How did the shepherds know where to find baby Jesus?

Q. A few years ago I browsed the internet with many questions surrounding the biblical accounts of the nativity. One question I had was “How did the shepherds know where to go to find the newborn Jesus?” It was then I came across the proposition that he was born at Migdal Eder, also called “The Tower of the Flock” in Micah 4:8. I found the concept compelling due to the history of special type of shepherding that took place in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus birth. What are your thoughts about the possibility of this being where Jesus was born?

You are referring to an interpretation that a commentator named Alfred Edersheim offered of Micah 4:8, “And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.” There is a “tower of the flock” mentioned in Genesis 35:21, and Edersheim assumed that it still existed in the time of Jesus. He inferred from a reference in the Mishnah that sheep destined for temple sacrifices were raised and tended there, and so he saw symbolic significance in the location and suggested that Jesus had been born there.

However, this interpretation is not accepted by most biblical scholars. It is unknown whether the tower mentioned in Genesis still existed in Jesus’ day. In any event, the Mishnah reference simply specifies the radius around Jerusalem within which found sheep were to be considered temple sacrifices, using Migdal Eder (the location, not necessarily a tower by that name) to specify the distance. We do not need to infer from this that this was a place where temple sheep were raised and kept.

For his part, Micah seems only to be describing Jerusalem figuratively as the “tower of the flock,” that is, the city that watches over the people of Israel as God’s flock. Micah is promising that the kingship will return to Jerusalem. Christians believe that this promise was fulfilled with the coming of Jesus. But we do not need to conclude from the prophecy that Jesus was born at or near a tower by that name that still existed in his day.

So how did the shepherds find the baby Jesus? The angel who appeared to them told them how. He said, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” The shepherds would have known where the various animal feeding locations were in Bethlehem, and they just had to go from one to another until they found a baby, wrapped up as a newborn, in one of the mangers.

Was Jesus born again?

Q. How would you respond to someone who asked whether Jesus was born again? If he wasn’t, what about his statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”?

(What does it mean to be born again? And what is “circumcision of the heart,” which Paul speaks of in Romans? How would you respond to someone who asked whether Jesus was circumcised of the heart?)

If we think of being “born again” as having a certain experience, then Jesus was not “born again” in that sense, but that is only because he did not need to have that experience. We should think instead of being “born again” as entering into a certain kind of relationship with God, and Jesus was always in that kind of relationship with God throughout his life.

Specifically, when people realize that they have sinned against God and that this has made them alienated from God, and when they are sorry for their sins and ask forgiveness, God not only forgives them but also gives them a new life. The Holy Spirit comes to live inside of them and gives them the power to resist sin and live in the way that God wants. They are no longer in a situation where they are powerless to keep from sinning. (See this post for a fuller discussion.) This is what it means to be “born again.”

But Jesus did not sin, and he was not alienated from God, so he did not have to go through that process in order to be in the kind of relationship with God that results from the process. So he was not “born again” in the sense of the process, but he was “born again” in the sense of the result. In addition, that Greek expression can also be translated “born from above” (perhaps it is even meant to have both meanings). And Jesus certainly was “born from above.” In a mysterious way that we do not understand, which the Bible itself describes in figurative language, Jesus’ mother Mary was enable to conceive as a virgin and the true father of Jesus was God. So Jesus was indeed “born from above,” and the Greek phrase that is also translated “born again” definitely applies to him.

When Paul speaks in Romans of “circumcision of the heart,” he is describing the same process and result that Jesus was describing when he spoke of being “born again” or “born from above.” Paul says that “circumcision of the heart” is “by the Spirit, not by the written code.” In other words, it is not physical circumcision as prescribed by the law of Moses. It is something that the Holy Spirit brings about inside of us. Just as physical circumcision indicated membership in the covenant community under the law of Moses, so this spiritual circumcision shows that a person belongs to the new covenant community that God inaugurated with the coming of Jesus.

In other words, a person who has been “born again” has also experienced “circumcision of the heart.” So the same things I said about Jesus in the first case would apply in the second case. He was always in the relationship with God that would result from the process that can be described with either phrase.

Why does Jesus quote only from Deuteronomy in response to the devil’s temptations?

Q. After the 40 days of fasting, Jesus is tempted. In His response to Satan, why does Jesus quote from Deuteronomy and not another book and why are all three responses from just the one? Is there more here that I’m not getting?

This is an excellent and very perceptive question. When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Most interpreters take this to be an announcement that Jesus was the Messiah, and they understand this to be the moment when what had been a growing realization crystallized for Jesus that he was the Messiah. He immediately went alone into the wilderness to understand what the implications of this were.

