Christmas

Pondering God’s Promises

Originally published December 9, 2016

pondering-promises

But Mary treasured up all these things,
pondering them in her heart. Luke 2:19

Ponder. It isn’t a word we use very often, is it? It means to spend some time in reflection, considering, thinking deeply about things. Christmas is a time for pondering, and no one knew that better than Mary.

Luke 2:19 finds Mary, Joseph, and Jesus alone in the stable, at the culmination of a whirlwind of mind-boggling events.

Think about all Mary had been through in the last few months…

  • After 400 years of silence from God, between the close of the Old Testament and, now, the opening of the New, an angel showed up – a staggering event in and of itself – and brought her a nearly incomprehensible message. Mary was going to be the mother of God’s promised Messiah. And that’s not all. She would be the only woman ever to conceive by the Holy Spirit.
  • At some point Mary had to break the news to her parents that she was pregnant. Were they godly people of faith, as quick to believe as Mary had been? Or, did Mary fear they might be skeptical and shocked?
  • Next to hear the news was her betrothed, Joseph. Incredulous, his first thought was to obtain a quiet divorce. But God sent another angel and reassured him personally.
  • How did Mary’s friends, loved ones, and community react to her pregnancy? Did she have to endure long months of whispers, stares, and gossip? Was she in danger of stoning or other punishment as prescribed by Levitical law?
  • A visit to Elizabeth’s house yielded even more amazement as Mary’s cousin related her own incredible pregnancy story.
  • Next on the agenda was a long, uncomfortable trip to Bethlehem and the pain and danger that came with first century childbirth.
  • Before she was anywhere near ready for visitors, the shepherds arrived and regaled the little family with their fantastic story of a sky full of angels proclaiming the birth of the Savior to them.
  • And to top it all off, lying in her arms was a brand new, precious baby- her first. All of us who are moms remember the weightiness, and sometimes, panic, of holding our first baby. “What do I do first? How will I take care of this child? What if I mess it all up?” And Mary’s first child was God incarnate. King of the universe. Savior of the world. Think she felt a tad inadequate?

Mary’s had quite a year, to put it mildly. And now the shepherds have left and she has a moment to catch her breath and reflect on all these events that led up to God fulfilling His promises to her, to Israel, and to the whole world. The promise of the Messiah- Jesus.

And just as Mary pondered the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ, Christmas time is an oh-so-appropriate time for us to ponder the promises He has made to us in Christ.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to know exactly what God has promised us. If you peruse the books at your local Christian retailer or flip on your TV or radio to many of the “Christian” stations, you’ll hear all sorts of things that God has supposedly promised us, things like: a bigger house, a better job, healing from every disease, that you’ll be able to hear God’s voice speaking to you, miracles, restored relationships, a better life…

But does God really promise us all these things?

How do we find out what God has really promised us? We go straight to the source- God’s word. It is the only truly trustworthy source for knowing what God has promised us.

But there are a lot of promises in the Bible. Some of them are for us today and some of them aren’t. For example, did God promise you that you would conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Messiah? No. That promise was only for Mary. Did God promise the United States Army that if they would go march around an enemy city and blow some horns that the city walls would fall down and they would conquer that city? No. That was for only for Joshua and Israel, and only that one time.

We learn which promises are for us by being good students of God’s word. By picking up our Bibles (and I would urge you, the best way to learn God’s word is to study God’s word, not somebody else’s book). We pick up our Bibles and study them in context, in a systematic way, rightly dividing the Word of truth, paying attention to who God is talking to in each passage.

So, as it’s Christmas time and we reflect back on the Christmas story – maybe even pondering some of the same things that Mary did – what are some of the things God has promised us in Christ?

God has promised us forgiveness from our sin in Christ

When the angel came to visit Joseph and told him to go ahead and take Mary as his wife, the angel said:

matt-1-21

Romans 5:8 says:

but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

And 1 John 1:9 says:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The Bible says that all of us are dirty, rotten, wretched sinners. None is righteous, no not one. And since all of our good deeds – never mind the bad ones – are like filthy rags, there’s no way we could ever hope to make up for our sin by being a good person or doing good things.

And God, in His beautiful mercy and grace, doesn’t even require us to try. He reached down into our filth and sent His own Son to take the death penalty you and I deserve for our sin. He absorbed God’s wrath toward us, so that we can stand before God clean if we’ll just repent and trust what Christ did for us on the cross. God promises to remove our sins as far as the east is from the west, to drop them in the depths of the sea, and to remember them no more. God promises us forgiveness in Christ.

