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What Really Happened in Bethlehem?

December 19, 2014 Preacher: Cameron Arensen Series: Christmas Message

Topic: Christmas Scripture: Luke 2:1–7

Synopsis: This is Pastor Cam’s “alpha and omega” Christmas sermon, as he preaches his final Christmas sermon as pastor of ECC by repeating the very first Christmas sermon he preached at ECC in December, 1990. It is a repeat for many (a favorite ECC tradition), but if you are new to the church in the last 3 years, this sermon may surprise you as we look at Luke 2:1-7 and ask the question: What Really Happened in Bethlehem?


I am about to preach the last Christmas sermon I will ever preach as Pastor of ECC. I am also about to preach the first Christmas sermon I ever preached at ECC, way back in December 1990.

Christmas is a time of traditions, isn’t it? It is a time to get out your favorite recipe for Christmas cookies/biscuits, to take your favorite Christmas ornament out of the box and hang it up, and to put your favorite Christmas music on the stereo.

Christmas is also a time when I have indulged myself over the years by periodically getting out my favorite Christmas sermon. If you have been in the church for more than 3 years, you’ve heard this message before. If you’ve been in the church for longer than that, you might have heard this message more than once before. If you’ve been in the church a really, really long time, like David and Anna Winning, you could probably preach this message yourself! But I don’t apologize for repeating this message. It is one of my Christmas traditions and it has therefore become a kind of ECC tradition!

Let me ask you a question. How well do you know the Christmas story? In our family growing up, one of our traditions was reading the Christmas story. We celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. And always, after we had enjoyed a traditional family supper we sat around the Christmas tree and read the Christmas story together before we opened our gifts.

Because of this, the words of the accounts from Matthew and Luke became probably as familiar as any in all the Bible. I trust they are familiar for you as well. But how well do we really know the story? To test that, I have prepared a simple quiz for you. It’s there in writing on the bulletin insert, but I want to read the questions for the benefit of those who may be listening via recording. Tick the best answer as I read. (By the way, if you do remember this message from a few years back, don’t help your neighbor. Let him do his own work)

Here is the quiz given to the congregation:

How well do you know the Christmas story? Try the following quiz:

1. When did Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem?

a. Early in the morning
b. Late in the evening
c. We don’t know when they arrived

2. When they arrived they could not find a room in the inn because…

a. The hotel would not take Visa or Mastercard
b. The hotel was full of others also returning for the census
c. There was no local inn

3. The innkeeper was…

a. Heartless for not finding them a room
b. Kind for letting them stay in the stable
c. Neither because there was no innkeeper

4. Jesus was…

a. Born in a manger
b. Born in a stable and placed in a manger
c. Born in the family room of a typical Jewish home

Are you finished? Let’s see how well you did. (Exchange papers with your neighbor!) It’s really quite easy to grade. You see, I believe that the correct answer to each of the questions is “c”.

You are looking skeptical! It doesn’t match our traditional understanding of the story, does it?

For most of us, the mental picture we have of the events of the first Christmas goes something like this. Joseph arrives in Bethlehem late in the afternoon or even into the evening. He leads a donkey, on which his very pregnant wife, Mary is seated. She is grimacing with the beginning of labor pains. Joseph moves through the streets of the town, from inn to inn, only to be turned away. No room! Finally in desperation he pleads with an inn-keeper. Seeing Mary’s obvious distress, the man grudgingly gives permission for them to sleep in his stable with the animals. That very night, Mary goes into full labor, and alone among the animals, with only Joseph assisting, Mary gives birth to Jesus, the Son of God.

Is that relatively close to your mental picture as we read from Luke 2 this morning? That’s the image or mental picture I grew up with. It is the one reproduced in countless Christmas dramas and programs. But in 1980, Kenneth Bailey, a middle east expert and a professor of theology published an article: “The Manger and the Inn: the Cultural Background of Luke 2:7”, in which he challenged that traditional understanding of the events. I would like to draw on his material to take another look at Luke 2 and see if the events of Jesus’ birth happened quite the way we assume they did.

