Category Archives: Theology

Turning Back

My time as a marching band member

I was never in the marching band in high school. My brother was. My sister was. But not me. I don’t have a lick of artistic ability. If they had marching math lovers then I might have done that. But I was never in the marching band…until a Sunday in 2015.

To Join a Marching Band

Rashid invited me to a church he was helping to plant in Mukono, Uganda. The young church also has a school for nearby students. They had received the results of the P7 exams for their students. P7 exams are a big deal. It is like having to pass a test in order to go from 6th grade to 7th grade in America. If you don’t pass then you are done with school. In some cases repeating the grade is acceptable but most don’t want to pay more school fees.

Rashid and I at the church after marching

Rashid and I at the church. Oh my, that facial hair.

So this school affiliated with the church plant had a student who passed with a first grade and everyone else passed with a second grade. They told me a first grade is very special but rare, especially for new schools. So they had to celebrate. They wanted to praise God for what He had done. What better way to do this than to march around the village behind a marching band, while announcing the good news?

So we marched. Ok, technically I wasn’t in the marching band but I was marching behind them. It is as close as I have gotten yet.

I knew we would do some marching but I wasn’t aware it would be 8km of marching. I have never run a 5k, but now I have marched an 8k. Dust was everywhere, on the road, in the air, and all over me. I could taste the dust. I had worn pants.  So it surprised me when I got home and realized that even my legs were covered in dust. I had so much dust that I thought my next child should be called Dusty.  You can see just how dusty it was in the videos below.

Finishing marching

It was dusty that day. Just a bit.

But something curious happened. We had just begun marching and hadn’t even made our first turn. We were walking along the big main road. It was then that a young girl, about 15 years old, came up and started talking to me. It was the usual ‘what is your name’ and ‘what do you do’. Then I suppose she became concerned for me because she asked me if I wanted to turn back. She said that if I was getting tired then I should turn back because we had a ways to go yet. Then she suggested I could ride in the cars following us if I needed rest.  You can see the cars in a video below.

I didn’t know if I should be appreciative or insulted. We were only about 1km into our 8km trip. She offered for me to quickly turn back and not endure the trip. I don’t think that says a lot about her view of mzungus (white people).

The Gospel Marching Band

But this got me thinking about the book of Galatians which I was preaching through at the time. In 1:6 Paul is astonished that the Galatians were “so quickly deserting” the God who called them into the grace of Christ. Just like the young girl to me, some other people had come to Galatia and tried to get the Galatian Christians to turn back from following Christ and not endure in the journey after Him.

This begins Paul’s letter into what the gospel is and why we should not add to it and thus abandon it. In Galatia, the issue was circumcision and other Jewish religious activities. They taught faith + works = salvation. In Uganda, these works have different aspects but have the same effect. They are not the gospel at all. Yet many are preaching a different gospel.

In my time at Westminster Christian Institute Uganda, I have learned of how many students have repented of believing a false gospel. I have also heard of the various things many preach in Uganda. Despite a large number of churches and counted Christians in Uganda, the need for true gospel preaching is enormous.

The gospel formula is faith + nothing = salvation + works. Many put works on the wrong side of the equation. We are saved by Christ and then empowered to do good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). Yet Paul, in Galatians, is clear that nothing can be added to Jesus’ work in His death and resurrection. It is all by grace. It is easy to trust in what we do but we must lean on Jesus only. We must march forward in grace. This is a message Uganda needs and a message I need. Every single day.

This is the end of our trip.  Notice the dust and the cars behind.  And that crowd was something.

Here we are beginning our journey.

Marching in the village

Here we march off the main road and in the village.

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Humble Obedience

Jesus wants us to obey to glorify Him - not ourselves

I sat in the pew, the Ugandan heat swelling inside as I listened to the sermon at New City on Sunday.  The sermon was on Matthew 23:1-12.  As I listened and read the text, some thoughts came to me about the passage.

In the text, Jesus shares His thoughts on some common practices by the religious leaders – the scribes and Pharisees.  He points out the poor actions of those many considered to be the holiest.  What does Jesus criticize and what does He want instead?

Jesus is against hypocrisy

He says the scribes and Pharisees taught good practices but “they preach, but do not practice” (v3).   Even if they teach good things, they are not doing them.  They are not obeying God.  They are disobeying.

