In the book, God with Us, John MacArthur gives two philosophies that are stealing Christmas. One danger is the tendency to secularize Christmas; to make it an excuse for parties and self-indulgence and not consider at all the significance. The other danger is the effort to mythologize Christmas by embellishing the simple Christmas story with legends of talking animals and confusing fantasy. If you were from a foreign land or from another planet, what message would you gather on the meaning of Christmas? Could you get the story straight, even from Christians?
We must remember that Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, Herod, and the Magi were real people. They were real people playing significant roles in the story of God becoming man. But truth has always been more surprising than fiction or fantasy. The truth behind the tinsel of Christmas is that the best gift was wrapped in an unexpected package. Behind the tinsel of Christmas is the simple truth – that amidst the noisy shoppers, past the glitter, beneath the candy canes and colored stockings, under the printed foil wrappings, shadowed by the jolly smile of Santa and even behind the spirit of giving – behind the tinsel – is the truth of a simple story of a child born in a straw-littered stable.
The truth is profound in its simplicity. Within it lies the miracle that all our hearts yearn. God chose to visit us in a form that we could understand. God revealed Himself in a human being. God revealed the secrets of heaven and accomplished the mission of salvation in an unexpected way. God visited us in an unexpected way (in a manger) and accomplished salvation in an unexpected way (on a cross). God came as a child. He humbly left His throne to die to be our Savior. This is the simple and profound truth behind the tinsel.
What if we could return to that first Christmas, to the time of the birth of Jesus? Would we be disappointed? We can piece a lot of the story together from Scripture and other historians. From the books of Matthew and Luke and other historians I would like to share the simple story of Christmas. You may be surprised that the truth could be more exciting and profound than the tinsel.
Listen to the truth behind the tinsel . . .
The labor pangs of pregnancy were at their final stages. The long awaited arrival was causing anxiety. It was the fullness of time – time itself was pregnant. God has prepared the whole of history like the stage of a cosmic theater production for His own physical birth. God chose the time He would be born on earth. He chose the proper time when history was ready. The language was common, travel was easy, peace ruled but hearts were begging for a Redeemer to save them from the hollowness of pagan religions. And so it was that God had set the stage to prepare for the curtain to open and for God Himself to make His entrance.
The Roman Empire had stretched its control to become one of the largest empires this world had ever seen. It had proudly announced that the entire known world was within its grasp. This powerful empire had little concern about a tiny finger of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the land of Palestine. The only concern was to make this land called Judea part of the Empire – to swallow it up into the power of Rome. Two of the most important steps to take Judea into the grip of the Emperor Caesar Augustus were these:
The first was that Caesar would heavily tax the people to press them in line with the rest of the Empire.
The second was to transfer the power of judicial execution (the power of life and death) from the Jews to the Roman Empire. To the world these steps seemed unfair or perhaps insignificant. But from the decrees of this godless emperor, God’s plan would be accomplished.
Because of those two decrees Christ would be born in prophesied city and would die in a prophesied way. Caesar had no way to knowing that his decrees would fulfill the 800-year-old prophecy that Bethlehem was the city where the Messiah would be born and crucifixion on a cross would be the manner in which this Messiah would die.
History would take a peculiar twist. Few would remember Caesar Augustus who was worshiped as a god in Rome. His name would forever be shadowed by a child to be born during his reign, in a rundown section of his more obscure providence behind an old inn among some cow flops and moldy hay.
So Caesar Augustus sent his decree from Rome to the distant land of Palestine which was governed by the self-acclaimed Herod the Great. Now this was a strange sort of man. He called himself a Jew, but he hated the Jews and the Jews hated him. He had an extravagant hobby of architecture and even had the great Jewish temple rebuilt in Jerusalem. This was to promote himself rather than the Jews, and obviously not God. He probably reinterpreted Caesar’s edict of taxation to make it sound like a patriotic duty instead of a foreign order. To return to one’s hometown and see relatives was probably Herod’s idea to make the order more attractive and more easily obeyed.
So it was that the roads were busily crowded with travelers returning to their hometown. A poor carpenter and his pregnant fiancée traveling from Nazareth now enter the story. It was a three-day journey to Jerusalem and then a two-hour walk to the obscure town of Bethlehem.
If you were Joseph, what might be on your mind?
Joseph had endured a deep inner struggle. He had just finished making the most difficult decision of his life. The sequence of events is unclear from Scripture as to whether Joseph heard that his fiancée was pregnant before or after her visit to her cousin, Elizabeth. The shock was the same – his fiancée, the woman he loved, was pregnant. He must have thought the story of a Holy Spirit causing conception was a bit too much!
