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

Confusing Bible and Traditions at Christmas

Confusing Bible and Traditions at Christmas

Every year around Christmas and Easter, various secular publications and websites carry articles that are critical of Jesus and the Bible. This year LiveScience.com published a page questioning, “How Much of the Nativity Story is True?” Often articles like this make the mistake of confusing Bible and traditions. This one is no exception.

The article begins by quoting Brent Landau, whom they refer to as “a religious studies scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.” Landau says, “My overall take on this, which would be the opinion of most other biblical scholars as well, is that there is very little in the Christmas story of the Gospels that is historically reliable.” Mr. Landau is not only stating that the “Gospels” are historically unreliable, but he is going farther by asserting that “most other biblical scholars” agree with that! His statement is inaccurate on both counts.

We have many times before dealt with the historical accuracy of the Gospels and the Bible as a whole in our publications, videos, and websites. Most biblical scholars would NOT agree that there is “very little in the Christmas story of the Gospels that is historically unreliable.” Actually, there is very little of the “Christmas story” in the Gospels. The story has been embellished by traditions resulting in people confusing Bible and traditions. Only Matthew and Luke say anything about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, and their accounts are brief. Most of the gospel narratives tell of the ministry and teaching of Jesus leading up to His sacrifice and resurrection, which is much more important than details of His birth.

To provide some balance, the article also quotes Ben Witherington III, a well-known New Testament scholar who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary. Witherington is author of more than 30 books and is a strong advocate for the accuracy of the Scriptures. He points out that we should apply the same principles of historical investigation to the Bible as we do to the records of other ancient historical events such as Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. As we have pointed out before, the historical evidence for the biblical events is better supported by documentary evidence than any other event of ancient history.

However, as we said, secular writers often make the mistake of confusing Bible and traditions. The article talks about December 25 not being Christ’s birthday. Of course, it isn’t. The Bible doesn’t give a date for His birth, but it was most likely in the spring. The article also says, “Most scholars agree that Jesus wasn’t born in A.D. 1.” That is true also, but that doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong. No year of His birth can be found in the Bible, but the Scripture does connect it with the reign of Herod the Great. In fact, shouldn’t Jesus have been born in 0 A.D? The A.D. And B.C. designations were assigned years later after people came to understand the importance of His birth.

When Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem to a humble couple from the backwater town of Nazareth, only a few shepherds recognized the significance. Herod was the powerful ruler building monuments to himself. Today, Herod’s structures are in ruins, and nobody bases their calendar on his birthday. By contrast, our calendars remind us of the (approximate) date of Jesus’ birth, and the Church that He established is a monument to His love and sacrifice. The Gospel accounts meet the standards of historical integrity when we avoid confusing Bible and traditions.

— Roland Earnst © 2019

Christmas Symbols and Reality

Christmas Symbols and Reality

Almost everything about Christmas is rooted in history and in Christmas symbols that people use to remember things that are important to their faith. Even the date of Christmas has such a root. In the year 354 a leader in the Church named Liberius declared that December 25 would be a holy day for celebrating the birth of Christ. This date was chosen because there was a pagan festival which celebrated the winter solstice, and the Christian celebration was safer when other celebrations were taking place.

During this same time, Romans decorated their homes with evergreens which they considered to be a symbol of the regenerative power of nature. The shape of the Christmas tree was chosen in some cultures because it pointed toward heaven. Wreaths were used because they were in the motif of a wheel indicating the cycling of the Sun or of the seasons.

In Scandinavian tradition, decorative wreaths were hung on the door with a red ribbon and were called “welcome wreaths.” Anyone who came to the door was welcomed to the Christmas feast and a place setting was always present for “the poor man’s plate”.

While all these customs, traditions, and Christmas symbols are separate and apart from the teachings of the Bible, they reflect the history of Christianity. Our Christmas stories such as “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry reflect the values that have existed in many different cultures through the ages. Paul discussed this in Romans 14:5-19 and he ends it by saying, “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”

We wish you the best for the holiday season, however you decide to participate in it, and may we also wish you the best for a joyous and wonderful new year.

— John N. Clayton © 2019

Data from “The Christmas Wreath” by Ginny Garver.

Christmas Traditions and the Bible

Christmas Traditions and the Bible

When I was an atheist, this time of year used to drive me nuts. There was so much about the story of the birth of Jesus that didn’t make sense. I viewed Christmas as a classic demonstration of the foolishness of Christians who would believe any myth that came along. I was confusing Christmas traditions and the Bible.

Then I started actually studying the Bible with the stated intent to prove it wrong. I soon discovered that what I objected to was human traditions and not mistakes in the Bible. Studying Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 2:1-20 told a whole different story than what I saw on TV shows and Christmas cards. Here are some of my confusions that the Bible resolved:

How could a star stand over the place where the baby was? The closest star to Earth is 4.3 light-years away and shines on the whole planet, not a single place. The Bible does not indicate a celestial star. Herod couldn’t see the star and charged the “wise men” to tell him where the baby was. The biblical concept of this kind of celestial object was what is called the Shekinah glory. It is used frequently in the Bible, especially during the Israelite journey in the wilderness. See Exodus 13:21, 24:17, 40:38 and Ezekiel 1:28, 10:18, 11:23, 43:2.

No “Three Kings” would make such a journey to honor anything. Here again, there is a difference between Christmas traditions and the Bible. Matthew indicates they came from the east, and the word used to describe them is “magos,” from which we get our word “magician.” Luke uses the same word to describe a sorcerer in Acts 13:6-8. They were astrologers from Persia or Arabia, and the Bible doesn’t tell us how many there were. It only mentions three gifts. These three individuals arrived first in Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. The Bible doesn’t tell us when they arrived at the location of the child Jesus.

The Bible also doesn’t name the magi, but their traditional names and descriptions are highly symbolic. Tradition describes Melchoir as old, white-haired, and he brought gold – a gift usually reserved for kings. Gaspar, who was young and beardless, brought frankincense – a fragrant gum resin which was often burned to give a balsam odor which symbolized God’s people ascending to heaven. Balthazar, who was black, had a heavy beard and brought myrrh. Myrrh was a fragrant resin from Arabia, frequently used as an embalming material. (See John 19:39.) None of these names and descriptions are in the Bible – it is all tradition.

The “Christmas story” stated in the Bible is credibly simple. The traditions are not, but they are just traditions invented by humans. It took me many years to realize the difference between Christmas traditions and the Bible. Many times there is a vast difference between what the Bible says and what humans say it says.

— John N. Clayton © 2019

Who Is Jesus?

Who Is Jesus?

Christmas reminds us of the birth of Jesus, but why is the birth of a baby two millennia ago relevant today? The answer to that question depends on the answer to another question. Who is Jesus? People have various ideas of who Jesus is. Some say He is God. Others say He was just a man who was a good moral teacher. But, if Jesus is not God, He could not have been a good moral teacher. Let me explain why.

There is no doubt that Jesus was born a human being. The shepherds who saw Him in the stable and the people who watched Him grow up in His hometown of Nazareth could verify that. He grew to be a rabbi, a teacher, and He had many followers. His select group of disciples who talked with Him and ate with Him and lived with Him knew that He was a man. But His teaching was like no other man. He taught with the authority of God. He claimed to be God. He claimed to forgive sins, which only God can do.

Thus, if that baby born in Bethlehem were merely a human being who grew to be a man and said the things He said, He would not be a good moral teacher. He claimed to teach the truth, and He even claimed to be the truth. He claimed to be God! If He were not God, He would be a liar or a madman, but He would not a good moral teacher.

So who is Jesus? What do we celebrate at Christmas? We remember that God took on flesh as a baby who grew to be a man. He lived a sinless life because He is God. But He did not come merely to show us how to live a sinless life. He knew that we could not. He came to redeem us—to be a sacrifice for our sins.

When Jesus was on Earth, He was truly man and truly God. He could be the sacrifice for sins only because He was God. Although Jesus was sinless, He was not a third-party victim selected to bear our punishment. It would be immoral to punish an innocent man for the sins of all the guilty people. He was also the divine lawgiver and judge, so He could choose to suffer the penalty of His own law and bear the sins of all people. One man could only bear the punishment for His own sins. God can bear the punishment for all.

So who is Jesus? On that night near Bethlehem, the angel did not merely announce the birth of a baby boy. The angel said, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11 CSB). Have you allowed Him to be your Savior?

— Roland Earnst © 2019

Presenting Alternative Lifestyles to Young Children

Presenting Alternative Lifestyles to Young ChildrenWe have frequently pointed out that the teachings of Jesus Christ make it clear that we must love and respect those with whom we disagree. Matthew 5:39-48 is hard to misunderstand. We must not attempt to harm anyone, including those who might be teaching things that oppose what the Bible says. There is no excuse for those who claim to be Christians to physically attack anyone because they are a part of the LGBT movement. At the same time, we have to be concerned and vocally oppose those who promote immoral behavior, especially when it involves presenting alternative lifestyles to young children.

Recently the popular children’s show “Arthur” on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) ran an episode entitled “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone.” It featured a wedding ceremony between Mr. Ratburn and a character named Patrick. This program is funded by tax dollars and is aimed at preschool children. Disney has placed LGBT characters in the 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast and its television cartoon series Doc McStuffins. Drag Queen events have been held in Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, in programs aimed at preschool children.

LGBT leaders claim that these promotions of their lifestyles are no different than a PBS program on Christmas music, or Christmas events held in public venues. It would seem that presenting material to preschoolers about drag queens and gay marriage is far more complicated than historical stories. Since tax dollars fund PBS, and religious programming is constantly refused by the same media, it seems that promotion of the LGBT lifestyle should also be prohibited.

The bottom line is that parents need to monitor what their children are exposed to. You can’t rely on PBS or Disney to offer only factual and moral material and avoid presenting alternative lifestyles to young children.
— John N. Clayton © 2019

Data from Family Research Council, October 2019 newsletter pages 1-4.

Celebrate the Resurrection Every Sunday

Celebrate the Resurrection Every SundayPalm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter are all valid historically. All of the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are factual, so should we celebrate Easter? We suggest that we should celebrate the resurrection every Sunday.

The communion was established to assist us in doing that (1 Corinthians 11:23-30). The first century Church worshiped every Sunday. Giving (1 Corinthians 16:2) and celebrating the Lord’s Supper to remember the death and resurrection of Christ were part of that worship (Acts 20:7). We should copy their example. It is good that at least once a year the whole world recognizes the activity of God in sending His son to die as a sacrifice for the sins of all. We would urge everyone to look into the significance of the resurrection and the witnesses that give credence to the story.

Another aspect of the Easter season is that many human inventions have sprung up around the historical event. Lent was instituted as a way to focus on the Easter event. It was a reminder of the forty days Jesus fasted in the desert as He began His ministry. Abstaining from eating eggs to celebrate Lent resulted in people preserving eggs by boiling them. German Lutherans began decorating the eggs and invented the Easter Hare as a judge of children allowing gifts to be given to good children. Eastern Orthodox believers dyed the eggs red remembering the blood of Christ. The special days of Palm Sunday and Holy Friday were added to aid believers in focusing on the season.

Like Christmas and Santa Claus, these Easter additions to the simple biblical message have a long history, but the Bible message is clear. Passages like 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 and Matthew 26:26-28 give us a guide that we can follow no matter what the local traditions. While we may enjoy the human inventions, let us worship as God has called us to worship, and let us do so with understanding and reverence. Celebrate the resurrection every Sunday.
— John N. Clayton ©2019

Christmas Traditions vs. Bible Facts

Christmas Traditions vs. Bible Facts
It is interesting to see how many Christmas traditions are not found in the Bible. A classic example is the song “We Three Kings” which we often hear at Christmas time. Tradition even identifies those “kings” by name, appearance, and which gift each brought. They are:

Melchoir – old – white hair – bringing gold – a gift for a king.
Gaspar – young – beardless – bringing frankincense – a fragrant gum – smoke from burning is said to symbolize the prayers of God’s people ascending.
Balthazar – black – heavy beard – bringing myrrh – a fragrant resin from Arabia used in embalming (John 19:39, Psalms 45:8, Proverbs 7:17).

The Bible does not mention how many there were. It just says that they came from the east to Jerusalem. The word translated “wise men” in Matthew 2:1 is also used in Acts 8:9,11 and Acts 13:8 in reference to a sorcerer. The biblical reference to them being kings is Psalms 72:10 – a Psalm written for Solomon which mentions three kings from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba. Matthew 2:11 tells us the three gifts.

Who saw the “star?” The shepherds of Luke 2:8-20 did not see the star, but were told about the birth of Christ by an angel. Herod didn’t see the star even though the birth was not far from Jerusalem. Since the wise men were not Jews and apparently were from a sorcerer type of background, they came from their homes to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. When they learned the baby was to be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6), they were guided by the “star” to the place where Jesus was. Christmas traditions often place that in the manger. Matthew 2:11 says the young child and his mother were in a house. The fact that Herod killed all the baby boys in the area that were two years old or younger indicates that the wise men come at a later date to the house where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were living.

So what was the “star.” It certainly was not a typical star. Normal stars don’t move and stand over a manger, and they would have been visible to Herod or anyone else in the region. Modern attempts to explain the star as a comet, a supernova, or an aurora simply don’t work. The conception of Christ was a miracle. You don’t explain it by parthenogenesis or any scientific method. You either accept it or reject it on faith. Similarly, the star the wise men saw was not a natural object, and they knew that. In the Old Testament, there was a pillar of fire that led Israel out Egypt and into the promised land. The ancient Jews called it the Shekinah glory (See Exodus 13:21, 24:17, 40:48 and Ezekiel 1:28, 10:18-19, and 11:23).

Christmas traditions aside, the wise men from the east would be part of the ancient oriental world, and they would have carried the message to the Gentiles in that area. The shepherds represent the Jewish community of the area where they shared the news. The story is amazing, beautiful and pregnant with meaning. It doesn’t need the embellishments of modern Christmas traditions.

If you are interested in learning more about Christmas traditions vs. Bible facts, we recommend a book called Star of Jacob by Wayne Leeper. You can borrow it from this ministry or purchase it at THIS LINK.
–John N. Clayton © 2018

Why We Need Christmas

Why We Need Christmas
Why do we need Christmas? That’s a question worth asking. Many people dislike Christmas for various reasons, and some are good. I have some reasons why we need Christmas.

First, for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas comes at the time of the winter solstice when daylight seems much too short. Christmas serves to cheer us up and get us through those winter doldrums. That leads to a second reason–the decorations and especially the lights which bring beauty and cheer, even on those cold, dark days.

A third reason is the emphasis on family at Christmas. It seems that everyone wants to spend time with family and those we love as we carry on the Christmas traditions we enjoy. Related to that is the fourth reason, and that is giving. We enjoy giving to others. Jesus said there is more joy in giving than in receiving (Acts 20:35). We naturally tend to want others to give to us. But when we give to others, we learn the truth of what Jesus said.

Reason number five relates to giving. God’s love for us prompted Him to give the greatest gift of all. God became a flesh-and-blood person and lived among us (John 1:14). The greatest reason why we need Christmas is to remind us of the gift God gave to us. He came to show us how to live and to give himself for us. If we could all accept the gift Jesus offers and follow His teaching and example, the joy of Christmas would last all year long.
–Roland Earnst © 2018

Giving Something of Value

Giving Something of Value
Giving something of value (such as money) to someone for an item of equal value is buying and selling.

Giving something of value to someone without requiring anything in return, while expecting that person to give something of similar value is creating an obligation.

Giving something of value to someone who has done something to deserve it is compensation.

Giving something of value to someone who does not deserve it, but who will appreciate it is love.

Giving something of value to someone who does not deserve it, and who will perhaps not appreciate it is “agape.”

Agape” is the Greek term used in the Bible to describe God’s kind of love. It’s the “I don’t care if you spit in my face, I will still love you” kind of love. It’s the kind of love Jesus demonstrated when, as he was being crucified, he openly forgave those who were doing it. The gift of Jesus coming to Earth to live among those who would eventually despise and kill him is true “agape.” The gifts we give are lame by comparison.

The story of Jesus from birth to death and resurrection is a story of giving. It is indeed the most amazing concept we can imagine, and a story nobody would dare to make up. The Creator of the universe takes the form of one of His creatures to bring them to Himself. I can see why many people refuse to believe it. It’s incredible, but I believe it’s true.

When we realize it is true, we must ask ourselves, “What can I give in return?” We should not hold back anything–but we do. God is the one who gives without holding back, but our giving has strings attached. We should say with the Jewish King David, “I will not offer to God that which costs me nothing.” In fact, we should offer to God that which costs us everything. That would still not match God’s gift to us.
–Roland Earnst © 2018