What Star is This, With Beams so Bright?

colinnichollArticle by Colin Nicholl, (original source TV documentaries on the wonders of the cosmos, and YouTube videos from the International Space Station about the oddity of watching Earth from a ‘tin can’ in space. Astronomy is the ‘wow’ science.

As fascinating as the latest missions by NASA and the European Space Agency are, to the average person nothing in astronomy is more captivating than the Star of Bethlehem. Quite simply, the whole world is engrossed by the Star. It is central to cherished Christmas traditions from Bethlehem on the West Bank to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, from Mexico to the Ukraine, and from Poland to the Philippines. Millions flock to planetariums for special presentations in the weeks before Christmas to reflect on the Star, the greatest astronomical mystery of all. The Star features prominently in our Christmas celebrations—we sing carols to and about it; we perch it atop our Christmas trees; and we send Christmas cards embossed with it.

However, when it comes our perceptions of the Star, it is as though we view it through a deep and dark mist. Our thinking, heavily shaped by movie representations, television documentaries, planetarium presentations, Christmas decorations, and Yuletide carols, is inconsistent and confused. Have a look at recent Nativity movies or religiously themed Christmas cards in your local card shop and you’ll appreciate the truth of what I’m saying.

One factor that vies to influence our thoughts about the Star is the beloved Christmas carols that we sing so gustily. But can we trust what they say? Was the Star a new celestial body, ‘a stranger midst the orbs of light?’, that prompted the Magi to ask ‘What star is this?’ Is it true that the Star shone in the eastern sky with ‘beams so bright’ and ‘to the earth…gave great light’? Were ‘all the stars above…paling, all their luster slowly fading’ because of the Star’s ‘royal beauty bright’? Did its ‘light’ guide the Magi ‘from country far, …to follow the star wherever it went’, even as it was ‘westward leading, still proceeding’? And when the travellers arrived in Bethlehem, did the Star ‘both stop and stay right over the place where Jesus lay’?

The sources

Our most important source about the Star of Bethlehem is Matthew’s Gospel. There, in his Nativity account, we discover that the Star was first observed by the Magi over a year before Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s infants. Many months after this first appearance, the Star had a ‘rising’ in the eastern sky that deeply impacted the Magi, revealing to them that someone special had been born, a king, indeed the Jewish Messiah, and commissioning them to travel hundreds of miles to honour him and present him with extravagant gifts. Then, within a couple of months of the Star’s rising (the duration of the Magi’s journey), the Star was in southern sky to usher the eastern astrologers to Bethlehem before standing over one particular house there, pinpointing it as the place where the Messiah was.

The early church father Ignatius, writing a few decades after Matthew, probably citing a first-century hymn, describes the Star: ‘A star shone in heaven with a brightness beyond all the stars; its light was indescribable, and its newness caused astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, together with the Sun and the Moon, formed a chorus to the star, yet its light far exceeded them all. And there was perplexity regarding from where this new entity came, so unlike anything else [in the heavens] was it.’

The quest for the historical Star

Wouldn’t it be amazing to know what the Star was? If we could identify the Star and discover what the Magi saw, it would enable us to get into their sandals, to feel their awe, and to think their thoughts after them. The discovery would surely fill us with joy, reinvigorate our worship, and transform our celebration of Christmas. Matthew would be vindicated against his critics. Jesus would be seen to have been authenticated as Messiah by God. The Bible’s claim that God created the heavens and is Lord over them would be even more compelling. It would have the potential to be an astonishing boost to Christian witness in this increasingly hostile, atheistic world. Can you imagine what moviemakers would be able to do with the revelation of the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem!? So exhilarating is this vision that you might have thought that Christian benefactors would be pouring their money into sponsorship of cutting-edge research to identify the Star decisively once and for all. Continue reading

Christmas & Calvinism

star over city RESIZEDJonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology. In an article and even many non-Christians pretend to believe – or at least to affirm that something good happened on the night Christ was born. Christmas would hardly seem to be the time to discuss the doctrines of grace. After all, we’re led to believe that Christmas is gloriously broad and Calvinism hopelessly narrow.

So why insert such dour doctrines into the broad and beautiful joy we share at Christmas? Well, in the first place, these doctrines are not dour at all, or narrow. They are enlivening and glorious, and their apprehension leads immediately to the kind of overflowing joy we associate with Christmas.

But there is more than that. The reason we should associate Christmas and Calvinism is that Jesus himself does. In John 6, Jesus gives a clear reason for the incarnation. And the incarnation is what we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas rightly. He says this: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). That broad statement of Jesus’ obedience takes further shape in the verses which follow: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:39-40). Later in the same discussion, Jesus expands on this will of the Father which he came to earth to carry out: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6:44). And again, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (6:63). Finally, in response to the disciples’ questions about those who did not believe, Jesus says, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (6:65).

