Monday, December 12, 2016

Christmas Chonology Prologue: John 1:14; The Word Made Flesh


14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

This is possibly the most astonishing statement in all of scripture, maybe in all of human experience. It’s the conclusion that John has been leading up to since verse 1 of his gospel. See my post on John 1:1-3 for more on the Greek and Jewish concepts of The Word at that time. John is saying that the Hebrew Word that created everything that is, and the Greek Logos that makes order out of chaos in the universe, are one and the same, and they became a human being. Throughout his gospel, John reminds us that he was an eyewitness to the things that Jesus did, and to who he is. He starts that here, by saying, “God himself became a man, and I saw him with my own eyes.”

John could hardly have said anything more inconceivable to both the Jews and Greeks of his day. John, though a Jew himself, was writing in Greek to Greek speaking people, and people whose world view was shaped by Greek thought. To the Greeks, the flesh was corrupt. It was a prison where the spirit was chained. To say that the Logos, which in their mind was far above even their gods (who were notoriously vain and capricious), had become flesh was ridiculous. To First Century Jews, God was unreachable, untouchable, unapproachable. He is so holy and so beyond us that it wasn’t permissible even to speak his name. To say that the Word of God, who was God himself, high and exalted, had become a mere man, was impossible to wrap their heads around. Yet this is the very nature of the Incarnation. And it’s essential to our faith.

Why did God do this? Of course, the only way he could be the sacrifice for our sins was to have a physical body. But Bible commentator William Barclay says that God became a man also to simply show us what God is like. The Jews were right in their concept of God. He is so far above us as to be beyond our comprehension. C.S. Lewis once said, (paraphrasing) “Our ideas of why God does what he does are probably about as valid as my dog’s ideas of what I am up to when I sit and read.” When Jesus came, it’s as if God was saying, “If you want to know what I am really like, look at my Son.” God is no less higher than we are since Jesus came. But because Jesus came, we have some idea what God is like. In Jesus, John saw God’s love, grace, faithfulness and mercy up close.

I love the way the Amplified Bible puts the first part of verse 14. It says:

And the Word (Christ) became flesh (human, incarnate) and tabernacled (fixed His tent of flesh, lived awhile) among us;

The Greek word that the NIV translates made his dwelling meant tabernacled in that culture. A tabernacle was a tent, a temporary dwelling. When Israel wandered in the desert before they reached the Promised Land, they lived in tabernacles. Before the Temple was built, they worshiped God in the Tabernacle. Every year, Jews celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles by erecting tents on top of their houses and living in them for the duration of the feast. This was a concept that had great resonance for Jews at that time. When the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, Almighty God made human flesh his temporary home.

But tabernacle, when used as a verb, also had a connotation of intimacy. The Word not only temporarily became flesh, but he tabernacled among us. In that culture, to live with others in a tent was to become part of their family. It meant he ate with them, lived with them, and slept in the same space as they did. So Jesus came to show us what God is really like, and he also came to make it possible for us to have an intimate relationship with him. He wants to make his dwelling among us, in our homes, in every aspect of our lives. This is another way of saying he is Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23, blog).

When John says we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, I can’t help but think he’s referring to the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13, blog, Mark 9:2-13, blog, Luke 9:28-36, blog). There on the mountaintop, Peter, James and John all saw Jesus in his glorified body, and heard the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5) God the Father spoke from within a cloud of his Shekinah glory, but Jesus the man lived in close, intimate quarters with John and the other disciples for three years. They knew him as a human being who had a physical body like theirs with all of its weaknesses. But they also saw his glory, the glory that only the one and only Son of the Father could have.

They also saw that Jesus was full of grace and truth. Other than love, which is God's very nature, there are no greater attributes of God than grace and turth. God is absolute, immutable truth. That truth is the source of the law, both physical and moral. Whether it be the laws that were given to Israel to govern their moral behavior, or the laws that govern the material universe, those laws exist because God is truth. Jesus was full of truth, but he was also full of grace. It’s God’s grace that makes our salvation possible. If all we had was God’s truth and justice, we would have no chance. But thanks to his grace, the undeserved favor that he has lavished upon us, we can have that intimate relationship with God. And that’s possible because, starting with the birth of the Christ child, the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Christmas Chronology: Matthew 2:13-18

