The Christmas Story

"And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins."—Matthew 1:21

A verse by verse Bible study in Luke 2

No story is more important to the Christian religion than that of the birth of Jesus and his subsequent life and death as a ransom for all the human creation.

While we are not told in the scriptures to celebrate his birth, but rather his death, it is nevertheless appropriate that a time be set aside for commemorating this great gift to the human race. Although the evidence indicates a fall date for his birth, the end of the year would approximate the time of his conception. It is in this spirit that we gladly join the Christian world in honoring the birth of humanity’s Redeemer.

A Time of Taxation—Verses 1 through 5

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 this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 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.

Taxation was introduced in the Roman empire as a more equitable way of extracting tribute from conquered provinces. A periodic census was taken both for taxation and recruitment purposes. While the poll tax was the first introduced, Augustus Caesar introduced the additional burdens of inheritance and property taxes.

It is fitting that the birth of Jesus should coincide with a period of taxation. Just as the Jews were at this time tributary to the government of Rome, so the entire human race was under the heavy burden of taxation of sin since the fall in Eden. It was to remove this burden that the babe was born in Bethlehem. The introduction of new taxes increased the desire to be free from the Roman yoke. This may have been a contributing factor to the Jewish rejection of the meek and humble Nazarene. They were looking for a strong military leader to free them from the increasingly heavy pressures of Rome.

Such periodic taxation naturally bred unrest among the subject peoples. This decree of Caesar Augustus was no exception. The heavy hand of Cyrenius in Syria gave rise to the rebellious Jewish political party of the Zealots. It is probable that among the founders of this party was Judas of Galilee mentioned by Gamaliel in Acts 5:37. The contrast could not be greater between the two Galileans—Jesus, who encouraged the payment of taxes (Matt. 22:17-21), and the flagrant rebellion of Judas and the other Zealots. It is also noteworthy that Jesus was to later choose as apostles both Matthew, a tax collector, and Simon, a Zealot (Luke 6:15). Thus he illustrated a ministry for all, both for the seeming collaborator and the rebel.

In God’s arrangements the taxation served another function. It brought the expectant couple from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The prophecy of Micah 5:2 demanded that the savior be born in Bethlehem. This was also integral to his status as the heir of David’s royal line since Bethlehem was the city of David. In an obscure reference to an unknown prophecy, Matthew 2:23 states that it was also predicted that he be of Nazareth. In the normal course of events, Mary would have likely given birth to her child in her home district of Nazareth. The taxation changed all that. Both prophecies could thus be fulfilled.

A Humble Birth—Verses 6 and 7

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 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.

The humble settings of this special birth have been oft noted. The influx of travelers for the census was compounded by the overflow of Jewish pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles, one of three feasts when faithful Israelites were to come to the temple city. The overflow crowds for that event would spill into such nearby villages as Bethlehem.

The arduous trip for a woman heavy with child made a lengthy search for a nearby resting place impractical. Thus they resorted to taking lodging for the night in a small cave used for housing domestic animals. He, who was to be the antitypical bullock of atonement, was born in a bullock’s stall. He, who was to miraculously feed crowds of 5,000 and 4,000, found his first bed in a crib for animals’ food. God, who made the clouds a swaddlingband for the earth (Job 38:9), now clothed his son in swaddling clothes.

That first night set the pattern for the three and a half years of his ministry thirty years later. "And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20).

The Angels’ Song—Verses 8 through 14

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 Savior, 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.

The work of the first advent was a pastoral one to Israel. Jesus himself had said, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 15:24). Even his noted forebear, David, in whose town he was born, was known as the "sweet shepherd" of Israel. It was therefore appropriate that the first announcement of his birth would come to faithful shepherds watching their flocks. The surprise of the sudden brightness and the appearance of the heavenly choir naturally struck them with apprehension. On at least eight occasions during his ministry his disciples would need to be calmed from such feelings with the Master’s tender assurance, "Fear not."

The message of joyful hope came when the human creation was undergoing the darkness of the night of sin. "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Psa. 30:5). And what a message of joy it was! Notonly were they assured that a savior had been born that night and that the very humbleness of his birth would attest to the fact that he was indeed the one, but the accompanying chorus of heavenly beings lifted their voices to God in a paean of praise that this would bring peace on earth and good will to men.

