↑Finding Christmas Anew

The original Christmas story in chronological order ⇔ 
by Michael Krigline, December 2001. www.krigline.com ⇔
Originally created as an inspirational message for the Shanghai International Church. [My article titles that start with ↑ point to additional articles that help us “look up”.]

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I love Christmas. I love the colors and lights, the decorations and songs, the TV specials and the Christmas parties. Here in China, I love the questions people ask at this time of year. The story of Christmas is new to so many, and when I explain things it makes the story new to me all over again!

I took a class once that made Christmas feel “new.” “The Life of Christ” was taught by an old seminary professor, and Dr. Hulbert had taught the Bible so long, knew the original languages so well, and had led so many groups to Israel that — well, when he talked about Jesus’ life you would have believed that he had been there himself! I believe he is retired now, but he was one of my favorite teachers. Now, I will warn you that Dr. Hulbert is a real purist. He believes that what the Bible says is history and fact; and he showed us many things that we thought were in the Bible but were not really there! You may discover a few of those today, and I challenge you to look into these things yourself. Don’t just take my word for it!

This Shanghai church contains an interesting mix of people. We have mature Christians who know the Bible well, new Christians who do not, and a number of additional people who are still on their search for the Truth. Because of that mix, I thought it might be interesting today to quickly go through the Christmas story in chronological order.

Of course, the Christmas story is really several stories found in different parts of the Bible, often grouped together. Unfortunately, because they are so frequently grouped together, many people think several parts happened at the same time or in the wrong order. What stories am I talking about? They include the birth of John the Baptist, the angel’s announcements to both Mary and Joseph, events in Bethlehem, Simeon and Anna in the temple, the visit of the Magi, King Herod’s rage, and more. But let’s start at the beginning.

God’s silence is Broken

The Old Testament ends 400 years before the birth of Jesus with these words about the forerunner to the promised Messiah or “anointed deliverer”:

“He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” (Malachi 4:5-6).

As if God were just releasing the pause button on a favorite song, the New Testament story begins with the angel Gabriel bringing Zechariah the same words:

“he will go on before the Lord… to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous…” (Luke 1:17).

The angel was talking about a son Zechariah and Elizabeth were about to have, even though they are well advanced in years — a son who would become famous as “John the Baptist.”

About six months later, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, announcing that she would become the mother of the Messiah (Israel’s Deliverer and Savior; Luke 1: 26-56). Mary graciously received this wonderful news, along with the news that her supposedly “barren” relative Elizabeth was now six-months pregnant. The Bible says Mary “hurried” (65 miles on foot!) to a town in the hills outside Jerusalem to be with Elizabeth until just before John was born. It was a logical thing to do: Zechariah was a priest so maybe he could help her process this incredible news, and since the angel had mentioned it, maybe that was a sign that Mary needed to be there to help. The text says that Elizabeth received Mary warmly, and supernaturally confirmed that her baby would be the Messiah! I’m sure Mary was glad she made that trip! Besides, the hill country would be a good place to go to get away from her fiancé while Mary’s tummy started to grow. We don’t know if she told Joseph before she left — but Matthew’s text makes it seem unlikely.

Mary was three-months pregnant when she got home to Nazareth, there she “was found to be with child” (Matt 1:18), and so Joseph decides to break off the engagement. Interestingly, God lets him “consider” this for a while before bringing Gabriel back, this time appearing in Joseph’s dream. Joseph immediately believes and obeys the word from Heaven, and takes Mary to be his wife.

In Bethlehem and Jerusalem

Sometime in the next few months, Caesar Augustus called for a census, for which everyone had to go back to the land of his ancestors. Thus, Joseph had to head 85 miles south (140 KM) to Bethlehem, and Mary went with him.[1]  We don’t know how long they were in Bethlehem before the baby was born, but the Bible says “while they were there” the time came, Mary gave birth, and laid Jesus in a manger (Luke 2:6-7).

What’s that? You thought Mary arrived late at night, with a brilliant star overhead, deep in labor pains, and then was turned away by a mean old innkeeper and had to go to a stable? Maybe. It makes for a dramatic story. But that stuff is not really in the Bible. You won’t find any mention of a stable, animals, bright star (not yet!), or innkeeper, and the Greek text doesn’t even mention an Inn! Check it out yourself!

So, where do we get the idea of “no vacancy” at all the motels in Bethlehem? During the time of King James’ English translation, the term “inn” was suitable for the Greek word katalyma (elsewhere translated “upper room”) since most inns were similar to a modern “Bed and Breakfast,” which opened a spare room for guests. Israel did have “inns” (see Luke 10:34), but they were on main roads, unlike Bethlehem. Because of the census, an elder was probably in the “upper room,” and so the family likely converted their “stable” (a street-level entryway) into a more-or-less private room. The phrase “while they were there” allows plenty of time to thoroughly clean and make the conversion. Finally, maybe God didn’t want the baby in the “private upper room”; otherwise the shepherds would have never been allowed to enter—and God was trying to show that This Baby was being born for all people. (See endnote for details.)[2] 

Even if Mary doesn’t arrive in labor, the Bible does indicate that Jesus was born in the evening, and nearby shepherds got a visit from a multitude of heavenly hosts (i.e. angels) who praised God and told the shepherds that a Savior had been born. The angels said this special baby was currently lying in a manger, so the shepherds decided to check it out (and who wouldn’t?!). They found the baby, and then started telling people about their “close encounter” with angels on the hillside.[3]

Eight days later (Luke 2:21), Jesus was circumcised (likely in Bethlehem). Then on the 40th day after the birth, they headed for Jerusalem to dedicate the baby in the Temple and offer a required sacrifice (Luke 2:22). Here they met Simeon, a Spirit-filled man (we infer that he is advanced in years, though this is not stated) who was looking for “the consolation of Israel” because God had told him he would meet Messiah face to face during his lifetime. This is another great Christmas mini-story (Luke 2:25ff). When Mary and Jesus got to the temple, the Holy Spirit spoke to Simeon and revealed that this was the face of God’s promise! Then an 84-year-old prophetess named Anna got a similar revelation, and began to speak of Jesus to those who were looking for God’s redemption.

After this, Joseph, Mary and Jesus moved back to Nazareth (Luke 2:39). We are not sure how long they stayed there, but by Matthew 2:1 they are again living in Bethlehem. Many scholars believe they simply went to Nazareth to collect Joseph’s tools and a few other things, and then they moved to Bethlehem.

There are plenty of reasons for this supposition. Think about it. Mary isn’t confused about who the real Father is. Angels have spoken to you (or people you know) four times (this was as uncommon then as it is now!). Elizabeth and two people in God’s Temple have also confirmed that your son is the Messiah. We know from Mary’s song in Luke 1:46 that she knew the Scriptures well (it contains 15 quotes from the Old Testament).[4] Joseph was probably just as dedicated to the Word of God as Mary. They knew Jesus was the Son of David, so it made sense to raise Him in the “City of David” — Bethlehem. They had registered in Bethlehem because it was their “hometown,” so they had relatives there. They had already lived in Bethlehem 2 to 4 months waiting on the baby and then waiting on the dedication, so Joseph had time to develop contacts and start to establish a reputation as a carpenter. Who knows, I wouldn’t put it past God to arrange things so that Bethlehem needed a good carpenter at just this time! Finally, more evidence that they had moved to Bethlehem is found in Matt 2:21, as Joseph had originally planned to return to Bethlehem, not Nazareth, after the flight to Egypt. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Visit from the “Wise Men”

We are in Matthew chapter two, and now we come to another great mini-story: the account of the Wise Men. These guys are called Wise Men, Magi and even “Kings.” We really don’t know much about them, except that they came from “the East” (Babylon? the Far East? several places?). We don’t know how many there were (“three” according to tradition, but the Bible doesn’t say). They were likely learned astronomers or astrologers who counseled eastern leaders based on their interpretations of the movements of the stars.

What did they see that sent them to Israel looking for a new king? We are not sure, but modern astronomers have learned that some very unusual things occurred in space at about the time Jesus was born. I’m no expert, but some have noted an extremely rare conjunction of three planets — that is, it looked like three planets were in the same place in the night sky. Others talk about the “close approach” of the King Planet (Jupiter) to the King Star (Regulas). In June, 2 BC, you’ll find the brightest convergence of Jupiter and Venus (near Regulas) in 2000 years! Due to the “naked eye” limitations of First Century astronomy, observers might easily have called these a “new star.” These conjunctions took place in a constellation that was often associated with Israel in ancient times. Scholars say it would have been like a billboard or Heavenly Proclamation to people trained in such things: “NEW KING BORN IN ISRAEL!” So, they went to the capital of Israel (a logical place to look for a king), and that is where Matthew 2:1 picks up the story.

When Israel’s King Herod heard what the Magi were looking for, he was “troubled, and all Jerusalem with him”(2:3). Historians tell us that “all Jerusalem” had reason to be afraid. Herod was both a great leader and an extremely evil man! He had killed most of his own family in fear that they would take his place, so the Magi’s quest probably made him very angry. His priests sent the visitors to Bethlehem (where Scripture foretold Messiah’s birth). Herod then lied to the Wise Men and asked them to return if they found anything in Bethlehem so that “I too may come and worship him.” This was really the last thing in his mind.

