Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 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. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)
Jesus is likely between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. We know this for several reasons. First, we read that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Jesus has already been born. Matthew does not record the actual birth but rather tells us what happened after Jesus’ birth. These wise men would have traveled about 900 miles, which according to Ezra 7:9 was a journey of about 5 months. We also read that Mary and Joseph are no longer in a stable, but in a house (v.11), and then we are told that Herod orders every child, aged 2 and under, to be killed (v.16). Herod believed Jesus could be near two years old.
But who are these “wise men”? We know the wise men from the east were astrologers/scientists from the region of Babylon who at the time were well known for their scientific advancements in being able to read the stars, interpret dreams, and practice sorcery. For this reason, “Magi” (NASB, NIV) would be the better term and not “wise men” since the underlying Greek word is magos. The phrase “wise men” comes from older translations like the King James Version because in the year 1611 scholars were not sure what or who magi were. We also don’t know how many Magi there were. Traditionally, the scene is always depicted with three, but that is because three gifts were offered. The story never mentions how many magi traveled to Jerusalem.
Why then were these pagan sorcerers following this star and why were they looking for the king of the Jews? During the Babylonian captivity large numbers of Jews were exported to Babylon some 500 years before the birth of Christ. After the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews were allowed to return to the land of Israel, many of them stayed in Babylon. These well-read Magi would have been familiar with the many stories that circulated throughout the entire region and the biblical prophecies about a Jewish Messiah who would come from the line of David, from the tribe of Judah, and was to be born king of the Jews. The prophecies they almost certainly are referring to are Numbers 24:17 and 2 Samuel 7:12-16.
But why travel so far to worship this king if they aren’t devout Jewish believers? Why travel to Jerusalem? In biblical times it was not uncommon for Magi, nobility, and aristocrats to travel great distances to pay homage to the birth of a king in an effort to get in the king’s good graces should he grow up to be a powerful ruler. And in their minds, it would have made sense that a ruler would be born in Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel.
Hence, the Magi come before Jesus and kneel before him and worship him. They are paying homage to the one they believe will be the next political ruler of Israel, the descendant of David, the king of the Jews. This is apparent from the gifts they bring. All very costly gifts. Gold, of course, makes sense, a gift befitting a king. Frankincense was an expensive incense used in religious worship but was also used by the wealthy to fragrance their homes. Myrrh was an expensive liquid perfume used to fragrance one’s clothing or furniture, or to the dip burial cloths in to diminish the stench of decaying bodies. But what is interesting about this scene is that the Gentiles are the first to recognize what the Jews failed to see—Jesus is the king of the Jews prophesied about in the Old Testament, and as such is deserving of worship. The Magi worship Jesus, the newborn king, and offer him royal gifts.
Today is not a day primarily about getting, but about giving--about giving Christ the worship, praise, honor, and obedience he deserves. Today is about celebrating and exalting the birth of the King of kings and Lord of lords, about celebrating the day light dawned, the day salvation stepped into our world, the day God’s righteous arm of deliverance reached out to humanity. Christmas is about Christ.
“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!’” (Luke 2:8-14)
God breaks into time, space, and history in the birth of Jesus Christ, and we see angels announcing this momentous occasion by appearing to shepherds watching their flocks throughout the night. It’s interesting that God chooses to make this announcement to shepherds, not to kings or princes, not to the religious leaders, not even to middle class citizens, but to the lowest social class among Jews. Shepherds were very much looked down upon. They were not trusted. They were viewed as thieves and liars. In New Testament times their testimony was not admissible in a court of law because they were thought to be unreliable. Yet, the angel first appears to shepherds. This is one of the paradoxes of God. The King of kings and Lord of lords often reveals himself and chooses to use the lowest of men to do his bidding. If you were going to share some internationally important news, would you not share that information with the heads of state, major news networks, the most powerful people in the world? Not God. He chooses to announce the birth of the Messiah to shepherds.
Announcing the birth of the Messiah to shepherds does two things. First, it shows that the greatest gift to humanity has been given to the lowest of men. In Luke 5:31 Jesus will say, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” God did not come for the rich and powerful; he came for those who recognize their need for a savior. Second, revealing this news to shepherds shows that God does not need the rich and powerful to accomplish his will. This announcement is first made to lowly shepherds and within one-hundred years it will spread throughout the Mediterranean world. By the end of the 4th century, Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire and spreads across Europe. And it all starts with shepherds in a field watching their sheep by night.
The angel then says, "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.” The angel announces that Jesus is the Christ (Greek for Messiah, which means “anointed one”). Jesus is the Anointed One, the long-awaited Messiah, the son of David, prophesied about one-thousand years earlier who would establish a kingdom forever. And this promise has been fulfilled this night in the town of Bethlehem and these shepherds are the first to be given the news. They probably thought to themselves ‘why us?’ Why is this being revealed to us, shepherds, the one group of people no one is ever going to believe? God wanted to make clear that no one is beyond the love and grace of God. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you are the lowest of the low. This gift is for you. This gift is for all people. This gift is for all the world.
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. 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 2:1-7)
Here we are given the story of Jesus’ birth. There are several items which are interesting about the details Luke records surrounding this event. First, we are told that Joseph was “from the town of Nazareth.” Nazareth was a rock quarrying town about fifteen miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee. It was a city of low economic standing. Certainly not a vacation destination. Remember that the entire northern part of Israel was once a separate Israeli kingdom ruled by illegitimate rulers from about 930 BC to its fall in the 8th century BC. Those living in the northern kingdom of Israel engaged in false worship as the Temple, the legitimate kings of Israel, and the legitimate priests resided in Jerusalem in the south. It is for this reason when Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael says to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (Jn. 1:45-46). The idea that the long-awaited Messiah would come from a place like Nazareth was simply hard to believe.
What is of further interest is that Joseph, the father of Jesus of Nazareth, is from “the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” Thus, Joseph is born and raised in despised Nazareth, but his family and lineage is from the city of David. He has royal blood in him. This was to show that Jesus was the Messiah for all Israel—north and south. The north could embrace him because Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth, and the south could embrace him because Joseph is from the line of David and Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
The third interesting point about Jesus’ birth is that he was born in a stable and lain in a manger, an animal feeding trough. Here is the son of David, the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would be called Immanuel (God with us), Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (Isa. 7:14; 9:6), the Creator and Sustainer of the universe (Heb 1:3), the King of kings and Lord of lords. He could have chosen to be born in a palace in the most wonderful city on earth, but instead he chooses to be born in a stable. Why? Had he been born to the rich and powerful, the elite would have claimed him as their own and prevented the poor from approaching. The poor would have thought the Messiah to be beyond their reach. But Jesus was born from the lowest of families, a couple from Nazareth, in the lowest of places, a stable and lain in a manger, because he was born for the lowest of men. Jesus was born as a gift not just to the rich and powerful, but for the lowest of low, a gift for all humanity—Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, black and white, men and women, adults and children. The gift of Jesus Christ is given to all who believe.
Now the birth of Jesus 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 Jesus, 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). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matt. 1:18-25)
As we read this story regarding the birth of Christ that we are all so familiar with, we often fail to realize the seriousness of the situation. In first-century Israel, betrothal was a serious matter. Marriages were pre-arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. This being the case, the parents of the bride would have chosen a man to marry their daughter who came from a family with a good reputation, a man who himself had a good reputation in the community, someone faithful to the Torah. Likewise, the parents of the groom would have chosen a wife for their son who came from an upstanding family and whom herself would have been an upstanding and virtuous woman. Furthermore, a betrothal arrangement entailed the partial payment of the bride-price to Mary’s parents. A betrothed person can only nullify the betrothal if they discover some serious sin in the other person, which would impugn both the reputation of the other person and their family. But worst of all is what might happen to Joseph or Mary, depending on his decision. Joseph is a righteous man who wants to honor God’s law and does not want to shame his parents, but to proceed with the marriage would be to condone Mary’s perceived infidelity. However, he also knows that according to Old Testament Law, Mary could be put to death for adultery (Deut 22:22). In the end, because of the dream, “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took [Mary as] his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.”
What is so significant about this passage is that twice we are told that that which is conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit (vv.18, 20). Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus is not the product of human genetics, human procreation. In the miracle of Christ’s conception in the virgin Mary’s womb, the divine nature of God was forever united to a human nature. Matthew also makes it a point to tell us that Jesus would fulfill the meaning of the name given to the Messiah in Isaiah 7:14, Immanuel--God with us. Matthew wants his readers to understand that Jesus is Immanuel because Jesus is God. This is important because to deny the virgin birth is to deny the deity of Christ. To deny the deity of Christ is to deny his salvific work on the cross. So also, to deny the full humanity of Christ is to deny the salvific work of Christ on the cross. If Jesus is not fully God and fully human, then we are all still in our sins and are without hope in the world. This is how and why Christ is able to “save his people from their sins.” Advent reminds us of this glorious truth!
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever."
This is such an important and rich passage. Mary’s response is often called Mary’s Magnificat, meaning an utterance of praise. There is so much in this passage that could be commented on, but there are two things in particular which are certainly worth noting.
First, Mary begins by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary immediately knew that the child she was carrying inside was to be the salvation from God, the savior of the world. Not only would Jesus provide salvation for all humanity but would provide salvation for Mary herself. Mary recognized that even she was in need of salvation, of deliverance from sin.
The second important point from Mary’s Magnificat is that God’s “mercy is for those who fear him.” Salvation and eternal life are not for everyone automatically, but for those who tremble before the holiness of God, who are willing to acknowledge their sinfulness, acknowledge their need for a Savior, that Christ is that Savior, and then are willing to bow the knee to the lordship of Christ and say, “You’re the Lord and I’ll follow you the rest of my life and live in obedience to your commands.” For those willing to do that, for those who come to Christ in humble repentance, he exalts “those of humble estate” and fills “the hungry with good things.”
Jesus himself will later say, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn. 6:35). Only in Christ, only as we come to Christ by faith and embrace him as our God and Savior, will we find fullness of joy, eternal contentment, and unending satisfaction. This is the meaning of Christmas! This is what we celebrate during the Advent season.
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