The last two articles examined the origins of Christmas - not the cultural celebration that many believers and none believers enjoy but the religious holiday. The facts of history challenge many popular beliefs about Christmas, not least of which, that Jesus was probably not born on December 25th and that Christmas was not celebrated as a religious holiday until the 4th century.
Where was Jesus born?
Matthew 2:1 says that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king." But where in Bethlehem? Luke 2:7 tells us that the infant Jesus was "wrapped... in swaddling cloths and laid... in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." Thanks in large part to nativity plays and popular culture, most of us think of a manger as being a rustic basinet, possibly lined with hay. But a manger was a feeding trough made of clay mixed with straw or stone and held together by mud. Sometimes mangers were carved into stone. The word "manger" or "crib" can also denote a stall for an animal by metonymy (Lk. 13:15; cf. Prov. 14:4; Isa. 1:3).
Where was the manger?
The manger could have been right next door to the inn, in a lower-level room outside the inn or a stall for animals attached to the living quarters of a private residence. Jesus could have been born in a stable but we simply can't be sure. In AD 160, Justin Martyr wrote, "Finding no place in the town, Joseph took his portage in a certain cave in the village." Unfortunately, there is no way to verify his words. Jesus may have been born in a cave, but even Justin Martyr was more than 100 years removed from the event.
Jerome, who eventually settled in Bethlehem near this cave in AD 385, recorded that the cave had been “defiled” from the time of Hadrian (AD 135) to the time of Constantine (early 4th century). Hadrian’s men had intentionally desecrated all the places that were sacred to Christians, erecting pagan altars in their place. Later, Constantine made efforts to cleanse these sites. If you visit Bethlehem today, you will see what is known as the "Church of the Nativity," a building constructed in the 4th century over this traditional cave site in Bethlehem.
Although we can be sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem according to prophecy and laid in a manger, we can't be sure exactly where the manger in Bethlehem was. As mentioned in the previous articles, we must focus on what details Luke and Matthew include and not the ones they leave out.
Luke's account of Jesus' birth
There are only two biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth but, for whatever reason, we have a hard time getting them straight. Here is a basic chronology of the events:
- The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Lk. 2:1-7; cf. Mt. 1:18-25).
- Angels visit shepherds with the good news (Lk. 2:8-14).
- Shepherds visit the infant Christ in Bethlehem (Lk. 2:15-20).
- After a period of eight days, the infant Christ was circumsized (Lk. 2:21; cf. Lev. 12:1-8).
- After a period of 33 days, the infant Christ was presented to God at the Temple in Jerusalem (Lk. 2:22-38; cf. Lev. 12:1-8).
Notice how the traditional nativity scene deviates from Scripture. We are used to seeing a stable and above it a shining star. On one side, shepherds are bowed in adoration, while on the other side, three wise men offer their gifts to the infant Christ. Mary and Jesus sometimes have halos above their heads. And finally, angels are above the whole scene singing. The problem with this scene is that it never happened. The shepherds and the wise men never appear together. The star didn’t shine above a stable. The angels didn’t sing above a stable. They announced the good news and praised God to the shepherds out in the field. Then the shepherds came to the place where Jesus was, showed their reverence and left "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen." (Lk. 2:20)
Matthew's account of Jesus' early childhood
Matthew’s account gives us other details after the birth narrative. As chapter 2 opens, possibly two whole years have passed since the birth. "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem." (Mt. 2:1) How many "wise men" (or "magi") were there? We don’t know but, because "men" is plural, there must have been more than one.
These "magi" came from the "east" which makes sense historically. "Magi" was a term that referred to a priestly caste of people from Persia. They became known as practitioners of the magical arts who also studied Astrology and Astronomy. This explains why God used a star to lead them to Christ (Mt. 2:2). If they came from the east, possibly as far as Persia, they could have traveled more than 900 miles (about the distance between Washington, DC and St. Louis, Missouri). Such a journey would have taken weeks, if not months. Therefore, it would have been quite some time from when they first saw the star until they finally arrived in Jerusalem (Mt. 2:1).
