Copyright © 20181
But what was the sign?2
1And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because He was of the house and lineage of David:) 5to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
13And 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.”
15And 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.” 16And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
As we read through Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, we discover a key theme of the Christmas season. It’s the message that the angel gave to the shepherds. The fact that an angel said it underscores its importance. He said:
“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
What is the significance of this sign? If God took the trouble to send hosts of angels from heaven, and one special messenger to tell the shepherds to look for a sign and to find it, then I am sure He wants us to understand that sign and its significance to us.
The Age of Caesar Augustus
First, let’s consider in what period of history all this took place; a knowledge of the historical setting helps us understand the Bible. On the throne in Rome, as Luke reminds us, was Augustus. “It came to pass in those days that there went a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.” Now the word used in the King James version is taxed, but at this point, they only had to enroll, or register, so that they could be taxed subsequently. Everyone had to go to their own city, because, of course, there was no postal system in those days, and no other quick means of communication like we have today. The only way to account for everyone was for each to go to his own native city or town or village, and there be enrolled by the publicani,3 those government servants who were appointed by the Roman government to do administrative tasks.
About the Title Augustus
Caesar Augustus reigned as sole emperor from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. Known to his family as Octavius, he was the second Caesar, and the first emperor to use that imposing title of Augustus. History looked upon his reign as the Golden Age. After him, each supreme head of the Roman Empire would add Augustus to his name. For instance, almost 300 years after the death of Caesar Augustus, just before God sent Constantine to be the first Christian ruler, the emperor Diocletian associated himself with another Caesar, and they called themselves Augustii — that is, Augustus in the plural. Then they each had an assistant who was called Caesar. So the term Caesar became secondary, and Augustus was considered the higher title.
Historical Milestones Preceding the Nativity
For those of you who remember your Roman history (and those of you who have forgotten it, and those of you who never took the trouble to study it when you were supposed to), you might appreciate a review of Octavius’ life.
Avenger of Julius Caesar
Octavius was the one who took it upon himself to avenge the death of Julius Caesar (44 B.C.). He determined to punish the leaders of the assassins, Cassius and Brutus, and then banned the other conspirators who had assassinated Julius Caesar. The assassins had acted, in part, because they saw that Rome was losing its old strength, and its republican character. And Julius, who had been put into a supreme position, had taken it upon himself to be a caesar, that is a king (German Kaiser, Latin Caesar,4 English king, Russian tzar — all the same meaning, same origin). These senator-assassins didn’t want a caesar, or king; they wanted Rome to be a republic, retaining the good old stern moral attributes of the early republicans.
Antony, Cleopatra, and Actium
Somewhat later,5 it was Octavius who fought Marc Antony. Antony and Octavius had divided the Roman Empire between them. You will remember that Antony had spoiled his life and had ruined his cause by living with Cleopatra, who had deceived him. Octavius subsequently fought Antony and defeated him at the Battle of Actium (31 B.C.). In that great sea battle, the most important thing was that the large fleet of the Egyptian ships were to come to Antony’s aid. Cleopatra, however, withdrew them treacherously and traitorously, leading to Antony’s defeat and suicide.
Having captured Cleopatra, it was Octavius’ plan to bring her to Rome as a captive spectacle in his triumphal parade. The Egyptian queen, however, foiled this plan by committing suicide, inducing a poisonous viper to bite her. Shortly thereafter, Octavius — Caesar Augustus — ascended the Roman throne as the sole ruler over the entire empire, under the title of Augustus.
Augustus, Quirinius, & Providence
Caesar Augustus – wise, intelligent Augustus, cruel Augustus, benevolent Augustus — this is the one whom Luke is mentioning as reigning at the time of Jesus’ birth. Luke pinpoints this period by saying, “And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius6 was governor of Syria.” This is corroborated by Roman history records indicating Publius Sulpicius Quirinius as governor of Syria. God has placed for you an exact historical relationship, the exact time when the Lord Jesus was born: when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and when Augustus was Roman emperor.
