Christmas Myths


Introduction

mynotes[1]Recently, I ran across some notes I made several years ago in the days following Christmas. I’m not sure what inspired all my scrawling, but I had over a page of ‘notes to self’ as well as questions I jotted down for later research. That “later research” turned out to be done in 2012. Already being in the mindset of reading the Bible properly and with Christmas so close, I remembered my notes and dug them out. After a lot of my own careful reading of the firsthand Christmas accounts as well as reviewing a number of writings by experts on related topics, I came up with the following. This is a long post, but there’s really no way around that. I did my best to summarize the high points below while still doing them justice. I have listed a number of references if you want to do continued study on the topic. Also, feel free to leave me a note in the comments if you would like any clarifications or additional sources.

Also, in the years since I initially posted this, whether on blogs or after a public presentation of the talk, on Facebook or in person, I’ve run into a number of questions and objections. Some of my responses have been added to the Challenges section of the TCA Apologetics website, and I’m sure I’ll continue to add more. So feel free to poke around the site, or just ask a question in the comments. This is a new topic for most, so having questions is understandable!

 

Listen

If you would rather listen than read, you’re in luck! I’ve posted the audio from a recent presentation on the TC Apologetics podcast. Here are the links:

 

My Purpose

chess[1]I’m not trying to destroy your traditions, decorations, or carols. My goal is as always to encourage you to think critically and read the Bible properly so we are able to “rightly handle the word of truth” ((2 Timothy 2:15)), and “not be (…) carried about by every wind of doctrine” ((Ephesians 4:14)) . In addition, there are aspects of the Christmas story that are routinely attacked by skeptics. We would do well to defend that which is defensible and willingly dismiss tradition and mythology. In other words – choose wisely which hill you are willing to die on.

Here’s another way to think through this:  “What would a person with absolutely no exposure to the gospel conclude from their observations of what goes on at Christmas?” I don’t just mean the consumerism, or the fat man in the red suit. I’m talking about what they would see in the average Christian church or home. Think about that next time you look at a nativity scene. Consider their likely takeaway as contrasted with the message that I believe the Bible leaves us. Keep this question in the back of your mind as we go through these issues and see which you think leaves an unbeliever with a more helpful picture of the gospel.

 


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“The Christmas portions of the gospel are, perhaps, the most beloved, and the most belabored, texts in the New Testament. Like works of art that have been lacquered with coat after coat of varnish, the original stories are hardly visible anymore.” ((“The Nativity According to Luke” – Ben Witherington III))


 

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Following the Evidence

We’ll be looking at the version of the Christmas story as understood by the typical Christian. The trouble is, it is not a particularly accurate story. Some parts are at least potentially problematic, and others only mistaken in the trivial details, but if this is the beginning of the greatest story ever told, we should be interested in accuracy.

The story as we know it comes primarily from a Jewish novel called “The Protoevangelium of James” – or, if you’re watching a “shocking documentary about lost books of the Bible”, they will likely refer to it as the Gospel of James. The trouble is it wasn’t written by James, or any other eye-witness, or even someone familiar with 1st-century Palestine!

The Protoevangelium was an Apocryphal book written to fill in the blanks left by the canonical gospels. Because of this, it does affirm much of what is in the Bible. But it goes too far. Among other things, the Protoevangelium is the origin of the myths that Jesus was born in a cave, that Joseph was significantly older than Mary, and that Mary was a perpetual virgin among many others.

In addition to the errors in the Protoevangelium, other mythology has been added along the way. Most of this has probably not been malicious, but nevertheless it muddies the water. Our goal will be to “strip away the varnish” to quote Witherington, and get a better picture of the true Christmas story.

