition between groups or individuals for this project.) A list of differences (although not exhaustive) is attached below for the teacher's use.
Learning Experiences: (about 20 minutes)
- With the list of differences compiled, ask the following or similar questions. Q: Bethlehem was not close to water, so why is there a harbor in the picture? A: The painter places Jesus' birth in his own time and place. Q: What do you think motivated the painter to choose the location, buildings, and clothing worn by the characters in the scene? A: The familiarity of home, the demands of his rich patrons (who are probably painted in as biblical figures), and/or the assumption that Jesus' world must have been just like his. Q: Why are there three wise men pictured as present at Jesus' birth? A: Because tradition associated the three types of gifts with three men, despite the fact that the Bible does not mention how many actually came. Because the painter, following a long standing tradition, has combined the stories from Matthew and Luke without closely reading to find out how the two accounts should be reconciled.
- Note for the students that there seem to be two main problems with this painter's portrayal.
- The first is that he has read himself into the story. Rather than attempting to reflect the biblical time period, he has changed the biblical characters to reflect his time and customs.
- Q: Do the historical, geographical, and social changes in this picture damage the power of the story of Christ's birth? A: Yes. (Attention could be drawn to the fact that all characters but a single servant are white and that all represent a high class of society. This clearly misses the point of Jesus' arrival. See Luke 1:52-53.)
- Although perhaps we shouldn't be too harsh on the painter for this, this seems to be an all too common practice even today. Modern readers of the Bible do the same. For example, a lot of religious programming on television today portrays Jesus as a white, Anglo-Saxon, middle class banker. People want Jesus to approve their desires rather than prove their needs. Close by noting that the challenge of the gospel is to change humans into Christ's likeness, not to change Christ into ours. That is idolatry.
- The second problem is that the painter has mixed the two stories of Jesus' birth, and therefore lost a good portion of the message of each author.
- To look at this second point more closely, have the students share their lists of differences between the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke that they were to compile the previous week.
- Q: Are the differences so great as to be incompatible? A: No. Q: Can you reconstruct what actually happened by comparing the two accounts? (At this point you can either have the class construct a chronology of Jesus' infancy or hand out the reconstruction provided with this lesson.) Help the class to see that comparing the Gospels helps us reconstruct the life of Jesus.
- Q: Why do the differences exist at all? Why would Matthew choose to tell the story differently than Luke? (You can ask these rhetorically or have the students actually answer. The latter will probably generate a number of answers, many of which will be right to some extent. At this point, though, you will want to focus on the message that each evangelist is trying to share.) A: Matthew and Luke, through the same event, want to get across different messages (that are still true to the event). Looking at a specific example will help students grasp this concept. For example, look at the visitors each evangelist mentions. Matthew chooses to narrate the visit of the Magi nearly two years after Jesus' birth. Why? Because he wishes to emphasize Jesus' royal lineage. (Note that in Mathew's genealogy, Jesus is related to a long line of Jewish kings, 1:6-11.) Luke focuses on shepherds worshipping at his birth. Why? Luke wants us to see that the gospel message is for all, especially those marginalized in society.
- Although we talk of the one gospel, there is a reason we have four Gospels. Each account shares a different message taken from the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. Remind the class that all of the gospel writers had an immense amount of material they could have used (Luke 1:1-4; John 21:25). They selected certain items from this material in order to get a specific message across to the readers.
- Over the next few weeks we will be looking at this more closely. Although combining all four Gospels has its purposes (primarily historical), God inspired four different books, not just one. He inspired them to be read separately. For those who are familiar with the story of Jesus, reading them the way God intended can be difficult. Not only that, but we have to keep from reading or "painting" ourselves into the story.
Applications: (about 5 minutes)
- Have the students give a brief historical account of Jesus' first two years.
- Have the students tell you one of the main themes of the Gospel of Matthew (Jesus' royalty) and one of the themes of the Gospel of Luke (Gospel is for all).
- If time permits, have them exercise this new found wisdom by applying it to John 1:1-5. Q: Why does John not tell the story of Jesus' birth? A: Because he wants to emphasize Jesus' pre-existence and activity in creation. (If the students have trouble, read the following passages to them to see if they can identify an important theme in John that also occurs in these beginning verses: 3:31; 5:17-18; 6:62-63; 8:56-58; 12:41; 13:3; and 16:28)
Assignment: (about 1 minute)
Assign John 1:1-5 to be read this week. Ask the students to come to the next class knowing which Old Testament passage John alludes to in these verses.
Evaluation: (next class meeting)
Have the students look for an example of someone creating Jesus in one's own image today.
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