And now the Lord Jesus was to be sent from heaven. The Lord Jesus was to born at the exact time God had arranged in His wisdom. There are people — are you one of them? — who believe that circumstances just “happen how they will”; and then God reactively, with an overruling eye, picks out the circumstances that interest Him, though He has quite a difficulty in juggling the factors to make things and ends meet. I hope you aren’t one of those, because God does nothing of the sort! God is supreme. One of your greatest comforts will be when God reveals to you the glory of His sovereignty. God in His sovereignty has ordained that you should have a limited free will. But you wouldn’t have it unless God had sovereignly ordained it. There is no conflict between our limited free will, and God’s absolute free will, which He exercises sovereignly as He chooses.
God’s Time and Place
God had decreed that His own Son, the Messiah, would come from heaven to earth at the precise time of His choosing. “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman…” (Galatians 4:4).
God chose the time of Christ’s birth, and He also chose the place. How did God arrange that His Son should be born in Bethlehem? If we go back to Micah 5:2 in the minor prophets, we read,
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,
How did God arrange that? And why did God say, “Bethlehem Ephratah”? He used that name because there were a number of Bethlehems, and He wished to make clear He was speaking of the Bethlehem that is a very small little village in Judea where King David had been born. Here, too, “the Son of David,” the Messiah, was to be born.
God arranged the birth in this place by putting into Augustus’ mind the desire to have everyone registered in their own city throughout all the regions of the Roman Empire. Yes, no doubt Augustus’ goal was that there might be an equitable taxation system. But the amazing thing is that, although Augustus presumed he had thought of it all, God arranged it. The Bible says,
as the rivers of water;
He turneth it withersoever He will”?
— Proverbs 21:1 —
God’s Sovereignty, Your Comfort
Have you ever noticed the scripture that says, “He makes us will and do His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13)? Wouldn’t you like to put yourselves into the almighty hands of the sovereign God and allow Him to govern even your thoughts and to make you do “His good pleasure”? How it ends all the internal argument when you’ve given yourself wholly to Him, and you allow Him to make you want to do what He wants you to do! Doesn’t it become easy?
I’m amazed at the number of Christians that give a testimony that at last, after a great struggle, they gave in to God and did what He wanted them to do. Why don’t you end the struggle? Why don’t you say now, “Father, Thy will be done,” and truly mean it for the first time in your life?! Don’t just recite the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” etc., but with all your heart pray “Thy will be done in me, on earth,” and trust the living God, who can move kings to do His will, to move little you to do His will, and believe Him that sovereignly He has undertaken for your life and will do in you His good pleasure. What a joy it is to serve God!
This sovereign God, who can help you to “will and do His good pleasure,” is the same God who acted at this point in history: At exactly the right time Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. That’s the setting of the story of Jesus’ birth. That’s why Joseph had to go with Mary, his espoused wife, to Bethlehem, for they both were of the lineage of David.
A Stable Situation
Mary came at last, expecting the baby any time, to Bethlehem. They arrived at the caravansary,7 what we call the inn, although it really means a place far more limited than what we think of as an inn. So many travelers were gathered around in little Bethlehem, at that small inn, that there was no room for Mary to have the baby. What could they do? They could be put outside, where they could make a fire and sit around it for warmth. So they might have done on any other night. But this night Mary expected her baby to come, and the innkeeper allowed them to use the stable. And that’s where Mary’s baby was born.
Now please don’t imagine an excellent government-attested stable, or an American cowshed. You are to think of an Eastern stable — four stone walls and a roof, and that’s all. And you are to think of an unclean stable, for there was not that same idea there of cleanliness. Hygiene wasn’t considered. It would have been wintertime, and the stable manure was accumulating. They would pack it against one of the walls, and keep it to put on the fields in the springtime. The stable would smell unpleasant.
And have you thought, doctor, nurse, of a baby being born under such septic conditions? Have you ever thought of the risk of tetanus in such a stable? It must have been rife with it. And that’s where Jesus was born, in that unpleasant stable.
Now that we’ve established the setting of Jesus’ birth, I want you to consider some simple but important truths that God wants us to understand.
