Church History Lesson 51 (1 Nephi 11; Matt. 1; Isaiah 7; Alma 7; Luke 1-2)
Special Christmas Sunday Lesson
This coming Sunday is the Sunday before Christmas, so we are posting a special article about Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. We wish all of you a very Merry and Sacred Christmas Day.
Nephi’s Vision of the Virgin Mary and her baby Jesus
The prophet Nephi learned that the Savior’s birth was a demonstration of the “condescension” of God (1 Nephi 11:14–18, 20–21). Nephi had asked what the tree of life stood for, and in response, “an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?” (v. 14). He was seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary. He answered, “A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” (v. 15). And the angel then asked, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (v. 16).
The angel’s question is a good one: Do we understand the “condescension” of Christ’s birth? To condescend means to lower oneself to the level of another person. The God Jehovah was condescending Himself when He became a mortal in order to save us. Nephi needed to understand this in order to understand the birth of Christ.
Nephi said to the angel, “I know that he [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (v. 17). And the angel continued his explanation by saying, “the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (v. 18). “And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!” (vv. 20–21).
The tree of life represents what Nephi was then gazing upon: the mortal advent of the Son of God. This supernal act of love on His part makes our salvation and exaltation possible. Thus, the tree represents the love of God—His willingness to condescend from His throne on high in order to save us. The greatest of all the children of God—His eldest Son—the Creator of all things throughout the universe—was born in a filthy stable—wrapped in rags—virtually unnoticed by the world He came to save.
Joseph Was “A Just Man”
Matthew 1:18 The shocking news comes to Joseph. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”
We can only imagine the agony and torment of uncertainty and doubt that must have filled the soul of Joseph. He knew for certain that he was not the father. He could not talk to Mary directly to hear her side of the story. He had received no heavenly vision to tell him otherwise, so he had to assume that Mary had been unfaithful to him. Joseph did not understand initially He could have reacted selfishly and with bitterness, and if he did, who could blame him? All his hopes and plans now seemed dashed.
When Joseph learned of Mary’s maternity, he had two alternatives under the law:
Require that Mary submit to a public trial and judgment, resulting in her death; or
Privately sever the espousal contract before witnesses.
Matthew 1:19 Joseph’s love and mercy for Mary. “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.” Despite his agony, Joseph chose the most merciful of the two alternatives, which reveals much about his character. Elder James E. Talmage said, “Joseph was a just man, a strict observer of the law, yet no harsh extremist; moreover he loved Mary and would save her all unnecessary humiliation, whatever might be his own sorrow and suffering. For Mary’s sake he dreaded the thought of publicity; and therefore determined to have the espousal annulled with such privacy as the law allowed.”
Matthew 1:20–21 The Angel Gabriel appears to Joseph to explain things. “While he [Joseph] thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (vv. 20–21).
Notice that it was after his trial of faith that the angel came to explain it all. Joseph’s mercy for Mary was shown without fully understanding what was happening to her. But after he made his merciful choice, the angel came and explained it all to him.
Matthew 1:24–25 Joseph obeys immediately. “Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife” (v. 24). The consummation of their marriage would have to wait. Joseph “knew her not” until after she had given birth to the baby Jesus (v. 25). But he became her husband and protector immediately.
The Importance of Joseph’s Role
Though he is sometimes the “forgotten person” of Jesus’ nativity, Joseph was, without a doubt, an essential part of Jesus’ birth and upbringing. His love for Mary is evident in his mercy upon learning of her pregnancy, and in his loving care thereafter as he sought in vain to find her some comfort when the day of the baby’s birth arrived.
As a man, he courageously provided for and protected the Savior’s life, taking Him into Egypt for a time to avoid the murderous plots of Herod. He was the earthly guardian of Christ, treating Him as his own son in every respect, teaching Him from the scriptures, and teaching Him the craft of carpentry to sustain Him in his early manhood. Thus, Joseph was the role model for Christ in both temporal and spiritual things.
Joseph was also the father of a later Apostle—James, the brother of the Lord, who wrote the book of James in our Bible. And he was the father of Jude—not an apostle but an inspired leader and writer who wrote the book of Jude n our Bible. All of these important sons were raised and trained by Joseph the carpenter.
Legend suggests that Joseph did not survive to the time of Jesus’ ministry. We do not hear of him in the scriptures after the time of the Savior’s youth. He may have been older than Mary. But they clearly loved each other and are eternal companions now.
