Amid the whirl of the Christmas rush, the shopping, the parades, the parties, and the last minute details, it is all too easy to lose sight of the central meaning and message of Christmas. Many traditional things have grown up around Christmas, which were originally designed to call attention to spiritual things, such as holly and mistletoe, candles and caroling, manger scenes and Christmas trees, and the exchanging of Christmas cards and gifts.
All of this too often, however, becomes mere tradition or caught up in the commercialism of the secular scene. C. S. Lewis in his well-known satire entitled “Xmas and Christmas” caricatures some of the futility as pictured in the island of Niatirb where citizens exchange “Xmas cards” and gifts. Having bought what they consider sufficient cards and sent them, they are thankful that “this labor is at least over for another year.”1 Sometimes, however, they find cards from someone to whom they have not sent one, and so grudgingly and with some malice they “put on their boots again and go out in the fog and rain and buy a card for him also.”2 Lewis describes the Niatirbians as having a similar, if not worse, dilemma with regard to the exchange of gifts. “For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself.”3 Many families and churches, of course, do have special traditions centered on the real meaning of Christmas.
Many Old Testament scriptures foretold the coming of the Messiah.4 Some predicted his birth (e.g., Isa. 7:14; cf. Matt. 1:23; Micah 5:2; cf. Matt. 2:6); some give details concerning his life and ministry (e.g., Ps. 22:1; cf. Matt. 27:46;5 Ps. 40:6-8; cf. Heb. 10:5-7; Isa. 52:13-53:12; cf., e.g., Matt. 8:16-17; 27:57-60); and some deal with his resurrection and ascension (e.g., Ps. 16:9-11; cf. Acts 2:25-27; Ps. 110:1, 4; cf. Matt. 22:44-45; Heb. 7:21-22). This study, however, entails an examination of two New Testament passages relating to the birth and subsequent details commonly featured in the celebration of Christmas.
The first passage is Luke 2:1-20, which narrates the story of Jesus’ birth. Verses 1-7 relate details relative to the historical background of Jesus’ birth. The narrator tells of a royal decree relating to all the Roman Empire for the purpose of taxation.6 The historicity of Luke’s account has often been questioned due to the fact that the only existing records of such a decree during Quirinius’ governorship of Syria is dated to about A.D. 6—much too late for the biblical setting. Nevertheless, the accuracy of Luke’s historical research, both here and elsewhere, has been defended ably by several scholars. The NET presents the simplest solution, suggesting that Quirinius had previously served as a Roman administrator in Syria, so that he could have occupied an official capacity at the time relative to a decree slightly before the time of Jesus’ birth (i.e., c. 5-4 B.C.). Some evidence does exist demonstrating such a possibility.7 In any case, the precision and care with which Luke did his research in writing Luke and Acts, as well as the place of Luke in the New Testament canon, assure his readers that regardless of the present day lack of all the facts, these were well-known and available to Luke.8
For our purposes it is sufficient to note that in accordance with propriety Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem.9 Since Matthew reports that when Joseph learned that Mary’s pregnancy was divinely accomplished, he followed instructions and married her (Matt. 1:18-25), Mary was already his wife (but without consummation, Matt. 1:25) when they went to Bethlehem (see NET text note). More than likely their journey was made during her last trimester of pregnancy and in accordance with Micah’s prophecy (Micah 5:2) they were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Because the word translated “inn” is not the most usual word for places of public accommodation, “They may have stayed in a crowded room in the home of some poor relative till the birth of their baby necessitated their vacating it for privacy and more space.”10 Early church tradition preserves the suggestion that at the time of Jesus’ birth his parents were staying in a cave.11
After giving the account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, Luke called attention to a nearby field where shepherds were keeping their lonely vigil watching over their flock. It was night and, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified” (v. 9). The angel quickly calmed the shepherds’ fears. They were to stop being afraid because the angel had a message of comfort and cheer, and of joy and good news. Although addressed to citizens of Israel, it was a message, which was universal in scope and designed to meet the needs of all people everywhere. For Israel’s Messiah and the Savior of all mankind had been born that very day in Bethlehem of Judah (vv.10-11).12
The message concerning the Savior is ever one designed for a response—and so it was with the shepherds. They were to go to Bethlehem and verify the event for themselves and all concerned (v.12). At that instant, “A vast heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘ Glory to god in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is well pleased!’” (vv.13-14). It was indeed a wondrous message. To God’s glory there would be peace on earth among people, who are the objects of the Lord’s good favor. Luke went on to record how the astonished shepherds hastened to Bethlehem, found the baby and his parents, and “related what they had been told about this child” (vv. 15-17). It was then the turn of those who heard their testimony to be astonished (v.18). Leaving behind a somewhat perplexed mother (v.19), the shepherds returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for what they had been privileged to witness (v.20). It was to be a never to be forgotten night!