 
The Escape to Egypt
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”[c]

For the second time, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream. The first time, God sent the message in the dream to assure Joseph that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and to encourage Joseph to take Mary as his wife (1:20-21, blog). This second appearance in a dream is about saving their son’s life. Both appearances were to make sure that Joseph did the right thing so that Jesus could complete his mission. There have been times that I have wished that God would speak to me audibly so that I could know for sure what he wanted me to do and make the right decision. But even the greatest crises I have faced in my life don’t compare in importance to what Joseph faced. The salvation of the world depended on Joseph obeying God immediately. Maybe God doesn’t speak to most of us this way because our circumstances are just not that crucial in the light of eternity.

It seems from Matthew’s language that this appearance happened right after the Magi left, maybe the same night. Matthew indicates in verse 14 that Joseph did get up that same night, pack up his family and their belongings and leave for Egypt. Joseph’s obedience was immediate. There was no hesitation. This shows the kind of man Joseph was. First, he was a man who had a close enough relationship with God that he got this kind of communication from God. If we want God to speak to us clearly, we have to live close enough to him to hear his voice. Second, he was a man of faith and unquestioning obedience. When Gabriel appeared to Mary and to Zechariah, they had questions (Luke 1:11-20, blog, Luke 1:26-38, blog). But Joseph never questioned when God told him something. He just obeyed, and instantly. What if Joseph had said, “I’m too busy right now. I’ll do what God says later.” Jesus would have been one of the innocents slaughtered by Herod. The plan of salvation would have been set back, perhaps by centuries. When God tells us to do something, we’d better do it, and right away. We never know what the eternal consequences will be if we don’t.

As the angel told them to do, they left for Egypt. Egypt was a province of Rome at that time, and it had a large Jewish community. They had their own temple and synagogues. There were probably members of Joseph’s extended family, or clan there. They would have a place to fit in and live, and be beyond Herod’s jurisdiction. We don’t know how long they stayed in Egypt, because we don’t have reliable historical information to show when Herod died. But it probably wasn’t more than a year or two.

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”[d]


It probably took a few days for Herod to realize that the Magi were not coming back, so the Holy Family had a bit of a head start. Herod had asked the Magi specifically when the star appeared so he could calculate when the baby had been born (2:7). So he knew that Jesus couldn’t be more than two years old.

This event, commonly called the slaughter of the innocents, is not corroborated in any secular history. But it fits with what we know of Herod’s ruthlessness. Plus, Matthew wrote this book to Jewish believers in the first century. This tragedy would have been a clear memory for those who were alive at that time, the way the Kennedy assassination is for those of us who were alive when that happened, or as 9/11 is for most Americans today. Matthew could not have put this in his gospel if it hadn’t really happened. Someone would have called him on it.

Twice in this short passage, Matthew cites fulfillment of prophecy. Peter and Paul also stressed Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy in their preaching to Jews (Acts 3:17-18, blog, Acts 28:23, blog). This was to show Jews of that time that this Jesus movement was not some Gentile fad. It was foretold by Old Testament prophecy. The hope of Israel, which had been desired by all Jews for centuries, had been fulfilled in Jesus. Yes, Christianity was open to everyone, including Gentiles, and they didn’t have to get circumcised and become Jews to be saved. But Jesus came to his own people first. Jesus was a Jew, and there is unbroken continuity from the promise made to Abraham to the promise made to David to the fulfillment of those promises in Jesus. He is the Savior of the world, and also the promised Messiah of Israel.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts, and that they’ve been meaningful to you this Christmas season. May you and yours have a wonderful Christmas!

Christmas Chronology: Matthew 2:1-12

The Magi Visit the Messiah
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

This event only takes place in Matthew’s gospel. Some undetermined amount of time passed from the time of Jesus’ birth till the events of this chapter. I’ve heard many times that the Wise Men actually came about two years after Jesus’ birth. That assumption comes mostly from the fact that Herod ordered all boys under age two killed (v. 16). It’s also assumed that if the star appeared when Jesus was born, it would take the Magi time to prepare for and make the trip. They probably came from Babylon (modern day Iraq), Persia (modern day Iran), or Arabia. But the two year time span is the maximum amount of time that could have passed. Herod was simply covering his bases. The Magi probably actually arrived sometime between one and two years after Jesus was born.

