The Time-Line of Christmas – XII

December 29, 2013
Matthew 2:13-23

(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

I don’t want to end The Time-Line of Christmas series on a downer, but what we will look at today is a very real chapter in the account of the first Christmas.  It is not told as part of the warm and fuzzy story about Jesus birth.  But it is related to the visit of the wise men.  In the last blog we looked their visit and the presentation of the gifts they bore – “…gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11).  And although we ended at verse 12, there is no break between in the narrative between verses 12 and 13.  In Matthew 2:13 through 23 the story continues.  I will try to shorten the scripture to save space without losing the flow of what is written.

    Now when…[the wise men] had departed…an angel…appeared to Joseph in a
    dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt,
    and stay there until I bring you word:  for Herod will seek the young Child to
    destroy Him.”  When he arose, he…departed for Egypt, and was there until
    the death of Herod….Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the
    wise men, was exceedingly angry, and…put to death all the children who
    were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under,
    according to the time which he had determined from the wise men….But
    when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream
    to Joseph…saying, “Arise…and go into the land of Israel, for those who
    sought the young Child’s life are dead.”And he arose, and took the young
    child and his mother, and came into…Israel.  But when he heard that
    Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was
    afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside
    into…Galilee:  And he came and dwelt in…Nazareth….

They had come asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? ” (Matthew 2:2)  But Herod was king of the Jews!  The Roman senate had elected him to that position with that title 36 years before!  He planned to keep his throne – whatever it took to do it!

It’s called the slaughter of the innocents, and perhaps 20 or so boys – infants and toddlers – were murdered by Herod’s soldiers in the environs in and around Bethlehem.  But in a small town of about a thousand at that time – and where residents were often related and knew each other quite well – the heinous act would have resulted in great grief and many tears (see verses 17 and 18 left out of the account above).

This incident was entirely in keeping with the twisted personality of aging, sick and demented King Herod.  Any perceived threat to his throne resulted in the death of the offender.  Among those were his wife, her mother, his own sons, in-laws and many others who crossed him. Emperor Augustus remarked that “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son!”   Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century wrote that Herod was concerned no one would mourn his death.  So as the time approached, he invited many distinguished Jews to come to Jericho where he was, and commanded them to be killed when he died.  That way there would be proper mourning going on!  Mercifully, Herod’s order was not carried out.

But why would God let such a horrendous event take place?  These children were truly innocent!  We have to remember that we live in a fallen world, and the one who pulls the strings of godless society is described in John 10:10 as “The thief [who] does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.”  Jesus came to redeem us out of this world, although we remain in it for a time.  And that time can be tough, painful and frightening.  But as the Savior said in John 16:33, “…in Me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

If you would desire to know more about the devil and how he works his evil, I wrote 21 blogs from May 6 through June 21 on Know Your Enemy!

Something else – that many people overlook – is found in Isaiah 57:1 and 2 (NIV):

    The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken
    away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared
    from evil.  Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie
    in death.

Children – being considered righteous before the age of accountability – do not lose out if they die young.  And neither does any true believer lose out if they are called to go through terrible trials such as what these Bethlehem mothers went through.  And who knows that if those children lived, they might have to have gone through tremendous suffering later on!

Also Paul wrote in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”  In heaven God will more than make up for any difficulties in this phase of life.  Read the blog for July 10, The L – O – N – G View!

And so, in twelve blogs, we have looked at The Time-Line of Christmas.  I hope this has added new insight to your understanding of the events surrounding the birth of our Lord and Savior,  Jesus Christ.

The Time-Line of Christmas – XI

December 27, 2013
Matthew 2:1-12

(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

It’s after Christmas!  Why are we still on The Time-Line of Christmas?  Because what we consider part of the Christmas story stretches well beyond Jesus’ Bethlehem birth.  The visit of the wise men – often depicted as three kings gathered at the cradle – did not happen until up to two years after the Savior was born!  There is a lot of information that I have found concerning the wise men, so this blog is a bit longer than most.

This is the abridged story of the wise men from Matthew 2:1-12:

    Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem…wise men from the east came to
    Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For
    we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him.”  When
    Herod…heard these things, he was troubled….And when he had gathered all
    the chief priests and scribes…he inquired of them where the Christ was to be
    born.  So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by
    the prophet, ‘But you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah…out of you shall come
    a Ruler, Who shall shepherd my people Israel.’  Then Herod, when he had
    secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appear-
    ed.  And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for
    the young Child,…bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him
    also.”  …they departed; and, behold, the star…went before them, till it came
    and stood over where the young Child was….And when they had come into
    the house, they saw the young Child with Mary his mother, and fell down and
    worshiped Him.  And…they presented gifts to Him:  gold, frankincense, and
    myrrh.  Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to
    Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

Why do I say the wise men came up to two years after Jesus was born?

•    The star – whatever celestial manifestation it was – appeared about two years before.  (Compare Matthew 2:7 with Matthew 2:16).
•    They came into a house (Matthew 2:11), not a stable.  But then – considering my last blog – Jesus could very well have been born in a house!

Why are the wise men depicted as three eastern kings whose names – popularized by Henry Van Dyke in 1896 – were Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar?

•    There were three types of gifts presented – “…gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11).
•    Such rich presents are thought to be fitting gifts given by kings.
•    There may have been more than three wise men.  And they were not kings.  They are called in the Greek Magi, meaning magician. But a magician from an eastern kingdom – probably Babylon – was not like a modern day entertainer skilled in sleight of hand.  He would be like Daniel in the Old Testament, someone who was wise and of quick mind, and trained in all the knowledge, wisdom and culture of the kingdom.  Training would have included astronomy and astrology – close observation of the heavens.

How did the wise men know to follow the star, and why would they have associated it with the One “…born King of the Jews…” (Matthew 2:2)?

•    Daniel was a faithful Jew among many who were deported to Babylon 600 years before Christ.  He – and others – would have carried the Hebrew scriptures with them.  Daniel rose to be an important figure in the Babylonian government – a magi – as did his three companions, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.  We are more familiar with their Babylonian names – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  So future magis would have had ready access to Jewish prophecies.
•    Jacob prophesied concerning his twelve sons in Genesis 49.  In verse 10 (NIV) he says of Judah, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.
•    Balaam gave the following prophecy to Balak, king of Moab, in Numbers 24:17 through19.  It is regarded as pertaining to the Messiah by most Biblical scholars:

        I shall see Him, but not now: I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall
        come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel…while Israel does
        valiantly.  Out of Jacob One shall have dominion….

•    The prophesy that Isaiah gave to King Ahaz in Isaiah 7:14 says this: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”  Matthew 1:23 interprets Immanuel to mean, “…God with us.
•    There is also that wonderful prophecy of Messiah’s kingly reign in Isaiah 9:6 and 7:

        For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the govern-
        ment will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonder-
        ful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of
        the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon
        the throne of David, and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it
        with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The
        zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

Obviously, “…unto us…” in verse 6 refers to the Jews.
•    Isaiah 60:1 through 7 is thought to pertain to the magi.  Here it is in part – verses 1, 3, 6:

        Arise, shine; for your light has come!  And the glory of the LORD is
        risen upon you. …The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to
        the brightness of your rising….they shall bring gold and incense; and
        they shall proclaim the praises of the LORD.
•    In ancient times, the births of significant personages such as kings was believed to be heralded by signs and wonders in the heavens.

Putting it all together, I think you can see how these wise men of Babylon would have known a very significant event had happened when the star appeared.  In searching sacred writings for the meaning, they would have come upon references to the Messiah who would be “…King of the Jews….”  All that observation,  research, preparation and travel could very well have taken about two years.

And so the magi came….

The Time-Line of Christmas – X

December 25, 2013
Luke 2:8-20

(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

It is early Christmas morning, and so I write about this very day and hour long ago.  Our scripture is Luke 2:8-12, but for the sake of space, we will shorten it a bit, although it is still lengthy:

    And there were…shepherds living out in the field, keeping watch over their
    flock by night.  And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the
    glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.  Then
    the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings
    of great joy, which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in
    the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign to
    you:  You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” 
    And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host
    praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,
    good will toward men.”  …when the angels were gone away…the shepherds
    said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem….”  And they came with
    haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.  Now
    when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told
    them concerning this Child.  And all those who heard it marveled at those
    things which were told them by the shepherds….Then the shepherds returned,
    glorifying and praising God….

This passage has always encouraged me because I wonder, “Why, Lord, did you choose me?  You could have done a lot better!”  But the first to hear the good news of the Messiah’s arrival were lowly shepherds!

In the first century, shepherds in Palestine were not held in high regard.  Dr. Willis Britt, from the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration, in a paper entitled “The Good Shepherd,” wrote the following:

    Today’s pilgrims to the Holy Land are fascinated by the figure of the eastern
    shepherd….This estimation of shepherds was not shared by religious leaders
    in the first century CE.  Shepherding was considered a despised trade.  Joachim
    Jeremias tells us that shepherds were thought of as thieves.  The oral law
    actually forbade the purchase of milk and wool from shepherds for fear that they
    had been pilfered.  Jeremias further reveals that fathers refused to teach their
    sons this trade.  The trade too easily lent itself to dishonesty and thievery.

