"When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first."
Though I don't believe demons have the power to possess people today as they did in the first century, Jesus is giving us a timeless principle in the above verses: for positive change to become habitual and character forming, we must not only kick out the bad but also replace the bad with the good. The Christian life is not merely about the cessation of evil. The apostle Peter, quoting David in Psalm 34, says to those who desire "to love life and see good days, turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it." (1 Pet. 5:10)
Christian character cannot develop within us if we focus on "sin management" and fail to do the positive, good works of Christ. As Jesus says, the danger of this one-sided approach is that the "last state of that person is worse than the first." People who were once believers can become rabid skeptics. The addict who does well for a while is crushed by relapse. Faith which eagerly springs forth can wither and die on the vine.
The Colossian Christians were in danger of falling for this very thing. Merely trying to keep oneself from sinning by submitting to certain regulations and creating new restrictions for oneself is not enough. The apostle Paul warned them that "these have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh." (Col. 3:23) He immediately went on to encourage them to think through the realities of their salvation. They had been "raised with Christ," therefore they must "seek the things that are above, where Christ is" (Col. 3:1). It's not just about abstaining from what is wrong ("put off the old self..." Col. 3:5-9). It's also about pursuing what is right ("put on the new self..." Col. 3:10-17).
For holiness to be real and sustainable, it must include both separation from evil and embracing good, both repentance and consecration, both putting off and putting on. Notice Paul's words to the Romans address both sides of the issue: "abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good" (Rom. 12:9); "do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21); "be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil" (Rom. 16:19). It is impossible to "not love the world or the things in the world" (1 Jn. 2:15) if we are not constantly setting our "minds on things that are above" (Col. 3:2).
Christ fixes our bad habits by replacing them with good ones. This is Christ's work of new creation within us (2 Cor. 5:17). Let us cooperate with him, so that he can "bring [that work] to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Phil. 2:12-13)
You would be hard pressed to find a characteristic valued more in Scripture than humility. Our English word "humility" comes from a Greek word that means “low lying” or "of low estate." It is sometimes translated as “lowliness." Lowliness is a metaphor for one's attitude of heart or disposition. It is the opposite of ego, pride and high-mindedness. Most sins and many broken relationships can be traced back to pride. In the beginning, it was pride that led Adam to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and it was conceit and arrogance that led to the condemnation of devil (1 Tim. 3:6).
But while pride is always punished in Scripture, humility is always rewarded. The humble will be exalted and the proud will be brought low (Jas. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). The first are last and the last are first in the kingdom (Mt. 20:1-16). Self-awareness of one's spiritual poverty before God makes one fit for the kingdom (Mt. 5:3). This poverty of spirit does not refer to what one “has” physically, but what one “is”. This realization that without God we are nothing is the soil in which the seed of the kingdom grows.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went up to the mountain to pray. But only one man came down justified in God's sight God. The average Jew would have expected the pious Pharisee to be right with God. But the despised tax collector was counted righteous due to his humility and God's mercy.
3 examples of pride
Uzziah (2 Chron. 26) ascended the throne of Judah at age 16. His reign was successful "as long as he sought the Lord" (v.5). "But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction" (v.16). Uzziah went into temple to burn incense. This was the job of a priest, a Levite, not a king from the tribe of Judah. And though the priests tried to stop him and warned him it wasn’t his place, Uzziah refused to listen and God struck him with leprosy (v.21). Uzziah's legacy echoes the proverb, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 16:18). When he was humble and recognized his role, God blessed him. But when he grew proud and arrogant and felt he was above the rules, he was struck down.
Herod (Acts 12) addressed the people of Tyre and Sidon. Dressed in his “royal robes,” the people were taken in by his majestic appearance (or perhaps were simply stroking his ego) and proclaimed he spoke with "the voice of a god, and not of a man!" (v.22). Instead of refusing to accept the glory due only to God (Acts 10:26; 14:15; Rev. 22:8-9; etc.), Herod chose to accept the crowd's praise and paid the price (v.23).
Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9) was troubling a congregation of which a friend of the apostle John's was a part. He was domineering and overbearing, always wanting his own way. John described him as one “who loves to be first." Diotrephes didn’t recognize the authority of Christ's chosen apostles, he didn’t want to help traveling preachers and he even threatened Christians who supported them! Diotrephes' pride had blinded him to the fact that Jesus alone has first-place in the church (Col. 1:18).
To balance out the proverb, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble,” let's notice three examples of humility.
3 examples of humility
Abram (Gen. 13) was a wealthy man traveling with his nephew Lot. Because their flocks were so large, they both recognized the land couldn’t support both companies at once. Instead of causing unneccesary tension, Abram took the humble approach and deferred to Lot: "If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left" (v.9). Though Abram was older he surrendered his rights in the interest of peace, something the apostle Paul would later do for the Corinthians' benefit (1 Cor. 9).
The Canaanite woman (Mt. 15) approached Jesus as he was traveling and cried out to him to have mercy on her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Jesus tested her faith by rebuffing her pleas twice (vv.21-24). Undeterred, the woman continued to beg him (v.25). Jesus tested her once more with a feigned insult (v.26). In a remarkable display of humility the woman accepted her low status and, finally, Christ gave up the ruse. He pronounced her faith "great!" and healed her daughter on the spot (vv.27-28).
The apostle Paul, after his conversion, lived his life in pure, Christlike humility. He had suffered and labored much for the Lord. Who knows how many people he brought to faith? How established many congregations, wrote half of our New Testament, had seen tremendous heavenly visions (2 Cor. 12:1ff) and preached to many people in high places (Acts 9:15; 23-26). And yet, notice how Paul referred to himself: if we take these statements chronologically, Paul said he was "least of the apostles" (1 Cor. 15:9), "least of the saints" (Eph. 3:8) and "foremost of sinners" (1 Tim. 1:18). The longer Paul served Jesus, it seemed, the more he grew in his humility.
Which path will you choose?
These examples are preserved for our instruction. The world is teaching us to be loudest voice in room, the strongest personality, the one who stands out above the rest. But Jesus says, “The greatest among you shall be your servant" (Mt. 23:11). Ironically, we stand out in the world (and make a postive difference in the world) through our humility (Mt. 5:13-16).
Moses is said to have lived 120 years (Deut. 31:2). Some see his life as divided into three distinct forty-year periods, spending the first 40 years believing he was somebody, the next forty years learning he was a nobody and the last forty years seeing what God could do with a nobody. We all find ourselves somewhere in the life of Moses. May God teach us to be humble like Jesus, the truly great one, who washed the feet of his disciples (Jn. 13). The arrogant will not escape judgment. The humble will be exalted.
Here are a few memorable quotes on the subject of humility:
“Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.”
“Humility is like underwear; we should all have it but not let it show.”
“Humility is a strange thing; the minute you think you’ve got it, you’ve lost it!”
“There is no room for God in him who is full of himself.”
“God has two thrones: one in the highest heavens, the other in the lowliest heart.”
Isaac Watts' hymn, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," is beautiful and instructive in its humility:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
"looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
All cultures are informed by a sense of honor and shame but what is considered honorable and dishonorable may differ according to the values of that culture. Ultimately, when we fail to honor God as Creator, our lives degenerate into disgrace (Rom. 1:18-23). But when Jesus came to inaugurate God's kingdom, he also came to reclaim our honor and restore our dignity as human beings. But he did so in the most ironic way; by suffering the ultimate shame of the cross, Jesus maintained his honor and even gained honor.
Honor is the public recognition of worth
Honor is the public recognition of one's social standing and worth. In the ancient world, honor was viewed as a limited social currency. It was thought that when one gained honor it was at the expense of another's. For example, Philo condemned polytheism because in honoring others as deities the honor due to God was diminished: "God's honor is set at naught by those who deify mortals..." (EBR. 110). The disciples of John the Baptist, operating under the auspices of an honor/shame system, were worried that Jesus was gaining more honor than John. They viewed Jesus' gain as John's loss. But John, who knew his role, was happy to concede (Jn. 3:22-30). He said famously, "He must increase, but I must decrease." But whereas John honored Jesus, the Pharisees did not. They perceived Jesus' growing fame as a threat to their honor and, being envious of him (cf. Mt. 27:18; Jn. 11:47-48), constantly challenged it (Mt. 21:23ff).
There were two types of honor in the ancient world:
- Ascribed honor - this is honor inherited by birth. Those born into noble, priestly, senatorial or royal families were ascribed honor by virtue of their birth, apart from any accomplishments. This cultural value is evident in places like 1 Timothy 1:4 and Titus 3:9, where Jews placed undo importance on genealogies.
- Achieved honor - this is honor gained by reputation, by doing righteous deeds in the community. This honor was gained or lost in a perpetual struggle for recognition. One's honor could be challenged by verbally and publicly calling it into question. If the challenge was worthy of respect then it was met with a retort. This process of challenge and reposte always ended with a public verdict where either the challenged defended his honor and the challenger suffered shame or vise versa.
Shame is the public loss of honor
Shame is the public loss of honor. To suffer shame is to suffer contempt or to lose face. Like honor it could either be achieved or ascribed.
- Achieved shame - this is public disgrace brought upon by one's foolish choices, cowardice, reckless living or a failure to defend one's honor (Prov. 13:5; 18:13; 19:26; 25:9-10; 29:15).
- Ascribed shame - this is a public declaration of disgrace against a person who is deemed by the elite as having no honor.
Crucifixion was the ultimate "shame"
Crucifixion in the Greco-Roman world was the ultimate expression of ascribed shame (Heb. 12:2). Every step of crucifixion was designed to progressively humiliate the victim, depriving him of all honor and dignity (Hengel: 22-32). It was reserved for slaves, bandits, prisoners of war and revolutionaries. Public trials were not so much attempts at administering justice as they were status degredation rituals, which labelled the accused as a shameful person. Victims were usually flogged and tortured (Jos. War 5.449-51 & 3.321; Livy 22.13.19; 28.37.3; Seneca, On Anger 3.6; Philo, Flac. 72; Diod. Sic. 33.15.1; Plato, Gorgias 473bc & Republic 2.362e) and often befouled themselves with urine and excrement (m. Mak. 3:12, 14). Victims often carried their own cross beams to their place of execution (Plutarch, Delay 554B). The victims' clothing was normally confiscated leaving them nude (Diod. Sic. 33.15.1). Pinioning one's arms in the open posture of crucifixion displayed them as utterly powerless and vulnerable (Philo, Post. 61; Somn. 2.213). Executions by crucifixion were crude forms of public entertainment where the crowds joined in on ridiculing the victims (Philo, Sp. Leg. 3.160). Of course, death by crucifixion was often slow and protracted. "Ultimately the victims were deprived of life and thus the possibility of gaining satisfaction or vengeance" (Neyrey, Johanine Passion Narrative). Once dead, most victims were denied an honorable burial; corpses were often left on display and eaten by carrion birds or scavengers (Pliny, H.N. 36.107-108).
Though victims of crucifixion would endure brutal pain, this was not the main ingredient of their suffering. In an honor/shame culture, warriors viewed enduring pain as a mark of honor (e.g. Hercules' labors; Paul's hardship catalogues: e.g. 2 Cor 6:3-10; 11:23-33), especially if it was endured silently (see Isa 53:7; Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.162; Josephus, War 6.304). Even more than the physical pain was the public mockery and degredation. Notice how the New Testament writers give more attention to this than the physical torture of Jesus. His face, an honorable part of the body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:22-25), was covered, struck and spit upon (Mk. 14:65). He was ridiculed (Mk. 15:20, 31), insulted (Mk. 15:32) and was treated as though he were worthless (Lk. 23:11; cf. Acts 4:11).
