You have probably seen a nativity scene somewhere this Christmas. In a yard or church or even in your own home. Today let’s talk about what the word nativity means and the truths we can garner from the Word of God about it. Let’s also look at the customs of the day in the first century AD and see what we can find. Along with delving into the truth of the Nativity I want to share some beautiful photographs of the nativity from my studies in Israel.
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem Israel
The word “NATIVITY” comes from the Latin word “nativis” meaning birth. Over the years nativity has taken on the meaning of the account of the birth of Jesus Christ.
The place of the Nativity was prophesied centuries before Jesus’ birth. We can see this prophesy in the book of Micah chapter 5 verse 2…
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village in Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past.”
Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem when His mother and earthly father were from a town called Nazareth? Why would they be traveling to a town days away at such a tender time for Mary?
There was at that time in history a census taken by the Roman ruler. The main objective of the census was to levy a tax on the Jews.To do this each Jewish male had to register in his own “hometown”. Hometown had a different connotation back in the time of Mary and Joseph than it does today. Joseph was from the line of King David and David was from Bethlehem, so Joseph would register in Bethlehem of Judea as it is the hometown of his tribal lineage.
The bible recounts this story in Luke 2.
“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Betlehem was a small hill town sitting on a ridge near the Judaean dessert. Bethlehem is about 8 miles south of Jerusalem and about 65 miles south of Nazareth where the young couple lived. In those days traveling form Nazareth to Bethlehem was a 6 day journey. I can’t imagine making a rough 6 day journey ready to give birth, as Mary was! The terrain is hilly, rocky and rough and dotted with low shrubs and trees of the middle east.
lower part of Bethlehem today
Bethlehem means “house of bread” and was know to be the location where the sacrificial lambs were born and raised to be eventually sold for slaughter as offerings to God for sin. Just think how amazing God is. Jesus, the Bread of Life was born in the “house of bread” and our Sacrificial Lamb who took away the sins of the world was born in the town where the sacrificial lambs were also born to be a sacrifice to cover the sins of the Jews! If we look for God we certainly can find him in the most marvelous ways!
The town of Bethlehem sits on a pretty steep hill and during the time of Jesus’ birth must have been filled to overflowing with the descendants of David to be counted in the census. The book of Luke says that Mary and Joseph could not find room in the “inn” however that is a poor Greek translation. Yes, the Greek word “kataluma” can be translated “inn” but it can also be translated “guest room”. So we must put the verse into context of the entire chapter and also look at the norms of the day. A Roman (who occupied Israel) or a foreigner would certainly stay at inns in the time of Jesus but Jews would always stay with family. It’s more likely that Mary and Joseph stayed with extended family during their time in Bethlehem. They also did not stay in a barn or an outside structure as we see today. Most Jews kept their livestock in the back of the ground floors of their homes or in an adjacent cave or dug out area underground. This most likely is where Jesus was born.
Spot believed to be where Jesus was born. My sister-in-law Sue kneeling down to put her hand in the hole in the middle of the star and to feel the ground underneath. Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem Israel
Scripture tells us in the book of Luke…
“While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Jesus was laid in an animal feeding trough that would have probably been filled with hay or soft grasses. This trough was called a manger. The Greek world for manger is “phatne“, a feed box, a cattle crib or a stall. The young couple laid God in flesh in the best place they could find… a manger!
Place venerated as the manger spot Jesus was placed in. Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem Israel.
Are you asking yourself, “How do we know that this was the exact spot where Jesus was born”? Great question!
Here’s how we can be somewhat certain that this spot is close to if not “THE” spot of Jesus’ birth. When Jesus was resurrected from the dead and then ascended into heaven His believers would congregate in certain places like where Jesus was born, where He lived, where He performed certain miracles, where He died and places like that to have worship services. They continued gathering and worshipping in these same places for centuries.
Eventually Constantine’s (emperor of the Roman Empire) mother Helena, a devout Christian, traveled to the holy land in the second century to preserve the holy sites that are important to believers of Jesus Christ. She built huge churches on top of these sites marking the spots early Christians believed to be historic and holy. It did change how these sites looked in Jesus’ time but also saved them from becoming wiped away by progress. So we have a good idea today where, for example, Jesus was born.
A tiny portion of the huge Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Israel
The nativity scenes we see today, although a good reminder of why we celebrate Christmas, are not historically correct! As we discussed earlier, Jesus was not born in a barn or a structure like ones depicted in nativity scenes today. Jesus was probably born in a back, ground level room of a relative home where they kept the animals or in a connected dug out or cave next to the main house.
We also see the manifestation of angels at the manger scene. There might have been angels at the Nativity, but they were not visible. The angels of the Christmas story appeared to the shepherds not far away in a field. You might be interested in reading their Christmas account, MEET ME IN SHEPHERD’S FIELD. The shepherd’s left their flocks and came to the home of Joseph’s family to see the Christ (Greek word for Messiah, Anointed One).
We also often see wise men and camels around a manger scene but they too is not historically correct. The wise men came searching for the baby King from the East after He was born. We are not quite sure exactly when they came and worshipped Him, but it was certainly not the night of Jesus’ birth.
As we celebrate Christmas the thing we all should remember about the Nativity is wrapped up in John 3:16-17…
“FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE SENT HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON THAT WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WOULD NOT PERISH BUT HAVE ETERNAL LIFE. FOR GOD DID NOT SEND HIS SON INTO THE WORLD TO CONDEMN THE WORLD BUT TO SAVE IT.”
God in the flesh came from Heaven to planet earth to live a perfect life in a specific time in history so that He could die in our place for our sins! This is God’s perfect plan showing His never ending love for us and desire for us to be with Him through all eternity!
That is is real story of the Nativity!
May we celebrate the perfect plan of God and the completed work of our Savior Jesus Christ this Christmas.