From Wichita, Kansas to Kongsberg, Norway, and around the world, the colorful sights and delightful sounds of Christmas once again pervade the earth. Many Christians observe Christmas as a commemoration of the birth of Jesus in lowly Bethlehem. Though in all probability it is not His birthday, let us use this time of Christian awareness to review the events surrounding that glorious occasion.
“When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son” for whom it was proclaimed that, “of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.” He was to sit “upon the throne of David, and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.” “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder.” Galatians 4:4; Isaiah 9:7, 6.
Thus, according to Scripture, when Jesus was “born,” He was to sit upon the “throne of David” and to establish the kingdom in justice and peace. Though the chosen nation should suffer economic chaos, theological apostasy and political corruption, its members were sure it would ultimately recover, for the Messiah would once again bring justice and peace, prosperity and dominion to God’s people.
Was not “the government” to be “upon His shoulder”? And does the government not refer to the leaders and authorities of the nation? Thus the people confidently looked to their leaders to proclaim the Messiah King.
While the world of Israel thus looked expectantly toward Jerusalem for the birth announcement of their Saviour and King, a newborn babe lay sleeping on the beaten-down straw, under strips of linen, in a Bethlehem barn. He was a normal-looking infant, born of peasant stock. He was the Messiah, the Creator of the universe. The future of Israel’s prosperity and existence lay huddled beside Him.
Telling the News
Angels, bursting with eagerness to tell the good news, flew from house to house, synagogue to synagogue, throughout the length and breadth of Judea, searching for receptive hearts, to announce the birth of this newborn Son. They searched. Where were the 7,000 faithful of Elijah’s day? Though Elijah had not known their whereabouts, these angels had known every name and address. But now they searched in vain! Yet the people of Israel were zealous Sabbathkeepers. They sent their children to the rabbinical schools and daily studied the Scriptures. And most of all, they were of the lineage of Abraham, loyal Jews, as demonstrated by their loyalty to their human leaders.
In one classroom an angel lingers as a scholar lectures his students. “It is nearly time for the Messiah to come,” he says. The angel starts forward with breathtaking joy—has he found a worthy group? He readies to lighten the room and share the good news, but the teacher continues:
“Be aware, however, that the historic beliefs, based upon simple Bible statements, must today be balanced with modern scholasticism. Rabbi Benikel, for example, in his recent dissertation of the linguistic origins of Daniel, which has received the endorsement of Rabbi Honohan, points out several exegetical problems with the theory of the Babylonian origin of Daniel. He asserts that portions of Daniel were written during the early Maccabean period and that the Messiah prophecy was an attempt to strengthen the support of Judas Maccabeus in his resistance to the Antiochan occupation of Judea. The Sanhedrin Council has yet to decide on this theory, but Rabbi Benikel, understandably, has not wanted to submit it to their jurisprudence until he has more support in the council.”
The angel folds his wings and turns to leave. The professor drones on—Rabbi El-Sevens has also shown problems with the year-day theory. This theory, he says, developed as a result of Israel’s disappointment when the Messiah did not come when expected shortly after Cyrus’ decree . . . But the angel has gone. The rejection of the Messiah had already begun.
Thus it was that “angels came . . . unseen to Jerusalem, to the appointed expositors of the Sacred Oracles, and the ministers of God’s house . . . Yet Jerusalem was not preparing to welcome her Redeemer. With amazement the heavenly messengers beheld the indifference of the people whom God had called to communicate to the world the light of sacred truth . . . They rehearsed their meaningless prayers, and performed the rites of worship to be seen by men, but in their strife for riches and worldly honor they were not prepared for the revelation of the Messiah.” The Desire of Ages, 43, 44.
Searching in Vain?
