You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Gospels’ category.

Image result for gold frankincense and myrrhThese are often described as kingly gifts, and they are, but they are not all that rare.   “Frankincense and myrrh were fragrant spices and perfumes equally appropriate for such adoration and worship” (Blomberg, Matthew, 65). Often frankincense and myrrh are associated with burial (myrrh was used in embalming until the fifteenth century), but they are also associated with the anointing of a king.  They would be gifts typically given at the birth of the son of a great king.

What would a poor family do with such gifts?  The deist Thomas Woolston mocked this story by saying that if they had brought sugar, soap, and candles they would have acted like wise men.”

A better way of looking at the gifts is to see them in the light of two Old Testament texts which anticipate the coming messiah. Both Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 look forward to the restoration of a king like David. When this New David begins to rule, the nations will gather to honor the king with worship him. They will groveling the dust (Ps 72:9) and give the new king gifts.

Isaiah 60:4–7 (ESV) Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. 5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord. 7 All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house. 

Psalm 72:8–11 (ESV)8 May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! 9 May desert tribes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! 10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! 11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!

The gifts of the Magi therefore indicate Jesus is the King of Israel, the true son of David.

Image result for Christmas starThe answer to this question has to be “a miracle” since there are a great many variables to say with any sort of certainty that it was any particular stellar event.  It appeared in the east:  if Persia is meant then it is perhaps a two year journey to find Bethlehem.

It is possible that this simply means, as astrologers, they read the signs and determined that the birth of the messiah was near.  “We read his horoscope” sounds far less Christmas-y, but that may be in fact what Matthew meant.

Other things besides stars could be considered as omens and portents.  Comets and meteors were always considered signs, it is possible that one of these appears at the right time and made the Magi think that Messiah had been born.  In addition, the star guides the Magi to the house, this is unlikely to be a comet, meteor, conjunction, etc.

Why would a star be the sign that the Messiah was born?  Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17 describes a king who will rise from Israel who will rule over the nations:

Numbers 24:17 (ESV) I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.

While it is difficult to state for certain that this “star” in Numbers was the star in Matthew 2, the connection of a celestial sign with the birth of a great king is a well-known feature of Ancient culture.  If Jesus was the Messiah, his birth would have been accompanied with signs and great men (like the magi) would observe and understand the importance of the birth.

The story of the Magi is filled with images of the “three kings” riding camels in robes and crowns, carrying chests of gold, etc. Typically this event is celebrated on Epiphany, on January 6 the last of the 12 days of Christmas. Of all of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, this one is often thought (at best) to be an invention of Matthew to show parallels between Jesus and Moses, or the “stuff of legends” at the worst.

Image result for We three kingsThe carol “We Three Kings” was written by an Episcopal deacon named John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857 it was not published until 1863. It was originally intended for a Christmas Pageant at General Theological Seminary in New York City. This song is likely the reason every Christmas scene has three kings dressed like Persian royalty (usually one black and one Asian).

More perplexing is “I Saw Three Ships,” a song which dates to the 17th century. There is no way for three ships to come sailing into Bethlehem, so it is usually explained that the Wise Men on Camels are the ships. It is possible, however, that the ships refer to three ships bring the relics of the Magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century. According to church tradition dating back to the fourth century the names of the three magi were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, although this varies in eastern forms of Christianity (Casper becomes Gaspar or Jasper, master of horses, for example).

The arrival of the Wise Men is celebrated by some Christians on January 5 or 6, in association with Epiphany, the day Jesus was revealed. For example, until recently, in Spain children receive their gifts from “Reyes Magos” rather than Santa Claus. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic children put it a box of greenery (representing grass) under their bed on January 5 for the camels of the wise men.

Who were the three Wise Men in Matthew 2? They were not kings, although the song “we three kings” has kept that interpretation alive. The idea that they were kings comes from the fact that they bring gifts (i.e., tribute) to Jesus. Craig Blomberg, for example, says “The gifts used to honor the new king were typically associated with royalty” (Matthew, 65). Magicians and astrologers often were important advisors to kings. If they were not political advisors, they were certainly the educated, scientific class of the ancient world.

A Magus was an astrologer, although not in the modern sense of the word. They did in fact tell fortunes by the stars, but there were more or less the astronomers of the ancient world.  The same word is applied to advisors of king Nebuchadnezzar, in the KJV this is also translated as wise men, although they are court magicians or astrologers. As odd as it seems, having an astrologer in the court who would read the signs and omens in the heavens was common in the Ancient world.

Where are the Wise Men From? We are simply told “from the east,” likely following the spice route from as far away as Persia. The word Magus has a Persian origin, although they may have been from only as far away as Nabatea on the east of the Jordan.