The Shepherds’ Witness—Verses 15 through 20

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. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

It was with haste that the shepherds followed through on the news they had heard. Probably leaving the flocks in the charge of one of their number, they hurried off to Bethlehem to search the stables for a newborn child. Being convinced of the truthfulness of the angels’ message, they spread the news far and wide. Their reaction is reminiscent of the closing words of the book, The Divine Plan of the Ages: "Whoever comes in contact with truth, realizing its character, has thereby a responsibility with reference to it. It must be either accepted and acted upon, or rejected and despised. To ignore it does not release from responsibility. If we accept it ourselves, we have a responsibility toward it also, because it is for all the household of faith; and each one receiving it becomes its debtor, and, if a faithful steward, must dispense it to the other members of the family of God. Let your light shine! If it again becomes darkness, how great will be the darkness. Lift up the light! Lift up a standard for the people!" (p. 349).

While the shepherds’ reaction was unbridled joy, Mary reacted differently. She "kept all these things and pondered them in her heart." The Greek words here used paint a graphic word picture. They paint the portrait of Mary building a fenced off portion of her mind in which she tossed the incoming impressions around and around. These events provided fuel for meditation. Her life would be forever touched and changed by the chain of events in which she found herself involved.

Temple Rituals—Verses 21 through 24

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

Two separate rituals are here mentioned—circumcision and purification. The first was done in Bethlehem, the second in Jerusalem. The first was the prescribed sign that he was a child of the Abrahamic covenant, the second that she was clean of the pollution of blood which accompanied childbirth.

Circumcision was an unusual sign. Signs are usually given to be seen by others. Circumcision would be rarely seen. However the function of the covenant was to produce the seed of blessing and protect the purity of the Abrahamic line. This is shown in the careful recording of the genealogical records of Jesus both through Mary and Joseph (Matt. 1 and Luke 3). Circumcision as a sign was directly related to the cleansing of the physical organ through which that seed would be passed along from generation to generation.

Although not commanded in the Law, it was customary to name the child on the same eighth day as he was circumcised. Notice the naming of John the Baptist in Luke 1. This tradition stemmed from the fact that God changed the name of Abram to Abraham on the same day he commanded the ritual of circumcision (Gen. 17).

The prenaming of Jesus before his conception is found in Matthew 1:21, "And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins." This was done to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that he would be named "Emmanuel" (Matt. 1:23; Isa. 7:14). Though dissimilar in English, the two names are practically synonymous in their original languages, both containing thethought of God being with us, the name "Jesus" adding the purpose, "to save."

A considerable time elapsed before the cleansing of Mary. According to Leviticus 12:3, 4 the purification ceremony was to be 40 or 41 days after birth. Similarly Jesus’ spiritual life, after his baptism at Jordan, was followed by a specially marked off period of 40 days when he meditated and was tempted in the wilderness before beginning his ministry.

In the type the mother was to bring her offering of atonement to the priest as prescribed in Leviticus 12:6-8. The offering of two turtledoves or young pigeons marked Mary out as one of the poor of Israel, for those who could afford it were also to bring a lamb. Although her omission of the lamb was undoubtedly due to her poverty, it is fitting that it be omitted in this instance. As her firstborn son, Jesus was also being offered and he would become "the lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29, 36).

The fact that Jesus is called Mary’s "firstborn" leaves the implication that she had later children. If he was her only son it would have been more appropriate to call him her "only" child. Thus the mention of Jesus’ brothers and sisters in Mark 6:3 likely refers to his half-brothers and half-sisters rather than to more distant relatives.

Simeon’s Prophecy—Verses 25 to 35

And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. And Joseph and his mother marveled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

Simeon was both just and devout. It is possible to be just without being devout or to be devout without being just. The justness of his character showed his high moral standards while the devoutness pointed to his religious inclinations. Thus Esau of old was just, but not devout, being a "profane" or irreligious man (Heb. 12:16). The Pharisees were devout but often not just, as in their "devouring of widow’s houses" (Matt. 23:14). This sterling combination led to the assurance that Simeon would not see death before he had seen the Messiah.

Evidently Simeon had not planned to be in the temple on this particular day, though he frequently went there. The record is that on this day he "came by the spirit into the temple," and undoubtedly this same spirit enabled him to recognize the son of Mary as the long promised Savior. His vision, however, was far greater than merely recognizing the Messiah of Israel. He recognized the import of Isaiah’s prophecies. This deliverer would not be for Israel alone but would be also a "light to lighten the Gentiles" (Isa. 60:1-3).

Perhaps this breadth of vision and not merely his ability to recognize the Messiah caused Joseph and Mary to "marvel." Indeed, as Simeon had correctly predicted, this birth was to bring forth a salvation which had been prepared for "all people."

