The angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. […] You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger (Luke 2:10-11,16).
The story of Jesus’ birth is known as the Nativity, where angels greet shepherds watching their flocks and lead them to the side of the infant King Jesus, resting in a feeding trough.
Young Mary (still a virgin) and Joseph, her betrothed, marvel at the shepherds’ report. “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
The episode is related in only a few lines, yet the full narrative spans centuries and includes all the features one would expect from a gripping story.
Part One: Prologue
God told Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites” (Deuteronomy 18:18).
Another prophecy paints a similar picture for David: “I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. […] I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-13).
The “he” here is Jesus, who was described centuries before the story of his birth. Such promises would have prompted the original audience to wonder “what does the Lord mean by that?”
God foreshadowed the coming of a Savior to rescue Israel from their enemies. Biblical prophecy about the birth of Jesus becomes more specific in Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
Part Two: Introduction
Skip ahead to Roman-ruled Palestine. An angel came to Mary and told her that she was chosen by the Lord to carry and give birth to his holy Son.
“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
The angel explained how Jesus’ conception would take place: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35) Mary agreed to be Jesus’ mother, and the birth of the world’s Savior was now only nine months away.
Part Three: Rising Action
A few verses separate conception and birth during which Mary stays with Elizabeth. As part of the plot, Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin) also became pregnant in spite of the fact that “Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”
An angel had visited Zechariah, saying “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. […] And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:13,16).
Isaiah 40:3 prophesied about John, the one who will cry out “in the desert, prepare a way for the Lord.” If this was a piece of fiction, one would say that God was setting his readers up for a sequel by foreshadowing the ministry of Jesus.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth became one of the few people, along with Mary and Joseph, to realize that the Lord was about to bring his salvific plan to fruition
Elizabeth gave birth, “and her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her” (Luke 1:58). Joy and hope build with the rising action.
At his circumcision, when John was named, Zechariah’s mouth was opened. “Fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him” (Luke 1:65-66).
The reader’s excitement grows, and the story moves forward.
The Characterization of God
Readers are persuaded to continue reading to the climax by their relationships with characters. God is the hero of his own story, appealing to the reader with his power, the way he keeps his promises, and his love.
Readers see him through the eyes of Mary, Elizabeth, and even the angels, causing the reader to begin to hope for and anticipate the same things Israel had always prayed for: A Savior from their enemies.
Time had dulled the edge of hope, but God’s character had been established, so hope can build once more. Could Mary’s baby be the one? The reader comes to believe that, yes, Mary is about to give birth to Immanuel.
Zechariah forgot God’s character in spite of his vocation as a priest. In some translations, Zechariah asked the angel, “How shall I know this,” but in others, he asks the angel, “How can I be sure” or, “How can you prove this?” (Luke 1:18).
This is why he is struck dumb and deaf, a consequence that silences doubt and contrasts with the faith of Mary and Elizabeth. The Savior is coming, and the reader is eager to meet him.
Part Four: Climax
Mary and Joseph embarked on the long walk to Bethlehem from Nazareth to be counted as part of the Roman census. The town was full of people, which meant there was no room at the “kataluma” or “inn,” which Strong’s concordance describes as a lodging place, possibly a guest room in a private home.
In other words, Mary probably gave birth in a house, and the manger was not in a stable outside. “It is very plausible that a manger would have been kept in the home rather than a stable” because animals were brought inside to protect them.
Then, the shepherds arrived, told Mary and Joseph what the angels had said to them, and Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” The shepherds returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2:18,19). The long-awaited Savior had been born at last.
Birth Story Symbolism
Jesus was not even circumcised when the shepherds arrived at the “inn” unless Luke recorded details out of order. This seems unlikely given Luke’s intention to provide an “orderly account” of events (Luke 1:3).
Is it significant that Mary is considered unclean as per law? Leviticus 4:4 says, “She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purifying are completed.”
The shepherds were not holy, Mary was not entering a sacred place, and no mention is made of hugging or clasping hands with these men.
Still, the shepherds are symbolic figures. Symbolism enables a writer to establish deep meaning with few words. Here are three ways the shepherds tie Christ to the rest of the Bible from birth:
1. Jesus is referred to as both a shepherd and a lamb (Mark 14:27; John 1:36). We see God also described as Shepherd (Psalm 28:9). There is plenty of Shepherd-sheep imagery in the Psalms (Psalm 80:1,95:7,79:13).
2. The first people to hear that their King was born were some of the lowliest individuals in Jewish society. Jesus came to seek and save sinners and would spend much of his time with the outcast and marginalized.
3. Their role as shepherds made these men culturally unclean, while their occupation could be dirty at times. “Shepherds were in the fields among smelly and not-so-bright sheep.”
God was already challenging legalism and hypocrisy by inviting unclean people onto an unclean scene, to the side of his pure and perfect Son’s manger.
The symbolism unifies the Nativity narrative with the entire story of Jesus, the Bible as a whole. They foreshadow future events, remind the reader of Old Testament promises, and help us to understand the Messiah better.
Part Five: Denouement
Not much else is said about Jesus’ life before his ministry began. The family was visited by Magi; they fled the murderous rage of King Herod.
The action would soon rise again as Jesus began to preach the coming Kingdom, leading to the climax of God’s entire and true story with Jesus’ crucifixion and heroic defeat of sin, Satan, and death.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.