The Personal Setting
While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (2:6–7)
Luke described the most profoundly significant event in all of history up to that point—the birth of the God-man, Jesus Christ—in startlingly simple, straightforward, unembellished, even sparse language. While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the days were completed for her to give birth. Luke did not say how long they had been in Bethlehem, or whether they were still waiting to register, or stayed there after registering because Mary’s time to give birth was near. He gave no description of where the birth took place, except to say that it was not in the inn (see the discussion below). Luke simply said that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. No angels appeared, as they later would to the shepherds. No heavenly trumpets rang. No voice from heaven announced the birth of the Son of God. Alone except for her young husband, far from her family and friends, in the most primitive of conditions, a young girl gave birth. Thus did the second person of the Trinity step from eternity into time and space.
Luke carefully noted that Jesus was Mary’s firstborn (prōtotokos), not her only (monogenēs) son (cf. his use of monogenēs to refer to an only child in 7:12; 8:42; 9:38). The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that Jesus was Mary’s only child and that she remained a perpetual virgin until her death, is clearly a denial of Scripture. Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph “kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son” (emphasis added). That strongly implies that after Christ’s birth, they had normal marital relations. It is also revealed that Mary gave birth to other children, Jesus’ half brothers and sisters (Matt. 12:46–47; 13:55–56; John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14). As the firstborn, Jesus had the primary right to the family inheritance (cf. Gen. 43:33; Deut. 21:15–17; 1 Chron. 5:1; 2 Chron. 21:3). Joseph was not wealthy (cf. the discussion of 2:21–24 in chapter 14 of this volume), and had no great estate to bequeath to his firstborn son. But what he did pass along was the right to the throne of Israel (Matt. 1:1–16).
As was customary, Mary wrapped her baby in cloths. Strips of fabric were used to bind a baby snugly for warmth, security, and to keep the limbs straight. The point is that Jesus was treated like any other baby. He was not dressed in royal robes but in the normal wrappings that other babies wore.
Having borne her Son and wrapped Him, Mary laid Him in a manger. The reference to a manger has given rise to the tradition that Jesus was born in a stable. The Bible nowhere states that, however. Phatnē (manger) is the word for a feeding trough. Such troughs could be found anywhere animals were kept, not only in stables. The Bible does not specifically say where Mary gave birth to Jesus although a tradition, dating back to the middle of the second century, says that it was in a cave. While that is possible, since caves were sometimes used to shelter animals, there is no way to verify it.
Wherever the couple stayed, it was not in the inn, because there was no room for them there. Part of the Christmas legend is the heartless innkeeper who turns away a young woman about to give birth. But kataluma (inn) is not the normal Greek word for an inn (pandocheion, which Luke used in 10:34), but rather a general term for a shelter, or lodging place (it is translated “guest room” in 22:11). Exactly what that lodging place was is not clear, but it may have been a public shelter or campground, perhaps a place where caravans stopped. But with the overcrowding brought about by the census, there was no room for Joseph and Mary even in such a makeshift shelter. As a result, Mary was forced to give birth in the only place available—the place where the travelers’ animals were kept.
When Jesus came into the world, He was born in the most comfortless conditions—a smelly, filthy, chilly shelter, surrounded by noisy animals. It was a fitting entrance for the “Son of Man [who had] nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58); the one who “was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him” (John 1:10); for the one “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and [was]made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6–7); for the “Son of Man [who] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28) by bearing “our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). His humble birth was appropriate for Jesus, who came to die as a substitute in the place of lowly, humble, wretched sinners. As the writer of the hymn “Ivory Palaces” put it,
Out of the ivory palaces,
Into a world of woe,
Only His great, eternal love
Made my Savior go.
7 The word katalyma (GK 2906), usually translated “inn,” may mean a room (e.g., the “guest room” used for the Last Supper [22:11], referred to as an “upper room” in 22:12), a billet for soldiers, or any place for lodging, which would include inns (cf. L. Paul Trudinger, “ ‘No Room in the Inn’: A Note on Luke 2:7,” ExpTim 102 : 172–73). It is not, however, the usual Greek word for an inn—pandocheion (GK 4106), to which the Good Samaritan took the robbery victim (10:34). As the etymology of the word—pan (“all,” GK 4246) and dechomai (“receive,” GK 1312)—suggests, inns accepted all kinds of people, often the worst. Stories were told of discomfort and even of robberies at inns.