Simeon appears to have also correctly discerned that in the process of reaching out to the Gentiles, many who were Jews would miss their primary blessing. For those few who followed Jesus he would be for their "rise" in glory, while for the majority who rejected him he would become the stumblingblock by which they would "fall."

This "revealing" of the thoughts of many hearts was explained by John the Baptist. "And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire" (Matt. 3:10, 11).

Finally, Simeon foresaw the anguish that the experiences of the next thirty-three and a half years would hold for Mary. It must have been with great sadness that he predicted to her, "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also." How she must have thought ofthose words as she saw her firstborn on the cross of Calvary!

The Testimony of Anna—Verses 36 through 40

And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

The testimony of Anna is somewhat more brief than that of Simeon. Her presence in the temple was expected, unlike that of Simeon, for she came daily to that sacred place. Her age of 84 might possibly be suggestive of the wait of Israel for the Messiah (12 tribes times 7, a complete period) while the seven years she lived with her husband could represent the full time God was wedded to Israel, a relationship they lost through sin and punishment long before the first advent. Israel was thus widowed a long time before the babe arrived.

The constancy of her devotions is indicated by the fact that she worshiped with "fastings and prayers night and day."

She apparently instantly recognized the babe as the one who would provide for "redemption in Jerusalem," and, like the shepherds, was a ready witness to the significance of this singular birth.

The fact that Mary and Joseph returned immediately after these rituals to their own city of Nazareth leaves a puzzle. Luke’s account omits the visit of the wise men, found in Matthew 2. There does not appear to be an open window to fit into Luke’s account the visit of the magi and the flight into Egypt at the time of Jesus’ birth. It is possible, since the visit of the wise men is missing in Luke, that that evangelist merely jumps to the next item on his agenda, the return to Nazareth, though the trip to Egypt was in the intervening time. Since history is clear that Herod did not live beyond the opening months of 1 B.C., the visit of the magi must have been earlier.

The final verse of this section glosses over the next eleven years of Jesus’ life, showing his continuous growth in spiritual strength, wisdom, and the grace of God. This text finds its companion in the final verse of the chapter, which covers the next eighteen years of his life.

Jesus at Twelve—Verses 41 through 52

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

Though the final lesson of the chapter does not deal with the birth of Jesus, it does complete the details of what we know of him prior to the beginning of his ministry at age 30.

Ancient Jewish tradition, as well as modern custom, saw the twelfth birthday of a child as being significant. Childhood now was considered over and it was customary to expect full compliance with the Law from the thirteenth year when they became known as "the son of the commandment."

He had probably traveled to the feast annually with his family and was therefore somewhat accustomed to the layout of the city. After the seven-day feast the family, no doubt in company with other pilgrims, began the northward trek to Nazareth. The three-day search may have included a day searching for him amongst other traveling pilgrims, a day returning to the city, and somewhat late on the third day finding him in the temple. There is nothing in his demeanor in this incident to suggest rebelliousness toward either his parents or those who sat "in Moses’ seat." Rather than presuming to teach the learned elders, he is content to listen to them and query them as to the deeper meaning of the holy books. He was taking his new relationship with the law seriously and, as with his journey into the wilderness after his baptism, seeking the clearest possible understanding of the law and his personal responsibilities in connection therewith.

It is of profit to note the relationship between the young lad and his parents. Undoubtedly distressed by his absence, they only chide him gently as to the sorrow the incident had caused them. Despite their knowledge through the unusual incidents which surrounded both his conception and his birth, that he was indeed the child of God, the record states they "understood not" his saying, "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?" Nevertheless he understood. He knew that his real father was his heavenly Father and it was upon his business that he had been sent on this journey to become a man, learn to sympathize with their plight, and die for the remission of their sins. This is the reason Jesus felt that his parents should have known that he would be in the temple, "his Father’s house."

Although he must have desired to stay longer in discussion with the learned men in the temple, his time was not yet come. Obediently he returned with his parents and was subject to them for nearly two more decades. His behavior was such as to win not only the approval of God but the accolades of man as well.

For Mary this was another strange incident to put in that fenced-off portion of her mind as she battled with the questions as to what the future would hold for this "miracle child" of hers. A mother’s lot is never easy and hers was exceptionally difficult. She would be experiencing the joy of raising an obedient child, the thrills of his early acceptance, the disappointments of his rejection, and the pangs of pain that accompanied his persecution and death. Indeed she—and we—are left with much to keep in our hearts and to ponder.