Archives For Christmas

There’s a well known problem with Luke’s nativity. Luke states that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because of a census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria (2:1-5).

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town.

Now Josephus, the first century historian, says Quirinius conducted a census in A.D. 6. And here in lies the problem.  Because Luke, like Matthew, also places Jesus birth before the death of King Herod in 4 B.C (Matt. 2:1, Luke 1:5). Which adds up to unmistakable difference of 9 years.

Whatever the solution to this problem, and there are good solutions, It appears to me that Luke did indeed want his readers to at least connect Jesus’ birth with the memory of the census of A.D. 6. Here’s why.

The census that year sparked a major Jewish revolt. Luke knows of this event because he refers to it in his second volume (Acts 5:37).

After this Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered.

It’s quite natural to connect this census with the one already mentioned at the beginning of Luke.

Concerning Judas, Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews provides a little more.

Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty; as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honor and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity.

The result, however, was vastly different than Judas intended. Rome quickly crushed the rebellion. But the repercussions, Josephus finds, extended long after.

the sedition at last increased so high, that the very temple of God was burnt down by their enemies’ fire. (A.D. 70)

It appears to me that Luke implicitly compare and contrast the well-known actions of the Rebel Judas with the actions of Mary and Joseph.  Like Judas, Mary and Joseph are from Galilee. And yet unlike the revolutionary they don’t rebel when commanded to register. They humbly obey.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 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.

If anyone had a reason to rebel, they did. Mary with child, a long distance to travel and no room for them when they arrive. But suffering the insults, they conducted themselves as Rome, the oppressor state, required.

Luke in both his Gospel and Acts is insistent on the peaceful behavior of Jesus and his followers.  Despite Jesus being executed as an enemy of Rome, and His followers being the source of numerous riots, Luke stresses over and over again that the seditious overthrow of the government is not the way of those who follow Christ.

Instead Jesus comes, as Zachariah says,

to guide our feet in the way of peace (Luke 1:79).

And it is because of His birth the angels sing,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! (Luke 2:14)

By implicitly comparing and contrasting Mary and Joseph’s behavior with the infamous actions of Judas the Galilean, Luke offers them as examples of peace for all Christians to follow.

Extravagant gifts can both humble and embarrass us.

I’ll never forget the Christmas my wife, children and I moved back home after being away for some two and half years. Surrounded by family, friends and strangers alike, I was humbled by the sheer number of gifts we received.

The pile rose higher and higher and still the presents kept coming. I looked at the poor strangers around us and blushed with embarrassment at how much we had been given. It was difficult to accept the overwhelming excess of these gifts given in love.

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The Symbolism

Jesus washing his disciple’s feet in John 13:1-17 is about the extravangant gift given by God when He became a baby.  It’s a powerful symbolic reenactment of the word becoming flesh (John 1:14). Much of the scene echoes Philippians 2:4-8.

In your relationship with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! 

When Jesus lays aside his garments and takes a towel in John 13, he shows how he laid aside his divine privilege to take the demeaning role of a slave.   

The Scandal

In Peter’s reaction we see the scandalous, sometimes embarrassing reality of what God has done.

In our society it’s difficult to understand the shock and horror Peter experienced as His LORD exposed himself to perform a slave’s task. It might in some sense parallel the shock of watching the Pope take off his clothes in the middle of his Christmas message to give his clothes personally to you.

Imagine your horror as this dignified man takes off his robe unbuttons his shirt and then unzips his pants. Imagine the gasps from the crowd; the red faces the eyes closing and the heads turning away. Imagine the pale skin, aged and overweight body of Benedict standing exposed, offering all his honor and dignity to you.

This in some sense is what God did in Jesus.

We might have been satisfied with something a little less intimate.  But the intimacy and concern God affords is so much greater.

God is closer than you think and perhaps at times, according to Peter’s reaction, even more intimate than we might at times be comfortable with.

