Something happened just over 2000 years ago. At the time, hardly anyone knew about it. But it would change the course of history, and touch the lives of millions. Later, people would argue and even fight over it, but for many all around the world it would bring hope and joy.
What took place was that an ordinary woman gave birth to a baby boy who was anything but ordinary, because there was no human father involved. God produced a Son and gave him the name Jesus.
Because of Jesus, nearly one third of the world’s population call themselves Christians. And people still like to keep Christmas, even if they do not go to church. It has become a season of eating and drinking. Lights and decorations go up inside and outside homes. We send cards and give gifts to each other, and children look forward to presents from Father Christmas. Nowadays, Christmas is more about having a good time than remembering the birth of the Son of God.
However, some people do still think about Jesus at Christmas – at special church services, or at school nativity plays. You may be surprised to learn that the true facts about Jesus’ birth have become confused over time. The picture painted in Christmas cards, carols and school plays is often wrong. The real events and their importance have become lost. If you read on, you will discover the true story of the birth of Jesus Christ, which contains an exciting message for all of us about a hopeful future for this world
BACK TO THE BIBLE
It all happened so long ago. How can we tell what really happened?
There’s only one way. Our oldest and most reliable source of information is the Bible. The Bible writers wrote down the actual events not many years after they took place. Everything added after that is a mixture of myth, guesswork and tradition. Like Chinese whispers, the original message has changed.
So, we’re going to peel off the layers that have been applied over the original masterpiece. We’re going back to what was written in the Bible.
Another reason for relying on the Bible record is that God speaks to us from every page. He is the editor-in-chief. He chose human writers centuries ago to write down His message.
We may find the Bible omits certain details that we’d really like to know. There’s a reason for this. It’s not a newspaper report. It wasn’t written so that filmmakers could make movies or artists paint paintings. By choosing what to record, God’s aim was to teach us about His great plan, which depends on His Son. So, He omitted irrelevant details surrounding Jesus’ birth. If we try to fill in the gaps, we risk missing the point. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happened, down the centuries. People wondered what might have happened. Then, what began as speculations became wrongly accepted as facts.
This booklet will stick to the details that are given us and work out what we’re supposed to learn.
* Luke 1:35 means Luke chapter 1 verse 35. Quotations are all from the English Standard Version (ESV), unless otherwise marked.
WHERE DO WE START?
This isn’t as obvious as it might seem. From the beginning of the world God planned that one day there would be one world ruler. And long before the birth of Jesus, He promised His people, the Jews, that someone would save them from their enemies – and from their sins. That “someone” would be His Son.
So, the story of Jesus doesn’t begin with his birth. His birth comes at the start of the New Testament, which is Part 2 of the Bible. But long before that, in Part 1, the Old Testament, God’s prophets spoke about him.
We’re going to begin in the New Testament. but from time to time we’ll need to refer to the Old Testament. You can’t understand the one without the other.
WHEN WAS JESUS BORN?
It may surprise you, but it’s impossible to be sure of the exact day or month or year of Jesus’ birth. Not even the Bible tells us.
In the reign of the Emperor Constantine, three hundred years after the time of Christ, the church decided that the nativity took place on December 25th . This may well have been because it coincided with an existing pagan feast. It has been the favoured date ever since, although one section of the Church still prefers January 6th. It is at this point that Christians began celebrating Jesus’ birth. That is how the festival of Christmas began.
The Bible account suggests that it’s unlikely to have happened in the coldest part of the year. The autumn is more probable. But we won’t go into this, because it doesn’t matter. If it were important, we’d have been told, so that we could celebrate his birthday on the right day.
WHAT HIS MOTHER WAS TOLD (LUKE 1:26-38)
In the first and third books of the New Testament we have two different accounts of the very early life of Jesus. Put the two side-by-side and you have the full picture.
The first thing that happened was that a young woman named Mary was given amazing news. An angel named Gabriel brought her a message from God. As if meeting an angel wasn’t startling enough, what followed was even more so. He said she had been chosen by God to bear a child, whom she should name “Jesus”. He would become a very important man, the Son of God.
This was a lot to take in. But Mary’s only question was: how could she conceive a child when she was still a virgin? The answer the angel gave was that her pregnancy would be a miracle. God would cause her to conceive by the use of His special power, His Holy Spirit. In that way the father of the child wouldn’t be Joseph but God. The angel said, “For with God nothing will be impossible”.
