The story is timeless. We hear it year after year; it is retold from generation to generation. But do we understand that this is more than a story? This is history. The events really happened. Mary, Jesus, and the shepherds, are all real people who lived. The star shined, the stable smelled, and the birth of this baby was celebrated. It is as real now, as it was then.
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: It is taken from the accounts found in both Matthew and Luke. Our history lesson begins with Joseph and Mary. Both descendants in the line of David, the line God chose to produce the Messiah, the one who would save humanity from their sins.
Mary was an ordinary teenage girl, pledged to be married to Joseph, a carpenter; but before they were joined in marriage, she was found to be pregnant. However, this was not a regular pregnancy, the child Mary was carrying was conceived through the Holy Spirit.
Mary’s story begins with a visit by an angel of the Lord.
The Angel of the Lord Visits Mary and Joseph
God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
Mary answered the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. Mary explained to Joseph about what she had been told.
Joseph, her husband, did not fully understand what was happening. After Mary told him about her pregnancy, he was troubled. Not wanting to expose her to public disgrace, he decided to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet Isaiah: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
Mary Visits Elizabeth
Mary was not the only one experiencing a unique pregnancy. Elizabeth, a relative of hers, was also having a baby, hers was special because she was beyond childbearing years. This pregnancy was also a work of God. Six months earlier, Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah had also been visited by an angel and told that he and Elizabeth were going to have a son, and they were to name him John and his significance was “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice, she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
The Calling of the Census
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to their hometown to register.
Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. The town was so crowded with people for the census; all the inns were full. The only housing they were given the option to was a stable.
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a cattle feeding trough, called a manger. She and Joseph gave him the name Jesus.
Angels Visit Shepherds in their Fields
Meanwhile, there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God, and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
They hurried to Bethlehem and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby, just as they were told. Jesus was lying in the manger. After they had witnessed him for themselves, they spread the word concerning what the angel told them about Jesus, the Messiah, being born, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds had to say. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.
The Magi’s Visit
Approximately two years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, during the time of King Herod, Magi came in search of the Messiah. Magi were astrologers; they had followed a star that appeared in the sky. They came from the east to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Tradition names three wise men, however, no one really knows how many visited Jesus and his parents. The names given to three of them were: Melchior, who carried gold, Caspar had frankincense, and Balthasar held myrrh.
Each of these gifts has significance. Gold was given to represent kingship; Jesus was called the King of the Jews; frankincense was used by priests, a priest offered sacrifices for the sins of the people, Jesus was to offer the perfect sacrifice with his death on the cross; and myrrh was traditionally used for burial, and Jesus was to die for our sins.
When King Herod heard what the Magi said, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. He called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law; he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose, went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Mary and Joseph also received a heavenly warning; they fled to Egypt to get away from Herod. When word came of Herod’s death, they relocated back to Israel, into a town called Nazareth. There they lived with Jesus until his adulthood.
Two thousand years or so ago, God stepped out of heaven and became a baby, just as was promised and foretold throughout the Old Testament. His birth does not end our history lesson, Jesus was born with a purpose. He came into this world to restore our relationship with Him that had been marred since Adam and Eve.
His birth is important in that God reached out to us. He sent Jesus to a world that was drowning in its sins and the laws regarding those sins. A sacrificial system had been in place to provide a way to cover those sins. Jesus came to replace the temporary sacrifice with a permanent perfect sacrifice. He was fully God and fully man, living as one of us. Living a human life, but a sin-free life. He came to this world to save us by dying for us. But He had to be born to die. And that is the true significance of The Christmas Story.