From Heaven to Hovel
First, I want you to think of the stable itself. It’s so apposite,8 so in line, with His cross. Born in a stable, to die on a cross – yet He’s the Lord of Glory and the Creator! He made the stones that formed that stable wall. He made the earth that formed the stable floor. He made the creatures that were in the stable. He made the stars that shone down on the stable. He made the angels that testified to the shepherds. He made the sheep that the shepherds were looking after. He is the Creator –yet He was born in a stable. And He died on a cross. He created the trees that the wooden cross was made from. He created the iron that the nails which pierced His hands and feet were made of. Yet He perished, being put to death with the things He created, on a cross.
In my earlier days, in England, I read the book From Log Cabin to White House. It’s about the life of President Garfield, one of the United States’ great presidents. I enjoyed reading that lovely book. But Jesus’ life wasn’t like that. It was no log cabin to White House; it was the opposite. The Lord went from heaven to a stable, and finally a cross — and He was well content that it should be so. That’s our beloved Lord Jesus.
What foolishness this is to the wise, that the greatest person on earth should be born in a stable and die on a cross! Can you see also, that it’s a stumbling block to the religious? I know that you can be very religious and have a beautiful little model stable with lovely little donkeys around, as well as sheep and cattle. And in a beautiful church you can have a sentimental star shining down in the architecturally ornate structure. But how often do you think about the fact that it was a real stable Jesus was born in, of a real woman, and it was an unclean place — a place of humiliation, because there was no room for Him in the inn? The stable, then, is “foolishness” to the Greeks, that is to the wise and the learned, and “unto the Jews,” that is the religious, “a stumblingblock” (1 Corinthians 1:23). But to humble believers, whether they are pagans or Jews or Gentiles, the stable is another example of “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).
A Childlike, Humble Heart
Have you noticed how the simple people, the shepherds, worshiped Him? And have you noticed how the wise, the magi, came and worshiped Him? That’s why God gives us in Luke the account of the shepherds, and in Matthew the account of the magi, the wise men.
God wants to bring something to your attention. However wise and well educated you are, you can be humble, too, when God gives you the childlike heart that comes with New Birth. And however deeply religious you may be by nature, however clever, however well-instructed in theology and ecclesiastical things, God can give you the heart of a child. Dear friends, there’s nothing more lovely than seeing a high ecclesiastic worshiping like a little child, adoring his beloved, the Lord Jesus Christ. There’s nothing more attractive than to find an exceedingly well-educated person with the heart of a little child, kneeling, worshiping his Lord, the One He loves, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what God does in people’s hearts; but unhappily, it’s rare. “Not many wise, not many noble,” has God called. “God has called the poor of this world, the things that are not to bring to nought the things are” (1 Corinthians 1:28).
“I thank Thee, Father,” said Jesus on one occasion, “that Thou has hidden these things from the wise and the prudent, and revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for it seemed good in Thy sight” (Luke 10:21). Your prayer should be not to be learned in theology, not to be learned in philosophy, not to be amongst the very wise. Your greatest prayer should be that God would give you a childlike heart. For Jesus took a little child and put him in the midst, exhorting His disciples that each should “humble himself as this little child” (Matthew 18:4). Then let God add to you what He will, once He’s given you a childlike heart. Then let Him exercise that intelligence He has given you. Acquire all the learning that it’s right for you to acquire. Enter into all the truth of divinity as much as you can. Once you have a childlike heart, what a blessing you will be to other people!
That stable is God’s test for you and me, whether we will be really humble followers of the beloved Lord Jesus or not. You will find the proud religious and the proud intellectuals will scorn it, but you, with me, will think of the stable at Christmas time with great joy and love. And that is why we have a happy Christmas — because we love the Lord Jesus, and gifts are not so important to us as giving. Food and feasting is not so important to us as loving Him who first loved us.
The shepherds came to see that great sight “which the Lord had made known” (Luke 2:15). And the wise men turned from Herod’s palace to come and worship the little one whom God had made known to them. Both had a miraculous revelation. The shepherds had a revelation from the angels sent by God. The magi saw a new star in the heavens, and they knew just what it meant. Our astronomers today wouldn’t know that. They’d see a new star, they’d record it and announce it, they would tell you what magnitude it was — third, fourth, fifth, even a first or a second. But they wouldn’t know what it meant, why God put it there, why God showed it at that time, why in “the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23) He had arranged for that new star, that stella nova, to be seen. But the wise men knew. And from the East, they saw that star in the West, and they traveled many weeks until they came and found the place where the young Child lay. There they worshiped Him, giving Him gifts — gold and frankincense and myrrh.
What Is “the Sign”?
The next thing that God would like to make known to you is this, that the Messiah, Jesus, was lying in a manger — born in a stable, lying in a manger. There is twice an emphasis that He was in swaddling clothes — Luke 2:7 and 12 — but three times God says — in verses 7, 12, and 16 — that He was lying in a manger. Why a manger?
Every baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes. The old English verb to swaddle means to comfort. So “swaddling clothes” means comforting clothes, warm clothes wrapped around a child to make it feel contented and comforted and warm. Every child was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that is not the sign.
But no child was put into a manger. That was the sign that God gave, to find the babe lying in a manger. The shepherds had never heard of such a thing. They said, “Let’s come and see this great sight God has made known unto us.” They went into Bethlehem, and when they came, there was a little baby — no aura or halo around His head, nor around Mary’s head. But the baby was lying in a manger, as they had been told, and that was sufficient sign for them.
Where else was Mary to put the baby anyway? There were four stone walls, and a roof, and an earth floor covered with animal debris — where was she to put the baby? I would like you to try and consider the depths of this. I wish I had the ability to open it to you, the wonder of it as God shows me. Do you see what it means? God was wrapped in swaddling clothes. God was lying in a manger. This One lying in a manger was He who was “before all worlds.”9
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). By Whom did God create the earth? His Son. The Apostle John writes,
In the beginning was the Logos, the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made (John 1:1,3).
And yet here is that very same One, wrapped in swaddling clothes so He doesn’t get cold! “Lying in a manger”? Yes, because you can’t put Him on that disease-ridden, filthy floor, and there’s nowhere else, with just four stone walls. There’s only one receptacle that’s clean and draft-proof, and that’s the manger — a box on four legs, about three feet high, out of which the animals can eat. And God was put in there — God, who made the stars, God who made everything. That’s the miracle! That’s the wonder! The wonder is that God could catch cold, that God needs to be kept from the draft. That’s the marvel, because He was truly human.
Missing the Point?
Those of you who have studied theology know how you go into the question philosophically and scripturally: He is really God,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made,
being one substance with the Father;
by whom all things were made;
Who for us men, and for our salvation,
came down from heaven…
— the words of the Constantinopolitan Nicene Creed. It’s true! But you can study that philosophically, you can study it theologically, you can study it ecclesiastically – and miss the point!
God makes it clear for every “wayfaring man”10 and every wayfaring woman, every simple childlike heart, that the wonder of it is that Jesus was so truly man that He had to be wrapped in swaddling clothes to save His life. He was truly God, yet now so truly human. That’s the marvel, the wonder! That’s the thing that makes us feel that our minds reel. We can’t comprehend how God could become an infant, how God could be really a man. We must never deny Him His perfect manhood, otherwise He had never lived a life like mine and never died for me upon the cross.
The Child Born, the Son Given
Let’s go back to Isaiah to read God’s prophetic description of this event. There God made the promise, and there, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the great Isaiah sings one of those messianic songs:
For unto us a Child is born,
unto us a Son is given:
and the government shall be upon His shoulder…
— Isaiah 9:6 —
“Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder.” We don’t fully understand those words “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” until we come and see this great sight “that the Lord has made known to us” — that here is the infant Christ lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Why, He’s a child, an ordinary child that’s born as any other ordinary human being is born, and must be treated with the care of an ordinary child. He’s a child born, not a child given. But He’s the Son given. He is not acquiring divinity by His perfect humanity and obedience. He is God’s Son given. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). That’s why Isaiah sings,
Unto us a child is born,
unto us a Son is given.
