Reflections on Christmas 2019

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(Note:  This is the six and final Christmas article I wrote and posted on this blog.  The first one was about the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story and the second one was about the visit by the Magi , both written in December 2015.  The third one was a devotional on some non-traditional Christmas verses that I wrote in December 2017.  I wrote one on God’s presence at work during the holidays in November 2018 and another one was about the man and the birds illustration (a well-known Paul Harvey radio broadcast) in December 2018.)

Christmas is over.  There are no cars in the driveway.  The toys, high chair, booster seats, and the pack-n-play are all packed up and put away.  It is way too quiet here.  The time with these loved ones went way too fast.  I miss them all terribly.

But what a Christmas it was!  Our daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren came home for several days and are now at their other grandparents’ house.  Our son, his wife, and grandson also celebrated with us and went home few days ago.  We spoke with our youngest child on a video chat, as he could not make it home this year.  Our nest may be empty, but our hearts are full and our heads are full of wonderful new memories.

The past week I had to temporarily put aside my calling as a writer and focus on my higher callings as a Christian, husband, father, and grandfather.  I had to find time to seek the Holy Infant Jesus in my own way.  I had to work together with my wife to prepare for a houseful of visitors and celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary.  I had to serve my children and grandchildren in numerous ways, showing them love through cooking, gift-giving, playing, talking, wiping noses, and picking up toys.  In so doing, we experienced a completely unique Christmas this year, worthy of some reflection.

While the hole in my heart is still fresh, let me share a few things.  Having just watched our family favorite movie, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” a few nights ago when it was “one more sleep ‘til Christmas”, there is really only one way to organize my random thoughts.

Christmases past

So many thoughts of previous holidays popped in my head during this season.  On more than one occasion, I recalled Christmases with my siblings growing up.  I remembered our very first Christmas as a newlywed, one day after we returned from our honeymoon.  I remembered the one four years later when my wife was pregnant with our daughter and the next year with a cute nine-month-old.

I also often thought about the wonderful Christmases we had with our kids over the past three and a half decades.  Particularly memorable were the three beautiful Christmases we celebrated in Germany with the giant snowflakes, fancy ornaments, and fun times.  Since most of our holidays were spent far away from extended family, we developed our own traditions.  Even as fiancés and significant others began to show up, and later on bringing our grandchildren home, we continued those traditions.

More recently, I am grateful for the Christmas we celebrated two years ago, which was the last time all three kids, spouses/significant others, and our two grandsons were home. Last year, for the first time, none of our children were home on Christmas Day.  Our daughter and family were visiting her husband’s folks (the other grandparents), so they came home later.  Our oldest son and his wife could not travel, as they were about to deliver their first son, who was born on the 26th.  Our youngest was unable to come home, which was another first.  So, this year, we were grateful for all who came.

Christmas present

How do I begin to describe our fortieth Christmas as a family?  Our son and his family came home for two days; our daughter and her family stayed four days.  They overlapped for two days.  It had its challenges.  With all four of our grandkids under the age of five here for the first time together, it was a bit chaotic here and there.  My wife and I were not always on the same page.  There were a few squabbles and meltdowns.  And yet, it had so many more blessings.  Having all of our grandchildren here was the best present ever!

Highlights of the last six days included playing a board game that we had not played in a long time, enjoying one-on-one time with each grandchild, watching a handful of holiday movies (some old, some new), playing outside and writing my grandchildren’s names in the snow, decorating cookies, attending a Christmas Eve service, and going to two parks to play in the unseasonably warm weather.

I will probably never forget how I wept with joy when I received a coffee mug with pictures of our new granddaughter on it, how I was moved to tears when I said goodnight to our eldest grandson their last night here, and how I got choked up when the two-year-old sat on my lap so that I could read him a story that I used to read to his mother when she was a little girl not that long ago.

Christmases yet to come

We were so grateful that our daughter and her young family (who lives the farthest away) made the trip once again this year, as they have done every year in the nearly ten years they have been married.

However, I have said for the past few years, to prepare myself for this dreaded day, that there will come a time when our adult children will stop coming “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go”.  I know that packing everything up, spending three long days on the road, and living out of suitcases for over a week does not make for a restful Christmas vacation.  It is a sacrifice.  I would not blame them if they decided to stay home for Christmas starting next year.

They may choose, like her brother did this year, to develop their own family Christmas traditions and wake up in their own house with their new son on Christmas morning.  My son and daughter-in-law chose to come early and leave early.  It was a bit of an adjustment, but they just applied the biblical truths I had emphasized when they first got married – the responsibility of leaving and cleaving.

Finally, I have a little bit of theology to share.  (See previous article on parenting adult children, entitled, “Come when you can, and stay as long as you like”.)

