At Christmas time, we love the nativity story, especially if you have little children acting it out as cute angels and shepherds in a DIY stable. But we miss a lot, by looking at it with our 21st Century Western assumptions and using a word that has historically been badly translated!
Luke 2:7 No room in the inn?
It would have been unthinkable for a family returning to their home town to have been made unwelcome. So we read this text wrongly! We see this passage with Western eyes and miss a lot. An ancient Middle Eastern house was often a simple two level, one room affair. The bottom section was where the animals were kept at night. The feeding mangers were between the two. (Source ‘Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes’).
Some would have a guest room, or a little room made on top (like the widow made for Elijah in the OT). The text should be correctly translated “no room in the guest room”, not no room in the local pub! Jesus was laid in a manger in the main room everyone was in, because their family guest room was already full or they didn’t have one.
Why announce the birth to the shepherds?
We get why Jesus’ birth was worked out by the wise men – wise men seek God and follow Jesus. You have probably been told the angels came to the shepherds at the other end of the social pecking order, to show us that Jesus is for everyone – the intelligentsia, the common man and the poor.
There’s a whole other level to the shepherds though.
The Jews wrote lots of books of commentary on their faith. The second Century Mishnah – states that the flocks between Jerusalem and Bethlehem are for the temple sacrifices. Males for burnt offerings – to be a sin sacrifice and female ones for peace offerings, for worship.
Most religions recognise there is a gap between us and God – caused by sin, the wrong things that we do, say or think that are wrong. God gave the Jews a system of individual and community sacrifices to deal with their sin. But they needed to be repeated every time one became aware of a sin – the temple did two lamb sacrifices a day as part of normal rituals – 730 a year and many more for the Passover festival where every family sacrificed a lamb. So you can imagine shepherds breeding thousands of lambs for sacrifice. These shepherds looked after lambs being bred for sacrifice.
The OT shows us that sacrifices were bound, often in swaddling cloths, to subdue and protect them before sacrifice. So a shepherd finds a perfect lamb without blemish and would wrap it up and place it in a manger at the Migdal Edger (tower of the flock) on the hills around Bethlehem. The priest would inspect it and take it for sacrifice if it was good enough.
Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, Micah prophesied “And you tower of the flock, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem”. (Micah 4:8)
Later on with a little later more clarity: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.” (Micah 5:2-5)
An angel comes to these shepherds to announce the Saviour has finally come -‘And this is the sign – the Saviour is a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths in a manger’. How pregnant with meaning does that suddenly become?! The shepherds have been breeding thousands of lambs for daily sacrifice and now the Saviour has come, all wrapped up, perfect and without blemish. He will grow up to be a perfect, once and for all, sacrifice for the sins of the world.
When John the Baptist saw Jesus as a grown up he declared in John 1:29 “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
US Pakistani ex Muslim, now Christian pastor, Naeem Fazal tells the story of talking with a Muslim at a student event and asking if he remembered making sacrifices for sin as a child in Pakistan? Yes. Did you sometimes get together as a couple of families and make a bigger sacrifice? Yes. How big a sacrifice would it be for the sins of the whole world? ‘Oh that would take a God sized sacrifice’ was the answer.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away our sin. The Jews used to put a hand on the lamb that was to be sacrificed to transfer all the sin on it before it was killed. We put our trust, or faith in Jesus as the perfect lamb of God who was born and laid in a manger, just like the sacrificial lambs, but grew to be a final sacrifice to take away our sin.
If you haven’t done so yet, will you put your trust in Him today?
Pray along with me..
Jesus thank you that you are the Lamb of God everyone was waiting for. Thank you that you are the God sized sacrifice that will cover all of our sin. Today I ask that you apply that sacrifice to me. Take away my sin and cleanse all my guilt and shame. Fill me with your Spirit to make me brand new and help me to follow you as my Lord. In the name of Jesus, Amen.
P.S. I’ve been mightily impacted by ‘The Good God’ by Michael Reeves this last week – well worth buying and reading! It’s about the trinity and how the trinity is the perfect extension of the Father’s love flowing out to Jesus and onto us in the Holy Spirit. Breathtakingly good stuff.