It’s that time again, the most wonderful time of the year!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you “Be of good cheer.”
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
And on it goes …
So what’s the most wonderful time of the year? Christmas, of course! Little has changed since Andy Williams first recorded this song in 1963. We love Christmas, because it’s a time to be with family and friends and to feel cozy and warm.
Lost in the Shuffle
And yet, while we love Christmas, sometimes Christ gets lost in the shuffle. Let’s face it, if there were no Christ, we’d still celebrate Christmas, and very little would change. I’m not telling you today to stop celebrating Christmas (well, I’d be tarred and feathered if I did!), but I want to talk today about the fact that Christmas is not only a time to receive the greatest gift of all, the Lord Jesus Christ, and his salvation, but for those of us who have received this gift, it’s also a call to worship and, most importantly, a call to witness (the two “W’s” of Christmas).
What Do the Gospels Say?
So let’s see what the Bible says about the birth of Jesus, and by the way, feel free to take from the following reflection to guide your family as you celebrate this Christmas this year. In Scripture, as you know, there are two stories of Jesus’ birth, one in Matthew 1–2 and the other in Luke 1–2. When you take a closer look at these stories, it’s actually surprising how little overlap there is between these two stories. And yet, they complement rather than contradict each other. Here we’ll focus on the Gospel of Luke—but first, by way of overview, let’s take a quick look at the way Matthew and Luke, respectively, tell their story:
Matthew’s Story covers the genealogy, the virgin birth of Jesus by Mary, the visit of the wise men, the escape to Egypt, Herod’s order to kill the babies in Bethlehem two years of age and under, and Jesus’s and his parents’ return to Nazareth.
Luke’s Story features the birth announcements and births of John the Baptist and Jesus to Elizabeth/Zechariah and Mary, the Bethlehem birth, the angels’ announcement to the shepherds, the dedication at the temple on the eighth day, and the return to Nazareth.
Interesting, isn’t it, how the two stories are rather different and yet complement each other so well? Agreements between Matthew and Luke in key details include that Jesus’s parents Mary and Joseph were betrothed but had not engaged in sexual intercourse; that Joseph is of line of David; that an angel announces the upcoming birth; that Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb by miraculous divine intervention through Holy Spirit; that an angel directs Jesus’s parents to call the child “Jesus”; that Jesus is the Savior of humankind; that his birth took place in Bethlehem; that he was born during the rule of Herod the Great; and that Jesus was raised in Nazareth.
Now let’s turn to Luke. Before we consider chapter 2, let me make four brief observations that’ll inform our reading of this passage:
Reading Luke’s Story of Christ’s Birth – 4 Observations
- There is not only one, but there are two miraculous conceptions (John the Baptist, Jesus): Elizabeth was past the age of childbearing, and yet conceived. John would be the one to come in the power of Elijah as the messenger envisaged in Malachi; then, Jesus the Messiah would appear.
- Mary: was a teenage Jewish girl who answered God’s call, a model of humble trust in God (See Tim Keller’s quote not necessarily related to this context: “It’s one thing to believe in God; it’s another to trust him”). Mary let God “mess up” her own plans and dreams. Are we open for him to do the same?
- The census: in God’s sovereignty, the Roman emperor Augustus decreed a census that meant Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, must go to Bethlehem. Luke’s message is that God controls history, including the mighty Roman empire.
- The weeklong journey (90–120 miles) from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea: Did Mary ride a donkey? We don’t know; the source for the possible donkey ride is the Protoevangelion of James 17; c. AD 150). On a personal note, extraneous to this reflection, I once managed to get lost in Bethlehem during a visit to the Holy Land. A lot has probably changed since Mary and Joseph’s visit, but it sure is a small, sleepy, village!
The Birth of Jesus Christ (Luke 2:1–7 ESV)
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when [or before]* 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 [legally pledged to be married], who was with child. 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.
*The Greek construction can be rendered either “when” or “before” Quirinius was governor. “Before” may be more consistent with what is currently known from extant historical sources.
The Shepherds and the Angels (Luke 2:8–21 ESV)
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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” [some MSS: peace, goodwill among men]
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
A Christmas Lesson (Q&A)
In light of our reading of Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth in chapter 2 here are some reflection questions.
What is the primary emotion expressed in the occasion of Jesus’ birth?
You may use different words for it, but in short, the answer is excitement, or joy! Everyone seems to be praising and glorifying God.
Who expresses this emotion?
The angels and the shepherds do! Earlier, in chapter 1, John the Baptist in his mother’s womb, and Elizabeth herself, were overjoyed.
Who got excited first? The angels! Isn’t it exciting to see angels—messengers of God who live in his presence in heaven—get so excited?
Why would angels be so excited? Jesus didn’t come to save them! But Jesus, in the parable of prodigal son, said that the angels in heaven rejoice over the salvation of sinners who repent.
Why are those characters feeling that way?
The angels and other characters in the Christmas story are excited because Jesus was born to bring salvation from sin and moral darkness. There’s always joy when a baby is born; but Jesus was a very special, unique baby: the virgin birth. There are several important doctrines that are in play at Jesus’ birth: the miraculous virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the full humanity and deity of Christ side by side, and others. But more about that (hopefully) in another blog.
Why would anyone not feel that way?
Herod, a rival king, was intensely jealous, to the point of being paranoid. It was said of him that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son (a word play in the original Greek). Herod tried to kill Jesus. Later, the Jewish authorities were jealous of him and his popularity and tried to do away with him as well.
What did those characters do as a result of how they felt?
They praised God, and told the good news to others.
What does the birth of Jesus have to do with life on mission?
So what are you excited about: Christmas or Jesus (or both)? This Christmas, let’s get excited about salvation in Jesus! If we’re excited, we’ll want to share the good news with others. Let’s go this Christmas and bear witness to Jesus, not out of fear or a sense of obligation, but out of genuine excitement and joy. There’s enough bad news in this world—let’s give people some truly good news, the gospel of salvation and forgiveness in the Lord Jesus Christ!