In Jerusalem, the wise men inquired about this "king of the Jews." Herod, in fear of a king usurping his power, gathered the Bible scholars together to find out where the Christ was to be born. Quoting from Micah 5:2, the chief priests and scribes said that his birth would take place in "Bethlehem," a small, insignificant village noted as the home of Ruth and Boaz, and the birthplace of their great-great grandson, King David. (Mt. 2:3-6)
A star guided the wise men from Jerusalem, 6 miles southwest to Bethlehem, where, instead of an "infant" wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger (Lk. 2:12), they found a "child." (Mt. 2:7-11) The family was not in a stable still entertaining shepherds but in a "house" (Mt. 2:11) in Bethlehem. The wise men brought their gifts into the house, worshiped the child and left for home by another way (Mt. 2:12).
Herod wanted to know exactly when the star appeared (Mt. 2:7). When he found out he was deceived by the wise men, he had all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two killed (Mt. 2:16). This tells us something about what he heard: it must have been a considerable time since the star appeared signaling the birth of the Messiah. This is supported by Matthew's use of the word "child" in verse 9. Whereas Luke's word "infant" (Lk. 2:12) can only mean a fetus or newborn baby, Matthew's word "child" (Mt. 2:9) can also mean a more advanced, mature child. Jesus escaped with his family to Egypt where they stayed until the death of Herod, eventually returning to settle in Nazareth (Mt. 2:13-15, 19-23).
We don’t know how much time elapsed from Jesus' birth in Bethlehem to the visit of the wise men, but it was less than two years. We don't know how many wise men there were, but there were at least two. We do know that the story didn’t happen the way so many millions of people think it did.
For a season, at least, much of the world's focus is on Jesus. Sadly, this focus is not always informed by Scripture. Our Lord's entrance into this world is a story worth studying reverently and celebrating joyfully because it climaxes in his sacrificial death, triumphant resurrection and glorious ascension. Christians celebrate Jesus - his life and his death - not once a year nor even once a week in the Lord's Supper, but their whole lives.
Last week, we noted how the facts of history challenge what many of us take for granted about the birth of Christ. We cannot be certain about the exact date of our Lord's entrance into the world. But if that is the case, why was December 25th chosen? We’ve shown that this observance came out of 4th century Christianity. During that time, there was great controversy in the church surrounding Jesus' human and divine nature. Great councils of men convened to discuss and debate it.
A question of Jesus' human & divine nature
Eventually, in the 4th century, some began to observe a festival called "Epiphany" on January 6th. Epiphany (which means "appearing") celebrated the moment when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to rest upon Jesus at his baptism (Mt. 4). It was at that point, they believed, that Jesus “became God.” Jesus, in their thinking, was not God until the Spirit came upon him and that, right before he died on the cross, the Spirit left Jesus and he ceased to be divine (Mt. 27:46). They did not believe that God could ever truly die or be associate with the flesh, so they made this distinction by celebrating Epiphany.
But others believed (rightly) that Jesus was divine from birth. To distinguish themselves from the heretics, they decided to celebrate Jesus birth, thus declaring him to be divine from the very beginning. Essentially, it became a heretic detector. If you observed January 6th, you held the view that Jesus became God at his baptism and ceased to be God before his death. If you celebrated his birthday, you acknowledged his deity from birth. But if the Epiphany-people chose January 6th what would the orthodox believers choose as theirs? Here is where things get interesting.
Constantine and the "Christianizing" of pagan festivals
Constantine became the Emperor of Rome and “converted” to Christianity (or at least aligned himself politically with it), transforming the Roman Empire from being a persecutor of the church to an ally. He played an influential role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in AD 313 which formally legalized Christianity in the Empire. After the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the Roman Empire began to support the worship of Jesus.
No one is certain of the exact moment in history when Christmas was first celebrated. Like many traditions, it seemed to have happened organically over time. An increasingly sympathetic culture began to "Christianize" pagan festivals. The Romans used the winter solstice (when days grow longer) as a yearly marker. Darkness prevailed up to that point in the year (the gods of darkness, that is) but at the winter solstice the Sun took ascendency and the light became victorious. In the 4th century, Augustine said in a sermon, "Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase."
