Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Testament Lesson #3 "Unto You Is Born...a Saviour"

Luke 2; Matthew 2

Preparation:  Stick a little gold star somewhere around the room where it is in plain sight, but not obvious, like on the frame of the blackboard or on a doorframe. One of those little gold star stickers that we use to reward children for their schoolwork or piano practice would be fine.  Also, dig back out your nativity set (an unbreakable one) from the Christmas decorations you probably just put away. (Sorry about that.)  Put them in a box or a bag so that class members can reach in and pull them out without looking.  If you have a stable as a part of the nativity set, display that on the table, empty.  If you don't have access to a nativity set, you can put cards with the names of the nativity figures on them in a bag, or you can download cute little paper figures here.  If you don't have access to a printer or a Nativity set, draw stick figures as you give the lesson :) You will need the following:  one angel, three wise men, Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, a shepherd, a sheep, a donkey.

ALL THINGS TESTIFY OF CHRIST

Ask the class if any of them noticed the gold star in the room.  Once they are told, they can look around and easily find it.  Ask why they didn't see it before, even though it was in plain sight.  Their answer will be because they didn't know to look for it.  When Christ was born, there was a special star in the sky.  The wise men saw it.  But what about all of the other people in Bethlehem, and in Jerusalem, and in the East?  Why did they not see the star?  Because they were not looking for it.

All around us, there are things that testify of Christ to us, just as the star testified of Christ's birth.  If we are looking we will see them: The beauties of nature, the miracle of the human body, the many times that we almost have accidents but don't, or the times that things that seem bad turn out to be really great in the end.  People who are not looking for them do not see them as proof of Christ's influence in their lives.  For example, everyone can watch General Conference on television or the Internet and see President Monson, but only those who are looking for a prophet see him as a prophet.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JESUS!  (EVEN THOUGH IT'S NOT REALLY YOUR BIRTHDAY)

Before we get started, let's talk about Christmas Day. "Both scriptural and historical evidence suggest [that Jesus was born] in the spring of the year, near the Jewish Passover" (Nelson, p. 3), so why do we celebrate Christ's birthday on December 25th?  The answer to that question is rather interesting and ironic.

The Romans crucified Christ for the Jews.  After Christ's death, Paul traveled to Rome to teach the gospel.  As a result of his efforts, Christianity spread to Rome, and eventually the Roman Catholic Church was born, which is the world's largest Christian denomination today.  As a result, the descendants of that nation that crucified Jesus Christ now wear crosses around their necks to remind themselves of Christ's sacrifice for them.  Sweet.

When the Romans made Christianity their official religion, they wanted to celebrate Christ's birth, but no one knew the correct date.  So they decided to honor it in the place of a celebration they already had: the imaginary birthday of the sun god they had previously worshipped: December 25th (Skousen, p. 15).  Some atheists therefore accuse present-day Christians of participation in idolatry, even though the Christians have never heard of the sun god and could therefore hardly be considered worshipping him.  But even though Christmas (as it was called hundreds of years later) wasn't a clean and instant break from paganism--all major cultural and religious changes take time--it was a way of turning the honor to Christ while eclipsing the centuries-old idolatrous traditions.  And it was effective:  At least a third of the world's population celebrates Christmas, while very few have even heard of the sun god Nimrod.

Regardless of the origin/evolution of Christmas, its present-day celebration is a powerful reminder of the divinity of Christ.  Let's look a little more closely at all the individuals and circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus and see how they, like everything else, testify of Christ. 

Have class members pull a figure out of the bag or box.  Then tell about that particular person or animal using the notes below as you place it in the stable.


