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How Well Do You Know the Biblical Christmas Story?

Do a quick Google image search of “Nativity scenes.” Really, go search and scroll for a bit and come back. Did you notice anything? At least half of them show an angel or more present at the manger.

The only problem: Scripture doesn’t report any angels.

Obviously, nativity scenes are artistic renderings of the biblical event as a whole. Since angels are an integral part of the story, it’s fitting that they show up. They provide texture to the scene, indicating a divine moment (which Jesus’ birth certainly was).

But every year we retell the Christmas story—through decorations, carols, plays—and how we repeat the story is how we remember it. And how we remember it is how we believe it.

So are we believing the biblical story?

Here are four trivia questions that will reveal how closely your understanding of the Christmas story matches the biblical account.

  1. What did the angels do when they appeared in the sky?
  2. How did the shepherds know where to find Jesus?
  3. What animals were in the manger when Jesus was born?
  4. When did Jesus receive his name?

1. What did the angels do when they appeared in the sky?

If you thought, “Sang” (like I did), you may be more influenced by Handel’s Messiah than by Luke 2:13. It simply says the angels were praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

In Revelation, John does describe choirs of angels (e.g. Rev. 5:9–10), so there is certainly biblical support for singing angels. However, we have no reason to believe they are singing here. So how does this fact help us imagine the biblical scene?

Scripture says “a multitude of angels” called out the declaration, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” Just imagine the noise of so many voices calling out—shouting, perhaps—in unison. The words go out like an announcement over a loudspeaker, an announcement for the whole world: Glory to God, and on earth peace . . .

Until this moment I had never paused to consider what that might sound like. I cannot comprehend how powerful that moment must have been.

2. How did the shepherds know where to find Jesus?

If you thought some sort of combination of “star” and “a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger,” you’re half right (and so was I). The shepherds didn’t follow a star—that was a sign for the wise men.

Instead, an angel appeared to the shepherds saying, “. . . born unto you this day in the city of David is a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” As a Jew, that is a packed statement. City of David, Savior, Christ, Lord—it all amounts to, “The centuries-long hope of your people has just arrived.” And he’s in a feeding trough.

The juxtaposition is striking. Salvation has just been sent from on high, and you’ll know it’s him because he’ll be in a lowly manger. The shepherds are the first of many in the Gospels to experience the many wonderful paradoxes concerning Jesus. A servant King? A humble Lord? Who is this Savior? Between a multitude of angels and a poor child in a manger we have a paradigm for understanding the surprising nature of Christ our Lord.

3. Which animals were near the manger when Jesus was born?

Scripture does not include these details, although it’s reasonable to expect that animals would be nearby, since a manger is a feeding trough. Many nativity scenes include lambs, bulls, and donkeys—and probably not by happenstance. Each animal is featured prominently in Scripture. Lambs and bulls were used for sacrifices, and Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (as predicted). In that way, nativity builders are thoughtfully hinting at the trajectory of Jesus’ life.

That Jesus was laid in a manger is significant on its own. What kind of child is laid in a manger upon his birth? One who is “deprived of normal comfort,” says I. Howard Marshall. “The point is [ . . .] that at his birth Jesus had to be content with the habitation of animals because there was no room for him in human society” (see Luke 9:58). Jesus was, strictly speaking, not born among men. In the very earliest moments of his life, the King of Kings lay helpless among animals. He was, in short, an outcast—the infant who would grow to be a  “man of sorrows rejected by men (cf. Isaiah 53:1–3).”

4. When did Jesus receive his name?

If you guessed “At birth,” guess again. In many cultures and societies, children receive their name immediately at birth. However, in Jewish tradition, boys are given their names at the same time as their circumcision, on the eighth day (Lev. 12:8). This is probably patterned after Abram receiving the name Abraham upon his circumcision, because he was to be “the father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5).
Luke explicitly mentions Jesus’ circumcision and naming, and for good reason. It establishes Jesus as a true Jew, which would have been especially important for the first readers of Luke. It also links Jesus to Abraham. Jesus fulfills God’s promises to Abraham. God promises to Abraham that (among other things) all nations will be blessed through him. Here we see Jesus in the line of Abraham (see Matt. 1:1–17) proclaimed by angels to be a blessing to the world, a theme that Luke will go on to build in his gospel and Acts.

Jesus’ name, Ἰησοῦς in Greek and yēs̆ûaʿ in Hebrew, means “Yahweh saves.” The fact that Luke intentionally frames Jesus’ birth story with details about his name (Luke 1:31; 2:21) suggests that the birth story is not about every little detail, but about one big message: Yahweh saves.
It’s a familiar story, and we think we know it. But a second look helps us see profound truths, truths hidden behind details we often skip over or get wrong. This Christmas, let’s take a closer look at the old story. May we all approach it with new attention to discover new wonders.

Bible trivia is a lot of fun, but it can do so much more than that: it can help us take a closer look at our Bibles. Check out Proclaim’s Bible Trivia feature for free. It’s great for pre-service slides, youth group games, or displaying on a TV or computer throughout the day. Check it out now with a free trial of Proclaim.

Written by
Matthew Boffey

Matthew Boffey (MDiv, Trinity International University) is the pastor of worship at Christ Church Bellingham. He is also editor-in-chief of Ministry Team magazine, has edited several books, and has written for several blogs and publications, including Relevant online, the Logos blog, and the Faithlife blog.

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Written by Matthew Boffey