Jesus Was Not Born in a Stable

David Searcy is my stepbrother who with his family has been a missionary in Indonesia for many years.  He sent me the following e-mail that sheds a different light on the Christmas story.  It illustrates how our culture has a major impact on how we view a particular situation, including the story of the birth of Jesus.  It teaches us that our interpretation of the Bible is colored by our preconceived ideas and is not always correct.

 

I do not believe Jesus was born in a stable.  Because this is the season we think about these things and see pictures of stables all around, let me explain.  The following thoughts are not entirely original with me, but after living in the Orient for almost 40 years they do make a whole lot of sense to me.  I do believe Jesus was born and laid in a manger – a feed trough for a donkey or cow.  This fact is repeated three times in Luke’s account chapter 2 verses 7, 12 and 16.

In the Orient there is huge tradition of hospitality, particularly for anyone with family connections.  Whenever we go visiting to another village, the first question is:  “Who are we related to in this village?”  Then we will go stay with those relations.  People figure “relations” much further back than we do in the western world.  They generally go back 4-5 generations.  Then there are all the adopted relatives so it does get complicated.  One of the first activities of a visit is to get all the relational connections straight.

I just went on a week’s trip through villages this last September and I saw this happen every time we stopped.  So when Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, they did not go to a commercial inn. That would be insulting to the family.  They went to a family connection; they were the decedents of David and they went to the city of David, a city full of their blood relations – on both sides.  They of course were in a house with relatives – not in a stable.  The question would be to which side did they go, his or hers?  We do not know.

There is evidence that houses in that time were laid out a bit differently than we think of them now.  Think of a house in a long rectangle.   On one end of the house were the sleeping rooms.  One of these rooms was called the “inn”.  This room was a special guest room for all the visiting family members. Hospitality was so important they had a special room.   Then the middle part of the rectangle was a combination kitchen, dining room, work room, family room etc.  This was the room where the main activities of the household took place.  This was a busy place with kids, mom and dad, aunts and uncles, grandparents and various animals all together in one household.   There was an open fireplace with smoke, soot, firewood, water jars and lots of other litter from – food prep, wood working, basket weaving, cloth weaving etc.  It is most likely some of the family members actually also slept in this room. In Dayak households, many times a single grandparent or the older generation sleeps in the kitchen – with the dogs and sometimes a pig.

It is most likely this “kitchen” area was open on one end and opened into a stable.   The family donkey, cow, chickens and other animals were brought in at night for safe keeping.  Between the kitchen and stable there would be most likely a barrier but not always a solid wall, and it is logical to think of that barrier as also being the manager, feed box for the donkey.  Remember that our European ancestors also did something similar – cows downstairs and people on the second story for heat and economy of work.

So Mary and Joseph arrive in a Bethlehem crowded with tired disgruntled people forced to come sign up for the tax rolls.  Every household was full of relatives near and distant.  Mary and Joseph were of the younger generation so did not get the better accommodations – the “inn”.  It was full of older more deserving relatives.   They were billeted in the “kitchen” with all the younger cousins and other less prestigious crowd.  It was a full house and everybody was enjoying catching up on the family gossip. Younger folks were playing and flirting, older folks complaining about the Romans and high taxes.  A very pregnant and very tired Mary was quietly resting in a corner – content to finally be still and dry and in the bosom of “family”.

Then it happened.  Mary’s eyes grew large; she caught her breath and clutched her swollen abdomen, then poked a distracted Joseph deep in political debate.   “It’s happening sweetheart!”  Joseph jumped and alerted the women of the house.  Nothing but nothing gets women’s attention like a baby coming.   A couple of nephews were sent scurrying through the dark to get the local mid wife – most likely also related to Mary.  This was exciting; nothing like having a baby when everybody was there to keep them company.  (Remember: no TV, no DVD, no books, so a baby’s arrival was a big social event) The house was full of people.  Mary birthed the baby in the kitchen area, attended by umpteen chattering women.  The men and kids were shooed out to some other place, probably the front street, to sit and continue games and the discussion regarding the latest atrocity of the Roman legions against the Jewish people – we see later it was a clear night.   The baby finally arrived, and what to do with it? The house was full, the room was full.  But lo, here was this empty feed box with only a sleepy donkey’s nose and a hen and her brood. An aunt swatted Jake the family donkey who backed into the cow. The hen with her brood of chicks was evicted to the back of the stable.  So there was some cheeping, mooing and shuffling around in the dark stable.  Jake was insulted, he thought he was part of the family.  Some fresh hay was found in the dark and the “aunts” laid the baby in this bed of hay.  A curious arrangement that the ladies in Bethlehem would laugh about for years to come.

I think the picture we have of Mary and Joseph alone in a stable is not culturally correct.  They were in a house full of Oriental people with a strong sense of family and hospitality.  The manger was one of necessity because the house was so full.   It was indeed a lowly circumstance but I would not think lonely.

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Essential Knowledge

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said:  “All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.”

Goethe echoes the Preacher who says there is nothing new under the sun.  It has all been thought and said before (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  However, we keep looking for new ideas believing that when we discover them our problems will be solved.  But our problem is not acquiring new ideas.  With our technology we have access to more information than we can possibly use.  Our problem is that we do not put into practice what we already know to be true.  God has made known to us the essential truths (John 16:7-12).  The question is whether that knowledge will remain simply an intellectual exercise or whether we will apply that knowledge to our personal experience.

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Trust

A recent newspaper article I read referenced a survey that determined two-thirds of Americans believe other people cannot be trusted. [1]  Only 50 percent felt that way in 1972.  The article noted the consequences of this attitude.  It harms our political climate because political compromises are more difficult if you do not trust your political opponents.  It harms our economic climate because it diverts our dollars to protecting ourselves with security systems, gated communities, and legal maneuvering.  It is very destructive to our personal lives such as when we discover a friend or spouse has deceived us.

Why are we less trusting of each other?  The article mentions several causes such as technology which keeps people to themselves instead of socializing at community gatherings, the 24 hour news coverage of near and distant violence which enhances our sense of the untrustworthiness of people, economic inequality which eliminates a sense of a shared future, and a decline of moral values where everyone is looking out for themselves.

While all the above reasons might be true, what is forgotten is that trust is earned.  We trust people based upon their pattern of behavior (which is a definition of character).  If someone constantly takes advantage of us, we will not trust them.  The article mentions Dennis Hess who runs an unattended farm stand.  The only reason he is successful in his unattended stand is because the majority of his customers are honest.  If most of his customers were dishonest, then he would be forced to close the stand or make it an attended stand.

Asking why we are less trusting of each other is the wrong question.  The question should be:  Why we are less trustworthy?  We do not solve the problem of trust by blindly trusting others.  The solution is for each of us to demonstrate we are trustworthy regardless of the political, economic, technological, or moral climate.

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[1]   Connie Cass, Associated Press, “Poll:  Americans less trusting of each other, Tulsa World, December 1, 2013, p. A8.

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Israel

The purpose of this blog is to ask questions about the Christian faith and the Bible in order to better understand them.  Many Christians think questioning our faith is wrong or at least unseemly.  I remember when I was in a class at a Bible institute and I asked a question about the topic we were discussing.  An audible gasp came from another student who then exclaimed:  “He’s questioning God!”  Fortunately the professor knew I was just trying to understand the topic at hand and replied appropriately.

Why has asking questions of God become taboo in Christianity?  Marvin Olasky notes that:  “Many Christians are passive and complacent in their faith, forgetting that the word Israel means the one who wrestles with God.” [1]  Olasky is referring to Genesis 32 where Jacob is about to meet his brother Esau and he is uncertain how Esau will receive him because Jacob had essentially stolen Esau’s birthright from him.  The night before Jacob meets Esau he goes off alone and wrestles all night with a man (who the Bible does not clearly identify).  As daylight approached, the man requests that Jacob let him go but Jacob refuses unless the man blesses him.  The man then blesses him by stating:  “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” [Genesis 32:28 ESV]

Why would we wrestle with God?  The reason is because we are finite.  We cannot assume we have accurately interpreted the Bible; we cannot assume our version of reality is accurate.  Additionally, we have a sinful nature that is opposed to God.  As we strive to better understand ourselves, the world in which we live, and how God relates to us, it should not be surprising that we would wrestle with God.

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[1]   Marvin Olasky, “Graduation presents”, World Magazine, May 18, 2013, p. 28.

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Confirmation Bias

Christians really don’t believe in the Bible.