But why shepherds? Why would God reveal such amazing and momentous news to mere shepherds? Perhaps the choice is not as strange as it might seem at first sight. Truly, the plans of a gracious and all-wise God for mankind are never without purpose or propriety. Thus although shepherding was considered a lowly profession in ancient Israel, it was a common one. Indeed, shepherds performed an essential and responsible task13 With courage and concern the shepherd was to see to the well-being and growth of the sheep to a point of usefulness for man. This involved finding grass and water for them (Ps. 23:2), protecting them (Amos 3:1; John 10:11-13), and retrieving those who strayed (Ezek. 34:8).
God himself assumed the figure of the shepherd. He had led Israel all along the way. Thus the psalmist addresses God as the “shepherd of Israel … who lead Joseph like a flock of sheep!” (Ps. 80:1; cf. Gen. 48:13). It was he who saw to their needs (Ps. 23:1-2), protected and guided them in accordance with his good purposes for them (cf. Isa. 40:9-20 with Ezek. 34:12; Zech. 9:15-16).
Likewise, Israel’s leaders were charged with the care of God’s people much as a shepherd would watch over his flock (Num. 27:17). But, alas, too often they proved to be false shepherds. Thus Jeremiah complains, “The leaders of my people are sure to be judged. They were supposed to watch over my people like shepherds watch over their sheep. But they are causing my people to be destroyed and scattered” (Jer. 23:1; cf. Jer. 25:32-35; Ezek. 34:2-10). Accordingly, God announced through his prophets that he would send his own true shepherd, the Messiah, who would save and care for the flock (Ezek. 37:22-31).
Christ affirmed that he was that good shepherd who as a smitten shepherd (cf. Zech. 13:7) would lay down his life for the sheep: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my own know me” (John 10:11, 14). The writer of Hebrews points out that Christ is also that great shepherd who sees to the maturing and well being of his believing flock (Heb. 13:20-21; cf. 1 Pet. 2:25). Peter declares that Christ is the Chief Shepherd who has entrusted his work to other “under shepherds” until he himself shall come again for his flock. The Lord promises these shepherds that, unlike the false shepherds of Israel’s past, if they are faithful, “When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away” (1 Pet. 5:4). It is no accident, therefore, that one of the terms for pastor in the New Testament means shepherd and that Paul could instruct the Ephesians elders in their task of “shepherding” (Acts 20:17-38).
Yes, shepherds! And why not? Who better could understand and symbolize the significance of all that was transpiring that night. More than a common baby lay nestled in an obscure and lowly feeding trough in Bethlehem. It was no less than the promised Messiah, the shepherd of Israel!
The choice of the wise men likewise seems at first a strange one. Yet, their visit was to be full of meaning. In turning to Matthew 2:1-12 it should be pointed out that the events described in connection with the visit of the wise men took place some days after the time of the shepherds visit. Thus the NET correctly translates, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem” (Matt. 2:10. Moreover, a comparison between Matthew 2:11, Luke 2:22-24, and Lev. 12 makes it plain that such was the case. For had the wise men arrived before the fortieth day of the birth of the child, the ceremonial offering of ritual purification specified in the law of Moses would not have been the poorest possible one, which Jesus’ parents offered. Furthermore, Matthew 2:11 clearly indicates that the family was now quartered in a house after the birth. Possibly, then, some six weeks had elapsed since the birth of Jesus.
