Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Bethlehem

Introduction to the Old Testament, continued

The following twelve are often referred to as the Minor Prophets. Though their messages are shorter, there is nothing insignificant about them.

Hoseah was a prophet in Israel, contemporary with Isaiah. His 40 year ministry was a last call to Israel to return to the Lord before judgment fell upon them, much as Jeremiah’s ministry to Judah 140 years later. Hoseah’s wife became a prostitute and he redeemed her from those who had enslaved her. He uses this a parallel to Israel’s spiritual prostitution and how God wanted to redeem them. He refers to Israel as Ephraim 37 times: “I have seen an horrible thing in the house of Israel: there is the whoredom of Ephraim, Israel is defiled” (chapter 6:10).

Joel – the time of his prophecy would most likely be in the early years of King Joash. Wiked Queen Athalia had been slain and Joash was guided by the faithful priest Jehoiada. Joel’s prophecy is first a call to repentance and restoration, followed by a prophecy of the coming Day of the Lord.

Amos did not claim to be a prophet, rather a farmer from Judah whom God sent to Israel with a one-time message. He dates his message as being durin the reign of Uzziah in Judah and Jeroboam II in Israel, and two years before the earthquake. Did he perhaps predict the earthquake? Chapter 9 verse 5 could give that impression. His message to Israel was of the impending judgment of God.

Obadiah was a contemporary of Elijah and Elisha in Israel, during the time of Jehoram, one of the wicked kings of Judah. Elijah wrote a warning letter to Jehoram around this time. Obadiah appears to have written after Jerusalem had been pillaged by Edom, and announces the final destruction of Edom.

Jonah was from Israel, which was oppressed by Assyria, thus he had no desire to see Assyria spared. The book was probably written by Jonah himself, though he does not depict himself in a favourable light. God’s mercy to Nineveh is a message that He has compassion on all mankind.

Micah – a contemporary of Isaiah. Micah warns of the coming wrath of God on those who were outwardly religious, but do not live justly. He names Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah will be born.

Nahum may have been born in Israel and fled to Jerusalem when Assyria overthrew the northern kingdom and led the people into captivity. This would place his prophecy in the latter part of the reign of Hezekiah when Judah was threatened by Assyria. He foretold the end of the Assyrian empire and the destruction of Nineveh. The repentance that was occasioned by Jonah’s prophecy evidently did not carry on to succeeding generations.

Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah. God was about to use Babylon to judge Judah and Jerusalem for their idolatry. “The just shall live by his faith” chapter 2 verse 4.

Zephaniah was the great-great grandson of Hezekiah and prophesied during the reign of King Josiah who would have been a distant cousin, He calls the nation to abandon idolatry and return to the Lord. He warns of coming judgment, but promises “ I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the LORD” chapter 3 verse 12.

Haggai – Prophesied after the return from the Babyloniam captivity and urged the rebuilding of the temple. Tradition says he was born in Babylon and studied under Ezekiel.

Zehariah – a priest who was a contemporary of Haggai, with a similar message, urging the rebuilding of the temple a restoration of holiness. Many messianic prophecies in the latter part:“for, behold, I will bring forth my servant the BRANCH” (ch 3, v 8); “behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (ch. 9, v. 9); “and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced” (ch. 12, v. 10); etc.

Malachi – the final prophet before 400 years of silence. One last call to faithfulness and a prophecy of the coming Messiah, who would be preceded by “Elijah.”

The Politically Incorrect Messiah

The sceptre had truly departed from Judah. There was once more a king in Jerusalem who ruled over Judah, but he was not of the lineage of David, nor of Judah, not even of Jacob. Herod was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau. Surely the time was ripe for the coming of Messiah.

When Messiah came he would throw off the ignominy of this foreign king and all he stood for. For Herod had been appointed by Caesar and was really just a puppet of Rome. The shame of it all was fertile breeding ground for the Zealots, whose support seemed to increase daily. The Zealots considered it a sin to in any way acknowledge the rule of the uncircumcised, heathen Romans. Messiah would soon come and sweep away all the shame of Israel. He would establish his throne in Jerusalem and his reign would spread far and wide, as far as Rome. The Zealots were preparing to be Messiah’s conquering army.