 

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Getting Down to the Details

 

tree-bulletMary and Joseph were not white. Or black. Or Mexican?

mexnat[1]Mary and Joseph were Jewish, or Judahites – people from the line of David ((“The Genealogies in Matthew and Luke” by Jim Loucks)) of the tribe of Judah. Mary’s lineage is given in Luke 3, and Joseph’s is given in Matthew 1. ((“Joseph was clearly the son of Jacob (Matthew 1:16, so this verse [Luke 3:23 – says “son of Heli”] should be understood to mean “son-in-law of Heli.” Thus, the genealogy of Christ in Luke is actually the genealogy of Mary, while Matthew gives that of Joseph. Actually, the word “son” is not in the original, so it would be legitimate to supply either “son” or “son-in-law” in this context. Since Matthew and Luke clearly record much common material, it is certain that neither one could unknowingly incorporate such a flagrant apparent mistake as the wrong genealogy in his record. As it is, however, the two genealogies show that both parents were descendants of David—Joseph through Solomon (Matthew 1:7-15), thus inheriting the legal right to the throne of David, and Mary through Nathan (Luke 3:23-31), her line thus carrying the seed of David, since Solomon’s line had been refused the throne because of Jechoniah’s sin” [Dr. Henry M. Morris, The Defender’s Study Bible, note for Luke 3:23 (Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Publishing, Inc., 1995).].)) (Note of interest: ‘son’ can refer to what we call son-in-law, son, or grandson. See Matthew 1:1 for an obvious example.)

 

 

tree-bulletWere Mary and Joseph a creepy couple?

oldjoseph[1]There are historic texts that assign ages to Mary and Joseph, but the Biblical accounts are not among them. There are some silly rumors that Mary was 12 and Joseph was 90, but this is certainly folklore. The average lifespan was decades less than that in those days, and that age difference would have been just as ridiculous then as it is now. It is true that if they were the traditional Jewish couple of the time, Mary was likely a teen and Joseph quite possibly somewhat older. How much? Who knows. The Bible doesn’t say. We can be sure though that they did not look like today’s average 30-something couple as the scenes typically show, nor did they look like a little girl with her great-grandpa. We have no reason to believe that they would have looked unusual for their time and culture.

 

tree-bulletWhat did Mary ride to Bethlehem?

marydonkey[1]Trick question. We don’t know that she rode anything. Joseph was a thoughtful guy ((Matthew 1:19)), so he would have made the trip as comfortable as possible, as long as it was within his means. Does that mean Mary rode a donkey? Maybe, but the text ((Luke 2)) says only that they went to Bethlehem – not how.

 

 

 

tree-bulletWhich animals can you name from a nativity scene?

nativityanimals[1]Oxen, cattle, donkey, camels, sheep, doves…  Shoot, there are plenty of mentions of these animals in our Christmas songs alone. Were there animals there? It’s not unlikely, given the nature of their accommodations (more on that later), but the Bible mentions none. ((Witherington mentions this likely originates in St. Francis’ love for animals, and subsequent inclusion of them in his live nativity.))

 

tree-bulletWas the trip to Bethlehem an emergency run?

pregnantmary[1]It sure doesn’t seem to be the case, but this is what we see in movies and stories. This is another bit of creative license taken by the author of Protoevangelium of James. You’ve seen it before: Mary appears to be around 14 months pregnant, every step of the donkey nearly drives her into labor, Joseph has to carry her everywhere. Possible? I guess, but the Bible doesn’t give us any reason to think this. Luke tells us that a census was ordered ((Luke 2:1)), that Mary and Joseph traveled to be counted ((Luke 2:4)), “while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered”  ((Luke 2:6, KJV)) That’s all we know. She could have been near the end of her term while they traveled, but it doesn’t sound like that is the case. All we know is that she was at least three months pregnant based on her visit to Elizabeth mentioned in chapter 1. When she returned, Joseph would have been thoughtful enough ((Matthew 1:19)) to allow sufficient time for them to get to Bethlehem before Jesus arrived. This seems to be supported by the phrase “the days were accomplished” or “the time came”. Remember, as far as they knew, they went to Bethlehem to be counted – not to have a baby.

On its face, the account suggests they went to Bethlehem hoping to get registered then head back home, but as it turned out they had to wait longer than expected and the baby arrived while they were still there.

 

tree-bulletWhy were the hotels booked up?

noroom2[1]The traditional telling has us believe that Joseph ran down the main strip knocking on the door of every inn while Mary lay on the ground trying her hardest to postpone delivery. Unfortunately, due to the census (and the fact that Hotels.com was not yet invented) Joseph had not pre-registered a room and therefore they were out of luck. There are a number of problems with this idea.