The Romans worshiped the Sun god, Sol Invictus (we see roots of this paganism in calling the first day of the week Sun-day). Since Jesus is the Light of the world (Jn. 8:12) and the true Sun that rises (Mal. 4:2), it wasn't that much of a stretch for Romans to use the winter solstice as the day of celebrating his birth. Bishop Liberius of Rome, on December 25th, AD 360, "consecrated one Marcella who was a sister of Ambrose, a nun or bride of Christ and addressed her with these words: ‘You see what multitudes are come to the birth festival of your bridegroom.'" (Schaff’s History of the Christian Church) The word “Christmas” has a Catholic source as a special mass in honor of the birth of Jesus (Christ-mass).
The Roman Catholic Church of the 21st century puts it like this:
Numerous theories have been put forward through the last 2,000 years to explain December 25th as Christmas Day. The most likely one however, the one most generally accepted by scholars now is that the birth of Christ was assigned to the date of the winter solstice. This date is December 21st in our calendar, but was December 25th in the Julian calendar which predated our own. The solstice, when days begin to lengthen in the northern hemisphere was referred to by pagans as ‘The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.’ During the third century, the Emperor Aurelian proclaimed December 25th as a special day dedicated to the Sun-god, whose cult was very strong in Rome at that time. Even before this time, Christian writers had already begun to refer to Jesus as the Sun of Justice. It seemed quite logical, therefore, that as Christianity began to dominate the Roman Empire, the date of the ‘new-born Sun’ should be chosen as the birthdate of Christ. Apparently, it bothers some people that the date for Christmas has its roots in a pagan feast. Be that as it may, it’s the best explanation we have for the choice of December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus.” (The Question Box, Catholic Catechism, pg. 28-29)
Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th was not something people engaged in until some 300 years after Jesus' resurrection and ascension. It came as a consequence of two forces: (1) Controversy within the church about nature of Jesus and (2) a desire to “Christianize” pagan festivals. Next week, we will answer where Jesus was born and compare the biblical narrative of Jesus' birth with the sometimes confused cultural narrative.
Many people take it for granted that Jesus was born on Christmas day 2,020 years ago. But how did December 25th become associated with the birth of Jesus? It's a long story, and we'll have to go outside the Bible to tell it, but here are the highlights in a question/answer format.
What year was Jesus born?
We calculate years by the birth of Christ. The Latin abbreviation "AD" (Anno Domini) refers to the year of Christ's rule, so the answer to our question should be obvious. It's 2020, therefore Jesus was born 2,020 years ago, right? Not quite. Unfortunately, because our calendar doesn't agree with the facts of history, we don't know the exact year Jesus was born. But we do know it wasn't our year zero. Here are three reasons:
- People used to calculate years based on when Rome was founded. Dionysius Exiguus, the 6th century monk, invented the AD system and placed the birth of Christ at 754 AUB ("Ab Urbe Condita" or "from the founding of the city [of Rome]") which landed at our year zero. He reckoned years by counting the Roman consuls and their time of governance. But he made a mistake in AD 526 which threw everything off.
- It is a historically verifiable fact that Herod the Great (Mt. 2) died in 4 BC by our own calendar. Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great so we know he was born at least before 4 BC. Also, Herod had all the male children under 2 years old killed (Mt. 2:16), which seems to indicate a passage of time between the birth of Jesus and Herod’s act of murder. So we might add 2 years to 4 BC date.
- We don’t know the exact year of Caesar Augustus’ census (mentioned in Lk. 2:1), but they tended to be conducted every 14 years. We have a census on record being conducted in AD 104. If we count back in increments of 14 that puts us in the 8-4 BC range. This lines up with Luke’s account of Quirinius being governor (Lk. 2:2) who served as governor of Syria from 9-4 BC.
All this tells us is that we don't have enough historical evidence to know exactly when Jesus was born. It was probably between 8-4 BC but it almost certainly wasn't our year zero.
What about the month and day of Jesus' birth?
