by Rex Rouis
The Nativity Story describes the historical events surrounding the birth of Jesus, and it is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. It tells how the God of Heaven, working through everyday people, sent His Son to earth to be made fully human in every way. He was born as a typical baby boy in the small town of Bethlehem.
The story has always captivated my attention, and I have studied it for many years. It is far more involved than most think and the actual biblical account provides some surprising differences from the holiday postcard version.
Before we begin, let’s look at two maps of Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth. They will help us understand how many of the events worked together. They will also help us to realize how Zacharias and Elizabeth may have been far more involved than first thought.
Introduction and Maps
The first map shows all of Israel, with Nazareth in the area of Galilee in the north, and Jerusalem in Judea (Judah) toward the south. Depending on the path taken, Nazareth was 75 miles (through Samaria) or 97 miles (along the Jordan river through Jericho) from Jerusalem. The trip would have taken four to seven days, depending on the route and mode of travel. Travel throughout the Roman Empire was reasonably safe, and the Roman roads were excellent for their day. The map also shows how close Bethlehem is to Jerusalem. It was only five and a half miles away and could be walked in several hours.
The second map is an enlargement of the Judean hill country west of Jerusalem. Again you see Bethlehem, but now you can see another little town just north of it called Ein Karem. This is the traditional home of Zacharias and Elizabeth, and the birthplace of John the Baptist. Ein Karem is only four miles from Jerusalem and only five miles from Bethlehem. This location would make it convenient for Zacharias and Elizabeth to support Mary and Joseph.
Only Matthew and Luke mention the birth of Christ, and each tells different aspects of the story. However, when you study them chronologically, they fit together perfectly. Many people believe Matthew relates Joseph’s side and Luke relates Mary’s side of the story. I have included scriptures from both Gospels in chronological order. When describing the events and storyline, I have tried to be very clear on those things directly referenced in scripture and those items which I have added to fill in the implied account. I have also included timeline information, showing how each event relates back to the time of Christ’s birth. All of the events, beginning with Zacharias in the temple, and ending with Mary and Joseph coming back from Egypt, can be related by timed intervals revealed in scripture. Now let’s start the greatest story ever told.
Zacharias and Elizabeth
Zacharias and Elizabeth were an elderly couple living in a small rural town about four miles west of Jerusalem called Ein Karem. This area was referred to as the Judean hill country. They are both prominent people, Zacharias is a priest and Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron. However, she is childless and well past the age of bearing a child. In Jewish culture, childless women carried a mark of disgrace. It was considered a curse for some evil action. Both of them are about to have a miraculous encounter with God.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. Luke 1:5-7
The Angel Speaks to Zacharias in the Temple
Approximately 15 months before the birth of Christ, probably in late May to early June, Zacharias was selected for a once in a lifetime opportunity to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. During his time alone in the temple, the archangel Gabriel appears to him and tells him that Elizabeth will conceive a son and his name is to be called John. Zacharias, however, does not respond very well, and Gabriel commands that he be struck mute and unable to speak until John is born. He states that this was done because “(Zacharias) did not believe my words.” This inability to speak will be a reminder to Joseph that God is doing something big and that He will fulfill His promise.
Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”
The people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute. When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home. Luke 1:8-23
John Is Conceived
After his service in the temple is complete Zacharias goes home and communicates to Elizabeth what happened in the temple and that she is now able to conceive and bear a child. How exactly he does this without being able to utter a single word we do not know. As a priest, he could write, but women in that day were rarely able to read, and communicating such personal things to a woman through another man was unthinkable. In any case, he was successful, and Elizabeth conceives. So amazed is she that she hides it for five months before telling anyone.
After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.” Luke 1:24-25
Gabriel Speaks to Mary and Jesus Is Conceived
In Nazareth of Galilee, lived a young virgin named Mary. She was probably 12 to 14 years old. She is engaged to a young man named Joseph, who was probably 14 to 18 years old. Both are descendants of King David. Six months after Elizabeth conceives, the same angel Gabriel appears to Mary as she is going about her daily chores. He tells her that as a virgin she will conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and his name is to be called Jesus. He goes on to say that this Jesus will be called the Son of the Most High God. She is, of course, amazed by this, but she receives the word from Gabriel in faith.
