This Christmas provides yet another opportunity to read the biblical accounts of Jesus’s birth and to reflect on their significance for our lives. As Charles Wesley wrote well over two centuries ago,
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus …
Hope of all the earth Thou art,
Dear desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.
While this sentiment may be true for those today who have placed their trust in the crucified Savior, however, as we will see, Jesus’s birth in many ways defied popular expectation at the time of his coming. Not every heart longed for the kind of messianic King Jesus turned out to be, and thus the biblical accounts, especially Luke, present Jesus’s birth as a case of confounded expectations.
Luke’s narrative of Jesus’s birth is tantalizingly brief but makes some significant points. First, the worldwide scope reflected in the reference to Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire indicates that Jesus would have importance on a global scale. Second, this grand opening sharply contrasts with the humble and ignoble setting of the birth. God was going to turn the world upside down, but not in the way people were expecting. All of the birth announcements and hymns in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel are characterized by anticipation, the anticipation that God was finally going to fulfill his promises given throughout the Old Testament and act in and through the coming of Jesus to establish his rule over his people.
This, then, is how Jesus’s birth took place. While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor and bore Jesus, her firstborn son (implying that she had later sons as well). While this is speculative, the journey may have induced labor or at least sped up the delivery. Luke’s account is amazingly brief in light of the way succeeding generations have expanded it. It may come as a surprise, but Scripture mentions neither the presence of animals, a stable, nor even an innkeeper (whether mean and coldhearted or regretful at the lack of space). The narrative does discuss three things: swaddling cloths (not clothes); a manger; and an inn with no vacancies.
The swaddling cloths simply indicate that Mary was taking care of Jesus in the same way that any other responsible woman at that time would have taken care of a newborn child. The strips of cloth indicate neither poverty nor any other spiritual significance but were the common means by which mothers kept newborn babies warm. It has also been argued that the strips of cloth were tied around babies to keep their arms and legs straight. The swaddling cloths, along with the manger, would have identified Jesus as a newborn to the searching shepherds later that evening.
While the mention of swaddling cloths would have been quite normal, the choice to lay the child in a manger (a feeding trough for animals) seems out of the ordinary. We could translate the word for manger as “feeding stall,” but Luke seems to indicate that it functioned as some kind of crib or cradle, so “manger” or “feeding trough” is a better rendering. With no mention of a stable, the manger could have been in the open air, in an animal pen near the house, in a small cave, or in the area of a house used for animals. Luke provides insufficient details to determine the setting with precision, although the earliest extrabiblical Christian traditions from the mid-second century describe the setting as a cave.
Luke provides the reason that Mary was forced to lay Jesus in an animal feeding trough: “there was no place for them in the inn.” The word for “inn” could likewise point to difference setting depending upon the context, and Luke provides too little contextual information to arrive at a definitive determination. It may point to an ancient inn that would have consisted of a large room in which everyone found a place to lie down wherever they could or to the guest room in a private residence (possibly that of relatives). Either way, there was no room for a birth in the normal place where Joseph and Mary would have expected to find lodging.
These two details—the necessity of a manger and the lack of rooms with normal society—are both significant and unexpected. Why would God’s own son, the expected Davidic Messiah, be born in such a way? This scandalous set of circumstances points forward to Jesus’s future rejection by his own people and the shame and embarrassment of death on a cross. The unexpected setting of Jesus’s birth also anticipates the unexpected way in which Jesus would go about putting things right in God’s creation. His life and death did not match people’s expectations. He wasn’t born like a king; he didn’t live like a king; and he certainly didn’t die like a king. He was nonetheless God’s promised long-awaited King, the Messiah.
Thus, Jesus’s birth is a case of confounded expectations. In light of this, we need to re-evaluate our expectations to make sure they align with the promises of God. God has not promised us that we will be free from all sickness and have lots of money in this lifetime. He has not promised that bad things will not happen to good people. He has not promised that we and our loved ones will never die. In this present age life is fatal; no one gets out alive. He has promised that he will be with us no matter what and that nothing can ever separate us from his love. He has promised that resurrection will triumph over death and that there will be a future day when he will personally wipe every tear from every eye and remove sickness and death from his creation forever. We will not always understand why things happen, but we can trust that God will fulfill his promises. He is faithful.
This material is adapted from Andreas J. Köstenberger and Alexander E. Stewart, The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015). Andreas Köstenberger is founder of Biblical Foundations™ and senior research professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Alexander Stewart is academic dean at Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands.