Two Verses, Twelve Questions

(Posted by Paige)

Here’s a whimsical Bible puzzle for you to bat around. These two verses have recently caught my attention and raised a handful of questions in my mind:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:5-6)

Here are twelve of my many questions. Tackle any that interest you, too!

1. What did the disciples assume about faith?

2. Were they correct in their assumption?

3. What did they assume about Jesus?

4. What did they expect Jesus to accomplish for them?

5. Is Jesus’ response intended as an affirmation or a correction of their request?

6. What does Jesus imply about faith?

7. Why a mulberry tree? Is there any symbolism here?

8. Is Jesus describing something that might literally happen, or is he using poetic hyperbole?

9. If hyperbole, what’s his point?

10. Is this the same message that Jesus intends in Matt. 17:20 (“…if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”)

11. Why is this exchange recorded here in Luke (i.e., in this particular location in the Gospel)? Are the apostles reacting to something, or has Luke collected similar material together?

12. How is this exchange related to what has come before and what will follow?

Bonus question: What would you emphasize if preaching from this passage?

Light on Luke 2

A very common view of what happened in Luke 2 goes something like this: Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem precisely as Mary was giving birth. They searched and searched but could not find hospitality anywhere because it was so crowded. Finally, they find a commercial inn where the inn-keeper (somewhat grudgingly!) gave them a smelly stable because it was all he had left. There are a number of misconceptions about this picture that I would like to correct by summarizing the arguments of Kenneth Bailey’s book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes on this passage.

First of all, we have two translation issues at which we need to look. Firstly, the force of verse 6 is important: “While they were there, the time came for her to give birth” (ESV). Other translations are similar. They came to be registered in the census, not for Mary to give birth. It just so happened that while they were there, the pregnancy ended. Presumably this left Joseph plenty of time to search for adequate accomodations.

Secondly, the translation of verse 7 and the “inn.” There is a word for “commercial inn” in Greek. Luke did not use it here. He used a word which Bailey argues convincingly ought to be translated “guest room.” The guest room would be a normal part of a three-room house, which consisted of a guest room, family room, and, connected by a very short stairway (4 steps), a stable. People of that time kept their animals indoors both for warmth and for protection from theft. But no people would ever be housed in the stable. In other words, Joseph and Mary found a normal house in which to stay. However, the guest room of that house was already full, and so the family with which they stayed made them a part of their family by having them stay in the family room. Nowhere does the text say that Jesus was born in a stable. That is a myth created by centuries of tradition and, unfortunately, many otherwise good hymns. the mangers were actually two or three feet (a la the stairs) higher than the stable, and were troughs cut into the floor of the family room. They were cut low so that the sheep or ox (or any other animal kept there) could eat with relative ease in the middle of the night without stepping in the feed or getting manure into the feed.

And now for some cultural considerations: 1. Joseph was of the family and lineage of David, which was held in high honor. Any descendent of David would be much more likely to receive good  hospitality than bad. 2. Mary was close to giving birth. Women in labor were top priority in the realm of hospitality. Women took care of other women. The idea that Mary would have to give birth in the smelliest part of the house, or worse yet in a commercial inn’s stable is ludicrous, given the standards and importance of hospitality of the first century. 3. Witness the reaction of the shepherds. If the shepherds had come to see Joseph and Mary in a stable, they would certainly have taken them away, saying something like this, “How dare this town give you such a poor reception! We can do better than that!” If the shepherds returned, rejoicing for all they had seen and heard (vs. 20), that would certainly include the level of hospitality that they had seen given to the family. The fact that they returned without taking Mary and Joseph with them indicates that they could not give any better hospitality to the family than what they were already receiving.

Speaking of the shepherds, Bailey reminds us that they were considered very low-class. This fact gives special emphasis to the sign given to them by the angel. Being wrapped in swaddling clothes (like a peasant!), and being placed in a manger (in other words, in a normal person’s house, not a mansion or palace) would give them hope that they could actually see this child and would not be repulsed as being unclean (which they were most of the time, ceremonially speaking). This was a Savior for them. Is He yours as well?

The Time Was Right

Luke 2:1-8
I wonder if you have ever experienced a time in your life when absolutely everything just seemed to click. Everything happened in the right timing. Nothing ever seemed to happen but that it came at the right time. It seemed practically miraculous. That is exactly what we see here in the birth narrative of Jesus here in the Gospel of Luke.

