The Christmas Story
After four hundred years of silence, God had again spoken. (1) Stargazers in the heart of the ancient Babylonian empire, far to the east of the land of Israel, searching the heavens for a sign from their Creator were first to hear. (2) God, speaking in the language they knew best, a “star” like none other, low on the western horizon, unmoving, unmistakably pointing the way to the land of the Jews, scribing the ancient prophecies of their long awaited King! Dangling between heaven and earth on an invisible string, with the brilliance of a thousand diamonds it could be none other than the “Star of Jacob” referred to in Balaam’s mysterious prophecy; “I shall see him but not now; I shall behold him but not near.” There shall come a star out of Jacob and a king shall rise out of Israel…Out of Jacob shall come he who shall rule…” (3)
Mary and Joseph of Nazareth were dusty and worn. The shadows were lengthening and memories of angelic messengers months earlier had dimmed, repressed by weary days of journeying. Night was approaching as the couple, Mary heavy with child and ready to deliver – arrived in Bethlehem. The ill-timed journey to register and pay taxes to their Roman rulers couldn’t have been less welcome. How tempting it must have been to grumble. How easy to question God: why now? Why not later, after the birth? In fact, why at all should God’s people suffer under the heel of their Roman oppressors? Could they have mistaken the angelic messages? They seemed less real somehow. Is it possible something had changed in the intervening time to alter their meaning?
Mary, unable to walk, was weary from traversing the seventy-five rugged miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey. She had been experiencing birth pangs for some time, but had chosen not to alarm Joseph. A sudden wave overcame her, and a groan escaped unbidden, as Joseph tied the donkey to seek shelter at the inn. The occasional contractions had become steady as the encroaching dusk settled over the little village. Beads of sweat stood on her brow, gathering wisps of hair and plastering them to the sides of her face as she unconsciously brushed them from her eyes. The baby growing in her womb was about to be thrust from the warmth and safety of his tiny quarters into a world far from home. The weary pair grateful to have arrived, settled into the stable, for there was no room in the inn, (4) unaware their presence had been carefully orchestrated by the Godhead from ages past. (5)
Caesar Augustus was to be God’s timing piece, decreeing that all the world should be taxed, every citizen was required to return to the place of their birth. (6) The Roman world had been launched into motion, just in time to arrange for Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem at this very stable at this very moment. God’s son must be born here, (7) just as the prophets foretold and His prophetic plan to redeem the fallen human race developed in ages past, (8) put into motion months earlier with angel emissaries, began to take shape. The cries of a newborn were heard from the stable, the road-weary and forgotten couple, alone in a strange place with only a stable for shelter, were about to discover anew what an awesome God they served!
Nine months earlier in the land of Israel, in the village of Nazareth of Galilee, an angel had appeared to this same Mary, a young virgin. She was to bear a child not by natural means, but Jehovah God was to be the father. (9) In concert with the angel’s visit, the “star” that inspired the Magi appeared in a country far east of Israel, (10) low in the Western sky. It proclaimed the God of Heaven had done what the prophets foretold; a powerful king, a descendant of King David was to be born. (11) The “star” disappeared as suddenly as it had come. (12) Even so, as the child in Mary’s womb grew, the desire of the Magi’s hearts to pay homage to the prophesied Jewish king grew stronger with each passing day. Little did these gentile astrologers know that they would be among the first to see God’s divine plan to save the human race put into motion. How poetic! Though estranged from the promises God made to his people the Jews, the Magi journeyed to see their fulfillment. How could they know their “star” was an angelic messenger from God, (13) setting into motion a heavenly chain of events, leading to a tiny Israelite village in Judea?
And so the dangerous journey of the Magi had begun. After months of preparation and travel, the camel caravan bearing gifts for a king entered Jerusalem. “Where is He that is born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship Him!” (14) How certain they were of their mission! How determined to pledge their allegiance to the new King, but how strangely Herod and the Jewish leaders reacted to the Magi’s quest!
Herod was “troubled” and “all Jerusalem with him.” (15) Brutal and suspicious, he secretly made plans to kill the baby imposter king, after the chief priests and scribes revealed that the prophetic birth place of the new king was identified in their sacred scriptures; “thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: For out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”… (16) How ironic the Magi, acting in faith, had found the Christ child, while the religious keepers of the sacred writings, could not be bothered and so did not recognize this seminal moment in human history.
When the Magi arrived at Jerusalem, after having traveled many hundreds of miles, they sensed their journey nearing an end. The prophetic revelation from the scribes and priests that Bethlehem, a mere seven miles away, was the birthplace of the king fueled the urgency of their mission. Unwilling to waste even another night, their desire to complete the quest consumed them. The caravan departed Jerusalem at dusk. (17) Upon Herod’s request, as to the time which the star first appeared, they had determined this very night was exactly nine months to the day! Not a moment would be wasted!
To their amazement and delight, the “star” which had vanished months prior, reappeared. (18) Such a star! To see it again was beyond their wildest dreams! They “rejoiced with exceeding great joy!” It seemed near enough to touch. Such brilliance in the heavens had only been witnessed one other time, when the star had appeared low in the Western skies at the first and had inspired their pilgrimage. The brilliance of the guiding light now seemed closer than ever and with the purpose of their mission burning in their breast, they pressed on the “star” drawing them irresistibly towards Bethlehem.
As the Magi thrilled at the reappearance the “star”, “a multitude of the heavenly host” appeared at that very moment (19) to sheep herders tending their flocks in the Judean hill country. Angel emissaries from the throne of God…“Praising God and saying. ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”….“the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were sore afraid! ‘Fear not!’ he said, ‘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 baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’” (20) The lowly shepherds, little more than bond servants to the most helpless of animals, had received a personalized invitation from the God of the Universe. God the Father asking each to attend the occasion of the birth His Son, the Savior of the world!(21) When the angels went away up into heaven, the shepherds excitedly set out for Bethlehem.
The cries of a newborn, from the stable behind the Inn, had been silenced by His mother’s breast and the baby was sleeping peacefully. A soft light filtered into the stable as the first of the shepherds arrived. Streaming from the surrounding hills they clamored to see the baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger,” marveling at the appearance of angels and their comforting “be not afraid.” The rush of activity roused the dusty little town from sleep. As villagers were awakened by the commotion of the shepherds, they found their hamlet awash with radiant light streaming from the “star” above the stable at the inn. Lamps were soon lit and the soft glow splashed out of open doors and windows into the streets.
Bethlehem was soon bubbling with excitement and alive with wonder. Children were running and dancing with glee. “His name is Jesus” was heard like the chiming bells echoing from every direction. Fantastic tales of angels, and shepherds and a “baby in a manger” were on everyone’s lips. The heavenly light which guided the shepherds to the stable had repositioned over the innkeepers home, where the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph had been moved. Even the innkeeper had created a stir when he insisted they move out of the stable and into his own house, although, earlier that very night, he had found no room for the poor travelers except to shelter with the animals in the stable out back.
By the time the Magi’s caravan arrived, the warm glow emanating from the heavenly light over the house, had transformed the winter chill into a pleasant evening. No need to ask “Where is he that is born king of the Jews?” The “star” now directed its light to the house, (22) bathing it in it’s soft glow signaling the presence of the king. The Magi, thronged by chattering children, marveling shepherds and villagers proceeded to the house. Jesus’ mother holding her newborn wrapped in swaddling clothes, Mary and Joseph were surrounded by throngs of well-wishers oblivious to the hour, each desiring a peek at Jesus having nursed and now sleeping peacefully unaware his arrival had created such a stir.
The Wise Men approached and, carefully dismounting, they reverently knelt to present themselves and their gifts at the feet (23) of the sleeping infant king. A great peace settled over Bethlehem as the shepherds reluctantly left to care for their sheep, and children were shushed back to their beds as the villagers returned to their homes. The Magi caravan settled down for the night and Mary and Joseph retired to the house and treasured these things in their heart.
The Magi, having completed their quest, were warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem. (24) They left as the new dawn was breaking to begin their long and arduous journey home by a different route, making a wide berth away from Jerusalem as they returned to the Eastern lands from whence they had come.
And so God accomplished what He had planned from the beginning. (25) The perfect sacrifice, the one who willingly offered His own body, (26) to fulfill God’s righteous demands that sin’s penalty be paid in full; (27) the one and only one who could…did…to show us His love for mankind. (28) Far from frustrating God’s eternal purposes, God used Satan’s evil intentions to seal Satan’s own doom. Mary’s baby grew and became a man. God’s son, “fully God and fully man,” (29) submitted himself to die on a Roman cross as the one and only perfect sacrifice for sin, (30) just as He offered to do before the foundations of the world (31) when God’s creative program was put into place. Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, Messiah, Son of God and Son of Man, was raised from the dead on that first Easter Morning, and death was forever destroyed. (32) Satan’s fate was sealed for all eternity. (33) And it all began that first Christmas in a lonely little stable, in a dusty little village called…Bethlehem of Judea.
Epilogue: The Characters of Christmas
Mary and Joseph made plans to present Jesus to the priest in Jerusalem on the eighth day for the rite of circumcision (34), receiving a blessing from Anna (35) and Simeon, (36) while at the temple. They too were warned in a dream that, when Herod discovered he had been betrayed by the Magi, he would seek to kill their infant son, and so they made immediate plans to flee to Egypt leaving that very night. (37) The gifts of the Wise Men provided for their sustenance until it was safe to return to their home in Nazareth, after Herod had died. (38 )
The excitement and thrill that had enveloped Bethlehem that first Christmas was to be short-lived and followed by unimaginable treachery. Satan, desperately seeking to maintain his death grip on the signature element of God’s creation, mankind – made “in the image of God” – (39) was deluded by pride. He intended to impose his own will over humanity. Causing man to sin, he would thereby compel a Holy God to sentence man to death. In this way he would establish his claim to be “like God,” (40) not by creating, but rather by destroying what God had created. To this end, he cajoled one of his own subjects, King Herod, to carry out his diabolical scheme to search for and kill the prophesied heir to David’s throne. He had planned, by killing the prophesied king, to thwart God’s intention to redeem mankind from Satan’s reign of death and terror. Herod, tricked by Satan’s lies, believed his all-consuming lust for power would bring him what he desired. Enraged at the rebuff of the Magi not returning as well as the prospect of a rival king, he ordered all the male babies in Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside to be murdered. (41) He failed in his attempt to kill Jesus, but tragically fulfilled another of the Bible’s prophecies related to the coming of the Messiah…“In Rahmah was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” (42)
When did the Wise Men arrive in Bethlehem? Was it in time to celebrate with the Shepherds and village residents or many months or even years later, as some bible scholars suggest? We’ll further examine the Biblical evidence for this and take a more in-depth look at the characters in the Christmas story. The birth of Jesus represents the unveiling of God’s final solution to the sin problem. (43) The Christmas story provides a front row seat to the opening scene as God rolls out his plan to redeem fallen mankind from certain judgement and death. Our magnificent God, by His own design and character, brought hope to humanity through the birth of His son who was to become the redeemer. (44) We should dance for joy as we celebrate our awesome God! “God’s ways are high above our ways!” (45)
The characters in the Christmas story are familiar. First there’s sweet young Mary virtuous, poor, without rank. How could we forget the wonder and mystery of her angel messenger? “Hail, thou highly favored, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women!” (46) Young, chaste, a virgin engaged to be married to Joseph – imagine her confusion at the news the angel messenger delivered. She was to be pregnant, by supernatural means, and would bear God’s son who would be the savior of the world! As a father of a daughter, my imagination goes ballistic at such a story. There are so many reasons for human incredulity, but this is a story of God’s miraculous intervention in the affairs of men, and I marvel at her humility and faith. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; Be it unto me according to thy word.” (47) Nevertheless, Mary more than any other understood the stigma to be borne, for having a child perceived by her peers to have been conceived out of wedlock. Her faith is stunning.
Then there’s Mary’s cousin Elisabeth, unable to have children until she is older, suddenly pregnant, radiant with gratitude for God’s answer to their prayers and blessing to her and Zechariah. Their child, destined to grow up as John the Baptist, leaped in her womb when Mary came to visit (48), confirming to both that God was doing something very special for His people.
We are introduced to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, just after he learns that his beautiful, young, virtuous and beloved bride-to-be is pregnant! The one thing he knew for certain in his suddenly upside down world was that he wasn’t the father! How he chose to deal with his confusion, disappointment and shame reveals a lot about his character. He decides to break off their engagement privately (49) so as to protect his pregnant betrothed! All this prior to the angel’s startling salutation “Fear not” and the unfathomable confirmation that the child in Mary’s womb was miraculously, conceived by the Holy Spirit, God’s own Son. His name would be called “Jesus”…for he would save His people from their sins! (50) While we don’t hear much concerning Joseph after the birth of Jesus, his pivotal role in providing for Mary, shielding her and her unborn baby from whisperers and recrimination reveals a man of great integrity.
The Bethlehem Shepherds settled in for a quiet winter evening. Suddenly, angelic hosts appear in the skies above them. Night became day and a host of angel voices proclaim a royal birth in nearby Bethlehem instructing them “You’ll find the baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (51) How symbolic, that God chose simple shepherds to witness to the birth of the “Great Shepherd,” (52) the one who would ultimately give His life for the sheep.
