Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Jesse Tree/Advent Calendar Bible Verses

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, or whether you celebrate Jesus’ birth in December or not, it’s good to occasionally look back at the birth of Yeshua (Jesus) and be reminded of what an awesome event it was.*  More than just a cute baby born in Bethlehem, he was the Messianic Son of David, the fulfillment of prophecies stretching back through the ages to the Creation itself. 

* December 25th first became the date for the celebration of Jesus’ birth in the 4th century.  Before this, January 6th was the date of celebration.  The connection between December 25th and January 6th is still marked by the festal period known as the Twelve Days of Christmas.  The New Testament itself doesn’t mention the date of Jesus’ birth.  

Beginning in the Middle Ages (10th cent.), Christian art expressed the anticipation of Jesus’ coming with the Jesse Tree.  This was a symbolic tree or vine that represented the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1 that the Messiah would be “a branch…from the stump of Jesse.”  The spreading branches represented Jesse’s descendants, the ancestors of Jesus listed in the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.  The prophets that prophesied his coming were also often shown, as in the illuminated manuscript shown here.  (For more pictures, see the Wikipedia article Jesse Tree).* 

* This led to the idea of representing one’s ancestry as a tree, resulting in the idea of a family tree.

In recent years, the tradition has started of putting up a Jesse Tree in the weeks before Christmas and hanging on it symbols of Jesus’ ancestors and the prophets that prophesied his birth.  This is usually done during the month of December, with a new symbol being added each day accompanied by a Scripture reading.  This is an improvement over many Advent calendars because it includes the prophecies and events all through the Bible that point to Jesus’ birth.  This makes it more clear to children and others why this birth is so extremely important.

Many of the Jesse tree kits and craft ideas on the web use verses that introduce the ancestors of Jesus in a general way.  I thought it might be interesting to make a list of the actual prophecies connected with these ancestors that point to Jesus.  Following the Jesse Tree (or Advent calendar) format, I have chosen twenty-five passages that can be used from December 1 to 25, or on any other dates, to remind us why this birth was such an extraordinary event.  These can be used with a Jesse Tree or Advent calendar, or just read on their own.  Some interpretation will be needed for younger children.  Symbols that can be used in making a Jesse tree are also listed.  Individuals and couples that are starred are direct ancestors of Jesus. 

1            Genesis 3:8-19        Adam & Eve* (Heel, Snake)        c. 4115 BC

The earliest ancestors of Jesus are Adam and Eve.  Though made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26,27), they disobeyed him because of the lies of the serpent.  Their Fall and the Curse they received cut off their descendants—all of us—from eternal life (Rom 5:12).  But even in this terrible moment, God provided the promise of a deliverer.  This prophecy is in Gen. 3:15, the first Messianic prophecy in the Bible:  “I will put hatred between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.  He will strike you on your head, and you will strike him on his heel.”  The "seed" of the woman is the Messiah, who will crush and destroy Satan forever.  This prophecy is echoed in Isaiah 11:4 (see #12 below) and in Revelation 12:4,9 where the serpent appears as a dragon (see our teaching on Gen. 3:1 and Rev. 12:3 in “Dinosaurs in the Bible”).  

2            Genesis 9:1-27        Noah* (Noah’s Ark, Rainbow)        c. 2459 BC

Noah’s Flood was another terrible catastrophe brought on by sin, in which the world was destroyed by water.  Soon after the Flood, Noah gave an important prophecy about the future:  “And he said, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem, and Canaan will be his servant.  God will enlarge Japheth and he will dwell in the tents of Shem…” (Gen. 9:26,27).  Of the three sons of Noah, God is identified only with Shem (“the God of Shem”).  This is a prophecy that God would identify himself with the Hebrew people, the descendants of Shem, through whom the Messiah would be revealed to the world.  As Jesus himself said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).  It’s also a prophecy that the descendants of Japheth, which in Bible times were mostly Europeans, would be the first large non-Semitic people group to accept the Hebrew God.  These Japhethites came to the God of Shem because of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. 

3            Genesis 12:1-7        Abraham & Sarah* (Tent)        2166-1991 BC

Through the faith of Abraham, God began to establish his holy people through whom the Messiah would be revealed.  Of all the beautiful promises made to Abraham in Genesis 12, one contains a prophecy of the Messiah:  “And I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you, I will curse; and all the families of the earth will be blessed by you” (Gen. 12:3, quoted in Gal. 3:8; also Gen. 22:16-18).  How would all the families of the earth be blessed by Abraham?  Because of his “seed” (which is singular in Hebrew) mentioned in Gen. 12:7:  “I will give this land to your seed.”  As Paul teaches in Gal. 3:16, this seed is the Messiah, whose blessing even now is going out to more and more of the families of the world. 

4            Psalm 110:1-7        Melchizedek (Cup, Bread)        c. 2080 BC

The name Melchizedek in Hebrew means “king of righteousness.”  In the time of Abraham, he was the king of Salem, an early name for Jerusalem (Gen. 14:18-20).  He was also a priest of El Elyon (“God Most High”), one of the names in the Bible for the Creator God, the God of Israel.  As the “king of righteousness” ruling in Jerusalem, and also as a priest of God, Melchizedek is a picture of the Messiah, who reigns both as priest and king (Heb. 6:20-7:3).  The connection of Melchizedek with the Messiah is mentioned in Psalm 110:4 (quoted in Heb. 5:6; 7:17,21):  “The LORD has sworn and will not repent, ‘You [the Messiah] are a priest forever according to the manner of Melchizedek.’”  (Psalm 110:1 is quoted in Matt. 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42,43; Acts 2:34,35; and Heb. 1:13.)

5            Genesis 17:15-19, 22:1-18        Isaac* (Ram,Cradle)        2066-1886 BC

Isaac, the son of Abraham, was a miracle baby.  When he was born, Abraham was 100 years old, Sarah was 90.  This is a prophetic picture of the miraculous birth of Jesus.  Isaac received the same prophecy of the seed that his father Abraham did:  “And God said, ‘No, but Sarah your wife will bear for you a son and you will call his name Isaac (Yitzkhaq, which means “he laughed,” see Gen. 17:17), and I will establish my covenant with him as an eternal covenant for his seed after him’” (Gen. 17:19, also Gen. 26:3,4,24).  But there’s another way in which Isaac is a picture of Jesus:  when he was nearly killed as a sacrifice by Abraham (Gen. 22).  Why did God ask Abraham to do this?  Child sacrifice was quite common in those days.  It was considered the highest offering to your god.  God was testing Abraham to see how committed he was to God, but also used it to teach that he does not want human sacrifice, but will accept a substitute.  This substitute, the ram caught in the bush, is a picture of Messiah who died as a substitute for our sins. 

6            Genesis 28:10-22        Jacob* (Ladder)        2006-1859 BC

Jacob, the son of Isaac, also received the seed prophecy, just as his father and grandfather did.  This happened in a vision when he was running away from his brother, Esau, whose blessing he had stolen.  At Bethel, while he was sleeping out under the stars, he saw a ladder set up between earth and heaven, with angels going up and down on it.  Then he saw someone else on the ladder:  “And look, the LORD was standing on it and he said, ‘I am the LORD, God of Abraham your forefather and God of Isaac.  The land that you are lying on, I give it to you and to your seed…. And all the families of the earth will be blessed by you and by your seed’” (Gen. 28:13).  But who was this “LORD” that he saw?  The Bible teaches that no man has seen God (John 1:18).  This was the Son of God himself, who would later take on flesh to become Jesus.  So not only did Jacob receive a prophecy about the Messiah, he also had a face to face encounter with him!  Later, in his earthly ministry, Jesus also connected this vision with himself:    “And he [Jesus] said to him, ‘Amen, amen, I say to all of you, you will see heaven open and the messengers of God ascending and descending for the Son of Man” (John 1:51). 

7            Genesis 49:8-12        Judah* (Scepter)        c. 1950-1850 BC

When Jacob was dying in Egypt, he spoke many prophecies over his sons.  One is a prophecy that the Messiah would be a descendant of Judah, Jacob’s fourth son:  “The scepter will not depart from Judah and the ruler’s rod from between his feet until he whose it is comes; and the obedience of the peoples will be to him” (Gen. 49:10).  “He whose it is” (shiloh in Hebrew) refers to the Messiah.  Only he of the descendants of Judah will rule over all “the peoples” of the earth.  Then the prophecy mentions the donkey that Jesus rode on Palm Sunday:  “Binding his male donkey to the vine, even the son of his female donkey to the choice vine” (Gen. 49:11).  The “vine” is a symbol of Jesus himself (“I am the true vine…” John 15:1-5).  The prophecy continues:  “he will tread [the old way of washing] his clothing in wine and his garment in the blood of grapes” (Gen. 49:11b).  Later that same week, Jesus was literally washed in blood, having been “trodden” on by the political and religious authorities.

8            Deut. 18:15-19        Moses (Tablets)        1526-1406 BC

One of the most well-known prophecies of the Messiah in the time of Jesus was this prophecy given by Moses:  “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers; listen to him…. And it will be that the man that will not listen to my words that he will speak in my name, I will demand it from him” (Deut. 18:15,19; quoted in Acts 3:22,23; 7:37).  This prophet-like-Moses would not be an ordinary prophet, but a prophet with the lawmaking authority of Moses himself.  This prophet, God said, he would “raise up.”  In the Old Greek (the Septuagint or LXX), this is the same word used for resurrection.  This is why people identified Jesus with one of the prophets that had long been dead (“‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ So they said, ‘Some John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets,’” Matt. 16:13b-14).  They were looking for a prophet raised from the dead.  Only later did many of them realize that this was a prophecy of Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. 

9            Numbers 24:16-19        Balaam (Star)        c. 1410 BC

Balaam was a famous seer who lived up near the Euphrates River.  He was brought down to Moab by its king, Balak, to curse Israel, but ended up blessing the nation instead.  The key section of his prophecy is Num. 24:17:  “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near.  A star will march out of Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel.  He will shatter the temples [the sides of the head] of Moab and destroy all the sons of Seth (Sheth).”  The star of the Messiah appears here as a very militaristic symbol.  But that’s the original Biblical meaning of the Messiah:  a strong ruler that will defend his people against their enemies.  So who are the “sons of Seth” that he will destroy?  Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, from whom Noah was descended.  That makes Seth the ancestor of everyone living today.  When will the Messiah destroy everyone on earth?  After those who believe in him are taken up from the earth (1 Thess. 4:17).  All who remain behind will be destroyed (2 Thess. 1:6-9, Luke 17:27-30).  Here again, the words “will arise” in the old Greek are the same word used for resurrection (just as in Deut. 18:15, #8 above).

10         Joshua 5:13-15        Joshua (Sword)        c. 1466-1356 BC

The name Joshua in Hebrew is Yehoshua (“the LORD is salvation”).  This is the long form of the Hebrew name of Jesus, Yeshua.  No wonder so much of Joshua’s life and so many of his actions are a prophecy of the ministry of Jesus.  One of the most dramatic of these is in Joshua 5:13,14, when Joshua was near Jericho, preparing for his assault on the city.  “And it happened when Joshua was by Jericho that he lifted up his eyes and he saw—and look—a man was standing in front of him and his sword was drawn in his hand.  And Joshua walked toward him and said to him, ‘Are you for us?  Or are you for our enemies?’  And he said, ‘No, for I, the commander of the army of the LORD, have now come.’  And Joshua fell on his face to the earth…”  In the next verse, this man tells Joshua to remove his sandals, “for the place that you are standing on is holy” (Josh. 5:15).  Two verses later, this commander is called “the LORD” (Josh. 6:2).  Who is this leader of the heavenly army of the LORD, who is also called LORD?  This is another appearance of the Son of God, who had come to lead the Israelites to victory.  So not only is Joshua a picture of the Messiah; he had a face-to-face encounter with him, and was led by him to victory. 

11         1 Sam. 2:1-10        Hannah (Animal Horn)        c. 1110-1040 BC

Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, suffered as the childless second wife of Elkanah.  But she cried out to the Lord, and he answered her prayer with a baby boy, Samuel.  Her prayer of thanksgiving includes a prophecy of the Messiah:  “The LORD will judge the ends of the earth and give strength to his king, and he will lift up the horn of his Messiah” (1 Sam. 2:10).  This is the first time that the word Messiah (Mashiach) is used of a king in the Bible.  But this is not a local king.  He is connected with God’s judgment of the entire earth (“the LORD will judge the ends of the earth”).  Even the name of the Messiah is hinted at prophetically:  “because I rejoice in your salvation (yeshuah)” (1 Sam. 2:1).  This is the noun form of the Hebrew name Yeshua, the name of Jesus.  Hannah also mentions the resurrection of the dead:  “The LORD kills and makes alive; he brings down to Sheol [the place of the spirits of the dead] and raises up” (1 Sam. 2:6).  This beautiful prayer is echoed in Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1:46-55 (see #22 below). 

12         Isaiah 11:1-10        Jesse* (Branch from a Stump)        c. 1075-1005 BC

Jesse was the father of King David.  He was the grandson of Ruth* in the book of Ruth, who was herself the daughter-in-law of Rahab*, the harlot who lived in Jericho in the time of Joshua and helped the Israelites conquer the city.  Jesse is mentioned in Isaiah 11:1:  “And a branch will come out from the stump of Jesse, and a shoot from its roots will bear fruit.”  This was written 300 years after the time of Jesse and David (about 700 BC), so it could not be David himself.  The “stump of Jesse” refers instead to the end of the line of kings descended from David.  They ruled in Jerusalem until 597 BC, when the Babylonians conquered Judah.  But from this stump, the prophet says, a new branch would arise.  The description that follows identifies this branch as the Messiah, who “will slay the wicked one” with the “breath of his lips” at his coming (Isa. 11:4, see 2 Thess. 2:8).  But who then is the “root of Jesse that will be standing as a signal flag for the peoples; the Gentiles will seek him, and his resting place will be glory” (Isa. 11:10, quoted in Rom. 15:12)?  This, too, is a description of the Messiah, who made a way of salvation for the Gentiles and ascended into heaven.  But how can Messiah be both the root of Jesse and a shoot from his stump?  Only if he is more than an ordinary human being.  In his humanity, yes the Messiah is descended from Jesse, but in his divinity, he is the root from which Jesse and all others are given life. 

13         2 Samuel 7:8-17        David* (Harp)        1040-970 BC

David is the most well-known and popular king of Israel.  He is also a prophetic picture of the coming Messiah, as can be seen in the Messianic title “Son of David” that is used so often in the New Testament.  This title is connected with the covenant that God made with David:  “I will raise up your seed after you that will go out from your inner parts, and I will establish his kingdom.  He will build a house [of worship] for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.  I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me” (2 Samuel 7:12-14a, quoted in Heb. 1:5b).  While at first this prophecy seems to refer to Solomon, in fact Solomon fell into sin in his old age, and his kingdom was divided soon after his death.  In less than 400 years, it collapsed completely (see #12 above).  Though Solomon built a house of worship for the Lord, the Temple of Solomon, this too was destroyed, in 586 BC.  This is why people in Jesus’ day were looking for a Davidic and not a Solomonic Messiah: Solomon had not fulfilled the prophecies.  Jesus was instead descended from Nathan*, another of David’s sons (Luke 3:31).  (For more on the genealogies of Jesus, see our teaching, “Is Jesus Eligible to be the Messiah?”)

14         Amos 9:11-12       Amos (Watchman's Booth, Sycamore Fig)       c. 750 BC

After Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel was divided in two.  The northern kingdom, cut off from the Temple of God in Jerusalem, descended rapidly into idolatry and the worship of false gods.  Against this, God raised up Amos, a prophet from Tekoa near Bethlehem.  He was a simple shepherd and a pricker of sycamore figs.  This was a humble job in which every fig on a tree was pricked to help them ripen (Amos 7:14).  God called Amos to prophesy against the northern kingdom of Israel to warn that if it continued in sin, God would take them into exile.  But Amos also prophesied a future restoration, in which God would bring them back to their land (Amos 9:14-15).  He said, “In that day, I will raise up the booth of David which is falling, and I will close up their breaches.  And his [David’s] ruins I will raise up and I will build it [his booth] as in the days of old so that they will possess the remnant of Edom and all the Gentiles over whom my name is called…” (Amos 9:11-12 in Hebrew, quoted in  Acts 15:16-18).  The kingly line of David (“the booth of David”) would one day be restored over Israel, but not only Israel.  The line of David will also rule over all the Gentiles that have had the name of God spoken over them.  What is this talking about?  It’s a prophecy of Christian baptism, in which the name of God is spoken over those who have decided to follow the God of Israel.  The restoration of the booth of David is in Jesus, the prophetic son of David. 

