The real Christmas story

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 manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luk 2:6–7)

Have you seen a nativity play? If you live in the UK you'll be familiar with them. The word 'nativity' comes from the Latin nativitas which means birth. They are short plays depicting the birth of Jesus, usually performed by primary school children (aged 5-11) just before Christmas.

Teachers put a lot of work into them with costumes, props, rehearsals etc. All the parents are invited and usually attend. I performed in one at the age of ten. I was Balthasar, one of the kings. We walked in procession from the back of the hall while everyone sang:

We three kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

When we got onto the stage I said: 'I am very proud of you, Nubia,’ as my slave laid my gift in front of Jesus. But how factual are they? Not very. Does it matter? Yes, it does. The Bible tells us what happened at our Lord's birth and we should know the truth. Let's begin with the star.

It was an angel

After they had heard the king, they [the Magi] 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. (Mat 2:9)

Every nativity play has a star, it's an important part of the story. But as a Bible student I had problems with the star for years. How could a star lead the Magi to Jesus? The Bible says that it went ahead of them and stopped over the place where he was.

If you go outside and look up at a star and then travel 10 miles and look at it again, it will appear to be in the same position as before because of the distance between you and the star.

Either scientists are wrong and stars are not as big and as far away from us as they think they are, and God had brought one close to earth, moved it around and stopped it above his Son… or they are right. In which case how could it be?

Some believe it was a comet, which can be small and can be seen moving across the sky as they fall to earth. But New Testament Greek had a separate word for comet, which was not used here. I was confused; but the Bible says that that is what happened and I believed it, even though I couldn't understand it. And I think that is true for most Christians.

And then one day while I was reading this passage the words came to my spirit: 'It was an angel.' I stopped, and thought, 'An angel? And then the words of Rev 1:20 came to me:

'The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand…is this: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches…'

I looked up the Greek word translated 'stars' in that verse and found that it's the same word (aster) used in Mat 2:9. Then I looked at every occurrence of the word 'star' in the Bible and realized that sometimes they refer to angels.

And then one of the problems I'd had with the book of Revelation was solved for me—the star that had fallen from the sky to the earth (Rev 9:1), and the third of the stars that were flung to the earth (Rev 12:4), were angels.

Not everything in the Bible is easy to understand, it contains mysteries. Jesus said that the seven stars, which are the angels of the seven churches, is a mystery—and only God can give us understanding of mysteries (Dan 2:27–8). Angels can appear on earth in various forms (Rev 10:1). This one appeared as a bright light that resembled a star.

The shepherds

The shepherds were the first to be told about Jesus:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, 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 Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.' (Luk 2:8–11)

They were also the first to visit him:

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.' So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. (v15–6)

Why did God choose to reveal his Son to shepherds before anyone else? Because Jesus was not only the Saviour of the Jews, but also their Shepherd:

'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.' (Mat 2:6)

The physical often types the spiritual in the Bible, but the spiritual is more important. God had brought some of Israel's physical shepherds to meet their spiritual Shepherd.

Now let's look at the Magi, or 'wise men', as most Bible translations describe them. Please read Mat 2:1–12.

They were sorcerers

The first thing we should note is that we don't know how many there were. We assume there were three because they gave him three gifts (v11b), but the Bible doesn't say there were three. The Greek word used (magi) is plural, so there was more than one, but we don't know how many.

The second thing is that they didn't arrive at the same time as the shepherds. Nativity plays place them together: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the shepherds and the three kings; but it was not like that—the Magi arrived later. The angel led them to the house where he was (v9,11a), not the manger he'd been placed in after his birth.

The third thing, and this may surprise you, is that they weren't kings or wise men; neither were they astrologers, as some Bibles tell us or suggest in their footnotes. They were sorcerers, because that is what the Greek word means.

The same word is used in the Book of Acts to describe Elymas, who was a Jewish sorcerer (magos – Act 13:6–12). Simon also was a sorcerer who had practised sorcery (mageuo) in Samaria until he believed and was baptized after Philip preached (Act 8:9–13).

The Magi were sorcerers, so why don't Bible translators tell us that, the Greek is perfectly clear? If they weren't sorcerers, then neither were Elymas nor Simon. It may be because they can't understand why God would bring sorcerers to Jesus, so they don't translate it literally because it doesn't make sense to them. But it does make sense, perfect sense.

Jewish sorcerers

They were Jewish sorcerers. Only Matthew tells us about them. Matthew's Gospel was written by a Jew, for Jews. It begins by tracing Jesus' ancestry from Abraham (something Jews would be interested in), and contains more references to our Lord's life fulfilling Old Testament prophecies (familiar to Jews) than any other Gospel.

Matthew wouldn't begin his good news to the Jewish people by telling them that God had brought Gentiles to Jesus, and it wouldn't have happened, because God sent his Son only to the lost sheep of Israel (Mat 15:24).

From the east

They were Jewish sorcerers from the east. The east, in Scripture, is important symbolically in respect to salvation.

God planted a garden (his first kingdom) in the east (Gen 2:8). When Adam and Eve were driven out of it because of their sin, the way back into it was from the east (Gen 3:23–4); and the entrances to his tabernacle and temple (the way into his presence) were on the east (Exo 27:13–5; Eze 8:16).

God first revealed himself to Abram when he was at Ur of the Chaldeans, which was in the east (Gen 12:1); and Job, who feared God and was blameless and upright (an Old Testament believer), was the greatest man of the East (Job 1:1–3).

Why the east? It's because that is where the sun rises, where light first appears on the earth—the light symbolizing the spiritual light that would come to the earth through Jesus Christ (Mat 4:16).

