Christmas Facts and Fiction

Christmas Facts and Fiction
What’s wrong with this picture?

The “Does God Exist?” program is an effort to show that science and faith are friends and not enemies. At this time of year, atheists and skeptics criticize the celebration of Christmas and say the facts are not consistent with scientific evidence. Most of the complaints we see are about things that show up in TV shows and Christmas cards but are not actually in the Bible. The biblical account of the birth of Christ comes from two sources. They are the Jewish writer Matthew (Matthew 1:18-2:23) and the gentile writer Luke (Luke 1:26-2:20). Mark and John do not record the birth of Christ. We need to separate Christmas facts and fiction.

Many of the complaints about the Christmas story revolve around the star of Bethlehem. The shepherds of Luke 2:8-20 never saw a star, nor did Herod. Matthew 2:1-12 tells about the star and the “wise men from the east.” The “wise men,” or “magi” in the original language, were Persian astronomers or priests. Magi were present in Arabia, India, Assyria, and Persia, and they were most likely astrologers. We don’t know how many there were, nor do we know their names. They went first to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. The Jewish priests knew from Micah 5:1-2 where the Messiah would be born, but they didn’t know when, nor did Herod.

In Matthew 2:9-10, the star led the magi to a house (verse 11), not a stable. A celestial star would not lead to a particular house, and the Christ child was no longer in a manger but a house. The Bible records several times when people were led by what the Bible calls a “Shekinah,” which was a pillar of fire or cloud. (See Exodus 13:21, 24:17, 40:38; Ezekiel 1:28,10:18-19, 11:23). This was a purposeful miracle of God, not a celestial event. In other words, the image on your Christmas card is almost certainly not accurate.

Separating Christmas facts and fiction, there are two uncontested facts in the biblical account. One is that Jesus Christ came to save all people, and the magi were Gentiles, so this was not just a Jewish event. The second is that Christ fulfilled prophecies written long before His birth. Isaiah 7:14 repeated in Matthew 1:23 and Micah 5:2 repeated in Matthew 2:6 are clear. The prophecy of Hosea 11:1 was repeated in Matthew 2:15. Jeremiah 31:15 was repeated in Matthew 2:18. Isaiah 40:3 was repeated in Matthew 3:3.

When we separate Christmas facts and fiction, it takes considerable faith to believe that the fulfillment of those Bible prophecies was just a hoax. Trying to find ways to reject what the Bible says and live in defiance of God offers no reward and no incentive to live constructively. However, believing in Jesus and acting on that faith can bring blessing and purpose to our lives.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Lost Loved Ones at Christmas

Lost Loved Ones at Christmas

Christmas should be a time of joy, love, celebration, and family. Unfortunately, for many of us, the glitz and color of Christmas are dimmed by the loss of a loved one during the previous year. The family traditions of the holiday season are painful reminders of lost loved ones at Christmas.

For me personally, this Christmas has an empty feeling. Christmas was my son Tim’s favorite time of year. He couldn’t see the decorations because of his blindness, but he enjoyed remembering the trees we had when he was a child and could see. He was in his fifties but still wanted to have his large stocking full of the usual Christmas foods and small toys like a squeeze ball or a bottle of perfume. He loved Christmas music and could sing all of the familiar songs. His sisters frequently sent him singing cards which he played until the batteries wore out.

I share that with you because I know that many of our “regulars” have had a tough year and are missing their lost loved ones at Christmas. Christmas will bring some pain for them, knowing that the usual things we did together can no longer happen. Someone who shared this experience was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the words to a great Christmas song in 1863. Longfellow’s first wife died in childbirth in 1859. In 1861 his second wide died from burns. In 1863 his son joined the Union army and was very severely wounded and near death.

As Christmas approached in 1863, Longfellow composed the poem that is one of our Christmas standards:

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day. Their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on Earth, good will to men. And I thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom, had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth good will to men. Still ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day, a voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth I said; for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men. Then peeled the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor does He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth good will to men.”