This essential biblical truth comes out of Gen. 2:20-25, where God created Eve to be a suitable helper for and co-regent with Adam.  Jesus Himself quoted this Old Testament text in Matt. 19:3-6 to underscore the permanence of marriage.  As it was from the beginning, and is equally true today, a husband’s first priority is to his wife, not his family of origin.  My son left, which was right.  They cleft (producing a son), which was also right.  His new family comes first.  I totally respect that.

It may be that this was our last family Christmas celebration at this house with the sound of little children’s feet waking up grandma and grandpa.  That would be sad for us, but we would be okay.

Who knows?  We might just have a quiet Christmas morning like we did last year.  We may have to choose which family to visit.  We may have to be more flexible and have a combined Thanksgiving-Christmas get-together somewhere with whomever can come.  Either way, we will find a way to connect with all of our kids virtually if not physically, as challenging as that can be sometimes.  Either way, God’s presence will be with each one of us as we celebrate the birth of His Son.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

The Man and the Birds Illustration

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(Note:  This is the fifth Christmas article I wrote and posted on this blog.  The first one was about the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story and the second one was about the visit by the Magi , both written in December 2015. The third one was a devotional on some non-traditional Christmas verses in December 2017 and another one was about holiday reflections on God’s presence at work in late November 2018.  In late December 2019, I reflected on our family visits at Christmas.)

There is a well-known illustration of the incarnation that is often shared at Christmastime called “The Man & The Birds”.  I recall hearing it for the first time as a young Christian in the late ‘70s.  Click on this link to listen to a five-minute audio version of Paul Harvey telling this story in his heart-warming style.

The end of the story focuses on a man who comes to realize that he would have to change into a bird in order to help other birds find shelter in a winter storm.  This simple analogy helped the man who had no faith to understand why God needed to send his son Jesus to be Immanuel – God with us.

For some reason I got to thinking about it last night on the way to chapel.  I do appreciate the main point of the story.  If a man could become a bird, he could speak to the lost birds in their own language and lead them to safety, just as God became man at the birth of Jesus so that He could teach us (who are also lost) and lead us all to safety.

However, the more I thought about it, it occurred to me that there is so much more to the incarnation that what this illustration implies.  Without tearing it down, let me try to add to the story a little bit with my own sanctified imagination.

There must be both a man and a man-bird in this story

The first thing I wondered to myself was, “What became of the man after he turned into a bird?”  Was it just a temporary gig, or did he stay a bird the rest of his life?

This strange question ties in with my theologically incomplete understanding of the Christmas story that I had as a child, which was summed up in the phrase, “God became a man.”  Only much later did I learn the orthodox truth that God the Father did not become a baby.

When Jesus was born, God the Father did not cease to exist.  Through an immaculate conception with Mary, He gave birth a Son who was his equal in essence but unique in person.  Jesus was and is fully man and fully divine.  He invites us to relate to God as Father in the same way that He did during his time on earth.  This is a rather essential biblical principle when discussing and living out in practical terms the doctrine of the Trinity.

To make this a more theologically sound illustration, the man must remain a man (representing God the Father)  and yet become a bird-man (representing Jesus) in order to save the birds.

Adding more theological depth to the illustration

The second thought I had is that the illustration does not go into nearly enough detail to explain the nature and result of the incarnation.  However, if we were to flesh out the man and the birds illustration to properly reflect and parallel the full implications of the incarnation, we would have to make some adjustments.

Here is what I would add:

  • The man-bird would have to start out as a fertilized egg in a nest, get hatched, grow up, learn to fly, and then try to help the birds caught in a storm later on.
  • As a man-bird, he would be 100% bird in every respect; he would also be fully man. However, he would willingly lay aside the glory of his humanness. (See Phil 2:5-8.)
  • Although some would follow him, most of the birds he would try to teach would oppose him and want him dead, since he was calling himself equal with man.
  • This man-bird would be betrayed by one of his own flock, and he would willingly die for the sins of all birds.
  • This man-bird would rise from the dead, appear to his followers for a short time, and depart to be with the man who sent him until it was time for all things to end.
  • One day, this man-bird would return to judge the living and the dead; he would reign forever as King of all the birds, and sit at the right hand of his father.

This is no longer a five-minute illustration, but perhaps the story is a bit more complete.

My intent was not to ruin a perfectly good analogy that has been told for decades.  I simply wanted to point out that there is much more to the biblical doctrine of the incarnation than what we normally think.  Jesus did not merely come to earth to show us the way to safety.

Yes, Jesus did show us the way.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus also came to die for you and me, and He is coming again to reign.  These are worth celebrating at Christmas!

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Holiday Reflections on God’s Presence at Work

After Christmas Shopping

(Note: This article was written for and published on the Made to Flourish blog.  Later, it was posted on the Midwestern Seminary’s Links for the Church blog and the Coram Deo blog.)

(Note:  This is the fourth Christmas article I wrote and posted on this blog.  The first one I wrote was about the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story and the second one was about the visit by the Magi , both written in December 2015.  The third one was a devotional on some non-traditional Christmas verses that I wrote in December 2017 and another one was about the man and the birds illustration (a well-known Paul Harvey radio broadcast) in December 2018.  In late December 2019, I reflected on our family visits at Christmas.)

The holiday season can be a stressful time for all.  There are financial pressures that come after multiples trips to stores to purchase just the right Christmas gifts for all, to travel home to visit extended family, or to feed and entertain visiting relatives.  There are time pressures to attend the endless array of work, church, and school holiday events.  In many of our jobs, there are unique seasonal or end-of-year requirements that may force us to put in more hours than usual.

How can we focus on the blessings of our callings in the midst of these annual challenges?

In my career journey over the past four decades, there have been a few major theological ideas that have helped me to experience God’s presence and to integrate my faith at work.  Several of these concepts are especially applicable during this holiday season.  Perhaps they may become a source of inspiration for others as well.

What the incarnation shows us

First, Christmas is all about God sending us the best gift of all – His Son.  Jesus was the promised Messiah who fulfilled OT prophecies and was a perfect prophet, priest, and king.

Jesus’ coming to Earth in human form also demonstrated that God places value on the physical world.  As a man, Jesus could truly be “Immanuel – God with us”.  He touched, healed, and shed real tears.  He died a real death and was raised from the dead in a new body.  This resurrection body is what we will receive at the consummation of all things.  (See 1 Cor. 15.)  After the judgment, the New Jerusalem will come down to earth as a physical place where God’s people will live.  (See Rev. 21.)  Moreover, because Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, He alone is qualified to be our high priest, having been tempted to sin, but never giving in.  (See Heb 4:15.)

Knowing all this helps us to understand that the sacred-secular divide is based on a false assumption that the spiritual world is of greater priority to God than the physical creation. Tom Nelson, in Work Matters, observes, “Working with his hands day in and day out in a carpentry shop was not below Jesus.  Jesus did not see his carpentry work as mundane or meaningless, for it was the work his Father had called him to do.”  Because Jesus did the work, it was both excellent and sacred. As Jesus’s disciples, the work we do with a spirit of excellence is also sacred.

When I reflect on the fact that Jesus left His Spirit to manifest his presence in those of us who are His true followers, I can be physically present with people and work with my hands, heart, and mind to meet the various needs of the people who God has divinely placed around me.  The Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power changes me as a worker.  Plus, it enables me as a new creature in Christ to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit which blesses others and gives glory to the Gardener.

God appeared to the lowly workers

Secondly, in the birth narratives of Jesus found in the first few chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel, we discover a large supporting cast of workers of various kinds.  We see Joseph the carpenter.  We see astrologers from the east who traveled afar.  We see shepherds pulling the night shift.  God the Father revealed himself to each of them through angels and celestial signs above, announcing the birth of his Son.  The faith and obedience of each of these humble workers is in direct contrast to the fear and deception of those who were in high positions.

According to Martin Luther, God is present in everyone’s ordinary work, showing its intrinsic value.  Gustav Wingren, in Luther on Vocation indicates that Luther concluded: “With persons as his ‘hands’ or ‘coworkers,’ God gives his gifts through the earthly vocations, toward man’s life on earth (food through farmers, fishermen and hunters; external peace through princes, judges, and orderly powers; knowledge and education through teachers and parents, etc.).”  I call this divine connection between God’s presence and human work “Immanuel labor“.

If God is indeed present with the worker as he or she works, and if God is working through the worker to do a job that He wants done in the world, then all work is valuable.  We can then conclude that all workers are valued by God and should be valued by us.

God continues to meet our needs and the needs of our families, especially during the holidays, through the hard work of part-time and seasonal retail, food service, and postal workers, just to name a few.  If God works through these ordinary workers, and he does, we can be grateful customers, treating all workers (especially those who serve in humble positions) with respect, intentionally letting them know with kind words and actions that they are a blessing to us.

Opportunities to minister as we suffer with them

Third, I learned a long time ago that God divinely places his children where He wants us to be for His purposes.  One of those purposes is to work closely with people, many of whom we would not meet at church. And because God is present with us, we may be the only Jesus they see.

For example, we might work in a retail store, or any place of employment where the holiday stress is obvious.  When we suffer alongside others, we can earn their respect and the right to speak into their lives.  When we choose to rejoice in these trials at work, and display the hope we have in Christ, this may open up a door to minister to them in a deeper way and point them to Jesus.

