The Birth of Jesus—Part 3
By Peter Amsterdam
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Some months after Mary had returned from her visit with Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph embarked on a trip to Bethlehem. We are told that the reason for this trip was that Caesar Augustus had ordered a census, and therefore Joseph was required to travel to Bethlehem, his ancestral home, as he was of the house and lineage of King David.
Luke describes how Joseph went from Nazareth in the province of Galilee to Bethlehem, a village in Judea six miles from Jerusalem, to be registered, and Mary accompanied him. While they were abiding in Bethlehem, 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.”1
In the fields around Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching their sheep. “And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with 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.’”2
This is the third time an angel had appeared to announce what God was doing in bringing Jesus into the world. The first was to Zechariah in the Temple, the next to Mary, and now to the shepherds. In this case, the glory of the Lord—God’s radiance in the form of a brilliant light—shone around the shepherds, and like the other times an angel appeared, there was the initial element of fear and the instruction to not fear.
The angel brings good news of great joy that will be for all the people, echoing the promise given to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”3 The angel tells the shepherds that the child has been born in Bethlehem, the city of David—thus linking the child to King David—and stating that He is the Messiah, which is the meaning of the name Christ.4
The message the angel gave echoed the words of Isaiah, which foretold the birth of this child and who and what He would be. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”5
We are then told that “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!’”6
The sign given to the shepherds was that they would “find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”7 When they found the child, they told everyone what had happened, and all who heard about it “wondered and were astonished.” And Mary pondered these things in her heart.8
Mary and Joseph, faithful to what the angel had commanded, named their newborn Jesus, “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”9According to the Jewish customs of their day, Joseph and Mary had their son circumcised eight days after His birth, and after a further 33 days, they made an offering of purification for Mary at the Temple in accordance with the laws of Moses.10 From these actions, we can see that Mary and Joseph were pious Jews who followed God’s commands and who would teach Jesus the ways of faith.
While in the Temple, Joseph and Mary met Simeon, who we are told was righteous and devout, “waiting for the consolation of Israel, and … it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. … When the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God.”11
Simeon’s prayer is the third hymn of praise in the introductory section of Luke’s Gospel. Simeon states that “my eyes have seen your salvation, that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”12 His statement affirms that God’s salvation is for all peoples, all of humanity. His reference to Jesus as light echoes what Zechariah prophesied in his earlier hymn, “whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”13 Joseph and Mary marveled, or were astonished, at the words Simeon spoke about their Son.14
While Joseph and Mary are still in the Temple, they also have an encounter with an 84-year-old prophetess named Anna. While her exact words aren’t recorded in Luke’s Gospel, Luke tells us that both a man and a woman prophesy over Jesus.15 As is seen throughout Luke’s Gospel and in his book of Acts, he often includes women as key players in the telling of Jesus’ story and the story of the early church.
Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth ends here in the Temple, while Matthew describes other aspects of Jesus’ birth not recounted in Luke, including the visit of the Magi: “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.’”16
It’s not specifically known where the wise men were from, but where they came from isn’t as important as the fact that they came from outside of Israel. Matthew, like Luke, expresses that God is doing a new thing by highlighting the fact that at Jesus’ birth, Gentiles are attracted by the light of God’s Son.17
While the Gentile Magi had come to pay homage to the newborn “King of the Jews,” Matthew points out that the present Jewish king and the chief priests and scribes were completely unaware that He had been born. Herod was, for obvious reasons, troubled when he heard that the wise men had come seeking a new king. This happened not long before Herod’s death, when he was experiencing dissent among his sons as to who should be the next king.
Upon hearing the news, Herod gathered the chief priests and scribes to inquire of them where the Messiah would be born. He then secretly summoned the wise men and asked when they had first seen the sign of the star. Herod then told the Magi to go and find the child and inform him of the exact location so that he could go and worship the new king as well.
When the wise men came to Bethlehem, they found the house where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were staying. “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.”18 We’re never told how many Magi were there, though tradition holds that there were three, based on the three gifts listed—frankincense, gold, and myrrh.
The wise men, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, departed to their own country by another way.19 Joseph is also visited by an angel in a dream and told to “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”20 Joseph and his family left by night and made their way to Egypt, where they remained until the death of Herod—most likely using the gifts of the Magi to help finance their trip and their living expenses for the time they were there.
Upon Herod’s death, Joseph was once again visited by an angel in a dream and given instructions—this time to move his family back to Israel, which he did. Returning and finding out that Archelaus was reigning in Judea, he was once again warned in a dream not to go there, so he went to Nazareth and raised his family there.
As we come to the end of the story of Jesus’ birth as told by Luke and Matthew, we can see the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Messiah to redeem humanity beginning to unfold. Since His promise was to be fulfilled within the world, God chose to enter the time and physicality of the world, as revealed in the birth narratives. God sent His Son into the care of two faithful believers, protected Him against those who sought to kill Him, fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah, and set the stage for His promised salvation and restoration.
God entering the world and living among His creation for the purpose of reconciling humanity to Himself through His death and resurrection is the most significant event in human history. The Gospels tell us how Jesus’ life, from birth to death and beyond, fulfill God’s promises and show His great love for humanity by making it possible for us to become His children.
Originally published December 2014. Adapted and republished December 2021.
Read by John Laurence.
1 Luke 2:6–7.
2 Luke 2:9–12.
3 Genesis 12:3.
4 John 1:41.
5 Isaiah 9:6–7.
6 Luke 2:13–14.
7 Luke 2:12.
8 Luke 2:18–19.
9 Luke 2:21.
10 Leviticus 12:2–6.
11 Luke 2:25–28.
12 Luke 2:30–32.
13 Luke 1:78–79.
14 Luke 2:33.
15 Luke 2:36–38.
16 Matthew 2:1–2.
17 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 459.
18 Matthew 2:11.
19 Matthew 2:12.
20 Matthew 2:13.