If you, like me, are staring at an empty stocking this Christmas, stem the tears by remembering that the story of the baby in the manger ended with an empty tomb. So too will we one day be reunited with the lost loved ones at Christmas we miss so terribly now. With that in mind, have a great Christmas holiday.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Christmas Trivia and Customs

Christmas Trivia and Customs

The Old Farmer’s Almanac for 2021 had some Christmas trivia listing the origins of some customs of Christmas. Here are a few of them:

XMAS – The New Testament was originally written in Greek. The Greek letter for “C” is “Chi,” written like our letter “X” and pronounced “kye.” The equivalent of our letter “R” was written like our lower case “p.” The Greeks represented the name Christ (Christos) using the first two letters, “X” and “p” superimposed. Many have assumed that writing Christmas as “X-mas” is a nod to universalism – that all faiths are equal. Actually, it was just the opposite.

CHRISTMAS TREES – Plants that stayed green all year had a special significance for people who lived in cold winter climates of northern Europe. They put evergreen boughs over windows and doors, believing that living plants would repel illness and evil. The Romans decorated evergreen trees with trinkets and topped the tree with an image of their sun god at the festival of Saturnalia. About 400 years ago, people in Germany used the evergreen as a sign of everlasting life with God.

GIFTS – Some cultures celebrated the winter solstice around December 21, which has the shortest daylight hours. Winter can be a depressing time, and the Romans brightened the worst of winter by giving each other gifts on what they called “calends,” the first day of January. Some early Christians began giving gifts to copy the actions of the “magi” (a Greek word referring to the “wise men” of the Bible).

In Europe, every country had traditions of gift-giving, usually involving children during December. For example, people thought of Santa Claus or Father Christmas on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6. In the Netherlands, children left clogs or shoes out on December 5 (Saint Nicholas Eve) to be filled with presents. In Germany, people thought an angel called the Christkind came on Christmas Eve. In Italy, it was an old witch named Befana who brought gifts. In Spain, children celebrated “Three Kings Day” on January 6.

Since America was a melting pot of various cultures
, these practices and many others came together. As we consider this Christmas trivia in today’s world of conflict, we need a time of peace and harmony to enjoy our friends and neighbors and share God’s love with them. Have a joyous holiday, however you celebrate it.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Turkeys Don’t Have Enough Dark Meat

Turkeys Don’t Have Enough Dark Meat
Wild Male Turkey

We get some interesting letters and emails. Even though some people may send them with an impure motive, we can always learn something from them. Recently, we received an email about turkeys that brings up an interesting point. Turkey meat is often on the menu for Thanksgiving and Christmas. This person was complaining because, at his house, turkeys don’t have enough dark meat to go around.

The difference between white and dark meat in turkeys and chickens is a lesson in how humans change what God created. If you have ever eaten a wild turkey, you know that it is all dark meat. This is because wild turkeys are very active, running and flying. Having the ability to do these two things means that wild turkeys require more oxygen-carrying blood vessels. With more blood vessels, the meat is darker.

Domestic and factory-raised turkeys don’t use their muscles as much, and with fewer blood vessels, the meat is whiter. The way a turkey is raised affects the nature of the meat. In our area of the country, turkey farms raise large numbers of birds that don’t fly and do very little running. Those are the turkeys you buy at the supermarket, and that will always be the case.

Hawaii has large numbers of chickens in the wild. They fly and run, and if people use them for food, they find very little white meat. In the area we visited in Hawaii, the local people would not eat those free-range chickens because they felt the dark meat was not as good.

I told my questioner that if turkeys don’t have enough dark meat for him, he should bring his shotgun to my house during turkey season. In that way, he could increase the amount of dark meat in his holiday meal. Many of our domestically produced meat products are different from their wild ancestors. God created creatures to survive in the natural world, not to please human preferences.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Joseph is the Unsung Hero of the Birth of Jesus

Joseph is the Unsung Hero of the Birth of Jesus

Mary receives most of the attention as the mother, but Joseph is the unsung hero of the birth of Jesus. Of course, the virgin birth was a miracle, but how would most men have responded to the situation in which Joseph found himself?

Mary and Joseph were Jews following Jewish complex and time-consuming protocol for marriage. In the presence of two witnesses, the groom would make a verbal declaration to the bride accompanied by a gift. The couple was then legally married, and to void the marriage required a divorce. However, the couple did not live together for a year as the bride continued living in her father’s house. When the year ended, the groom would take the bride to his family home, and the couple would live together as husband and wife. A rabbi told me the purpose of this procedure was to make sure the woman was not pregnant. Matthew 25:1-6 describes this wedding custom.

The problem, in this case, is that Mary fails the test. She was showing a baby bump and “found to be with child.” As a result, Jesus would be considered an illegitimate child, and that stigma would be used against him. In John 8:39-41, we see the enemies of Jesus protesting that they were not illegitimate. Joseph is between a rock and a hard place. He loves Mary, but Jewish law urges him to divorce her. Furthermore, the public disclosure of this situation could mean that she could be stoned.

At this point, Joseph has a dream (Matthew 1:20-25) in which an angel tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Afraid of what? Afraid of breaking the Jewish law. I think most men would have assumed it was something they ate and would not have been willing to subject themselves to the ridicule and abuse that would undoubtedly come from the situation. Interestingly, the angel addresses Joseph as “Joseph, son of David.” This is the only time that title is given to anyone in the New Testament except Jesus himself. Joseph is the unsung hero of the birth of Jesus.

After the birth of Jesus, Joseph has another dream in which an angel tells him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. He immediately does it in the middle of the night (Matthew 2:13-14). This poor carpenter is told to go to a foreign country with no support. (Perhaps this is where the gift of gold from the magi came in handy.) Joseph is a man of incredible faith and courage. He ends up in Nazareth because of another dream and fades into the background as Jesus and Mary take over the historical narrative.

Joseph is the unsung hero of the birth of Jesus because he sets an example for us all. His love for Mary, his obedience to God’s commands and leadership, and his willingness to serve sacrificially are frequently overlooked. He teaches us that we can serve God in many ways. Joseph’s humility, servant attitude, and obedience set a standard for us to follow.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Gifts of the Magi

Gifts of the Magi

There has been a great deal of confusion about the magi’s visit to the Christ child. Not only are there differences of opinion about who the magi were, but even their gifts have been misunderstood. Atheists have claimed that the whole story is nonsense because Mary and Joseph could make so much money from the gifts of the magi that Joseph wouldn’t have to work as a carpenter. We assume that whatever value the gifts had would have helped support the family during their sojourn in Egypt.

At the time of Christ, these gifts were quite expensive. Today on Amazon, you can buy frankincense resin for $16 a pound and myrrh resin from $16 to 36 a pound. On the other hand, the price of gold is approaching $2,000 an ounce. But the value of the gifts of the magi was not primarily financial.

Frankincense and myrrh are resins extracted from wounds in the bark of trees that grow in northeast Africa and southern Arabia. Frankincense was used to soothe the gums and to treat respiratory problems, skin infections, and bruises. Modern researchers have found that frankincense has antiseptic, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. It also contains flavonoids that cause the lungs’ bronchia to dilate, helping with breathing problems. But frankincense was, and still is, burned in the worship of deity. For that reason, it seems to be an appropriate gift for the Christ child.

People used myrrh as an anesthetic. Soldiers gave Jesus “wine mingled with myrrh” during His crucifixion to relieve His suffering. He rejected the offering. Modem research has shown that myrrh can lower cholesterol levels, and it has been used to treat heart disease. A side effect of myrrh is that it stimulates the thyroid resulting in accelerated metabolism. Myrrh was used to embalm royal mummies like King Tutankhamen. The Jews also used it for embalming bodies for burial. The gift of myrrh hints at the death of Christ.

Even gold was valued for medical uses and not just business transactions. Roman doctors prescribed gold dissolved in acid to cure appendicitis. Today the drug auranofin is a gold salt listed by the World Health Organization to treat rheumatoid arthritis. But gold was and is associated with kings and crowns. This gift from the magi indicates a kingly future for Jesus.

The point of all this is that the expensive gifts of the magi had symbolic meaning. They were foreshadowing the death of Jesus, but also his deity and kingship. We know very little about the magi except that they came to worship the Christ child. Their gifts honored the one who was God in the flesh and who would eventually die to redeem all who would accept Him as their King.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Accounts of Jesus’ Birth and their Differences

Accounts of Jesus’ Birth and their Differences

One interesting area of study is the difference in the accounts of Jesus’ birth, as described by Matthew and Luke. The reason that the two versions are different is that they were written for different audiences. Matthew was a Jew, and he presents Jesus as the New Moses. Consider the parallels:

1) In Genesis 37:5-9, 28, Joseph was taken to Egypt because of his dreams, which ultimately led to deliverance by Moses. In Matthew 1:20-23, 2:13, and 2:19-20, Joseph takes his family to Egypt because of his dreams.

2) Joseph is the son of Jacob in Genesis 37:1-3. Jesus’ father, Joseph, is the son of Jacob Matthew 1:16.

3) The Pharaoh of Egypt orders the killing of male Hebrew babies before the exodus in Exodus 1:15-16. Herod the Great orders the killing of Hebrew boy babies in Bethlehem in Matthew 2:16.

4) Joseph sends for his family to come to the land of Goshen to survive a famine and set the stage for their deliverance. In Matthew 2:13-14, Joseph takes his family to Egypt to save the child, Jesus.

5) Moses led the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt to the land God promised Abraham in Exodus 14, Deuteronomy 34, and Genesis 17:6. Jesus returned from Egypt to live in Nazareth in Matthew 2:19-23.

Matthew is a Jew writing for a Jewish audience and showing that Jesus had significance for the Jews and the gentiles. Luke is a Greek and is writing for a Gentile audience. Luke begins by relating Jesus to John the Baptist, with John being the herald of Jesus in Luke 1:76-77. In 2:1-5, Luke tells us about the census under Quirinius to explain how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem. Luke then presents a different emphasis than Matthew:

1) Angels take the news of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Luke 2:8-12.

2) Angels participate in heaven’s jubilation in Luke 2:13-14.

3) The shepherds visit the family and are the first evangelists in Luke 2:16-18.

4) Jesus is taken to Jerusalem and presented at the temple. There He is proclaimed “a light for the Gentiles and a glory for Israel” in Luke 2:28-32.

5) The childhood of Jesus at the age of 12 returning to Jerusalem in Luke 2:40-52. The re-connection with his cousin, John, in Luke 3.

The two accounts of Jesus’ birth remarkably complement each other. Those who try to find contradictions between Matthew and Luke are not considering who wrote the accounts, to whom they were directed, why they were written, and how the readers would understand them. The gospels of Mark and John were written for different purposes and do not tell about the birth of Jesus. 

Much of the Christmas narrative we hear at this time of year is not even in the Bible, and it is speculation about what might have happened. Reread the accounts, thinking about the purpose of the narratives and to whom they were written. You grow when you stick to the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the Bible and ignore the later embellishments.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Christmas and Creation

Christmas and Creation

In the modern Christmas celebration, we tend to think of the cute little baby lying in a sanitized manger with cattle and sheep and handsome shepherds looking on. We see oriental kings bringing expensive gifts to the Christ child. The birth of Christ was far more than that. We need to go back to see the connection between Christmas and creation.

Before creation, there was nothing – no matter, no space, no time. John 1:1-3 tells us, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word (Logos) was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.”

In John 1:14, we read that the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. Colossians 1:16-20 tells us: “For by him (Jesus) were all things created, that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and for him: And he is before all things, and by Him all things hold together.” As we learn more about quarks and the whole subject of quantum mechanics, we are beginning to understand a small part of what creation involved scientifically.

Part of the process was the creation of humans in the image of God with the capacity to demonstrate God’s “agape” kind of love. “God so loved the world…” (John 3;16a) is an expression of God’s love. To demonstrate that love, we had to have a choice not to love. If you can’t choose, you can’t really love. Because they had the choice, humans chose not only to reject God’s love but to rebel against Him. John 1:9-14 describes the Logos or Word coming into the world and His own people rejecting Him. This set the stage for the fulfillment of God’s love “..that He gave His only begotten Son …” (John 3:16b).

That is how Christmas and creation tie together. John 1:17 tells us that Moses gave the physical rules for life, but the spiritual redemption came from Jesus. “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The Logos didn’t come in power and splendor but as a baby born to a poor couple in a dirty feeding trough surrounded by smelly, filthy animals.

Even though John 1:11 says that His own people did not receive Him, verse 12 tells us, “But to all who did receive him, who believed on his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us think about the connection between Christmas and creation. Jesus, the Logos, the one who created all things, “became flesh and dwelt among us” and redeemed us through His agape love.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Christmas Holly Is a Reminder

Christmas Holly Is a Reminder

It’s an evergreen tree that can live for 500 years and grow up to 33 feet (10 meters) tall. However, it usually doesn’t live for more than 100 years or grow taller than 10 feet (3 meters). It is often associated with Christmas because people use it in wreaths and garlands, and you see it pictured on many Christmas cards. What does European (or English) holly (Ilex aquifolium), also known as Christmas holly, have to do with Christmas?

The connection to Christmas goes back to medieval times in Europe. People said that the sharp-pointed evergreen leaves reminded them of the crown of thorns Christ was forced to wear at His crucifixion. The berries, which are red during the Christmas season, reminded them of the blood Christ shed, and the white flowers stand for purity.

European holly grows as a tree or a bush. The berries are mildly toxic to people and harmful to dogs or cats. However, they provide winter food for birds, rodents, and other animals. The flowers are sources of nectar for bees and butterflies. European holly grows in shady areas in forests, and it can form a dense thicket along forest borders. Because it is a dense evergreen with sharp points, people often use it for privacy hedges.

In its native areas of Europe and other regions, holly is an ornamental plant admired for its beauty. However, since people brought it to North America’s west coast, it has become an invasive species. It thrives in the shade of forests and crowds out species native to that area. Washington state has called it a weed.

Like other plant species, European holly has an ecological niche to fill. Problems often arise when people do something to upset the balanced relationship that God has designed into nature. From the beginning, humans have done things to upset our relationship with God. That brings us back to Christmas and the reason God came to Earth in the form of a human who lived a pure life and shed His blood on the cross to redeem us. Christmas holly reminds us of that.

— Roland Earnst © 2020

Christmas Card Picture

Christmas Card Picture

We have just finished the Christmas and New Year holiday, and Christmas cards are piled up on my desk. It isn’t that I have so many people who send me Christmas cards. Most of the cards are from organizations wanting a donation. They send a “gift” of a bunch of cards and hope it will shame me into giving to their cause. What is interesting to me is the Christmas card picture of baby Jesus in the manger.

I have Muslim and Buddhist friends who laugh at that Christmas card picture. Muhammad was an upper-class, wealthy military man who married into money and lived in comfortable conditions. Buddha was a Hindu prince who was not even allowed to see a diseased or suffering human. Sometime after the age of 29, he left the palace behind and became a wandering ascetic.

In contrast to these founders of major faiths, Jesus Christ was born in a town in which He was an alien. He grew up in Nazareth, a low-class village in the occupied territory of Galilee. (See John 1:46.) When you read passages like Matthew 5:41, you realize how much Rome controlled everything. John 19:10 points out that the Romans knew they had control. Christ had no political power and no army. He was born an “illegitimate child” to a mother who left town when she realized she was pregnant. (See Luke 1:38-39.) People wondered why Jesus spent His time with the poor, despised, and downtrodden. (See Matthew 9:11-13.) Unlike Mohammed or Buddha, Jesus came into a world of misery, war, prejudice, pain, strife, and violence and did not associate with political leaders or the social elite.

Because of the birth and upbringing of Jesus, people were amazed at His teaching. (See Matthew 7:28-29.) It is also because of the background of His life that we cannot have a problem that Jesus doesn’t understand. He had no money – only his cloak. He was “born on the wrong side of the tracks.” He was born an “illegitimate child.” Unlike followers of all other faiths on Earth, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are – yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

I have seen mangers. They are dirty with mouth slime from cattle plus insects and worms and unprotected from the elements. The sterile, clean, neat, ordered Christmas card picture is not reality. However, but it can remind us of how God in His wisdom provides for us and understands our needs. The birth and upbringing of Christ provide an apologetic for the validity of Christianity.

— John N. Clayton © 2020