When Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem to register for the census, we see yet another aspect of the unimpressive, unfitting arrival of the long-awaited king. In Luke 2:7, it says that Mary laid the baby in a manger “because there was no place for them in the inn.” Now, there are three clarifications to make about that one short statement.
First of all, a manger doesn’t refer to the whole stable. A manger is a feeding trough cut out of stone (not wood with crisscrossed legs like we always see).
Secondly, the “stable” was probably more like a crude stone room that would be attached to the house, or perhaps simply the downstairs of the house itself, which would have troughs available because they would bring in the animals during winter.
Thirdly, the “inn” was not a hotel or a tavern. They didn’t have those in towns. The closest thing to what we think of as an inn would’ve been in the middle of nowhere beside a highway for travelers—but that’s a different word. When you went into a town, you stayed with family. If you had no family in that town, the responsibility of hospitality was so great that someone would have you stay with them. The community is honor bound to extend hospitality to visitors. Joseph was from Bethlehem, so he almost certainly had family there.
The word for inn is usually translated “lodging place,” or “upper room.” And that’s what it was; it was the guest room on the top level of the house. It’s the same word for the upper room where Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper. It was the guest room, and it was the place of honor.
Now, another way to read the sentence, that gets the sense across a little clearer to our ears, is to read it, “she laid the baby in a manger, because the upper room was no place for them.” The idea is basically this: that the pall of shame and scandal was still heavy over them, such that for Joseph’s relatives (no matter how distant) to welcome them into their house and place them in the honorable guest room would have brought Joseph and Mary’s shame onto that household as well.
So I think we ought to understand Joseph’s relatives as quietly saying to him, “Joseph, we love you… we love Mary. We’ll love this child when he comes. But we can’t endorse what’s happened by welcoming you into the place of honor. We can move some stuff around downstairs, though, and we’ll put some straw and blankets down, and you can stay there if you’d like.”
When the angels announce his birth to the shepherds, the sign they give of how the shepherds will know they’ve found the king is that he would be lying in a manger. Why? Because a feeding trough is no place for the newborn king! Everything about Christ’s arrival was humble, and unfitting for the one who was the fulfillment of every prophecy of the coming king.
The point is this: from his conception, to his birth, to his rejection and execution, the first advent of Christ was marked by humble obscurity, humiliation, and shame—completely unfitting for the birth of a king. But he took our shame on himself, so that he could one day clothe us with his honor.
His first advent was characterized by humble obscurity, lowliness, shame, and rejection. But his second advent will not be the same. His second advent—when he comes again to establish his reign over all nations—will be inescapable, Christ will be honored by all, and he will be victorious over every enemy. He first came as the Lamb of God to take away our sins. But he’s coming back, as the Lion of Judah, to destroy all those who refused to accept his sacrifice, and to give eternal life to all who have placed their faith in him. Jesus’ first advent was characterized by shame, obscurity, and rejection, but his second advent will be marked by honor, vindication, and victory.
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