Sunday, January 25, 2009

Names In the Book of Life

Adapted from Chapter 9 of Heaven for Skeptics © 2008 by Bert Gary for FaithWalk Publishing

The theme of John’s vision is Jesus, just like the rest of the New Testament. But rather than presenting the story of his life as the four gospels do, and rather than interpreting him doctrinally as the various New Testament letters do, the artist—John the Revelator—paints Jesus with symbolic images. He’s a radiant Son of Man, he’s the Lion of Judah, he’s a standing slaughtered Lamb, he’s a newborn, he’s a conquering horseman, he’s the Morning Star, he’s the temple, he’s the lamp, he’s the book of Life, and more.

The subject of this blog is the book of Life. Our text is Revelation 20:11-15. Let me summarize.

John sees the Great White Throne again. But the one on the throne is not alone. All stand before him. Then books are opened. These books are the accumulation of everybody’s deeds. But there is an additional book, and it is different. It’s called the book of Life. (Later we are told that it’s the Lamb’s book of Life. Revelation 21:27) The moment John envisions is resurrection day. Those buried in the ground and those who died at sea are raised for judgment. Everyone is judged by their works found in the record books. Then John sees that Death (Thanatos) and the Grave (Hades) are destroyed in the lake of fire. And if your name is not in the Lamb’s book of Life, you are thrown in to the lake of fire. (See my blog, The Lake of Fire Defined.)

In this next-to-the-last scene in the final vision, out pop the record books. Can you feel the dread? Everyone is judged by their deeds listed in John’s symbolic scrolls. There appears to be no hope. Just as there was no hope in Revelation 5 because there was no one found to open the seven seals of the scroll of the Father’s eternal plan, here in Revelation 21 there is no hope for humanity because its deeds are evil. Again, it appears there is no hope. If no one is righteous and everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, as the Scriptures insist (Rom 3:10 & 23), then who can stand in this judgment? Absolutely no one! That’s John’s point.

Our deeds are judged as evil, as they must and should be. Do the math. We’re all goners if the record of our deeds is the sole criterion by which we are judged. But, according to John, there is another single volume that appears containing humanity’s only hope. All hope is in this one little book. It’s called the Lamb’s book of Life.

The Lamb’s book, logically, contains the accomplishments of the Lamb. What accomplishments? Oh, little things like . . . he took away the sin of the whole world. Unlike our sad records, there are no black marks in the record of Jesus’ life. All of humanity’s hefty scrolls are full of sin, but not the Lamb’s little scroll. So what in the world does this vision of John’s mean?

It means that while our sins are judged, and thus we are all judged as guilty sinners, there is another book that stands in for humanity’s pitiful record. We have a pinch hitter. It’s the Lamb’s blemish-less book. So what is the Lamb’s judgment on humanity’s fate? It’s his own Life. The Lamb’s book of Life trumps all the other books. Life is the point and the criteria for everything. Look again at John 12:

John 12:48 “[O]n the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge,”

John 12:49 “[T]he Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak.”

John 12:50 “And I know that his commandment is eternal life.” (italic mine)

Life is the word that judges. Jesus says that he is the Life. So if the Lamb’s book of Life is a symbol of Jesus’ judgment on the last day, then doesn’t that mean we’re covered? He gave us Life already. He took away our sin already. There’s no point in trying to fix a totaled car. So hitch a ride with the Lamb. The only way to miss this Life is to continue embracing non-Life, that is, sin, death, and evil, even though the Lamb’s book already made those things null and void. Our evil works are condemned by Life, true. Our deeds are evil, true. We are wrecked and totaled, true. But not even sin and death can stand against Life.

Let’s go ahead and clear this up. John’s books of deeds aren’t literal books (or scrolls). They are a symbol of the voluminous record of sin against us all. The Lamb’s book of life then is not a literal book either. It is the Life of the Lamb himself. His Life both judges sin and blots out sin. John shows in pictures that Jesus is greater than our sin. Just as he is the bread of Life in John 6:35 & 48, here in Revelation 20 Jesus is the book of Life.

It took Jesus’ Life to cancel sin. It took his resurrection Life to cancel death. Life burns up sin and death and evil. Do you see it? It’s the Lamb’s book. It’s the Lamb’s lake of fire. And his book and his lake seem to be doing the same thing! They are judging sin and death and evil.

Is there a sense in which he is the slaughtered Lamb, he is the book of Life, and he is the lake of fire? I think so. John places the lake directly in front of the Son of Man’s (Jesus’) feet. (Revelation 14:10) The lake is a heavenly fire in the throne room of God. The fire of Life burns up sin and death and evil. If I’m right, and I think I am, then the lake is not a literal afterlife “hell” run by Satan, nor is it anything remotely akin to that. (See my blogs, Hell Defined 1 and Hell Defined 2, and The Lake of Fire Defined.) It’s the judgment of Jesus’ own white-hot fire of Life. It’s his “burning bliss”. (Caird, p. 258) Jesus said that his very purpose was to bring fire:

Luke 12:49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

So is your name in the book or not?

You might argue that John seems to want it both ways, however. On the one hand, you’re given grace (via the Lamb) regardless of what good or bad things you do. On the other, if you worship the beast and persecute Christians in 1st Century Ephesus, then you’re in trouble. Yet what John is showing you is that no matter what you do, grace is stronger. At the same time, however, if you remain an unrepentant, idolatrous, grace-rejecting meanie, you’re in grave danger spiritually. Does what you’ve done matter or not? Will your actions be held against you or not?

OK, so is your name in the symbolic book of Life or not? This book mentioned in six verses in the Book of Revelation. Here they are. I’m using Young’s Literal Translation here because I like the way that it calls the book of Life “the scroll of the life."

YLT Revelation 3:5 He who is overcoming -- this one --
shall be arrayed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the scroll of the life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before His messengers.

