Christmas and Epiphany
The birth of Jesus is an important event in the lives of Christians. But it is interesting that very little is recorded in Scripture about the birth of Jesus and the first Christmas night. Matthew describes the birth of Jesus with the simple words: “Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS” (Matthew 1:24-25). Mark skips the birth of Jesus entirely, and John only records: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). All the details we have about Jesus’ birth are found in the Gospel of Luke.
Matthew does include some information concerning the early life of Jesus while in Bethlehem which is not included in Luke. But as we will see, these two accounts are not different views of the same event in Jesus’ life, instead they are two entirely different and separate events.
Many people confuse and combine the events of Jesus’ birth recorded in Luke 2 with the account of the visit of the magi found in Matthew 2. Most manger sets include Mary and Joseph, the Baby Jesus, an angel, the shepherds, and the wise men, as well as an assortment of animals. Christmas cards which picture the manger scene almost always include three wise men and a star above the stable. These incorrect displays of the first Christmas night can mislead people into combining these two accounts!
These events did not take place at the same time, but may have been separated by as much as two years. These two events have long been celebrated separately - the first as Christmas, the second as Epiphany. As we celebrate Christmas we would also do well to continue making a clear distinction between these two events in our celebration of Christmas.
There are a number of clear differences in these two accounts. In Luke we are told that Mary and Joseph placed the baby “in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). In Matthew we are told that the wise men came “into the house” (Matthew 2:11) where they saw the young child. These two Gospel writers are not describing the same event or even the same night. The account of the wise men was later than the account of Luke, after Mary and Joseph had found a more permanent place to live.
In addition to that we have the description of Jesus himself. In Luke he is called a “baby” (Luke 2:7,16 - Greek: brephos), while in Matthew he is called a “young child” (Matthew 2:9,11,13,14 - Greek: paidion). Matthew even gives us an idea of how much later this was with the description of the killing of all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area who were two years of age and younger. This estimate of the age of Jesus was decided based on the information the wise men gave to Herod concerning when the star had originally appeared (Matthew 2:7,16).
Cast of Characters - Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, Angels, Shepherds
Scripture Reference: Luke 2:1-20
Notes: Mary (v. 5,16,19)
Joseph (v. 4,16)
Baby Jesus (v. 7,16) - the Greek word used by Luke in these two verses is the word Brephos. There are a number of Greek words which can be used to refer to young children. This word is a specific word which is used to refer to infants.
• It is used in Luke 1:41,44 to describe John the Baptist while in the womb of Elizabeth.
• It is used in Acts 7:19 to describe the Egyptian killing of the newborn male babies at the time of Moses.
• It is used by Peter to describe the food source of infants: “as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word,that you may grow thereby”(1 Peter 2:2 - compare also Luke 18:15; 2 Timothy 3:15).
Angels (v. 9,10,13,15)
Shepherds (v. 8,15,18,20)
Inn (v. 7) - Luke says that there was no place for them to stay - even within rented rooms, because of the census.
Manger (v. 7,12,16) - Although Luke does not specifically mention a stable or barn in these verses, he does say that Jesus’ first bed was a manger. The Greek word for manger is phatne, which was an eating trough for animals.
Cast of Characters - Mary, Joseph, Child Jesus, the Star, Magi, Herod
Scripture Reference: Matthew 2:1-21
Notes: Mary (v. 11,13,14,20,21)
Joseph (v. 13,14,19,21)
Child Jesus (v. 1,2,8,9,11,13,14,20,21) - the Greek word used in these verse for “child” is paidion which is much more general than brephos. This is the most commonly used Greek word for children of any age. While it is used to describe a wide range of ages, its usage in this context would refer to a “toddler.”
• It is used in Luke 1:59 to describe John the Baptist at 8 days old.
• It is used in Luke 1:80 to describe John the Baptist when he was an adolescent.
The Star (v. 2,7,9,10) - notice the reference to the star in these verse but not in Luke. Herod inquired of the wise men when it appeared (v.7) and based the time when it first appeared, killed all the boys of Bethlehem and the surrounding area who were two years of age and younger (v.16).
The Magi (v. 1,7,16) - again, no reference in Luke.
Herod (v. 1,3,7,9,12,13,15,16,19)
House (v. 11) - this is a key word. Instead of a stable, manger, or a rented room, we are told that the wise men came to a house where they found young Jesus and Mary.
Someone might ask, “What’s the big deal? Why all the fuss about the wise men and the star?”
The fusing of these two accounts is just one vivid example of the careless treatment of the precious Word of God by people in our society. It’s amazing how easy it is for us to be misled - even when it is in connection with an account of Scripture we hear every year and should know very well. If we can be misled about something as small as a star over the manger on Christmas night – because that is the way it is shown on Christmas cards and displayed in manger scenes – how many other things are we “learning” incorrectly, due to other similar worldly influences?
This should serve as a reminder to us to be like the early Christians in Berea, who “searched the
Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11)!
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, GA by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.
If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew