Celebrate Christmas: Nativity Characters
by Bobby Kelly
Only Matthew and Luke record the birth of Jesus. While the basic plot and characters are similar, each Gospel highlights different aspects of the story.
Jesus, Son of David and Savior of His People (Matt. 1:1-2:23)
Matthew opened his Gospel with a genealogy that demonstrated Jesus’ relationship to Abraham and David. God promised Abraham that He would bless the world through Abraham’s seed (Gen 22:18), a promise Paul applied directly to Jesus (Gal 3:16). The connection to David, Israel’s greatest king, revealed Jesus as heir to the promise that God would raise up David’s offspring and establish the kingdom of His throne forever. Matthew also introduced the reader to Jesus’ parents, Joseph the son of Jacob and Mary, but with a twist. The text says “Joseph the husband of Mary,” not “Joseph the father of Jesus” (1:16), likely hinting at the virginal conception. Joseph is a godly, righteous man engaged to Mary, whose righteousness is captured most pointedly by her status as “a virgin.” These are pious, godly Jewish teenagers.
Matthew’s genealogy also included four women not included in Luke’s genealogy: Tamar, the Canaanite woman who dressed up like a prostitute and had relations with her father-in-law, Judah (Gen. 38); Rahab, a prostitute from Jericho who hid Joshua’s spies in her roof (Josh. 2:6); Ruth, a widow from Moab (Ruth 2-4); and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a beautiful Hittite woman with whom David committed adultery (2 Sam. 11-12). The inclusion of these four Gentile women confirmed that God’s work of salvation would involve men and women of various backgrounds and reputations and that it was intended for “all nations” and not merely Israel.
Despite the unusual nature of Mary’s conception, Joseph obeyed angelic instruction and married Mary. Joseph also obeyed the instruction to name the child “Jesus,” from the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning “God saves.” After the birth, “wise men” (Greek magi) from the East arrived to worship Jesus. Nativity scenes and Christmas carols wrongly depict three kings huddled around the newly born Messiah. The term “magi” referred to Persian astrologers, the kind of men who would watch the stars looking for divine action. Although they brought three gifts, there is no indication that they numbered three. Finally, they were not there at the birth. A change of venue is clear from Matt. 2:11, “entering the house, they saw the child with Mary.” In fact, Jesus was likely 2 years old at the time of the visit (2:7, 16). Even if others refuse to worship Jesus, pagan stargazers will.
The final character in Matthew’s account is the ultimate antagonist, Herod the Great. Herod was originally appointed client king of Palestine by the Romans in 37 B.C. His frequent murder of political opponents, as well as three of his sons and his favorite wife, reveal an egomaniacal, paranoid tyrant who valued only his own life and power. In light of this, his decree to murder all the male children two years and under in Bethlehem to ensure the elimination of a rival king rings true.
Jesus, the Bearer of Salvation to All People through Jesus the True King and Lord of All Creation (Luke 1:5-2:40)
Luke’s story began with the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah, an aged priest who was in the midst of a rare opportunity to burn incense in the Holy Place in the temple and to pray for the nation Israel. Despite their age and barrenness, Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son named John, meaning “the Lord is gracious.” John would be a “joy and delight” to his parents, but would also play a pivotal role in God’s redemptive plan (1:14-16). Zechariah responded with unbelief, and he was struck speechless for nine months.
After Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she was pregnant with the Son of God, she immediately went to the hill country of Judea to spend six months with her cousin Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife. When Mary arrived, the unborn John “leaped inside” Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit filled her, and she blessed Mary and praised God (1:41-45). In Luke’s account, when the time came for Jesus’ birth, there was no room in the “inn.” The word commonly translated “inn” is not the typical term for a commercial inn, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The term Luke used indicates a guest room attached to the private home of a family that Joseph may have relied on for hospitality in the past. On this visit, however, the room was occupied.
Shepherds provided witness of the event. Shepherds in the First Century were poor, uneducated, and considered perpetually unclean since they so often came into contact with dead animals. For that reason, shepherding had become a despised trade for those who were concerned about status in the Jewish community. In fact, because of their status as unclean, they were not permitted to set foot in the temple, nor were they allowed to testify in court. While educated pagans from Persia worshipped Jesus in Matthew’s account, lowly shepherds close to the bottom of the social scale not only worshipped Jesus, but they also became the first to proclaim the good news of His birth (2:8-20).
In contrast to worldly expectations about the birth of a king, Jesus was not born in a governor’s mansion or a wealthy merchant’s guest room in a gated community adored by the rich and famous. On the contrary, the eternal Son of God in human flesh was born in a feedbox for animals and the first to adore Him and testify of His birth were lowly shepherds whose low status did not even permit them to testify in court. This good news would truly be for all people.
On the eighth day following His birth, Jesus was circumcised (2:21). On the 40th day when they returned to the temple for Mary’s purification, Simeon, a righteous man filled with the Spirit, recognized Jesus as Messiah (2:25-35). Alongside Simeon appeared Anna, a godly, elderly prophetess who thanked God for His coming work of redemption in Jesus (2:36-38). God’s plan of salvation was reaching its climax in the birth of this Child.
Bobby Kelly is Ruth Dickinson professor of religion at Oklahoma Baptist University.