You can probably guess from my title that I don’t think that the traditional version of Christ’s birth is accurate. There is much tradition about the birth of Christ, but not much of it is Biblical. In an attempt to dispel some of those myths this morning we are going to look at what the teaches in its original text. So, let's start with the "where" of His birth. Where was Christ born? Micah prophesied that Christ would be born in Bethlehem:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:2 ESV
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.
"Whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days" as Yahweh’s prophet Micah’s declares that though Yeshua came from Bethlehem, He did not begin there. The terms convey the strongest assertion of infinite duration of which the Hebrew language is capable. 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. Luke tells us:
And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7 ESV
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 tell the master of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ Luke 22:11 ESV
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 master of the house, 'The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ Mark 14:14 ESV
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:
He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. Luke 10:34 ESV
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 room, the 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:
"When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV
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:
And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. Luke 2:6 ESV
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 wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:7 ESV
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 the Biblical version of Christ’s birth, go home and throw out all your nativity scenes, they are all wrong.
Not only does tradition have the circumstances of Christ’s birth wrong they also have the date wrong. 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. How do we know that December 25 was not Christ’s birthday? We learn from Luke's Gospel that shepherds received the announcement of the birth of the Savior from an angel:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:8-11 ESV
Notice here that Luke says, "there were shepherds out in the field" 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:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. Revelation 12:1-2 ESV
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. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:10-11 ESV
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 Christmas is the day that the Magi showed up with their gifts to worship the King Yeshua.
Back to September 11, and Christ’s birth. I have said in the past that Christ was born on the Feast of Tabernacles. I said, "I believe that Yeshua the Christ, the Living water, was born into this world during the Feast of Tabernacles." I was wrong! He was actually born on the Feast of Trumpets. Which was 15 days earlier. And what I am going to share with you now trumps the arguments I used to prove a birth on Tabernacles.
We just saw from Revelation 12:1-2 that Christ was born on September 11, 3 BC. Well in the year 3 BC the 1st of Tishri was on September 11th. Tishri 1 is the first day of the first Jewish month. The date was also called Yom Teruah: The Day of Trumpets; the Feast of Trumpets. The Feast of Trumpets was to take place on the first day of the seventh month:
"On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work. It is a day for you to blow the trumpets, Numbers 29:1 ESV
The close proximity of the positions of the sun and the moon as described in Revelation indicate a new moon time frame, which is exactly the situation which exists on the first day of a Jewish lunar month, as on Tishri 1, the Feast of Trumpets.
From this we can see that Yeshua’s birth was not on the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles occurred in the middle of lunar month; therefore, there can be no new moon, as required by Revelation 12:1-6.
When we really think about it, it should be obvious that Yeshua could not have been born during any one of the three Pilgrim Feasts: Passover, Pentecost, or Tabernacles. These were times when all Jewish men in Israel were required by the Law of God to be in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 16:6, 11, 16). But Luke tells us that during Yeshua’s birth "all went to be registered, each to his own town":
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. Luke 2:1-6 ESV
Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, not to Jerusalem at the time of His birth! This rules out Tabernacles as a date for His birth. Joseph and Mary traveled specifically to Bethlehem for a census. The Romans would not have had a census in Israel on one of the pilgrim feasts. This would have been highly impractical, as the Romans wanted full compliance with the census. Avoiding these three pilgrim feasts would have been of primary consideration by the Romans in order to increase compliance by the Jews.
Here is an interesting side note: ancient Jewish tradition held that the resurrection of the dead would occur on the Feasts of Trumpets. Reflecting this tradition, Jewish gravestones were often engraved with a SHOFAR. God's last trump and the resurrection of the righteous are intricately connected in the New Testament:
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 ESV
Most of us recognize this event as the resurrection, but few of us identify it with the Feast of Trumpets. So, both the birth of Yeshua (His First Coming) and His Second Coming (the Resurrection) were on the Feast of Trumpets. Two bookends in the life and redemptive ministry of Yeshua, both occurring at the appointed times on this most significant date in the Jewish calendar year!
So, that is the biblical version of the birth of Christ. He wasn’t born in a stable and he wasn’t born on December 25. He was born on the feast of Trumpets, September 11, 3 BC. I think this is important because it is what the Bible teaches but the most important thing about the birth of Christ is why he was born.
Now the birth of Yeshua the Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). Matthew 1:18-23 ESV
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:
She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people from their sins." Matthew 1:21 ESV
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 made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings," referring to many, but referring to one, "And to your offspring," who is Christ. Galatians 3:16 ESV
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 came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:45 ESV
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:
and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Yeshua, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. Romans 3:24-25 ESV
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 put forward 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 Yeshua", 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.
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.