Who were the Magi? They were not kings, as tradition later supposed. They were astronomer/astrologer/priests. They kept track of the motions of the stars and planets in order to predict important events for kings, such as whether there would be a good harvest. Astronomy and astrology were the same thing in the ancient world. The school of Magi in Babylon went back centuries, to before the time of Daniel. Daniel was made head of the Magi in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar because he was able to interpret the king’s dream (Daniel 2:48). Jewish tradition holds that Daniel instructed the Babylonian Magi to watch for the Messiah. Daniel also predicted the exact time of Jesus’ birth (Daniel 9:25-27), so it seems likely that these Magi, if they came from Babylon or Persia, were following Daniel’s instructions. They knew the date of the Messiah’s birth, and they were watching for signs in the heavens. All around the region that we would call the Middle East today, there was an expectation that some important king was about to be born in Judea.

What was the star? That’s been the subject of much debate over the centuries. I am interested in astronomy, so I’ve read up on this some. I can tell you what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a comet or a meteorite. They don’t behave like Matthew describes. Comets were seen as portents of doom in the ancient world, not as symbols of good news. I’ve also heard that it may have been a nova, or an exploding star. But none of those appeared in the skies during that time, and whatever the “Star of Bethlehem” was, it went unnoticed by Herod. Herod would certainly have noticed a comet, meteor, or nova. No one could have missed any of those things. The most plausible explanation, to me, was that it was a conjunction of planets that indicated to these learned men that a king had been born among the Jews. If you’d like to read further on this, I recommend Wikipedia’s article on it, and there is extensive investigation of it from a Christian scientific perspective at bethlehemstar.net. But it may not have been a natural phenomenon at all. It may have been entirely supernatural.

When the Magi arrived, they went to Jerusalem, probably expecting that this new king had been born to the royal house on the throne at that time, or at least expecting that everyone there would be aware of the new king’s birth, and would be excited about it. But they would turn out to be mistaken about that.

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]


Herod was not of the royal line of David. In fact, he was not even Jewish. He was an Edomite. He would certainly have been aware of the expectation that the Messiah would be born soon, though. So when this impressive caravan of foreign officials showed up at his palace asking about it, of course he would be disturbed. The chief priests and teachers of the law, familiar characters in the rest of the story of Jesus, make their first appearance in the gospels here. They were the ones who told Herod where the Messiah was to be born. The verse they quote (or misquote, or paraphrase) is from Micah 5:2-4.

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

As I mentioned earlier, it’s unlikely that the star was anything obvious to the untrained eye, since Herod was unaware of it. He had to ask the Magi when it appeared. But Herod had learned where the Messiah was to be born from the chief priests and teachers of the law, and now he learns when the child was born from the Magi. He has the where and the when. Now all he needs is the who. So he tells the wise men to report back to him after they find the child, under the pretense of wanting to pay homage to this new king himself.

Here is where one possible conflict between Matthew's account and Luke's comes in. Luke says that after Jesus’ circumcision ceremony, eight days after Jesus was born, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus moved back to their home in Nazareth (Luke 2:39). So they would not still have been in Bethlehem more than a year later when the Magi came. Verse 8 of this chapter says that Herod sent them to Bethlehem. But Matthew doesn’t say that the Magi actually went to Bethlehem, or that they found Jesus there. He only says Herod sent them there, which he would have done, based on the prophecy. Look at what Matthew says in the next verses.

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

In verse 10, the star that had first alerted them that the new king of the Jews had been born reappeared and guided them to where the child was. In verse 11, Matthew talks about the Magi coming to the house. As we all know from Luke, Jesus was not born in a house. As I talked about in my post on Luke 2:1-7, Jesus was born in lambing cave, because there wasn’t room for them in the Bethlehem caravansary that was owned by Joseph’s family. Bethlehem was a small village just outside of Jerusalem. I don’t think the Magi would have needed the star to guide them if the baby Jesus was still in Bethlehem.

So here is my personal theory. The “star,” when it first appeared at the birth of Jesus, was actually a natural phenomenon that had meaning for astronomers expecting the Messiah, but would not have been noticed by the uninitiated. That sent the Magi on their journey to Jerusalem. This “star” did not continue to appear for the entire time of their journey. If it had, they could have followed it straight to the Christ child. It would not have been necessary to inquire of Herod as to where to go. Once they found out where the baby was to be born, suddenly the star reappeared to guide them. I believe that, at this point, the star was actually an angel. No natural celestial body could go ahead of travelers and rest over a specific location. They’re too high in the sky for that. I also believe that this “star” guided them to Nazareth, not to Bethlehem. That was the reason for its reappearance. Herod told them to go to Bethlehem, and the star appeared to show them where they really should go.

When the Magi came to the house where they found Mary and the Christ child, they bowed down and worshiped him. This was the way to address royalty. They made themselves prostrate before him. They weren’t necessarily worshiping him as God, they were paying homage to him as a ruler. Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were the most precious products of their country. They were also standard gifts to present to a royal person. Of course, these gifts had a spiritual meaning and practical value. Many speculate that the gold was used by Mary and Joseph to support their family during their time in Egypt. Frankincense was used as incense by the priesthood, symbolic of Jesus as our High Priest. And myrrh was used for embalming the dead. Many believe that Mary carried this myrrh to the tomb on Easter morning to embalm Jesus’ body. But she never got to use it, because he was already risen!

In verse 12, God warns the Magi in a dream not to report back to Herod, so they went home by another route. Since the wise men arrived after Jesus’ first birthday, I don’t believe that they really belong in the story of Jesus’ birth. Sorry to ruin your Nativity scene, but they weren’t there with the angels and shepherds. But God’s timing is more important than our traditions. God sent these men to a poor, obscure family in Galilee to confirm again to them who their young son was, and to provide gifts that would help them. The wise men went to a lot of trouble and expense, and took months, if not years of their lives to give to Jesus and bow down to him. How much trouble are we willing to go to for Jesus? How far does our worship of him go? How much does it cost us?

Christmas Chronology: Luke 2:21-40

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple
21 Eight days later, when the baby was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel even before he was conceived.
22 Then it was time for their purification offering, as required by the law of Moses after the birth of a child; so his parents took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. 23 The law of the Lord says, “If a woman’s first child is a boy, he must be dedicated to the Lord.”[a] 24 So they offered the sacrifice required in the law of the Lord—“either a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”[b]

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be circumcised and dedicated to the Lord, and for Mary to present her purification offering after childbirth, according to the law of Moses (Leviticus 12:2-3). Jesus came to fulfill the law, and he was careful to observe the law. Some of this he got from his divine nature and understanding of his mission, but much of it he got from his parents. Here is an example of how devout and observant Mary and Joseph were. From the earliest age, Jesus was raised in a devout, God-honoring home by righteous parents. Later in this chapter, we see how Jesus understood the scriptures at age twelve. Was this just because he was supernaturally brilliant, being the Son of God? Maybe partly, but I believe it was also because he was taught to love the scriptures by his parents. If you want your kids to be serious about their relationship with God, you have to be serious about it.

The fact that they offered two birds for their offering shows that they were not rich. According to Leviticus 12:8, their offering was supposed to be a lamb and a dove or pigeon. But if they could not afford a lamb they could bring two birds.
The Prophecy of Simeon
25 At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him 26 and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 That day the Spirit led him to the Temple. So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, 28 Simeon was there.

Simeon is believed by scholars to be the son of Hilliel the Elder, the father of Pharisaic thought, and the father of Gamaliel, who defended the apostles before the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:33-39 (blog), and was Paul’s teacher (Acts 22:3). Simeon had received assurances from God that he would see the Messiah before he died. He lived in expectation. Even though he was an old man, and had waited many years without seeing what God had promised, he still expected God to do what he said he would do. Do we believe God to the point that we simply expect him to do what he says he’ll do, even after many years of not seeing it?

Verses 17-18 of this chapter say that the shepherds told everyone what had happened and that all who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished. As I said in my last post, the shepherds probably worked for the Temple, herding sheep intended for sacrifice. So word of their story had probably spread throughout the Temple. I imagine that Simeon heard about it, maybe from one of the shepherds themselves. Knowing the date of Jesus’ birth, Simeon would have been able to count to eight, and be at the Temple on the date of Jesus’ circumcision. Verse 27 says that on that date, the Spirit led him to the Temple. But that doesn’t mean Simeon didn’t hear anything about it. God communicates with us in many ways, often through people.

He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace,
as you have promised.
30 I have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared for all people.
32 He is a light to reveal God to the nations,
and he is the glory of your people Israel!”


Simeon’s prophecy is significant, partly in the mere fact that it was spoken in the Temple. The thrust of Simeon’s prophecy is that God’s salvation through Jesus was for all people, including the Gentiles. The Amplified Bible puts verse 32 this way:

32A Light for [k]revelation to the Gentiles [to disclose what was before unknown] and [to bring] praise and honor and glory to Your people Israel.(G)

Simeon references two Messianic prophecies from Isaiah (42:6, 49:6), both of which stress that the Messiah will be a light to the Gentiles. Of all the prophecies of the Messiah that the Holy Spirit could have had Simeon speak at that moment, the one he chose was this, that as Isaiah 49:6 says;

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”


For Jesus to merely be a Messiah to rescue the Jews from oppression was too small a task for God to send his Son. The only job big enough to warrant that kind of sacrifice was to bring his salvation to the ends of the earth. And God reinforced this message in the Temple, the center of the old covenant.

33 Jesus’ parents were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, but he will be a joy to many others. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. 35 As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.”

Once again, I imagine Mary as an old woman, relating this memory to Luke. This was the first “negative” prophecy about Jesus that Mary and Joseph received. Up until that point, it had all been positive. Now, for the first time, God was telling them that their son would face major opposition. I wonder if Simeon’s prediction that a sword would pierce her soul went over her head at the time, but as she talked to Luke, decades after seeing the spear pierce her son’s side on the cross, she knows all too bitterly what he meant. So often, when we’re young, we don’t take seriously the sage words of those older than us. It’s only when we get older that we see their wisdom.
The Prophecy of Anna
36 Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple. She was the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, and she was very old. Her husband died when they had been married only seven years. 37 Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four.[c] She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer. 38 She came along just as Simeon was talking with Mary and Joseph, and she began praising God. She talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.

Not just one holy prophet spoke to Mary and Joseph about Jesus that day, two of them did! This was added confirmation of what Mary and Joseph already knew. They had spent perhaps weeks living in a cave, and had given birth in very difficult circumstances, but Mary and Joseph had still done what the law required, and had obeyed God every step of the way. How would you like to take care of a newborn infant in a cave for seven days? After all of that, how great an encouragement it must have been to them to have not one, but two prophets speak to them about Jesus and confirm who he was! It’s easy to let difficult circumstances become an excuse for letting our walk with God become lax. But Mary and Joseph didn’t do that. They obeyed God to the letter in spite of their circumstances, and God rewarded them by confirming his word to them through two prophets on the same day.

39 When Jesus’ parents had fulfilled all the requirements of the law of the Lord, they returned home to Nazareth in Galilee. 40 There the child grew up healthy and strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.

Luke doesn’t mention the Wise Men, but it’s apparent that they had not visited Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus at this point. If they had, Mary and Joseph would have been able to afford a lamb for the sacrifice. They could have bought one with the gold the Magi brought. Most biblical scholars believe the Magi came when Jesus was one to two years old, so they don’t really belong in the story of the birth of Jesus. You can read my post on the visit of the Magi in Matthew tomorrow. As I will talk about in that post, I believe that by the time the Magi visited, the Holy Family had gone back to Nazareth, as it says they did here, in verse 39. I believe that the “Star of Bethlehem” actually led the Wise Men to Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

Christmas Chronology: Luke 2:8-20

The Shepherds and the Angels
8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ[a] the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Shepherds were not well regarded in that society. They were thought of as untrustworthy drunkards, and could not testify in court. So why did the angel appear to shepherds, rather than some more trustworthy and respected type of people, like priests? Because Jesus came for the outcasts, the undesirables, those with no social status.

I’ve been trying to read these passages, which I’ve read so many times before, with a new eye. I’m discovering that the traditional images we have of these events bears little resemblance to what the Bible actually says. For instance, the mental image I’ve always had of the angels and shepherds is that the angels were in the sky, with the shepherds below. But Luke doesn’t say that. Verse 9 just says an angel appeared to them. An angel appeared to Zechariah, and also to Mary, but not in the sky, so why would this angel be in the sky? When angels appear in the Bible, more often than not, they appear as men, standing on the ground.