This was a time period characterized by three major factors in world history. The first major factor was Roman peace. The Roman empire at this time ruled the known world. They ruled all the way from Great Britain to India, and everyone in-between. The only major powers at that time which were not under Roman rule were China and Japan, as well as the peoples living in what is now known as North and South America. Roman peace, or pax Romana in Latin, was quite remarkable. When Romans conquered people, they allowed the conquered peoples to practice whatever religion they had always practiced, just as long as they added a new god, namely, the Roman emperor. All you had to do was acknowledge lip service to the Roman Emperor as a “god,” and then that people would be left pretty much alone. New religions were not tolerated, since they were deemed to be conducive to rebellion. Now, when the Romans conquered the Jews, there was almost always trouble, since the Jews would not acknowledge the Roman Emperor to be divine. Nevertheless, for the most part, the Romans treated the Jews fairly, and let them practice their own religion. That is the nature of the first major factor.

The second major factor in the world at this time is that of a unified language. Several times in world history, there has been one language that everyone uses for trading. The technical term for such a language is lingua franca. At one time it was Aramaic. When the Greeks conquered everything, it became Greek. When the Romans conquered everyone, they let the Greek language have complete sway. Romans used Latin, of course, for anything official. But the language that almost everyone knew at the time was Greek. Even in Palestine, Greek was the language anyone knew, if they knew more than their own dialect of Hebrew or Arabic. Jesus and all the disciples most likely knew Greek. The entire New Testament is in Greek.

The third major factor in this time period was Roman roads. Romans were famous builders. They built not only great buildings, coliseums, palaces, temples, and public baths, but they also built extremely durable roads. Whatever the Romans built, they built to last, since they thought that their empire was going to last forever. So they used the best materials available to them, as well as the best engineers. The result was a road system that was monitored by the Roman army, and was therefore extremely safe. If you were a Roman citizen at that time, then you were pretty well assured of safe travel just about anywhere in the empire.

These three factors, Roman peace, Greek language, and Roman roads, combined to make it possible that Christianity would spread like wildfire. The news of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection from the dead would be like a spark in a dry forest, where all the trees are connected with fuses! Christianity would take the world by storm. In short, the time was right for Jesus to be born.

It says in Luke 2:1 that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that the world was to be taxed or registered such that they could be taxed. The interesting thing about this decree is that Caesar intended to exercise his rule more forcibly by giving this decree. The irony is that God used this decree to send Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, so that prophecy would be fulfilled. Instead of resulting in what Caesar hoped it would, the actual result, and the only one that mattered for Luke, was that Jesus, the true Emperor of the world, was born. God the Father orchestrates all world events so that God’s purposes will be carried out.

This is an instance of God turning evil into good. God is in the business of doing that. There is nothing that God does better. What Caesar meant for his own self-aggrandizement, God turned into the instrument for bringing His Son into the world for mankind’s salvation. Now, salvation means much, much more than that Jesus is the world’s true Lord. That is true, but that is no good news at all for sinners. In fact, it is bad news for sinners. The good news is that Jesus came to be born in human flesh at all. God could have let us stew in our own sinful juices, as it were. But God sent His Son, to be born of a woman, to be born in our flesh and blood, to experience what we experience, to obey the law perfectly, both in the positive commands of the law, and in the negative judgment given by the law on sin. I think that we often dwell on the fact that Christ’s birth is a thing of joy. We sing “Joy to the World,” for instance. This is vitally true. We should be joyful. However, that is not the whole story. Why did Christ come to earth? It was because of our sin. It involved great humiliation on Jesus’ part. In a sense, our joy must be tempered with the realization that Jesus would not have needed to come to earth, if we had not sinned, and possessed a sinful nature.

So do we worship God for His great mercy? The main application for us today is that we must worship God truly. We must worship God only as God has told us to worship. We must not add anything. We must worship the Triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We must worship Jesus Christ as the world’s true Lord, who came to earth to save sinners from their sin. It is with great gratitude that we must worship God.

We worship a God that knows exactly what the right time is. He knew the right time to send a Savior to the world. He knows the right time to call anyone to Himself. He knows the right time for Jesus to be crucified, and the right for Him to be resurrected from the dead.

It is absolutely shameful that many churches decided not to open their doors on this Sunday for worship. We are commanded by the example of Christ to worship on every Sunday. And what more appropriate day to celebrate Communion than today? Far from closing our doors, we should celebrate Christmas all the more when it falls on Sunday!

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