It is the Most Spiritual of All The Trek Movies

A vast cloud has been detected in outer space, and it’s heading toward Earth. Every being who has crossed its path has been lost. Admiral James Tiberius Kirk sees in this crisis an opportunity to escape a tedious desk job, and get back to his first love. Hopping galaxies in the star ship he used to call home.

So begins Star Trek the Motion Picture (TMP), which is – to my mind – the most spiritually aware of all the classic Trek movies. It’s also probably the most “Star Trek” of those films, because it touches on themes that affect us all. No, it doesn’t have “God” in it, or the famous line “What does God need with a star ship?” That’s left to the inferior Star Trek V. But the spiritual themes are more mature and deeply embedded in this first one.

During the torturous pre-production period for TMP, the Paramount Studio executives reportedly urged Gene Rodenberry to elevate the story to religious sorts of levels. They didn’t want a swash buckling Star Trek on the big screen. They wanted 2001 a Space Odyssey, a thoughtful and inspiring tale.[1] Right or wrong, I think that’s kind of what they produced.

It is forty years since TMP was released. I vividly remember going to see it in Glasgow during Christmas 1979. Of being amazed by how incredible it looked, but confused by the different feel to the TV Show I loved. Yet even as a youngster, I sensed the weighty themes at play in this movie.

So – what spiritual themes are found here? Someone might say – “It was just slow. It dragged. It was boring. Just like church is.” Well, that’s not quite what I was thinking of.

The Need to Know Who We Came From

It turns out that the cloud threat, V’Ger, is heading to Earth. But not to destroy it. Rather, V’Ger is travelling vast distances to meet with and to eventually join with its creator. Spoiler alert – V’Ger is actually NASA’s Voyager 6 probe, repurposed by a distant and advanced civilisation that made it sentient and sent it home again.

There’s a sense in which mankind’s religions have a similar aim. It is the attempt of the individual to somehow reach and to understand the greater reality, the one who is responsible for us being here in the first place or some state of ultimate spiritual fulfilment. So many people want to somehow relating to this bigger reality that has to do with where they came from. In the TV cut of TMP, Commander Decker actually says that V’Ger has done what people do, it has make God in their own image.[2]

The Need to Become, So That We Can Know

As the star ship Enterprise intercepts the cloud, V’Ger has to take the form of a member of the Enterprise bridge crew in order to engage and interact with Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest. They lose their bridge officer, Lieutenant Ilia, only for her to return again in a slightly different form. While taking a shower. Go figure!

By using Ilea, V’Ger trying to understand and engage with the crew of the Enterprise, to learn everything it can, becoming like them so that it can know and understand more. V’Ger has to change itself, and take on something knew so it can know more.

The Need to Live a Significant Life

Admiral Kirk has been on his own quest, to recover past glories, and get back to his hearts deepest desires. Being Captain of a star ship. Yet in doing so, he finds that the Enterprise has changed. She’s not the same vessel she used to be.

Kirk has a need for fulfilment in life, of feeling that he is able to contribute in a significant way. Surely this is a longing within each of us? And it has similarities to the longings within V’Ger. Is this all I am? Is there nothing more? Kirk intuitively knows what he’s good at, and he wants to reclaim this position at all costs. Even if he must sacrifice other people to achieve it. Perhaps he realises that life is short, and in the end you need to spend the years you’ve got doing what you love, and doing something that makes a difference somehow?

The Journey to the Next Level of Life

Probably my favourite character arc is that of Spock. Kirk’s friend has been on a quest of his own for 10 years since we last saw him. His aim has been to finally purge all emotion from his life thru Kolinahr. And yet tragically Spock has failed in this quest. In an attempt to understand why, he realises that he must discover just what V’Ger is and what it’s aims are. And he uses the Enterprise and her crew to do that. But are his aims noble? Or … like Kirk may be doing … would he put his needs above those of others on the ship? It’s a fascinating tension there in the second act of the story.

Spock’s overall journey is one of abject failure which results in a reconnection with the people who had previously been his adopted family on board the star ship Enterprise. Spock finds what he needs in his interactions with V’Ger, and experiences a break thru from the failures and disappointments of the past into a new place of purpose and significance and belonging in his own life.

What about Bones? Sadly – he’s just along for the ride in this picture! What a shame.

The Need to Know and Be Known

V’Ger, has been travelling the universe learning all that can be known. Who cannot relate to the sense that there is so much that we do not know? But we have the urge to learn more. And what about so many big questions? Who am I and what is my purpose in life? I long to understand. Yet there is more. More than knowing answers, is actually being known by another. Personal intimacy is more important and vital than all the learning one can do, particularly with the one who originally created us.

