How long did the baby Jesus stay in the manger in the stable?

Q. The date of the birth of Jesus is supposed to be 25th December, in a stable. How long did the family stay in that stable, that is, when did Jesus leave his manager crib and move to other accommodation?

First, Jesus was actually most likely born in the spring, not the winter. Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem specifically to register for a Roman census. The Roman government would not have required its citizens to travel en masse back to their home towns in winter, when travel was difficult or impossible under the conditions of the time. The return of good weather in the spring is when the census would most likely have been held. However, the Christian church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 because of the symbolism of light coming into the world around the time of the winter solstice.

Second, since their trip to Bethlehem was for the census, Joseph and Mary would not have been planning to stay there very long. They probably would have wanted to visit with family for a while, since that was the town Joseph was originally from, but then they would have returned to their lives in Nazareth. Their trip back was likely delayed when Mary gave birth to Jesus, but even so, they would have traveled back to Nazareth as soon as mother and child could do that safely. So I would say they were in the stable (which was the only accommodation available to them, since so many others had also come to Bethlehem to register) probably not for more than a week. That would be my estimate, anyway.

The marvel is that the Son of God willingly was born into such a rough and improvised setting when he came to earth to be our Savior. Hallelujah!

Why is it so difficult to reconcile the mind and heart regarding faith in Jesus Christ?

Q. Why is it so difficult to reconcile the mind and heart regarding faith in Jesus Christ?

I believe you are observing that there are things we know in our heads to be true about faith in Jesus that we don’t always feel to be true in our hearts, and you are asking why that is so.

I think the answer is that there is a difference between the way our minds and hearts work. Unless we have some motive for rationalizing things away, our minds work pretty straightforwardly to understand and accept things that are true, particularly when we are committed believers learning in community under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Our feelings, on the other hand, are influenced by countless factors, and as a result they do not always correspond to the objective reality of our situation.

So we may very well be walking in fellowship with God and in obedience to God, with no known sin or willful disobedience between us and him, and yet God may still feel distant for some reason, even though we know in our heads that he isn’t. Or we may know Jesus’ promise perfectly well, “Whoever comes to me, I will never turn away,” and yet we may still feel doubts about whether God has accepted us.

But the Bible itself addresses this very issue. The apostle John wrote in his first letter, “When we love others, we know that we belong to the truth, and we feel at ease in the presence of God. But even if we don’t feel at ease, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.” This statement addresses the issue of a possible disconnect between what we know and what we feel. It tells us to rely on a third faculty, our capacity for faith and trust, to mediate between our heads and our hearts. We are to rest assured that whatever we might be feeling at any given moment, God knows that we truly love and trust and believe in him, and we can rely on that.

And I am convinced, from what I have seen in many years as a pastor, that if we continue to live out our faith, not relying on what we feel, but on what we know, our feelings will come around eventually. The steady influence of a committed way of life will come to outweigh the scattered momentary influences of all those different factors that go into determining how we feel.

Darkness, light, and water in the Genesis creation account

Q. First I will like to say that discovering this site has been very refreshing to my faith, big thanks to you and your team on this good work.
Over the past months I have been reading through my Bible from Genesis all the way down to Revelation, which i have not done in a while. I realized that some of the questions i had as a young believer when doing the same still had not been answered. While these questions do not challenge my faith as they once used to, I still feel a deep intellectual curiosity and I do feel there is something to be gained, even spiritually, from knowing more. So here are the first few couple things I would like to get more insight into:

(1) When was darkness created ? In Gen. 1:1-4 we see darkness mentioned in v. 2, before the creation of light, and again in v. 4, when God separates the light (day) he had created from the darkness. God was and is before all things, including darkness. So what exactly is darkness, and at what point did it come into being? To merely say it is the absence of light does not satisfy me at all.

(2) How was there light before the sun was created? In Genesis 1 we see light created on the first day and the sun and stars created later on the fourth day. To me, even from a purely observational point of view, it seems much too obvious an experiential fact to miss that the sun gives out the light we see. IMO one does not need science to come to this conclusion, just seeing. Perhaps there is a different way of understanding light as it is seen in Genesis 1 that i am not aware of.

