"Riches untold, frankincense and gold, pale before the Glory we behold! The Father's gift of love come down, sacrifice beyond all measure. Heavenly hosts proclaim this sound, come and see the infant King Bethlehem's Treasure!" (1)
The scene is a very familiar one: The crisp December breeze blends with the colorful lights, distinctive music and busy shoppers to paint an unmistakable portrait of what we know as the Christmas season. As I write this, I personally have just returned from a very lively, but very fun shopping excursion to the mall (I hope I didn't hurt anyone :-). However, beneath all of the festivities, this beloved season is a time for both joyful celebration and somber reflection, as 4000 years worth of Old Testament prophecies come to a climax in the tiny town of Bethlehem: When the Son of God became the son of man, so that the sons of men could become the sons of God.
Some Christians have expressed concern that the Bible doesn't specifically teach us to celebrate Christ's birth. While this may be technically true, this does not negate the principle behind it. Even the word "Christmas" itself is a compound of the words "Christ" and "Mass" (a Latin word meaning "celebration"). Therefore, to celebrate Christmas is (or at least should be) to celebrate Christ. We should celebrate every aspect of Jesus' life, His birth, his sinless life, His miracles, His sacrificial death and His resurrection. This time of year, we happen to focus on His Birth.
Although it is true that Jesus probably was not born in the winter (the shepherds would not have had their flocks out in cold weather-see Luke 2:8-18), this is, nonetheless, the time we set apart to reflect on this wonderful event. (It is interesting to note, however, that December 25 has been observed as far back as the sixth century, AD). Think of how much Truth the world is exposed to during this time of year. How many other times can we walk through a shopping mall and hear "Joy to the world, the Lord has come?" People tend to focus more on the person of Jesus during the Christmas season than any other time of the year.
From elegant Christmas cards and town square displays to sentimental pageants featuring children in bath towel turbans, the Nativity scene is a familiar object in communicating the Christmas message. Although, as we shall see, modern trends have given us a somewhat inaccurate image of the event, it still reflects the fascinating and very diverse group of people involved in the Christmas narrative. As we begin our study, let's take a brief look at them:
JOSEPH: Not as much is known about Jesus' stepfather, although it is understood that he was a just and honorable man (Matthew 1:19). He and Mary did later get married and have more children (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19). As a carpenter, he likely taught his trade to the young Jesus (as this was the Jewish custom). I once heard a minister observe that Jesus' carpenter trade taught Him to transform wood into things of function and beauty, just like He now transforms people's lives into things of function and beauty. It is noteworthy that when Mary was with Jesus at the cross, Joseph is not with her. This seems to indicate that he had died during the interim period.
THE SHEPHERDS: It is interesting to note that the first people to be informed of Jesus' birth were not kings or other nobility, but simple shepherds working on a night watch (Luke 2:8-18). It has been suggested that these particular shepherds were responsible for the lambs which were to be used as sacrifices for the Jewish Passover holiday. If this is the case, it adds a powerful dimension to the Christmas story, as the angel summons them to see the one who was to be the true Passover Lamb.
THE WISE MEN: Of all of the people described in the Christmas story, perhaps none are more misunderstood than the Wise Men, or Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). Although they are depicted as part of our modern Nativity scenes, they were not at the manger at all. At the time of their arrival, Jesus is described as a young child, rather than as an infant (Matthew 2:8), and they were by this time living in a house (Matthew 2:11), as opposed to a stable. Jesus could have been as much as two years old. There has been much legend and speculation regarding these mysterious pilgrims (for example, a twelfth century Bishop of Cologne once claimed to have found their skulls) (2). The notion that there were only three of them is also not accurate. Magi traveled in large caravans, accompanied by as many as 200 armed guards. The gifts they brought Jesus, gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11), were of immense monetary value, enough to abundantly fund Jesus' ministry for life.
Why is the virgin birth so important? The Bible teaches us that life is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11), so this is how the sin nature, which is inherently a part of every person (Psalms 51:5; Romans 5:15-19), is passed down through the generations. Medically speaking, a child inherits its blood line from its father. Since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, rather than by a human father, His blood line was untainted by sin. In his insightful book "The Chemistry of the Blood," Bible scholar and physician M.R. DeHaan points out:
How wonderfully God prepared for the virgin birth of His Son. When He created woman He made her so that no blood would be able to pass from her to her offspring... Conception by the Holy Ghost was the only way the virgin birth could be accomplished...The Holy Spirit contributed the blood of Jesus. It is sinless blood. It is divine blood. It is precious blood, for there has never been any other like it (3).Sine Jesus is the only person to ever be born from a sinless bloodline, only He was able to be the Holy, perfect sacrifice for the sins of all people. This brings us to the climax of the entire Christmas message: "For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He (even) gave up His only begotten (unique) Son so that whoever believes in (trusts in,clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life" (John 3:16, Amplified Bible). The events we reflect on at Christmas are merely setting the stage for the climactic event which was to come 33 years later, as Jesus laid down His life as a once and for all sacrifice for our sin (4). Without the cross, the manger is meaningless. In the words of noted Bible expositor John MacArthur:
Here's a side to the Christmas story that isn't often told: those soft little hands, fashioned by the Holy Spirit in Mary's womb, were made so that nails might be driven through them. Those baby feet, pink and unable to walk, would one day walk up a dusty hill to be nailed to a cross. That sweet infant's head with sparkling eyes and eager mouth was formed so that someday men might force a crown of thorns onto it. That tender body, warm and soft, wrapped in swaddling clothes, would one day be ripped open by a spear. Jesus was born to die.(5)Friends, when we think back on God revealing His love for us in such a beautiful way, what response is there but to fall down and worship Him? No matter how many gifts you may receive for Christmas, there in no gift more wonderful than an everlasting relationship with the Creator of the universe. If you have never asked Jesus into your life, what better time than now? (6) From James & Dave's Bible Page, may you experience the richness of His love and goodness throughout the Christmas season, and beyond.
© 2003 JHB
NOTES & BIBLIOGRAPHY:
1-From the song "Bethlehem's Treasure" by Bob Fitts. 1992, Integrity's Hosanna! Music/ASCAP
2-Vincent, Marvin R. "Word Studies in the New Testament." Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1946. Quoted by MacArthur, John F. Jr. "God With Us: The Miracle of Christmas." 1989, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. p. 100.
3-DeHaan, M.R. "The Chemistry of the Blood." 1943, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Copyright renewed 1981 by Ruth Haaksma. p.32-34.
4-See our previous article The Cross: Violent Grace
5-MacArthur, p. 116.
6-If you need more information on a relationship with Jesus, see How to be Born Again
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