Archive for the 'Devotional' Category

Wooo-zahThis is a phrase a good friend of mine used to have to ‘whisper’ in my ear – sometimes at jackhammer decibels.

We all get wound up at times. No question. There are a number of things in this world to be outraged about, and a number of things to stand for. In the heat of passion, things are said, names are called, and uncharitable feelings spill out of our mouths and pens.

My comment about “rabid watchdogs” being “put down” was exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Over-the-top hyperbole. Unwise. About two notches too high.

While the topic of the article was, I still believe, spot on, my anger got the best of me and I have sinned against a good number of brothers and sisters in Christ. Please forgive me.

Recently, Jim Bublitz put together a hit piece on my comments about those who use Calvinism as a club. Whether he really believes what he wrote or not, his commentary on what I believe about my brothers and sisters in Christ who follow the system put together by Calvin is nowhere near the truth. I certainly believe that there are those who hold the solas as tightly as scripture, whether they would admit to it or not, and that when they do so it would fit the definition of “another gospel”. I pray for them, that they would repent, and hope that none will follow in those footsteps.

However, it is very likely that I have been cavalier with those comments and that Christian brothers and sisters may have felt that I was including them amidst the non-specific roll of Calvinists in my comments. I became aware of this when Rick I commented about this several months back. For this I am sorry, and I repent. I will do my best to be more specific and less hyperbolic with such comments in the future, and I am sure that if I am not, someone will be there to quote this article back at me…

Dial it back a notch or two…

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Dial it back a notch or two, Chris L, dial it back a notch or two…

It’s good advice for me, and – if you’ve commented here today – it might just be good advice for you, as well…

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Jeff Manion recently gave an excellent sermon at Mars Hill Bible Church called ‘Window Washing‘, which I have found quite applicable to the discussions we have been having of late, and to the basic theology of our site: Finding the Christ-honoring way which sits somethwere between the poles of phariseeism and hedonism – between legalism and looking no different from the world – between self-righteous sanctimony and lassez faire postmodernism.

This link should be good for the next 10 weeks or so…

Enjoy!

 
icon for podpress  Window Washing: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download
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…and why you should read a book before you review it!

This past Friday night, I attended Rob Bell’s ‘The gods Aren’t Angry” Tour stop in Indianapolis. While I was tempted to write a blow-by-blow review of the presentation, I think that John over at Verum Serum has already done a pretty spot-on description of the basics of that Rob talked about.

I still would like to offer some thoughts on this, in light of the multiple arguments going on about what Rob left out and what the topic actually wasn’t about.

The Topic

The best way to describe the overall topic matter would be to say that Rob Bell was giving a narrative defense of how we are saved by faith in what God has done and not by works that we have to do. It is about God being at peace with us because of what HE sacrificed, and not an angry god that leaves us in limbo as to whether he loves us or not – requiring more and more sacrifices (works) to appease His anger.

The Audience

It was fairly apparent from the inside jokes and language chosen by Bell that his primary audience was one that already had a basic grasp of Christianity. While the aspects of the gospel message were included, this was designed to help individual Christians take the next step in understanding their relationship with and to God.

The Controversy

Most, if not almost all, of the controversy stems from the title and whether or not God is ‘angry’ with sin. To spend all of your time arguing about whether or not sin angers God is to argue about something that wasn’t the topic of Bell’s conversation, and is the equivalent of writing a review (positive or negative) of a book you haven’t read.

The Actual Message

Bell’s talk was divided into five basic parts:

Part I: The Basis of the Sacrificial System

Here, Rob talked about the origins of sacrifice, where man could see the things happening in the world that affected him, but he could not control – the sun, the stars, the moon, growing seasons, pregnancy, and on and on.  Out of this, man believed that each of these things had a ‘god’ which kept it going.  When things were not well (like with drought), it meant that gods were at conflict with each other – or that they were witholding their favor because of something man did.

So, man then created ways in which to sacrifice to the gods by making altars (Bell had a replica of the Temple altar as his only stage prop), and sacrificing things on those altars which were representative of that which they were trying to appease the gods.

