The Christmas Story

I am a teacher in my local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint congregation. The following article summarizes some of my feelings on the second chapter of Luke and Matthew in the New Testament. This lesson was presented on 18 January 2015 and corresponds with lesson 3 in the LDS Gospel Doctrine class.

The World of Caesar Augustus

Today we’re going to start off with a chapter that is one of the most well-known and well-rehearsed scriptures in all of Christendom. According to some scholars, it was authored by a gentile Greek named Loukás, who was born on October 18th in the city of Antioch or Antakya in southern Turkey. He may have been raised as a slave but was eventually trained in Tarsus to be a physician. After he joined the Church in its early days after the Resurrection, he was ordained as a Seventy and spent time laboring with the Apostle Paul. He was a life-long bachelor and spent the rest of his life doing good things, including painting icons and writing—or helping to write—a number of church history books, including one-third of the New Testament. Some believe that at age 84, a group of idolaters tortured him and hanged him on an olive tree. We’ll call him Luke. Now let’s turn to Luke, chapter 2.

Luke 2:1

1. And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

So who was Caesar Augustus, whose birth name was actually Gaius Octavius Thurinus? He was the first emperor of Rome.

You may have heard of his great uncle, Julius Caesar, who was a leader in the Roman Republic. After Julius was assassinated, his will designated Octavius as his heir, and so, with inherited wealth, and rank, and sword, Octavius defeated his political enemies, overthrew the Republic, changed his name to Augustus Ceasar, and in 31 BC set himself up as sole emperor of Rome where he ruled over much of the Mediterranean world, including Palestine, until his death at the age of 76 in 14 AD.

History has been relative kind to Augustus. We even named a month after him. According to a BYU religion manual from 1979, The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles:

Augustus was a capable and energetic ruler, and he spent his reign establishing a certain tradition of lawfulness and honesty in the Roman bureaucracy, reorganizing the provincial governments and working at financial reform. [The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, (1979), 21–25]

As part of those financial reforms, every 20 years he would count the people in his empire, have them swear an oath of allegiance to Rome, and then figure out how much he could tax them. The rulers of Rome paid very little, about 1%, while those they ruled, particularly those in conquered territories, paid the lion’s share, a whopping 10%—as their tithe to Caesar. On a side note, wouldn’t it be sweet if we could get away with just paying a 10% flat national tax rather than 40-50%?

But that’s not what was happening in Judea. Judea didn’t start paying taxes to Rome until after the death of Herod the Great, which happened a couple of years after the birth of Christ when Herod’s son proved to be a lousy leader. At that time Rome sent in Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria, to take control of Judea and start collecting taxes.

What Luke was probably referring to was not a tax at all, but a registration or a census. In fact, if you look at the original Greek text of the New Testament, you will find that the King James Version has a mistranslation. The word was apographo which should have been translated as enrolled, not taxed. Furthermore, there is archeological evidence that suggests just such an enrollment and oath of allegiance took place in 5 or 6 BC, which is the year in which many scholars place the birth of Christ.

They also do a pretty good job of pinpointing a time of the year. I don’t have time today to mention today but I have written them down and posted them on my website, Let’s just say that it probably wasn’t December 25. By the way, according to Elder McConkie and others, it probably wasn’t April 6th either.

Luke 2:3

3. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

It appears that the Roman method for conducting the census was to do it by city of residence, much as we do here in the United State. So if you were a Roman citizen, you just had to walk over to your local city hall to register. However, the Jewish custom required registration in the ancestral home of one’s family. Because Roman law honored the Jewish tradition, and because Joseph and Mary were both descendants of David, and were both of the tribe of Judah, we find ourselves in verse 4.

The Journey to Bethlehem

Luke 2:4-5

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

In order to fulfill the requirements of the census or registration, Joseph and Mary had to travel eighty miles, from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. That’s about the distance from the Ogden to Provo or from Provo to Manti. That’s about an hour and a half on today’s roadways, or about 45 minutes if you’re Lance Hellewell. But by foot, and getting close to your due date, that’s another story altogether.

However Joseph and Mary were also going down to Bethlehem for a greater purpose. They knew the scriptures. They knew what the prophet Micah said 700 years earlier:

Micah 5:1-2

2 But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

In other words, they knew that the one and only place where the Messiah could be born was Bethlehem. And they were in Nazareth, and that just wouldn’t do.

It takes about four days to walk that distance. Of course some scholars note that at this time in history many Jews avoided walking through Samaria, which lay smack dab between Nazareth and Jerusalem, and so they may have taken a much longer circuitous route that would have doubled the time.

Did Mary ride a donkey with Joseph out front leading the way? That’s certainly what just about every painting and Nativity re-enactment depicts. But we just don’t know. The Bible is completely silent on this matter; it doesn’t even mention a donkey. However, we can conjecture.

You see the modes of transportation of that day, in order from most expensive to least expensive, included litter, chariot, horse, camel, donkey, and foot. If the family had been wealthy then Mary would have ridden in a litter while Joseph would have ridden a horse. But they were not wealthy—as later scenes reveal—so Mary may have ridden a donkey, if their finances would have allowed it, and Joseph would have walked. Still, we can’t be sure. In fact, much of what we imagine in our modern culture to be the Christmas story may not actually be the way it really happened.

The Birth of Jesus

Luke 2:6-7

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was none to give room for them in the inns.

Now the Bible doesn’t say how long they were there in Bethlehem. A careful read of the text suggests they may have been there for a few days, or maybe even a few weeks. Of course, most modern stories paint the picture of their arriving moments before the birth, just the nick of time (or is that the St. Nick of time). Again, we just don’t know for sure.

But when they got there, they found the little town was pretty crowded since lots and lots of other people were also literal descendants of King David. Thousands of them in fact. And the town, truly was a little town—around 300 to 500 residents (Albright, William; and C. S. Mann (1971) The Anchor Bible: Matthew. New York: Doubleday, pg 19). That makes it about the size of our neighborhoods. It is no wonder there was no room for them in the inns.

By the way, the inns mentioned here weren’t hotels like the Holiday Inn. The Greek word used here and translated for inn is kataluma, which a place where guest stayed—typically the upper room of a house.

Sometimes I think we’re a little rough on the Bethlehemites. I’m pretty confident they would have done everything possible to make room. Remember, in this culture at this time, you always welcomed and sheltered strangers. In fact, hospitality was a commandment written by Moses in Deuteronomy 10:19 as well as in Leviticus 19:33. To this day, people in that region go out of their way to accommodate strangers.

But remember, Mary and Joseph were not strangers. They were descendants of the royal family. According to Elder Talmage, if the Romans hadn’t occupied Judea at the time, Joseph may have been the literal King of the Jews (James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 3rd ed. [1916], 79–80, 87). So this new family would have been given top priority.

Furthermore, chances are that Mary and Joseph had at least some kinfolk in the area who inherited the land by birthright. Heck, cousin Elizabeth lived 13 miles to the south in Hebron. But even these family members didn’t have space in their guest rooms.

Furthermore, giving birth was a big deal in that area. When a child was born, many of the neighborhood Relief Society sisters would drop whatever they were doing and come and help out. The men would be banished somewhere, probably boiling water, while the women did the midwifing. Birthing was a community affair. It took up a lot of space. It was noisy. It was messy. And no one had a guest room big enough.

Many believe that because Jesus was placed in a manger it means that he was born outside in a dirty stable or filthy pen with the donkeys and sheep. But, to modern Westerners, it is a little known fact that at that time it was quite customary for peasants to keep animals in their own homes. Most homes consisted of one relatively large living space with a raised terrace or mezzanine around the inside walls. It was here where the people slept. In the middle of the room is where the animals were kept at night; a good source of warmth on cold nights. During the day the animals would be let out and the area cleaned. This common area would have been much bigger than a guest room. It would even accommodate the Relief Society’s labor and delivery team, making it much more suitable. So, perhaps, and this is just a theory, Jesus was born just like every other peasant child was born, in the home of a relative, in the large common room, surrounded by loved ones, before being placed in a feeding trough or manger, which was undoubtedly filled with some nice, clean hay.

But that’s just a theory. It may have happened like that or it may have happened the way we read about in many commentaries, a lonely birth in a miserable stable without human witnesses, shrouded in mystery. I’m pretty sure the details don’t really matter because we can still learn some lessons from either narrative.

For instance, we can quickly turn this around and ask ourselves a couple of important questions.

  • In what ways to people today refuse to make room for the Savior in their lives?

