Reading the Christmas Story on the Shoulders of Giants

Voices from the Past, Wisdom for the Present

The ESV Church History Study Bible is grounded upon the basic point that we have much to learn from those who have gone before us. Charles Spurgeon once encouraged his students to read commentaries, noting that the Holy Spirit is not an exclusive or individual gift to any one believer. Since we know that the Holy Spirit teaches us, we can know that the Holy Spirit teaches others. And the Holy Spirit has been teaching the church throughout the corridors of time. We stand downstream from two millennia of gifted teachers and teaching. This study Bible aims to introduce readers today to these teachers from the past.1

Read below a selection from Luke chapter 2 along with commentary notes from giants of the faith such as Martin Luther, John Owen, Charles Spurgeon, and Jerome. Reflect on the Christmas story anew with insight provided by these gifted teachers through centuries of church history.

Jerome on Luke 2:1–7

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to 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, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. —Luke 2:1-7

He found no room in the Holy of Holies that shone with gold, precious stones, pure silk, and silver. He is not born in the midst of gold and riches but in the midst of dung, in a stable, where our sins were filthier than the dung. He is born on a dunghill in order to lift up those who come from it: “From the dunghill he lifts up the poor.” —Jerome, “On the Nativity of the Lord”

Jerome (c. 347–420): major theologian, historian, and biblical scholar best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin, popularly known as the Vulgate.

ESV Church History Study Bible

The ESV Church History Study Bible is designed to help believers in all seasons of life understand the Bible—featuring 20,000 study notes from church history’s most prominent figures.

Martin Luther on Luke 2:8–12

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” —Luke 2:8-12

Behold how very richly God honors those who are despised of men, and that very gladly. Here you see that his eyes look into the depths of humility. Could God’s angels not have addressed the high priests, who it was supposed knew so much concerning God and the angels? No, God chose poor shepherds, who, though they were of low esteem in the sight of men, were in heaven regarded as worthy of such great grace and honor. —Martin Luther, “Sermon for Christmas Day [Luke 2:1–14]”

Martin Luther (1483–1546): German monk and theologian whose protests against church corruption sparked the Protestant Reformation; lectured in biblical studies at Wittenberg University and translated the Bible into German.

John Owen on Luke 2:13–14

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 among those
            with whom he is pleased!”
—Luke 2:13-14

The angels’ continual ascription of glory and praise unto him is an effect of reverential love and delight, and from thence also is their concernment in his gospel and grace (Eph. 3:9–10; 1 Pet. 1:12). Nor without this love in the highest degree can it be conceived how they should be blessed and happy in their continual employment. For they are all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for the heirs of salvation (Heb. 1:14). Were they not acted herein by their fervent love unto Christ, they could have no delight in their own ministry. —John Owen, Christologia

John Owen (1616–1683): nonconformist Puritan church leader and theologian; among the most widely read of the Puritans and the author of lengthy commentary on Hebrews.

Albert Barnes on Luke 2:15–16

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. —Luke 2:15-16

All people should without delay seek the Savior. When told of him by the servants of God, they should, like these shepherds, forsake all and give no rest to their eyes until they have found him. We may “always” find him. We need not travel to Bethlehem. We have only to cast our eyes to heaven, to look to him and to believe on him, and we shall find him ever near to us, and forever our Savior and friend. —Albert Barnes, Notes on the Whole Bible

Albert Barnes (1798–1870): American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and abolitionist who taught at Princeton for many years and authored a widely read Bible commentary.

Charles Spurgeon on Luke 2:17–18

17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. —Luke 2:17-18

Good news is not to be kept to ourselves. When we have ascertained its truth, we are to tell it to others, and we are especially to tell the goodness of salvation. Tell it, O you who know it in your own hearts by blessed experience! Tell it, though it will sometimes be with broken accents in the feebleness of your flesh, yet even then tell it in the ardor of your heart’s affection, and God will bless your testimony, and others will learn the good news through you. —Charles Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. 52, sermon 3177

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892): English Baptist preacher based in London; meditations on the Psalms and many sermons still widely read today.

Thomas Manton on Luke 2:19

19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. —Luke 2:19

Musing makes the fire to burn, and deep and constant thoughts are operative, not a glance or a slight view. The hen that straggles from her nest when she sits a-brooding produces nothing; it is a constant incubation that hatches the young. So when we have only a few straggling thoughts, and do not set a-brooding upon a truth, when we have flashes only, like a little glance of a sunbeam upon a wall, it does nothing, but serious thoughts (through the Lord’s blessing) will do the work. —Thomas Manton, Several Sermons upon the 119th Psalm

Thomas Manton (1620–1677): Puritan minister who served as clerk of the Westminster Assembly; highly regarded for skillful expository preaching.

Richard Baxter on Luke 2:20

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. —Luke 2:20

Be much in the angelic work of praise. Praising God is the activity of angels and saints in heaven. It will be our own everlasting work, and, if we were now doing it more, we would be more like what we shall be then. Here is the most vivid symbol of heaven that I know upon earth. It is when the people of God, with a deep sense of his majesty and mercy join together both in heart and voice to sing his praises from hearts abounding with love and joy. —Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest

Richard Baxter (1615–1691): nonconformist minister and theologian who authored The Reformed Pastor.

Martin Bucer on Luke 2:21

21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. —Luke 2:21

Christ came into the world and made himself subject to the law by circumcision, for as Paul says, “every man who lets himself be circumcised is obligated to obey the whole law” (Gal. 5:3). But Christ has perfectly fulfilled the law, so that all those who believe in him might be redeemed from this heavy yoke of the law and that the law might henceforth have no power to curse or condemn them. The law requires perfect righteousness and holiness, but all those who believe in Christ do not have their sins imputed to them but are counted as just and holy through Christ. —Martin Bucer, The Gospel according to Luke

Martin Bucer (1491–1551): German Reformer based in Strasbourg best known for his ecumenical efforts in seeking unity among Reformed and Lutheran Protestants; final years spent in England, where he influenced Thomas Cranmer.

John Chrysostom on the Incarnation in Luke 2

How shall I describe this birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly throne, now lies in a manger. And he who cannot be touched, who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But he has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of his goodness. —John Chrysostom, “Sermon on Christmas Morning”

John Chrysostom (c. 349–407): church father and patriarch of Constantinople famed for his preaching (epithet “Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed”).


  1. Stephen J. Nichols, ESV Church History Study Bible, vii.

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