by Dan Hayden •
The Christmas season began in full swing when Black Friday opened its doors to the holiday buying frenzy. Christians sometimes complain about how the world merchandizes the celebration of Christ’s birth, but in spite of all the secular trappings accompanying the Christmas spirit, for me it truly is “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Now, I know December 25 has pagan roots, and most likely it is not the birthday of Jesus. Yet something special hovers over the idea of setting aside a season of the year to celebrate the most important event in the history of the world—the time when God stepped foot on planet earth to become our Savior. Well, not the exact time. That happened nine months earlier. Perhaps we should celebrate “conception day” on April 25th.
Tunneling beneath the commercial busyness of Bethlehem on that first Christmas day, we are surprised by a cavernous opening beneath the Bethlehem Inn. Caves pepper the Bethlehem area, serving as shelters from the weather and stables for livestock.
Travelers visiting Israel’s Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem today descend from the main floor to a subterranean cave, purported to be the birthplace of Christ. The location is debated, but the idea of a stable-cave is probably more accurate than a wooden structure behind the inn.
In the midst of animals, a Jewish man draped his royal heritage with a carpenter’s cloak. His pensive wife sat in the stillness of wonder, not looking at all like a princess of the House of David, which her genealogy reveals. Mary gazed on their newborn son wrapped in common swaddling cloths, marveling at the divine presence lying so peacefully in the straw-filled feeding bin. The biggest question mark in the world hovered over Mary as she quietly pondered how the majestic God of the universe could condescend to inhabit that precious infant with such little fingers and toes.
Only the sound of shifting animals broke the silence that first morning in the stable-cave. No visitors expressing well-wishes and oohing and ahhing over the poor people’s baby lying in a bed of straw. The high priest never came, nor did any Sadducees or priests or Pharisees or scribes. No representative from the palace arrived. Relatives and townsfolk seemed oblivious to the couple from Nazareth with their newborn baby.
Just Mary and Joseph alone—with God looking up at them with loving eyes from the cradle. Sacred moments can surprise us in unlikely places.
Later, a group of shepherds appeared at the stable entrance, inquiring about the birth of a child. Joseph invited them in. Quietly entering, the ragged men edged closer to the manger in a surprising attitude of worship—surprising, that is, until they recounted to Mary and Joseph a visitation of angels in a field proclaiming the joyful news: A Savior had been born!
Nobility did not come to the manger, but humility bowed in awe and wonder. Only lowly shepherds visited that night.
Meanwhile, kings from the east prepared a caravan of camels for the long journey to Jerusalem. The wise men never hovered around the nativity scene, but approximately a year-and-a-half later, stately camels bearing kingly Magi appeared at the humble home of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Such a regal presence must have overwhelmed this simple, peasant family.
Like the shepherds, the kings came to worship the child. Bearing amazing gifts, they prostrated themselves before little Jesus.
And then they left.
To Mary and Joseph, the visit must have seemed almost magical—unlike anything imaginable. Herod the king never came, but these royal messengers from the east honored Jesus by their visit and gifts.
SHEPHERDS AND KINGS. That’s it. The Scriptures record no other visitors. So, what is it about shepherds and kings? Why are they highlighted in the greatest story ever told?
Matthew, Mark, and John make no reference to shepherds. That can be puzzling—until you understand the portrait nature of the Gospels. The writers leave this part of the Bethlehem story for Luke alone to tell.
Most likely Luke spent time with Mary in John’s home in Ephesus where, as a physician, he would have heard about her most intimate experiences related to the virgin birth.
Mary’s keen recollection of the first visitors to the animal shelter that first day of Jesus’ birth, would have found its way into Luke’s notes while he listened intently to her story. The fact that simple men of the lowest occupation in Israel should be God’s choice to receive the angelic proclamation of the Good News of the Savior’s birth must have enthralled Dr. Luke.
In the second chapter of his Gospel, Luke recounts the shepherds’ story and their joyful response to the angelic message. Thirteen wonderful verses. Only Joseph and Mary experienced their visit. So it was through Luke that this part of Mary’s story was revealed to the world.
It would be John, however, who would later reveal the reason for shepherds first visiting and worshiping Jesus. John penned a memorable account of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who gave his life for the sheep (John 10). Shepherds were comfortable in the presence of Jesus because He was one of them. In fact, years earlier King David (who began his life as a shepherd boy in the fields of Bethlehem) wrote: “The LORD is my shepherd” – Psalm 23:1.
There, in Bethlehem’s manger, the shepherds worshiped the Lord who had come to lead them to green pastures and beside still waters.
This is what God wanted at the birth of his Son. A display of humility: the cave environment, a humble atmosphere, the Bethlehem shepherds—lowly men who spent much of their time with their sheep in caves like the place where Jesus lay.
Mary and Joseph were poor, and Jesus was lying on a patch of hay in an animal manger. The scene was perfect and God smiled.
His Son had humbled Himself to become a man. One day He would humble Himself even further to die on a despised cross for the sins of the world—“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by coming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 – ESV).
Most Christmas programs and contemporary manger scenes mingle the kings with the shepherds, gathered in worship around the manger. The Bible corrects our anachronistic view of the kings by telling us they arrived considerably later than our traditional Christmas story. The kings did come to worship Jesus, but by the time they arrived in Bethlehem after an arduous journey from the far east, Jesus was probably one-and-a-half years old, and not a newborn baby. This is why King Herod killed all the male children in Bethlehem under two years of age.