As we look at much of the world today, we see that many people have closed their hearts to the Savior and his teachings. They are busy pursuing their personal interests and do not make time for considering the importance of the Savior and his teachings.

Which leads to this rhetorical question:

  • Are we ever guilty of this? What can we do to make room for him in our lives?

I believe this is something worth pondering over for a good long time.

Regardless of how Jesus was born, it was in very humble circumstances. Especially considering who he was. Let’s not forget that this was the great Jehovah, the creator of this world and worlds without number. He was the firstborn of the Father. He was anointed to be the King of all Kings. His mortal mission was to become the Savior and Redeemer of all mankind. His life and subsequent resurrection would forever change the history of the universe. And he chose to be born under extremely humble circumstances in a tiny Judean village. Isn’t that remarkable? It tells us everything we need do know about his character.

The Angels and the Shepherds

Luke 2:8-14

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie had this to say about this passage:

In the fields of Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem and the Temple of Jehovah, there were shepherds watching their flocks by night. These were not ordinary shepherds nor ordinary flocks. The sheep there being herded—nay, not herded, but watched over, cared for with love and devotion—were destined for sacrifice on the great altar in the Lord’s House, in similitude of the eternal sacrifice of Him who that wondrous night lay in a stable, perhaps among sheep of lesser destiny…. As there were many widows in Israel, and only to the one in Zarephath was Elijah sent, so there were many shepherds in Palestine, but only to those who watched over the temple flocks did the herald angel come; only they heard the heavenly choir.” (Mortal Messiah, 1:347)

Have you ever noticed that God doesn’t normally reveal sacred truths to the powerful and the proud? They can’t hear His voice because they are listening for it. They like to hear themselves and those who support their worldview. The mists of darkness totally obscure their vision and they end of floundering through life, making themselves and others miserable. They angels sent from God didn’t appear Caesar or to King Herod or to the Sanhedrin or to the Priests. They didn’t go to the palace, to the temple, or to the synagogue. They came to a group of humble and faithful shepherds in the middle of the night.

Of course this begs the question: Which group of people are we more like? If we don’t take the time to pray to God and listen patiently for his quiet responses, if we don’t take the time to hear the voice of God as recorded in the scriptures and voiced by His prophets, if we aren’t focused on taking care of the sheep in which we have been entrusted, is it any wonder we feel left out, spiritually speaking? But rest assured, just as soon as we turn ourselves completely around and embrace the light and exercise our faith, God himself has promised that he will always hear our prayers, he will always bring peace to our hearts, and he will always give answers to those who listen.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

This was probably the Angel Gabriel again. He must have been a rather formidable angel because every time he made an appearance, his first words were, “Fear not!” According to the Prophet Joseph Smith, Gabriel was the premortal name of Noah and was second in authority behind Michael or Adam (History of the Church 3:386). Have you ever wondered why Noah was given the privilege of declaring the birth of Jesus? This was a pretty significant assignment after all. Probably the best assignment of them all. I mean you had Adam, and Enoch, and Abraham, and Moses, and Elijah, and Isaiah, and so many other righteous men and women who had lived on the earth and were awaiting the Resurrection. Why did that assignment go to Noah, the ark-builder?

Here’s the thought that came into my mind as I pondered this a couple of weeks ago.

Remember that Noah’s mission was to declare repentance to the world and invite people to come unto Christ and be saved, which process begins with baptism. As the head of his dispensation, Noah labored for hundreds of years as a missionary. He didn’t have much success because only his wife, his three sons, and their wives boarded the ark and were saved. Then then floods came and the earth was baptized, and all of the unrepentant people were destroyed by the waters and quickly made their way to Spirit Prison. 2,500 years later, Gabriel was sent from the presence of God to declare to the world that another world-changing event was about to happen. First he announced the birth of John who would baptize with water. Next he announced the birth of Jesus, who would baptize with fire and save everyone who had died both physically and spiritually and enable them to live again, including those in Spirit Prison. Noah built the original ark and did the best he could, but Jesus was the ark of the New Covenant or the New Testament. This time, all people have to follow their Savior and get on board. And that’s the thought that came to mind. Now let’s go back to the scriptures:

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Let me break that last verse apart for a second.