As we covered above, Mary was almost certainly not in labor while Joseph made accommodations. Second, Bethlehem was a tiny little town; it is uncertain that there would have been an inn there at all. Third, since they were returning to the town of origin of Joseph’s family, he would have had relatives there. He would certainly check with people he knew before looking for hospitality from strangers, and he would not have slighted his family by staying in a hotel. Also, as a last resort, Copan notes that Joseph could have taken Mary to stay with Elizabeth again who was not far away, should they have been unable to find appropriate lodging. These arguments come from common sense, but there is support for this in the text as well, which we’ll cover in the next section.

The bottom line is that the issue in Luke 2:7 is not a shortage of hotel rooms.

 

tree-bulletSo where did Mary and Joseph stay?

The Greek word translated to English as “the inn” is κατάλυμα (pronounced ‘kataluma’). This is not the word for a place to rent space – it is the word for guest room. (See Luke 10:34-35 for an example of the word “inn” – pandocheion – with an actual innkeeper!)

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Again, our stories have many added details, but the Bible says nothing of an innkeeper, or of being turned away by ‘no vacancy’ signs. It simply says there was no room in the kataluma. And the word translated ‘no room’ doesn’t mean there were no vacant rooms, but rather there was no space.

Picture their situation – they have traveled nearly 100 miles. They arrive to Bethlehem and check in with family, but unfortunately the guest room is already chock full of relatives. “No worries”, say the locals, “we’ll find room for you!”

By that point they’re squirreling away family members everywhere they can make room. It was probably a good time catching up, though chaotic. Probably, Joseph and Mary slept in a room that was something like a modest living room/storage room/garage in our terms. This would be a room on the first floor where valuable animals would be kept at night.

In Palestine, the manger was not in an outbuilding, but “in the main living room of a peasant house, where animals are brought in at night” ((R.T. France, *The Evidence for Jesus* [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986], 159))

Then, the time comes; a baby is to be born. Once Jesus arrived, given that the family didn’t have a crib (or it was already in use by one of the cousins) and that minivans and pack-n-plays had not yet been invented, they were in a pickle. Mary & Joseph had to make do with what they had, so Jesus ended up sleeping in a manger. Ok, I’ll grant that what I’ve just described is not in the Bible either, but it is consistent with what is in the Bible, as well as with the culture of the region – more so than the traditional story of the family being locked away in a barn or a cave. The main takeaway here is that the kataluma was a guest room in a residence – not a hotel.

Rachel Stivani's kataluma_labeled_sm

Witherington makes an interesting observation. Being observant Jews and realizing the implications of childbirth, it would not have been unusual for Mary to give birth in the portion of the house that was already ceremonially unclean. ((Note Luke 2:22))

For another notable kataluma, check out the account of the Last Supper as told in Mark 14 and Luke 22. The “upper room” was a large guest room/kataluma that Jesus and his disciples were offered for their use.

One last piece of evidence in support of this translation. Matthew 2 describes the Magi’s search for the king of the Jews. Verse 11 begins, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary…”  Did you catch that? To the house. Guest rooms are not in caves or barns – they are in houses. Jesus and his family were in a house, not a barn or a cave. It was far from glamorous, but the artwork and nativities we have do not depict what the Bible describes. Jesus had modest beginnings, but there is nothing in the text to make us think that he was rejected by the world even prior to his birth.

Interesting side note: Bailey points out that since shepherds were such humble folk, they were afraid of more than angels. They would have been intimidated to be around the wealthy. Luke 2:12 doesn’t mention the babe in the manger just as “a sign” because it is unusual. The angel says “this is a sign for you”. In other words, it’s safe to go there. Only the humble working class would have a manger in their home. Bailey writes, “These people did their best and it was enough…. The shepherds were welcome at the manger. The unclean were judged to be clean. The outcasts become honored guests.”

 

tree-bulletWho was present at the birth of Jesus?

the-birth-of-jesus[1]Mary and Joseph, obviously. A midwife may have even accompanied them on the trip, if tradition held. If our understanding of their kataluma is correct, there would have been some extended family there as well – likely a bunch of them.

The shepherds likely arrived very shortly after Jesus’ birth – probably the same day. However, according to Matthew 2, the wise men would have arrived at least a few days after Jesus was born, but I don’t know that we ought to jump the gun here.

