Pastor Scott Andrews | August 27, 2023
It would be hard to a find a story more sensationalized and mythologized than the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, called Christ. And yet, there is not another story that needs less editing, less improvement, than this one. But, by the time 2000 years of history – even church history – gets done with this story, it is hardly recognizable. An extreme makeover – as if the original wasn’t good enough.
Of course, we could talk about the commercialization of the birth of Christ in the Christmas holiday and traditions. It would take days to share all the stories from around the world. Which is amazing to think much of the world celebrates the birth of Jesus – but they don’t. They enjoy a celebration, a self-indulged festival, with no worship or even acknowledgment of its supreme purpose and eternal value.
But just sticking with our own country, the Christmas story has been co-opted by commercialism, the grand opportunity to make a buck, Black Friday and Santa Claus. Where would you begin with just our country? The North Pole, St. Nicholas, flying reindeer, The Twelve Days of Christmas, chimneys, sugarplums, stockings, gifts, coal, candy canes, tinsel, White Christmas, Christmas trees, Christmas break, Christmas cards, ornaments, wrapping paper, Christmas wreaths, Christmas lights, mistletoe, poinsettias, Christmas carols and holiday songs – not to be confused since carols usually refer to the birth of Jesus and songs may include I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells or Silver Bells, or Santa Claus is Coming to Town, I’ll be Home for Christmas, or Christmas Shoes, or…you get the idea; sleigh rides, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Christmas caroling, hot wassail, hot chocolate, fruitcake, Christmas cookies, gingerbread, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Hallmark Movies, Christmas movies, Home Alone, Die Hard, the Nutcracker Ballet, Scrooge, or the Grinch who stole Christmas. Really, our secular society has stolen Christmas.
Do you see? And that’s all just the secularization of the holiday – much of which has absolutely nothing to do with the reason for the season. But we, that is Christians, have even messed that up. A few weeks ago, in Luke 1 at the annunciation when Gabrial appeared to the Virgin Mary, I talked about some of the mythological legends regarding Mary, for example:
- Her mother’s name was Anne, and there is a church built in St. Anne’s honor by the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem.
- Mary took a vow of virginity at the age of three and grew up at the Temple.
- Where she enjoyed ecstatic visions and daily visitations by angels.
- Mary was born without sin; it’s called the doctrine of The Immaculate Conception.
- Not only was she born sinless, she never sinned, called the doctrine of Perfect Sanctity.
- Therefore, without sin, Mary didn’t experience labor pains when Jesus was born. It truly was a silent night.
- The Perpetual Virginity of Mary teaches she remained a virgin her entire life, despite her marriage to Joseph.
- But, even though she never sinned, she died – at her own request, so she could be reunited with her Son.
- In fact, in the Assumption of Mary, no purgatory for her – no sin – when she arrived in heaven, she was met by Jesus who crowned her the Queen of Heaven.
- Further, we should pray to Mary because as the wedding at Cana demonstrates, Jesus never refuses a request from her. And predominant of Marian prayers is the Hail Mary.
- Leading to a movement through the centuries to name Mary as Co-redeemer with her Son – that is, either Mary or Jesus can save you – you pick.
Now, most of that is Catholic false teaching about Mary, but even we Protestants hold dearly to legends regarding her and Joseph – especially concerning the Nativity – that is, the birth of Jesus. Consider:
- Many holiday greeting cards have her riding a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but no donkey is mentioned.
- Speaking of animals, most nativities have the cattle lowing or the ox and ass are keeping time, and yet, no animals are mentioned.
- While we imagine a conversation between Joseph and an uncaring innkeeper – there is no such innkeeper mentioned – no such conversation.
- While the manger is mentioned, there is no reference to a stable, a creshe, or a cave.
- Most nativities also have the presence of angels – again, not mentioned – they’re out in the fields hanging out with the shepherds.
- Most nativities have three kings present – which we neither three, nor kings, nor even present – they came later.
- Most paintings have the ever-present halo round yon virgin, mother and child.
- Further, it doesn’t matter if you like the song, sorry King and Country, there is no drummer boy mentioned either.
