Tag Archives: Christianity

The Desert and the Devil

Early in the Gospels we come across a most meaningful story.  Considering what Jesus had just experienced in the Jordan, what happened to Him next stands in stark, nearly mind-blowing contrast.  To recap, Christ began His public ministry by leaving His safety zone in Nazareth and traveling to where John was preaching in order to get baptized.  Despite His kinsman’s mild protest (John thought Jesus should baptize him, instead) our Savior allowed Himself to be submerged in the cool waters of the river just like everyone else was doing.  When He came back up He was greeted by none other than the voice of His Heavenly Father who announced, “…This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight (Matthew 3:17).  He couldn’t have gotten more convincing evidence of His true identity!  On top of that, the third person of the divine Trinity, the Holy Spirit, then descended upon Him “…like a dove.  Thus Jesus received all the confirmation for His mission on earth He’d ever need.  Yet whatever elation He felt was to be short-lived because immediately afterwards He was “…led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).  What followed is as widely-known, even to unbelievers, as the name of Jesus is.  Christ faced not only the rigors of the unforgiving desert climate but He also had to spar with the wily, poisonous snake called Satan.

 

To fully absorb this infamous scenario we have to pose a few pertinent questions.  First off, how did this true tale manage to end up in the pages of the Bible?  After all, only the Son of God, the devil and the observing angels were “on the scene” and the latter group ain’t talking.  (Of course, Satan would prefer the episode be forgotten altogether.)  It was basically our Lord out in the badlands all by Himself.  This was before the apostles were on board so no one even knew He was out there.  Nobody was even looking for Him.  The fact is Jesus was utterly alone in the middle of nowhere for 40 long days and nights.  Therefore we must conclude that the detailed story of what went down between Him and the devil in the wilderness came from Christ’s very own lips and then faithfully passed on by His disciples.  This begs a second question, though – Why did Jesus deem it important for the world to know exactly what occurred?  He wasn’t a braggart or a time-waster so the tale must serve a more profound function.  Else He would’ve never brought it up.  Common sense would indicate Christ revealed it for His followers to contemplate in order to help them deal with the inevitable temptations they’d encounter in their own lives.  In the Celebrate Recovery ministry those who’ve achieved victory over their hurts, hang-ups or habits are encouraged to share their testimony for the benefit of those new to the program.  There’s a bounty of comfort and reassurance in knowing someone else has defeated the same temptation they’re battling.  And it’s especially uplifting to discover the greatest overcomer in the Bible is the one and only Son of God.  It’s also likely that Jesus talked about His desert ordeal because it was a unique and wholly unforgettable personal experience He went through.  It no doubt affected Him immensely and for His disciples to know all about Him and His purpose was always crucial.  It was imperative they have it permanently stored in their minds so they could write it down for posterity later on.

 

It must be emphasized that Christ’s temptation was real and not some kind of metaphorical illustration.  Too many regard it as being such, rationalizing that because Jesus was God Incarnate He was never for a nanosecond in danger of succumbing to the devil’s enticing offers.  James S. Stewart wrote, “It may be glorifying Jesus to say He won His victory always without effort.  But surely it is glorifying Him far more to say He marched to it through an agony of sweat and blood.”  Our Savior can therefore identify completely with our own faith-straining ordeals.  For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).  And we should refrain from imagining that Christ was confronted by a cartoonish Satan in a scarlet onesie, complete with horns, pointed tail and pitchfork.  That’s not how the devil approaches you or me with his lures so it’d be unrealistic to suppose he approached the Lord any differently.  Think about it.  Jesus, drained of stamina and strength (both physical and mental) stemming from a severe dearth of food and water for nearly six weeks, was at the nadir of His ability to put up a fight.  In a spiritual sense, I’ve been there and I suspect you have, too.  Jesus knows how that feels.  He can commiserate with us and give us courage.  For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:18).