In the temptations, the devil was basically saying to Jesus, “So, I hear you’re the Messiah. That’s great. Have you thought about what kind of Messiah you’re going to be?” (“If you are the Son of God …”) The temptations were to see his primary role as that of meeting the physical needs of people; to do dazzling daredevil feats that would win admiration and an audience; or to try to achieve his purposes by obtaining political and military power. Interestingly, later on Jesus actually did feed people miraculously, and on many occasions he was delivered spectacularly from dangers, although he definitively rejected pursuing political and military power.

But on this occasion, it would have been wrong to do any of those things as primary to his Messianic vocation, particularly at the suggestion of the devil that this was the kind of Messiah he should be. And just as interestingly, Jesus rejects all of these temptations on the basis that they would involve doing something that would be wrong for anyone to do—seeing life as consisting primarily of meeting physical needs and desires; putting God to the test; worshiping anyone but God. In each case, Jesus cites scriptures to show that this would be wrong.

It makes sense to me that all of these scriptures would come from the Torah or law of Moses, because that is where the normative principles for godly conduct are stated directly in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, while Jesus spoke a few times of “Moses and the prophets,” and once of “Moses and the prophets and the Psalms” (“Psalms” likely meaning the final section of the Hebrew Bible, the “Writings”), in general he spoke and taught about “the law” or “what Moses wrote” or “the law of Moses.” Principles for godly conduct can be inferred from the narratives, songs, etc. in other parts of the Bible, but they are laid out directly in the law of Moses.

That said, is there a reason why Jesus would have quoted all of these principles specifically from the book of Deuteronomy, rather than from some other book of the Torah? We could say that it was simply a coincidence that they were all found there. But perhaps, as you say, there is something more going on here.

Deuteronomy is a single long discourse by Moses. In the gospel of Matthew, the temptations are followed by the Sermon on the Mount, a single long discourse by Jesus, in which he explains the deepest meanings and applications of the law. In Luke, the equivalent Sermon on the Plain comes not long after the temptations. So perhaps we are to understand what Jesus does in those discourses as an echo of Deuteronomy.

Matthew in particular portrays Jesus as a “new Moses” in many ways in his gospel, that is, as someone who will be a teacher and giver of a law that brings freedom. We may actually see Jesus entering into his vocation as this “new Moses” in the temptations themselves, as he articulates the meaning and application of “what Moses wrote” for the situations that the devil is describing. This would be a delightful irony. In the process of trying to get Jesus to be the wrong kind of Messiah, the devil provides the occasion for Jesus to step into his vocation as the right kind of Messiah. As that happens, the farewell speech of the first Moses provides the inaugural content for the new Moses.

Why did the soldiers who crucified Jesus go beyond Pilate’s order?

Q. Why did the soldiers who crucified Jesus go beyond Pilate’s order?

I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking here.

Perhaps you are noting that Pilate declared Jesus innocent and said he would release him, and so you are wondering why the soldiers crucified Jesus anyway. Pilate said to the people who were accusing Jesus, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. He has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” So when we read this, we may be surprised to discover that the soldiers put Jesus to death anyway.

However, before the soldiers took Jesus away to execute him, Pilate actually changed his mind, at the urging of the crowd. The account of Jesus’ trial continues and it says: “But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand.” So the soldiers actually did not go beyond Pilate’s order to punish Jesus when they crucified him. Pilate changed his order and told them to crucify him.

Or perhaps you are asking why the soldiers, in addition to actually executing Jesus, mocked him and insulted him and perhaps taunted him by offering him something to drink in his great thirst but then not giving it to him. These things, unfortunately, were actually a regular part of crucifixion, whose purpose was not just to execute a condemned person, but to humiliate them and make them suffer as much as possible. The soldiers who mocked, insulted, and taunted Jesus were doing what Roman soldiers did to every person they crucified.

What is amazing is that Jesus knew he would be treated that way, in addition to the great physical suffering of crucifixion, and yet he still said to God beforehand, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Who was Jesus’ biological father? How did His mother Mary die? When? Where?

Q. Who was Jesus’ biological father? How did His mother Mary die? When? Where?

Christians believe that Jesus had no biological father. Rather, his mother Mary conceived him while she was still a virgin. This was a miracle, and so it is unclear how it actually happened. Even the angel who spoke to Mary about it described it in a figurative poetic parallel: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” So this is a mystery of the faith that Christians believe and accept by faith.

As for the later life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, please see this post.


Did Joseph and Mary stop at the temple to dedicate Jesus on the way to Egypt?