(3) In Gen. 1:6-8 we see the sky (vault) created to separate the waters into two. Consequently in verse 9 we see the “waters below” gathered to form the “seas.” Presently, based on scientific discovery, we know that what we have above the sky is “outer space.” So what became of the “waters above”? Are the waters above outer space? (Verse 2 gives a picture of darkness and water existing together, which to me supports this view.) If so, why would the waters above (outer space) and the waters below (seas) differ so much in make when logically they should not. Also, is it possible that darkness and water are somehow equated to each other? And in another line of thinking, did the waters above become “clouds,” since clouds are kind of floating water bodies?

A. Thank you very much for your appreciative words. I’m glad that this blog is an encouragement to your faith. I commend you for reading all the way through the Bible again, and for asking questions about it. I agree with you that there is much to be gained by asking questions and learning from them, even when we do not feel that our very faith is at stake in the answer. I call this blog Good Question on the premise that “there’s no such thing as a bad question.”

In terms of the specific matters you asked about, several other readers of this blog have asked about similar things. So let me start by referring you to the thoughts I have shared in response to them. If you find that these posts address many of your concerns, but not all of them, you can always ask a follow-up question in the comment section of those posts or this one.

Regarding question (1), however, I actually do not have a separate post about darkness on this blog. That is because, simply stated, I do think that darkness simply is the absence of light in the Genesis account. It is not a positive entity that came into existence at one point.

But regarding question (2), please see this post: How was there light on the first day of creation when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

And regarding question (3), please see this post: Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

In that post you will also find a link to a chapter about the Genesis creation account in an online version of the book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation that I co-authored with Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey, the curator of paleontology at a museum here in the United States. I think that this chapter will offer some broad answers to your questions, including some thoughts about question (1). In fact, you might find the whole book to be of interest. It begins here.

Keep reading the Bible, and keep thinking about it and pursuing the questions that raises!

Is Jesus equal to the other two persons of the Trinity?

Q. If Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, isn’t he then equal to both the Creator and the Holy Spirit?

The answer to your question is yes, with a couple of qualifications.

First—and I don’t think this is what you were saying, but just to be clear—it is not the case that Jesus was a human being who somehow became divine and was welcomed into the Godhead. Rather, the second person of the Trinity came to earth as a genuine human being in order to become our Savior. To put this in theological terms, we should have an incarnational Christology, not an adoptionist Christology.

Second, since all three persons of the Trinity are involved in every action of the Godhead, we do not distinguish the persons of the Trinity by their activity. The Son and the Spirit are the Creator just as much as the Father. (At the beginning of Genesis, we see the Father creating by speaking, that is, by the Word, as the Spirit hovers over the unformed creation. So they are all involved. John tells similarly us at the beginning of his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”)

Rather, we distinguish the persons of the Trinity by their relationship to one another. The Son is begotten by the Father, but he is eternally begotten, meaning, in the classic phrase, “there was not when he was not.” How this works is a mystery, but it is part of the larger mystery of the Trinity, in which three are one.

The Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. Christians are generally agreed about this; the only disagreement is a historical one about how the Nicene Creed was changed in the Western church to say about the Spirit “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” rather than just “who proceeds from the Father,” which was the original reading. The Eastern church was in agreement with the doctrine, but it felt that only an ecumenical council (that is, a council of the whole church) could change a creed that such a council had created in the first place. The Western church, for its part, felt that the pope had the authority to add the words “and the Son.”

But that is a matter of how doctrine is to be expressed authoritatively that the larger church is still working out. As I said, there is no general disagreement about how the Spirit relates to the Father and the Son.

So, to summarize, yes, Jesus, the Son, as the second person of the Trinity is equal in power, glory, dignity, and divinity to both the Father and the Holy Spirit. It is marvelous to consider how a person who was so fully God was willing to come to earth in human form, share our experience here, and become our Savior. As the book of Hebrews says about Jesus, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

This is the marvel that we celebrate at Christmas time.

 

What happens to people who never hear about Jesus?

Q. The Bible says no one can get to the Father except through the Son. Does this mean if someone living say in some remote place in the Himalayas, never met missionaries; dies they will be sent to hell?

The possibility you’re asking about—that someone who would have received Christ if they had heard the good news might be lost if they never heard—underscores the importance of making sure that everyone in the world is able to hear about Christ, in terms and language that they can understand. We need to make every effort towards that end.

But the possibility you’re asking about also raises questions about the character of God. Would it really be fair for God to condemn someone to hell simply because they did not get a chance to hear about Christ, if they would have accepted him if they had gotten the chance? Knowing what we do about the character God from the Bible, it is hard to believe that this would be the case. The Bible itself says, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And the answer is, of course he will.