 

Bear in mind that any doubts Satan had about Jesus’ being the promised Messiah had evaporated instantly when he heard God audibly give Him His official stamp of approval.  Perhaps the devil decided it’d be wise to test Christ’s devotion pronto, before He had a chance to fully digest the words He’d heard spoken to Him by His Heavenly Father.  Still, Satan deliberately waited until starvation became a serious threat before tempting Jesus to use His unlimited power in a self-serving manner.  (“Hey, dude, since you think you’re the ‘Golden Boy’ and all, why not prove it by turning these rocks into crescent rolls?”)  He tempted Christ by appealing to His sense of duty.  (“My man, if you die out here from lack of nourishment won’t you be thwarting God’s plan to save the world?  Eat already!  Your dad’ll surely approve.”)  He tempted Him by calling into question His love for all human beings, the hungry in particular.  (“If you won’t manufacture bread for yourself, at least do it for the poor, destitute masses! They’d crown you king in a heartbeat.  Think how grateful they’d be!”)  What if Jesus had caved in?  Well, for one thing, He would’ve lost credibility as being one who’s been tempted as we are and yet was able to emerge victorious.  Besides, Christ didn’t come to bribe souls but to win them.  His desire that the free will of all men and women remain inviolate was paramount.  He’d gladly lead folks to the well of living water but He’d never force (or bribe) them to drink thereof.  Jesus intended to meet the spiritual hunger that mere loaves of rye would never satisfy.  He told Satan, Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).

 

The devil didn’t quit.  He simply retreated to devise another attack strategy.  He does the same to us, does he not?  Plan B was to tempt Christ into doing something spectacular that’d force even the most stubborn Pharisee to relent and acknowledge His divinity.  Consider that one of the main reasons Jesus wanted to go off by Himself was so He could map out how He was going to proceed with broadcasting the plan of salvation and the methods He’d use in presenting it to the common people.  Would they respond favorably to hearing the truth being preached?  Would it take more than that to grab their attention?  He knew for sure there were no guarantees when it came to human fickleness yet failure to establish a new covenant wasn’t an option.  So Satan whispered in His ear, “You do know there’s a surefire way, don’t you?  Folks always love supernatural extravaganzas so why not fling yourself off a tall building and let the invisible angels catch you in the nick of time?  The crowd would go bananas!  They’d be putty in your hands!”  This ploy didn’t work, either, for several reasons.  (A) Jesus trusted His Father’s plan completely so taking a short cut to notoriety was out of the question.  (B) Jesus knew that while a jaw-dropping stunt like that would produce short-term gains, in the long run it wouldn’t pay dividends.  Stewart wrote, “Men may acclaim something that stirs the imagination, but they can be saved only by something that touches the heart.” (C) Jesus refused to kowtow to the public’s “fascination with sensation” because He knew such things were utterly bereft of spiritual value.  And (D), as in the first temptation, Jesus would do nothing that’d unfairly influence an individual’s free will choice to – or not to – love and obey God.  Christ’s response left the devil frustrated once again.  Jesus said “…You are not to put the Lord your God to the test (Matthew 4:7).

 

Say what you will about the detestable Satan but he’s definitely a persistent little jerk because he wasn’t through baiting the thoroughly-fatigued Jesus just yet.  To say there was a lot at stake is a gross understatement.  This was a showdown with eternal ramifications.  Seeing that full capitulation wasn’t going to happen, the devil next enticed Christ to compromise.  He suggested Jesus could put a quick end to his tiresome hassling if only He’d back off His outrageous demands for full sovereignty over the planet that he, Satan, had been the prince of for eons.  “…The devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur.  And he said to him, ‘I will give you all these things if you throw yourself to the ground and worship me (Matthew 4:8-9).  Jesus didn’t budge.  Not one millimeter.  Now, the devil has thick skin but he can’t stand to hear the Word of God used against him.  Jesus said to him, ‘Go away, Satan!  For it is written: ‘You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’  Then the devil left him and angels came and began ministering to his needs (Matthew 4:10-11).  It’s worth noting the little nugget Luke adds to the story: So when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him until a more opportune time (4:13).  We all should heed that ominous warning.

