Faith-Building Bible Study Series
Welcome to the Holy Land Tour Bible Study series. There will be pictures and descriptions of the place, the background to the passage, and life application for the study. Click on pictures for captions. Note: All images are mine. You do not have permission for re-use.
Born in a Manger: Why Our Nativities Are All Wrong
My visit to Israel was eye-opening. I’m glad I went, even if only to visit Bethlehem. When we boarded the bus, our tour guide informed us that he would not be going with us that day. What would we do without him? He was an amazing tour guide. We couldn’t imagine having a day without this brother-in-Christ. It surprised us that Bethlehem is occupied by Palestinians and ruled by the Palestinian Authority (www.bibleplaces.com). In order for our tour to include this important city, we were required to have a tour guide from Bethlehem. Once inside the city, we rode our bus to a parking garage which teemed with vendors hoping to pressure visitors to buy their souvenirs. They were like a bunch of flies in the heat of summer! We were followed down the sidewalks pestered by them. At one point on our way to the Church of the Nativity, one of these persistent salesmen hovered near my husband’s back pocket with his wallet in it. The karate-self-defense instructor in me came out, “STOP!” I turned to face the man, stepping between my unaware hubby and him. He backed off quickly. Unfortunately, this was one of the most memorable parts of the city.
Our guide pointed out Stars & Bucks (their version of Starbucks), Walled Off Hotel (their version of the Waldorf), and the Seven & Eleven (Seven-Eleven)! This city is cleaner than most of the Arab areas within Israel, yet it had similarities: brightly colored metal doors on shops, narrow streets, homes above the shops, and Arabic on the street signs. We learned from the tour guide that Bethlehem is home to 80 percent Arab Christians, the rest primarily Muslim (also www.bibleplaces.org). One of the pastors in our group asked this guide, “Are you a Christian?” His reply, “What is that to you?” meaning no, he was not. It was obvious because the passion was not there. Certainly he was “enthusiastic” after all, he wants us to go home to encourage others to come on a tour which helps their economy. But a believer like our primary tour guide glows with passion as he shares about these places. So, if you go, request a Christian tour guide. You will come away with a rich experience like no other.
The Church of the Nativity, considered the oldest existing church in the world, was built by Queen Helena, Constantine’s mother in 325 AD, sits over the grotto where Jesus was born. It is home to Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox churches (Frazier, p.p.53-54). Below the church is a large cave with various “rooms” and pathways. One space is considered the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus. She placed him in a manger (stone feeding trough). Do you remember the pictures of Megiddo with the horse watering troughs? This is why I’m considering changing my nativity scene! Animals were usually kept in caves or rock pens. As for the Inn, it could have been a house constructed of rocks and a palm-thatched roof. The cave would have been behind the Inn, a place for travelers to bed their animals they traveled with while they stayed in Bethlehem. This is the setting for the birth of our Savior.
Not far away in Bethlehem is the Church of the Shepherds Field, a beautiful tribute to those faithful men who saw the angels, then hurried to see Baby Jesus. The cave space where tradition says the shepherds kept their sheep is now a sanctuary with a window to the cave. We couldn’t go in because a service was being held at the same time. A chapel sits nearby commemorating the event with mural paintings adorning the walls. Surrounding it is a grazing hill that overlooks the city.
Read: Luke 2:1-20
Now imagine a stone house where people lodged during the census, among many others in the City of David, meaning the hometown of King David, not the same as Old Jerusalem, Joseph lead a donkey with Mary sitting on its back to the place from where his family line came. They would have travelled in caravans as families, so they would not have been alone, as paintings depict. She was due any day, but they were required by the Roman government to travel from Nazareth on the south side of the Sea of Galilee all the way down to Bethlehem on the north side of the Dead Sea not far from modern day Jerusalem, about 156 km or a 2 hour and 30 minute car drive according to Google Maps. According to the Christian Media Center, it was a 15 day journey on foot!
The streets are crowded with travelers. Every where they stop, there were no vacant rooms. They must have been exhausted. Finally, they arrive at this inn with a grotto out back where animals can be lodged. Sadly, the innkeeper tells them the same thing, but seeing Mary's condition, leads them behind the inn to show them the cave, the stable. He offers them space here. So they make their way through the cave to an area in the back affording them privacy. She begins having labor contractions that night. After a while, she gives birth to a beautiful baby boy, just as the angel told her would happen. As Mary and Joseph clean him up and wrap him with some rags they find in the cave. They lovingly call Him Jesus (Immanuel, God with Us) as the angel Gabriel told Joseph (Matthew 1:22-25).
In the meantime, shepherds in a field about three miles away, keep watch over their sheep in a cave pen by sleeping at the entrance to protect the sheep. Suddenly, a very bright light wakes them out of their slumber. There are no blinding halogen beam headlights on vehicles at that time. The brightest objects they had at night are the stars and a fire. This light was an immense angelic choir! Their eyes struggle to adjust to the light as they squint to see something they had never imagined seeing ever. They are told by an angel to go see this Baby, the Messiah God has sent to save Israel. Just as quickly as the light came, it disappeared. They wasted no time. They herd the sheep together to look for this new Baby. Essentially, the angel of the Lord told them they would find a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding trough. Not your typical maternity ward! After they arrive, they find Him with his mother and adoptive father in the cave just as they were told. Certainly, a newborn cry is distinctive. The angel’s description impeccable.
Read: Matthew 28:16-20
Why would God use a teen girl, a middle-aged carpenter, and a smelly group of shepherds to welcome Jesus to earth? Interestingly, God prefers working through humble people, those who could not have possibly done anything spectacular on their own. He used those with a tremendous faith in Him to accomplish His will in our world.
Why that city at that particular time? He came at a time of forced peace by the Roman government which ruled the majority of the known world. His birth in Bethlehem fulfilled prophecy ( Isaiah 7:14, 11:1, Micah 5:2, Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15, Zechariah 3:8, 6:12). There had been 400 years of God’s silence, no prophets spoke messages from God during that time. It was a ripe opportunity to speak to His people through His Son, the Savior of the World. He came as a baby, peacefully, not forcefully like the military deliverer Israel longed for. The celebration of the Festival of Booths and Passover was the right time for the governor to take a census. It was spring, not winter, when Jesus came to earth.
Why a baby born of a virgin? Isaiah foretold the event in Isaiah 7:14 to let Israel know the signs to watch for the coming Messiah, Immanuel (Jesus). Because He was sinless, innocent of the sin that enslaves all people. A baby isn’t threatening. In fact, most people find babies cute, safe, loving, innocent. God came as a baby for us, experiencing life on earth as we do, identifying with us. Yet He was still God. He came for them then, and He came for us now and He will come again to take His people with Him (Matthew 24:30, 36).
How will you share that good news that Jesus came to save us from our sin? Salvation is not just for society’s elite, but for all people. We are the ones God has chosen, everyday people to deliver the message of salvation in a non-threatening manner to a world torn by sin. How will you share Him with those around you?
Bethlehem, City of David, Christian Media Center. Video December 19, 2016. Accessed December 21, 2017. https://www.cmc-terrasanta.com/en/video/archaeology-culture-and-other-religions-8/bethlehem-the-city-of-david-12080.html.
Walk Where Jesus Walked by Gary Frazier. Copyright 2017 by Gary Frazier. Used for Discovery Cruises and Tours. p.p. 53-54
NIV Bible Study Notes for Luke 2:1-20 on Biblegateway.com.
Note: all of these resources were used multiple times in this study. I noted some of them in the text, but to avoid making it difficult to read, I refrained from over-doing the notations. Feel free to check these resources out.