Given the details of Jesus being taking to the temple ((Luke 2:22)) for the purification rites dictated by the Mosaic law ((Leviticus 12:1-4)), we can presume that Mary and Joseph hung around Bethlehem for at least 40 days after Jesus’ birth. It’s conceivable they could have hung around a bit longer until Jesus was old enough to safely travel back home to Nazareth, not to mention the time Joseph may have allowed for the dust to settle over the scandal of his allegedly unfaithful wife and illegitimate child. That means Jesus could have easily been several months old when the Magi arrived. This is open to speculation of course, but tradition, the law, and the text support anywhere from days to months after birth for the visit by the so-called wise men of the east.

 

tree-bulletWhen was Jesus born?

adbc[1]Well, if time was split into two major divisions by the incarnation of God, then Jesus would have been born somewhere in that time between the two. Unfortunately, the task of dating was difficult 1500 years ago. They didn’t have the tools we have today. Given the historical information we have at our hands, Jesus’ birth was most likely in 5-4 BC.

 

tree-bulletIs December 25th his actual birthday?

xmasDec25Angel1210[1]Believe it or not, this is actually supported by ancient tradition. Hippolytus argued in the 2nd century that this was Jesus’ birthday, as did John Chrysostom in the 4th century. Skeptics will say that December was too cold for shepherds to be keeping their flocks outside at night, so Jesus must have been born in the summer months. However, flocks in Bethlehem were not ordinary flocks (more on this later), so many think December is still in play. The bottom line? We’ll never know for sure, but don’t be too quick to write off December as a possibility. After all, December 25thhas been the frontrunner for eighteen centuries! ((Wallace))

 

tree-bulletWhen he was born, and in his early days, was he a perfect baby?

babyjesus[1]The miracle was Jesus’ supernatural conception. There is no reason to think that Mary had a pain-free delivery or that Jesus was an otherwise extraordinary baby. He was the Son of God, third person of the Trinity, incarnated among men as one of them, but it is doubtful that when from sleep Jesus wakes that “no crying he makes”. That’s a nice song, but it’s not scripture. And actually, this can be a danger.

There is a form of Gnosticism called Docetism. In essence, Docetism says that Jesus only appeared to be human but he really wasn’t. If we over-spiritualize Jesus’ divinity and ignore his humanity, we are flirting with Docetism. Jesus was fully God to be sure, but he was also fully human – with everything that entails, yet without sin.

 

tree-bulletWhat’s with the swaddling?

swaddled[1]Swaddling is not the practice of making a baby warm and cozy. It’s more about discipline and protection. Swaddling in Jesus’ time referred to the use of thin strips of cloth wrapped tightly around a baby to restrict its movements. (Note: The text doesn’t say “swaddling clothes”, it says “swaddling cloths”.) Swaddling was thought to prevent deformity, and in more recent times to protect them from SIDS. (For another instance, see Ezekiel 16:4 where God says metaphorically that Jerusalem was not swaddled when it was young.) So, little baby Jesus wasn’t frolicking naked but for a diaper – he was wrapped tight like a little mummy and placed in a corncrib. ((Luke 2:12)) This is not your normal sight, so it’s understandable why this would serve as a sign for simple shepherds!

 

tree-bulletHow do the angels fit in?

angel[1]Copan adds some detail that we are likely to miss: these were not angels like you have in your nativity.They are also not like the angels described in our carols. Lyrics describing “peaceful wings unfurled” evoke images, but not terribly accurate ones. The Bible does describe beings such as Seraphim and Cherubim which do have wings, but when it uses the word angel, this is not the case.

Angels always appear in the form of a man. They are sometimes accompanied by an overwhelming light, as they did to the shepherds, but they appear to be men. In fact, they are often referred to alternately as men, or men from God. Examples include the representatives sent by God to Abraham and Lot ((Genesis 18-19)), the “man of God” who appeared to Samson’s mother ((Judges 13:3-6)), the four men in the fiery furnace ((Daniel 3:24-28)), the man/men/angels at the tomb ((Matthew 28:1-5; John 20:12; Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4)), and the man/angel who appears to Cornelius ((Acts 10)). And how could we entertain angels unaware if they had wings? ((Hebrews 13:2)) I would think that would be something that would make us aware!

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What about the “heavenly host” that appeared singing in the sky?

Answer: This didn’t happen.

What?!?!