 

The Themes

It turns out, Star Trek the Motion Picture is a story about knowing:

  • Knowing that you have managed to make contact with the person who created you
  • Changing to become like someone else so you can know what they are like.
  • Knowing what you want, and doing everything you can to get it.
  • Knowing that you have failed, and needing to find out whether you can move to the next stage of your life or not.
  • Coming to the realisation that knowing everything that can be known is not enough. The more important thing – is being known by the one that made you.

 

Christianity

It is fascinating for me then that, while TMP reflects human spirituality in its thematic structure, it is a very human form of religion we find there. Yet Christianity turns the tables on this very human search for meaning and knowledge. We might not realise it, but Christianity shows that it is not possible for the creature to restlessly reach for the greater thing. In the end it’s not mankind’s role to be like V’Ger, and seek to join with its creator. Actually it is the opposite. God comes looking for us instead.

Are Christians making God in our image here? Well, who would have imagined that the transcendent creator would stoop so low as to come in search of little me. It’s an absurd suggestion, it’s wonderful, it’s Christianity.

God wants to be known by me, and is willing to find us to let that happen. We are the people who have gotten lost and are in deep need of being rescued. God’s the one looking for us, not the other way around. He has the resources to become like us to find us, and to help us know what our purpose is in life. He can help us connect with him, to achieve what V’Ger, Kirk and Spock were all trying to get to. A life of true meaning, being known and loved for ever.

 

 

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”).” Matthew 1:23, NIV

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10, NIV

Though he was God,[a]
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges[b];
he took the humble position of a slave[c]
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,[d]
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:6-11, NLT

 

[1] They were also confused about whether they wanted a movie or a new TV series. Eventually, Star Trek Phase II was dropped in favour of a new movie in the wake of the success of Star Wars at the box office.

[2] “In Thy Image” is actually a title for a proposed episode for a new Star Trek series which never happened, and instead was used as an inspiration for TMP.

Is the Reported Birth Place of Jesus Fictional?

Bethlehem. Skeptics have sometimes rolled their eyes at the claim that Jesus was born there … in Bethlehem. “There’s no good evidence,” they say.

 

What’s their argument? Well, Dickson lays out a common skeptical argument that goes like this.[1]

 

The Argument Against Bethlehem

First – the gospels of Mark and John do not claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Second – one Old Testament prophecy declares that the Jewish Messiah will come from Bethlehem.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

    though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me

    one who will be ruler over Israel,

whose origins are from of old,

    from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2, NIV)

Surely the gospels that do mention Bethlehem as Jesus birthplace HAD to place him there to fit with the old prophecy in Micah?

Think of this like an example of first century “retcon.” Movies and books do this all the time, bringing in new information to impose a different interpretation on previously described events. If you’ve ever watched a prequel to an established movie, you’ve probably experienced retcon.

So the skeptic is claiming that gospel writers were just bringing in a new but false piece of evidence to retcon Jesus’ real birthplace so that his birth would seem to fit with Micah 5:2, he would appear more linked to the Davidic line, and therefore he would look more Messianic!

 

I don’t buy it. Why?

 

The Argument For Bethlehem

First – because just as important as the fact that Mark and John do not mention Bethlehem, Matthew and Luke absolutely do! The silence of two gospels cannot be louder than the clear statements of the other two. For example:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” (Matthew 2:1, NIV)

 

“So Joseph also went … to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David… While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” (Luke 2:4 – 6, NIV)

 

Second – if Mark and Luke didn’t feel it was important to retcon the story and “place” Jesus in Bethlehem, then what is the evidence that Matthew and Luke DID retcon the story of Jesus’ birth? There is no evidence. If this was a manufactured, rather than a true incidental detail in the gospel account, you would expect all of them to follow each other in the retcon. They don’t. So this tends to neutralize the sceptical argument.

Herod Killing the Male Children in Bethlehem

Here’s a bonus point.

Sometimes skeptics also roll their eyes at the claim in Matthew’s gospel that King Herod tried to kill the baby Jesus by slaughtering all the new born male children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16) “There’s no historical evidence,” they say.

Well – Matthew’s gospel is giving you historical evidence. But why do you expect this event to be recorded by anyone else, like the Roman historian Josephus? He doesn’t mention the killing of the male babies. But so what?

Bethlehem was a little hamlet in the first century. Why do you think any historian would have such a small, localized and minor atrocity on their radar? Particularly given the much bigger atrocities that King Herod is reported to have committed, like killing a group of dignitaries to make sure that people grieved at the time of his death, and did not give a sigh of relief![2] Surely you would only expect a writer who is particularly focussed on the birth of a single child – Jesus – to think it important to record this event? That’s what Matthew was doing.

Conclusion

It is very reasonable then just to take Matthew and Luke at face value, and accept that Jesus was born in the little town of Bethlehem.

 

[1] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

[2] Josephus, Antiquities, 17.6.174–175.

