The Roman Empire is well organized. Their territory is divided into regions, and each region has a name and an appointed ruler. Joseph and Mary currently live in a town named Nazareth, which is located in the region of Galilee. At the end of our last lesson, Joseph learned that he is going to have to travel all the way down to the city of Bethlehem in Judea to register. The current emperor of Rome, Ceasar Augustus, wants to do a headcount. Well, as we can see on our map below, Joseph is in for quite a trek.
Now this isn’t an unfamiliar route. Once a year on Passover all religious Jews traveled down to the Temple in Jerusalem. With other Jews having to also register in Bethlehem, it’s likely that Mary and Joseph traveled in a group. In these times, traveling alone was dangerous. There were bandits and wild animals along the way. Plus, the quickest route passed through the region of Samaria. Jews and Samaritans hated each other and they snubbed each other every chance they got. The Jews felt superior to the Samaritans, who they considered to be icky foreigners who were polluting Israel’s Promised Land. We learned about who the Samaritans were back in Lesson 23.
THE BIRTH OF JESUS
It’s while Joseph is in Bethlehem dealing with registration hassles that Mary suddenly goes into labor. The dramatic sequence we see in movies of Joseph frantically rushing into town with a groaning Mary are far from accurate. In these times, people kept their animals with them in their houses, and that meant they had mangers (feeding troughs) for the animals in the house as well. The more accurate way to view this is that Mary and Joseph were already staying somewhere, yet because the town is so crowded with visitors who have to register, there was no room to put a baby where Joseph and Mary were staying, so a manger in the same house was turned into a makeshift crib. It’s a very ironic picture—God Almighty lying in a feeding trough. How strange that a God who is so zealous for praise and glory should give Himself such humble beginnings. And yet is that what He really did? Christians are quick to talk about the humility of Christ, but the reality is that Christ was raking in the glory on this night. For starters, a group of shepherds just outside of Bethlehem are suddenly visited by an angel who is radiating blinding light. The angel tells them:
“Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David. This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.” (Luke 2:10-12)
Right about now we have to ask ourselves: was the manger thing really about humility, or was it a way of making Jesus stand out in a very conspicuous way? Let’s remember that this registration edict has Bethlehem in a very overcrowded state. What an obvious ploy by God to gather an unusually large audience around Himself. Now normal residents of Bethlehem certainly weren’t keeping their babies in feeding troughs, so Jesus’ unusual bed made Him that much easier to find. And as a huge crowd of angels suddenly show up among the shepherds praising God, we have to rethink our theory that Jesus is some kind of shrinking violet. What’s humble about lighting up the sky with alien creatures who are all exclaiming your praise? Jesus made an extremely grand entrance into the world.
After this shocking experience with angels, the shepherds rush to Bethlehem, find Jesus, worship Him, then rush out and start spreading the news about Him all over the city. Since the city is full of out-of-towners, when those people leave, they’ll spread the word of Jesus’ birth throughout all of Israel. God certainly knows how to get the word out.
In our last lesson, we talked about how nonsensical God’s prophecies can be. About 700 years before the birth of Christ, Yahweh said through the mouth of His prophet Micah:
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2)
When you hear Christians say that it says in the Old Testament that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, this is the passage they are talking about. So let’s think about this. If God were to say to you today, “I’ll raise up a mighty leader for My Church and he will come from New York City,” wouldn’t you assume He is talking about a man who was born in New York and has lived there most of his life? Sure. When we ask people “Where are you from?” we are talking about their main residence, not some place they breezed in and out of on some freak once-in-a-lifetime trip. Jesus was from Nazareth—that’s where His parents lived and that’s where He’ll be growing up. This Bethlehem thing was a freak moment—something totally out of the ordinary. How can we really say that Jesus “went forth from Bethlehem” just because He spent the first few days of His post-natal life there? He lived the first nine months of His life in Nazareth—shouldn’t that count for anything? Jesus isn’t really “from” Bethlehem, He was just passing through it. How does a baby who can’t even walk “go forth” from anywhere? Going forth sounds like an adult activity, but when Jesus finally starts His public ministry, He’ll be going forth from His hometown of Nazareth, not from Bethlehem. Do you see the games that our Gods play with Their prophecies? We mustn’t hide out from these lessons, for they teach us very important principles about how our Gods communicate with humans.