For the Jews and Greeks God was something up there, something wholly other. He was a transcendent being, that no eye could see and no mind could comprehend. God existed far removed from the day to day routine of everyday life.

The incarnation, the fact that God became man, changes everything. It turns the world upside down. God can no longer be mistaken for an invisible deity far removed from our cares and concerns. He is as Matthew pointed out, “Immanuel” which means “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)

The Season

In Christmas we remember how God fully and completely offered himself to us, giving the entirety of Himself , His honor and respect in order to meet every last inch of our need.

This gift of intimacy may be difficult to accept. The cynic in us can’t believe it. No God would do that. If I was God I wouldn’t do that. But the surprising thing is that it is exactly because he is God that he has done just that. Notice how John tells us that the cause for Jesus actions was that he knew he came from God and was going back to God (13:3). It is precisely because he is God that He gave himself to us.

To be God, according to the gospel of John, is to give sacrificially, for God is a giver (John 3:16, James 1:17). He goes beyound the limits of what we even do for ourselves.

In John 13 we find a God that is truly closer than we think. A God that shocks us so throughly in the extravagant gift of Himself that we can only help but blush.


Have you ever received a gift that embarrassed you because it was so great?  When have you felt, like Peter, momentarly embarrassed at the intimacy and extravagance of God’s love? 

It’s Christmas again!  And like the tensile and lights, it’s time to pull out those well worn advent passages we’re all familiar with.

  • Prophecies about Jesus coming (Isaiah 9 and Micah 5)
  • Narratives about Jesus birth (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2 and Revelation 12).
  • Reflections on the incarnation, the fact that God became man (John 1 and Philippians 2)

How about a new passage to read and preach this year? John 13 is not typically associated with Christmas and yet it has the birth of Jesus written all over it.  Here’s how.

Foot Washing

Water in John is an important symbol of purification and the Spirit.

John 13 isn’t the only time water plays a significant role in this gospel. Beginning in chapter one, John the Baptist states three times that he baptizes in “water” (1:26, 31, 33) only then to proclaim that Jesus will “baptize in the Holy Spirit” (1:35). Jesus changes water into wine (2:9), proclaims a new birth of “water and Spirit” (3:5) and offers the Samaritan woman “living water” (4:10). He heals a paralytic longing to be cured in a troubled pool (5:7), invites the thirsty to come to him and drink (7:37-38) and opens the eyes of the blind in the pool of Siloam (9:6-7). Ultimately, Jesus in death releases a flow of water from His pierced side (19:34).

What do all these references to water mean?

Sometimes water is simply a clear physical liquid used for rituals of purification. However when associated with Jesus, water in John represents the Spirit (7;37-38). By comparing and contrasting these two meanings, John makes clear the supremacy of Christ’s Spirit over earthly cleaning. (See my post, Jesus is Greater: What does Water Mean? for more details.)

Jesus is a container of water which represents the Spirit.

It’s not enough though to say water refers to purification and the Spirit. In John 7:37-38, Jesus prophecies “living water” will flow from within Him and in 19:34 we find it doing just that. Jesus is literally a container of water!

This water also comes from Jesus in John 11, at the tomb of Lazarus.  John says Jesus was “troubled” and “wept” or more literally “shed tears.”  The word “trouble” points back to the first time this word is used in John.  In chapter five it refers to the waters of Bethesda (5:7).  The water heals when the water is “troubled” and so too does Jesus here, raising Lazarus from the dead.  

The water also comes from Jesus in John 9.  Remember it’s Jesus’ spit mixed with clay which opens the eyes of the man born blind (9:3).

The Water within Jesus’ is His Divine nature.

In 1 John 5:6, John says Jesus Christ “came by water and blood; not with water only with water and blood.” The blood here clearly stands for Jesus’ fleshly nature which some erroneously denied (see 1 John 4:2 and 2 John 7).

