The sign of the manger

by James Johnson

Luke 2:6 - 20
"And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

And when they had seen [it,] they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard [it] wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered [them] in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them."


No doubt, these verses will be read many times in the coming weeks. They are so familiar to us that they may just go over our heads and we lose the significance and the importance of them. This morning, I want to focus on the MANGER. Luke tells us that the MANGER is a sign.

What is a sign? We are familiar with signs everywhere. Street signs, names over shops, on food labels, and many other places. They may point the way, or warn us about dangers or just inform. In ordinary life though, we don't see signs to produce joy, encouragement or inspiration.

The best way to describe the purpose of this particular sign is to compare it with the road sign for a school - a picture of a ten year old girl and a six year old boy. It is not waning us that further down the road, we shall see a 10 yr old girl and a 6 yr old boy crossing the road. No, it is a sign pointing to a reality beyond itself.

So what is the meaning of the SIGN of the MANGER?
What does this particular sign point to, or warn of or inform? The only writer in the Greek Scriptures to tell us about the MANGER is Luke.

Matthew's evangel also tells us about Christ's birth, but he focuses on Christ as the King of the Jews. Luke focuses on Christ's humanity and being the Saviour for all mankind. His gospel shows God's heart for the poor and needy and warns of the danger of money. Mark focuses on Christ as the suffering Servant. John's emphasis is on Christ as the Word of God.

First of all, what is a manger? Again we turn to Luke. Luke 13:15: "The Lord answered him, 'You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?' So the manger is a feeding trough for donkeys. (Nowhere in the story are we told that animals are there. Nowhere are we told that Joseph and Mary travelled alone on a donkey to Bethlehem, despite what tradition leads us to believe.)

A manger made from stone is a place to hold scraps for slobbering animals. The first bed for the Son of God was NOT a royal cradle made of wood. Verse 12 states that the baby was wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. The swaddling cloths were not unusual - that was the standard practice for new-born babies at that time and place.

The shepherds didn't hang around - they went with haste to look for the manger.

Verse 16 states that the shepherds did find Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. It doesn't restate the swaddling cloths, so the swaddling cloths were not a sign for the shepherds.

The angel of the Lord got their attention by the glory of the Lord shining round about them. No wonder they were sore afraid! The tidings of great joy moved them to go to look for the manger. They believed that, "This day in the city of David is born to you a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." The message was sent to SHEPHERDS, not kings or princes or Temple officials. I am sure the significance of the shepherds isn't lost on you. It could have been to butchers, bakers, candle stick makers, but no, the announcement was to shepherds. To ordinary, working people, with no axe to grind. (Shepherds then were considered to be the lowest in society.) The fact it is shepherds in the fields by night, gives us an approximate time of year when this took place.

So is it possible that this event was a chance or coincidence? Seven hundred years before Christ's birth, Micah prophesied the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

Micah 5:2 "But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, [though] thou be little among the thousands of Judah, [yet] out of thee shall he come forth unto me [that is] to be Ruler in Israel; whose goings forth [have been] from of old, from days eonian."

Note that the prophesied birth is in the City of David, not another place called Bethlehem somewhere else. God managed to arrange for this couple who lived in Galilee to travel to Bethlehem. Why couldn't He have chosen a couple who already lived there to fulfil the prophecy? Problem with that is, that it would have been highly unlikely that our Saviour would have been laid in a manger.

God arranged it so that the mighty Roman Empire provided the reason to travel there. Why didn't Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem for the birth as the result of a dream or vision? It wouldn't have been unusual if they had. Both of them had already received instructions by visions. No, God made it a joyful public announcement to ordinary shepherds. It was a sign to the world that God is in control of time and space in His universe. NOT mankind. If it had only been Joseph and Mary who had received the announcement, detractors or cynics could say that they had made up the story. Those shepherds were the first to hear the gospel, for that is what it was. Glad tidings or good news. And it pleased God to show them.

But even though the appearance of the angels was a fearful experience, the shepherds still needed a sign. So what was the sign of the manger?

We have noted already that the manger was a feeding trough.

Bread is necessary to satisfy our physical hunger, but Christ is our spiritual bread.

John 6:35: "And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst."

Water is necessary to satisfy our physical thirst but John 7:37-39 reads: "In the last day, that great [day] of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet [given;] because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)"

"Living water" is water which is moving, fresh and pure. Not stagnant water like in a marsh.

We have already noted that the manger was planned by God. It was not a fluke or random fate. Jesus was lying in exactly the place God planned - a feeding trough. No human being planned it that way or would have thought to plan it that way. It is so unusual that the shepherds may have thought that they had misheard the message.

Let's hear the words spoken by the heavenly host again, this time in the New American Standard Bible: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth PEACE AMONG those with WHOM HE IS [well] PLEASED!"

Luke uses that word translated, "PLEASED" in chapter 10, verses 21-24 of his gospel: "In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight [it pleased Him].
"All things are delivered to me of my Father: and no man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and [he] to whom the Son will reveal [him]."

And he turned him unto [his] disciples, and said privately, Blessed [are] the eyes which see the things that ye see: For I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen [them;] and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard [them]."

Why would the words of the heavenly host bring PEACE to those shepherds who heard those glorious words? It was the longed for message of SALVATION - the long awaited announce-ment of the MESSIAH. We see the shepherds being the first to spread the good news of great joy- "And when they had seen [it,] they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard [it] wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds." They were the first evangelists and disciples. And note this: they were not ashamed of the gospel.

We have seen the reaction of the heavenly host praising God at the birth of Christ, but there is another side of the story. From Revelation chapter 12 and beginning with verse 1, we see another reaction and it started immediately.

"And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

"And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and [to] his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred [and] threescore days."

This time, Joseph was warned in a dream to go to Egypt, to escape from King Herod. So the birth of Christ in the manger points to another message, recorded in verses 7 to 12 of that chapter: "And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Therefore rejoice, [ye] heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time."

So we see that the sign foreshadows Christ's eventual death and His resurrection.

Luke 2:25-32 records a similar message given to Joseph and Mary when they went to Jerusalem to present Jesus to the Lord.

"And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name [was] Simeon; and the same man [was] just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Spirit, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, Then took he Him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word: For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel." There is no indication that Simeon knew that the baby was called Jesus, meaning Yahweh Salvation. Names are important in Scripture. Also that he picks up what the angel said: "A light to lighten the Gentiles."

But there was a "sting in the tail" when Simeon adds, in verses 34 to 35:

"And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this [child] is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

Note that Simeon speaks directly to Mary, not to Joseph. Again, he was speaking in the spirit of God.

The sign of the manger is very important. But it happened only once. This is what Christ said about those who are always seeking after signs: John 12:38-40: "Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from Thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas [is] here."

In summary then, we can see that the sign of the manger points to:

- The joyous announcement of the coming of the Messiah to humble shepherds.

- At a time and place arranged by an all powerful God hundreds of years before.

- The shepherd Messiah feeding his flock with spiritual bread and living water.

- The rejection and eventual death and resurrection of that Messiah.

- Satan will try to thwart the will of God but will fail.

Let US rejoice, for our eyes have seen God's salvation which HE has prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel. Amen.

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