Are you not mere men? (1 Corinthians 3:3-4, NAS)
Many mystify, canonize, enthrone, revere and worship the people we’ve come to know as the characters in the Nativity. Two thousand years after the birth of Christ, these people are perceived as poignant personalities, having always been well-known and respected, and somehow just a bit more divine than human. Otherwise why would Dr. Luke and Tax Collector Matthew have told their story. Surely the events described in the above scripture narrative were featured on the front page of the non-existent Bethlehem Morning News.
Of course none of these is true. Both Matthew and Luke were intimately acquainted with Jesus’ family and wrote the accounts based on what Mary told them as confirmed by the Holy Spirit. There were a precious few people in their lives who really knew the miracles surrounding Jesus’ birth. The so-called Nativity characters were mere people who “heard the Word of the Lord” and did it! Such depictions of the birth of Christ were first introduced by Saint Francis around the year 1223 AD.
Many of you no doubt have vivid childhood memories of specific activities that took place at Christmas time. One of my earliest and fondest memories was assembling the nativity in the stall and placing Baby Jesus in the manger. I was intrigued with the china figurines. My mother treasured them, yet she entrusted them to my little hands and allowed me to place them wherever I wished on the table.
So it is with God. He created a “baby shower” of eternal dimensions the night His Son was born. He treasured His Son, yet He gave Him to us and gave us freedom to choose where to place Him in our lives. Jesus was DIVINE. All the other people that figure into this Christmas story—no matter how significant they may appear to be—were mere people. However, because of their desire to live godly and because of their obedience to hear and act on the voice of the Lord, they became giants in the Kingdom of God. Did they know it? No. They faced the daily joys and difficulties and complexities of life just as we do.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these mere people.
MARY & JOSEPH (Matthew 1:18)
Mary was espoused (engaged) to Joseph. What we know is that Mary “found favor with God” and Joseph was a “righteous man.” Nothing else mattered. We are told absolutely nothing about the circumstances surrounding the engagement of this couple or about their parents and family life.
Espousal among the Hebrews was something more than what a mere marriage engagement is with us. It was considered the beginning of marriage, was as legally binding as marriage itself, and could not be broken off except by a bill of divorce. Hence we find that Joseph is called the “husband” of Mary (vs. 19). The betrothal was usually determined by the parents or brothers of the parties and the engagement was made between a friend or legal representative of the bridegroom and the father of the bride.
The espousals were made very early in life, though marriage did not take place before the bride was twelve years old. Even when the age was suitable, the marriage was not consummated for some time after the betrothal. At least a year, or sometimes more, elapsed between the betrothal and the marriage of a maiden, to give time for preparing her outfit. In case of a widow, marriage might take place thirty days after espousal. The betrothal was usually accompanied by a feast in the house of the bride.
The engagement, to be binding, must be either by written contract, or by the reception of presents by the bride from the bridegroom. When Abraham’s servant received the consent of Rebekah’s father and brother to make her the wife of his master’s son, he presented to the maiden valuable gifts. The reception of these made the contract binding. The bride remained at her father’s house until the time of marriage, when the bridegroom came after her. Meanwhile communication between her and the bridegroom was kept up by means of the friend of the bridegroom.
The friend of the bridegroom was the person selected by the bridegroom to conduct the marriage negotiations on his part. It was he who carried messages between the bridegroom and the bride during the time of the betrothal. When, on the occasion of the marriage, they were brought to see each other in a private room or under a canopy provided for the purpose, the friend of the bridegroom stood outside, eager to catch the first words of delight which came from the bridegroom’s lips, expressive of the satisfaction he experienced on conversing with his betrothed.
This position John the Baptist claims for himself figuratively. “He is not the Christ, but bears a relation to him similar to that borne by the Para nymph to the bridegroom. He makes the arrangements for bringing Christ, the bridegroom, to the Church, His bride. He waits with reverence and respect to hear words of joy coming from the lips of Christ because he has found a waiting and a willing Church. As the services of the Para nymph only occupied a short time, so the Baptist’s mission would soon be over: He must increase, but I must decrease (Jn 3:30).” (Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 330).
These simple people, Mary and Joseph, each “heard” the message from the Lord and “acted” on it. They were mere people through whom God was able to accomplish His purpose.
