There is much tradition about the birth of Christ, but how much of it is Biblical? In an attempt to dispel some of those myths this morning we are going to look at, "The Where, When and Why of Christ's birth." So let's start with the "where" of His birth. Where was Christ born? Micah prophesied that Christ would be born in Bethlehem:
"But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity." Micah 5:2 NASB
But not just Bethlehem, but Bethlehem Ephrathah. Why Ephrathah? Because there were two Bethlehems. One Bethlehem was in Galilee and the other one was in Judea. Just so there was no confusion, this prophecy dealt with the birth of this One who was going to be born in Bethlehem of Judea, a tiny little town south of Jerusalem. It was no big deal, other than the fact that King David was born there.
This One who is to be born in Bethlehem is eternal. The only person that is eternal is God. Yeshua the Christ is eternal God. So Yeshua, the Son of David, is born in Bethlehem the city of David just as Micah prophesied:
While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7 NASB
We've grown up hearing the account that the "inn" in Bethlehem was full, with no "room" available, so Joseph and Mary ended up in a stable, with Yeshua born and laid in a manger there. This image has been used to promote the typical Christmas nativity scene for generations. Yet a careful analysis of the Biblical text gives us quite a different story!
The Greek word translated "inn" here is kataluma. It means: "a place of rest, usually a guest room." In fact, the same writer, Luke, uses this very word later where it clearly refers to a guest room and not an inn:
"And you shall say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, "Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?"' Luke 22:11 NASB
Same author, same Greek word, but totally different translation? This word is only used one other time in the New Testament and that is in Mark:
and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher says, "Where is My guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?"' Mark 14:14 NASB
In Mark it is also translated as "guest room," so why translate it "inn" in the story of Christ's birth?
What is interesting is that when Luke does speak of an Inn, he uses a different word in the parable of the Good Samaritan:
and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. Luke 10:34 NASB
Yeshua mentions that the injured man in the story was taken to an inn-and here Luke uses the Greek word pandokheion, the first part of this word means: "all." The second part, as a verb, means: "to receive." The pandocheion is the place that receives all, namely a commercial inn. This common Greek term for an inn was so widely known across the Middle East that over the centuries it was absorbed as a Greek loan word into Armenian, Coptic, Arabic, and Turkish with the same meaning—a commercial inn.
If Luke expected his readers to think Joseph was turned away from an "inn," he would have used the word pandocheion, which clearly meant a commercial inn. But in Luke 2:7 it is a katalyma that has no room.
Young's Literal Translation uses the term "guest-chamber" instead of an inn:
and she brought forth her son—the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber. Luke 2:7 YLT
"No room in the inn" has taken on the meaning of: "the inn had a number of rooms and they all were occupied." The "no vacancy sign" was already "switched on" when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. But the Greek word "room" does not refer to "a room in an inn" but rather to "space"; it is the Greek word "topos" as in: "There is no space on my desk for my computer." What Luke is telling us is that there was not enough space for them in the guest room.
The linguistic evidence shows that Luke used the term kataluma to mean not an inn, but the guest roomhe definite article is used: "the" guest room of a particular house.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, after pointing out that the word kataluma is used elsewhere in the Gospels for the guest chamber of a private home, comments:
"Was the 'inn' at Bethlehem, where Joseph and Mary sought a night's lodging, an upper guest room in a private home or some kind of public place for travelers? The question cannot be answered with certainty. It is thought by some that it may have been a guest chamber provided by the community. We know that visitors to the annual feasts in Jerusalem were entertained in the guest rooms of private homes" (1982, Vol. 2, "Inn," p. 826).
I think that by understanding the culture the "question can be answered with certainty." Another factor that powerfully argues against this term meaning an inn is that these places were not appropriate for giving birth to a child. Inns at that time were far from anything like typical motels or hotels we might think of today. Generally speaking, inns had a bad reputation. The poor conditions of public inns, together with the Semitic spirit of hospitality, led the Jews and the early Christians to recommend the keeping of an open house for the benefit of strangers.
Besides this, for commercial reasons, inns were usually found along the major roads. Yet Bethlehem was a small town in the upper mountains of Judea, and no major Roman road is known to have passed through it. Since it seems to have been an insignificant village at the time, it's doubtful that an inn even existed there then.