YLT Revelation 13:8 And bow before it shall all who are dwelling upon the land, whose names have not been written in the scroll of the life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world;

YLT Revelation 17:8 'The beast that thou didst see: it was, and it is not; and it is about to come up out of the abyss, and to go away to destruction, and wonder shall those dwelling upon the earth, whose names have not been written upon the scroll of the life from the foundation of the world, beholding the beast that was, and is not, although it is.’

YLT Revelation 20:12 and I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and scrolls were opened, and another scroll was opened, which is that of the life, and the dead were judged out of the things written in the scrolls -- according to their works;

YLT Revelation 20:15 and if any one was not found written in the scroll of the life, he was cast to the lake of the fire.

YLT Revelation 21:27 and there may not at all enter into it any thing defiling and doing abomination, and a lie, but -- those written in the scroll of the life of the Lamb.

Note that you can get your name blotted out of the Lamb’s book of Life, or so says Revelation 3:5 above. But note what that implies. It must mean that your name must start out in the book, and you already have salvation in Jesus Christ. Guess what? That’s the Good News. Salvation was given to the world. Still, if you don’t want Life and grace and stuff like that because you hate God, or you love doing evil, or if you just think it’s unfair of God to save people who aren’t as good as you, then you have the right of refusal. You can exercise the free will he gave you (in love) to reject the salvation you had from the get-go.

It must be remembered that the book of Life is the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21: 27) The Lamb of God took away the sin of the whole world. (John ..1:29.. & 36) That means everybody. So what’s the logical conclusion? Everyone’s name starts out in his symbolic book. Everyone’s. Can I give more prove of that? Yes.

John doesn’t give any instructions on how to get your name added to the Lamb’s book! Actually, you don’t have the power to get your name in there. But the Lamb did it for you, says Scripture. That’s why it’s his book. The Lamb’s book is Revelation’s symbol of gracious Life given to the world—every name in the
world. You don’t get this Life by striving or merit. No verse of the Bible says you have to do anything to get your name in there. But it specifically says you can get your name blotted out. Here’s 3:5 again:

Revelation 3:5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels.

Therefore, if there is no instruction in Revelation for getting your name added to the Lamb’s book of life, and if there is warning that you can get your name blotted out of the Lamb’s book of Life, then your name—and everyone’s name—must have started out in there. That supports the gospel proclamation that the Lamb saved everyone (the world) when he finished his work. (“It is finished.” John 19:30) He drew all men unto himself. (John 12:32) He fulfilled all righteousness as a gift. (Matthew 3:15) He reconciled all things to himself, and he made universal peace between God and humanity with his own flesh and blood. (Colossians 1:20) Scripturally, Jesus is indeed the savior of the world. (See my blog, You’re Saved.)

John 4:42 They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

1 John ..4:14.. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.

Back to the contradiction

But this brings us back to the contradiction above: John seems to want it both ways. No matter what you do, grace is stronger. At the same time, however, if you remain an unrepentant, idolatrous, grace-rejecting persecutor of the church, you’re in grave danger spiritually. Does what you’ve done matter or not? Will your actions be held against you or not?

So, as we’ve seen, John affirms all names starting out in the Lamb’s book of life. Grace wins, period. But, strangely, then John also writes that some names weren’t in the Lamb’s book of life to begin with! How can this be? Could the Lord have created creatures damned from the get-go?

Revelation 13:8 and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life.

Revelation 17:8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.

Revelation 20:14-15 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation ..21:27.. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.

For complete clarity’s sake, let me summarize John’s provocative contradiction:

  1. Since the Lamb of God was slain from the foundation of the world, that means that all sin was taken from the world, all were forgiven, and all names must start out in the Lamb’s book of Life. Since no one can make himself righteous, the Lamb did all the work. He finished it. There’s no way (and no need) to get your name added, but there’s a way to get it removed.
  2. Since some people worship the beast instead of the Lamb, this indicates that their names were never in the Lamb’s book of Life from the start.
How can both be true? It does seem that John is having it both ways. John affirms God’s eternal foreknowledge from God’s end, yet he also affirms our temporal free will from our end. I have a suggestion. Perhaps it is a matter of perspective.

From my perspective, my rejection of grace results in the blotting out of my name. But from God’s perspective, the absence of my name is from the beginning. Do you see it? Is this what John is telling us? I think so. It’s a temporal “both/and.”

Yes, all names start in the book because of the finished work of Christ from the foundation of the world. And yes, the absence of a name from the book is both foreknown by God and a result of a person choosing to have his name blotted. So what is John saying in a nutshell?

That which is clearly self-blotting to us is foreknown by God as absence from the beginning.

Let’s keep it simple. Here’s what I hear John saying step by step:

  1. From the Lamb’s perspective, all names are in his book of Life originally,
    affirming his gift of Life and redemption to all.
  2. Yet we can by our choosing get our names blotted out, affirming God’s gift of choice for all too.
  3. But at the same time, from God’s vantage point (which obviously includes the future), the self-blotted names were never in the Lamb’s book to begin
This is not predeterminism, however. God doesn’t create some folks just so he can hate and damn them. He allows self-condemnation and self-judgment to operate freely within our temporal flow. From your temporal perspective, the question is: Do you embrace the Life he gives or not? From his eternal perspective, however, he is from the beginning aware of who the blotters will eventually be, just as Jesus was aware from the beginning, it seems, that Judas, for example, was a betrayer.

