Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: birth of Jesus

A Mother’s Teaching from 1897

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Ma was telling us that there are always men rising up and declaring that Jesus could not be the Son of God, but was just a wonderful teacher. But she says not to let that bother us, for none of those men who undertake to explain all the works of God, have been able to explain very much after all. All the wisdom of all the men of all the ages has never been able to explain what life is, or the Power that with no effort at all can make the same kind of green grass turn into wool on a sheep, or hair on a cow, or feathers on a goose.

She says that Christ coming the way He did is really no greater miracle than the miracle of any life that comes to the earth, and is just as easily explained.

Only being we see so many forms of life around us, we have to believe in that whether we want to or not. A man who plants grain in the ground has to believe that some Power is going to make it grow. Otherwise he would do no planting, and so would starve. Everybody sees what happens there and so believes, but nobody yet has been able to explain how it happens. So they just go ahead and plant their grain and stop bothering their heads about what can’t be explained.

But in believing in Christ, God has kept for us the gift of faith, and has made it so-that people of earth can accept Him by faith, or reject Him by unbelief. He has not made it so we must accept His greatest gift if we do not want to do so. In the miracle of Love we are not forced to believe, as we are in the other miracles that God has wrought, and that no man-wisdom has ever yet been able to explain.

Ma says this one most rare and precious gift, is far too dear to the Heart of God to be forced on any man’s unbelief.

It must first become to us our hearts’ desire, and only then may we stretch our hands and take it.

-Christina Young, When I Was Thirteen

Christmas

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.

The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.

Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home.

We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost—how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

The earth is wild as an old wive’s tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;

But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.

To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

G. K. Chesterton

Where was the manger?

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Image by Hucklebarry from Pixabay

There are many supposed and real hints in the Bible of just how things will play out when our Lord returns. For centuries eminent scholars have scrutinized these hints and endeavoured to put together a coherent time line of that event. They have written many stories based on those searches; they all sound wonderful, but they don’t agree.

Maybe we shouldn’t worry. God has it all in hand; someday we’ll see and it will surprise us. There were just as many conflicting prophecies about the coming of the Messiah: he would be of the lineage of David, born in Bethlehem; Rachel would weep for her children, because they were not; he would come from Egypt; he would be a Nazarite, etc. It seemed impossible that it could all be true. Then, events occurred in a very short time period that checked every one of those boxes.

Here is the account from the first seven verses of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Let’s ignore the legends, myths, folklore and tomfoolery that have become attached to this account and try to understand what happened.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)   And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Bible Background Commentary states; “pottery samples suggest a recent migration of people from the Bethlehem area to Nazareth around this time.” In retrospect this looks like poor planning on Joseph’s part, because he was now in the wrong place for the baby to be born. But perhaps he would never have met Mary if he had remained in Bethlehem. No matter, a decree from the Roman Emperor got them back where they needed to be, and just in time, too.

Now, if Joseph had to return to Bethlehem to be taxed, that must mean that he owned something there that was taxable, perhaps just a small plot of land. How did he get his very pregnant wife from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of 150km? Folklore says she rode a donkey. That is possible, but the Bible says nothing on the subject so its best not to be too categoric.

No doubt they came to the home of relatives in Bethlehem who welcomed them into their home. To refuse hospitality to someone would have been a disgrace in their culture.

But what about that famous “no room in the inn?” The word translated “inn ”is kataluma, which means guest chamber and is so translated in the two other places we find it in the New Testament (Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11). Homes in a rural community like Bethlehem were mostly single room affairs, with the family animals occupying the ground level and the family living on the upper level. Sometimes there was a guest room built on the roof. The animals would have been few, and the space kept scrupulously clean, because it was part of the home.

The “no room” part probably means that because of the number of people in the home there was no private place for a mother to bring a baby into the world. What woman would want to have that happen in the middle of a crowded room? So their host made a spot for them in the space below, clean, discreet and away from curious eyes. Surely they called the midwife, and she probably assigned Joseph some tasks to ease his nervousness and keep him at least partly out of the way.

So the baby was born in Bethlehem, according to prophecy. Some time later a group of Magi appeared in Jerusalem looking for the newborn King of the Jews. King Herod took drastic action to eliminate this rival, having all boys under the age of two murdered. And Rachel (all the mothers of Bethlehem) wept. An angel warned Joseph to take his wife and child and flee to Egypt. This was a trip of around 590km and may well have involved a donkey, though once again the Bible is silent. When Herod died, an angel informed Joseph it was safe to return (the Messiah called out of Egypt) and the family settled once again in Nazareth. Nazarite and Nazarene don’t sound as different in Greek as they do in our language and the Bible says this fulfilled the prophecy that Messiah would be called a Nazarite.

It’s a simple story. The wonder is how God used Emperors and Kings to work out His plan. They had no idea the events caused by their decrees fulfilled every detail of prophecies made hundreds of years earlier.

The Glory of God

God’s showed His presence with the children of Israel during the Exodus by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. There were special manifestations of the glory of the Lord, such as when it descended upon Mount Sinai and God’s voice spoke out of the cloud, calling Moses to come up the mountain. Another was when when Moses’ authority was questioned. When the tabernacle was dedicated the pillar of cloud descended upon it remained above the mercy seat in the tabernacle from that point on.

Many years later, when Solomon dedicated the temple the glory of the Lord descended upon it and the cloud filled the temple. The cloud, or Shekinah, a Hebrew term not found in the Bible but used by rabbis to describe the cloud, remained above the temple until it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Ezekiel had visions of the glory of the Lord during the Babylonian captivity.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, five things which had been in Solomon’s Temple, were missing from the second temple built after the return from captivity. They were, the Ark of the Covenant with the mercy seat, the sacred fire sent from God, the Shekinah, the Holy Spirit, and the Urim and Thummim.

Thus there appears to have been a complete lack of any evidence of the presence of God from the time of the rebuilding of the temple until the birth of Jesus. The Old Testament canon was settled during the time of Ezra and for four hundred years there was no prophet.

What then was the value of the worship in the second temple? At least the people had abandoned their former tendencies to worship the idols of the surrounding nations. It seemed though that, especially after the time of Jesus, the temple worship had itself become a form of idolatry. The synagogue worship system that developed during the captivity became a form worship available to all, where the Word of God was read and taught.

It does not appear that the glory of the Lord, the Shekinah, was seen again until the birth of Jesus. The second chapter of Luke tells of the shepherds on the hillside during that night and then verse says: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” No doubt the angels were glorious in appearance, but the phrase “the glory of the Lord” refers to a glory much greater than that of the angels.

Could this also explain the star seen by the Magi? They had the prophecy of Daniel to tell them when the Messiah would appear, and the prophecy of Balaam (Numbers 24:17) to tell them that this would be marked by the appearance of a star. I think we are on the wrong track when we try to explain the star by a comet or a conjunction of planets. This was a sign that was only seen by those who knew to look for it, the Magi. There is no natural explanation for a star, or heavenly sign, that appeared once in the East as a signal to the Magi to begin their journey, then appeared again to lead them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then to one specific house in Bethlehem.

The New Testament era was introduced by the first prophet in 400 years, John the Baptist, and then by the return of the Shekinah glory of God.

The manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost could also be considered an appearance of the shekinah, or the glory of the Lord: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:2-4).

From this time forward the glory of the Lord has been with God’s new covenant people, the church. The glory of God is not demonstrated today by an outward pillar of cloud and fire, but by the life changing power of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance.

© Bob Goodnough, December 14, 2019

Hail the King of glory

 

Gentle Mary laid her child lowly in a manger;
There He lay, the undefiled, to the world a stranger:
Such a babe in such a place, can He be the Saviour?
Ask the saved of all the race who have found His favour.

Angels sang about His birth; wise men sought and found Him;
Heaven’s star shone brightly forth, glory all around Him:
Shepherds saw the wondrous sight, heard the angels singing;
All the plains were lit that night, all the hills were ringing.

Gentle Mary laid her child lowly in a manger;
He is still the undefiled, but no more a stranger:
Son of God, of humble birth, beautiful the story;
Praise His name in all the earth, hail the King of glory!

-Joseph Cook, 1859-1933

Christmas Eve thoughts

I don’t believe that Jesus was born on December 25. I don’t believe any of the cunningly devised fables that have attached themselves to the story of His birth. I don’t appreciate the crass commercialism of this season. I cannot comprehend how giving gifts at Christmas time has any connection with the birth of the Saviour.

Some folks talk about putting Christ back in Christmas. It often sounds like they want to leave Him in the midst of all the pagan borrowings and just give Him a little higher place of honour. I would be glad to be rid of all the pagan borrowings and honour Christ alone.

Nevertheless, if I spend too much time looking on the negative side I will become a Scrooge. I do believe that the birth of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, did take place in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago and that this seemingly inauspicious event changed everything. Therefore, my wife and I will be in church tomorrow morning to sing the old songs and hear some aspect of the Scriptural account read and expounded.

I also believe that families are important in God’s eyes and we will get together with our daughter and son-in-law, and our four grandchildren, for dinner and a good part of the day tomorrow. And yes, we will be bringing gifts for them all. I don’t believe that it dishonours our Lord in any way to give good things to those we love..

The message of the angels was that the birth of the Christ child was glad tidings of great joy, for all people. They spoke of giving glory to God, of peace on earth and good will to men. (I believe the modern versions which speak of “peace to men of good will” have got it wrong. The angels message was of  good will to all men.)

I wish a joyous Christmas to all those who chance to read this.

How silently, how silently

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heav’n.
No ear can hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

(O Little Town of Bethlehem, 3rd verse, written by Phillips Brooks)

I have fond memories of the midnight Christmas services in the little  Anglican church of the Saskatchewan town where I spent my boyhood.  We gathered at 11:30, when all commerce and all other travel had ceased, and in the quietness of the midnight remembered the coming of our Saviour into the world.  There was anticipation in the air, and people who were never seen in church at any other time of the year, except perhaps Easter Sunday morning, would be present for this service.

Jesus was born in the night, when all around was quiet and still.  There was a flurry of activity in the stable as He was born, but no one else was aware of it until some excited shepherds rushed into town telling of a visit from the angels.

It must have also been night when the star guided the Wise Men to the house where Jesus was, probably some months later.  It was in the night that an angel told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee, for Herod would seek to kill the young child.   Was it the same angel who warned the Wise Men in the night not to return to Herod?  Did Joseph confer with the Wise Men before he left that same night?  We can wonder about these things, but they are questions for which the Bible has no answer.  We only know that Joseph took his family that same night and began the long journey into Egypt.   Perhaps in the morning the people of Bethlehem were so intrigued by the presence of the strangers from the east that they did not immediately notice that Joseph and his family were gone.

God still works in the quietness, hidden from public view.  There is a beautiful passage in Job 33:14-18, spoken by Elihu, that describes this:

For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not.  In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed;  then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction,  that he may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man.  He keepeth back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing by the sword.

May we all seek a place of quietness at Christmas time and all through the year where we can hear God’s message for us.  A blessed and joyous Christmas to all who read this!

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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