The Birth of Jesus

The Truth About Christmas
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2014

Study 3

The Birth of Jesus

An Ancient Promise Fulfilled

The Birth of Jesus was God’s plan all along. It helps to briefly trace the steps in revealing that promise.

The promise we celebrate at Christmas started in Eden. After they sinned Adam and Eve felt alone for the first time. They lost that immediate awareness of God’s presence, and experienced spiritual blindness. The glory of God they had seen in everything around them seemed to become dim and fade away. Even the glory of God they had seen in themselves seemed gone too. They saw human bodies, but were not able to see that declaration of glory in them. They felt naked.

By grace (God’s undeserved favor and love) a promise was made. God spoke to Satan in that serpent that tempted Eve.

Genesis 3:15, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

Long after Eden God revealed more about his promise to Noah, and much later to Abraham. This Messiah would be born to Abraham’s descendants. He would be a blessing to all the nations on earth. Genesis 12:3 “… in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”

More was revealed in the days of King David. His family would continue the line of hope.

2 Samuel 7:12-13, “And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever.”

Then in verse 16 he again said,

“And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.”

David’s Psalms are filled with references to the promise of the coming of Messiah.

Later God gave detailed predictions about Christ’s coming to Isaiah.

Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

That name Immanuel was later given to Jesus (Mt 1:23). It is the Hebrew phrase: “im-ma-nu el” (אעמנו אל). The prefix “imma” (עם) means, “with”. The Hebrew ending “nu” (נו ) means “us.” The next word “El” (אל ) is the common Hebrew word for “God.” So literally the name means, “with us — God.” This promised Messiah would be nothing less than God himself here with us.

Isaiah 9:6, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

Isaiah 53:4-6 God’s word says, “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

The Book of Micah pointed to the city in which the Messiah would be born.

Micah 5:2, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

This promised Redeemer was designated to fulfill these promises. It was his eternal “anointing”. That is where the word Christ comes from. He’s the Eternally Anointed Redeemer. The word “Anointed” in the ancient Hebrew of the Old Testament is “Meshiakh” (משיח ). We bring that into English by using the word “Messiah.” In the Koine Greek of the New Testament the word for anointed is “Christos” (Χρiστος). In English we write it as “Christ.”

At the birth of Jesus, the one and only hope of restoration with God came to earth. He paid sin’s debt in full for all who would trust in that promise God made long ago in Eden. As it was then, and is now; it is all by grace that anyone really trusts in God’s provision. Aside from his work of mercy our lost hearts would continue to believe the lie. We are born lost in sin, spiritually blind, totally depraved in our nature.

The Christ who was born, taught, suffered, and died — is also risen. The raising of his human body after his death proves that sin was overcome. Death was its penalty. The separation of body and soul would not mean eternal condemnation for everyone. The separation of the person from God, spiritual death, had been overcome for those Christ redeemed.

We no longer need to anticipate his coming to earth. He came 2000 years ago. God’s promise in Eden was kept. But there is still anticipation. The blessings keep coming fulfilling those promises to us individually.

The Birth of Our Savior

The story of the birth of Jesus is often re-staged into a more Western or Modern culture than existed in Bethlehem at that time. Some traditional images get in the way of the point of this story as God tells it in his word. It is never good to change the actual account given in Scripture which is there by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Luke 2:6-7. “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 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.”

It is popularly believed that Jesus was born on the very night they arrived. The expression, “while they were there” doesn’t fit that idea. The ESV translates it, “… while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” It means that Mary’s child was born sometime during the days they were in Bethlehem.

– There is no mention of any panic that Mary was in labor and they were still out on the streets.
– There is no frantic knocking on doors the night they arrived to find a room.
– No animals are mentioned in the Biblical account. Pure speculation and middle ages mythology have projected various animals into the story.
– There is no mention of an innkeeper who callously turned them away.
– In fact there is no actual “inn” if we take the words in their original meaning.

The word often translated as “inn” is “kataluma” (καταλuμα). It has a variety of uses. However, it is totally out of place in the time of Christ to imagine a boarding house or old English tavern with rooms upstairs.

One common view is that the “inn” was what the Hebrews called a “milon” or a “khan”. That was a large open court surrounded by vaulted chambers. Along the walls would be stone mangers for the animals to feed from. Some times the Khan had a grotto or cave for a stable near the large communal area where the people stayed. The communal area would not have been a very private for a woman giving birth. Therefore, they slept in the grotto or stable where Christ was born. This view, though popular, is not the best explanation.

This word “kataluma” is used in two other places in the New Testament, neither of which fits the popular idea of a Khan. In Luke 22:11 Jesus sent out Peter and John to find a “kataluma” where they could celebrate the Passover. This feast was the famous “last supper” of our Lord. There it is translated as “guest chamber” or “guest room”. Mark also uses this same word in his account of the last supper. In Luke 10:34 where Luke does refer to a khan. There he uses a different Greek word, “pandokeion” (πανδοχεῖον).

A more consistent translation would be, “She laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the guest room.”

The accommodations for guests in eastern homes at that time would vary from house to house. Many homes were built of heavy stones and often divided into two rooms. Outside there was often a stone shed. When guests came one of the two rooms in the house became the guest room or kataluma. This room could also be rented out for use by visiting groups or families (as the room used for the last supper).

When Mary and Joseph arrived, the guest room could have been already in use by other visiting relatives. Privacy for a woman about to give birth would be available in the stone shed on the side of the house. It was normally used as a storage place and might well have contained mangers. Mangers make good cradles. They are still used for that purpose in some eastern countries today. Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the kataluma.