Well, maybe it did, but it isn’t recorded in the Bible. Check it out for yourself. Luke 2:13 says that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared. “Heavenly host” refers to the army of the Lord – in other words, “all the angels”. A multitude means a lot. So, we can surmise that a LOT of angels joined the first one. Probably not all the angels, but a whole bunch of them. And when they appeared, it doesn’t say they were anywhere but on the ground. And given the other accounts of angels in the Bible, these ones probably were on the ground with the shepherds. Once there, they began to praise the Lord “by saying”, not by singing. Not that we need to draw any special meaning from this. It’s just a reminder to read carefully to make sure we are seeing what is really written.

So, in appearances like those to Mary and the shepherds, the angels would have looked like men. Sometimes they make it plain that they are more than men, but that is through their manor or their heavenly glory – not their wings.

 

tree-bulletWho were the wise men?

magi[1]The “wise men” or magi are people from the east. They are most certainly not Jews. They are spoken of in Matthew 2, but it’s a brief account. There were almost certainly not three – or at least not only three. The number of Magi is not to be found in Matthew, but there are theories as to where the tradition arose.

The simplest theory would be that three gifts implied three people. That’s understandable, but Matthew doesn’t say there were only three gifts, nor does he say whether one person bore three gifts or 100 people all brought some combination of those three.

It has been speculated that the three Magi are an allusion to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego since they hailed from the same general region and may have received training passed down from Daniel.

Some have suggested that three wise men were chosen as an attempt to make a bigger point. Suggestions include a parallel to Noah’s sons, which would explain why many nativity sets have an African, a European, and an Asian. Others propose that this arose as a reference to the Trinity. (Three in number; same but different.) This makes sense with the debates over the subject in the 4thcentury and the artwork of that time.

Another point we ought not miss is that they are referred to as either Magi or wise men – never kings – so mark that up as another unhelpful song lyric.

Dan Wallace says this about the wise men: “There could have been 3 or 300 as far as we know! But one thing we do know for sure: they were not royalty. The ancient magi were religious and political advisors to eastern kings–but there wasn’t a drop of blue blood among them.”

What about the gifts? Were there three gifts? Copan suggests there were probably other gifts, but these were mentioned because they are specifically prophesied in the Old Testament as the gifts that Gentiles would bring the new king. Also along those lines, Copan makes another interesting note: “The magi’s coming signals the coming in of the Gentiles because the day of the Messiah has dawned. The end times have arrived.”

The Gospels portray a Jesus who is reaching out to the Gentiles. He is telling the Jewish people to give up their nationalistic and social agenda and follow His agenda. ((N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,1999], 27)) And this message of the outreach to and inclusion of Gentiles starts at the earliest days of his incarnation. What an incredible message!

 

tree-bulletDid a star lead the Magi?

bstar[1]No. And yes.

But it says “star”! Don’t you take the Bible literally?!

Yes, and no.

We’ve covered before that “literal” doesn’t literally mean literal. Is a bow a weapon or a decoratively tied ribbon? Or maybe an implement used to play a violin?

To the way of thinking in those days, a star was a bright shining object in the sky. In recent times, people have suggested this could have been a supernatural phenomenon, an actual star (like our sun), or some other astronomical anomaly. All of these would have been consistent with the sense of the word “star”.

If you’re interested in the topic, there is no shortage of theories. I encourage you to look them up and judge for yourself.

 

tree-bulletWhat is the significance of God revealing Jesus to shepherds?

Shepherd-in-Israel[1]

Witherington suggests there is plausibility to there being shepherds present in the fields near Bethlehem. This was one of the areas where sheep were raised to be sacrificed in the nearby Temple. He says, “Due to their profession, shepherds were viewed as unclean peasants by some early Jews, but Luke sees them as exemplars of the marginalized, for whom the birth of a savior would be seen as good news indeed (see Luke 1:52, 4:18).”

Remember, ‘unclean’ here does not just mean that they were dirty from field work; it means that they were ceremonially defiled. They had touched animal carcasses, excrement, and blood.  Before they could even offer sacrifice on their own behalf they would require days of purification. Yet these men who were the most unclean of all were the first to kneel in worship of Jesus. This was a foreshadowing of things to come. Jesus did not come for well, but for the sick – not for the righteous but for sinners. ((Matthew 9:12-13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31-32)) From the very beginning, God extended reconciliation to those who needed him most – not to those who had it all together.