Then Jesus was born, of the lineage of David, in the city of David, yet in the most obscure and humble circumstances possible. The Bible says “there was no room for them in the inn.” “Inn” in this verse simply means a guest chamber. Joseph and Mary will have travelled slowly, because of Mary’s condition. It is quite likely that when they arrived at their relatives the house was already full with other family who had come to Bethlehem to be properly counted on the tax rolls. There was no privacy to be found in such a crowded home for the birth of a baby. So Joseph and Mary were led to the stable, either adjoined to the house or in a cave adjacent to the house. Most likely the midwife was called and other women of the house would have helped. Nevertheless, baby Jesus’ first bed was a manger.

The visit of the shepherds, recounting their angelic visitation, should have erased any shame attached to the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The visit of the magi will have further established his credentials as the promised Messiah. Yet all of this happened in an out of the way place, far from Jerusalem which was supposed to be the real seat of power.

When Jesus embarked on His ministry some thirty years later, disgust with Roman rule had increased, and with it the influence of the Zealots. Many people were ready to consider Jesus’ claim to be Messiah, if only He would come out and proclaim that He had come to set things right in Israel. That is just what He did, but in a way that was completely contrary to the peoples expectations.

When Jesus first taught about the nature of the kingdom of God, He spoke of the blessedness of being meek and merciful, of being peacemakers and of suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake. He told them they should rejoice if they were mocked and reviled because they believed in Him. He told them that the kingdom of God was for the pure in heart and for those who loved their enemies. In short, He told them that the Zealots completely misunderstood the nature of the kingdom of God.

Nearly two thousand years have passed and Jesus’ kingdom still stands. It is not a political kingdom where submission to Christ is enforced by a sword of steel, but a spiritual kingdom where the love of God rules in the hearts of born again people who submit to Christ of their own free will. How could a literal earthly reign of Christ, enforced by might and brawn, be any better than this? The true nature of the kingdom is fully described in the Sermon on the Mount.

We need better Christmas stories

No, I don’t mean we should try to improve upon the stories in the Bible.  They are wonderful as they are, and true.  The problem I have is with the Christmas stories for children, and adults, that take some elements of the Bible stories, add lots of imagination and wind up sounding like fairy tales.

Take the story of the star leading the Wise Men from the East to Jerusalem.  To believe that, one would have to believe that these Wise Men were not very wise at all and could never have figured out on their own in what country and what city the King of the Jews would most likely be found.  In addition, if we believe that the star was directed by God, we would have to believe that God had temporarily forgotten where He had left the child.

The Bible informs us that the Wise Men saw the star in the East, in their home country, and travelled to Jerusalem to find the newborn King of the Jews.  That much they could figure out all by themselves.  It was when they realized that the baby was not in Jerusalem that they needed help.  And now the star appeared again and led them directly to the house in Bethlehem where they found Jesus.  This is the information the Bible gives us, and we are free to imagine their feelings and add descriptive details to the story.  But saying the star led the Wise Men to Jerusalem gives the impression that God didn’t know any more than they did.  Let’s not tell it that way.

Then there is the story of the wicked, hardhearted innkeeper.  The Bible doesn’t mention him at all.  In fact, the word that is translated as “inn” in the story of the nativity is translated as “guest chamber” in the account of the Last Supper.  In all probability the “inn” in the nativity story was a guest room built on top of a private home.  The stable wasn’t far away either, it would have been under the same roof, either alongside of the living quarters or directly below them.  When the Russian Mennonites came to Canada in the 1870’s they built their homes in much the same way as was done long ago in Palestine.   They built long houses with living quarters at one end and used the other half for their barn.  Thus, they didn’t have to go outside in the bitterly cold winters to milk the cow.  These barns were kept meticulously clean and very little odour was detectable in the living quarters.

Another aspect of the “Joseph and Mary alone in the stable” story is that we are left to assume that only Joseph was present to help Mary when the baby was born.  I don’t think that was very likely.  If the setting was actually a private home, with the guest chamber already occupied, there would have been at least two other ladies to offer their help and it wouldn’t be at all unreasonable to think that a midwife would have been called as well.  Joseph and Mary would seem to have been deemed as being less important persons than those in the guest chamber, but let’s not assume that they were complete social outcasts.

