Luke 2, Matthew 2

A baby cried in the stillness of a spring night in Bethlehem, and the world would never be the same. Here in the vulnerability and tenderness of an infant was the Lord Himself. Jesus Christ had come to walk the dusty roads of mortality, to know hunger, pain, and rejection—all to ease our burdens. When we kneel at the very limits of our earthly endurance, we can always know that He has been there before us.

It was the ultimate and complete condescension. The creator of worlds without number come to be Immanuel, God with us, and find no room at the inn. The one who had given the law on Mt. Sinai come to fulfill the law. The one who would heal, making the lame to walk and the blind to see, come to receive piercing in his hands and feet and a great wound in the side. The one come to befriend the friendless, prepared to be betrayed by one of his closest friends.

His birth took place in Bethlehem, but in that manger was the promise of Gethsemane and the hope of billions who had rejoiced when he said, “Here am I. Send me.”


A Yoke on Israel

How Israel needed the long-promised Messiah! Not only in the Roman oppression, but in the land itself, the absence of rain and dew, the disorder of society, the silence of prophecy, they needed their deliverer, but they had lost sight of who He would be. They looked for an earthly king who would come in sudden splendor and vanquish all their foes. What a surprise He would be to their dearest expectations.

The Jews had not been a completely sovereign people since they had been carried off to Babylon, oppressed by Persia, Greece and now Caesar. They had seen their temple decimated, then a rebuilt temple desecrated with Jews commanded to sacrifice pigs. They had suffered and struggled and sold their souls, and they looked forward to the Messiah who would break the yoke, be a mighty conqueror.

Jesus Christ was bound to be a disappointment to them. God often is to earth’s inhabitants who long for shows of power when he so often works in quiet, steadiness.


A Spring Birth

On a spring morning in Bethlehem, restless donkeys loudly bray, roosters crow, and the sound of tinkling bells play off the hills where sheep graze. Not in a frosty December but in a season of green, new life, Jesus Christ was born in an ancient, dusty village long prophesied as the place.

All things testify of him, and so it was at his birth. Bethlehem in Hebrew means “house of bread,” and He was the Bread of Life to a hungry world. Its pools of Solomon were a principle water source for Jerusalem, and He came to give living water. Lambs to be sacrificed in the temple roamed its countryside, and He was the sacrificial Lamb. It was the City of David, and He came, a Son of David, to be the King of kings.

So it was, with the spring flowers spread across the hills, that Joseph and Mary, both descendants of the royal line of David, came to their ancestral home to be registered for a tax ordered by their Roman overseers. A decree had gone out from Caesar that “all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1) Rome was the world in this ancient time, and at the word of a tyrant, an entire population could be on the move. These taxations were actually enrollments or registrations, in order that taxes could be properly assessed. Romans registered where they lived, but it was the custom among the Jews to return to their place of birth, their ancestral home.

Three such general registrations or censuses were ordered through Rome during this period, this being the second.

It was a journey of eighty uncomfortable miles for Mary, now nearing delivery, and she and Joseph probably traveled with family to protect themselves against desert marauders. Bethlehem was swollen with visitors when Joseph and Mary arrived seeking room at an inn. Frederic W. Farrar described what an inn (khan) of the time would have been:

A khan is a low structure, built of rough stones, and generally only a single story in height. It consists for the most part of a square enclosure, in which the cattle can be tied up in safety for the night, and an arched recess for the accommodation of travelers. The leewan, or paved floor of the recess, is raised a foot or two above the level of the courtyard.
A large khan…might contain a series of such recesses, which are, in fact, low small rooms with no front wall to them. They are, of course, perfectly public; everything that takes place in them is visible to every person in the khan. They are also totally devoid of even the most ordinary furniture. The traveler may bring his own carpet if he likes, may sit cross-legged upon it for his meals, and may lie upon it at night. As a rule, too, he must bring his own food, attend to his own cattle, and draw his own water from the neighboring spring. He would neither expect nor require attendance, and would pay only the merest trifle for the advantage of shelter, safety, and a floor on which to lie.
But if he chanced to arrive late, and the leewans were all occupied by earlier guests, he would have no choice but to be content with such accommodation as he could find in the court-yard below, and secure for himself and his family such small amount of cleanliness and decency as are compatible with an unoccupied corner on the filthy area, which must be shared with horses, mules, and camels. The litter, the closeness, the unpleasant smell of the crowded animals, the unwelcome intrusion of the pariah dogs, the necessary society of the very lowest hangers-on of the caravansery, are adjuncts to such a position which can only be realized by any traveler in the East who happens to have been placed in similar circumstances.
In Palestine it not unfrequently happens that the entire khan, or at any rate the portion of it in which the animals are housed, is one of those innumerable caves which abound in the limestone rocks of its central hills. Such seems to have been the case at the little town of. Bethlehem. [1]


In Bethlehem, swollen with visitors, “there was no room for them in the inn,” but the Joseph Smith translation tells us more: “There was none to give room for them in the inn” (JST Luke 2:7) It is hard to imagine that no one could find room for a woman who was clearly in travail and close to delivery. But, apparently, it wasn’t just a question of room, but, as it always is, of heart.

