The Christmas story usually 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. Anxiously, he begs one reluctant innkeeper for any place 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 a translation of one verse in Luke’s gospel: She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.

But this is different from how the birth of Jesus happened, so let me set the record straight.

What Really Happened?

Firstly, Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem well before Mary gave birth. The Bible says, While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.” So, they were already in Bethlehem. 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 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.

So, what does the Bible mean when it says, “because there was no room for them in the inn”?

Wrongly Translated

The word rendered “Inn” in Luke’s gospel is elsewhere in the New Testament, translated as “guest room.” (Gk. Kataluma. Cf. Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). There was no space for Joseph and Mary in the guest room because someone else was staying there.

Typical village homes in first-century Israel would have a couple of rooms. One was the family room, where the household would live, cook, and eat during the day and sleep at night. Next to it was a guest room.

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 Version 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.” 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 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 were asked to visit Jesus. But they would have been afraid. How would those on the lowest rung of society be received? “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for everyone. Today, in the town of David, a Saviour 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 normal baby in a regular house.

Jesus came for the poor, the lowly and the rejected – but he also arrived for the wealthy and wise. The subsequent guests (probably a year or so later) were the wise men from the East, students of the planets and stars. The wise men were possibly 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 rich would own it.

A Fascinating Story

In the 1920s, a British scholar, E.F.F. Bishop, visited a Bedouin tribe in Jordan. The Muslim tribe was called al Koka Bani – 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 travelled west to Israel to show honour to the great prophet Jesus when he was born.

So, the birth of Jesus the Messiah broke down all the barriers between people: Rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, royal and lowly, male and female, slave and free – and that’s what we celebrate when we think of the birth of Jesus today.

When God was born into the human race, it was to embrace all people without exception. No wonder all of heaven rejoices. May we celebrate too.

Without question, some of Jesus’ sayings are alarming. I was particularly intimidated as a young Christian by the wide gate and broad road leading to destruction.

Jesus said, Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate, and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

At the time, the church I attended leant towards legalism and understood many of these sayings through that lens. After all, small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. With the emphasis on only a few find it. Catch that? Just a few. Not many. You may be left out. At least, they were the words that echoed in my young Christian mind.

So, is Jesus trying to scare the hell out of us? Let’s find out.

Hit the Nail on the Head

The Sermon on the Mount serves as context (Matthew 5-7). Jesus explains in chapter seven the critical nature of hearing and acting on his message. Thus, we see numerous examples throughout this chapter that serve as a contrast between two groups:

  1. Two types of gates ~ wide and small
  2. Two kinds of roads ~ broad & narrow
  3. Two sorts of trees ~ Good and bad (fruit)
  4. Two classes of disciples ~ true and false
  5. Two kinds of builders ~ wise and foolish

Jesus is expressing the same thing in each of these analogies and uses various images to emphasise his point, similar to repeatedly striking a nail with a hammer until it is deeply embedded in the wood. That is to say:

Entering through the wide gate is the same as

Travelling on the broad road, which is the same as

Bearing bad fruit, which is the same as

Being a false disciple, which is the same as

Being a foolish builder.

The opposite is also true:

Entering through the small gate is the same as

Travelling on the narrow road, which is the same as

Bearing good fruit, which is the same as

Being a true disciple, which is the same as

Being a wise builder.

Two Kinds of People

Jesus ends his sermon with The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, a reference to these two kinds of people who all hear Jesus’ words and teachings:

Group one “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice,” while group two “hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice.”

Group one is “like a wise man who built his house on the rock,” while group two “is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”

Both groups (houses) experience the same trials and storms in life, “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house.”

Group one’s house “did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” So is everyone who hears Jesus’ teachings and puts them into practice.

Group two’s house “fell with a great crash.” So is everyone who hears Jesus’ teachings but does not act on them.

The Gospels preserve Jesus’ teachings, while the other New Testament writers expound them further to demonstrate how his teachings apply in daily life. Among the points made by these authors is the following:

You don’t enter the kingdom of heaven by doing good works; you enter the kingdom of heaven by doing God’s will.

That is where the “Many” Jesus refers to have made a grievous error. Their justification for being admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven is based on the excellent actions they have performed. They have prophesied, cast out devils, and performed miracles, but these are manifestations of God’s power at work through a person, not proof of genuine trust in Christ.

Kingdom access is, according to Jesus, for the person “who does the will of My Father in heaven.” What is God’s will? Jesus taught,my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” We enter God’s Kingdom through trust in Jesus! Only through faith in Jesus can we hear and apply his teachings. While good deeds spring from genuine faith, they do not guarantee admission to the kingdom.

Two Stories

As the late Billy Graham put it: “There were a few times when I thought I was dying, and I saw my whole life come before me. I didn’t say to the Lord, ‘I’m a preacher, and I’ve preached to many people.’ I said, ‘Oh Lord, I’m a sinner, and I still need Your forgiveness. I still need the cross.’ And I asked the Lord to give me peace in my heart, and He did – a wonderful peace that hasn’t left me.”

I’ll finish this with a story about a man who died and went to heaven. Of course, St. Peter met him at the pearly gates and explained, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. Let me know all the good things you’ve done, and I’ll give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you’ll get in.”

“Okay,” said the man, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated even in my heart.” “That’s wonderful,” said St. Peter, “that’s worth three points!”

“Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.” “Terrific!” said St. Peter, “that’s certainly worth a point.”

“One point? Gosh. How about this: “I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.” “Fantastic, that’s good for two more points.” “TWO POINTS!!” the man cried, “At this rate, the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!”

“Come on in,” said Peter.