Jesus’ Childhood (post #2 of 3)

When last we left Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, they were in Jerusalem in the Jewish temple performing a couple of important services per the Mosaic law. At this point, Jesus is 40 days old and has been circumcised and formally dedicated to God. He’s also had His praises sung by Simeon and Anna, two strangers who have with God’s help recognized Him as the promised Jewish Messiah. These events are all recorded in Luke 2:21-38.

Unfortunately, if we were filming a Bible-based movie about Jesus’ life, we would have to close the scene in the temple by fading to black. I say this because it’s here in the chronology that the Bible goes silent. Luke’s gospel follows up the events at the temple by saying that the family returned to Joseph and Mary’s hometown of Nazareth, but this leaves out a sizable chunk of the storyline.

If you’ve ever really studied the gospels in depth, you now that this type of omission is typical for the writers. More or less, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each just hit the highlights of Jesus’ life and ministry by only writing about the events they felt led of the Lord to include in their gospels (2 Timothy 3:16-17; John 21:24-25). In other words, to get the whole record of events — at least as much as we have of it — you have to consult all four gospels and piece the storyline together.

It’s Matthew’s gospel that truly picks up the chronology following the events at the temple. He does this by including the famous story about the wise men’s visit to see Jesus. Yes, I know that a whole bunch of people think the wise men visited baby Jesus on the night of His birth, but we can’t force the Bible to come in line with our Christmas cards, hymns, and movies.

How do we know the wise men’s visit doesn’t take place on the night of His birth? First, Matthew 2:1 plainly says they came from the east after Jesus was born in Bethlehem. While it’s true the word “after” could mean just a few hours after the birth, it is noteworthy that Matthew doesn’t say the wise men came the night of Christ’s birth. Second, they find Jesus in a house (Matthew 2:11). That’s a far cry from finding Him in a manger (an animal’s feeding trough) like the shepherds did (Luke 2:8-16). Third, there is the matter of Mary previously having to offer the “poor” version of an offering at the temple (Luke 2:24). (I explained that in the first post from the series.) Fourth, after Herod the Great asks the wise men when they first saw the star in their land, he ultimately has all the children from Bethlehem and its surrounding districts killed who are two years old or younger (Matthew 2:7,16-18). This leads many to believe that Jesus could have been as much as two years old when the wise men came to see Him. Even if He wasn’t quite that old, it’s significant that Herod didn’t just have all the newborns killed.

Evidently, the sequence of events plays out like this:

  • Jesus is born in Bethlehem on the night the shepherds come to see him. (Luke 2:1-20)
  • Sometime shortly afterward Joseph and Mary take up residence in a house there in Bethlehem.
  • Jesus is circumcised and officially named when He is eight days old. (Luke 2:21)
  • Jesus is formally presented to God in the Jerusalem temple when He is 40 days old (Luke 2:22-23). Jerusalem, after all, is only some five miles from Bethlehem.
  • Following the day in Jerusalem at the temple, the family returns to the house in Bethlehem and lives there until the wise men visit (Matthew 2:1-12). Whether that is two years later or two weeks later we can’t say, but I do tend to lean more toward thinking it’s the ballpark of two years.

Okay, so what happens next? Immediately following the visit from the wise men, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and instructs him to load up Jesus and Mary and head south into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14). This flight allows Jesus to miss Herod’s massacre of the small children of Bethlehem, a massacre that serves as another fulfillment of a prophecy given by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:15).

The family then remains in Egypt until Joseph receives the news that Herod has died. He receives this news by way of an angel of the Lord (probably the same one from earlier, probably even the same one mentioned in Matthew 1:18-25) appearing to him in another dream (Matthew 2:19-21). By the way, the journey and subsequent stay in Egypt are no doubt financed by the gifts the wise men brought (Matthew 2:11).

Of course, I realize that what I’ve written leaves so many questions unanswered. How did Joseph and Mary afford what seems to have been some type of rental house in Bethlehem? Did Joseph take a job in Bethlehem? Once the family arrives in Egypt, where do they live? For that matter, considering Israel’s Old Testament history in Egypt, why does God the Father want Jesus to abide in that land for a while? The Bible simply doesn’t give us the answers to any of these questions other than to say that Jesus being in Egypt provides another fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy first given by the prophet Balaam (Numbers 24:8) and repeated by the prophet Hosea (Hosea 11:1).