ANGEL

The angel who told Mary that she would be the mother of the Son of God was Gabriel.  Gabriel had also appeared to two other people that we know of:  Daniel of the Old Testament, and Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist.  Who was Gabriel when he was a mortal?  Noah.  (History of the Church, 3:386).  Noah would have been one of Mary's ancestors, as well as Daniel's and Zacharias's, since everyone on the earth after the flood descended from him (Skousen, p. 9)

Luke 2:13 reads, "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God."  We tend to think of the heavenly host as a choir, and they probably were, but the meaning of the word host in the scriptures usually refers to an army.  When we read that our God is "the Lord of hosts," the meaning is "the captain of the heavenly army" (Harper-Collins Study Bible; see also 1 Samuel 17:45).  The word host can also refer to "a great multitude" (See Topical Guide heading for "Host"), but as the word multitude is already being used in the scriptural sentence, a different meaning for the word host is logical--"A multitude of the heavenly multitude" just doesn't make a lot of sense.  Since our entire existence, including premortal and postmortal, is the story of a war being waged against evil, it would be appropriate for the heavenly army to rejoice at the birth of the one who would lead them to victory.

WISE MAN #1

How many wise men were there?  We have no idea.  Matthew 2:1 reads, "Behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem."  No number is ever mentioned.  Three gifts are itemized, so the assumption has been that there was one wise man for each gift, but there might have been only two wise men, or there might have been 100.

There is a fascinating new translation of an ancient text found in the Vatican that appears to be the record of the journey of the wise men.  It was just this month featured in multiple news stories.  In this record, there is a large company of wise men, they travel from China, and they are even baptized by one of the apostles.  According to the translator, the word magi means "to pray in silence," and has no reference to astrology or sorcery (Landau).  "When they first encounter the long-prophesied star, the text says it initially appears in a celestial form that then transforms into a human form or 'star child,' who instructs them to go to Bethlehem to witness its birth. Each of the Magi, in fact, sees the star child in a different form, with each vision representing a different time in the life of Christ."  You can read about it in USA Today or on KSL.com.  The book of the translation is called Revelation of the Magi.  The translator is Brent Landau.  It is available to the general public in bookstores.

WISE MAN #2

Most people think that the wise men were not Jews, and this new book suggests that they weren't, but it is possible they were.  There were Jews living in many different countries surrounding Israel.  When kings from other countries conquered Israel over the years, they usually moved some of the Jews out so that their own people could move in, and so there were little groups of Jews in many countries to the East.  It makes sense that it would have been Jews or Jewish converts who would have studied the prophecies of the Old Testament (see Matt. 2:5-6; Micah 5:2; Numbers 24;17) in order to know about the sign of the star, and the general location of the birthplace of the Messiah (McConkie, p. 358).

When the wise men traveled to Jerusalem, they thought it would be easy to find the baby king.  They expected everyone to be excited and the city to be in an uproar because of the birth of Jesus.  But, as we said, most people did not see the star because they were not looking for it.  So they had to figure out how to find the baby, and they decided to go to the palace and ask the king.  Perhaps they thought Jesus would have been the king's son (Skousen, p. 30).

When King Herod wasn't able to give them any information, they went back out searching and the star moved, perhaps like a satellite, or maybe as a vision.  "It went before them" (Matt. 2:9) until it led them the five miles to Bethlehem, and even to the right house where Joseph and Mary were living.  The census was over, all the people who had come to be taxed had left, and now there was a place available for Joseph and Mary to live (Matt 2:11).  We don't know the age of the Savior at this time, but he was under the age of two, since that is the age of children Herold commanded to be killed.

WISE MAN #3

We often call the wise men the three kings, but scriptures never say that they are kings.  This image results from the wealth they carried with them.  They brought gold, which has always been rare and pricey.  They brought frankincense, a very expensive crystalline resin from a tree in Arabia, used in temple worship, and also as a perfume.  They brought myrrh, an extracted resin from various thorny bushes in Arabia, and worth a small fortune.  It was a perfume, also used for temple worship, and particularly used to embalm the dead.  When Jesus was in the tomb, this may have been one of the "spices" that the women brought to put on his body (Skousen, p. 33).  It is sometimes said by scriptorians that the wise men honored three roles of Christ:  They brought gold for the King, frankincense for the High Priest, and myrrh for the Savior who would give His life to atone for our sins.

MARY

Joseph did not call his wife "Mary" and neither did anyone who knew her.  The New Testament was written in Greek, but Mary and Joseph and all of the Jews spoke Hebrew.  Mary is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Miriam

Mary was a direct descendant of King David, and if other countries had not taken over Israel, she could have been a princess and her baby could have become the earthly King of the Jews (Skousen, p. 6; see also "Joseph" in last week's lesson, and Matt. 1:1).