If we really did believe the Bible, we would not ignore passages in the Bible that conflict with our belief system, with our doctrinal statements.  When I talk to Christians about the issues raised in this blog—that salvation is not belief in Jesus and his death and resurrection for our sins but instead is the change of our soul so it becomes like God—they say it is interesting but engage in no conversation about these issues. Why?  There are over seventy verses in the New Testament that state salvation is through belief in God or through our conduct, pattern of behavior, motivation, use of abilities, and repentance.  God put those verses in the Bible for a reason.

I have yet to find a Christian who can refute the doctrine of salvation put forth in this blog.  Yes, if you ignore certain passages in the Bible you can claim you have Biblical evidence against this position.  But if you believe the entire Bible is the word of God, you must find an explanation for what the entire Bible says not just a few or even most passages.

This tendency of Christians to ignore Biblical evidence against a particular doctrine is an example of one of our human weaknesses—confirmation bias.  “Confirmation bias is our dysfunctional predilection to pick and choose information that supports our beliefs while dismissing any data that doesn’t agree. . .[it] is your Yes Man hard at work.” [1]  The problem with confirmation bias is that it “contribute[s] to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence”. [2]

God desires us to search for what is true (I Thessalonians 5:21, Acts 17:11).  Since we are finite, it is very likely that many of the beliefs we hold will eventually prove not be valid—even some of our Christian beliefs.  That is why we must always be on guard against our confirmation bias.

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[1]   Rod Machado, “Confirmation bias”, AOPA Pilot, December 2013, p. 22.

[2]   http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Confirmation_bias.html

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Believing the Bible

Christians really don’t believe in the Bible.

If we did, we would follow what it teaches.  Instead as Eric Metaxas explains in his book Amazing Grace, Christians in England in the 18th and 19th centuries supported slavery and still claimed to be Christians because it was an acceptable social norm to believe one thing and do another.  It was not considered hypocrisy.  Have things really changed?  In the last blog, we mentioned that some business people do not always practice Christianity in their workplace because they believe one cannot be successful in business doing so.  In other words, they say everyone should follow Jesus’ teachings but somehow think they are exempt when it comes to running a business.

We do the same in our personal lives.  Life Church (see www.lifechurch.tv) is currently running a series on what it calls “Necessary Sins”.  God may say a particular action is wrong (lying, gossip, etc.) but we think it is a necessary part of life.  We consider these sins to be necessary because they help us make it through life or because it is accepted in our society (and it is so necessary to get along in society).  Is that any different from the Christians in England in the 18th and 19th century?

Maybe we Christians should start believing in the Bible again.

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Implementation of an Idea

Over my 38 years in business, I have heard many business persons express the opinion that business and Christianity do not mix; that one cannot consistently practice Christianity and be successful in business.  I disagree.  Lean Enterprise with its three principles of focusing on the customer, eliminating waste, and respect for people (customers, vendors, employees the surrounding community) has proven to be very successful in business and non-business settings and is very compatible with Christian principles.

I also believe that business can also teach us about Christianity.  I have been reading a book about management and the author, Chet Holmes, asks how one can become very proficient at anything.  His answer is:  The mastery of any skill “is not about being special or more gifted than anyone else.  Mastery is a direct result of pigheaded discipline and determination”. [1]  He also emphasizes the importance of habit.  Repetition trains your mind so your responses become automatic. [2]

How does the above relate to Christianity?  In this blog we maintain that salvation is the change of our soul so it becomes like God.  The natural response to that question is:  So how do we change our soul?  My answer is from Holmes:  By “pigheaded discipline and determination”.  We must implement the teachings of Jesus in our lives, not just learn them.  Jesus’ teachings must be so engrained in our minds through practice that our response to a particular situation automatically conforms to what Jesus taught us.

Holmes tells his audience that they will agree with his concepts but most will not implement them.  Why would we humans not do something that we know works?  Because it takes effort.  The same applies to our spiritual lives.  Jesus’ teachings work but we do not put them into practice because it will require that we change our soul so it becomes like God and that change is hard work.

In business and Christianity and in all of life “Implementation, not ideas, is the key to real success”. [3]  How well are you doing in implementing the teachings of Jesus in your life?

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[1]   Chet Holmes, The Ultimate Sales Machine, NewYork:  Portfolio, The Penguin Company, 2005, p. xviii.