But then I read what Paul said in I Corinthians 1:26 through 29:

    For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh,
    not many mighty, not many noble, are called.  But God has chosen the foolish
    things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak
    things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base
    things of the world and things which are despised God has chosen, and the
    things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh
    should glory in His presence.

It is not a flattering picture of Christians!  But it is generally true!  Those who are considered by the world wise, mighty, noble – the movers and shakers of society – are not the most likely candidates to follow Jesus Christ!  For if you have all the resources you need, and you think you have all the answers to life, why in this world would you need a Savior?!!

But the “high and mighty” of this world are in for a rude awakening!  Remember what the angel said, “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11).  And He is not just “a Savior!  He is the ONLY Savior!  As Peter told the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:12, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Yes, the shepherds were honored by God to be the first to be told about the birth of Jesus the Christ.  And they were the first to witness that fact to others, for it is written, “Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.” (Acts 2:17).  And what made them so effective in this endeavor of telling others?  They were “…glorifying and praising God…” (Acts 2:20).  Now that catches other people’s attention!

What about you?  You may think you are nobody special, but you are special to God!  Have you responded to His call to seek out the Lord Jesus?  And then are you – as you give praise and glory to God – telling others about Him?  He is calling you – maybe not by the appearance of an angel – but He is calling you none the less!  What will be your response?

The Time-Line of Christmas – IX

December 23, 2013
Luke 2:1-7

(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

We come to that wonderful account of the first Christmas when the Savior was born.  Let’s look at Luke 2:1 through 7:

    And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
    that all the world should be registered.  This census first took place while
    Quirinius was governing Syria.  So all went to be registered, everyone to his
    own city.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth,
    into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of
    the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary his betrothed wife,
    who was with child.  So it was, that while they were there, the days were com-
    pleted for her to be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and
    wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger; because there
    was no room for them in the inn.

A lot has been supposed and added to the popular Christmas story because of what is written – or what is not written – in this account.

•    The trip from Nazareth – in the mountains of Galilee, to Bethlehem – was about 70 miles “as the crow flies,” the old-timers used to say.  Joseph and Mary went “…up from Galilee…into Judea, to…Bethlehem….”  But if they followed the normal route avoiding Samaria, they would have traveled probably 100 miles!.  They would have gone down the mountain from Nazareth and into The Great Plain, following it southeast to Scythopolis.  Then the route south would have taken them through the Jordan Valley to Jericho.  From Jericho it was a steep climb, then over the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem.  It was then on to Bethlehem, six miles south of Jerusalem. These miles were on well-used roads, for the most part.  But they were not like the roads we have today!

•    If it sounds strange to say, “up from” in Luke 2:4 rather than “down to,” it is because Bethlehem to the south is 2,543 ft above sea level – 98 feet higher than Jerusalem – while Nazareth is 1,050 feet above sea level.  So the destination of the trip was almost a third of a mile higher than the beginning!

•    The trip would have taken about a week, and Joseph and Mary probably  would have been part of a group of pilgrim travelers.  After all, King David had lived a thousand years before – and his descendants would number in the thousands and were scattered all over Israel!  Most likely, there were many Galileans who were part of David’s family line and had to travel south to register for the census. Mary would presumably have ridden upon a donkey while Joseph walked.

•    Mary – being almost nine months pregnant – did not have a comfortable trip!  The jouncing and bouncing on the back of a donkey for a week may have even helped initiate her labor!

•    Jesus’ birth – almost always portrayed as happening in a stable – more probably occurred in a house!  “…no room for them in the inn,” could be translated “…no room…in the guestroom.”  Bethlehem – being off the beaten track – most likely did not have a commercial inn.  But many houses had a guestroom in the rear of the house, off the main room for the family.  People and animals would enter by the same front door accessing the lower stable level.  The livestock would remain on this first level – central heating for the house! – with perhaps access to an additional stable area of a cave underneath some houses.  But people would climb steps to a family living area about four feet higher than that for the animals.  A manger was often carved into the floor of this upper level, near the edge where a cow or donkey could nibble hay or grain out of it.  This may have been where baby Jesus was placed – on fresh hay and the livestock shooed away.

•    Privacy issues for the birth were quite different in first century Palestine.  It does not say in our Lucan passage that Joseph and Mary were alone for the event!  Even the men might have been seated in the living area away from the midwife activity of the women.

•    Some see major problems with Luke’s description of a world-wide census in the days of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius.  It is too lengthy an issue to properly discuss here.  But I found good arguments in favor of the gospel account at the website,

New insight into the Christmas story, yes – but the central fact remains:  as St. Paul wrote in I Timothy 1:15: “…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners….”  Let us rejoice and celebrate this Christmas that indeed He did come into the world!

The Time-Line of Christmas – VIII, “The Test of Joseph”, part 2

December 20, 2013

Based on Matthew 1:18-25

(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

Slowly Joseph dropped his hand.  He felt so drained, so weak, he couldn’t even weep anymore.  He just lay down on the mat thinking of nothing.  Slowly, thoughts came again – the doubts, the sick feeling, the horror of Mary with child.  It was such a fantastic story.  Why would God pick Mary?  She was a lowly peasant girl, yet so important to him!  Her royal family had long since lost its trappings of royalty.  True, she was always sweet and gracious, so lovely, so kind.  But she was poor, and her parents were poor – oh, what would this do to her parents?  It would break their hearts!  Why would God choose Mary?  He wanted desperately to believe her, yet the doubt, the sick feeling – Mary with another man!

He rolled to his back and stared through the darkness at the ceiling where a beam joined the whitewashed wall.  The thought of Mary being intimate with someone else had been only a vague thought in the back of Joseph’s mild.  Now it started to take form and dominate his thinking like a violent storm rolling down from the mountains to the north.  As it poured in – black and threatening – it drove out all the other things that almost made sense, that Mary really was telling him the truth.

Joseph lay very still – a new terror grew within him.  Slowly, the echoing sound of the old rabbi reading from the third scroll of Moses:

    The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits
    adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall
    surely be put to death. 5

No!  It cannot be!”  Joseph sat up as new tears formed.  “I will not let the priests and rulers know!  Mary may have sinned – greatly!  But I…I love her.  I will not let them stone her!

He lay back down, a plan formulating in his mind.  He would send her away, back to her cousin Elizabeth’s.  Away – anywhere – where they would not know of her infidelity.  She could say her husband had died.  He felt himself dead now anyway.  There was still time – at least two months more – before anyone would see she was with child.  The long robes Jewish women wore would hide for awhile more her distended abdomen.  Yes, he resolved, he would send her away.  The thought broke his heart.  But she had to go. Even if she was telling the truth, who would understand?  Who would believe her?  No, he had to send her off – away from Nazareth, away from his heart.  A tear coursed down his rough face as he drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Joseph dreamed.  He saw Mary reaching out to him, crying hysterically as he, with folded arms, told her, “Go!”  He saw the rough men of the temple police dragging her off, as he watched, helpless.  He saw a crowd of people circled around – mostly men and older boys – viciously hurling sharp rocks at someone in the middle.  He heard the rocks dully thud – someone scream, then moan.  He couldn’t see the target of the attack, but he knew all to well who it was!  He tossed and turned on his mat, sometimes moaning himself, sometimes crying out.

Suddenly, in the middle of his nightmare, it all changed – still a dream, but different.  A brilliant light flashed.  Fear and awe came over Joseph, yet with a sense of peace – something the night had so far withheld.  The light before him shimmered and danced.  And, behold, an angel – shining robes, powerful wings, ageless face with golden hair – appeared in the midst.  Joseph dreamed on.  Somehow he knew it was a dream – yet something still more – but he was unable to wake up.  The angel spoke.  His voice was heard both without and within:

    Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that
    which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.  And she shall bring forth a
    son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from
    their sins. 6

The angel was gone.  Joseph –  wide awake – sat up.  He knew he had dreamed, yet nothing in him doubted the angel.  The words burned in his heart and mind: “…take to you Mary… conceived…of the Holy Spirit…bring forth a son…call His name JESUS…save His people from their sins.

Joseph looked around and realized it was morning.  From the window the rising sun sent  streaks of light across the hard clay floor.  He could hear the muffled sounds of Nazareth waking to a new day.  He jumped to his feet – his heart felt so light and free!  He looked around the shop – the shavings, the sawdust, the tools laying on the bench.  His gaze fell upon the unfinished plow.  “It will stay unfinished today!” he exclaimed as he strode through the door.  Joseph was going to claim his Mary – JESUS and all!  
5  Leviticus 20:10
6  Matthew 1:20, 21

The Time-Line of Christmas – VII, “The Test of Joseph”, Part 1

December 18, 2013

Based on Matthew 1:18-25

(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

Joseph sat stunned on a rough bench.  Wood shavings were on the floor, fallen from the handles of a plow on which he had been working.  His mind whirled with thoughts.  “How could it be?  How could this have happened?

Mary stood on the other side of the plow, the light from the open window and door shown on her lovely but anxious face.  “Please, Joseph, listen to me!  It’s true!”  But her words seemed far away and empty to him.

How could it be?”  Just three months before – a few weeks after his fondest dreams had come true, that he would have Mary – young, beautiful Mary for his wife – she went away.  It happened so suddenly, no hint it was coming.  She simply told him she was going to her aged cousin Elizabeth’s for awhile.  Miracle of miracles, Elizabeth – the one called barren – was pregnant!  And she was well past the age of childbearing!  But Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias lived in the hill country of Judah, almost 90 miles south – a very long trip for Mary, even if she was to be accompanied by Nazareth friends going to Jerusalem.

