Do You Know Jesus?

December 22, 2021

Was Jesus born on December 25th? The answer is probably not. We do not know the month and day of Jesus’ birth. The celebration of Jesus’ birth began in the fourth century. Emperors in the third century had celebrated the sun cult on December 25th, and this was continued by Constantine. In the latter part of the fourth century, Christians began to celebrate Jesus’ birthday on December 25th in effect continuing a celebration but changing the meaning of it. The fact that Luke mentions the shepherds in the fields (Luke 2:8) would suggest that the birth was between March/April and October/November.

Was Jesus born in a stable? If you say yes, you are being influenced by the fact that Jesus was placed in a manger. Certainly some traditions place the birth in a stable. The non-canonical work, the Protevangelium of James (c. 200 A.D.), has Mary giving birth in a cave, which was used as a stable. However, the typical house of this period also had mangers in them, because animals were brought into the house at night.

The “inn” of Luke 2:7 is not the word for a commercial inn as in Luke 10:34. The word in the birth narrative means a guest room. The same word is used to describe the upper room of the Last Supper (Luke 22:11). It is possible that the guest room was already taken, and that Mary and Joseph were housed in the main living quarters of the house, which would have had a manger.

Were there three wise men? The text of Matthew does not tell us how many wise men (Magi – the word means “magician” or “astrologer”) visited Jesus. The tradition of three wise men is likely based on the fact that three gifts are mentioned: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

Did the wise men arrive the night of Jesus’ birth? Matthew 2:1 indicates that the wise men arrived in Jerusalem to inquire about the birth of the king after the birth of Jesus. A comparison with Luke also suggests this. Jesus was presented in the temple 40 days after his birth according to the law (Leviticus 12:3-4 – 8 plus 33 with the days counted inclusively). Jesus’ parents gave the offering of the poor, a pair of turtledoves (Luke 2:24, Leviticus 12:8). Joseph and Mary would surely have had enough funds for a lamb offering if the wise men’s gifts had been received prior to the presentation in the temple. Most chronologies of Jesus’ life would place the coming of the wise men after the presentation in the temple.

No, I’m not a curmudgeon when looking at nativity scenes grumbling that they have it wrong. But it is important to know the facts. The eyewitnesses of Jesus point us to Jesus. The most important question you can ask yourself at this season of the year or any season of the year is: do you know Jesus?

The Gift

December 18, 2020

It is one of our funny, family Christmas stories. By funny, I mean awkward, painful, and only slightly humorous at the time. It has become funnier with time and retelling.

My wife and I purchased a Christmas gift for one of our nephews. The gift was a hardback copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, one of the books in The Narnia Chronicles. This C.S. Lewis children’s story is a favorite in our family. I had read it in college and had wished it had been read to me as a child (and yes, the books are old enough that it could have happened). Before our son was born, we had purchased a set of The Narnia Chronicles, so they were his first, earthly possession. I say this to indicate from our point of view, this was a precious gift.

Our nephew opened our gift and immediately his face fell with disappointment. He threw the book on the floor and stormed off nearly in tears. The adults experienced the laughter of awkward moments. As I said, it’s become funnier with the retelling.

To be fair, he later read the book and enjoyed it, and maybe he wasn’t old enough at the time we gave it. But I suspect that many of us have that awkward, painful, and only slightly humorous gift story to tell.

Gift giving involves the transaction between two parties: the giver and the recipient. What is precious to the giver may not be precious to the recipient. If in doubt on this point, please check the gift exchange line the day after Christmas at your nearest, busiest store.

This brings me to the most important gift. God gave his only son. God had no more precious gift to give. The gift was costly beyond measure. The price included the suffering of crucifixion and death. It was costly to be a sin offering for others, and our need for the gift couldn’t be greater.

So how have your responded to this precious gift? Have you headed to the exchange line for what the world can offer in its place? Or have you received with joy and learned how precious is the gift!

—Russ Holden

My Wish for All

December 22, 2017

My generation had a wish book, the glossy, colored pages of the Sears-Roebuck toy catalog. Its arrival marked a season of dreaming about what you wanted. It was a time of making your wishes known. It was a time of eager anticipation.

My childhood desires have faded, but not my wonder, anticipation, and joy. I was never meant to stay in childhood; I was meant to mature to learn lessons from the gifts I received. The adults in my life found joy in giving. I was to learn from them to follow the words of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). As I grew older, I realized that for some the wish book was a hollow dream. That this season of the year could bring sadness as well as joy. It could unfortunately illustrate greed as well as exemplify generosity.

My adult desire is to be generous. In my gift giving for family, I have also learned to give to others. In this desire to go beyond my immediate circle, I’ve found the greater joy. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.

My adult desire is also to appreciate and enjoy time with family. My family has many traditions that we have developed over the years. Traditions have a way of growing. You do something once, that’s nice. You do it a second time because you enjoyed it before, and you soon find yourself with a yearly tradition. But they function as ways of making lasting memories. My desire for everyone is to make memories with your family. The joy of family need not be expensive. Simple things can bring families together. The years fly by, but our memories are precious, and those memories are a part of the life of joy.

My adult desire is to know Jesus and to make him known to others. And here is the rub: the New Testament teaches us about the birth of Jesus and its importance. Without the incarnation, there could be no atonement. Yet, the New Testament never commands a celebration of Jesus’ birth, which is not likely to have been on December 25th, but does command a weekly celebration of his death and resurrection in the Lord’s Supper. If people feel pain by this season of the year, it is not from what Jesus or the New Testament teaches. They are the unintended consequences of human efforts.

The polls indicate that a majority of Americans celebrate Christmas now as a cultural holiday. Two-thirds believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, compared with 73% in 2014. 75% believe he was laid in a manger (down from 81%). Belief in the wise men guided by a star and bringing presents has also declined. (And for those who take the Bible seriously, the arrival of the wise men was likely months after Jesus’ birth, and not on the night of the shepherds’ visit.) Only 57% believe that all of these things actually happened.*

My wish for all is to know the blessings of generosity, family, and most of all Jesus. But we must go beyond the cultural trappings to the Jesus revealed in the New Testament. There are reasons for belief even if polls show a decline. For those who seek him, he can be found. And when he is found, he is Lord of lords and King of kings (Revelation 17:14, 19:16) which is not a seasonal occupation. With Jesus as the Lord of my daily life, I find an unfading joy: joy in giving, joy in family, but most of all, joy in Jesus Christ, my Lord.