The Christmas story
by Dr. Brad Black
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The Christmas story
This year for Christmas I want to go through the Christmas story and give you the little details that we may not think about during this season of the year. .
1And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
2(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
Thanks to Luke, we have very accurate dating of the birth of Christ. All the men mentioned here can be found in the Roman records. Cyrenius was actually Governor twice, the first time being from 4 BC to 1 BC and the second form 6 to 7 AD. We also know that Herod died in 4 BC. Josephus, a Jewish army General turned traitor to the Jews, becomes rich by being a historian for the Romans and he writes in one of his books that Cyrenius even came to Judah to perform a census in 4 BC. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that Jesus was born in 4 BC. I know most of you are thinking, “I thought Jesus had to be born in year 0.” Well the Monk who set up what we know as BC and AD time was off a couple of years. He did not have the techniques we do now to pinpoint the birth of Christ. Another problem was that 0 was not invented yet. 0 did not come around for almost another 200 years after AD and BC where invented. While I am on the subject, do you know that BC translated into English does mean before Christ but AD stands for “anno domini,” a Latin term that means in the year of our Lord, not after death otherwise we would be missing about 33 years.
4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7And 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.
In these few lines a lot of myths about Jesus’ birth arise. First of all, every play, TV show, or movie about the birth of Jesus shows Mary riding a donkey and Joseph leading it. I am not saying this could not have happened, but there is nothing in the Biblical account or extra Biblical texts that support this. They were very poor; there is a very good chance that they could not have afforded a donkey. You ask how we know they were very poor, later in this chapter when they dedicate Jesus in the temple, they only use two doves as the sacrifice, Biblical law allowed only the very poorest of people to use doves. This also would have been a huge embarrassment to only offer two doves for the first born son.
The next thing you see in almost every drama about Jesus’ birth is that the innkeeper tells Joseph about the stable because his wife is about to give birth right there on his door steps. The Biblical account has none of this. In fact, Mary did not give birth on the first night in Bethlehem. The Bible say “while they were there” It could have been any night. We also do not know who told them about the stable.
Before I leave these verses, I want to look at a couple more things. First, Swaddling Clothes are something very unique. In that age the infant mortality rate was very high, therefore poor women of the time would wear a sash around their waist to wrap the baby in if he died or in other words, baby burial clothes. I find this very prophetic that Jesus was born so that he would die for our sins, when he came into this world he was immediately wrapped in burial cloths.
The other thing is the Manger. At that time a manger was a trough cut out in a cave or rock to hold fresh food or water for an animal. The area around Bethlehem was used to feed the sheep for the temple sacrifices. Therefore, there were probably lots of caves either natural or carved out of rock that were used to house sheep at night. One of these shelters is most likely what Jesus was born in.
8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
The area around Bethlehem has always been used for sheep herding. This is the area where David took care of his sheep when he was small. At this time in history, this area was used for the herds of sheep for the temple sacrifices. I think it is neat that the first people told about Jesus’ birth, the Lamb of God, are the people who took care of the lambs for sacrifice.
This is going to cause a lot of people problems, but I will point it out anyway. Shepherds only stay in the fields at night with the sheep during the late spring, summer and early fall. So this means that Jesus’ birthday is really not December 25. The reason we use December 25 goes back to when the Christian were persecuted by the Romans. The Romans had made it a law that you had to celebrate their Sun God on December 25. So the early Christians, in order not to be jailed and persecuted, would use that day to celebrate Christ’s birth. This date has been passed down ever since. Because of this, there have been some big movements for Christians not to celebrate Christmas saying that it is a pagan holiday. In fact, England made it unlawful to sing a Christmas Carol for several years. It was after the repeal of this law that Charles Dickens wrote the Christmas Carol in hopes of getting the idea of the Christmas Spirit back into the people. I will have to admit that next the Bible, my favorite book is the Christmas Carol.
With all that said, I guess I need to try to answer the most obvious question, when was Jesus really born. We do not know the exact date, it is not given to us directly in the Bible, and from late spring to early fall is a long time. I personally believe that Jesus was born in September. The reason I believe this is that God gave the Jews 7 major holidays. I believe, along with several other scholars that the holidays were to be foreshadowing of Jesus. For example, Jesus fulfills the Passover Holidays. Jesus is the Passover lamb with no broken bones and is perfect. Jesus died the exact hour the Passover lambs were to be killed. Therefore, Easter is the fulfillment of Passover. In September there is another Holiday called The Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. This is celebrating the 40 years of the Jews wandering the desert and how God provided for them in the desert. They celebrate this by building a tent or booth in their yard and they take the evening meal outside to celebrate that God delivered them in the dessert and God was with them. Along with other scholars, I believe that Jesus’ birth is during the week of Tabernacles because it is the celebration of God with us; Jesus comes to us during this time.
9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15And 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.
16And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
17And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
18And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
In this section of the story we see one of the unsung heroes of the Bible, the Angels. All throughout the Nativity Story we have Angels. An Angel tells Zachariah about the birth of John the Baptist. An Angel tells Mary and Joseph about the birth of Jesus. The above section tells of the Angels telling the Shepherds about Jesus. In Hebrew, Angel means messenger. That is exactly what they were doing during the Nativity story. One thing I find fascinating is that the first words out the Angel’s mouth is “fear not”. Seeing an angel must be a very awesome experience if they have to say this.
This passage also shows us that the 1st missionaries were the shepherds because as they left the manger they told everybody about their experience. This is just what we are to do after we have a relationship with Jesus. One other point is that verse 19 shows us where Luke got his account of the Nativity, straight from Mary.
Now let’s look at another account of the Nativity story from Matt 1
18Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
Most people know this but it is important so let me say it again. “Espoused” means engaged. “Before they came together” is a nice way of saying before they had sex. “She was found with child,” means she was pregnant. Moreover, the most important, “with child of the Holy Ghost,” means the father of the child is the Holy Ghost. This is a huge point because Jesus is both God and Man and the only way this is possible is that God is the father and Jesus has a human for a mother. If you do not believe this point, you cannot believe in Jesus as your savior because only the God-Man (Jesus) could be perfect and atone for our sins with His death. Just like the temple sacrifices, the lamb had to be perfect to atone for the sin. Jesus, being the perfect sacrifice, could atone for all our sins. This is only possible by Jesus being fully God because of his father the Holy Spirit, and fully man, which He got from His mother Mary.
19Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privately.
Because of the pregnancy, Joseph was going to divorce Mary secretly. Joseph had the right to have Mary stoned for being pregnant, but he chose not to do this and let her go quietly. In Jewish custom, once a man and women were engaged (or betrothed in their words), they had to get a divorce to break the engagement.
20But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
21And she shall bring forth a son and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
As I mentioned earlier in these series of blog, the unsung heroes of the nativity are the angels. One visits Joseph to reassure him about marrying Mary and taking her as his wife.
Let’s talk about the name Jesus. Jesus is the same name as Joshua. The difference being that Joshua is the English translation of the Hebrew word like found in the Old Testament. Jesus is the English translation of the Greek word translated from the Hebrew word for Joshua. The word Joshua means “Yahweh the Savior” Yahweh is God in Hebrew. Therefore, the name given Jesus literally translates into what He was to do.
22Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
23Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
Again, another wonderful tidbit, first Jesus is fulfilling prophecy right down to the most impossible detail such as the virgin birth (discussed earlier). Then again, His name literally means what He is; God with us.
24Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:
25And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
Joseph did what the angel said and immediately got up and took Mary to be his wife but did not have sex with her until after Jesus was born. He also did as he was told and named Him Jesus.
1Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
The Wise Men are very interesting study. There are many legends about them that the Bible just does not support. First, legends say that there were three Wise Men; they have even come up with names for them Caspar or Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (see Ben Hur). The Biblical account does not support these; it just says Wise Men from the East. The belief that there were three wise men is thought to have come from the fact that later in this chapter the Bible says that there are three gifts - gold, and frankincense and myrrh and that each gift came from a different Wise Man. We really do not know how many Wise Men there were, but I honestly like the idea of three. The Bible is full of threes like the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost etc. etc.
The next question is where did the Wise Men come from? The Bible only tells us that they came from the east. The most likely possibility is they were from the Medio Persian
Empire. If you remember, the Jews were taken captive to Babylon were they took their culture and written language. The Persians conquered the Babylonians and were even more favorable to the Jews with their culture to the point of letting them return to Israel. Several of the Jews were very important in the both the Persian and Babylonian governments, just look at the book of Daniel and Ezra and Nehemiah in the Old Testament. Because of all of this, this Empire had access to many Jewish books and their culture was recorded in the books. The Wise Men were scholars or now days we would call them professor or doctors. They would have studied these manuscripts and when they saw the star; their quests for knowledge lead them to seek out the king.
The next question is, “Were they Kings?” If you follow the previous paragraph, they were most likely not. They may have been commissioned by the king to investigate, which was quite common in that time and the king my have supplied the gifts for Jesus (again very common for kings to offer gifts to other kings like a peace offering) and money for the trip to the Wise Men. The Wise Men were quite possibly very rich, because with all of their knowledge they would have charged great fees for advice, today we call this consulting fees, thus they may have traveled like kings and dressed like kings.