God promises us trials and persecution

Doesn’t sound very Christmasy, does it? But perhaps we’ve forgotten the part of the Christmas story in which Mary and Joseph had to take Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill Him.

And just as Jesus faced persecution and hardship, we can expect to face it too. Second Timothy 3:12 tells us:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,

And John 16:33 says:

In this world you will have tribulation.

Just as Herod hated Christ, the world will hate us because of Christ. Just as Christ suffered because He was born into a broken and sinful world, so, we will suffer various trials and tribulations. In this world, you will have tribulation. But is that the end of that verse? No – praise God! – it is not.

The remainder of John 16:33 says “But take heart; I have overcome the world.” The trials and tribulations and persecutions we face are all just light and momentary afflictions, because Christ has overcome the world- and our hope is not in this world.

One day, we will shuffle off this mortal coil and see Christ Jesus face to face. And when we look upon the beautiful face of Christ, if we even remember the troubles of this world, we won’t complain or whine or ask, “Why did You allow me to go through those things?” or “Why didn’t you give me my best life now?”  

We’ll say:

It was worth it.

And in the meantime, God promises to walk through that suffering with us. “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” He says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the ends of the age.” God promises us trials and persecution, but He promises to walk through them with us.

God promises us joy

When the angel appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Christ, he said:

luke-2-10

“All the people.” That’s us, too! When we think about the good news of the gospel, it should bring us great joy.

Galatians 5:22 tells us that joy is part of the fruit that comes from the Holy Spirit indwelling us:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy…

First Peter 1:8 says:

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.

And why is that joy “inexpressible and filled with glory”? Why is it joy that will never fade away? Because our joy is found in Christ: who He is and what He has done for us. Joy isn’t found in temporary circumstances- when you’re healthy, when you have a lot of money in the bank, when your kids are all successful, when your job is going well. Those things can all be taken away in the blink of an eye.

But if your heart, your mind, and your life have been transformed by the good news of the gospel, you can have joy even in the midst of devastation and heartbreak, because Christ isn’t going anywhere. He will always hold you and keep you and comfort you. He hears you when you pray and does what’s best for you. He takes care of you. He allows you to draw close to Him and discover more and more about Him through the study of His word. He gives you fellowship with your brothers and sisters in Christ.

That is the kind of joy God promises us in Christ.

God promises to provide for us

I wonder if Mary, while she was pondering all of these amazing things, reflected on the many ways God had provided for her. He provided a husband to take care of her, a cousin to encourage her, protection throughout her pregnancy, and a place to stay in Bethlehem.

God promises to provide for us, too. Philippians 4:19 says:

And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

And Jesus said in Matthew 6:31-33:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

God is a good and loving Father. He knows all of our needs even better than we do. He wants us to work hard and ethically, make wise financial decisions, and be good stewards of the resources He has given us, but He wants us to trust Him and depend on Him – not a paycheck or a job or insurance or a savings account – to take care of us.

God provided manna in the wilderness every day. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. And He has promised to provide for us.

Those are just a few of the wonderful things God has promised us. One of the great things about His promises is that there are so many of them. I could go on and on about God’s promises of peace, contentment, hope, love, Heaven, justice…

But I’d like to close with my favorite promise. It’s the promise that is foundational to all of God’s other promises:

2-cor-1-20

All of God’s promises from Genesis to Revelation are fulfilled in Christ. God keeps His promises, and He keeps them in Christ.

As Mary pondered all the things God had promised her about Jesus, she didn’t have to wonder if they were true or not. She had seen them come true with her own eyes.

How can we know that God keeps His promises to us in Christ? Because He proved it to us. He backed up His word with action:

Jesus Christ- the second Person of the Trinity, creator and ruler of the universe, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the prince of Heaven, worshiped by angels, all powerful, all mighty, all knowing, worthy of all glory, honor, and praise – did not consider these things as things to be grasped or held tightly to.

But He emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Born, not into wealth, power, prestige, or position; not into a mansion or a palace, but born to plain, simple, anonymous people. And in humility, for most of His years, He lived a plain, simple, anonymous life. Resisting every temptation in thought, word, and deed, that He might become the perfect sacrifice for our sin.