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin (Isaiah 7:14-16) engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. Luke 1:26-35
Gabriel Tells Mary about Elizabeth
The angel Gabriel then goes on to tell Mary that a relative of hers, named Elizabeth, probably a Great-aunt, has also conceived a son through supernatural help from God. The implication is that God wants Mary to go to Elizabeth and that He wants these two women to get together.
And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. Luke 1:36-38
Mary Travels to Zacharias and Elizabeth
It is unknown whether Mary travels the four to seven days needed to get there alone or if someone, maybe her mother, travels with her. It would be difficult to believe that Mary would not tell her parents of this angelic encounter. But we do not know. There is no mention at all of her parents in the Biblical record. As soon as Mary arrives and greets Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps and she prophesies about Mary’s pregnancy. All this happens before Mary has a chance to utter a word about her miraculous conception. This word by Elizabeth is a divine confirmation to Mary, and to any family member that may have traveled with her, that God is doing this.
Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke 1:39-45
Then Mary begins to prophesy about her own condition and the Child that is now in her womb. This word is yet another confirmation to them all that God is involved.
The home of Zacharias and Elizabeth becomes her safe place. It was Gabriel that appeared to both of them. They are the only people in the world who know that God is doing this. Now, Mary, Zacharias, and Elizabeth start to compare notes and discuss her situation. Zacharias still cannot speak, but somehow he is able to communicate with them. He is a priest, and he knows the scriptures by heart. He knows that according to Micah 5:2, the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, only five miles away from their home. They now have three months till John is born to figure out a plan.
And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name. And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him. He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. HE has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed. He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham, and his descendants forever.” Luke 1:46-55
Mary Returns to Her Home in Nazareth
Mary, Zacharias, and Elizabeth know that there are two things necessary for their plan to succeed. One, Mary must give birth in Bethlehem, and two, Joseph has to be convinced that this is God’s will and that he still needs to marry her. There is no other way; Mary must travel back to Nazareth and meet with Joseph. She, and God, must convince him that this is of Him.
There is one problem. Even though Mary is only three and a half months pregnant, she must be starting to show. We know this because she decides to leave Zacharias and Elizabeth before John is born, and not after. She apparently cannot take the chance of being found out when the priests, the neighbors, and their extended family show up for the birth.
She must travel back to Nazareth trusting that God will do something to give her favor with Joseph, and hide her condition from everyone else in the village. She must somehow persuade Joseph to marry her, and not tell anyone else. She needs for Joseph to come back with her to Zacharias and Elizabeth’s house. If her family does not know, then they too must be convinced. This is crunch time for Mary. It must have been a long walk back to Nazareth.
And Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her home. Luke 1:56
John Is Born
After Mary leaves, Elizabeth gives birth to John. The birth of John is an important event. Zacharias was a priest, and Elizabeth was a daughter of Aaron. She was old and barren, but now she is giving birth. And because of the incident in the temple, all the priests know about the miracle. Friends, neighbors, priests, and family will all be there.
Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth and she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her.
And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God. Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him. Luke 1:57-66
Zacharias Prophesies Over John
Immediately after Zacharia writes down his approval to name the boy John, his voice returns. He then is moved upon by the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesize over him.
And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant — As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old — Salvation from our enemies, And from the hand of all who hate us; To show mercy toward our fathers, And to remember His holy covenant, The oath which He swore to Abraham our father, To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; To give to His people the knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins, Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.” And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel. Luke 1:67-80
Mary Meets with Joseph after the Conception of Jesus
Meanwhile, in Nazareth, Mary meets privately with Joseph. However, the meeting must not have gone well because Joseph does not believe her. His life is now shaken and he leaves to go figure out what he is going to do next. Both of their lives now seem to have fallen apart. Fortunately, he has not yet told anyone of her situation. He is a righteous man, but he does not want to disgrace her and her family. He is considering sending her away secretly. This is an important point because if Joseph were still able to send her away ‘secretly,’ that would mean that nobody else in Nazareth knew that she is pregnant. If it was now public knowledge, and they all knew about it, then sending her off secretly could no longer be an option.