As we considered in an earlier study, it is unlikely that Mary and Joseph would have arrived in Bethlehem alone. All relative families had to be there for the registration. Likely they traveled with other relatives from Nazareth. Remember that when Jesus was 12 years old and his family left Jerusalem to return to Nazareth, his parents did not realize that their son was not among them. He had remained behind to teach the teachers at the Temple. Clearly this is another example that families made long journeys as a group. (Luke 2:42-52)

Mary and Joseph were not strangers in Bethlehem. It was their family’s home town. Eastern hospitality would required relatives living there to open their homes to guests when possible. Mary six months before spent three months staying with Elisabeth (a relative) near Jerusalem (about 5 miles away).

It was there in Bethlehem, with the extended family gathered around by God’s providence, that our Redeemer was born.

Startled Shepherds

Bethlehem was a busy place the day when Jesus was born. With David’s descendants back in their home-town because of the Roman census there were undoubtedly stories to tell, things to catch up on, and opinions to share about current events.

One night, while Mary and Joseph were there, their baby was born.

The message came to shepherds out in the fields that night.

Luke 2:8 “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Shepherds were a common sight in the fields around Bethlehem.

Sheep had grazed those fields for many generations. About 1,000 years before it was the occupation of David’s family. Raising sheep was a major industry in Bethlehem. It was just 5 miles south of Jerusalem. Sheep had to be provided for the daily sacrifices in the temple worship.

For the shepherds, this started out as an ordinary night out on the fields — but this night would be different.

Suddenly the normalcy was broken by the appearance of a messenger sent from heaven.

Luke 2:9, “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.’

The picture gets confused by the paintings and illustrations we are so familiar with today. When heavenly angels appeared in the Bible, they were often mistaken for mere men. They did not hover in the air barefoot, dressed in long white gowns with wings, halos, and harps.

Our word “angel” comes directly from the Greek word used here “angelos” (αγγελος). It is the ordinary word for “messenger”, someone sent to deliver a message.

In Luke 7:24 the word “angelos” (αγγελος) was used in the plural to describe the messengers sent to Jesus from John the baptist. That same word was use at that time for messengers who brought orders to the front lines in battles. When Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:2 the Hebrew word “malac” (מלאך) was used, the word for “messenger” in Hebrew, which is the word also commonly used for “heavenly angels” sent from God in the Old Testament. When the Bible is talking about non-human spirit messengers, the context or other comments let us know what kind of “messenger” is meant.

Drawing God’s angels with wings, white gowns, and halos is artistic imagery used to represent spirit beings in paintings and other drawings. The Bible even uses imagery like that in describing some of the spirit beings in heaven. But it does not say that angels had physical wings. They were pure spirit beings. When the Bible describe the appearances of angels to humans, they appeared as human men, never with wings or halos.

If the angel appeared to the shepherds as just a man, why were they frightened? The sudden appearing of a man might startle them for a moment. But the main thing that made them uneasy was the overwhelming glory of the Lord around them. God opened their eyes to see his ever-present glory which since man’s fall is suppressed by the fallen soul.

The angel comforted the shepherds, and delivered God’s message.

Luke 2:10-12, “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

The great joy was the birth of the Messiah that night, just as God’s word had predicted. Of course the Jews were not used to hearing that God’s message of joy reaches out to the Gentiles too.

They would find this Saviour in a most humble setting. He would be a wrapped up baby, lying in a food trough. That was not the way the Rabbis expected the Messiah to come into the world.

Then a whole “army” of heavenly beings joined the angel.

Luke 2:13-14, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ “

They appeared suddenly stepping out of the dimension of spirits to be seen by these shepherds.

They declared that the Messiah who was just born will bring Peace. Isaiah 9:6 said he would be the Prince of Peace, “Sar-Shalom” (שַׂר־שָׁלֹֽום).

Jesus Christ is the Sovereign Ruler over all, and root cause of any real peace that exists among men. By his restraining mercy he keeps people from being as cruel and as violent as they could be. This gives us times of safety from harm and crime. It is his saving grace which alone can change the heart into that of a redeemed child of God. In Christ believers are at peace with God, and find comfort even while they endure trials.

In Philippians 4:7 while under Roman arrest for his faith, the Apostle Paul wrote, “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Then in Romans 5:1 he said, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”

One day perfect and eternal peace will come to those who rest their hope in the Prince of Peace.

Just as suddenly it was quiet again in the fields around Bethlehem.

Luke 2:15-16, “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”

They reacted with immediate obedience. They did not come to the manger as just curious observers. They came to worship. What they saw there confirmed what they were told. This baby was the Savior, the Christ who was the Lord.

How did the shepherds find this special baby there in the town? There was no mention of a star to guide them at this time. But this was the city of David’s descendants. The relatives would have been well aware of Mary and Joseph and the new baby. Many people there would have known where they were staying during their time in Bethlehem.

This miraculous event had a lasting effect upon these shepherds of Bethlehem.

Luke 2:17-20, “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”

The lives of these men were changed forever. Mary had a lot to treasure and ponder for the rest of her life too. She had given birth to the one promised to Eve who was the mother of the whole human race. This baby is the longed for Messiah, the hope of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Daniel, and all believers. This little baby there in a simple manger was the Savior, Immanuel, God With Us.

next study: “The Wise Men and the Star”.

Note: Bible quotations are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.

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