Q. If Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt after the birth of Jesus, how old was he when he was presented at the temple in Jerusalem? Did they stop in Jerusalem first, or did they return after a short time in Egypt?

Joseph and Mary did not actually flee to Egypt until two years after Jesus was born. The Magi told Herod that they had first seen the star that led them to come worship the king of the Jews two years earlier. It was Herod’s attempt to destroy this new king by killing all of the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger that led Joseph and Mary to flee to save Jesus’ life.

Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary presented Jesus in the temple “when the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses,” which would have been about forty days after he was born. It seems likely that they would have remained in the area of Bethlehem until then, since they were already so near Jerusalem, where the temple was. But after that, they went somewhere else. Matthew tells us that the Magi went into the “house” where the family was staying. So our traditional Christmas manger scene of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus with the shepherds and the wise men is not accurate. The wise men did not come to see Jesus at the same place as the shepherds.

Matthew does not tell us exactly where Joseph and Mary were with Jesus when the Magi came. While the teachers of the law told Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and the Magi headed there initially, Matthew says that they followed the star to where Jesus actually was. This could even have been back in Nazareth in Galilee. Herod the Great ruled both Judea and Galilee, so Jesus was in danger from him even that far away. That is why an angel warned Joseph in a dream that the family needed to flee.

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!

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.


How old was Joseph when he married and when he died?

Q. We don’t hear much about Joseph in the Bible. Do we know how old he was when Mary and he married? How old was he when he died, how did he die, and how old was Jesus when he died?

We don’t have exact answers to any of these questions because, as you say, we don’t hear much about Joseph in the Bible.

We do know that in New Testament times, Jewish women often married in their mid-teens, while Jewish men married when they were a bit older, perhaps around twenty, once they had become somewhat established and could support a wife. So if Joseph and Mary’s experience was typical for the period, he might have been just out of his teens when he married her, and she was likely still a teenager.

We know from the gospels that Joseph was at least still alive when Jesus was twelve years old. Luke tells us how Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to Jerusalem at that age, where he spoke with the teachers of the law in the temple. But Joseph seems to have died by the time Jesus was 30 and began his ministry. The gospels portray Jesus interacting with his mother and brothers at several points during his ministry, but never with Joseph.

We know nothing about how Joseph died, or how old he was when he died, except that if he married at around age 20, and had died by the time Jesus was 30, then he would like have died before age 50. So he would have lived a little shorter time than the average for a man in the Roman Empire, which was the mid-50s. But whether he died of illness or an accident or some other cause, we just don’t know.

So the primary picture we have of Joseph comes from the time around the birth of Jesus. What stays in our minds is that he was a righteous man, unwilling for Mary to experience public disgrace, and that he accepted the challenging role of being the adoptive earthly father of the Son of God. Perhaps it’s best that we think of him mostly in that light.

Why does Jesus sometimes seem to give certain disciples special treatment?

Q. Jesus has Peter, James, and John join Him to observe the Transfiguration. Why only these three? And, elsewhere Jesus seems to choose only certain disciples to reveal truth to and not others. So, how can we understand this? Obviously, it’s not favoritism, but maybe cliques are not all bad?

You’re right that Jesus allowed Peter, James, and John to see some parts of his ministry firsthand that the other disciples didn’t get to see. According to Mark, for example, Jesus brought only the three of them with him not just to the mountain of the Transfiguration, but also to the home of Jairus, whose daughter he raised from the dead, and apart with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark also specifies that it was Peter, James, and John who asked Jesus what he meant about the temple being destroyed, prompting what is known as the Olivet Discourse (Jesus’ long teaching about the signs of the end).

You’re also right that different disciples seems to be singled out at other times for teaching and attention. According to John, for example, before Jesus fed the five thousand, he asked Philip where they could get bread to feed the large crowd. John explains that Jesus “asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.” We should understand the word “test” in the sense of “challenge”; it wasn’t the case that Philip had to give a good answer or he couldn’t be a disciple any more! Rather, Jesus saw a “teachable moment” and made use of it for Philip’s advantage.

I also agree with you that this isn’t favoritism. Rather, Jesus chose to make an effective and strategic investment in specific disciples at specific times for their development as his followers and as future leaders. It’s generally accepted that someone can only have a deep influence on two or three other people at a given time. But they can have a strong influence on about a further dozen people. We see this illustrated and perhaps modeled for us in the example of Jesus.

I’m not sure I’d use the word clique, since that word tends to have a negative connotation. People in a clique are more opposed to including others than they should be. Let’s just say that Jesus shows us how to be intentional in our discipleship of others by recognizing where and how we can invest most effectively.