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Life of Christ (2007-2009)

On This Wise

Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2

Lesson audio

(The reader will note that this lesson was originally delivered on December 23, 2007, which influences its scope.)

The Principal Players

The story of the advent of Christ is probably the best known birth ever recorded. We may begin by looking at its principal players: Mary and Joseph

Mary, the “handmaid of the Lord”

(Luke 1:26-38)

It all seems so matter of fact, as if it should happen every day. Mary gets the word; she accepts what is to come for her rather calmly, it seems. In fact, the bare words do not describe how this child of about thirteen years was overwhelmed by the announcement:

  • Notice, please, that the angel is named Gabriel – which we presume is the same angel who interpreted the prophetic visions for Daniel.[1] We know little else about him, but even to know his name implies power, for only he and Michael are named in the Old Testament.
  • We see also, for the first time linked explicitly, the Trinity. The matter is from God the Father; by the Holy Spirit, to give birth to the Christ.
  • Mary’s reaction tells you why she was selected: obedience. In the older versions you will see “handmaid” instead of “servant.” The word is also translated “bondslave.” It is her reaction to the highest of honor given to woman. Now you know what makes for greatness in the kingdom.
Joseph: an explanation

(Matthew 1:18-25)

If you wish to upset a man, nothing quite touches the problem as finding his fiancée pregnant – by somebody else. So angel comes to make the explanation. Joseph will have much to do with raising this child, so it is not a great stretch to infer that his character might also be a reason for God’s choice. Character, indeed:

  • He is called a righteous man – and that is given as his reason for divorcing Mary quietly. Righteous? Wouldn’t a righteous man condemn her? Well, no. Joseph was ready to “do the right thing,” which was to handle the matter discreetly. He’s a man who first of all does no harm.
  • The angel calls him “Joseph, son of David.” It is a reminder that Jesus’ legal claim to the throne of Israel comes through Joseph. It’s also a reminder of the one promised to come.
  • Finally, he did as he was commanded. Mary and Joseph share the same blessing: obedience.
Magnificat

(Luke 1:46-56)

Other than French, I know of no language more susceptible to bursts of poetry than Hebrew. Or any language less so than English. We must remember that the Psalms were daily fare; so when Mary bursts into poetry it is not as it would seem in English. It is spontaneous, but full of the Spirit as well. Mary would understand that man is not supreme, but God. So her words would magnify God, not Mary:

  • She praises God for his mercy – at long last the promised Messiah is coming, bringing salvation for his people.
  • She praises God for his might, the great things he has done.
  • She praises God for his faithfulness – keeping his promises over thousands of years.

Birth

The story of Christ’s birth is familiar to any child in the church, but we can still learn from those events.

Circumstances

(Luke 2:1-7)

Perhaps you missed it, but the careful research of Dr. Luke has pinned down the date of Christ’s birth. The matter is debated by scholars, but it is certainly between 6 BC and 13 AD. How is this known? We have secular records of who ruled when. This is not an event “long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It’s a local event. Many English villages and towns are first listed in the Domesday book prepared by William the Conqueror; this is a similar purpose. This is the hard reality of fact.

One cannot help notice that the king of kings and lord of lords cannot get a reservation at a decent motel. Being born in a stable – laid in a manger, or eating trough – is not the height of social status.[2]

The Shepherds

(Luke 2:8-20)

It is a fact: angels usually announce themselves with the words, “Do not be afraid.” Even those angels on the most glorious of nights must calm the fear of the shepherds. Why shepherds? Perhaps it is because David was a shepherd. They are definitely not high in social status; so a baby in a manger would not seem too out of place to them.

That’s the good news, the “gospel” that they received. The poor working stiff is the first to hear the news; the Messiah has come. Their reaction is just as you would expect: they drop everything and go see this thing announced to them. No committee meeting, no plans for a “Welcome, Jesus” banner, no ceremony at all. Just straight to Jesus. Which is still the right reaction today.