SHEPHERDS (Luke 2:8-20)
There have been many books written about shepherds because they figure so prominently in the Bible. David was watching his father’s sheep on this very same hillside in Judea the day Samuel came to anoint him as King over Israel. It is no surprise, then, that God chose to give the first birth announcement of the arrival of His Son to the shepherds on that hillside. Jesus loved the analogy of shepherd and sheep. He said, “I am the Good Shepherd: the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
“The Eastern shepherds give names to their sheep, as we do to dogs and horses. Every sheep recognizes his own name, and comes when called. Travelers have noticed the wonderful readiness with which the sheep of a large flock will recognize the shepherd’s voice. Though several flocks are mingled they speedily separate at the command of the shepherd, while the word of a stranger would have no effect on them.”
Porter thus describes a scene he witnessed among the hills of Bashan: “The shepherds led their flocks forth from the gates of the city. They were in full view, and we watched them and listened to them with no little interest. Thousands of sheep and goats were there, grouped in dense, confused masses. The shepherds stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each shepherd taking a different path, and uttering as he advanced a shrill, peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved as if shaken by some internal convulsion; then points struck out in the direction taken by the shepherds; these became longer and longer until the confused masses were resolved into long, living streams, flowing after their leaders.” (Giant Cities of Bashan, p. 45) (Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 428-429).
The shepherds on the Judean hillside reflected the character of the sheep when they “heard” the message from the Lord and “acted” on it. They were mere people through whom God was able to accomplish His purpose.
WISE MEN (Matthew 2:1)
Today we know that these “wise men” were wise because they sought out the Savior. The idea that they were kings and three in number is mere imagination and unsusceptible of proof. The Bible does not say how many there were. We know there were at least two because it says “men” not “man.” There may have been one hundred or more because they often traveled in groups. These wise men, or, more properly, Magi, belonged to a numerous and influential order of men. We find in the Old Testament several references to the Magi.
“In Daniel’s time the Magi were very prominent in Babylon. As the Magi were men of learning, devoting special attention to astronomy and the natural sciences, it happened that after the lapse of years, men who became celebrated for learning were called Magi. The Magi who came to visit the infant Savior were no doubt of the better class … They were evidently skilled in astronomical knowledge, and were earnest seekers after the newborn king. Where they came from is a disputed question. Various writers have suggested that they were Babylonians, Arabians, Persians, Bactrians, Parthians, or even Brahmins from India. Matthew says they were from “the East” which was a geographical term of very elastic meaning.” (Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 330-331).
Wherever they came from, it took them months–perhaps more than a year–to follow the star –the sign they had been given – to where the newborn Jesus lay. Matthew 2:11 tells us they came into the “house”–which likely means Mary and Joseph had already escaped to Egypt. The fact is these men “heard” the message from the Lord and “acted” on it. They were mere people through whom God was able to accomplish His purpose.
When we say Christmas Story, we’re really talking about the account of Christ’s birth. It is relevant every day of the year—not just in the December season. The persons that figure prominently in the story of Jesus were mere people who seem great to us because of the biblical and historical accounts the have followed them. Allow them to remind you each day that if you’re faithful and obedient to the Lord you will be GREAT in the Kingdom. That’s your reward though you may not realize it until you hear Him say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord!” Our goal and aspiration is to be faithful and obedient—not to be great. “Great” is a by-product of having obeyed.
Many people we read about in history did not become famous or textbook worthy until after their death. In the same way, the people who played such a major role in the birth of Jesus Christ were not esteemed, famous, or popular because their peers did not know or comprehend the eternal impact of the action of these mere people. God takes insignificant people—teenagers like Mary, single men like Joseph, outdoorsmen like the Shepherds, and educated men like the Wise Men—and makes them significant. He takes mere people, pours in His Spirit and makes them tributaries through which the River of Life can flow from His throne to others bringing deliverance, life, hope, and salvation.
Do you ever feel like a “mere” human being? Simply ordinary? Totally insignificant? Are you being faithful to “hear” and “do” God’s will? They may never make a figurine of your body and place you on a table in remembrance of some event, but our Heavenly Father will make you a new person and place you at His Table as His honored guest. All heaven will rejoice—just like they did on the night of Jesus’ birth!
(c) East of Bethlehem, by C. Yvonne Karl, Brentwood Press, 2003, Chapter 6.
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