The Star is the next question. There are two good ideas on this and I am hard pressed to say which is more likely. The first is that God made a special star that just shone brightly for the time needed. I like this idea but it is very hard to prove, this is one of those things that when we get to heaven we can ask Jesus about. The other idea comes more out of the science of astrology. In the years of 5 B.C. thru 3 B.C (check earlier blog for these dates for Jesus birth) there was an alignment of three planets (to them three bright stars, planets were not discovered yet). The Wise Men, being knowledgeable in many things would have noticed the start of the alignment. One of the planets moved from east to west in the sky and the theory goes that the Wise Men followed this planet to Jerusalem where they talked with Herod and then followed the “star” on to Bethlehem. They used to show this in the Houston Planetarium every year until Christmas came under such attack.
3When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
This one verse really needs to be explained. This Herod (the father, his son was in charge in the Easter story) was a very cruel and bloody ruler. He had his own son killed. We see later in the chapter he had no problems with killing innocent baby boys. The best thing that shows how bad he was is that on his death bed he ordered that hundreds of people be rounded up at random and killed upon his death because he wanted to make sure there would be people mourning because of his death. Therefore, if something troubled Herod, all of Jerusalem was scared.
4And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judaea, art not the least among the princes of Judaea: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
I just love it, here again; Jesus fulfills another prophecy about Him that he should be born in Bethlehem. In Hebrew, Bethlehem means house of bread. How fitting that the Bread of Life is born in the house of bread. As pointed out in an earlier blog this is also the boyhood home of David.
7Then Herod, when he had privately called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
This little verse is very important later when Herod decided to kill all the baby boys.
8And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
Please refer back to the previous blog when I talk about the star. Notice how the star seems to move again, but this time to the south. In that planetarium show I talked about previously, they could show how this happened using their star charts, this is way too complicated for me to even try to explain in this blog even if I could remember it all.
Another point that I believe is missed in the telling of the Christmas story is this, the Wise Men are not Jews or for that matter Christians, but they are seeking God. I love the Divine intervention of how God has a star all could see, but only the Wise Men really pay attention. God had placed the Jews in their land so they could learn about Him. In addition, how the Star moves to lead them right to Jesus shows that if you really seek God He will do everything in His power to lead you to him just like all the miracles that lead the Wise Men to Jesus.
11And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
This is a loaded verse and brings the most trouble for people. It says the Wise Men came to the “house and they saw the young child.” As discussed in an earlier blog, Jesus was born in a manger not a house. There has been considerable time passed from the birth of Jesus until the Wise Men came. In those times, they could only travel about 20 miles a day. Coming from the Persian area to Jerusalem is well over 1000 miles, perhaps even 1500 miles or more depending upon were they left. This could take several months of travel, in addition, as discussed in an earlier blog it would have taken time to get the expedition ready to go.
Jesus is also called a young child, not a babe as in the Luke account of the nativity story. As I pointed out earlier, Herod questioned the Wise Men as to the exact time the Star appeared. Later in the text, we see that Herod orders that all children two years old and younger should be killed. Therefore, Jesus must have been around two years old when the Wise Men came to visit. These facts unfortunately ruin every manger scene I have seen. The Wise Men were not at the manger, they were not there at the same time as the shepherds.
Another point I love is that the Wise Men upon finding Jesus, fall down and worshiped Him. After their quest, they recognized who Jesus was and gave Him the proper respect. As I pointed out earlier, God will work miracles so you can come to Him.
I cannot leave this verse without talking about the gifts. We all know what gold is today and it is still very valuable, as it was then. Gold was a sign of royalty. Jesus is the King of Kings. The Wise Men giving Him this gift was proclaiming Him King. Frankincense and Myrrh are tree resins or dried tree sap. They again were very expensive. These were used for making incense, perfume, and burial spices. A mixture of these with other spices was used for the temple incense that the priests were required to burn everyday in the temple. My wife has some perfume made from Frankincense and Myrrh and it is called Shalom and smells very good. The last use mentioned here is the most significant, as burial spices. We even see that myrrh is one the spices used to bury Jesus.
And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.
The real important thing is that again we see right from the beginning that Jesus was born to die. The gifts of the Wise Men illustrate this.
12And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
13And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
14When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
15And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
We see here again our unsung heroes, the angels. They warned Joseph of the Herod’s plans to kill Jesus. Again, Joseph is obedient and immediately gets Jesus out of Bethlehem saving His life, and so fulfilling another prophecy about the birth of Jesus. The Wise Men also learn in a dream not to tell Herod about Jesus and leave another way to go home.
16Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
18In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
This shows one last prophecy about the birth of Jesus fulfilled. I know this series has had several long blogs but there is just so much information and misinformation about the Christmas story I really felt the need to go over it. Thank you for being patient with me and I wish you all a Joyous Christmas.
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