  • City of David. The city of David was also known as Beth Lechem, which literally means the “house of bread.” Jesus would be known as the “bread of life.” Furthermore, Bethlehem’s pools of Solomon were a principle water source for Jerusalem, and Jesus would be known as the “living waters.”
  • A Savior. The Hebrew word that meant “savior” was Yeshua. In English, that becomes Jesus. Jesus would be known as “the Savior.”
  • Which is Christ. Our word Christ is derived directly from the Greek, Christos. It means “the anointed one.” Christos was a direct translation of the Hebrew word, Messhiach, which is transliterated into English as “Messiah.” Jesus would be known as “the Messiah.”
  • The Lord. This title is perhaps the most significant. In the Old Testament, rather than using the name of God, which was Yahweh or Jehovah, they used the name Adonai, which means Lord. So here we have the angels announcing that the baby being born would not just another baby, but the great Jehovah himself, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

In other words, the message the shepherd’s heard that night was: “Unto you is born this day in the city prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah, Yeshua [or Jesus], the Savior, who is the Anointed One (the Messiah), and who is also Jehovah, the God of your fathers.” Wow!

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Peace on Earth

What did the angels say again?

“On earth peace, good will toward men.”

Those are interesting words. Especially when you look back over the past two thousand years and notice that, in general, mankind has found very little peace on earth. But I’m not sure that’s what the angels meant. I think they were thinking about a completely different peace, a peace that only comes when we follow Jesus of our own free will and choice.

In speaking to his apostles, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you” (John 14:27). The Savior explained to his disciples that the “peace” he brings is not defined in worldly terms, like the freedom from war and strife that politicians promise their constituents. Or the peace that comes from economic prosperity. Christ brings something completely different. President John Taylor spoke of this peace:

Wherever this peace exists, it leaves an influence that is comforting and refreshing to the souls of those who partake of it. It is like the morning dew to the thirsty plant. This peace is the gift of God alone, and it can be received only from him through obedience to his laws. If any man wishes to introduce peace into his family or among his friends, let him cultivate it in his own bosom; for sterling peace can only be had according to the legitimate rule and authority of heaven, and obedience to its laws. (The Gospel Kingdom, p319)

I testify that Christ has brought peace into my life. There are so many times when I have fallen short of where I ought to be. But every time I turn back to Jesus and his ways, and follow his teachings, I find peace. I find joy. I find confidence. I find hope. I find everything I need, and then some more. Is there anyone in this room who can raise their hand and second this motion? Is there anyone here who has felt the peace that comes from following Jesus?

The Shepherds Find Jesus

After this glorious manifestation, the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the new born Jesus.

Luke 2:15-18

15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

  • So what did the shepherds do after they saw the newborn Savior?

They bore witness of that which they had seen and heard.

Are we as enthusiastic about the message of peace as the shepherds? How are we doing with making “known abroad” the message of peace that we have received?

We have been blessed with a wonderful gospel message. It is the same message given to the ancient shepherds. It is a message that can change lives and determine eternal destiny. Sometimes I ask myself why I’m not more diligent in sharing the good news we have received.

Luke 2:19

19. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

About this verse, Elder James E. Talmage said

It is apparent that the great truth as to the personality and mission of her divine Son had not yet unfolded itself in its fulness to her mind. The whole course of events, from the salutation of Gabriel to the reverent testimony of the shepherds concerning the announcing angel and the heavenly hosts, was largely a mystery to that stainless mother and wife. (Jesus the Christ, p95)

There are many things that happen to us in our lives that we just don’t understand right now. Why did this happen to me? Why did that happen to her? Sometimes it is helpful to stop and ponder on these mysteries, especially if we learn something that helps us become better people.

That is especially true with spiritual experiences. Some of these experiences have had a profound influence on our lives. They may have stopped us dead in our tracks and compelled us to turn our lives completely around. They may have significance that will affect us long into the eternities. That’s why I’m pretty sure that it is extremely important to not take our encounters with the Holy Spirit lightly. We should always take the time to cherish and ponder these sacred experiences and recognize that they are gifts from a loving Father, gifts that should be savored and treasured.

The Circumcision

Luke 2:21

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

In Genesis 17:12, God commanded Abraham to circumcise baby boys on the eighth day of their lives. Why 8 days and not 7 or 9? Some doctors say that only on the eighth day of life will newborns have more than 100% of the normal supply of Vitamin K and prothrombin in their system, which helps blood coagulate—a good thing to know if you’re doing surgery. (McMillen, S.I., 1984, None of These Diseases).