It should also be admitted freely that it is not known whether these wise men were kings, even though the common Christmas carol speaks of “We three kings of Orient” or, for that matter that their were exactly three, even though they are identified in Ben Hur as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Of course, Isaiah’s prophecy that, “Nations shall come to your light, kings to your bright light” (Isa. 60:3) and the fact that there were three gifts made both inferences likely to the early church. Current scholarship tends to identify these visitors as magi or a class of wise men/statesmen of priestly origin in the ancient Near East, whose astrological skills had in this case been superintended by God so as to bring them to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Israel’s promised king. Thus Keener points out that the magi were “pagan astrologers whose divinatory skills were widely respected in the Greco-Roman world; astrology had become popular through the ‘science’ of the East, and everyone agreed that the best astrologers lived in the East.”14
Bypassing the earlier narrative in Matthew’s account (Matt. 2:1-10) our focus will be on the gifts of the magi and the significance of their presence and presents.15 In 2:11 Matthew reports, “As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The first of the gifts was gold, a symbol of royalty. That Messiah would be of kingly descent is the consistent Old Testament teaching (e.g., Isa. 9:6-7). God revealed explicitly that the Abrahamic blessing would be channeled through the royal line of David (e.g., 2 Sam. 7:16-19). The psalmist adds: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have made a promise on oath to David, my servant: ‘I will give you an eternal dynasty and establish your throne throughout future generations’” (Ps. 89:3-4; cf. vv. 34-37). Other portions of the Psalms reverberate with the same truth (e.g., Pss. 2:7-9; 45:6; 110:1-2). Further, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophesied of the imminent initiation of the royal provisions in the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants (Luke 1:67-75), while Matthew’s genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) clearly points to Jesus’ royal descent through the line of David (as well as David’s descent from Abraham).
And such a king! Though he would come to his own world, his very own people would largely reject him (John 1:11). Although many would welcome him as king upon his entrance into Jerusalem on what is known as Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:5-9), he would be crucified only a few days later. Even then, however, as he hung on Calvary’s cross he was never more king. For on the third day he rose as victor over sin and death (1 Cor. 15:55-57). Paul declares that to this crucified and risen Savior every knee will bow one day and confess that he is Lord (Phil 2:10-11). John (Rev. 19:11-21) portrays Christ’s descent out of heaven to vanquish the assembled forces of ungodliness and establish the promised kingdom, taking his seat on the throne of David (cf. Ezek. 34:20-24; 37:24-28).
Yes, gold; it was surely a fitting gift for a king. Although Jesus was yet a baby, one day he will be proclaimed as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16). The very presence of the magi is a reminder that all people shall pay homage to Christ (cf. Ps. 2:10-12), whether simplest shepherd or richest royalty.
The second gift, frankincense, was also a precious commodity. Among its many uses in the Levitical ritual was its employment in the meal offering, where its presence provided tangible evidence of God’s favor toward the service of the dedicated believer. It was a “gift of soothing aroma to the Lord” (Lev. 2:2; cf. 2 Cor. 2:14-16). Even so, Christ’s ministry would be that which the meal offering symbolized—one of unselfish, dedicated service (cf. Matt. 20:28). Jesus was always about the Father’s business (cf. Luke 2:49), doing the Father’s work (John 5:19-30), and proclaiming his words (e.g., John 14:10). In so doing, he functioned as the promised prophet of old (Deut. 18:15-19), the prophet par excellence, and God’s unique Son (John 3:16; Heb. 1:1-2). The frankincense is a reminder that Christ was not only a king, but also a prophet.
The third gift, myrrh, like frankincense, was a valuable product. Both of these gum resins were highly prized in ancient times and in great demand for many usages throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Together they made the south Arabian traders, who enjoyed a monopoly on their transport, exceedingly wealthy.16 Both substances were used for medicinal purposes. Both were noted for their fragrances, the frankincense often being employed as incense and myrrh being particularly prized as an ingredient for cosmetics and perfume.
One of the most important uses of myrrh was in its employment for preparing a dead body for burial. Thus it is mentioned in connection with the burial of Jesus (John 19:39-40). For the believer, myrrh serves as a reminder that Jesus came to die. As the believer’s great high priest Jesus was both the offerer and the offering, for he laid down his life as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of a lost mankind (cf. Isa. 52:13-53:12 with John 10:15-18; Rom. 5:6-8; Heb. 7:26-8:2; 9:11-12; 10:4-14).
The visit of the magi to the Christ child could be likened to that of ambassadors of a king to a king. Their gifts were distinctively appropriate and easily worthy of a king. The particular uses of these gifts symbolize even more than their economic value. This greater David, who had come as a baby, was no less than the promised Messiah. He was the One who combined in himself three offices: king, prophet and priest. The gold is a reminder that Christ is the Great King, the frankincense that he is the greatest of all prophets, and the myrrh that he is the believer’s high priest who gave himself as man’s Redeemer. John Newton expresses something of Jesus’ threefold titles in writing:
Jesus, my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King,
My Lord, my life, my way, my end,
Accept the praise I bring.17
It may be significant that the magi left by another way (Matt. 2:12). Not only did they wish to avoid further contact with Herod or his officials (as they had been instructed), but it may be the case that their journey to see the Christ child had been so sacred that its very path had been rendered holy or, more likely, in accordance with ancient precedence the need to take an alternate route indicated their error in communicating earlier with Herod (cf. 1 Kings 13:9-10). 18
As believers who observe in various ways the traditions of Christmas this year, may we not neglect the spiritual riches attendant to the season. May we contemplate the best of all gifts—God’s free gift of an abundant life in Jesus Christ, the Savior and living Lord. As the shepherds of old, may we not only praise him with our lips but, as did they, go eagerly in response to God’s direction in our lives. May God grant that we as the Lord’s sheep and under-shepherds be found faithfully at our tasks (cf. 1 Tim. 4:7-8),when once again the heavens shall be pierced, but this time with the second coming of David’s son, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16-17; Rev. 19:11-16).