This gives us reason to realize that what Luke really wrote is that there was no room for them in the guest chamber. Certainly, due to the Roman census, being taken at the time and the huge number of people traveling to their birthplaces, available space in the guest quarters was scarce.
So the question then becomes: Does that mean Joseph and Mary aimed to stay in someone's home, but since the guest room was full, were turned out into the night to a stable? When Mary was in labor? That might seem worse than being turned away from an inn. Both scenarios seem downright inhospitable, which is far out of line from the way things were at that time.
In Christ's day, hospitality to visitors among the Jews was essential, based on Biblical example and law. Hospitality was a huge deal in this culture. The Jews had a list of six things to commend a man in the life to come. Does anybody know what was the first thing on that list? It was hospitality! We don't usually think of hospitality as one of the top ten commands, but the Jews saw it as number one. Where did the Jew get the idea that hospitality was so important? They got this idea from the Bible, Leviticus 19:33-34. Denial of hospitality was shown throughout Scripture to be an outrage. Hospitality toward visitors is still important throughout the Middle East.
Since Bethlehem was Joseph's ancestral home, he probably had relatives there. And being a descendant of King David, whose hometown this was, he would have been highly respected upon his arrival. Think of a descendant of George Washington coming to his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia after a long lapse of time. The townspeople would've shown him respect.
Kenneth Bailey, a Middle Eastern and New Testament scholar explains:
"[My] thirty-year experience with villagers in the Middle East is that the intensity of honor shown to the passing guest is still very much in force, especially when it is a returning son of the village who is seeking shelter. We have observed cases where a complete village has turned out in a great celebration to greet a young man who has suddenly arrived unannounced in the village, which his grandfather had left many years before" ("The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7," Bible and Spade, Fall 2007, p. 103).
It should also be pointed out that childbirth was a major event at that time. In a small village like Bethlehem, many neighboring women would have come to help in the birth. Bailey states: "In the case of a birth, the men will sit apart with the neighbors, but the room will be full of women assisting the midwife. A private home would have bedding, facilities for heating water, and all that is required for any peasant birth" (p. 102).
What this all means is that it would have been unthinkable and an unimaginable insult and affront to societal decency for Joseph, a returning village son, and his laboring wife to need to seek shelter in an inn to have a baby of Davidic descent—and then, even worse, to be sent out to have the birth in a stable. This simply cannot be what happened. Nor can it be that they were sent out into the night from a private home. So what actually happened? Regrettably, the birth of Christ is later overlaid with so much tradition and legend about Christmas that it's hard to let the Biblical text speak for itself.
The common assumption is that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem and, being hastened by her labor pains, rushed to an inn only to find it full with no vacancies, so they ended up in a stable where she gave birth. However, a careful reading of the text shows us they had already been in Bethlehem for some days when she went into labor. In Luke 2:4 we are told that Mary and Joseph "went up" to Bethlehem. The verse assumes their arrival. Then in verse six we are told:
While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. Luke 2:6 NASB
This text affirms a time lapse between the arrival in Bethlehem and the birth of Yeshua.
They must have already been lodging somewhere in Bethlehem when her birth pangs began. They had found a house in Bethlehem to stay in probably that of Joseph's relatives.
Why do we think Yeshua was born in a stable? The text doesn't say that:
And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:7 NASB
How did we come up with a stable? It says He was "laid in a manger" and everyone knows that mangers are in stables, right? Wrong! Mangers were often found within first-century homes!
A typical Judean house of that day consisted of an area near the door, often with a dirt floor, where the family's animals were kept at night—so they wouldn't be stolen or preyed upon, and so their body heat could help warm the home on cool nights. The family lived and slept in a raised part of the same room set back from the door. There was also usually a guest room either upstairs on a second floor or adjoining the family common room on the lower floor. Typically, the lower area near the door had a manger for food and/or water for the animals.
It was more often the wealthy who had stables for their animals apart from the house. Thus, a more realistic view of what occurred with Christ's birth according to the customs of the time is that the manger was in a house and not in a stable.
This cultural information gives new understanding to the story of Yeshua's birth. Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem. They find shelter with a family whose separate guest room is full (or too small), and are accommodated among the family in acceptable village style. The birth takes place there on the raised terrace of the family home, and the baby is laid in a manger.
