Episode 18 - The Birth of Jesus (part 1) - Opening Up the Gospels

In the last episode, we journeyed south to the town of Bethlehem in Judea, the region in southern Israel. Along with Mary, Joseph had traveled there to register for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus, because he was of David’s lineage and Bethlehem was the city of David. We talked about the journey and how difficult it probably was for them, traveling 90 miles or so in perhaps a week’s time, all while Mary carried the future king of Israel and God in the flesh in her womb. They finally arrive in Bethlehem, fatigued and sore from their journey. And so we’ve finally come to the beautiful moments of Jesus’ birth. In this episode, I’ll work through some of the specific details and then in the next episode I’ll talk about how precious this scene is and why it’s so important for us to really feel what’s going on here. Well, let’s read Luke chapter 2 verse 6 and 7: “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 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 2:6–7 ESV) Before we look a bit more in depth at this moment, I want to talk for a second about how we usually perceive this whole scene. In trying to suit the story to fit a Hollywood screen, we maybe have been presented with the idea that Mary and Joseph were rushing into Bethlehem and Mary is practically already in labor, and Joseph is running around frantically knocking on doors trying to find a place for Mary to have her child, and one guy goes “well, I have a stable out there with some animals in it, that’s all I got, it’s all yours for the night.” And Mary and Joseph run in, Jesus is born, they wrap him up and put him in a pile of hay with all the animals around, then 5 minutes later, the shepherds come, and then before the hour is over, the Magi arrive and they’re all happy under a beautiful starry sky. Now that may work well for the big screen, but when we take in all the details, that’s absolutely not the way the Bible says it happened at all. So, try to put some of those preconceived ideas out of your mind for these next few episodes. I hope to show you Biblically how some of the things we assume happened in this story are actually not there at all, and a lot more time may have passed between some of those things than you may have initially believed. Well, Luke 2:6 says “and while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” In other words, it seems like Mary and Joseph had arrived, had some time to search for a suitable place to have the baby, and had found the town filled with other pilgrims coming in for the census. If some time had passed after their arrival and before her time to give birth, where did they stay in the intervening period? Was it hours? Days? Perhaps a week or more? What was the procedure for the census, and how long would they have been required to stay in Bethlehem? How many Romans were in the town to administer the census there? Scripture offers just a small summary and draws a veil over it, leaving us with so many questions. But nothing in the account indicates they were rushing in to the town, frantically knocking on doors, looking for a place because Jesus was so eager to be out of the womb. But what this does tell us is that Mary did indeed bring forth Jesus in Bethlehem, just as Micah 5:2 had prophesied – that the Christ, the Messiah, that final King of Israel who would sit on David’s throne forever, would indeed be born in Bethlehem. Luke goes on to say: “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 2:7 ESV) Well, all Scripture gives us is a very simple, humble description of Jesus being born. There really aren’t any details on who was there, how long she was in labor, what it was like, what time the baby was born, or anything like that. There definitely were no doctors or drugs or comfortable beds or warm blankets or refreshments. We can’t forget the context though, because most often our Christmas pageants just start with the census. Just go all the way back nine months prior to that normal day in Nazareth when Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she would bear a son who would be the king of Israel and rule in Jerusalem forever. It’s been nine months of waiting and anticipating, but most of those months weren’t filled with joy and laughter. There was the scandal in Nazareth, the bitterness and misunderstanding of Mary’s family and friends, Joseph’s resolve to divorce her quietly, and now the wearying journey southward for the census. She had never been with a man, and now the moment has come. Who would this child be? What features of Mary’s would he have? His eyes? His mouth? His toes? It’s amazing – forever, our God will look like Mary of Nazareth. Luke says Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son. This carries some theological importance, but practically speaking, Mary would indeed go on to have many more children. The Gospels tell us that Jesus had four younger brothers as well as sisters. Think about this for a second – the one we worship and pray to has brothers and sisters. That’s how near God came. Theologians call the conception and birth of Jesus “the incarnation”, which just means that God took on human flesh and was born of Mary. And the incarnation shows how close God came to us, in that He actually became just as much of a human as we are. I’ll talk more about that in the next few episodes. Well, Jesus is born, and maybe it is night time like the movies and Christmas carols portray, maybe it isn’t – what we will see in episode 21 is that the shepherds come at night, but it doesn’t seem like it’s 5 minutes after Jesus is born. Though we can’t be sure, it doesn’t seem like there was anyone else there to witness the actual birth besides Mary and Joseph as Scripture again leaves us with silence. The tired, weary couple was probably filled with so many emotions – discouragement about the circumstances, but excitement about the birth of their baby. Now Luke says that Jesus was wrapped in strips of cloth to swaddle him – to keep his arms and legs straight. This would have been the typical practice of the day with newborns. And instead of the comfort of a crib or a warm bed, Luke says Jesus was placed in a manger. Before I talk about what a manger is, let’s talk about the last phrase in Luke 2:7 – he says there was no place for them in the inn. We shouldn’t take “inn” to mean “hotel room” like the way we think of it. There are so many theories about what this “inn” actually was – some say it was just an “upper room” in a house. Perhaps Bethlehem had a crude place where caravans and travelers could lodge overnight. Perhaps they didn’t. We’re not really sure what this “inn” could be. But there’s nothing in the account about a harsh innkeeper or unwelcoming townspeople that shut out and slam doors on a pregnant couple. Though again there is a veil drawn over the details, the larger, more important point that we have to see is that Mary was completely deprived of normal comfort for the birth of Jesus. And remember – these are the circumstances by which God chose to bring forth His Son. We can’t just read this like it’s another good Bible story. We can’t let our overfamiliarity with the story rob us of the awe and wonder of what really happened here. What is a manger? A manger is NOT a stable or a big building where animals lived. We may get that idea from movies, Christmas plays, and nativity figure scenes from department stores. A manger is simply a feeding trough for animals. In the first century some mangers were made out of stone, and was just where food was placed and animals would eat out of. Now even though animals would have eaten out of this feeding trough that Jesus was laid in, there’s no mention of any animals in the scene of Jesus’ birth. They could have been there, but we mostly get that idea from Christmas carols. So whether or not it was a wooden building with animals in it, we can’t be sure. But Church tradition holds that Jesus was born in a cave where the church of the Nativity now sits, and there would have been a manger in this cave. Regardless of the kind of structure or abode of where the birth actually took place, the fact remains that Jesus, the one you sing and pray to, was laid in a feed trough for animals. That’s the bigger point – that it would strike a blow to our heart as we see God in the flesh lying in the place that animals ate from. And so there He is – the first sinless human since Adam lying there shivering in the cold, crying, being cared for by two frightened, young parents far from their hometown and family. Oh, what was this really like? What about the day after He was born? Did they find better accommodations there as time went on? Who did they meet and who did they consider their friends there in Bethlehem? Who else held Jesus in their arms during those days? Oh, there’s so much to ponder and meditate on. Don’t let this just pass you by. Stop, take some time and actually talk to Jesus about these moments. Join the ones throughout history that have given themselves to meditation on His birth. This is our God – the one who made everything… Well in the next episode, I want to talk about this even more and develop it from a devotional perspective. One of our greatest challenges in pressing into this scene – just culturally, is that we are so familiar with the Christmas story, it’s hard for us to get beyond that and feel the drama and overwhelming magnitude of what actually happened here.