Be encouraged.  God is indeed present in our labor.  He will use you as you are present with others in their labors.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Non-Traditional Christmas Verses

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(Note:  This is the third Christmas article I wrote and posted on this blog.  The first one was about the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story and the second one was about the visit by the Magi, both written in December 2015.  I wrote one on God’s presence at work during the holidays in November 2018 and another one about the man and the birds illustration (a well-known Paul Harvey radio broadcast) in December 2018.  In late December 2019, I reflected on our family visits at Christmas.)

I receive a daily reflection in my email written by Dr. Mark D. Roberts from the Fuller Theological Seminary’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership.  He started this week with some thoughts on a passage in Philippians chapter 2 that many would be familiar with, but might not associate with Christmas.  A few days later, he brought up a passage from Hebrews 2 that also relates well to Jesus’ incarnation.

I would like to post my own brief reflections on these two passages and add one more.  This will augment the traditional verses in Matt. 1:18 – 2:12 and Luke 2:1-20 to expand our understanding of the Christmas story, that God made His dwelling among us in His Son, Jesus the Messiah.

1. John 1:1-3, 14.

This is such a deep passage, and a bit daunting for me to try to do it justice.

These first three verses point to the eternal existence of God the Son.  Jesus, not yet in a physical form, was right there at creation with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.  (See Gen. 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness'”.  See also Col. 1:16, “For by him all things were created”.)

Jesus was not only with God, but was Himself divine.  He was equal in essence or nature with God, and was directly involved in creation.  This is indeed a mystery, but it provides us some theological background to the Christmas story.  It clearly supports our foundational orthodox Christian belief in the deity of Christ.

Verse 14 brings us to Nazareth at the Immaculate Conception, where Jesus took on flesh in Mary’s womb.  This is echoed in the line from the Christmas carol, O, Come All Ye Faithful: “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.”  John states that the Word of God now resided here.

John supports what Matthew told us in Matt. 1:22-23, declaring that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 regarding a virgin who would give birth to a son who would be called “Immanuel – which means, ‘God with us.'” This is indeed good news!

2. Phil. 2:6-11.

This is another deep passage that I want to highlight briefly.

Paul is exhorting the church in Philippi to imitate the humility of Christ.  He seems be quoting a poem here, as indicated by the style in which it appears in the New International Version.  This may have been a creed of sorts from the first century.  It ties in well with our passage in John, pointing out that Jesus was equal in nature with God the Father.

In taking on flesh, he did NOT lay aside His deity, but took on the limitations of humanity.  In this sacrificial act, which foreshadows His ultimate sacrifice at the cross, Jesus showed His total dependence on God the Father and His total selflessness towards us.

He knowingly left the glory and perfection of heaven to become a weak and lowly fetus, baby, child, teenager, young adult, and servant here on this dusty planet for our salvation.  This passage provides some additional insight on what took place prior to Christmas day, showing God’s great love for you and for me.

3. Heb. 2:14-18.

The writer of Hebrews contrasts how Jesus is far superior to the Old Testament.  He shows that Jesus not only directly fulfills the Old Testament prophecies, but is the fulfillment of all that the Old Testament pointed to.

The main point in these verses is that Jesus was able to provide sufficient atonement for our sins by being just like us.  It says of Jesus in verse 17 that “he had to be made like his brothers in every way”.  He was fully human, only sinless.  A spotless Lamb, prepared for slaughter.

His birth that we celebrate on Christmas Day had one main purpose – He came to die for us.  This is a sobering thought, but is one that can truly bring hope and joy to the world.  “The Lord is come; let earth receive her king!”

I trust that this meditation will help you to keep Christ in Christmas this year.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

The Visit by the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12

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(Note:  This is the second Christmas article I wrote and posted on this blog.  The first one was about the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story, written in December 2015.  The third one was a devotional on some non-traditional Christmas verses that I wrote in December 2017.  The fourth one was about God’s presence at work during the holidays in November 2018 and another one was about the man and the birds illustration (a well-known Paul Harvey radio broadcast) in December 2018.  In late December 2019, I reflected on our family visits at Christmas.)

This is what I presented as a Sunday School lesson to a small group of adults this morning.  It is a modified version of a paper I did for my seminary class in Matthew that I took a while back.  Hopefully others will find it interesting and inspiring.

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Introduction

There are a lot of details in the Christmas story. I selected the episode of the Magi’s visit from Matthew 2:1-12.  This narrative focuses on a group of Gentile astrologers from the east that came to worship Jesus after his birth.  It contrasts their knowledge of the prophecies about the Christ and their worshipful response to His divinity with that of King Herod, the chief priests, and teachers of the law, who also knew of the Christ and yet decided to oppose Him instead.

Carson (1994, 11) observes, “Matthew’s main purpose in this story is to contrast the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court – all of whom had the Scriptures to inform them.”  Blomberg (1992, 61)  agrees, stating, “Despite their pagan background and powerful influence in the Babylonian or Persian courts, the Magi recognize and worship the Christ child for who he is.  Despite his role as legally installed ruler of Israel and his professed conversion to Judaism, Herod rejects the newborn king and plots to destroy him.”