The Palestinian reader of Luke's account would have instinctively thought, "Manger, oh, they are in the main family room. Why not the guest room?" The author instinctively replies, "Because there was no place for them in the guest room." The reader concludes, "Ah, I see, the family room is more appropriate anyway."
So now that we know "where" Christ was born, go home and throw out all your nativity scenes, they are all wrong.
Now let's look at the "when" of Christ's birth. If you have been listening to me for any length of time you know that I believe, that Christmas is not when Christ was born.
We learn from Luke's Gospel that shepherds received the announcement of the birth of the Savior from an angel:
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:8-11 NASB
Notice here that Luke says, the "Shepherds staying out in the fields"—the Greek word here for "fields" is agrauleo, this is the only time it is used in the New Testament. Fields were small plots of land, and they were right next to the desert. In the desert there are the shepherds—they didn't want shepherds in the fields. The fields were the size of this room, and that is all they had to feed their family. The moment the harvest is gone, the shepherds move in. The sheep then turn the stubble into dirt. So, if the Shepherds were in the fields at the time of Yeshua's birth, it had to be after the time of the harvest and before planting. Harvest ends about July 1, spring planting begins the moment the first rains happen, about November 1. So Yeshua's birth could not have been between November 1 and July 1, which rules out December 25. But we can narrow it down much more by examining a text in Revelation:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. Revelation 12:1-2 NASB
Notice that John says, "a great sign appeared in heaven." It is important to recognize the relationship of all this to the astronomical symbolism in the text. The word John uses for sign was the term used in the ancient world to describe the constellations of the Zodiac. John's model for this vision of the Church is the constellation of Virgo, which does have a "crown" of twelve stars (Virgo, the second largest constellation and one of the earliest to be distinguished, lies on the zodiac east of Leo). All of the twelve stars are visible ones that could have been seen by observers. It seem likely that the twelve stars also represent the twelve signs of the Zodiac, from ancient times regarded as symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel; in Joseph's famous dream his father, mother, and the twelve tribes were symbolized by the sun, the moon, and twelve stars of constellations (Gen. 37:9).
In his book, The Birth of Christ Recalculated, Ernest Martin says, "In the period of Christ's birth, the Sun entered the head-position of the Woman about August 13, and exited from her feet about October 2. But John saw the scene when the sun "clothes" or "adorns" the Woman. This surely indicates that the position of the Sun in the vision was located somewhere mid-bodied of the Woman—between the neck and knees. "The only time in the year that the Sun could be in position to "clothe" this celestial Woman (to be mid-bodied) is when it was located about 150 and 170 degrees along the ecliptic. This clothing of the Woman by the Sun occurs for a 20 day period each year. This 20 degree spread could indicate the general time when Christ was born. In 3 B.C., the Sun would have entered this celestial region about August 27 and exited from it about September 15. If John, in the book of Revelation, is associating the birth of Christ with the period when the Sun is mid-bodied to the Woman, then Christ would have had to be born within that 20 day period. From the point of view of the Magi (who were astronomers), this would have been the only logical sign under which the Jewish Messiah might be born—especially if He were to be born of a virgin. Even today, astrologers recognize that the sign of Virgo is the one which has reference to a messianic world ruler to be born of a virgin.
The key to narrowing the date down is the Moon. John said it was located "under her feet." Since the feet of Virgo, the Virgin, represent the last 7 degrees of the constellation (in the time of Christ this would have been between about 180 and 187 degrees along the ecliptic), the Moon has to be positioned somewhere under that 7-degree arc. But the Moon also has to be in that exact location when the Sun is mid-bodied to Virgo. In the year 3 B.C., these two factors came to precise agreement for less than two hours, as observed from Palestine, on September 11. This is the only day in the whole year that this could have taken place. Now I'm not an astronomer, but if Martin is right, then it seems quite clear that Christ was born on September 11, in the year 3B.C.
What about December 25? Martin states, "Jupiter, recognized by Jews and Gentiles alike as the "Planet of the Messiah," was located in Virgo's womb and standing still, directly over Bethlehem, on December 25, 2 B.C., when the Child was a little over a year old. Matthew states that the holy family was settled in a house by the time the Magi visited:
When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:10-11 NASB
Herod ordered the slaughter of the infants "from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Magi," indicating that the child was no longer a newborn. So when the Magi showed up to worship Yeshua, it was December 25, 2BC. So today is the day that the Magi showed up with their gifts to worship the King Yeshua.
Okay, so now we know the "where and when" so let's look at the why? This is the important one. Why was Christ born?
Now the birth of Yeshua the Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 "And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Yeshua, for it is He who will save His people from their sins." 22 Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 23 "BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD, AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL," which translated means, "GOD WITH US." Matthew 1:18-23 NASB
This has got to be the greatest miracle, the most fantastic truth recorded in the pages of Scripture, Yahweh became a man. The Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie, stare, wiggle, and make noises; needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the incarnation; God becoming a man.
Why did God become a man? The answer is found in verse 21 of our text:
"And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Yeshua, for it is He who will save His people from their sins." Matthew 1:21 NASB
The Bible says Yeshua the Christ came into the world to "save His people from their sins." That's the reason for His coming. Yeshua means: "Yahweh's Salvation, or Salvation from Yahweh." The text says, "He came to save His people". Is this restricted to only Israelites? No, but it is restricted to those who have faith in Christ. Speaking of the Abrahamic Covenant, Paul writes:
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as referring to many, but rather to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ. Galatians 3:16 NASB
Paul is saying that the primary recipients of the Abrahamic Covenant were Abraham and Christ. This, of course, would include all who are in Christ—believers. This promise is not realized in the ethnic Jews, but in Jew and Gentile Christians.
In the birth of Yeshua God invaded human history in the form of a man. This Yeshua lived a sinless life, and then died a substitutionary death at calvary. On that cross, Yeshua took upon Himself our sin and received the judgment of God that we deserved as sinners. So when we ask.. Why was Christ Born? He was born to DIE!
"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." Mark 10:45 NASB
Ransom is the Greek word lutron, which was a word used to denote the buying back of a war captive, as well as many other concepts. In the LXX lutron was used of the price a man paid to redeem his life. It was a payment made to obtain release and freedom.
The ransom price is His life. This is why the Bible says again and again that Christ died to save us. "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). We were "justified by His blood" (Romans 5:9). "We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son" (Romans 5:10). "He bore our sins in His body on the cross" (1 Peter 2:24). "Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust" (1 Peter 3:18).
We must understand that this act of giving His life as a ransom was intentional. It says He came to do it. Christ did not come to earth for other reasons, and then get caught up in a plot that resulted in His death. He came to die. Because He was an innocent infinite sufferer, He satisfied fully and completely the righteous demands of a holy God, and God was propitiated:
being justified as a gift by His g race through the redemption which is in Christ Yeshua; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; Romans 3:24-25 NASB
We are declared righteous through redemption on the basis of propitiation. To understand propitiation is to understand the Gospel, and without it, you have no Gospel. The Greek word used here is hilasterion, which means: "the removal of wrath by the offering of a sacrifice." It is the turning of God's wrath away from the sinner by a sacrifice made to satisfy God.
There is no sacrifice we can offer and nothing we can do to turn away God's wrath. But God Himself has done what we never could. "Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation…" It is God Himself providing the propitiation in His own Son. It is God contriving a way whereby His own wrath upon sin has its full vent, and yet that sinners might be saved. The very God whom we have offended has provided the way whereby the offense has been dealt with. His anger, His wrath against the sinner, has been satisfied; He is appeased.
Christ is our propitiation. That is, out of love for the glory of God, He absorbs the wrath of God that was rightfully ours, so that it might be plain that when we are "justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption of Christ Jesus", God will be manifestly just, righteous, in counting as righteous those who trust in Yeshua.
If you ever for a moment question God's love, then think about propitiation! See God doing what we could not do by satisfying His own justice through the bloody death of His Son at the cross.
So the when and where of Christ's birth are not that significant but the why is all important. Yeshua the Christ in the incarnation was born into this world in order to die for sinners. Christ's death was substitutionary, He died to bear our sin and give us His righteousness. Yeshua paid it all, all He asks of us is that we trust in Him. Today may we, like the wise men did two thousand years ago, worship Him.