In this way, Mary learned that she would have a miracle baby and that God had big plans for him.
“THE THRONE OF HIS FATHER DAVID”
But the angel said a lot more than this. Look more closely at what he said Jesus would achieve. In verse 32 we read: “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David”. Who was David? What and where was his throne? What is meant by “the house of Jacob” in verse 33? We can’t understand any of this, unless we go back to the Old Testament of the Bible.
David was the young man who killed the giant Goliath using his shepherd’s sling. Later he became King of Israel, ruling from its capital Jerusalem. This was about 1,000 years before Jesus was born. If you look at Mary’s family tree that begins in Luke 3:23, you will see that Jesus was descended from him, through his mother Mary.
The promise that God would give him “the throne of his father David” means that Jesus will be King of Israel one day. That’s what it means when it says, “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever”. Jacob was the father of twelve sons who gave their names to the twelve tribes of Israel. So “the house of Jacob” is Jacob’s family, the nation of Israel.
“I WILL ESTABLISH HIS KINGDOM”
Now, the word “house” has two meanings. It can mean a family, as we’ve just seen. The Bible often uses the phrase “your father’s house” to mean someone’s family. But it can also be a building.
In fact, it was a building, a temple, which King David wanted to build for God, so that his people could worship God in Jerusalem.
God sent a prophet to thank David for wanting to do this for Him, but to tell him that it wasn’t God’s wish at this time. No doubt David was disappointed. But he received some good news. 2 Samuel 7:11 says: “The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house”. What did that mean?
The “house” that God would make for David would be a family. It would be a royal “house”, a line of his descendants who would reign over Israel. So, starting with Solomon, this line of kings sat “on David’s throne”, until the kingdom of Judah came to an end about 580 years before the time of Jesus.
You can see we need the Old Testament to understand what the angel Gabriel meant when he spoke to Mary.
But the prophecy didn’t end with Zedekiah, the last king in Jerusalem. The angel told Mary that Jesus would sit “on the throne of his father David forever”. Jesus is going to occupy the empty throne of David. He is going to come back to rule over the Kingdom of God from Jerusalem. All the other descendants of David died, and their throne passed to their sons. Gabriel confirmed what God had promised David. Jesus will never die. The throne of Jesus will be “established forever” (2 Samuel 7:13).
THE KINGDOM OF GOD
To understand the words spoken about Jesus – “I will establish his kingdom” – we need to sum up Bible teaching about the Kingdom of God.
The Bible gives us beautiful word pictures of the Kingdom of God (for example Isaiah 2:1-4; Daniel 2:44 and Psalm 72). With Jesus as world ruler, there will be no argument about who will succeed to his throne, because he is immortal and will rule forever. Poverty, famine and disease will disappear. So will all the terrible suffering that human beings inflict upon each other. Why? Because the nations of the world will see the benefits of Jesus’ laws. They’ll find that loving God and loving their neighbour really is the best way. And Jesus will have the power of God to make it happen.
This “Good news of the Kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1) was at the heart of Jesus’s message. The word Gospel means “good news”. Jesus taught his hearers how to live now, because those who try to please God are promised eternal life in God’s Kingdom at his return.
WHAT JOSEPH WAS TOLD (MATTHEW 1:18-25)
All we know about Joseph is that he was a carpenter who lived in Nazareth. It says that he was a “just [or righteous] man”. This means that he always tried to do what was right in God’s eyes.
One day he found out that Mary his fiancée was pregnant. This news worried him. Had Mary been unfaithful to him? What was the right thing to do? Should he stand by her?
In those days, a wronged fiancé was entitled by Jewish law to expose her in public and cancel their engagement. But Joseph decided it was best to avoid scandal and quietly break off their relationship.
As he was thinking this over, an angel came to his aid in a dream. He brought from God a message of comfort and good news. Mary hadn’t been unfaithful to him. God was the baby’s Father through the Holy Spirit. Joseph should carry on with their wedding plans.
But there was something else he would have to do. When the baby was born, he should be given the name JESUS. Mary had also been told this. Why was this important?
THE MEANING OF “JESUS”
Names in Bible times were chosen for their meaning. The name JESUS combines God’s own name “YAH” and the Hebrew word for “SAVES”. Gabriel said the baby was to be called Jesus because “he will save his people from their sins”. What did that mean?”
Today, “sin” is a word that’s gone out of fashion. Most people believe we can do what we want, as long as it doesn’t hurt other people. Of course, we’re all sickened by child abuse or murder. But the idea that we displease God many times a day by things that we think, say, or do has largely gone out of the window. But the Bible tells us that sin is any behaviour that falls short of the standards that God has laid down for us.
Does that matter? It certainly does. God hates sin, so it puts us in a bad relationship with Him. Sin also has a bad effect on us in other ways. It leads to most of the problems in the world. It’s also our death sentence, because the Bible says death is the result of our sinful nature. Sin and death are our enemies. It would be so much better, if we could be saved from them. We can’t do anything about it, but God can, and has. He has given us His Son, whose name tells us that “God saves”.
Jesus defeated every single temptation he faced. He never put a foot wrong. Because he was a human being, he died. But because of his conquest of sin he became the perfect sacrifice for the rest of us. Because Jesus didn’t sin, God is willing to forgive our sins, if we believe in Him. We have to throw ourselves on His mercy, and turn over a new leaf. Then He will forgive our sins and give us a hope of living forever when Jesus returns.
‘Jesus’ was a special name. It represents rescue from sin and death. The heart of the Gospel is summed up in his name!
As we read on, we find that God caused Matthew to add a note to draw our attention to something else in the Old Testament. You can find it in Isaiah 7:14. It’s a prophecy about a virgin giving birth to a baby boy. This foretold the birth of Jesus, 700 years before he was born. The angel said to Joseph, “They shall call his name Immanuel”. The part of the prophecy about the mother being a virgin we can easily understand. But Jesus was never called IMMANUEL, so what did the angel mean?
Read the words again and you will see that he didn’t tell Joseph to name Jesus “Immanuel”. Matthew himself explains what Isaiah meant. “Immanuel” means “God with us”. It wasn’t an actual name. It was a prophecy. The angel is saying “God will be with us” through His son.
Mary herself had been told by the angel who appeared to her, “The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). God’s promise, “I will be with you” is often found in the Bible. For example, we read that God was “with” faithful Old Testament people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. The statement means that He’s on the side of all those who want to be “saved from their sins”. God will be with us, if we believe in Jesus and commit our lives to God.
THE BIRTH OF JESUS
To read about Jesus’s actual birth, we return to Luke’s Gospel, this time to chapter 2.
While Mary was pregnant, the Roman Emperor ordered a census of his empire. In order to be registered, each head of a family had to visit his native village or city. Joseph and the now heavily pregnant Mary had to travel from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home city in the south.
Christmas cards often show them travelling at night following a star. However, there is no mention of this by Luke. The artists may be mixing this up with the visit of the wise men to Jesus (see later).
Bethlehem is where King David of Israel was born. Luke mentions David six times in chapters 1 and 2. Twice he describes Bethlehem as “the city of David”. Twice he tells us that Joseph was descended from David. There has to be a reason for stressing this royal connection.
When they reached Bethlehem, Mary was about to give birth. Christmas cards paint a cosy picture of where this took place. But again, these rely on the imagination of the artists. The reality is that Luke gives us very little information. All he does say is that when Jesus was born, Mary wrapped him “in cloths” and used a manger for his cradle.
We don’t know why “there was no room in the inn”. Probably Bethlehem was already full of other families who had come to be registered. Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the actual location. It’s only a legend that Jesus was born in a stable. One tradition says that he was born in a cave!
No family to help them, no maternity hospital, no press and no cameras. Luke is telling us that the Son of God, the future King of Israel, was born in very humble circumstances.
THE VISIT OF THE SHEPHERDS
That night, humble shepherds were guarding their flocks on the hills outside Bethlehem. An angel from God appeared to them in dazzling brightness. They were terrified. Joseph and Mary had been told not to be afraid, and this angel said the same. He said he had come to bring them good news! Their Messiah, the promised King who would save them, had just been born in nearby Bethlehem.
He was joined by many other angels. They all praised God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14). The angels were praising God for offering us a way to find peace with Him, sending us “a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord”.
When the shepherds found Mary and Joseph, they quickly told everyone what they had seen.
THE MEANING OF THE WORD “CHRIST”
What did the angel mean, when he called Jesus “Christ the Lord”? “Lord” generally means “master”. What about “Christ”? Matthew’s Gospel begins with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ…”Jesus’ family tree ends with the words “Jesus who is called Christ”. Matthew now begins his account of the life of Jesus with the words, “the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows…”
“Jesus Christ” may sound like a first name and a second name, like Roger Smith. In fact, “Christ” isn’t a name at all. It’s a title. It’s the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Messiah”, which means “anointed one”. The priests of Israel were anointed with oil in order to carry out their duties. Israel’s kings were also anointed with oil, and were called “the LORD’s anointed”. God has given to Jesus both roles – priest and king.
The coming of the Messiah was promised to the Jews in the Old Testament. They were told to expect a special “King of the Jews”. Mary’s son would be the “the anointed one”, the one who would inherit “the throne of his father David”, as we saw in Luke 2:32.
THE MEETING WITH SIMEON
The next event in the life of Jesus that we’re told of is also recorded by Luke in chapter 2. When Jesus was just over one month old, Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Law of Moses, given to him by God, included commandments that all Jews had to keep after the birth of a baby. The details are recorded in Leviticus 12. The new mother had to offer to God a lamb and a bird as sacrifices. If the parents were too poor to afford a lamb, the Law allowed them to bring two birds instead. Luke 2:24 says that Mary brought two birds, which shows hers was a poor family.
In the Temple area they met two remarkable people. The first was named Simeon. He was an old man who for a long time had been faithfully “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (verse 25). This is another way of describing the way that the Messiah would bring comfort to the Jewish nation.
God had revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes. God told him to go to the Temple, where he met Mary and Joseph. Imagine his feelings, as he held the baby Jesus in his arms! When he prayed, he thanked God that the saviour-king had come to Israel. Now he was ready to die. He had seen “God’s salvation” – a reference to the name of Jesus, which, as we have seen, means “God saves”.
Simeon showed how well he knew and understood the Old Testament. He quoted from Isaiah 49:6, which teaches us that God’s saving work would not stop at the Jews. Jesus would also be “a light for the nations” (Luke in his quotation uses the word “Gentiles”, which means non-Jews).
Joseph and Mary were astonished by what he said, but Simeon had not finished! He told Mary about the impact Jesus would have on people’s lives. Many in Israel would “fall”. In fact, most of Simeon’s nation would reject Jesus as their Messiah. He would be “spoken against” (NKJV) by them, rather than welcomed as the one whom God had sent to help them. “Yes”, he went on, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also”. Mary would be there when her son was put to death. When the soldier thrust his sword into her son’s side to make sure he was dead, she would feel the soldier was piercing her, too.
But Jesus was also “appointed for the …rising of many”. The suffering of Jesus would be worth it. Many will rise from the dead at the return of Jesus, because of their belief in him.
“… that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed”. Just as that sword reached deep into Jesus’ body, so his message would reveal the true thoughts and feelings of those who listened to his words. That process is still at work. Those who hear or read the Gospel message today are either for it or against it. The Apostle Paul says when Jesus comes again to the earth, he will “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5). There will be no hiding-place.
THE MEETING WITH ANNA
Mary and Joseph met another elderly faithful person in the Temple. Anna was a prophetess, chosen by God to pass on His messages. She prayed in the Temple, day and night. We can guess what she was praying for. When she met the little family, she gave thanks that God had answered her prayers. She spoke eagerly about Jesus to those who, like her, were waiting for “the redemption of Jerusalem”. Redemption has a similar meaning to being saved. They believed in a saviour and king who would save God’s people.
THE VISIT OF THE WISE MEN
Matthew now takes up the story. He records the visit of the men from the east. Matthew 2:1 reads as though it took place straight away after the birth of Jesus. Nevertheless, a careful reading of the passage shows that this visit took place some time after the birth.
According to tradition, the noble visitors were three kings. However, verse 1 only tells us they were “wise men” (sometimes referred to as “The Magi”). And it does not say there were three of them, only that they brought three kinds of presents (verse 11).
Verse 1 also tells us that they came “from the East”. From the map, that would be from the direction of Babylon and Persia. They may well have been successors to the class of advisors in Babylon that are mentioned in the Old Testament (see Esther 1:13, Daniel 2:2,12). These people claimed to be able to foretell the future and interpret dreams. They were also experts in astronomy. Whoever they were, these wise men saw “his star in the East”, something in the sky which told them that the Jewish Messiah had been born.
We’re usually told that they followed this star to Jerusalem. Matthew doesn’t say that. He says first they saw a new star, and then they went to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital, so that was where they would expect to find “he who has been born King of the Jews”. On their arrival they announced that they had come to worship the new king. Could someone please tell them where he was?