Luke tells us that an angel appeared to “some shepherds staying out in the fields [who were] keeping watch over their flock by night” ((Luke 2:8))

Dan Wallace elaborates on this a bit:

Some scholars feel that the sheep were usually brought under cover from November to March; as well, they were not normally in the field at night. But there is no hard evidence for this. In fact, early Jewish sources suggest that the sheep around Bethlehem were outside year-round. So you can see, December 25th fits both tradition and the biblical narrative well. There is no sound objection to it.

Now admittedly, the sheep around Bethlehem were the exception, not the rule. But these were no ordinary sheep. They were sacrificial lambs. In the early spring they would be slaughtered at the Passover.

And God first revealed the Messiah’s birth to these shepherds–shepherds who protected harmless lambs which would soon die on behalf of sinful men. Whey they saw the baby, could they have known? Might they have whispered in their hearts what John the Baptist later thundered, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

 

Some Parting Thoughts from our Sources

 

Craig Keener:

Pagans spoke of the “good news” of the emperor’s birthday, celebrated throughout the empire; they hailed the emperor as “Savior” and “Lord.” They used choirs in imperial temples to worship the emperor. They praised the current emperor, Augustus, for having inaugurated a worldwide “peace.” But the lowly manger distinguishes the true king from the Roman emperor; Jesus is the true Savior, Lord, bringer of universal peace. God is not impressed with human power or honor; he came as the lowliest of all among the lowliest of all, revealing God’s special heart toward those who most depend on him for their help.

Kenneth Bailey:

The shepherds were welcome at the manger. The unclean were judged to be clean. The outcasts became honored guests. The song of angels was sung to the simplest of all.

Doesn’t this sound like the adult Jesus we read of? This more accurate understanding of Jesus’ earliest days does not cheapen the story, it enriches it.

 

Paul Copan:

Keep on reading and examining the Scriptures (cp. the Bereans in Acts 17). Let us make sure that we don’t let tradition prevent us from gaining fresh insights from Scripture or from adjusting our theology when this is called for.

 

Daniel Wallace:

We can blame the ancient church for a large part of our uncertainty. You see, they did not celebrate Christ’s birth. At all. To them, it was insignificant. They were far more concerned with his death . . . and resurrection.

But modern man has turned that around. A baby lying in a manger is harmless, non-threatening. But a man dying on a cross–a man who claims to be God–that man is a threat! He demands our allegiance! We cannot ignore him. We must either accept him or reject him. He leaves us no middle ground.

This Christmas season, take a close look at a nativity scene once again. Remove your rose-colored glasses–smell the foul air, see the cold, shivering animals. They represent the Old Testament sacrificial system. They are emblems of death. But they are mere shadows of the Babe in their midst. He was born to die . . . that all who believe in him might live.

 

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Closing

So – while we don’t know a lot of the details, we know more than enough.

We know that 2000 years ago, God became one of us. He chose to entrust himself to commoners – a king among peasants. His parents-to-be were of royal lineage, but lived simple lives as people in occupied lands. When they left Nazareth to comply with legal edict, they accepted the hospitality of their kin. Jesus was welcomed warmly into this world in a modest home surrounded by family. There was no unusual pageantry or persecution, just a normal child born to a normal family, yet He was God with us.

To an undistinguished family he was born, and when he grew the undistinguished would hang on his every word. From his first day to his last, He lived as one of us. We ought not to see him as only seeming to be human, because he really was human – He could relate to us in every way. We also ought not to see his entry to earth as more pitiful than it was – as if the heavenly condescension of God to man is not low enough to stoop.

To the lowest class God gave a very unique message. Your Savior is born today. The one who will deliver you from your sins lies tonight in the home of a commoner like you. You who guard the sheep so that they may be purchased and killed to provide temporary forgiveness are the first to hear that the Lamb of God has come, and He will be purchased and killed to provide permanent forgiveness. When you see him you will see a normal baby. We will fuss and cry. He is just like you. Yet he is not. The miracle lies in where He came from and where He will go. Many will follow him, and that starts tonight.

In addition to these uneducated animal herdsmen of the children of Israel, God sent a different sort of message. He sent a message to the wise men of the east – Gentiles who advised kings. They took the scriptures seriously and saw Christ’s coming for what it was. And they made the connection with the other prophecies about the Messiah’s heritage and fate and brought fitting gifts that seemed odd for a child. Even in Jesus’ earliest days, his final days were plain to those with eyes to see.