Joseph remains, for me and for others, a hero—a man who did not react with macho anger or abuse but rather gentle forgiveness when he learned of Mary’s plight. His faith, his loyalty, his willingness to play the role of earthly father to the Son of God, all of these bear witness that he was a chosen man in God’s plan for the birth and childhood of His Son.
A Special Daughter of God
Mary’s role was truly prophetic. Isaiah spoke of her 700 years earlier (Isaiah 7:14). Nephi called her “a virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” (1 Nephi 11:15). King Benjamin knew that the mother of God would be named Mary (Mosiah 3:8), and Alma called her “a precious and chosen vessel” (Alma 7:10).
Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “Can we speak too highly of her whom the Lord has blessed above all women? There was only one Christ, and there is only one Mary. . . . We cannot but think that the Father would choose the greatest female spirit to be the mother of His Son . . .”1
Elder McConkie also said, “As the Father chose the most noble and righteous of all His spirit sons to come into mortality as His Only Begotten in the flesh, so we may confidently conclude that He selected the most worthy and spiritually talented of all His spirit daughters to be the mortal mother of His Eternal Son.”2
Mary Learns of Her Sacred Mission
Luke 1:26–30 Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. It was during “the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that] the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (vv. 26–27). This is how we know that John the Baptist was six months older than the Savior.
The Prophet Joseph Smith tells us that Gabriel is Noah.3 This ancient prophet—the father of us all—had already annunciated John the Baptist’s birth to his father Zacharias. Now, he appeared to the young virgin Mary, saying, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (v. 28). This was an odd salutation, and the young girl was somewhat troubled by its praise (v.29). Gabriel noticed and reassured her: “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God” (v. 30).
Luke 1:31–35 Mary learns that she will be the mother of the Son of God. Gabriel told her that “thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus” (v. 31). “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest” (v. 32). This was very surprising news to a young virgin who was not yet married—only espoused. “How shall this be,” she asked, “seeing I know not [have never had intercourse with] a man?” (v. 34). “And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (v. 35). Thus, the baby’s father would be God the Father Himself and Mary would be His earthly mother. Moreover, “the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (vv. 32–33). She would be the mother of the King of Kings.
At this news, Mary certainly must have been overwhelmed. According to legend, she was only about 16 years old, had never been married and had never had a child. Her conception would be miraculous and unique. God the Eternal Father would be the father of her child. Yet, even after conception, she would remain a virgin. It had never happened before, and would never happen again, worlds without end.
Who would believe her explanation? She must have had many concerns as she tried to absorb this heavenly message.
Would Joseph believe her? She could not explain things to him face to face.
Would her family believe her? Or would they simply cast her out?
Would anybody else believe her? Some did not. They said that Christ was “born of fornication” (John 8:41).
Even today, many Christians, including pastors, do not believe in the virgin birth. We are left to wonder: “Just whose child do they think Jesus was? A child of fornication?”
Luke 1:38 Mary humbly accepted her assignment with faith. Despite these concerns, Mary said simply to the angel: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.”
The Decree of Caesar Augustus
Luke 2:1–3 Caesar Augustus ordered a general taxing (census) of the Roman Empire in 1 BC. We can set the date by virtue of the fact that it began when “Cyrenius was governor of Syria” (v. 2). And in the land of Israel, the people traveled to their city of origin to do this census (v. 3).
Elder James E. Talmage said, “The taxing herein referred to may properly be understood as an enrollment, or a registration, whereby a census of Roman subjects would be secured, upon which as a basis the taxation of the different peoples would be determined. . . . Had the census been taken by the usual Roman method, each person would have been enrolled at the town of his residence; but the Jewish custom, for which the Roman law had respect, necessitated registration at the cities or towns claimed by the respective families as their ancestral homes.”4
The Difficulties at Bethlehem
Luke 2:4–5 Joseph takes his pregnant wife Mary to Bethlehem. They resided at the time in Nazareth, a city of Galilee, but “because he was of the house and lineage of David” they were required to travel “into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” in order to be “taxed” [counted in the census] (vv. 4–5). Mary was “great with child” (v. 5)—in her ninth month of pregnancy—when they left their home in Nazareth and traveled (probably riding donkeys) a distance of from 80 to 90 miles to Bethlehem.
Luke 2:6 Mary is already in labor when they arrive at Bethlehem, so Joseph sought earnestly for a comfortable setting for the birth of their baby. He hoped to find room in one of the inns surrounding Bethlehem square.
Luke 2:7 Nobody made room for Mary in the inns. Because Mary’s condition probably required slow travel, when they arrived all of the inns were already full. And because of the crowded conditions and the insensitivity that often exists in crowded masses of people, “there was none to give room for them in the inns” (JST Luke 2:7). Note that there was no innkeeper. This is a quaint notion that arises out of the English translation of an “inn” as a sort of hotel with beds.
