The Meaning of the Manger

November 30, 2017

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I have walked through 65 Advent seasons as a believer in Jesus. I preached my way through half of them. So, counting Christmas sermons, that would be roughly 150 messages during Advent.

I don’t ever recall thinking, “Oh my, how will I say anything fresh this year?” There are some wells that don’t run dry. Some horizons that expand as you approach. Some stories that reach back forever, forward into eternity, down to the depths of mystery, and up to the heights of glory. Advent is one of those. It is inexhaustible.

Royalty in a Trough

Luke is the only writer in the Bible to use the word manger in the New Testament. And what he does with this one word — what God does with this one feeding trough — is enough to make us leap for joy.

“Some stories reach back forever, forward into eternity, down to depths of mystery, and up to heights of glory.”

Manger comes from the Latin word for “chew” or “eat.” It refers to a trough where horses and donkeys and cattle ate. For example, Luke uses it in Luke 13:15:

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?”

And in the most famous Christmas paragraphs in the Bible, Luke rivets our attention on the manger three times.

  • “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)
  • “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
  • “They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. ”(Luke 2:16)

The Manger’s Message

What is Luke’s message through the manger?

1. The manger was dirty.

Yes, we may be sure that Joseph and Mary cleaned it up as best they could. They, no doubt, padded it in some way to make a comfy little bed. But there is no way to romanticize this bed into anything other than a feeding trough for slobbering animals. The first bed for the Son of God was not a royal cradle. It was a common corn crib. It’s meant to hold scraps to be eaten.

2. The manger was planned.

At first, you might think it was a fluke of fate — a random misfortune. Because Luke says, “She laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). But the way Luke tells the story, that won’t work.

“The first bed for the Son of God was not a royal cradle. It was a common corn crib.”

God had centuries to get ready for this birth. The prophet Micah lived 700 years before the birth of Jesus and prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

You, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

So, God had a good seven centuries (and more!) to plan the details of the incarnation and arrange the arrival of his Son in the right place, at the right time, and in the right way. For example, he could have easily arranged that a faithful virgin and a just man, in the lineage of David, be found in Bethlehem in accord with the prophecy. But instead, he chooses Mary and Joseph who lived in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. And he plans for Mary to get pregnant far from the prophesied town.

To solve that problem — which God himself had created — God could have arranged to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem by some personal means, say a relative who needed them urgently or a dream or some private legal or business matter. But he didn’t do it that way.

Instead, God moved Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem by means of an empire-wide census. In other words, God arranged that the most powerful leader in the world would order everyone in the empire to go to the town of their origin to register. You might call this providential overkill. He’s making a point: “You think you know what I am doing globally? You have no idea. I’m putting things in place exactly as I please. Including the birth of my Son.”

In view of that, it becomes ludicrous to think that a God who wields an empire to move one woman from Nazareth to Bethlehem, can’t arrange for there to be an available guest room. Planning a bed for his Son was easier than planning a global census. Jesus was lying in exactly the place God planned: a feeding trough.

3. The manger was a sign.

The angel of the Lord said something to the shepherds that was almost too good to be true.

Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11)

To believe this and bear witness, they would need a sign. The angel gave it:

And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:11–12)

Swaddling cloths? Every baby in Bethlehem was wearing swaddling cloths. That is not the sign. The sign is the manger. In fact, this must have sounded so wildly scandalous, the shepherds probably did not think they heard the angel correctly.

“No other king anywhere in the world was lying in a feeding trough. Find him, and you find the King of kings.”

Savior. Christ. Lord. That’s who the angel said had been born. Savior: deliverer from all our enemies — maybe more! Christ: the Messiah, the fulfiller of all the promises of God. Lord: as in “an angel of the Lord appeared to them,” and “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). This Savior, Christ, and Lord is lying in a what?

This is the sign. No other king anywhere in the world was lying in a feeding trough. Find him, and you find the King of kings. And you will know something. Something utterly crucial about his kingship.

4. The manger was glorious.

No sooner were the words out of the angel’s mouth — “you will find a baby lying in a manger” — than the heavens exploded with praise:

Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest.” (Luke 2:13–14)

Glory to God! The Savior is in a feeding trough! Glory to God! The Messiah is in a feeding trough! Glory to God! The Lord is in a feeding trough! “Glory to God in the highest.” From the highest to the lowest! What a God! What a Savior!

5. The manger is the way of discipleship.

The angel of the Lord came to shepherds, not Pharisees.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! (Luke 2:14)

With whom is the Lord pleased? That word “pleased” (Greek eudokia) occurs one other place in Luke:

Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your good pleasure (eudokia).” (Luke 10:21)

Not the “wise.” Not the “understanding.” But the “children.” The ones who would take no offense at a baby in a feeding trough. The ones that would expect no better bed than their Savior:

As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:57–58)

Except for a manger. Follow me.

6. The manger was step one on the Calvary Road.

The Calvary road is downhill. Not because it gets easier, but because it gets lower. The Savior’s life starts low and ends lower. This is the point of Philippians 2:6–8:

Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant (starting his life lower than servants — in a feeding trough) . . . he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This is how the Savior saves. This is how the Messiah fulfills all the promises. This is how the Lord reigns: from infinite deity, to feeding trough, to final torments on the cross.

“This is how the Lord reigns: from infinite deity, to feeding trough, to final torment on the cross.”

For those who have eyes to see the message of the angels makes sense. Yes, we must follow him! “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). It is a lowly road. A hard road. But there is no greater joy than to be on this road with this Savior.

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:11). This is no moderate joy. This is Great Joy. “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:10–14). Great joy to us. Great glory to God.

Join Me This Advent

I’d like to invite you to join me on the Advent path toward Christmas. Beginning this Friday, December 1, I’ll read you 25 short daily Advent devotions to prepare our hearts for Christmas. Find out more at