The problem arose, though, in that they had no connection to these gods to know if they were angry with them or not.  If the crops did well, they wanted to make sure that they sacrificed more, lest the gods be angry over them not giving enough.  But how much was enough?  If the crops did poorly, then perhaps they hadn’t given enough, and they needed to give more.  Or they needed to give something more valuable to themselves (like their own sex organs or their own children).  This led to a vicious cycle where they needed to bless the gods and sacrifice to them more and more, and to find things more and more valuable to themselves to sacrifice to the gods.

Part II: Abraham

And so then along comes Abraham.  The One true God contacts him directly (something new) and tells him to leave his household (which means more than just physically leaving it, but to also leave all of its practices behind).  This was also something new.  Then, instead of God telling Abraham how to bless Him, God says that He will bless Abraham, and that Abraham will pass on those blessings to other people.  This was radically different.

Then, when Isaac was born, God tells Abraham to bring him up to Mount Moriah and to sacrifice him.  While much of the Christian emphasis has been on how faithful Abraham was in taking his own son to kill him (”flannelgraph that one”, Rob added), the end of the story comes when God provides the sacrifice – not Abraham.

Part III: Leviticus

When the children of Israel left Egypt, God gave them a sacrificial system.  In this, what was required for sacrifice was specified (which eliminated the need to guess how much God wanted), and instructed that the worshipper bring the sacrifice to the altar, to sacrifice it to God, and to then leave, knowing that he was at peace with God (which eliminated the need to guess whether or not God was at peace with you).  This was radically different than all of the surrounding nations and the pagans in the land, who were still following the old sacrificial systems (from Part I).

Within Leviticus, there was even an offering specifically for peace.  In this offering, the worshipper would take a part of his sacrifice to the altar, so that he could be at peace with God, and then he would take the remainder of the sacrifice back to his family and celebrate that they were at peace with God.

Part IV: Jesus 

When Jesus arrived on the scene, the sacrificial system had been taken over by the Sadducee party, which had turned it over to create their own source of wealth.  This system, they enforced with the occupying Roman forces (from the Antonia, right next to the Temple), who tortured and crucified many people who ran afoul of the system.  And so Jesus comes onto the scene and threatens this sytem in multiple ways, so he had to be killed, and was then resurrected.

In sacrificing the most precious part of Himself, Jesus, God did away with the Levitical sacrificial system and permanently made peace with those who would claim Jesus’ sacrifice as their own.

Part V: Us

In the Psalms, Micah, the gospels, Romans and Hebrews, we find out that the sacrifices are not for God – they are for us.  He desires obedience, not sacrifices.  So, in the ritual at the altar – sacrificing for your sins and then walking away from the altar, knowing you are at peace with God – the most important part for God is us being at peace with Him.

Repentence is not an act that we perform (or a sacrifice that we make) – this follows the old mode of sacrifice, where we try to give something to God so that He will make peace with us.  Rather, repentence is walking in a way that would not lead us to make this sacrifice in the first place – it is God’s gift to us.  Jesus paid a price that we don’t have to keep trying to pay, whether it is through the “right” rituals or observances or through sacrificing things He has given to us.  Rather, we are to be “living sacrifices” (an interesting contradiction/juxtaposition, Bell noted), where we give ourselves to God all of the time, knowing that we are at peace with Him.

It is during this part of the talk that Bell gives numerous personal examples that all tie into this theme.

In Short

“the gods are not angry” was an excellent presentation for any Christian, and a great way to start a conversation with an unbeliever.  For me, it put together the pieces of the sacrificial system and how this thread carried through the entire Bible.

What it didn’t do was tell everyone “you’re OK, so don’t worry because God’s not angry with you” – which is what some folks just want to believe he said.  There is an old adage that is so true:  “If you are searching for fault, you will always find what you are looking for.”  This seems to be the case with the critics of this particular tour.

