I have thought much, this last few weeks during the run-up to Christmas, of some of our perceptions attaching to the place and circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
A lot of what we think seems to have come from the statement of Paul at Philippians 2:7 which says, “…but he humbled Himself, taking the form of a bond servant, and coming in the likeness of men.” From this we get ideas about Jesus, the circumstances of His life, and the details of His birth, that pervade the whole Christmas story. We get the wrong impression that Jesus was born in undesirable, impoverished conditions.
Several years ago, I heard a very interesting viewpoint put forward by Pastor Robert H Shuller that while the innkeeper in Bethlehem has had bad press because he failed to find a lodging for Joseph and Mary, the stable they finally found to lodge in was probably a blessing in disguise. Pastor Shuller pointed out that with a large number of people on the move to register in their own cities for the first Roman census, towns and inns would have been packed with all manner of people, making a crowded inn probably not the best place for the Son of God to be born.
That REALLY spoke to me.
So I would like to take the reasoning a step further. When you look at the preparations for Jesus’ birth, His Heavenly Father went to great trouble to set the stage:
1) The birth of Jesus’ forerunner and cousin, John the Baptist, was special in itself, because his parents were elderly and his mother barren. God sent the angel Gabriel to announce the birth to the father (a priest of the temple). God gave Zacharias a clear sign as proof, and also oversaw the naming of the boy. (Luke 1)
2) We also know that angels appeared to both Mary and Joseph concerning the birth of Jesus. Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that she would have the baby, and an unnamed angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to quiet his concerns about Mary’s pregnancy. (Luke 1, Matthew 1)
3) The birth of Jesus was announced to the Magi, powerfully enough that they undertook a long journey from the east to bring Him gifts. We are not told how they were told this, but it can only have been by some form of supernatural revelation. (Matthew 2:1-2)
4) Jesus’ birth was announced by an angel and the heavenly host appearing to shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem. And before we write the shepherds off totally, let us remember that for many people in Israel, their wealth lay in their herds and so protecting their livestock was a high priority. Think of David.
In other words, Jesus’ birth was announced both to certain wise and wealthy men who were prepared to honor Him (as the wealthy of His own country were not), and to men from the lower classes whom He came to save – men from the very occupation that He was to use as an illustration of His ministry in calling Himself ‘The Good Shepherd’. (Luke 2:8-17)
Are we to assume then in the midst of all this preparation that God somehow made a mistake in designating the place where Jesus was to be born and ended up with an undesirable result?
That doesn’t make sense.
Let’s look at a few other places where God made supernatural provision for Jesus:
5) Because Herod had become aware of Jesus’ birth from the Magi, and was plotting to kill him, God took the following steps:
- The Magi were warned in a dream not to return via Herod (who had asked for directions so he could find the child), so they went back another way. (Matthew 2:7-8, 12)
- An angel warned Joseph in a dream that Herod was looking to kill the child, and instructed him to take Mary and Jesus and flee with them to Egypt. This he did, and remained there until Herod died – at which time Joseph was advised by an angel in a dream that it was safe to return. (Matthew 2:13-14, 19-21)
6) Towards the end of his life, when Jesus came back to Jerusalem for the last time, His need for a mount to carry Him into the city was met by the supplying of a donkey. Clearly, there must have been a divine forewarning given to the owner of the donkey, so he was prepared to let it be taken and used by people who just turned up on his doorstep. (Matthew 21:1-7)
7) Later, when Jesus needed a place to hold the Last Passover supper with His disciples, His need was met in a similar way. (Matthew 26:1-7, Luke 22:8-13) Obviously, there are other examples.
So what does all this add up to? I believe first and foremost we must stop demeaning the place and surroundings of Jesus’ birth. Yes, there is simplicity and a message in it, but not the message we have been taking.
I’ve already made Pastor Shuller’s point that a room at the inn was unsuitable. By comparison, the stable was a place of peace where God’s holiness and glory could shine out around this most special of births. What a moment that must have been for The Father! The animals that surrounded Jesus in His first hours were God’s creation – creatures that He loves. They were and still are the innocent ones, with more understanding than we give them credit for. And did I read in a recent publication where a man of God called them ‘dirty’? Hmmm….
Remember, it was an innocent animal that had to be killed to provide covering for Adam and Eve after they sinned, and through all the history of Israel up to the time of Jesus’ death, it was animals that had to die as sacrifices for the sins of the people.
Now Jesus, the Lamb of God, had come to take that burden upon Himself.