It is likely “from the east” refers to Babylon, and that the magi themselves were Jewish astrologers who had determined that the time for the birth of the messiah was at hand. There was a lively Jewish community in Babylon from the time of the exile, and it is not unlikely that Jewish men were still functioning in local governments.

A potential problem with this identification is that they do not know where the Messiah was to be born, something which Herod’s own wise men knew. It would seem odd that educated Jewish men would not know this somewhat obvious prophecy.

The gospels seemed to have been formed “backwards.” The initial preaching of the apostles was Christ Crucified and Risen. This is clear from Acts 2:23, 32, 3:14, 10:37-41, and 1 Cor 15:3-5. The teaching of Jesus (didache) was added to the “passion” of Jesus (kerygma). The last (canonical) stage of the development was to include a prologue concerning the origins of Jesus – was he simply a man?  Matthew and Luke include miraculous birth stories, John has a theological prologue announcing that Jesus is the Word who was with God from the beginning since he is God.  Notice the development taking mark as the earliest of the Gospels – there is no birth narrative and virtually nothing about his family history. The earlier one goes into the traditions of concerning Jesus, the less about Jesus’ birth we find.

One might extend this another step historically and include the infancy narratives that are created well after the end of the apostolic era. These apocryphal stories are much more fanciful and creative – and far less historically reliable. On the other hand, there are much more theological presentations of Jesus as well in the writings of the church fathers, in these Jesus becomes the Christ of theology.

Why were the infancy narratives written in the first place? Crossan thought the question should not be what Matthew and Luke tell us about the birth of Jesus, but “why they tell us anything at all?”  What would motivate the gospel writer to include an explanation of the birth of Jesus? Raymond Brown suggested three reasons (Birth of the Messiah, 29).

The most simple explaination for the birth narratives is curiosity.  Since Mark did not have many biographical details that people always seem to want to know about, the later gospels were interested in filling-in that gap.

Apologetic. One possible motivation for Luke’s presentation of John the Baptist’s birth along side Jesus’ birth is to show the superiority of Jesus over John, perhaps to answer non-Christian disciples of John (similar to those we meet in Acts 19) There is an apologetic value of the birth narrative when presenting the Gospel to skeptical Jews as well, helping to explain how the Messiah (who as to be born in Judean Bethlehem) ended up to be a native of Galilee. There is also the charge made by early Judaism that Jesus as of illegitimate birth, answer by both evangelists by the explanation of a virgin birth.

There are obvious theological motives as well. The genealogy in Matthew connects Jesus to David, Moses, Joseph, and the other great men in the history of Israel. Like Moses he survives the slaughter of children by a pagan ruler, and like Moses he goes to the mountain to dispense the Law (Matthew 5-7). There is a developing Christology in the four Gospels, Mark tells us that Jesus is already the Son of God at the baptism.  In the next two gospels (Matthew and Luke are chronological about the same time), Jesus is God from the moment of his conception, and in John he is God from the very beginning.  In fact, John tells us Jesus  is equal with God from  eternity since he is the creator (John 1:1).

I would add a fourth motivation for Matthew and Luke including the birth narratives.  More than Mark, these two gospels are interested in showing that Jesus fulfilled prophecy, beginning with his birth.  Readers familiar with the Old Testament know than God has done a number of miracles to bring special individuals into the world – Isaac and Samuel are examples of children born to elderly or barren parents.  Jesus is the ultimate “miracle child” since he was born from a virgin.

All of this highlights the uniqueness of Jesus at the very beginning of the story.  What might be a few other motives for the writers of the gospels to include the story of Jesus’ birth?  Or to think of it the other way, why did Mark and John omit the brith of Jesus?

Joseph discovered his young wife to be is with child (Matthew 1:18-19). Betrothal in the Second Temple Period was a legally binding relationship which could be set aside only through a divorce-like proceeding. A betrothal period could take up to twelve months (m.Ket 5:2), during which time the woman is still under the authority of her father.

MangerNormally there were no sexual relations between the engaged couple, although it is likely that sort of thing did happen. If the man lived with his father-in-law during the betrothal, he cannot divorce his wife is she is found not to be a virgin. There is a whole section of the Mishnah (Ketuvim) dealing with engagements and breaking those engagements. It is impossible to be certain that the practices described there were in force at the time Jesus was born, but it is likely that some of the things we read there reflect the issues with which Joseph dealt.

Since Mary is pregnant, she must have been unfaithful. Joseph therefore decides to divorce her “quietly” because he does not want to shame her. The verb δειγματίζω is used for the shaming of a woman caught in adultery, as the the scribes wanted to do to a woman caught in adultery in John 8:2. Dio Chryssostom mentions a Cyprian law requiring an adulteress to cut her hair and be “subject to contempt by the community” (Dio Chrys. 47; BDAG). This form of the verb does not appear in the LXX, but the compound verb παραδειγματίζω appears 6x. In Num 25:4 it describes the public hanging of those who fornicated with the prostitutes from Baal-Peor (compare PsSol 2:12-14, a possible allusion to that story).

The divorce (ἀπολύω) is to be “quiet,” an adverb (λάθρᾳ) often meaning “in secret” or “in private.” In Matt 2:7, for example, Herod summons the wise men “in secret.” It is occasionally used outside of the New Testament with the sense of “not going through proper channels.” It is possible that Joseph, being a poor man, did not feel it necessary to spend the money and time to properly punish her, so he would dissolve the marriage without bringing it before proper authorities who would (perhaps) insist on a shaming of Mary and (undoubtedly) money from Joseph.

Since Joseph was described as a “righteous man,” it is possible that he thought he was obligated by the Law divorce Mary (Nolland, Matthew, 95). Numbers 5:11-31 may indicate that if a man discovers his wife in adultery a divorce is required, as well as a public shaming. It is also possible that Joseph did not want to shame himself by declaring to the public that his betrothed wife had been unfaithful. While the text says that it is Mary’s shame that is in mind, Joseph would have a certain level of humiliation when the news became public

Whatever his motives, Joseph is describe as “doing the right thing” and preserving Mary from a public disgrace for adultery.

An angel warns Joseph not to divorce Mary because the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:20-21). The angel indicates that the conception of the child is by the Holy Spirit. While we usually talk about this as a virgin birth, it is better to think in terms of a virgin conception and a normal birth. There is nothing in the Bible which implies that there was anything unusual about the pregnancy after it begins. Jesus’ birth was normal and Mary and Joseph go on to have other children.

The-AnnunciationThe Greek text does not have the definite article, the child is conceived by “a holy spirit.” There are a number of suggestions for what this might meet, at the very least it refers to the power of God as responsible for Mary’s pregnancy.

There is little use trying to figure out the “science” of how this happened, then whole point is that this is a miracle from God. The child is not Joseph’s nor is he the son of any human, he is the “son of God.” The connection of the Holy Spirit to the birth of Jesus is important for several reasons.

First, like Adam, the human Jesus is a special creation of God. Paul will use this parallelism between Adam and Jesus in Romans 5:12-21. The virgin birth is therefore analogous to the special creation of Adam in Genesis 2.

Second, the Hebrew Bible refers to the king of Israel as a “son of God.” In Ps 2:7, for example, the enthroned King of Heaven says to the king of Israel “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” The virgin birth is the ultimate enthronement of a king in the line of David. It is significant tat Joseph is called a “son of David” in this text, the only place in the New Testament where someone other than Jesus is given that title. This likely highlights the royal importance of the child to be born.

Third, there are many references to special servants of God in the Hebrew Bible who are born through miraculous circumstances. Beginning with Isaac, several old or barren women have children. Even John the Baptist is born in this classic “Old Testament”scenario. A virgin giving birth is the ultimate unlikely birth!

Fourth, there are a number of references to the coming messiah / servant of God as being specially empowered by the Spirit of God, Isa 11:2, for example, describes the “root of Jesse” as having the seven-fold Spirit of God upon him.

That the child is not the result of unfaithfulness, but rather a divine miracle, would comfort Joseph and assure him that this child is part of the larger plan of God.

It seems to me I have heard the song, “Mary Did you Know” more this year than usual. The song asks if Mary realized just what the baby Jesus would do later in his life.  There is nothing wrong with the song (other than being overplayed) and it certainly gets the Christology of the incarnation right, but it overlooks the fact that Mary did in fact know a few things about her son.  The Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 is Mary’s reflection on who Jesus was and what he would do.

The song emphasizes God, not Mary’s motherly feelings.  Nearly every line states that God has done something.  The song emphasizes the actions of God, beginning with Mary, but then to all Israel.  t is the “mighty one” who has done great things for the sake of his holy name (49); He is the holy one (49).  These are key terms used in the Hebrew Bible for God, especially when he acts to save his people, as in Isaiah.

What is important to notice is that all of these verbs are in the aorist tense – a complete action usually in the past.  God has acted already in the conception of Jesus to do all that this song describes.