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The HerodionAfter Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

Part I: Getting the Whole Story
Part II: The Time of Jesus’ Birth
Part III: Jesus’ Parents
Part IV: The Location of Jesus’ Birth

Of all the kings in the history of the land of Israel, none has ever even approached the wealth of King Herod the Great. In today’s dollars, even Bill Gates would be a pauper in comparison to Herod’s wealth. While Solomon, known for his wealth and power, had to enlist slave labor for all of his projects, Herod paid all of his workers from his own pocket (supplemented with taxes), and he was respected by many of the non-religious Jews and immigrants throughout Israel. Despite this, he has been relegated to the role of a baby-killing tyrant, and a bit player in the coming of the King of the Universe. What you may not realize is how he and his wealth figure into the Christmas story.

Background

Herod was an Idumaean (a descendant of Esau, whose lands were to the south of Israel, sometimes called Edom) who, through a great deal of intrigue and intermarriage became the King of the Jews (declared by the Roman Senate) in 37 B.C. As a descentant of Esau, he was seen as an illegitimate ruler of the religious Jewish community from the start, but his family connections, his brutal quenching of zealot insurrection in the Galilee, and the marriage to his niece, Mariamne, of the Hasmonean clan (the family of the Maccabees) cemented his rule in Israel.

Herod the Great was, by profession, an incredible engineer, trained in Rome. Combining his passion for building with his family’s vast wealth (gained via the spice trade his family controlled, with the main conduit from east to west going through Israel), he set to make Israel the greatest jewel in the crown of Rome.

Building a Legacy

Caesarea by the seaAt Caesarea Maritima (left), he sought to built the greatest port in the Mediterranean – double the size of Alexandria in Egypt – pouring concrete at a depth of 150 feet below the water to create the largest man-made harbor in the ancient world. Around 8 B.C., Herod hosted the Olympic Games for the entire Empire in a huge marble complex built in this city by the sea. (A vain man, worried about how his own people would compete, some scholars record that he added medals for second and third place, a tradition later carried on by the Modern Olympic Games).

With his port at Caesarea, he achieved two goals: 1) He gained Roman favor, by having one of two non-Italian ports in the Eastern Mediterranean at which the Roman Navy could land and transport troops to and from the Via Maris trade route; and 2) He sercured a key port for his family’s spice business, giving way to even greater wealth.

In Jerusalem, Herod saw the Temple and the annual festivals it hosted as a vast, unrealized source of wealth (imagine today, a city that hosted the Superbowl four times a year, every year). Unfortunately, though, the Temple was unable to hold the numbers of people who potentially wanted to visit Jerusalem.

Working with the Sadducee party, and gaining the bonus of nearly free labor (priests, in the service to the Temple), he tore down and buried the old Temple, building a new one – capable of holding more than ten times what the previous one would hold. This Temple, which rivaled any other in existence, both endeared him to the professionally religious crowd (which ruled the people from Jerusalem in most matters), impressed the Romans and other citizens of the empire, and (most importantly) brought even more wealth to Herod.

Besides Masada and other great works, one of Herod’s greatest achievements was the Herodion (see photo at the top of the page for a modern view of the Herodion’s base above Bethlehem). Here, Herod build his personal palace on the edge of the desert, complete with a pool the size of a soccer field, filled with fresh water carried in from the surrounding area.

Today, all that remains of the Herodion is a large hill – its base – which did not even exist when Herod began construction. A 400+ foot-tall tower palace, Herod had his construction workers literally move a mountain of dirt, compact it, and build a tower within and above it, where he, his family and his court could live for months at a time in opulace. Even the Caesars in Rome did not live as lushly as Herod in even one of his many palaces – especially the Herodion.

[It should be noted that Jesus, sitting on the side of the Mount of Olives with his disciples, commented "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done." From where he was, between Bethany and Jerusalem, the dominant feature in the landscape was the Herodion, a mountain moved by Herod. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Romans destroyed the Herodion, throwing many of its huge stones into the sea...]

To make a long story short – it is hard to oversell the power, wealth and majesty of Herod and his works – especially when adjusted and compared to wealth today.

The Picture

The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

The original recipients of the gospels would have been familiar with Herod and his legendary status. And so it is that, in the story of Jesus’ birth, we have the King of the Universe, a descendant of Jacob, born to unwed, poor teenage parents in an unsanitary shepherd’s cave in the shadow of the greatest palace of perhaps the greatest (in terms of wealth and comfort) king in the world, a descendant of Esau.