YESHUA BECOMES JESUS
Under the Old Covenant, Yahweh demanded that all of His male followers be circumcised. He specified that baby boys were supposed to circumcised on the eighth day of their lives. In keeping with God’s requirements, Joseph and Mary have Jesus circumcised and they give Him the Name that Yahweh chose: Yeshua. Yeshua was a very common Jewish name, and it’s often translated as Joshua in our Bibles today. So where did the name of Jesus come from?
When you change languages, it’s common to also change names. For example, today a man named John would be called Juan by Spanish speakers. A woman named Mary would be called Maria. If you look up various languages around the world, you’ll find that many of them are using the same names, but they just use different forms of those names. The Russians say Petro instead of Peter. The French say Jean instead of John. Spanish speakers say Mateo instead of Matthew.
Now the New Testament we read today was written in ancient Greek—that’s a form of the Greek language that is so outdated that modern Greek speakers don’t use it. The ancient Greeks would have said Iesous (Ee-shoosh) instead of Yeshua. But at this time, Rome is in power, and Romans spoke Latin. For a long time the early Church used Latin translations of the Bible. The Latin version of Iesous is Jesus. So when we say Jesus today, we’re really using a Latin form of the Greek version of the name His parents really gave Him, which was Yeshua. And since Jesus is the name our Bible translators hand us, no one questions it.
Remember the ten terrible plagues that Yahweh poured out on Egypt way back in Period 2? The last of those ten terrible plagues included the slaughtering of all the firstborn male children in Egypt. It was this horrifying event that established the Jewish holiday of Passover. Because the Jews obeyed God by spreading animal blood on their doorposts that night, Yahweh mercifully spared their children from slaughter by having His angel of death “pass over” their houses. But once He had led the Jews safely out of Egypt and into a wilderness, He demanded some payback for His great mercy. He declared that all firstborn male children from then on had to be considered His property. Parents literally had to buy back their firstborn sons from Yahweh by paying a certain amount of money.
Now also according to Yahweh’s Laws, a woman who had just given birth was considered unclean for a certain period of time—in Mary’s case, 40 days. After that time period was complete, she had to bring an animal sacrifice to Yahweh. All of this means that Joseph and Mary had to troop on over to the Temple when Jesus was just over a month old.
TWO PROPHETS IN THE TEMPLE
Now when baby Jesus shows up at the Temple, Yahweh has arranged for two individuals to see Him. The first is an old man named Simeon. The Jews were a fiercely patriotic people and they hated living in a state of oppression. Simeon is very heavy hearted over the miserable state his people are in, and he has been waiting a long time to see some sign that Yahweh’s Messianic prophecies are starting to come true. Here we can’t help but wonder how much Yahweh was intentionally fanning the flames of Simeon’s longing in order to glorify Himself. What we do know is that Simeon has received a personal promise from God that he will not die until he sees the Messiah.
Now the Jews were a prolific people, so there was nothing unusual about seeing newborns in the Temple. But when Simeon spots baby Jesus in the crowd, God instantly confirms to him that this baby is the One. Simeon is ecstatic.
Simeon took the baby in his arms and thanked Yahweh: “Now, Lord, You can let me, Your servant, die in peace as You said. With my own eyes I have seen Your salvation, which You prepared before all people. It is a light for the non-Jewish people to see and an honor for Your people, the Israelites.” (Luke 2:28-32)
Simeon is displaying great faith here. Instead of worrying about Jesus’ safety and wondering if this little baby is really the One, he totally trusts what God is telling him and he celebrates. He then shows great wisdom by identifying Jesus as the Savior for the whole world, not just the Jews. Yahweh has always called all people to come to Him and Simeon understands this.
Well, this is a shock for Joseph and Mary. Then another person comes over to greet them: an 84-year-old prophetess named Anna who lives in the Temple praying day and night. Anna also lays eyes on Jesus and then starts praising Yahweh out loud. Well, this is certainly different. Who knew baby Jesus would create such a stir?
