I love Christmas! I especially like reconnecting with family and friends via their Christmas letters to find out how their year has been. I also enjoy reading the biblical account of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ and the events surrounding it: first, as prophesied in Genesis (3:15; 49:10); second, as foretold by the Hebrew prophets (Isa. 7:14; 9:6; Dan. 7:13; Mic. 5:2; Ps. 40:6-8; cf. Heb. 10:5-9; Mal. 4:2); third, as recorded in the gospels (Mt. 1-2; Lk. 1-2; Jn. 1:1-14); and finally, the exposition of His incarnation in the epistles (Rom. 1:1-4; Gal. 4:4-5; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Jn. 4:9).
A number of years ago in Israel, I was teaching the physical settings of the Bible. We visited a shepherd’s field, a threshing floor, Herod the Great’s weekend retreat at the Herodium, and finally the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. At each stop, we discussed the biblical accounts connected with the birth of the Lord Jesus and how the history, geography, and culture impacted the biblical text.
Here are some important facts surrounding the birth of our Lord that need to be remembered at this time of year when so many are celebrating His birth:
First, the Bible does not give a specific date as to when the Lord Jesus was born. It is known that He was born during the reign of Herod the Great who died in the spring of 4 B.C. (Mt. 2:1). Herod had an indication from the wise men when Christ was born because he had all the male children of Bethlehem, two years old and under, killed (Mt. 2:16).
At His birth the shepherds were with their flocks in the fields (Lk. 2:8). In the winter months, the shepherds stay out in the Judean desert, but in the late spring the farmers want the shepherds to bring their sheep into their harvested barley fields around Bethlehem to eat the stubble off the ground and leave their excrement on the field for fertilizer. The earliest recorded date for the birth of the Lord Jesus in church history is by Clement of Alexandria (2nd century AD) who gives the date as May 14, 6 B.C. On the Hebrew calendar that date was Shavuot (Pentecost), the beginning of the wheat harvest, late spring.
Second, Mary and Joseph probably arrived in Bethlehem a few weeks prior to the birth of the Lord Jesus. Luke 2:4 assumes their arrival, because verse 6 says, “While they were there …”
Third, the word translated “inn” was part of a private house (Lk. 2:7). It is used only one other time in the New Testament (Lk. 22:11-12) and there it is translated “guest chamber.” It is used to describe a large, furnished upper room. A different word like a caravan station, is used in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:44). Apparently, the guest chamber was occupied so Joseph decided to go to the stable.
Fourth, the stable was in the house. Typical houses, like in Bethlehem, would be one room houses with a guest chamber (Mt. 5:15). The one room would be used for domestic affairs, cooking and eating during the day and sleeping at night. Underneath the room was the stable where the animals were kept at night (Lk. 13:15). In the winter months they provided warmth for the house and they were also the burglar alarm if somebody tried to sneak into the house.
Fifth, when Mary laid the baby Jesus in a manger, it was most likely made of stone and not wood. In the 1960’s a stone manger from the Early Roman period (first-century) was excavated at Gibeah of Saul, nine miles north of Bethlehem.
Sixth, the Bible does not say how many wise men there were. We assume there were three because there were three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but no number is given.
Seventh, it was probably at least two months to a year after His birth. Matthew 2:1 says the wise men came “after the birth” but does not say how long. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is called a “young child” six times (2:8-15), but not a babe like in Luke’s gospel. When Mary goes to the Temple for the ritual of purification after the birth of her firstborn, she offers two turtle doves (Lk. 2:22-24), the offering of the poor (Lev. 12:8). If the wise men had arrived at the birth of the Lord Jesus, Mary would have been obligated to offer a lamb and a turtledove (Lev. 12:6) because she would have been well-to-do with the gold from the wise men.
Life Lessons to be Learned
The most important Christmas message is this: a Savior was born in Bethlehem (Lk. 2:11). Later He died on Calvary’s Cross and rose from the dead. He was called Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins (Mt. 1:21). Have you trusted Him as your Savior?