The story goes like this: Joseph and Mary arrive at the sleepy town of Bethlehem in the middle of the night. Mary is already in labour and sits on a donkey while Joseph desperately tries to find a room in one of the local inns, but he’s unsuccessful. Desperately he begs one reluctant innkeeper for any place at all where Mary could give birth to her baby. The innkeeper finally relents and makes room for them in a stable.
We get this story from reading one verse in Luke Chapter 2. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth (swaddling clothes) and laid him in a manger (an animal feeding trough) because there was no room for them in the inn.
But this is not at all how the birth of Jesus happened, so let me set the record straight.
Firstly, Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem well before Mary was due to give birth. The Bible says, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.” So, they were in Bethlehem already. They didn’t arrive the night before.
Secondly, Joseph and Mary were both from the royal line of King David. Joseph was from Bethlehem, and so he would be well known in the town. His extended family would open their homes – especially to a woman about to give birth to a baby.
A Humble Start
So, what does the Bible mean when it says, “because there was no room for them in the inn”?
The word rendered “inn” in Luke 2:7 is elsewhere translated in the New Testament as “guest room” (Gk. Kataluma. Cf. Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). The guest room was unavailable, probably because someone else was staying there.
Typical village homes in first-century Palestine would have a couple of rooms. One was the family room, where the family would live, cook, and eat during the day and sleep at night. Next to it was a guest room (kataluma). At the end of the family room, steps led down to the stable. The mangers (feeding troughs) were positioned at the end of the family room so the animals could feed when they were hungry. There was no solid wall between the family room and the stable.
The New International Bible gets the translation right: “And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (Luke 2:7). And so, Mary gave birth to Jesus in the family room of a private house with one of the mangers making the perfect cradle for the newborn king. And then came the visitors.
The First Visitors
The Shepherds were the first to hear about the Messiah. Shepherds were at the bottom of the social hierarchy in Israel. They were poor, unclean peasants – and they were asked to visit Jesus, but they would have been afraid, “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” – just like a poor, peasant baby in a regular house, not a mansion!” (Luke 2:10-11).
A Saviour for All
Jesus came for the poor, the lowly and the rejected – but He also came for the wealthy and wise. The next guests were the wise men from the East. They were probably wealthy gentiles from Arabia – the only place where the trees grew from which frankincense and myrrh were harvested. Gold was also mined in Arabia, and only the very rich would own it.
In the 1920s, a British scholar, E.F.F. Bishop, visited a Bedouin tribe in Jordan. The Muslim tribe was called al-Kokabani – meaning, “Those who study or follow the planets.” Bishop asked the tribal elders why they called themselves by that name. They told him it was because their ancestors followed the planets and had traveled west to Palestine to show honour to the great prophet Jesus when he was born.
The birth of Jesus the Messiah therefore broke down all the barriers between people: Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, royal and lowly, male and female – and His life continued to do the same.
And that’s the Christian message, the Christmas message, today. Peace on earth and goodwill to all. There’s plenty of room for Jesus, now it’s up to each of us to make room for him in our lives.