Joseph was a righteous man and this whole situation was a very embarrassing dilemma. To marry her now would dishonor God. The ancient law in Deuteronomy prescribed that a woman pregnant outside of marriage should be put to death by stoning. Had they been living in the time of Moses, Mary would have been immediately stoned. But because of the laxness in the Jewish theocracy and the infiltration of Roman law, Joseph had two other options. He could make her an example in a public court. Thus, she would be shamed and have a destroyed reputation the rest of her life. The other choice was to quietly write a bill of divorce.
You see, every Jewish couple desiring marriage would be betrothed for a 12-month period to prove their fidelity. If any unfaithfulness or problems surfaced, these problems could be resolved before the marriage was consummated. Evidently Joseph had discovered Mary’s unfaithfulness but still deeply loved her. Joseph chose the more merciful way to sever the relationship – a quiet divorce.
And then an angel appeared to Joseph and gave him an unexpected and unheard-of command. This command would break tradition and probably cause both Mary and Joseph to be the brunt of mockery for the rest of their lives.
The angel said to take Mary as his wife because what was conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit. The angel even told him the child would be a boy, what the child’s name would be, and what this child would do with His life.
If you were Mary, what might be on your mind?
Mary had just returned from a three-month visit with her cousin, Elizabeth. Both Mary and Elizabeth had a common situation. Elizabeth was a barren old woman disgraced and humiliated all her life and suspected of some hidden sin because she could not have children. As you can imagine Mary was also the object of gossip. You see, both Mary and Elizabeth had something in common. Both were surrounded by the chatter of gossip and both were miraculously pregnant.
The writer, Doctor Luke, tells of their time together. It was a time of consoling each other, praising God and waiting for their husbands to understand that the Lord works in unconventional ways. To make matters more unbelievable, to the Jewish mind God did not work through women.
But God’s plan weaved four other surprising women into the genealogic listing of the Messiah:
Tamar – who dressed as a prostitute and conceived two sons (Perez & Zerah) from a shameful act of harlotry and incest.
Rahab – a Canaanite prostitute who helped Joshua win the battle of Jericho.
Ruth – A Moabite who became a Jew.
Bathsheba – the woman who David committed adultery with.
And now Elizabeth is pregnant with the one who will announce the coming of the Messiah. And Mary, a pregnant fiancée of a poor carpenter, is ready to give birth to the Son of God. God is saying; “Watch out, for I work in unexpected ways.”
But strangely enough, the prophet Isaiah spelled out how the Messiah would enter this world. “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and His name shall be called … Emmanuel.”
This was a clarification of a previous prophecy made outside of the Garden of Eden. God pronounced the curse on the serpent by saying; “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed.” The only time in Scripture where the seed of a woman is mentioned … hinting something special.
Perhaps Mary and Joseph were mulling and pondering these events as they traveled the road to Bethlehem. We do not know how they traveled. Tradition says she was on a borrowed donkey as he walked. It would be common for a poor family to borrow a donkey, especially for a woman almost in her labor. But the irony of this is that a few hours before birth Jesus would humbly enter the city of Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey and that a few days before death Jesus would enter triumphantly into Jerusalem on another borrowed donkey.
So this couple with hearts filled with wonder passed through Jerusalem and then south to Bethlehem.
Yes, it was the decree by the proud emperor in Rome reinterpreted by the Jew-hating Herod. Possibly Joseph and Mary desired to escape the gossiping tongues of the people of Nazareth. But more importantly, it was to fulfill an obscure prophecy made eight centuries earlier in the book of Micah foretelling that this was the place the Messiah would be born.
Without knowing it, all these people were running an errand for God – the most important errand for the Lord of Heaven.
Bethlehem means “house of bread.” and Bethlehem was, indeed, as insignificant as a dry loaf of bread. But this unexpected town was the place God chose to accomplish His will.
Ironically, 1500 years later this small village would run an insane asylum at the Monastery of St. Mary’s. For a small admission price people would actually go to heckle the inmates. In time, the name St. Mary of Bethlehem would be shortened to Bethlehem and pronounced….bedlam. And in time the word “bedlam” came to refer to the noise and confusion that symbolized the insane asylum. The name that once explained the peaceful village where Jesus was born now described the anxiety, stress and mindless scurrying around people feel at Christmastime.