[2]   Holmes, p. xix.

[3]    Holmes, p. 4.

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Core Beliefs

In the last blog, we asked how we decide what our core Christian beliefs are.  Of course, they come from the Bible but the problem is that there are all manner of interpretations of the Bible and there are all manner of ideas concerning which Biblical teaching is a core belief.  However, I believe there are a few principles upon which all Christians should agree.

First, we should consider the earliest Christian creeds as the most authoritative.  These creeds were developed closer to the time of Jesus and have had less of a chance for erroneous and/or nonessential ideas to infiltrate.  As we mentioned last week, the earlier creeds are much simpler than the later.  If the writers of the early creeds did not consider a particular Biblical teaching to be a core belief, why did the writers of the later creeds?

Second, Paul tells us Jesus’ death and resurrection for our sins is the gospel (I Corinthians 15:1-7).  This is the main reason why Jesus came to this earth; it was not to teach us about the Trinity or baptism.  Jesus’ death and resurrection for our sins must be a central part of our faith.

Third, Christianity is about Jesus.  Much of Jesus’ teachings involve our actions and the person we become (Matthew 13:41-50, Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 18:18-30, John 5:27-29, John 12:44-50) so our core beliefs must address our actions as well as our beliefs.

Taking the above three principles, I believe our core beliefs should include:  Belief in God, Jesus and his death and resurrection for our sins, the Holy Spirit, the universal Church, our eternal existence, and our judgment by Jesus.  These tenants clearly follow the early Christian creeds.  The only thing I would add concerns our judgment by Jesus—we will be judged according to our actions and the person we become not just our beliefs.

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Essential Beliefs

In a previous blog (August 28, 2013), we discussed the various Christian creeds that are in existence.  As I have reread and thought about them I noticed that the creeds became longer as time passed.  The earliest creeds simply proclaimed belief in God, Jesus and his work here on earth, the Holy Spirit, the universal Christian church, and our spiritual and eternal existence.

Part of the reason the creeds became longer was that differences of opinion arose about certain aspect of the Christian faith, such as the nature of Jesus—was he divine or human or both.  But is that a reason to make the Christian faith more complicated?

Jesus placed great emphasis on the unity of Christians.  In John 17:21-23 he stated that the world would know God sent Jesus to our world if Jesus’ followers were one like Jesus and God are one.  However, with our multitude of creeds, we have divided ourselves up into multiple Christian religions and denominations.

A creed should be as its definition states–a statement of essential or core beliefs.  It should not be packed with various opinions and interpretations.  In issues that extend beyond our core beliefs, Christians should be tolerant of other beliefs.  Instead we seem to be intolerant.  We all need to recognize that, as the Bible teaches, we are finite and are in some ways deficient in our knowledge of God’s truth.  If that is true, why are we so intolerant of differing points of view?

So how do we decide what are our core beliefs?  I’ll get back to you in a future blog.

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Elevator Speech

A couple of years ago I read an article by Harvey Mackay in which he states we should be able to explain any idea and stimulate an interest to learn more about that idea within three minutes or in the time it would take to explain our idea to someone while we ride in an elevator with them. [1]  So below is the “elevator speech” for the idea that I am attempting to communicate in this blog.

 

Salvation is the change of our soul so it becomes like God; it is not the belief that Jesus died for our sins.  Belief in Jesus is the means to the end, not the end itself.

Salvation being the change of our soul so it becomes like God is taught by the Bible.  There are over 70 verses in the New Testament which teach salvation is by belief in God or through our conduct, pattern of behavior, motivation, use of abilities, and repentance.  If belief in Jesus and his death for our sins is the only way of salvation, why did God include all these verses?

Salvation being the change of our soul so it becomes like God is taught by logic.  God made us finite; he constructed our existence so certainty in regards to historical events is not absolute.  For example, while there is substantial evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus, there will always remain an element of doubt about this extraordinary event.  So how can God condemn people to hell for not believing in something for which they cannot obtain certain proof?  Also, how can God be a God of love and justice and yet condemn people to hell who either have not heard of Jesus or whose culture and/or religion tell them Jesus is irrelevant?

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[1]   Harvey Mackay, “Book explains art of the elevator speech”, The Tulsa World, June 5, 2011, p. E5.

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