The Christmas Story Re-Examined

The Pulse Podcast is about living abundantly wholeheartedly.

It includes feature topics, interviews, and weekly biblical studies.

This episode is both a feature topic and a biblical study on Luke 2:1-20. You can listen in, or follow along with the text version below (which includes the references and footnotes).

It’s one of the most famous stories ever told: The birth of Jesus.

Shepherds, angels, and hostile Inn-keepers have appeared in thousands of Christmas pageants for hundreds of years.

But when we hear something so much, we stop hearing it. Instead of paying more attention, we pay less. There was a man who lived right beside an airport. Over time, he stopped hearing the planes take off. They were still zooming around and making tonnes of noise, but his brain had learned to tune them out.

In the same way, we too can tune out the familiar, even when it comes to the story of Jesus’ birth. We can miss the bracing elements of the story which so powerfully shook our world in the first place.

With that in mind, this podcast is going to take us slowly through Luke 2:1-20. I’ll provide background detail, explanation of special words and concepts that are used, historical and political context, and even some detail about a few illuminating archaeological discoveries. I think this helps us appreciate the meaning and significance of what is going on in seminal verses.

And when I say slowly, I mean slowly. It’s going to require some attention. It’s more of a take-your-time-in-the-evening-with-a-warm-drink kind of thing. Or maybe it’s something you’ll listen to while going for a walk or a drive.

In Matthew 4:4 (referencing Deuteronomy 8:3), Jesus said: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Yes, the more you get into God’s word, the more God’s word gets into you.

I’m recording this in the lead-up to Christmas. The season can be such a blur, and we can so readily leap-frog this story as we mad-dash to a new year, or even to the mall. Plus, Christmas Eve messages in churches tend to be shorter than usual, so we can sometimes miss out on the rich deep-dives into these ancient-but-ever-relevant passages. In Luke 2:19 we learn that after the birth of Jesus “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She treasured the events; she pondered their significance. We are wise to do the same.

My hope is that disciples of Jesus—both newish and mature, as well as people who are just plain curious—will gain fresh eyes and hearts by seeing or hearing what they need to see or hear in this text.

Consider the hymn by Edwin Hodder:

Thy Word is like a deep, deep mine;
and jewels rich and rare
are hidden in its mighty depths
for every searcher there.[1]

So let the searchers begin.

Okay, the story is in the Gospel of Luke. Who wrote it?

The consensus of the early church was that the author of the Gospel was Luke, hence the title. There’s no credible reason to doubt it. He was a companion and co-worker of the apostle Paul. He was a doctor who was known for paying close attention to details. As he himself says in chapter 1, verse 3, he set out to “investigate everything from the beginning” and to write an “orderly account.” The story of the birth of Jesus bears the marks of an informed and careful author.

Let’s begin at chapter 2, verse 1. I’m reading from the New International Version of the Bible.

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

Caesar Augustus was the Roman Emperor. His name was Gaius Octavius Thurinus and ruled from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. A decree was a formal order from the Roman Senate. A census would have been for taxation and military purposes. Jews were exempt from Roman military service, so the purpose for them would have been for taxation.

Verse two states that this was “the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor…” There is considerable historical debate regarding this detail. The issue, some say, is that Quirinius wasn’t governor of Syria until 6 A.D., years after Jesus was born. Therefore, they argue, the biblical story is incorrect, and therefore unreliable. There’s nothing more popular these days than people trying to undermine historic Christianity. So let’s take a closer look. This will take a few moments, but I think it’s important if we are to trust the biblical record.

First, verse 2 says, “This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor…” There are times when the Greek word for “while” (protos) can be translated as “before.” The translation could therefore read, “This census took place before Quirinius was governor…” If so, there’s no issue from a historical standpoint.

Second, there are records of Quirinius leading military expeditions before he became the official governor. So he may have issued a census sometime during those years. This is possible since the word used for “governor” (hegemoneuo) was a generic term and different kinds of joint-rule were not uncommon in those days. Again, that could explain it.

Third, it’s possible that the non-biblical ancient records which tell us about the census in 6 A.D. (a) neglect to mention an earlier term of office that Quirinius also held, or (b) neglect to mention an earlier census at the time of Jesus’ birth, or (c) get it wrong altogether.

Suffice it to say, there are a variety of explanations about what may be happening here with the dates. Since Luke elsewhere demonstrates great accuracy and care for historical details, it’s unlikely that he would make an error on a detail like this.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.