In Matt 2:9ff we read of another mysterious star. Again, experts differ on what this was. Some note a conjunction of two planets about two years after the conjunction of three planets, while others talk about other celestial phenomena. We can’t rule out a local, supernatural phenomenon, either. I think they were watching a planet’s retrograde motion (their “wandering stars” were really planets that appear to stop and move backward, due to their and earth’s orbits around the sun). Whatever it was, this new star somehow “stopped over the place where the child was” (Mt 2:9 NIV).[8]

So, did the shepherds and Wise Men rub elbows in a stable, standing in the glow of a bright star on the night Jesus was born? Sorry. That is not what the Bible says. According to Matt 2:11, the Magi found Mary and Jesus in a “house” not a stable. This is another proof that the family had moved back to Bethlehem after the baby’s dedication in Jerusalem — they now had a house! The Bible also says the Wise Men saw a “Child,” not an infant — and yes, the Greek word indicates a toddler, not a baby.

The Magi had not been on a casual holiday. They may have searched for this Child for up to two years, and thus it is no wonder that they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” when they finally looked into the Messiah’s face. On bended knee they offered their gifts, which providentially would have come in very handy to finance the family’s flight to Egypt—which finally brings us to the end of the Christmas story, with Jesus fleeing as a refugee into Egypt.

So, there you have it. The Christmas Story in chronological order. It spans about three years, and takes place in Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Hills of Judea, Rome, Egypt, and some unknown country or countries in the East.

How is this Relevant to Us?

To me, the Wise Men and King Herod typify humanity’s experience with Christmas. Herod knew from Scripture about the Messiah, but he acted in fear and self-interest. He refused to believe and thereby forfeited the chance to see the Messiah in person. He then compounded his disgrace and eternal debt by killing all of the babies in Bethlehem under age two.[5] King Herod is the ultimate example of someone who “missed” Christmas.

On the other hand, the Wise Men believed the sign they got from Heaven—even though they were not even Jewish! They made a long search for the Child, and when they found Him they worshiped him and were filled with incredible joy. I can’t believe their lives were ever the same again. These men are the ultimate example of people who “find” Christmas.

The choice is ever before each of us. The path of doubt leads only to death. In Herod’s case it was both the death of innocent children, and his own death a year or two later.

The path of faith will be much harder. Mary risked losing her reputation and fiancée when she said yes to God. Joseph had to struggle with his choice. Shepherds had to leave their flocks and search door to door to find Jesus. Simeon and Anna had to wait — maybe for years — before they “found Christmas.” Finally, the Wise Men not only studied the skies and their parchments, but may have traveled and searched for two years before meeting Jesus face to face.

The Christmas story for each of these people has three things in common — and if we are to really “find Christmas” we need the same three things.

            1) A Word from Heaven was essential in pointing them to the Christ Child.

            2) They had to overcome some difficulty — or one might say they had to search with all their heart.

            3) They looked into the Face of God the Son.

Another favorite scripture comes to mind: (Jeremiah 29: 11-14)[6]  “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope… And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”

Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? God draws us, we look with all our hearts, and then we find Peace and Hope through the presence of a special Baby. There is an ornament on my Christmas tree that puts it this way: “When man reaches for God we call it religion; when God reaches for man we call it Christmas.”

“You will seek Me, and you will find Me, WHEN you SEARCH with ALL your heart…”[7]

I wrote a new song last week, with these thoughts in mind. I call it “They Found Christmas.”

They Found Christmas (by Michael Krigline, 12/8/01 Shanghai)

Something in heaven… a new star shining bright
Drew the wise men, who journeyed many nights
After asking kings and prophets, and going where they told
With bended knee and joyful hearts, they offered gifts of gold

They found Christmas, when they looked with all their heart
A Word from Heaven told them where to start
And from that moment nothing on earth could outshine or erase
The Christmas peace and love they found when they looked on Jesus’ face

Simeon waited… praying night and day
To see God’s Promise, before he passed away.
When Mary came, the Spirit called this man to turn his face
And see God’s revelation — a Light for every Race

He found Christmas…

He’d heard the whispers… King Herod was afraid
Maybe this Baby would take his place one day
He thought that swords could stop the God who’d made both Earth and Space
And many died, as did a king who chose to turn from Grace.

He missed Christmas, for he looked without his heart
Ignoring Heaven, Who’d told him where to start
And from that moment nothing on earth could cancel his disgrace
Or bring the Peace he could have found, if he’d looked on Jesus face.