With my next post we’ll finish up this short series on Christ’s childhood. We’ll get the family back into Israel and learn what we can about the silent years of Jesus’ upbringing. Admittedly, we won’t have a ton of scripture to consult, but we’ll find enough to do some reading between the lines. So until next time, just keep in mind that this divine baby that once caused so much fuss grew into adulthood, died on the cross for your sins, arose from the dead, ascended to heaven, took His seat at the right hand of God the Father, and will one day return to reign over this entire earth. All that from that babe in the manger? Yep. And that’s why He is worthy of all the devotion and service you can give Him.

Posted in Christ's Birth, Christmas Traditions, Scripture, Series: "Jesus' Childhood", The Bible | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Christian verses” Podcast: John 13:34

In John 13:34, Jesus says to His disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” Why did Jesus call that commandment new? And what does the specific group to whom He gave it have to do with its application? Malcolm and I answer these questions in the new podcast, which we’ve called “The 11th Commandment.” You can listen to it by simply clicking on the link below:

Posted in "Christian Verses" podcast, Christian Unity, Church, God's Love, Love, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Jesus’ Childhood (post #1 of 3)

The Bible is for the most part silent about the years of Jesus’ childhood. As we all know from the Christmas story, He is born in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger, and visited by shepherds on the night of his birth (Luke 2:1-20). But then what happens to Him? Well, that’s a good question, and I’ll try to answer it with this post and the next two.

For starters, when Jesus is eight days old He is circumcised. This is done in keeping with the Jewish law (Genesis 17:12; Leviticus 12:1-3; Luke 2:21). He is also officially given the name “Jesus” during this ceremony. Circumcision is mandatory for each Jewish male because the mark is the physical sign of the covenant that God has made with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:1-27).

There’s no way for us to know exactly how long that manger served as Jesus’ crib. Did the family ever get a room in the inn? The Bible doesn’t tell us. Evidently, however, it wasn’t too long before the family moved into a house there in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:11). Since Nazareth was Joseph and Mary’s hometown, perhaps the house was some version of a rental for that time.

What we do know is that forty days after Jesus’ birth — 32 days after His circumcision — we next find the little family in Jerusalem. They are still residing in that house in Bethlehem but they have made the trip of approximately five miles to visit Jerusalem. Why have they come here? They’ve come because it’s time for them to do some business at the Jewish temple. It’s here that they must perform two very important acts.

Mary is the focus of the first act as she is required to present specific sacrifices to a priest. According to Jewish law, any Jewish woman who gives birth to a son is considered ceremonially unclean for forty days (Leviticus 12:1-5). At the end of the forty days, the woman brings to the priest a yearling lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering (Leviticus 12:6). If she can’t bring a lamb, which is the more expensive offering, she can bring the “poor” offering of two turtledoves (one as a burnt offering and the other one as a sin offering). The fact that Mary offers two turtledoves (Luke 2:24) evidences the fact that the Wise Men haven’t visited Jesus yet. If they had, Mary would have in her possession plenty of gold to purchase a sacrificial lamb (Matthew 2:11).

The family’s second act that day focuses upon the baby Jesus. Under Jewish law, every firstborn son has to be formally dedicated to the Lord (Exodus 13:1-2, 11-15; Luke 2:22-23). This ritual involves the son being redeemed (bought back) from the Lord by the family for a price of five shekels (Numbers 18:16).

While Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are in the temple, they are approached by a man they don’t know. His name is Simeon, and the Holy Spirit has previously revealed to him that he will not die until he has seen the Jewish Messiah (Luke 2:25-26). This same Holy Spirit has led him to the temple that day to experience the fulfillment of that promise (Luke 2:27).

When Simeon sees the baby Jesus, he instinctively knows this is the Messiah for whom he has been waiting. He then takes Jesus in his arms, offers words of praise to God, speaks a blessing upon Joseph and Mary, and warns Mary that the child is destined to be a point of division in Israel and that she herself will have to inwardly endure the pain that others will inflict upon Him outwardly (Luke 2:33-35). All Joseph and Mary can do is stand there and marvel at the Simeon’s words (Luke 2:33).

Simeon has barely finished speaking when all of a sudden here comes a woman who is very old. Her name is Anna and she is a prophetess. She was once married, but her husband died seven years into the marriage and since then she has spent her life as a widow. She is “a widow of about eighty-four years.” (This either means that she was an eighty-four-year-old widow or that she had gotten married in her teens, remained married for seven years until her husband died, and then lived another eighty-four years. The latter interpretation would add up to her being over 100 years old.)  She never leaves the temple and serves God with fastings and prayers night and day (Luke 2:36-37). (Perhaps this indicates that she had some type of residence on the temple grounds.)