The angel returns from his search to the hayloft headquarters of Bethlehem: “I’ve searched the classrooms of Judea,” he reports. “The teachers are expounding the Scriptures, but they are very proud and degree-oriented. ‘They love . . . to be called . . . Rabbi.’ (Matthew 23:6–7) The students’ minds are ‘crowded with material that . . . [is] worthless’ and they are so busy with their biblical studies that they have no time for ‘quiet hours to spend with God.’ Thus they do ‘not hear His voice speaking to the heart.’ The Desire of Ages, 69. They have elevated human philosophy above simple faith and have ‘set human teaching above God’s word.’ Christ’s Object Lessons, 304. They pray before every class, but there is no real desire for divine enlightenment. I am sad to report that I have not been able to find a single classroom of Judea within which I could give the glad tidings of Jesus’ birth. Even if I had told them, unless it was endorsed by the Sanhedrin and came through the official channels, they would not have believed it.”
“That’s the kind of reports we’re getting from all over,” was the answer from the coordinating angel. “It is pretty bleak. If we could even find some in individual dwellings with whom we could share the good news, but the angels visiting the homes report that the people have ‘respected the priests and rabbis for their intelligence and apparent piety’ for so long, that ‘in all religious matters they [have] yielded implicit obedience to their authority.’ ” The Desire of Ages, 611. They have almost made their human leaders infallible.
“We have found two persons, however, named Simeon and Anna, who are ‘just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel’ and filled with the Holy Spirit. See Luke 2:29, 36. Of course, they are so old that few will listen. What’s more, Anna is a prophetess, and you know how the testimony of the Spirit has been received of late. Completely made of none effect by many, I fear.
“Another detachment of angels have found some philosophers in Persia who are sincere seekers for truth. They have the writings of Balaam. Possibly we can reach them through their belief in astrology. Balaam said, ‘A Star shall come out of Jacob’ (Numbers 24:17); now, if we make a visible star arise over Bethlehem . . .”
Shepherds or Theologians
But the commander was interrupted by the entrance of another angel who appears radiant with joy—”I’ve found some who believe!” he announces. “There are some shepherds herding their sheep right outside this very city,” he says, “who are praying and meditating on the Scripture and are expecting the Christ to come!”
“But who will listen to shepherds?” asks one of the angels standing nearby. “They have no degrees, no preaching license, no literary or oratorical skills, no friends in the synagogue, no influence at all—if they preach this gospel it will turn many away!”
“But God is no respecter of persons” responds the angel. “They are worthy and I must tell them.”
“We’re all coming,” responds the commander. “You are the only one who has had success tonight—we’re joining you!”
That night the lowly shepherds became the best and only true theologians of Israel. They did not know four or five variant possibilities of prophetic interpretations; they could not quote rabbinical sources; they did not even know the dictionary definition of exegesis, but they knew the truth. True theology is the process of humbly arriving at truth, not the process of proudly elucidating human speculation.
Those who do not understand or believe in God’s holy Sabbath are not theologians. They may be sincere, but they are not theologians. The most common and illiterate person who understands and keeps the Sabbath is a greater theologian then the wisest scholar who is ignorant of such a basic, plain truth of the Bible. Those who do not understand the closing events of earth’s history as delineated in Daniel, the Revelation, and The Great Controversy, are not theologians. Those who do not understand the power of Christ to deliver from sin, of the plain and simple gospel story of who Jesus was—”the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3)—are not theologians. Those who have known and rejected God’s voice through the Spirit of Prophecy may be applauded for their great speculative skills, but their wisdom is no greater than was that of the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day—they are not theologians. And if the church, or individuals, permit themselves to be educated by these broken cisterns, they will be deceived and rejected by God as were the Jews in Jesus’ day.
As in Jesus’ day, “There are men among us in responsible positions who hold that the opinions of a few conceited philosophers, so called, are more to be trusted than the truths of the Bible, or the testimonies of the Holy Spirit. Such a faith as that of Paul, Peter, or John is considered old-fashioned and insufferable at the present day . . . God has shown me that these men are . . . to prove a scourge to our people. They are wise above what is written. This unbelief of the very truths of God’s Word because human judgment cannot comprehend the mysteries of His work is found . . . in most of our schools and comes into the lessons of the nurseries.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 79.
Who Can We Trust?
Few so-called scholars are true theologians, and few theologians are recognized scholars. Jesus said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.” Matthew 11:25.
As with ancient Israel at Christ’s first coming, so with modern Israel “in the last solemn work” before His Second Coming—”few great men will be engaged.” They “have trusted to intellect, genius, or talent . . . [and] did not keep pace with the light . . . God will work a work in our day that but few anticipate. He will raise up and exalt among us those [like the shepherds] who are taught rather by the unction of His Spirit than by the outward training of scientific institutions . . . God will manifest that He is not dependent on learned, self-important mortals.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 80, 82.
In Jesus’ day the people had been led to believe that God’s work depended upon the priests and rabbis, as “we have been inclined to think that where there are no faithful ministers there can be no true Christian, but this is not the case. God has promised that where the shepherds are not true He will take charge of the flock Himself. God has never made the flock wholly dependent upon human instrumentalities.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 80.
The Jewish people could not fathom the Lord ever forsaking them. Their leaders had emphasized the texts that spoke of their eternal heritage to the exclusion of texts that spoke of the conditions of prosperity. This led to a false sense of security in the system. They forgot that God has not made Himself dependent upon any man, nation or church. Anyone, such as John the Baptist, who said, “God can raise up children to Himself from these stones,” was thought of as a schismatic and separationist. The question they asked both John and Jesus was, “By what authority do you do these things?”—What rabbi, priest, or synagogue has endorsed you?
The Path to Rejection
The rejection of Jesus and the destruction of a nation followed a very simple path: 1) The leaders became political with only an outward appearance of piety in order to retain the people’s confidence and support. 2) The educational system elevated the human above the divine. 3) The people were taught that all questions of administration or policy must be submitted to ecclesiastical authority and that only those under such authority could preach, write or teach. 4) The people were taught that the chosen nation would continue to be blessed regardless of what it did. 5) The people were led to believe that the work of the Lord consisted totally of the political system then in control of the nation. God was not recognized as the Head of His church as stated in Ephesians 1:22–23. The Lord Himself was obliged to go through the “proper channels” of the church. No one could ever hope to be the Messiah without the Sanhedrin’s recognition.
Following the anointing of Jesus at His baptism, the Father gave proof after proof of Jesus’ Messiahship. But the one proof He was lacking was the official approval of the church—or at least what the people thought was the church.
Of course, Jesus was the church. He was the government. For “where Christ is, even among the humble few, this is Christ’s church, for the presence of the High and Holy One who inhabiteth eternity can alone constitute a church.” The Upward Look, 315.
No human council or organization, either today, in Martin Luther’s day, or in Jesus’ day can either establish or annul a church body by mere human fiat. The true church in Jesus’ day was not the temple in Jerusalem, but the believers that surrounded Jesus. This has constituted the church “in every age.” This is the church that “the gates of hell have not been able to prevail against,” and “is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard.” Acts of the Apostles, 11, 12. But to even suggest such a thing in Jesus’ day would have been considered divisive, insubordinate and apostate. Thus the leaders were able to take a whole nation with them to ruin in their rejection of the humble King of Israel. The leaders were too proud, entrenched and educated to follow Jesus or to submit to His authority, and the people cast their lot with the priests.
Accepting the Proof
Witness one of the most dramatic of Jesus’ healings. The man was born blind, the result, supposedly, of a curse from the parents’ or grandparents’ sins. But Jesus made clay, packed it upon his eyes, and told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam.