So while the Bible does not give us a direct answer to your question, my personal feeling is that in a case such as you describe, God would judge a person based on what they had done with the light they had. The apostle Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans that every person has at least two witnesses to the reality and goodness of God: nature and conscience. He says about nature, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” And about conscience he says, “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

This does not mean, however, that anyone could follow their conscience and the light of nature sufficiently to earn God’s approval and acceptance. Rather, nature and conscience would lead them to recognize that they could never be good enough to do that, and that they needed to trust in God ‘s love and forgiveness as the basis of their acceptance.

This also does not mean that they would be saved by any other means than the death of Jesus Christ for them on the cross. Never having heard the gospel, they would not realize in this life that this was the expression of God’s love and the basis for God’s forgiveness that saved them, but nevertheless it would be. And they would make the glorious discovery, once they did come into the presence of God, whom they had dimly but genuinely trusted for salvation, that God had sent his own Son to be their Savior and the sacrifice for their sin.

Let me say again that this is my own personal belief about something that the Bible does not spell out for us clearly. What the Bible does spell out clearly is the loving, forgiving, and just character of God, and I have tried to suggest something that would be consistent with that. Nevertheless, it would likely be difficult for someone to do even what I have tentatively described, and so, as I said earlier, we need to make every effort to reach everyone in the world with the good news about Jesus.

Can Christians kneel at an elder’s grave or celebrate Halloween?

1. According to Chinese tradition, if an elder dies, it is necessary to kneel at their grave to worship. As a Christian, is this inappropriate? Why is that?
2. Halloween has become such a part of the culture, is it okay to “Trick or Treat” on Halloween? Thank you very much.

Both of these questions strike me as very much like the issue of eating food offered to idols that Paul discusses in First Corinthians. That is, they are matters that Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, can legitimately disagree about. So the principles would be, “Each person should be fully convinced in their own mind,” and, “Do not cause anyone to stumble” (that is, do not do anything that would lead someone else to violate their own conscience).

Regarding kneeling at the grave of an elder who has died, one Christian might see that simply as a way of honoring the memory, legacy, and influence of a beloved family member. They would not really be worshiping, just following a meaningful tradition. They would know that the spirits of the ancestors aren’t really out there wanting to be appeased by worship and small gifts so that they will do favors for the family, and that no ancestral spirits could make bad things happen to the family if they weren’t appeased in that way. (As Paul says in his discussion of eating food offered to idols, “We know that an idol is really nothing in the world, and we know that there is only one God.”) But another Christian might recently have come out of ancestor worship, and so they might still feel that kneeling at the grave would be offering worship to a false god. If they saw you doing it, they might be led to do it as well, and then they would incur guilt for doing something that they believed to be wrong. So even if you felt free to do it as a meaningful traditional gesture, you could also choose not to do it if a person with a vulnerable conscience would be present at the graveside service or if they would find out about what you did.

Similarly for Halloween, if it’s just a matter of children having fun getting dressed up in costumes and visiting their neighbors and getting candy, that is harmless enough. I think Christians could have a lot of fun and get to know their neighbors better by giving out candy and by bringing their children around the neighborhood in costumes. But someone who was just getting free from occult practices might not be able to participate in Halloween in good conscience. They would take the association with witches and evil spirits seriously, and it would violate their conscience to participate. And certainly if someone said, “It’s Halloween, let’s have a seance” or “let’s watch a move about devil worship,” then Christians would need to say that they would not participate in those activities. Instead, they could suggest alternatives that everyone could do together and just have fun with.

So, as I said, for these activities and for similar ones, the principles are to become fully convinced in your own mind about what you could do innocently, without dishonoring God, but also to respect the convictions of others and not do anything that would lead them to violate their own conscience.

What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Messiah?

Q. What does Messiah mean? What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Messiah?

The word “Messiah” comes from a Hebrew term meaning “anointed.” The Greek equivalent, “Christ,” also means “anointed.”

In the Old Testament, a person was anointed, that is, someone would pour oil on their head, to show that God had chosen them to fulfill a special purpose. Aaron, for example, was anointed to show that God had chosen him to be the high priest. David was anointed to show that God had chosen him to be king.