We have sung about that birth, rejoiced in it, imagined it, decorated our homes around it, taken ourselves there in a thousand flights of fancy, but in actuality, though the heavens brimmed with songs of herald angels, and a new star had been created, how many billions of years before to appear in the universe at just the perfect moment, to those in Bethlehem probably nothing set the couple apart. They were weary with the dust of the road, exhausted from travel, perhaps poor, undistinguished from everybody else. The spiritual stirrings at his birth were probably all but invisible to most.

The innkeepers were distracted, self-serving; they had no eye for new stars or heavenly things. The very Creator of the earth could find no place here. Jesus later said, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Mathew 8:20).

“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered” (Luke 2:6) Mary, that “precious and chosen vessel” (Alma 7:10) “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger,” (Luke 2:7) in a stable for animals. Not for this birth would there be rich finery or skilled attendants, just a new star overhead for those who would look heavenward. Into the darkness, the Light of the World had come.

We have been trained by European nativity scenes to think of the manger as a wooden trough. In Palestine, animals were fed from stone troughs. Even the resting place of the infant Jesus was symbolic. The Rock of Israel laid in a stone crib.


Shepherds in the Fields

With sheep folded safely in caves scattered about the hills of Bethlehem, shepherds watched over them, alert for night dangers. Tonight there would be little sleep, for this was the season of special care when fragile, new lambs had to be protected. Then, out of the darkness, brighter than the stars, an angel of the Lord appeared to them, “and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid” (Luke 2:9). Calm came to their troubled hearts as the angel gave the holiest announcement that had ever come to the world. It was delivered not to the pompous or the powerful—and Jerusalem had plenty of those. Instead the message was delivered to a group representing one of the lowest occupations in class-conscious Israel.

We sometimes think of shepherds in a pastoral, idealized light. In actuality, shepherds, burned in the sun, out in all weather, eking out an existence, often had a difficult, grueling life. But, just as Christ first announced publicly who he was to a fallen woman of Samaria, so the angels told their good tidings of great joy to one of the least in Israel.

In Ezekiel 34, the Lord addresses the shepherds of Israel, reproving them for having not fed the flocks. This is metaphoric, reminding us of the larger symbol for which shepherds stand. Christ, of course, called himself a shepherd, but in a sense all of those of us who have the gospel are called to be missionaries and search the face of the earth to seek after the lost sheep and gather them into the fold of Israel. We are the shepherds of Israel.

We can see that announcing the good news of the Lord’s birth to the shepherds and recording that story for all future generations was also a type. What do the shepherds do? “Let us now go…and see this thing which is come to pass which the Lord hath made known unto us”(Luke 2:15) They visit the Christ child, receive their witness, and “when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:17)

As a young child, I used to wish I could have been a shepherd in those fields who had looked up to see a heavenly chorus of angels praising God. Once I saw that connection, I realized that I am a shepherd of Israel. I go to the source of light for my strength and my witness, and then I am called, as they were to make it known abroad.


The Wise Men

Much speculation has surrounded the identity of the wise men. Meridian has published two articles recently that summarize various possibilities. [see articles by John Tvedtnes and George Potter] The scriptures do not tell us who they were or where they were from exactly. They may have been Jews of the diaspora. They certainly recognized the star, even in their distant land and knew what it signified.

We don’t know if there were three or many. They had wealth enough to bring significant gifts.

What we do know is that they assumed the information they sought about the new king could be given them in the palace, and so they visited Herod. Frederic W. Farrar writes of Herod:

Herod the Great, who, after a life of splendid misery and criminal success, had now sunk into the jealous decrepitude of his savage old age, was residing in his new palace on Zion, when, half maddened as he was already by the crimes of his past careeer, he was thrown into a fresh paroxysm of alarm and anxiety by the visit of some Eastern Magi, bearing the strange intelligence that they had seen in the East the star of a new-born king of the Jews, and had come to worship him.Herod, a mere Idumaean usurper, a more than suspected apostate, the detested tyrant over an unwilling people, the sacrilegious plunderer of the tomb of David—Herod, a descendant of the despised Ishmael and the hated Esau, heard the tidings with a terror and indignation which it was hard to dissimulate.