 

As it is with those who choose to surrender to Him, the Son of God wasn’t about to accept anything less than everything.  No compromising.  With God it’s all or nothing.  While our precious Redeemer’s early church was far from perfect it did get one thing right: It insisted no other god but Jesus be worshiped!  That’s why, out of all the novel religions that seeped into Rome from the East during the first few centuries A.D., Christianity was the only one that met with fierce, government-sanctioned persecution.  Osiris, Cybele and a host of others were okay but not the gentle rabbi from Nazareth.  No way.  This Jesus was a bona fide threat to the establishment because with Christians it was His way or the highway.  They deemed all other gods impotent imposters.  His followers actually believed Jesus hadn’t lied when He announced, I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).  Furthermore, they had the audacity to proclaim that one day “…at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11)!  History shows that the brave Christians who remained steadfast in the faith usually paid a horrible price for their fidelity to the Father, as our Savior did on the cross.  Stewart wrote, “For the road which Jesus faced when He refused to compromise is the hard road, the long road, the sacrificial road; but it is the royal road to the Kingdom.”

 

There are two important aspects of the temptation story worth chewing on.  For one thing, it assures us that being tempted to sin is not the same as committing a sin.  The Bible (and the New Testament in particular) is sated with saints who openly admitted they had to wrestle with temptation so often they started wondering if they really “had what it takes” to faithfully and consistently serve God.  We can almost hear the angst in Paul’s voice when he groaned, For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! (Romans 7:18-19).  Yet it was for his sake and others just like him our Lord narrated the story of His personal defeat of temptation.  We know for certain that, since the sinless, perfect Son of God Himself was subjected to the most severe temptations under the worst conditions imaginable, being tempted is no sin.  Thus we can all take comfort in Paul’s honest conclusion: Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25).  Because of our blessed Savior, we have a future to look forward to when temptations will torment us no more.

 

The second aspect is found in the Scripture verse I cited earlier: For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:18).  John, Peter and the rest of the apostles knew for a certainty their beloved Master would stand by their side through thick and thin because they’d heard Him promise, And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  When temptation reared its ugly head, whether it was to curse and despise their enemies or to harbor resentments towards folks for the inhuman way they were being treated, they knew they could depend on Christ to supply them with the strength to react with love instead of hate.  Via prayer and sincere worship they were able to maintain contact with Jesus’ radiant, dynamic personality and thereby conquer their volatile (and reliably sinful) human nature.  By ourselves we’re far too weak to withstand temptation.  Most of us have learned that lesson the hard way.  Only with the power of the Christ-bestowed Holy Spirit who lives in us guiding our steps can we avoid falling into the sinkholes of sin.  We must never forget the Son of God didn’t have to put up with the devil’s temptations, but He did – for us.  Philip Yancey wrote, “When I feel temptations rising within me, I return to the story of Jesus and Satan in the desert.  Jesus’ resistance against Satan’s temptations preserved for me the very freedom I exercise when I face my own temptations.  I pray for the same trust and patience that Jesus showed.”

3

When Jesus Made His Move

All Christians celebrate our Savior’s birth and resurrection annually.  I reckon if we knew the date He realized the time had arrived to begin His ministry it’d be an occasion to commemorate, too.  For some thirty years or so Jesus had lived a rather unremarkable life in and about the small town of Nazareth.  Other than the infamous “temple episode” that happened when He was a pre-teen we know zip about His youth and early adult years.  There are things we can assume, however.  His stepdad taught Him the craft of carpentry.  After Joseph’s death Jesus took over all the responsibilities that come along with being the male head of household.  He became the primary breadwinner.  He took on the role of father figure for His younger brothers and sisters.  In other words, He had to grow up fast.  We can gather He responsibly and skillfully plied His trade for many years, making a reputable name for Himself as a proficient, reliable worker.  He probably had His own little shop near the family home.  Not a bad life, all things considered.  Yet, we can only wonder how His ever-increasing awareness of His divinity and His ordained-by-God mission must have affected Him.  All we know for sure is that when He knew His hour had come He got His affairs in order and stepped away from the workbench to bring a new covenant into the world and drastically alter history forevermore.  It’s certainly worth our while to investigate the circumstances surrounding His finally “making His move.”