Magi

(Matthew 2:1-12)

Much has been written about the Magi. In some circles this event “validates” astrology, for example. We need to get a little background here that will help us understand this:

  • This is the same flock of wise men whose leader once was Daniel. You will remember that he was head of the “wise men” of Babylon[3]. You will also remember that he was told when the Messiah would arrive. Is it not likely that this would have been written into the records of the magi, along with detailed instructions concerning the astronomy of that time?
  • These wise men were not worshippers of idols. They worshiped “the one true God”, whose icon was light itself. They are indeed very close to the Jews in their view of God the Father.

What about that star? My opinion is that it was a particular planet showing up in a particular constellation which would have been computed by Daniel. Other views include a supernova or a purely miraculous star.

The gifts the magi bring have their own meaning. It is clear that they have some understanding of who Jesus is, as they refer to him as the King of the Jews. For that monarch they bring three gifts appropriate for him:

  • Gold – the symbol of eternity, for it never rusts or corrodes.
  • Frankincense – the symbol of prayer.
  • Myrrh – used for embalming, it is prophetic of the Cross.

One of the saddest incidents in the Bible came from these men, indirectly. Herod would kill this infant king, but needs to know his exact location. The magi are warned against telling him. The result is the slaughter of the innocents.

After His birth

Presented in the Temple

(Luke 2:22-38)

It sometimes surprises students of the Bible to discover that Jesus was obedient to the Scriptures as given in the Old Testament. This should not be so surprising; he is simply obeying his own rules. Mary and Joseph would have been particular about this. Bethlehem is a short distance from Jerusalem, about a day’s walk. Mary and Joseph presented the sacrifices of a poor man for the redemption of their first born son.[4] Then the unusual happens:

  • Simeon, an old man announces that he can leave the planet now. This is a righteous man, and he has been promised that he would see the Messiah. He is old, his back hurts in the morning, he might even have asked God to give him a date. But when the child arrives, Simeon knows. He can say, “mission accomplished.”
  • But not before he pronounces his dark prophecy. This child will reveal the hearts of many, forcing a decision: just who is this Jesus? He sees the stone of stumbling, the rock of offense. He also sees the Crucifixion – and its agony for Mary.
  • A woman of prophecy, Anna, takes up the refrain (so that there might be more than one witness). It is a fitting reward for this elderly widow, so faithful to God.
The flight to Egypt

(Matthew 2:13-18)

One might suppose that God could easily have thwarted Herod’s plans – Herod, after all, dies like the rest of us. But in weakness is the strength of God revealed; when his people flee, the faith spreads. So it is here; the infant’s protectors are the poor and weak. He commands them to flee with the baby.

This incident points up the inevitable conflict between church and state. Herod has it quite correct: the child is a menace to his reign. The Child is a menace to the reign of all governments who consider themselves to be supreme in the obedience of the citizenry. Please note God’s method: until Christ comes again, the weapons of Christ wielded by his children are those of flight, sacrifice and martyrdom.

In this passage we see a prophetic fulfillment. It sometimes is criticized in that regard; after all, the prophecy seems rather obscure – and the fulfillment somewhat awkward. But it is God who defines prophecy, not us.

Growing up

(Luke 2:40-52)

In obedience to God’s command Joseph does not return to Bethlehem but to Nazareth. For the next twelve years we know nothing of Christ’s life. We then have this incident in the Temple.

The young man seems to have thought his parents should have known where he would be. In fact, by his view they are rather thick headed about it all. Which is true; the Scripture tells us they did not understand. Many a teenager has thought the same of his parents.

But see the model Jesus gives us. Despite the fact that they should have known by now, he returns to Nazareth with them and is obedient to them. Much of Christ’s life is exemplary; here is one of his best examples.


[1] Daniel 8:16; Daniel 9:21

[2] And it hasn’t done much for the reputation of innkeepers, either.

[3] Daniel 2:48

[4] Leviticus 12:2-6

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