It might have been bedlam in Bethlehem that night since many travelers crowded the streets. As Joseph and Mary entered Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, why did they seek an inn? There is a possibility that Joseph had rented out his house or that his family had died or could not be found in all the bedlam. But most likely Mary was in her final stage of labor and they needed a place quickly.
An inn during that time was most undesirable – a low-class tavern and flop house. It could have just been a house opened by its owner to take advantage of all the census travelers. The Bible makes no mention of an innkeeper, but apparently Joseph asked someone. Perhaps the owner thought a woman giving birth was not good for inn business. In any case, the couple was rejected. There was no room for the presence of God. It should not strike us strange because even today most people do not have room for God in their preoccupied lives.
They found refuge in a nearby stable – a rough wooden lean-to or small cave – just basic protection from the elements, fit for animals. No hot water, no heat, no light, no pain killers, no doctors, no midwife. While most in the city were enjoying the reunion of families, Joseph sat in a corral which reeked of manure. As most were rejoicing, Mary was suffering in a hay-filled stable giving birth to a baby.
Then in the darkness of the stable a new sound was heard. For the first time deity expressed sounds directly through a human body. The sound of crying is the natural sound from a baby that is fully human. It was the sound of a baby that God chose to speak through. And those hands that had fashioned the universe were now the tiny helpless hands of a newborn baby. God packed in a baby. God in a manger. They laid Him in swaddling clothes. Those strips of cloth were probably one of the few comforts this child had as the couple laid there on coarse straw.
If you were a mother you may wonder why Mary stopped holding her newborn. In a dark, smelly stable one might have held the newborn. But the reason why she put Him in a feeding trough was to be a sign – a clue – for a group of people soon to enter the scene.
You see, that same night there were shepherds watching their sheep. The sheep near town were raised for only one purpose – for sacrifices. Little did they know that a baby born that night would be The Sacrificial Lamb that would take away the sins of the world. This would fulfill their heart’s desire and also ruin their occupation. You see, raising sacrificial sheep was the most worthy activity shepherds could do. Otherwise shepherds were seen as despised, untrustworthy, incompetent, and personified filth. To buy wool, milk or anything from them was forbidden because it was assumed it was stolen. They were unclean people. The rabbis constantly struggled with the dilemma of the despicable nature of shepherds and why God was called “My Shepherd” in Psalm 23.
But it was to these outcasts, in the context of religious snobbery and class prejudice that God again broke his 400-year silence. God spoke to Zechariah to tell him of the son he would have; God spoke to Mary, to Joseph and now to shepherds. And fitting it was to have shepherds first hear of the birth of the Savior. For the Prophet Micah foretold that out of Bethlehem would come a ruler who would shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord and in the majesty of the name of the Lord.
And so it was that an angel appeared to these shepherds and told them the Savior had just been born. The angel was joined by a heavenly army of angels who praised God by saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”
There is no mention of angels singing here. In fact only twice in the Word do angels sing. They sang at creation before Adam sinned, mentioned in the book of Job and they will sing when history culminates, mentioned in the book of Revelation.
The angel gave the shepherds only one clue to find the Christ “He would be wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.” The shepherds were so excited they left their flock and hurried off to find this treasure.
Could it be that these filthy people disgusted the city people? Or could they have just blended in the crowd? But they entered the city seeking their Savior with little thought of what they left behind and what people thought. How they found the infant with the clues they received is difficult to imagine. But they found Mary and Joseph and the baby. They found what they sought because they sought with their whole heart.
The shepherds left and spread the word around the city of what they had found. They praised God, excited about what they had seen. But Mary treasured these things in her heart. That little town of Bethlehem was probably so busy in their activities that even the voices of the shepherds were given no mind to.
Eight days later, when it was time to circumcise the child, He was properly named. It was then that He was given the name that Joseph had been told to give Him. The name was a testimony to God’s salvation. He was called Joshua, Jehoshua (Jehovah will save) … Jesus. This child would save the people from their sins and would restore fellowship with God.
Joseph and Mary were devoted Jews who followed all the legal customs of the Law. Perhaps it was because they had a high priest, Zechariah, and a godly woman like Elizabeth in the family. So about a month later they traveled to Jerusalem for Mary to be purified after giving birth and to offer a sacrifice as a consecration of their first-born.
It was then that two elderly people spotted Him. Years before, Simeon was told that he would not die till he had seen the Messiah, and time was running out. When the moment came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He saw in this child the fulfillment of the promised salvation … and pain. The old widow, Anna, also recognized this Messiah wrapped in a baby.
While most did not realize what was happening, two devout people recognized and worshiped God even when He was packaged as a baby. And there were others yet to come.