So while Messiah or Christ literally means “anointed,” it really indicates “chosen.” When Christians call Jesus the Messiah, they mean that they believe God chose him to be the Savior of the world.

This title has a close connection to the figure in the Old Testament known as the Servant of the Lord. God says of that figure:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will bring justice to the nations.

So, briefly stated, the Messiah is the one God chose to be the Savior.

Where did John the Baptist get the idea of water baptism, and why was Jesus baptized?

Q. Where did John the Baptist get the idea of water baptism? I see it mentioned in the O.T. regarding leprosy, but don’t see in the O.T. water baptism for repentance. Also, why did Jesus agree to John’s baptism? Just to set an example? But that would make it seem that He too was in need of repentance, wouldn’t it? Which of course is not the case.

Biblical scholars generally agree that the roots of water baptism are in the requirement in the Law of Moses that people bathe with water to return to a state of ceremonial cleanness after some uncleanness infraction. This applied not only in the case of skin diseases such as leprosy, as you noted, but also in a wider variety of matters, such as eating certain kinds of unclean food and even taking the scapegoat out into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement. Since being ceremonially clean meant being able to participate in good standing in the worship of God, it was a natural development for John to apply the practice of washing to a more profound sense of being “clean,” that of being genuinely repentant for one’s sins.

As for why Jesus wanted to be baptized even though he had no sins to repent of, we need to realize that John’s baptism was not an end in itself. It was a means to an end. John’s message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John didn’t want people to repent and be baptized just because they were sinful. He wanted them to do that because God was breaking into the world in a new way, and he wanted people to be able to join in what God was doing.

So, in effect, John was saying, “Anyone who wants to be part of what God is doing, come and be baptized.” The implicit assumption in the case of most people was that this would involve forsaking sins and having a new orientation in life. But for someone like Jesus, who already had the right orientation—he always wanted to be doing what his Heavenly Father was doing—and who had no sins to repent of, it was still appropriate for him to make the public gesture that John was calling for.

I think that is why Jesus told John to go ahead and baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness.” John was saying, “If you want to be part of the new thing that God is doing, come and be baptized.” By being baptized, Jesus was saying, “Yes, I want to be part of the new thing that God is doing!” He didn’t need to have sins to repent of in order to make that public declaration.

Did God cause or permit Absalom to have sexual relations with David’s concubines?

Q. Your answer to “Was Ahithophel speaking for God?” was very helpful. In relation to this, I wanted to ask how should we interpret 2 Samuel 12:11-12, where we read:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”

Should this be interpreted as God causing this to happen, or should this be interpreted as God permitting to happen? How can we know which way to interpret it? The wording seems to lean towards God causing this to happen. However, if it is interpreted as God causing this to happen, it seems to lead to several problems, such as God causing something immoral to happen, as well as going against Leviticus 18:8 ,where we read “Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonor your father.”

I am inclined to interpret it as God permitting to happen (not causing this to happen), which would avoid the above problems, but based on the wording in 2 Samuel 12:11-12, it seems harder to justify. How can we justify this interpretation?

I think the passage you are referring to is one in which God tells David what the consequences of his actions are going to be, rather than one in which God describes something that he is going to do actively in response to those actions. Throughout the Old Testament we see people experiencing what are often called “ironic judgments,” in which what they have done to others, or tried to do to others, happens to them.

There is another example of this in the Absalom story. One thing that Absalom did initially to try to win the hearts of the people so that he could eventually take the throne away from his father David was to cultivate a handsome popular image. This included growing his hair long. The Bible says, “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him. Whenever he cut the hair of his head—he used to cut his hair once a year because it became too heavy for him—he would weigh it, and its weight was two hundred shekels by the royal standard.”

But the long hair that was such a prominent feature of Absalom’s campaign to become king ultimately cost him the kingship. The Bible tells us that in the battle between his followers and David’s loyalists, “Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going.” So Absalom was trapped there, David’s men killed him, and that was the end of his palace coup. The long hair that was meant to take the throne away from his father took it away from him.

The Bible describes this principle of ironic judgment more generally in Proverbs: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them.” And since God set up the world in this way, so that people often get a “taste of their own medicine” when they plot evil, we could say in one sense that God is responsible for the consequences that people experience. But these “I will” divine pronouncements  of judgment can indicate that a person or nation is going to experience the consequences of their own actions, according to the way that God has set up the world.

For example, God says to the nation of Edom through the prophet Ezekiel, “Because you rejoiced when the inheritance of Israel became desolate, that is how I will treat you. You will be desolate, Mount Seir, you and all of Edom.” And these words did come true; Edom was destroyed and became desolate. But that happened when the Babylonians, an empire that the Edomites had tried to cultivate as an ally against the Israelites, turned against them and destroyed them. So an “I will” pronouncement of judgment actually forecast the ironic consequences of the Edomites trying to play the “power game.”

I think this is the proper way to understand the passage you are asking about. Otherwise, as you say, God would be the direct cause for the victimization of David’s concubines. I do not believe that was the case. I believe that God grieved deeply with those women when they suffered this abuse. Scheming and wicked men were actually responsible for it, as I explained in my previous post. I also do not believe, as you also pointed out, that God would cause or command anything that would violate his own law. Instead, I think it was with a very heavy heart that God announced to David what the consequences of his own wrong actions would be.

And I’m convinced that one of the most painful and heart-wrenching things for David himself about this announcement of consequences was the suffering that his own actions would cause for his innocent loved ones. But this world is such a tightly knit web of relationships that we cannot expect that our actions will not affect other people. Those actions will have the greatest effect on those who are closest to us. We can’t say to God, “I was the one who did this; why did you allow those others to suffer for it?” Our actions will inevitably involve others, especially our closest loved ones. So we should take responsibility for what we do, and be very careful not to do wrong, knowing how that may cause the ones we love most to suffer.

Was Ahithophel speaking for God?

Q. How should we understand the passage where King David’s former counselor Ahithophel advises David’s son Absalom, who has rebelled and seized the throne, to sleep with ten of David’s concubines to make a permanent break with his father so that his followers will fight desperately? The Bible says, “Now in those days the advice Ahithophel gave was like that of one who inquires of God. That was how both David and Absalom regarded all of Ahithophel’s advice.” So was Ahithophel actually speaking for God? If so, how can we justify his advice? Wouldn’t God have wanted to protect these concubines? And wasn’t this advice  explicitly contrary to the Law of Moses, which says, “Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonor your father.” What is going on here?

First, the statement that kings who consulted Ahithophel treated his advice like advice they would have gotten by inquiring of God does not mean that Ahithophel spoke for God. Rather, this expression means that kings had such confidence in his advice that they accepted it unquestioningly, as they would do if it came from God. The narrator, seemingly expecting that readers would find it hard to believe that Absalom actually did what Ahithophel advised on this occasion, apparently felt a need to add this explanation. That is, the narrator anticipated that readers would have the same questions about it and problems with it that you do, for the good reasons that you do.

So what is going on here? It seems that Ahithophel had a further motive besides giving Absalom what he thought would be the best advice for this situation. If we read more widely in the book of 2 Samuel, we learn that Ahithophel had a son named Eliam, and that a man named Eliam was the father of Bathsheba. Bathsheba was the married woman whom David had sexual relations with and, when he got her pregnant, whose husband he arranged to have killed to cover up his actions. If the two Eliams are the same person, which many interpreters agree is the case, then Ahithophel apparently wanted to get revenge against David for what he did to his granddaughter and her husband. This was his further motive.

In fact, as the story continues, the next thing Ahithophel says to Absalom is, “Let me choose 12,000 men to start out after David tonight. I will catch up with him while he is weary and discouraged. He and his troops will panic, and everyone will run away. Then I will kill only the king, and I will bring all the people back to you.” So it does appear that Ahithophel had been waiting for a chance to take revenge against David, and he saw his opportunity here. His advice was not the counsel of God. It was the manipulative plan of a vengeful man who saw a way to get an inexperienced young would-be king to carry out some of his revenge.

David does bear some of the responsibility for what happened to his concubines, because it was his own actions that led Ahithophel to seek revenge against him. But David had every reason to believe that his concubines would be safe in Jerusalem when he left them there to look after the palace. They would have been protected by law, custom, and decency. And the concubines would indeed have been safe from Absalom if Ahithophel had not given this advice and if Absalom had not followed it unquestioningly. What Absalom did was an outrage. Ahithophel’s whole argument was that Absalom should commit such an outrage so that it would create a permanent break with David. So while David does bear some of the responsibility for the way these concubines were victimized, Ahithophel, in his desire for revenge, is the one who is primarily responsible. He was certainly not speaking for God.