(Note: This lesson is heavy on Christmas and light on Ezra and Nehemiah. I just can't give a lesson the week of Christmas without focusing on the birth of Christ, but I have included links to more material on Ezra and Nehemiah for those who would like them.)
Before class, decorate the room with 14 large paper stars. Hang them from the ceiling with fishing wire and thumb tacks, or tape them to the rim of the white board or chalkboard, etc. You may also want to display a nativity scene on the table.
INTRODUCTION (Just for fun)
If you have a class with a good sense of humor (or if they need one), you may want to introduce this lesson by showing this 2-minute, 45-second Claymation video segment, "The Carol of the Bells." Before showing the video, tell the class there is a symbolic significance to it that relates to the prophecies of Christ, however obscure. After showing the video, you can freeze the picture at the 8-second mark to let the class see if they can figure out the symbol. Tell them, if they can't figure out the symbol, the same symbol is found in the stars hanging around the room. Most likely, no one will be able to guess correctly, but it will grab their attention and keep them listening for the answer which will come much later in the lesson.
RETURN TO JERUSALEM
This lesson takes us back in time 400-500 years before the first "Christmas" in Bethlehem to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries and colleagues in the rebuilding of the kingdom of God. The two books go together and are actually just one book in the Jewish Bible. Babylon, where the Jews had been taken, had been overthrown by Cyrus of Persia, as foretold by King Nebechudnezzar's dream of the great image (Daniel 2). Cyrus encouraged the Jews to begin their return to Jerusalem to build up their temple. And why did he feel inclined to do that? Because he found his name in the prophecy, foretelling that he would.
Ezra 1:1-4: "Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, the Lord God of heaven [remember, that is the Persian term for the God of the Jews; see previous post] hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah."
Josephus wrote, "This was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies; for this prophet said that God had spoken thus to him in a secret vision:--'My will is, that Cyrus, whom I have appointed to be king over many and great nations, send back my people to their own land, and build my temple.' This was foretold by Isaiah one hundred and forty years before the temple was demolished. Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfil what was so written; so he called for the most eminent Jews that were in Babylon, and said to them, that he gave them leave to go back to their own country, and to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and the temple of God, for that he would be their assistant, and that he would write to the rulers and governors that were in the neighbourhood of their country of Judea, that they should contribute to them gold and silver for the building of the temple, and besides that, beasts for their sacrifices." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, Chapter 1, verses 1 & 2)
Here is the prophecy Cyrus read about himself as recorded in our present-day Old Testament: "Thus saith the Lord, thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb, I am the Lord that maketh all things...That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid." (Isaiah 44:24, 28) The prophecy to Cyrus continues on in Isaiah 45, promising the Lord's aid to Cyrus as he performs this work.
So nearly 50,000 Jews went back to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple. The joy for the Jews when the temple was complete was contrasted with the sorrow of the old men who remembered the glory and splendor of the previous temple, as recorded in Ezra 3:11-13. "Many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house [remember this was 70 years after they had been taken captives in Babylon, so these people must have been nearing 90 or 100 to remember the first temple] when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy" (Ezra 3:12). (Institute Manual 29-4, 29-14)
The first six chapters of Ezra take place 60 to 80 years before his time. There is no record of what happened in those years (Bible Dictionary, p. 669), but it must have been something bad, because a lot of damage had been done to Jerusalem. Ezra was a priest (Ezra 7:6), and he received the king's permission to lead another group of Jews back to Jerusalem and reform the Jews living there.
"Along with Nehemiah, [Ezra] took steps to instruct the people in the Mosaic law. Hitherto, the law had been to a great extent the exclusive possession of the priests. It was now brought within the reach of every Jew." (ibid.) In other words, most of the people had never had access to the scriptures, never heard them read in their entire lives, and their worship had, obviously, drifted and deviated from the Word of God. It was a time similar to that following the Dark Ages in Europe, when Wycliffe and Tyndale translated the Bible into English and made it available to the commoner (although Wycliffe and Tyndale paid the price for their effort with their lives).
Read Nehemiah 8:1-4, 12, 17-18 for the beautiful account of the reading of the scriptures to the people.
(For much more on Ezra, see the Institute Manual.)
Nehemiah, the king's cupbearer (Neh. 1:11), a high-ranking civil servant, was allowed to go back as well. Nehemiah became the leader of the re-building effort and, while under attack, rebuilt the walls of the city.
"Nehemiah stands out as one of the noble men in the Old Testament. As he fulfilled a necessary mission in his day, he demonstrated the highest level of dedication and courage, both in the practical matter of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and also in the spiritual matter of rebuilding the religious life of his people" (Institute Manual).
“[Nehemiah's] career presents an exceptional combination of strong self-reliance with humble trust in God, of penetrating shrewdness with perfect simplicity of purpose, of persistent prayerfulness with the most energetic activity; and for religious faith and practical sagacity he stands conspicuous among the illustrious personages of the Bible.” (J. R. Dummelow, ed., A Commentary on the Holy Bible, p. 278, quoted in Institute Manual)
For more on Nehemiah, see the Institute Manual.