- And finally, Jesus probably wasn’t born in winter, on December 25, since the shepherds were keeping watch over the flocks in the fields by night. Most suggest His birthday was more likely in the Fall or the Spring. Where did the date of December 25 come from? In the fourth century, Pope Julius I decided on December 25, likely to battle the celebrated birthday of the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus or the mid-December festival called Saturnalia celebrating the agricultural god named Saturn.
So don’t miss that December 25 was chosen arbitrarily to combat the pagan festivals celebrating pagan gods in hopes that the dead of winter would give way to spring. The bishop’s hope was that by doing so, the church would have an influence on culture. It was a worthy goal I suppose, but the opposite actually happened. I don’t have time to recount it all, but much of what the world, and even the church celebrates at Christmas, is of pagan origin. Everything from Christmas trees to mistletoe. What culture did to celebrate their gods infiltrated the church, rather than the other way around. I’m not suggesting you get rid of your Christmas trees and stockings hung by the chimney with care – I am suggesting we remember the reason for the season – and that we remember what really happened.
So, why bring all this up today – besides irritating some of you? Because it is August, not December. Thankfully, the Christmas decorations haven’t arrived yet, at least for a few more weeks. And we find ourselves in Luke 2 – one of the most famous and well-known passages found in the Bible – thank you, Linus from Charlie Brown’s Christmas. So, with all that as introduction – that is, what the Christmas story is not, we get to study the birth of Christ without all the trappings and clutter of Christmas. I don’t have to battle Santa for a few more months.
Yes, last week we started our Operation Christmas Child promotion, but that’s because those OCC shoeboxes each carry the gospel of Jesus Christ with them. Which is the ultimate reason for the season. You see, the incarnation does not save us, but without the incarnation, we could not be saved. In order for Jesus to die in flesh, He first had to be born in flesh, live a perfect life, and then die in that flesh not for His own sins, but for ours. So let’s read the true unvarnished Christmas story in our text – Luke 2:1-7.
I ask you again, why does that story need to be improved? Embellished? Sanitized? Well because, it doesn’t seem to us to be the best narrative of the birth of the Son of God, the Savior of the world. We can do better than that. Certainly, it couldn’t be as base as this, right? As one asks of this Christmas story, “What’s wrong with this picture?” It is meant to assault our senses. You see, in our study of Luke, we’re finding Jesus came in a way you would never expect, to a people you would never pick. Which means, it’s actually the perfect way for the Savior of sinners to come. Let me give the unembellished outline of the simple text:
- The Historical Setting of the Birth (1-3) – which is incredibly important.
- The Necessary Travel for the Birth (4-5) – you’ll see what I mean by necessary.
- The Humiliating Birth of Jesus (6-7) – not what you would expect for the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
We know well by now Luke was an accomplished historian. He investigated the story of Jesus carefully in order to give a researched, faithful account. But not only was Luke an historian, he was also an able theologian. Meaning, the history he gives is for a theological purpose. And as we’ll see, the purpose is stunning, and continues a major theme in the book we have called the great reversal. You see, the first name mentioned in this birth narrative – Caesar Augustus – the august one, the majestic one, the holy one – the first and greatest of Roman rulers – emperors – the great builder, the able administrator, the architect of the Pax Romana – the ruler of peace – is what you would expect of the savior of the world.
Well, let’s look at the historical setting of the birth. We remember back in chapter 1 the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias during the days of Herod the Great. Herod reigned from 37 to 4 BC. We find in Matthew 2 Herod was still alive when Jesus was born. The magi came from the east to worship the newborn king. Herod inquired of the Jewish priests and scribes where the Messiah was to be born – he was told Bethlehem. We’ll come back to that, but at that time, after the Magi worshiped Jesus who was still in Bethlehem, they left secretly for home, avoiding Herod. So Herod then gave orders for all the boys of Bethlehem under the age of two to be put to death. We surmise from that – adding two years to 4 BC when Herod died – that Jesus was born as early as 6 BC.
