Luke 2:6&7 “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

We are never to forget the identity of this baby, Mary’s firstborn son. This is the very child whom Mary was told about by Gabriel nine months earlier. The angel had said, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end” (Lk.1:32&33). This baby is, “the Son of the Most High.” What immeasurableness and loftiness lie in those words, and yet they are focused upon the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. Whatever the Most High is the Son of the Most High also is all of that. He too is the high and lofty one who has dwelt for ever in God’s sphere of absolute sovereignty, infinite power and omnipotence as the Son of the Most High. How can we be afraid of anything when there is no one and nothing greater than our Lord Jesus Christ?

How do we address the Lord when we pray? It is as “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity whose name is Holy.” What reverence that title displays. There is nothing in the world more beautiful than reverence in our approach to God. I confess that if there is anything in the world that makes me shiver it is to hear the words of an irreverent person. I would rather listen to a heretical sermon than listen to an irreverent prayer. I can read Dawkins with far less revulsion than hearing a man shouting out in the street, “Jesus Christ!” It causes us very real pain to hear a man bringing God down to his own level. The archangel has said that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of the Most High, and that is higher than the angels, higher than the saints; infinitely higher than both archangels and the glorified spirits in heaven. Yet this Lord of glory was born in something like a cave. The high and lofty one came down the back stairs at Bethlehem lest he blind us by excessive light. God’s only-begotten Son has become Mary’s firstborn Son.

The great God, the infinite Son of God, is the one who knows all things, who is everywhere present, who has all power and all authority, who merely has to speak and it is done, who only has to say “Let there be light” and there is light. We know exactly where he was 2,000 years ago. He was lying in an animals’ feeding receptacle in a cave in Bethlehem. He has taken to himself a body which now is his for ever and ever – arms, legs, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair and all the interior organs. He was lying there, a real little boy with a true human nature. I am now try to kill the snake of an ancient heresy called ‘Docetism’ which declared that Jesus’ human nature wasn’t real. Those heretics said that while the body looked human it wasn’t genuinely a man’s body. It was a kind of apparition; not exactly a ghost but more ghostlike than manlike, something akin to a hologram on Star Trek Voyage. Docetism was condemned as a heresy. If Jesus were not fully man, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, then he couldn’t possibly have saved us; he couldn’t have become our Redeemer.

So Luke invites us to enter the gloomy cave and see this real baby, who is also the eternal Son of the Most High. He is two natures in one person, and he is looking around the place where he’s been born. He sees from a baby’s perspective these immense cows looking down at him. He is lying in their place, where they normally thrust in their noses and seize a mouthful of hay, and I can see the little Lord Jesus looking up at them. He is the one who made cows and donkeys. In other words, this is the Creator who in eternity said “Cow!” and “Cow” came into being; “Donkey!” and “Donkey” came into being. This is the astonishment of the incarnation; he is lying there examining in close-up what he himself has made, thrilled and astonished by what he is discovering. These are the first glimpses of our life in a fallen world which the God-man has in his great voyage of discovery. The Lord of glory has begun a journey which is going to last over three decades, which will end on a cross. He will see for the first time from his creaturely perspective, from down below, the lowly human condition. At times he will be gasping with wonder, as we do when we see a champion bull as big as a little elephant; the Son of the Most High astonished at this new perspective that incarnation has brought to him, seeing through human eyes and close up what he the Son of the Most High has made. At other times he will weep.

When we think of the cave our eyes are not on the darkness and cobwebs and dust; we are not looking at any beasts; we are not even looking at Joseph or even Mary, but our eyes are locked onto the face of Jesus Christ the Son of the Most High. If you are a parent then you can remember your first-born arriving in the world, and the sense of unbelief, almost disbelief, that through all of that messy process, this beautiful daughter or son has come into the world, now wrapped in cloths like Jesus, and breathing, crying, sniffing, alive and warm. She grips your finger as you touch her hand. Here in Bethlehem, about six miles south-west of Jerusalem, you could have entered the humblest of buildings, smelling strongly of the animals who lived there, and you could have seen the Son of the Most High, the eternal God of heaven and earth at his mother’s breast. He’s become poor for our sakes, although he was immensely rich. He thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but he’s made himself of no reputation. He is now utterly and completely dependent on his mother, a teenage girl who is quickly learning to deal with her first child. She has to feed and nurse and change him. The whole of these early chapters of Luke are utterly uninventable – in fact they are incomprehensible. The eternal Son of the Most High contracted to a span, born of Mary and laid in a manger because there was no other place for his birth. Let us ask the question why did God appoint this place for the arrival in his world of his only begotten Son to be born?