Jesus turned shame into honor
The great irony of the gospel is that Jesus, though treated shamefully, not only maintained his honor but gained glory and prestige. In fact, his crucifixion, far from being a status degradation ritual, is portrayed by the New Testament authors as a status elevation ritual. The cross was Jesus' enthronment, his moment of glory when he was "lifted up" (Jn. 3:14; 7:39; 8:28; 12:28; 17:5; see 21:19). What was foolish, weak and shameful to human eyes was wisdom, strength and honor in God's eyes (1 Cor. 1:20, 25). This upside-down perspective is part and parcel of the gospel, that last is first, least is greatest, dead is alive, shame is honor.
Of course, the ancient Mediterranean world, just like our modern Western world, did not understand the cross this way. This is why Paul said of the counter-cultural message of the gospel, "but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Cor. 1:23). The gospel of a crucified Jesus is both scandalous and absurd "to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18). Though Jesus looked disarmed by the Jews and conquered by the Romans as he hung upon the cross, in reality it was the other way around. Paul says, "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him" (Col. 2:15).
- Jesus' ascribed honor - There was nothing kingly or noble, from a human standpoint, in his entrance into the world and his ascribed honor in society was very low. His neighbors "took offense at him" (Mk. 6:1-3) because he was from a despised town (Nazareth), of a lowly trade (carpentry), from a seemingly unimportant family and was even accused of being born of fornication (Jn 8:41). Though his lineage was royal it was not without its many bad apples (Mt. 1:1-17).
- Jesus' achieved honor - Each time Jesus' honor was challenged in the public arena, he always got the better of his opponents (Mt. 21:23-27). Whether he was being challenged on political matters (22:15-22) or doctrinal matters (22:23-40), "no one was able to answer him a word..." (Mt. 22:41-46) He was denied honor in his home town (Mk.6:4). He was accused of blasphemy (Jn. 10:31-38) and profaning the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1-14). He was even accused of being in league with the devil (Mt. 12:22-32). Yet, through it all, Jesus maintained and even gained honor over his accusers. Even so, he was crucified.
Christians are honored through Jesus
Jesus says, "whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Mt. 10:38; cf. 16:24-28). Jesus was rejected and treated shamefully (Mk. 12:4) but the early Christians regarded this type of public shame an honor: "...rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name" (Acts 5:41). Are you prepared to be associated with Jesus? To live and share a message that is foolish and offensive to most people? To stand up and be publicly counted with him, running the risk of being misunderstood, questioned, ridiculed or even persecuted for his sake? Are you prepared to defend the honor of Jesus when it is challenged by others? If we follow in the steps of Jesus while carrying our cross we will also follow him into the honor and glory of the resurrection (Phil. 2:1-11). May God always be honored in us.
Is it possible for human nature to change? Is it possible for a cruel person to become kind? Or a selfish person to become considerate? Or liars to become honest? Most people (and most religions) would say it isn't possible. There is a Muslim proverb that says, "If thou hearest that a mountain has moved, believe it. But if thou hearest that a man has changed, believe it not." Arthur Schopenhauer, the nineteenth century German philosopher, is recorded as having said, "A leopard can change his nature sooner than a man may change his." A Hindu once told the American Methodist missionary Stanley Jones, "A man may change his acts but not his character. This is fixed."
It is against this backdrop of cynicism that the Christian must humbly but confidently disagree. The great future hope (and present reality) of the Christian is God's amazing power to transform and recreate us (Eph. 4:23-24). Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again (or from above) he cannot see the kingdom of God." (Jn. 3:3) Through faith in the good news of Jesus' sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection, people are reborn and changed, but that change occurs from the inside out.
