Honor and Shame in the Advent

When Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem to register for the census, we see yet another aspect of the unimpressive, unfitting arrival of the long-awaited king. In Luke 2:7, it says that Mary laid the baby in a manger “because there was no place for them in the inn.” Now, there are three clarifications to make about that one short statement.

First of all, a manger doesn’t refer to the whole stable. A manger is a feeding trough cut out of stone (not wood with crisscrossed legs like we always see).

Secondly, the “stable” was probably more like a crude stone room that would be attached to the house, or perhaps simply the downstairs of the house itself, which would have troughs available because they would bring in the animals during winter.

Thirdly, the “inn” was not a hotel or a tavern. They didn’t have those in towns. The closest thing to what we think of as an inn would’ve been in the middle of nowhere beside a highway for travelers—but that’s a different word. When you went into a town, you stayed with family. If you had no family in that town, the responsibility of hospitality was so great that someone would have you stay with them. The community is honor bound to extend hospitality to visitors. Joseph was from Bethlehem, so he almost certainly had family there.

The word for inn is usually translated “lodging place,” or “upper room.” And that’s what it was; it was the guest room on the top level of the house. It’s the same word for the upper room where Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper. It was the guest room, and it was the place of honor.

Now, another way to read the sentence, that gets the sense across a little clearer to our ears, is to read it, “she laid the baby in a manger, because the upper room was no place for them.” The idea is basically this: that the pall of shame and scandal was still heavy over them, such that for Joseph’s relatives (no matter how distant) to welcome them into their house and place them in the honorable guest room would have brought Joseph and Mary’s shame onto that household as well.

So I think we ought to understand Joseph’s relatives as quietly saying to him, “Joseph, we love you… we love Mary. We’ll love this child when he comes. But we can’t endorse what’s happened by welcoming you into the place of honor. We can move some stuff around downstairs, though, and we’ll put some straw and blankets down, and you can stay there if you’d like.”

When the angels announce his birth to the shepherds, the sign they give of how the shepherds will know they’ve found the king is that he would be lying in a manger. Why? Because a feeding trough is no place for the newborn king! Everything about Christ’s arrival was humble, and unfitting for the one who was the fulfillment of every prophecy of the coming king.

The point is this: from his conception, to his birth, to his rejection and execution, the first advent of Christ was marked by humble obscurity, humiliation, and shame—completely unfitting for the birth of a king. But he took our shame on himself, so that he could one day clothe us with his honor.

His first advent was characterized by humble obscurity, lowliness, shame, and rejection. But his second advent will not be the same. His second advent—when he comes again to establish his reign over all nations—will be inescapable, Christ will be honored by all, and he will be victorious over every enemy. He first came as the Lamb of God to take away our sins. But he’s coming back, as the Lion of Judah, to destroy all those who refused to accept his sacrifice, and to give eternal life to all who have placed their faith in him. Jesus’ first advent was characterized by shame, obscurity, and rejection, but his second advent will be marked by honor, vindication, and victory.

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God Rest You Merry

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, a traditional English carol from the eighteenth century or earlier, is one of my favorite Christmas carols. Better known as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, evidence suggests that in fact “you” is original, with the word being changed to “ye” at some point—perhaps to make it sound older or more authentic.

Often mis-punctuated as “God rest you, merry gentlemen,” the opening line is actually a prayer that God would “rest you merry,” which means to keep you, or to enable you to remain, prosperous, joyful, or blessed. The reason we ought to be joyful, rather than dismayed, is that we know that Christ our Savior has been born “to save us all from Satan’s power” (verse 1).

The third verse also emphasizes that Jesus was born “to free all those who trust in Him.” This truly is good news (tidings) of “comfort and joy.” The fourth verse ends by calling all those present to sing praises to the Lord and to respond with love toward one another, even while the unsaved world defaces and disdains the true meaning of Christmas—the birth of our savior and king.

So then, may God rest you merry!

On Joseph and Mary’s Betrothal

Matthew 1 and Luke 2 describe the birth narrative of Christ, and give some fascinating details that point to just how shocking, how inappropriate, how unfitting an arrival this was for the long-awaited king of Israel.