When the film version of C.S.Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, appeared a few years ago Polly Toynbee wrote a review of it in the Guardian and raged against the movie, especially against the picture of blood sacrifice in the death of the lion Aslan. She wrote, “Blood sacrifice is that which is most hateful in religion . . . We didn’t ask God to do that for us.” We didn’t ask God to do that; that is true. The initiative was all of God, and that is what makes this gift of God so striking. Jesus is born there not because of a decision of his parents, or the inn-keeper, or a lucky stumbling across the cave by Joseph. God in heaven determined, “The Cave! That is where my Son will be born.” He doesn’t send his Son into a world of men who are asking God for blood sacrifice; there was no worldwide petition being rolled out before the Almighty headed, “Please, please, please send us your Son to die for us. Sign below,” but the world did need him, and needs him still. This radical Gift points to our radical need. Why else did God send his only Son into the womb of Mary to be born in a cave and put down to sleep in a feeding trough? What’s the problem with mankind? Surely the very radicalness of such a gift suggests that very much is awry: we ourselves are all awry through our sinful hearts. We need mercy and forgiveness, and this unasked-for arrival of God the Son, just in itself lets us know that he must be our only hope. Man must be in a deep fix for God to have to do this for us.

This birth had to happen in this way, the virginal conception was essential, the cave and manger in Bethlehem were necessary; the refugee flight to Egypt couldn’t be avoided. It all had to be this way of utter humiliation for redemption to come through Christ’s suffering. If God sent his Son to a pauper’s birth, then that fact is saying to us that all our hopes of pardon, and life, and glory dare not be founded on human attainments but on this extraordinary one who made himself of no reputation from his first breath.


The Son of the Most High came from a pre-existence in glory deliberately in order to be “despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”. He came to be “a root out of a dry ground”. He came aware he would have “no place to lay his head.” He who was eternally rich made himself a poor man. There is a sentimental Christmas song, fifty years old called ‘The little drummer boy.’ It has a catchy tune and the writer of the lyrics had invented the person of a drummer boy accompanying the party of the Magi who’d been following the star from the east to Bethlehem. When the Magi have all given their gold, frankincense and myrrh and departed the little drummer boy wanders alone into the stable, but he doesn’t have anything to give to Jesus. He stands looking at the baby and he finally says, “I’m a poor boy too.” That is fiction, but the fact is that any poor boy from the neighbourhood drawn by the cries of a baby could have sneaked into the cave and seen Mary feeding Jesus and thought, “He’s going to be a poor boy like me.” That is how God sent his Son into the world.

He had come to redeem us by dying on a cross and so it wouldn’t be fitting for this child to be clothed in purple at his birth was it? Would it have been appropriate that he who was to be buried in a borrowed tomb should be born anywhere else but the humblest place and in the most lowly fashion? He died as the Lamb of God so he was appropriately born in a place where sheep were kept. The two extremities of the Saviour’s earthly life were the manger and the cross. The one was the conception of the life of the God-man; the other its climax. I am saying, don’t the manger and the cross seem to be perfectly suited to one another? Aren’t they hand and glove? There is no tension between them; the poverty of the manger so suits the shame of the cross. They bring together one seamless message of extraordinary self-humbling; they are consistent, not contradictory. They are all of a piece, not opposites. In life Jesus wore the clothes any man working in a carpenter’s shop would wear. He associated with fishermen, and his disciples were of the same ilk; they all wore peasants’ dress. When he entered this world he laid aside the insignia of heaven. His Bethlehem birth was his entrance upon a life of total humiliation where he took the form of a servant. I am saying that he was laid there in order to magnify his humiliation.