He well knew how worthless were his pretensions to an historic throne which he held solely by successful adventure. But his craft equalled his cruelty, and finding that all Jerusalem shared his suspense, he summoned to his palace the leading priests and theologians of the Jews—perhaps the relics of that Sanhedrin which he had long reduced to a despicable shadow—to inquire of them where the Messiah was to be born. He received the ready and confident answer that Bethlehem was the town indicated for that honor by the prophecy of Micah. Concealing, therefore, his desperate intention, he dispatched the wise men to Bethlehem, bidding them to let him know as soon as they had found the child, that he too might come and do him reverence. [2]

Another indication of the spiritual grounding of the wise men is that they could respond to God’s warning in a dream to not return to Herod and deliver news of the whereabouts of the Christ child.


Presentation at the Temple and Slaughter of the Innocents

To the glorious, golden temple Joseph and Mary came bearing Jesus forty-one days after His birth to present Him to the Father. The child Jesus, as the firstborn son of a Hebrew family, had to be redeemed, and Mary, having given birth, had to be purified. The wealthy bought lambs for the burnt offering of purification, but this family was poor and bought the offering of the poor—a turtledove or a young pigeon. Among the worshipers at the temple that morning was devout Simeon, brought there by the Spirit, for it had been revealed unto him “that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Seeing the baby, he rejoiced and took Him into his arms, blessing God and saying, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”(Luke 2: 26, 29) Then, looking at Mary, he prophesied, “A spear shall pierce through him to the wounding of thine own soul also” (JST Luke 2:35) Already, Golgotha cast a shadow in their lives.

Aged Anna, too, stepped forward to bear joyful witness that this child was the Lord, but in his palace not far away Herod was not so joyful. This promised King of the Jews was a threat to his power, and Herod’s mad and frenzied history showed that he responded to threat with violence. “His whole career was red with the blood of murder. He had massacred priests and nobles; he had decimated the Sanhedrin; he had caused the High Priest, his brother-in-law . . . to be drowned in pretended sport before his eyes; he had ordered the strangulation of his favorite wife, . . . though she seems to have been the only [one] whom he passionately loved.”[3] His three sons, the uncle and father of his wife, his mother-in-law, his friends, all fell victim to his suspicious and guilty terrors. Now he added to the pool of blood at his door by ordering the death of all the children from two years and under in Bethlehem and the nearby coasts, hoping thereby to massacre Jesus. Thus the revelation was fulfilled, “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation and weeping, and great mourning, Rachael weeping for [the loss of] her children, and would not be comforted because they were not” (Matthew 2:18)

One apocryphal source gives insight into how John was spared: “Elizabeth also, hearing that her son John was about to be searched for, took him and went up unto the mountains. . . . But Herod made search after John, and sent servants to Zacharias . . . at the altar, and said unto him: ‘Where hast thou hid thy son?’ And he answered and said to them ‘I am a minister of God, and a servant at the altar; how should I know where my son is? . . . I am a martyr for God, and if he shed my blood, the Lord will receive my soul. Besides, know that ye shed innocent blood.'” Then they slew Zacharias “in the entrance of the temple and altar.” [4]

Jesus was spared because an angel appeared to Joseph in vision, telling him to flee with Mary and the child to Egypt. The Lord had said of His people, “Israel is my son, even my firstborn,”(Exodus 4:22) and because the Lord works in patterns, types, and shadows, the miracles, events, and deliverances of Israel’s past were reenacted in the life of Christ. The prophets spoke of both Israel and Christ when they wrote, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matthew 2:15).


Childhood

Of the upbringing of Christ, the scriptures are significantly silent. Other than the scene at the temple where the men were asking questions of him, we know very little. But JST Matthew 3:24-26 is telling:

And it came to pass that Jesus grew up with his brethren, and waxed strong, and waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come.And he served under his father, and he spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him.

And after many years, the hour of his ministry drew nigh.

1 Frederic W. Farrar, Life of Christ. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft) pp. 33-34

2 Ibid. pp. 48-49

3 Ibid. p. 61
From “The Protevangelion of James,” in The Lost Books of the Bible (New York: Alpha House, 1926), pp. 35-36