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3 Incredible Surprises in the First Christmas Story

Updated: Dec 16, 2023

Have you ever played the “telephone game,” where a simple statement is whispered from person to person around a circle? Inevitably, the further it travels from its original source, people ‘mis-hear’ and inadvertently alter the message, often with drastic consequences. So it is with the original Christmas Story. Here are 3 incredible surprises we find in the incarnation of Jesus which invite us into deeper revelation and awe.

1. There weren’t “Three Wise Men,” and they didn’t come to Jesus at the manger.

Nearly every nativity display and every Christmas production present “Three Wise Men” at the manger. But it most certainly didn’t happen that way.

The ‘wise men’ or ‘Magi’ were Gentile students of the stars. There weren’t three of them, but rather three types of gifts they brought (Matt. 2:11). There were likely 50 or more in their traveling party, which was customary for the travel of Magi. Their 3 gifts carried greater prophetic meaning than they could have known:

Gold was a valuable and precious metal, fitting for a King.

Frankincense was used by Priests (the mediators between God and man) as a base for the incense they burned in the temple.

And Myrrh was an oil for embalming a loved one upon their death.

Unknowingly, it was Gentile Astrologists who first declared Jesus as the Priest-King who would save all people at great cost to Himself!

Further, they didn’t arrive at the manger. Shepherds did (Luke 2:8-9). According to the Greek, the Magi arrived to find Jesus as a “toddler,” visiting Him in a “house (Matt. 2:11).” By the way, this is why Herod gave a decree to kill all boys two and under, “according to the time he heard from the Magi” (Matt. 2:16).

2. Joseph and Mary weren’t beggars in a barn.

The traditional picture of Joseph and Mary showing up in Bethlehem in the middle of the night, finding no vacancy at the local hotel, and needing to occupy a barn and stinky stable is not accurate for six reasons:

  • Joseph was returning to his hometown and would’ve been embraced.

  • Joseph was a royal from the line of King David, going to the ‘city of David.’ He would’ve been welcome anywhere in town.

  • Ancient cultures gave special attention to women getting ready to give birth. It is unthinkable that they would’ve chosen dishonor to the wife of a royal.

  • Mary’s family lived in a nearby village, only several miles away. If they had been turned away, they could have gone to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home.

  • Mary and Joseph didn’t arrive in Bethlehem the night she gave birth but had sufficient time to find lodging. (Luke 2:6 says that the time for Jesus to be born came ‘while’ they were in Bethlehem, noting there had been some time in the city before she gave birth.)

  • Our popular terms of an ‘Inn,’ a ‘Barn,’ and a ‘Manger’ are largely the wrong picture.*

The normal word for an ‘inn’ (like the Good Samaritan story of Luke 10) is not used here. The word here is used one other time in Luke, referring to a guest room within a home. The ‘inn’ was often an upper room in a home, like where Jesus and the disciples had the Last Supper. This room was full, leaving Mary and Joseph with the family in the main living quarters.

Animals helped provide warmth during winter months, as there was no air conditioning or heat. Additionally, keeping animals in the living quarters kept them from being stolen. Animals stayed on the lowest level in a gated area, with a stone ‘manger,’ or feeding trough, on the opposite side of the gated area. The most likely scenario is that Joseph and Mary arrived in a home where they were welcomed in the main living quarters. When Jesus was born, they used the empty stone manger as a crib. The imagery of the Son of God being laid in a ‘feeding trough’ was deeply intentional: He came to be broken open for humanity to ‘eat his flesh and drink his blood’ (Jn. 6:56)!

3. Jesus didn’t come like any other King!

Every empire in the history of civilization has been birthed by the bravado of an imposing ruler ordering the bloodshed of their adversaries and enemies. Every kingdom, that is, except one.

The King of all Kings and the Name above every name did not enter the Story from a magisterial throne, but from a manger.

He did not come to impose judgment, but to rescue us from the self-imposed judgments we placed on ourselves.

He did not shed the blood of his enemies, but came to shed His own blood for His enemies to become friends of God.

Hope didn’t start on the first Christmas night. The light of the world had already stepped into the darkness before the dawning of Creation. Indeed, the Lamb was slain “from the very foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). The Star that appeared in the sky was the illuminating of our own eyes to start to see who our God has always been.

Adapted from Thru the Book: Luke and Thru the Book: Matthew, © 2023 by Chuck Ammons. Available on Amazon.

*I am indebted to the scholarship of Kenneth Bailey for his incredible insights to the first century world. (Bailey, K.E. (2008). “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels” (p. 25ff). InterVarsity Press.)

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