Nazareth was a small village. Some say that it would have been a hamlet of just over a hundred people. Other scholars say that it could have had up to four hundred. Either way, it would have been very small. A lot smaller than the nearly 80,000 people who live there today.

Dr. Craig Evans suggests a geographical area of about four hectares, or just under 10 acres. There is no evidence from the first century of it even having any paved streets. But it was big enough for a synagogue, as we are told in Luke 4:16.[2]

As an interesting historical side note, archaeologists recently published findings which suggest that the house Jesus grew up in may have been a sort of cave on the side of a hill. A convent was constructed by extending walls from a cave on a hill, and then a church was later built on the site. This means that in the early centuries different groups felt that a very specific location in Nazareth was very special. Historically, groups have built structures on or over sacred sites. Could the reason have been because it was Jesus’ childhood home? Perhaps.

From Nazareth they travel to Bethlehem. This is where the famous King David was born. It was (and is) just over 11 kilometres from Jerusalem. Joseph belonged to “the house and line of David.” Micah 5:2 famously identifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of a future king for God’s people: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Luke doesn’t specifically quote that biblical reference in his story, but Matthew’s Gospel does. Even though the census was officially ordered by the Roman Emperor, I think we’re supposed to see how it is God’s hand which is at work. He has foreordained that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. God works through, and is sovereign over, everyday human events, including this one.

The journey to Bethlehem would have been dangerous, difficult, and over 140 kilometres—no small thing in those days. There weren’t cars, trains, or planes. Traveling in caravans with big groups of people would have been ideal for safety. But with people traveling in different directions to ancestral towns for the census, that may not have been possible.

Notice that no donkey is mentioned, sorry!

5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

Mary had certainly been having some life-changing experiences! She had been told by the angel Gabriel that she was favoured by God, and that she would give birth to “the Son of the Most High” who would reign as Messiah on David’s throne with an everlasting kingdom (see Luke 1:26-34). I know that people have hopes and dreams for their children, even before they are born, but this is literally out of this world.

Mary was a humble and devout Jewish girl. How old was she? The text doesn’t say, but perhaps in her early to mid-teens. That would not have been uncommon in her day. The text simply doesn’t provide that exact detail.

Verse five says she was “pledged” to be married to Joseph. Being “pledged” to someone—some translations like the CSB say “engaged”—was much more serious and involved than it is now in modern, western countries. A marriage in the ancient world was a contract and formal arrangement between two families, not just two independent individuals who “fall in love.”

Breaking an engagement would have been the legal equivalent to divorce. Further, being pregnant before a marriage was formalized and consummated (as is the case here) would have been seen as very controversial, disobedience to God, and something which brought personal and collective shame to the families involved. It would most likely have included financial ruin to the family business. It could also have resulted in death by stoning according to the law of Moses if unfaithfulness could have been proven.

We can’t miss how dangerous the situation would have been for both Mary and Joseph. About this, Tim Keller writes that if people conclude Joseph and Mary have consummated their marriage before being actually married, “they are going to be shamed, socially excluded, and rejected. They are going to be second-class citizens forever.” Then, making an application to our lives today, he continues: “So the message is ‘If Jesus Christ comes into your life, you are going to kiss your stellar reputation goodbye.’”[3]

6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

The text says that the time came for the baby to be born “while they were there.” This could have been right away, or perhaps after a longer period of time, maybe even weeks. In popular re-tellings of the story you get the sense that they arrive at Bethlehem just in time, while Mary struggles through contractions and Joseph bangs frantically on unhospitable doors. Perhaps, but we’re simply not told.

Jesus’ arrival is communicated very matter-of-factly. She gives birth to “a son.” More details about its significance are forthcoming. But with this information, ancient readers would surely have breathed a sigh of relief. Why? Because at that time the primary cause of premature death in women was childbirth. Mary has survived. Not only was she alive, but she had given birth to the Lord of Life.

We are told not only that his born, but that is the “firstborn” to Mary. Mary was a virgin, so clearly Jesus had no older brothers or sisters. The word for firstborn is also the word used in Colossians 1:15, describing Jesus as the “firstborn over all creation.” Jesus is Lord of the world into which he is being born. Incredible.

When he is born he is wrapped in “cloths.” That is was what we call swaddling, perhaps with ripped sheets or other cloths.

