Growing up, it appeared to me like there were so many different, can’t-be-merged-together stories about the birth of Jesus. But after I was able to make sense of all the stories reported in Mathew and Luke, it has been my desire to share with anyone as confused as I was growing up.
Here is my attempt to help you make sense of all the many stories surrounding the birth of Jesus as revealed in Mathew and Luke.
- The story starts some 15 months before Christmas day. Zachariah, a righteous man, was in the temple performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division (Luke 1:5-9). And an angel of the Lord appeared to him standing to the right of the altar of incense. The angel told him his petition had been heard and his wife Elizabeth will bear a son. He went on to tell him about what would become of his son when he grows up and enters into his prophetic ministry. But Zachariah doubted the angel’s word, which is confusing, seeing that he had been praying about this same thing as the angel himself affirmed in Luke 1:13. Why was he praying about something that if the Lord were to answer, he wouldn’t believe? Not even if a supernatural being stood in front of him in the temple to deliver the news? But that’s not the point of this article.
- 6 months after Zachariah’s visitation, the same angel visits Mary the virgin. The angel tells her she has found favor with God. Now what you’ll expect to follow isn’t what follows. The favor isn’t about wealth or health, but a child “outside wedlock”. Perplexed, she asked the angel “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” her question is valid, unlike that of Zachariah, who was praying for a child, had a wife, knew the story of Abraham and Sarah, and knew that nothing is hard for Yahweh. So the angel tells her the son won’t come by ordinary generation, but by incarnation: the Holy Spirit coming upon her to form the promised seed of the woman (Gen 3:15). The angel mentions to her before his departure that her relative Elizabeth is also pregnant (Luke 1:36).
- She departs immediately to see Elizabeth which may have taken 5-7 days. And as soon as she walked in and greeted Elizabeth, John- the baby in the womb leaped and Elizabeth was filled with Holy Spirit. It turns out Mary was pregnant already, just like the angel said. The word of the Lord was fulfilled immediately upon Mary’s submission to the Lord’s purposes (Luke 1:38) and upon her believing the word of the Lord to her (Luke 1:45). So Mary stayed with Elizabeth for another 3 months (Luke 1:56), which may mean she left upon seeing the birth of John.
- When she returned back to Nazareth, her hometown, to her people and her fianceé- Joseph, he discovered she was pregnant already (Matt 1:18), I mean she’s probably in her second trimester and it’s become quite obvious she’s pregnant- I’m guessing the morning and evening gossip at the well was hot! But I digress. So Joseph planned to divorce her secretly to cover the shame (Matt 1:19). He wasn’t responsible and you can imagine his concern that his good, righteous name would be dragged into this seemingly shameful story. He was within his rights according to Moses to put her away for adultery. But while he was considering this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and cleared the matter up. The angel told him the child is by incarnation. So that cleared up his suspicion of adultery. And as a righteous man, he did what righteous men do when he woke up, he obeyed the word of God and took Mary as his wife (Matt 1:20-24). This couldn’t have been easy. The whole community probably knew the story. They knew the child wasn’t his. But Mary and Joseph like other righteous men, “…experienced mockings and floggings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented (people of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts, on mountains, and sheltering in caves and holes in the ground. And like men of old, they gained approval through their faith.”Hebrews 11: 35-39
- Some 6 months after, Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus had decreed that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth (Luke 2:1). She went into labor in Bethlehem because there wasn’t any room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7), she went into a barn, gave birth to her son, wrapped him, and laid him in a long trough from which cattle feed (manger). That was all that was available for the King of glory (Luke 2:7).
- As soon as the child was born, an angel appeared to some shepherds in the same region and announced the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:9). As soon as he was done announcing, a multitude of angels appeared praising God. When the angels had gone away, the shepherds went straight to find out about the news the angel had delivered to them. Found it to be exactly as was told them and praised God (Luke 2:15-20)
- After eight days, they took baby Jesus to the temple for circumcision and met another righteous man named Simeon in the temple. He had been looking for the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25). He blessed God for the gift of His son (Luke 2:28). When they were done with the circumcision, they met another righteous woman- Anna who began giving thanks to God for the gift of His son as well. When they were done, they returned to their house. All of this happened in Bethlehem, not Nazareth.
- Some 2 years later, some unnumbered magi (magicians or astrologers) found their way to Jerusalem. I said unnumbered because their number wasn’t given by Mathew. Your idea of 3 stems from the number of gifts they brought. You see they were from the east (Persia) and saw the star of a King in their home country (possibly a supernatural reality like what happened with Israel in the desert) and according to them, have come to worship Him. After discussing with King Herod and the chief priests, they were told that Bethlehem is where they really want to go since a prophecy many years ago said this King would be born in Bethlehem. They journeyed some more miles to Bethlehem to see the King. The star helped them locate the exact house the child was in. House not stall (Matt 2:11), because at this point it’s been 2 or so years since His birth in the stall. They, like everyone else who had been supernaturally told about the birth of Jesus, worshiped and were exceedingly joyful. But why do I keep saying the Magi visitation happened 2 or so years after? Well for starters, it takes a while from Persia to Jerusalem using camels. Let’s say 4-5 months at least. But there are some verses that tell us the child was older than 5 months.
- Matt 2:7. “The exact time the star appeared”. since the star was an indication of His birth, it means the star appeared when He was born not when Mary was still pregnant.
- Matt 2:16. “According to the time which he had determined from the magi”. it was upon the time they gave him that prompted Herod to murder children two years old and under
- But an angel of the Lord already warned Joseph to flee with the child to Egypt because Herod was going to search for the child to destroy Him (Matt 2:13). Righteous Joseph obeyed God and fled.
- After Herod died, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph to take the child back to Israel. But after being warned by God in another dream, Joseph decided to return to his own city, Nazareth (Matt 2:22-23, Luke 2:39), and they lived happily ever after! Or did they? To be continued…