The Real Story of the First Christmas
It's Not What We've Been Told - It's Better!
December 21, 2020
We might as well face it. We are human. We cannot leave a good thing alone. We think we can improve on just about anything.
Look at the “urban legends” we all receive in our email boxes. As unbelievable as most are, unbelievably, most started with at least a grain of truth. Like the old “telephone” game, as people received them, if they liked the legend many added their own tweak or “fact” to make it better. If the original writer of the legend were to receive the final version in his or her email box, they would not recognize it.
And so it is with the story of the first Christmas. If the people who were there were to hear our idealized and sanitized version of what happened in Bethlehem they would ask, “What are these people talking about? That is not the way it was!”
We all love the Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” In fact, Bing Crosby’s rendition of it is the third most popular song of all time.
Unfortunately, this song and other carols, along with the many embellishments to the true story added over the years, paint an unrealistic and unbiblical scene that detracts from the spiritual truth of what occurred. Rather than a peaceful, serene, and idyllic time for Mary, Joseph, and their newborn baby, the greatest spiritual battle the world had ever seen was taking place as the first Christmas unfolded.
Before we get to that, let us look at a few of the more obvious differences between the legend and the reality. How peaceful and serene was the scene in the stable in Bethlehem?
If you have ever been present at the birth of a child, particularly a mother’s first, you know it is anything but quiet and serene. As a paramedic in my younger days, I have assisted at the birth of dozens of babies. (Notice the word “assisted.” If any paramedic or other medical professional tells you that they “delivered a baby,” tell them to stop lying. The mother does all the hard work of “delivering” the child. All we can do is catch the baby and try to keep mom comfortable during labor.)
We gloss over the birth of Jesus itself, because childbirth is painful, noisy, and messy. But just as Jesus was not spared the pain on the cross, there is no indication in the Bible that Mary was spared the pain of childbirth. She certainly did not get a spinal block to deaden the pain. The point is that a lot of screaming and crying normally accompany childbirth. It is not simply hard labor; it is battle. Most people witnessing childbirth for the first time find it unsettling, and even a little scary. They have never seen anyone suffer like that. Those smiling sheep and cows we see in the manger scenes? Forget it. They were probably hiding in the corner to get as far away from the sounds of pain as possible.
How about the timing? Was Jesus born on December 25th? Not even close. Unless they were very dumb, or impervious to cold weather, the shepherds would not have been “…living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” at the time of Jesus’ birth. (Luke 2:8). According to Bible commentator Adam Clarke, it was customary for the Jews to send their sheep to pasture from the spring until early October. According to most scholars, the most likely time that Jesus was born was in the Jewish month of Tishri, which starts in mid-September.
What about the manger that we have heard so much about? We think of it like a baby’s cradle, and in fact Mary and Joseph did use it as a makeshift crib. But the manger was a feeding trough for animals. It was coated with cow slobber, old moldy grain, and a plentiful supply of bacteria. Even with a blanket covering the worst of it, it was not a place you would want to lay your baby. But they had no choice. There was no room for the Son of God anywhere else.
And what about the Three Kings? Well, they were not kings. We get that misconception from the Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” The Bible does not say they were kings; it calls them Magi, which means wise men. They were probably professors or researchers who advised their governments and were sent by them; or they may have come of their own accord. Nor does the Bible say there were three Magi. There could have been many more. We assume that there were three because the Bible mentions three gifts. But there could have been many more gifts, and the Scripture just mention the most outstanding among them.
Finally, it is quite likely that the Wise Men did not visit Jesus at the time of His birth. The Bible certainly does not say they did, but our traditions interpret the Bible that way. The Bible notes the presence of rejoicing shepherds on what has become known as Christmas, but there is no mention of the Magi at that time. The only reason we think there were there at His birth is that our children dressed in bathrobes and crowns to appear in our nativity scenes. In truth, the fact that Herod ordered all the male children under two years of age to be murdered makes it more likely that they visited and worshipped Jesus later. In Matthew, the second chapter Jesus is referred to as “the young Child” nine times and is never called a baby. Joseph and Mary probably settled in Bethlehem and only left when their young son’s life was threatened.
But these are minor discrepancies. Much more important, what was really going on behind the (Nativity) scene? It was a battle between good and evil that makes any multi-million-dollar thriller (even Star Wars!) look peaceful by comparison. God was about to change the world for good – forever. And Satan was determined to do whatever it took to thwart God’s plan. The violence and brutality that were about to be unleashed surpassed any conflict in human history.
God is omniscient. That means He knows everything. Satan is not omniscient, but he reads Scripture. (Satan reads the Bible? Of course. That is how he learns what God has up His sleeve.)
Dr. Peter Stoner is the Chairman of the Departments of Mathematics and Astronomy at Pasadena College. He loves studying Bible prophecy. So, he enlisted the aid of 600 students from the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to look at just eight of those 300 specific prophecies about Jesus. They used extremely conservative probabilities for each one being fulfilled, and then considered the odds of Jesus fulfilling all eight of them. The conclusions were astonishing. The probability that anyone could satisfy all eight of those prophecies was one in one trillion. But Jesus did fulfill all of them, and hundreds more.
Dr. Stoner described it this way…
"Let us try to visualize this chance. If you mark one of ten tickets, and place all the tickets in a hat, and thoroughly stir them, and then ask a blindfolded man to draw one, his chance of getting the right ticket is one in ten. Suppose that we take a trillion silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover the whole state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state.
"Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man, from their day to the present time, providing they wrote using their own wisdom."
Satan knew that the more than 300 prophecies about Jesus found in the Old Testament prophecies were true because many of them had already been fulfilled by the time Jesus was born. So, he knew that a male Child would be born in Bethlehem – and he informed his servant, King Herod, of the danger to their kingdom of darkness.
