Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg
with Tom Fuller
The Ordinary Birth of the Extraordinary Messiah
We’re asking a question as we travel through Luke’s gospel: Who is this man Jesus? We’ve not actually seen Him yet, only hints at His importance and place in some grand rescue mission that Yahweh Himself is launching to deliver humanity from the “shadow of death” and the “clutches” of an enemy—and that He’ll do it through the forgiveness of sins to those who will humble themselves and acknowledge their lack. Zechariah, a priest and a good Jew, has just named a son John, a man who will prepare the way for this rescuer. One of John’s relatives, a young peasant girl named Mary, will birth this Savior, though she herself is a virgin.
Now we meet this miracle baby. You’d think with all of the set-up we’d see Him arrive in posh surroundings—a palace or temple at least. But He actually comes in the most ordinary of ways in the most ordinary of surroundings. Yet His coming is heralded by two groups—one representing the highest order of creation: the angels; and the other one of the humblest: shepherds.
It’s a story we have become very familiar with. Whenever I read Luke 2 I hear the voice of Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special produced in 1965. Today it is synonymous with a Christian holiday, as it should be, but also has been layered with many cultural trappings: snow-draped houses with one-horse open sleighs sliding by, brightly lit trees in the living room with the Nut Cracker Suite playing in the background. We see presents under those trees and sugar plumbs dancing in the heads of children awaiting a somewhat overweight man in a red suit to arrive in a flying sleigh to unload gobs of goodies on good children around the world.
Nothing could be further from the actual events surrounding the birth of this Baby and those that witnessed it. So let’s try to look with fresh eyes at a very familiar scene—a young girl and her engaged arriving in a small town with no support but in the late stages of pregnancy.
1 – 5
Gaius Octavian was the grandnephew, later adopted son, and heir of Julius Caesar. He was recognized as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 27 B.C. The Roman Senate accorded him the title of Augustus that same year. Octavian was thought as much god as man. Having consolidated Roman rule, Octavian had a problem—it takes money and an army to run an empire. So he instituted a registration—both for revenue generation and military conscription. The Jews in the Roman province of Syria were exempt from military service but not from taxation.
To carry out Augustus’ edict, Quirinius, the governor, issued a decree that forced all the Jews to return to their ancestral homes for registration. This is actually thought to be a concession to the Jews who were very focused on their genealogical history. Quirinius served two terms of governor or Syria—and there were registrations in both terms (6-4 B.C. and 6-9 A.D. –see Acts 5:37). This census took place during his first term.
Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, was descended from King David. In order to register he had to return to David’s town of Bethlehem—a three day journey of roughly 90 miles from Nazareth. I’m sure when this couple heard of the census they grew worried because Mary would by this time be well along in her pregnancy. The angel Gabriel and Zechariah’s prophecy in the last chapter said that this Messiah would sit on David’s throne, so it’s fitting they would travel there for the birth.
Though both the leader of the world’s largest empire and the husband of a young virgin both had problems—God had a bigger one. He’s been revealing bit by bit the identity and purpose of His rescuer—His secret agent that would deal with the problem of sin in humanity. But in one of those bits, God directed that this Boy be born in Bethlehem.
Micah 5:2 “Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are small among the clans of Judah; One will come from you to be ruler over Israel for Me. His origin is from antiquity, from eternity.”
So for His Messiah to be born in Bethlehem (which was important not just because it was where David lived) He created a problem for an emperor that was solved by creating a problem for a carpenter—how to move his very pregnant wife 90 miles south.
If God can move so many and so powerful for His purposes—can He not also move circumstances in your life to fit His will?
6 – 7
Contrary to most Christmas stories—Mary and Joseph probably did not arrive in Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth but were there for some period prior to that. A lot of people were descended from David and others in Bethlehem and so the slow moving couple got there after most places were taken.
Also contrary to the traditional telling—Mary and Joseph were not seeking lodging at a commercial inn. There were likely no such places in Bethlehem and Luke’s language later (10:34) where such a place was sought out—uses different words. Here the translation of “lodging place” is most likely “guest room.” They likely stayed with friends or family, but not in the upper story of someone’s house, but on the bottom story, where the animals slept. In that culture, elders had first dibs. Joseph and Mary were not elders so they took what they could get.
So with very sparse language, Luke simply tells us that she “gave birth to her firstborn son.” By the way, this language suggests that though Jesus was first, He was not the only child Mary had, refuting the Roman Catholic idea that Mary remained a virgin her entire life.
Mary wrapped the little boy in “cloth” in much the same way we wrap babies snuggly in blankets today—wrapping their little arms tight against their bodies to make the transition from the tightness of the womb as easy as possible.