Christmas offers all of us a chance to win or lose
And who we are forever depends on what we choose…

My friend was reading… Matthew chapter two
His heart caught fire… like mine, when these words were new
Wise men sought Him, and found great joy; now we’ve done the same
‘Cause we’ve found Jesus’ greatest gift: salvation in His Name

We found Christmas, when we looked with all our heart
A Word from Heaven told us where to start
And from that moment nothing on earth could outshine or erase
The Christmas peace and love we found when we looked on Jesus’ face

 

(You can listen for free to They Found Christmas on “Michael’s Music” page; text, words & music copyright Michael Krigline, 2001-02; see Use Policy for permissions.)

 

NOTES:

I learned much of this content while studying at Columbia International University. You can hear some of the same info on a “CIU Faculty Podcast with Dr. Croteau” at https://vimeo.com/304167025
[1]    We are not told why Mary went with him; maybe simply because they were engaged, maybe because her family was also from Bethlehem, or maybe because they had decided to move to David’s hometown in order to rear the “Son of David.”
[2]    The Greek word often rendered “inn” (Luke 2:7) in the Christmas story is katalyma, which is translated “upper room” elsewhere (as in “the Last Supper” Mark 14:14). During the time of King James English translation, the term “Inn” was suitable since most inns were similar to a modern “Bed and Breakfast,” which opened a spare room for guests. Historians and archeologists tell us that “inns” were only found on busy roads, and Bethlehem was not on such a road. Jericho was, and thus a different Greek word is used for the “inn” where the “good Samaritan” took his injured victim. In Bethlehem, the “upper room” was probably already crowded with guests (elders always would have been given this place), and so the family converted their “stable” (sort of a first-century “front porch” or entryway on the street level, open to the outside and used for animals at night) into a more-or-less private room. Even the phrase “no room” can be translated “not the place,” and a crowded, small Bethlehem home would be “not the place” to have a baby, if a more private “entryway” could be made available. Since Mary had been in Bethlehem for some time before the birth, there would have been plenty of time to thoroughly clean out the area and make the conversion. From God’s perspective, maybe the “public stable” was a better location than the “private upper room” anyway; otherwise the shepherds would have never been allowed to enter—and God was trying to show that This Baby was being born for all people. (Alternately, some hold that the “manger” was in a “cave” or separate “stable”—which are equally possible according to the sparse text of the momentous event. Extra-biblical narratives that added color and details date back to several centuries after the birth.)
[3]    Notice that the shepherds were led by angels. There is no record of them “seeing the star” of the Wise Men—see below.
[4]    Perhaps this is why God chose Mary—she was extraordinary in a time when Rabbi’s were forbidden to teach the Bible to females.
[5]    Estimates vary, but probably around 30-40 children within Bethlehem’s population of around 1000.
[6]    “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations…” Jeremiah 29: 11-14
[7]    “But from (exile) you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29)
[8, added in 2009 ]

What did the Wise Men see?

There’s so much more that could be said about the mysterious star(s). Page 313 of Faith of Our Fathers by Chan Kei Thong shows Chinese court records from around 5 B.C. during the Han dynasty telling of a comet that was visible for 70 days; the time given coincides with the best modern estimates of the time of Jesus’ birth. The first century Chinese astronomers added: “The appearance of this comet undoubtedly symbolizes change. The extended appearance of this comet indicates that this is of great importance.” Perhaps this is what the “wise men” saw — surely, the “star” was visible all over the planet. Interestingly, the Chinese records also note a second comet about 13 months later; perhaps this is the second “mysterious star.”

Furthermore, a 2003 book says that Liu Shang — chief astrologer of the Han court at the time of Christ’s birth — disappeared for two years after discovering a new star called the “king star.” (p5, PHattaway) Could this Chinese scientist have been one of the “Wise Men from the East”?

For a remarkable presentation on what the sky looked like around the time of Jesus, find “The Star of Bethlehem” (Rick Larson 2009).

 

Scriptures quoted on this website are primarily from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc.) 1982; also on line at www.biblegateway.com

For more information about Christianity, check out https://peacewithgod.net/

(For more information about Christmas, see these Christmas pages (underlined topics are on EFLsuccess.com or Krigline.com; others are on our older website): the traditional Christmas story, who is Santa (圣诞老人)?, candy canes, Christmas Perspectives (poem), and the pre-Christmas Advent season. Also look for Christmas wallpaper on our old website. You’ll also find movie study guides on this website (or our old site) for some great holiday films: A Snoopy/Charlie Brown Christmas, Last Holiday, White Christmas, The Grinch, Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life)

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©2009 Michael Krigline. For contact info, visit About Us. For privacy info or to make a contribution, see our Website Standards and Use Policy page (under “About Us”).

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