Inns were square buildings, open on one side, which faced the city square, and in which travelers commonly put up for the night. These khans or caravanseries, were not much more than crudely constructed roofs over open public courts. Frederic Farrar said: [They were] “perfectly public; everything that takes place in them is visible to every person in the khan [and] totally devoid of even the most ordinary furniture.”5
Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “Though her state was apparent, the other travelers— lacking in courtesy, compassion, and refinement—would not give way so she could be cared for. . . . It was the traveling hosts of Judah . . . , not just an innkeeper or an isolated few persons, who withheld shelter from Joseph and Mary. . . . This rude rejection was but prelude to the coming day when these same people and their children after them would reject to their eternal sorrow the Lord who that night began mortality under the most lowly circumstances.”6
The Savior’s Humble Birth
Luke 2:7 The Christ child is born in a filthy stable. Joseph and Mary had to settle for whatever shelter they could find in the stables. Livestock stalls were attached to the outside or back of the inns, and the inner-most part of these stalls (or nearby caves) were used as stables. It was the only place offering a roof overhead and reasonable privacy for the imminent birth of their baby. As we imagine those circumstances, we can smell the smells and hear the flies that cattle stalls attract. We can imagine Joseph gathering hay and spreading it upon the filthy floor to make Mary more comfortable and the birth more sanitary.
And then there, alone and inexperienced, exhausted, in pain from labor, hurt by the rejection of others, and probably frightened, Mary lay down in filthy cattle stall and, with Joseph’s help, delivered her precious little baby boy. Do we fully appreciate “the condescension of God” in lowering Himself into such a humble birth? Cattle stalls are filthy, smelly, insect-harboring and crowded places. Yet, in such a filthy stall, the Savior of mankind and Creator of the visible universe was born.
Luke 2:7 Wrapped in swaddling clothes. Swaddling clothes consisted of “a cloth tied together by bandage-like strips. After an infant was born, the umbilical cord was cut and tied, and then the baby was washed, rubbed with salt and oil, and wrapped with strips of cloth. These strips kept the newborn child warm and also ensured that the child’s limbs would grow straight.”7 Anciently, it was believed that wrapping infants snugly in swaddling cloths or blankets, so that movement of the limbs is tightly restricted, was essential to helping infants develop proper posture. Even today, medical studies say that it helps babies to sleep and remain asleep and lowers the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Luke 2:7 Laid in a manger. There was no bed or bassinet in which to lay Him. The floor would be too cold and hard. So Mary chose a straw-filled manger, usually used for feeding the cattle, as the resting place for her newborn baby. We have no idea how long the family stayed in the manger, but it was probably until the census was over and the crowds dispersed. It was there in the stable that the shepherds adored Him. So the manger was His bed for more than one night and possibly for quite a while.
“Tonight You Are Mine”
We can imagine the fear of these new parents—–and also their joy. We are touched by the story of a newborn child coming into the world. We reflect on our own first experiences with our own children, holding and kissing them with feelings of pure joy. That was also the situation for Joseph and Mary, and the beauty of the story never fades, no matter how many times it is told.
When I picture this tender family scene, I am reminded of a beautiful carol called “Mary’s Lullaby (Tonight You Are Mine)” written by Wanda West Palmer, which relates what may have been Mary’s feelings on that occasion. She knew that this child was coming into the world to save it. All sorts of trials and abuses lay ahead, culminating in the brutal and bloody suffering and death of her son. But on that night—that sacred, holy night—He was their helpless little baby.
Let us imagine those first quiet moments. Mary and Joseph must have caressed those little hands and feet. Did they know what soldiers would eventually do to those hands and feet? They must have kissed His little cheeks—the same cheeks that priests would rudely slap, and from which the hair of His beard would be pulled by the handful. They must have gently bathed His tiny back, side and belly—a back that would one day be ripped by vicious scourges, a belly that would heave with pain on the cross, and a side that would be pierced with a deep, sharp sword.
Did they know all these things on that night? Maybe and maybe not. But at that moment He was simply their miraculous little child, and they certainly must have rejoiced over his birth.
1. The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, 4 vols. [1979-1981], 1:326-327.
2. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [1965–1973], 1:85.
3. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 157.
4. Jesus the Christ , 91–92.
5. The Life of Christ , 33.
6. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:91.
7. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Swaddling,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (reprint, revised ed.) , 670.