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"The kingdom of heaven is like the owner of the house who brings out of his storeroom
new treasures as well as old" (Matthew 13:52).

The Characters of Christmas

The Angel Gabriel
Gabriel is an angel, one of the thousands of heavenly messengers who serve the Lord and protect his people. Gabriel is the only angel mentioned by name in the Bible,however. The Scriptures’ reference to the archangel Michael is probably a reference to the Son of God. At the turning point in history the Lord chose Gabriel to announce two important births: The birth of the Savior’s forerunner,John the Baptist, to his father Zachariah (Luke 1:19); and the birth of God’s Son to the Virgin Mary (Luke 2:26). It may be that Gabriel also communicated several times with Joseph, Mary’s husband (Matthew 1:20, 2:13, 2:20).  

Zachariah was one of hundreds of designated priests who shared priestly duties in the temple in Jerusalem. He was married to Elizabeth and in old age they had no children. Gabriel appeared to Zachariah and shared the news that Elizabeth would become pregnant. Her son was to be named John and he would prepare people for the start of Jesus’ ministry. The Bible shares this story in Luke 1:5-25. Zachariah’s song of joy, called the Bendictus, is recorded in Luke 1:68-79.

Zachariah’s wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of the priestly families and was a relative of the Virgin Mary. Soon after Mary became pregnant she traveled from her home in Nazareth to Judea and spent about three months at Elizabeth’s home. The two mothers-to-be rejoiced over their pregnancies but also about the sons who would bring salvation to the world. It was with Elizabeth that Mary sang her famous hymn, Magnificat. Elizabeth’s time with Mary and Mary’s song are found in Luke 1:39-56.

John the Baptist
John’s ministry as the forerunner or “advance man” for Jesus was predicted in the Old Testament. He was to be the new Elijah (Malachi 4:5) and would lead the people to turn away from sin and believe in the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. Although we remember John the Baptist in the weeks before Christmas, his ministry began years after Christmas as Jesus prepared to begin his work. All four Gospel writers tell us about John the Baptist.   


The Bible writers portray Mary as a humble, God-fearing young woman, perhaps as young as 16, who was engaged to be married to Joseph, a resident of Nazareth in the northern province of Galilee. Both were descendants of King David. Gabriel’s appearance and announcement changed Mary’s life forever. Although a virgin, she would give birth to a son who would be called the Son of God and would inherit the eternal throne of David. Mary’s story, recorded in Luke 2, is known even to children. She had children with her husband Joseph after Jesus was born and often traveled with Jesus’ followers on his ministry journeys. She witnessed his death and resurrection. The greatest tragedy of her life is that some churches consider her to be the source of salvation and to have equal status with her Son in redeeming the world.     


Although surprised and hurt by her pregnancy, Joseph was ready to treat his fiancée Mary with kindness. After Gabriel appeared to inform him of the divine situation, Joseph willingly and eagerly cared for Mary and her son (Matthew 1:18-25) who was his son by law and in love. He protected Jesus from the threats of King Herod (Matthew 2:13-15) and searched for Jesus when he remained in Jerusalem at age 12 (Luke 2:41). We do not hear about Joseph after Jesus’ 12th birthday. Although the Bible is silent, we assume Joseph died and this is what led Jesus to place the care of his mother into the hands of his disciple John (John 19:26-27).  

The Shepherds
Not meaning to spoil the traditional picture of the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem, but the shepherds may not have been either poor or cold. Professional shepherds made good money and weren’t about to entrust their sheep to hirelings. We don’t know the exact date of Christmas so identifying the season in which Jesus was born is impossible. Even in the winter, however, temperatures in Israel rarely fall below 50 degrees; there surely was no snow on the ground! What we do know is that it was night when the angel appeared in terrifying brilliance with good news of great joy and Luke 2:8-20 relates the story many know by heart. The song the angels sang is known as Gloria in excelsis Deo and is still sung by Christians.  

Simeon and Anna

These two aged believers were in the temple 40 days after Jesus was born when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus came to offer the traditional sacrifice which accompanied the birth of a first-born son. The Holy Spirit led Simeon to the temple that day because the Lord had promised Simeon that he would see the Lord’s Messiah before he died. Simeon held Jesus in his arms and sang his familiar song, Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:25-35). Simeon also prophesied the sad realities of Jesus’ ministry.  Anna was a widower and not related to Simeon. The temple was her home and she fasted and prayed there every day. She became an eager evangelist: “She spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36-38). 

The Magi

Magi (translated occasionally as “wise men” and sometimes considered “kings”) were astrologers probably from the land of Persia, far to the east of Israel. As students of the stars they noticed a new star which indicated to them that a new king had arrived in Israel. They set off for Jerusalem with gifts to honor the king. Their trip took months (perhaps not on camels), and Joseph and Mary had moved to a house in Bethlehem by the time they arrived. The Bible mentions three gifts but does not mention three givers nor does it mention their names. Their story appears in Matthew 2:1-11. The Christian Church remembers them on January 6, the Epiphany of our Lord. The connection with the star is in the festival’s title: Epiphany means “shine on.” The Magi were the first Gentile believers.

 The Animals
The presence of sheep, donkeys, and oxen in the place where Jesus was born is probably related to traditions which grew out of European farming customs where barns and stables were common. Modern scholarship senses that Jesus was probably born on the lower level of a Bethlehem home (the upper family level, the “inn,” being filled with people because of the census) where family pets were sometimes housed in inclement weather. A manger—the word the Bible uses—would been available and that’s where Mary laid Jesus.