LINK TO THE NEW TESTAMENT AND CHRISTMAS
Sadly, there are many people today who do not treasure the scriptures, even though they are easily accessible to almost anyone in almost any country of the world, thanks to the Internet and the efforts of the Church Translation Department. The Christmas season is one time of the year, however, that many people who are not exposed to religion in any way allow just a little bit of the scriptures into their lives. For example, the Christmas special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which first aired in 1965, is the longest-running television Christmas special in history. Charles Schulz wrote it to include the Bible recitation of the Christmas story in Luke 2, to the chagrin of the network authorities. They were sure that the television audience would not like scripture in their Christmas entertainment. It was too late once they found out the content to do anything about it, as the special had already been advertised and scheduled. So they ran it, expecting it to be a flop. To their surprise it was a huge hit in the ratings that week, and has run every year since then: For 45 years the scriptural account of the birth of Christ has been a part of American families' Christmas viewing. ("A Christmas Miracle: The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas" DVD featurette in the Remastered Deluxe Edition of "A Charlie Brown Christmas") If you have access to this video, you may want to play it for the class beginning at the point where Charlie Brown cries out, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" and ending with Linus saying, after reciting Luke 2, "That's what Christmas is about, Charlie Brown."
Linus was right: That is, indeed, what Christmas is about. The heart of Christmas, Jesus, is also the heart of the scriptures. We can link the Old Testament to the New Testament (which will be our study for next year) with a special set of prophecies significant to the life and mission of Christ.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE NUMBER 14
Did you figure out the symbol in the bells and the stars? It is the number 14. (On the board, post the number 14.)
- There were 14 bells celebrating Christ's birth in the Christmas carol on the video.
- There are 14 stars hanging in the room proclaiming Christ's birth as the Star of Bethlehem did.
- Matthew used the number 14 to teach the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.
"And all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations."
He actually telescoped the genealogy (manipulated it, leaving out generations) to highlight the number 14 and drive home his point that Jesus came as the promised Messiah from the House of David, the royal line. In Hebrew, every letter had a numeric value, and every number had a symbolic meaning. The symbolic meaning of the number was more important in many or most cases than the literal meaning. The Jews loved playing with these numbers and letters and inserting deep symbolism into them. The letters of the name DAVID in Hebrew add up to 14. The meaning of the number 14 is "deliverance, salvation." (Harper-Collins Study Bible, and Biblical Numerics.) (Post a picture of Christ on the board by the 14 and add "= Deliverance and Salvation.")
Beginning with the next few verses, as Matthew told the story of Christ's life, he noted 14 prophecies from the scriptures available in that day--what we now call the Old Testament--that were fulfilled by Christ so that the readers, the Jews, would recognize Jesus as Jehovah, their God of the Old Testament, their Deliverer descended from the House of David. These prophecies were noted with phrases marking them as fulfillment of prophecy. For example, "Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying..." (Matthew 1:22). Ezra had brought these prophecies back into the life of the common Jew several hundred years before, and so the Jews were now very familiar with the scriptures and would have recognized this prophecy as they read Matthew's testament.
Pass out copies of the list of the 14 prophecies below, and if there is time, go through all or some of the prophecies on the list. Encourage the class to mark in the margins of their New Testament the cross-references to these 14 prophecies, and number them as OT Prophecies 1-14. Families can use this as an alternate or additional Christmas scripture reading to tell the story of Christ's life through the eyes of the Old Testament prophets. If this lesson is given on December 12, 2010, there will be exactly 14 days, including Christmas Day, in which to read one prophecy per day.
FOURTEEN OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECIES NOTED BY MATTHEW
- 1:23 (Isaiah 7:14) A virgin will conceive and bear a son who will be "Emmanuel," "God With Us."
- 2:6 (Micah 5:2) The Governor will come from Bethlehem.
- 2:15 (Hosea 11:1) The Son will be called out of Egypt.
- 2:18 (Jer. 31:15) Rachel will weep for her children.
- 2:23 (Lost from our OT) He will be from Nazareth.
- 3:3 (Isa. 40:3) The voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.
- 4:15-16 (Isa. 9:1-2) The people who were in darkness will see the Light
- 8:17 (Isa. 53:4) He will take our infirmities.
- 12:18-21 (Isa. 42:103) He will not harm even a bruised reed.
- 13:14-15 (Isa. 6:9-10) The people's heart gross, their ears dull.
- 13:35 (Psalm 78:2) He will speak in parables.
- 21:5 (Zech. 9:9-11 or Isa. 62:11) The King will come riding upon a donkey.
- 26:56 (possibly Zech. 13:6) People come out with staves against him, although they were previously companionable
- 27:9 (Zech. 11:13) He will be sold for 30 pieces of silver.
Today Christmas is over-commercialized, as we all know, and many people don't ever get very far beyond the packaging to the real Gift of Christmas. (Hold up the Baby Jesus from the nativity set.) We ourselves, being believers, need to make sure that our Christmas does center around the heart of the matter, Jesus Christ, and we need to make Him prominent for our families.
I really love this Christmas song by popular country singer Clint Black, because it emphasizes the effort we of the latter days must take to find Christ in Christmas. It is from the album of the same title. (There is a free mp3 download of this song at this link.)
(If you would like to play the music for your class, you can illustrate it with the Church video segment "Luke II," from the "New Testament Video Presentations". Turn the sound off the video. Key it up to the point where the red curtain is dropped after Joseph asks entrance. Begin to play the video and the Clint Black music at the same time. It doesn't line up perfectly, but it gives you something nice to watch while you listen. This little music video presentation will be 3 minutes and 50 seconds long.)
It is my hope that we can all use the symbols of Christmas, like the Hebrews used symbols of the scriptures, to point us to Christ. We might cast a prayer heavenward in gratitude for the Old Testament authors, and the restorers like Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as those who preserved the scriptures through the centuries, and those who later translated them into English, all so that we could read the story of the nativity for ourselves in our own homes on Christmas Day.