By all accounts, the birth of Jesus was an extraordinary, dramatic event. It involved miracles, there were angels, divine providence, all the makings of a fantastic story. So why is it Luke's description of the nativity seems so light on the details?
Alistair Begg answers that question today. We're in Luke chapter two. It is really fairly striking, at least from where I stand, that despite all the hoopla that surrounds Christmas, both in terms of the things we do and the people we invite and the crowds that come, within very few days from Christmas's celebration being completed, most of the crowds are gone. They're all gone apart from a lingering few, one or two who are intrigued that stay on for a week or two, and some who stay on for good, caught up in the time. And while we're grateful for the lingering few, we're concerned about the scattered throng.
At least I am. And my concern is largely this, that while we think in terms of Christmas as a great opportunity for people to come to faith, Christmas also is a unique time for men and women to affirm themselves in their unbelief, for them to be reinforced in the confusion which grips them. So that coming out of a year in which they've paid largely little attention to the issues of the Bible or to Jesus at all, because of the passage of time and because of the events of the calendar, they find themselves swept in amongst the worshiping crowd. Many of them have very little clue what's going on. They're not sure. They can't tell the difference between a Christmas carol and a folk song.
And before ever they have time to work it out, it's the first of January, and they'll have to wait for another twelve months to get back and consider the subject all over again. And in part, we contribute to that by surrounding our events in a form of sentimentalism and by trying at the same time to doctor up Christmas so as to make it just a little more jazzy for the people and help them over the bitter pill of having to read the Christmas story itself. And so I think you're a little off on that. I may well be, but I thought I'd mention it in passing.
I'm concerned that absent the commercialism and the sentimentalism which surrounds the twenty-fifth, we might have the opportunity to actually think for a moment about these matters. And I'd like this morning to move fairly directly to the heart of the matter, and I want to draw your attention to three aspects. Well, then, to this issue of the birth in the first seven verses. The details in the first three verses concerning the census and Quirinius, etc., are simply Luke's way of explaining why it was that despite the fact that Mary belonged to Nazareth, this baby was being born in Bethlehem, to make it clear as to why there was a transition from Galilee to Judea. And the fact is that God, as he orchestrates all the events of human history, was ordering the events of time so as to ensure that that which he had said through his prophets of old, that it would be out of Bethlehem that one would come who would be the ruler of his people Israel, he is now bringing this to fulfillment. It's quite possible that Mary, being pious, devout, knowing the Old Testament Scriptures, must have wondered to herself after the announcement had been made to her concerning the fact that the child that she was carrying was none other than the Son of God, the Messiah, she may well have said to herself, I'm not sure just how this is going to work. Because if I understand my Bible properly, I'm not supposed to be in Nazareth when this baby is born. I'm supposed to be in Bethlehem. And then one day, Joseph came home from work, and he said, Well, we'll be going up to Bethlehem. Oh, she said, Why is that? Well, he said, The word is out.
It'll be coming to us officially in the next few days. But it's out around the town that there's a new census being taken. And since I'm of the line of David, and my house and family roots are up there, that's where we'll be heading. And whether she said anything or smiled simply and quietly to herself, she knew, Here we go. And the stage was being set for the birth.
Now, look at the way that Luke describes it. He says in quite straightforward terms, While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born. Notice, While they were there.
I'll come back to this in a moment in terms of the timing. You'll notice that they had actually been up there for some time, it would appear. And then she said to Joseph, at some point in the day, I think I'm having those—what do you call them?
Branson-Hicks things? I'm having those contractions. That's it. I knew it ended in an A-T-I-O-N, but anyway. But she would have said to him, Here we go. And he would have said, Fine, I guess the time has come.