The Wise Men (Magi)
I’ve always felt a certain fascination with the account of the Wise Men from “the East.” The appearance of the mysterious “star,” which the Magi rightly saw, as a sign that the Spirit of God was moving in the land of Israel to fulfill the prophecies, including the one from their rogue prophet Balaam, those many years prior. Some have tried to identify the “star,” associating it with the occurrence of natural phenomenon such as a supernova, star cluster, comet, unusual celestial body, etc.. It may well be that God orchestrated a natural event, or a series of events, in conjunction with the supernatural to get the attention of the Magi. The biblical account in Matthew indicates that when the Magi left Jerusalem, after receiving instructions from the religious leaders, that the prophesied king was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea. (53) The “star” – the appearance of which had originally inspired their journey – had disappeared, but now reappeared as they left Jerusalem on the last leg of their quest! (54) The return of the star caused great joy (55) and led the Magi directly to the house where Mary, Joseph, and the baby were staying.
Angels were God’s special agents. They appeared in all forms in the Bible: a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (56) while leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, vanishing in the flames of Manoah’s sacrifice when making a thank offering to God, (57) etc.; While the use of angels offers a reasonable explanation as to the source of the “star” which guided the Magi, whatever the source, it seems certain it was a supernatural event given specifically to the Magi so they would recognize its significance. It ultimately guided them into the very presence of the infant king, to whom they came to pay homage.
There are several incidents in the account of the Wise Men that have led some scholars to conclude they may have arrived as much as two years after the birth of Jesus. The actions of a major villain in the Christmas story, evil king Herod, contribute to that assessment. From the account in Matthew, we learn the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem with great fanfare asking “Where is He that is born, king of the Jews? We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” (58) Herod was troubled “…and all Jerusalem with him…” (59) by the possibility that a rival to his throne had been born. After consulting with the Jewish scholars, who informed him that the Messiah king was prophesied to be born, not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem of Judea, Herod instructed the Magi to return to Jerusalem when they had located the new king, so that Herod might “worship” him as well. (60) After they left, the Magi were warned by God in a dream not to do so. (61)
When they failed to report back to Herod, and he was unable to learn the identity of this “king” they were seeking, Herod ordered that all the children of Bethlehem and the surrounding area two years old and younger were to be killed. This was done “according to the time in which the Magi had first seen the star in the East.” (62) Because the age of the children Herod had killed was based on the time at which the Magi first saw the star, some bible scholars suggest that Jesus may have been born two years earlier. That issue is easily resolved if you consider the star first appeared when God indicates that life begins, at conception. (63) The ‘star’ made its initial appearance to the Wise Men nine months earlier, at the time the angel appeared unto Mary with the news that she was to be the mother of God’s son. There can be no doubt from God’s perspective that the child growing in Mary’s womb was His own Son in human flesh from the moment of conception!
Herod, however, who had no regard for human life, had his own wives and children murdered. (64) He would not have been concerned about “collateral damage.” His only goal was to make sure the newborn “king,” whom the Wise Men sought, was killed. This writer is suggesting that the Wise Men indicated that they had seen the star nine months earlier. This date, plus some amount of time from their departure to Bethlehem and Herod’s conclusion that they were not going to return to Jerusalem provide the basis for his order that all the male children in Bethlehem “and surrounding area” be killed. He likely rounded the nine months-plus, to one year and then doubled it. He also increased the scope of the carnage by including the “surrounding area” to make sure he cast the net wide enough, that the rival king would not survive his purge.
Another possible indicator that the Magi arrived sometime after the birth is that, according to the Matthew account, the Magi found the baby in a “house” (65) instead of the stable. (66) This seems a rather small point to cause us to conclude that the Wise Men arrived late to the birth of the Savior of the world, but perhaps that’s just my personal bias. I’ve written “The Magi’s First Christmas” to show the Christmas story the way I see these Biblical events unfolding and have taken the liberty to fill in a few missing details that Scripture did not record. Not to any way change the facts, but to put flesh to possible other scenarios then have traditionally been used to construct the timelines in the Matthew and Luke accounts.
Someone once suggested that “God is seldom early, but never late.” In my own study of Scripture and life experience I have found this to be absolutely true. It seems highly unlikely to me that God would not have arranged for the Wise Men to be present at the birth, another affirmation of the miraculous significance of the birth itself, and the practical provision of the financial resource provided by the gifts of the Magi for the flight to Egypt and escape from Herod. I hope in reading this you’ve been challenged to research for yourself and draw your own conclusions on the basis of this wonderful resource that God has preserved for us: His inspired Word, the Bible.
Merry Christmas and God bless you everyone!
“The Magi’s First Christmas” narrative includes poetic license to fill in the missing details. The Biblical account does not establish that the Wise Men arrived at the time of the birth. The impact of their arrival and the visits from the shepherds on the residents of Bethlehem is not documented, but the writer has drawn inferences from the bits and pieces of the story found in the Biblical account to reconstruct the events.
1. The four hundred years between Malachi’s prophecy and the advent of Christ are often referred to as “silent” years
2. Matthew 2.2 wise men from the east saw the star of the King of the Jews
3. Numbers 24.17 The star out of Jacob
4. Luke 2.7 No room in the inn
5. Hebrews 1.10, Psalms 102.25
6. Luke.2.1 All the world to be taxed
7. Micah 5.2 king to be born in Bethlehem of Judea
8. Matthew 25.34 Inheritance prepared from the foundation of the world
9. Isaiah 7.14 …behold a virgin shall conceive…
10. The exact time the star appeared relative to the angels and the shepherds is subjective
11. Isaiah 11.1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse…Revelation 5.5 …Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David
12. Matthew 2.9,10 …the star which they saw in the East…When they saw the star, they rejoiced
13. The “star” could be figurative or literal. The story refers to it in a figurative sense. It had the appearance of a star but was likely a supernatural messenger which was the common role of angels
14. Matthew 2.2 Where is he that is born King of the Jews…
15. Matthew 2.3 Herod was troubled…and all Jerusalem with him
16. Micah 5.2 Thou Bethlehem in the land of Judah…shall come a ruler
17. Matthew 2.9 …the star went before them…Night time implied.
18. Matthew 2.9,10 …lo the star…saw in the east…when they saw the star…great joy
19. Reasonable conjecture is used to associate the timing of the angels visit to the shepherds to the reappearance of the star
20. Luke 2.9-14 Angel of the Lord came upon them…suddenly…angel host…praising God
21. John 1.14 The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us
22. Matthew 2.9 …the star which they saw in the east…stood over…
23. Matthew 2.11 …fell down and worshiped him
24. Matthew 2.12 …warned in a dream…departed…another way
25. Romans 8.29 …predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son…
26. Ephesians 2.5,6 …we were dead in sins…hath raised us up together…
27. Ephesians 2.13 …made nigh by the blood of Christ
28. 1 John 4.10 … not that we loved God, but that He loved us.
Revelation 5.4-5 …the Lion of the tribe of Judah prevailed to open the book,
29 1 John 3.8 …that he might destroy the works of the devil
30. Philippians 2.5-7 …being in the form of God…was made in the likeness of men
31. Hebrews 12.2 …looking to Jesus… endured the cross, despising the shame
32. Ephesians 1.4 …chose us in Him before the foundation of the world
33. Hebrews 2.14 …that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death
34. Luke 2.22 …and they brought him to Jerusalem’…
35. Luke 2.36 Anna’s blessing
36. Luke 2.26 Simeon’s blessing
37. Matthew 2.13 Flight to Egypt
38. Matthew 2.19,20,23 Herod dies…return to Israel …to Nazareth
39. Genesis 1.27 …and so God made man in His image..
40. Isaiah 14.12-14 Lucifer…I will be like the most High
41. Matthew 2.16 Herod slew all the children
42. Jeremiah 31.15 In Ramah was there was…weeping…great mourning
43. Romans 3.23,24 For all have sinned…redemption through Jesus Christ
44. Ephesians 2.4,5 …By grace ye are saved…
45. Isaiah 55.9 God’s way are higher than man’s ways
46. Luke 1.28 Mary highly favored
47. Luke 1.38 …behold the handmaid of the Lord
48. Luke 1.41 Elisabeth’s baby leaped in her womb
49. Matthew 1.19 Joseph decides to privately break off the engagement
50. Matthew 1.21 His name shall be Jesus
51. Luke 2.12 Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger
52. Hebrews 13.20 Jesus the great shepherd
53. Micah 5.2 Thou Bethlehem…
54. Matthew 2.10 The Wise Men’s reaction implies the star had appeared unexpectedly
55. Matthew 2.10 The Wise Men rejoiced with exceeding great joy
56. Exodus 14.19 And the angel of God which went before the camp…
57. Judges 13.20 The angel of the Lord ascended in the flame
58. Matthew 2.2 Wise Men…where is he that is born king of the jews?
59. Matthew 2.3 Herod was troubled and all of Jerusalem with him.
60. Matthew 2.8 Herod asked Wise Men to return when they have found the king
61. Matthew 2.12 Wise Men are warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem
62. Matthew 2.16 Herod orders the children killed based on when the star first appeared
63. Psalms 139.13-17 Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb…fearfully…wonderfully
64. Luke 3.19 Refers to Herod’s reputation. Details can be gotten from secular history
65. Matthew 2.11 And when they were come into the house
66. Luke 2.7 Jesus was laid in a manger, implies being in a stable, for there was no room in the inn