In Jewish tradition, the bris is conducted on the eighth day so that the newborn baby will, by necessity, live through a complete week which must include a Sabbath. Once the baby has experienced the “holiness” of the Sabbath, he may enter into the covenant and make his first sacrifice.

Regardless of the reason why, I’m not sure it really matters, because it wasn’t just another commandment. Circumcision is a token of the covenant between God and the family of Abraham. It was part of the Abrahamic covenant which promised eternal increase and exaltation for the faithful. And Mary and Joseph were faithful to their covenants. So on the 8th day of Jesus’ life, he was taken to a mohel and circumcised. As part of the ceremony he was then given a new name by which he would be known upon the face of the earth. As commanded by Gabriel, they gave him the Hebrew name of Yeshua or Joshua, which in Greek is pronounced Hee-ay-sous, or in English become Jesus, which means Savior or Deliverer.

The First Temple Trip

Luke 2:22-24

22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;

23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)

24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

Jesus is now at least 41 days old. The family is probably still living in Bethlehem or nearby with other family members. They take the child to the temple in Jerusalem. They have two reasons for going.

The first reason is because Jesus needed to be redeemed or bought back from the Lord. Back in the days of Moses, when the firstborn of Israel were saved during the Passover, it was required that from that time on, the firstborn of every family in Israel would become ministers to the Lord. Later, the Levites were rewarded for their special devotion and they were chosen to serve in the place of the firstborn from all Israelite families. The children from the other tribes had to be redeemed from that obligation of a lifetime of priestly service by paying five shekels to the Levites who worked in the temple. Even though the scriptures don’t mention this event, chances are Joseph paid the ransom. If he didn’t then that would mean Jesus would have been handed over to the priests and lived the rest of his life as a temple worker.

The second reason is because Mary, having borne a son, needed to be purified. According to Leviticus 12:1-8, immediately after giving birth, the mother is considered a yoledet and cannot leave her state of impurity without being immersed in the waters of a mikvah, a ritual bath. Then, after having completed that ritual, and 40 days have passed since the birth of a son (and 80 days after the birth of a daughter), the time of purification is over and the woman is commanded to make a sacrifice at the temple. The law required the offering of a lamb for a burnt offering and also the offering of a young pigeon as a sin offering. If you were too poor to pay for a lamb, you could substitute another young pigeon. Which is exactly what Mary did.

The Witness of Simeon

After that, we have a just and devout man named Simeon who met Joseph and Mary in the temple. By the power of the Holy Ghost, it was revealed to Simeon that Jesus would become the long-awaited Messiah.

Luke 2:25-35

25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.

26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,

28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,

29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:

30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

33 And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.

Can you imagine how Mary felt that day? It was already a red-letter banner day. The day when you presented your first born son at the temple and paid the price so that he could become part of your family. This was the day all young women had longed for, when you became the official and legal guardian of your child. And to have a temple worker approach you and add his testimony to that which you already felt. It had to be amazing. But we’re not done with these verses yet. Let’s read two more.

34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against:

35 Yea, a spear shall pierce through him to the wounding of thine own soul also; that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

I can’t help but think that Mary was immediately sobered when Simeon reminded her that this was not just the long-awaited Messiah, but someone who would suffer great pains in the process. Undoubtedly, those prophetic words came back to Mary as she witnessed their fulfillment when Jesus was crucified and a spear was thrust into his side. I can’t imagine the intense feelings she experienced all throughout her life. At times her life was filled with tremendous joy, but at other times, it was filled with equally tremendous sorrow. Truly, she was one of the most remarkable and elect women of all time.

The Witness of Anna

As Jesus himself taught in Matthew 18:16, “in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established,” we have another witness in the temple that would bear testimony that this was the Messiah.

Anna the Prophetess had been a widow for many years, perhaps as many as 60. She was now 84 years old and spent her time in the temple worshiping, fasting, and praying. When she saw the Christ child she praised God and spoke of him to all who were awaiting the Messiah.

Luke 2:36-38

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;

37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.