Our traditional view hinges really on two phrases in the text. The two phrases are both found in verse 7: “She laid him in a manger,” and “there was no place for them in the inn.”

Our reasoning goes like this: Mangers are for feeding animals. Animals live in stables. Therefore, if Jesus was placed in a manger, it means he was born in a stable. Now that’s strange. Why would Jesus be born in a stable? The answer: because there was no room for them in the inn. We immediately fill in the blank with our image of an inn: a local hotel. Why was there no room for them in the inn? Well, the text doesn’t say, so we use our logic. Presumably it was because they got there too late in the day and the inn was crowded with other people back for the census and there was no opportunity to make other arrangements. So they found the only shelter available which happened to be a stable.

It all seems logical. But will those two statements bear the weight of the logic we put on them? That is what Ken Bailey questions, especially in light of the cultural factors and other clues in the text.

First, let’s consider the inn itself. In Jesus’ time, inns were located primarily in major towns. Bethlehem was just a sleepy village of 1000 to 2000 people. Located, as it was, only 5 miles from Jerusalem, it is unlikely that Bethlehem even had an inn as we understand the term.

Even if there was an inn, the inns of the day were unsafe, dirty, often places of immorality, and what’s more, inns were used by Romans and other Gentiles. It was hardly the sort of place that Joseph would plan to stay with his pregnant wife.

But most compelling of all is this fact. Why was Joseph going to Bethlehem? What was Bethlehem to him? It says in verse 3 that it was “his own town.”

Let me ask you: When you go back to your hometown, where do you stay? Do you stay in a hotel? I remember asking this question of a Kenyan audience. They laughed and responded, “It would be impossible!”

Now I can see some of you mentally trying to flag me down and say: “Wait a minute! All this cultural discussion is quite interesting, but totally irrelevant. After all, the text clearly says: “There was no room for them in the inn.” That proves it. End of discussion.

Well, not quite. Let’s look more closely at the word that Luke uses here. The Greek word that Luke uses here is “kataluma”. Now what does that word suggest to you? Absolutely nothing, right? OK. How about another question? Is this same Greek word used anywhere else in the New Testament?

In fact, it is. Read Luke 22:10-12:

He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters 11 and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the (kataluma) guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.”

The word “kataluma” is used to refer to a “guest room” in a family home, a room that was specifically used to entertain visitors. It served the same use as a formal “parlor” in many homes in America a generation ago, or maybe the equivalent of the “majlis” in a traditional Arab home.

Now, I admit this does not prove the case, as scholars do tell us that the word “kataluma” was also used in the literature of the day to describe an inn or place of public accommodation. But we do not have any example of such a use in the Scripture.

We might ask another question: Is there another word in Greek which is clearly used to describe an inn or hotel where the public could find accommodation? In fact, there is. It is the word “pandokeion” which literally means “receiving everyone”. Luke himself uses this word in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:34: After bandaging up the wounded man, the Samaritan set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.

The next verse even mentions an “innkeeper” and uses a variation of the word pandokeion. So Luke had another, unambiguous word he could have used if he meant “inn” in chapter 2. But he chose the word “kataluma”.

Now you may be mentally waving at me again saying: Wait a minute! What about the manger? Mangers are used for feeding animals, right? That’s right. And animals live in stables, right? Are you sure? That is an assumption that many of us bring from our cultures. But in Jesus’ day and in his culture, they did not use stables or separate buildings for keeping animals. Larger animals were brought into the house at night for safety and even to provide warmth on cold evenings.

