The New Testament Some Background
The world into which the Savior was born was rife with conflict and other complications (see 2 Nephi 10:3):
- As the New Testament era opened, most Jews remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, lost in spiritual darkness. Many of those in the land of Israel (Judea, Galilee, Samaria, and so forth) practiced a fanatical worship of the law of Moses, being without a prophet and far from the true worship of Jehovah.
- They belonged to territory that was conquered and being ruled by the Romans, who overthrew the Greeks in 63 BC. During the time of Jesus Christ, the Jews were subject to the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus (27 BC-14 AD), followed by Tiberius (14-37 AD). During Jesus’s ministry, the Roman governor in Judea was Pontius Pilate (26-36 AD). The Herodians (converted Jews) and the Jewish Sanhedrin also had a measure of rule, but they opposed each other and were subject to Rome.
- Many Jews hoped for a political deliverer to arise, while a few righteous Jews were in expectation of the true Messiah.
The Four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Each Gospel gives an account of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, with its own features and peculiarities:
- Matthew is 42% exclusive, meaning material that is only found in his Gospel. Mark is 7% exclusive; Luke 59%; and John 92%.
- Matthew appears to be writing mostly for Jewish readers, with emphasis on Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. He records several of Jesus’s lengthy discourses, and a number of parables.
- Mark is apparently writing to a more gentile audience, especially Romans. He focuses on the “doings” of Jesus; showing an active minister who performs miracles, with less emphasis on His teachings.
- Luke was written to a gentile Christian acquaintance, emphasizing Jesus’s teachings and parables. Along with Matthew, he recorded events related to Jesus’s birth and early years.
- John appears to write to both Jewish and gentile audiences, with a strong emphasis on Jesus’s divine nature as the Son of God. He includes several long sermons.
- The Joseph Smith Translation changes the title of each Gospel to “The Testimony of St….,” followed by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This emphasizes their “testimonies” of Jesus Christ.
- Simply reading or studying each of the four Gospels separately can be a wonderful experience, as you go through the life of Jesus Christ four times.
- The “Come, Follow Me” curriculum calls for us to take a “harmonized” approach, wherein we will move around in all four Gospels, considering the Savior’s life one time, but often taking into account two or more views, while not overlooking the exclusive contributions of each.
Matthew 1:11-17; Luke 3:23-38 The Genealogies of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary
- Matthew begins his Gospel account by listing the genealogy from Abraham to David (the first king of Judah) through succeeding kings and down to Joseph, husband of Mary.
- Joseph was the rightful heir to the throne (had the Jews not been under Roman rule), and was Jesus’s legal father. Thus, Matthew shows Jesus to be a rightful heir to the throne of David, as was prophesied in many Old Testament references (for example, see 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Isaiah 9:6-7; Jeremiah 23:5-6).
- Interestingly, Matthew’s genealogy includes four women and he skips some of the kings. The significance of Matthew’s noting of three sets of fourteen generations is unclear, and its accuracy has been disputed.
- The genealogy in Luke 3:23-38 also shows Jesus as a legitimate Messiah and heir to the throne; listing sons to fathers (going back in time), rather than listing the kings of Judah. Unlike Matthew, who went from David through Solomon, Luke goes through David’s son Nathan.
- In any case, things aren’t completely clear, but there are scholars who have concluded that Matthew’s genealogy is that of Joseph, while Luke’s is that of Mary (but not all agree).
What matters most—and what we know doctrinally—is that Jesus was the physical son of Mary and of our Heavenly Father (see Luke 1:32, 35; 1 Nephi 11:18-21). The manner of Mary’s conception is not revealed and speculations are unwise. President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “He was the Only Begotten Son of our Heavenly Father in the flesh—the only child whose mortal body was begotten by our Heavenly Father. His mortal mother, Mary, was called a virgin, both before and after she gave birth” (Ensign, March 1986).
Luke 1:5-22 Zacharias, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist
Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth—both of the tribe of Levi and “both righteous before God” (verse 6)—were also “well stricken in years” and still without children (verse 7):
- Zacharias was in the temple lighting the incense (a rare opportunity), as a multitude of people prayed outside the temple (verses 8-10).
- Read verses 11-17. The angel was “Gabriel” (verse 19) who was Noah (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 157).
