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Christmas & the Bible (part 1 of 3)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The Three "B's" of Bad Judgment

Saturday, December 12, 2020

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.

The Authoritative Jesus

Saturday, December 05, 2020

"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."

Matthew 7:28-29

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

We Become What We Worship

Saturday, November 28, 2020

We've all heard the expression, "You are what you eat," but what about, "You are what you worship"? The Psalmists and the Prophets said something similar. Consider the words of Psalm 115:4-8 (cf. Isa. 44:9-20): 

"Their idols are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
    eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
    noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
    feet, but do not walk;
    and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
    so do all who trust in them

Whether we are particularly religious or not, we all worship and give our allegiance to something or someone (Mt. 6:24). And whatever we revere we come to resemble, either to our ruin or our restoration. Exodus 32-34 shows both sides of this truth. 

In Exodus 32, the newly redeemed people of Israel sat waiting at the foot of the mountain for Moses to return. In the ensuing weeks of mountaintop dialogue between Moses and God, the people impatiently and irrationally called upon Aaron to "make us gods who shall go before us." (Ex. 32:1). Aaron melted down their golden jewelry and fashioned from it a golden calf. He proclaimed it to be their god who rescued them from Egyptian slavery and Israel worshiped it. 

Knowing exactly what had transpired below, God told Moses to "go down" to the people who he described with cow-like language:

  • They had "corrupted themselves" (32:7) like irrational animals often do, obeying their base impulses (cf. 2 Pet. 2:12).
  • They were "stiff-necked" (32:9), a common phrase in the Bible used to describe a stubborn ox or donkey that refuses to respond to the rope when tugged.
  • They had "turned aside quickly out of the way" (32:8) and had "broken loose" (32:25) like wild animals from their pen.
  • Moses called and "gathered" them back to the "gate" (32:26) so that he might lead them (32:34) like a herd of cattle.
  • Just as the cow was created in fire (32:24), so Israel would be destroyed by God's burning anger (32:10, 19-20).
  • Israel proved to be just as spiritually empty and lifeless as the cow they bowed down to (32:27-35).

In this chapter, sinful Israel is depicted as a herd of rebellious cows that broke through their protective boundary and must be regathered for their own safety. The Israelites had become what they worshiped. This is still true today. When we give our allegiance to created things rather than the Creator we debase ourselves with animalistic thinking and behavior (cf. Rom. 1:18-32).

The following chapters (Ex. 33-34) show the other side of this coin. Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak to God on behalf of the people. He asked, "Please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight." (Ex. 33:13) Moses then asked, "Please show me your glory." (Ex. 33:18) These are worshipful requests and the tent of meeting was a place of worship. The result was that Moses became like the God he worshiped. Upon "seeing" the after-effects of God's glory as he passed by, Moses literally reflected it. "The skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God." (33:29) This reflected glory was so bright, the people were afraid to speak with Moses (34:30) and he was made to wear a veil over his face (33:33).

God both showed Moses his glory and described it to him in words he could understand (33:19; 34:6-7):

  • God is "good"
  • God is "gracious"
  • God is "merciful"
  • God is "slow to anger"
  • God is "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness"
  • God keeps "steadfast love for thousands" (that is, for thousands of generations)
  • God "[forgives] iniquity and trangression of sin"
  • God is also just and "will by no means clear the guilty" 
  • In comparison to his loyal love to thousands of generations, God's justice extends to the "third and fourth generation"

God proved himself to be all of the above by changing his mind to destroy Israel and instead going with them (33:17). He promised to give them Sabbath rest (33:14). He even renewed the covenant which he made with Israel with a new set of tablets (34:1). And Moses, because he worshiped God, reflected God's character. His intercession for the people literally saved their lives (32:30-32; cf. Deut. 9:18-20). 