And that's just straightforward. That's what happens to everybody when their time comes. But of course, the notion of the coming time ought to trigger, at least in our thoughts, a far more significant consideration of the passage of time. Because the Bible tells us that it was when the fullness of time had come that Jesus Christ was brought forth, that the incarnation took place. And the reference there to the fullness of time is a reminder of the fact that God, from the very conception of things, has been ordering the events in the unfolding plan of redemption. And the prophets have spoken of one who will be both a suffering servant and a great and victorious king. And the people have wondered who this is and when will he come. The darkness of the intertestamental period has been endured for some hundreds of years now, and the wanderings and the wanderings of men and women have reached a point where it is almost pregnant in anticipation of an answer coming. The forerunner, namely John the Baptist, of whom we've already read, he has now been born, and so he has already been put in place so that he can step out on the stage of world history and declare, Here comes the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sin of the world.
And then the time came. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given, and God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. I find verses 6 and 7 particularly interesting, insofar as, when you consider that Luke's Gospel has twenty-four chapters, it is well in excess of a thousand verses. Here, this most crucial event in the whole of human history is summarized in two verses, and with staggering simplicity. Look at the phraseology. She gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger. Now, think for a moment about that in light of the way in which, historically, the church has done all kinds of things to the nativity story. Dressed it up, spruced it up, jazzed it up, done all manner of things to it, and yet when you pare it right down to the events as recorded in the Bible, you say, You know, there's really nothing particularly dramatic about this at all. Not at least in the description. The drama is in the event.
The drama is not focused in the sentimental things to which we may be prone to attach significance. Oh, and isn't it a shame that this happened, and oh, look at this, and so on—the kind of things that you say when you go in to see the birth of a child. No, Luke is a master of simplicity. And in both the birth and the death of Christ, he employs the same kind of austerity or brevity in his use of language. So, for example, in Luke 23, describing the events surrounding the death of Christ, this is all he says. When they came to the place of the skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left.
So when we deal with the matters of the birth, there's no question of how many pounds and ounces. There's no description of the physical scene. There's no drama as it relates to the pushing and the shoving and all of the stuff that goes along with that. And when it comes to the other end of his existence and to his death, again, there is no gory and graphic descriptions concerning the issue itself. And yet, despite the very austerity of Scripture and its carefulness with these issues—we've spent the last two thousand years adding all kinds of cultural and mythological accretions to the story, and by doing so, making it pressing difficult for individuals who want to get to the heart of the matter to actually get to the heart of the matter. And so they're way off in their carts thinking about the ships that came sailing in, when they ought to be thinking about the stark simplicity of the arrival of Christ. So, in other words, his description of the nativity scene is absent all the kinds of detail that we are so tempted to add and which so easily divert us from the real issue.
The matter-of-fact approach which he takes clearly pushes the reader to consider the fact of the matter. Now, it is not merely descriptive. There is some explanation, and indeed, the seventh verse closes with a word of explanation. Because the reader is following along, and he says, Well, I understand the baby was born. She wrapped it in cloths, fine, and she placed him in a manger.
Pause. I wonder why in the world she placed him in a manger? Answer, Because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now, a little understanding of the times would save us from the average children's Sunday school lesson with which we have been brought up, and which probably and sadly—and hopefully you're prepared to confess your sin in this matter—some of you dear folks went through again just a matter of a few weeks ago. You described the scene where Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. They were looking for a bed and breakfast. That's the kind of way you put it.
And there was absolutely nothing around at all. And so the poor souls were eventually knocking on this door and knocking on that door. And when they had come up completely bereft of hospitality, somebody finally said, Well, I've got nothing here, but I do have a stable that's a hundred yards down in the field, and you'd be very welcome there. And then we tell the children, Isn't that a dreadful thing to happen to God, that he would have to go and live down there with all that smelly stuff when we have such a nice house? And then we tell the businessmen that, and the businessmen say, Well, let me write a check and take care of it. Because businessmen like to do something for people, and they like to do something for Christ, especially if they can do something for Christ, then maybe he'll feel very, very disposed to them and take them into his kingdom.