He’s born a perfect human being. He is also the everlasting God, the only Ruler of princes “who from His throne beholds every dweller upon the earth.”11
That’s the sweetness, that’s the depth, the theological depth, if you like, nay, the spiritual depth of that simple truth “unto us a Child is born,” — lying in the manger — and “unto us a Son is given.” Therefore let us worship Him, Christ the Lord, like the shepherds and the wise men who came and knelt and worshiped.
Jesus is God and man; that’s why in Revelation 5 you’ll see that lovely picture of the Lamb “in the midst of the throne…and in the midst of the elders” (v. 6). He is “in the midst of the throne” because He is God; and He is “in the midst of the elders” because they represent earth’s people. There He is, God, in the midst of redeemed human beings because He’s a man! Everlastingly, forever and ever, as eon follows eon, as age follows age, He will ever be God and man. God has permanently united humanity with His deity. God has never, nor will He ever, unite angelic nature with His divinity. Angels are lower beings. They do not partake of divine nature, although they have that wonderful, exquisite and beautiful angelic nature with which God has endowed them. But with poor, fallen man, with his weakness and his follies, God has united His divinity, and He did it when a little baby was shown to the world. Actually He did it, of course, when the baby was conceived, but here He is showing His Son for the first time as God and man, in an earthly stable in Bethlehem, in Judea in Palestine.
We are focusing on Jesus’ humble birth in a stable. But let us not lose sight of the fact that “God has highly exalted Him” (Philippians 2:9). This is not a reward for Jesus’ faithfulness. He was highly exalted before He ever became man. It means that God put Him back to where He was before, exalted to the place at the Father’s own right hand. He is, by right, where He had ever been, being equal with God – as truly God as He became very man.
A Stable, but No Manger?
The stable represents you and me, and the manger represents our hearts. Christ can be in you, in the manger of your heart. That’s why we sing at Christmas,
Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown
When Thou camest to earth for me.
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
For Thy lowly nativity.
Oh, come to my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for Thee.12
There is a simple, wise little story, of a poor man coming to a most beautiful church and wanting to worship His God. Someone, the janitor, met him at the door. The janitor was nicely clothed. It was a beautiful church, expensive to belong to, with lots of rich people. The janitor said, “No, you can’t come in here. This is not for you.”
So the poor man, who wanted to worship God, in his poverty turned away.
He was met by someone on the steps as he was going down. The one whom he met said, “What did you want?”
“I wanted to go to that church. I want to worship God.”
“You wanted to go into that church,” the stranger asked, “and they wouldn’t let you in?”
“No,” said the poor man.
The stranger responded, “I have tried getting into that church for years.”
When the poor man looked in astonishment at the man’s face, he found it was the Christ. And then the Christ vanished!
You can have the most beautiful church, but it can be a stable with no manger for the Lord Jesus. You can be a deeply religious person who talks about God, and in your head has wonderful knowledge, but there is no manger for the Lord Jesus to be in.
You may be understanding the real Christmas message for the first time in your life, and seeing that the true Christmas message is Christ being in your heart. You can say, “O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, for though You left Your starry crown, and though You left heaven above, there was no room for You, “for Thy lowly nativity”; nevertheless, “come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for Thee.”
Jesus has been bruised and hurt and wounded and rejected so many times. Geoffrey Studdard-Kennedy once wrote about this:
When Jesus came to Golgotha
They hanged Him on a tree,
They drave great nails through hands and feet,
And made a Calvary.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns;
Red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days,
And human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham,
They simply passed Him by;
They never hurt a hair of Him,
They only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender,
And they would not give Him pain;
They only just passed down the street,
And left Him in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, “Forgive them,
For they know not what they do.”
And still it rained the winter rain
That drenched Him through and through.
The crowds went home and left the streets
Without a soul to see;
And Jesus crouched against a wall
And cried for Calvary.13
“Oh come to my heart Lord Jesus; there is room in my heart for Thee.” God is calling for your heart. You may have given Him the stable, but He’s not yet had the manger, He’s not yet in possession of your heart.