Now, in chapter 2, Luke is writing of the birth of Jesus, born six months after John the Baptist, and we find Caesar Augustus was reigning Caesar in Rome. Not Herod you see – the worldwide Roman ruler. But, who was Augustus? Well, he was born in 63 BC as Gaius Octavian. He was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, who took a liking to Octavian and named him as his adopted son and heir of his name and property in his will.
So, in 44 BC, when Julius was assassinated by Brutus and Cassius, Octavian inherited the estate of Julius as well as the title Caesar. He would rule in a triumvirate with two others – Mark Antony, who was married to Octavian’s sister, and a third ruler named Lepidis. These three went after the assassins of Julius and killed them, and then divided their rule into three parts. But, soon thereafter, Lepidis was exiled in 37 BC, leaving just Mark Antony and Octavian to rule. But Mark Antony fell under the wiles of an Egyptian seductress named Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic queen of Egypt. Antony divorced his wife to marry Cleopatra. But that was a problem – you see, the woman he divorced was Octavian’s sister.
So Octavian went to war with Antony and defeated him in the famous naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC, leaving Octavian as the sole ruler of the ever-burgeoning Roman power. In fact, in 27 BC, Octavian was named by the Roman Senate the first Emperor of the Roman Empire, and received the name Augustus – meaning majesty, revered, or holy. It began what would become the emperor cult, where eventually emperors were seen as divine – as gods. Caesar Augustus ruled from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. He was an able ruler and magnificent builder. He built cities and roads all over the empire. (brick – marble) He expanded his rule across the Mediterranean Sea – from western Europe all the way to the Middle East and south to North Africa, to include Egypt. He instituted the famed Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. True, the peace came under the dictatorial rule of the emperor with an iron fist – but it was a largely empire-wide peace, heretofore, unknown.
What’s important for our purposes is the way in which Augustus, by his name and his veneration, approached the divine. True, Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar were not officially declared divine until after their deaths – but Augustus was revered by many throughout the empire. Temples were built in his honor. He even received the title in various inscriptions, the son of Zeus, the son of god, the savior of the world. And why not? Isn’t this what you would expect for the world’s savior? Powerful. Ruler of the then-known world. Builder. Able administrator. Bringer of world peace. He’d make a great savior, don’t you think? They clearly did.
Well, the Jews didn’t. They hated their Roman oppressors. And they hated ruthless Roman taxation. In most countries where Rome ruled, periodic censuses were taken for two purposes – to conscript those of military age into Rome’s powerful army, and to assess taxes. Because of the Jews frequent rebellions, Augustus wisely chose not to draft them into his army. But the taxation was ruthless and relentless. And it was a constant reminder they were under the oppressive hand of Rome. Is it any wonder the Jews hated tax collectors who worked for Rome. They were the scum of the earth – working for the enemy.
By the way, when Augustus died, his adopted son Tiberius became emperor, and was emperor during the ministry of Jesus. It was this emperor of which the religious leaders of Israel once asked Jesus – should we pay taxes to Caesar? To which Jesus responded, show me a denarius – the coin used to pay the tax. Whose inscription is this? Caesar’s, they replied, I’m sure with as much venom as they could muster. It was Tiberius’ image, you see. Then render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
Now in those days – the days of John’s birth and Jesus’ coming birth – a decree – a dogma – an official decree went out from Caesar Augustus. Such decrees were well known in specific regions, again, for the purpose of conscription into the army or for taxation. It was for the latter this decree was enforced in Palestine. This one is a bit unusual in that typically a census was for a specific area – but this one was issued for all the inhabited earth – that is, all those under Roman rule.
We read further it was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Syria included modern Syria and Palestine, a Roman province. Till this time, Israel was ruled by Herod the Great, but given the regular political and religious unrest in the area, a Roman governor was appointed after Herod’s death. Which presents a bit of historical challenge. You see, we know from extra biblical historical record that Quirinius was governor from 6-9 AD – which doesn’t fit this timeline. Further, there was another census in 6 AD that caused a rebellion which led to the establishment of the Zealots.