Luke could have painted a sordid picture, had he so desired. Instead he uses the general word for a lodging place and states the simple fact that when Mary’s time came, the only available place for the little family was one usually occupied by animals. It may have been a cave, as tradition suggests, or some part of a house or inn. Even today in many places around the world farm animals and their fodder are often kept in the same building as the family quarters. The eating trough, or “manger,” was ideal for use as a crib. Luke does not seem to be portraying a dismal situation with an unfeeling innkeeper as villain. Rather, he is establishing a contrast between the proper rights of the Messiah in his own “town of David” (v. 4) and the very ordinary and humble circumstances of his birth. Whatever the reason, even in his birth Jesus was excluded from the normal shelter others enjoyed (cf. 9:58). This is consistent with Luke’s realistic presentation of Jesus’ humanity and servanthood.
6, 7. And while they were there the days were fulfilled for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him down in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
In connection with this simple yet all-important passage note the following:
- The expression “While they were there the days were fulfilled [or: completed]” may mean that the two spent a few days in Bethlehem before the child was born. On the other hand, the words may simply place special stress on the fact that Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem: the great event took place while they were there.
- “The days were fulfilled.” The birth occurred “in the fulness of time” (Gal. 4:4). In this particular case, however, the meaning may simply be that the birth took place when the normal period between conception and delivery had expired. Even though the conception itself was a miracle, the process of development within the womb was allowed to run its usual course.
- “her firstborn son.” Note: not “her only son,” but “her firstborn son.” The natural explanation is certainly this, that after Mary had given birth to Jesus she continued to bear children. The very names of Jesus’ brothers are mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 13:55). The fact that he had brothers is also clear from Matt. 12:46, 47 (cf. Mark 3:31, 32; Luke 8:19, 20); John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14. And Matt. 13:56 makes reference to his sisters.
- “She wrapped him in strips of cloth.” Note: she wrapped him. Does this mean that Mary, having just given birth to her firstborn, now immediately with her own hands swaddled her babe? Not necessarily! No more than Herod’s statement, “John I beheaded” (Luke 9:9), means that he in person had wielded the executioner’s ax; and no more than Pilate’s declaration, “I will therefore punish … him” (Luke 23:16), means that he intended to do this himself. If we assume that Mary gave the directions, and Joseph (or anyone else) carried them out, we have probably done full justice to the passage.
As to the manner in which a little one was swaddled see B. S. Easton’s article “Swaddle, Swaddling-Band,” I.S.B.E., Vol. V, p. 2874, though whether exactly this procedure was followed also in the present case may well be questioned. Let it suffice to say that with strips of cloth the baby was wrapped round and round tightly and securely. More about this in a moment.
- “… and laid him down in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
About this “inn” there are various, sometimes sharply contrasting, interpretations. Note the following theories:
(1) The inn or caravansary was built around the four sides of an inner court. It generally had two stories. On the second story, reached by a primitive staircase, the rooms for the travelers were located. Those who stopped at the inn carried along their own blanket and pillow. If a person had no blanket, he could wrap himself up in his robe. On the ground floor the animals were stabled. Here also the cargoes that were transported along the caravan route could be temporarily stored. And here the servants, in charge of the pack animals (donkeys, camels), found rest for the night. It was in such a “stable” that Joseph and Mary found lodging when there was no longer any room in the “inn” proper, the second story.
(2) Akin to this is the explanation of A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, p. 23, who, however, pictures the stables as being “on one side of the square, outside the wall.” He is careful to point out that the manger in which the child was laid was either connected with the inn or was in a cave.
(3) The manger was in a cave, but that cave was definitely part of—or at least associated with—the inn.
(4) The inn was filled to overflowing: the upstairs was filled with weary guests. Even on the roof there was no room left. And downstairs the servants were crowding the courtyard, bedding down the animals for the night. At the suggestion of a villager Joseph and Mary then found shelter in a cave-stable.
(5) The rendering inn is wrong. The right translation is “stopping place” (thus Lenski), or “upper room” (thus Christie, I.S.B.E., Vol. III, p. 1470, and several others).