Light reveals what has been hidden by darkness. Jesus, the spiritual light of the world (Joh 8:12), revealed spiritual truth that had been hidden by spiritual darkness since the creation of the world (Mat 13:34–5), including the truth about salvation (Luk 2:30–2).

Sorcery (the use of magic powers to influence people) is a sin (Deu 18:10–2). The Magi were repentant Jewish sorcerers whom God had brought from the east (from Babylon where they'd lived since the Jewish exile) to worship their Saviour (Mat 2:11), because Jesus had come into the world not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luk 5:32). That began at his birth.

The gifts

Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Mat 2:11b)

Not only did God lead the Magi to Jesus, he also led them in their giving.

Gold, in Scripture, is associated with deity. The interior of Solomon's temple was overlaid with gold (1Ki 6:19–22), the articles used in its service were made of gold (1Ki 7:48–50), and John saw one 'like a son of man' sitting on a cloud with a crown of gold on his head (Rev 14:14).

Frankincense is high quality incense. Incense was burned on the altar of incense in front of the shielding curtain in the tabernacle (Exo 30:1–8), symbolizing the prayers of God's people (Rev 5:8).

Myrrh is an aromatic resin; it was placed on his body after his death (Joh 19:38–40). It is also a painkiller and was customarily mixed with wine and given to those who were to be crucified. It was offered to Jesus, but he refused to drink it (Mar 15:23).

So we have, represented by the gifts that were presented to him, his deity, his kingship, his humanity (his prayers showed his submission to God and his dependence on him – Mat 26:39,42), his suffering and his death—Jesus, the King of heaven, who came to earth to die for our sins.

When was Jesus born?

When was he born? We don't know. All we know is that it was during the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luk 2:1–7). Does it matter? No, it doesn't. If it was important the Bible would have given us the date. The important thing is that he was born.

Jesus didn't tell us to remember his birth, but his death. We do that when we break bread together (Luk 22:19). Whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup we proclaim his death until he comes (1Co 11:26). The remembrance of his death is a reminder of his return.

The escape

When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. 'Get up,' he said, 'take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.'

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt… (Mat 2:13–4)

Herod did try to kill Jesus, but why did he need to escape? When they tried to kill him at Nazareth he walked through the crowd and went on his way (Luk 4:28–30). Similarly, when he was teaching in the temple courts they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him because his hour had not yet come (Joh 7:28–30).

Jesus escaped from Herod, who was trying to kill him, as his followers will be able to escape from the antichrist, who will try to kill them during the tribulation. After telling his disciples what will happen before his return, he said:

'Be always on the watch, and pray that you will be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.' (Luk 21:36)

The Bible uses the Greek word ekpheugo (to flee from, escape from, evade capture) to describe the escape Jesus told his disciples to pray for, and the escape (pheugo) he had made himself in Mat 2:13.

The same word (ekpheugo) is used to describe the escape Paul made from King Aretas (2Co 11:32–3), where it's translated as 'slipped through', and the escape he and Silas made from prison (Act 16:25–8). Peter also escaped from prison as the result of prayer (Act 12:1–17).

These were all escapes made by believers on earth: one from the threat of death, one from imprisonment, and one from imprisonment and impending death. Two involved miracles and one involved an angel, who are ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation (Heb 1:14). None of them escaped by being raptured.

When Jesus told his disciples to pray that they would be able to escape from all that is about to happen, he wasn't talking about the destruction of the temple (Luk 21:5–7). That took place in AD 70, but was only a local event.

'For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth.' (Luk 21:35)

He was referring to the great tribulation, the series of events described in the book of Revelation that will take place before his return, including the worldwide persecution of the church by the antichrist (Rev 13:5–10).

The Greek word translated 'be able to' means literally have the strength to. It will be possible to escape from the tribulation, but we are not told how we will escape. It won't be the rapture because no effort will be needed for that, we will simply be caught up to meet the Lord in the air (1Th 4:17).

Jesus escaped from his tribulation (Herod's attempt to kill him) while he was still on earth, he wasn't raptured; the same will be true for his church. His escape involved him moving from one place to another; ours may be the same.

Jesus gave details of the tribulation and the rapture in Mat 24:9–22,29–31. The Greek words translated 'great distress' in v21 mean great trouble, distress, tribulation; they are used in Rev 7:14, where they are translated as 'great tribulation'. It's clear from what Jesus said in v29a that the rapture will take place after the tribulation, and not before it.

Depend on God

The events surrounding our Lord's return are difficult to understand.

When his disciples asked him what would be the sign of his coming and of the end of the age (Mat 24:3), he said that no one knows that day or hour, neither the angels in heaven, nor even himself, but only the Father (v36). 'Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come (v42).'

To escape all that is about to happen on earth—which Jesus has told us to pray for—we will need to walk closely with God, watch what is happening in the world, and depend on him. To protect Jesus from death when he was a child, Joseph was given three instructions (Mat 2:13,19–20,22). He obeyed them all. There is safety in obedience.

Be ready

I began this study by asking the Lord what he wanted me to say about his birth and found myself writing about his second coming, and in many respects it's more important to us. His first coming has already taken place and we've been blessed by it; but his second coming is still to come and we must be ready for it (Mat 24:44), and for the events that will precede it.

Keep walking with God, reading your Bible, and watching for his return (Mar 13:32–7).

He who testifies to these things says, 'Yes, I am coming soon.'

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen. (Rev 22:20–1)

Michael Graham
June 2020
Revised February 2021

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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