But for our purposes, we know Jesus was born while Herod was still alive – perhaps even a couple years before Herod’s death in 4 BC. And so, some have suggested Luke, the careful historian, made a mistake. Not so fast. I won’t take the time to trace it all out, but the word governor is a general term, and we know Quirinius was a military leader in Syria from 6-4 BC. And further, we notice this was the first census when Quirinius was governor or military leader in Syria, which implies another. And indeed there was, in 6 AD. Luke even refers to it in Acts 5:37. The point is, while many suggest Luke and therefore the Bible is in error – this so-called discrepancy can be easily explained.
Now, verse 3 presents another minor challenge, and that is, Roman censuses didn’t typically require people go to register for the census in the place of their ancestral births. But again, this can be easily explained – it is likely Herod made the requirement as this was typically a Jewish policy. Herod was simply trying to make the census, which was being taken for taxation, more palatable.
But there was a greater purpose for the required return to the place of your ancestral birth, which brings us to our second point – the Necessary Travel for the Birth in verses 4-5. It was apparently six months after Mary returned home to Nazareth. Remember, she was already pregnant by the time she got to Elizabeth’s home, where she stayed for three months. So, six months later, Joseph and Mary made the trip to Nazareth to register for the census. Now, you should know, the registration was not required at a specific time – the Roman census usually gave a year in which the registration was required. Meaning, the little town of Bethlehem may not have been overrun with people registering for the census. And yet, if time was running out, people may have made the trip at the last minute, which might explain why Joseph and his 9-month pregnant betrothed made such an arduous journey of some 80-90 miles.
So, Joseph went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David. We know well by now the Messiah must be of the family of David, per prophecy in II Samuel 7. It’s why earlier Luke had said when he first mentioned Joseph, “Now in the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.” In fact, in Matthew chapter 1, Matthew begins with the genealogy of Joseph, “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham;” and Matthew traces the genealogy from Abraham through David, eventually to “Joseph, the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”
So, the first qualification is that Jesus be of the line of David – and He was legally through the line of Joseph. Second, per Isaiah, He must be born of a virgin, which Matthew quotes – and He was through the virgin Mary. But there is a third requirement of the birth of the Messiah, which leads to the necessity of Jesus being born in Bethlehem. Remember, in Mattew 2 when the magi came from the east, they asked where is He who is born king of the Jews? So Herod asked the religious leaders, where is Messiah supposed to be born? And they answered from Micah 5:2,
2 “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”
Don’t miss it, Luke is carefully recording Jesus met the qualifications of being the Messiah. Is that who you would have picked? Is this how you would have done it? We would likely have picked the great-nephew of Julius Caesar – Gaius Octavian, Caesar Augustus. After all, that’s who the people picked – Augustus, the savior of the world.
So Joseph went up from the two-bit town of Nazareth to Bethlehem, in order to register along with Mary who was engaged to him, and was with child. We remember when Mary heard she was to bear the Son of God, the Messiah, she went to see Elizabeth, who was in her sixth month. She stayed for three months, then returned home to Nazareth. At some point, her pregnancy was made known, and Matthew tells us Joseph was considering how he might divorce her – that is, end the official betrothal to his now pregnant betrothed. The angel appeared to him – we read about it in Matthew 1:
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.
19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.
20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.
21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.”
24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife,
25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.
We don’t know exactly when Joseph took Mary as his wife – but Luke indicates they were still betrothed at the birth. Perhaps he took her to his home – no celebratory marriage ceremony – no parade – no fanfare. He simply took her home as commanded, but kept her a virgin until Jesus was born. So they were technically still betrothed – the marriage not consummated – when they made the trip to Nazareth. He likely took her along as she was due, or because they were considered husband and wife, or she was his responsibility, or for protection from the Nazareth gossip mill. So they went to the place of Joseph’s ancestral birth. To Bethlehem per prophecy.