Let me describe a floor plan for a typical Jewish home in Jesus’ time. It consisted of three rooms or areas. The first area, on ground level, was an entry area, and it was also used to keep the larger animals in. Several steps would then lead up to the main room of the home. There was generally no wall between these areas. Only the different levels kept them separate and often the mangers or feeding troughs were built into the raised area. The raised, main area of the home was the one occupied by the family, and was a multi-use room: cooking, eating, and sleeping would all take place in this area. Now, separate from this family room often with a separate entrance, was the “kataluma”; the room for receiving and entertaining guests.

With these facts in mind, what really happened in Bethlehem?

Joseph is returning to his home town to register for the census. The only logical place to stay is with relatives, extended family, or friends. They arrive in Bethlehem. The time of day is not stated. In fact the wording in v. 6 does not give any indication of urgency or immediacy. It simply says “while they were there.” They are received and welcomed. Remember that hospitality, especially to family or friends, is a deeply held cultural value. Other guests have preceded them and the kataluma or guest room is occupied. So they stay with the rest of the family in the common living area. During their stay, the baby Jesus is born. We can assume it was a major family event with the women of the family clustered around to help. It was a normal birth with all the accompanying excitement and joy of a first born son, within the framework of an extended Jewish family: simple, earthy, humble. And the baby is laid in a manger, a natural, ready-made, sturdy little bed for an infant.

What are the implications if this interpretation of events is true?

Well, in all honesty, not that much really changes. In fact some things remain very much the same.

1. Jesus’ birth demonstrates his humility.

Whether he was born in a stable, or in a simple, peasant home, Jesus chose to be born in humble circumstance. No palaces. No silver spoons. No retinue of servants.

As II Corinthians 8:9 says: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich."

When Jesus took on the form of a servant, he demonstrated it in the place and manner of his birth.

2. Jesus’ birth demonstrates his accessibility.

When the shepherd on the hillside heard the angel’s announcement they said simply: “Let’s go and see.” If this baby is lying in a manger, then, whether in a stable or in a simple home, it’s their kind of place. It is a place where they can go and where they will be welcomed, and they will be able to see for ourselves.

These things remain the same. There is one point of difference I would stress if this interpretation is correct.

3. Jesus’ birth was absolutely and incredibly normal.

I think we may miss this in the traditional stable story. It’s just a bit too dramatic. There’s too much thought of the darkness, the loneliness, the cruel innkeeper. Poor Mary! Poor Jesus! No room in the inn! But I would like to suggest that the Christmas story is not a drama of rejection. That would come later. This was a normal birth, in humble, simple circumstances. They were circumstances that the world could understand then, and which much of the world can still understand today. This baby was born in just the same way that countless millions of babies had been born before him and countless millions since.

It was an incredible act of identification. Jesus slipped quietly and naturally into the stream of human history. Supernaturally and miraculously conceived, yet born under natural physical, cultural and sociological circumstances. It was an utterly ordinary birth of an utterly extraordinary child.

Well, I can’t ultimately prove it happened that way. I hope I haven’t shaken anyone’s faith this morning or spoiled your Christmas. If you disagree and prefer the traditional interpretation as the best explanation of the text, that’s fine. As I said, not that much changes. The Christmas message rests not so much on the when or the where, or even the how of the story. It rests on the “who” and the “why” of the story.

1. Who is this baby?

“What child is this?” the carol asks. The chorus echoes back, “This, this is Christ the King!” The answer is found in Luke’s account, from the lips of the angel who announced his birth to the shepherds: For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

The second question is equally important.

2. Why was he born?

The different Bible writers say this in different ways. From Matthew’s account, from the lips of the angel to Joseph in Matthew 1:21, we find the words: "She (Mary) will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Whatever your interpretation of the passage and its details, let us not fail to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, which is found, ultimately, in the who and the why of the season.

Discussion Questions

  1. Read Luke’s account of the Christmas story together. (Luke 2:1-20)
  2. What was your reaction to Pastor Cam’s “non-traditional” interpretation of the events in Bethlehem?
  3. Do you agree, disagree? Why?
  4. If the non-traditional view is correct, what changes in the way we think about and celebrate Christmas? What remains the same?

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