 

The fact that all four Gospel accounts bring up John the Baptist in conjunction with Christ’s emergence from obscurity elevates him to Bible VIP status.  Thus he deserves our focused attention.  Never forget that the archangel Gabriel announced he’d be born to his way-too-old-to-be-having-a-kid parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, months before he appeared before Mary.  That alone designates John as an irreplaceable part of God’s master plan to redeem mankind.  As is the case with Jesus, we know nothing about John’s childhood but it’s fair to surmise he wasn’t anything like his peers.  To say he was “different” as an adult is an understatement.  He stuck out like a sore thumb.  The Scriptures say John lived in the wild and that he “… wore a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6).  Not your typical cosmopolitan Jew!  Yet there was something about him that compelled folks to stop and listen to what he had to say.  Perhaps they were attracted by his total lack of pretense or his magnetic, spell-binding oratory acumen.  He possessed undeniable charisma and exuded an unshakable conviction of purpose.  He was no phony, no mere “…reed shaken by the wind (Matthew 11:7).  He cared nothing for popularity or acclaim and he had no fear of the religious or political “authorities” whatsoever.  “…When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You offspring of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.”  For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!  Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Matthew 3:7-10).  The Jerusalem supermarket tabloids had to have a field day with his quotes!  John didn’t even hold his accusatory tongue from lambasting King Herod to his fat face when he knew it’d likely spell his doom.  No doubt his defiant attitude earned him a lot of “street cred.”

 

Moreover, it was obvious to all that John was a genuine Man of God.  When I was growing up mom insisted I watch Billy Graham with her every time his crusades came on TV.  I was always impressed that thousands would crowd into stadiums and arenas just to hear him preach.  People knew the “real deal” when they saw it and Reverend Graham definitely was.  The same was true of John the Baptist.  Thomas Carlyle wrote, “To teach religion, the first thing needful and the last, and indeed the only thing, is to find a man who has religion.”  John had “it” and folks flocked into the desert just to hear “it”.  Imagine how refreshing it was for everyday Israelites to discover there was a holy man who was dispensing with all the stuffy subtleties and confusing sophistries the persnickety Jewish leaders specialized in spouting and getting right down to the nitty gritty!  John spoke their lingo, using terms they readily understood.  But most of all, the Baptist had a clear message to deliver: “The Messiah is making His move!  Y’all need to ready yourselves ASAP!”  John said, I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am – I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire (Matthew 3:11-12).  Few were able to resist his urgent, impassioned pleas and, as a result, throngs got baptized.

 

Who were these people who trekked into the boonies to hear this strange dude?  Was it just the ne’er-do-wells of society with nothing better to do?  Not on your life.  The crowds that showed up encompassed the entire strata of types and classes.  There were beggars, soldiers, doctors, housewives, young, elderly, healthy, sick, and purple-robed priests in attendance.  Suffice it to say that not all of them were there to seek profound revelations of truth.  No doubt many came simply to quench their burning curiosity.  The Baptist was causing a sensation and they didn’t want to miss out on the hoopla.  Others came for political reasons.  The nation hadn’t heard a word from Jehovah in four centuries and suddenly there’s what appeared to be a bona fide prophet preaching fire and brimstone down by the river.  They thought maybe John was an omen that God was finally going to run the racist, pagan Romans out of town for good and restore Israel’s sovereignty!  He was worth checking out, regardless.  However, it’s safe to say many came because they harbored deep guilt over ignoring God’s laws for so long.  They had sins to confess but no one to confess them to.  They were looking for a ray of hope in what was otherwise a hopeless situation.  Here was one of “the anointed” telling them there was something they could do to instigate a dramatic change in their life.  He took them as they were, dunked them under the water and then brought them up into a new beginning.  In this way John the Baptist paved the way for the one who would not only instruct them on but demonstrate for them how to become righteous in the sight of their Heavenly Father.