Jesus wants obedience

Interestingly, Jesus does not dismiss the things they were teaching.  Rather, He wants everyone, including the religious leaders, to “do and observe whatever they tell you” (v3).  Just because the scribes and Pharisees don’t do what they preach does not mean they don’t preach the right things.

Jesus is against self-exaltation

He criticizes the religious leaders for doing things only in public.  The scribes and Pharisees want the recognition of being very religious.  However, they do it to exalt themselves and not to glorify God.  The religious leaders put on a show when in public so they might receive titles, honors, and recognition.  They seek value in man’s opinion and not from God.

Jesus wants humble obedience.

Jesus wants humble obedience.

We too seek to put on a show, seek the praise of others, and find value in how others view us.  We find value in how people view our job, money, car, house, family, church, or whatever.  It is hard work to show our best self.  This is true for many on Facebook, Instagram, and the like.  Facebook has its purpose, but don’t let the number of likes define you. If God says we are His, we are loved, and we are forgiven, then the opinion or likes of others do not matter.  Let us seek His opinion and not others’.

Jesus wants humble obedience

He instructs his hearers to obey for the right reasons.  They should reject the titles and honors the religious leaders seek.  Jesus wants authenticity.  If we are humble, and we value God’s opinion, then we can be free to admit when we fail, when we struggle, or when we doubt.  We run to Him because we are already weak.  Our strength comes when we trust Him (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).  We boast in Christ, not in our accomplishments or ourselves.  That is why Jesus says that the humble will be exalted by God and the one who exalts himself will be humbled.   God wants us to know our need of Him at all times.  He will give us the strength and grace to carry on in obedience.

Jesus calls us to humble, authentic living and obedience.  He calls us to recognize we need Him at all times.  It is tempting exalt ourselves and rely on the opinions of others.  But Jesus wants us to obey, not for the praise of others but because our Father in heaven already loves us where we are.

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The Spirits

A biblical look at a common belief in Uganda

How does the world work? What forces guide the everyday events we see? How you answer depends on your worldview. A worldview is a set of assumptions about the fundamental workings and realities of the world. Everyone has one whether they know it or not. A worldview answers questions like: what is the purpose of life? what is good? what governs the world? and what is real?.

Different regions of the world have different worldviews. Africa is no different. While not uniform, there is a shared basic worldview in much sub-Sahara Africa, if not all of Africa.

What happens when an owl hoots in a tree at night? Is it just a hoot or is something more happening? In much of Uganda, it is believed that this is a signal of bad things including death. So, they chase owls away. Owls are viewed as evil and harbingers of death. They are not a symbol of wisdom as in the West. They are not painted on walls nor are backpacks made to look like owls.

I was with a group touring an orphanage in Uganda. We got the part of the new building where the babies are housed. There were several cribs lined up along the walls in a fairly big room with high ceilings. The walls had a nice paint job with a mural. The mural was a bunch of those cute owls with pointy ears. I speculate that it was painted by someone from somewhere other than Africa.

Basics of Spirits in Uganda

Many of the Ugandans hearing about an owl hooting in a tree assume the work of spirits. Westerners hearing the story assume it is just a bird with no spiritual significance. Africans assume the spirits are active. Westerners assume atoms, molecules, and instinct are doing their thing. Your worldview will determine your thoughts on this matter.

The outside of a small typical shrine.
Credit: not me

In Uganda like much of Africa, it is the spirits who guide and direct everything. They are behind many of the objects and events in everyday life. Hence the term animism, as the spirits animate things. African Traditional Religion (ATR) is how people relate to these spirits. The spirits are everywhere. Belief in them is ubiquitous. There is a spirit of the lake. Trees, animals, and earthquakes have different spirit influences and/or causes. The owl has a spirit that announces bad tidings.

I had a student tell me that many in his village leave some matooke behind in the field when harvesting. This is to appease the spirit that governs such things. Another student told me, in order to have a successful gathering, you must put food for the spirits out the back door with your right hand with your back to the door.

On a side note, this African animism informs my working theory about African/Ugandan art. Most if not all of the art I have seen in Uganda is not what would be called realism. It is not postmodern make of it what you will. You can tell it is a giraffe, elephant, or a person but there is something stretched or just out of place for it to be a more realistic image. This is neither good nor bad, but just the way art is done by most in Uganda.

African art is not quite realism

Most in Uganda believe in spirits. Spirits are ubiquitous. The question is not about whether there are spirits. The question is how to deal with them. A Ugandan Christian asked, in a cultural training class I was a part of when first arriving in Uganda, how to handle the spirits and new cars. He said that he knew it was wrong to take a new car to the witchdoctor so he could bless the car so it would be protected from attack by spirits on the road. This blessing usually involves sprinkling the car with blood from a chicken. His proposal was that the elders of the church should lay hands on the car and pray for protection from the spirits. Some people even have bumper stickers that read: “This car is covered by the blood of Jesus.”

Notice how he assumes the spirits are an issue. He assumes the spirits have control over cars and roads. There are many spots on various roads that many think there are spirits that can bring an accident.

But how can you get these spirits to help you instead of hurt you? Enter the witchdoctors. They have a special ability to communicate with the spirits. They can tell you what the spirit(s) want in order to be appeased. In return, they give you some request. They ply their trade at shrines. This is a large part of ATR.
When people go to the shrine, the witchdoctor asks for some sacrifice. They ask for money, chickens, or many other things . . . including humans (and while it may be uncommon, humans are still sacrificed today). The bigger the request from the spirits, the bigger the sacrifice. The witchdoctor knows the proper sacrifice because he alone can communicate with the spirits. Some come to the witchdoctor to ask the spirits to curse another person. This is done for jealousy, revenge, or a host of other reasons.

A shrine in Uganda.
Credit: matookerepublic.com

The spirits are seen as capricious. They do as they please and sometimes bless and sometimes curse. This is why you need the witchdoctor to help secure the blessing. All events are interpreted through this lens of the spirits acting. Did someone die unexpectedly? Then was it spirits? Hooting owls, earthquakes, and many other events have a spirit acting giving some message. The spirits have the power and authority to act as they please upon the earth. Many realize this and try to get the spirits to work on their behalf.

Because of the prevalence of the belief in spirits, it should not come as a surprise that many consult witchdoctors. Yet it does surprise me. Many attend church on Sunday and visit a shrine during the week. Articles discussing this can be found here, here, and here. Apparently, voting season is the time for politicians to pray to God and visit shrines in hopes of getting a favorable outcome.

Biblical Analysis of Spirits

What should we make of spirits? How does the Bible treat them? Is it ok to visit the shrine? It is important to understand the culture and evaluate it in light of Scripture.

If the spirits are as Ugandans/Africans believe, then they are made by God. They would have some authority to bring blessing and curse. They would need to be appeased to bring the desired result. It would mean that prosperous living is simply a matter of the spirits acting in your favor. We will deal with these claims below.

If we assume the Ugandan/African view of spirits then spirits are different from demons. Demons are evil forces of Satan (Matthew 12:24-29). They are only acting for evil against God and his people. Demons are always portrayed negatively and are dealt with by casting them out. Spirits, on the other hand, are capricious and, as far as I know, answer to no higher authority (though some believe in a distant creator god). They may be appeased to bring a blessing for the supplicant or a curse on someone else. They act for random reasons. I will argue that where spirits are acting, they are in fact demons. But more on that below.

I have taught the book of Genesis to theology students in Uganda several times. It is foundational for a worldview. It is the book of beginnings. In Genesis 1 we see many of the things God created. He created light, stars, land, sky, plants, animals, and humans. The spirits are not named as something God created and thus have no authority. I like to ask the students where are the spirits mentioned as being created. To be fair, angels are not mentioned as being created in Genesis 1. But they are mentioned elsewhere and mentioned as created beings. Spirits are nowhere mentioned in the Bible, at least in the form of African spirits.

As a matter of fact, it is humans that are given dominion on earth (Genesis 1:26-30). All things God created, save for the sun, moon, and stars, were put under the dominion of man. Therefore, it is not the spirits who have dominion/authority on earth. It is mankind.

The Bible must define our worldview

In Genesis 1, God gave His blessing to humanity. Mankind was to take the blessing of Eden and extend it to the whole world. After blessing mankind, God commanded them to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). We see here that the dominion and blessing of God given to mankind has a global application.

Also in Genesis, Abraham is given the blessing of God (Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 22:18). There God says that all will find blessing in him and his seed. Ultimately we know this seed is Jesus Christ and blessing comes through Him (Galatians 3:14-16). So blessing is found nowhere else save in and through Christ. It cannot be found in spirits or any other entity.

So the spirits, as offered in Ugandan/African animism, are not in the Bible. Though unclean spirits are mentioned, these are the same thing as demons as Matthew 8:16, Luke 4:33, and Luke 8:29 show. What is interesting to note is the similarities between spirits and the other idols/gods in the Bible. The idols/gods are capricious, there are many of them, and you need to bring a sacrifice to the priest who is the mediator between the god and the supplicant. The other gods were an alluring draw to Israel. One of the most often repeated sins of Israel in the Old Testament is chasing after these gods.

We know these other gods are no gods at all (1 Corinthians 8:4). Yet they held sway over many. Certainly, they held some sort of power. It is my contention that their power was from demons. A couple of verses show that sacrifices to these so-called gods were sacrifices to demons:

Deuteronomy 32:17 – “They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded.”

1 Corinthians 10:20 – “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.”

A statue of Baal.
Credit: Wikipedia

So as many flock to witchdoctors to entreat the spirits to act on their behalf, they are actually flocking to demons. They are flocking to sworn enemies of God. Spirits are not neutral nor benign. In fact, they are evil and we should fight against them.

So what shall we do about this? “But what if someone curses me?” This is a real question from a real student. We need to know some biblical truth in order to deal with this issue and bring comfort to our souls.

1. We have to know God is sovereign over everything, including spirits. They cannot act independently of God. God is not powerless to stop them. God governs any power they may have. Satan himself must ask God’s permission to sift Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31). So there is nothing spirits/demons can do that
is outside of God’s control.

2. We must know no believer can be possessed by spirits/demons. Also, the demons in the Bible come out with a word from Christ and even His apostles. There is spiritual warfare but God gives us the armor to deal with it (Ephesians 6:10-20).

3. We need to know God is working for the believer’s good (Romans 8:28). Can bad circumstances befall a believer? Most certainly, yes. Is that the work of a spirit? You just cannot know. But God is bringing good out of it.

4. You should pray for protection. You should, like Jesus did for Peter, pray that your faith not fail.

Many seek witchdoctors and the spirits in order to gain something. Mostly they seek financial or health-related gains. Christians pray for these very things from God, and they should. But the Bible makes clear that God’s ordinary working is through ‘normal’ events. That is why Paul instructs people to work so they can provide for their families and others (Ephesians 4:28). It is also why Paul tells Timothy to take wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). He recognizes that God uses ordinary means. If we think the only way we can get rich or well is through the spirits then we have missed plain biblical teaching.

What about the Ugandan Christian mentioned previously? He was wondering if he should take a new car to the elders for them to lay hands and pray for it in order to gain protection from spirits. Is that something that should be done? Since the spirits in the Ugandan sense are not real, then I would say no. But they should pray for it that the passengers be kept safe and that it would be used for God’s glory.

Conclusion

I say all this not because I don’t believe in spiritual realities we don’t see. I do, in fact, believe in them. Analyzing a big part of African society from a biblical worldview is my goal. Is there room for the spirits? Are they as ATR says they are? What is really going on?

Spirits, in the Ugandan sense, are not real entities from a biblical worldview. There are demons, however. These spiritual entities use the belief in the spirits to gain a powerful stronghold. We must seek God’s Word for guidance in dealing with demons/unclean spirits.

We need not be beholden to an ATR worldview. Instead, we need to seek a biblical worldview. We see the Bible does not discuss or acknowledge the spirits as presented in ATR. Instead, the Bible presents an ordered world with one God who is sovereign and has given mankind, not spirits, dominion and blessing. We must seek this God and live in light of His truth.

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Is Genesis 3:15 the Best Verse in the Bible?

Some time ago I was speaking with another pastor and he said he was preaching on the best verse in the Bible.  Having just finished teaching a class on Genesis in Uganda I asked if it was Genesis 3:15.  That’s not what he had in mind but said that it was a good one.  Ranking Bible verses would prove a daunting and tricky task.  It really cannot be done.  However, if one did rank them I would submit Genesis 3:15 for consideration as the best.

Why do I think so highly of this verse?  On the first reading, it is cryptic and usually glossed over.  That’s how I treated it until I learned better.  Gen 3:15 is a great verse because 1) the context brings great hope, 2) it is programmatic of the rest of the Bible, & 3) God makes a promise that we know has been fulfilled.

The ContextGenesis 315 [mobile-1262x1262]

In Genesis 1 & 2 God has created the world very good.  He has made Adam and Eve, male and female in His image.  God has given them food to eat and a garden to live in and the noble task of spreading the blessings of Eden to the rest of the world.  He dwells among them.  Life is good.

Yet Adam and Eve quickly throw it all away in order to be like God.  It only takes until chapter 3 where we read about their sin.  They were aware of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit.  They were aware of the consequences should they disobey God and eat of the fruit.  Yet they were deceived by the serpent and ate anyways.

When God visits them in the garden He confronts their rebellion against Him.  He begins with the serpent and gives him a curse.  Then God moves on and tells Adam and Eve what curses come because of their sin.  It is important to note that God doesn’t curse them directly.  Rather the pain of giving birth is increased and the ground is cursed.

See we have already skipped over Gen 3:15.  It is here, in the midst of the curses, while cursing the serpent that we read: “I (God) will put enmity between you (the serpent) and the woman (Eve), and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

Here God promises that he will start a war between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent.  God is promising to deal with the sin Adam and Eve have just brought into the world.  It will be the battle, at the injury of the offspring, which will eliminate the serpent and his work.  It is hope in the midst of great trouble.  Here, in the middle of the curse, is the promise to make right what has gone wrong.  This is what we call grace.

It was hope for Adam and Eve and it is hope for us.  Though we sin and take for granted all God has given us, we know that there stands one who has dealt with our sin on the cross.  It is a message of grace for us.  Just like Adam and Eve, we need faith on the promised one, Jesus Christ.

The Program

If you have ever wondered what the Bible is all about, let Genesis 3:15 be the guide.  Humanity has sinned and God will deal with that sin through a chosen offspring.  The Old Testament (OT) looks forward to the work of the promised offspring.  The New Testament (NT) looks backward to the work of the promised offspring.

The search for the promised offspring begins in Genesis 4:1 when Eve has Cain and says, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”  The text is making it plain that she is looking for this promised one.  The search continues in Genesis 5:29 when Noah is born and his father, Lamech, says of him, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.”

Neither one was the promised offspring.  But the search has begun.  Listen to Lamech’s words and how they point to the fact that the promised one will end the curse brought on by sin.  Jesus is that promised offspring.  But the whole OT looks forward to His coming.  Jesus says as much in Luke 24:27.

The NT looks backward to this promise and speaks of Jesus’ work in these terms.  Romans 16:20 and Hebrews 2:14-15 provide discussion of Jesus defeating the serpent.  Revelation 20:1-3, 10 also discusses the final fate of the serpent – that is Satan.  He is defeated by Jesus.

Simeon is one who got this through the power of the Holy Spirit.  In Luke 2 he sees Jesus as a baby and “took him up in his arms” and says he can depart in peace because “my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  God’s salvation is in the form of the person Jesus Christ who which He first promised in Genesis 3:15.  The Gospel of Luke also points to this fact by giving the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam – and thus also Eve.

Theologians call Genesis 3:15 the protoeuangelion which simply means the first gospel.  This text is the gospel in seed form.  But it is the promise of good news for humanity through the suffering of the seed of the woman.  Redemption is promised through the act of the seed.  Far from the OT being ignorant of grace and Christ’s redemption, these topics appear here first and are clarified in the NT.

The program of the whole Bible is that one will come to deal with sin and the curse.  The OT looks forward to it and the NT looks back to it.  Today we look back to Jesus’ work and trust it alone as the hope for our sin and to deal with the problems brought on by the first sin as well as our own.  The cure for the curse is Christ’s work.  Period.  The cure is not man’s obedience (as is commonly thought & taught).

The Promise

We see by God’s promise, and its subsequent fulfillment in Christ, that nothing can stop God from bringing this about.  In the OT there are bad people, kings, and deeds.  There are world powers who oppress Isreal, unfaithful Israel who is exiled, and the destruction of the temple.  Even the good guys do some terrible things – like David and Bathsheba as just one example.  In the NT the religious leaders work against Jesus.  Even the disciples try to stop Jesus from accomplishing His mission.  However, nothing stops God from delivering on His promise.  Nothing.

Christ crushed the head of the serpent on the cross

Christ crushed the head of the serpent on the cross

At the end of the 3rd chapter of Genesis, we have a beautiful scene of God showing grace and mercy to Adam and Eve.  These are first fruits of the work to come.  They were naked and had no shame but because of their sin they realized their nakedness and were ashamed.  We might expect God to say they should deal with the mess they have made.  Yet he doesn’t do that.  Instead, he fashions a loincloth of animal skin to cover the nakedness and shame brought on by their own sin.

God is beginning to point to the work of Christ from the very beginning.  He is showing a tender love that meets people where they are.  He is dealing with sin and its effects in a real way but not in a permanent way.  God knows that loin cloths don’t save people.  They do cover nakedness and shame and point to Jesus who will remove shame permanently.

The specifics of the promise also point to the way in which the offspring will bring about redemption.  God says that the serpent will bruise the offspring’s (as we know now that is Christ) heel and that the offspring will bruise the serpent’s head.  So at great cost to himself – bruising of his heel, the offspring will achieve total victory over the serpent – bruising his head.  Christ fulfills this by dying on the cross to completely and totally save people from their sins.

In Matthew 1:21 we learn why Jesus’ name is Jesus.  It is because He will save His people from their sins.  He came to deal with sin and its effects.  When Adam and Eve sin, the first promise God makes is to deal with that sin through an offspring.  Sin is the fundamental problem in our world today.  Thus Jesus is the fundamental solution to that problem.  We won’t know the full and final effects of that until Jesus returns.  Now we have a wonderful foretaste.

That is why we endure in this life.  We know that the serpent is still around deceiving people.  The Bible tells his ultimate fate is defeat – Rev 20:1-3, 10.  But even now Jesus provides the forgiveness for sin and the power to overcome sin.  We look to him as the saints of old did and rest in Him for deliverance in this life and the next– Hebrews 12:1-3.  If we want hope, the only place to turn is God’s promise.

Conclusion

Genesis 3:15 is a theologically packed verse.  Its context, sin, provides the backdrop to the redemption Christ brings.  Its message helps read the Bible in the right light.  It teaches us that the redemption comes through Christ’s work and not though humanity’s obedience. Its promise is fulfilled and gives hope to endure.  Is it the best verse in the Bible?  I don’t know.  But it sure is a great one.

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The Nativity Message

The December night was chilly and a crowd had gathered with anticipation. We had sheep and a donkey and I think a few other animals at a live nativity we performed at our church when I was in high school. In it was a particularly memorable moment, not when the angels spoke to the shepherds nor when the wise men arrived nor baby Jesus’ entrance. No the most memorable moment was when a sheep ran off with a youth holding tightly to the rope. The crowd laughed and had a bit of concern and we youth were aghast and trying to figure out how the show would go on. I can’t even remember which part I played but I do remember the sheep dragging a friend for a few yards.

Among the many Christmas traditions and decorations, the nativity stands as one of my favorites. I love how they remind us of Jesus, God incarnate, as a baby and how they show the people who came to worship Jesus. This is not just in America, in my travels I have found it fascinating to see how each country has different materials and methods of constructing nativities. Every area of the world makes them in their own way. Each one displaying the meaning of Christmas – that Immanuel – God with us – has come to save the world (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23).

When you see a nativity scene this Christmas, you can thank St. Francis of Assisi. Well, of course we should thank God for sending Jesus. But, St. Francis made the first nativity or crèche in 1223 AD. That first nativity featured live animals and people. It quickly gained popularity and spread throughout the Roman Catholic world. They featured all the characters of the Christmas story found in the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the wise men, shepherds, angels, a star, and even animals.

Brooke and I at the traditional site of Jesus' birth

Brooke and I at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth


But who should we include in the nativity? This has been a question I have heard more and more and perhaps you have even heard it.

Should the wise men be put into the nativity with the shepherds? Growing up, of course they all went together. More recently I have learned that many think the wise men came about two years after the shepherds. They were both there but not at the same time. Are our nativities wrong? Should we correct them? I have heard it suggested – both tongue in cheek and more seriously – the wise men should be on a different shelf. How should we think about all this?

Why do people question if the wise men should be there with the shepherds? Well this is because of the story of the wise men as found in the Gospel of Matthew. They show up and ask the king of the land, Herod, where the one born king of the Jews, Jesus, was to be found. Herod wasn’t too keen on having another king so he set out to kill Jesus. Herod had all children two years old and under heinously murdered.

This time frame suggests to some that Jesus would have been about 2 years old when the wise men came calling. But nothing in the text makes this conclusion necessary. Herod could have just been overly cautious. If Herod is anything like me then he is not too keen at identifying the ages of younger children.

How long did Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem, a city they were visiting for a census? They didn’t have a return bus ticket for a specific return date. But would staying 2 years in a place that wasn’t their home be probable? Two years seems like a long time.

Regardless of when the wise men were there, the shepherds were there for opening night of Christ’s life on earth. God, as a proud Father, announced the birth of His Son to the shepherds. They were there for one night only, at least as given by the text. So the likelihood of the shepherds and the wise men being there on the same night doesn’t seem so great.

But does this mean we should separate them in our nativities?

Here is a nativity at my mom's house

Here is a nativity at my mom’s house


The nativity tells this one story so very beautifully. Though we have four Gospels we have to see them telling the one story of Jesus but with different perspectives or emphases. I think when St. Francis made the first crèche he had the gospel story in mind not just the historicity of one moment. Think of a nativity as a portrait and not a snapshot. It portrays so well the Christmas message of God with us. The nativity demonstrates so well the ‘us’ in God with us.

If you want a Matthew nativity then you should include only the wise men and the shepherds should be on a different shelf and the baby would be a little bigger. If it is a Luke nativity that you desire then perhaps the wise men should be on a different shelf. But if you want a Gospel nativity then they should be together.

But what does the nativity communicate to us? Taking the Matthew and Luke accounts together is good and tells a story about Christ as God and who He came to save. In each account we have two sets of very different people coming to see the baby Jesus (see Chart).

The wise men of Matthew were not Jewish people but Gentiles. Gentiles were kept out of the temple and generally avoided when possible by Jews. The wise men were also rich bringing expensive gifts to Jesus. They traveled from far away to visit Jesus’ homeland. Their title in the text as well as their ability to gain an audience with King Herod suggests they held respected positions. The text of Matthew also tells us that they knew of some prophesy about Christ and knew that the star they saw meant that the king of the Jews had been born.

The shepherds of Luke are quite different from the wise men. They were Jewish and thus the very people to whom Christ had been promised. They were poorer than the wise men and most likely poor themselves as they had the night watch on some sheep. They lived in Jesus’ homeland and were very near to where He was born. Their occupation was not the most respected in that time. The text tells us that they were surprised by the birth announcement from the angels.

What they have in common is part of the greatest news of all time. They both respond in faith and with worship. Imagine if they lacked faith and did not visit the baby Jesus even though told about him in their differing ways. The wise men knelt down and worshiped the infant Jesus. The shepherds, like the angels who told them, glorified and praised God for what they had seen. Praising and glorifying are a form of worship so their experience caused them to worship God. Both groups respond if faith and worship. Experiencing Jesus should result in worship. This is the desired outcome of the nativity and Jesus’ birth.

The 'Us' of the Nativity

WISE MENSHEPHERDS
GentileJew
RichPoor
FarNear
RespectedLowly
AnticipatedSurprised
RESULTRESULT
FaithFaith
WorshipWorship

Today many fear they are or may be excluded from Christ. But all are welcome to respond in faith and worship. The wise men and shepherds teach this. Each group has something that suggests they are not expected to be the ones to come and worship. To be sure the Jew/Gentile division is the main one. For the Jews, the Gentiles (or those who were not Jewish) were not part of God’s people and the anticipated Messiah was largely thought to be exclusively for the Jews. But even within the Jewish community, one might expect religious leaders or priests or those of high esteem to be told first by God. The nativity blows these expectations out of the water (Isaiah 9:2, Psalm 86:9, Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19).

The wise men are Gentiles and far off. Who would guess they would come and worship. But they are rich and respected which many take, especially in that day, as signs of having God’s blessing. Also they were looking for Jesus. So these may be inferred as characteristics we look for in worshippers.

The shepherds on the other hand are Jewish and live in Israel. Of course they are welcome by this criteria. But also they were poor and of a lower occupation and were not even looking for Jesus. By these we might not expect them to be invited to the party.

But the good news is, and we see it so clearly in the nativity, all manner of humanity has been called to worship God through Jesus Christ. It does not matter your background, occupation, status, financial assets, or whether you are even looking for God. His call does not extend only to Jews or the rich or any other category. Jesus came to save people from all stripes – whether you are being drug by a sheep or have it all together. All people are welcome to respond to in faith and worship Jesus.

This Christmas season, when you see a nativity let it remind you to worship Jesus. It is all about Him. Let it remind you that all are welcome to respond in faith and worship Jesus. Who are the people in your life who need to hear the good news of Jesus? Who needs to hear that they too are welcome? Like God, the proud father, told of the birth of His Son to the shepherds, let us too tell of the birth of Jesus and call ourselves and others to worship Him.

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