JOSEPH

Joseph was Mary's cousin; she was the daughter of his uncle Jacob.  Joseph was also a direct descendant of King David, and could have been the king of the Jews if the Hebrews were still in control (McConkie, p. 316).

We always assume that Joseph was poor.  Was he?  Yes.  How do we know this?  The Law said that all the firstborn boys should be presented at the temple and the parents should bring a sacrifice with them of a lamb, but if they couldn't afford a lamb, they could sacrifice two doves (Numbers 8;15-18; 18:15-16).  Joseph and Mary brought two doves (Luke 2:22-24; Talmage, p. 96).

BABY JESUS

Jesus was not called "Jesus" by the Hebrews.  The name Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua or Jehoshua.  The meaning of the name Joshua is very significant:  "Jehovah saves."  Jehovah was the God of the Old Testament.  The name Joshua was a sign to them that this baby was Jehovah, the God in their scriptures (Nelson, p. 4; Skousen, p. 22; Bible Dictionary, Jesus; McConkie, p. 318).

Jesus was the first child born in the family, but was he the only one?  No.  He had at least four half-brothers and at least two half-sisters, so there were at least seven children in the family, and maybe more.  Four brothers, James, Joses, Simon and Judas and an unspecified number of sisters are mentioned in Matt 13:55-56.  James and Judas (Jude) became apostles and their writings are found in our New Testament.  The JST gives us a little more information about Jesus' childhood and youth.  "And it came to pass that Jesus grew up with his brethren, and waxed strong, and waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come.  And he served under his father, and he spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him" (JST Matt. 3:24-25 in the Bible Appendix).

SHEPHERDS

Shepherds were on the low end of society in the days of Christ.  The very low end.  Because their work required them to be out in the fields constantly, they couldn't keep all the Jewish customs and rules, all the hand-washings, and social mandates.  So they were looked down upon, and they weren't trusted.  Most "respectable" people lived in houses and were farmers or merchants.  Shepherds were a little like homeless people.  They had to sleep out on the ground with the filthy animals.  (Rt. Rev. Edwin F. Gulick, Bp. of the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky, "And There Were Shepherds in the Field..." sermon printed on the Internet; also Randy Alcorn, "A Second Glance at the Christmas Shepherds", Moody Magazine, Dec. 1982).  The witnesses of Christ's birth came from both ends of society:  the magi at the top, and the shepherds at the bottom.  He is the Savior for everyone, and in His sight, everyone is equal.

Did you know that the Christmas carol "Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains" was written by a Latter-day Saint in the 1880s?  His name was John McFarlane and he lived in southern Utah.

SHEEP

Bethlehem is very near to Jerusalem, only 5 miles or so away.  So the shepherds outside the town of Bethlehem were also outside the city of Jerusalem.  And what was in Jerusalem?  The temple, of course.  According to the Law of Moses, the first-born sheep were offered as sacrifices in the temple.  The shepherds watching over these sheep had the responsibility of making sure which lambs were the firstborn and could be used in sacrifice.  They tended those lambs that were set apart for their temple worship in special flocks. In fact, by law, only these temple flocks could be pastured so near the city.  If the shepherds brought some of the lambs with them to the manger, as we always picture them doing, they would have been holy lambs that were being raised to be sacrificed in a similitude of what Jesus, the "Lamb of God," would later do for all of us (Kimberly Webb, New Era, Dec. 2003, p. 23; McConkie, p. 347).

DONKEY

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is close to 100 miles, all over rough terrain, and the Jews actually traveled a longer distance in order to skirt Samaria.  Fortunately, the small varieties of donkeys in the middle east give a very nice ride.  The rider can simply come up behind and sit on the donkey, with her legs nearly touching the ground.  She sits up by the tail on the hips of the donkey, which do not move much while the donkey walks, making for a fairly comfortable ride (Skousen, p. 16).

THE TESTIMONIES OF SIMEON AND ANNA

As emphasized in the conclusion to the previous lesson, the Holy Ghost wrought upon those who were seeking the Christ child.  This happened to two significant individuals who are not a part of our Nativity sets:  Simeon and Anna.  Note that the role of the Holy Ghost is mentioned three times in the account of Simeon:

"And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.  And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ.  And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, then he took him up in his arms and blessed God" (Luke 2:25-28).