 

It’s no stretch to think the news of what John was doing reached Nazareth and the ear of Jesus.  He could’ve reacted in a variety of ways.  He could’ve treated it as a passing fad that had nothing to do with Him.  Or He could’ve harshly criticized the Baptist, deeming his sermons too negative overall, too lacking in compassion and the love of God.  He could’ve rejected John as a misguided fear monger using threats of damnation like sharp weapons to prod men and women into repenting of their evil ways.  (While later on Christ didn’t hesitate to warn His listeners of the eternal consequences of living a sin-filled life, He did so in a tactful and tender manner that matched His gracious character.)  No, the fact of the matter is Jesus reacted in a way nobody would expect – God Incarnate walked to where John was for baptism.  Picture the scene in your mind.  John, busy at work immersing folks in the muddy waters of the Jordan, glances up to find himself staring into two piercing eyes radiating a divine light he’d never encountered before.  He knew in that instant he was standing in the presence of the Son of God.  The Bible describes it splendidly: Then Jesus came from Galilee to John to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.  But John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?’  So Jesus replied to him, ‘Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.’  Then John yielded to him.  After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight’ (Matthew 3:13-17).  I can’t fathom what the angels, much less John, must’ve thought.

 

On the surface the whole idea of the perfect Son of God submitting to baptism seems absurd and wholly unnecessary.  Therefore we must search for the reason behind it.  One theory is that Christ did it to honor John for his self-sacrificing efforts to get folks prepared to receive His earth-shaking Good News that would transform the world.  Before John began stirring things up the population had gotten jaded regarding their relationship with Yahweh.  But now there was a palpable religious awakening coursing through the countryside because of him.  Now folks craved spiritual guidance.  Now they yearned for something more than hollow subsistence.  Now they cried out for the light of God to shine into their depressed souls.  James S. Stewart wrote, “…We may well believe that when Jesus offered himself for baptism, He did it partly, at least, from a sense of the debt He owed to His great predecessor and from a recognition that this revival which had been sweeping the land was a real movement of the Spirit of God.”

 

Another theory is that Christ subjected Himself to baptism in order to identify with common sinners; that He did it to prove He wasn’t some kind of untouchable or unapproachable “being from beyond” whom no ordinary man or woman would ever be able to relate to.  No, Jesus was Emmanuel, or “God with us”; a man shunned by the elite as being, “…a friend of tax collectors and sinners! (Matthew 11:19).  After all, He mingled among society’s riff-raff, outlaws and outcasts.  Through the act of baptism Christ took on our shame as His shame, our miseries as His miseries, our heartaches as His heartaches and our burdens as His burdens.  Our Savior maintained that selfless countenance all the way to Calvary.  Stewart opined, “Hence the baptism of Jesus points up the fact that the only love which can ever possess redeeming power is a love that goes all the way and identifies itself with others.”  Recall that Moses was willing to personally take on God’s punishment for his people’s rebellious iniquities.  He pleaded for God to have mercy on them and then said, “…but if not, wipe me out from your book that you have written (Exodus 32:32).  In a similar vein Paul proclaimed, For I could wish that I myself were accursed – cut off from Christ – for the sake of my people (Romans 9:3).

 

Going by the Gospel narratives there are things we can be certain of.  When Jesus came up out of the water He received two unmistakable affirmations from His Heavenly Father – a voice and a vision.  (1) He audibly heard words spoken directly to Him by the great I AM and (2) He saw the softly-descending dove, a supernatural representation of His receiving the energizing, life-affirming Holy Spirit into His physical body.  Any doubts His mortal, material brain (or the devil, for that matter) may have tried to plant and fertilize in His intellect were swept away like dust particles when our precious Lord heard His Father say, This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight.”  We may never know this side of heaven what other stupendous confirmations Christ heard during the unique moment of unadulterated bliss He experienced while standing by the stunned John the Baptist.  But we can venture to surmise the cosmos at large was never the same.  One thing we do know is Jesus then left to follow the Holy Spirit into the treacherous wastelands where He’d be severely tempted by the extremely agitated Satan.  Considering what Christ had just witnessed in the Jordan the devil never had a chance in hell of succeeding.