Joseph had waited patiently for her return, with hardly a word from her these past three months.  He thought the silence strange.  They had always been so open with each other.  But never, never had he suspected this….

Joseph, listen to me.  I don’t know how else to say it.  It is so hard to believe it….”  Mary’s features showed the stress.

Joseph stared blankly.  “Believe it?  Believe it?”  The thought shouted in his mind.  How could he believe it?!  How could Mary do such a thing – so sweet and pure and innocent?  She had come through the door of his shop not half an hour before.  He looked up from his work and was overjoyed to see his beloved.  “Mary, you’re back!”  But something was amiss.  She stood with her eyes cast down, not meeting his gaze.  “What’s wrong, dear one?

Mary lifted her head, looked into his eyes, and softly told him, “Joseph, I am with child.

No other words could have had the same effect.  He felt his legs go weak, and he sat down heavily on the bench.  He remembered vaguely that she had said something about an angel as he sat there, something about the Holy Spirit and the Son of God.  But Mary – pregnant!  His Mary….!

Joseph, you’ve got to listen!”  Mary was crying.  “An angel did come, three months ago, and told me I was to bear a son.  I was frightened at his appearance.  He said the Holy Spirit would come upon me with the power of the Highest, and I would conceive.  He …he said the child would be the Son of God, and that we should call His name Jesus, and He would be God’s Son, and He would be King on David’s throne, and His kingdom wouldn’t end, and…and…  Joseph?!!

Oh, Mary, how could you do this?  I trusted you so!”  Tears were now coursing their paths through the sawdust on Joseph’s cheeks.

But Joseph, it’s true!” wailed Mary.  “You’ve got to believe me!”  She sat down heavily on the work stool by the plow handles.

Oh, how I love her even now!” thought Joseph, moved with compassion at the sight of his beloved in tears.

He stood and stepped around the plow.  “Mary…I do believe you,” but the words almost caught in his throat.  She was sobbing now, head buried in her hands.  He went to put a comforting hand on her shoulder.  But the thought returned with all its horror – Mary’s pregnant!  And his hand jerked back involuntarily as a sick feeling swept over him.

Mary….”  She looked up, her face wet with tears.  His voice was stern.  “Mary, you are in no condition to talk about this now.  It’s been a long journey from your cousin’s.  Go home and rest.  We will talk tomorrow – early.

She stood up, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.  “You do believe me, don’t you, Joseph?” she asked.  “It was all so much, so confusing.  I had to get away for awhile and think.  Elizabeth was very helpful and all, but sometimes it’s still so….  Oh, Joseph, I’m scared!”  More tears.

He led her to the door.  “Go home and rest, Mary.  We will talk tomorrow.

Alright, Joseph. But you do believe me, don’t you?

I believe you, Mary.”  His words sounded hollow to him.  “Now go.  Tomorrow we will talk.

Mary looked up at him longingly.  Then she pulled her shawl over to hide her tear-stained face and left.

Joseph watched her walk away, his mind a blank.  She turned the corner and was gone.  Slowly he came back into the shop.  It was getting late now and shadows began to creep in.  “Too dark to work now,” he said aloud.  “But I have no desire to work anyway.

Oh, Mary, Mary!  How could you do this to me?”  He sank down on the work stool, his head in his hands.  All this about the Holy Spirit and the Son of God!  And an angel!  He had heard about the strange happenings at the temple in Jerusalem almost a year before.  And angel had visited Zacharias, and Elizabeth has become pregnant.  Now, apparently, she had given birth to a son – John.  But before that it had been so long since God had spoken!  The nasi – the president of the synagogue – had said it was over 400 years since God spoke through the prophet Malachi.  But Mary…his Mary!  How could it be?  She was so young – only 15 – and so innocent.  She was pure.  She was a virgin…!  Suddenly Joseph sat straight.  In his mind he was listening to the reader in the synagogue:

    Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:  Behold, the virgin shall
    conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. 1

What scroll was it?  Why from the prophet Isaiah, of course!  And it was concerning the promised Messiah, so the rabbis said.  Could it be….?  “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he exclaimed, rising to his feet.  He laid down the chisel he had been holding since Mary came in, and slowly walked back to his living quarters at the rear of the carpenter shop.  He stooped over the small basin and gathered water in his hands to splash the sawdust and shavings off his face and arms.  Drying off, he thought of supper, but he had no appetite.  Wearily he sat on his sleeping mat and tried to think it all through.

