Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: magi

The return of the light

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The Israelites had light when the Egyptians were in darkness. The light went with them to show the way when the waters stood aside to let them cross the Red Sea. The light stayed with them for forty years through the wilderness, then led them through the Jordan into the promised land, while the waters once again stood aside to let then pass.

The light stood over their place of worship for generations until the Israelites forgot what a wondrous thing it was. Then Nebuchadnezzar came with his army, destroyed the temple, and the light disappeared.

In Babylon, once more in captivity, they remembered the promise given to Isaiah that the light would one day return:

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. (Isaiah 60:1-3)

They returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt the temple, the light did not return. They waited another 400 years.

The Magi in Babylon and Persia counted the weeks foretold by Daniel. They remembered the words spoken long before by an errant prophet and they too watched for the light:

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city. (Numbers 24:17-19)

Finally the fulness of the times was complete. The glory of God appeared once more, not to the important people in Jerusalem but to shepherds on a hill outside of Bethlehem. That night, all the promises made to all the prophets began to be fulfilled:

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:10-14)

It must have been that same night that the light appeared to the Magi, far away in the East. When they arrived in Jerusalem months later, no one knew of the baby they were looking for, but someone suggested they go to Bethlehem. As they left Jerusalem, the light appeared once more and led them directly to the house where they found the child.

Many years later that baby, now grown into manhood, told his closest friends:

I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. (John 8:12)

Jesus no longer walks this earth. On the day of Pentecost he gave the light to His followers. He wants us to share the light, not to huddle around it in some remote corner.

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

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As we celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, may we hold out the light of God’s truth and God’s love so others may see.

 

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

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.

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.

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Maybe No

The date and most of the customs associated with Christmas originated with the Roman Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival celebrating the rebirth of the Sun.  Schools were closed, great feasts were prepared, gifts were exchanged, all in honour of a heathen god.  Early Christians considered this an abomination, but somehow it has crept into the churches.

The fir tree, the holly and the ivy, all evergreens showing evidence of life in the depth of winter, were considered symbols of this reborn god.

Jolly old Santa Claus is a fraud, a false god who promises happiness that he cannot deliver.  Toys and other gifts may bring momentary delight, but no lasting happiness.  We are deceiving our children if we teach them to expect to find happiness in material things.

The star was a sign to the magi, to bring them to Jerusalem to announce the birth of the Messiah.  The star did not lead the magi to Jerusalem, they knew where to find it, there is no mention of th star guiding them until they left Jerusalem.  It was most definitely not God’s purpose to provide another god for us to worship, as some Christmas songs appear to do.  The Bible does not say there were three wise men, the idea that each brought his own gift is not found in the Bible account.  And they most certainly were not kings.

And so it goes for the rest of the Christmas mythology, all the heart-warming tales told to give us a warm fuzzy feeling about mingling heathen practices with a remembrance of the birth of Messiah.

Maybe Yes

Where I live there are seven and a half hours from sunrise to sunset on December 25.  I see no harm in a winter solstice festival to lighten this period a little, as long as we do not associate it with its pagan ancestry.  It is not wrong to exchange gifts, send letters and cards to family and friends, to hold family gatherings.

My Puritan ancestors shunned Christmas altogether, considering it purely pagan.  I think we can enjoy this season as long as we take care not to claim that we do this because God gave us Jesus.  There is not a shred of encouragement in the Bible for that notion.

At the same time, there is a stir in the air at this time of the year.  Our society still has a remembrance of the angels’ message of “peace on earth, good will to men.”  All hearts long to experience this, and they find precious little of it in the Christmas celebrations.

This provides a window of opportunity for us as Christians to testify in word and song that “peace on earth, good will to men” is something more than a story told to entertain children.  May we examine ourselves to see if we are truly living in the reality of this promise before we proclaim it to others.

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