 

We all know Jesus went on to perform miracles and wonders that still thrill and inspire His disciples all over the globe.  On the other hand John the Baptist, in an admirably humble fashion, accepted his fate graciously.  He knew he’d done God’s will without a hitch and that it was now time for him to acquiesce to his (and our) higher power, Jesus Christ.  I love to read what John had to say to one of his devoted followers: “…No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven.  You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but rather, ‘I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom.  The friend of the bridegroom, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.  This then is my joy, and it is complete.  He must become more important while I become less important.  The one who comes from above is superior to all.  The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things.  The one who comes from heaven is superior to all.  He testifies about what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony.  The one who has accepted his testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful.  For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he does not give the Spirit sparingly.  The Father loves the Son and has placed all things under his authority.  The one who believes in the Son has eternal life.  The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him (John 3:27-36).  How eloquent!  One can only guess what John felt that day as he watched the Messiah he’d waited his whole life to meet walked away toward His date with destiny when He’d shoulder the weight of all mankind’s sins and throw open the gates to salvation.  If any human ever had a flood of mixed emotions engulf their whole being, it had to be John the Baptist after Jesus “made His move”.  He’s a hero.

1

What We Don’t Know About Jesus

Two weeks ago I wrote about the four Gospels and how they present a complete picture of Christ’s ministry on earth.  Everything necessary for an individual to make an informed decision as to who Jesus was and why He came here is contained in the fascinating books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  But when it comes to the years of His adolescence, teens and 20s we’re told next to nothing.  However there are things we can gather intuitively, like with the world at large being too distracted to notice His long-awaited arrival.  Right off this tells us a lot.  Start with Bethlehem’s local hotel manager callously banishing His weary parents to the barn out back.  What a lousy welcome for the Messiah!  His mother “…gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).  I’m sure the innkeeper had his reasons.  Because of Caesar’s mandated census his place was packed and it was obvious (from their dusty attire) Joseph and his very pregnant wife had no money to bribe him with.  James S. Stewart wrote, “At any rate, it’s worth noticing that the same motives still operate to close the door on Christ.  Men are too busy; or they know that if Christ came in, certain other things would have to go; or they set their hearts on something different from one who was poor and lowly and despised and rejected, whose symbol was a cross.”  How ironic that so many people missed the miracle they’d been praying for.  He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:11).

 

Still, there were a few who did recognize that something astounding was happening in Bethlehem that night, not the least of whom was His mother, of course.  While women in that era were deemed second-class citizens by society in general, motherhood was nonetheless revered in Jewish culture.  (Yet, evidently, it wasn’t on this historic occasion.)  Fittingly, the hotelier’s name got swept away in the winds of time while Christianity’s respect for Mary is topped only by that granted Jesus.  God rewarded her for her dedicated devoutness by choosing her to be the one to raise His only begotten Son in a character-building environment.  All believers love her for the dignity with which she shouldered the lifelong burden of having been given hints of the sorrows that lay in store for her and her son.  Not to mention the faith-filled response she gave the archangel Gabriel when he delivered the incredible news of the pending virgin birth, Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word (Luke 1:38).  Mary may be the strongest, most resolute female who ever lived.  Little wonder she’s so adored.

 

The delightfully prosaic Frederick Buechner, in his book The Magnificent Defeat, wrote this about Mary’s encounter with the angel: “She hears him say, ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name.…’  But she knows His name before Gabriel says it, just as we also know His name, because the child who is going to be born is our child as He is her child.  He is that which all the world’s history and all of our own inner histories have been laboring to bring forth.  And it will be no ordinary birth but a virgin birth because the birth of righteousness and love in this stern world is always a virgin birth.  It is never men nor the nations of men nor all the power and wisdom of men that bring it forth but always God, and that is why the angel says, ‘The child to be born will be called the Son of God.’”  J.I. Packer argued for Christ’s unique birth thusly: “Virgin-born, He did not inherit the guilty twist called original sin: His manhood was untainted, and His acts, attitudes, motives and desires were consequently faultless.  …Being sinless He could not be held by death once His sacrifice was done.”  Belief in the Immaculate Conception is as essential as belief in the Resurrection.  Both carry the same message – Jesus came from God and He returned to God.