Book (What does it say?)

1) Read Matthew 2:1-12. Who are the main characters?  What do each of them think of Jesus?  How many kings are mentioned in this story?

2) Key themes:

Key biblical themes I see in this episode include Jesus’ fulfillment of the history, ethics, and prophecies spoken by the Lord through the prophets as written in the Hebrew Scriptures (2:5-6); God’s sovereign control over His creation (2:2, 9); God’s desire to include the Gentiles in His redemptive plan (the Magi); the increasing opposition of the Jewish establishment (2:7-8); the Kingdom of God (2:11); and the majesty of Jesus who is worthy of worship (2:2, 10-11).

As Matthew’s gospel progresses, we continue to see most of these same major themes.  Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy is well placed throughout (2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9).  In addition to the Magi who are highlighted in this episode, God’s desire to include the Gentiles in His redemptive plan is well-represented throughout the gospel: there are several Gentile women found in the genealogy (1:3, 5, 6); Jesus heals a centurion’s servant (8:5-13), delivers a Canaanite woman’s daughter from demon-possession (15:22-28), and issues the Great Commission to take the gospel of the kingdom to all nations (28:19).  God’s sovereign control over His creation is harder to find, but is clearly seen when Jesus calms the storm in 8:26, at His crucifixion in 27:51, and at the resurrection in 28:2. The themes of increasing opposition of the Jewish establishment, the Kingdom of God, and the divinity of Jesus are prevalent throughout.

3) Literary context:

Before we present details in this text, it is imperative that we put the story in its proper literary context to show how it fits in with what comes before and after. Carson (1994, 6) mentions that overall, Matthew’s prologue (1:1-2:23) “introduces such themes as the son of David, the fulfillment of prophecy, the supernatural origin of Jesus the Messiah, and the Father’s sovereign protection of his Son in order to bring him to Nazareth and accomplish the divine plan of salvation from sin.”

After the lengthy genealogy (1:1-17), there is the story of Mary and Joseph (1:18-25), who were chosen by God to be the parents of Jesus. Matthew emphasizes that Mary’s virginal conception was in direct fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture. This story of the Magi’s visit in 2:1-12 takes place one to two years later, if one compares verses 7 and 16 (Blomberg 1992, 61).

Verses 1-12 comprise the first of four sections in chapter 2, focusing on Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture; the others are found in verses 13-15, 16-18, and 19-23. This chapter can also be seen as a “drama in two acts” (vv. 1-12 and vv. 13-23), contrasting the Magi’s faithfulness with the faithlessness of Herod (Turner 2008, 76).  In addition, there are portions in this and following passages that bring to mind the story of Pharaoh killing the Jewish baby boys in Egypt in Exodus 1:22, which would make Pharaoh a type of Herod and Moses a type of Christ (Turner 2008, 78).

This story of the Magi sets the stage well for what is to follow. In the rest of the chapter, we find that another angel of the Lord leads Mary and Joseph to escape into Egypt, again fulfilling prophecy. This also demonstrates God’s protection of His Son from Herod and others in the religious establishment who violently opposed Him.  They then return to Nazareth.

4) Historical/social/cultural setting:

This episode occurred during the reign of Herod the Great, most likely between 7 and 4 B.C. (Turner 2008, 78). These critical events come after the long four-century intertestamental period where nothing of significance was recorded.  Israel was under Roman rule at this time.

Geographically, Bethlehem was just a short five miles to the south of Jerusalem. Turner (2008, 78) points out, “Readers of Matthew who were familiar with the Bible would recognize Bethlehem as David’s city and connect it with Matthew’s earlier stress on David (Matt. 1:1, 6, 17, 20). Luke 2:4, 11 explicitly stresses Bethlehem as the city of David (cf. John 7:42).”  Additionally, “The double place name Bethlehem Ephrathah reflects a tribal distinction within the Bethlehem community and also reinforces the tie to David’s family” (Walton, et al 2000, 784.)  It is also quite interesting to discover that “Christ, who is the Bread of Life, was cradled in a town whose name means ‘house of bread’” (Youngblood 1995, 182).

Herod the Great was half-Jewish, and came to power in Israel in 37 B.C. He had a reputation as a great builder and wise diplomat.  As he grew older, though, he became extremely paranoid concerning perceived threats against his position.  He even had family members put to death (Blomberg 1992, 62).  His reign was characterized by violence, lasting for 34 years.  Herod was seen by the Romans as a successful ruler (Bromiley 1988, vol. 2, 693-4).

There were other antagonists in this story. In verse 3, Matthew, using a bit of hyperbole, described the individuals who were disturbed along with Herod as “all Jerusalem”. This most likely refers to the religious leaders in Israel who “dominated the city, many of whom were also personally installed by Herod” (Blomberg 1992, 63).  Keener (1993, 49) clarifies: “The chief priests belonged mainly to the wealthy aristocracy of Sadducees; ‘scribes’ in the narrow sense in which the term is used here applies to experts in the Jewish law, most of whom were also teachers of the law.” Carson (1994, 5) observes, “Matthew also often links the Sadducees together with the Pharisees, not because the views of these two groups were similar, but because they were united in their opposition to Jesus.”  Most readers of the gospels know that the Jewish religious officials and teachers of the law in Jesus’ time had a reputation for being too political, corrupt, and were not truly living up to the full intent of the Law and Prophets.

The Magi spoken of here “were pagan astrologers whose divinatory skills were widely respected in the Greco-Roman world . . . everyone agreed that the best astrologers lived in the East” (Keener 1993, 48). There is no indication in the text that there were three of them in number, despite what the traditional Christmas carol has taught us.  There were in fact three gifts given to Jesus, but Matthew does not specify that there was one-to-one correspondence between givers and gifts.  Blomberg (1992, 62) states that they were not kings, but wise men, possibly priests, who “combined astronomical observation with astrological speculation.” In addition, Turner (2008, 79) informs us that they were probably “prominent priestly professionals who studied the stars and discerned the signs of the times. They may have come from Arabia, Babylon, or Persia.” The gifts the Magi presented to Jesus to honor Him as King were “typically associated with royalty.” Gold was a valuable precious metal, and frankincense and myrrh were fragrant perfumes that were also appropriate as expensive gifts (Blomberg 1992, 65-6).

5) Interpretive questions/problems:

One of the common interpretative questions is concerning the nature of the star, whether or not it could have been a scientifically-proven astronomical phenomenon, a miracle, or both. Either way, Matthew clearly saw this event as a miracle (Turner 2008, 80). Blomberg (1992, 62) observes that a new star frequently indicated “the birth of a significant person in the land over which the star shone.”  He adds that a variety of efforts to pair the divine star with several historical astronomical incidents such as a comet or alignment of planets especially for the purpose of dating the event are interesting but not worth much (1992, 65).  Blomberg (1992, 66) also suggests that the appearance of the star is in fulfillment of Messianic prophecy in Numbers 24:17, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”

Others disagree with Blomberg, citing that the star of Bethlehem may have been a comet, a nova, or conjunction of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. The difficulty in interpreting how the star could have gone before the Magi in Mt. 2:9 can possibly be answered by the following: “As they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem the star was ahead of them to the south. As they came near to Bethlehem the star was low enough in the sky to appear to touch down over the roof of the house they were seeking” (Bromiley 1988, vol. 1, 344).  God’s leading the Magi by a star calls to mind how God led Israel by “fire and cloud” (Keener 1993, 49).

Another critical interpretative question would be in regards to Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures in 2:6. This is the second of his fulfillment passages, the first being found in Mt. 1:22-23, regarding the virgin conception of the Messiah. This verse is an apparent direct prediction of Micah 5:2 (combined with 2 Sam 5:2).  It stands apart from the other fulfillment formula verses found throughout Matthew, as the Greek word, pleroo (fulfill), does not appear here, as it does in ten occasions out of the fifty formal Hebrew Scripture quotations Matthew uses (Turner 2008, 17-18).  However, he does clearly indicate in verse 5 that the quote he is about to provide originates from Hebrew Scriptures, “for this is what the prophet has written.”  Blomberg (1992, 64) adds, “Here is as close to a straightforward prediction-fulfillment scheme as is found anywhere in Matthew.  The context of the passage in Micah seems clearly messianic and was regularly so taken by pre-Christian Jews.”

Turner (2008, 83-4) points out that the text Matthew uses from Micah 5:2 differs slightly from the Masoretic Text (MT) or Septuagint (LXX) translations in use at the time. He observes: “The key difference between Matthew and MT/LXX is his addition of the word oudamos, by no means) to the second line of the quote.  Whereas MT and LXX make a simple assertion to the effect that Bethlehem is insignificant among the clans of Judah, Matthew’s addition asserts the contrary: ‘You by no means are least among the rulers of Judah.’”  Furthermore, he explains the importance of this: “One could interpretively translate the MT as follows: ‘Even though you are insignificant among the clans of Judah, nevertheless from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel.’  Micah foresees that the Messiah will rise from a geographically insignificant town . . . the birth of Jesus has transformed the significance of Bethlehem.”