This, in and of itself, is a picture of Jesus’ life and purpose – that God is not demonstrated in wealth, power, prestige or renown, but in humble service, love and sacrifice. But we miss this picture if we de-sanitize Jesus’ birth…

The house of Jacob will be a fire and the house of Joseph a flame; the house of Esau will be stubble, and they will set it on fire and consume it. There will be no survivors from the house of Esau.” The LORD has spoken. (Obadiah 1:18)

P.S. The Herodion Guard

In an interesting footnote of History, after the death of Cleopatra, her Roman-provided bodyguards – blonde-haired Gauls – were reassigned to Herod the Great and housed in his palace at the Herodion. While there are no records of the Slaughter of the Innocents outside of the Bible, since it occurred in Bethlehem, it is highly likely that this would have been conducted by Herod’s private guard and not Roman guards. Gauls were from Northern Europe, from the region of Modern-day Germany. And so it would have been nearly 2000 years after the Gauls killed Jewish babies at the behest of a mad ruled that the modern Gauls did the same to the descendents of these same people.

Who says history doesn’t repeat itself.

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A palestinian woman with one of her sheepIn Part I of this series, we examined the need to view the entire Christmas story arc, and in Part II we discussed the probability of Jesus’ birthday on Sukkot (mid-September to early-October), and in Part III, we took a closer look at Mary and Joseph and their outcast status.

Today, we will be viewing the stage upon which much of the Christmas story is set – the “stable”.

The Word

First, let us examine the actual scriptural references (all from Luke 2) to the place where Jesus was born:

While they were [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. [...]

The angel said to [the shepherds], “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” [...]

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.

This is it – no mention of a ’stable’, just a child, wrapped in cloths, in a manger.

The Manger

What, exactly, is a “manger”, in the context of this passage? If we look at the dictionary definition, we will find:

A trough or an open box in which feed for livestock is placed.

We should realize, though, that the English translation of the word φατνη as ‘manger’ is more in line with the first part of that definition (the trough/open box) and the entire place in which the ‘manger’ exists (which we refer to as a ’stable’). In Israel, you did not pen animals and feed them, as we tend to do in European farming (as it existed during the time the Bible was translated to English) and modern farming. Rather than this, a ‘manger’ was used for water, not food, and was typically a trough in the ground or a stone used to put water for the animals.

So, contrary to the image we get in “Away in a Manger” of Jesus comfortably asleep in a raised wooden rack-manger full of straw, what we should see is a trough in the ground with just some bits of cloth wrapping him.

The Animals

Bethlehem sits right on the edge of where the land of milk (sheep and goats) meets the land of honey (fruit and grain), and nowhere near the Jezreel valley or coastal plain of Israel. In Bethlehem during the first century, as well as now, there would be no cattle present, no camels, no horses and few donkeys. The animals you would find in Bethlehem would all be sheep and goats, with the possibility of a few oxen (though most likely not).

The principal livestock in Bethlehem was sheep. In fact, during the first century, from Josephus we know that only sheep raised in Bethlehem could be used for Passover sacrifice in the Temple (basically as part of a corrupt racket run by the Sadducee party). So, contrary to “Away in a Manger”, there would be no cattle ‘lowing’, and contrary to most Nativity scenes, the plethora of animal species would not have been present. Just sheep and (maybe) goats.

We’re also clued in to this by the use of φατνη, as well, because the only places you will find a ‘manger’ in Bethlehem would be in shepherd’s caves, of which the area around Bethlehem is full. Which brings us to…

Livestock pen in Mt. ArbelThe “Stable”

In our Nativity scenes, we are greeted with the image of a free-standing shack/barn. In all truth, you would be hard-pressed to find enough wood with which to build a single “stable” of this sort in Bethlehem. Everything was built of stones, or in the case of housing livestock, in penned-in caves (which is still practiced in the Galilee region today – see the picture (left) of livestock caves in Mt. Arbel).