38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

As far as Mary and Joseph were concerned, witnesses that Jesus would be the Messiah began with the angelic messenger Gabriel. Of course, before that, it was taught by hundreds of prophets and leaders. But after Gabriel’s visits it then expanded to a multitude of the heavenly host who bore witness to a humble group of shepherds. And they took their witness to the people of the Judean hillsides. Now we just added to this the witness of two devout temple-goers. Next, we will yet add more witnesses. And these, come from the East.

The Witness of the Wise Men

There’s been a lot of speculation about the wise men from the East. But there’s not a lot written about them in the scriptures. Let’s read the brief account in Matthew, chapter 2.

Matthew 2:1-2

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him

A number of authors believe that the wise men were probably Jews who lived, as millions of Jews then did, in one of the nations to the east: Persia, Arabia, Mesopotamia, etc. It was the Jews, not the Gentiles, who had the scriptures and were waiting for the promised Messiah who would become the King of the Jews. Their motivation was to come to worship the new king. Which they did. Let’s jump down to verse 11.

Matthew 2:11

11. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Hence we have the origin of giving gifts at Christmas as well as the origin of speculative notion that there were three wise men because they gave three gifts. But we just don’t know. We only know there were at least two. But it could have been 12, as the Eastern Orthodox Christians believe, or a whole congregation!

Because they gave rather costly gifts, some have assumed them to be kings. And what of the gifts themselves? They may have been practical or they may have been symbolic. Gold represented royalty, a perfect gift for a king. Frankincense was used by priests in their ceremonies, a perfect gift for a priest. Myrrh was used in the embalming process, a perfect gift for someone who would sacrifice himself for his people.

Because they talked about a new star, they were called “magi” because the “magi” were associated with the Zoroastrian religion which originated in Iran 600 years earlier, and the Zoroastrian priests had a reputation for using astrology. But I’m not sure that’s the case at all. These were men who qualified to receive inspiration and prophetic insight.

Some people really wonder about the star. The original scripture that prompted the wise men to come to Jerusalem in the first place was Balaam’s prophecy in the Numbers 24:17, where he mentioned that “there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.” But was this a new star, a short-lived comet, or some cosmic planetary alignment? Samuel the Lamanite in The Book of Mormon mentions a new star (Helaman 14:2-6). But we just don’t know.

As far as the timeline goes, we know that if the star appeared on the night of the birth, that the wise men didn’t see it before that night. And they were in the East. So after they saw the new star, they quickly made travel plans to find the new king. If they came from someplace like Iran, it may have taken weeks, if not months to get there. So odds are that they didn’t visit Jesus the same night he was born. We also know, because of what happens next, that it didn’t take place more than two years later.

But regardless of details that we don’t know, the take home message that we should get from this passage is that wise men still seek the Lord. And they still offer him gifts—gifts of love, gifts of sacrifice, gifts of obedience, gifts of consecration.

King Herod I

Herod the Great, also known in the streets as Herod the Arab, was a convert to Judaism. Born in the next-door kingdom of Edom, he may have been a descendent of Esau, the oldest son of Isaac. As such, he was part of the family of Abraham. But he wasn’t really into religion. He was more interested in politics, where he quickly rose up in the ranks, partially due to his brutal and cruel ways he dealt with his enemies and partially due to his friendship with Emperor Augustus. To make a very nasty and long story short, Herod was appointed to be the “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate and ruled for 37 years, dying not too long after the birth of Christ.

In order to gain favor with the Jews, he rebuilt the temple at an immense cost. Of course, he also built his extravagant palace next door, which had towers that were even bigger than the temple, so he could keep an eye on things.

After the wise men came seeking Jesus, the scriptures says that Herod “was troubled” (Matthew 2:3). After all, he was the King of the Jews, not a new baby. So Herod asked the local Jewish leaders about this prophecy and they reported that a Messiah, one who would rule over all Israel, would be born in Bethlehem.

Like just about every career politician that has ever lived or will yet live, Herod was concerned about his position and power. He knew of the belief of his Jewish subjects in the ancient prophets. If they found the one who had been prophesied, Herod was sure that they would turn their allegiance to this Messiah.

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus Flee to Egypt

Meanwhile, back wherever Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were living, the family had just entertained the wise men, who had delivered their gifts and departed for their homes in the East. It is at this point that we pick up the story in Matthew.

Matthew 2:13-18

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:

15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

16 ¶Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,

18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

This horrible event is referred to as the “Massacre of the Innocents.” It wasn’t too long after that event that Herod died of kidney disease and gangrene. The Jewish-Roman historian Josephus tells us that Herod died after a lunar eclipse. Scientists date that eclipse to March 13, 4 BC.

The Return to Israel

Matthew 2:19-23

19 ¶But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,

20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.

21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.

22 But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judæa in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:

23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

It doesn’t appear that the family was in Egypt for very long. It could have been a few months all the way up to a couple of years. But it is significant and symbolic that just like the family of Jacob from centuries earlier fled from Canaan to Egypt to escape death from famine, so did Jesus flee from Canaan to Egypt to escape death from those that were starved for power. And who was responsible in both cases for bringing them to Egypt? A man by the name of Joseph. Then, after spending time in Egypt they then return and start a new life in a new land. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

The Childhood of Jesus

The scriptures have very little to say about the childhood of Jesus. The following verse sums up the first eight years of his life.

Luke 2:40

40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

This early period in the life of our Lord is one of the first reels of footage I want to review when I die. I just hope it is in the public domain. But I’m pretty sure his childhood was similar to all of our childhood. He laughed, he cried, he spat up, he soiled his clothes, he played games, he sang songs, he learned, he grew. Line upon line; grace upon grace. Like all of us who have passed through the veil, we have forgotten all. However, unlike all of us, once he reached the age of accountability, he committed no sin. Therefore, the Holy Ghost was truly his constant companion and his ever-present tutor. And that sociality provided so much light and truth and intelligence to the young boy that far dwarfs the abilities of all the world’s child prodigies combined. Truly, this would have been remarkable to behold.

Although, I suspect it was kind of hard to be his younger brother or sister. “How come you can’t be more like your older brother?”

Teaching in the Temple

Speaking of family life, let’s turn to one last section of scripture from Luke.

Luke 2:41-42

41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.

42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.

In Jerusalem at that time, the Passover was a seven day festival that was marked by periods of sacrifice, feasting, and devotionals. It was the highlight of the year as faithful Jews from all around the region gathered to celebrate the deliverance of Israel from captivity. This was a family affair, and during this season hundreds of thousands, if not millions, flocked to Jerusalem. Jesus probably accompanied his family to this celebration before, but this time, he was 12 years old.

At age 12, Jewish boys experience what is now called a “bar mitzvah.” It is a ceremony where you read from the scriptures in front of a small congregation and become an official member of the synagogue. Since the 13th Century, that rabbis have upped the age to 13, but this still marks the entry into adulthood when become a “son of the law” and are entitled to an opinion and a vote.

Luke 2:43-45

43 And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.

44 But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance.

45 And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.

After celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph had begun their journey back to Nazareth when they realized that 12-year-old Jesus was not with them. Remember, there were thousands and thousands of people in the city at the time. I’m sure they were completely stricken with panic.

Luke 2:46-51

46 And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, and they were hearing him, and asking him questions.

47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.

48 And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.

49 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?

50 And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.

51 And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.

These scriptures tell us that at this point, Jesus had recognized at least part of his divine destiny. It sounds like he knew that he was not the son of Joseph but the son of the Eternal Father and that he needed to start doing things that really mattered—like changing the hearts and minds of those around him who didn’t understand truth. But he also knew that he was part of a family, and so, ever obedient to commandment number 5, he honored his father and his mother, stopped what he was doing and accompanied his family back to Nazareth

I can’t help but wonder that if my parents or other loved ones did not know where I was, could they be confident that I was doing things that pleased Heavenly Father?

The Silent Years

Just like the scriptures were almost completely silent on the childhood of Jesus, they definitely completely silent on the next 18 years. The only thing they tell us is this:

Luke 2:52

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

But that is profound. He spent these years developing intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially. He went about becoming good, doing good, and building relationships. He got better and better each and every day. His beloved apostle, John, summed it up this way:

D&C 93:11-17

11 And I, John, bear record that I beheld his glory, as the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, even the Spirit of truth, which came and dwelt in the flesh, and dwelt among us.

12 And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace;

13 And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness;

14 And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first.

15 And I, John, bear record, and lo, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove, and sat upon him, and there came a voice out of heaven saying: This is my beloved Son.