Our natural inclination is to affect change from the outside in, believing that if we change our habits and our behavior then our character will follow suit. Through keeping religious rituals and certain ascetic practices we mistakenly believe our inner-selves will be transformed. Paul warned the Colossians not to fall for such a ruse, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh." (Col. 3:20-23)
Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes on more than one occasion. "For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Mt. 23:27-28) Jesus knew that to change a person's character requires a complete transformation of the human heart; the inside must be cleansed before the outside can change. (Mt. 23:25-26) Through the new covenant that Jesus established, God's promise to Ezekiel is fulfilled: "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezek. 36:26; cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Psa. 51:10)
Jesus always emphasized the heart (see the Sermon on the Mount) because that's where the change must begin. Without Jesus, we try to affect lasting change by manipulating the environment around us and altering external factors. While this may have some effect on behavior it does not transform character. It's the difference between hanging lifeless ornaments on a fake Christmas tree and a healthy, living tree producing its fruit. (Gal. 5:22-23) One is truly alive while the other is a cheap parody of nature.
In fact, the greatest single hindrance to social change is the human heart: greed and the self-centeredness of humanity. It is this inward corruption, the taint of sin, that social reformers have forgotten. And as a result, they have been constantly disappointed and disillusioned. Beatrice Webb, the famous English social reformer, said, "Somewhere in my diary – 1890? – I wrote “I have staked all on the essential goodness of human nature…” [Now thirty-five years later I realize] how permanent are the evil impulses and instincts of man – how little you can count on changing some of these – for instance the appeal of wealth and power – by any change in the [social] machinery…. No amount of knowledge or science will be of any avail unless we can curb the bad impulse."
Human beings are never as bad as we could be, sure. But we are never as good as we should be. (Rom. 3:23) We can change circumstances, rebuild neighborhoods and provide a safer environment. Governments can and should offer social programs to help the needy and create and enforce just legislation that rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior. These social changes are good but they do not guarantee individual change. Individuals will have more influence on the environment around them than the environment has on the individual. A bull in a china shop is going to have more of an effect on the china than the china will have on it.
Creating new laws and changing the outside will have some effect on human behavior but it is powerless to change the human heart. Laws are introduced despite human desire not because of it. Law discourage criminals from doing harm. This is good and necessary in this fallen world; if there were no lawbreakers there would be no need for law or law enforcement. But how does one go about getting the criminal to stop desiring to do harms? How does one change his heart?
This is an important point for Christians to grasp. In Christ, we are no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). This is not to say there is no law for Christians. Rather, the "law" we abide by in Christ is "the perfect law, the law of liberty." (Jas. 1:25) We please the law-giver because we have to; we please the grace-giver because we want to. The "obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) we render to Jesus is totally motivated by his love and grace toward us. The starting point for all Christian thinking and behavior is what Jesus has already done for us. "We love because he first loved us." (1 Jn. 4:19) We are "obedient" to Jesus "from the heart." (Rom. 6:17)
Let's end with an example from Scripture that illustrates this point. The early church behaved like a family. They took care of one another's needs. The Christians in Jerusalem "were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common... There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need." (Acts 4:32-35; cf. 2:44-46) What a society! How did this come about?
This was not some form of communism where people were obligated by law to share their goods with others. There was no specific commandment to give in this instance. Rather, they "had everything in common" because they "were of one heart and soul." This generosity came from their transformed hearts. The law of liberty freed them from materialism and covetousness to love and care for one another. This is consistent with all forms of benevolence we see Christians engaged in in the New Testament. The Christians at Antioch "determined, everyone one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea." (Acts 11:29) Their generosity was something "determined" in their heart and mind to do. The Christians from "Macedonia and Achaia [were] pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.” (Rom. 15:26) No one forced them to give; they were "pleased" to do it. In fact, those from Macedonia had to "beg" Paul to be part of the relief effort. (2 Cor. 8:3-4)
There is a vast difference between Jesus Christ and, say, someone like Karl Marx. They both spoke about "the new man" and "the new society." These expressions are common to the vocabulary of both. But Marx saw the new man as a product of the new society. Change the environment, change the man. Jesus, on the other hand, saw the changed society as dependent upon the making of new men. To quote the Lord, "make the tree good and its fruit good." (Mt. 12:33) Jesus is the only one who has the power to change human nature because he is the only one who can change the human heart. Once the human heart is transformed, there is no limit to the influence for good that a person can have on the world around him. (Mt. 5:13-16)
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.