So, rather than a wooden stable, an accurate Nativity Scene would be set in a shepherd’s cave.

Most of these types of caves have the same general layout:

1) A large common area where the sheep are kept, with a floor which might be 6 inches to several feet thick with centuries’-worth of sheep waste.
2) A small area near the front of the cave blocked off with rocks, where the shepherds can sleep and where they can keep their few belongings without fear of them being trampled by the sheep, and where they could attend sick or wounded sheep.

3) A slightly raised area – typically stone – with a trough (manger) in which to put water for the sheep, between the shepherds and the sheep.

Such a cave would have smelled awful, but it would have been a safe place to stay, out of the elements, but close to Bethlehem.

From Luke, we already know that it was the time of year in which the shepherds were in the fields with the sheep at night (see Part II for more significance of this), which would have left their caves mostly unused during this time of year. Additionally, we are told that Jesus was in the φατνη because there was no room in an inn. Additionally, the angels told the shepherds that Jesus would be found in a manger, and the shepherds seem to have known where to look for him from just those directions.

Painting the Scene

So, if we are to look at the Nativity within the context of the scripture and the culture in which it happened and was written, we get a much different and more powerful picture.

The Lamb of God, who existed in the beginning and was with God and was God, lowered himself to the very bottom of those at the bottom. The Lamb of God was born in a cave used for sheep to young, poor, ostracized parents whose only cradle was a water trough in that cave.

The Lamb of God, who would later be sacrificed for the sins of the whole world, was born – literally – in the midst of the flocks of Bethlehem, the only sheep which were fit for sacrifice in the Temple, according to the rules of the day.

When we gloss over Jesus’ humble beginnings and sanitize them, we miss the image of the power and the humility expressed by God who came to walk among men.

Let us not forget or sanitize him and everything he was – 100% human and 100% God.

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Galilee in the morningIn Part I and Part II of this series, we examined the purpose of God’s people throughout history, both before and after the coming of Jesus. That purpose can be summed up as being a) to be light, in order to b) give light, so that c) the whole world will know that our God is the One True God.

Here in Part III, we will retread some ground previously covered to answer the questions “what is salvation?” and “what is eternal life?”

From Part II of this series:

Paul’s turn of phrase “in Christ” is a key in helping us understand our freedom and our mission. When we are ‘in Christ’, God does not condemn us for our sins, and we are not expected to pay a sacrificial atonement for them. In other words, when God judges us, he sees Jesus (because we are “in” him), and his blamelessness is imputed to us.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…

This frees us from the need to pay God back – because we cannot – just like when God saved the children of Israel from Egypt. Paul again makes this clear:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Because we are free, that allows us to complete our mission – to be a light to give light – to be blessed to be a blessing – for the purpose of demonstrating to the world that our God is the One and only God of the universe.

The Kingdom

What was the #1 topic spoken of most often by Jesus in the gospels (Hint: this was mentioned by Brant Hansen in a recent Podcast)? Answer: The Kingdom of God – which is mentioned 102 times in the gospels and 28 times in the remainder of the New Testament. Some examples:

At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea. (Luke 4:42-44)

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)

Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. (Acts 19:8-9)

Per Jesus’ teaching and the letters from his apostles, we know that the Kingdom is not a physical place, but it exists now and it is already among us who believe in him and follow his words. The Kingdom of God exists wherever a community of believers exist and things are with them as God would intend them to be here.

This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Because of our imperfection, the manifestation of His kingdom here is also imperfect, but there will be a time in which we will be made perfect, and His kingdom, thusly so.

For more on the concept of Kingdom, you can read these two articles from earlier this year as a start.

Salvation

What is salvation? Too often, our neo-Classical view of salvation is limited to the eternal destination that will be locked-in upon our leaving this life. When we hear about “eternal life”, we see this as beginning the millisecond after we leave this world. But this is not what Jesus taught.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

In the Hebrew mind of the first century, and in Jesus’ teaching, eternal life begins now, in the kingdom, and it continues on in the age to come.

So, when Jesus saves from our sins (now), we are set free to heal the world (now) without the need to atone for our sins. Is this a license to sin? By no means, according to Paul, but it is a freedom to live our lives in demonstration of gratitude to the One True God, so that the world may know that He is the One True God!

So What?

How does this apply to us, today? It is all about mindset. If we are just biding time, waiting to die so that we can be in the kingdom, we’ve completely missed the point. Rather, to live is Christ and to die is gain. While we are alive, we have the choice to bring about heaven on earth or hell on earth.

Jesus states:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of [God], but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Notice that Jesus’ emphasis is on “fruit” and the “kingdom”. Because this is a kingdom where leading is serving, where the first are last, where God’s people depend on him for their needs, and where the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger among us are the exhalted, we can see where this ‘fruit’ is manifest. Having all of the right orthodoxy on earth but bearing no fruit is just as bad as bearing bad fruit.

So if you’re a church that has a reputation for being a large country club for self-righteous jerks, you might want to consider that perhaps you’ve given up the kingdom to become a pharisee.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.

Salvation is about here and now – salvation from the sins you struggle with day-to-day, where the only hope to escape from them comes from the Father. Salvation from the need to try to appease God. Salvation from the need to appear holy on the outside, while inside you’re just a dirty cup. Salvation begins now, and it stretches out – into perfection – in eternity.

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Love as we understand it is supposed to be a display of tenderness and gentle devotion, and two young lovers in a meadow sometimes comes to mind. Who can forget our first love when our hearts were drawn to someone in school or the neighborhood? We might have been drawn by their eyes or hair or personality, but something about them captured our hearts and we experienced for the very first time the emotion we call love. It was all so like a fairy tale.

But how can we fully experience God’s love, and what about the Father can draw us to know and experience His love toward us as well as materialize within us a love for Him? Will it be the beauty of the mountains or the brightness of the stars? The majesty of the oceans or the wonder of the human figure? The expanse of the universe or the warmth of a mother’s affection? Which of these or others will God use to exhibit His matchless love for us? Of course all of these fall short in communicating the Father’s love but they all come with finite beauty and limited majesty.

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An excavated insula in CapernaumIn Part I of this series, we examined the need to view the entire Christmas story arc, and in Part II we discussed the probability of Jesus’ birthday on Sukkot (mid-September to early-October), as opposed to the semi-synchretistically chosen date of December 25.

In this installment, we will examine Jesus’ parents, comparing common belief/depiction of them to a contextual probability of who they were.

Marriage Customs

In Middle-eastern Jewish culture in the first century, like today, girls are considered to have reached an “age of accountability” at the age of twelve, or their first menstruation, whichever comes first. Upon reaching that age, the family would search for a prospective future mate for their daughter.

Upon finding an appropriate “match”, the families would gather together and announce a betrothal between the daughter (the lesser party, in that culture) of one family and the son (the greater party) of the other family. In that celebration, a blood sacrifice (typically a goat) would be made and a binding covenant declared between the families. Once declared, the betrothal could only be nullified in agreement between the two families, without cause. If there was cause, such as infidelity, to break the covenant, the patriarch of the family violating the covenant could be subject to death, if the offended family so desired. This was a serious thing!

In the Galilee region, once a betrothal was declared, the son would build a room onto his family’s house, preparing it as a place for he and his bride to live (these multi-room, multi-family houses, called insula, have been extensively excavated in Galilee cities in the past several decades). Once the father of the bridegroom decided that the time was right for the wedding to come about, he would tell his son, and the entire family would go to pick up the girl and bring she and her family back for the wedding celebration. At the culmination of the first night of the wedding feast, the bride and groom would enter their new home together and consumate the marriage (while everyone else waited and celebrated outside – talk about pressure to perform!). This image of bride and groom, preparation and wedding feasts is used in multiple stories told by Jesus.

But that’s a topic to examine a different day.

Mother Mary

All cultural indications from the Jewish culture and the Galilee region would suggest that Mary was 12-13 years of age at the time of her betrothal. With this in mind, and considering that most betrothal periods would last from 6 months to two years (at most), would make Mary 12 – 14 years old when she received the visit from the angel Gabriel.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18)

How often do we see Christmas reenactments on TV or at our churches in which Mary is a young twentysomething girl, as opposed to a 6th-, 7th- or 8th-grade girl? Not only that, but she’s 9 months pregnant!

