My apologies for not getting this sent out on Wednesday. We had a wonderful week of a Round Robin Gospel Meeting (5 nights, 5 speakers, 5 locations–supported by 9 or 10 congregations), and I didn’t get this posted like I should have. But, enjoy!
The King Has Arrived: The Very Early Life of Jesus (Part 1)
Joseph and a very pregnant Mary traveled to Bethlehem because that was the city of David, and Joseph’s ancestral family land. They had to go there as part of a census (for the purpose of knowing who was there they could tax). It is amazing that God used a Roman leader’s taxation plans to get Mary to the place where the Messiah had to be born.
Jesus is born (Luke 2:6-7)
And so it was that, while they were there, the days were finished that she should deliver the baby. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Her Firstborn Son
While I would love to say, “Look, it says firstborn, meaning there were others born afterwards—Mary wasn’t a perpetual virgin!” the fact is, this word doesn’t imply more children followed. It simply means the first one born. It could be used to refer to first and only, or it could refer to first of many. The rest of Scripture furnishes us with enough proof that Mary had other children. We don’t need to use this word to prove the point.
The fact that Mary was a virgin ties in with this being her firstborn Son. There was no possibility of Jesus being anything but the firstborn.
Wrapped Him in Cloths
Some translations say “swaddling clothes,”1 and some other translations just say “cloths.”2 These were either “strips of linen that would be wrapped around the arms and legs of an infant to keep the limbs protected,”3 or “a square of cloth with a long bandage-like strip coming diagonally off from one corner. The child was first wrapped in the square of cloth and then the long strip was wound round and round about him.”4 It appears, based on Ezekiel 16:4, that Hebrew babies, after birth, were washed, rubbed with salt, and then wrapped in these swaddling clothes. So what Luke describes is not something odd or different about Jesus’s birth.
It is believed by some that these linen swaddling clothes were made from remnants of priests’ old garments. The priests were commanded to wear linen garments,5 and it is fitting that the One who was born to be King and Priest was wrapped in priestly material at His birth—and His death.6 This isn’t proof that these were from priestly garments, but if they were, there is definite symbolism to be seen.
If, as some suppose, these were discarded or retired pieces of cloth, it would show the poor financial state of Joseph and Mary—they had to depend on discarded fabric to wrap Jesus.
The Feeding Trough and the Inn
Because of the amount of people who had already come to Bethlehem, connected with the census, all the room at the inn was full. It could have been Joseph’s extended family (they would be descended from David as well), or perhaps other travelers whose ancestors were from that area. Or it could be that the Roman officials who were in charge of the census were refused lodging in Jerusalem, and thus had to go to a nearby town to stay—Bethlehem, perhaps—and took up all the available spaces.7
Regardless of why, the couple found themselves in a place usually reserved for animals. The newly-born baby Jesus was placed in a manger—a feeding trough for horses and donkeys. Not exactly the birth you would expect when God comes to earth to live among us.
Some assert that this took place in a stable, most likely connected to the inn; and others (notably the Catholic Church) affirm this took place in a cave near the inn.8 Neither is specified by Luke, so it is a matter of conjecture.
One of the greatest events in history…
The birth of Jesus is truly one of the greatest events in history, right up there with the Creation and the Resurrection. But both Matthew and Luke describe it with the simple words, “she brought forth her firstborn Son.” You would think there would be more fanfare, more notoriety. Well, just give it a moment, because heaven is about the make the announcement.
The Announcing Angel and the Praising Host (Luke 2:8-14)
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
Shepherds Keeping the Flock
It is said by people who know more about lambing in Israel than I do that the shepherds would not be staying with the sheep overnight in the fields unless they were lambing (i.e., giving birth or about to). It is also said that this would usually be sometime in April.9
It would be appropriate, if true, that the ones to whom the angel appeared were working with just-born lambs, because they were about to be told where to find the just-born Lamb of God, which takes away the sins of the world. Barclay adds an interesting possibility:
But these were in all likelihood very special shepherds. We have already seen how in the Temple, morning and evening, an unblemished lamb was offered as a sacrifice to God. To see that the supply of perfect offerings was always available the Temple authorities had their own private sheep flocks; and we know that these flocks were pastured near Bethlehem. It is most likely that these shepherds were in charge of the flocks from which the Temple offerings were chosen. It is a lovely thought that the shepherds who looked after the Temple lambs were the first to see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.10
The Angel Appears
God used heavenly messengers frequently in these early chapters of the gospels. Gabriel announces John’s upcoming birth. Gabriel comes back and announces Jesus’ upcoming birth. An angel talks to Joseph announcing Jesus’ upcoming birth. And now that Jesus is born, an angel announces that it has happened (and God isn’t done sending heavenly messengers)!
While some translations say the angel “came upon them” (KJV) or “appeared to them” (ESV, NIV), the meaning is more likely “stood before them” (NASB) or “stood by them” (ASV). In other words, the angel isn’t floating in the sky as he talks with these shepherds, but just appears all at once next to them.
And this is one instance where everything you imagine about the sudden appearance of an angel seems to be true. There was an immense glow all around him—so much so that it surrounded the shepherds too. And it wasn’t a glow from a candle or a torch or even a million torches—it was the glory of God.
And you would have had the same reaction they did. They were scared—very scared.
The Messenger’s Message
First, the customary angel greeting to humans who are freaked out: “Don’t be afraid.”
But he then gives a reason why they shouldn’t be afraid: he is bringing them exciting news. He calls it “good tidings” or “good news”—the same basic word that is translated gospel. And truth be told, “good news” is an understatement!
It is good news of great joy—especially for these Jewish shepherds, who were longing for God to send His Messiah. This joy, according to the angel, would be for all the people. Some translations render it “all people” (KJV, NKJV), but literally it is “all the people.” A Jewish shepherd would most likely have understood this to mean “all the Jews.” This understanding is strengthened when the angel says, “For to you is born…a Savior.”
The Jews had been waiting on the promised Messiah, the Prophet like Moses, the true Heir of David—all describing (though the Jews didn’t necessarily understand it) the same person. But the angel describes the One who is born in three ways:
- This word appears 13 times in the Old Testament, and 11 of those are direct references to God. We have heard the name applied to Jesus so frequently that He is the one we instantly associate with the name—but Jews in the first century would have heard Savior and instantly thought of Jehovah, God. The angel was basically announcing that their God just became a human. And if you’re one of those shepherds, your mind is blown.
- This is the same word as Messiah (one Greek, the other Hebrew). It means chosen and anointed. David used the word when explaining why he would not harm King Saul—the Lord’s anointed. In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed. And Jesus is all three. But most likely, the understanding the Shepherds would have had is that this is the true Heir of David, the King of kings who will usher in God’s kingdom.12
- Reiterating the identity of Jesus, the angel uses a word that most often describes God in the Old Testament. It means master or lord or ruler. It is worth noting that the conclusion of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost is that “God has made this same Jesus, whom you crucified, to be both Lord and Christ.”13
Here’s Your Sign
This was a lot to take in for those shepherds. It isn’t every day you see the glory of God shining around you in the middle of the night, and hear a heavenly messenger tell you that you get to witness the crux of history and the fulfillment of everything you’ve been waiting for. So it makes sense that he gives them a sign to look for. Go to Bethlehem and find a baby wrapped in cloths and resting in a feeding trough.
Okay, so that seems like a rather odd sign of confirmation. I would think the bright, shining, heavenly light would be a more stunning confirmation of the message. God has come to earth as a human, fulfilling centuries of prophecies, and we’re supposed to look for Him in a… a feeding trough?
But consider this. In addition to showing the humbling nature of Jesus’ descent into humanity (see also Philippians 2:4-8), it is also truly something unique. I mean, think about it. How many times in your life have you ever seen a newborn baby in a real feeding trough? And not a sanitized one, but one that was probably used to feed animals earlier that evening? Normally, you would expect to find a newborn baby, wrapped up, and in a hospital or a house—or maybe an inn if they were away from home.
So while it might seem odd, that makes it that much better as a sign.
A Plethora of Angels
As soon as the angel finishes his message to the stunned shepherds, all at once “a multitude of the heavenly host” show up, “praising God.” The Greek word for multitude here is plethos. As in, plethora. One dictionary says the word can mean fullness or the whole number of something.14 That means it is grammatically possible that it was all the angels. Every. Single. Angel. All appearing at once. Even if it wasn’t every one, it was a bunch of ‘em.
Imagine the shepherds’ reaction. You’re already surrounded by a heavenly glow, talking to an angel, and then BOOM! Instantly thousands of angels appear (are they glowing too?) and begin to praise God in unison. I’d be freaked out. And in awe.
Their praise is: Glory to God in the highest. To praise or glorify is to give honor. The praise shows that all honor goes to God for this magnificent event—that God became flesh and dwelt among us. This is His plan (John 3:16) to save mankind (Romans 1:16-17). The highest is a reference to heaven, above which nothing can exist. No one is higher, more powerful, or equal to God, and there is no power that can control heaven except for Him.
Depending on the translation, the second part of their message can be understood differently. The classic King James Version says “and on earth peace, good will toward men.” If this is the correct rendering, then it means God’s actions are to bring peace and show His kindness and love to all mankind. Theologically, there is nothing wrong with that interpretation. But it might not be what the verse is saying.