Some stories tell of Joseph and Mary (riding a donkey), coming over a hill and seeing Bethlehem in the valley below.  It takes a little searching of Bible reference books to discover the actual setting of Bethlehem.  The town is located on a rocky plateau and is in fact uphill from every direction.  The donkey is not mentioned in the Bible, but it is a very reasonable assumption that Mary would not have walked all the way from Nazareth in her condition.

Anyway, my aim is not to criticize the children’s Christmas concerts and the stories that they recite.  These are the kind of stories that are available, and have been around seemingly forever.  Nevertheless, the impressions left by these stories go with us throughout life if we don’t ever take a close look at their implications and what the Bible really says.

I just think it is time someone tried to write better Christmas stories.

The star, the king and the foreigners

While the children of Israel were trekking through the desert after leaving Egypt, the king of Moab called on Balaam to curse them.  Balaam found himself unable to curse them, rather pronouncing many blessings for them.  The most notable was the prophecy recorded in Numbers 24:15-19, where Balaam says “there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel” and “out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion.”

Many years later, when the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dramatic dream, but when he awoke he could only remember that he had dreamed something that must be meaningful, but had no memory of what the dream was about.  He called the wise men, the magi, and demanded that they tell him the dream and its interpretation.  They replied that such a request was unheard of and impossible.  Whereupon King Nebuchadnezzar decreed that they should all be put to death.

Now Daniel was numbered among the wise men of Babylon and was included in the king’s sentence.  He went to the king and asked for time and promised that he would show the king the dream and its interpretation.  Daniel asked his three friends to help him pray that God would reveal this to him and their prayer was answered in a vision of the night.

Daniel returned to the king in the morning and revealed the dream of the statue and that it signified four empires that would rise upon the earth.  In the time of the fourth empire, God would establish an everlasting kingdom.  This brought Daniel into great favour with the king, and with the other wise men whose lives were spared.

Later, God revealed to Daniel when this everlasting kingdom would begin.  “Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks and threescore and two weeks” (Daniel 9:25).  The weeks spoken of here are weeks of years or 7 times 69 years, which is 483 years.

The wise men of Babylon kept alive the remembrance of the prophecy of Balaam and the prophecies of Daniel.  They understood that the promise of the Messiah, the King of the Jews, was not only for the Jewish people, but was the promise of salvation for all the world.  They counted off the years until the time drew near that Messiah should be born.  Then they saw a star that they had never seen in the sky before and knew that the time had come.

This brings us to the account in Matthew chapter two:

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, 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.”  (Verses 1 & 2)

Where else would one go to look for the newborn King of the Jews but to Jerusalem, to the palace of the king?  But the king at that time was not of the lineage of David, he was not a Jew at all but an Edomite, a descendant of Esau, and knew nothing of the birth of another king.  But he played along with the wise men for his own evil purposes and called for the priests and scribes who informed him that Messiah should be born in Bethlehem.  So Herod sent the wise men off to Bethlehem with instructions to bring him back word of the newborn king.

The wise men set out for Bethlehem, ten kilometres from Jerusalem, no doubt wondering how on earth they would find the seemingly unknown and obscure King of the Jews in this town.  As they left Jerusalem, the star that they had seen in their home country again appeared to them, and seemed to have a special message for them.  It moved before them, leading them to Bethlehem, down the streets of Bethlehem and finally stopped directly above one house.  Now there could be no doubt in their minds that they had found the Messiah.  They entered the house, saw the young child, fell down and worshipped him and offered their gifts.

We know the rest of the story, how the wise men took another way home to avoid Herod, how Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with Jesus before Herod could vent his fury by killing all the children of Bethlehem and its surrounding area from two years old and under.

However, the real wonder in this account is that God chose these foreigners to announce the birth of His Son to the king and priests and scribes in Jerusalem.  He showed a special favour to these foreigners in leading them directly to the house where Jesus was living.  He chose these foreigners to provide the means, through their gifts, for Joseph to take his small family out of harm’s way when Herod sought to take the young child’s life.

Thus, from the very beginning of Jesus’ life, the Bible reveals that He had not come for one specific group of people, but for all mankind, for all those who would recognize in Him their Lord and Saviour.

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