This came to the attention of Herod, whom the Romans had made ruler over the Jews. He knew nothing about any recent addition to his family! However, he may have heard about the promise of the Messiah. He summoned the Jewish religious leaders and asked them for their opinion. They said there was no question about it. The Old Testament prophet Micah had revealed centuries ago that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
Herod called the wise men back and advised them to go to Bethlehem. But he also asked exactly how long it was since they had seen the star in the East. He was then able to calculate that Jesus would by now be “a young child”, not a baby. He instructed them to report back to him, when they had found the Messiah, because, he said, he also wanted to worship him. In fact, he had something quite different in mind, as we shall see.
The wise men set off for Bethlehem. If they were wondering where they would find the young king, the problem was solved for them. They saw the heavenly sign again – their star sat right over the house where Joseph and Mary were staying.
They gave to Mary the presents they had
brought for Jesus. Not only gold but also precious spices – frankincense, and myrrh. More wealth than Mary had ever seen!
Afterwards, God warned them not to return to King Herod. They went home a different way, avoiding Jerusalem.
Herod was furious when he didn’t hear from the wise men again, and he set out to have his young rival killed. He ordered his soldiers to kill all the children in the Bethlehem area aged two years old or under. From what the wise men had told him, this would destroy the Messiah, who must be younger than two. But God had already warned Joseph to take his family into hiding in Egypt, because he knew what Herod was planning. In this way Jesus was saved from being murdered at an early age.
THE REACTIONS OF PEOPLE AT THE TIME
Let’s think again about the people we’ve been reading about – how did they find Jesus and what were their reactions to his birth?
The shepherds were told where to find him. They rushed to see him, told everyone about him and returned to their flocks, “glorifying and praising God”. Does hearing about Jesus Christ as saviour and king excite us, or does it leave us cold?
Simeon and Anna were both thrilled at the thought that the things in which they believed were coming to pass. Do we believe in Jesus? Do we believe in Jesus Christ? Are we looking forward to Jesus coming back to the earth and finishing his mission?
The wise men set off to look for Jesus. They expected to find him in Jerusalem, but they learned that his true birthplace had been revealed long ago. Have we been looking in the wrong place for the real Jesus? The traditional Christmas story is misleading. We, too, have been told where we should find out about Jesus. There’s only one place – in the pages of the Bible.
When the wise men saw Jesus, they fell on their knees and worshipped him. They gave him expensive presents. All Jesus Christ asks of us is our belief and our obedience. Is that what he gets from us?
King Herod’s reaction was to be “troubled”! All he could think about was the threat to his authority. There could only be one king and it was him! He couldn’t let any rival interfere with the power he enjoyed. Are we against finding out about the real Jesus because we might have to change our minds – and our lives?
The chief priests and scribes were the spiritual leaders of the Jews. They thought they knew all about the Messiah. However, when they heard that he had been born, they don’t seem to have been very interested. The wise men went in search of Jesus. But the people who should have been the most excited at the news didn’t bother to go and see him! They were indifferent.
WHAT ABOUT US?
Are we indifferent, too? Are we so preoccupied with home, work and pleasure that we’re missing out on the most vital thing in life? Will your reaction to the news about Jesus Christ in this booklet be, “I’ll look into it later – I’ve got too much on just now?” What can be more important than finding the Messiah?
If we’re hostile or indifferent now, how will we react when Jesus Christ comes back? By then the opportunity to act on God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life in His Kingdom will have passed. It will be too late. The door will be shut.
While we have the opportunity, let’s look further into the life and preaching of this amazing man, who still gives hope to the world two thousand years after his birth.
- Some of the traditions that have grown up around the birth of Jesus are not found in the Bible.
- The name Jesus means ‘God Saves’, because God sent him to take away our sins.
- Mary was told that her son would be a king on David’s throne, and he would rule forever.
- ‘Jesus Christ’ means ‘Jesus the Messiah’, the promised King.
- There has to be a second coming of Jesus to bring the Kingdom of God.
- The two roles of Jesus, Saviour and coming King, comprise the true gospel preached by Jesus and the apostles.
1 Encyclopaedia Britannica (www.britannica.com/story/why-is-christmas-in-december)
2 See the booklet ‘The Kingdom of God’
3 NKJV (New King James Version)