16 And I, John, bear record that he received a fulness of the glory of the Father;

17 And he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him.

These truths can also apply to us. We can also grow line-upon-line and precept-upon-precept. What it comes down to is how we choose to spend our time. It is my testimony that the more we spend our time in the service of others and in the service of God, the better we become. As we serve, we receive the necessary intelligence, power, wisdom, and glory we need to fulfill the measure of our creation and have joy therein.


Supplemental Resources

  • When was Jesus born?

The short answer is we don’t really know. It has never been revealed. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to figure it out. Biblical scholars and historians have posited a number of opinions. Some of the leaders of the Church have also expressed their viewpoints—and even they do not agree with one another.

For example, Elder Bruce McConkie wrote about this in his book, Mortal Messiah, 1:20, and believes Jesus may have been born in late December. Elder James Talmage in Jesus the Christ takes the view that he was born on April 6, 1 BC, basing his conclusions on D&C 20:1. Elder Hyrum M. Smith wrote in Doctrine and Covenants Commentary that the year of Christ’s birth coincided with the 750 anniversary of the founding of Rome, or 4 BC.

After spending some time on this matter, in my opinion, it is likely that Jesus was born in the early fall. According to Luke 1:27, John the Baptist was born about six months before Jesus. If we can figure out approximately when John was born, we could know the season of Jesus’ birth.

John’s father, Zacharias, was a priest of the Abijah order, the 8th course (1 Chron:24:10). Each course ran for a week, starting with the first week in the month Nisan, which is usually in April. So it’s likely Zacharias served around late May or early June, and Elizabeth conceived around mid-June. Nine months later would be a late March birth for John. And six months later brings us to late September.

So interestingly, Jesus could have been born around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, which starts anywhere from late September to early October. This could also explain why all the guest rooms were full. Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census, but it is likely Caesar Augustus had the census coincide with a time when many would already be traveling to the region for the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem.

An autumn birth would also explain why shepherds were still out at night with their sheep, since the cold of winter had not yet set in.

Furthermore, we know that the Savior’s ministry lasted for 3½ years. If he had just turned 30 when he started his ministry, as was the custom at the time, that would make the start date the fall of the year 26. Adding 3½ years to that would place the end of his mortal mission just in time for the spring Passover in the year 30.

I personally think the date was October 6 but that also happens to also be the date I married my wonderful wife.

  • Did Mary and Joseph have other children?

At the time of Jesus, Jewish men married at sixteen or seventeen years of age, almost never later than twenty; and women at a somewhat younger age, often when not older than fourteen. So it was very likely that Joseph and Mary would have been the age of those in a modern high school.

Ever since Adam and Eve, the faithful have been commanded to multiply and replenish the earth, not add. So whenever possible, families would have as many children as they could.

So it should be no surprise to us that the New Testament names four boys and mentions some sisters. How many is some? Well, the manuscripts use the word hai adelphia which suggests three or more sisters. So Mary may have had eight children in all.

Some people believe that these were Joseph’s son from a prior marriage, but that would mean that the oldest son would have received the birthright and would have been the one responsible to look after Mary after Jesus died. Others believe that Jesus was the only son which disregards the fact that the scriptures say Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son (implying that there were others), and that the brothers and sisters mentioned simply meant people who came from the same community. But personally, I believe Jesus had seven half-brother and half-sisters.

  • What happened to Joseph?

The last time Joseph was mentioned in the scriptures was when Jesus was 12 years old and the family was visiting Jerusalem for the Passover. Then, the next time we read about Mary is at the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus was 30 (John 2:1-10). Joseph is not mentioned at all at that time. So we are led to believe that sometime in those intervening 18 years, Joseph passed away. Thus, Mary became a widow, and Jesus—begin the oldest son with the birthright blessing—became the household’s priesthood leader with a charge to protect, provide, and preside over the family. In a very literal sense, the Lord knew, from his own personal experience, how to comfort to the widow and be a father to the fatherless.

So how did Jesus support the family? According to Mark 6:3, he followed in his step-father’s footsteps and became a carpenter, who, at that time, not only worked with wood but with stone—more like a general construction worker. Jesus would have been someone who not only built furniture, but homes, and synagogues, and sheep holds. He knew all about building foundations and cornerstones and gates and paths. So that’s probably what Jesus did to help provide for the family.


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