Have you ever wondered about the phrase “swaddling clothes?”  What are they these “swaddling clothes?”

In Luke 2:12 of the King James Version of the Bible it says:  “[a]nd this shall be a sign unto you; [y]e shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

I’ve always thought for over 60 years (as I approach 84), that the sign the shepherds would find would be a baby placed in a feeding trough, called a manger.  You don’t see that kind of bed for a baby every day!  So, this would be the sign they would use to identify the right baby – the Messiah – a baby born among the animals.

But, that’s only half of the truth.  You see, the swaddling clothes were just as important, if not more so!  The two unique features of the angelic announcement were both signs that the shepherds would look for and recognize.  Swaddling clothes were bands of cloth, probably cotton, not really ‘clothes’ as in a garment.

The custom of the East was to wrap the newborn in these strips of cloth after washing the body and protecting the baby with the healing properties of powdered salt.  This binding prevented the baby from hurting himself by kicking or scratching or rolling over.  Mary likely would have seen this done in Nazareth, but, if not there, she surely would have seen it done by the midwives at the birth of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin.

The angel prophesied a baby, in fact, a Savior, would be born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger.  Sure enough, when Jesus was born, the Bible says:  “[a]nd she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7).  But why such emphasis on swaddling clothes?

Micah 4:8 is a rather obscure verse.  It says:  “[a]s for you, watchtower of the flock, stronghold of Daughter Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem.”  This is a prophetic verse referring to the watchtower, where the priestly shepherds would watch over their flocks in the shepherd’s fields there at Bethlehem.

Priestly shepherds were those who raised lambs for the sacrifice by the priests in the temple in Jerusalem.  It was in the lower portion of this watchtower that the birthing of the future sacrificial lambs would take place.  The shepherds would wrap the newborn lambs in swaddling clothes to protect the body of the lambs, which would be offered as sacrifice at the Temple just four miles away in Jerusalem.

After the lamb was born, it was wrapped in swaddling clothes to keep it protected without spot or blemish (as the scripture required a perfect lamb), and then this lamb would be laid in a manger until it had calmed down.

Yes, the lamb was wrapped in swaddling clothes to protect it from any harm, and these shepherds – who spent their lives preparing lambs for the sacrifice, laid the lamb in a manger lined with soft hay.  [Remember, the lamb for sacrifice must be without blemish.  A bruised or broken bone would disqualify it.]

Once the lamb had settled down from the birthing process, the shepherd would remove the swaddling materials and deliver the lamb to its mother.  The lamb would receive special care from the shepherd/priests because this lamb would grow to become the lamb sacrificed for the sins of the people.

So amazingly, the priestly shepherds in their fields near Bethlehem on that first Christmas Eve knew where to go to find the newborn Messiah, Jesus Christ.  He would be found where the angel had told them, wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger, and perhaps He was born in the lower floor of the tower of the flock.  Ah, this would be a sign indeed!

They would find the Savior, Christ the Lord, wrapped just like they wrapped their own precious lambs meant for sacrifice.  Jesus, our Lord, would be treated as a new born lamb meant for sacrifice in the temple, but this Lamb, Jesus, would be sacrificed to take away the sin of the world.

These shepherds had trained all of their lives for this very moment.  To the common passerby, seeing a baby in a manger meant very little; however, to the shepherd who prepared lambs for the temple sacrifice, it was a sign of the coming Messiah.  They were keenly aware that the Messiah would one day free the people from their sins.

A baby, announced by a heavenly choir, lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, was more than they could handle – they “came with haste.”  They immediately recognized the sign – this baby was the One born to die for the sins of the world.

And amazingly, when Jesus did give his life for us on the cross of Calvary, He died at the same time that the Jewish perpetual sacrifice was being given in the temple in Jerusalem.  This sacrifice, which is forgotten by almost everyone, was perhaps the most memorable of all the Jewish sacrifices since it happened every day, twice a day.

According to the Jewish Torah, twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, an unblemished, male lamb was to be sacrificed in the sanctuary of the temple, and offered along with an un-bloody sacrifice of flour and wine (see Numbers 28:1-8 and Exodus 29:38-42).

Therefore, when we remember our Lord Jesus Christ through the Lord’s Supper, we worship a Savior who was born to die for us.  The bread and the cup further remind us that He fulfilled every prophecy, all 333 prophecies, about the coming Messiah.  From the shepherds who wrapped their sacrificial lambs in swaddling clothes and placed them in a manger, to the priests in the temple, to the sacrifices in the temple, Jesus is the only One who could possibly be the long awaited Messiah, the Lord, the King of Kings.

At this Christmas season, we praise Him and thank Him for being born to dwell among us, but more than that, to be wrapped in the swaddling clothes of preparation just like a sacrificial lamb, and placed in a manger, just like a sacrificial lamb….prepared as one who would give his life for our sins.

His very name, Jesus, means Savior.  He was born to die, and for that we are eternally grateful!

Praise the name of the Lord our God!  Praise the name of Jesus born to take away our sins!

And now we understand the “sign” of swaddling clothes and “lying in a manger.”

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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