“Twelve Witnesses of Christ’s Birth,” Ensign, Dec. 1990, 7
“This thing was not done in a corner,” Paul said of Christ’s ministry and the restoration of the gospel in the meridian of time. (Acts 26:26.) Indeed, the witnesses of the Savior’s birth were many and various. Samuel prophesied to those in the Americas of the signs of His coming (see Hel. 14:3–6), and Alma wrote that the story of Christ’s birth was heralded by angels to those who were “just and holy.” (Alma 13:26.) In the nation of Christ’s birth, the testimony of his coming went forth in ever-widening circles—especially among those blameless in keeping the commandments and ordinances of the Lord and filled with the Holy Ghost.
Gospel writers Matthew and Luke, for example, describe twelve witnesses to the Nativity. Although their individual testimonies are remarkable, their collective testimony constitutes a powerful witness of Christ’s birth. As their stories unfold, every appropriate element appears in its proper place, which is all the more remarkable since the two writers each tell different parts of the story.
The nativity story begins with an angelic announcement within the temple’s Holy Place to a priest whose prayers on behalf of his nation have just implored for that very event. With equal propriety, it ends with the announcement of Herod’s evil designs upon the Christ child’s life. Within the story, we see the heavens opened to priest and layman, to man and woman, to old and young, to the mighty and to the humble. We see each called to be an important witness to this, the most beautiful of stories ever told.
Our first New Testament witness of the birth of Christ is a messenger from the presence of God: Gabriel. Appropriately, this messenger makes his initial appearance in the temple to a faithful priest of the Aaronic order, Zacharias, who is performing a ritual function on behalf of his nation—burning incense on the altar within the Holy Place.
In performing this duty, Zacharias represented the combined faith of Israel. His prayer was their prayer for an everlasting deliverance from all their enemies at the hands of their promised Messiah. The ascending flames of incense symbolized the ascension of that united prayer. As Zacharias prayed, his fellow priests and all within the walls of the temple united their amens to his appeal.
In response to Israel’s prayer, an “angel of the Lord” appeared before Zacharias, standing on the right side of the altar of incense and identifying himself as Gabriel, one who stood “in the presence of God.” (Luke 1:11, 19.) By modern revelation we know that Gabriel was known on earth as Noah, that he “stands next in authority to Adam in the Priesthood” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 157), and that he holds the keys of the “restoration of all things” (D&C 27:6–7.)
The keys held by Gabriel made him an Elias to prepare the way before the Lord. How perfectly appropriate, then, for him to announce the birth of the earthly Elias, John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for the Messiah.
Who was this Zacharias to whom Gabriel appeared? He was one of the “just and holy,” as was his wife, Elisabeth. (Alma 13:26.) Zacharias was a descendant of Abia, whose name meant “remembered of Jehovah.” Elisabeth, like Zacharias, was a descendant of priests (see Luke 1:5), and her name meant “consecrated to God.”
Thus, this noble couple were, in the nativity story, to be remembered of Jehovah. Promised a child destined to be the earthly forerunner of the Messiah, Zacharias received the sign from Gabriel that he would remain “not able to speak, unto the day that these things shall be performed,” because he did not believe the Lord’s prophetic promise. (Luke 1:20.)
He remained mute until “Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered.” It was then that Zacharias’s “mouth was opened” and he bore witness of the divine mission of his newborn son, testifying that he would “go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways.” News of these miraculous occurrences “were noised abroad throughout Judea.” (Luke 1:57, 64, 65, 76.)
We read of John that he was “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15.) Indeed, when Mary visited Elisabeth, “Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, [and] the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost.” (Luke 1:41.)
As a pure vessel who recognized the special nature of her own son, Elisabeth also testified and bore witness of the divinity of Mary’s son, crying: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42–43.)
Elisabeth concluded her witness by prophesying that “there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:45.) She added her testimony to those who came before and those who followed in declaring the divine birth.
As Christ was, by birth, the rightful heir to David’s kingdom, so John was born the rightful heir of the office of Elias. He appropriately began his ministry, to “go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways,” by leaping for joy while yet within his mother’s womb. (Luke 1:41, 76; see also Luke 1:15.)
What a marvelous event it must have been: John leaping for joy; Elisabeth greeting her cousin Mary in the spirit of prophecy; and Mary responding by that same spirit. Again, we note how wondrously the witnesses and testimonies fit together: the testimonies of two women—the aged Elisabeth and the youthful Mary—each bearing a child conceived under miraculous circumstances. They, and even the unborn John, all rejoice in the great event about to take place.
There could be no more perfect mortal witness of Christ’s divine sonship than his mother, Mary. From Gabriel she received the promise that she would conceive in her womb “the Son of the Highest.” (Luke 1:32.) Following that marvelous event, she testified, saying, “He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:49.)
Nephi gave us a perfect scriptural account of this most sacred event. “And it came to pass,” he wrote, “that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!” (1 Ne. 11:19–21.)
Truly Mary was, as Gabriel told her, “highly favoured” and “blessed … among women” to have witnessed these miracles and to have given birth to the Savior. (Luke 1:28.)
We have no scriptural record of any words spoken by Joseph, yet his righteousness and reactions to Mary’s condition bear testimony to his belief in Christ’s divine sonship. We know that he dreamed dreams and entertained angels. Further, we know that as he was faithful in keeping the law of Moses, so he faithfully heeded each divine direction that was given him.
He displayed unquestioning obedience in taking Mary, already carrying a child, as his wife after “the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” (Matt. 1:20.) He also “knew [Mary] not till she had brought forth her firstborn son”; named the son Jesus; fled by night with Mary and the child to Egypt; remained in Egypt until directed to return; and returned to Galilee rather than to Judaea. (Matt. 1:25; see also Matt. 1:19–21; Matt 2:13–23.)
Each of these actions witnessed anew Joseph’s conviction regarding the child, the hope of Israel, the Son of God.
On the eve of Christ’s birth in the stable at Bethlehem, shepherds watched over their flocks in fields not far distant. These were not ordinary shepherds, for it had been prophesied among the Nephites that angels would declare the glad tidings of the Messiah’s birth to “just and holy men.” (Alma 13:26.)
The special witnesses borne by these shepherds were to be told to family, friends, and neighbors. They were to be told in the courts of the temple, and from there to be told among all nations of the earth. Luke tells us that after the shepherds had seen the “babe lying in a manger, … they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” (Luke 2:16–17.) Such was the declaration of the angel who stood before them that holy night, that these “good tidings of great joy” should “be to all people.” (Luke 2:10.)
Following the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, “suddenly there was … a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.” (Luke 2:13.) The heavenly choir then sang to the humble shepherds of Judaea “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14), heralding with music the Savior’s birth among the scattered remnants of Israel.
Our attention now turns to Jerusalem. There an aged man, described by Luke as “just and devout,” who had received the promise of the Lord that he would not die until he had seen the Savior, was moved upon by the Holy Ghost to go to the temple. There he held the Christ child.
When the parents and the child entered the temple—Mary for the ritual of cleansing and Joseph to pay the tax necessary to redeem the firstborn from priestly service—Simeon took the child in his arms. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word,” he declared. “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:29–32.)
Simeon’s declaration reached far beyond the understanding and hope of those of his nation, for he saw the universal nature of Christ’s ministry. He bore witness that Jesus was Savior to Jew and Gentile alike.
The marvelous testimony of Simeon was not to stand alone. Joining his special witness in the temple of the birth of Christ was Anna—the aged widow whose name means “full of grace.” A devout and saintly woman who worshipped for many years in the temple with fasting and prayer both day and night, she was undoubtedly well known to those of the Holy City who faithfully sought the coming of the Messiah. She approached the holy family and thereafter bore testimony of the Messiah to those in Jerusalem who “looked for redemption.” (Luke 2:38.)
Matthew alone makes reference to the coming of the wise men some time after the Savior’s birth, writing, “There came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.” (Matt. 2:1.) We know that the wise men were ignorant of the political situation at the time, for they sought Christ’s whereabouts from Herod: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Matt. 2:2.) No one who knew Herod would have endangered the life of Christ by asking such a question of him.
We also know that they were visionary men, for they were later “warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod” and consequently “departed into their own country another way.” (Matt. 2:12.) We also know from the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible that the wise men came seeking “the Messiah of the Jews,” thus following the pattern of witnesses that brought seekers of the Son of God to testify of him. (JST, Matt. 3:2.)
Our concluding witness is a most unlikely and reluctant one—Israel’s king, Herod the Great. Herod had made an alliance with the powers of the world: his friends were Augustus, Rome, and expediency. He had massacred priests and nobles. He had decimated the Sanhedrin. He had caused the high priest, his brother-in-law, to be drowned in pretended sport before his eyes. And he had ordered the strangulation of his favorite wife, Mariamne, though she seems to have been the only person he ever loved. Anyone who fell victim to his suspicions was murdered, including three sons and numerous relatives.
It was to this man, who personified the world’s wickedness, that the wise men from the east bore their testimony that Israel’s rightful king and ruler had been born. Such a testimony would not have been heeded had it come from Simeon, Anna, or simple shepherds. But Herod gave the testimony credence, coming as it did from these Eastern visitors whose credentials, whatever they were, established them as men of great wisdom.
The kingdom of God will never go unopposed in the days of earth’s mortality, the period of Satan’s power. Evidence of the anger and wrath of hell at the birth of God’s son makes the nativity story complete. The glad tidings of heaven brought no joy to the prince of darkness or his servants. Herod, as Satan’s servant, responded to the testimony of the wise men with murderous wrath and sought to destroy the Christ child. Thus, the decree went forth that “all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under,” according to the time that Herod had inquired of the wise men, were to be slain. (Matt. 2:16.)
The nativity story mentions twelve witnesses of the birth of the Savior and illustrates the pattern by which the knowledge of God is to be restored and to go forth once again among all the nations of the earth.
How will it go forth? By special witnesses—witnesses called and prepared in the councils of heaven. Who will they be? The old and the young, women and men, the learned and the unlearned—those who walk “in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless,” those who dream dreams, entertain angels, and are filled with the Holy Ghost. (Luke 1:6.) So it has ever been, and so it must ever be.