When Anna sees the baby Jesus, she follows suit with Simeon and gives thanks to the Lord. Then she starts telling all her fellow Jews who are living in expectation of the Messiah that He has now arrived (Luke 2:38). Her actions serve as a lasting testament to the fact that the elderly can still perform great acts of service to the Lord. Getting old doesn’t mean that a person can’t bear fruit.

What a memorable time the baby Jesus and His earthly parents have that day at the temple. It all makes for a highlight-reel from His early weeks of life. But what happens next? Unfortunately for those of us who are the curious type, the Bible’s record of His early days then goes silent for an extended period of time. I’ll ask you to tune in next time, though, as we jump right back into the stream of the storyline as it is given. And until then I’ll also ask you to keep looking for the coming of Jesus like Simeon did and keep serving Him and telling others about Him like Anna did.

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When Death is Precious

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. (Psalm 116:15, K.J.V.)

The Hebrew word translated in this verse as “precious” is yaqar. It’s an interesting word, one that carries multiple shades of meaning. Let me mention three of them.

First, yaqar can mean “valuable.” This is how it is used in 2 Samuel 12:30 to describe the stones (jewels) that were set in the crown worn by the king of the Ammonites. Second, yaqar can mean “rare.” For example, 1 Samuel 3:1 speaks of a time when the word of the Lord was rare (yaqar) in Israel. Third, yaqar can mean “honorable.” It’s used this way in Psalm 45:9 to describe the daughters of a king.

What all this tells us is that when a saint dies, God looks upon that death as a precious, valuable, honorable event. A difficult race has been finished (2 Timothy 4:7) and a good fight has been waged (2 Timothy 4:7). Furthermore, the death can also be classified as rare because God’s people are always the minority in this world (Matthew 7:13-14).

As Jesus stood before the tomb of the recently deceased Lazarus, He wept (John 11:35). The Jews who were watching understood His tears to be Jesus’ way of mourning for Lazarus. That’s why they said, “See how He loved him!” (John 11:36).

However, other explanations have been offered as to why Jesus cried at that particular moment. I myself don’t claim to have any special insight into the question, but there is one explanation that makes me smile. It’s the one that says that Jesus wept because He knew that He was about to bring Lazarus back from a better place and reenter him into this world of trial, trouble, disease, and death.

Have you ever thought about the fact Lazarus had to experience physical death twice? That had to be rough. I wonder if anyone who knew the post-resurrection Lazarus took the time to get his unique perspective on life after death. Surely there were numerous people who did, and I have no doubt that he had a fascinating story to tell.

Anyway, to get back to the point, the next time you attend the funeral of a Christian just remember that God looks upon that death as precious, valuable, rare, and honorable. Really, it’s a homegoing. The soul of the deceased has departed the body and gone to be with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:1-8) and will never again experience any pain or sorrow. Therefore, while mourning is appropriate, it should be more for the loved ones left behind than the dearly departed. After all, those people are the ones who are experiencing the pain. The Christian departed certainly isn’t.

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God Doesn’t Change, But Don’t Try to Put Him in a Box

“For I am the Lord, I do not change…” (Malachi 3:6, N.K.J.V.)

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. (James 1:17, N.K.J.V.)

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8, N.K.J.V.)

These three verses all convey the same basic truth: God doesn’t change. However, we shouldn’t take this basic truth to mean that God never changes the ways in which He accomplishes His purposes. To the contrary, He is wildly creative and adaptive when it comes to bringing His will to pass.

We see evidence of this throughout the pages of scripture, particularly in the major thematic differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Here are a few of those differences:

  • In the Old Testament, the hard times that come upon God’s people are typically the result of God chastising/judging His people because of sin. In the New Testament, the hard times are typically the result of God’s people suffering persecution simply because they are serving Him well.
  • In the Old Testament, human warfare occurs frequently as God’s people get attacked and oppressed by enemy nations (the Egyptians, the Moabites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, etc.). In the New Testament, the warfare turns much more spiritual in nature as God’s people get attacked and oppressed by Satan and the other fallen angels (demons).
  • In the Old Testament, God grants earthly blessings as the result of obedience to Him. We see this in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job, David, Solomon, etc. In the New Testament, treasure in heaven becomes the promised reward for obedience.

In his colloquial, Texas-country-boy way, football coach Bum Phillips once famously said of fellow coach Don Shula, “Don Shula can take his’n and beat your’n. Or he can take your’n and beat his’n.” That was Bum’s way of saying that Shula could make a winner out of any team regardless of who the players were. Well, the same thing can be said with even more accuracy about God. Even though He never changes in terms of His character and nature, He is a master at adapting His ways to fit any given situation in order to bring about His desired result.

Keep this mind the next time you ask God to grant a prayer request. Assuming that granting the request is His will at all, don’t try to put Him in a box as to how He does it. For example, if you have a legitimate financial need, feel free to ask Him to meet that need, but don’t attempt to name a specific way (e.g. “Lord, let me win the lottery”) by which He must meet it. Just make your request, have faith, and let God handle things His way. It’s been my experience that you’ll be surprised — dare I say amazed — at not only what he does but how He does it.

Posted in Faith, God's Omnipotence, God's Provision, God's Will, Needs, Prayer Requests, Trusting In God | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Genesis 12:3 & Modern Israel

Genesis 12:3 is one of the most famous verses in the Old Testament. It’s the foundational verse for what is known as the Abrahamic covenant, the covenant that God entered into with Abraham. The record of the actual ceremony that took place between Abraham  and God to formally seal that covenant is found in Genesis chapter 15.

At its core, Genesis 12:3 is a three-fold promise that God speaks to Abraham. The promise goes as follows:

I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:3, N.K.J.V.)

The meaning of this three-fold promise isn’t hard to understand. If a person, a group of people, or even an entire nation blessed Abraham, God would bless them. On the other hand, to curse Abraham was to evoke God’s cursing. As for the part about all the families of the earth being blessed in Abraham, that found its highest fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who as a genetic descendant of Abraham died for the sins of the world.

We know from the book of Genesis that God honored His promise concerning Abraham. When Egypt’s Pharaoh naively attempted to make Sarah (Abraham’s wife) his wife, God plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues (Genesis 12:17). Years later, when Abimelech tried the same thing, God came to Abimelech in a dream and began the conversation by saying, “You are a dead man” (Genesis 20:3). For good measure, God also closed up all the wombs of the women of Abimelch’s house as long as Sarah was under Abimelech’s roof (Genesis 20:18).

But the question that concerns us today is, are we right to carry the Genesis 12:3 promise over from Abraham to modern Jews? Putting the question another way, is the promise that God specifically made to Abraham long ago transferable to the current nation of Israel? Well, the answer you get depends upon whom you ask.

Those who say the promise is transferable cite Numbers 24:9, where the prophet Balaam, in clear reference to the entire nation of Israel (not just to Abraham, who was long since dead), says:

…Blessed is he who blesses you, And cursed is he who curses you. (Numbers 24:9, N.K.J.V.)

Furthermore, these people point out that just a few verses beyond Genesis 12:3, in Genesis 12:7 to be exact, God appears to Abraham and says concerning the land of Canaan, “To your descendants I will give this land.” By placing Genesis 12:3 and Genesis 12:7 alongside each other, we can see the divine link between Abraham, who never actually possessed Canaan, and his descendants, who eventually did possess it. Obviously, God wasn’t just interested in Abraham; He was interested in Abraham’s descendants as well.

And then there is Deuteronomy 30:7, where Moses quite bluntly says to the Israelites under his leadership:

Also the Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on those who hate you, who persecuted you. (N.K.J.V.)

As for a New Testament passage that might prove that Genesis 12:3 can rightly be applied to the nation of Israel as a whole, Luke 7:1-10 could potentially be mentioned as a candidate. There we read about a Roman centurion who sent a group of Jewish elders to Jesus to ask Him to come and heal the centurion’s beloved servant, who was gravely ill. As those Jewish elders made the request to Jesus, they explained to Him why the Gentile centurion was deserving of help from a Jewish rabbi. They said of the centurion, “He loves our nation and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5). Because of that specific compliment, we might theorize that Jesus actually had Genesis 12:3 in mind when He agreed to go to the centurion’s home and heal the servant.

Still, though, while all these passages might seem to make the case that God really does bless those who bless the modern nation of Israel and curses those who curse it, there is a possible pushback to this interpretation. This pushback comes from the writings of the apostle Paul. Consider the following passages:

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. (Romans 2:28-29, N.K.J.V.)

But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel. (Romans 9:6, N.K.J.V.)

Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. (Galatians 3:7, N.K.J.V.)

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus…And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26,29, N.K.J.V.)