Another point that we’re all aware of by now is that Jesus was probably not born in December. This account is evidence of that. Shepherds were not out in the fields with their flocks in the winter. It’s most likely that this took place in the spring, during lambing season.

Of course, the angel has to start by saying, “don’t be afraid,” as usual. Then he says he brings good news of great joy. This is not just a turn of phrase. The angel is literally bringing the Gospel, the Good News. This good news will bring great joy to all the people. Keep in mind who the angel was talking to. These outcasts probably did not have a lot of “great joy” in their life. They worked a monotonous job, and weren’t well thought of by others. The angel’s good news wasn’t just for the privileged, the educated, or even the righteous, but for everyone, including them. Including you.

What is this good news? A Savior has been born, Christ the Lord. Israel had been looking and waiting for a Savior for centuries. Christ means anointed one, and it’s basically the Greek word for Messiah. The Lord is one of the Old Testament terms for God, of course. The angel is saying that not only has a Savior been born, but he is the Messiah, and he is God.

After the amazing statement in verse 11, the next statement in verse 12 must have made little sense to the shepherds at first. He’s the Savior, the Messiah, he’s God, and he’s lying where? Everyone knew the Messiah would be descended from David, so everyone assumed he would be born of royalty. I’m sure the shepherds expected to be told to go to the house of some wealthy, politically connected family. But instead, they had to go and search for a baby lying in a feed trough.

 God is making an amazing statement to these downtrodden peasants by doing it this way. The angels appeared to representatives of the Temple, but not to the priests. And Jesus was born to a descendant of David, but not to a ruler. By being born to a poor peasant family with no political power, and by announcing his birth to the lowest caste of those who worked for the old Temple and its system of sacrifices for sin, God was making clear that this was indeed good news of great joy for all people.

13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”


The term heavenly host is also translated armies of Heaven. This was not an just an angelic choir, it was an army. The Levite singers used to march in front of the armies of Israel singing “His Love Endures Forever” as they went into battle, and God granted them victory when they did (2 Chronicles 20:21-22). Here the armies of Heaven burst into song over the victory that God would win over sin, death, and hell with the birth of the Savior.

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

There was no star for the shepherds to follow. So how did they find the baby Jesus? Again, the imagery of the traditional Nativity scene can get in the way of understanding what really happened. We think of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, the shepherds and wise men, angels and barnyard animals, all there at the same time, with the Star of Bethlehem overhead. And of course, they all have haloes. But that’s not how it happened. The angels didn’t go with the shepherds to the manger. The shepherds didn’t leave the field till the angels had gone back into heaven, as it says in verse 15.

In my last post, I talked about how Jesus was born in a lambing cave, the place where the lambs that these very shepherds watched over were born. When the shepherds heard the angel say that they would find the baby in a manger there in Bethlehem, I imagine that this was the first place they thought of. They would have known exactly where to find mangers in Bethlehem. They had probably been there many times when sheep that they took care of gave birth. And it was lambing season. I think it’s possible that the shepherds had, in the course of their duties, had to make trips to that lambing cave before, and had encountered this poor couple keeping house there, about to give birth. But it wasn’t until the angel appeared to them that they knew that the baby was born, and that he was someone very special.

The sheep that the shepherds watched over were intended for sacrifice in the Temple. Did they recognize the significance of the Savior being born in the place where the lambs who were meant for sacrifice came into the world? Do we?

After they had seen the Christ child, the shepherds spread the word of what they had seen and heard, and everyone was amazed at their story. Given the shepherds’ reputation, I’m sure more than a few were incredulous, and attributed their story to too much wine. The contrast between the shepherds’ response to these events and Mary’s is interesting. Mary didn’t go around telling everyone what she had heard and seen, She treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. All through these first two chapters of Luke, I’m trying to keep in mind that all of this probably comes from Mary. The shepherds obviously told Mary and Joseph about the angels, and Mary included that in her interviews with Luke. Who would have known about Mary pondering these things in her heart but Mary herself?

