Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. But Christmas music and movies often neglect to mention Jesus at all, focusing more on Father Christmas or Santa Claus, sentimentality, or just “the spirit of Christmas.” Even church Christmas carols, pageants, and cantatas often fail to present an unembellished Christmas history.
The Bible is our authority for faith and practice, and all of Scripture points to the majestic Son of God as the only deliverer who can save people from sin. The history of the Bible is a reliable collection of eyewitness testimonies from both God as author and through the various men who wrote the Scripture (2 Peter 1:19–21). The best parents can do to help their children recognize the importance of Christmas is simply to read Scripture to them.
Since Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’ birth, we should learn more about who this person is. From the beginning of the nativity accounts in the Bible, we learn of the full person and work of Jesus. One way to discover more about Jesus is by studying the many names given to him in Scripture.
You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21)
Jesus’ proper name was given by God to communicate his identity and purpose. The name Jesus comes from the Hebrew name Yehoshua (“Joshua”) or Y’shua. Many people in the Old Testament and at least one other person in the New Testament (Colossians 4:11) are given this name, which means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” The angel Gabriel explicitly stated to Mary that this Child’s work would be to “save his people from their sins.” Jesus himself said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1)
Jesus is often identified as the Christ. The Greek-based word Christ corresponds to the Hebrew word from which we get Messiah (John 1:41; 4:25). This is not his last name, as we might expect, but is a title meaning “anointed one.” Sometimes in the Bible his name is written “Christ Jesus,” “Jesus the Christ,” or simply “Christ.” God promised that his Christ would save his people (Habakkuk 3:13; cf. Isaiah 52:13–53:12) and rule over the nations (Psalm 2:1–12; 18:50).
Jesus is given many names in Scripture, which you could study with your children. Here are a few of them:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:1–2)
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem. (Matthew 2:1)
The Bible does not tell us the precise year that Jesus was born, but the traditional range is from 6 to 4 BC.1 We learn from the Bible that his birth happened during the reigns of Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, who ruled from 27 BC to AD 14, and Herod the Great, king of the Jews, who ruled from 37 to 4 BC.2 Herod’s order to kill all the boys in the region around Bethlehem “who were two years old or under” (see Matthew 2:16) suggests that Jesus’ birth could have been at least as early as 6 BC.
Jesus’ birth occurred in relation to a registration (a census for the purpose of calculating taxes) administered “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). The Roman historian Josephus recorded that a census occurred in AD 6, which is obviously after Herod had died. But Luke noted that the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth was the first one under Quirinius’s leadership, during his apparent first term as Roman ruler in the region from 12 to 2 BC. So the range of years of Jesus’ birth fits within these other historical parameters.
The range of years of Jesus’ birth fits within these other historical parameters.
The Bible does not give us a precise month or day of Jesus’ birth. In written accounts from the early part of the third century, church leaders observed December 25 as the day of Jesus’ birth.3 Also early in church history, January 6 was regarded as the date of the magi’s visit to Jesus, and later of Jesus’ baptism. The days between December 25 and January 6 became known as the 12 days of Christmas. Though the Bible is not definite about these details, Christians have gladly commemorated Jesus’ birth on December 25 for nearly 1,800 years.
Many retellings of Jesus’ nativity imply that Mary gave birth to Jesus as soon as they arrived in Bethlehem. But Luke’s account suggest that some time had elapsed between their arrival and his birth, since he says, “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth” (Luke 2:6). This fact also relates to the location of Jesus’ birth, since many assume that the urgency of Mary’s labor and delivery required a makeshift solution in a stable. But this conclusion is unwarranted based on the biblical record regarding the location of Jesus’ birth.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she 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 2:4–7)
Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem, about five miles south of Jerusalem in the tribal allotment of Judah (Judea). This is the ancestral home of David, king of Israel (Ruth 4:11, 17–22; 1 Samuel 16:1, 17:12), and was even called “the city of David” in Luke’s account (Luke 2:4, 11), though this designation typically refers to the city David conquered from the Jebusites on the southern hill of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:6–10). In many ways Jesus is the ultimate “son of David,” including being born in David’s own town.
The wise men came first to the capital city Jerusalem where they expected to find the newborn king of the Jews (Matthew 2:1–2). When Herod heard about their search, understanding that they were seeking the Jewish Messiah, he asked the religious leaders where this king was to be born. They unhesitatingly identified Bethlehem as the place, quoting the prophet Micah,
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,4
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 of old,
from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)
Not only is the place of Jesus’ birth understood, his identity as the ultimate son of David is repeatedly confirmed, especially that he will rule as king.
The Scripture records that the newborn Jesus was placed “in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). At least three things should be understood from this verse. First, Jesus was placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. While we tend to think of this situation to be better suited for a barn or other building separate from the family dwelling, common houses in the first century typically featured a space for animals on the ground floor.5 This first-floor location would have been accessible to the shepherds as they acted upon the angel’s direction to find Christ “lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
Because Joseph had returned to the town of his ancestors, he would customarily have sought out relatives to stay with in their house during their visit.
Second, the word kataluma here translated “inn” most likely does not refer to a hotel (pandocheion in Luke 10:34) or a tavern (tabernai in Acts 28:15), and there is no mention of an innkeeper (pandocheus in Luke 10:35) who provided temporary shelter to the family. While the word can refer generally to any kind of lodging place, it can also refer specifically to the upper room of a two-story house, such as the place where Jesus shared his Passover meal with his disciples (kataluma is translated as “guest room” in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11). Because Joseph had returned to the town of his ancestors, he would customarily have sought out relatives to stay with in their house during their visit. Also, when the magi later visit the infant king, they find him in a house (Matthew 2:11). So we should conclude that the lodging for the duration of their time in Bethlehem was in a private house.
Third, there was “no room” for the family in the kataluma, possibly because it was already crowded with family members. We should not take this phrase “because there was no room for them” to imply that this was because of hardheartedness or reluctance on the part of others to help Mary and Joseph. It seems to principally refer to the lack of physical space for all that was going on at the time. Another consideration is the desire for privacy during Mary’s labor and delivery, so she and Joseph might not have remained in the guest room with the rest of the extended family.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel [Isaiah 7:14]
(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18–25)
Normally by God’s special design both a man and woman come together physically in the covenantal companionship of marriage to conceive a child. Mary was a young lady who had promised to marry a man named Joseph. Their engagement was a time of preparation for marriage, and both Mary and Joseph wanted to please God by their lives as they obediently submitted to his will. Mary specifically “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30, see also verse 28), and God fulfilled his centuries-old promise to bring his Son into the world through her (Genesis 3:15). So in the conception of Jesus, God the Holy Spirit would “come upon” Mary and “overshadow” her so that the Child would be called “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19–20)
When we talk about Jesus’ incarnation (from the Latin verb meaning “to be in the flesh”), we mean that the eternal Son of God was “born in the likeness of men” and was “found in human form,” that is, with a physical body just like us (Philippians 2:7–8). Why was this necessary? Because God promised to deliver sinful people through a human child of woman (Genesis 3:15; Matthew 1:21). God says that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), but “that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). Jesus lived a sinless life, and he died as an innocent substitute in the place of sinners, so that God’s holy wrath could be satisfied for those who trust in him. This is just what John the Baptist said of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Celebrate Jesus Christ this Christmas! Lead your children into the true history of who Jesus is and what he has done for sinners like us. Enjoy the holiday and pray that Jesus would return to earth soon.
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)