Since Jesus’ stated reason for the incarnation is to do the Father’s will, it is worth looking at these teachings in a systematic fashion. First, we learn that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him or grants him this (John 6:44, 65). This is because the Holy Spirit alone gives life and man in his natural state cannot find spiritual life at all; in the flesh, human beings possess nothing profitable in accomplishing salvation (John 6:63). We learn that the Son came to save those who had been given to him (John 6:39). We are told that those drawn, given, and brought to life by the Father actually come: none can resist His transforming grace (John 6:37). And then, perhaps most remarkably, we learn that Christ guarantees that all who come to him in faith, those ones who are given by the Father and transformed by the Spirit, will surely be raised up on the last day (John 6:40).

In other words, when Jesus reflects on his coming to earth, he explains it in terms of the Father’s will in salvation, a will that is displayed against the backdrop of man’s total depravity, God’s unconditional election, Christ’s definite work in salvation, God’s irresistible grace in drawing and giving men to Christ, and the glorious promise that Christ will one day raise up those who look to him in genuine faith. This is what we mean when we speak of Calvinism. And as it happens, it is also what Jesus teaches when he speaks of Christmas.

On the Incarnation

Christmas02On the Incarnation – From a sermon by Henry Law (1797-1884) entitled, “I am that I am” based on Ex. 3:14

Reader, look down now from this astounding glory and fix your eye on Bethlehem’s manger. A lowly Babe lies in the lowly cradle of a lowly town, the offspring of a lowly mother. Look again. That child is the eternal “I AM.” He whose Deity never had birth, is born “the woman’s Seed.” He, whom no infinitudes can hold, is contained within infant’s age, and infant’s form. He, who never began to be, as God, here begins to be, as man. And can it be, that the great “I AM THAT I AM” shrinks into our flesh, and is little upon our earth, as one newborn of yesterday? It is so. The Lord promised it. Prophets foretold it. Types prefigured it. An angel announces it. Heaven rings with rapture at it. Faith sees it. The redeemed rejoice in it.

But why is this wonder of wonders? Why is eternity’s Lord a child of time? He thus stoops, that He may save poor wretched sinners such as we are. Could He not by His will or by His word? Ah! No. He willed, and all things were. He speaks, and all obey. But He must die, as man, that a lost soul may live. To rescue from one stain of sin, the Eternal must take the sinner’s place, and bear sin’s curse and pay sin’s debt, and suffer sin’s penalty, and wash out sin’s filth, and atone for sin’s malignity.

“I AM THAT I AM” alone could do this. “I AM THAT I AM” alone has done it. What self-denial, what self-abasement, what self-emptying is here! Surely, royalty in rags, angels in cells, is no descent compared to Deity in flesh! But mighty love moves Jesus to despise all shame, and to lie low in misery’s lowest mire. Through ages past His “delights were with the sons of men.” Prov. 8.31.

The Incarnation

The Incarnation: What We Celebrate at Christmas

In this excerpt from “What Did Jesus Do?,” R.C. Sproul reminds us what we really celebrate at Christmas—the incarnation of God Himself.

The Incarnation: What We Celebrate at Christmas from as important as that is, but what’s so significant about the birth of that particular baby is that in this birth we have the incarnation of God Himself. An incarnation means a coming in the flesh. We know how John begins His gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So in that very complicated introductory statement, he distinguishes between the Word and God, and then in the next breath identifies the two, “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And then at the end of the prologue, he says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Now in this “infleshment,” if you will, of Christ appearing on this planet, it’s not that God suddenly changes through a metamorphosis into a man, so that the divine nature sort of passes out of existence or comes into a new form of fleshiness. No, the incarnation is not so much a subtraction as it is an addition, where the eternal second person of the Trinity takes upon Himself a human nature and joins His divine nature to that human nature for the purpose of redemption.

In the 19th century, liberal scholars propounded a doctrine called the kenotic theory of the incarnation, and you may have heard it, the idea being that when Jesus came to this earth, He laid aside His divine attributes so that the God-man at least touching His deity no longer had the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and all the rest. But of course, that would totally deny the very nature of God, who is immutable. Even in the incarnation, the divine nature does not lose His divine attributes. He doesn’t communicate them to the human side. He doesn’t deify the human nature, but in the mystery of the union between the divine and the human natures of Jesus, the human nature is truly human. It’s not omniscient. It’s not omnipotent. It’s none of those things. But at the same time, the divine nature remains fully and completely divine. B. B. Warfield, the great scholar at Princeton, in remarking on the kenotic theory of his day said, “The only kenosis that that theory proves is the kenosis of the brains of the theologians who are propagating it.”—that they’ve emptied themselves of their common sense.

