The gifts have been open and the guests have gone home. As the Christmas season winds down and Jesus’ birth is still at the forefront of our minds, let us use this time to look at some of the myths and questions surrounding His first coming. Just like with every other aspect of our faith, it is important that we get the story right, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year whenever the opportunity arises.
We Three Kings?
Many myths have developed concerning the wise men, or Magi, that visited Mary, Joseph and Jesus and then fled, refusing to go back to Herod with their location. Some of these are:
- There were 3 men.
- They were kings.
- They visited the newborn Jesus in the stable.
- Their names were Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa.
None of these things are true and can make Christianity seem more like a myth than factual history. This is quite a shame, since the real history of the Magi is much more interesting than any of the made up stories.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:1-3, NKJV)
Although the gospels record very little in terms of who the Magi were or how many came to visit the Messiah, we can look to history as well as the book of Daniel for more details. The Greek word for “wise men” was magoi, which is transliterated as Magi. The Magi were a Median priesthood, not kings, whose specialty was dream interpretation. They are the very group that Nebuchadnezzar II summoned to interpret his dream in Daniel 2. Under both Nebuchadnezzar and subsequent Persian rule, Daniel was entrusted as “Chief of the Magi.” The most likely scenario is that Daniel imparted Messianic prophecies to the Magi under his charge, which were passed down for generations until the appearing of the star after the birth of the Messiah. The assumption that there were only three Magi is based on nothing more than the number of gifts that were given. Since the Bible does not say, there could have been anywhere from 2 up to a significant number and there is no record of their names. Chuck Missler had this to say in his article, “Who Were The Magi?”
In Jerusalem, the sudden appearance of the Magi, probably traveling in force with every imaginable oriental pomp and accompanied by adequate cavalry escort to insure their safe penetration of Roman territory, certainly alarmed Herod and the populace of Jerusalem. Their request of Herod regarding the one “who has been born King of the Jews” was a calculated insult to him, a non-Jew who had contrived and bribed his way into that office.
When one considers the practices of the ancient world, along with the fact that the coming of the Magi troubled all of Jerusalem, Missler’s description could be closer to the truth than some of the traditional tales.
Finally, we can say with near certainty that the Magi did not visit the family in the stable as most Nativity scenes depict, but rather some time later in a house, as mentioned in Matthew 2:11. For more information and a possible timeline of the Christmas story, including the timing of the visit of the Magi, I recommend an excellent article written by Bodie Hodge and Tim Chaffey and published by Answers in Genesis, entitled, “Christmas Timeline of the Biblical Account.”
The church fathers first proclaimed December 25th to be the birthday of Jesus in AD 440,. The date was chosen because of it’s proximity to Saturnalia (a Roman festival in honor of Saturn) and other pagan holidays. After Constantine’s Edict of Toleration legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, the church began to replace beloved pagan festivals with Christian holidays. Since the people were used to celebrating at this time, it seemed to make sense to give them a new holiday honoring Jesus instead of the false gods. There is no basis in history or the Bible for the birth of Jesus occurring on December 25th. Many scholars believe the birth of Jesus actually occurred around the end of September. (See here, here and here.)
A couple of years ago, I read a Facebook post decrying the “bad theology” of the song, “Mary, Did You Know,” based on the belief that Mary did not need to be delivered (“…this child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you…”). While Mary was a godly woman, who was shown favor from God, she was just a person. She was not divine, not the mother of God and not born free from original sin. Romans 5:12 tells us that, “…through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned…” and Roman 3:23 says, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” All means all. There is no exception given anywhere in Scripture for Mary because she was shown favor to be the human mother of the Messiah.
Why Didn’t Mary Name Him Immanuel?
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14, NKJV)
In light of this prophecy, some wonder why Mary named the baby Jesus (actually Yeshua) instead of Immanuel. Matthew sheds some light on the subject.