After all of these incredible experiences, the shepherds returned to their work, but with a new attitude. Now they had an attitude of glorifying and praising God because of their encounter with Jesus. When we meet Jesus, the drudgery of our everyday work is transformed into service for God. Now we do what we do as unto the Lord, all because we came into contact with the Savior, Christ, the Lord.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Christmas Chronology: Luke 2:1-7

The Birth of Jesus
1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3And everyone went to his own town to register.

Caesar Augustus was the first true emperor of the known world. He established one-man rule and Caesar worship throughout the Roman Empire, which had previously been a republic. The fact that he had the power to issue this one order and the whole world had to follow it shows the kind of power he had. After he had consolidated his empire, he wanted to to take a census of it so the Roman government could tax the people effectively. It’s easier to tax your subjects when you know how many there are, who they are, and where they live.

We can see God’s timing at work here. Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, and not before, because Augustus was the first ruler who could issue a decree that would send Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus needed to be born so the prophecy could be fulfilled. And he was born during the reign of Augustus, and not after, likely because Augustus was a relatively benign emperor compared to the cruel Tiberius or the mad Caligula who followed him.

4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Bethlehem is 80 miles from Nazareth. Not an easy journey, especially traveling by donkey with a pregnant girl. Traditionally, we think of Mary and Joseph making this trip late in her pregnancy, but the Bible doesn’t actually say that. It says in verse 6 that the time came for Jesus to be born while they were there. Joseph may have taken her there well in advance to spare her embarrassment from the gossip that was doubtless going around Nazareth.

In verse 5, Luke implies that Mary and Joseph still weren’t married at the time they went to Bethlehem. But in Matthew 1:24, it says that Joseph “took Mary home as his wife” after the angel told him the baby really was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This could mean that the actual wedding took place in Bethlehem while they waited there for the census. Based on Luke’s language here, I had assumed for years that Mary and Joseph still weren’t married when Jesus was born, but that may not be true.

I don’t think we appreciate the sacrifices that Mary and Joseph made in order to obey God in this circumstance. Did anyone believe their story, other than Zechariah and Elizabeth? Would you have believed them? Think about it. She was pregnant before they were married, and he stayed with her. What conclusion would you draw? The only reasonable conclusion would be that the baby must be his, right? Mary and Joseph lived with that stigma for the rest of their lives. Future generations rise up and call them blessed, but their own did not. How many of us hesitate to obey God when facing far less scorn than they did? We can’t possibly calculate the debt we owe to these two ordinary people who did extraordinary things because they were willing to obey God no matter the cost.

The image I’ve always had in my head of the birth of Jesus, like my mental image of many Bible stories, turns out to be wrong. I’ve always pictured Mary and Joseph going from hotel to hotel, all of them with signs saying “No Vacancy.” Finally, one innkeeper offers to let them stay in his stable, where Jesus is born. At least that’s what I’ve seen all my life in movies and church Christmas pageants. But Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home, and he had family there.

A friend of mine who recently went to Israel and saw the place in Bethlehem where all the evidence says Jesus was born gave me some real insight into this. In that culture, what we would think of as hotels were assumed to be brothels, and righteous people would never stay there. That’s why Jesus and his disciples stayed in private homes when they traveled, as did the apostles. But there were (and still are, in the Middle East) other types of inns called caravansaries. A caravansary is a large complex, usually square or rectangular in shape, with a central courtyard where a caravan’s animals can be kept, surrounded by walled cubicles where people can stay.

Typical caravansary layout

It turns out that the main caravansary in Bethlehem was owned by Joseph’s family. This is where Mary and Joseph would have gone, and Joseph’s family there would have made every effort to accommodate them, unless they couldn’t, or were unwilling to because of Mary’s premarital pregnancy.

Bethlehem was where the lambs meant for sacrifice at the temple were raised. Those were the sheep that the shepherds watched over. Since it was located in Bethlehem, one distinguishing feature of the caravansary that Joseph’s family owned was that it had a lambing cave. This was below the caravansary grounds, like a basement. Caves are common in that area. The traditional image of Jesus born in a stable is unlikely. The Bible never says that. The reason people assume that is because of the use of the word manger, which is a feed trough for animals. Jesus was actually born in cave, but not just any cave. Because there was no room for Mary and Joseph in any of the caravansary cubicles, they were offered shelter in the cave where lambs meant for sacrifice were born. Jesus, the Lamb of God who would be the sacrificial lamb for us all, was born in a lambing cave, and one owned by the house of David.