Joseph

If we only know a little bit about Mary, we know even less about Joseph. Once again, if we follow Galillean Jewish tradition, Joseph would have been at least 13, though it is possible he was a few years older, since he is identified with a profession, which he would typically have learned from his father between the ages of 12 and 16.

There are a number of traditions which have suggested that Joseph was significantly older and a widower when he was betrothed to Mary. However, this came from the Catholic tradition which insisted this must have been the case, because of the belief that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth (a mistaken interpretation of Matthew 1:25). Thus, since Jesus had at least 4 brothers and 2 or more sisters (see Mark 6:3), many Catholics will argue that these siblings had to have come from Joseph via a prior marriage. This is highly unlikely and not supported by scripture.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mary-uh?
In Matthew 1, we read about Joseph:

Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

So, already, we can see Joseph’s an honorable fellow, unwilling to have Mary and/or her father disgraced (or potentially, killed) for her “infidelity”. What we might miss, not knowing this culture, is that Joseph was, in turn, exposing himself to a great deal of public disgrace in not divorcing here.

In not taking action to distance himself from Mary, Joseph was de facto admitting that he was the father of Mary’s baby (which would have been seen as a moral failure on his part, in primary responsibility), which should have resulted in an immediate binding declaration of marriage (without celebration) and disgrace to him and his family.

In Luke, we learn about the census of Caesar Augustus in approximately 4 B.C., and the events around Jesus’ birth.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

This passage is all we have in the Bible about the events specifically around the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. And it begs some questions, based on the context we’ve discussed – questions that don’t often get asked.

1) If Joseph was of the house and line of David, so was his father. Since he was not yet married, it would be sufficient for his father or grandfather to register his family in the Roman census. Instead, we have a 15- or 16-year-old boy taking his 9-months’-pregnant, 13-year-old bride-to-be on a dangerous 40+ mile walking journey (owning a donkey was a symbol of wealth, which does not seem to be indicative of Joseph’s circumstance). If he is not yet married, he should not be responsible for registering his family-to-be. Why isn’t Joseph’s family with him?

2) There was no room for them in the inn. In the middle-east, hospitality is prized above almost all other social values, so for there to be no room – in a town from which Joseph is descendant – is very strange. So – why would there be no room for a boy and his imminently expectant bride-to-be in a community which should have relatives, and where his father’s family should be staying?

Culturally, the best answer to these questions (and other similar ones) is that, in taking an obviously expectant Mary as his bride, Joseph was ostensibly admitting “guilt” in the circumstances, and had brought some degree of shame upon himself and his family, and was living out the consequences. This would explain why Joseph and Mary didn’t have anysupport from their extended families, why he would have to take Mary with him, and why nobody in Bethlehem would have room for them.
Another possibility which has been suggested is that Joseph had no extended family, but this does not make as much sense, as Joseph was learned in a profession that would have required familial apprenticeship to learn.

So What?

All too often, we paint an incredibly sanitized Christmas in our own cultural context, missing out on the desperate and dire circumstances of Jesus’ birth and the cultural lowliness and shame surrounding them. In trying to exhalt Jesus (which is a good thing – don’t get me wrong), we miss how low God allowed himself to go on the cultural and societal ladder in entering this world.

He came in the circumstances of the lowliest of the low, exhalting Himself in serving all other people, and dying the worst of deaths on our behalf. If we do not let him be who he was, we cannot fully appreciate who he is and what he went through for us – in life and in death.

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Doctrine is important and it forms the basis for what we know about God, but is there a difference between being devoted to Christ Himself and being devoted to a set of doctrines? It is sad to see some so devoted to their doctrines that they seem to lose the humble devotion that should be Christ’s alone. Like being devoted to your wife’s résumé and not her personally, we can get so caught up with our systematic theology, even if true, and lose our devotion to the Risen Christ. I have addressed that at FJL.

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