15         Isaiah 7:14, 9:1-7, 42:1-9        Isaiah (Sunrise)        c. 700 BC

Isaiah is best known for his prophecy, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the virgin will be pregnant and will bear a son; and she will call his name Immanuel [‘God with us’] (Isa. 7:14, quoted in Matthew 1:23).  But this is only one of so many Messianic prophecies that Isaiah is often called the fifth gospel.  We already considered one in #12 above.  Another is in Isaiah 9:6,7:  “For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the dominion will be on his shoulder, and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the abundance of his dominion and of peace on the throne of David and on his kingdom there will be no end, to establish it and to support it with justice and with righteousness from now and forever…”  This prophecy is remarkable for calling the coming Davidic Messiah both God and Eternal Father, both of which identify the Messiah as divine, and not merely human.  Another remarkable passage is Isa. 42:6,7 (quoted in Luke 2:32 and Acts 13:47):  “I, the LORD, will call you in righteousness, and I will hold you by your hand and I will watch over you; and I will make you the people’s covenant, the Gentiles’ light, to open blind eyes, to bring the prisoner out from the dungeon, those sitting in darkness from the place of their confinement.”  Not only would the Messiah bring spiritual enlightenment, he would himself become a covenant.  As Jesus later described it, “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). 

16         Micah 5:2-5a        Micah (City, Bethlehem)        c. 700 BC

Micah and Isaiah were contemporaries.  Both prophesied the coming destruction of the northern kingdom, and both had remarkable insight into the coming Messiah.  Micah is best remembered for his prophecy of the place of Messiah’s birth:  “And you, Bethlehem of Ephratah, too little to be among the thousands of Judah; he will come forth from you to be a ruler for me in Israel; and his goings forth are from of old, from the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2; quoted in Matthew 2:6).  Not only would the Messianic ruler be from Bethlehem of Judah (Ephratah was the founder of Bethlehem, 1 Chron. 4:4), but unlike ordinary human beings, his origins date back to eternity past.  Since only God has been around that long, this identifies the Messiah as God.  His “goings forth” include the many times the Son of God was sent to earth as the Messenger (or Angel) of the Lord, including his visits to Abraham, Jacob, Joshua, and others (see #5, #6, and #10 above).  Micah 5:4 even refers to the Messiah’s return and the resurrection of the righteous:  “And he will stand and pasture (his flock) in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; and they will remain [forever], for then he will be great to the ends of the earth.” 

17         Ezekiel 37:24-28        Ezekiel (Crown)        c. 575 BC

After the exile of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians, the southern kingdom of Judah also fell into sin and was taken into exile by the Babylonians.  Ezekiel prophesied from exile not only the final collapse of Judah but also the restoration, not only of Judah, but of the whole of Israel:  both Judah and Ephraim (the northern kingdom) will once again be joined together (Eze. 37:15-23).  This will happen despite the fact that the northern kingdom was “scattered among the Gentiles” (Eze. 36:19) and was already mixing with the Gentiles, just as Jacob had prophesied—that Ephraim would become the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Gen. 48:19).  Ezekiel’s prophecy is the source of Paul’s description of Gentile olive branches being joined together with Jewish branches to become one tree (Rom. 11:16-27).  Once the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in,” Paul taught, the “partial hardening” of the Jewish people will be removed (they will receive the gospel) and “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:25,26).  Together, Judah and Ephraim will have one king, the Messianic son of David, forever:  “And my servant David will be king over them, and there will be one shepherd for all of them….  And David my servant will be their prince forever” (Eze. 37:24-25; also 34:23,24; see John 10:16). 

18         Daniel 7:13-14, 9:20-27        Daniel (Lion)        c. 550 BC

Daniel also prophesied from exile.  His prophecy of the Son of Man clearly teaches that the Messiah would be more than an ordinary human being:  “I was seeing in visions of the night, and look, with the clouds of the heavens, one like a son of man was coming; and he came up to the Ancient of Days and they brought him near before him.  And to him was given dominion and honor and a kingdom; and all the peoples, tribes, and languages will serve him; his dominion will be an eternal dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom one that will not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13,14; quoted in Matt. 24:30, 26:64; Mark 13:26, 14:62; and Luke 21:27).  In his prophecy of the Seventy Weeks, Daniel foretold the time when the Messiah would appear, and that he would die just before the city of Jerusalem was destroyed:  “And after the sixty-two weeks, Messiah will be cut off and he will have nothing; and the people of the coming ruler will destroy the city and the holy place...” (Dan. 9:26).  As Daniel prophesied, Jesus died in AD 30, the city was destroyed soon after by the Romans (AD 70). 

19         Zechariah 3:1-10        Zechariah (Branch)        c. 520 BC

Zechariah prophesied in Judah (then known as the Persian province of Yehud) where many of the Jewish people had returned from exile.  One of the first tasks they set out to accomplish was the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:8-13).  But the work was stopped by their enemies (Ezra 4).  So God raised up the prophets Zechariah and Haggai to encourage them, and the Temple was finally finished (Ezra 5,6).  During this time, Zechariah prophesied over Joshua the high priest:  “Hear now, Joshua the high priest, you and you companions who are sitting before you, for they are men serving as a sign; for look, I am bringing in my servant, the Sprout [sometimes translated Branch](Zech. 3:8).  Joshua (Yehoshua) was a sign pointing to Messiah in part because he was the high priest, but also because of his name:  Yehoshua is the full form of the name Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus (see #10 above).  The title “Sprout” for the Messiah appears not only here, but in Isa. 4:2; Jer. 23:5, 33:15; and Zech. 6:12.  In the Old Greek (the Septuagint), this title of the Messiah is translated Anatolee (Jer. 23:5; Zech. 3:8, 6:12; also Luke 1:78).  This Greek word captures not only the sense of sprouting up as with a plant, but also the sudden appearing or rising of a star.  This is how it’s used in Matthew 2:2 and 2:9 where it describes the star of Bethlehem “at its appearing (anatolee)” (often translated “in the east”).  

20         Malachi 3:1-6, 3:16-4:6        Malachi (Furnace)        c. 425 BC

Malachi prophesied in Judah (Persian Yehud), at a time when the Jewish people had become lax in their observance of the Law of God.  Against this, he prophesied a coming judgment of God:  “‘Look, I am sending my messenger, and he will clear a way before me; and suddenly he will come to his Temple, the Lord that you are seeking, and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight.  Look, he is coming,’ the Lord of Hosts has said.  ‘But who can endure the day of his coming?  And who will stand when he appears?  For he is like a refiner’s fire and like launderers’ lye” (Mal. 3:1-2; referring to Isa. 40:3-11).  This prophecy mentions two individuals coming in the future.  One would “clear a way” before the Lord (identified with Elijah in Mal. 4:5,6), and then the Lord himself would come with the messenger (or angel) of the covenant.  Jesus himself interpreted the first messenger to be John the Baptist (quoting this passage in Matt. 11:10 and Luke 7:27; also quoted in Mark 1:2 and Luke 1:76).  The second was Jesus himself, who appeared “suddenly” in the Temple, casting out the merchants and moneychangers (John 2:13-22), and bringing a time of painful, though limited, refining to Israel (Mal. 3:3-6).  During this time, “those fearing the LORD,” God’s precious “possession,” would be raised up (the believers in Jesus, Mal. 3:16-17; see Eph. 1:14, Titus 2:14, 1 Pet. 2:9), after which there will be a terrible day of judgment (Mal. 4:1). 

