Front Page
Series Contents
Series Theme: Seasonal Materials



Title:   1B. The Christmas Accounts



Christmas - What actually happened?

A look at the Biblical Accounts

The Events of "Christmas"




The following are the key parts of the Christmas accounts:


1. The Birth of John the Baptist

•  Zechariah & Elizabeth are promised John by an angel

2. Mary's Pregnancy

•  Mary is promised Jesus by an angel. Joseph is told in a dream, by an angel to take Mary as his wife.

3. To Bethlehem  

•  The couple are required to go to Bethlehem for the census where Mary has her baby, Jesus, in a stable.

4. Welcoming Shepherds

•  That night shepherds are guided by an angel to come and visit the new born baby.

5. Temple Announcement

•  Mary & Joseph take Jesus to the Temple to dedicate him

6. Wise men come with gifts

•  Back at Bethlehem they settle down and wise men come bringing gifts

7. Flight & Return

•  Joseph, in a dream, is warned to take his little family to Egypt to protect them. Some time later, after a further dream they return to Nazareth .  


Now let's look in detail at what took place. Under each heading we'll consider the Biblical texts that apply and what took place, and then also make comment on it.




1. The Birth of John the Baptist.


What Happened:


The details of the birth of John the Baptist are as follows:


1. Zechariah, an elderly, childless priest, was serving in the innermost part of the Temple in Jerusalem when an angel appeared to him. (Lk 1:5-10)


2. He was told that his wife will have a son who is to be named John, who will eventually bring many people back to the Lord. (Lk 1:11-17)


3. Zechariah had trouble believing this so the angel said Zechariah would be dumb until the child was born. (Lk 1:18 -20)


4. When he returned home Elizabeth became pregnant. (Lk 1:21 -25)


5. Later after John had been born, Zechariah confirmed the name and immediately started to speak and prophesy about him. (Lk 1:57 -79)



Zechariah & Elizabeth were good people (Lk 1:6) yet they were still childless.


God had not spoken to Israel for over four hundred years so perhaps it wasn't surprising that Zechariah was both frightened at the angel's appearance (Supernatural Event 1) and found it difficult to believe. Yet he was chastised for his unbelief and dumbness acted as a constant reminder to him of what had happened (Supernatural Event 2).


Elizabeth seems to have conceived quite naturally yet the miracle was that previously she had been unable to (Supernatural Event 3).


Zechariah's voice was only restored when he acted obediently confirming the name (Supernatural Event 4)


The baby, John, was to become John the Baptist, who was to prepare the people in the years to come to meet Jesus.


Conclusion: Even Jesus' forerunner came by supernatural means





2. Mary's Pregnancy


What Happened:


The details of Jesus' conception are as follows:


1. Six months into Elizabeth 's pregnancy, the angel appears to a young girl, Mary.

(Lk 1:26-30)


2. He tells her she will conceive and bear a son called Jesus (Lk 1:31 -33)


3. She asks how this can be as she is only engaged to Joseph and hasn't known a man, and is told it will be with the help of God the Holy Spirit. To this she assents

(Lk 1:34-38)


4. When Joseph found out, he determined to separate from her, but received a dream in which an angel told him to marry Mary, because her son will save his people from their sins. This he does (Mt 1:18 -25).


5. Mary went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, and when she arrived Elizabeth prophetically confirmed to Mary what had happened (Lk 1:39 -45).


6. In response Mary breaks forth in prophetic response (Lk 1:46 -55).


7. Mary stayed on with Elizabeth for the next three months (Lk 1:56 ).




Mary is betrothed – our equivalent to engaged – to Joseph.


The arrival of the angel (Supernatural Event 5) troubles her but she is reassured. It is possible that she had heard about Zechariah's angelic encounter and wonders what is coming.


When she is told, her only concern is how this can be as she hasn't a husband yet and the thought of having sexual relations with Joseph before marriage was unthinkable.


Again when she is reassured, she assents to God's will. She thus becomes pregnant (Supernatural Event 6).


Joseph struggles to believe but being both righteous and compassionate, determines to ‘divorce' (end the betrothal) Mary. But then he has an angelic dream (Supernatural Event 7) that is so real he does what he is told when he wakes.


Elizabeth is used to confirm to Mary the rightness of what has happened (Supernatural Event 8), and the Spirit of God obviously enables Mary to prophesy (Supernatural Event 9)


Conclusion: Mary conceives only by God's enabling.





3. To Bethlehem


What Happened:


The events surrounding Jesus birth are as follows:


1. The Roman emperor required a census be taken of all his subjects throughout his empire

(Lk 2:1,2).


2. One of the requirements was that everyone had to go to his own home town to be counted. Thus Joseph had to go with Mary to his home town, Bethlehem (Lk 2:3-5)


3. Mary was just expecting Jesus and when they arrived in Bethlehem, there were so many others there to be counted that the baby had to be delivered in the stable of the inn (Lk 2:6,7)





Critics often comment that the dating of the census seems difficult to pinpoint. Someone has commented that in all other aspects Luke is shown to be an excellent historian, and so until further details come to light we'll simply have to trust his accuracy. It is unclear.