When comparing Micah 5:2 with Mt. 2:6, one can also notice that Matthew left off an important part of the prophet’s message. Matthew leaves out “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times”, replacing it with a phrase from 2 Sam 5:2, “who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”  McComiskey, in his commentary on Micah, enlightens us with this statement: “The terms ‘old’ and ‘ancient times’ may denote ‘great antiquity’ as well as ‘eternity’ in the strictest sense . . . and its application to a future ruler – one yet to appear on the scene of Israel’s history – is strong evidence that Micah expected a supernatural figure (cf. Isa. 9:6; cf. also Isa. 24:23; Mic. 4:7).  Only in Christ does this prophecy find fulfillment” (McComiskey 1994, 1475).  Much of the differences in wording can be accounted for by understanding that Matthew “made the quotations his own in his portrayal of Jesus as the Messiah” (Bromiley 1988, vol. 3, 284).

6) Key theological implications:

There are several essential theological implications in this story. The first would be the obvious contrast between the Magi, who were Gentile believers, and the Jewish establishment, who were portrayed as unbelievers. The positive focus on the Magi highlights a key element of the Abrahamic covenant from Genesis 17:4 and 22:18, where Yahweh promises to make Abraham a father of many nations, implying many Gentiles. Overall, Matthew’s gospel paints a clear picture of growing opposition from Jewish leaders which leads to an increasing openness to and anticipation of the spread of the Kingdom of God through the Spirit-led church to all nations.  Jesus thus brings the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to the world (Blomberg 1992, 26).

A second one is that of the absolute sovereignty of God. He supernaturally orchestrated numerous prophecies spoken centuries before to line up with astronomical phenomena and believing astrologers at just the right time and place to fulfill His plans to present Jesus His Son and our Messiah and King into the world.  This story illustrates many of God’s perfect attributes: His mighty power, His will that cannot be resisted, His wisdom, His mercy and compassion.  His Word is completely trustworthy and He is always faithful to bring His good plans to completion.

A third implication in this account is of the demonstration of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  The Magi certainly recognized it starting in verses 1-2; they were the first to acknowledge that the God of the universe had used His own creation to proclaim His only Son’s birth. This star continued to lead them straight to Him in verse 9, reminiscent of the fire and smoke that led the Israelites through the wilderness.  In verse 11 they humbled themselves and worshipped Jesus, again pointing to His deity.  Matthew also clearly points out that this child’s birthplace fulfilled Hebrew prophecy of the Messiah (2:5-6).  Jesus truly was “Immanuel . . . God with us” (1:23).

A final implication from this passage would be the focus of the humanity of Jesus Christ.  This story illustrates well His humble beginnings.  Even though He was born “King of the Jews” (1:2), He was only treated as such by a select few.  Matthew’s lengthy genealogy in chapter one emphasizes his physical connection to the human race.  And, as Paul eloquently mentions in Phil. 2:5-8, Jesus the Son willingly laid aside His divine nature, became human from conception, and took on the essence of man.  In so doing, He was fully qualified to pay the penalty for our sins.

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L., The New American Commentary: Matthew.  Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992.

Bromiley, Geoffrey W., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (4 vols.). Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1988.

Carson, D.A., Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary (vol. 2). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961.

Keener, Craig S., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove: IVP, 1993.

McComiskey, Thomas E., Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary (vol. 1). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Turner, David L. Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Walton, John H., Matthews, Victor H., and Chavalas, Mark W., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove: IVP, 2000.

Youngblood, Ronald F., ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

The Gospel Accounts of the Christmas Story

Bethlehem_G_Singing-Bell

(Note:  This is the first Christmas article I wrote and posted on this blog.  The second one was about the visit by the Magi, written in December 2015.  The third one was a devotional on some non-traditional Christmas verses that I wrote in December 2017.  The fourth one was about God’s presence at work during the holidays in November 2018 and another one was about the man and the birds illustration (a well-known Paul Harvey radio broadcast) in December 2018.  In late December 2019, I reflected on our family visits at Christmas.)

I am going to be teaching this topic in my adult Sunday School class in a few days.  I modified a lesson that I originally developed this time three years ago.  I will briefly discuss how the Christmas story is presented in different ways in Matthew, Luke, and John.  However, the main focus below will be to highlight how Matthew uses the Old Testament to show how Jesus fulfills OT prophecy.  It is my desire that this brief study will build up the reader’s faith.  I encourage you reread Matthew and Luke’s accounts between now and Christmas and worship the King of Kings!

Matthew’s version of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth are different from those of the other gospel writers.  Where is Mark’s Christmas story?  It is not there.  He begins with a grown-up John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry.  Luke gives us the most detail (2:1-20); this is the version that usually gets read aloud at Christmas Eve services.  There are several events mentioned in Matthew that are not found in Luke, and vice versa.  John gives us a most unique perspective.  John 1:1-14 talks about Jesus’ origins, but much of it focuses on his pre-incarnate state: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  John sets the stage for the rest of his Gospel with his emphasis on Jesus’ divine nature; Matthew and Luke emphasize His humanity and His divinity.