Jesus didn’t create Judas just to damn him. He made him and loved him and chose him and taught him. Judas may have damned himself (Who am I to judge?), but Jesus’ foreknowledge didn’t cause it. Therefore:

  1. From the Alpha perspective (the beginning of time), all names begin in the book of life.
  2. Yet in the course of time (our present, temporal life-spans), some choose to blot their names out by rejecting Life.
  3. But at the same time, from the Omega perspective (the end of time), the blotters’ names were never in the book of life to begin with.
It sounds contradictory, I know. John’s paradoxical time perspective doesn’t fit neatly into our western, Enlightenment-locked, Newtonian mindsets. But it’s John’s intention to express 1) the universal gift of Life and atonement, and 2) the gift of human free will, and 3) the foreknowledge of God concerning who chooses Life and who doesn’t. Here’s an example that I think will help. Look at the crucifixion of Jesus:

  1. From the Alpha perspective (the beginning of time), Jesus was the non-bodily, pre-existent Word of God.
  2. Yet in the course of earth-time (during his lifetime), from a temporal
    perspective, Jesus was a human being crucified bodily.
  3. But at the same time, from the Omega perspective (the end of time), Jesus was “slain from the foundation of the world”, a human being slain bodily all along.
Again, it sounds contradictory. But John insists that Jesus Christ is both the pre-existent, non-corporeal Word of God and the forever-from-the-beginning crucified and risen corporeal, first century, flesh and blood human being named Jesus of Nazareth. The second letter to Timothy agrees:

2 Timothy 1:9 This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,

It’s about temporal perspective

I think I’ve demonstrated that for John it’s a matter of temporal perspective. From an eternal perspective, isn’t the blotting out of your name the same as it never having been there? Yes, it really does sound contradictory, but it’s really a mysterious paradox of time that John embraced. Just because God sees from the beginning that Billy’s name is not in the book does not mean that Billy’s choice to blot it out wasn’t real—especially to Billy.

So, how do you keep your name in the book of Life? To endure to the end without being awed by the beast, or seduced by the beast, is to know that your name is in the book of Life, says John to his churches. Again, Jesus and his message and his resurrection and his kingdom of heaven are all about love and Life. Remember how Young’s Literal Translation put it: “the scroll of the life.” The scroll of the Life is Revelation’s symbol for the completed redemptive work of Jesus Christ. “The Life” that we are talking about, remember, is Jesus. He is “the Life,” as he insists to his disciples in John 14:6.

Loving this Life, says John, is resisting and enduring the forces that resist this Life. That keeps your name in the Lamb’s symbolic book. To love this Life and to resist and endure the forces that resist this Life is to remain in this Life that has found you and embraced you.

I have a concern

There is an unfortunate emphasis today on decisional salvation—pressuring unbelievers to make “a decision for Christ.” Revelation in particular is used as a weapon to frighten and coerce unbelievers. But John’s book was not written to unbelievers at all! His message is for believers only. I might go so far as to say that the Book of Revelation was written to believers with advanced, mature understanding of the Christian faith.

I see zero evidence that John intended to use fear and death to get unbelievers to “make a decision for Christ.” “Decision for Christ” isn’t biblical language. And the subject matter in Revelation has nothing to do with who in the end will “make a decision for Christ” (again, a phrase not found in the Bible) and who won’t. John is addressing and encouraging believers, period.

John tells his churches that they are to continue resisting the pressure to worship the State, the Ruler, and his idolatrous, religio-political temple practices. (20:11-15) They are to continue to share the Good News that in Jesus you are already reconciled to God from his end, says John. And they are to continue to endure the persecution of those who react negatively, even violently, to the free and universal gift of light and Life-filled relationship to which they witness with their words, their lives, and sometimes even their deaths.

It’s not about a decision whereby you get Life. It’s about a relational Life that came and got you.

Postscript: God Hated Esau?

For those who’ve believed that God creates some people just to hate and damn them, let me add this postscript about Esau. It’s often said that God predetermined to hate Esau for no good reason. Some translations of Romans 9:13 seem to say that very thing.

Romans 9:13 As it is written, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated (Hebrew: sane') Esau.”

Some see Romans 9:13 as an example of God creating someone to love and someone to hate—Jacob and Esau. Paul in Romans was quoting Malachi from the Old Testament:

Malachi 1:1-3 An oracle. The word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi. 2 I have loved you, says the LORD. But you say, "How have you loved us?" Is not Esau Jacob's brother? says the LORD. Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but I have hated (sane') Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals.

Yet loved and hated in this context mean chosen and rejected. It’s saying that God preferred Jacob over Esau concerning his first covenant. Some English versions of the Bible translate sane' as rejected:

NET Malachi 1:3 and rejected Esau.
NLT Malachi 1:3 but I rejected his brother, Esau,
TNK Malachi 1:3 and have rejected Esau.

Here’s a helpful example:

RSV Genesis 29:31 When the LORD saw that Leah was hated (sane' - here meaning un-preferred), he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.

Jacob wouldn’t have born children with Leah if he literally hated her. He didn’t detest her. She’s his wife and the mother of his children. It’s just that Jacob preferred her little sister Rachel in his heart. He did from the moment he met her. Here’s another example:

Genesis 25:28 Isaac loved Esau because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

See again how loved means preferred?

Paul then in Romans 9 uses the Malachi quote as an example of God’s freedom and right to choose whomever he wants to, not just including the Jews, but also in Jesus Christ choosing Gentiles too. This is the second or new covenant, the New Testament. It’s a covenant with the world.

For more on the Book of Revelation see my blogs 666Rapture InterruptedThe Giant Flying CubeThe MillenniumPearly Gates and Streets of Gold, and The Lake of Fire Defined.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Five Coincidences?

Jesus and Pan at Caesarea Philippi

Greek mythology, Palestinian geography, and the biblical narrative come together in a most unusual way at ancient Banias, better known as Caesarea Philippi.

In the first century, Pan was known as the only god to have died "in our own time." Specifically, the god is recorded as having died during the reign of Tiberias, the Emperor of Rome at the time of Jesus' death. "Pan the great is dead," shouted a sailor, Tammuz, sailing off the coast of Italy. There were reports of great lamentation. When Tiberias heard of it, he believed it a mistake. It could not be that the great son of Hermes and Penelope was dead, he concluded, but a lesser demon by the same name.