Mary and Joseph and the God-child journeyed back to Bethlehem and found lodging in a house. Little did they know that an incredible incident would happen in Jerusalem.
About two years later a parade of Magi entered the city of Jerusalem. These men were masters of science, religious disciples, and astrology. Their teachings became known as “the law of the Medes and the Persians.” They were the mathematicians, philosophers, doctors and legal authorities of their culture. From their name, Magi, comes the term magic (representing the wizardry, sorcery and soothsaying they performed) and the term magistrate (representing the authority and power they had). These Magi, government officers from Persia, had the duty to choose and elect the King of the realm. These Magi were not kings but, rather, King-makers. They entered the city on Persian steeds or Arabian horses with the force of all the imaginable oriental pomp and adequate cavalry escort.
Herod’s small army was probably still on duty with the census so this was no time for an invasion. And worse, Herod was on his deathbed. He had long feared that the oriental forces were planning a revolt against the Empire. All of Jerusalem was probably alarmed by their presence. They came to see Herod to ask him a question. “Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” Being wise astrologers and knowledgeable in Jewish Scripture they followed the star. No one knows what this star was, but it was most likely a manifestation of the Shekinah glory of God directing these Magi just as Moses was led by a pillar of fire to the Promised Land.
Herod’s paranoia was legendary. He had killed two of his ten wives, three of his sons, and a brother for fear they desired to steal the throne from him. Herod was insulted that another would seek to take his throne. In agitation he asked all the Jewish priests where this Messiah King was supposed to be born. It took a crazed pagan King to get these so-called holy priests to search the Scriptures. They discovered that Bethlehem was the place. He told the Magi to check things out so he could worship this king. Even the priests could see through this lie.
These Magi entered Bethlehem and found the house where the child was. They gave Him gifts – strange gifts for a child and strange for a king.
Gold – Something valuable, showing great honor.
Frankincense – Incense used in medicine, healing, and to
preserve the potency of other perfumes.
Myrrh – A liquid used for embalming purposes.
The gold for the valued life, the frankincense for the healing He would bring, the myrrh would be given again later mixed with vinegar when He would die on a cross and also to use as glue in the burying process.
Amazingly this King was recognized and worshiped by foreign astrologers and rejected by His own. When the Magi did not return to Herod, he was angered. He sent an edict to slaughter all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or younger. Fortunately Joseph had a dream that warned them to flee to Egypt which would yet fulfill another prophecy made hundreds of years earlier.
The streets were filled with tears and wailing as children were slaughtered to please the desperate, paranoid Herod. Little did Herod know that he again fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah when he spoke of the Babylonians who captured the people of Jerusalem and marched them past Rachel’s tomb in the area called Ramah. There was great sorrow in each incident. Rachael died giving birth to Benjamin, but her death was not without purpose – Israel would rise again. There was hope even during this time of sorrow.
These slaughtered children in Bethlehem were the first casualties of a cosmic war that would focus around one person – the person of Jesus Christ. It would be 30 years later that Herod’s son would meet this Christ face to face. But again God’s purpose would be accomplished when Jesus would die and rise again to become the Savior.
After Herod the Great died, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth. Nazareth was a crude, small town which had the reputation that nothing good could come from it. The Messiah was raised here to further place Him under the scorn of His own people and thus fulfill the prophecy that said He was despised by His own.
So behind the tinsel of Christmas is the truth of…..
A peasant carpenter father
A woman pregnant out of wedlock
A moldy shelter as a birthing room
A motley group of despised shepherds
An army of pagan astrologers
A fugitive family running from a crazed King
A child raised in the slums of Nazareth
But God chose to enter history as a fragile human child who later, in the prime of life, would suffer and die for the sins of the world. It all started in a manger, a surprise package – the love of God wrapped in a baby named Jesus. Matthew says, “You shall call Him Immanuel which means God with us.”
So you see, the truth behind the tinsel is not the presents under a brightly lit tree, but God’s presence in a dim-lit stable. The truth behind the tinsel is that the secret of Christmas is not giving but receiving the gift of salvation.
Next Time It Will Be Different
The First Time Jesus Came:
He came veiled in the form of a child.
A star marked His arrival.
Wise men bought Him gifts.
There was no room for Him.
Openly a few attended His arrival.
He came as a baby.
The Next Time Jesus Comes:
He will be recognized by all.
Heaven will be lit by His glory.
He will bring rewards for His own.
The world won’t be able to contain His glory.
Every eye shall see Him.
He will come as sovereign King and Lord of all.