You probably recognize this scene:
Bethlehem (around 2,000 years ago): Joseph and Mary arrive at the sleepy town in the middle of the night. Mary, already in labor, remains on the donkey while Joseph frantically searches for a room at the local inns. Desperate, he begs one reluctant innkeeper for any place at all to have this baby. The innkeeper finally relents and makes room for them in a tumbledown stable with the cows.
There’s just one problem. This isn’t what the Bible teaches. The true history has gotten choked out by myth. Stories, plays, and movies have dramatized the event for the sake of entertainment, but the real birth account is a bit different. Here’s what Luke tells us:
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into 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 wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn [kataluma]. (Luke 2:4–7)
Notice what’s missing? First, there’s no urgency. Joseph wouldn’t have taken a ready-to-deliver Mary on such an arduous journey. Instead, “while they were there, the days were completed for” Jesus to be born (in other words, they stayed a while). Also, there’s no begrudging innkeeper (in fact, there was no inn at all, as you’ll see). Nowadays families might stay at a hotel, but not in Israel at that time. Back then, family stayed with family—especially pregnant family members.
Perhaps most importantly, the Greek word most Bibles render “inn” (kataluma) doesn’t mean what we think in modern English. Tradition has obscured the true meaning here. Instead of “inn,” the word actually means “guest room.” In fact, you’ll find the same exact word used just that way in Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14. Consistent with this, the 2011 update to the NIV now reads, “
because there was no guest room available for them.”
So, rather than being turned away from hotels, Joseph found his relatives’ house filled with guests who were likely there for the census. The couple didn’t face closed doors. They just had to live in the lower level of the house—a place that often housed animals in ancient Israel.
Even though layers of “extras” have been added to the true meaning of Christmas—from innkeepers to Santa Claus—what really happened 2,000 years ago is nothing short of astounding.
God came down.
Jesus stepped into our world. When He was conceived in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus willingly took on flesh, fully aware of how His life would turn out. He knew He’d be in danger from childhood on. He knew He’d be mocked and harrassed. He knew He’d be beaten, flogged, and crucified.
Even still, He chose to be born. But why would He? Love.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Love makes humans do some pretty amazing things—you’ve probably got your stories. But God has us all beat. He humbled Himself to become one of us, and then He died on purpose to take away the sin of the world. He died—we live.
So, when Christmas trees sparkle in shop windows and carols fill up the radio airwaves, remember the real reason we celebrate: “
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).