Banias or Banyas---Arabic spellings of Paneas---is the ancient city at the foot of Mt. Hermon dedicated to the god, Pan. (Herod Philip, a son of Herod the Great, renamed the city Caesarea Philippi after himself.) The ruins of a temple dedicated to Pan are nearly obliterated now, yet the cave in which the god's great statue stood is still there, and votive niches in the cliff wall also remain.

In the same way that Banias is named for Pan, Mt. Hermon is named for Pan's father, Hermes. The mountain straddles the modern Israeli-Syrian border. It rises to a height of over 9000 feet, and in the rainy months of December to March, is often snow-capped. (There is even a ski slope there now!) Only on a clear day---unusual during the winter---can you see it from the city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee (the Kineret). More often the view of it is obliterated even at close range in cold months by haze or mist or dense fog.

The god Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia. Being best known probably as "the messenger of the gods," perhaps it is not surprising that Hermes' name (Mercury in Roman mythology) came to the English language in the word hermeneutic, which has to do of course with linguistic studies and interpretation and translation, most often associated with biblical exegesis.

However, Hermes was also the conductor of the souls of the dead to Hades, the place in Greek mythology where dead peoples' souls go to wander around in boredom.

Pan---the Greek word for "all"--- was among other things the guardian of thresholds. His job was to frighten you when you reached a threshold in life. That is where we get the word pan-ic! It was his job to panic anyone approaching a threshold, especially that of a cave.

Putting this together, in the Cave of Pan at Caesarea Philippi stands a statue of Pan, guarding the threshold to the cave. This cave is in Mt. Hermon, named for Hermes, the conductor of souls to Hades. The Cave of Pan logically came to be known as the "gateway to Hades." So, if you were to die and you did not get panicked by Pan, your soul would cross the threshold of the cave, and Hermes would take you to Hades from there! That was the mythology of this beautiful, natural setting. Interestingly, Pan was also the god of the pastoral and natural, thus our theological terms pantheism and panentheism. We in the English speaking world also have Pan to thank for pandemonium and pandering.

Josephus, the first century historian, wrote of Banias and the Cave of Pan. He recorded that the depth of the waters in the cave were beyond measure. The waters he wrote of are today called the Banias Spring. They are one of three major sources of the Jordan River. The water no longer comes from within the cave. An earthquake may have caused a cave-in. Instead, the water flows from beneath the rocks and ruins in front of the cave. It flows into the Jordan, then the Sea of Galilee, then the Jordan again, and finally the Dead Sea.

Jesus' time at Caesarea Philippi was in a way a Gethsemane in the north. He had left Herod Antipas' territory. Four reasons for heading north are mentioned in the Gospels. Jesus had just heard of the death of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:9-13); Herod was looking for him (Luke 9:9); the disciples were tired from their missionary journeys (Mark 6:30-31); and the crowds had tried to take him and make him king by force (John 6:15). Any one of these would be reason enough to bug out, but taken together, it is easy to see why Jesus needed time away.

Luke makes it clear that at Banias Jesus was alone in prayer, and the disciples were with him (9:18). It is in the context of problems and pain back in the Galilee, in seclusion and in prayer at this northern pagan city, that Jesus becomes circumspect about things to come. The nature of his ministry/messiahship are in focus again, as they were in the temptations in the Judean wilderness. In the story of Peter's confession and in the temptations of Jesus, Satan makes an appearance, and both are times of struggle and loneliness.

After Jesus told them he would go back to Jerusalem to die, and after he and Peter had "the screaming match at Caesarea Philippi" (Mark 8:31-33), Jesus stayed six days longer there (Mark 9:2). Six days longer. We have no way of knowing what went on that week. But in light of Jesus' revelation of suffering and death, there was probably not a lot of rest and relaxation.

After six days (Luke says eight), he took his "inner circle" with him up to a high mountain apart (Mark 9:2) by themselves (Matthew 17:1) to pray (Luke 9:28). Obviously the only high mountain in the vicinity is Har Hermon. (Mt. Tabor then is certainly a traditional site for pilgrims.) There he takes on an unearthly appearance, and he is visited by Moses and Elijah. The prophet of Mt. Sinai and the prophet of Mt. Carmel meet Jesus on Mt. Hermon. The servant of Yahweh who stood down Pharaoh, and the servant of God who stood down 450 prophets of Baal, spoke with Jesus concerning his upcoming confrontation with the Judean authorities on Zion, on Moriah, and on Calvary (Luke 9:31).

Moses and Elijah turned to leave, so Peter and company proposed booth construction, and immediately one of those thick mists rolled in. The voice proclaimed essentially what it had proclaimed at Jesus baptism (Matthew 3:17 and 17:5). It is interesting how the baptism and temptations are joined, and how the scene at Banias and Hermon are joined. At the southernmost point of the Jordan River, affirmation of God's voice led to struggle in the Judean wilderness (Mark 1:11-12). Conversely, at the Banias Spring (the northern headwaters of the Jordan River), struggle led to the affirmation of God's voice on Hermon. We have come full circle in the fullness of time, for the baptism and temptations mark the beginning of Jesus' Galilean ministry (at the end of the river), while the prediction and transfiguration mark the end (at the beginning of the river). After the events in the north, Luke says, he set his face toward Jerusalem (9:51). Mark says he began striding ahead of them, and the disciples were amazed and afraid (10:32).

Five coincidences? Is it a coincidence that it is on Hermon, named for the messenger god, that Jesus got the message from Moses and Elijah that steeled his nerve and sent him on his way, and three disciples got the message, from the highest source, of who Jesus was and that they should "listen" to him? Is it a coincidence that as Jesus stood at the threshold of his own fate, he struggled and hesitated six days before the Temple of Pan, the god of panic and thresholds? Is it a coincidence in Matthew, that in the vicinity of that cave known as the gateway to Hades, Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom to Peter, proclaiming that the gates of hell would not prevail against it? Is it a coincidence that Jesus would ponder his own death at "the gateway to Hades," a cavern yawning before him like a tomb? And is it a coincidence that during the reign of Tiberias, Pan was not the only "god" to have died, but in fact God incarnate, Jesus Christ, also died, and he is proclaimed by the Church as the living and eternal Lord of Pan/All?


