They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

The Lineage of Jesus: Miraculous Preservation of the Messianic Line

We know from reading and studying Scripture that the Jews of Jesus’ time were anxiously anticipating a Messiah. They were expecting a Savior figure that would bring them out of Roman captivity and lead them into a new age of prosperity and greatness that they had not experienced since their former great leader David, hundreds of years before.

From Old Testament passages and events, we know that this Messiah had to come from a very specific lineage, the lineage of King David. God had promised David specifically in 2 Samuel 7:13-16 that his kingdom would endure forever (also see Psalm 89:30-37). God also spoke through the prophet Isaiah that this promised Messiah would come from the stump of Jesse, David’s father (read Isaiah 4:2-6, Isaiah 9:6-7, Isaiah 11:1-2, and Isaiah 53:1-7). If someone was going to be considered as the Savior for the Jewish people, he was going to have to first be from the line of David.

Matthew, who was a Jew writing to a Jewish audience, is well aware of this situation and begins his gospel of the account of the life of Jesus by showing in chapter 1, verse 1, that Jesus’ genealogy does, in fact, go back to King David. Matthew 1:1 reads, “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham…” and then he lays out 42 prior generations to prove his point. Had you ever stopped to think what a miracle it was for God to have preserved that kingly line for all those generations? For God to honor His promise that the Messiah would come from David’s line, God would have to guarantee the presence of a surviving male descendant in every generation going forward up to Jesus’ birth. At first glance, it might not sound like all that big of an issue, until you realize how unlikely it would be in the normal course of affairs of life and death. Let’s look at a modern day example of what would be involved in keeping a male blood line intact for that much time.

Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president, is perhaps America’s best known leader. President Lincoln had four sons: Robert Todd Lincoln, Edward Baker Lincoln, William Wallace Lincoln, and Thomas Lincoln. Of those four sons, one died in infancy and another died as a youth. A third died in early manhood before he was married. The only one of President Lincoln’s sons to marry was Robert Todd and he had three children; two daughters and a son. His son, however, died before he ever married. In less than three generations, approximately one hundred years from the time Lincoln was born, his direct male line had disappeared. No one today can claim to be a direct descendant of Abraham Lincoln; his blood line is extinct. Think of your own family heritage and how quickly the male blood line can disappear. Keeping David’s lineage intact for all those generations down to Mary and Joseph was an amazing miracle. God delivered on His promise when He told Mary in Luke 1:32-33 that the son she was about to give birth to would be that long-awaited Messiah who would fill David’s throne.

Peter (Acts 2:30) and Paul (Acts 13:23 and Romans 1:2-4) both confirm that Jesus was the promised Messiah from the line of David and Jesus confirms this fact himself in Revelations 22:16, when He says, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you[a] this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”

This advent season, stop and think of what a wonderful gift we have received and the promises that were kept to give us the hope of eternal life. Merry Christmas!

Adventus: The Coming

The word “Advent” (coming, or arrival of a notable event or person) is not a word that is in common usage in twenty-first century English. For those people in the more liturgical Christian denominations, they know the word is used for the four-week Advent season that leads up to the day of Christmas and the birth of the Christ child. For the rest of the church, it is not even a word that is familiar or often used. Where did the word come from and what did the early believers hear when they heard the term? A look back to the origin of the word and the customs surrounding it will give us an unbelievable picture of what the early believers were thinking when they heard this term used to describe the coming of their Savior, Jesus, the Christ.

“Advent” is derived from the Latin word “Adventus” (Greek: parousia). During the time of the Roman domination of the world, “Adventus” was a term reserved almost exclusively for the Roman Caesars. Adventus was a ceremony in which a Caesar was formally and ceremonially welcomed into a city. When the ruling Caesar won a military campaign or when a city was dedicated to a Caesar or another Roman God’s divinity, an Advent celebration was held in that city to confirm their deity and give them great honor and adulation. These ceremonies were not only held in Rome, but in many of the great conquered cities in the Roman Empire. All the major cities under Roman control were in competition with each other for the prestige to be known as the ”neokoros” – the protector and center of worship for a Roman deity, or the Roman Emperor that was in power. A great example of this is the city of Ephesus where Paul stayed for three years and the church to whom he wrote the book of Ephesians (also see the story of Paul in Ephesus in Acts:19 and Acts:20). At that time, Ephesus was not only the neokoros for the goddess Artemis, but also the neokoros for the Flavian family of emperors: Vespasian, Titus and Domitian.