 

An Astrophysicist Talks About the First Christmas Star

Christmas is all about twinkling lights. It’s one of the special things that makes this season so magical for little ones. And – of course – every year, it means we adults need to untangle the Christmas lights again from our box of decorations. Hey – I put these away so carefully back in January. Why are they in such a tangle now?!

Matthew’s gospel describes a star … a particular aspect of Jesus’ birth that is recorded in a curious way. He records that Magi (wise men from a King’s court) arrived in Jerusalem from the East. “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2, NASB) Clearly they were putting 2 + 2 together here? Both an astronomical sign … and probably prophetic promises from the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament). For example, Numbers 24:17 says,

I see him, but not now;

I behold him, but not near.

A star will come out of Jacob;    

    a scepter will rise out of Israel.[1]

But as these Magi continue their journey, the star is said to guide them. “…they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.” (Matthew 2:9, NASB)

It seems like an odd way of describing what was going on. But, like the other details we read in the Christmas story, it is very specific. It’s described from the perspective of people on the ground, but  how could a star be seen to lead these Magi?

Astrophysicist Luke Barnes observes that the great thing about cosmology is that you can wind time back and predict what was going on in our night sky at a point in history. So, we should be able to determine what was going on at the time of Jesus’ birth (around 5 BC, described here.) Luke says there are three main theories about what the “star” recorded by Matthew could have been.[2]

 

First – it could have been a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. When this occurs, from our vantage point on earth, we see the two planets cross over each other and so they appear much brighter in the sky and can be mistaken for a star. A triple conjunction is named this way because the crossover happens 3 times over a period of a month, or so. Appearing at different points in the night sky.

But did this happen at that time? There was one that occurred around 7 BC. But that seems a little early for Jesus birth.

 

Second – it could have been a nova or supernova, a vast nuclear explosion in space which is visible to us on earth. Astrophysicists are able to examine the remains of the star to work out when it blew up, so they can date the nova. Historical record and astro-evidence agree that a nova was visible in the sky in 1054 AD. We are not aware of one dated 5 BC (when Jesus was born), though Barnes admits we may simply not have found it yet.

 

Third – it could also have been a comet. The word for “star” is understood to be used by the ancients to refer to comets. Roman historians Josephus and Pliney both refer to them as signalling good or bad omens.

The thing about a comet is that it is indeed moving, and we can observe that from our vantage point on earth. So, over a period of weeks and months, it could conceivably be seen by the Magi from their perspective in the East, then the West and the South.

Of course, the thing about a comet is that it also has a visible tail caused be dust and gas being given off by the object as it travels thru space. Perhaps if the tail was seen as pointing upwards, then it could look to people like a pointer pointing down at a particular point, and so “standing over” Bethlehem. Also, the star and sceptre in that prophecy from Numbers 24 sounds like it could describe how a comet might look to the naked eye.

But are there any good candidates for this comet in history?

Haley’s comet was visible around 12 BC, which would be too early. However, Chinese astronomers claim to have evidence of a visible comet around 5 BC. The record is not very complete tho. There’s no record of it moving across the sky, although it would be reasonable to assume that it could have done that from the perspective of our planet.

 

Summary

While this subject has been debated for a long time, there seem to be reasonable candidates for the astronomical event described in Matthew’s account for the birth of Christ. But does a natural account of the star empty the story of any supernatural quality? After all, Jesus birth is described as being very special indeed. This wasn’t just any birth, it was the event when God came to earth to live as a person. Well, it seems to me that miracles aren’t just about God stepping into the physical universe at a point in time. They are also about God giving particular and special meaning to natural occurrences in the normal course of events. Surely, that could describe what was going on then in the night sky?

[1] Numbers 24:17, NIV.

[2] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

 

When Was Jesus Born?

If Jesus wasn’t born on the 25th December (see here), then when WAS Jesus born? Or, to put the question another way, when did BC turn to AD (Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord)? Surely a Christian believer would shrug and say, “He was born in AD 1.”

Well – not so fast! Scholars don’t think Jesus was born in AD 1.

Why?

There is some historical data to refer to here:

FIRST – Matthew and Luke’s gospels were written independently, and they agree that Jesus was born during the reign of the Roman appointed King, Herod the Great.

SECOND – the Roman historian Josephus places the dates of Herod’s rule from 37 BC to 4 BC. So, Jesus must have been born before 4BC.

THIRD – Matthew places Jesus birth around Herod’s reign. [1]

FOURTH – Luke says during the 15th year of Tiberius Ceasar, Jesus was about 30 years old.[2] Tiberius was Ceasar between AD 14 and AD 37, so the 15th year was about AD 28. Counting backwards 30 years or so, we reach 6 BC.

 

Scholars today have reached a consensus that Jesus was probably born in 5 BC.[3]

 

SO – the question then is – how can Jesus be born 5 years BEFORE CHRIST (BC)? That seems to make no sense at all!