The nativity involved a surprising amount of humiliation and shame. Read the account of Matthew 1:18–25 below, and then ponder with me a few surprising elements of the birth narrative over the next couple of days.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

Joseph and Mary were betrothed, as we see in verse eighteen. Some translations use the word “engaged,” and that’s a little misleading. Engagement in modern times just means you’re planning to get married. But what does it take to get out of an engagement? Just break up, right? With betrothal, in the ancient world, you were legally man and wife. And to end a betrothal, you had to get a divorce.

The process of Jewish marriages involved (1) the betrothal, and (2) the wedding feast. When you became betrothed, you were legally married, but you were not to come together to have relations until after the wedding feast. So there was a betrothal period, during which time the bride readied herself for the groom to come get her, and the groom went and built and prepared their house. When the groom was done with all of his preparations, he would come and fetch his bride, and there would be dancing and singing as they paraded to the wedding feast (which would usually last for seven days).

Okay, what’s the point?

During that betrothal period, although they were legally man and wife, they were not to come together physically—it was not an option. So, for Mary to be found pregnant during the betrothal, before the wedding feast, would have been one of the most shameful, humiliating things for her to go through. It’s hard for us to grasp the level of shame that would have been present here—we don’t really work in categories of public honor and shame anymore—but this would have been utterly devastating. It would have shamed not only Mary, but also her family, her husband, and the child.

As far as anyone knew, there was no explanation for Jesus’ birth other than impurity (and, in Joseph’s mind, unfaithfulness) on the part of Mary. So, Matthew 1:19 says, “her husband Joseph, being a just man, and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” What’s being said here is probably that although he was just man (and therefore of right ought to divorce her before the wedding feast), but also unwilling to put her to further public shame (which he would be fully within his rights to do), he decided to divorce her quietly—in other words not to make a public spectacle of it.

But, verse 20 says, as he was considering these things, an angel appeared to him and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife.” Now, the Greek doesn’t say, “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” which we read as meaning, “don’t be afraid to marry her.” Remember, she already was his wife, as we see in verses 19 and 24. What it says is, “don’t be afraid to take your wife.” In other words, “Go fetch your bride. Don’t divorce her; she’s remained pure; this is of God. So bring her to your house, finish the wedding process. There’s not going to be any celebrating. There will be no parade of dancing and singing. But don’t be afraid, don’t divorce her, don’t delay anymore—go get your bride.”

Right from the start of his life, Jesus’ first advent is characterized by hushed tones, shame, and scandal. This continues in the birth narrative itself, which we’ll look at next time.

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Why the Virgin Birth Matters

A couple of fragmentary thoughts on why Jesus needed to be born of a virgin.

Why was it important that the Messiah be born of a virgin? Well, I think there are three basic reasons.

First, it’s the most unique and powerful sign possible, to mark out the anointed one of God. Isaiah 7:14 gives the sign that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (we’ll talk about the nature of that prophecy another time). Virgins didn’t get pregnant back then any more often than they do now, so this was an unmistakable, inescapable miracle, clearly demonstrating that this child is conceived by God to be the promised king.

The second reason the virgin birth is significant is, of course, that by the virgin birth, Jesus could be born without inheriting a fallen human nature. The transmission of the sin nature is through the father, because the man is the representative head. When Adam sinned, as the head of the human race, the entire human race fell. And that fallen nature is inherited through the father. So in order to be a man who could also live a sinless, perfect life, Jesus had to be born without an earthly father.

I think it was also important for a third reason—the curse on Joseph’s ancestor, Jeconiah. According to Matthew 1:12, Jesus is a descendant of Jeconiah. Jeconiah, though, was cursed in Jeremiah 22:24ff, such that none of his descendants would ever sit on the throne of Israel. Now there are three possible solutions to this problem: 1) Some say the curse was reversed; 2) Some say the curse only referred to “in his lifetime;” 3) Some say the virgin birth allows Jesus to avoid the curse.

Now, if you take view #3, as I do, it doesn’t diminish the reality that the virgin birth also allows Christ to be born without a fallen nature. In fact, it gives an illustration of that salvific reason the virgin birth was important. By the virgin birth, Jesus avoided the curse of Jeconiah that he would have inherited through Joseph, which would have precluded Him from being the king of Israel. And by the virgin birth, Jesus avoided the curse of Adam that he would have inherited through Joseph, which would have precluded Him from qualifying to be the sinless, perfect sacrifice, to take on Himself the penalty for sin that we deserved.

“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

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Classical Education Options

I care about education. I care about education a great deal. As I explained in this series, I didn’t particularly enjoy school, but I did learn to value the importance of education as the cultivation of virtue and wisdom, and have become a life-long learner. Specifically, I think that a classical education is the best all-around education you can give a child. But where to start?

Well, allow me to recommend to you Roman Roads Media. Expert teachers, exceptional video courses, and outstanding written curricula come together to provide parents with a classical, Christ-exalting, and academically excellent source for feeding their children’s souls on truth, goodness, and beauty.

Enjoy this clip of Western Culture instructor Wes Callihan using Calvin and Hobbes to explain the classical understanding of virtue as happiness, and then use this affiliate link (or the Roman Roads banner on the sidebar at any time) to check out the many extraordinary resources at Roman Roads Media!

Which Children’s Bible Should I Buy for My Child?

A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education. — Theodore Roosevelt

So, you want to get your child his very own Bible. Good! Since our mission as parents is to raise our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, a copy of the Word of God is the single most valuable possession you can give them. But which edition? Which translation? What size? What color?

It’s common for parents to give their children Bible storybooks as their first “Bible.” In my opinion, this is generally unwise. For an example of why, read this helpful review of one of the most popular Bible storybooks, the Jesus Storybook Bible.

My conviction is that the wisest thing to do is put an actual translation of the Word of God into the hands of a child as soon as he can read. There are things to take into consideration, of course, such as readability. But we must be cautious not to sacrifice accuracy for readability. Avoid translations of the Bible that are specifically aimed at young readers. This pretty much always leads to periphrastic renderings or inaccuracy for the sake of simplicity. Remember that early American families taught their children how to read with the Geneva Bible. The Word of God is something worth getting right, even if it’s difficult, right?

Read with your child; and encourage them to come ask for help anytime they don’t understand a word. But give them the actual Word of God. I would recommend the Holman Christian Standard Bible for young readers. Try a large print, compact Bible such as this or this. I also would recommend getting an edition that is not indexed, as I think it actually aids in memorizing the order of the canon to have to find a book or be reminded of its location every time. But, of course, some prefer indexed Bibles, and it may be helpful for your kid. The best Bible for your child (assuming the accuracy of translation) is the one he will actually use.

So then, if you’d like a children’s edition, with pictures and applications directed toward younger readers, what should you get?

Comparing children’s editions (of actual Bible translations), it basically came down to two that I would probably recommend: The “ESV Children’s Bible,” and the “HCSB Illustrated Study Bible for Kids.”

The ESV Children’s Bible has far more pictures, illustrations, and other features for kids, but the translation is definitely a higher reading level—probably not as understandable for kids under 8 or 9. The HCSB has fewer illustrations and resources, but it’s a very readable translation—recommended for ages 6–12.

Now, for your teens, I’d encourage you to avoid the “teen edition” Bibles. Get them a solid translation, such as the HCSB or ESV, in a helpful edition. For a solid study Bible, try the HCSB study Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible, or the Ryrie Study Bible. If your teen is more artsy, try out the Illumination ESV

For the note-takers out there, I would recommend the Bible I actually use for my own personal study and for preaching (it has 2-inch wide margins). I would love to find a double-column ESV (I don’t care for single-column), with wide, note-taking margins, that still has helpful cross-references as well—that’s the one drawback of this edition I use. I’ve yet to find that. Better yet, I’d love that in the Lexham English translation, which is probably my favorite current translation—but that’s only available digitally so far. It’s on the Bible app if you’re interested.

And for your note-taking, you’ll also need a good pen that’s actually designed for it!

I hope this has been helpful. What other editions have you found beneficial for your kids?