You see, Paul taught that there are, in a very real sense, two “Israels.” As he described the situation, “They are not all Israel who are of Israel.” First, there is what we might call national Israel. That consists of all Jews whose ancestral lines genetically trace back to Abraham through his son, Issac. Second, there is what we might call spiritual Israel. That consists of only those Jews who have by faith accepted Jesus Christ as Messiah/Savior and have thus become Christians.

With this in mind, our question then becomes, should we apply the Genesis 12:3 promise to all Jews (especially modern Israel as a recognized nation) or should we apply it only to Jews who have become Christians by placing their faith in Jesus as Messiah/Savior? Since it’s been well said that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible, let me offer a couple more passages from Paul that are applicable to the question. The first passage is Galatians 3:16, where Paul references the Genesis 12:3 and Genesis 12:7 promises by saying:

Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,’ who is Christ. (N.K.J.V.)

This verse certainly brings an important new detail into the discussion, doesn’t it? Paul says, “When God spoke to Abraham about his descendants, He was actually referring to just one of those descendants: Jesus Christ. Therefore, the promises that God made to Abraham and his “seed” were made to Abraham and to Jesus.”

The second passage is Galatians 3:8-9, where Paul again references the Genesis 12:3 promise when he writes:

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham. (N.K.J.V.)

As you read that passage, don’t miss the fact that it plainly says that Gentiles who place their faith in Jesus as Savior “…are blessed with believing Abraham.” Read that again. It doesn’t say that the Jews as a national whole are blessed with believing Abraham. No, it’s the individuals — Jews and Gentiles alike — who place their faith in Jesus who are the ones blessed in this way. As a matter of fact, an argument can be made that Christians have more of a Biblical claim upon Genesis 12:3 than the modern-day nation of Israel does. This explains why many Bible teachers do not hold the position that the Genesis 12:3 promise can be transferred to Israel as a nation today.

As for me, I agree that modern-day Israel is not a nation worthy of the spiritual legacy of Abraham. I mean, we can’t just forget about the fact that the Jews who make up that nation are in vast majority lost unbelievers who have never placed saving faith in Jesus Christ. A lost person is a lost person, whether that person be a Gentile living in Atlanta or a Jew living in Jerusalem. I’m not an anti Semite, and I certainly don’t go around persecuting Jews, but I’m not going to lie about their spiritual state, either. The irrefutable fact is that they don’t truly know Abraham’s God because they don’t truly know Abraham’s Savior.

So, does this mean that the ethic nation of Israel is doomed permanently because of its rejection of Jesus Christ? No, that’s not what the Bible teaches. What the Bible teaches is that there is coming a day when a remnant of the nation will embrace Jesus as Messiah/Savior and in so doing will experience spiritual salvation and be welcomed into Christ’s 1,000 year reign upon the earth. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this embracing will not occur until the days of the seven-year Tribulation Period that will precede Christ’s Second Coming. Until then, whatever national Israel does, it does it apart from any authentic spiritual connection to Abraham. The biological, genetic connection is there, but the spiritual connection simply isn’t.

In regards to how nations such as the United States should relate to modern Israel, all I can offer is what I would do if I was the President of the United States. I would try my best to maintain a balance between keeping a healthy alliance with Israel while at the same time recognizing that each and every Jew who doesn’t know Christ as Savior is not a part of the covenant that God has eternally made with Abraham. No, this foreign policy wouldn’t be a cop out. To the contrary, I would consider it to be an accurate application of all the relevant scriptures from both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Someone says, “But Israel isn’t like other nations; they are God’s chosen nation.” Yes, that’s true, and that’s why I, as President, would tend to give that nation preferential treatment. As I’ve pointed out, though, modern Israel doesn’t even pretend to be a Christian nation, and the harsh reality is that the souls of lost Jews who die go to the same hell as the souls of lost Muslims who die. This reality applies regardless of any promise made as part of the Abrahamic Covenant, and it’s not one that is ever going to change. Merely being born as a biological descendant of Abraham just isn’t enough. Each Jew must also be “born again” as a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ if he or she wants to eternally come under the umbrella of Genesis 12:3.

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“Christian Verses” Podcast: Ecclesiastes 3:1

Is there really a season for everything and a time for every purpose? Well, that’s what the Bible says in Ecclesiastes 3:1. Join Malcolm and me as we delve into this verse and discuss it for the latest podcast. If you are waiting for a pleasant season to come around or if you are waiting for a difficult season to end, this podcast is for you. Here’s the link:

Posted in "Christian Verses" podcast, God's Timing, God's Will, Impatience, Patience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment