The Humble and the Foreign
December 18, 2012
by Peter Amsterdam
The Humble and the Foreign
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One especially beautiful part of the presentation of Jesus’ birth is in Luke’s Gospel, where he tells of the shepherds hearing the announcement of Jesus’ birth.
There is evidence within Jewish writings that shepherds and herders were considered to have a very low social status within first-century Israel. This was partly because they were in the fields all the time and were unable to keep up with all the religious laws, and partly because many of them herded other people’s sheep and so had opportunity to steal some of the wool and milk. Also, they would have the sheep graze on other people’s land without permission. Given that context, it makes the story all the more interesting, because shepherds would have been seen as not only poor or lowly, but somewhat as outcasts as well.
On the night of Jesus’ birth, in the hills near Bethlehem, shepherds were watching over their flocks. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord, His light and brightness, shone around them. The angel told them not to fear, that he had good news for them. He then revealed that a Savior, Christ the Lord, was born in the city of David that night. He told them that a sign would be that the child would be found lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Upon telling them this, there appeared a multitude of the host of heaven praising God. When the light of God’s glory and the angel and the host departed, the shepherds decided to go to Bethlehem right away to see what God had told them about.
In Bethlehem they found Mary, Joseph, and the baby. Most likely they had inquired as to which house a baby had been born in that night. In a village community it would be easy to find out about news like that, as such communities were fairly small and tight-knit, with everyone knowing everybody and everything that was going on.
Finding Jesus lying in a manger swaddled in cloth within the main room of a peasant house, with animals in the stable area, would not be out of the ordinary for them. It would be rather normal, since most likely their children had been swaddled in the same manner, as that’s what peasants did with their newborns. Placing a child in a manger was probably not what was normally done, but due to the overcrowded accommodations, it was a practical solution.
What would have been extraordinary for them, and so was referred to as “a sign,” was that a child whose birth was announced to them by an angel, accompanied by the glory of God and a praising heavenly host, was found in a crowded village home that was just like theirs! The shepherds were people of low degree, the poor and humble, and what they discovered that night was that the Messiah, the Savior of the world, was born a humble peasant just as they were. They left praising God and telling others all they had heard concerning the child.
Luke’s narrative informs his readers that Jesus has come for the poor and needy, the lowly, the downtrodden, and not just for those of status and good reputation. The message was that everyone is welcome, that salvation is for all.
The birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel tells of the visit of the Magi, who came from the East after they saw a special star, which they understood to be an omen that a king of the Jews would be born. They traveled to Jerusalem in search of the king, and upon their arrival began inquiring where this child who would be a future king was, so that they could pay homage to him.
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, as the birth of a new king could mean a challenge to his throne. He gathered the chief priests and scribes to find out where such a child would be born, and they told him that according to scripture the birth would be in Bethlehem. Though the religious rulers knew that scripture proclaimed where the Messiah would be born, they had no idea that He had already been born. While Bethlehem is only about five miles from Jerusalem, there is no record of any of the religious leadership going to seek out the child.
Herod secretly met with the Magi to ascertain when they first saw the star, which was apparently two years earlier. After getting this information, he sent them off to Bethlehem with instructions for them to report the child’s whereabouts so he too could go to pay Him homage. The Magi left Jerusalem, found Jesus and His family, bowed down before Him and paid Him homage, and gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Matthew doesn’t specifically say where the Magi came from, and no one knows exactly where they were from. Some Bible scholars say Persia, others Babylon, and others Arabia. A number of the earliest Church Fathers state that Arabia was their homeland. Gold and frankincense were associated with the camel trains coming from Midian and Sheba, both in Arabia. Frankincense and myrrh were harvested from trees which grew in southern Arabia. In the Old Testament the term “people of the east” most often refers to desert Arabs. Astrology was known to the Arabs, and four of the Arabian tribes took their names from stars.
After finding the newborn King, the Magi were instructed through a dream to not return to see Herod, and they obeyed those instructions. When Herod found out they had left the country without telling him where to find the child, he was furious. He ordered his soldiers to kill all the male children who were two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding area, in hopes of eliminating any challenges to his throne.
For many years Herod had been concerned about rivals to his throne, and he had three of his own sons executed when he suspected they were plotting against him. He had one of his ten wives killed as well. He was known as a brutal man. As he was dying, his last order to his troops was to arrest thousands of people with wealth and status and put them in a stadium in Jericho and have them killed when he died, so there would be mourning throughout the country upon his death. Fortunately for those notables, the order wasn’t carried out.
Considering the kind of man Herod was, his order to kill the male children in Bethlehem and nearby was consistent with the way he operated. Due to the high infant mortality rate in those times, it has been calculated that the village and surrounding areas would have had a population of about a thousand people, with an annual birth rate of about thirty, meaning there would have been between twenty and thirty male children under the age of two. Herod was, however, unsuccessful in finding and killing Jesus, as Joseph took his family and fled to Egypt in obedience to the instructions an angel gave him in a dream.
Besides relaying events, what was Matthew trying to convey in this part of his narrative? Herod and the religious leaders in Jerusalem were unaware that the promised King was born, showing that God hadn’t given the religious or the political leadership a sign. On the other hand, the gentile Magi had seen a sign in nature, in the star. They responded by seeking for the newborn king and eventually saw the Savior and worshiped Him. Matthew was making the point that the salvation God had promised wasn’t reserved for Israel only, but for the gentiles as well, meaning it was for everyone.
Luke tells us that eight days after Jesus’ birth He was circumcised. A while after that, His parents took Him to the temple in Jerusalem. Because Mary had borne a male child, she was ritually unclean for forty days—seven days before his circumcision, and thirty-three days after it. It was for Mary’s purification that she, along with Joseph and Jesus, went to the temple. For a woman to become ritually pure after a birth, it required the sacrifice of a lamb along with one pigeon or dove. If the woman was too poor to afford a lamb, then two pigeons or two doves could be offered. Mary’s sacrifice didn’t include the lamb.
While at the temple for Mary’s purification, Joseph and Mary also obeyed the law that required the firstborn male of every family to be consecrated to the Lord and redeemed. (It wasn’t required to do this at the temple, but presumably since they had to go to the temple for Mary’s purification, they chose to do this there as well.) After God delivered the Hebrew people from Egypt, He instructed them to consecrate to Him all the firstborn of man and animal. Firstborn clean animals were to be killed and sacrificed; however, some unclean animals could be redeemed by sacrificing a lamb in their place. For the firstborn sons, God said they must be redeemed, meaning that a redemption price of five shekels would be paid to the temple of the Lord.
So after Mary’s purification in the temple, they brought Jesus to be redeemed. While they were there, an old devout Jew named Simeon saw them. God had told Simeon that he wouldn’t die before he saw the Christ, the Messiah. Upon seeing Jesus he took Him in his arms and prayed: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
Simeon’s prayer speaks of salvation being for all people, both Jews and gentiles. Like with the Magi, the message is of salvation available to all through Christ—that the Incarnate Son of God came to earth for everyone.
Simeon then blessed them and prophesied, saying to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Having proclaimed that salvation would be for both Jews and gentiles, Simeon also prophesied that there would be rejection from within the nation in which Jesus was born. That among the Jewish people some would believe and others wouldn’t; some would rise and others fall. That there would be division among the people as the thoughts of people’s hearts were revealed. He indicated that Mary would also suffer, probably referring to all she would see Jesus go through. Simeon predicted the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish authorities during His ministry.
In Luke’s Gospel the shepherds, some of the lowly within Jewish society, witness a supernatural announcement through the angel, and the child is a peasant child, showing that He has come for the common people. There is also a prophecy from a religiously devout Jew saying the Messiah is for everyone, though He will be rejected by some. In Matthew’s Gospel, the sign of the Savior seen in nature is followed by the gentile Magi coming to Him, again signifying that salvation is for all.
The consistent message throughout the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth—in fact, throughout all of the Gospels—is that Jesus has come for all humanity; He died for the salvation of all. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. This is the good news of Christmas. This is the news that the angels were proclaiming, the message portrayed by the star leading the Magi, and the message of God’s love that each of us carries in our hearts. Let’s share it with others, shall we? Have a Merry Christmas!
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008.
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997.
Green, Joel B., McKnight, Scot. Editors. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992.
Pentecost, Dwight J. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996.
 Luke 2:8–15.
 Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 35.
 Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 52.
 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 169.
 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 204.
 Matthew 2:1–14.
 Exodus 13:2,13,15; Numbers 18:15–16.
 Luke 2:29–32 ESV.
 Luke 2:34–35 NIV.
 John 3:16.