The second chapter of Matthew's Gospel opens with these words: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea ..." This statement immediately directs our thought to a very important event in history, viz: the coming of Jesus Christ. In this first lesson, therefore, we shall deal not only with this event, but also with a number of important considerations arising therefrom. The date usually given for the birth of Jesus is 4 B.C.
The following notes should help toward a better understanding of the first Scripture reading given above:
1. The Wise Men.
While it is customary to refer to "the Three Wise Men," we should note that Scripture does not indicate any number, but simply states that "Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem" (Matt. 2:1). The idea that there were three wise men seems to have arisen sometime during the fifth century — probably from the fact that there were three gifts. However, it must be recognized that this is not an entirely satisfactory method of reasoning! An early writer suggests that these wise men were really kings, coming to pay homage to the King of Kings. The story was further embellished in the eighth century, when names were given to these wise men: Kaspar, Belshazzar, and Melchior. But it should be noted that nothing of this sort has place in the actual Scripture story.
Perhaps the important teaching in this passage may be summed up in the sentence, "Wise men ever seek the Christ." Applied to ourselves this means that when our God-given wisdom is spiritually illumined, we seek the Christ—not in some far-off place, but at the center of our being. The star, or spiritual illumination, leads us to the realization of "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).
2. Herod and the Star.
Many attempts have been made to identify the star mentioned in this story. The most popular explanation associates the star with a periodic appearance of "Halley's Comet"; and calculations have been made which would indicate that this comet may have appeared about the time of Jesus' birth. However, we should not overlook one very important feature in the story: while the star was clearly visible to the wise men, neither Herod nor his followers could see it. Had the star been visible to Herod, he would not have been forced to depend upon the Wise Men for information regarding the whereabouts of the newborn King. Why was this star visible to the Wise Men, and not to Herod? Probably the best answer is to be found in the oft-quoted phrase, "Spiritual things must be spiritually discerned." In other words, the spiritually illumined Wise Men were able to discern the guiding light, while Herod, the unillumined, could see nothing out of the ordinary in the skies.
Metaphysically, Herod represents "the ruling will of the physical ego in sense consciousness" (Metaphysical Bible Dictionary 274). We sometimes speak of this in terms of personal will; and when personal will takes command, we are usually led into ways of fear, jealousy, cruelty, and destruction. Note Herod's attitude and actions following the visit of the Wise Men. (See Matt. 2:16-18.) Personal will, in like manner, fears the possibility of displacement, and seeks to "kill out" every good thought and purpose arising within our consciousness. Fortunately, there is a Power which directs us to take our thoughts and purposes "into Egypt," beyond the destructive intentions of Herod.
1. Shepherds, Angels.
Luke's account of the birth of Jesus stands in contrast to that given by Matthew. In place of the high and important personages, we have just a few humble shepherds, feeding their flocks. Luke writes: "And there were shepherds ... abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock" (Luke 2:8). Perhaps it is worthy of note that in this instance we do not find ourselves wondering whether there were three, or thirty shepherds (as we did with the Wise Men); nor are we concerned about enrolling the names of these shepherds in a spiritual "Who's Who"! Nevertheless, these humble shepherds sought and found the Christ, even as did the wise men.
It should be further noted that these shepherds had their moments of illumination, even as did the Wise Men; for not only did the "glory of the Lord" shine around them, but they also heard the angelic chorus:
"Glory to God in the highest, and on
earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:14 A.V.)
(Note: The above quotation is from the King James, or Authorized, Version. This passage is somewhat difficult to translate, hence the many variations. However, the Authorized Version seems to have caught the poetic beauty of this passage, and this more than atones for any inaccuracy of translation.)
2. Personal Application.
While we may learn much from the action of the Wise Men (Matt. 2), there is also a helpful lesson in the story of the shepherds, and this may be stated briefly as follows:
As we carefully "shepherd" our thoughts, there may come to us moments of spiritual illumination, and we may be directed to the Christ Child. However, note how the shepherds in the story did not stop with illumination; they said, "Let us go now even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing that is come to pass" (Luke 2:15). In other words, their "hearing" and "seeing" were followed by "doing"—and it was because of this that they made actual contact with the Christ Child. Surely this means something to us!
3. Simeon and Anna.
Be sure to read this section carefully, and especially note the beautiful little poem, as given by Simeon (Luke 2:28-32).
Matt. 1:1-25; Luke 3:23-38; Luke 1:26-56
1. The Genealogies.
Many students of the New Testament are puzzled by the inclusion of these "family trees" in the story of the birth of Jesus. We usually think of Jesus as being "born of the Virgin Mary"—and the Gospel writers place considerable emphasis on this point; but these lists deal, not with Mary, but with the family of Joseph. Why should this be?
The explanation is found in the fact that Mary, at the time of the birth of Jesus, was betrothed to Joseph (Matt. 1:18); because of this, Mary was then legally a member of the house of Joseph. Thus, while Jesus was actually born "of" Mary, yet at the same time He was born "into" the house of Joseph. It was because of this that Jesus was recognized as being "of the line of David."
An important difference should be noted between these two genealogies: Matthew traces the line back to Abraham, through David. This gives emphasis to Matthew's theme (Jesus, the Jewish Messiah), since there was general agreement that the Messiah should come through the line of David. Luke, however, traces the line beyond Abraham, and takes it back to Adam. This is done because the theme of Luke's Gospel is "Jesus, the Saviour of Mankind"; and by tracing the line back to Adam, the writer established the connection between Jesus and the entire human race; for Luke regards Jesus not only as the Messiah of the Jewish people, but also as the Saviour of the whole world.
2. The Virgin Birth.
When considering the subject of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, two important points should be kept well in mind.
First; the story of the Virgin Birth is clearly presented in two of the Synoptic Gospels. (See Matt. 1:1-25 and Luke 1:26-56. Mark does not record the birth of Jesus, but starts his story with the beginning of Jesus' ministry.) Both Matthew and Luke set forth the facts in clear, unmistakable terms. Hence, the story of the Virgin Birth must have been current among, and accepted by, the early Christians—since both these Gospels were in circulation around A.D. 70.
However, the second point seems somewhat paradoxical: it would appear that the Virgin Birth was not openly discussed during the active ministry of Jesus. If there had been any discussion of this sort, surely there would be some indication in the Gospel records. But Jesus was known as "the Carpenter," or "the Teacher"—not as "the One miraculously born." Indeed, the people of Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus, are reported as saying, "Is not this Joseph's son?" (Luke 4:22). We may ask, then: Why is the Virgin Birth not mentioned in the stories of Jesus' ministry as given in the gospels? The explanation might easily be that Jesus desired that His teaching should stand on its own merits, rather than as coming from someone "miraculously born." Jesus' emphasis was upon Truth, and not upon any claim of miraculous birth. Thus, Luke informs us that Mary "kept all these sayings in her heart" (Luke 2:51)—apparently withholding all this type of information until the time was right.
The question may now arise as to why the story of the Virgin Birth is given in the opening sections of the Gospels. Was it an effort on the part of the Gospel writers to prove the divinity of Jesus? Or was it evidence put forward to show that Jesus was "different"? Scarcely! In point of fact, the Gospels contain many passages which lay stress upon Jesus' similarity to us, rather than upon His being "different." Jesus was tempted, hungry, thirsty, and shared all our human experiences. Jesus also gave instructions that we are to follow Him. But how could we follow if He were "different"? We would be hopelessly handicapped right at the very start!
It would seem, therefore, that the story of the Virgin Birth is given in the Gospels to bring before us a very important lesson. Again and again (especially at Christmastime) we hear the lines quoted:
"Though Christ a thousand times in
Bethlehem be born,
If He's not born in thee, thy soul is
But the Christ can be born in us only as we develop the virgin state of mind—the one-pointed consciousness wherein we recognize "God only," and are ready to say, with Mary, "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38). Jesus Himself emphasized this when He said to Nicodemus, "Ye must be born anew" (John 3:7). Paradoxical as it may appear, we ourselves must be "born anew" before the Christ can be born in us. This is the virgin state of mind. A somewhat similar teaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8).
(Note: When studying the teaching of the Virgin Birth, it is well to keep in mind the metaphysical meaning of the name "Mary." In the New Testament several women by this name are mentioned; and in practically all instances these may be interpreted as having bearing upon the emotional, or loving side of our nature. Thus, we should recognize love as an important factor in the new birth.)
Regarding Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Metaphysical Dictionary states:
"Mary, the mother of Jesus, represents the soul that magnifies the Lord 'daily in the temple' and through its devotions prepares itself for the higher life. She signifies the divine motherhood of love. ... The coming of the Christ body into activity is the result of an exalted idea sown in the mind and matured by the soul (Mary). The soul is devout and expectant. It believes in the so-called miraculous as a possibility. Mary expected the birth of the Messiah, according to the promise of the Holy Spirit. She was overshadowed by that high idea ... and what is called the birth of Christ took place" (Metaphysical Bible Dictionary 427-8).
The "Silent Years."
Many students of the New Testament find themselves wondering about the activities of Jesus prior to the time when He entered upon His public ministry. Matthew tells us how Joseph took Mary and the child Jesus into Galilee, "and dwelt in a city called Nazareth" (Matt. 2:22-23). Luke also records how, some twelve years later, Joseph and Mary made a brief visit to Jerusalem, taking Jesus with them (Luke 2:40-52). Apart from these two references, there is no direct mention of further activities. The New Testament indicates that when Jesus entered upon His public ministry He was about thirty years of age (Luke 3:23). What, then, was He doing during those intervening years?
Some writers have suggested that sometime during those "silent years" Jesus visited other lands, and conversed with religious leaders of that time, thereby gaining valuable information which He later incorporated into His teaching. Such suggestions are interesting; and therefore it may be well to look into the situation, and carefully weigh the evidence.
First of all, it is quite clear that the Gospel writers make no mention of any such journeys. Luke (who tells us that he made careful inquiries concerning all the activities of Jesus) certainly would have mentioned these journeys to other lands, if he had known anything of them. Any indication of Jesus' visiting other lands and conversing with Gentile teachers would have given additional emphasis to Luke's theme: "Jesus, Saviour of Mankind." But apparently Luke knew nothing of such journeys.
It must also be recognized that the Jewish people of that time did not look favorably upon teachers connected with other religions. The Jews believed that they alone had the supreme revelation in their sacred books, and therefore it would have been unthinkable to look to foreigners for further light and guidance. Moreover, Jesus Himself rejected all suggestions regarding outside influence upon His teaching. He claimed that His knowledge and teaching came direct from "the Father."
The Gospels contain no indications of extensive journeys to the outside world by Jesus. But the Gospels do contain many indications that those "silent years" were spent within the bounds of the Holy Land. For example, it is recorded that people spoke of Jesus, not as "the great traveler," but as "the Man from Nazareth." Luke 4:16 reads: "And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up." John 1:46 records that Nathaniel (speaking of Jesus) said, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" There are several other passages in the Gospels which closely identify Jesus with early activities in Nazareth. Furthermore, the illustrations Jesus used in His talks were all drawn from the life and activities of people in the Holy Land. And Jesus Himself once summed up the entire situation by saying: "I was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 15:24).
The question may then be asked: What was Jesus actually doing in Nazareth during those "silent years"? The answer is not hard to find. It would appear that Joseph died while Jesus was yet in His teens, and Jesus thereupon became responsible for the support of Mary and the entire family (there being by this time several other children to be cared for). Jesus, during this period, continued to work as a carpenter; and the recognition of His craftmanship continued even into His public ministry. Then, in addition to these family responsibilities, Jesus must have spent considerable time and effort in preparing Himself for His ministry. While there is no record of Jesus' actually entering upon any course of formal theological education, it must be recognized that His mastery of Scripture (Old Testament) was outstanding. Again and again in His later ministry Jesus used Scripture in a way that clearly indicated much careful, painstaking study and research; and all this would have been accompanied by long periods of meditation and prayer. It will prove very helpful if the student will look out for some of these important "quotes" in subsequent lessons. Certainly, those "silent years" must have been very busy years.
Opening the New Testament at the first chapter of John, we immediately recognize that we are in an entirely different atmosphere, as compared with that of the Synoptic Gospels. John does not give details regarding the birth of Jesus, as do Matthew and Luke, but presents his story in metaphysical language. The synoptists tell us that Jesus was born in a certain place, and at a certain time. John, however, goes beyond these "facts" and states: "In the beginning was the Word ... and the Word was God ... and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth" (John 1:1, 14). Thus, we quickly discover why this Gospel is termed "the Spiritual Gospel."
The following notes will prove helpful to the student, when reading the complete passage (as mentioned above). However, at this time it will be well to concentrate upon the sections referring to the coming of Jesus Christ.
- "In the beginning was the Word [Logos]" (John 1:1). "Logos is the Christ, the Son, the divine Light, the living Word, or Word of the Supreme, and it contains all potentiality; all things were made by it (Him). Man can appropriate all, or a part, as he chooses. Jesus expressed it in all its fullness, and He became the Logos, or Word, made flesh. In other words, Jesus so unified Himself in thought, word, and deed with this inner Christ, Logos, Word, creative principle of God, in which are all the ideas in Divine Mind—life, substance, intelligence, wisdom, love, strength, power, that even His seemingly mortal or flesh body took on the divine nature and became immortal, was wholly transformed into God-likeness, spirituality; thus throughout His entire being Jesus showed forth the glory and perfection of the Father. Those who follow Him can make this full attainment that He made, if they accept, as He did, the all-possibility of the Principle" (Metaphysical Bible Dictionary 404-5).
- Make a careful comparison between John 1:1-18 and Gen. 1; 2:1-4. Genesis gives the account of the first creation, while John 1:1-18 leads us into an understanding of the new creation.
- "And the Word became flesh" (John 1:14). "Jesus recognized this truth that the Christ, the divine-idea man or Word of God, was His true self and that He was consequently the Son of God. Because Jesus held to this perfect image of the divine man, the Christ or Word entered consciously into every atom of His being, even to the very cells of His outer organism, and transformed all His body into pure, immortal, spiritual substance and life. Thus, 'the Word became flesh' " (Mysteries of John 15).
After carefully considering all the above sections, following the plan of study suggested in the Introduction, the student should now be ready to answer the questions for this lesson.
Questions for Lesson 1
- When and where was Jesus born? Who was the Jewish king at this time? Which synoptic Gospels record this important event? Give chapter and verse references.
- Briefly explain how John's Gospel deals with the birth of Jesus. (John 1:1-14)
- What was Herod's attitude following the visit of the Wise Men? What action did Herod take when the wise men failed to return to him?
- Where did Jesus live before beginning His public ministry? Give a New Testament reference to substantiate your answer.
- In your own words, briefly tell of Jesus' visit to Jerusalem, when He was about twelve years of age. (Luke 2:40-52)
- What does the name "Jesus" mean? (Matt. 1:21) Explain briefly what this means to us.
- Who were the Wise Men? (Matt. 2:1-12) What do they represent in our experience?
- What does Herod represent in consciousness? Explain briefly how this operates in our life and affairs.
- What does Mary the mother of Jesus symbolize? How does this affect us today?
- Briefly explain why the teaching of the Virgin Birth is important to us. How is this teaching connected with Matt. 5:8?