Again, neither secular history or biblical history tells us exactly, but we can be reasonably certain it was not in the month we call December. Luke 2:8, which tells us of shepherds watching over their flock by night, gives us some context. It seems unlikely that Jesus' birth was a winter event. “According to this statement, Jesus cannot have been born in December, in the middle of the rainy season, as has been since the fourth century supposed. According to Jewish history, the driving forth of flocks took place in March, the bringing in of them in November.” (‘Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospels of Mark and Luke,’ H.A.W. Meyer, pg. 273)
This is not conclusive evidence because there are certain unknowns. We don’t know about the temperature, how mild the winter was, etc. but it does seem to raise some questions about a date in December. “It was the custom among the Jews to send out their sheep to the deserts, about the Passover, and bring them home at the commencement of the first rain; during the time they were out, the shepherds watched them night and day. As the Passover occurred in the spring, and the first rain began in the month of Marchesvan, which answers to our part of October and November, we find that the sheep were kept out in the open country during the whole summer. And as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields.” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary, pg. 857)
The fact is, we do not know what day or even month Jesus was born but it probably wasn't December 25th.
When was Christmas first celebrated?
History tells us that no one claimed Jesus was born on December 25th until well into the 3rd century. It was first celebrated in Rome in AD 354, in Constantinople in AD 379 and then in Antioch in AD 388. "John Chrysostom (AD 349-407, Archbishop of Constantinople) said in AD 386 “It is not ten years since the day was clearly known to us…”" (Unger Bible Dictionary, pg. 196) “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church, and before the fifth century there was no general consensus of opinion as to when it should come in the calendar, whether January 6th, March 25th, or December 25th.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 5, pg. 641)
Consider these revealing comments from various religious perspectives:
- Albert Barnes (Presbyterian) - "The exact time of His birth is unknown. There is no way to ascertain it. By different learned men it has been fixed at each month of the year. Nor is it of consequence to know the time. If it were, God would have preserved the record of it. Matters of moment are clearly revealed. Those which He regards as of no importance are concealed."
- Catholic Encyclopedia (approved) - "Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church."
- Adam Clarke (Methodist) - "The time in which Christ was born has been considered a subject of great importance by Christians. However, the matter has been considered of no moment by Him who inspired the evangelist as not one hint is dropped on the subject by which it might be possible to guess nearly to the time. Learned and pious men have trifled egregiously on this subject making of importance that which the Holy Spirit by his silence has plainly informed is of none."
It is impossible to know the exact date of Jesus' birth because the Holy Spirit did not reveal it to us. The date of a person's birth is the sort of basic information that most biographers would include and, yet, all four Spirit-inspired gospel authors do not record it. The authors, and, by extension, the God who speaks through them, believed that the date of Jesus' birth was not important for Christians to know. Perhaps, instead of focusing on what is not in the text, we would be better off giving our attention to what is.
In the next article, we will answer why December 25th was chosen as the date to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Whenever I meet someone for the first time, even though I don't advertise it, it inevitably comes out in the course of conversation that I am a preacher. It is interesting to notice how different people react when they learn this. In the faces of some, there is a visible sense of dread as they realize that they may have offended me by their speech. The faces of others, particularly of professing Christians, light up at the thought of a fellow believer. Interestingly, in these conversations we talk less about the Bible and Jesus and more about the church. I've noticed a few reoccurring talking points that betray a warped view of God's church. We'll call them the three "B's" of bad judgment.
A church is not judged by the size of its BUDGET
Why people mention their church's yearly budget to me, I'll never know (I certainly don't ask!). But could it be that they judge their congregation's success on their wealth? God forbid. Earthly prosperity is not a sign of God's approval (Mt. 5:45). In fact, in some cases, even the wicked prosper (Psa. 73:3-5). Wealth has no bearing on an individual's standing before God anymore than it does on a congregation's. The Christians in Smyrna were poor but Jesus called them rich (Rev. 2:9). The Laodiceans thought they were rich but Jesus called them "wretched, miserable, poor and blind" (Rev. 3:17).
Whenever we are tempted to boast in our wealth, we would do well to remember that God chose the poor of this world to be rich (Jas. 2:5; 1 Cor. 1:26-29). The treasure we must be primarily concerned with is heavenly in nature (Mt. 6:19-21). If God has blessed a congregation with a large budget, he expects that money to be used to further his kingdom work (Acts 4:32-35; 11:27-30; etc.). Wealth is certainly a blessing from God but we are consistently warned against trusting in it (Psa. 52:7; 62:10; Prov. 11:28; 1 Tim. 6:9-10) and instructed instead to trust in God and be generous (1 Tim. 6:17-19). A church's budget is not proportional to its standing before God.