And in the fullness of time, He was despised and rejected by men. Subjected to a kangaroo court, he was tried and convicted for crimes he did not commit, and sentenced to death- even death on a cross

Harsh, sinful men took Jesus out and smashed a crown of thorns down on His head. They mocked and scorned Him. They pulled His beard out. They pummeled Him with their fists. And then they whipped Him nearly to death.

They laid the rough, splintery cross beam across Jesus’ bruised and bloodied shoulders and led Him in humiliation through the streets of His beloved Jerusalem, outside the city gates, to be executed like a common criminal.

Those evil men used the very hands Jesus Himself had knit together in their mothers’ wombs to reach down, pick up hammers, and drive spikes through wrists and feet of their Creator.

And Jesus hung there on that cross for hours in excruciating pain to to endure the holy, just, and righteous wrath of God toward our sin, to take the punishment that we deserve- and He did not.

Later that day, while Mary mourned, and the disciples scattered, and Satan thought he had finally conquered the God he hated, they took Jesus’ bloody, broken body down off the cross, laid him in a cold, dark, lonely cave, and rolled a stone across the opening.

Friday…

Saturday…

But Jesus didn’t stay there, did He?

On that bright, beautiful, first Easter Sunday, Jesus left behind the sting of the grave and the bonds of death, and He walked out of that tomb conquering sin, death, hell, and the grave FOREVER.

FOREVER.

And He did it for you, and He did it for me. And any God who goes to those lengths for you and for me can be trusted to keep His promises. ALL of His promises.

God’s word is true, ladies- all of it. God can be trusted- He proved it in Christ. You can stake your life on His promises. You can stake your eternity on His promises. 

Ponder that.

Christmas

Christmas Mythbusters

Originally published December 12, 2019

Was Jesus really born in a barn? Did the angels actually sing? How many wise men were there, really?

There are lots of components of the Christmas story that we’ve come to accept as gospel truth, but that the Bible doesn’t actually teach. Here are some great resources to help us better understand the details surrounding the biblical account of the birth of Christ.

Did Mary ride a donkey to Bethlehem?

The Bible doesn’t tell us, so we don’t know for sure. She could have ridden a donkey. She could have ridden in a cart. She could have walked. All Scripture tells us is that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem. It doesn’t say how they got there.

Was Mary in active labor when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem?

It makes for dramatic nativity movies, but it’s very unlikely. God Himself had given Joseph the enormous and grave task of taking care of Mary and Jesus. You’ve seen first time dads and the weight of responsibility they feel to protect and provide for their wives and their own babies. This was God’s Son. Joseph must have been quaking in his sandals to make sure he got everything right. He certainly would not have waited until Mary was near her due date and risked her delivering the baby in the open country on the trip (not to mention outside of Bethlehem, which would have failed to fulfill prophecy).

Luke 2:6 says:

And while they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to give birth.

“While they were there,” not “as soon as they got there.” “The time came,” not “IT’S TIME, JOSEPH! Find me a room NOW!” The phraseology of this verse suggests that Mary and Joseph spent some time in Bethlehem before Jesus was born. Rather than taking Mary to Bethlehem at the last minute, it’s much more likely that Joseph carefully prepared for the trip, made sure to get there with plenty of time to spare, and made arrangements to stay in Bethlehem until the baby was born.

Was Jesus born in a barn or stable? And what about that innkeeper?

Luke 2:7 tells us:

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

To our western minds, an inn is like a hotel – a business that rents rooms to travelers.  But in biblical times, the cultural rules of hospitality dictated that travelers stay with family, friends, or anyone who would extend hospitality to them. Thus, there was no hotel-like “inn” in Bethlehem, and, of course, no innkeeper.

The Greek word kataluma, usually rendered as “inn” in Luke 2:7 is more accurately rendered “guest room” or “upper room” (of a home) – the same sort of “upper room” Jesus used for the Last Supper. One of Joseph’s relatives would have welcomed him and Mary into their home when they got to Bethlehem. But because Bethlehem was packed with visitors arriving for the census, the guest room of the home they stayed in was likely already full. So instead of giving birth in the crowded upper room of the home, Mary moved to the lower room. This lower room would have had space for the animals to be brought in at night, complete with a feed trough (manger), giving her a convenient cradle for the little Lord Jesus to lay down His sweet head. Jesus was not born in the kind of barn or stable we think of in America and usually see in traditional nativity scenes.

Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable by Ian Paul

Born in a Barn (Stable)? at Answers in Genesis

Jesus Was Born in a Barn? at When We Understand the Text

Did Jesus cry as a baby?

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes

Until I started researching this article, I didn’t realize that some people think Jesus never cried as a baby because of these two lines from the Christmas carol Away in a Manger.

I don’t think that was the hymnist’s intent. The stanza reads as though, in that particular moment when He woke up, Jesus was content and happy, not that He never ever cried.

Furthermore, we know from Scripture that Jesus was not only fully God, He was also fully human. Human babies cry when they’re hungry or tired or sick or in pain or a thousand other scenarios. That’s how they communicate. Jesus was a real live human baby who cried, nursed, spit up, burped, needed His diaper changed, fell down when He was learning to walk, and had to be potty trained. The only type of crying we know He never did was sinful crying – because He didn’t get His own way, because He was angry and frustrated, etc. – since we know Jesus was without sin.

Hark! Did the “herald angels” actually sing?

It’s possible, but we don’t know for sure. We know that the gloria in excelsis deo proclamation was spoken to the shepherds because Luke 2:13-14 says.

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 among those with whom he is pleased!”

But it also says they were praising God. In the Bible, though praise can be expressed in many ways, singing is one of the most common and natural ways of praising God. So while we know the angels weren’t singing exclusively, there’s no reason they couldn’t have been singing at some point.

Hark! The Herald Angels Said? at Answers in Genesis

Do Angels Sing? at Got Questions

How many wise men were there, exactly?

At least two (because the Bible speaks of them in the plural), but possibly a whole passel of them. Our minds are set to “three” because the Bible mentions that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, because of Christmas carols like We Three Kings, and because every nativity set comes equipped with three wise men. But it’s just as possible that two wise men gave three gifts, or that three gifts were given corporately by a larger group of wise men.

We Three Kings at Answers in Genesis

What does the Bible say about the three wise men (Magi)? at Got Questions

How many wise men came after Jesus was born? at CARM

Were Anna and Simeon married to each other?

Nope.

The end of Luke 2 tells us the story of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the temple to offer the appropriate sacrifice for Him as “the first male to open the womb”. While they’re there, Simeon shows up and prophesies over Jesus and Mary. And “at that very hour” Anna also “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” But nowhere does the passage even hint that they were married to each other, or that they even knew one another.

I think a lot of people mentally marry Anna to Simeon because their stories are back to back, because they showed up at the temple at the same time, and because we tend to assume they were both elderly. (Anna was at least 84, but, technically, we’re never told Simeon’s age or that he was elderly.) But verse 37 clearly tells us that Anna “lived as a widow”. She wasn’t married to anyone, including Simeon.

Who was Simeon in the Bible? at Got Questions

Who was Anna the prophetess in the Bible? at Got Questions

How many babies were murdered in the slaughter of the innocents?

Matthew 2:16 tells us that an enraged King Herod “sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” in an attempt to murder Jesus. We tend to think of scores, even hundreds, of babies being murdered in this event which has come to be known as “The Slaughter [or Massacre] of the Innocents.” But as the beloved Christmas carol states, it’s “O little town of Bethlehem”. Bethlehem had a population of approximately 1500. Statistically speaking, scores or hundreds of baby boys age two and under in a population that size would have been impossible. Twelve to fifteen – still a horrifying tragedy- would be more accurate.

Truth or Fiction: Did Herod Really Slaughter Baby Boys in Bethlehem? by Paul Maier

There are lots of sentimental and striking details of the Christmas story we’ve come to embrace over the years, but it’s imperative that we get our theology from the Bible, not Christmas carols, traditions, and assumptions. Yet even more important than donkeys and stables and wise men is why Jesus came – to save sinners like you and me.


Additional Resources:

25 Christmas Myths and What the Bible Says by Gabe Hughes

Think You Know the Christmas Story? Here are Five Common Misconceptions by Michael Kruger

Please note, I am not thoroughly familiar with the theology of every site linked above. I have only vetted the specific articles that are linked. I do not endorse anything at the sites above that conflict with my theology as outlined in my “Statement of Faith” and “Welcome” tabs at the top of this page. Please reject any theology you come across at these sites that conflicts with God’s Word.