 

The shepherds deserve their due, too.  The “angel of the Lord” didn’t appear before the wealthy merchants or the conceited religious leaders in town to announce the birth of the Messiah.  Rather, the glorious news got broadcast to a handful of poor sheep-tenders who lived their impoverished lives out under the sun and stars, exposed to the elements.  How symbolic!  In ancient Israel the thought was that a shepherd’s job was closely affiliated with what God did for His chosen people, as in the oft-quoted phrase, The Lord is my shepherd…” (Psalm 23:1).  Notably, Jesus repeatedly alluded to His being humanity’s ultimate sheepherder throughout His astounding dressing-down of the jealous, skeptical Pharisees that’s recorded in John 10:1-18.  We must never overlook the fact that despite the shepherds tending their flocks in the field being uneducated, illiterate men they reacted to the angel’s news with admirable childlike trust.  They didn’t hesitate to drop everything to go witness a genuine miracle.  So they hurried off and located Mary and Joseph, and found the baby lying in a manger (Luke 2:16).  They’re to be commended.

 

Now, not all learned men of that day were uppity hypocrites.  Some were truly “wise” as were the Magi who came to visit the King of kings.  Scholars believe that one of them hailed from Africa while the other two were from separate regions of Mesopotamia.  They represent the fact that the birth of the Savior wasn’t just a “Jewish thing”; that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19).  What the fearless trio of noblemen had in common with the shepherds is their undaunted faith.  They weren’t afraid to embark on a long, risky trek to wherever the celestial signs they’d been observing took them.  More Christians should aim to emulate those three.  Jesus encourages all men and women to be brave, inquisitive adventurers who aren’t timid about using their God-given intellects; especially for confronting closed-minded secularists with the pure logic of Christianity.  There’s so much wisdom to be gained by studying the Bible and by reading the insightful literary offerings of giants like C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, Ravi Zacharias and so many other reputable Christian authors.  Don’t remain uninformed simply because watching television is so much easier.  Open a book already!  Expand your mental horizons!  Become wise.

 

And then there were Simeon and Anna.  While they didn’t travel to visit the infant Messiah, they definitely welcomed Jesus graciously when His parents brought Him to the temple.  In the Hebrew world it was righteous, devout folks like Simeon and Anna who’d kept the hope for a savior alive, “…looking for the restoration of Israel (Luke 2:25).  Simeon wasn’t a Pharisee whose faith was just skin deep.  He wasn’t an overly-serious Scribe who’d let the fire of the spirit go out in his heart.  He wasn’t a jaded Sadducee who didn’t trust in anything he couldn’t see or touch.  Neither was he a Zealot who craved only revenge for the Roman occupation.  No, Simeon was merely one of the few patient, prayerful members of the chosen race whom God had blessed with the presence of the Holy Spirit; the same Spirit who’d revealed to him… that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26).  Not surprisingly, when Simeon took the baby Jesus in his aging arms he knew his dreams had become a reality.  He told Mary, Listen carefully; This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected.  Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul as well! (Luke 2:34-25).  Simeon’s ominous statement provides further evidence of the heavy burden Mary would have to bear.  The prophetess Anna was a temple regular who openly rejoiced at the sight of the infant, unashamedly identifying Him as the Messiah.  The child’s purification rites completed, Joseph and Mary took their boy home to Nazareth where He “…grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40).

 

The next three decades of our Lord’s life is a blank – save for one memorable incident.  When Jesus was around the age of 12 He, like other Jewish boys, became a “Son of the Law.”  This designation made Him eligible to attend the various religious festivals.  In Jerusalem for the annual Passover celebration/feast, the young Christ got so caught up asking questions of and discussing profound matters with the teachers in the temple courts He lost all track of time.  His parents, who’d mistakenly assumed their boy was traveling back home with friends, rushed back to the city and issued an Amber Alert.  After three frantic days they located Jesus in the temple and they let Him have an earful over His anxiety-causing stunt.  His calm reply was, Why were you looking for me?  Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business? (Luke 2:49).  These are the first words of Christ we’re made privy to in the Bible but they’re crucial because, in a sense, they sum up His whole life in a soundbite.  Yet we’re informed his parents didn’t really “get it”, thus marking the onset of Jesus’ frequent failures to be clearly understood by those closest to Him.  Still, it’s remarkable He’d already become aware of who His real Father was so Joseph and Mary certainly deserve a lot of credit for raising Him right.  As Stewart quipped, “Adolescence is God’s best chance with the soul.”  What’s frustrating about this anecdote is that it’s the last we hear of our Savior for the next 18 years.