Again, the gospel writers are very selective in their particular portraits. Only Matthew mentions the visit of the Magi. Their absence in Mark, Luke, and John is striking when we realize how impressive a visit by eastern royalty would have been. Even the killing of little boys by wicked King Herod fails to appear in the other three gospels. Why? Matthew’s Gospel is a portrait of Jesus the rightful heir to the throne of David, King of Israel. This is why The Magi’s visit and Herod’s slaughter are germane to Matthew’s story. Kings came to worship a King.
The Magi were not literal kings. Yet they had royal bearing as the counselors of kings. Representing the monarchs of eastern nations as state officials, their presence carried the same authority as though the king himself were present. In any international setting, the Magi were “stand-ins” for the king. So it is wholly appropriate to refer to them as kings.
To put the visit of the kings from the east into a modern perspective, it would be as though the rulers of Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia traveled to Israel to worship a little Jewish boy as the King of the universe. Yet, such an unbelievable scenario actually happened in the little town of Bethlehem around 4 B.C.
As shepherds came to worship the divine “Good Shepherd” who would give his life for his people, so kings came to worship the divine King who would one day rule the world. These earthly kings prostrated themselves as they worshiped little Jesus and offered royal gifts befitting his divine status: gold, frankincense, and myrrh—all prominent elements required by God for worship in Israel’s Tabernacle and Temple. In these places of worship everything inside was made of gold. Frankincense was the foundational element in the Temple incense, and myrrh, the basic ingredient of the holy anointing oil.
The wise men were very wise kings in the presence of divine royalty.
God smiled again as the kings of the east bowed in worship of THE KING. Jesus was one of them—the King of kings and Lord of lords. As with the shepherds, so with the kings. Jesus was both.
No record exists of any other visitors. Just shepherds and kings.
TIMING IS SIGNIFICANT
Not only WHO came to worship Jesus at his birth, but WHEN they came is highly significant. They did not all show up at once for the birthday party. The shepherds came first—the exact day of Jesus’ birth. The kings would come much later. God’s timing for the visitors was obviously planned in the eternal council of heaven.
As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus embraced his humility immediately by his participation in human conception and eventual birth. His family was poor, his surroundings (both Bethlehem and Nazareth) austere and minimal, and his dedication in the Temple required only the minimum sacrifice of a dove. The seeds of his humble shepherding work were already present at Christ’s birth.
The presence of the shepherds in the Bethlehem stable on that first day was appropriate and necessary for telling the story of Jesus’ incarnate life. He was first of all, a Shepherd, and it must have seemed right as He peered at the shepherds from his makeshift crib. He had come to be the ultimate Shepherd, to free his sheep from the briars and thorns of sin, and to gather his flock into the safe-haven of his heaven. Ruling the sheep would be meaningless unless He first saved them—which is why Jesus had to be a Shepherd before He could be a King.
That is the message of Jesus’ First Advent. He was named Jesus, because He would save his people from their sins. Throughout his entire earthly life, He walked steadily toward the cross. He once told a story of a shepherd seeking his lost sheep, then lived it out as He gave his life for the sins of the world.
The shepherds mirrored the Good Shepherd on that first Christmas morning because that was WHO He was, and represented what He would do.
Kings came later—much later. Herod asked the wise men a question when they arrived in Jerusalem saying they had seen a star that heralded the birth of a Jewish king. Herod inquired of them exactly when the star had appeared. The implication was that the star coincided with the timing of the child’s birth. Herod would have known how long it took the Magi to travel the long journey from Babylon to Jerusalem—a little over a year. When he realized the child was born in Bethlehem, he calculated elapsed time and ordered all Bethlehem boys two years and under to be killed. This was his attempt to eliminate any potential rival to his position and power.
We are not told how old Jesus was when He became a target of the assassin’s sword, but we can logically assume He was between one and two years old. Since the plot to kill Jesus occurred shortly after the wise men’s visit, we know that the kings visited Jesus a long while after the time of the shepherds. A considerable time period existed between the first visit from the shepherds and the final appearance of the kings.
Like David, the son of Jesse of Bethlehem, Jesus is both a Shepherd and a King. Yet, a significant period of time has transpired between Jesus’ First Advent as a Shepherd and his Second Advent as a King. One day our Lord will descend from the clouds as the glorious King of all kings, and we will join the wise men of old in rapturous worship of his eternal majesty.
The kings came later than the shepherds because in the divine plan, the appearance of Jesus as our King will occur a long time after He appeared as our Shepherd.
THINKING ABOUT CHRISTMAS
Most people will give very little thought to the birth of Christ as the true meaning of Christmas. Others will enjoy the season’s carols, pageantry, and religious reflections as their favorite holiday of the year. But for those of us who have been truly redeemed by the shed blood of the Good Shepherd, and who earnestly long for the Second Coming of the Savior-King, Christmas will be a joyful reminder of our incredible eternal hope.
Only shepherds and kings adorn the Christmas story—visitors filled with desire to worship Jesus. In their own time, Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna would add their voices of praise and adoration for the Child born in Bethlehem. But, the spotlight remains on shepherds and kings—for this is WHO JESUS IS.
This Christmas, worship Jesus as your SHEPHERD and adore him as your KING.