Although they are commonly referred to as the “birth narratives”, Matthew never actually describes what happened when Jesus was born. He only gives selected episodes before and after His birth.  The first thing we notice is the long genealogy found in the first chapter of his Gospel.  In Matt. 1:1-17, we see the Old Testament (OT) patriarchs listed: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.  David is referred to not once but three times (verses 1, 6, and 17), finally ending with Joseph.  When Joseph is listed, interestingly, he is not described in the same pattern as the others that came before, as “the father of” the next one in line.  He is called “the husband of Mary”.

Matthew consistently focuses on Jesus’ fulfillment of OT prophecy throughout his Gospel.  He starts off by quoting four passages in the first two chapters.  I will summarize my findings from various commentaries for each of these passages, followed by footnotes at the end.

Matt. 1:22-23 (Isa. 7:14). First, “Regarding the idea of prophecy and fulfillment, Matthew finds in the OT not only isolated predictions regarding the Messiah but also OT history and people as paradigms that, to those with eyes to see, point forward to the Messiah.”[1]  Secondly, “This is a quotation from Isa. 7:14, where the prophet Isaiah consoles King Ahaz of Judah. . . There are several interpretations of Matthew’s use of this OT prophecy.  Some view Isaiah’s prophecy as directly prophetic of Jesus’ birth and nothing else. . . Since the Hebrew noun translated virgin in Isa. 7:14 can also mean ‘young woman,’ some have suggested that Isaiah was prophesying about a son born during the lifetime of Ahaz – perhaps Isaiah’s son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (Isa. 8:3).  Others have interpreted Isaiah’s prophecy as a prediction that a virgin, a contemporary of Isaiah, would marry and have a child. . . Even though uncertainty surrounds how this prophecy was fulfilled during Isaiah’s lifetime, Matthew makes it clear that Isaiah’s words find their ultimate fulfillment in the virgin birth of Jesus, a sign to people of all ages that God was with them.”[2]  Third, “Isa. 7:1-9:7 must be read as a unit. . . Matthew has correctly understood Isaiah that the Immanuel figure of 7:14 is a messianic figure.”[3]  Finally, “The people of the Jews had God with them, in types and shadows, dwelling between the cherubim; but never so as when the Word was made flesh . . . By the light of nature, we see God as a God above us; by the light of the law, we see him as a God against us; but by the light of the gospel, we see him as Immanuel, God with us, in our own nature, and in our interest.”[4]

Matt. 2:6 (Micah 5:2).  First, “Matthew clearly records how the Jewish religious authorities, who became Christ’s enemies later, unintentionally affirmed that Jesus had fulfilled a messianic prophecy in His birth.”[5]  Second, “Ephrathah is the ancient name of Bethlehem (Gen. 35:16, 19; 48:7; Ruth 4:11) and distinguishes it from other towns named Bethlehem (cf. Josh. 19:15).  Its use identifies the town in which David was born (1 Sam. 17:12), thus establishing a connection between the messianic King and David.”[6]   Finally, “Bethlehem signifies the house of bread; the fittest place for him to be born in who is the true manna, the bread which came down from heaven, which was given for the life of the world.”[7]

Matt. 2:14-15 (Hosea 11:1).  First, “Matthew goes on to point out that Jesus’ exodus from Egypt fulfilled Scripture written long before. . . Pharaoh had to let Israel go because Israel was the Lord’s son (Ex. 4:22-23).  Thus it is only fitting that Jesus also come out of Egypt as God’s Son. . . Not only in Matthew but elsewhere in the NT the history and laws of the OT are perceived to have prophetic significance.”[8]  Second, “This one in 2:15 is a typological fulfillment. . . Jesus is the genuine Son of God, and, as Israel’s Messiah, is the true Israel (John 15:1); therefore, He gives fuller meaning to the prophecy of Hos. 11:1.”[9]

Matt. 2:18 (Jer. 31:15).  “This text probably refers to the deportation of Judah and Benjamin in 587-586 B.C. . . Jeremiah 31:15 depicts Rachel as crying out from her tomb because her ‘children,’ her descendants, are being removed from the land and are no longer a nation.  Why does Matthew refer to this OT passage?  First, Jer 31:15 occurs in a setting of hope.  Despite the tears, God says, the exiles will return; and now Matthew likewise suggests that, despite the tears of the Bethlehem mothers, there is hope because Messiah has escaped Herod and will ultimately reign.”[10]

[1] Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 10.

[2] Earl D. Radmacher, ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 1139-40.

[3] Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 11.

[4] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), 1205.

[5] Radmacher, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, 1141.

[6] Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, 1475.

[7] Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, 1207.

[8] Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 13-14.

[9] Radmacher, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, 1141-42.

[10] Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 14-15.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.