For the ruling class, there is nothing here but judgment.  He has scattered the proud (51); He has brought down rulers (52); The rich he has sent away empty handed (53).  But for the humble, there is hope for mercy and a reversal of their present state: He has exalted the humble (52) and he has filled the hungry (53).  This sounds quite a bit like the Beatitudes in Luke — the Messiah will usher in a time of justice which reverses the injustice of the present.

The reason he has done all of this is because of the promise which he made to Abraham (55).   This is critically important because the promise made to Abraham included a nation and land, neither of which Israel has at the time Mary sang this song.  Most scholars (rightly) assume that this song is patterned after Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2.  There are many similarities (a childless woman is given a miraculous child who grows up to be dedicated to God).  But the context of Hannah’s song is important – she celebrates the coming king who will unite Israel and give her rest from her enemies.  In 1 Samuel, this is David, and Hannah’s song is a foretaste of the Davidic covenant.

In Luke, Mary’s song anticipates the coming of the son of David who will initiate the New Covenant, re-establishing the kingdom to Israel.  This coming New Covenant will be an age when the Spirit of God lives in God’s people, enabling them to keep the covenant.

How revolutionary is this song? It celebrates a coming king who will liberate Israel from her oppressors.  The song comes from the last years of Herod the Great, the representative of Rome.  I suspect that if Herod heard this song, he would hear the allusions to the Hebrew Prophets and understand that this child who is about to be born is a threat to the Herodian power and Roman domination.

If it is, a revolutionary song, why in the world is Mary singing it in response to her virginal conception?  It is possible that she was not sure that she was carrying the messiah until her encounter with Elizabeth; after the testimony of John she then knew for certain that the promises to Abraham and David were about to be fulfilled.

Zechariah is the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were childless and too old to have any children, yet Zechariah is told by an angel of the Lord that his wife will have a child, and that child will be a prophet in the power of Elijah, and that he sill be the forerunner of the Messiah. Zechariah questions this prophecy, since it seems impossible to him. He is told by the angel Gabriel that because he doubted the word of God, he will not speak until the day that the child is born. On the day the child was to be named, Zechariah was again able to speak, and we are told that the Holy Spirit filled him, and he prophesied these words.

It is important to note that these are the words of the Holy Spirit spoken through Zechariah to the people that were gathered in the temple for John’s circumcision. They would have all been familiar with the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the coming of the Messiah. In this ten verse section there are at least 16 allusions to the Old Testament, making it clear that John’s birth, and more importantly, the birth of Jesus three months away, would be the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel.

These words are spoken for John and about John, but John the Baptist was merely the precursor to Jesus, and all he did pointed forward to Jesus. Even in this solemn prayer of dedication at his circumcision, John is pointing the way to the Messiah. This section is centered upon the actions of God. With the birth of John, and later of Jesus, God “has come to his people.”

The word Zechariah uses for “has come” is literally “visited” (ἐπισκέπτομαι). The word has the connotation of an inspection or examination.  Zechariah is saying that God is about to come to inspect his people.  In the Old Testament, when God “visited” his people, it could be to bring them some sort of blessing, or it could be to bring the judgment.  In Exodus 3:16 God has “observed” the suffering of his people (ESV, same word appears in the LXX), and in this case he is about to rescue his people from their slavery.

Zechariah’s words are therefore a prophetic warning that in the near future God would visit his people, and that “visitation” might not be a time of great blessing and favor.  God may be visiting in judgment!  There is an element of foreshadowing in Zechariah’s words:  at the end of Jesus’ ministry he weeps over Jerusalem because they did not recognize that “this day” was the time of God’s “visitation” (ἐπισκοπή, a noun from the same root as 1:68).  Sadly, the people did not heed the warning and were unprepared for God’s inspection.

This is what happened with the birth of Jesus:  God has literally come to man.  By becoming flesh Jesus was able to offer to his people ultimate forgiveness of sin. We do not usually associate the Christmas story with a time of God’s judgment, but it is significant that this first prophecy of Jesus’ ministry in Luke describes Jesus as the coming judge.

At this time of year we sing the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. Everyone knows that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and “laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.” Almost every word of that phrase has been exploded into a plot point for Christmas pageants. We imagine Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary arriving in Bethlehem just as she is about to give birth, only to be told that every hotel room in the city is full. A kindly innkeeper (dressed in your uncle’s bathrobe and sandals) allows the couple to give birth in his barn.

BethlehemBut Bethlehem was no sprawling metropolis. It is doubtful there was an inn, and if there was it was the only inn in the tiny village. The image of Mary going into labor in the lobby of the local Comfort Inn is pure fantasy. The village was still quite small and unimportant in 6 B.C. But there are other reasons why it was important for Jesus to be born in the “little town of Bethlehem.”