And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”While Joseph is considering what to do, an angel of the Lord visits him in a dream and tells him that the pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit. He is told to marry her but that he should keep her a virgin until the child is born. He agrees, but they do not marry in Nazareth, that would be too dangerous. She is still referred to as ‘engaged’ on the journey out from Galilee in Luke 2:5. I believe that they let Zacharias, the priest, do that while they stayed at his home.
Back home in Nazareth, no one ever finds out about the early pregnancy. They only learn about it decades later when the Gospel of Matthew is published. We know this because if anybody even suspected that Jesus was conceived outside of a proper marriage, they would have thrown it in his face when He started His ministry in Nazareth (see Mark 6:3 and John 6:42). He would never have been allowed to read the scriptures growing up in his own local synagogue ‘as was His custom,” Luke 4:16. They also would have surely brought it up at His so-called trial in Jerusalem, prior to the Crucifixion.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and (yet) not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear A Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25
The Census of Caesar Augustus
There is much contention about the historical accuracy of this census. The confusion lies in not knowing that Quirinius was Governor two times, once at this time and again later.
Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Luke 2:1-3
Joseph and Mary Go To Bethlehem
Joseph and Mary leave Nazareth for Judea. It is now about five or six months before she is due to give birth. They have plenty of time to stop off at Zacharias and Elizabeth’s house to figure out what to do next. This would be a perfect time for Joseph to hear firsthand from Zacharias all that God is doing, and perhaps for him to marry them. Again, when they left Nazareth, they were not yet married, as the scripture still referred to Mary as being ‘engaged’ to Joseph. There is no mention in the scriptures of when they are married, but Joseph is called the ‘husband’ of Mary in Matthew 1:16, 19. This reference was a description from the future time when the Gospel of Matthew was written, so we only know that at some point they were married, probably before the birth.
The census was their reason to be in Bethlehem. Scholars differ on whether Mary was required to register in the census being a woman, but it is clear that she went. The Romans were very efficient administrators, and Caesar Augustus even more so. They would have allowed a window of at least four to six months for people to register for a census. There would be no reason for them to be in Bethlehem on that specific date unless they wanted to be there at that time. They knew from Micah 5:2 that the birth had to occur in Bethlehem.
If Zacharias encountered Gabriel in the temple in late May to early June, then carrying the timeline up to the birth of Jesus would give a birth date around the middle of September. Because of this, many have proposed a date between September 11 to September 15th for the birth of Jesus. If that were true, He then would have been born during the Feast of Tabernacles. This is the time of year when the Jews officially would announce a new king. And, His circumcision then would have been on The Eighth Day of Assembly, which is an important day directly after the seventh and last day of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. Luke 2:4-5
Jesus Is Born
When the time arrives for the birth, they made sure that they were in Bethlehem. They probably left Zacharias and Elizabeth’s house in plenty of time to find a suitable place to stay and give birth. There is nothing in the scriptures to prevent Zacharias and Elizabeth from accompanying them. They probably thought there would be no problem getting a place to stay, but with the Feast of Tabernacles going on that proved wrong. They had to settle for a cave or a barn-like shelter, and afterward, they would lay the newborn Jesus in a feeding trough to sleep.
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. Luke 2:6-7
Angels Tell the Shepherds about the Birth of Jesus
Jesus was probably born during the day because later that night God chose to first announce the glorious birth of the Son of God to lowly shepherds watching temple flocks in the nearby hills. There is more text is allotted to the shepherds than to the visit of the Magi – 13 verses in all.
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. Luke 2:8-20
Jesus is Circumcised on the Eighth Day
As soon as Mary could travel, they go back to Zacharias and Elizabeth’s house. On the eighth day, baby Jesus is circumcised and officially given His name just like John three months before.
And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. Luke 2:21
Mary is Purified According to the Law on the Fortieth Day
Joseph and Mary, probably with Zacharias and Elizabeth, travel the five miles to the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the requirements of the law of Moses. Women had to go through purification 40 days after the birth of a male child and 80 days after the birth of a female child. They were apparently poor because they could not afford a lamb sacrifice. Their offering cost about $2.5. Jesus is the real Lamb sacrifice.
And when the days for their (her) purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Luke 2:22-24
Simeon Prophecies Over Jesus
While they are in the temple, they are approached by a devout man who has been fervently waiting for the birth of the Messiah. The Holy Spirit is mentioned three times in reference to him. As soon as Simeon sees the child, he knows that his prayers and the promise God had given him have been fulfilled. His amazing prophecy covers the fullness of the Gospel and the work of Christ.
And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation, Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A Light of revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.” And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign (target) to be opposed— and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:25-35
Anna Gives Thanks for Jesus
Then a prophetess comes forward. She has been serving in the temple day and night for decades waiting for this very day.
And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Luke 2:36-38
Joseph and Mary Return to Nazareth with Jesus
After all the requirements of the Law are fulfilled, they finally leave Jerusalem for their home back in Nazareth, perhaps after a short stay with Zacharias and Elizabeth. This will have been eight months since Joseph had been in Nazareth, and over eleven months since Mary had been publicly seen in Nazareth.
When they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth. The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him. Luke 2:39-40
The Magi Come to Jerusalem
Notice the first words in this scripture reference – “Now after Jesus was born…” The Magi were never at the birth of Jesus. Sorry, holiday postcards. But how long after the birth did they arrive? We don’t actually know. We are only told that Herod gave the order to kill children ‘two years old and under,’ which would indicate an estimated time of between three months to one year. We know that it could not have happened within the first 50 days, and we will find out later that the Magi visit had to occur on the very last day before their urgent escape to Egypt.
Magi coming to Jerusalem and talking about the birth of a messiah king was a huge deal and sparked much interest by all those living in the City, most of all Herod the King. There was much speculation at the time about the coming Messiah; men’s hearts and all of creation knew that something was coming soon.
We don’t know where the Magi came from or who exactly they were. Most think they came from Persia and were from a group of which Daniel was a member centuries before. Another option is the Kingdom of Sheba, in modern day Yemen. There was an ongoing relationship between Sheba and Israel at the time, and the gifts presented all had strong ties to that kingdom. There are also several scripture references that may refer to this – Psalm 72:10, Isaiah 60:6, and Matthew 12:42.
There is much conjecture on the true meaning of the star and what it was. I won’t say much about it, except that I believe it had to have a supernatural element to it.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” Matthew 2:1-2
The Magi Consult With Herod
Matthew recounted only what was publicly known about the Magi’s meeting with King Herod but was not privy to the later secret discussion and the actual date of the star. God hid this for some eternal reason. We will know someday.
Everyone knew that Bethlehem was the place of the Messiah’s birth. And of course, so did Zacharias.
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth A Ruler Who will shepherd MY people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. Matthew 2:3-7
The Magi Leave Herod To Find Jesus
Herod sends them to Bethlehem, but where they actually went, we do not know. Again, they all knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, but this was probably around nine months after the birth. Herod and the chief priests and scribes assumed that his family was from Bethlehem and would still be there. The text only says that “they (Magi) went their way,” and that the star led them to the place where Jesus was. They followed the star, and not necessarily Herod’s recommendation.
The star could have led them to Bethlehem, or Nazareth, or any other place. However, we do know that during this time Joseph, Mary, and the ‘child’ were said to be living back in Nazareth.
And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. Matthew 2:8-10
The Magi Worship Jesus
The Magi find the ‘child’ Jesus now living in a house, not a temporary dwelling like that in Bethlehem. The Magi and their impressive caravan must have created a grand public spectacle in the quiet village of Nazareth. Everybody knew whose house they visited.
The gifts presented were costly and would soon provide the funds necessary for travel to Egypt, their living expenses until Herod dies, their trip home, and finally a new home and maybe even a construction business back in Nazareth.