We become what we worship. How much more so now that Jesus has come, the definitive self-disclosure of God (Jn. 1:1-3, 14, 18; 14:9; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:2-3). The reflected glory of Moses' face was fleeting (2 Cor. 3:13). Now that Christ has come, the veil has been lifted so that we may all, "with unveiled face" behold "the glory of the Lord." And as we behold his image in worship, we are "transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." (2 Cor. 3:18; cf. Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10, etc.)

When we look back at those two lists, we must ask ourselves which one describes us. We can say that we worship God but the proof is in what we reflect in our behavior. Israel said they worshiped the Lord... as they bowed down to a statue of a cow (Ex. 32:5). The way we know who we worship is by what we reflect. Our face may not glow like Moses' but God's character should be seen in us (Mt. 5:16). "Christ in us," that is, the Spirit of his character (Gal. 5:22-23), is our "hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).

A friend (Ryan Boyer) put it this way: "Are you corrupt or good? Are you stubborn or gracious and merciful? Do you break loose and wander off or do you forgive? Do you treat very broken people with the same degree of grace, mercy, love and forgiveness as God? What we revere we resemble either for ruin or restoration."

The Golden Rule

Saturday, November 21, 2020

"So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

(Matthew 7:12)

The Golden Rule is one of the simplest ethical guidelines for our behavior. It is easily understood and its virtue is self-evident; the world would be a better place if we all lived by it. But this teaching of Jesus is not completely unique to him. The Rule is also found in similar forms in other ancient texts and traditions predating Jesus' use in the Sermon on the Mount. 

Among Jews, for example, it is stated negatively in the apocryphal book of Tobit, which says, "Do not do to anyone what you yourself would hate." (Tobit 4:15) There is also a story in the Talmud about the great rabbi Hillel, who is said to have told a would-be proselyte who asked to be taught the entirety of the Torah while standing on one leg, "What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. That is the whole law; all the rest is only commentary; go and learn it." (b. Shabbat 31a)

Forms of the Rule are also found in the wider Gentile world. Confucious is credited with having said, "Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourself." It was also a theme in Greek and Roman philosophy. Followers of Socrates, and the later Stoics who drew much inspiration from the Socratic method, had a similar maxim: "Act by everyone, in the same manner as if you supposed yourself to be him, and him to be you." (Hierocles, Fragments) Other Stoics, such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, applied this ethic in various ways. In discussing the master-slave relationship, Seneca said, "But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters" (Seneca, Letters, 47) To the Stoics, it was only logical to regard oneself and others as brothers and sisters, even as limbs of the same organism. 

Modern physicians apply a negative form of the Rule in the Hippocratic Oath, "First, do not harm," a phrase our culture has adopted as its own guiding moral standard. If the actions of one do not harm another, then it is believed that those actions are right and proper.

While similar to Jesus' teaching, all these iterations of the Golden Rule fall short of his wording. The form it took in rabbi Hillel's teaching was negative and rather grudging ("Do not do to others what is hateful to you") whereas the Socratic application of the Rule was sterile and settled for not imposing suffering on others while also preserving class distinctions ("inferiors" and "betters"). Still more vanilla is our modern, neutral take on the Rule - "It's fine as long as it's not hurting anyone." 

But Jesus states the Rule in its most emphatic, positive and selfless form ("treat others as you would want them to treat you"). Even this may sound like a pretty low moral bar until we understand that Jesus' version of the Golden Rule is really another way of stating the command to love one's neighbor as oneself (Mt. 22:39).

Love always implies self-giving action (Mt. 5:44; Jn. 3:16). Whereas hatred is negative in nature, seeks another's harm and leads to activity against that person, love is positive in nature, seeks another's good and leads to activity for that person. Therefore, Christ frames the Golden Rule as positive ("do unto others") because love always takes the iniative (1 Jn. 4:10) and is always active (Mt. 5:44).

This exalted, pure love was perfectly modeled by the self-sacrifice of Jesus who "laid down his life for us" (1 Jn. 3:16). Where the unbelieving world is content with living by the drab, neutral maxim, "Do no harm," Christians must live by Jesus' challenging, positive maxim, "whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Mt. 7:12; cf. 22:39).

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