Is this the way you would have done it? It is, if you were doing what God was doing in the great reversal – sending His Son in a way you would have never chosen, to those you would have never picked. It was a rather inauspicious beginning for the Savior of the world. And don’t miss, while neither Augustus nor his adopted son Tiberius were to be the savior of the world – regardless of what people thought – Augustus was involved in the birth of the Son of God. God used him as a pawn to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem right on schedule. Meaning, God would do and use whatever necessary to carry out His divine plan per divine prophecy. Mighty Augustus was simply a pawn to carry out God’s purposes. Do you suppose that is true today – that God raises rulers up, and takes them down, and uses them to accomplish His purposes? Are you worried about the Republican nominee, the Democratic nominee, the next mighty president of the US? No need to be – God is in charge and will use them as He pleases. You see, not even the US president is the savior of the world.
Very quickly, then, our last point, the humiliating birth of Jesus in verses 6-7, “While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” No fanfare, simply and sweetly stated, Jesus was born – right on time and in place.
Let me just make a few comments as we close. First, she gave birth to her firstborn son. Gabriel had said she would have a son – the Son of God – so she did. There was no reason to hold your breath as the child was delivered to discover the gender. God had already determined the gender. Further, Jesus was her firstborn. Some suggest that means she and Joseph had other children – and I believe they did as other passages indicate – but that’s not necessarily what firstborn means. It simply means, her new child, her firstborn, was a son. This would require a sacrifice to redeem Him, as we’ll see later.
Next, we see she wrapped Him in cloths, strips of cloth, which was the common practice of the day for all newborns. Some of you may have heard in Bethlehem, the lambs born were for sacrifices at the Temple – especially Passover lambs – so as soon as the lambs were born, they were wrapped in strips of cloth so they would be without blemish. That may be, but that has little to do with what we read here. The practice was simply to wrap or bundle children’s arms and legs with strips of cloths to keep them straight and help them feel secure. We do the same thing when we swaddle babies today.
And she laid Him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn. A manger is a feeding trough, dirty and unclean. Again, no mention of a stable or a cave or a creche – simply an unclean, smelly, dirty feeding trough was His first crib. Because Jesus, the Son of God, came in a way you would never expect. You should know family animals were kept in homes at night – usually in an area right off the living space. The homes were usually two rooms – one for living, one for sleeping. Right off the living space, usually a little lower and fenced off, was the place for animals. If there was a manger – it would have been there.
Which leads to the last thing. When we read, there was no room for them in the inn – we shouldn’t think of Motel 6. There were such squalid accommodations – but it’s a different word. Luke uses it in Luke 10 when he talks about the parable of the Good Samaritan. But here, the word katalyma is used simply to speak of the spaces available for guests. If you had a home, you would allow guests to stay in a guest room – perhaps the living space next to the animals. To be clear, you wouldn’t make them sleep with the animals. But here, it seems the guest space provided for travelers – perhaps in Joseph’s ancestral home – was taken by more important guests or those who arrived before. And so Joseph and Mary were simply shown to an area housing the animals – either inside the house, or a pen right outside the home. And there, the Savior of the world was born. Simply Mary, without mother or midwife – simply Mary and her betrothed Joseph, with the pungent odors of the animals if there. Perhaps a dim lamp brought in for the birth. And Jesus was born, wrapped in strips of cloth, and laid in a makeshift crib. There you go, church – that’s the first Christmas, your Savior has been born. As Pastor Kent Hughes writes:
“The baby Mary carried was not a Caesar, a man who would become a god, but a far greater wonder—the true God who had become a man!… It was wretched—scandalous! There was sweat and pain and blood and cries as Mary reached up to the heavens for help. The earth was cold and hard. The smell of birth mixed with the stench of manure and acrid straw made a contemptible bouquet. Trembling carpenter’s hands, clumsy with fear, grasped God’s Son slippery with blood—the baby’s limbs waving helplessly as if falling through space—his face grimacing as he gasped the cold and his cry pierced the night.”
There’s no need to sanitize the scene. What’s wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing. It is likely not the way we would have done it – the Savior of the world born in dirty conditions to a nondescript couple from the nothing town of Nazareth – while being forced to register in a census for taxation by the mightiest man on the planet. But God was communicating something wonderfully different in the way Jesus came. He humbled Himself and came in the lowliest of fashion, to save the lowliest of people. Sinners, like you and me.