The next time you see a nativity or hear a carol, reflect on what it depicts, but also on that which it does not. Consider the fact that God came to earth with a mission and a message that were evident from His very first day. His offer was extended to all, but from the very beginning He made it clear that He made a special appeal to Gentiles and the ceremonially unclean. The baby Jesus was God with us – the Lamb of God who would restore relationship with God to those who were entirely without hope. The message of Christmas and the message of the cross are one and the same. This babe in the manger is the Savior of mankind. ((Luke 2:11)) Those who are weary and burdened may come to Him and be given rest. ((Matthew 11:28))

 

nativity2[1]

Sources:

  • “The Nativity According to Luke”, Ben Witherington III
  • “The Birth of Jesus Christ”, Daniel B. Wallace
  • “The Defender’s Study Bible”, Dr. Henry M. Morris
  • “The Genealogies in Matthew and Luke”, Jim Loucks
  • “The First Christmas: Myths and Realities”, Paul Copan
  • “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, Bailey”, Kenneth Bailey
  • “Away in a Manger, but NOT in a Barn”, Gary A. Byers
  • “Biblical Interpretation – A Course In Hermeneutics”, Craig S. Keener

 

 




So, would you ever leave your faith?


“So, would you ever leave your faith?” That’s what I was asked. It had come out that I didn’t think evolution was plausible, and that I thought God better explained the facts.

My friend asked me, “So, what if evolution were proven? Would you leave?”

“Leave what”, I asked. “Christianity, or belief in God?”

“Well, they both go together, don’t they?”

I told my friend that there were two things that were foundational to my worldview. I’ve considered the alternatives and I’m convinced that God exists, and that Jesus rose from the dead. I’ve already covered the reasons I’m convinced Jesus actually existed, that he believed himself to be God, and that he rose again to vindicate that claim. The one under question tonight was God’s existence.

Rather than outlining the moral argument, the cosmological argument, or other apologetic standards, I decided to take a big picture approach. I explained that the existence of a God seemed to fit best with reality. There are many big questions in life, and God’s existence seems to address them all. Something that happened to my car might help explain my angle.

carLast summer I noticed that my car’s A/C wasn’t working. The car was difficult to steer too. Since these seemed unrelated, I wondered what on earth was going wrong. I turned down the radio and heard some horrible clunking noises. At this point, I noticed that my engine gauge read incredibly hot, so I pulled over to shut it down before anything worse happened. (Side note: I’m definitely not a car guy, so looking at the engine is something I do because I know you’re supposed to – not because I’ll be able to fix anything.)

When I opened the hood I saw oil sprayed everywhere and what remained of a belt.  Even though I was out of my depth at this point, I had an idea what all the big parts did. It seemed to me that there were a couple of options, broadly speaking. Either there was one thing that caused all this destruction, or I had just witnessed a remarkable automotive catastrophe. Either a bunch of individual components simultaneously self-destructed like some horrible mechanical symphony, or one thing started a chain of events. One initial problem seemed most plausible, but the symptoms were so unrelated that it seemed like a stretch.

After reflecting on the symptoms, a scenario began to emerge. I knew a lot of expensive things had been connected to the belt that was now in shambles. That could explain how the problem spread. Since there was an oily mess that seemed to emanate from the steering pump, that reminded me of my difficulty steering. What if that started it all? If that seized, it would probably cause the belt to slow down. If the belt slowed down, it would make sense that my A/C would suffer. Since belts don’t do well with seized parts, it probably snapped pretty quickly. That would completely shut down A/C and steering and anything else connected to the belt. If the water pump stopped working, that would explain the skyrocketing engine temperature.

It looked like the steering pump was the single cause of everything else. Was that explanation certain? No, but it did seem most plausible. If not that, it seems I would have to track down what could explain a spontaneously dying A/C unit, difficult steering, an overheating engine, and several other symptoms. It seemed more plausible to me that there was one cause rather than many. Why look for a half-dozen explanations when would would do. And when diagnosing it, the mechanic should probably start by looking at simple causes rather than outrageously rare ones.

When I say I believe in God, I’m doing the same sort of thing. I believe in God because a number of questions about reality are answered solely by his existence.