But of course, he won't. I don't want to be guilty of the very thing I'm trying to avoid, but we need some explanation. And the problem with this phrase, there was no room for them in the inn, is because we read it with our cultural spectacles. Most of you see an adjective in front of inn, which is either holiday or red roof.
Or you follow it by the country inn at Walden or the inn at Shugren Falls. But you've got something in your mind. You need to get that out of your mind. I think the most plausible explanation is this, and I don't want to belabor it, but I'll just pass it on to you. You're sensible people.
You can consider it for yourselves. Joseph goes up to Bethlehem because he's of the house and line of David. There is a possibility that the way in which the census was constructed did not simply have to do with the issue of origins but had to do with the existence of property, and that there may well have been property taxes that need to be taken care of in relationship to his background. It is more than a little likely that he still had relatives, however remote, in the area of Bethlehem. And so, if you were arriving in Bethlehem and you knew someone to whom you might go, then presumably you would go to your relatives. You knock on the door, you say, Hello, it's Joseph. People are shouting, Hey, it's Joseph. And who's this? This is Mary. Oh, Mary!
Yes, she's going to have a baby, and it is imminent. Do you have anywhere at all? Well, says the relative, you know that we only have a one-room dwelling here, which is customary, but you'd also know that we were able to build that little inn, that little guest room, up on the roof area, and we'd love you to have that. Unfortunately, your aunt and uncle are in that at the moment, and therefore you can't have it. There's no room for you in the inn. The word that is used for inn is not the same word that is used in Luke 15 in the story of the Good Samaritan, where it says that he put him on his own horse and he took him to an inn.
It's a different word. The word that is used for inn is the word that would be translated guest room in a context like this. So we do have a place up there.
Unfortunately, it's full. But you're welcome to stay with us in the room. Oh, no, you say it couldn't be in the room because it was in a stable. Where is stable in your text? Do you see stable in the text?
No. Where did stable come from? Exactly.
That's what I'm talking about. Now, if you imagine the room, it was a kind of two-level operation. The living level was here, and the lower level was down on the floor here. And on the lower level, when the evening darkness fell and when it became a little chilly, since the residents in the house were kind to their animals, they did not leave them out, they brought them in. And having brought them in, they then all breathed each other's air for the night and had a splendid time.
And it was customary, at the level of the living platform, there to place the mangers so that the animals who were at the lower level would find the mangers at the living level at head height so that they could eat at will. So when you think of it in those terms, the situation is not Jesus in some dirty old stable, a hundred yards from any kind of hospitality or friendship, but rather what you have is the provision of the most comfortable cradle that could be improvised in the context of a crowded living room. That'll change a few Christmas stories next year.
And when we get to heaven, we'll ask and find out just exactly how it was. Anyway, that's the birth. Secondly, the announcement.
When you have the birth, it's usually fairly private, a few of you present, but eventually somebody says, Well, shall I put this in the newspaper or what shall I do? And it's here we come to the heart of the matter. Because the drama which now unfolds in the arrival first of a single angel and then in his friends is a dramatic encounter that is once again dealt with with a kind of unaffected simplicity. Luke is a master of language and he is able with great care to ensure that he doesn't overdramatize the event.
He simply states it as is. And incidentally, since Luke tells us as a careful doctor who would have done his research well in verses 3 and 4 of the opening chapter of the Gospel, since he set out to write an orderly account so that they might know with certainty the things they had been taught, Luke would have gleaned this information by doing his own research. And probably a great chunk of it came as a result of his being able to talk with Mary and get from her the details of what was going on.
So what do we read? Well, somewhere in the fields of Bethlehem, where David, many centuries before, had also kept sheep, these men were going about business as usual. They were watching over their flocks at night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
Terrified. This, of course, is the standard response in Scripture, as you would note, unlike the standard response at the end of the twentieth century, where people like to go on Christian television and tell everybody that they've seen an angel and let them know just exactly who he was and how he was doing. A very unbiblical sort of approach, and whatever they say we have to deal with.