A church is not judged by the size of the BUILDING
A church's building is another highlight to many conversations. "We're expanding our building" or "We had to move and build a larger building" or, less frequently, "Our building is falling apart." Though Christians need a physical location to meet together, the quality or size of the meeting place is not nearly as important as we think. Christians met in a variety of places in the New Testament. They met in the houses of Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19), Nympha (Col. 4:15) and Philemon (Philemon 1:2). They met in public spaces like the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus (Acts 19:9), by a river in Philippi (Acts 16:13) or in the town synagogue (Jas. 2:2).
Christians are commanded to assemble to worship the Lord regularly (Heb. 10:25; Acts 20:7, etc.) but Jesus is less concerned with the "where" and the "outside" and more concerned with the "who" and "inside" of worship (Jn. 4:20-24). A building is simply a means to an end. The minute it becomes something more significant to the church, that church has begun to emphasize the wrong thing. No one is advocating that congregations stop meeting in buildings or that they should allow their meeting places to fall into disrepair. Rather, we must not think that the quality or size of a church building is proportional to that church's standing before God.
A church is not judged by the size of the BODY
Probably the most common thing brought up by others is the number of people that attend their assembly. But God does not judge a congregation based upon the size of its membership. Also, just because a congregation is large (which is a relative measure; larger than what?) doesn't mean that everyone in attendance is faithful. There were only a "few" in Sardis who had not soiled their garments with sin (Rev. 3:4). Popularity is not a part of discipleship (Mt. 7:13-14). Elijah stood alone against 450 prophets of Baal. Micaiah stood alone against 400 of Ahab's prophets. Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb stood against the nation of Israel. Noah and his family stood against the entire world. Jesus was truly alone on the cross. Let's not make the mistake of thinking that a congregation's size is indicative of God's approval.
God is most concerned with the hearts of those who are gathered to worship him. In fact, some congregations compromise sound doctrine in order to appeal to a broader audience. A building may be filled with bodies but bereft of the Spirit. If God does not judge a congregation based on its size, why should we? Jesus himself says, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt. 18:20). However, this does not give us license to be slothful in our work of evangelism and be content with our "little" church. We should always be faithfully and diligently working for the Lord, trusting that he will cause the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7; Col. 2:19).
It's very easy to get carried away by focusing on the wrong things. The Corinthian church was wrapped up in this kind of bad judgment, judging with eyes "like mere men" (1 Cor. 3:3-4). If we measure our congregation against another in these earthly ways we are "without understanding" (2 Cor. 10:12). Instead, we must learn to see things as God does (1 Sam. 16:7). The Pharisees were "whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness" (Mt. 23:27) while Jesus, the King of Kings, "had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" (Isa. 53:2). Don't judge a book by its cover and don't judge a congregation by appearances.
"And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes."
Many people, religious and irreligious alike, agree with Jesus' down-to-earth, plain ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. They claim that the Sermon contains truths that are self-evident. "Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy." Yes, that's how the world works. To love one's enemies is the noblest endeavour. "Judge not that you not be judged." Easier said that done, perhaps, but a virtuous maxim nonetheless. And, of course, we all learned to live by the Golden Rule in kindergarten: "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them."
This, they say, is Jesus at his finest, a merely human ethical teacher of righteousness without all that supernatural mumbo jumbo in the rest of the New Testament. We'll take the practical ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and leave the dogma, thank you very much. We'll take Jesus the human teacher but leave all that Christ-Son-of-God-resurrected-Savior nonsense. But a closer reading of the Sermon on the Mount will not allow this view of either Jesus or his teaching.
A Teacher with Authority
When Jesus was finished speaking, the crowds were astonished, even "dumbfounded" (for the Greek word is a strong one), because "he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes." The crowd was amazed not only at the substance and depth of the teaching but in his delivery as well. He spoke as someone who not only knew what we was talking about but as one with total self-confidence. He declared with absolute certainty who would be blessed, who would obtain mercy, who would see God and be fit to enter the kingdom.
Jesus, the humble carpenter from Galilee, spoke with authority. He did not speak as a timid, apologetic wimp nor as a bombastic, tyrannical despot. Instead, he laid down the law of the kingdom with the quiet unassuming assurance of one who knows how powerful he is. He spoke as a sovereign law-giver. He was not a teacher but the Teacher.
Not as the Scribes
The scribes, on the other hand, taught by appealing to the authority of others. They quoted influential rabbis, parroted the accepted tradition of the elders and searched commentaries and history for precedents. Jesus, who never received a scribal education, scandalized the establishment by sweeping away the traditions of the elders and correcting erroneous rabbinical interpretations of the Law. He disregarded social conventions and had no particular reverence for the status-quo. He spoke with a freshness that captivated some and enraged others.
Jesus did not teach as the scribes nor did he teach as the prophets. The prophets spoke with authority in the name of the Lord but always prefaced their teaching with, "Thus says the Lord." In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the formulas, "Truly, truly, I say to you" and "I tell you" (Mt. 5:18; 6:2, 5, 16, 25, 29). His purpose in coming into the world was not to be a great prophet among many but the fulfillment of all their prophecy (Mt. 5:17). All the lines of the Old Testament witness converge on him.
The Long-Awaited Messiah
Jesus knew who he was: the Messianic King who had come to inaugurate the long-awaited kingdom. He is great David's greater "Lord" who sits at God's right hand (Mk. 12:21-23). He is the "Son of Man" from Daniel's vision who receives universal dominion (Mt. 24:39; cf. Dan. 7:14). More than a Teacher, Jesus is a Master to be obeyed (Mt. 7:2-23; Lk. 6:46; Jn. 13:13). More than a Master, he is the Judge who will hear the evidence and pass the sentence (Mt. 7:21-23). The accused will address their case before him and he will decide their destiny. And the nature of judgment will be banishment from his blessed, royal presence (Mt. 7:23). This Jesus, from despised Nazareth, untrained by the scribes in Jerusalem, makes himself the central figure of the Judgment Day (Mt. 25:31ff) and will judge all people based upon their response to his words (Mt. 7:24-27).
Jesus' Divine Authority
When we read the Sermon on the Mount carefully, the seemingly innocuous claims that we can simply receive Jesus' teaching and reject Jesus is seen for what it is - treason of the highest order. Jesus is not a harmless, merely human, ethical teacher. He teaches with the authority of universal sovereignty. He lays down the law and those who build their lives on his teaching are wise and will be safe from judgment. His teaching is not a take-it-or-leave-it thing. Our response to his words will have eternal consequences.
In short, Jesus is God. Although he does not explicitly claim divinity in the Sermon on the Mount, we can safely infer that he puts his teaching on level with God. Here are three examples:
- The first eight Beatitudes (Mt. 5:2-10) are generalizations voiced in the third person but the ninth beatitude speaks of those who are persecuted on account of their faithfulness to him (Mt. 5:11). Jesus likens them to the Old Testament prophets who were persecuted for their faithfulness to God (Mt. 5:12). If he likens his disciples to the Old Testament prophets then he is likening himself to God.
- Jesus expects obedience and submission as "Lord" (Mt. 7:21-23). When people plead their case before him in judgment, he will say to them, "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." Compare that with his parallel statement in Luke 6:46, "“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?" The Father's will (Mt. 7:21) and Jesus' teaching (Lk. 6:46) are on the same level, both holding the same authority.
- Also in this passage (Mt. 7:21-23), Jesus casts himself in the role of Judge. Everyone knew, including Jesus, that God was always pictured as Judge in the Old Testament. And yet, when we all "appear before the Judgment seat of God" (Rom. 14:10) we will be appearing before Jesus on his throne (Mt. 25:31ff).
"The claims of Jesus were indeed put forward so naturally, modestly and indirectly that many people never even notice them. But they are there; we cannot ignore them and still retain our integrity." (Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 222). Jesus is more than an ethical teacher of righteousness. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Judge and King of the universe. The world may be content to ape the ethical teaching of the Sermon on the Mount but until they come under the authority of the King they will be cut off from the eternal blessings of the kingdom.