What were all those things he had been taught concerning the Messiah?  He went to the synagogue regularly, and he had as good an education as any peasant boy growing up in Nazareth.   But the thoughts of his mind whirled – especially after Mary…!  He was a carpenter, not a rabbi!  

Joseph sat a long time as shadows lengthened and darkness fell.  His mind had slowed and thoughts came more clearly.  “Let’s see, even Moses spoke of a great prophet to come.

    The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst,
    from your brethren.  Him you shall hear…. 2

The rabbis taught this applied to God’s Messiah.  King David had written down God’s promises to him:

    And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. 
    Your throne shall be established forever. 3

Mary was a descendant of David through his son Nathan, so her child would be of David’s house.  Even he, Joseph, was of David’s line through King Solomon.  What had Mary said the angel told her?  “He would be King on David’s throne.”  A shudder ran along his spine as he heard in his mind the nasi read from the Isaiah scroll:

    For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will
    be upon His shoulder.  And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor,
    Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His
    government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and
    over His kingdom to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from
    that time forward, even forever. 4

By heavens,” exclaimed Joseph, “There are so many promises in just that one prophecy!  I never realized before how staggering it all is!  How could God come down and live among us?  And all through my Mary?  No!  It’s too much!”  He involuntarily threw up his hand in front of his face as if to ward off a blinding light.  “No!” he shouted into the dark.

1  Isaiah 7:14
2  Deuteronomy 18:15
3  II Samuel 7:16
4  Isaiah 9:6, 7

The Time-Line of Christmas – VI

December 16, 2013
Matthew 1:18-25

(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

In church last Sunday, my pastor – as part of his sermon – showed a clip from “The Christmas Experience,” by Kyle Idleman.  It was about how Heli, Mary’s father, confronted Joseph after he found out his daughter was pregnant – he almost decked him!  And it showed Joseph’s reaction shortly after as he faced Mary, not believing her story of the angel’s visit and his announcement of the miraculous birth of the Christ child.  In Heli’s and Joseph’s eyes, Mary was unfaithful – bringing shame on the family, her betrothed, and putting herself in danger of being stoned to death, according to Leviticus 20:10.

This dramatic series is well worth viewing.  It will give you a new appreciation of the struggles and the messiness of the first Christmas.  We read the Biblical account and so often miss the real-life drama of it all.  Let’s look at Joseph’s struggle in Matthew 1:18-25:

    Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was
    betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child
    of the Holy Spirit.  Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not
    wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 
    But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord ap-
    peared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to
    take to you Mary your  wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy
    Spirit.  And she will bring forth a Son, and you will call His name JESUS,
    for He will save His people from their sins.”  Now all this was done that it
    might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying,
    “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His
    name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”  Then Joseph, being
    aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to
    him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn
    Son.  And he called His name JESUS.

Can you imagine the shock Joseph experienced when Mary came back from her cousin Elizabeth’s – after a three month departure?  It was revealed that she was pregnant – and he hadn’t touched her!  It could only mean she had played the harlot!  She had been unfaithful to her betrothed – and to God!  She would be stoned to death if the priest found out about it!  Oh, sure, she told him of some crazy tale about an angelic visit.  Gabriel, she said he called himself.  And the angel told her she was chosen to bear God’s Messiah into the world!  Who could believe such a story as that?!!!

Joseph decided to divorce Mary – the only way an engagement could be broken in those days.  He would send her away where no one would know her.  Perhaps she could tell anyone inquisitive that her husband had died.  She would probably receive help from the local synagogue widows fund, and maybe some of the town women would reach out to her – wherever he might send her.

Do you begin to see the predicament Joseph was in?  Do you understand the shame that her family was thinking she had brought upon them?  Can you feel the heartbreak of teenage Mary – the uncertainty of what was going to happen?  She only knew God had chosen her.  But she was beginning to doubt His choice!  Maybe God had made a bit mistake!

In the middle of all this the angel made a second appearance.  He came to Joseph in a dream, confirming Mary’s story.  Joseph was to take her as his wife in spite of the circumstances.  And the angel further explained God’s purpose in all this: “And she will bring forth a Son, and you will call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21).  It was to be in fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, ‘God with us.’ ” (Matthew 1:21).

The one born to Mary would be called “JESUS”,  meaning “Jehovah saves” – and “Immanuel which is translated, ‘God with us.’ ” He accomplished the mission of both names.  His sacrifice on the cross and His rising from the dead paved the way for all people to be saved.  When we put our faith in the Son of God, He totally takes away our sins – having paid for them all in full!  And we are then reconciled to the Father so that before Him – as it says in Ephesians 1:6 – we are “…accepted in the Beloved” – as accepted before God as is Jesus Himself!

So thank God this Christmas – for Jesus coming into the world, yes.  But have you ever thanked Him for the courage and faith of Mary and Joseph who figured so prominently in this great miracle of God?  Think about it! 

Some years ago I wrote a story about this drama played out as suggested in Matthew 1:18 through 25, called “The Test of Joseph.”  I think I will reproduce it here over the next two blogs.

The Time-Line of Christmas – V

December 13, 2013
Luke 1:67-79

(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

It is difficult to cover all that Zacharias prophesied upon the birth of his son, John the Baptist, because what he said covers a lot in twelve verses in Luke 1.  But let’s look at some highlights:

•    Luke 1:68, 69, 73 through 75:

    Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people,
    and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David
    …the oath which He swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being
    delivered from the hand of our enemies might serve Him without fear, in
    holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.

Zacharias knew that these two births – John the Baptist and, six months later, Jesus Christ – would fulfill the promises God had given to His people Israel over the centuries.  God would deliver them from the oppression and domination of foreign powers – first the Assyrians and Babylon, then Persia, then Greece, and now, in Zacharias day, Rome.  It had been over 700 years since the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and deported them to other countries.  The southern kingdom of Judah lasted another 120 or so years until King Nebuchadnezzar carried them off to Babylon.  Except for a brief time under the leadership of the Maccabees, the proud nationalistic Jews had been under the heel of other nations for centuries – and they hated it!

Not only would God deliver them from oppression, according to passages like Isaiah 11 and 60 through 62, He would usher them into a marvelous time of prosperity and being the dominant kingdom on earth!  Consider this passage from Zechariah 9:9:

    Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold,
    your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding
    on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.

This prophecy, of course, applies to the Triumphal Entry – when Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  But look at Zechariah, 9:10 through 10:12.  It shows the extent of the kingdom, the dominion of it, and the blessings because of it.  Palm Sunday was only a preview.  The King – Jesus Christ – will come again, and usher in the kingdom in its fulness!

No wonder Zacharias was praising the Lord for the birth of his son, and the pregnancy of Mary!  By the way, don’t confuse Zacharias, John the Baptist’s father with Zachariah, the author of the Old Testament book by that name!

•    Luke 1:76 through 79:

    And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go
    before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of
    salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender
    mercy of our God; with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
    to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide
    our feet into the way of peace.

Yes, Zacharias knew the scripture.  His words reflect the prophecies of Isaiah 9:2; 40:3; Malachi 3:1 and 4:2.  He knew his son would prepare the way for the Messiah’s ministry of redemption.  What he did not see – and the vast majority of the Jews missed it also – was that there would be two advents:  The first to procure salvation from sin and the preparation for subjects of the kingdom; and the second to usher in the kingdom of God.

…the Dayspring from on high…” – an interesting title for our Lord!  Dayspring means “a rising of light,” or sunrise.  Malachi 4:2 tells us, “But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings….

Has “the Sun of Righteousness” risen to shine in your life?  It is not just accepting Him as Savior, but submitting to Jesus as Lord in everything, that He will truly shine as “…the Light of the World…” (John 9:5) through you!  Many “…sit in darkness and the shadow of death…” and have no peace in their lives (Luke 1:79), What are you going to do about it?

The Time-Line of Christmas – IV

December 11, 2013
Luke 1:46-55

(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

It’s called the “Magnificat” from the first word in Latin of Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1:46 through 55:

    My soul  magnifies the LORD, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.  For
    He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all
    generations will call me blessed.  For He who is mighty has done great things
    for me, and holy is His name.  And His mercy is on those who fear Him from
    generation to generation.  He has shown strength with His arm; He has scat-
    tered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.  He has put down the mighty
    from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good
    things, and the rich He has sent away empty.  He has helped His servant Israel,
    in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to
    his seed forever.

Mary is a marvelous example of a person of profound faith, living her life according to God’s revealed Word.  Look closely at her Magnificat and you will find that this peasant girl had a great knowledge and appreciation of the Old Testament scriptures.

There are several allusions to Hannah’s song of praise recorded in I Samuel 2:1 through 10:

•    Mary – “My soul  magnifies the LORD…” (Luke 1:46).
Hannah – “My heart rejoices in the LORD…” (I Samuel 2:1).
•    Mary – “…my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”(Luke 1:47).
Hannah – “…I rejoice in Your salvation.” (I Samuel 2:1).
•    Mary – “…holy is His name.” (Luke 1:49).
Hannah – “There is none holy like the LORD…” (I Samuel 2:2).
•    Mary – “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
(Luke 1:51).
Hannah – “The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken in pieces…
(I Samuel 1:10).
•    Mary – “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.
(Luke 1:52).
Hannah – “The LORD makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. 
        He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the beggar from the ash heap,
        to set them among princes and to make them inherit the throne of glory.
(I Samuel 2:7, 8).
•    Mary – “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent
        away empty.” (Luke 1:53).
Hannah – “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, And those
        who were hungry have ceased to hunger.” (I Samuel 2:5).”