Most newer translations render it “peace to those on whom his favor rests” (NIV), “peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (NASB, ESV). These translations seem to indicate that the peace that comes from God is only for a certain group of people—those on whom His favor rests, or with whom He is pleased. And so long as we recognize that God’s favor (grace) only rests on those who obey Him, and that He is only pleased with those who obey Him, this interpretation is biblically sound as well.
Unfortunately, many who call themselves Christians (often with the moniker of “reformed”) take this and claim it teaches the Calvinist doctrine of Unconditional Election—that God chose to save certain people before they were even born—before the world was even created! And they claim it is those pre-chosen individuals who God’s peace and favor rests on, because He chose them to be saved, and chose everyone else to be lost—regardless of their actions here on earth.
The Shepherds Skedaddle (Luke 2:15-20)
When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.
The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
The angels disappeared—quite possibly as suddenly as they had appeared, leaving the shepherds in the dark of night. And they wasted no time saying, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem!” There was no Let’s go see if… as though there was any doubt in their minds. They said Let’s go see this thing the Lord has revealed to us!
So they ran. They hurried. They were excited about this. (How excited are you about Jesus?)
They got into Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the baby. Honestly, it probably wasn’t that hard. Bethlehem wasn’t a huge town. And you’re not looking in the houses, you’re looking where a manger—a feeding trough—was. So you’re pretty much just looking for stables, barns, or small caves where there is probably light (candles, torches, something). I can’t imagine it was all that difficult for them.
Now the Shepherds are the Messengers
As they arrive, they tell Joseph and Mary (and anyone else around) what they saw and heard. And you have to know that they keep looking at the sweet, innocent, newborn baby that is lying in the oddest place—a feeding trough. Joseph and Mary had already had angelic interactions, but they only saw one angel. Imagine their surprise when the shepherds tell them about the multitude of angels appearing all at once.
The people who heard this wondered—they were amazed and contemplated what this all meant. If you’re in that position, and you are told this baby is the Christ, are you going to try to keep tabs on Him? To know how things are progressing? Are you, after several years of continual Roman oppression, going to get frustrated that He hasn’t taken over yet? Are you wishing time would hurry up? Or maybe you’re just not sure what to think, and you never really come to any definite conclusion.
Mary treasured or kept these sayings in her mind and heart. Did she ponder them, seeking a better understanding? Probably. Did she hear these words with pride for the future accomplishments of her Son? Possibly. Did she just keep her feelings to herself, because she knew her Son was not just hers, but was God’s gift to all humanity? Maybe.
The Praising Pastors
These shepherds (same word as “pastors” in Greek) left Bethlehem on cloud nine. They were excited, overjoyed, awed, humbled, thankful to God for blessing them with this incredible gift. I think any one of us would feel the same way if we got to go back in time and see the baby Jesus right after He was born. After all, we know how the story ends, and have a much better understanding of what His life and death meant than the shepherds could ever have imagined.
But notice they were rejoicing and praising God not just for the things they saw—but for the things they heard, the things that were told to them. How often do we hear about what God has done for us through Jesus? How often does hearing that cause in us excitement, joy, humility, thanks, and praise?
What does This Mean for Us Today?
God keeps His word. The first prophecy about Jesus came thousands of years earlier in Genesis 3:15. According to the biblical chronology, that was 4,000 years before Jesus was actually born. God is not slack in regards to His promises. God never forgets His promise. May we always remember that even though we may not see specifically how God is working things out, He is working them out according to His plan.
Jesus was humble. What greater show of humility can there be than for God to leave heaven and take on the form of a human—and not just any human, a poor human, born to a nation subjugated by another, born in a barn, born to poor parents. Jesus went all-in on humility. Remind me again why we think we’re so great?
Jesus is God. In calling Him “Savior” and “Lord,” God’s angelic messenger was making it clear that this baby isn’t a mere human. He is God in the flesh. He is Immanuel—God with us. This is incredibly important, because Jesus said, “Unless you believe that I, I AM, you will die in your
sins” (John 8:24).
1 ESV, KJV, NKJV
2 NASB, NIV, etc.
3 NET Bible Notes on Luke 2:7. E-Sword edition.
4 William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible commentary on Luke 2:7. E-Sword edition.
5 Exodus 39:27-29; Leviticus 6:10.
6 John 19:40.
7 This is suggested by William Hendriksen in Baker’s New Testament Commentary on Luke. E-Sword edition.
8 The mother of Constantine supposedly identified the spot, and a cathedral now sits atop it.
9 Henry Alford, in The Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary (Vol. 1), e-sword edtion, says it took place on April 5, and asserts it is the same date, 33 years later, on which Jesus died.
10 Barclay, Daily Study Bible. E-Sword edition.
11 Vincent’s Word Studies on Luke 2:9. E-Sword edition.
12 Foretold in Daniel 2:44.
13 Acts 2:36.
14 Thayer’s Greek Definitions. E-Sword edition.