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Wordwise Insight, Issue #036
December 14, 2007

WORDWISE INSIGHT is the free, informative monthly newsletter of


BIBLE INSIGHTS. The Return of Christ, a Healthy Church, and more

READER Q & A. When was Jesus born?

MEDIATIONS ON OUR HYMNS. Away in a Manger, plus some insights on the star of Bethlehem


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At this time of year when we celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God, it is helpful to look ahead and see, in Paul Harvey’s phrase, “the rest of the story.” The One who came the first time in humility, who laid as a Babe in Bethlehem’s manger, will return one day to reign as King of kings, and Lord of lords. The One first crowned with thorns will then wear a diadem of glory.

The book of First Thessalonians has much to say about the return of Christ. In this relatively brief letter, the Apostle Paul links the second coming of Christ with several important things:

1. With Salvation. He commends the Thessalonian Christians because they “wait for His Son from heaven, whom He [God the Father] raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:10).

2. With Service. Paul looks forward to meeting in heaven those who have responded to his ministry, through God’s grace. “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy” (2:19-20).

3. With Sanctification. The apostle’s desire for these believers is that they live holy lives (separated from those things that are displeasing to God) in preparation for Christ’s return– “So that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints” (3:13).

4. With Solace. The epistle describes the next dramatic event on God’s calendar, the rapture of the church, our catching away into the presence of Christ, where we will be reunited with Christians who have died previously (4:13-17). This should bring comfort and encouragement in painful circumstances. “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (4:18).

5. With Surety. We trust the Lord to fulfil His purpose, coming again at the precise time He has planned. And because of who He is, and because He has promised (“I will come again,” Jn. 1:3), we can be certain of it. “May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it” (5:23-24).

Several times the New Testament mentions three qualities that should characterize Christians, both individually and as a group. The three are faith, hope, and love, mentioned in close proximity in a number of places (e.g. I Cor. 13:13).

They were exhibited in the believers at Thessalonica, as Paul writes, “Remembering without ceasing [in prayer] your work of faith, labour of love, and patience of hope” (I Thess. 1:3). There seems to be a connection between this commendation and what is said later in vs. 9-10. The work produced by faith was their turning to God from idols; their labour prompted by love was service for the living and true God; their patient endurance inspired by hope involved waiting for God’s Son from heaven.

Gene Getz, in his writings, emphasizes these three qualities as essential in the life of the local church (see The Measure of a Healthy Church, Moody Publishers, 2007–previously titled The Measure of a Church). He suggests these three constitute basic character qualities that will be evident in a healthy church.

I agree, particularly if we see this as a way of describing a Christ-centred fellowship. That is, that the faith, hope and love are first of all directed toward Him. It is striking that Jesus, in the sacred record, speaks to only three people by name, after His resurrection. To Mary Magdalene He gave hope; in Thomas He instilled faith; with Peter He encouraged love (Jn. 20:16, 29; 21:16).

Once establish that the church is truly Christ-centred, then there are several basic characteristics that flow from this which, to me, are essentials in any local assembly. Perhaps we could say the three described above are character qualities, while the four below are more practical matters. They are:

1) A soundness of doctrine (Acts 2:41-42; II Tim. 3:16; Jude 1:3)

2) A spiritual leadership (Tit. 1:5-9; I Pet. 5:1-4)

3) A saved membership (Acts 2:47; I Cor. 1:2)

4) A servant lifestyle (Gal. 5:13; Eph. 6:6; Phil. 2:5-8)

On the website there is an article about discipleship called The Learner-Servant Principles. Extensively referenced to Scripture, and with many diagrams, this material will give you a unique perspective on the subject. The seven basic principles are interconnected. They show the essence of discipleship as it is revealed in God’s Word, four key things God expects of us, and how sin contrasts with the four. As well, you will gain a helpful understanding of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and walk in the Spirit. The framework described can also be used to analyze passage after passage in the Bible. Please study the material, put it to use, and pass it on!

TRUTH IN OUR TRIALS. Check out the extensive outline study on the subject of suffering at Truth About Suffering.

BIBLE STUDY SERIES ON PROPHECY! The subject of Bible prophecy is a fascinating one. This series of 12 discussion studies covering the major themes of prophecy will give you an opportunity to examine what God has planned for the future. To check it out, click on Prophecy Studies.


The article on how to conduct a community hymn sing has been postponed to make room for the timely question below.)

Question: Angelo asks, “Was Jesus born on Christmas Day?”

Answer: Thanks for the great question, Angelo. The short answer is: probably not. We do not know with certainty the date of Jesus’ birth, but December 25th is less likely than another date, as I will explain.