Joseph comes from the line of king David, and Bethlehem was David's home town. The Messiah, humanly at least, is seen to come from the line of David – a royal family.


Years later John the Baptist was to herald Jesus as the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29 ,36). It was fitting that a lamb was born in a stable!


Conclusion : Pressed by circumstances out of their control, the couple find themselves fulfilling prophecy (see below).





4. The Welcoming Shepherds


What Happened:


The events involving the shepherds are as follows:


1. On the hillside near Bethlehem , shepherds were looking after their sheep when an angel appeared to them and proclaimed that the Christ had just been born in a stable (Lk 2:8-12) 


2. Just then a whole angelic choir appeared singing praise to God (Lk 2:13 ,14).


3. When the angels left, the shepherds hurried down and found Jesus as described and spread the word of what had happened. (Lk 2:15-18)



Shepherds were virtually outcasts, living outside of society, looking after sheep on the hills. God reaches down to the lowest to include them in the celebrations.


The angel explains that this is the Christ who has just arrived (Supernatural Event 10).


Then angelic choir declares the wonder of what has just happened (Supernatural Event 11)


Conclusion: Heaven breaks though in joy and gives lowly shepherds the honour of being the first ones to welcome the Son of God.






5. Temple Announcement


What Happened:


The events of the dedication are as follows:


1. Remaining at Bethlehem, eight days later Jesus was circumcised according to Jewish Law, and given the name, Jesus (Lk 2:21).


2. Forty days after the birth, almost certainly staying in Bethlehem , they took Jesus to the Temple in nearby Jerusalem , to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Lk 2:22 -24).


3. When they arrive in the Temple they are greeted by an elderly man, Simeon, who has been led by the Spirit to be there awaiting their arrival (Lk 2:25 -27)


4. Simeon took the baby in his arms and prayed and prophesied over him, and over them.

(Lk 2:28 -35).


5. There was also an elderly widow, Anna, there who also came and confirmed these things about the child (Lk 2:36 -38)




Two things become obvious here.


First, Mary & Joseph, as good Jews, seek to comply with the Law of Moses at all points. Thus they:

a) Circumcised Jesus after 8 days (Lev 12:3)

b) Dedicated him after 40 days as the first born son (Ex 13:12 , Lev 12:1-4)


Second, they would have almost certainly remained in Bethlehem , for that next month, rather than travel all the way back to Nazareth and then back again.


The law of hospitality would have meant that the local community would have taken this young family in so that they would be staying in a house and no longer the stable.


In the Temple , Simeon is clearly Spirit led and prophesies over them (Supernatural Event 12).


Conclusions: By conforming to the Law, the couple find themselves in a place of revelation where all that has happened is confirmed and they are reassured (in the face of what is about to happen).





6. Wise Men come with Gifts


What Happened:


The events involving the 'Wise Men' are as follows:  

1. Some time after Jesus was born, Magi from the East arrived at Jerusalem, guided by a star, searching for one just born who was king of the Jews (Mt 2:1,2)


2. Herod was upset when he heard of this and enquired of the religious leaders who told him it was prophesied that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Mt 2:3-6)


3. Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem , telling them to report back to him. They went to Jesus and presented the family with 3 sets of gifts. Receiving a warning in a dream they returned home avoiding Herod (Mt 2:9-12)



Magi are possibly a priestly caste of Medes, traditionally referred to as ‘wise men'. The text does NOT say they were kings. It does NOT say there were 3 – we assume that from the number of gifts.


There has been much speculation just how they were guided there but whatever else, we DO know:

•  they got there!

•  they acknowledged Jesus' divinity by worshipping him,

•  they provided very valuable gifts that could be sold and provide for this family for a long time.

Their dream seems to have been from God (Supernatural Event 13)


Conclusions: By strange means God provides materially for this young family.





7. Flight and Return


What Happened:


1. After the Magi had left, Joseph had a dream in which an angel warned him to take his family to Egypt . Thus the family moved to Egypt .

(Mt 2:13-15)


2. When Herod realised the Magi had not returned he ordered that all children in the vicinity of Bethlehem under the age of two be killed.

(Mt 2:16-18)


3. After Herod died (4BC) Joseph received a further dream saying to return home but, fearing the new king, they went back to Nazareth instead of Bethlehem (Mt 2:19 -23)



God again directed them to ensure their safety (Supernatural Event 14) to go to Egypt and later to return home (Supernatural Event 15)


Conclusions: God relies on Joseph's willingness to respond to dreams to protect His Son.




Further Considerations:


1. Did the Wise men come to Bethlehem or Nazareth ?


Commentators sometimes disagree on where Joseph, Mary & Jesus were when the Wise Men arrived because of them coming to “the house” (Mt 2:11 ). The suggestion sometimes made is that the little family returned to Nazareth after the birth and it was there that the Wise Men came and it was there that Joseph received the dream to flee to Egypt.


Suggestion: The following are reasons often given why it is likely that they stayed in Bethlehem after the birth and fled from there to Egypt :


a) Bethlehem was identified prophetically as the place of birth (Mt 2:5,6)

b) Bethlehem is where Herod sent the Wise Men (Mt 2:8)

c) Bethlehem is where the children were killed (Mt 2:16 )

d) The family had to stay on there for 40 days for Mary's purifying and the baby's dedication in the Temple 6 miles away in Jerusalem . In that forty days waiting, they would have almost certainly found a house in which to stay – it is possible being Joseph's home town there were distant relatives, and as a carpenter he could have found work.

e) If the dream had come in Nazareth it would have been more logical to be told to flee north away from Jerusalem , rather than go down to Egypt and have to pass by the area of danger.

f) When they returned, it is clear that they intended to go back to Bethlehem (Mt 2:21 ,22) but it was only when they heard of Herod's son reigning (with an equally bad reputation) that they decided to go back to Nazareth .


2. Why does Luke omit the Egypt account?


Reconciling Matthew's account and Luke's, where Luke (Lk 2:39 ) says they returned to Nazareth after the dedication, is not difficult.


Suggestion: Luke simply omitted the Egypt episode because it didn't feature highly in his understanding and so was simply left out. Matthew saw it as yet another prophetic fulfilment [Matthew emphasised the prophetic fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies as he was writing with the Jews in mind.]


3. Why are there constant prophetic references in Matthew but none in Luke?


We need to understand the different characteristics of the two Gospels that have all the Nativity accounts in.


Matthew's emphasis was for the Jews and therefore constantly referred everything back into their history, especially their prophetic history. There were over 300 prophecies in the Old Testament referring to the Coming One or Messiah.


Matthew uses these to point out fulfilments in respect of:

•  the virgin birth (Mt 1:22 ,23)

•  Bethlehem being the place of the birth (Mt 2:5,6)

•  the child being linked to Egypt (Mt 2:15 )

•  the death of the young boys (Mt 2:17 ,18) 

•  living in Nazareth (Mt 2:23 )


Dreams also feature quite highly in the Old Testament, and so it is no surprise that Matthew draws out God's use of dreams to:

•  direct Joseph to marry Mary (Mt 1:20 -)

•  warn the Wise men to avoid Herod (Mt 2:12 )

•  warn Joseph to go to Egypt (Mt 2:13 -) 

•  tell Joseph to return to Israel (Mt 2:19 -)


Luke on the other hand, writes with the Greek population in mind and therefore doesn't bother with the same Jewish links. He does explain adherence to the Law (Lk 2:22 ,23) but mostly he seeks to show God's power and thus we find the references to the angelic messengers (Lk 1:11 ,26 & 2:9) but even more to the activity of the Holy Spirit:

•  John to be filled (Lk 1:15 )

•  Mary to conceive (Lk 1:35 )

•  Elizabeth filled (Lk 1:41 )

•  Zechariah filled (Lk 1:67)

•  Simeon led & moved (Lk 2:25 -27)


4. Why did God use angels to speak to some, dreams to others and the Holy Spirit to another? 


The simple answer has got to be that God knows who will respond to what guidance: 

•  Zechariah had direct angelic guidance but needed a backup sign. 

•  Mary & the shepherds had direct angelic guidance and responded positively. 

•  Joseph and the Wise Men received dreams and responded positively. 

•  Simeon was simply prompted by the Holy Spirit and responded positively. 






The Nativity accounts are re-enacted year by year in schools and read year by year in carol services, but most people ignore the incredible divinely supernatural elements that fill these stories:

•  3 direct angelic encounters

•  4 divinely inspired dreams

•  1 supernatural conception – with a man

•  1 supernatural conception – without a man

•  1 man guided by the Holy Spirit

•  3 prophetic outbursts under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.


What we so often forget, because it challenges our intellects, was that somehow, this little baby was the Son of God who has just come from heaven residing in this tiny human form. It was only years later, as John the Gospel writer reflected back on those years with the perspective of old age, that he remembered and realised the significance of Jesus' words about having come down from heaven (Jn 6:32,33,38,41,50,51,58)


Within these accounts we have seen the Son revealed:

•  as one who will save his people from their sins (to Joseph – Mt 1:21 )

•  as king of the Jews (to Wise Men – Mt 2:2)

•  as one worthy of worship (to Wise Men – Mt 2:2,11)

•  a ruler, a shepherd king (through O.T. prophecy – Mt 2:6)

•  as ‘Son of the Most High' (to Mary – Lk 1:32 )

•  a ruler of an eternal kingdom (to Mary – Lk 1:33 )

•  as the Son of God (to Mary – Lk 1:35 )

•  as a Saviour, the Christ (to shepherds – Lk 2:11 , to Simeon – Lk 2:26 )

•  as God's salvation, a light for the Gentiles, the glory of Israel (to Simeon – Lk 2:30 -32)


This is no ordinary child, this baby born at Bethlehem, this is The Son of God, The Saviour of the World.