To honor these great emperors and confer deity upon them, huge ceremonies were held in these Roman cities. Tremendous effort would go into sprucing up the city and completing building projects for statues and temples to commemorate these Adventus celebrations. Once the time had arrived and the city was ready, Caesar would take a huge entourage from Rome, complete with the Praetorian guard and several legions of troops, to travel to the place that was going to honor him. This huge assembly of royalty and troops could be seen for miles as they approached the city. Caesar would be mounted on a magnificent white horse and in full battle armor. Word would spread throughout the city that Caesar had arrived and was just outside the city gates. All the city dignitaries would lead the townspeople outside the city gate to meet and welcome the honored guest and his assembly. They would form a circle around the coming King and bow before him. They would honor him with words and proclamations and then welcome him into the city to see the new statues and temples that were built to deify their king. The entire procession would then march back into the city and the Advent celebration would begin. This huge event would last for several days and no expense would be spared to honor their deified “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords”.

With this background in your mind, now try and picture the word ”Advent” and imagine the coming of our “King of Kings” as it is described in the Book of Revelation and in other places in scripture. Doesn’t it make the thought of his second coming feel so much more real and powerful? At Christmas time, we not only celebrate Jesus’ first Advent as a baby, but also his Second Advent when He will come again as a conqueror in all His power and glory. During this second Advent, Jesus will come, with the armies of heaven, riding on a white horse (Revelation 19:11-16) and Christians will fall before and acknowledge Him. He will lead us into the new heavenly city where we will worship and praise Him for eternity (Revelation 21 and 22). What a cataclysmic and earth-changing event this will be! In light of the historical background for Advent, shouldn’t the Christian church make a bigger attempt to recover the meaning and awesomeness of the Advent season?

P.S. Read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and see if you don’t notice an Advent in Paul’s description of Christ’s returning.

The Second Moses Found in the Christmas Story

The Christmas Story is always portrayed and remembered as a wonderful and warm event with pleasant and happy feelings. The soft manger scene with Mary and child, the joyful angels, excited shepherds, and expectant and adoring wise men are the way the story is always told. We limit our story from the Text to the positive part that is full of heavenly promises and peace on earth and good will to men. However, there is a very disturbing part of the text that is never mentioned in the Christmas Story and that is the killing of the babies by Herod. This slaughter of innocent children vividly portrays the violent world into which Jesus was born. Only Matthew includes this hideous story in his events of the birth of Jesus. Why did Matthew include this part of the birth story in his gospel? We have to remember that Matthew was a Jew and his target audience was his fellow Jewish brethren. His main purpose was to prove to his Jewish readers that Jesus was the promised Messiah that had been expected for generations. He did this by showing how Jesus, in His life and ministry, fulfilled the Hebrew (Old) Testament Scriptures. Matthew uses more quotations from the Old Testament than any other New Testament author and uses a lot of Jewish terminology in his writings. What is the significance of the killing of the babies in the Christmas Story and what does it have to do with Jesus as the Messiah?

Why did Matthew and not Mark, Luke, or John, make sure that this part of the Christmas Story was known?

One possibility is that Matthew, because of his Jewish background, wanted to portray Jesus as the “new” or “second” Moses. In the book of Exodus, Moses was born into the same kind of circumstances. Pharaoh was having every male Jewish baby killed and the baby Moses only escaped through divine intervention and miraculous circumstances. Moses then grew up to be God’s chosen instrument to save the Jewish nation from bondage. Now, here is baby Jesus, hundreds of years later, also escaping death at the hand of an earthly king who was having every baby boy slaughtered. Again, God intervened in history and saved the baby Jesus, and then used Him as His chosen instrument to save the Jewish people from their bondage. Jesus, in this sense, was the “second Moses” to come to save the Jewish people. This fulfilled the prophecy given by God to Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15, which says, “The Lord will raise up for you a prophet like me (Moses) from among your own brothers. You must listen to him…. I will put my words in his mouth”. (See also Are You the Prophet?)

This image of Jesus as the new or second Moses is found throughout the Gospels and the Epistles, but this is a place that I hadn’t seen it before. Matthew was making yet another connection from the Hebrew Testament to Jesus as He fulfilled one prophecy after another to show that He was the promised Messiah, sent by God. It makes for another fascinating piece of the puzzle that is, “God’s very words to us”, the Bible!

The Wise Men and the Star

Another little interesting chapter in our misunderstanding of the setting of the Christmas story is found in our perception of the wise men. This story, only found in the book of Matthew, is one that is seemingly familiar to all Christians. However, when you really look into the story culturally and historically, it is amazing to see how may misconceptions surround this event. Let’s do a careful reading and look at several things we thought we knew about the wise men and discover what the facts really are.

Adoration of the Magi by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

  1. There were three wise men: No number is mentioned in the account in Matthew. The fact that three different types of gifts were presented (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) has given rise to the idea that there must have been three men that carried them. There actually could have been any number of men.
  2. They were kings: The bible account does not call them kings, but calls them magi. The word magi, sometimes translated wise men, is the root word from which we get our word “magic”. They were learned men who were knowledgeable about many things including the stars. They were often placed in positions in the king’s court and were consulted for interpretation and guidance. For example, Nebuchadnezzar, in the Book of Daniel had a stable of court magi whom he consulted on various items including interpreting his dreams. When Daniel was able to interpret the King’s dream and the magi couldn’t, Daniel was promoted to head magi.
  3. They were from the Orient (the Far East): The Bible says “from the east”. The east in Bible times was the desert land east of the Jordan and more specifically present day Saudi Arabia. This is where frankincense and myrrh were grown and produced. Another interesting thing to note is that the wise men said they saw the star “in the east” and they followed it. If they were from the east and the star was in the east and they followed it, they would have ended up in a far different place than Israel! This problem stems from the translation, “in the east”. That same phrase can also be translated, ”at its rising”. The magi saw the star when it appeared in the sky in such a position that made them think that it said to them that the savior of the Israelites had been born and they actually followed it to the west to get to Jerusalem.
  4. One of them was a black man: Highly unlikely considering where they came from. One thing most scholars now agree upon was that at least one of them was probably a woman. The reason they have come to that conclusion is that the wise men stopped and asked for directions (just kidding)!
  5. They visited the baby Jesus at the manger scene: Nativity scenes all have the wise men with their camels standing around the manger. The wise men aren’t even mentioned in Luke’s account of the nativity scene. In Matthew 2:1 it says, “ Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east to Jerusalem”. Then in Matthew 2:11 it says, “when they came into the house”, this was not the same Greek word that they used to describe the place where Jesus was born. Also, it says that they saw the “child” and this is not the word that Luke uses to describe the baby Jesus. The word that is translated child in Matthew is a young boy and not the word for baby. Jesus could have been as much as two years old when the magi finally saw him because that was the age that Herod thought the baby might be after he talked to the magi and asked them how long it had been since they saw the star. Whatever age Jesus was when the wise men saw Him, He was not a baby in a manger, but a young child living in Bethlehem with His parents before they fled into Egypt and eventually settled in Nazareth.

All of these differences surrounding the Nativity Story were very revealing to me because I realized that I had let someone else explain God’s word to me. A careful study exposed some interesting facts that were different than I had been taught. None of these facts really change the meaning of the story, but it definitely helps give you a better mental picture of the story as it probably played out. Next Christmas season try to remember some of these new mental pictures as you celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Shepherds in the Field

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”
– Luke 2:8

In our Christmas manger scenes there are always several shepherds that are placed around the display. These shepherds are always 35-40 year old, bearded men. In reality in the Middle East, almost all the shepherding is done by very young children, most of them girls. In the Middle Eastern culture, the men do very little of the menial work. You might find them sitting under a tree watching their children handle the livestock, but they rarely do the labor themselves. Even today in Israel, you almost never see older men actually tending the sheep. Instead, younger people are given the job of walking with and taking care of the animals. A great Old Testament example of this is when Samuel came to Jesse’s house to decide who would be the king to succeed Saul. He looked at all the older sons and then asked if there were any more. David, the youngest of the brothers, was out tending the sheep. Most scholars think he was around ten years old when Samuel came to anoint him. It is highly unlikely that the shepherds that were visited by the angels on the night that Jesus was born were older men. They were most likely young boys and/or girls that got to see that miraculous sight.

