During the Christmas season, it is common to see all kinds of Nativity scenes commemorating Jesus’ birth that might be plastic, wooden, or “living” (filled with real people as if in a play).
No matter what they are made of, many of them depict a clean, colorful, and haloed baby Jesus with his family and a few small animals underneath a wooden shelter.
But while many people know that the Nativity was not quite so sanitary or calm, there are other details that are assumed or speculated about. As one author writes,
People usually imagine the manger scene with snow, singing angels, many worshipers, and a little drummer boy…. Christmas has become the product of an odd mixture of pagan ideas, superstition, fanciful legends, and plain ignorance. Add to that the commercialization of Christmas by marketers and the politicization of Christmas in the culture wars, and you’re left with one big mess.
A quick reading of Scripture (such as in Luke 2) dispels much of these speculations, but we are still left figuring out a few other details, such as the date and location.
Where Was Jesus Born?
Luke tells us that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7, ESV).
There is no way to know the actual date that this happened (because early Christians did not seem to celebrate it), although scholars assume that it occurred, at the latest, in October because shepherds were “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8).
Also, while we can be confident that Jesus’ birth took place near an inn (a lodging place for guests) in the small town of Bethlehem a few miles south of Jerusalem, we do not know much about the manger or whether there were animals roaming around or not.
We can, however, be confident that Joseph was not a king and Mary was not a queen and there were no butlers or chauffeurs, no nurses or scrubs, no cameras or spotlights, and no pictures on Instagram or videos on YouTube.
They were outside (probably) without running water, air-conditioning or heat, hand sanitizer, or gloves and the only visitors at this point were shepherds (well… and angels).
From a short word and context study, the manger must have been a make-shift cradle borrowed from an animal’s feeding trough (confirming what the angels told the shepherds). This is far from the ornate and (at least) clean birth experience that a king deserves.
Instead of a crib of gold with pomp and pronouncement, the eternal Son of God was born, wrapped up in strips of cloth, and then quietly laid in a rough-hewn humble manger probably made out of wood or stone with bits of food stuck to the bottom.
As the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer poetically wrote, “God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.”
The children’s Christmas carol that has been popular nearly since the day it was written about 150 years ago, “Away in a Manger” describes the scene like this:
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
The question that is difficult for us to answer is whether this manger was out in the open beneath the stars, under a drafty wooden shelter, inside of a back or lower room of a house, or inside of a cave.
While the earthly birthplace of Jesus is traditionally a wooden stable, historical records suggest that during the first-century animals were often kept in caves (or “grottoes”).
A cave birth made sense to several early historians (such as Justin Martyr, Origen, and Alfred Edersheim) and would be a great foreshadowing of where Jesus would eventually be wrapped up and laid in years later after his death on the cross.
Is it Important?
Scripture is unclear as to what kind of shelter Mary and Joseph found on the night Jesus was born. This leads us to assume that the specific location is simply unimportant.
However, the detail that is of crucial importance to the story is the fact that there was no room in the inn for Jesus to be born. Even while he was still in the womb, Jesus experienced rejection by the people he came to live among.
John put it like this: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11, ESV). Dr. Ray Pritchard wrote that “[Jesus’] humiliation started early and continued to the very end... He was an ‘outsider’ in every sense — he came from ‘outside’ this earth, he was born ‘outside’ the inn, and he died ‘outside’ the city walls…”
He was not wanted, and it is still so. Our lost society, much of the religious world, and even many so-called “Christians” still have “no room” for Christ. This is the human condition that Paul described when he wrote:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one… in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes (Romans 3:10–18, ESV).
John similarly describes our humanity like this: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19, ESV).
Therefore, the manger within the cave, stable, or house leads us to remember the whole gospel. The Son of Man left the “heights of Heaven’s glory” and came down to our level to “identify himself with human suffering.” As another author describes it, “without the Christmas Cradle we would not have the Calvary Cross.”
God sent his Son to earth to be conceived by a poor virgin woman, take on flesh in lowly surroundings, live a sinless life, die as the perfect Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29; 1 John 3:5), rise again three days later, and then ascend to Heaven to sit by the Father and intercede on our behalf (Acts 5:31; Hebrews 7:25,10:12).
And why would Jesus do all this? Why would he (as Pritchard wrote) “be treated like a vagrant or a criminal” even though “he deserves the best the world has to offer”? Why would the eternally “rich” Jesus become “poor for our sakes” (2 Corinthians 8:9, ESV)?
Because of love.
John tells us that God “so loved” us that “he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV).
In that same passage, we find that God did not send Jesus into the world to offer condemnation, but to make a way to escape the condemnation we already had because of our sin.
The manger reveals how “approachable, accessible, and available [that] Jesus is to sinners.” The true message of Christmas is that God gave us a present to demonstrate his love for us “not wrapped in satin sheets, but in common rags.”
And still, today, as Chuck Colson points out, while the earthly incarnation of Jesus set God’s plan of redemption in motion, when he ascended back to Heaven later he left behind an “occupying force” called the “Church” that is empowered by the Holy Spirit to “carry on the work of redemption until Jesus returns” and “...every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9–11, ESV).
What Does This Mean?
This means that Bethlehem was only the “starting point” for the most influential, inspirational life ever lived. Therefore, we must not stop our gaze at the Nativity scenes around us but look beyond them to the cross and then the empty tomb.
As we enjoy the season of Christmas and everything that it involves, let us focus on the gospel and not forget the humility and poverty that Jesus put himself into that we “by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9, ESV).
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Boonyachoat
Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.