After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way. Matthew 2:11-12
Herod Slaughters the Babies
It does not take long for Herod to find out that the Magi did not go to Bethlehem, a mere five and a half miles away. Once Herod is alerted, he is enraged and immediately sends his troops to murder all children under two years of age. The ‘vicinity’ mentioned could not have been too large, or else Jerusalem would have been included. Apparently, Zacharias, Elizabeth, and John were safe five miles away in Ein Karem. And of course, Jesus was safely living in Nazareth 80 miles to the north.
Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; And she refused to be comforted, Because they were no more.” Matthew 2:16-18
Flight to Egypt
The Magi were probably only a few days ahead of Herod’s troops when they arrived in Nazareth. It does not say how long they stayed, but they couldn’t have stayed longer than a day or two. That very night after they leave an angel of the Lord awakens Joseph and urgently tells him to get out of bed and flee immediately to Egypt. It had to be close. Herod’s men were coming, and it would be easy to find which family home the Magi visited. The angel tells Joseph that they are searching for the child.
Depending on where the Magi originated from, they would have traveled either directly north through Damascus, or east and then south along the King’s Highway that runs east of Jerusalem. Joseph would probably have gone to the nearby Roman city of Sepphoris to get lost in the crowds and then travel west to the coast. From there they could have gone south along the coastal trading route to Egypt. Herod’s men would be coming up from Jerusalem directly from the south. Only God could have orchestrated this.
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus probably hid in the great city of Alexandria in Egypt, a distance of about 400 miles. It was a wealthy city, academic, and had a population that was about 30% Jewish. A great place for a young child to start life, and they had enough money to live well.
Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord *appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”
So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called MY Son.” Matthew 2:13-15
Return from Egypt
Several short years later, Joseph receives the angelic announcement that Herod is dead. It is now safe to return to Israel. It appears that Herod’s search for the child was a lengthy endeavor.
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord *appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. Matthew 2:19-21
They Return to Nazareth
This is the first time Nazareth is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, and it sounds like they didn’t want to go back to live there. Maybe the thought of going back to Mary’s hometown would seem too risky. There has been disagreement on whether Joseph was only from Nazareth or that he might have had other family location options. There could be lingering suspicions about the timing of their marriage and the birth of Jesus. Or maybe, they wanted to move closer to Zacharias and Elizabeth. The scriptures make it appear like Judea was their first choice for a place to resettle, but God guided them on to Nazareth.
In any case, they return to Nazareth and raise Jesus. Nazareth was a small town of 400 to 1,600 people, but it was only four miles from the Roman city of Sepphoris, a regional capital and a major center of commerce. It would have had plenty of construction work to keep a new carpenter/builder busy. Nazareth was also close to one of the important trade routes, so it had access to many cultures.
But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Matthew 2:22-23
Jesus Is Taken to Jerusalem at Age Twelve and Gets Lost
The tension starts – the legal guardian stepfather conflicting with the Heavenly (birth) Father. Even Jesus had to become a teenager. Imagine being the stepfather after five frantic days (two on the road and three in Jerusalem) of searching for your son, only to find Him and He matter-of-factly tells you that you should have known all along where He would be – in “My Father’s House.” I think I would have had a hard time with that. Jesus was raised in what we would refer to today as a blended family, which was rare in those days. He had a birth mother, a stepfather, four stepbrothers, and at least two stepsisters (Mark 6:3). He had to look and act like a typical boy, except without sin. What does that look like? His own family did not realize or believe that He was the Son of God until after His resurrection.
Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He became twelve, they went up there according to the custom of the Feast; and as they were returning, after spending the full number of days, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. But His parents were unaware of it, but supposed Him to be in the caravan, and went a day’s journey; and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem looking for Him. Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” But they did not understand the statement which He had made to them. Luke 2:41-50
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus Return to Nazareth and He Grows Up
He is obedient to his mother and stepfather, and He grows up in Nazareth. This is the last we hear about His childhood and the last of His earthly father, Joseph. We only know that by the time the story starts up again, Joseph is gone.
And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. Luke 2:51-52
This concludes the birth story of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World. The next time He is mentioned, He is starting His earthly ministry around the age of thirty. We will live with Him forever!