Fields Near Bethlehem

Also, the fact that the shepherds were, “in the fields” is very significant. For most of the year the shepherds kept their sheep in the wilderness or desert areas of Israel. They moved the sheep constantly, looking for enough grass to keep them going. The desert was where the shepherd stayed with his sheep, even from the earliest times in Israel. They only came to and were allowed into the fields at one certain time of year. The word used here for field denotes a specific type of cultivated land, not just land in general. The fields in Israel are only found in a narrow mountainous strip in the center of the country, around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. These fields were where the farmers raised their barley, wheat and other grains. The wheat was typically harvested in late June and July, much the same as in the United States. After the wheat had been completely harvested, there was a two week period where the poor people could come in and glean the fields. God instructed the Jewish people not to cut the corners of their fields, but to leave some for the poor, the alien and the widows (see Leviticus 19:9-10, Leviticus 23:22, and the story of Ruth). Only after the last day allowed for gleaning would the shepherds be allowed into the fields with their sheep to eat the stubble and whatever else remained. The time of year that they would have been allowed into the fields would have been approximately the first to the middle of August. They would have stayed in the fields eating and fertilizing until late September or mid October – departing in time for the owners to prepare their fields for next year’s crop. The early rains in Israel usually start to fall in late October and November and the farmer would have to have his soil prepared and ready by then. If the shepherds were in the fields when Jesus was born, what does that say about the date of December 25 as his birthday? There is a lot more to this that we don’t have time in this limited space to cover, but it is a fascinating study! At the least it certainly begs for the possibility of a different date than what we traditionally celebrate as the birth of the Christ child.

Now that we have covered the trip by Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the manger scene and the shepherds, it is now time to take a look at the wise men that came, following a star to this now famous little town in Israel.

No Room in the Inn

“And she gave birth to her first born, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” – Luke 2:7

When we get to this part of the Christmas Story, we have a vision of Joseph and Mary pulling in on their donkey to a motel after dark and finding the “No Vacancy“ sign already on. Joseph goes inside and presses the bell, but the innkeeper comes out and gruffly says, “We got no rooms!”

The problem with this mental picture is that the English translation of the phrase “no room in the inn”, has taken on the meaning that there was an inn that had a number of rooms that were already occupied. The Greek words that are used here do not refer to rooms in an inn, but refers to space (topos) in an area, as in “there is no more space on my counter for another appliance”. Instead of no room, there was no space in the “katalyma” (Strong’s 2646) or the word translated in this verse as “inn”. However, this is not the ordinary word used for a commercial inn. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, also occurring in Luke (Luke 10:25-37), the Samaritan takes the wounded man to an inn. The Greek word that Luke uses here is, “pandocheion” (Strong’s 3829). The first part of this word means, “all” and the second part means, “receive”. The pandocheion is the place that receives all and is a commercial inn or motel. So, if Luke wanted his reader to think that Joseph and Mary were turned away from an inn, why didn’t he use this same word that he used later on in his Gospel? What does “katalyma” mean? It simply means, “a place to stay” and can refer to many types of shelters. The three that are options for this story are inn, house, or guest room. Luke’s choice is guest room because he uses this same word, ”katalyma” on another occasion in Luke Chapter 22 when he describes the story of the upper room. The room the disciples were to eat the Passover meal (Luke uses “katalyma”) was a guest room in a private home. This makes perfect sense when you put it back into the birth story. Luke is telling his readers that Jesus was placed in a manger because in that home the guest room was already full.

This leads to the next question: what and where was the manger? Westerners always think of a manger as a stable or barn that is separate from the sleeping quarters of the home. In reality, at this time in the Middle East, homes were simple two room structures containing a family room and an attached guest room. Some dwellings were simply caves that had been walled in and expanded into two-room homes. At night, some of the family’s animals were taken into the family room part of the house. The place where the animals stayed was in a step-down area close to the main entrance. A manger was made of stone (not wood) and was either carved into the floor of the house or brought into the house where the animals were kept and was used for their feed and water (see picture). A manger in the Middle East is a feed and water trough made of stone.

To summarize, what Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus is that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, where they were received into an ordinary peasant home and were graciously allowed to stay in the part of the house where the host family stayed with their animals. Their guest room was already occupied. Fitting with early Christian tradition, the home could have even been an expanded cave. When Mary gave birth, she wrapped her newborn son and put him in a stone manger and covered him with a blanket. It would have been a humble, yet loving environment for the birth of the baby Jesus.