In keeping with his unusually fair treatment of women, Luke gives equal credence to the witness of a woman.  (See "Luke" in a previous post.)  Not only does he mention her testimony, but he calls her a "prophetess."  There are different meanings for the word prophetess in the Bible.  In at least one instance it refers to the wife of a prophet (Isa. 8:3), but, more often, it refers to a woman who "who possessed the power to prophesy, who declared that [she] spoke God's message, and whose prophecies were fulfilled" (Hurd, p. 12; see Exo. 15:20; Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14).  Anna was the latter.  A prophetess would not be the equivalent of the prophet of a dispensation who holds the keys of the priesthood, but as "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10), any righteous woman being moved by the Spirit and testifying of Jesus could be a prophetess.  This is what Anna did.  She "spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38).  Like John the Baptist, she helped prepare the way of the Lord before His ministry began.


As Latter-day Saints, it is our responsibility to follow the example of the star, the angels, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna and testify of Christ.  I love this little testimony-poem by C.S. Lewis, the great English testator of Jesus Christ:


THE NATIVITY


Among the oxen (like an ox I'm slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox's dullness might at length
Give me an ox's strength.


Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.


Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some wooly innocence!


--C.S. Lewis




Sources:

Russell M. Nelson, Wise Men and Women Still Adore Him
W. Cleon Skousen, Days of the Living Christ
Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, Book 1
James E. Talmadge, Jesus the Christ

Brent Landau, Revelation of the Magi
Jerrie Hurd, Leaven: 150 Women in Scripture Whose Lives Lift Ours
C.S. Lewis, Poems

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your wonderful and spiritual ideas for this lesson. You are very creative!

Anonymous said...

This has left me feeling excited to teach the lesson...you have answered a question left over from last weeks lesson that remain unanswered. Thanks for sharing.

W Dean said...

Luke's comment that there were "shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night" is in fact telling the reader, the event happened in the spring of the year. This is the only time that sheep are watched at night. The rest of the year they are corralled and pined up at night. The reason that shepherds watch sheep in the spring by night is that the sheep need to be herded well into the night when the daylight hours are still so short and when there is only new growth. If sheep are not moved they will eat all the young grass blades all the way to the root, leaving nothing to grow in the summer and the young blades are not so plentiful that they can get enough in only the daylight hours. They need a lot to eat after a winter of feeding off of last fall's harvested food stock that would, no doubt, be depleted. The sheep are kept on a constant move in the spring to reduce this chance of all the grass being eaten to a stubble. In the summer when the grass is growing, the sheep can get their fill of food by the shepherds only watching (herding) the sheep in the day time and then at night sheep are corralled in make shift pens (or their permanent pens near home) to protect them from predators. In the fall the grass is still hearty and the sheep are managed very similar to the way they are in the summer time. In the winter, mostly the sheep are fed grasses that had been previously put up, for there is essentially no grass to be found growing anyway. So by telling us that the shepherds watched their flocks by night, Luke is saying...the Christ child was born in the spring. This is why he said this statement...to fix the time of the year! He could have said it a number of other ways, but shepherding was a very common occupation and everyone of the day would have understood that statement as proclaiming the time of the year, and they would not necessarily have understood it as a statement just about shepherds or sheep.

Sister Jensen you do a grand job with your blog and I sure do appreciate your insight!

Nancy W. Jensen said...

W Dean, thank you for contributing that interesting information!

Mhe-anne Ojeda said...

Sister Jensen! Thank you for your blog. I am looking for ideas for extra lesson on Sunday since we finished the course already.I am thinking of playing a guessing game (We call it Pinoy Henyo or Filipino Genius) a popular game on tv. I am searching for words/objects discussed during the course, for that game and as a token/gift for class to remember the lesson associated with the object. I found your blog as a great resource. I also write an excerpt of my New Testament Lessons on my blog (www.mycomingsandgoings.com)although still got lots of backlog post to write. Reading your blog makes it easy to recall what I have taught. So thank you!!