First, the Messiah was to be the son of David, the first King of Israel. David was from the village of Bethlehem, a son of Jesse. Jesse was a wealthy land owner in Bethlehem, a “sheep rancher” rather than a Bedouin with a few herd animals. He is described as a town elder, and therefore a more politically powerful man than a “lowly shepherd.”

Bethlehem is only 5 and a half miles from Jerusalem, and 3 miles from Gibeah. While the town was likely small, it was well within the range of Saul’s capital; elders from Bethlehem would have been well aware of court politics.  That Bethlehem is so close to Jerusalem may explain David’s interest in taking the city after he becomes king. When he is anointed the city is controlled by the Jebusites, prompting some scholars to wonder if David was a Jebusite himself!

Bethlehem2

The image of David when he begins his career is of a boy-shepherd who was at the same time a warrior capable of defeating great enemies because the Lord is with him, and he is committed to the Lord.

Second, the Messiah was to be in the line of David (2 Sam 7:12; Psalm 2, 110). The Davidic covenant describes the son of David, Solomon, in terms which cannot be fully applied to Solomon. He will reign forever!

Psalm 2 is a text which was originally used at the enthronement of a king, but the Psalm cannot describe any single human; that the nations will be ruled by a son of David who sits on the throne with the Lord himself goes well beyond an enthronement text. Likewise, Psalm 110 describes the victory of the son of David in battle in cosmic terms which go well beyond the hopes of any given king of Israel.

The messiah is therefore thought to be the ultimate fulfillment of the “son of David” prophecies. God would send someone to solve the problems of Israel who ultimately fulfilled the role of David in that he liberate the nation from their oppressors and prepared the way for true worship in the Temple. What was not expected is that this person would be quite literally God’s son!

The birth in Bethlehem therefore meets the expectation that the messiah would be from the line of David as well as from the town of Bethlehem.

In the carol Silent Night, we sing the words “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, Holy infant so tender and mild.” This well know Christmas carol was written in 1816 by an Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr and set to music two years later by Franz Gruber. It was first preformed on Christmas Eve 1818, accompanied by a guitar because the church organ was broken. The carol was translated into English in 1863 and eventually included in an English Sunday School hymn book. The song usually tops lists of “most popular” Christmas carols and has been translated into 300 languages! According to Wikipedia, it has been recorded by virtually every artist who has produced a Christmas album. (From Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, the Vienna Boys Choir to the metal band Anthrax, there is even a John Denver version accompanied by the Muppets!)

Silent NightIt is remarkable to me that the song remains popular because the lyrics contain rather traditional theology. When we sing this song we are reminded of the Virgin birth of Jesus, the holy son of God who is pure light, the savior who brings redeeming light into a world darkened by sin.

While it is unlikely that the instrumental versions floating around the background at the local Mall can be construed as “theology,” the idea that Jesus was born miraculously from a virgin mother is part of our culture. This time of year people will point out that Jesus was born to a single mother into the world of poverty, he was homeless, etc. For doctrinal reasons the phrase “Virgin Mary” is common throughout the world, although sometimes for less-than-biblical reasons.

On the other hand, the virgin birth of Jesus is often dismissed as a lame attempt by early Christians to give their founding figure a miraculous birth, like Apollo or some other divine man. Scientifically, women do not reproduce on their own therefore this “miracle” is quickly explained away as legend. This is quite true but the point is that the birth of Jesus was supernatural, a miracle.

But the point that Matthew makes by claiming Mary was a virgin is that the origins of Jesus are different than any other great leader of Israel. Samuel, for example, was born to a woman who was barren in response to her fervent prayer (1 Samuel 1). The stories of the Patriarchs repeatedly include barren or old women giving birth because God gave them a child. The irgin birth of Jesus is the ultimate miraculous birth.

But two of the Gospels begin the story of the virgin birth, and Matthew states that the virgin birth happened “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet.” In this case, the prophet is Isaiah and the sign of Immanuel. It is important to read the words of Matthew in their proper context, looking back to what God did in Isaiah’s day. In the context of Isaiah 7, God is with his people at a time when they are apathetic towards the covenant and the King is in open rebellion against his God. Yet the sign of Immanuel is given because God is still working to preserve the Davidic Dynasty.

In Matthew 1, the sign of Immanuel is given once again for the same reasons. While the details are different, the people of God are still apathetic toward the real heart of the covenant and many are in open rebellion against it – yet God is still working to preserve the people of Israel, to redeem them from their sins and to bring the real King, the Son of David into the world.

Follow Reading Acts on WordPress.com

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,055 other followers

My book Jesus the Bridegroom is now available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle


Christian Theology

%d bloggers like this: