The gospel of Luke opens the story of Jesus’ birth with some interesting facts:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city” (2:1-3). Notice that on this particular year, Caesar made a decree that affected the whole world. People everywhere were required to go to their ancestral city to pay this universal tax. Joseph and Mary could not just put a check in the mail, they had to personally show up and be counted and deliver the money.
And 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:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child” (2:4-5). These verses specifically tell us that Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, was a descendant of Kind David, of the tribe of Judah, as was Mary. Therefore, even in the womb Jesus was, legally through Joseph, and genetically through Mary, a Son of David. He made his entrance into Bethlehem, the city of King David, riding on a donkey. Matthew’s gospel describes Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem one week before his crucifixion by quoting the prophet Zechariah, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” (21:5). Mary, the virgin daughter of Zion, came, riding on a donkey, bearing the infant King of kings into the city of David.
Luke goes on to describe the reason for Jesus’ humble birth, “And 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” (2:7). There was no room at the inn because the whole world was returning to their ancestral territories be taxed. God selected this specific night for the Savior to be born when there was nowhere to receive him. Three decades later, Jesus famously said, when his face was set like flint toward Jerusalem and the crucifixion, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). But Mary was prepared. She had brought swaddling clothes to wrap her baby in. She knew that her time to deliver was at hand. These swaddling clothes were not like the receiving blankets we wrap newborns in today. Rather they were strips of cloth, that allowed the mother to swaddle, or wrap, the baby up securely. And, once she had swaddled Jesus, Mary laid him in the manger.
Most of the nativity scenes that we enjoy placing around our homes at Christmastime depict Jesus’ birth as taking place in a typical barn, full of hay and surrounded by cattle. But it was much more likely that the “barn” that sheltered the infant Jesus was a cave and not a wooden structure. Likewise, the manger into which the baby boy was laid was probably not made of wood – a scarce resource in desert regions – but was hewn out of stone; a stone feeding trough.
Luke tells us that something remarkable was happening nearby at the same time…
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (2:8-14).
The angels told the frightened and wondering shepherds that a Savior had been born that very day in the city of David, and that the sign that they were to look for was not a mother and baby resting comfortably in an inn, but to seek out a child, tightly swaddled and lying in a manger. God’s angelic host appeared in the middle of the night to inform humble shepherds out tending their sheep that the good tidings of great joy for all people were that they would find the Savior of the world wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a stone trough in the city of the great king.
Luke, the man of science, was a stickler for details. In chapter 24 of his gospel, he relates the story of the next time angels proclaimed good tidings of great joy to wondering and frightened people, “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen" (24:1-6a).
The angels told the shepherds that the swaddling clothes and the manger were a sign of the identity of the Savior of the world. Listen to what happened when Peter and John entered the tomb (and the gospels report that Jesus’ mother and the other women had been there also): “But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened” (24:12).
When Jesus was born, the sign of his arrival were the strips of swaddling cloth in which he was wrapped and the stone trough in which he was laid. When Jesus rose from the dead (see 1 Corinthians 15:20), the sign of his victory over death, hell, and the grave were the abandoned strips of cloth that he had been buried in, and the empty stone shelf on which his body had been laid. Angels were present both times to explain the events to awe-struck observers.
“And 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.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.” (2:15-18).
Eight days later, Joseph and Mary took the infant Jesus to the temple, to present him to the Lord, “(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’)” (2:22-23), where they met Simeon, the aged prophet, who blessed the baby and spoke these words over him, saying “Lord…my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” And to Mary, his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (2:22-35).
Luke tells us that at Jesus’ birth “…Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” (2:19).
Much later, Mark reported, “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James [Jesus’ mother], and Salome [likely Mary’s sister, wife of Zebedee and mother of James and John], had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?
And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him" (Mark 16:1-6).
Finally, remember that the manger that Jesus was laid in at his birth was a feeding trough. And the city of David was also known as Bethlehem, which means the “house of bread.” God prepared everything exactly on that day so that Jesus, who was also known as the heavenly Ox whose yoke he asked us to share (see Matthew 11:30), would be born in a stone cave that was used as a stable.
The Bread of Life (see John 6:35), would be born in the house of bread. The Savior of the world would be wrapped in linen cloths at his birth and at his death, and this would be heralded by the angels as a sign to all people that the Son of Man, who is also the Son of God, had conquered death and breached the veil, reconciling us to himself, forever.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).
All of us at Speak Comfort wish you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas and Blessed New Year!
All scriptures are from the English Standard Version translation.