As we talk about the meaning of Christmas we have discussed when Mary heard Gabriel foretell Jesus’ birth and how it was confirmed to Joseph. The next event in the story is Jesus’ birth. But it was by far not an ordinary birth.
Luke tells us of all the fanfare and special events that had to take place for Jesus’ birth to be extraordinary. Already He has been lauded by angels and prophets. But this is just the beginning. Of course the Heavenly Father pleased with His Son will pull out all the stops.
This special birth starts with a long journey to a key place in Israel’s history. But when they get to this great town know fanfare is given. This great King does not have a kingly birth by human standards. But he comes with just the right message of humility and meekness. Let’s take a closer look at the Christmas story and the birth of the Messiah.
The Circumstances of Jesus’ Birth
Luke records the birth of Jesus and all of the intricacies of such a great birth (Luke 2:1-7). It all starts with another king ruining the experience of many throughout the Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus, the first of the Caesars of Rome, decreed that everyone needed to be registered for a census and taxes.
But each person had to return to his own town. This could meet hundreds of miles of travel out of people’s way. Joseph was originally from the town of Bethlehem in Judea. But now he lived in Nazareth of Galilee.
While we celebrate Christmas on December 25, it is not likely this was the time of the year Jesus was born in Bethlehem. So we don’t know the season which may have made it even harder for them to travel.
Joseph would close up his shop until they could get back. This meant loss of income for him and the family as long as they were away. So they were also making the trip on funds he may not have saved up for.
We know from later in the story that magi from the East began traveling at this time to meet this new King. They would have noticed this strange star in the sky when He was born. Scripture points to the idea that Mary and Joseph traveled alone.
And they would be alone even at the end of their journey. If Joseph wasn’t originally from Bethlehem, he would have to return there because he was from the house and lineage of David. We don’t know if it was returning to a hometown or the place of your family’s name.
The Fulfillment of Time (Galatians 4:4)
Paul describes the coming of Jesus has an extraordinary event in human history. He tells us God pick just the right time in human history for Jesus to come. He puts it like this:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4–5, ESV)
At just the right time, or the fullness of time, Jesus came to redeem those who trust in Him. So what had happened before it was just the right time for Jesus to be born? Well, for the gospel to spread as fast as it did at the time of His death, to get out of the backwoods of the Roman province of Palestine, several things had to be in place.
First, Alexander the Great set the stage a while ago as he conquered much of the world. Instead of displacing people to different lands as many kings and kingdoms had done before him, Alexander taught the people the common Greek language.
He also instilled in them Greek culture. But most important was the language. The New Testament is written in this common Greek because everyone around the Roman Empire still knew Greek. The Romans didn’t even bother teaching everyone Latin.
Alexander’s successful efforts to make Greek the lingua franca of the day, a language for business and interaction between peoples of different ethnicities and languages made it possible for the gospel to spread with a common language in place.
Next, the Romans built roads all throughout their empire. Roman roads were so well-built that some of them are still used today throughout Europe and parts of the old Empire. The most important thing is that these roads took Jesus’ disciples and apostles everywhere around the known world.
So with a common language and a road system all throughout the empire the gospel spread quickly. Many heard the good news Jesus brought of the light coming to the darkness and salvation available to all who believed in Him because of these couple of advancements that had to be in place before Jesus could come to the earth.
Paul is not wrong in proclaiming that this was the perfect time in history for Jesus to come. And He was born of a woman, fully human and fully divine as we discussed in our first post. But He also had the ability to save those under law and make them under grace. Oh, how grateful we need to be for the timing of Christmas!
Traveling to Bethlehem
So Joseph and Mary had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. This is only 70 miles in a straight line, or more likely about 97 miles using the road system. Traveling around 20 miles a day they could’ve gotten there in four or five days.
Except for one major problem. This route takes them directly through Samaria, and Jews and Samaritans did not get along. Surely the Samaritans would not have allowed them lodging overnight. Aside from this, Mary was in the final stages of pregnancy and would not have been able to travel so fast per day.