While it’s certainly possible that the caravansary was full because of the census, I also think it’s entirely possible that the reason there was “no room in the inn” was that Mary was pregnant out of wedlock. Word of their “situation” would have spread through Joseph’s family. Gossip travels fast. At Christmastime, it’s easy to get stuck in the imagery of the Nativity scene, and miss the reality of the situation. I believe it’s very possible that the reason Mary and Joseph had to use a feed trough as a cradle for the baby Jesus was that Joseph’s family did not want them to stay in the public cubicles because of the shame it would cause. Jesus bore shame that he did not deserve, not only in his death, but also in his birth. It’s impossible to overstate how much we owe Mary and Joseph for their obedience to God in an unbelievably difficult circumstance.

Christmas Chronology: Luke 1:67-80

Zechariah’s Prophecy
67 Then his father, Zechariah, was filled with the Holy Spirit and gave this prophecy: 68 “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited and redeemed his people.
69 He has sent us a mighty Savior[g]
from the royal line of his servant David,
70 just as he promised
through his holy prophets long ago.


Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied. It’s significant that after nine months of imposed silence, Zechariah’s first words were not about his newborn son. First he praises God, and then recognizes that it’s all about Jesus. John is not mentioned in Zechariah’s prophecy until more than halfway through. Here is the second aspect of praise for blessings. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s important to acknowledge that the good things that happen to us come from God, and to praise him for what he’s done. But look at how Zechariah did that. Did he start by praising God for ending his muteness, or for giving him a child in his old age? No, he praised God for sending a Savior, and for keeping his promises to Israel.

God doesn’t primarily perform miracles to solve our problems. He performs miracles to glorify himself, and to help us believe. Zechariah recognized that God had not done all of this to make him and Elizabeth happy. He had done it to keep his covenant with Israel (to glorify himself by demonstrating his faithfulness), and to send a Savior so that we might believe in him. While we praise God for the things he does for us, remember that it’s not about us. He does these things for us to bring glory to himself, and so that we and those around us might believe in him.

71 Now we will be saved from our enemies
and from all who hate us.
72 He has been merciful to our ancestors
by remembering his sacred covenant—
73 the covenant he swore with an oath
to our ancestor Abraham.
74 We have been rescued from our enemies
so we can serve God without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness
for as long as we live.


Like Mary’s song, Zechariah’s has some politics in it. Who do you think he’s referring to in verse 71 and 74 when he talks about our enemies and those who hate us? It has to be the Romans. In some ways, apparently Zechariah expected Jesus to be a political Messiah as well. Most of Israel did expect a political Messiah to free them from Roman oppression, so that’s not surprising. But Zechariah also understood that the true purpose of the Messiah, even a political one, was spiritual freedom, not political freedom. Look at verses 74-75. They had been rescued from their enemies, not so they could live free from oppression, but so they could serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness for as long as they live.

76 “And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
77 You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,[h]
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.”

80 John grew up and became strong in spirit. And he lived in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.

Verse 76-79 are basically a father’s blessing on his son, not unlike Isaac’s blessing of Jacob (Genesis 27:27-29). Zechariah refers to Gabriel’s prophecy about John (1:17), acknowledging that God’s word through Gabriel would come true. And he ties it in with the prophet Isaiah in verses 78-79. But I don’t mean to imply that this is some clever poem that Zechariah wrote ahead of time. This was prophecy, and prophecy is quite literally the Word of God. Prophecy is not necessarily predicting the future. When prophets spoke in the Old Testament, they often began their prophecy by saying “This is what the Lord says”(Ex. 8:1, 1 Samuel 2:27, 1 Kings 12:22-24). What Zechariah is doing here is nothing less than delivering the Word of the Lord. What Isaiah had written centuries before, what Gabriel had said months before, and what Zechariah says here are all consistent with each other because they all came directly from the mouth of God.

The most important statement in this prophecy, I believe, is in verse 77. John would tell people how to find salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. He could only do that because of the one he was preparing the way for. And through Zechariah, God made sure we all knew that this was what all of this was about.