May believers also be reminded that they, no less than the magi, serve as ambassadors of a king (2 Cor. 5:20). As believers, may we offer the Lord a gift—the gift of our lives poured out in a holy walk, and in humble and faithful service to Christ “As good stewards of the varied grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10). As William Dix expressed it:
As they offered gifts most rare
At that manger rude and bare,
So may we with holy joy,
Pure and free from sin’s alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to Thee our heave’nly King.19
Shepherds and wise men; how appropriate after all. May the spiritual insight gained from their observance of that first Christmas season teach us how we may better honor Christ in ours.
1 C. S. Lewis, “Xmas and Christmas,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 302.
4 Joseph P. Free (Archaeology and Bible History [Wheaton: Scripture Press, 1962], 283-84) cites Canon Liddon of England as declaring that there are 232 distinct prophecies fulfilled in Christ’s first coming. Many of these are listed in J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 665-68.
6 See the NET text note. Unless otherwise noted , all citations are taken from the NET.
7 See E. M. Blaiklock, “Quirinius,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975) 5:5-6. For other suggestions see the standard commentaries as well as Mark Strauss, “Luke,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) 1:339-40; Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1993), 193; Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 365-66; and Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963), 63-65.
8 See the helpful comments regarding the reliability of Luke as an historian by David W. Pao, “Luke,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, eds Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) 10:75-76.
9 For details, see Poa, “Luke,” 76. See also Keener, Bible Background Commentary, 194.
10 Pao, “Luke,” 76. Pao goes on to admit that this is “merely speculation.”
11 For example, the Protevangelium relates that Joseph “found a cave there and brought her into it, and set his sons by her; and he went forth and sought for a midwife of the Hebrews in the country of Bethlehem.” M. R. James, “Book of James, or Protevangelium,” in The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1953), 46. The tradition regarding Jesus’ birth in a cave is also preserved by the church fathers Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, 78:4 and Origin, Against Celsus, 1:15.
12 Interestingly enough, many years ago in a city in which I lived at that time, in covering the “Christmas story” as though it were breaking news the account in local paper included a map showing the location of Bethlehem. Unfortunately, the site indicated was Bethlehem of Zebulun rather than the proper location in Judah!
13 See F. L. Garber, “Sheep,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, rev ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 4:463-65.
14 Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 48. David L. Turner (“The Gospel of Matthew,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary [Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2005] 11: 46) adds, “They may have come from Arabia, Babylon, or Persia. Perhaps there are historical connections between them and the ‘Chaldeans’ mentioned in Dan 1:20; 2:2; 4:7; 5:7, or adept in the interpretation of dreams.”
15 Keener (Ibid, 46) points out that the arrival of the magi must indeed have caused quite a stir among the people, for “the Magi must have come with quite an entourage for the whole city to notice them.”
16 See the enlightening and informative study by Gus W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” in The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, 2, eds. David Noel Freedman and Edward F. Campbell, Jr. (Garden City: Doubleday, 1964), 99-126; Michael J. Wilkens, “Matthew,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, 1:16-17.
17 John Newton, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” in Hymns for the Living Church (Carol Stream: Hope Publishing Co., 1978), 68-69.
18 Paul R. House (1,2 Kings, The New American Commentary [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995], 188-89) suggests the latter understanding of 1 Kings 13:9-10, citing U. Simon (“1 Kings 13: A Prophetic Sign-Denial and Persistence,” in Hebrew Union College Annual 47 , 90-91) who “demonstrates that ‘not to return by the way you came’ is a fairly common Old Testament way of saying, ‘be different’ or ‘avoid past mistakes.’” Understood in this fashion for the case of the magi, it may indicate that the magi had made a technical error in going to Herod.
19 William C. Dix, “As With Gladness Men of Old,” in Hymns for the Living Church, 114.
Editors note: (corrected typos in the sentence "for the wise men.... quartered in a house" ) changed not to now; added "after the birth; ... ML 12/12/09