Satan chose Herod to be the assassin of Jesus because he was by nature a violent and brutal man. He had murdered his wife and his own sons. Why not murder the Son of God, as well?
In the Christmas story as related in Matthew we see hints of the ongoing spiritual warfare, and of the violence to come. The Magi had followed a star to find the future King of Israel. As they traveled through Jerusalem they asked around: “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.” (Matthew 2:2).
When Herod heard of the threat to his kingdom, he was furious. He asked the religious Jews where the Messiah would be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem in Judea, 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.’” (Matthew 2:5 & 6).
Herod called the Magi to meet with him secretly. He thought he could trick them into leading him to the Child. He ordered them to go to Bethlehem and to inform him where he could find Jesus, claiming he wanted to worship Him as well. After they found the baby Jesus, the Magi gave him precious gifts and worshipped him. At this point they still believed Herod and planned to tell him where they had found Jesus as they passed back through Jerusalem on their way home.
But God foiled Herod’s dastardly plot. "And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi left for their own country by another way." (Matthew 2:12). Herod should not have trusted the Magi. He should have put a GPS tracker on their camels.
When Herod realized he had been tricked by the wise men, he blew up. Possessed by one of Satan’s demons, he fell into a furious rage. He knew from Old Testament prophecy that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, but he did not know who He was. So, he ordered the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem and the surrounding area under the age of two. (Matthew 2:16). This unbelievable brutality fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15).
But God used a dream again to thwart Satan and his evil servant Herod. He appeared to Joseph and warned him of the danger. He told Joseph to go to Egypt in the middle of the night. (Matthew 2:14, 15). After Herod died, the Lord appeared to Joseph in yet another dream, directing him to return to Israel. Then, “Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”
Parenthetically, for those who ridicule Christians today who hear from God through dreams, be extremely careful. When God uses the Holy Spirit to speak to his people, anyone who attributes the work of God’s Spirit to Satan commits blasphemy. God used dreams four times in this one chapter to warn and direct His people. Because of those dreams, Jesus was saved from the fate of the hundreds of young boys in Bethlehem.
Most Christians are familiar with two accounts of the Christmas Story – one found in the first two chapters of Luke, and the other in the first two Chapters of Matthew, from which I have been quoting. But there is a third Christmas Story that is rarely mentioned at Christmas time. It is found in the Book of Revelation.
ISRAEL: “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. (Revelation 12:1,2).
SATAN: Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child. (Revelation 12:3,4).
CHRIST: “And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.” (Revelation 12:5). As he prophesies about the end times John provides a unique perspective on what was actually happening as Jesus was born. He describes a time of great spiritual battle.
In Verses 1and 2 he describes the woman who would give birth to Jesus. She is depicted as being clothed in the sun with the moon under her feet and wearing a crown of 12 stars. Who is this woman?
Some believe this is a reference to Mary. But scholars believe the woman portrayed is Israel. In fact, this is how the New American Standard Version names this section: “The Woman, Israel.” Joseph used the same terminology — sun, moon, stars — to describe the sons of Jacob who would form God’s chosen nation (Genesis 37:9). Israel was birthing the Redeemer, and God chose Mary as the woman do it.
We see in verse 5 a reference to the male child [Christ] who would rule the earth and join God at His throne. At this time, when Jesus was born, and starting to grow up, He is not directly involved in the warfare. Instead, a “heavenly Host” of His angels join in the fight against Satan to defend their Lord.
Most important, John shows us what was happening during and following Jesus’ birth. The red dragon is Satan, lying in wait to kill the young King. In reality Christmas was not a time of peace, but rather a time of great conflict as God in flesh appeared on earth to redeem man and defeat the hordes of demons led by Satan.
As Christmas carols play comfortingly during this wonderful season, most of us are totally unaware of the brutal conflict that was waged in the heavenlies (the unseen spiritual realm) at the first Christmas.
John also suggests this was also the time that Michael the Archangel drove Satan and a third of the angels out of heaven (Revelation 12:7-10). It is highly unlikely that they would have gone without a fight.
There is more evidence of this battle when “a multitude of the heavenly host” shows up singing praises to God. (Luke 2:13). We think of the heavenly host as a choir of angels celebrating the birth of Jesus – because that is the way they are depicted on the Christmas cards!
However, the word “host” in this verse describes something quite different. The Greek word “stratia” means an “army.” This was not a choir with their long robes. These were armored and helmeted, somber warriors, armed with shields, swords, and spears. They were ready for the battle. This was an army of angelic army sent by God to defeat the red dragon and drive Satan and his angels-turned-demons out of God’s presence.
We see the same word used in 2 Corinthians 10:4 to describe warfare. “For the weapons of our warfare [stratia] are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. (2 Corinthians 10:4 NASV).
Our oft-repeated Christmas stories, manger scenes and Christmas cards depict the babe in a manger, the star overhead, the Wise Men giving gifts to Christ, and a host of angels singing praises over the barn. Perhaps they should focus instead on the spiritual warfare that was taking place: the red dragon trying to kill Jesus, Herod slaughtering children, and the heavenly hosts defeating Satan in his attempts to assassinate the King of Kings before He could begin His ministry.
Such scenes are not as pretty or heart-warming as the ones we are used to. But they are the true message of Christmas: God forcefully invaded Satan’s dominion, the earth, with the incarnation of Jesus. This set in motion the events that would lead Satan’s crushing defeat at the cross. Yes, we should rejoice in Jesus’ birth and celebrate it. But the spiritual warfare that resulted in the overwhelming defeat of Satan is the more important message we should learn from the Christmas Story.
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