- What things did Gabriel prophesy about John the Baptist, in verses 15-17?
- Verse 15 implies that John was to be raised as a “Nazarite,” consecrated for the Lord’s service (see Numbers 6:2-8).
- In verse 17 the angel says that John would go forth “in the spirit and power of Elias,” meaning a forerunner for the Savior and a preparer of the people.
- Zacharias’s question in verse 18 may not indicate that he didn’t believe the angel; it may simply be that he wanted a sign from God to certify the truth of these hard-to-believe “glad tidings” (verse 19).
- What impresses you about Zacharias?
Luke 1:24-38 Mary and the Angel
As promised, Elizabeth “conceived, and hid herself five months,” giving glory to the Lord for this great blessing (verses 24-25). Next is the appearance of Gabriel/Noah to Mary in Nazareth (about 90 miles north of “the hill country” of Juda, where Zacharias and Elizabeth lived):
- Verse 27 says that Mary was a virgin and was “espoused” to Joseph, meaning they were formally engaged to be married; an arrangement significantly more binding than our modern-day engagements.
- What did Gabriel say to Mary in verse 28? Why do you think this “troubled” her? (verse 29).
- How did the angel help Mary not to fear? (verse 30).
- Then comes the angel’s announcement, in verses 31-33 (this glorious news is known throughout much of Christianity as “The Annunciation”). What stands out for you in verses 31-33?
- The name “Jesus” comes from the Hebrew “Yeshua,” meaning “Savior” or “salvation.”
- Like Zacharias, Mary naturally has a question for the angel, spoken in verse 34. His answer in verses 35, 37 offers us the very little that we know about the conception of Jesus (see also 1 Nephi 11:18-21; Alma 7:10).
- Clearly, Mary still lacks full understanding, yet in verse 38 she offers her humble submission, one of our greatest examples of meekness and obedience.
- What does it mean for your life that “with God nothing shall be impossible”? (verse 37).
Luke 1:36, 39-56 Mary and Elizabeth
In verse 36 the angel informed Mary that Elisabeth, her older relative (not necessarily cousin), was expecting a son, and Mary went from Nazareth “with haste” to the hill country of Juda, to the house of Zacharias and Elisabeth (verses 39-40):
- What happened and what was said in verses 41-45, when Mary greeted Elisabeth?
- In verses 46-55 Mary expresses her reaction to Elisabeth’s words and to all that has happened in her own life. These verses are known in much of Christianity as the “Magnificat,” which is the Latin word for “magnifies” (verse 46). Mary’s words are a beautiful expression of her joy, faith, testimony, and praise.
- Find in verses 46-55 things you see about Mary, and also things she said about God.
Luke 1:57-80 John and Zacharias
The next one to declare a wondrous testimony and praise of God is Zacharias, upon the birth of his son John. Being “filled with the Holy Ghost” (verse 67), what things did Zacharias say in verses 68-79? (This is known to many Christians as the “Benedictus,” Latin for “blessed”).
Matthew 1:18-25 Joseph and Mary
Up to this point, Joseph was apparently left without knowledge of the remarkable events recounted in Luke 1. Rather than hearing first from an angel—as did Zacharias and Mary—nor receiving an overpowering witness of the Holy Ghost in relation to these events—as did Elisabeth—it appears that Joseph was left to discover the facts for himself, and to decide how to handle the circumstances.
Read Matthew 1:18-25:
- What choices confronted Joseph? What decisions did he make?
- What did Joseph learn from the angel/dream? What actions did Joseph take? (Joseph could have shamed Mary by publicly terminating their betrothal.)
- What do you learn about Joseph? How would you characterize him? (He clearly shows why he was chosen for this meaningful, momentous role.)
- In these verses, what things do you learn and feel about Jesus Christ?
Do you feel that studying Matthew 1 and Luke 1 has enhanced your knowledge of our Savior, strengthened your testimony of Him, and fortified your commitment as His disciple? These are the purposes of scripture study.
I am always amazed at Mary’s acceptance once explained. She was surely a very devout girl, full of strong faith. Joseph also was very devout. He could have ignored the dream-he might even have been angry. I have thought that Joseph never received enough recognition for his faith and understanding. Perhaps his reward comes later. I is not easy to raise another’s child.