Was Jesus Born in a Barn, Cave, or House?

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The question “Where was Jesus born?” is surprisingly tricky. The easy answer is, “In Bethlehem.” Yes, but where? The typical nativity scene features the holy family in a stable that looks like a barn, separate from the Inn, where there was no room. But is this accurate? Most historians and scholars say, “Not so much.”

This is a question that I’ve seen pop up more frequently on social media this year than in previous years, so I figured I’d take some time to lay out the facts and present some of the more popular theories.

What We Know
We know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was no room “in the inn,” and that he was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger.

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Luke 2:4-7 (ESV)

Aside from these basics, there’s a lot of detail left open: Why were they turned away from “the inn?” Why was there a manger, does that mean they were in the barn with the animals? Where did people in ancient Bethlehem keep the animals? These types of questions have led to a few different theories about where Jesus was actually born, which are briefly summarized below. Continue reading

Recovering our Fear

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Advent is a season of waiting… remembering Israel’s wait for Christ to come, and the Church’s wait for his return in glory. As we wait, it is so easy to lose focus and get busied with routine joys and routine troubles while forgetting about Christ at all. This isn’t a new struggle.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor in the days leading up to World War II and was persecuted (and eventually killed at Hitler’s direct command) for his role in opposing the Nazi regime. The following quote comes from Bonhoeffer’s sermon on the first Sunday of Advent in 1935 as Hitler’s power in Germany was increasing. Keep Bonhoeffer’s context in mind as you read this excerpt from this Advent sermon based out of Revelation 14:6-13.

And the speech of the angel is so simple that anyone could understand it: “fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment is come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the springs of water.” That is the first command of the gospel. “Fear God” and you will have nothing else to fear.

Don’t fear what the next day may bring. Don’t fear other people. Don’t fear violence and power, even when it comes to you personally and can rob you of your life. Don’t fear the high and mighty in the world. Don’t fear yourself. Don’t fear your sins. All these fears will die. From all these fears you will be set free. For they are no longer there. But fear God and him alone. For he has the power over all the powers of this world. The whole world is in fear of God. He has power to give us life or to destroy us. All other powers are a mere game.

God alone is real, seriously real. Fear God seriously and “give him the glory.” He would be acknowledged as the creator, as our creator; he would be acknowledged as the reconciler, who has made peace between God and man; he would be acknowledged as redeemer, who at the end sets us free from all our sins and all our burdens. Honor him and his holy gospel, “because the hour of his judgment is come.” And this judgment is the gospel itself. The eternal gospel is the judge of all peoples.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Remembrance Sunday: Who and What is Babylon?” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 111.

Bonhoeffer emphasizes throughout the remainder of the sermon that the gospel is the only message of salvation. Even while he states, “The eternal gospel is the judge of all peoples,” it is important to hear the rest of his message about the gospel – it is not a message of damnation, but of reconciliation with God and freedom from all fears. It is only through the gospel that men and women can live with the right kind of fear: fear of God.

However you approach the Christmas season, and much is often made about how difficult this season is for many, let this be a time to reset your fear. Do not fear death. Do not fear judgment. Do not fear all sorts of other fearful things…. fear God. For in the end, when everything else has been subject to judgment, He remains. He is victorious. This is Good News indeed.

Should Christians Celebrate Hanukkah?

Over the years, I’ve been asked many times, “Pastor Mike, what should Christians do about Hanukkah? It’s not in the Bible, so I’m not sure how I should think about it.” This is a short overview of what Hanukkah is and how Christians can think about and interact with Hanukkah.

MenorahHanukkah is a Jewish holiday to commemorate God’s miraculous provision for Israel as they rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd Century BCE. The menorah in the Temple was running out of oil and only had one day’s oil left, but remained burning for eight days while more oil was on the way. The Jewish website Chabad has a really helpful and informative writeup about Hanukkah (or the Jewish rendering, Chanukah) you can read here.

Hanukkah in the Bible
You may be surprised to learn that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah and it’s mentioned in the Bible. At that time, Hanukkah was called “the Feast of Dedication” because it commemorated the dedication of the Temple. Continue reading

Why We Give Up On Prayer

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Christians know they should pray. It’s an expression of worship and confidence in God’s goodness to us. But it’s so easy to give up on prayer for a few reasons.

A low view of what prayer is
We fall into this trap when we think about prayer as “the least we can do.” Most commonly, this shows up when we talk about, “All we can do is pray.” Someone is sick or something threatening comes our way and we feel helpless.