 

Again, there are things we can determine about Christ based solely on circumstantial evidence.  For instance, we know He must’ve been influenced by His growing up in close proximity to nature because His teachings belie His pride concerning and love for what He’d created for all humans to enjoy.  He mentioned blooming plants: Think about how the flowers of the field grow; they do not work or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these! (Matthew 6:28-29).  He brought up the wonders of agriculture: By itself the soil produces a crop, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head (Mark 4:28).  He referenced animals: Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it? (Luke 15:4).  Never forget that Jesus was a country boy at heart, having spent countless hours exploring the undefiled beauty that surrounded Him on all sides in rural Nazareth.  Another kind of nature He became familiar with was human nature.  We can deduce it from reports of His being anything but naïve or gullible in His dealings with people of all persuasions.  John 2:25 confirms it succinctly: He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.”  What’s amazing is that, even though He was well aware of the inherent wickedness of the human heart that showed its ugly colors all too often, He still loved all people as only a merciful, forgiving God could.

 

It’s also no stretch of the imagination to opine that Jesus knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards.  While all good Jewish males were schooled to be, at a minimum, familiar with what was contained in the 39 canonical books of the sacred Hebrew texts, Jesus was, as one would expect, a bona fide genius.  Therefore He was able to immediately counter Satan’s wilderness temptations using the undiluted power of God’s Holy Word despite being physically drained from lack of food and water.  The New Testament figuratively overflows with His references to the utterings and writings of the prophets that He knew like the back of His hands.  Thus, as every prophecy about Him unfolded and came to fruition, He was never caught off-guard, even as the day of His farce of a trial and His unconscionable murder grew nearer.  His resolve to see His mission through to the bitter end by remaining obedient to His Father’s will didn’t waver for a moment.  In addition we can safely surmise Jesus knew what hard work was all about.  He was a skilled carpenter, a profession that requires strength and paying strict attention to details.  Joseph had taught his boy the value of a job well done, the satisfaction that comes from taking the time to do each task right and the resulting personal integrity that comes with it.  Stewart wrote, “Hence toil has been hallowed forever.  The distinction between secular and sacred avocations vanishes.  Hard work – whether manual labor or the duty of the businessman – is sacred when it’s done as under the eyes of God.”

 

Finally, we can see in the ministry of Jesus His placing immense importance on the home, reflecting the fact He was raised in a large, close-knit family.  It’s implied that Joseph died at a relatively early age so it figures that Jesus, as the eldest male in the household, became the father figure for his many brothers and sisters.  Those who speculate that Christ, having never married or siring offspring, doesn’t have a clue as to what being a “dad” entails couldn’t be more wrong.  He was the family’s main breadwinner.  To His siblings He became the rule-enforcer and the punishment-applier as well as their gentle counselor, dispute-settler and sage advice-giver.  It goes without saying that we Christians have a “high priest” who knows firsthand how difficult and rewarding parenting can be.  And one finds home references popping up in many of our Savior’s parables.  A woman turns a room upside down looking for a coin hiding under some furniture.  He speaks of carefully measuring flour and leaven when baking bread.  An unexpected guest causes the head of the household to pester his neighbor for decent snacks in the middle of the night.  The lighting of candles at dusk.  He urged compassion for children despite their immature desires and demands.  All these point back to the modest but loving home environment our Lord grew up in.  He most definitely had learned what it’s like to exist on the edge of poverty but He’d also learned that the Heavenly Father will provide, that unconditional love can cure the most difficult and taxing of ills, and that God is forever in complete control whether we human beings realize it or not.

a