She didn’t have anywhere to lay Him other than a stone feeding trough, used to provide hay for the animals, so I can just picture Joseph hurriedly clearing out the old straw and placing fresh feed in the trough as a mattress for this baby.
What an inauspicious coming for such an important Person. I think one of the key reasons the King of Kings came this way, instead of in a palace, is that He came to save those in need, not those who feel self-sufficient. He came to the lowly, not the proud.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15 HCSB).
Phil. 2:5 “Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. 7 Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men.”
Notice of the birth of a king would normally go far and wide. Think of today when an heir to the British throne is born—the news is heralded all over the world. But the announcement of the King of Kings was not spread in this way. Only two groups were aware of it—as I mentioned: the highest order of created beings and the lowest humans.
8 – 14
Stepped fields surround Bethlehem, which is about five miles from Jerusalem. Working in those fields were shepherds who raised very special flocks. The flocks contained animals used for the sacrifices in the Temple. The picture, of course, is very clear—Jesus would be THE sacrificial lamb, not to cover sin, but to cleanse sin once for all. So it’s fitting that an angel came to visit these shepherds to announce the news.
They’d have been awake and alert because nighttime presented the most danger to the flocks as thieves and predators lurked in the darkness.
Most nights the darkness was only partially lifted by star or moonlight. But on this particular night the shepherds saw a UFO in the form of a bright light. The angel who stood before them was Gabriel, the same one that heralded the birth of John to Zechariah and the birth of Jesus to Mary. Nearly every time an angel appears it strikes fear into the hearts of humans so the angel has to instruct them not to be afraid. You would feel in mortal danger in the presence of such a powerful being, but the angel says he bears good news—and not just for them but for “all the people.” This “Savior” (Greek from Soterion—rescuer), “Meshiach” (Greek Christos which comes from the Hebrew Messiah or “anointed One”) and “Lord” (Greek “master”) had not come to the elite but to the everyman, and not just to Israel but to all the nations. Notice in this statement is the idea of the Trinity—Jesus the Messiah, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and the Lord (the standard Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Yahweh” from the Old Testament).
The news of the Messiah’s birth would have been shocking enough to these shepherds, but fact that this baby lay in an animal feeding trough would have been incredible.
Then, like turning on a million light bulbs, a bunch more angels join Gabriel and who all sing this hymn—basically confessing the wonderful thing God was doing—and the peace that will come with God through the grace (favor) of God through faith in Jesus to those that will accept it.
15 – 18
The darkness of the night returned and the shepherds spread the news to anyone who was up and around at that time of night to come visit the Messiah. After visiting with Mary and Joseph, who were no doubt amazed at the sudden visitors, the shepherds then went around spreading the news to anyone who would hear them. I like this because it mirrors how we all hear about the Messiah and then get so jazzed that we share the news with anyone who will listen.
19 – 20
From the details in this story it seems likely that Luke learned the details directly from Mary who, we learn, was one who thought deeply (“meditating”) about the things that were happening and kept them alive in her mind (“treasured”).
The shepherds went back to their flocks but were never the same again.
In conclusion I just wanted to point out something about this young couple. Mary and Joseph both knew from angelic visits that the miracle pregnancy and birth was God’s will. Yet other than that, they got little help, seemingly, from God. First they’ve got to deal with the reactions to an engaged woman who was pregnant and claimed it was God who did it. Then they had to deal with the long trip to Bethlehem in late stage pregnancy. Then when they got to Bethlehem they had to deal with nowhere to stay.
Joseph and Mary could easily have gotten frustrated and mad at God and wondered why He’d made things so difficult for them. “If I’m trying to do God’s will how come I’m running into so many hurdles?”
Perhaps you’ve thought that too. Maybe you are trying your best to serve God and love Him—you think you’re doing the right thing, and all kinds of trouble seems to find its way to you. First, may I suggest that’s pretty normal? If God made everything easy for us we would simple stop trusting Him. I think God allows roadblocks in our lives so we’ll pray and seek Him more.
But also I wanted to point out the attitude of this couple. Luke records some wonderment on the part of Mary when Gabriel comes to her, and Matthew records some consternation on Joseph’s part as he’s trying to decide what to do with a pregnant fiancé—but other than that, they are pretty calm about the whole thing. They take the journey to Bethlehem and they make due with what they are given in order to have the baby.
I like that attitude. When faced with difficulty we too can just keep going. It’s like a driving instructor told me one time—when facing a potential crash the best thing a driver can do is to keep driving. Our natural tendency is to take our hands off the wheel, panic, and give up. But if you keep driving you can often steer your way through the worst of it. So keep driving—keep praying—keep living—keep finding ways to cope and lo and behold—God’s will will triumph and His plans will be accomplished and we’ll learn to trust Him all the more through the most difficult of circumstances.