So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” (Mt. 1:22-23, NKJV)
As Matthew indicates here, Immanuel was a description or title given to Jesus, meaning that God came down to dwell with humanity. Similarly in Isaiah 9, “…His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” All of these are descriptions or titles and would not be expected to be literal names given to the Messiah when He was born to Mary.
Does the Virgin Birth Matter?
This is an issue that has stirred much controversy in recent years, with some Bible teachers proclaiming that the virgin birth just doesn’t matter. While insisting later that he does believe in the virgin birth, Pastor Andy Stanley introduced a Christmas message this way…
It’s interesting because Matthew gives us a version of the birth of Christ, Luke does, but Mark and John, they don’t even mention it and a lot has been made of that. So before we jump in I just want to say one thing about that whole thing . . . if somebody could predict their own death and their own resurrection, I’m not all that concerned about how they got into the world because the whole resurrection thing is so amazing and . . . Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus. It really hinges on the Resurrection of Jesus.
Other pastors have gone even further.
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus has a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?
Rob Bell from his book, “Velvet Elvis”
According to Scotland’s Herald, Rev. Andrew Frater wants Christians to “move on from the ‘fanciful, fairy tale’ Nativity story and ‘disentangle the truth from the tinsel.’” The report said Frater believes telling the traditional story of the birth of Jesus “had the effect of keeping people with doubts about their faith away from the church, as the Nativity was too easily dismissed.” He wrote in the newspaper: “This year I’m promising myself to be more theologically honest. No more going home with fanciful, fairy tale assumptions destined to make Good News seem incredible.” He said Christians should “look for the symbolism in the Nativity. Focus on “missiles and housing and unemployment” instead, he advised. The virgin birth, he said, leaves people “hung up.”… “Too much serious stuff is going on in the world for folk in my position to even risk the possibility of sounding remote, irrelevant or both,” he said. “For me, it’s time to travel beyond the literalists’ landscape; time to acknowledge that Luke and Matthew were not newspaper reporters. Although facts were for them significant, they were also secondary.”
From the article, “’Fairy Tale’: Many Pastors Don’t Believe Jesus Born Of Virgin,” wnd.com, 12/23/15
Does the virgin birth matter? Yes! Could we cease that one teaching today and continue with Christianity fully intact? The answer is a resounding NO! The truth is, Christianity does indeed hinge on the virgin birth, because without it, Jesus is just another person born into sin and, therefore, unfit to die as the sacrificial lamb in our place. Without the virgin birth, Jesus is neither holy nor divine. Without the virgin birth, everything else in the Bible comes into question, because if the very first chapter of the New Testament gets it wrong, then how can we assume that anything else within it’s pages is true? If, as the Scottish pastor claims, Luke and Matthew were not newspaper reporters and facts were merely secondary to them, then the implications to the entire gospel message are devastating. Our faith is not based on solving the serious problems of the world, but rather on trusting in the Son of God to save our souls from eternity without him, which leads me to my next point…
Did Jesus Come to Change the World?
During the month of December, it is all too common to hear conversations, songs or sermons about how Jesus came to change the world. This is perhaps a minor issue when compared to the others that I have addressed so far, but it is, nonetheless, important enough to get right. While Jesus did change the world in some very profound ways (for examples see, “What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?”), that is not why He came. The current state of the world with so much evil, pain and suffering, is a frequent talking point among those who have rejected Christianity and if His purpose were simply to change the world, then I would contend that those naysayers make a good point. However, when we preach the true gospel message, which is that Jesus came to save an inherently sinful people from eternal damnation and to bring reconciliation between God and man (the gospel of peace), then we have a better starting point in explaining why all of those bad things exist.
So, as you sit beside your Christmas tree a few more times, don’t let the New Year go by without pondering these questions. The coming of God to dwell among men and to die as one of us, a perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world, is one of the biggest miracles to ever grace this planet and it should not be taken lightly nor should it be relegated to just one month of the year. Happy New Year and may God’s blessings be upon you and your family in the 2018.
Tags: Christmas, First Coming, Magi, Mary, Virgin Birth, Wise Men