After doing a study on Mary, I planned to study the shepherds, but I got high-centered by a verse wedged between the story of Mary and the story of the shepherds.
“She wrapped him in strips of cloth and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for him in the inn.”
Most of my life I have pictured Joseph and Mary knocking on the door of a little inn that was already full. If the innkeeper had had a “No vacancy” light, he would have switched it on and saved himself the hassle of turning away guests for whom there was no room. The innkeeper who answered the door knew nothing about the couple in front of him. He knew only that all his rooms were rented for the night. Seeing that the young woman was obviously pregnant and not being entirely heartless, the innkeeper took pity on the couple and allowed them to stay in his stable.
But was that how it really happened?
Let’s zoom out from the inn to get the big picture.
Moses had commanded the Israelites, “Three times a year all your men must appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose (Jerusalem): at the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover week), the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost Sunday) and the Feast of Tabernacles.”
Because Jerusalem could not accommodate all the males of Israel at one time, the towns within walking distance took up the overflow. Bethlehem was one of many little towns near Jerusalem that were bursting at the seams three times a year. Small towns typically did not have inns. They could not survive economically on the traffic mostly limited to two festival weeks and one long weekend.
Instead of inns, those who were comfortably well off built large two-storey homes with living quarters and a guest chamber upstairs. The lower level was simple, with storage areas on the periphery and open space in the middle where people could gather during the day. At night this space became a garage for their vehicles – mules and donkeys. Also in the garage at night were the homeowner’s cows, sheep and chickens. A separate stable for livestock would only be found among the very wealthy. The body heat from the first-floor animals would warm the air and rise to the upper sleeping quarters. Think of it as a very early form of radiant floor heating.
The guest chamber was a multi-purpose open area like a rumpus room. Guests were served meals in this area. At night they simply rolled out mats and slept on the floor. The guests in these small towns were typically relatives, or friends, or friends of a friend.
Our English Bible uses the word “inn” in the Christmas story, causing us to think of a first-century “Best Eastern.” But the word “inn” is misleading. The Greek word used here is kataluma, meaning “guest chamber.”
This throws an entirely different light on the story. There was no room for Jesus in the guest chamber!
When Caesar Augustus decided to take a census of the entire Roman world, Joseph and Mary didn’t worry about finding accommodation in Bethlehem. They didn’t expect to stay at an inn. They expected to stay in the home of a relative and bunk in with their uncles, aunts and cousins.
Joseph and Mary may have dreaded the journey to Bethlehem, but the requirement to be there provided the opportunity for a family reunion, a time to visit with relatives they hadn’t seen in a while. The inconvenience of unexpected travel was brightened by the anticipation of spending time with loved ones.
Imagine Joseph and Mary’s shock and pain to be met at the door with stern faces.
“You two were married only five months ago, yet now Mary stands before us ready to pop. You may have been able to hide your pregnancy for the wedding, but we can do the math. You two had sex before marriage. Shame on you! We don’t want you in our house.”
This was personal! This was not strangers turning them away. Strangers would not have known how long Joseph and Mary had been married. Strangers would not have been judgmental and would have been sympathetic.
Joseph swore that he and Mary hadn’t had sex yet – neither before marriage nor in the few months since. But nobody believed them. Many couples sneak in a little nooky before the wedding, but whoever heard of newly weds abstaining from sex after marriage?
Mary tried to explain what the angel said to her and what the Holy Spirit had done in her, but the relatives weren’t convinced.
“We have heard lots of excuses, but this is a new one!” they scoffed. “Usually people say, ‘The devil made me do it!’ but Mary is saying, ‘God did it to me!’ What a bunch of crock!”
No room in the inn.
There could have been room if the uncles and aunts and cousins had been willing to squeeze a little tighter together to make room for two more. The book of John put it this way: “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” Jesus later in life was rejected by Jews in general, but He was rejected first by his own family members. That hurt!
When Mary showed the first signs of going into labour, someone took pity and opened the door to the lower level. This was no cozy stable with well-tended stalls and lots of fresh straw on the ground. What was on the floor was waiting to be shoveled out in the morning. Comfort was over a century away from even being a concept. The only furniture available for the new mother to use for her baby was the manger, a feeding trough used by the animals.
A study of the word “inn” makes some interesting connections. Luke is the only New Testament writer to use a word translated “inn” and he uses it twice – first here in the Christmas story, then in the story of the Good Samaritan. In English the word is the same, but in Greek the words are different. In the Christmas story, the Greek word means “guest chamber.” In the parable of the good Samaritan, Luke used a different term meaning a rooming house for travelers. Pandocheion (from “all” + “to receive”) literally means a place where all were received.
What a contrast! A badly beaten man was taken by the compassionate Samaritan to a real inn to recover, where the innkeeper, a stranger, received him with open arms and gave him excellent care. Joseph, Mary and Jesus came to a guest chamber, to those who knew them and should have welcomed them, yet they were turned away.
A search of the Greek word for guest chamber also provides some interesting connections. First it should be noted that kataluma refers to both the upper guest chamber and the lower level. Kataluma comes from kata (down) and luo (to loose). It literally signifies “a loosening down.” The upper chamber was a place for guests to drop their parcels, let their hair down, loosen their ties and kick off their shoes. The lower stable was a place where their donkey could be unburdened and unsaddled, fed and watered, so he too could enjoy loosening down.
The noun kataluma is used in only two stories in the Bible – in the story of Jesus’ birth and in the story of his death. Jesus was born in the lower kataluma, but for his Last Supper together with his disciples, he relaxed in the Upper Room, the upper kataluma.
After the resurrection believers gathered to pray in the huperoon, an even larger and higher room on the roof, a room big enough for 120 people. It was in a place like this on the day of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit came upon the believers audibly (with the sound of a mighty wind) and visibly (with tongues of fire) and the Church was born.
So again we have a parallel and a contrast. “A small room on the lower level (a dirty room called a stable) cradled the Son of God…. A large room on the upper level (a bare open chamber called the upper room) cradled the Spirit of God.”
A search of the verb form of “guest chamber” makes more interesting connections.
Zacchaeus used the word kataluo when he invited Jesus into his home. “Be my guest,” he said. “Come to my house and kick off your sandals, relax, and I’ll introduce you to my family and friends.”
Jesus used the word kataluo when He said, “Destroy this temple (meaning His body) and I will rebuild it in three days.” Jesus saw His death as going to the guest chamber in His Father’s house. There He could lay down His burdens. His work was done. The Law and the Prophets were fulfilled. It is finished!
The apostle Paul used the word kataluo when he spoke of believers dying. “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” Paul saw the destroying of this tent as a loosing down, going to the place Jesus has prepared for us in His Father’s house, where we can relax as guests of the Father for all eternity!
What can we learn from this?
I was struck by the thought that I can’t distance myself from those who gave Jesus “no room in the inn.” I would like to think that I would not have turned Mary and Joseph away. But the guest chamber brings it right down to family. That includes blood relations and the family of God. Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” In other words, whatever you did for one of My family members, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did for Me.
Mary’s family accused her of premarital sex. They were wrong. How often have I without knowledge judged people and treated them heartlessly? That is “no room in the inn.”
The amazing thing is God’s grace and the power of redemption. God can take a bad beginning and give it a good ending. Jesus’ story began with rejection in the lower guest chamber and ended with a precious time of fellowship with His disciples in the upper guest chamber. But that sweet time of fellowship was accompanied by the bitterness of knowing that Judas would betray Him and Peter would deny Him.
So even that wasn’t the end of the story. The crowning achievement of Jesus’ death and resurrection was the birth of the Church, when the Holy Spirit was sent from heaven to the huperoon, the big room on the roof. The believers threw open the rooms of their hearts for Jesus. They gave God room, and the gospel spread like wild fire.
“O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for Thee!”
And, thank God, the Father always has room for us!
Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne
Words by Emily E. S. Elliott (1836 – 1897)
|1. Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found
No room for Thy holy nativity:Refrain:
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for Thee.2. Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
Proclaiming Thy royal degree;
But in lowly birth didst Thou come to earth,
And in great humility:3. The foxes found rest, and the birds their nestIn the shade of a forest tree;But Thy couch was the sod, O Thou Son of God,
In the deserts of Galilee:
4. Thou camest, O Lord, with the living Word
5. When the heavens shall ring, and the angels sing,
 Luke 2:7, NIV
 Deut. 16:16, brackets mine.
 Some of this information is thanks to Leonard Street and Frank Viola, Jesus, A Theography, Thomas Nelson, © 2012, p. 56-57.
 John 1:11, KJV
 Acts 2:1-4
 Leonard Street and Frank Viola, Jesus, A Theography, Thomas Nelson, © 2012, p. 56.
 See Matt. 26:61 and 27:40, Mark 14:58 and 15:29, also Acts 6:14.
 2 Corinthians 5:1, italics mine.
 See John 14:2
 Matthew 25:40
 Emily E. S. Elliott, “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne” (hymn).