And there are a two more allusions I see:

•    Mary – “And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.
(Luke 1:50).
Ten Commandments – “For I, the LORD your God, am…showing mercy to
        thousands [of  generations], to those who love Me and keep My
        commandments.” (Exodus 20:5 and 6).
•    Mary – “He has helped His servant Israel…” (Luke 1:54).
Isaiah – “‘But you, Israel, are my servant….I will help you,’ says the LORD…
(Isaiah 41:8 and 14).

Oh, that our lives as Christians would reflect such knowledge of the Word! 

One more thing – as we saw in The Time-Line of Christmas – III on Monday, Mary traveled to her cousin Elizabeth probably because she needed another human being to understand her situation of being called to bring forth God’s Messiah into the world.  She must have been in turmoil as to how it would all work out – especially concerning Joseph, her beloved betrothed, as well as the social and legal implications of being pregnant and unmarried.

But here – in Luke 1:42 through 45 – we see by Elizabeth’s greeting that Mary received powerful confirmation of God’s purpose:

    Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  But
    why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 
    For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the
    babe leaped in my womb for joy.  Blessed is she who believed: for there will
    be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.

And so we see Mary at peace, and praising God!  May we – in our difficult circumstances – follow the example of Mary!

The Time-Line of Christmas – III

December 9, 2013
Luke 1:39-45

(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

It was not immediately after Gabriel had appeared to Mary and told her she would be the mother of the Christ child, but probably within a couple of weeks, that Mary made the journey to the hill country of Judea.  After all, it was a trip of about 90 miles, and that took some planning!  Mary probably didn’t travel alone, for that was a dangerous trip for a man, let alone a woman!  Perhaps she went with a family who was traveling to Jerusalem for one of the annual festivals.  In any case, she left Nazareth in the mountains of Galilee and headed south to the hill country of Judea.  This is what it says in Luke 1:39 through 45:

    Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a
    city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth.  And
    it happened, when Elisabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped
    in her  womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Then she spoke
    out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is
    the fruit of your womb!  But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my
    Lord should come to me?  For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting
    sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.  Blessed is she who
    believed: for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her
    from the Lord.”

It doesn’t say in the Bible where in Judea Zacharias and Elizabeth lived.  Adrien Reland, a Dutch Christian Hebrew scholar, is said to have toured the Holy Lands in 1695 to report on 2,500 towns and villages mentioned in the Torah and Mishne.  He assumed “Judah”– mentioned in verse 39 above – was a misspelling, and should have read “Juttah,” a Levitical town about 25 miles south of Jerusalem, and listed in Joshua 21:16.  But Theodosius (b. 423 AD, d. 529 AD.) wrote that the elderly parents of John the Baptist lived in the small town of Ein Karim – five miles southwest of Jerusalem.

Why did Mary hasten to go to her cousin?  The angel Gabriel had told her in Luke 1:36, “Now indeed, Elisabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren.”  This also was a miraculous pregnancy because Elizabeth had never had children and now was well past the age of child-bearing.  So – in Mary’s mind – if anyone would understand the miracle of the Holy Spirit fathering a child in the womb of a young teenager, it would be Elizabeth!  And Mary desperately needed someone to understand and give her love and support.  She hadn’t yet told Joseph – or anyone else!

God gave the young woman a wonderful confirmation as she arrived at her cousin’s house and greeted Elizabeth.  Baby John vigorously moved within his elderly mother, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Read again the second half of the scripture above.  Mary must have been deeply moved by Elizabeth’s opening exclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  This greeting was quite akin to the angel’s words in Luke 1:28, 31 through 33:

    Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among
    women…behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a son, and
    shall call His name JESUS.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of
    the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. 
    And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom
    there will be no end.

God’s special favor upon Mary – God’s special favor upon the fruit of her womb – Jesus! 

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for “…about three months…” according to Luke 1:56 – probably until just after John the Baptist was born.  With the long flowing robes women wore in those days, no one could see the ‘baby bump’ beginning to show in Mary’s abdomen.  So Mary could help her cousin at home as Elizabeth’s pregnancy advanced, and as it got harder for the old woman to move around.  She also could be out and around the village on errands such as daily fetching water at the well in the center of the community, and going to the market.

It was comforting to be with her cousin, loved and accepted – and believed! – and she felt of great use to Elizabeth and Zacharias as this miracle unfolded.  Remember, the old man was struck dumb because he disbelieved the angel (Luke 1:20).