The Creatures in Your Stable
Lastly, I want you to think of the denizens of the stable who were there with Jesus when He was born. What were those creatures, and why are they important? The denizens of the stable where Jesus was born represent areas of your heart that Jesus is willing and able to deal with. He’s willing to come in and put out all those domestic beasts that are in the stable there with you. For instance, those wandering thoughts while you are listening to a word from God, or are taking communion; those unsavory thoughts of yours; those distractions of yours while you are praying – the Lord Jesus is willing to take captive your thoughts.
I can think of that stable and I can see in there so many things. Do you have a camel in your stable? Camels have humps. Do you ever feel very sorry for yourself? Do you ever grumble like a camel, who’s always got the hump? Do you ever feel that no one’s treated like you? It’s Satan who stirs up such thoughts. He puts a camel into your stable.
I’ve encountered another stable beast. I’ve been praying, and suddenly I’m arrested and find I’m thinking of something entirely different. I’m shocked. I try to trace back how that thought came. I can trace it back to where it was deflected and immediately my thoughts strayed. That’s a horse in the stable, a galloping horse. And only Jesus can put it out.
Do you remember those thoughts that come to you when you know you’re doing wrong, but you do it anyway? God is saying, “Be careful,” yet you stop your ears and won’t listen. There’s a stubborn thing there. That’s the mule in your stable, that stubborn thought. Jesus will correct it and put it out, if you let Him.
And do you recall, sweet, lovely, beautiful, young lady, those sentimental thoughts, while you’re sitting in church? You dressed yourself in your best. As you sit there you do hope you’re being noticed. And then you’re called to come to communion, and as you kneel down there you’re thinking all those thoughts about that possible one you haven’t seen yet, the husband who’s yet to be. That’s a sheep in your stable. But sheep shouldn’t be in stables. Sheep should be out in the hills with God under the sky with the shepherds. So that sheep must have been a sick sheep, else it wouldn’t be in the stable. Young woman, God will give you a husband. Young man, God will give you a wife. But ask God that your thoughts may not go like a sick sheep’s. Ask God that your thoughts may be concentrated upon Him. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). He’ll supply your need.
I think that an old he-goat kept pushing himself into that stable. I know Joseph put him out, but the smell remained: foul thoughts, unclean thoughts, immoral thoughts. God would cleanse you from those. Jesus wants to put them out, if you let Him come into your manger, into your heart.
Those selfish thoughts of yours, that’s that fat ox in the corner. He’s only concerned for himself.
The Mourning Doves
Then there are those “pity me” thoughts:
- “No one’s ever treated so badly as me.”
- “My children don’t treat me right. I’ve done so much for them. They ignore me.”
- “My father and mother don’t know what it is to be young. They don’t know what it is to be a teenager. They’re so satisfied; they’re so ignorant. Oh, I wish I could educate my father and mother to know what it is to be young and alive in the present age.”
And so on. These thoughts are those cooing, mourning doves up in the rafters. Don’t, please, have these thoughts. Ask Jesus to put them out. “Pity me” thoughts are terrible little thoughts; they do you so much harm!
Jesus’ Manger: A Pure Heart
So, then, where is it that Christ can dwell? Why was the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and put into the manger? Because it was the only clean place in the stable. And God will cleanse your heart and abide in it. Would you let Him come and make it clean and live in it? A clean heart, a pure heart is the most expressive and wonderful manifestation of a Christian life, and God will give it to you. It is His delight.
“Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5). But how can you love the Lord your God with all your heart if there is uncleanness in it? If you ask the Lord to give you a pure heart, He will do it! David’s prayer is a good old prayer:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
— Psalm 51:10 —
Do you understand that you can only put God in a clean place? He is not only an infant child; He is God, and the holy God must abide in a pure place. “Thou wilt not suffer Thy holy one to see corruption” (Psalm 16:10). That’s why Jesus is put in the only clean place in the stable, on the pure sweet-smelling hay. That’s why you’ll find the baby in the manger, because He is God.