Are Kids' Christmas Plays Biblical?

Some of you no doubt have attended a children’s Christmas play recently. Your child may have portrayed Mary or Joseph. Perhaps you have a grandson who dressed in your bathrobe as one of the three Wise Men. Maybe you made an angel costume for your niece. Your kid may have even dressed up like a donkey. But God forbid your child should ever get the villain’s role—the part of the coldhearted innkeeper who turned away the desperate couple on that starry night long ago!

As a father and a pastor, I’ve seen my fair share of live manger scenes and children’s pageants, and I have the videos to prove it. But also, as a pastor given the responsibility to preach biblically to my congregation, I am confronted annually with a problem. Let me pose the problem in the form of a question. Are children’s Christmas plays faithful to the biblical stories of Christ’s birth and childhood?

Let’s make a quick check of the characters, props, and staging for your typical kid’s Christmas pageant (and your live nativity scene, too, for that matter):

Do I have the cast of characters correct? There is the Baby Jesus (usually a doll), Mother Mary, Father Joseph, Wise Men, Shepherds, Angels, a Donkey, Sheep, Camels, and other Extras like maybe an ox, a goat, or duck.

Are these the right props? There’s a wooden stable in a field, hay on the stable floor and all around, a wooden manger in the center of the stable, three gift boxes for the Wise Men’s gold, frankincense, and myrrh, maybe some shepherd’s staffs, a bright star above the stable, and perhaps a backdrop showing Bethlehem on a hill in the distance beneath a starry deep blue sky.

Places everyone: Mary kneels next to the baby in the manger (holding the baby is optional). Joseph stands by her. Shepherds gather (with sheep) on one side of the stable. Wise men gather (with camels) on the other side. Angels hover over the stable. And where you put the donkey (or other critters) is optional.

Now, if I’m not mistaken, the Christmas play version goes like this: Joseph and Mary are forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census. Mary, nine months pregnant, rides a donkey in great discomfort. She goes into labor before they reach Bethlehem in the middle of the night. Knowing no one there, and having no one to stay with, they go to the local inn. But the innkeeper has no vacancies. Joseph searches in desperation for a place for Mary to have her child. They are forced to go back into the countryside where they find a wooden stable in a quiet field. Mary has the baby there, wraps him in swaddling clothes, and lays him in a hay-filled wooden manger. Shepherds arrive. They were given a sign by angels that led them to the child. Wise Men arrive. They had followed a star.

That’s the story I learned growing up. I hold it dear and know it by heart. I taught it to my kids, and so did many of you. This is what I call the G-Rated version of the nativity. I certify it "Safe for Children."

But there’s another version of the birth of Jesus. It’s an adult version. And it’s in your Bible. Mature students of the Bible should know that much of our familiar Christmas play scenario is biblically inaccurate. My job in this article is simple. I’m going to demonstrate the biblical story of Jesus’ birth. I’ll show you that the biblical story and the Christmas play are quite different.

Matthew and Luke’s Gospels are the only two books of the Bible that offer us information about Jesus’ birth. (Matthew 1:18—2:23 and Luke 1:1—2:40) Matthew and Luke and kids’ dramas agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. The differences, however, begin immediately.

Our Christmas play has Mary and Joseph leaving Bethlehem proper to find a stable out in the fields. This contradicts Matthew and Luke. Luke 2:8 records that it is the shepherds, not Mary and Joseph, who were out in the fields. And Luke 2:11 and 2:15 and Matthew 2:1 record that Jesus was born in the City of David (Bethlehem of Judea). The shepherds go into town to find the baby. The manger in which Mary laid Jesus is downtown, not out of town.

Luke 2:15 When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."

What about the stable? Neither Matthew nor Luke record that Jesus was born in a stable. The Bible mentions no stable at all. There’s nothing about what a 1st century Jewish stable might have looked like, what it was made of, how it was used. If the birth took place in a stable, the stable was in downtown Bethlehem. But where? Would you find them next to Jewish houses? What were they made of? What did they look like? Archaeologists say that many houses in Bethlehem from Jesus’ time were built on top of caves. They were multi-level homes. The many caves there were used as water cisterns, grain silos, and, yes, stables. Bethlehem, Nazareth, and other first century towns studied by modern archaeology reveal that precious animals in certain times of the year stayed in peoples homes—in a back room or a cave beneath the house. From the earliest times a cave in Bethlehem has been identified as the place of Jesus’ birth (pictured).

There is no competing site. There is no memorial wooden frame in a field somewhere outside of modern Bethlehem. But in downtown Bethlehem there is a first century manger carved into the wall of a cave that for millennia has been venerated as the spot. Built over the cave is the oldest functioning church building in the world, the Church of the Nativity (pictured). (Some scholars speculate that Jesus was born in Nazareth or Bethlehem of Galillee. This contradicts the biblical accounts, but these scholars do not feel that the biblical birth narratives are historically factual anyway. They see Luke and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth as literary creations by the early church.)

What about the manger itself? Luke 2:7 records that after his birth, the infant Jesus was laid in a manger. Phatne is the biblical Greek word that Luke used; it means animal feed trough. But
again Luke doesn’t tell us what a 1st century Jewish feed trough was made of, or what one looked like, or where one might be placed. Was it wooden? Unlikely. Wood was scarce and expensive in the region, and ancient mangers (feed troughs) are found in many places in Israel from many periods of history including the time of Jesus, and they are made of stone, sometimes standing alone, (pictured with baby) and sometimes set in a wall (pictured).