Joseph and Mary’s hometown of Nazareth is in the region of Galilee. After Jesus is born, they decide to move to Bethlehem, which is located in the region of Judea. In Lesson 42, we learned that Herod the Great is the mentally unstable ruler of Judea. Herod struggles with paranoid delusions that someone is always scheming against him, so when some scholarly gents from the east show up at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem asking where the new king is, Herod inwardly flips out. What is this about a new king?
Today we sing about the three wise men who followed a star that led them to Jesus. Well, God did use some celestial signs to bring foreigners over to Jerusalem and send Herod into a tizzy, but it doesn’t say anywhere that there were just three of these men. For all we know, there could have been a whole crowd of them. All Herod knows is that these men sound well-versed in Jewish prophecy and when they quote Micah 5:2 at him—that bit about a ruler coming forth from Bethlehem—Herod is more than a little worried. He points the foreigners in the direction of Bethlehem and tells them to let him know immediately when they locate the baby king so that he can come and pay homage to the child. Not suspecting anything, the wise men (or magi) hurry on their way and quickly locate Joseph and Mary in their new home. By now Jesus is not lying in a manger anymore, He’s growing fast as all babies do. What a shock for Mary and Joseph when a bunch of strangers show up at their doorstep falling down in worship and showering them with expensive gifts.
Now sometime during their stay in Bethlehem, God warns the wise men in a dream not to report back to Herod, so they hustle on home. God then has an angel warn Joseph in a dream that he must take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because psycho Herod is about to start a baby hunt.
It doesn’t take Herod too long to figure out that the magi pulled a fast one on him. Now he really flips out and, after calculating that his young rival couldn’t be more than two years old, he orders that all the male children two years and younger who live in and around Bethlehem should be slaughtered. What follows is a horrific slaughtering of young children.
Now let’s think about this. If Yahweh hadn’t sent those wise men knocking on Herod’s door instead of going straight to Bethlehem, this child massacre wouldn’t have happened. This was such an intentional set up from God. How wise can men be if they can’t even find Bethlehem on a map? The stop off at Herod’s palace was miles out of their way—it was completely unnecessary. What we have here is a situation very carefully orchestrated by God which resulted in unthinkable trauma and heartache for countless families. As tempting as it is to just blow past this awkward moment, we need to stop and take it in.
OUR WILD GOD
It’s the troubling side of God that we need the most help with if we are going to grow secure in our relationships with Him. When we refuse to mull over the passages of Scripture that disturb us, we only end up needlessly troubled and disturbed by the daily news headlines. God has preserved many ancient records which can educate us about how He really operates. Yet because we don’t wrestle with them, we end up speechless when a crisis arises in the world around us. Christians should not be the ones standing around in a mystified stupor when God unleashes some devastating trial into the lives of those we love. “I don’t pretend to understand His ways” is not an acceptable answer for us. Certainly we can’t claim to fully understand God, but acting like we don’t understand Him at all just becomes insulting to Him. Hasn’t He shown us time and time again in the Bible how brutal, violent, and two-faced He can be? In Job we find Him smiling on the unceasing torture of one of His most dedicated followers. In Joshua we find Him ordering the mass slaughter of men, women and children. In Isaiah we find Him boasting of how He starts wars on earth. In Jeremiah we read about Him swearing to hunt down and destroy His chosen people. Though He claims to find child sacrifice “detestable,” in Judges we find Him trapping a man into having to sacrifice his only daughter. In Judges we also find God telling clans of Israel to go to war only to arrange for them to be brutally slaughtered (see Judges 17-21: Anarchy in Israel). If we are honest, we are horrified by many of the things God does in the Bible, yet He does not leave us without explanations. Through the mouths of His Old Testament prophets, Yahweh explains His reasons for acting in the ways that He does. Today those same reasons are driving all the carnage and terror that we see around us. If we were listening to God with open hearts and allowing Him to educate us about what His priorities are, we would not be frightened by the events around us. But instead, we throw the Old Testament into the trash can and pass out New Testament Bibles. We highlight just the words of Jesus in red and act like everything Yahweh ever said doesn’t matter. We call ourselves “New Testament Christians” and go worshiping men like the apostle Paul and the apostle John—insisting that they teach with the perfection of God while we are intentionally ignoring the bulk of what God has given us. This is unacceptable behavior for Christians. All this lying and hiding and copping out—where has it gotten us? Are we confident in our faith? No, we’re all pathetic and quivery. Are we calm in the face of trauma? No, we collapse into panicking piles of doubt. Whenever bad things happen in the world today, God is the first One Christians attack by either questioning His goodness or promoting the blasphemous notion that our Almighty Creators have been trumped by evil, sin, or demons. Yet for all this, we deny the idea that God is angry at His Church. “God doesn’t get angry at Christians,” we say. In our dreams.
You can’t get close to God by denying who He is and trying to tell Him what He can and can’t do. Our good God is the One who arranged for the slaughter of all the young boys in Bethlehem and beyond. Sure He warned Joseph to flee, but notice how He didn’t extend the same courtesy to everyone else. Life is God’s property: He created it and He gets to take it back whenever He wants to. Yes, we will reel with shock when God takes our children from us, but to then hold some permanent grudge against Him is nothing more than defiance. Who are we to say what God can and can’t do with His own property? God never promised that He would let us die before our children or that He would always let us see them grow to a ripe old age. God has a unique plan for every soul on this earth and His sovereignty must be respected. Yes, we should be honest about our grief and honest about our struggle to accept His decisions. As long as we are sincerely wanting to honor God, there is no grief or loss that He can’t move us past. Those who say you must hurt forever after losing a loved one are wrong. God is a Great Redeemer. There is no void that He can’t fill, no wound that He can’t completely heal. But God DEMANDS that we revere Him as God and recognize His absolute Authority over all things.
God has good reasons for everything that He does. All those slaughtered children in Bethlehem went directly to Heaven for they were too young to be held morally accountable by God. What is cruel about God sweeping a bunch of souls into a perfect Paradise? How is He an ogre for choosing to withhold the option of rebellion from certain souls, and thereby protecting them from ever landing in Hell? It’s only when we look at life through our own selfish perspective that we come up with delusions about God being cruel and evil-hearted. Were we to take the time to listen to what He says about His perspective, we would discover that EVERYTHING God does is good.
THE RETURN FROM EGYPT
No one is crying when paranoid Herod finally kicks it. When word reaches Egypt that Herod’s son Archelaus has taken over the throne in Judea, Joseph first plans to move back to Bethlehem, but in another dream God sends him back to Nazareth.
Our next glimpse into Jesus’ early years comes when He is twelve years. Every year the Jews traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. On the way back in their large caravan of folks, Joseph and Mary don’t think anything of it when Jesus isn’t in view. They figure He’s playing with some of the other kids somewhere. Well, no, actually He gave them the slip. He wasn’t ready to leave Jerusalem just yet.
After three days of panicked searching, Jesus is finally located inside the Temple, sitting among some religious teachers, listening, asking questions, and astounding everyone with His insight. We can only imagine how His parents felt when they came across this little scene. It’s that mix of wanting to strangle the little sucker and wanting to hug Him forever. All we hear about in the Gospels is a frazzled Mary getting out a crisp:
“Son, why did You do this to us? Your father and I were very worried about You and have been looking for You!”
Jesus said to them, “Why were you looking for Me? Didn’t you know that I must be in My Father’s House?” (Luke 2:48-49)
Well, how snarky. You’ve heard it said that Jesus never sinned. Apparently disobeying His parents and double-talking His momma aren’t sins when it comes to Jesus. We’re told that Mary and Joseph have no idea what Jesus is talking about and it’s not like He made an effort to explain. So then, was it an endless joy to parent the promised Messiah? Not hardly.
As if trying to compensate for Jesus’ not-so-nice behavior, Luke hurries to tell us:
Jesus went with them to Nazareth and was obedient to them. (Luke 2:51)
Well, we certainly hope so. After all, Yahweh commands that children honor their parents and it isn’t very honoring to give your parents the slip and then show no concern for the trauma you put them through. Little Jesus is a challenging child.
This concludes our glimpse into Jesus’ early years. The Gospel records now leap ahead to a thirty-year-old Jesus who is launching His public ministry. But before we talk more about Jesus, what about His cousin John? What kind of man has he grown up to be? We’ll find out in our next lesson.
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