Who is he in yonder stall at whose feet the shepherds fall? He is the King of the poor, and the disenfranchised, the downtrodden and the despised of the human race, the hunted and persecuted, those poor people, for example, in the south of Sudan, living in their vast refugee camps, the greatest blot of shame on the world today, to end which the great powers are doing nothing. We have the gospel of the incarnate Son of God to tell them. I have gone with Keith Underhill in Nairobi to the shanty towns of that huge city, and with Brian Ellis to the slums of Manila and we have taken a message of redemption through the sufferings of Christ to the most impoverished of men and women. Some have heard it gladly. The Spirit of the Lord was upon this anointed baby, the Messiah, because God has anointed him to preach the gospel to the poor. The poor could always relate to him because he was one of them. He didn’t have to fake a working class accent or borrow peasants’ clothes to contextualize his message or give him street cred. All that was his by nature. One poor woman might be so overwhelmed with shame that she felt she could not approach Jesus. What was she? A nobody and a nothing, but he’d have noticed her and sweetly smiled and kindly said to her, “Come and welcome! I myself was born in a cave.” The angel said to working men in verse twelve, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” A sign of what? A sign of identity and compatibility, bidding welcome to shepherds.

The poor can spot the high walls and railings of a palace; they see the guard on duty 24 hours a day. A palace is a place where men and women wear fine clothes and talk in hushed voices. None of that would draw the enthusiasm of shepherds, but a man on their own level would draw them to listen to his message. This King born in Bethlehem seemed to belong to the common lot of the poor. Born a King, yet how unlike the only king that the poor had glimpsed as he was driven past them in his chariot, Herod the Great. This Jesus would surely never forget his humble origins, and so he would know about their poverty and remember how tough life was for them, and understand their position and feel for them – the friend of publicans and sinners.

Surely the families and friends of the shepherds would come to one conclusion, that here was the people’s Prince, a plebeian Lord, of noble lineage with the blood of King David running in his veins. Chosen out of the people he was also chosen for the people, with a righteous kingdom that would know no end. From a manger cradle he is presented to all nations as the Prince of Peace, a leader and a witness to the people, and the Gentiles bow before him and gold and incense bring. Under him the “things which are not . . . bring to nought the things that are”. Human wealth and stature and grandeur are of no account to him. Jesus Christ was unashamed by this feed trough of a cot to be declared the King of the poor, and when he began his ministry the common people heard him gladly. That wouldn’t have been the case had he entered the world in any other way. So why do we see him lying in a manger? To proclaim him King of the poor.


Many would tremble to approach a throne, but who trembles to approach a feeding trough? To approach a throne you need to show the policemen at the gates your invitation; you need to be instructed in royal protocol, what to wear, how to address the monarch, where to stand. To approach an old dusty feeding trough you need none of that, only be yourself.

Come ye sinners, poor and needy,

Weak and wounded, sick and sore;

Jesus ready stands to save you,

Full of pity, love and power;

He is able, He is willing; doubt no more.” (Joseph Hart 1712-1768).

Never on earth or in heaven could a being have been more approachable than God’s Christ. No armed guards around him pushed away those who came with their petitions, the hem of his garment was always within their reach, a hand was ever ready to stretch out to the sick, and an ear was ever open to their cries.

The prophets said that the Messiah would be a priest taken from among his people. Yes he was a Jew, of the line of David, so taken from among the people, but this manger also showed him as a sympathetic and understanding high priest. Can you imagine high priests Caiaphas or Annas having been born in a cave? Where did Jesus breathe his first breath? In that stable, and this was no dark family secret turfed out by investigative journalists years after the death of Christ; “Write this down in the gospel for everyone to read,” the Holy Spirit said to Luke. There were no skeletons in Jesus’ cupboard; there was no cover-up about his lowly reputation – he made himself of no reputation. He wasn’t ashamed that he was found in fashion as a man. That is Christ’s glory. That’s what makes our High Priest “touched with the feeling of our infirmities”.