First of all, let’s consider the year when this great event took place. Although many use the dating terms B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for the Year of Our Lord), Jesus was not born at the point where those two intersect. A sixth century monk named Dionysius was commissioned to set up a calendar of church festivals. No one knows for certain how he calculated the date of Christ’s birth but, because he apparently lacked accurate historical information, he missed the actual date by several years.

Herod the Great figures prominently in the story of the first Christmas (Matt. 2:1-8). But we have credible historical records putting the date of Herod’s death in the spring of 4 B.C. That means the dating of the visit of the wise men had to come some time before that.

Contrary to the pictures on some Christmas cards, the shepherds and the wise men did not arrive at the stable together. The wise men apparently saw the star at the time of Christ’s birth. Then, they had to organize a caravan to travel some 600 miles from Persia, first to Jerusalem, then on to Bethlehem. All of that took several months. By that time, Mary and Joseph were living in a "house" (Matt. 2:11), not a stable.

Notice that when Herod tried to kill the Baby Jesus, he commanded that all the baby boys in the environs of Bethlehem who were two years old and under were to be slain (Matt. 2:16). (The two year age limit may have been simply to make Jesus’ death a certainty, even if information about His exact birth date was somewhat in error.) Perhaps all of that took about a year. If so, a likely year for the birth of Christ would then be 5 B.C.

Now, as to the month and day, there are a couple of clues in the biblical record. Luke tells us that a census was taken of the Roman world (Lk. 2:1-3), for which each person had to go and register in his ancestral town. That is what brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (vs. 4-5). The Romans knew the weather was bad in December. They never would have chosen that time for a census, as sometimes the roads were unpassable. The more likely time would be in September or October, after the harvest was over.

This is confirmed by the fact that shepherds were pasturing their flocks out in the fields overnight (Lk. 2:8). They only did this from April to October. Any later than October, the pasturage was poor, and the weather was cold and wet. The flocks were penned at home in December, in whatever shelter could be provided.

An article on the Web ( uses the date of the priestly service of Zacharias, and the birth of John the Baptist (Lk. 1:5, 8), to calculate the time of Jesus' birth, since we know Jesus was born 6 months after John (Lk. 1:36). The author reasons the likely date of Christ’s birth is September 29th, 5 B.C. This would have been the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles, a most appropriate occasion for Jesus to be born.

That feast celebrated the time when the Israelites camped in the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land. When the camp was set up, their worship centre, called the tabernacle, was placed in the middle. There the Lord manifested His presence in the midst of His people in a pillar of cloud and fire (Exod. 40:36-38). That parallels the description John gives us of Christ’s coming when, “The Word [Christ] became flesh and dwelt [literally tabernacled] among us” (Jn. 1:14). Again, we cannot be absolutely certain, but the September date is more likely than the one used today.

Why, then, do we call December 25th Christmas Day? There is no record of this celebration until we get to the third century. Early on, it was a pagan holiday in the Roman Empire, a feast to Mithras, the sun god, conqueror of darkness. One theory is that church officials may have hoped that by putting a Christian celebration honouring the birth of the Son on the same day as the festival honouring the sun god, Christianity would gain greater focus and attract more people to the church.

This happened during the rule of the emperor Constantine (280-337 A.D.), who proclaimed tolerance for Christianity in 313 A.D. Suddenly, it became acceptable–and even popular–to call yourself a Christian. As a result, there was a great influx into the church of people who still clung to their old heathen ways. Many who professed Christ were not truly born again.

The idea of combining a day honouring the sun god with one honouring the incarnation of God the Son to benefit Christianity did not work well. The manoeuvre in itself did not likely interest many pagans in converting. Contrarily, it encouraged a practice called syncretism, the attempt to combine biblical faith with other religious views--to add the Lord Jesus to whatever other gods you had. This cannot be done. The Bible presents Christ as the one and only Saviour (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12), and the God of the Bible as the one true God (Exod. 20:2-6; Isa. 45:5). Still today we see heathen practices combined with Christianity, and it is wrong and extremely harmful.

This historical background has led some to reject all Christmas celebrations completely. But I do not believe we have to go that far. The day is what you make it. No Christian that I know of tries to honour Mithras on Christmas Day. (He would not likely even know who Mithras is!) In the words of Charles Dickens’ character Ebenezer Scrooge, “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” Though these words were spoken when Scrooge was lacking in any true Christmas spirit, the point is well taken. We are not to judge one another in the way we celebrate certain days. “Who are you to judge another man’s servant?...One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind....Each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:4-5, 12).

As the saying goes, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” A truly amazing thing took place on Christmas Day (whatever the exact date may be). Through a miracle of the Holy Spirit, and the humble instrumentality of a virgin peasant maiden from Nazareth, God the Son took on our humanity (Matt. 1:18-21; Lk. 1:34-35). He did that so He might give His life as a ransom for lost sinners (Mk. 10:45). That is worth celebrating! And though the commercialism and overindulgence of the season is sadly out of character with the true significance of the day, there is still much about it that is commendable.

It is a time of joy and light, a time of lovely music, a time of fellowship and family, a time of charity and generosity. And for many it is a special day of worship for the church of Jesus Christ, as we commemorate His coming. These things ought not to be lost. For myself, I plan to continue celebrating Christmas on December 25th, trying to do so in a way that will honour the Lord who came to save me.

NEXT MONTH: How to plan a Community Hymn Sing.

SEEKING A NEW PASTOR for your church? Check out the Pastoral Questionnaire.

BIBLE STUDY: Available now on the Wordwise website is a discussion Bible study on The Lord's Prayer. Why not check it out at The Lord's Prayer.



On occasion, the authorship of an old hymn is unknown. But it is more unusual to find a song whose authorship is seemingly definite, only to have the “facts” of its origin completely rejected later. That is the case with the popular carol, “Away in a Manger.”

In 1887, hymn writer and music publisher James Ramsey Murray (1841-1905) produced a book of children’s music called Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses. “Away in a Manger” was included in the book, under this heading: “Luther’s Cradle Hymn, composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” Another author goes even further, saying the hymn “is thought to be written for his small son Hans (John), for a Christmas Eve festival, perhaps in 1530." It is a touching picture. But it never happened.

To accuse Mr. Murray of lying would be going too far. But wherever he got his information, he was certainly misinformed. Nothing in all of the reformer’s copious writings bears any resemblance to the carol.And the song Luther wrote for his five-year-old son Hans is “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” not “Away in a Manger.” In 1945, an American reference librarian named Richard S. Hill wrote a lengthy article called “Not So Far Away in a Manger.” After meticulous research, his conclusion was that the carol in question was likely written around 1883, by an anonymous Lutheran living in Pennsylvania. (Appropriately, 1883 was the four hundredth anniversary of Luther’s birth.)

The carol begins, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, / The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head. / The stars in the sky looked down where He lay, / The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.” It is a tender description of the birth of Jesus. His humble cradle was a manger because “there was no room for them in the inn” of Bethlehem (Lk. 2:7). Though many have attached a theological significance to this, comparing it to the unbeliever who has no room for the Saviour, in the beginning it was a more practical matter.

A Roman census that year required citizens to return to the town of their family origin to register. For Mary and Joseph, that was Bethlehem (Lk. 2:1-5). Because she was heavily pregnant, and could possibly give birth at any time, their trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was no doubt slowed. They arrived to find the inn packed to capacity. Far from meanly turning them away, the harried inn keeper likely sought to provide the best shelter he could.

The original carol had only two stanzas. The last was written around 1905 by a Methodist clergyman named John Thomas MacFarland (1851-1913). He made a worthy addition to the song, providing children with the prayer: “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay / Close by me forever, and love me, I pray; / Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care, / And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” This makes the hymn more than simply a verbal manger scene. It implies the continuing presence of a living Lord Jesus with a concern for little children–something we know was evident during His years of ministry (Mk. 10:13-16).

Much remains a mystery with regard to today’s carol. And there are still unknowns concerning the birth of Christ as well. What we do know is that with this momentous event God the Son entered human history, incarnated by a miracle of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary (Lk. 1:31, 34-35). The infinite condescension involved in this is beyond imagining. But we know why He did it. He came “to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). His pathway led from the manger to the cross, where “Christ died for our sins” (I Cor. 15:3). That is the heart of the Christmas story.

☼ If you are interested in learning more about the BETHLEHEM STAR the wise men saw, click on The Bethlehem Star.

THE BEST BIBLE STUDY TOOL EVER. At least, the best one I have ever discovered, is fully described on the website. Strictly speaking, this is not an idea for your church program but for you, personally. However, if you try it, you may want to share it with your Sunday School class or Bible study group. If a number of you begin using it and trading insights, you may be amazed at what will happen! See Best Bible Study Tool.

Is your church thinking of purchasing A NEW HYMN BOOK? Check out Choosing a Hymnal for Your Church on the website, for nearly three dozen excellent tips and ideas to help you make your choice.

Check out EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY, a Wordwise Bible study series to help seekers, or new Christians! A wonderful "review" for long-time believers as well! The free 10-part series is now available at Exploring Christianity.

If you have a question or an idea to share, please go to the Wordwise website and use the question form.
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