The Gospels record several significant events that preceded the birth of Jesus because they provide information for a fuller understanding of who Jesus was and what he came to do. Those events center around Mary the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist.
There was an air of expectancy during the last few years of Herod’s reign. He had been such a disagreeable leader that many people were looking to God to intervene in history and make things right. One such man was an older priest named Zechariah who was visited by an angel while exercising his priestly duties. He was told that his wife, who was beyond childbearing years, would have a son who was to be named John. Neither Zechariah nor his wife Elizabeth could believe it but it was true. During Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy, a young relative of hers named Mary also received an angelic visitation. Although she was a virgin, it was announced to her that she would be the earthly mother of God’s Son. Her humble acceptance of God’s will, in spite of the utter inexplicability of it all, stands as an example of how we should respond to God’s will in our lives. Joseph, Mary’s prospective husband, was also informed by God of what would happen. He, too, gladly accepted the will of God. Both of them realized that a life of puzzlement and pain awaited them. Mary made a visit to Elizabeth in Judea and stayed with her for three months.
During that time it was confirmed that miraculous events were about to break in on the earth.
After Mary returned to Galilee a decree was passed by Caesar Augustus, ruler of the Roman empire, requiring that everyone return to their ancestral home for taxation enrollment. Mary and Joseph would have to travel to Bethlehem in Judea because they were descendants of David. There the birth of Jesus took place. The story is told simply in the Gospel of Luke. There was no room for the weary travelers in the inn so they were forced to spend the night in what seemed to be a barn. There, amid earthly poverty and indifference, but with divine acclamation, Jesus was born. Shepherds, told of the great event by God’s messengers, came to marvel at the little family. How astonishing it all was. A more unlikely thing could not have been imagined, then or now–that the eternal God would choose to enter his world in such fashion. In his love, and for our good God stooped down into the world in the form of a helpless baby, subjecting himself to the vicissitudes of human existence.
According to Jewish custom Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day and later was presented in the Temple 40 days after his birth. At the presentation, Simeon and Anna, inspired by the Holy Spirit, spoke of Jesus and what he would someday do. Jesus was to be for the salvation of the world, a sign for Israel, a discerner of hearts, and a sword through the heart of Mary. The ominous reference to a sword indicated that all were to pass through deep waters.
Visitors from the East later arrived, the Magi (or Wise Men), guided by a star, to offer their homage to the young king. That knowledge so enraged the unstable Herod that he ordered that all male children under two years of age in Bethlehem and its vicinity be killed, hoping to do away with the threat he perceived Jesus to be. The child was not there, however. Having been warned in a dream, Joseph took Mary and Jesus down to Egypt, where they stayed until Herod died.
After Herod’s death, the family returned to Judea and evidently were going to settle there, but Archelaus, Herod’s son, was ruling over the area. He was even more unstable than his father, so Joseph took the family to Nazareth in Galilee, where Jesus grew to manhood.
We are told almost nothing about Jesus from his birth to about age 30. One episode is recorded when Jesus was twelve years old. The annual trip to Jerusalem had been made and the boy was in the Temple discussing theology with the learned rabbis there. Other than that, we know nothing except that Jesus grew in mind and body, pleasing both God and man.