  • How did something come from nothing?
  • Where did life come from?
  • Where did consciousness come from?
  • Where did morality come from?
  • What about things like justice, love, and hope?

On the Christian worldview, all these questions and more can be answered in a single response: God. I’m aware that nonbelievers have answers to some of these questions, but they are not terribly persuasive to me. Besides that, they require me to accept a separate explanation for each one. I could accept undirected macro-evolution, inexplicable forces of nature that happen to work nicely together, a herd morality that developed on its own, and all the other naturalistic explanations. Or I could observe that an all-powerful being could easily create all those things, and he could design them to function properly together. The naturalistic worldview requires I take on a number of new, and unusual beliefs. The theistic worldview only requires I accept one. I realize many people think that belief in an eternal, supernatural being is a big step – and maybe it is. But I’d rather take on one foreign belief than ten. And even so, this says nothing of the questions I’d have to be content leaving unanswered as a naturalist. Where did matter, space, life, consciousness, and all the rest come from? For these, there are no naturalistic answers. Nature can’t explain where nature came from. Things cannot cause themselves – we have to look to other things for explanations. To explain nature we have to look beyond nature. Something you might call “super-nature”. And that sounds to me like God. An omnipotent being that exists prior to space, matter, and time could create them all. A big bang needs a big-banger. The source of all life could create more life. A conscious creator would explain our consciousness. A maximally great being could do maximally great things. One explanation. One cause. Taking on this one belief that God exists explains everything we see. I’ll concede that alone doesn’t mean it’s true. But it does mean it is the simplest explanation, and to my thinking the most plausible.

So, to return to the question I was posed, the proving of evolution would not cause me to turn from Christianity. (I think proof of such a thing is a very tall order, though I accepted it for the sake of argument.) Evolution itself says nothing about Jesus’ resurrection or God’s existence. As I hope I’ve explained above, I am convinced that God exists. Until a better explanation can be given for reality, things like evolution seem minor and insignificant.

In the rest of life, we typically exhaust simple answers before turning to the extravagant. Why not in metaphysical questions as well? Smart people have examined the evidence and come to different conclusions. I realize that. But if you haven’t pondered the issue, you would do well to consider it. Given the shape of reality, what is the most plausible explanation – one cause or an infinite number of causes?




What is God Like? (pt 4)


This is part 4 in my current Sunday School class called “What is God Like?” (If you’d like to learn more about the series, check this post.)

This week we looked briefly at God’s infinity, then began our journey exploring God’s relationship to time.

  • “What is God Like? – Exploring the Attributes of God, Part 4″
    Links:   audio  …  handout

And as always, if you end up following along with us, let me know . If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it!




What is God Like? (pt 3)


This is part 3 in my current Sunday School class called “What is God Like?” (If you’d like to learn more about the series, check this post.)

This week we finished introducing some terms and concepts and began looking at our first attribute: aseity. Aseity simply means that God is self-existent and independent. God exists simply by virtue of his own nature.

  • “What is God Like? – Exploring the Attributes of God, Part 3″
    Links:   audio  …  handout

And as always, if you end up following along with us, let me know . If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it!




Series: What is God Like?


This is a summary page for my Sunday School class called “What is God Like?

Here is the description I proposed:

Christianity isn’t only concerned with knowing God, but also with knowing about God. Unfortunately, when it comes to this topic, many of us have a theology that isn’t much more sophisticated than what we learned from songs we sang as kids. Studying the Doctrine of God helps us understand questions like:

“Who is God?”
“What is He like?” 
“What does it mean to be omniscient or all-powerful?”

You may be surprised to learn that our understanding of the Doctrine of God has far-reaching ramifications in our understanding of Christianity and our daily lives. In this class, we will particularly focus on God’s attributes.

(Although this is a potentially deep topic, the class will be accessible for high-schoolers and up.)

At the encouragement of several friends who are unable to attend the class every week, I have been recording and posting each class, along with class notes. (See each post listed below.) Eventually I will post my teaching outline as well, since I have heard there are those who may be interested in using these tools for their own study and/or teaching.

If you end up following along with us, let me know . If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it!

Here are the links:

[catlist name=”attributes-of-god” orderby=title order=asc]

UPDATE: I am currently experimenting with switching to a podcast setup. To continue following this class, subscribe to our podcast here.