There is no small prayer. Prayers may be as short as “Help!” or “Thank you, Jesus!” But when prayer brings our requests and desires before the almighty, holy God of creation… there is no small prayer.

Impatience with God’s timing
Some prayer requests take years. Decades even. Endure in prayer. I have been reading about the life of Saint Augustine, the most influential Christian pastor/writer outside of Scripture, about his long and hard journey to faith. For decades, he lived in sinful resistance to the things of God, and pursued the pleasures of the world and earthly prestige. But his mother, Monica, prayed faithfully for him even despite his outright rejection of Christianity. Years later, Augustine reflected back on his life, noting the years of steadfast prayer on his behalf by his loving mother.

Don’t grow weary in prayer. God is faithful, and his timeline is good.

Wavering faith in the goodness of God
It’s easy to fall into believing, “If God was good, he wouldn’t allow this to happen.” You’ve prayed and prayed and prayed, but nothing has changed and it seems like God simply doesn’t care. After all, if God is going to do whatever he wants to do anyway, what’s the point in praying? But God is good, and he delights in giving good gifts to his children. Now, that doesn’t mean we will never suffer. What that means is we can know the goodness of God even though suffering and difficulties we endure. Whatever might try persuade you that God does not desire good for you, remember the cross, where God’s love and justice are shown in full measure.

If you are tempted to quit praying, don’t. Christians have become children of God through faith. We do not pray I order to persuade or manipulate God to do what we want. No. We pray as children making our requests known to our Father in Heaven, trusting in his good judgement and timing.

“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” Colossians 4:2

Why Christians Eat Lobster While Obeying the Old Testament’s Sexual Laws

I received this question from a former student, “How do we decide what we follow from the Old Testament as modern Christians? For example, why can we cut our hearts but not support homosexuality?”

Great question. Tough question.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how Christians view the Old Testament. It’s helpful to think in terms of covenants rather than testaments. Some people are saying we need to “unhinge” ourselves from it’s commandments completely, because the new covenant has made the old obsolete and defunct. In large measure, this is a reaction against those who have upheld the laws of the old covenant without viewing them through new covenant eyes. Christian tradition has consistently affirmed the goodness of the old covenant even while maintaining that we are now “under grace, not law.”

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Is Online Church a Real Church?

Nearly ten years ago my cousin Vinnie (I love typing that) told me I should start an online church for people who were open to Christianity but wouldn’t actually go on Sunday mornings. This was long before live-streaming was accessible and few churches had an “online campus.” Now it is fairly common for churches to offer live-streaming of their services today. Recently, Judah Smith’s The City Church has caused a buzz by announcing the launch of a new church: “the phone in the palm of your hand.” Watch their announcement about ChurchHome below.

There are generally two type of responses to creative initiatives like this. Some will call it heresy and will shout, “That’s not church!” Others will hail it as a creative and relevant effort to reach unbelievers with the gospel. Instead of neatly fitting into either category, I want to walk through a few ways both groups might have a good point.  Continue reading

How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?

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The problem of pain and suffering is probably the greatest cause for people losing faith. That makes sense. It does seem like a good God who is also an all-powerful God should snuff out suffering and prevent it from ever happening. Terrible things happen to some really wonderful people, and it doesn’t always make sense. So how can we continue to live by faith and trust in God?

The existence of suffering comes down to these three realities:

  1. We are not robots. God created us with freewill. Every Christian believes this (not only Arminians). It is incredibly ironic to criticize God for allowing suffering while also shaking your fist at him and telling him to stay out of your life. You can’t have it both ways… God gave us responsibility, and we need to own that.
  2. We make a train wreck of our lives and of the world. Pointing all the way back to the first humans, Adam and Eve, we have a way of choosing sin over righteousness. We aren’t as sinful as we could be, but we are all sinners and that has effected everything in our world: our relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, and with nature. We know things aren’t “the way they’re supposed to be,” but our efforts often make things worse, not better. God must intervene somehow.
  3. God has a greater dream for our lives than we could imagine for ourselves. While we try to define a successful life by our bank account, or family, or power, or influence, or whatever… God has a greater dream for us. The truth is, our dream is not too big for God, but too small! Because of sin, there will be a day of judgment to make things right, and suffering is often God’s warning light calling us to repentance now before it’s too late.

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Do False Teachers Concern You?

I was in college when I read a book that captivated me. It was an apologetics book where a theology professor was writing letters back-and-forth with his atheist father, and he carefully and winsomely explained his Christian views. The problem was, some of those views were radical reinterpretations of what the Bible teaches. Because of this book there were a number of significant doctrines that I misunderstood for years. Since then, I have grown more discerning and careful about evaluating what I read and listen.

We are all called to be careful readers and listeners, to be on guard against false teachers. Sometimes it might come off as spiritual superiority (“I know better than they do, I’m not falling for it!”) or spiritual arrogance (“I can’t believe you’d read that book”). We need to remain humble even as we grow in our spiritual discernment, but one of my great concerns for Christians today is a lack of spiritual discernment.

There are authors and musicians (yes, our Christian music can easily spread false teaching) who are on the Christian best seller’s list, but they’re false teachers who should be avoided. Sure, maybe their books are really fun to read, their personalities are engaging, and some of their stuff is helpful. But the Bible calls Christians to be spiritually discerning, because there are false teachers who can lead well-intentioned believers astray.

Do false teachers concern you? Do you ask theological questions about the books you read, music you listen to, shows you watch, or teachers you learn from? Sadly, we cannot simply trust anyone who talks about Jesus and quotes the Bible.

Careful Reading
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How Should The Church Respond to Violence?

Another school shooting took place last week. 17 dead in Parkland, Florida as a former student entered campus to take the lives of his classmates and teachers. It seems like this type of violent event keeps happening so frequently we’re becoming numb.

Where so many in positions of legal authority respond with “Thoughts and Prayers” but with little action, the nonChristian world has come to despise the phrase “thoughts and prayers” because it has come to mean, “I’m really sad this happened. Let’s be sad together for a week or two until we all move on… until this happens again.” In this way, “thoughts and prayers” aren’t enough.

So what should Christians and the Church do?

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What Makes a Good Sermon?

Ask any church goer and you’ll hear a wide range of characteristics for a good sermon. Some people are looking for compelling stories, others want to laugh, and still others are turned off by humor and desire pure teaching. Here are the characteristics that I keep in mind while preparing to preach.

1. Be biblical

This seems like a no-brainer, but there are plenty of sermons which reference the Bible but they are not built on a foundation of Scripture. Sometimes the preacher seems to have an idea what he wants to say and then uses a Bible verse here or there to prove his point. This is not a biblical sermon. If the Word of God is living and active, a double edged sword that is God-breathed, then we should keep Scripture front-and-center.

2. Be Gospel-Centered

I know “gospel centered” has become something of a cliche over the last five years, but it’s a helpful (and biblical) grid through which to operate. If a sermon doesn’t clearly lead to gospel proclamation, and if it doesn’t clearly flow from the fruit of the gospel… then it isn’t a Christian sermon in any meaningful way. Many preachers have fallen off the cliff of works-righteousness in the attempt to be relevant (“Four keys to building a great marriage,” or “How to be the best you”). Sermons should be robustly biblical and gospel-centered.

3. Be clear

What good is brilliance if it’s so blinding you can’t behold it? Instead, I have always agreed with those who claim you don’t really understand something until you can explain it to a child. Preachers spend an average of 12-20 hours each week on their sermon but the people who listen only hear the final result. Gone are the days when preachers can reasonably assume any measure of biblical literacy, so using phrases like “Most of you know this verse already” only makes to those who don’t “already know” feel stupid and small and unwelcome. If something is worth saying, it’s worth saying clearly enough for everyone to understand. I generally keep seven specific people in mind while preparing the message: a child (kids over age 7 sit through our entire worship service), a teenager, a young parent, a businessman, a tradesman, a nonbeliever (who may be skeptical but is interested enough to attend a worship service), and a senior saint who has faithfully served Christ for decades. If these people can each understand what I have down on paper, then I’m ready to preach.

4. Be helpful

This is where the rubber meets the road and the sermon connects or falls flat. Rather than trying to be relevant, I find it more fruitful to pursue helpfulness. Here are some questions I consider: “What is confusing about this passage that needs to be explained?” “Where does our culture today agree and disagree with this message?” “What challenges will people face in the call to embrace this teaching?” “What is going on in our church where this message applies to either encourage or correct us?”

If a sermon hits in these four marks, I think it will demonstrate pastoral love for the listeners, reverence to the Lord in how Scripture is handles carefully, and great joy because it is anchored in God’s provision through Jesus Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit.

One final thing to note is this – every preacher needs to first listen to the sermon the Holy Spirit is preaching to him through his sermon preparation. If the preacher hasn’t first been moved by God’s Word through the preparation process then his sermon will be flat, one-dimensional, and either dryly-academic or hypocritical.