We can estimate it taking them 7-10 days, or even longer, to arrive in Bethlehem from Nazareth. Taking a longer route and traveling at a slower pace made the journey longer and perhaps harder on Mary. Nothing like writing 100+ miles on the donkey.
Luke is very precise in his historical facts. He gives the governor of Syria as the guide for when this trip took place. Bethlehem was a special place to the Jews because King David came from that town.
We can be reasonably certain that this is no myth or simple story. It is a historical account of what Mary and Joseph went through before Jesus was born. But it was all ordained by God. Everything was put in place by Him long in advance. It had to be just so.
No Room for Them
When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem it was a bustling town. They went from place to place to find lodging for that night. But they could not find any room. The town was full of people.
I suggest that Jesus was born around one of the three or four main festivals of Israel. If it was around the time of the Feast of Booths, Passover, or another festival, this would make sense. All the places around Jerusalem, or even close to it, would be filled with people.
Often people who came for Passover stayed seven weeks until Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, which was also known as the Feast of Booths. This would’ve been in the spring of the year. But having the towns near Jerusalem swell with people and population would be a good reason Mary and Joseph could find no place for lodging.
Today we have “no vacancy” signs but back then they had to go to each place and find out in person there was no room there. Then they would continue journeying around the town looking for another place. All this took time when they arrived.
Luke tells us they eventually settled in the stables of one of the innkeeper’s establishments. Everyone coming to Bethlehem traveled on animals. So the stables would have been very full. This may have been one of the last inns they went to.
They were getting desperate for a place to stay for the night. Beyond this, Mary was having labor pains and in labor. The innkeeper had pity on them and said he had no room, but wait! He did have room in his stables.
Most of us Americans used two traveling first class and getting the most expensive hotels may balk at the idea. We may have said thanks but no thanks. But Mary and Joseph needed a place. So they took him up on the offer.
The King of the universe was born in a barn. And then He was put in the manger, the feeding trough of the animals. No fanfare here. But don’t count out God’s great plan yet. People will come and treat Jesus as a King.
She Gave Birth to a Son
It’s some of the most beautiful and elegant language of the Bible. The perfect time came when they had just found a place in Bethlehem for Mary to give birth to Jesus. The King James version set the gold standard of calling Jesus’ baby clothes “swaddling cloths” and the phrase stuck.
Even more modern translations of the Bible keep in the “swaddling” wording. These are the kind of cloths that keep the baby’s arms from extending out. They wrap the baby in such a way as to provide comfort and security, almost like the baby is being held together.
Mary laid Jesus in the manger. Today we think of this with nostalgic thoughts. But this was the feeding trough for the animals. If there were many animals in this stable because of all the visitors the manger was probably emptied of food.
So it was a good place to put the baby Jesus for safety. They didn’t have proper bedding or any of the things we consider today necessary for birthing or raising a baby. But they may do with what they had.
The Heavenly Father foresaw all their needs and made sure that even in this Humble Way, Jesus was well taken care of. As we find out throughout Jesus’ life Mary and Joseph were good and godly parents for him.
The Meaning of Christmas
So what can we take away from the story? Jesus is a King and yet He came to us in a humble way. He deserved much more fanfare. Instead, Jesus came with very little fanfare. Though He deserves all of it He taught us how to be humble and meek.
We may think we deserve to be lauded by people, applauded for the great things about us. But this part of the account of Jesus’ birth talks about how One more worthy of praise and attention than we would have none of it.
Let us learn from Jesus this Christmas season to not seek our own way or force are desires upon others. Let’s sink into the background. Let’s enjoy the company of others without trying to get our own way. Let’s put others before us has Jesus taught us even as a baby.
We have seen the extraordinary birth of Jesus in the fullness of time. But the story is far from over. We will next see that Jesus’ humble birth continued to have humble guests, the shepherds, visit him next.