But it's unlike the biblical record. The angel's greeting, you would recall, is fairly standard by this time. In verse 10, he says, Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Now, if it's the same angel—I like to think it is. Of course, there's no reason to believe that it is, except because I want to, but we know it's an angel.
If it's the same guy, we know that this is the standard pattern. He shows up and goes, Don't be afraid. He knows he didn't come in and go, Hi, it's your angel. He goes in and he goes, Don't be afraid. Why?
Because the response is obvious. There is something downright scary about the unknown. Natural men and women have got no conception of the spiritual world. We don't understand what it is that's up there that's dark and difficult and perhaps dangerous, and if for a moment some manifestation of this world were to come and make a dramatic appearance, I think we would be honest enough to say, We should be terrified too. Don't be afraid. He says, I bring you good news, great joy for all the people. Incidentally, our friends and our neighbors and some who are present today who are living with great fear and would love to make the discovery of great joy need to be told in a kind and straightforward manner that you cannot move from great fear to great joy without a discovery of the good news.
I know you're greatly terrified. You shouldn't be, because I want to tell you something, and it's good news. In fact, it's the best news. And this news is so good it'll put all your other news in perspective. Don't you think we would agree this morning that we would like to hear again this kind of news? Don't you think that this would have a compelling impact on the culture of our day in a society that is bedeviled by a continual stream of bad news, sad news, horrendous news?
We need to get it in perspective. We say to ourselves as we read our newspapers, as we face our lives, Is there no good news around here? I feel an Ann Murray song coming on, but we sure could use a little good news today, right?
That's what the person says. Bombs here and chaos there and disappointment on this hand and pain here. And if we're honest about our lives, this morning many of us are not coming to worship out of the fullness and enjoyment of a job well done and of life well lived, but we are frankly in trouble.
And we're wondering if there is any possibility of getting perspective on the framework of our lives. And here we discover, out of the angelic message, this wonderful story, good news, great joy. The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever know. That God has a plan for the world that he has made and that God has a plan for you this morning as an individual, even though the person sitting next to you doesn't know you and wouldn't understand. God knows you, made you, and purposefully brought you to this place. And in the face of all that you are experiencing, he comes by his Spirit through his Word to put your life in perspective and to bring you good news, the best news.
Focusing on the sentimental details of the birth of Jesus can often distract us from the real issue. God is working out his plan of redemption. That is Alistair Begg reminding us we can't move from great fear to great joy without discovering first the good news of salvation. You're listening to Truth for Life. As we enter the final weeks of the year, we are praying God has used this teaching from Truth for Life, whether it's been through radio or our app or on our website. However you've listened, we pray that you've been drawn closer to the Lord Jesus. And we're grateful to be able to open God's Word with you, to learn from it each day on this program. With that in mind, here is Alistair with an important message.
Well thanks, Bob. It is a privilege, you know, to study the Bible with you every day on Truth for Life. And we continue to be amazed by the number of people, not only here in the United States and Canada, but throughout the entire world, that are growing in their relationship with Jesus as a result of the program or by downloading messages from our online teaching library.
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It's a book we've had in our home for a few years now. It encourages us to consider the everyday moments of life, even things you might think of as not particularly special. And remember, all of these moments are opportunities for praising and thanking God. For example, the book Every Moment Holy provides prayers for tasks like preparing meals or doing the laundry or making home repairs, or even while you're shopping. There's also a prayer for celebratory moments like the first snow of the year or gathering together for a wedding.
There are prayers for downtimes, like when you're dealing with sadness or fear or loss. This is a book that'll help reorient your heart and mind by remembering that God is in every moment. Every Moment Holy comes found in brown leather.
It's pocket sized so you can keep it with you as you navigate your day. Request your copy of Every Moment Holy today at truthforlife.org truthforlife.org slash donate. I'm Bob Lapine. Thanks for joining us. So what does a baby in a manger have to do with the peace that the angels sang about? Listen tomorrow to find out what true peace is and how it can change your life. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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