Perhaps then the ancient tradition in Bethlehem is correct. The 1st century manger in the cave beneath the Church of the Nativity is stone. Perhaps this is the same manger in which Mary laid Jesus.

Master of Vyšší Brod, a Bohemian master, c. 1350

So where did the wooden-stable-and-wooden-manger-out-in-a-pasture concept come from? The earliest Christian art in the East puts the manger in a cave. But in the West, in Gothic and Medieval Europe, we see wooden stables and mangers in pastures, reflecting the practice of their day, not first century Palestine.

Luke 2:7 is the key verse concerning the exact circumstances of Jesus’ birth. It’s typically translated:

"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." (New International Version)

The key word in this verse is "inn," because there is a problem in translating the original Greek word into English. English versions of the Bible disagree. For example, the New English Bible reads "no room for them in the house." The Bible in Basic English also says "house." The James Murdock Translation reads "no place where they could lodge," and the New Living translation reads similarly, "there was no lodging available for them." The New Jerusalem Bible prefers "no room for them in the living-space." Young’s Literal Translation says "there was not for them a place in the guest chamber."

These variations give us a hint of the translation difficulty here. The Greek word in question is kataluma. How do you translate that into English? Is it an inn, a house, a living-space, a guest chamber, or something else? Well, you may be surprised, even shocked, but "inn" is almost certainly not what Luke meant by kataluma. Let me show you why, and let me show you what Luke much more likely meant.

Kataluma in Luke 2:7 continues to be translated by many Bible publishers as "inn," even though the better translations are "guest chamber" or "living room;" it is translated as such elsewhere in scripture. For example, in Luke 22:11 Jesus instructs the disciples to follow a man into Jerusalem carrying water. They followed him to a house that had a large kataluma where they could all gather together for the Passover. Kataluma is translated in 22:11 in almost all versions as guestroom or guestchamber.

Luke 22:11 And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber (kataluma), where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? (King James Version)

They needed a dining room. In the case of this particular kataluma where the last supper took place, Luke clarifies in the next verse that this guestroom was upstairs.

Luke 22:12 And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make ready. (King James Version)

Is there another reason that kataluma should not be translated "inn"? Yes. When Luke means "inn" he uses a different word: pandocheion. For example, in Luke 10:34 is the story of the Good Samaritan. The robbed and injured traveler is taken to an inn.

Luke 10:34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn (pandocheion), and took care of him. (King James Version)

The Greek term that Luke chooses for "inn" is pandocheion, not kataluma. And the road on which these men traveled—the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho—was a main road. In major towns like Jerusalem and Jericho, on a road heavily traveled, one would expect an inn. A pandocheion. Jesus also mentions an innkeeper in this parable. A pandocheus:
Luke 10:35 The next day he took out two silver coins {35 Greek two denarii} and gave them to the innkeeper (pandocheus). ’Look after him,’ he said, ’and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
So, what’s going on here? Is there an inn in Bethlehem or not? If so, why does Luke call it a kataluma instead of a pandocheion? Why does he mention no innkeeper (pandocheus) at all? And if there was no inn, then what in the world is Luke saying?

First, a tiny village on a minor road would not be at all a likely place for an inn in first century Palestine. Bethlehem was such a place. But if it were a larger place on a main road, Luke would have called an inn there a pandocheion, not a kataluma. And only a pandocheion (inn) would have had a pandocheus (innkeeper).

Second, even if there were an inn in Bethlehem, Joseph would not have stayed in it. Joseph was familiar with Bethlehem. He was of the lineage of David. He almost certainly had family there. It would have been an insult to Joseph’s relatives for him and Mary to stay in a motel when they could provide their homes willingly—and for free. Joseph almost certainly knew the place. He may have even been from Bethlehem. Why do I say he may have been from Bethlehem? Matthew says the holy family probably continued to live in Bethlehem for two years after Jesus’ birth, suggesting that they had perhaps dual residence in Nazareth and Bethlehem. "The house" where they stayed in Bethlehem very well may have belonged to Joseph. (Matthew 2:11)

Third, it’s almost certainly wrong to translate Luke 2:7 as "for there was no room (topos) in the inn (kataluma)." Topos means place, space, or spot, not hotel room. And kataluma means guestroom of a house, not an inn. The correct translation should be:

". . . for there was no place/space/spot in the guestroom."

No place/space/spot for what? Labor and delivery, of course!

Luke is telling us that they moved Mary out of the public area of the house to have her baby in private. Read Luke 2:1-7 carefully. I’m confident that one of the following two scenarios is close to what Luke means:

Sometime after the couple from Nazareth moved in to the guestroom of a Bethlehem relative’s house, Mary went into labor. For privacy and to avoid defiling others (childbirth was considered unclean), she had to move from the guestroom to a basement cave used as a stable. There she gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in strips of cloth, and lay him in a limestone feed trough.


The couple who had settled in Nazareth returned to their house in Bethlehem. While there, Mary went into labor, but with the guestroom occupied by relatives, they needed a private place for her and the baby, for childbirth was considered unclean by Jewish law. Their house’s basement cave and "corn crib" sufficed.

It’s surprising, but in the Bible, Mary wasn’t in labor on a donkey as a desperate Joseph searched strange streets for lodging. Joseph knew the streets. Mary didn’t go into labor until some time after they arrived in Bethlehem.

Luke 2:5-6 5 He (Joseph) went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. (New Revised Standard)

While they were there, the time came. She didn’t go into labor until they were already there for a time.

How did they get there? Joseph and Mary probably traveled on foot from Nazareth. There is no donkey in the biblical story. Can you imagine being a few months pregnant and riding a donkey for eighty miles? If Mary had been nine months pregnant, they wouldn’t have traveled anywhere at all. And Mary certainly wouldn’t have ridden a donkey for the better part of a week while on the verge of labor.