If the water associated with Jesus in John represents the Spirit (7:37-39) than the only conclusion we can draw here is that water stands for Christ’s Divine nature as opposed to this fleshly nature. John 1:14 says, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The water signifies the intangible Word. (See my post, Finally Someone Gets the “Water and Blood” Right! for more details).

In John 13 the washing with water is explicitly connected with Jesus. When Peter refuses the humble service of His Lord, Jesus tells him, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” By refusing the washing, Peter has inadvertently rejected Jesus himself.

Jesus pours water into a bowl to symbolicly reenact His birth. 

John 13 is about the self humbling of Jesus. Knowing his intimate union with God (13:3), Jesus

got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.

This humbling is significantly reminiscent of an early Christian hymn found in Philippians 2:5-8,

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature god, did not consider equality with god something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

In both accounts, Jesus equal with God progresses to the role of a servant. In John, Jesus “makes himself nothing” by “laying aside His garments” to dress the part of a slave.

The water poured into basin likewise expresses the self humbling of Jesus. The Word became flesh (1:14). In Jesus, the water becomes contained. It’s no coincidence that John, the only gospel to recount the foot washing, is also the only gospel to explicitly proclaim the incarnation (John 1:14).

John replaces the communion recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke with foot-washing because it symbolizes not just Christ’s sacrifice of his flesh in death but the humbling in his birth and life as well.

This Christmas Jesus has left an example we should follow. Will you humble yourself and do the same?

What do you think?

I don’t know if you happened to catch the CBS special on the birth of Jesus a few years ago. What I wanted to address in this post is the objection it raised concerning Jesus birth in Bethlehem. John Dominic Crossan, a one-time Catholic monk now turned Christian-skeptic, states,

Born in Bethlehem… nobody else seems to know anything about it in the New Testament…. It doesn’t seem, for example, that John, in John’s gospel, has any idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Crossan is referring specifically to John 7:40-44 which states,

Some of the multitude therefore, when they heard these words, were saying, “This certainly is the Prophet.” Others were saying, “This is the Christ.” Still others were saying, “Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is He? “Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there arose a division in the multitude because of Him.

Since John doesn’t say anything more on the subject, Crossan concludes that John, like the multitude, isn’t aware of Jesus birth in Bethlehem. And many scholars agree with him.  Among them is Mark Goodacre who addresses this issue in this installment of his popular NT pod.

Does John think Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem?

But is this the point that John is making. Does John want us to believe that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem? Crossan assumes that if John knew of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem he would have corrected the people’s error. What he fail to recognize, however, is that beneath the text John is implicitly judging the people for their failure to know the scriptures. 

If we continue reading John 7:45-52, we find the emphasis on Jesus coming from Galilee. 

The officers therefore came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, “Why did you not bring Him?” The officers answered, “Never did a man speak the way this man speaks.” The Pharisees therefore answered them, “You have not also been led astray, have you? “No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he?  “But this multitude which does not know the Law is accursed.” Nicodemus said to them (he who came to Him before, being one of them), “Our Law does not judge a man, unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” They answered and said to him, “You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.”

Everyone knows that Jesus came from Galilee and based upon this they conclude that Jesus cannot be the Messiah – the descendant of David. The Pharisees are so bold in this assertion that they challenge Nicodemus to “search” the scriptures to “see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.”

What do we actually find in scripture?

We find that Galilee is only mentioned six times in the Old Testament. And one of these six instances is the well-known prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-7.

But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them… For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

Does this verse have any connection with John? Absolutely!! The very next verse after John 7:52 should be John 8:12. Remember, John 7:53-8:11 is a later addition which all modern Bible translations recognize.  In John 8:12, Jesus declares,

I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.

On the surface, John never mentions Isaiah 9. However, if we listen to John’s contextual clues we see what John is saying.

John is building into this scene a great deal of dramatic irony.  He’s reminding his informed audience of Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and as and the same pointing out the pride and ignorance of Israel’s supposed scriptural authorities.

Just as the Prophets proclaimed Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, so they also prophesied his coming from Galilee. If John points to Jesus’ fulfillment of this Isaiah prophecy, how can we suggest that John doesn’t believe Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Micah too?

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.” Therefore, He will agive them up until the time When she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren Will return to the sons of Israel. And He will rise and shepherd His flock In the strength of the LORD, In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will remain, Because at that time He will be great To the bends of the earth. And this One will be our peace.

Sounds a lot like Isaiah 9.  

John implicitly points to Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1-7.  He says nothing about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Crossan, like the multitudes, however,  looks at the surface and fails to recognize its true significance. 

As we saw in yesterday’s post, Luke and it’s sequel Acts clearly lay out the pattern that all who are filled with the Spirit have their mouths opened in witness and praise.  Jesus says in Acts 1:8

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…

It makes it all the more remarkable than to find Luke, the gospel of the open mouth, beginning not with an open mouth but with an old man having his voice taken from him.

You’ve heard the story.  We hear it almost every Christmas time.

The angel Gabriel tells Zachariah the priest he’s going to have a son. But the priest needs proof.  

“How can I be certain?  My wife and I are well passed childbearing years.”  

The angel snaps back.  “Your mouth will be shut because you did not believe the good news.” (Luke 1:5-23)

Wow!  Did you get that?  This isn’t just a story.  It’s a warning.  

Zachariah’s inability to speak is made all the more striking when compared to another who receives the same Good News. Get this!  Luke parallels Zachariah’s story with the announcement made to Mary.

  • Situation: Like Zachariah and Elizabeth, Mary is unable to have children.  They are old.  She is a virgin (compare 1:5-10, 26-27)
  • Message: Like Zachariah, the angel comes to Mary with the miraculous good news. (compare 1:11-17, 28-33) (Don’t be afraid (1:13, 30), You will have a son (1:13, 31), You will name him… (1:13, 31) He will be great… (1:14-17, 32-33))
  • Question: Like Zachariah, she asks “How” – though it’s a very different sort of question then the one Zachariah asks. (compare 1:18, 34)
  • Response: Like Zachariah, she gets an answer. (compare 1:19-20, 35-38
  • Elizabeth Reaction: And Like Zachariah, she journey’s to Zachariah’s home where Elizabeth proclaims the glory of what God has done. (compare 1:21-25, 39-45)

Point after point, Luke takes pains to reveal the comparisons in these two accounts.

And then suddenly the pattern is broken – and its broken in MARY’S SONG (1:46-55)!  Mary’s mouth is opened and she sings a song almost ten verses long.

See the parallels and the break!

  • Zachariah:  Situation – Message – Question – Response – Reaction – (        )
  • Mary:          Situation – Message – Question – Response – Reaction – SONG!

Zachariah is silenced.  His song is clearly missing.  He should have sang a song after Elizabeth speaks.  But he doesn’t.  He can’t.  Instead he sits silently watching and listening to this young girl sing a song that he himself is unable sing.

Why is Mary’s mouth opened when Zachariah’s is shut?  

It’s comes down to the very different responses they have to the good news.

  • Zachariah doubts the message.  “How shall I know this?”
  • Mary believes. “How will this be?”

For Luke, these two stories aren’t just about the birth of John and Jesus.  It’s the very message of Luke’s Gospel and Acts.  Be careful how you receive the Good News – the Gospel, Luke warns.  To those who believe their mouths will be opened, but the mouths of the those who disbelieve will be shut.

The good news is that there’s hope even for Zachariah.  Though it comes late, his mouth is opened when he humbles himself and submits to the good news.  When he names his son John, as the Angel instructed, Zachariah, like Mary before, is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and at last sings His song (1:67-79).

Question: When have you experienced your mouth opened in witness and praise?  Have you ever had it closed because of a refusal to believe?