Their reasoning is that the original (Greek) word here rendered “inn” means “upper room” in Mark 14:14 (= Luke 22:11); so, if it has that meaning there, why not here? As Lenski sees it, Joseph and Mary tried to find lodging with some relatives, but since all the extra space in their house proper had already been given away, these relatives put their guests up in an adjoining shed, where asses were kept.
Comment on theories (1) through (5).
Any of the first four theories may be correct. They have in common their support of the rendering inn in 2:7.
Why was there no room in the inn? Was it because Bethlehem was overcrowded with people that wanted to be registered? That is the reason often given. It may be right, but is probably wrong or at least incomplete. Deserving of consideration is the fact that the town just now was filled with men charged with the responsibility of taking the census: officials and soldiers of the Roman government. It is well known that since Augustus and those who carried out his decree were aware of the fact that the Jews, because of religious scruples, were terribly afraid of coming into contact with non-Jews, the census officials were to be quartered, as far as ever possible, not in private homes but in public places, in inns for example. It is not surprising, therefore, that it was exactly the inn in which there was no room for Joseph and Mary.
This also shows that the rendering inn is probably correct, and that theory (5) is probably defective. For more on this see the note on these verses on page 148.
The owner of the inn should not be charged with cruelty. Room was simply lacking, except in the inn-stable or cave-stable.
The belief that the travelers from Nazareth took up quarters “in a certain cave” dates all the way back to Justin Martyr (about a.d. 114–165). See his Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 78. A similar view was expressed by Origen, Against Celsus I.51.
Helena, the mother of Constantine, built a church on the presumed site of the nativity. The present church was built by Justinian. In its interior the steps on either side of the altar lead to a cave below, where the supposed birthplace of Jesus is indicated by a star. Did the stable in which the infant was born actually stand there? This can neither be proved nor disproved. It is not very important. One thing is certain: the glitter, splendor, and aroma of the present site do not truly represent the circumstances that obtained when this child was born. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that our Lord was born in a stable and was laid down in a manger, that is, a feeding trough for animals, possibly a niche carved out in the cave wall.
“Greetings, you highly favored one, the Lord is with you.”
“There was no room for them in the inn.”
“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”
“She laid him down in a manger.”
Why these contrasts? The answer is given in 2 Cor. 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich.” See also John 3:16; Rom. 8:32.
It is not enough to be able to give a satisfactory interpretation of the nativity account, the Christmas story. We should be so deeply impressed with the love of God here revealed that we feel what the poet felt when he wrote:
For me, dear Jesus, was thine incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.
Tr. Robert Bridges
The baby was born in a stable, not in a palace. It was laid in a feeding trough for animals, not in a pretty bassinet. All this spells poverty, deprivation.
And yet, and yet! There is another side to the story. Love shines through. This infant at least was securely wrapped in pieces of cloth. Not so the child mentioned in Ezek. 16:4. From the very start that little one was thoroughly rejected, left to die in the field if God had not intervened. Also, many children, even today, have no bed to sleep in. Here, on the contrary, it takes but little imagination to see Joseph putting some straw into that manger, so that the baby would be able to rest in comfort.
To be sure, as a grownup Jesus would be “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Indescribable agonies would be his portion. Nevertheless, again and again during his ministry a voice would ring out from heaven, “Thou art my Son, my Beloved; with thee I am well pleased.”
So here also this same love is revealed. And in a moment the angels are going to celebrate the infant’s birth in song.
2:7 Swaddling cloths were strips of cloth wrapped around a baby to keep its arms and legs straight. Firstborn Son implies that Mary had other children (Matt. 1:25; 13:55; Mark 3:31–35). The manger was probably a feeding trough for animals. Jesus was probably born in a stable or in a cave that served as one. The inn was most likely a reception room in a private home or a space at a public shelter, not a large building with several individual rooms.
2:6–7. The Child was born during their time in Bethlehem. The fact that Jesus was called Mary’s firstborn implies that later she had other children. The couple was housed in quarters which were not private. According to tradition, they were in a cave near the inn. The Child was placed … in a manger, from which livestock fed. Being wrapped in strips of cloth was important, for this was the way the shepherds would recognize the infant (v. 12). Some infants were bound up in that way to keep their limbs straight and unharmed.