21         Luke 1:5-25     Zechariah and Elizabeth (Incense Altar)     c. 60 BC-bef. 20 AD

The Persians were defeated by the Greeks, who were in turn defeated by the Romans.  The Romans conquered Judah (Roman Judea) in 63 BC.  This conquest may have taken place in the lifetimes of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, since they were already “advanced in their days” at the time of his birth (Luke 1:7).  Both of them were from priestly families (Luke 1:5).  Zechariah served in the priestly division of Abijah (Luke 1:5).  This was the eighth of the twenty-four priestly divisions.  Each division was on duty twice a year in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The division of Abijah served the last week of the Jewish month Iyyar (mid-April to mid-May) and again the last week in the Jewish month of Marheshvan (mid-October to mid-November).   The honor of offering incense in the Temple, decided by drawing lots, was usually a once in a lifetime experience.  This was probably the first time Zechariah had ever done it (Luke 1:9).  The golden altar of incense, just before the curtain of the Temple, was the closest an ordinary priest could ever get to the Holy of Holies.  This was an important and awe-inspiring moment in Zechariah’s life.  When he poured out the powdered incense on the hot coals of the altar, he was all alone in the sanctuary building, until the angel appeared.  The people were out in the courtyard in front of the building, prostrated in silent prayer (Luke 1:10).  That his son would drink no wine or strong drink meant that he would be a Nazirite from birth (Luke 1:15; the Nazirite vow is taught in Num. 6:1-21).  This was quite unusual.  Normally the Nazirite vow was for a few days or weeks.  Besides John, only Samson and the prophet Samuel were life-long Nazirites.  But because of his disbelief, Zechariah was struck dumb (Luke 1:20).  The people would have noticed this immediately after he came out of the sanctuary when he was unable to say the priestly blessing (Luke 1:21). 

22         Luke 1:26-56        Mary* (Heart, Angel, Nazareth)        c. 25 BC-aft. 30 AD

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, Gabriel came to Miriam (Mary) at Nazareth.  Girls tended to be married young in those days, so she could have been as young as 14 or 16.  We know from archeology that the village was poor and quite small, no more than 50 homes.  Mary was already betrothed to Joseph, which was a more serious agreement than our modern engagements:  it could only be broken by divorce.  Husbands were usually quite a few years older, so Joseph could have been 25 or 30 years old.  One of Mary’s jobs as a young girl would have been to draw water at the nearby well (500 m/1600 feet east of the village).  There is an old tradition that the angel first met her here, though the Bible says that he “entered in,” which indicates a room of some kind, likely the family home in the village (Luke 1:28).  Soon after the visit of the angel, Mary went “in a hurry” to visit her relative Elizabeth in Judea.  There was probably no one else in the world Mary could tell her secret to that would understand.  It's important not to forget the difficulty of Mary's situation: being pregnant outside of marriage was considered a terrible thing.  It implied a violation of the Law that once brought the punishment of death.  In the time of Jesus, the death penalty was rarely used.  But this didn’t lessen the difficulty of the situation.  She knew she was pregnant by a miracle of God, but nobody else did.  Just imagine, in this situation, how powerfully the words of Elizabeth would have struck her when they met, "Blessed among women are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And how has it happened to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:42,43)  Before Mary had spoken a word, Elizabeth was led by the Spirit to reassure her that God really was moving in her life.  With a sigh of relief, Mary answered Elizabeth’s greeting:  "My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.  For he has looked upon the humble state of his bondslave…" (Luke 1:46-48a).  Mary stayed with Zechariah and Elizabeth for three months.  After that, when she returned to Nazareth, her pregnancy could no longer be hidden. 

23         Luke 1:57-80        John the Baptist (Sandals)        c. 5 BC-27 AD

Elizabeth soon gave birth to John.  The traditional place of his birth is Ein Kerem, a picturesque village near Jerusalem.  The Bible says only that it was a city in the hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39).  The eighth day after birth was the traditional time to circumcise baby boys and name them (Gen. 17:12).  This is the covenant of circumcision by which they officially join the covenant people of Israel.  Zechariah regained his ability to speak when he insisted that his son be named John, the name given to him by the angel (Luke 1:13,63,64; Johanan in Hebrew means “the grace of the LORD”).  After this, filled by the Holy Spirit, he spoke a beautiful prophetic blessing based on the message he received from the angel:  that his son would prepare the way of the Messiah (Luke 1:16,17,76,77).  In his blessing, Zechariah referred to many of the prophecies we have been looking at:  the horn of the Messiah (#11) mentioned by Hannah (1 Sam. 2:10 in Luke 1:69), the promise with an oath made to Abraham (#5 also #3) that in him all the earth will be blessed (Gen. 22:16-18 in Luke 1:73), the messenger prophesied by Malachi (#20) that would precede the fiery coming of the Lord to his Temple (Mal. 3:1 in Luke 1:76), the Sprout (or Anatolee, the “Rising” or the “Appearing”) of Zechariah (#19) that would come from on high (Zech. 3:8 in Luke 1:78 where it is sometimes translated Sunrise or Dayspring), and the great light (the sunrise) of Isaiah (#15) that would illumine the darkness of those who live in the shadow of death (Isa. 9:2 in Luke 1:79). 