But in any case, what is emptied is glory, privilege, exaltation. Jesus in the incarnation makes Himself of no reputation. He allows His own divine exalted standing to be subjected to human hostility and human criticism and denial. He took the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of men. This is an amazing thing that He doesn’t just come as a man, He comes as a slave. He comes in a station that carries with it no exaltation, no dignity, only indignity. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient even to the point of death, the shameful death of the cross.

A Virgin Shall Be With Child

the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel (God with us).” Isaiah 7:14

Larry King of CNN fame was once asked, “Who would you have most liked to have interviewed in human history and what would you ask them?” Without hesitating at all, he answered, “Jesus of Nazareth, and I would ask Him, ‘Were You born of a virgin?'” He went on to say that the answer to this question is the most important in history.

I agree.

Humanity’s greatest need is atonement and for that we need a sacrifice that is acceptable to God, one that is flawless and perfect. Only a perfect sacrifice is acceptable in God’s eyes. That is why Mr. King’s question reveals a profound insight. If Jesus was born of a virgin, He is the Son of God; if not, he is just a man like us, and not able to provide us with redemption. If Joseph was Jesus’ real father after all, then all of Christ’s claims lie in shambles and ruins. Jesus would have been born with a sin nature just like ours, and even if He had lived a perfect sin-free life, would be in no state to be the spotless Lamb without blemish, and if that is true, He would be in no position to atone for his own sins, let alone someone else’s.

Each Christmas we hear the story about angels and shepherds, of wise men and strange sightings of a star, of a donkey, and of the Child that was laid in a stable manger. Yet the actual birth of Jesus, though highly unusual, was not entirely unique. Of course, not everyone is born to the sight of a star moving and coming to rest overhead, or to the sound of angelic announcements and trumpet blasts! Yet it is true to say that many children have been born in humble surroundings. Therefore, it was the manner in which Jesus was conceived that marks Him out from others. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth holds that Jesus’ birth was the result of a miraculous conception whereby the Virgin Mary conceived a baby in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, without a human father. Christ’s miraculous birth tells us much about His nature. Because He was born of a woman, He was indeed human, and therefore, one of us. That is, one of us in every way, except one. We are born with original sin and Christ was not.

The miracle of the Virgin Birth reveals Christ’s perfect humanity and also points us to His majestic Deity. Notice that the announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary includes the statement that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35).

Of course, in the ordinary course of nature, a virgin birth is impossible. But the angel Gabriel finishes his announcement to Mary by saying, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1:37)

Christianity is supernatural or it is nothing. It is based, not simply on Christ’s teaching, miracles or morals, but on the Person of Christ Himself. Jesus Himself states that the revelation that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” is the bedrock upon which His Church is to be built, a Church which all the powers of hell cannot thwart (Matt. 16:18). Those who do not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin usually do not believe that Jesus is the true Son of God. Yet the message of Christmas is that God has sent His Son, born of a virgin, into our world, to save His people from their sins.

The virgin birth of Christ testifies to His Deity, setting Him apart from all others. It is therefore appropriate that He should be born in this way, since He was not implicated in sin, like all others since the Fall. Mary was not an exception in this respect, any more than David or Peter, though her sins are not recorded as theirs were. Through His death, Jesus became her Savior and the Savior of all those who would believe in Him.

Merry Christmas

Faith makes all things possible. Hope anchors the soul in the rich and trustworthy promises of God. Love makes all things beautiful. May you have all the three in the Person of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Wishing you a joyful and peaceful Christmas.

Fact not Fable

Before we leave all thoughts about Christmas behind for another year…

“Think about the familiar words from Luke 2. If you study other religions and read about the birth of Hercules or the birth of the gods in Hinduism or the birth of the gods in Shintoism the stories are nothing like Luke 2.

In those days [a certain time in history] a decree [something that the Romans issued from time to time…] went out from Caesar Augustus [a known world figure] that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria [an extra bit of history which shows that Luke is trying to be meticulous, even if scholars today aren’t sure where to place Quirinius chronologically]. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph [a historical person] also went up from Galilee [a specific region], from the town of Nazareth [a specific town], to Judea [another specific region], to the city of David [more historical background], which is called Bethlehem [another specific town we have record of], because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child [more background information]. 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 room for them in the inn.

There is nothing in here that sounds like fairy tale and everything to prove that Luke means this to be verifiable, accurate, precise, historical fact.”

– Kevin DeYoung

Why Christmas?

“He was poor, that He might make us rich. He was born of a virgin that we might be born of God. He took our flesh that He might give us His Spirit. He lay in the manger that we might lie in paradise. He came down from heaven that He might bring us to heaven.

“That the Ancient of Days should be born or that He who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle. He who rules the stars should suck the breast and that a virgin should conceive.

“Christ taking flesh is a mystery we shall never fully understand until we come to heaven. If our hearts not be rocks, this love of Christ should affect us. Behold love that passes knowledge (Eph 3:19).”

Taken from Thomas Watson’s (1620-1686), “A Body of Divinity”