The man came seeing and rejoicing. Though he had never seen Jesus, he knew that He was the Messiah, and acknowledged Him so before the priests. The priests knew this man. They knew he had been blind from birth. They had tried to suggest in previous healings of Jesus, that it was by sleight of hand, but they could not deny this miracle. Neither could they accept the One who performed it, for it was done by Jesus, who was not under their authority or jurisdiction. To acknowledge Him would mean to humble themselves. It could possibly lead to the whole moral and economic collapse of their system. Tithes and offerings would probably start flowing to Jesus. Their own authority would be limited. If they should yield their authority here, what would prevent any and every other upstart from beginning his own ministry? What would preserve the “purity” of the church? To their way of thinking, the whole prosperity of a nation depended upon their handling of this case in such a way as to deprive Jesus of His glory and yet retain the confidence of the people. It would require the utmost skill in administrative tact and crisis management.
“So they . . . called the man who was blind, and said to him, ‘Give God the glory! We know that this Man [Jesus] is a sinner.’ ” But the healed man would not relinquish his faith in Jesus. “Then they reviled him and said, ‘You are His disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples.’ ” John 9:24, 28.
As one last attempt to break through the stubborn resistance of the Jews, Jesus raised a man to life who had been dead for four days. The priests knew that they could not refute this miracle. In their hearts they knew that He was divine. But to acknowledge Him now would destroy their whole social, economic and political system. And to their way of thinking, it would therefore destroy God’s church. That, as “faithful stewards,” they could not allow. Thus Caiaphas said, “It is [more] expedient for us that one man should die for the people, . . . [than] that the whole nation should perish.” John 11:50.
Corruption and political maneuvering they could permit; but someone calling for repentance, someone speaking without their authority, they could not tolerate. When the decision came to choose between Barabbas or Christ, they unanimously, save for Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, demanded Barabbas, and the multitudes followed suit.
Following in Their Footsteps
“At the time of the first advent of Christ to our world, the men who composed the Sanhedrin exercised their authority in controlling men according to their will,” and the people blindly accepted their dominion. Testimonies to Ministers, 301. In their acceptance of human authority they rejected God’s. And though the true church of Israel never fell, the human machinery that the people thought was the church did.
“The sin of ancient Israel was in disregarding the express will of God and following their own way according to the leadings of unsanctified hearts. Modern Israel are fast following in their footsteps and the displeasure of the Lord is as surely resting upon them.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 94.
“The religion of many among us will be the religion of apostate Israel, because they love their own way, and forsake the way of the Lord . . . I know that a work must be done for the people, or many will not be prepared to receive the light of the angel sent down from heaven to lighten the whole earth with His glory.” Testimonies to Ministers, 468–469.
When the earth was lightened with the glory of the angels at Jesus’ first coming, few were ready to receive it—only the humblest were lightened by their glory. Just so, another angel is to lighten the earth before Jesus’ Second Coming. Again, only the humblest will receive His glory. The church, purified, is going through. But not everything that purports to be the church today is going to triumph with it. Only the pure and holy are going to triumph. Nothing that in any way bespeaks corruption or political maneuvering will survive.
“The Lord Jesus will always have a chosen people to serve Him. When the Jewish people rejected Christ, the Prince of life, He took from them the kingdom of God and gave it unto the Gentiles. God will continue to work on this principle with every branch of His work. When a church proves unfaithful to the work of the Lord, whatever their position may be, however high and sacred their calling, the Lord can no longer work with them. Others are then chosen to bear important responsibilities.” The Upward Look, 131.
“Let a church become proud and boastful, not depending on God, not exalting His power, and that church will surely be left by the Lord, to be brought down to the ground.” Testimonies, vol. 8, 127.
Throughout the land it is Christmas time again. Though the origins of Christmas preceded the Christian Era, let us review the meaning of the Bethlehem scene. While all eyes were fastened upon Jerusalem for the official birth announcement of their Saviour and King, a newborn babe lay sleeping on beaten-down straw, under strips of linen, in a Bethlehem barn. While the church went on with its forms and ceremonies and Sabbath rituals, the lowly shepherds were bowing beside His cradle. They were the true theologians of Israel, but none would accept their inspired announcement. There in that cradle of Bethlehem lay the government of Israel. The prosperity of a nation, a church, a people, lay huddled beside Him. Though many rejected Him, God’s true church accepted Him. That church still lives!