He was little, weak and helpless,

Tears and smiles like us he knew;

And he feeleth for our sadness,

And he shareth in our gladness. (Cecil F. Alexander 1818-1895).

It was all of a piece with the rest of his life, eating and drinking with publicans and sinners, allowing a fallen woman to weep over his feet and dry them with her hair. His apostles were dismissed as “ignorant and unlearned men” – not the ‘beautiful people.’ I am saying that as we look at the cave and see this infant he is set forth as the sinners’ friend. I submit that Christ’s very person – the one who became incarnate in Bethlehem, apart from anything he ever said – constitutes a gospel invitation. “Consider this great and mighty wonder! Behold within a manger lies he who built the starry skies! Will you not take this Jesus into your own life?” It was in eternity that the stable birth and the manger cot were decreed. “I will be an approachable Saviour,” he determined, and it was here that the shepherds came. The Gentile magi came a long way to see him when he was a child. Later from every quarter they came to hear him preach. “Come!” was a word most often upon his lips.

There were times when some of his zealous followers attempted to build barriers between himself and the people, shouting, “What are you doing bringing those babies here?” But he rebuked their gruffness. There are still those who put obstacles preventing people coming to Jesus Christ. They will have him come in their prescribed ways; people must come to Jesus via a bishop, via a faith-healer, via an altar and set ceremonies, but he’ll have none of it. Come to Christ! Come to Christ now! Just as you are come to him! From where you are to where he is is the briefest of journeys. Think of it . . . a palace, the throne of Solomon, a sceptre and a crown were all his by right, but from the beginning he shed all that regal paraphernalia; they might repel one inadequate little sinner. The manger of the Son of David can only invite. Its invitation comes out of tenderness, pity, and concern: its invitations come to our inquisitiveness: “Who is this? A King of kings born in a stable, and lying in a feeding trough? Do you know who this is? Who knows? Does anyone know? Let’s go and see. Let’s find out for ourselves . . . Let’s all of us go now.” The question was a living invitation to the ignorant and poor folks.


Who needs a printed invitation to walk our promenade, to stand on the beach, to sit on a bench, to enter a public shelter? Those places are free to all. So was the cave with the manger where the Son of God was found. It was part of a place that was free to all who chose to wander in. If it did belong to the inn as the appointed place where the guests’ horses and mules were tethered overnight – “I have no rooms at all, but the stable is empty tonight” – there would have been no bill given to Joseph and Mary for having to spend the night and have a baby there! Today the health and safety inspectors might give a hefty fine to such an inn-keeper for allowing babies to be born in an unlicensed place. To get a place in one of our hotels we book in advance and pay for what we get. In the earlier days of the human race men considered it an honour to entertain strangers in their homes. Later, as the race increased in number, and as travel and trade became more common, a house was appointed in each community to entertain strangers, and provide security for their beasts from thieves and rustlers. Water and fodder for the beasts were provided, and there was no charge for admittance; it was a matter of self-catering. The places of accommodation for the stranger in our Lord’s time were virtually free to all, man or beast.

Mary laid Jesus in a manger in a cave; there were no bouncers guarding the doorway. The world was free to enter and see the child. Let all-comers hear the invitation, “Look unto him and be saved all the ends of the earth for he is God and there is none else.” Henceforth the gospel of God’s holy child Jesus is to be preached to all the world; none is excluded from its invitation, though only those who come receive its promises of pardon and life. None must consider themselves excluded, but, alas, there are those who exclude themselves. Yet all are invited to consider this Holy One, the learned and polite, the ignorant and rude, the biker and the addict, the one dying of Aids and those who suffer from a sexually transmitted disease, the cultured and the raucous, are all welcome to consider the stable-born Son of the Highest. The doors are open now. Come and welcome! Hear the hymnist;

“Though Jesus’ grace can save the prince,

The poor may take their share.

No mortal has a just pretence

To perish in despair.”

The invitation to set your eyes on God the Son is free to all and so free to you personally. No class or caste is excluded, no form of etiquette is necessary for entrance. If a sinner desires to come to Christ she may come now and just as she is. Jesus isn’t cheap, but he is free. You cannot buy Jesus; the price is more than all the universe and heaven too, but he offers himself freely to you in the gospel. Sinners sometimes imagine that their wickedness has been so great that they have excluded themselves from Christ and grace and gospel for ever. They are too defiled, they feel, even for a cave. They cannot put themselves in a room where there’s a little baby. But I say come and welcome to this place. None is authorized to keep you away. I believe that I declare with all the authority of heaven that Jesus was born in a place that was freely accessible to all who were led to it, came to it, needed it and wanted it. Whosoever has the tiniest longing to come may indeed come to God’s holy child Jesus. Here within his wide loving parameters full and free salvation is to be found. Sometimes men’s embittered consciences tell them, “This gospel grace is not for you,” but if God has not shut you out of the stable, don’t shut yourself out. The door is open and yet there is room, and if you mean business with him you’ll not quibble with a manger bed; better a manger with Christ than a palace without Him.

Believe me, that as the manger is free, so Christ is free, and he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come to God by him. Venture on that and you’ll find him free to all comers. God put this expectant mother and Joseph in a cave, and Mary laid the newborn child in a manger. Why? To show that Christ and his grace, salvation and redemption are free to those who humble themselves and come there to the one who says, “For I am meek and lowly of heart and ye shall find rest for your souls.”


Men who cut themselves off from God have no reference point to understand themselves, and so they are reduced to comparing themselves to animals. They feed on the theory of evolution in the hope that that will give them self-knowledge. There is no redemption in evolution. There is little growth in self-understanding from examining how jackals, kangaroos, dolphins and frogs behave. Nature is raw in tooth and claw. To go to the beast for inspiration is to turn from the life of heaven to zoological life, and that life is characterized by immediate satisfaction for any desire. Paul writes to Titus who is at work spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ on the island of Crete and he reminds Titus about the animal-like character of the islanders so long in paganism, “Even one of their own prophets has said, ‘Cretans are always . . . evil brutes’ . . . This testimony is true” (Tit. 1:12&13). Again Paul writes to the Romans and describes the widespread depravity of man. He compares them to snakes, “Their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips” (Roms3:13). The Lord Jesus addresses the Pharisees, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt. 23:33). He describes King Herod as that ‘fox.’

The twentieth century has witnessed men in leadership in Europe, Africa and Asia so corrupted by sin that in their consciences and behaviour they became utterly un-man-like and most beast-like. We are reminded of the four beasts in the book of Daniel who come one after another to terrorize the world. Multitudes today live under the sway of beasts; yes, the mark of the beast is upon them. Aren’t men worse than beasts? Far worse! We have to be honest and acknowledge that a beast doesn’t contradict its own instincts, but man made in God’s image – rational, having a sense of beauty, modest, self-denying, self-sacrificing – can and does defy such divinely created instincts. That is what makes man worse than beasts. Are we not, in this 21st century, under judgment for such things today? I am speaking of the violence of our day, the lust, the drugs, the hedonism, the gangs, the knife and gun culture where human life is so cheap; “He dissed me and I blew him away.”

What hope do young men in our cities have? It is so easy for them to think they have sinned themselves far away from any hope of redemption. They go to prison and they are told, “Think of your victims . . . consider your victims . . . remember what you did to your victims!” What despair! What hope can there be in a world without redemption?

I am saying that our Lord was laid in a manger where beasts fed, so that beast-like men can know of one they can turn to and live. No human creature of God’s hand can fall so low that Christ cannot lift him up. Let men appear in a hell on earth, Christ can reach them and raise them. Depraved beastliness in them does not deter him. You do not have to be polished and polite to be salvable! Indeed it is because of sin that you are salvable. Bring your beastliness to Christ. Tell him, “I’ve been worse than an animal, but you are merciful.” I know of an unwashed man who lived much of his life sleeping in barns and under hedges. He stank and drank; he was even guilty of bestiality, but his life was transformed by the gospel. You would never believe that this had been true of him when you saw him in church each Sunday or visited his little home. He had become a new creation. Charles Wesley is absolutely right when with poetic license he writes:

“Outcasts of men, to you I call,

Harlots and publicans and thieves,

He spreads His arms to embrace you all,

Sinners alone His grace receive,

No need of Him the righteous have,

He came the lost to seek and save.”

Yes! If you get to the point where you abhor yourself, and where you are convinced that no man cares for your soul, you qualify, I assure you, to come to the place where the beasts eat. If you come and feed here where Mary laid Jesus to sleep, you will feed your soul on a precious Christ; that is the theology of the manger.


It’s a pure Spurgeonic thought isn’t it? After Christ left the manger the beasts fed there again. The manger was still the manger; it was no different, it returned to what it had been, to its former use. What brought the distinction to the manger? Only Jesus. Only Jesus brought glory to the cave, and when he was gone the glory disappeared. If some of the shepherds returned the next day they found nothing at all! Just a smelly stable. It is like us visiting today Llangeitho or Olney or Geneva or Trefecca or Northampton in New England or any place which formerly had known remarkable works of God. There is little in those places but a faint memory of what once was there. There is no unusual power of God in them today.

My point is that if Christ is removed from a civilisation then that civilisation reverts to the shadow of darkness. If Christ is removed from a church, that church becomes a synagogue of Satan, and if Christ could be removed from the manger of the human heart, that heart would become as debased again as it was before. The cave and the manger had its use in God’s mind and purpose just so long as God wanted it so. He set it apart and while Christ was there it was holy; so he used it while the Son of the Most High was there. Afterwards the cave reverted to its mundane use, the glory departed from the manger.

Where and what is that manger today? The one in Bethlehem served its end and ceased to be of any consequence. How can I turn that? Doesn’t it proclaim to us the fallacy and the folly of mistaking the means of grace for grace itself? Doesn’t it tell us that a building, a place of worship, is of use only so long as the living Christ is there? At best it is no more than a tool, an instrument, a means, something of convenience. It is not the place where God met with your soul that saved you, it was the encounter of your soul with the living Christ. The general picture of history is the dynamic coming God, how he comes to our first parents in the Garden, and he comes to the temple in shekinah glory, and he comes to Bethlehem and Nazareth and Galilee, and he comes to the Mount of Transfiguration, and he comes to the road to Damascus, and he comes to the Isle of Patmos transforming those places while he is there. No prophet, no king and no apostle puts Christ in those places. “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) ‘or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your heart.’ That is the word of faith we are proclaiming.” (Roms. 10:6-8). Where the word of faith is proclaimed there is Christ. The building in Bethlehem and the manger in which he lay served its purpose and it decayed and one day it was demolished and no tears were shed. One day Joseph picked up Jesus and escorted Mary out of the stable, helping her onto the back of the mule giving her their son, and off they returned to Nazareth. There were no divine vibrations left in that place. It was Ichabod for the building; the glory had departed. To put you hand on the warm patch of hay where a minute earlier the baby had been lying wouldn’t cure your fingers of their warts! Christ was withdrawn and the beasts fed there again until the time came for their slaughter for yet others to feed on them. But the truth did not depart from Mary’s life. “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19). That is where the manger must be.

Mary had laid Jesus where she was to lay none of her other children, in an animal feeding trough, in a hole in the wall of the cave. It served its purpose. The Son of the Most High set it apart and so made it holy while he lay in it; without him it was nothing but a feeding trough and reverted to that use when the child had gone, and one day the termites got it. That, men and women, is what some of us preachers of the gospel over the last century and a half have understood as the theology of the manger. Have you received Jesus the Christ in the dark cave of your own soul? Does he lie in the manger of your heart? Does Christ make it a holy heart by his presence? Without him all is dark, but with him the darkness is past and the true light now shines.

26th August 2007 GEOFF THOMAS