Perhaps Mary was only three to six months pregnant. I know a healthy young woman who in the course of a single day climbed up and down Mount Katahdin (pictured) in Maine while six months pregnant, and without incident. If she had tried to ride up and down Katahdin on a donkey while six months pregnant, however, I suspect there would have been a helicopter airlift.

It’s a new picture of his birth isn’t it? Mary and Joseph travel on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and though Mary is expecting, they arrive safely without incident. No panic. No desperation. No emergency. Mary was probably too far along in her pregnancy at some point to travel back to Nazareth, so they stayed in Bethlehem with family to await the birth. It was night when the moment came. They undoubtedly lit lamps and moved Mary from the living area upstairs down to a cave beneath the house used as the family stable. You can’t have a baby in a crowded guestroom. Cozy and clean downstairs, Mary gave birth in privacy, thus also avoiding the possibility of defilement in the rest of the house. And as every Jewish mother in that day knew, a manger can be just the right size for a newborn. Mary was not likely the first mother to use a manger for a crib. Most mothers probably did. And Jesus, like every baby, was wrapped in strips of cloth, their version of pampers. His birth, in most ways, was no different than any birth at home in first century Judea.

What about the innkeeper? If there wasn’t an inn in Bethlehem, doesn’t that mean that there was no innkeeper? Yes. The innkeeper in our children’s Christmas plays—the subject of many a sermon on failing to make room in your heart for Jesus this Christmas—never existed. Look in the Bible. He’s simply not there.

What about animals in the downstairs cave with Mary? As I indicated, no donkey is mentioned, but neither is an ox, calf, goat, duck, dove, or chicken. So what about sheep? Luke doesn’t say what the shepherds did with the sheep when they came into Bethlehem looking for the baby. I wonder, however, whether they would have brought an entire herd of noisy sheep into a sleepy village in the middle of the night. I rather doubt it. So there probably were no sheep at the manger either. Perhaps one of the shepherds stayed behind. Or maybe they visited the manger in shifts. So far as the biblical account goes, there were no animals at the manger. (I’ll get to camels in a minute.)

What about the angels? An angel announces Mary’s pregnancy to Mary and Joseph. Luke says it was Gabriel. There are other angels in Luke’s story; they "sing" for the shepherds in the fields outside of town. (2:13-15) [There are only male angels in the Bible (Acts 12:9 for example), and the noun "angel" (aggelos in Greek) is grammatically masculine. Gabriel’s name means "man of God," a masculine name. The other named angel in the Bible is Michael ("who is like God"). If Satan ("adversary") can be viewed as a fallen angel, he would be a third. The Apocrypha names two additional angels: Raphael meaning "God has healed" (Book of Tobit) and Uriel meaning "fire or light of God" (2 Esdras). No angel in Scripture is designated as female, though Zechariah 5:9 possibly refers to female angels.] But no angels appeared at the manger, according to scripture.

What about Joseph? Was he present downstairs for the birth of his son? Almost certainly not. Women assisted women in childbirth. Most towns in Jesus’ day had a nurse midwife who was granted priestly immunity from purity laws so as to assist in childbirth without ritual defilement, which saved midwives a trip to the Jerusalem temple after each birth they attended. A midwife, or women with experience, probably helped Mary, though the Bible mentions none. Yet note that the Bible doesn’t mention where Joseph is during Mary’s labor. So the best assumption is that he’s upstairs waiting for word of the health of his wife and his firstborn son. Would Joseph have been allowed down to see them after all was cleaned up and ready? Yes. Luke suggests this is the case. First, Joseph presence is not mentioned in the verse that announces Jesus’ birth.

Luke 2:7 and she brought forth her son -- the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber. (Young’s Literal Translation)

Yet when Luke tells about the visit later that night by the shepherds, he includes Joseph’s presence. Probably Joseph was nearby for the birth, but was allowed to come near afterward.

Luke 2:16 And they came, having hasted, and found both Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger, (Young’s Literal Translation)

So, exactly who was there around the baby Jesus? There was at first just Mary and hopefully a midwife, then later came Joseph, then came the shepherds. Is that it? Yes. That’s all.

You may be wondering about the Wise Men, their camels, and the star. These come much later. The Wise Men were not present for Jesus’ birth. Luke mentions no Wise Men, no camels, and no birth star. Matthew does, but what is often overlooked is that the star did not appear until Jesus was born. 

Matthew 2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. (New Revised Standard)

The Wise Men didn’t begin their journey until after Jesus’ birth. The star appeared to announce that the birth had occurred. The Wise Men did not arrive in Bethlehem until about two years later. How do we know that?

Matthew 2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. (New Revised Standard)

The Magi tell Herod when the star first appeared. He asked them for this information because he wants to know how old the child might be presently. Knowing the approximate age of Jesus, Herod orders every child two and under be killed—though why he orders girls killed too is unknown. So the child, his birth coinciding with the appearance of the star, would have been about two years old when the Wise Men arrived.

Yes, according to Luke, Joseph and family did return eventually to Nazareth.

Luke 2:39 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

But Joseph, being an observant Jew (Matthew 1:19), would have traveled to Jerusalem for at least the required three annual festivals in Jerusalem. Bethlehem is only six miles from there. So if he had a house in Bethlehem, his new family, coming down from Nazareth to Jerusalem regularly, could have stayed each night of the festivals in their own Bethlehem home. But if Joseph didn’t have his own house in Bethlehem, he and Mary could have accomplished the same thing by overnighting with relatives in Bethlehem during the Jewish festivals. The six miles from Bethlehem to the Jerusalem temple was an acceptable walking distance. (pictured—note Bethlehem within circle, lower left)

Six miles sounds like a long walk today, but Joseph probably walked to work in Sepphoris (Zippori in Hebrew) eight miles round trip from Nazareth every day. (There was excellent employment in Galilee’s new capital city for a builder; this may have been why Joseph relocated to Nazareth in the first place.) Twenty miles a day was considered a full day’s walk. And, other than riding an expensive animal, what choice did working-class people have but to walk?

It’s a biblical fact that the holy family returned to Nazareth eventually. (That was their primary residence. He is called "Jesus of Nazareth.") But it is also a biblical fact that when the Wise Men showed up two years after Jesus’ birth, they found Mary and the baby in "the house" in Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:11) Perhaps they were lodging in Bethlehem for one of the Jerusalem festivals when the Wise Men arrived. If it wasn’t a relative’s house, it was probably Joseph’s own house, the very same house beneath which Jesus was born.

Matthew adds that the holy family had to hide from Herod for a while in Egypt. When Herod died (4 B.C), they wanted to return to Bethlehem (again suggesting that they had a house there), but Herod’s son Archelaus was on the Judean throne, and he was worse than his dad. So they went home to Nazareth. By that time, Jesus may have been about six years of age, old enough to be learning his father’s trade.

Back to the Wise Men, the biblical Greek word for Wise Men is Magi. Our English word magician comes from the term Magi. These men were eastern intellectuals skilled in science, astronomy, astrology, dream interpretation, and magic. Some are portrayed positively, like the Magi that brought the toddler Jesus gifts. Others, like the Magi Simon of Samaria (Acts 8:1-24) and Bar-Jesus of Cyprus (Acts 13:1-12), are portrayed negatively. Magi could be found not only in Arabia, but also throughout the Roman Empire.

Matthew doesn’t tell how many Magi visited toddler Jesus. Guesses range from two to twelve. Nor does Matthew say how they traveled. No camels are mentioned. It’s doubtful that there would have just been two or three, however, due to the danger of travel and the value of their cargo. It may be appropriate to think of a dromedary. There is safety in numbers. The Bible doesn’t give the Magi’s names or their races, though coming from "the east" we can assume they are Arabian. One scholar I know believes they were Nabateans familiar with the spice route that took them through Petra to Gaza regularly. But speculation about their names, their race, and their number come from later legends, not the Bible. What Matthew makes clear is that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Is there any significance to these gifts? Perhaps. Gold was a typical gift for a king. Frankincense was a typical gift for a priest. And, strangely, yet prophetically, myrrh was used for cleaning and anointing corpses. Myrrh was typically a gift for a death in the family.

Where was Jesus born? Probably in a cave beneath Joseph’s own house in Bethlehem. In the Bible there is no inn, no innkeeper, no desperate search for a room, and no one in labor on a donkey. Who comes to see Mary and the baby in the manger? Joseph and shepherds come. No animals, no angels, no Wise Men. Two years later, probably in the same Bethlehem house, two or more Magi come bearing gifts for Jesus, now a toddler.

In the course of this article, I’ve shown that several people, animals, and elements in the Christmas play version are not found in the Bible. On the other hand, there is a biblical character who cannot be found in the typical Christmas play. The true bad guy is King Herod the Great. He’s missing from theses kiddie events, no doubt, because his order to slaughter all of the innocent babies and toddlers in Bethlehem is neither G-Rated, nor does it evoke holiday cheer. (pictured) So, I suppose a kinder and gentler bad guy was invented by well-meaning playwrights, one who isn’t in the biblical text at all, but still serves his purpose as the villain: the hardhearted innkeeper. And Herod, the true, lying, paranoid, murdering, biblical bad guy, is omitted.

Perhaps you’re worrying about what to tell your children now. I suggest you allow them to keep and enjoy their colorful cast of characters from the Christmas nativity plays . . . for now. Plays and nativity scenes introduce them to the basic story. They learn some of the characters. And though what we present them isn’t super-accurate biblically, the Christmas pageants and popular manger scenes serve a well-intended purpose. They engage the imaginations of our children and involve them in the story. I think parents should teach their children the adult version only when they think the children are ready.


There is a similar biblical discrepancy with Jesus being a tekton. "Carpenter" is the popular but inaccurate translation. Sorry. The Grinch stole Christmas, and now he’s going after our beloved carpenter shop!

Nevertheless . . .

Tekton means "builder." It’s the root word for tectonics, which is the study of the earth’s crust or the science of constructing sky scrapers. Last time I checked, the earth’s crust and sky scrapers are not made of wood.

Add to this the fact that in the Bible Jesus never spoke of carpentry once, but spoke often of building and stone, giving the picture of a "mason" instead of a "wood worker."

Besides, wood was scarce and expensive. (The first century boat excavated on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1986 was constructed with wood from eleven different kinds of trees demonstrating how boat builders scrounged whatever scraps of wood they could find so to recycle them in boat construction.) How do you feed your family in the landlocked village of Nazareth (Population: 200) by making the occasional spoon or yoke? You can’t. But a builder might do well living near a large construction site. Nazareth was near such a site: Zippori (or in Greek, Sepphoris).

Joseph and sons from Nazareth could have walked to Zippori everyday--Galilee’s capital during Jesus’ growing up years, just four miles away--to work at one of the largest construction project sites in the entire Mediterranean basin at the time. Herod Antipas was building a new capital city for Galilee. Lot’s of work. Good pay every day for a skilled, local builder and his sons.

But if a Bible publisher dared change "carpenter" to "construction worker" or "craftsman" or even "master builder," he would likely be punished with bad sales.

"How dare they take Joseph’s carpenter shop away from us?"

And likewise, were more translators to begin translating kataluma as something other than inn . . .

"How dare they take the innkeeper and his inn away from us?"

My suspicion is that tradition will retain the inn and the innkeeper. Tradition will demand that Mary ride her donkey in labor, that three Wise Men go to the manger, and that Joseph teach Jesus how to be a carpenter. Traditions are not easily changed.

Yet no matter how cherished or ingrained a tradition may be, it still may be inaccurate biblically speaking.

For a look at what year Jesus was born see my blog "8 B.C." For a look at what day of the year Jesus was born see my blog "When Was Jesus Born?" Also see "A Brief Dictionary of Jesus' Birth".