 

Dickson points out that the reason for this is pretty straightforward. In AD 525, Pope St. John asked mathematician and theologian Dionysius Exiguus to create a chronology of events based on the limited historical records available at the time. He dated Jesus’ birth as accurately as he could, and then the Western church decided to use his chronology for the purpose of dating.

Today, we simply have more accurate historical dating of both Herod the Great and Emperor Tiberius than the ancients had. So – this lets us confidently place Jesus birth 5 years earlier than Dionysius originally thought.

 

It seems to me that, like before, it’s less important exactly when Jesus was born. The important thing to grasp is that he was born in the first place. Because that means we have to then grapple with the reports of his claims about himself (I can do what God does), and the reports of the miraculous things he did at that time in the first century. Crucially – his reported resurrection from the dead.

 

 

[1] Matthew 2:1.

[2] Luke 3, summarised.

[3] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

Was Jesus Actually Born on 25th December?

December 25th has, for so many people on the planet, been the date when the celebration of Christmas happens. The celebration of the birth of Christ. BUT – was Jesus actually born on the 25th of December?

 

In the first century, the day we now know to be 25th of December (on our later Gregorian calendar) was a big party in the Roman empire. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was a celebration of the return of the invincible sun god. This was an opportunity for folks in the northern territories to celebrate the point in winter when the days begin to get longer again.

 

Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman empire, so why celebrate Christ’s birth on 25th December? Did the Christians try to compete with the Roman celebration? Did they copy it?

 

John Dickson recounts two possible theories for why Christmas lands on the 25th December.[1]

 

One – the date is just a coincidence! Some people in the early church actually thought Jesus might have been born on 25th December. They based that on the assumption that he must have been conceived on the date of his crucifixion, and they put that at 25th March. So – nine months later would be 25th December. Yet – to be honest – this all seems a bit tenuous to me.

 

Two – the Church reclaimed the pre-existing Roman party on 25th December. The Christians decided not to cancel the party that so many people had grown up with and looked forward to each year. They didn’t want to stop the celebration of the “return of the sun.” Instead, they decided to RECLAIM the party as a celebration of the coming of “the SON of God.” They weren’t saying that Jesus was actually born on December 25th. They were saying his birth was worth throwing a party about…and the pre-existing party seemed a great time to do it.

 

And so – those in the Western Church have celebrated Christmas on 25th December ever since. It’s not his actual birth date. It’s the date when the fact of his birth is celebrated.

 

By the way – Dickson reminds us that the Eastern Church (everything East of Greece) celebrates Christmas on 6th January, not 25th December.

[1] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

 

All Aboard!

pexpress.jpg

Watching Robert Zemeckis’ “Polar Express” on Christmas Eve with little ones…has to rank up there as one of the most magical experiences. I’ve done this with two generations of children in my family, and the wonder that has been produced is just glorious and contagious.

This movie was cutting edge when it was release in 2004, employing new motion capture technology to computer animation in surprising and wonderful ways. And – showing Tom Hanks in a surprising number of roles.

The story follows the experience of children who are given the opportunity to travel to the North Pole on Christmas Eve to witness the start of Santa’s journey to deliver presents to children across the world. They experience some quite hair raising experiences on the way. Some of them are epistemological in nature…is this experience real or not? Is Santa real or not, and do I really know the truth about what’s happening? Some of the experience are just plain scary…when things go wrong and the train seems derailed and doomed to crash. Yet – they somehow manage to stay on the tracks. Even when the children get to their destination…the accidents continue and they find themselves rattling down the tracks into the bowels of the city alone and frightened. Yet – despite this mishap – they somehow find themselves in the centre of Santa’s Christmas project … and join him in time for his departure.

This movie is not just entertaining because of the reactions it produces from little ones. It’s a great tale in its own right. And – it touches some very foundational needs within us the audience. As the children are given a parting exhortation from the conductor to LEARN…to RELY ON…to LEAD and to BELIEVE…we sense that the filmmaker is also talking to us too.

This movie doesn’t just touch on personal needs, it also reflects some important aspects of the Christian message.

First – the most valuable things in life are the ones we don’t yet see. Our hero is struggling with his belief in Santa…and the scary hobo he meets on the journey feeds his fearful scepticism. “Seeing is believing.” Yet the ultimate message of this movie, and the Conductor of the train, is that “sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.”

In the end, it wasn’t belief in Santa that was the biggest thing. It was belief in their calling in life to lead, to trust, to learn and to believe.

For us, the most valuable parts of life tend to be the things we can’t measure and quantify. The love you feel for the children you are sharing this movie with – the hopes you have for their future lives – the precious memories of Christmases in the past.

And the God who knows us and loves us:

Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” John 20:29, Msg

Second – we each carry personal responsibility in life. Our choices matter. The movie communicates this clearly. Is our hero going to board the train or not? What’s more…is he going to choose to believe…or give up his belief in Santa? And yet – the positive results of continued belief are real. He does get to meet Santa in the end…he sees him with his own eyes. And so his decision to continue to believe is clear.

The other children on the train faced similar choices. Would the little girl exercise leadership, even though it got her into trouble? Would the little kid from the other side of the tracks…decide to trust his new friends even though he wasn’t sure he could?

We each carry personal responsibility for our choices. Some people asked Jesus:

“What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” John 6:28-29, NIV.

Third – there’s a theme that runs through the movie from start to end. Is this experience real…or is it simply a dream? The more fantastical things get…the less likely its real. Right? Well, the message of the movie is the opposite. Grasp hold of this, even though you aren’t sure its true. Let the truth of this experience reveal itself to you.

Fourth – stuff happens in this film that is sure to derail everything…yet it doesn’t. They are sure to be blocked by a herd of animals and miss Santa, or drown in a lake and die. They are sure not to arrive at their destination at all. And yet…they do. And they don’t just find themselves there on the side lines. In spite of all the mishaps they experienced, they eventually find themselves sitting in Santa’s present sack…at the very centre of the big man’s mission.

We are sure to experience multiple setbacks in life. We can find ourselves in a position where we are sure we have blown it for good. But from God’s perspective, no situation is too far gone. His guiding hand can lead us through any situation we find ourselves struggling through.

“The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Deuteronomy 33:27

Fifth – I had it once. But now…have I lost it? Our hero leaves the North Pole shocked and saddened at the thought of losing his special gift from Santa. And yet, before the credits roll, he realises that once the big man gives you something, he makes sure you get it…whether or not you have a hole in your dressing gown pocket.

Life used to make sense to me. But lately…things just seem to be going from bad to worse. The God we read about in the Bible makes promises to us that apply an important idea to our lives. The whole story of the Bible is about mankind having everything and yet rejecting their relationship with God. But it’s God himself who takes on the responsibility to rescue us from the broken existence that has resulted from our decision. He calls us to safety, and promises to do what it takes to keep us safe.

“May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together – spirit, soul and body – and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, The Message)

However our life looks right now – hope is found in God. He longs for us to get on board with him this holiday season.

Happy Christmas!

RESPONDblog: Is Jesus Birth Really Prophesied in the Old Testament?

god with usHappy 2015 – hope it’s a good one for you!

 

During the Christmas period, I heard this verse from Matthew’s Gospel being read during the Carol services I attended.

“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
    She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,[a]
    which means ‘God is with us.’” Matthew 1:23, NLT

 

This is Matthew quoting from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who is thought to have lived in Israel’s Southern Kingdom of Judah 700 years prior to Matthew. The original passage from Isaiah says this:

All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin[a] will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).  By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt[b] and honey. For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted. Isaiah 7:14-16, NLT

I wonder why Matthew took Isaiah’s ancient words…and understood them as pointing towards Jesus? Can we know for sure that this passage looks forward to the birth of Jesus as Matthew’s gospel affirms that it does?

 

Well – the historical setting of Isaiah’s original passage is an interesting one. Around 730 BC the Assyrian empire was expanding and threatening Israel. King Ahaz of the Southern Kingdom Judah faced the might of the Assyrian Army – and he didn’t know what to do.

The prophet Isaiah came to King Ahaz and prophesied that the Assyrian King, and eventually the conquered Northern Kingdom’s King, would not defeat him. Isaiah invited King Ahaz to ask God for a sign confirming this – but Ahaz refused.

In response – Isaiah declared that God himself would give King Ahaz a sign. A child would be born during Ahaz’s lifetime. A child that would still be living when the scary Kings of Assyria and Israel would finally be defeated.

 

So Isaiah is talking about a virgin conceiving a child. But in his day, that wasn’t the Mary we hear about in the Nativity. She wouldn’t be born for another 700 years. And the child that was conceived in Isaiah’s day wasn’t Jesus. Isaiah was originally referring to different people altogether. So the question is – why did Matthew cite Isaiah’s  prophecy and say that it pointed toward the birth of Jesus?

 

Well here’s the thing that the New Testament writers discovered. Jesus Christ is the key to understanding God’s work in the past…and his plans to rescue the human race in the future. To understand the meaning of the Old, you need to view it thru the lenses of the New.

 

Actually we see this happening throughout the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, the first Christian preachers spoke about Israel’s history and how it reached its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. They quoted the Old Testament prophets and they pointed to Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of their words.

For David himself never ascended into heaven, yet he said ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit in the place of honour at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet.”’ “So let everyone in Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified, to be both Lord and Messiah!” Acts 2:34-36, NLT

Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all God’s work.

“For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” 2 Corinthians 1:20, NLT

 

So why did Matthew cite Isaiah’s prophecy to old King Ahaz when talking about the birth of Jesus? Yes – there was an immediate purpose behind Isaiah’s words that related to the onslaught of the Assyrian army. But God also held a bigger purpose back when Isaiah originally spoke those words to King Ahaz. The ultimate purpose of these words didn’t just benefit King Ahaz – but the whole human race. Over time, God was putting the pieces together that would finally lead to the birth of Jesus.

 

Here’s one final thought. Both Isaiah and Matthew make a point of naming that child as “God with us.” Now, fast forward now to the end of Matthew’s gospel. Do you know what the final words of Jesus are to his followers?

“And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20, NLT

I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS. Jesus literally is  – God with us. From start to finish.

As we all face a new year – how great would it be to have God in our corner? How great to start this year knowing that we have God’s resources and his encouragement each day. How can we know that God’s got our back in 2015? Thru Jesus – who wants to be God with you and me in 2015 and beyond!

RESPONDblogs: Maybe the First Christmas was More Stressful than Restful

the_nativity_story

I love the children’s nativity at our church – it’s one of the highlights of the Christmas season for me. Tea towels have never looked more festive, shepherds have never looked more cute. It’s a time for our children to enjoy dressing up and retelling the tale of the baby born in a manger with a star overhead, and visitors coming from afar.

 

I love this.

 

And yet the actual events that are being acted out here by our kids were very different.

 

The Bible tells us that Shepherds came to see the baby in the manger.

 

“…the shepherds said to each other, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the lord has told us about.’ They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child.” Luke 2:15-17, NLT

 

Well – first of all –Mary and Joseph found themselves without any lodging following a long duty trip to Bethlehem  – this sounds horrible. Could you imagine travelling for hours on a long haul flight in Economy, only to find on arriving that your accommodation had fallen thru and you had nowhere to sleep? This was Joseph’s situation with his pregnant wife.

Next – a manger was an eating trough for animals. The poor couple found themselves needing to borrow the livestock’s eating trough to use for the baby. How do you think the animals reacted to that? Don’t you think the livestock was going to be pushing and bumping them out of the way? Stuffing their heads in to the trough…licking and chewing what they could get hold of? What a nightmare. This doesn’t sound very “calm and bright”, does it? Actually to me it sounds pretty stressful!

 

And then – the shepherds arrive.  In Jewish culture, Shepherds were the lowest of the low. They were people who lived outside with animals; a solitary smelly existence. David Instone-Brewer says, “When the Jews asked whether a piece of bread had gotten too mouldy or was still edible… then they would ask…well would a Shepherd eat this? If the answer was NO…if not even the even the lowest of the low would touch it … then just throw it away!” Basically, Shepherds were stigmatized in Jewish culture. And Luke’s Gospel tells us that it was shepherds who came to visit the baby Jesus first.

 

How do you feel when a homeless person accosts you on the street? For myself – I wish I could say I was always welcoming, and always quick to offer help to that person. But I can’t. Why? Rightly or wrongly – it often makes me feel uncomfortable when a homeless person stops me on the street. I don’t know what to say to them – I find their plight difficult to look at – and on top of all of that, sometimes it has been some time since they had a good bath or shower!

 

Joseph and Mary had the 1st century equivalent of poor homeless visitors coming to see their new child. Not the most auspicious of guests.

 

The original Nativity was stressful for the people involved, it was uncomfortable for the family and it attracted the undesirables of Jewish society.

 

And then on top of all of this – Matthew’s gospel tells us that…

“Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of king Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.’…They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.” Matthew 2:1+11, NLT

Now – surely – we finally get someone arriving to dignify the proceedings. At last – we get kings visiting the baby Jesus? Right?

Wrong. The arrival of these people was also an awkward encounter for the family to endure. Why? Because these wise men weren’t Jews. They came from far away pagan lands, people who studied the stars. The Greek word for the wise men (Magi) is the word we use to get our word “magician”. It is thought that these individuals came from the Old Testament Babylon.

There is a historical link between Israel and Babylon, we can see this in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament.  Daniel was a Jewish man who was taken to live in pagan Babylon where life was difficult for a Jew. There were many alien customs there, there was pressure to worship the Babylonian King as a God. And – there were magicians, astrologers and wise men living there.

The Magi who visited Jesus probably came from there …a pagan country…the enemy nation…evil Babylon.  A 1st century Jew would have been very suspicious at the arrival of such a Gentile person.

 

So – lets summarise our nativity so far. We have stress for the family, we have uncomfortable and difficult living conditions too, we have Jewish undesirables accosting them in the Stable. And now we also have the 1st century Jewish equivalent of “the enemy” coming to say hello to them.

You know – I love the carol “Silent Night” – but I do wonder whether the events surrounding the first Nativity were anything but quiet and restful! Stressful and uncomfortable sounds like a better description to me.

 

And this causes two thoughts to occur to me.

FIRST – if the Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels are made up stories, if the Jesus birth narratives are fabrications, if they are just intended to make Jesus seem more important than he actually was…then I don’t buy it. I don’t agree with the thought that these Nativity accounts are made up. Because I really don’t think a 1st century Jew would have written a story like this. As David Instone-Brewer suggests, “This story is so crazy, it must be true!”.

If the author wanted to impress a Jewish audience with a fabricated account, Matthew’s Gospel would probably have had the local Jewish Leaders and the Priests coming to visit the Christ child. After all – Priests and Leaders  were the people that  1st century Jewish culture esteemed and respected. So to hold up Jesus birth as an important event…you would want him to be recognized by those sorts of people. Right? Instead – what we get in both Matthew and Luke’s Nativity account is the opposite. Jewish undesirables and suspicious pagans are the one who welcome Jesus Christ into the world. That’s crazy. What’s the point of saying that? There is no point…unless it is just simply a true historical account of what really happened on that first Nativity.

 

SECOND – the account of Jesus life is not an easy one. Jesus is not some ancient equivalent of a Marvel superhero from today. Jesus life was difficult and scandalized from the beginning. He faced misunderstanding and stigma all his life. He lived an ordinary and hard existence. Yet at the same time – he is the most extraordinary person who has ever lived. His earthly life was surrounded by suspicion. Yet in reality, he is also God in human form…God with us. God who created the Universe and he is worshipped and adored in heaven.

 

“Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” Matthew 1:23, NLT

 

So it strikes me that – when our lives feel hard, when we suffer times of pain and suspicion. When we are numbered with the undesirables in society…Jesus is standing right along with us. He knows exactly how we feel because he has had it worse himself. And if that is the case – if Jesus is standing alongside you and I in our situation right now – then it means that no one has fallen too far. No one is a lost cause. No one is irredeemable for Jesus. In fact, Jesus Christ is an expert at rescuing lost causes.

 

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16, NLT

 

This Christmas – we might have misunderstood just how stressful and how uncomfortable the first Nativity was. But to Jesus – it really doesn’t matter. He experienced it all so that he could reach out to us in our loneliness and our brokenness and save us. That was his Father’s intention on that first Nativity. It’s still Jesus’ intention today. Why not let him reach you this Christmas?

 

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:6-11, NLT

 

RESPONDblogs: First Christmas Tragedy

TheChristmasNativityCardv2

The picture perfect Nativity scene that we see on the front of Christmas cards (remember those old things?) is a long way from what originally happened when Jesus Christ was born two thousand years ago. Life in the ancient Middle East was hard. One of Matthew’s details hints strongly at this.

 

“Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews?…’ King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this…He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under…”

Matthew 2:1-16, NLT

 

It’s not a very “Christmassy” detail this … is it? Infanticide at Christmas.

Sometimes skeptics look at the Nativity accounts and shake their heads in disbelief at the slaughter of these poor innocent baby boys. There’s not one shred of evidence that this massacre ever happened…outside of Matthew’s account, of course. It’s a fantasy, put in there to make Jesus seem more important.

 

Well I disagree. We have lots of evidence about Herod the Great. We know that sort of man he was and why Matthew’s account of the death of the innocents is very reasonable given the setting and the people at the time. We can be sure that Matthew got the details right in his account of Jesus birth.

 

Rich History:

The Roman historian Josephus wrote two whole book scrolls on the life of Herod the Great. This is a rich primary source of history. Herod seems to have been a remarkable keeper of the peace between Rome and Judea between 40 BC and January 1 BC when he died (NOTE: the date of Herod’s death is indicated by the available Roman, Jewish and Astronomical documentary evidence)

His legacy included the building of theaters and stadiums; he rebuilt the great temple in Jerusalem. He is responsible for the construction of the Masada fortress on the south west corner of the Dead Sea.

 

Paranoid Herod:

Yet what we also learn from Josephus is that King Herod also had a decidedly paranoid streak. He had a habit of “getting rid” of people who threatened the peace, or were in danger of “rocking the boat” for him.

His family was notoriously power hungry and violent. Herod killed some of his sons, who were apparently too ambitious. And he even got rid of one of his many wives…along with his mother in law.

But possibly the biggest indicator of Herod’s character can be seen in the plans he tried to put in place for his funeral. He feared that few people in Israel would mourn his passing. And so he decided to give his subjects something to mourn about. His plan was to fill one of his stadiums full of Jewish leaders, and order them to be massacred as a “celebration” of Herod the Great’s demise. He wanted to make absolutely sure that there would be great mourning across Israel at the time of his death.

 

This then is the backdrop to the birth of Jesus, and the arrival of the mysterious pagan Magi who announced to Herod that they wished to worship the newborn king of the Jews. Can you see how Herod the Great might have responded to them? When Matthew says he was “deeply disturbed” at this news…this is probably putting things politely. After all – Herod WAS the king of the Jews. And he eliminated anyone who tried to replace him.

 

Suddenly the “spray and pray” shotgun approach that Matthew describes…kill all the newborn children of Jesus age in Bethlehem…seems right up King Herod’s gruesome street. It’s just the sort of reaction we can expect from him.

 

So the question then is – why is there no evidence outside of Matthew’s gospel to record it?

 

Herod’s Likely Reaction to Jesus’ Birth:

I’ve heard it described like this. The murder of these babies was the ancient equivalent of a mugging on a New York subway train. So much happens in New York each day – it’s unlikely that a mugger is going to hit the front of the NY Times.

 

Josephus had such a rich and interesting history of Herod to record – particularly his spectacularly brutal plans for the stadium and the Jewish leaders – it is unlikely that a small localized event in a little village would get a look in.

 

Bethlehem is understood to have been a very small village at this time. It has been estimated that only around 24 children of the relevant age would have suffered at Herod’s hand. At a time when infant mortality would have been high – this is hardly big news. Perhaps Josephus didn’t even know that it happened. But just because an event is small in scale, doesn’t mean it is not hugely significant.

 

So – did it happen…or didn’t it? Well just because Josephus doesn’t mention it does not mean it never happened. By the way – Luke the historian doesn’t mention it in his account either. Yet absence of evidence is NEVER evidence of absence.

And besides – we DO have evidence that these babies died. We read it in Matthew’s first century account.

 

Paul L Maier, Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, has said this:

“I see not one iota of evidence here it could NOT have happened…Luke hasn’t heard about it. Remember, Matthew and Luke don’t copy from one another when it comes to the Nativity…that way they can hit it from different angles. But yes, it really happened.”

 

It’s not a very festive Nativity detail. It’s a minor, horrible footnote to Herod the great’s reign. Yet it is a significant event surrounding the life of Jesus and his parents. And it points to the bittersweet future to come. Journalist Tony Reinke has insightfully suggested this:

“The 1st Christian martyr was not Stephen…or Jesus…the 1st martyr in the Christian Church was the first baby that was killed in Bethlehem. And we always overlook him.”

RESPONDblogs: The Curious Case of Quirinius

census

In Luke’s Gospel we read that…

“At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census.” Luke 2:1-3, NLT

Luke’s statement has caused problems for some people.

First of all – the historical evidence suggests that Quirinius did not begin to govern Syria until after the death of Herod in 4 BC. Now it is clear from the gospels that Herod was very much alive when Jesus was born. In that case – how can Quirinius be Governor BEFORE Jesus’ birth…if Herod was already dead when Quirinius was governor of Syria? That sounds like a circle that cannot be squared.

Second – there is internal and external Biblical evidence of a census called AFTER Quirinius took over Governorship… Luke records what might be this census that Quirinius conducted in the 6th century in Acts 5:37. But this census cannot be the same as the census mentioned in Luke chapter 2.

 

Does this confusion undermine the historical reliability of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth? Does this point to Luke being guilty of sloppy history?

Well – this would be strange given the high standing Luke enjoys as a 1st century historian, and the meticulous detail we find in his Gospel and his later work on the history of the early Christian Church – the Acts of the Apostles.

Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians. – William Mitchell Ramsay

 

Ancient Near Eastern historians have made the following responses to the Quirinius census problems.

 

FIRST – these censuses did happen in these cultures at that time.

Ancient census forms have been discovered by archaeologists. An order dated AD 104 says…

“Gaius Vibius Maximum, Prefect of Egypt: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to RETURN TO THEIR OWN HOMES, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census…”

This manner of counting people might seem odd to our advanced, IT enabled 21st century society. But the Biblical + extra-Biblical evidence points to the ancient practice of census calling.

 

SECOND – there is evidence that there may have been more than one Syrian Governor named Quirinius.

King Herod is believed to have died in 4 BC. So Luke’s claim in chapter 2 implies that a census was called by Ceasar Augustus well before 4 BC.  If Quirinius didn’t begin ruling until AD 6…this seems like a big discrepancy on the dates recorded by Luke.

HOWEVER – John McRay, PHD and professor of New Testament and archaeology at Wheton College, says , “a coin [has been found ] with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing. This [coin] places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod….apparently there were two Quiriniuses.”

Names in the ancient world tended to be common…often lots of people shared the same name…so it is reasonable to assume that perhaps two separate people are being referred to here as Quirinius.

In this case, perhaps two censuses occurred – a 14 year gap was apparently typical. This would suggest that an earlier census took place under the earlier Quirinius.  And this is the census that Luke refers to in his gospel.

 

Who cares?

Luke claims to have personally interviewed the eyewitnesses to the birth…and death of Jesus of Nazareth. He claimed to have carefully investigated everything so that he could produce an orderly account about the certainty of what occurred. Luke is claiming to record what actually happened – so the details count.

The details count – and the words of Jesus have the power to change our lives forever.

“…this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.” Luke 15:24, NLT