Jesus is famously placed in a manger, which was a feeding trough for domestic animals. The inclusion of this detail is why many people think he was born in a stable or barn. More on the exact location shortly. But let’s not miss the fact that a lowly manger—along with the accompanying smells and dirt—is where not only the long-awaited Messiah has been born, but where God himself has come to us in human form. In Knowing God, J.I. Packer writes, “The Christmas message rests on the staggering fact that the child in the manger was—God.”[4]

Yes, God wrote himself to the drama of human history. Remember the famous words of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”:

“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!
Hail the incarnate deity!
Pleased on earth with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel
.[5]

T.V. Host Larry King was once asked, if he could interview one person from history who would it be? “Jesus Christ,” came his response. The interviewer went on to ask, “If you could only ask him one question, what would it be, and why?” King responded: “I would ask him if he was really born of a virgin, because the answer to that question changes everything.”[6]

Yes, my friends, it most certainly does.

The reason Jesus was born in a manger was because, verse 7 tells us, “there was no guest room available for them.” Hold on a minute. Guest room? What happened to there being no room at the Bethlehem Inn? Let me explain.

The 1611 King James Version of the Bible is the historic translation that has been dominant in the English-speaking world up until quite recently. That is why it’s phrasing and word choices are so firmly impressed upon our minds. One example is Psalm 23. At the graveside I still use its 17th century phrasing because that’s the version so many people have memorized: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…” The King James Version is the one Charlie Brown quotes in the famous Christmas special when he calmly saunters to centre stage to remind everybody about the true meaning of Christmas.

The King James translation renders the words from verse 7 like this: “there was no room for them in the inn.” Since Bethlehem was small, there certainly would not have been a large motel or hotel anywhere, at least not in terms of how we picture motels or hotels today. But there could have been some sort of guest accommodation for travelers, perhaps even attached to someone’s private home and used for their family business. It could have been the case that there was no guest room available for them at something like that. Remember that Bethlehem would have been busy and crowded because of the census. If they had to find accommodations it would have been hard. Or it might be the case that Joseph and Mary were socially outranked by other people, and therefore were turned away.

Ideally, Mary and Joseph would have stayed in a guest room of one of their relatives. It would have been customary for family to stay with family while out of town; in fact, that was often preferred. That way, families could more easily guard each other’s honour and reputation. I think that’s the most likely scenario. Mary and Joseph went to a relative’s home, but couldn’t even get a guest room there—which seems all the more harsh because Mary was pregnant.

The location of the birth could surely have been some sort of stable (as has already been suggested), but it could also have been a cave. Or, it could also have been a modest room or ancient garage-style setting which was physically connected to the outside of a house. Either way, the fact that there wasn’t room for them foreshadows how so many people would reject Jesus as he grew. The Saviour comes with arms wide open, but faces continual rejection.

We should also note that animals were sometimes kept inside poorer homes as well, especially when the weather was cold, hence the possible need for a manger inside. I say this because the presence of a manger doesn’t necessarily mean that they were outside. One-room dwellings for people without a lot of money were sometimes U-shaped with the floor on one side of the U being higher than the other side. The people would have slept on the higher side, and a lamp (or candles) would have been placed in the middle of the U to give light to the whole the house. With this in mind, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:15 makes more sense: “they put [a lamp] on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” That’s possible because from the middle of the U, light could literally reach everyone in the house. The lower side of the U was sometimes occupied by the animals when it was required that they come inside for their well-being, warmth or safety.

Regardless of the location, it would not have been an ideal place to give birth, and certainly points to the humble circumstances of Jesus’ entry into the world. We are to note the irony that the Lord of the universe is born here. God could have chosen a fancy palace. Instead, he chose a humble and devout Jewish girl, living under Roman oppression, weary from travel, in a second-class setting, under the gaze of potential shame and scandal, and with the usual and unpleasant smells of animals.

Jesus arrived unwelcomed to our earthly home, to welcome us to his eternal one.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.

At this point the news starts to spread, and in the most fascinating of ways. While shepherds are sometimes referred to in a positive way (for example, God is called a Shepherd in the Old Testament, and David and Moses had both served for a time as shepherds), they were sometimes looked down upon, perhaps for two reasons.

First, they weren’t at home at night to guard the honour of their families. Second, they were sometimes considered trespassers for grazing flocks on other people’s property. But it might be too simplistic to say that this derogatory view was wide-spread, especially among the labouring classes.

But that it was specifically shepherds who received the announcement is surely a sign that Jesus’ birth is for all people, as the angel himself says in the next verse. His arrival is also to benefit commoners and people living in the shadows who navigating the difficulty of life and trying to make ends meet.

The presence of shepherds might also serve two other functions: (a) they connect the birth of Jesus in yet another way with king David who, as mentioned, was a shepherd and prominent and much-respected leader in Israel’s history; and (b) their presence may also be a fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 61:1 that good news would be preached to the poor; we can perhaps think of the shepherds as the ‘working poor.’ Note that in verse 10, the Greek verb that is used for the announcement about Jesus (evangelizo) is the same one used in the Greek version of Isaiah 61:1, thereby strengthening the possibility of this connection that the good news of Jesus’ arrival is a fulfilment of prophecy because it is announced to the poor. The preacher just happens to be an angel.

With respect to the shepherds, let me make one more point. Actually, let’s let the well-known Protestant theologian and reformer John Calvin make it: “If we desire to come to Christ, we must not be ashamed to follow those whom God chose, from the sheep dung, to bring down the pride of the world.”[7] He’s referring to the shepherds. It’s a poetic way of saying that we too should be truly humble as we ponder the arrival and significance of Jesus, and as we seek to walk in his way.

The shepherds were “keeping watch over their flocks at night.” They were on guard, actively watching against thieves and prey. This is serious and deadly business.

Let me share a word of informed speculation about the time of year and about what Jesus’ actual birthdate might have been. And no, it wasn’t December 25th. But before I share my guess, let me offer a word about why the celebration today occurs at the end of December.

The Romans had celebrations on December 25th to acknowledge that winter had turned and the days were getting longer. As the Christian movement expanded throughout the world, that day was chosen to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. If people already had holidays booked because of this Roman custom, why not piggy-back on that? Plus, according to researcher Gretchen Passantino, the date was chosen “partly to challenge the pagan celebration of the Roman god Saturnalia, which was characterized by social disorder and immorality.”[8]

Okay, back to Bethlehem. If we assume that shepherds weren’t likely to tend their flocks in December—it was just as unlikely in Judea then as it is in North America now—and if we do some speculating based on the proximity to his cousin John the Baptist’s birth based on when John’s father Zechariah was serving in the Jerusalem Temple, some venture an informed guess that Jesus was most likely born in the fall, probably September. But again, it’s hard to be sure.

9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

An angel is, quite literally, a messenger. More specifically, an angel is a messenger from God. Sometimes this messenger can appear to be human. Other times it can be more other-worldly. In this case, as is seen in the verses that follow, it is a supernatural being of an extraordinary nature.

The shepherds “were terrified” when they saw this angel. Literally, they “feared a great fear.” This is a Semitic idiom carried into the Greek language in the original text.

10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Here we come to the central proclamation. The angel says, “Do not be afraid.” Terror is often the reaction of those who experience a manifestation of God’s awesome glory. Hence the instruction “Do not be afraid”—they’re about to hear good news, not bad.

Let’s tarry a moment on that phrase “good news.” Historically, it is of tremendous significance that in the Roman Empire at this time there were good news announcements about certain people or events related to the empire. In his book What St Paul Really Said, Bible scholar N.T. Wright says that these good news proclamations often referred to the birth of a new ruler, or to a great military victory, or to the accession of a new ruler like the Roman Emperor. The arrival of a new ruler was supposed to bring a great benefit to his people and the start of a new reign, world, or period of history. One example is found an inscription from 9 B.C. about Augustus’ birthday where he was called a “god” and “saviour.”[9]

This is all surely a part of the background to the birth of Jesus who, in contrast, comes as the actual and true God-Man and Saviour. His birth is, in this way, politically subversive. There is more to this Jesus than meets the eye. He is the actual Ruler—not the Roman Emperor. Jesus’ peace is the true peace for which the world needs and longs.

Again, by way of background, it is helpful to mention the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) announced previously under Augustus. This was a supposed period of peace and stability in the empire. This stands in bleak contrast to the greater peace brought by God in and through Jesus. I think that the original hearers of this story would have seen these connections, and would have understood that Jesus was a new Ruler who had come directly from God, and who stood in contrast to the Roman Emperor and his pseudo peace.

Bede, the Church Father, says of this story: “by this word we may remember that the night of ancient blindness is past and the day of eternal salvation has arrived.”[10]

The birth of Jesus, the text says, is the source of joy. Further still, it is the source of great joy. This word for joy appears 59 times in the New Testament. Only five times is this same word “great” added to it for emphasis. A common strand in these five occurrences is that they centre around God’s dramatic and miraculous action in the birth, resurrection and ascension of Jesus—all of which confirm his divine identity and mission as Lord—and also around the news of others coming to have faith in him.

Jesus is given three titles in these verses: Saviour, Messiah and Lord. Let’s look at them one by one.

First, Saviour.

A Saviour is a rescuer. This title is often used for God himself who rescues his people from sin, wrath, death, hell, oppression, and from being separated from God and his love. He also saves us from lovelessness and lesser priorities, from apathy and even ourselves.

Second, Messiah.

This is a Hebrew word which means “anointed one.” In Greek, the word for “anointed one” is Christ. This is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah promised by the prophets and refers to God’s chosen king and representative on the earth. Puritan commentator Matthew Henry captures the anticipation of this Messiah beautifully: “Long-looked for is come at last.”

Again, some historical context is illuminating, this time from the thought-world of the Old Testament. The use of the phrase “good news” as it is used here by the angel is, I think, intended to bring to mind Isaiah 40:9: “You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”

This prophecy, which dates back to more than 700 years before Christ, looks forward to a day when God’s people will return from exile in Babylon, after having had their city and temple destroyed, along with many of their hopes and dreams. It also references God’s enthronement in Jerusalem. So it’s about the return, triumph and enthronement of God in Jerusalem, and about God’s people being restored and blessed in the process. So the announcement about Jesus as Messiah would have, I believe, brought many of these ideas to mind. The birth of Christ, we are learning, is the centre of world history, and the ultimate hope of every nation. Everything is coming to fulfilment now—in Jesus.

I should also note something else about the idea of being “anointed” since the title Messiah means “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, prophets were anointed (see Psalm 105:15), priests were anointed (see Exodus 29:7), and kings were anointed (see 1 Samuel 16:13). As the Messiah, Jesus is all three in one—prophet, priest and king—meaning that as a prophet he receives and speaks God’s words and teaches us; as priest he offers us peace, forgiveness and restoration with God through his self-sacrifice on the cross; and as king he reigns, rules and cares for us.

The third title is Lord.

Yes, Jesus is God come to us in human form. Many Jews at the time would have been familiar with the Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. God was called “Lord.” In Greek the word is Kyrios. This is a title given to Jesus. The word kyrios can, in some contexts, be translated as ‘master’ or ‘sir.’ But as the story unfolds, and based on the context and background we’ve already explored, it is clear that Jesus is being described as God come to us in human form.

The question is sometimes asked if Jesus thought of himself as divine. I won’t go into that full discussion here, but the short answer is Yes. If you’d like more information I encourage you to visit the footnotes of the text version of this podcast for a link to a piece I wrote called “Did Jesus Say He Was God?”[11]  There I explore two categories of biblical passages: (a) clear statements by Jesus himself about his divinity; and (b) those that describe Jesus doing things that only the God of Israel can do.

Also of historical significance is the fact that the Roman Emperor was often called Lord. Later, many Christians would be martyred because they refused to say “Caesar is Lord.” They would rather see their own blood flow then deny their greater allegiance to Jesus. Instead, they would say that “Jesus is Lord.” It was an early and well-known statement of faith (see, for example, Romans 10:9). As a result, Jesus’ arrival was seen by many as a political threat. In John 18:36 he said that his kingdom was “not of this world,” but the nuance was clearly lost on many people, including those who had wanted a different kind of Messiah—one who would take up the sword, lead an armed revolt, and overthrow the wretched Romans.

Verse 12 says, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” The “sign” to the shepherds is the child lying in the manger, and is meant to confirm in their minds that what they have heard is true. Think of how strange this would have been to the shepherds. After hearing an announcement from an angel, wouldn’t you expect something more grand? Perhaps fireworks over a palace or a week-long feast on well-decorated grounds outside a glowing temple? But no, they are to look for a simple child in a manger. That is The Lord.

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The “great company of the heavenly host” is a huge army of angels. “Host” is a word usually used in military contexts. It might seem strange, then, at least to some, that it is used here when speaking about the birth of a baby. What does battle have to do with Bethlehem?

My sense is that when modern people are uncomfortable with military language and war images when it comes to God, it may be because their perspective about what is going on is too limited. Perhaps we can think of it in this way: That in this newborn King, God is on the warpath against the forces of evil; he is undeterred and ultimately triumphant in his purposes to bring peace and reconciliation to his people, between people, and over all of his creation.

Today, we are putting ourselves at a gross disadvantage when we neglect or downplay the reality of spiritual warfare in the life of a believer specifically, and in the world generally. Speaking about the importance of putting on the armour of God, William Gurnall said: “We live in a world where our lives are not safe unless we are fully armed. There is no other way for us to reach heaven without traveling through the enemies’ territory.”[12] Christ our King is born, raising the battle cry against our foe, Satan, leading us through enemy territory, and winning victory for those who trust in him.

Verse 14 provides the content of the praise offered by this huge army of angels. They say, “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” Yes, all glory is to God. Everything that is happening in and through Jesus will bring God glory.

They add: “and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”Recall what was said previously about the Pax Romana and how the distinctive peace that Jesus brings is over and above anything that might happen in and through Rome. In this verse we also hear the echoes of the prophecy in Isaiah 9:6: “For to us a child is born… And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.

The shepherds went to Bethlehem. As previously mentioned, it was a small village so it would have been pretty easy to find them.

17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

The shepherds didn’t keep this event and information to themselves as some sort of personal, highly-individualized spiritual insight. No, they couldn’t contain themselves, like kids who have just seen their favourite celebrity and just neeeeed to tell their friends about it. They spread the word. Verse 18 tells us the response. People were amazed, astonished.

Mary, verse 19 says, “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” After having given birth and received a visit from some shepherds, she ponders all of these amazing events, and surely considers what the future might hold as Jesus’ earthly life begins.

20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

The shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God.” Presumably, the place to which they returned was to their fields and flocks. Hopefully none went missing! As they did so they were “glorifying and praising God.” When you have seen such things, how can you keep it to yourself? You can’t!

The scene at the manger had been “just as they had been told,” underlining the fact that God is always true to his word. In a world of broken promises, God’s promises remain unbroken. During this holy night, they now know that they too will benefit from the arrival of this Saviour, Messiah and Lord in ways beyond their wildest dreams.

Years ago there was an ad in the New York Times which said: “The meaning of Christmas is that love will triumph and that we will be able to put together a world of unity and peace.”[13] Did you notice it? It said that “we” can put a together a world of unity and peace. But no. That’s to miss the point. “We” keep messing up! The Saviour, Messiah and Lord is the author of our hope and salvation, not us. And that, my brothers and sisters, is very good news. God’s plan is always the best plan.

We end our close look at the text there. This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

I hope the soil of your soul has been enriched with this in-depth look at Luke 2:1-20. When we hear something so much—including the nativity story—we stop hearing it. Instead of paying more attention, we pay less. Hopefully this study has had the opposite effect.

Remember Hodder’s hymn?

Thy Word is like a deep, deep mine;
and jewels rich and rare
are hidden in its mighty depths
for every searcher there.*

I pray that all searchers will, like those first shepherds, discover that this Saviour, Messiah, and Lord is for them, and is the source of an eternal joy that is truly great.

Do not be afraid.

“Long-looked for is come at last.”


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[1] Edwin Hodder, “Thy Word Is Like A Garden, Lord” (1863). The hymn can be found at http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/t/h/y/thywilgl.htm

[2] Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 13.

[3] Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (New York: Penguin, 2016), 56.

[4] J.I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973), 58.

[5] Words by Charles Wesley (1707-1788).

[6] As quoted in: Mark Clark, The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 221.

[7] John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke: Volume I, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans, A.W. Morrison (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 74.

[8] I came across this quote several years ago, but have unfortunately lost the location of the exact reference.

[9] Tom Wright, What St Paul Really Said (Oxford, England: Lion, 1997). See particularly the discussion in chapter 3.

[10] Homilies on the Gospels 1.6.

[11] See the post “Did Jesus Say He Was God?” at: https://matthewruttan.com/2020/12/30/didjesussayhewasgod/

[12] William Gurnall, ed. James S. Bell Jr., The Christian in Complete Armour (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), entry for Dec. 14.

[13] As quoted in: Keller, Hidden Christmas, 7.

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