24         Matthew 1:18-25        Joseph (Hammer)        c. 35 BC-bef. 27 AD

After Mary returned to Nazareth, "she was found to be with child" (Matt. 1:18).  What a difficult moment that must have been.   The secret was finally out.  Joseph, being a "righteous" man, that is to say, a religious, Law-observing Jew, had no choice but to "put her away," that is, to divorce her (Matt. 1:19).  Betrothal then, as in traditional communities today, was formal and binding:  lots of gifts and presents had been given, promises made, family agreements entered into as part of the negotiations preceding the marriage.  To break a betrothal required a divorce, which under the circumstances would have made Mary ineligible for remarriage.  This was a fate as good as death for a woman in the society of that time.  But Joseph soon had his own visit from an angel, and as a result did not divorce her, but took her into his home “as his wife” (Matt. 1:24; though the marriage was not consummated until after Jesus’ birth, Matt. 1:25).  To explain this strange event, Matthew quotes the prophecy of Isaiah (#15 above) that a virgin would become pregnant and bear a child, whom she would call Immanuel (“God with us,” Isa. 7:14 quoted in Matt. 1:23). 

25         Luke 2:1-20        Jesus (Nativity, Manger)        c. 5 BC-30 AD

Soon after that, probably that summer, a decree went out from the Roman emperor for a census to be taken of everyone living in the Roman Empire.  This meant that the taxes would go up again, which made Roman censuses very unpopular.  Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem because they were descendants of the family of King David, and the census was done by families. 

This meant they had many relatives in Bethlehem.  So why were they looking for a room in an inn? Although “inn” is the traditional translation, the word used in Greek means “guest room”:  "because there was no place for them in the guest room" (Luke 2:7).  When Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, of course they stayed with their relatives.  But because of the census, there wasn't any more room in the guest room.

The only place left was the stable where the animals were kept.  The stable in many homes at the time was a cave-basement under the house, cut out from the rock.  Here Mary had a little privacy.  And there were lots of women relatives around to help.  The men were not allowed to help with the birth. 

Why did she lay the baby in a feeding trough (or manger)?  “She wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a feeding trough” (Luke 2:7).  This is where food was put for the animals to eat, the cleanest place in the barn, farmers say.  But they didn't use wooden mangers as in Europe.  They used stone mangers, many of which have been found. 

Why was this a sign?  “And this will be the sign to you:  you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding trough” (Luke 2:12).  Stone lasts a long time.  It’s a symbol of eternity.  It’s strong, like God is (all powerful).  And it was always ritually clean, just like God is always ritually clean.  So stone was considered a symbol of God (“My God, my rock, I seek refuge in him,” Psa. 18:2,46; also Psa. 28:1; 31:3; 42:9; 62:2,6; etc.).  For the baby to be lying in a manger was a sign that he was more than an ordinary baby, but was in some mysterious way God himself. 

Why were the shepherds outdoors that night?  Normally, shepherds only stayed out with their flocks in the warm months of the year, when they took their flocks out into the desert to eat.  Here they were far from home, and had to stay with the sheep at night.  Since they were in unfamiliar surroundings, they took turns watching the sheep.  As it says in Luke 2:8:  "And in the same region there were shepherds living outdoors and taking turns keeping watch over their flock during the night." 

Because of this, some believe that Jesus was born before the winter began.  The census, too, would probably have been finished before winter.  So many scholars put Jesus’ birth sometime in September or early October, around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles.  If so, this means that December was the time not of Jesus' birth, but of his conception, the moment when the Incarnation began. 

But whether it was this or some other date, no one knows for sure.  What we do know is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the fulfillment of the prophecies of the ages and the hope of all mankind.


Artwork by the author is hereby published under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.  Acknowledgements for Creative Commons photos used in creating artwork are below.  All other photos are either public domain or photos by the author.

JesseTree.jpg / Public domain
K. S. Seshadri , Gunther's_Vine_snake.jpg / CC BY-SA 3.0
George Bannister, The Ten Commandments / CC BY 2.0
Updated 11/18/2014.

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