God wants you to have a pure and a clean heart. If you ask Him, He’ll do it. Have you ever sought the Lord with all your heart to make your heart clean? He will do it, and your whole thought will be toward Him, your only desire for Him. Earth’s gifts and things and properties will mean very, very little to you, because you have Him, your beloved, dwelling in your heart.
Consider that lovely hymn:
Cradled in a manger, meanly
Laid the Son of Man His head,
Sleeping His first earthly slumber
Where the oxen had been fed.
Happy were those shepherds listening
To the holy angel’s word,
Happy they within that stable,
Worshiping their infant Lord.
Happy all who hear the message
Of His coming from above;
Happier still who hail His coming
And with praises greet His love!
Blessèd Savior, Christ most holy,
In a manger Thou didst rest;
Canst Thou stoop again yet lower
And abide within my breast?
Evil things are there before Thee
In the heart where they have fed;
Wilt Thou pitifully enter,
Son of Man, and lay Thy head?
Enter then, O Christ most holy,
Make a Christmas in my heart;
Make a heaven of my manger;
It is heaven where Thou art.
And to those who never listen
To the message of Thy birth,
Who have winter but no Christmas
Bringing them Thy peace on earth,
Send to them the joyful tidings
By all people in each home;
Be there heard the Christmas anthem –
Praise the Lord, the Christ has come!14
This Shall Be a Sign Unto You
“This shall be a sign unto you.” Yes, the sign for the shepherds was that they would find their Messiah, the God-Man, not just in a stable, but sleeping in a manger. What a wonder that they went and found
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man15 —
as the inspired Charles Wesley described the incarnation!
But what is the “sign unto you,” dear reader? What is the state of your stable? Is there a manger in your heart? And is this humble Jesus, the Creator, the sovereign Lord, present and abiding there? If so, will you allow Him to do His will in you and rid you of the beasts that plague your thinking and attitude? It’s a holy, pure heart that the Lord wants to give you!
And if your stable and manger are yet empty, if Jesus has not yet come to your heart in the New Birth, then the heartfelt, simple prayer of that Christmas carol can be what opens the door:
O, come to my heart, Lord Jesus —
There is room in my heart for Thee.
- Copyright © 2018 by Finest of the Wheat Teaching Fellowship, Inc. Annotated by Jim Kerwin. Edited by Jim Kerwin and Denise Kerwin. ↩
- Image of the manger copyright by www.LumoProject.com, licensed exclusively by FreeBibleimages.org for teaching purposes only; used with permission according to license terms freebibleimages.org. ↩
- Yes, the publicans, the (in)famous tax-collectors mentioned in the Gospels. ↩
- In Latin pronunciation, the “C” in caesar sounds like a hard “k,” and the “ae” is pronounced like the old English word “aye.” Thus, the words “Kaiser” and “Caesar” would have sounded alike. Following the contemporary pronunciation, the Greek New Testament has the word as Καῖσαρ – Kaisar. ↩
- For the sake of time and space, much of the intervening history is omitted – the Triumverate of Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus; the armies of Antony and Octavian defeating the armies of the assassins Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi (42 B.C.); Antony’s marriage to Octavian’s sister; and Antony’s subsequent, blatantly public adultery with Cleopatra (just to name some of the highlights). ↩
- In the name Cyrenius, too, the “C” is a hard “K” sound – Κυρήνιος / Kurēnios, as close as Greek can come to sounding like the Latin name Quirinius. ↩
- Caravansary: a word used in the Middle East for an inn, usually with a large courtyard meant to accommodate caravans. ↩
- Apposite: suitable, relevant, pertinent. ↩
- This phrase comes from the Nicene Creed. ↩
- “Wayfaring man” — the allusion seems to be to Isaiah 35:8 — And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called “The way of holiness”; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those; the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. ↩
- The phrase is from The Book of Common Prayer. ↩
- From Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne by Emily Elliott. ↩
- From Studdard-Kennedy’s poem Indifference (or When Jesus Came to Golgotha). ↩
- This is the entirety of George Rowe’s carol, Cradled in a Manger, Meanly. ↩
- This inspirational, incarnational couplet comes from Charles Wesley's hymn Let Earth and Heaven Combine. ↩