Christmas Reflections: Did Jesus Ever Celebrate His Birthday?

Source: http://pixgood.com/happy-birthday-jesus-cake.html
Source: http://pixgood.com/happy-birthday-jesus-cake.html

“Did Jesus ever celebrate His birthday?”

I know this is a rather odd question but I beg your indulgence. It’s Christmas Day and I was reminded (again) that Jesus was not born on 25 December; and if one would engage in some clever detective work through the Scriptures, the astute student of the Word would know that it was sometime in September.

Sounds nice and revelatory, impressive even. But then, I can’t help but wonder, “You mean to say that the early church fathers and leaders did not know this at all?” Who did the calculations, who made the assumptions, and who approved 25 December? Oh right, the Bible as we know it today was not compiled yet. But were not the gospels in circulation already? And if Jesus’ birth was really in September, surely oral tradition would have attested to that. What’s more, could not Jesus’ family and relatives provide verification? Would not His disciples know their Master’s birthday, having spent three years with him? Surely, they must have cut at least one birthday cake with Him.

That prompted me to google, “How do Jews celebrate birthdays?” Since Jesus was a Jew, this would be the most natural place to start that I may have an idea of how important birthdays are to Jews and how they are celebrated.

To my surprise, this is what I found on http://www.ritualwell.org…

The Encyclopedia Judaica could not be more blunt: “The celebration of birthdays is unknown in traditional Jewish ritual.”

The tradition also holds that your birth alone is not as significant as the way you live your life. After all, King Solomon is thought to have said, “The day of death is better than the day of one’s birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1).

As a midrash explains, ‘When a person is born, it is not known what he will be like when grown and what his deeds will be whether righteous or wicked, good, or evil. When he dies, however, if he departs with a good name and leaves the world in peace, people should rejoice.” With that in mind, traditional communities are more likely to mark the anniversary of a revered leader’s death than his birth.

I stand guided and corrected (for I am no Jewish scholar) but if this is indeed accurate, then would it not be safe to assume that Jesus never celebrated His birthday in the way we are accustomed to in Western and secular influence? As I have learnt from Dr Michael Brown (askdrbrown.org), we need to see Jesus through Jewish lenses because Jesus was a Jew. We cannot and must not impose our own cultural biases on Him or the Scriptures (which is primarily a Jewish document).

Now, if Jesus did not celebrate His birthday, why do we make such a big hooha over it? Don’t get me wrong! I am thankful that God sent His Son, that Jesus was born (whichever month or day that was). Yet, consistent with Eccl 7:1 and the explanation of the midrash, it is the death of Jesus that is more significant than His birth. For if Jesus had not been obedient until the point of death, His birth – and I write this with utmost reverence and respect – would have meant much less. A wise man, a great teacher, a compassionate friend, a miracle worker He still would have been. But we would still be in our sins in dire need of the perfect Sacrifice and Saviour.

Perhaps that explains why I have been not been feeling very “Christmassy” of late. It could be a sign of age, or I’m just plain tired of all the hype and commercialism of the season. And no, I am not one of those who refuse to celebrate Christmas because it’s the wrong date or a pagan festival disguised in Christian garb. I just don’t think we should go overboard with this Christmas thingy.

But the Cross and death of Jesus Christ is totally different. I have always declared that every believer must have a fresh revelation of the Cross over and over again. Without His death, where would we be? Without His shed blood, our sins would only be covered but not washed away. Without His broken body, there would not have been a new and living way into the presence of God! Paul never wrote about Jesus’ birth but always gloried in His Cross and determined to preach Jesus and Him crucified. Yes, I would gladly mark and celebrate the death of Jesus Christ … more than His birth.

Thanks for reading this little Christmas reflection. For sure, Christmas, with all its traditions and inaccuracies, is here to stay; as will the fat man in the red suit and Christians who still insist on wearing his signature hat (Santa? No Santa?). And yes, I am still open and available to preach at Christmas services and outreaches.

Blessed Christmas!

The Loss of Myles Munroe: How Do You Explain Such A Tragedy?

Dr Myles MunroeEvery once in a while, something happens that triggers a flood of questions. And quite possibly, there are little or no answers to any of these questions.

The tragic plane crash that caused the death of all its nine passengers, amongst which were Myles Munroe, his wife and daughter, is one such happening. I am certain much is being discussed both on- and off-line, and both inside and outside of the church.

How do you explain such a tragedy; and especially one that involves a faithful servant of God?

Please – just for a moment – refrain from spewing standard Christian answers, platitudes, clichés and slogans. I know these all too well and I might have used some of these too in times of simply not knowing what else to say, in hope that it might bring some comfort or encouragement. At the very least, it made me appear spiritual and matured.

The truth is, such tragedies are still rather unfathomable and causes one to grapple with its seeming meaninglessness … and unfairness.

I don’t struggle of the fact that all must one day die and that salvation in Jesus Christ is to be received by His grace while we are still alive. What I struggle with, I guess, is the way one dies. I remember listening to quite a few stories and testimonies of faithful men and women of God who passed into eternity in their sleep peacefully. These quickly evolved into teaching principles and promises that those who walked closely with the Lord will never face a tragic death. As a much younger Christian then, I lapped it all up. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have a peaceful uneventful departure? Note also that although it is not openly stated, the opposite is often implied … that those who do not walk closely with the Lord will encounter death more dramatically. Based on such thinking, we would have to conclude that the apostles, persecuted and martyred with tragic deaths, were all unfaithful and did not have a close walk with God. How absolutely absurd!

Today, having seen and experienced more, I will be very careful how I share such stories. We cannot presume that such “principles” apply across the board. Think about it: One day, the Christian community celebrates the 96th birthday of Billy Graham; and almost immediately after that, we mourn the loss of 60 year old Myles Munroe. How do you explain it? Is one more faithful than the other? Don’t even go there.

I really don’t have any plausible explanation. And any attempt will simply prove feeble and futile. I simply don’t know and it’s very hard to make sense of these tragedies on this side of eternity.

Please do not think that I have lost my faith or hope in God. Not at all. Let it be said that it is because of our faith in God and the hope we have in Him that we can find strength to live with and through such tensions. In the meantime, I will be honest to admit that I don’t have all the answers, and I’d be very careful that I do not unconsciously portray myself as one who thinks I do.

Teach Us To Number Our Days

CVSOM Alumni with Ps Wendy
CVSOM Alumni Cambodia Ministry Team with Pastor Wendy (in the middle of the photograph).

We had just met Pastor Wendy last week in Kampong Speu, just over an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She passionately introduced the school and the work of the ministry to us. Later, we visited the teachers’ dormitory and finally, I had the privilege of praying for her. Yesterday, we were shocked to receive news that she had gone home to be with the Lord! They had found her body in her room, not knowing the cause of death. Last night, I was told that she had been robbed and killed 😦 This morning, the Straits Times carried the following report:

ST Article

I don’t know Pastor Wendy very well. But in the brief time of meeting and knowing her, I could sense that this sister had a heart for the people of Cambodia, especially the children. Over the past ten years, she would make frequent trips to Cambodia – as many as 6 to 8 times a year, to oversee the running of the school, to train and equip the teachers there. No doubt, she (together with her husband, Pastor Paul – whom we had the privilege of meeting too) were faithful to the call of God upon their lives and were obedient to carrying out the mission entrusted to them.

And then suddenly, this dear sister is gone. Not even dying peacefully in her sleep, but robbed and killed?! Once again, there are just no answers to this plight, only more questions. Here was a faithful servant of God, on mission for Jesus. Why did she have to go in such a way? Was it a spiritual attack? Why did the Lord not send angels to protect her? Why could this not have been another one of those miraculous stories of supernatural rescue and encounter? Sadly, I have no answers at all 😦 And my heart goes out to her dear husband who possibly is struggling with even more tears and grief than questions.

This is really too odd for me. On the morning of our departure, Pastor Richard shared about the loss of his wife to cancer a year ago. It was sudden and really fast. They tried everything and prayed in every way. And yet, the Lord took her home. One year later, another faithful servant in Pastor Paul loses his equally faithful wife. How do you make any sense of this? Faithful and obedient men of God, losing their wives, in the course of duty.

Truly, we don’t know when we will be called home. We can claim and proclaim the promises of long life in the Bible but the truth is, there are exceptions. And let’s not be too quick and insensitive to pass any judgment on these that they had sin in their lives or a lack of faith in their walk with God. For sure, the Lord watches over us and protects His servants. But how do you explain the wound on Pastor Wendy’s head and the blood all over her floor? The desperate work of greedy or needy men, perhaps. But why were the missing items later found buried under a tree 200m away? Spiritual? Demonic? Too bizarre, if you ask me.

Maybe I’m getting older but it’s become even clearer to me that life is but a vapor (James 4:14). Each day is precious and we must live it to the fullest in service and devotion to the Lord, and to one another. I don’t know when my time is up, or when – shudder – my wife’s time is up. And yet, how easily we forget the brevity of life, distracted by the many demands and challenges we face each day. How easily we take one another for granted, thinking there is always another opportunity to love, to fellowship, to forgive, to make up, perhaps tomorrow, the day after, some day. The stark truth is, we don’t really know if there will be a tomorrow.

“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

I thank and praise God for faithful servants like Pastor Wendy. Regardless the challenges, and the dangers, she gave of herself to be a blessing to the people of Cambodia. May this seed that has died and fallen to the ground, for the sake of Jesus, bear tremendous fruit in the years to come. Because of Pastor Wendy’s life, and death, I believe Kampong Speu and Cambodia will be won for Jesus. Indeed, her life was lived to the fullest for Jesus. May this impact, remind and inspire me to do the same for my Lord and Master too.

 

A Practical Lesson on Law and Grace

My heart sank when I saw the words “Traffic Police” on the back of the envelope. Just two months ago, I received a traffic summons for a speeding offence. To compound that, it cost me $130 and 4 demerit points 😦 It was a little too soon to receive another one, I thought.

A quick glance at the letter and the words “Speeding Offence” confirmed that it was what I had thought it was. I was caught going at 78km/h on a 60km/h road. Guess it would be another $130 and an additional 4 demerit points. I wasn’t exactly pleased about it but I reminded myself, the law is the law. And since I broke the law, I must face up to the consequences and accept the penalty.

Then, looking at the letter again, I noticed something I didn’t see earlier. It was an odd phrase: “The driver could have been fined $130 and be awarded 4 demerit points.” Could have been? That prompted me to read the entire letter more carefully. That’s when I noticed the subject header: ADVISORY NOTICE OF SPEEDING OFFENCE. And in the final paragraph, it started with “However in this instance, no summons action will be taken against you……This letter serves as an advisory to the driver.” I couldn’t believe my eyes! I broke the law, but I had been let off!

What an object lesson about law and grace!

This incident promptly reminded me of our Christian understanding of law and grace. Like this traffic offence, I am guilty of breaking God’s law and totally deserving of the penalty that comes with that. However, by His grace, I have been let off! There is one huge difference though. God, being just, doesn’t issue advisory notices. Sin must be judged and the penalty of death must be paid by the guilty party. That I might be let off, someone else had to take my place, to pay the penalty. That someone was none other than God’s perfect sacrifice, Jesus! Using the speeding offence analogy, when the guilty driver had to be named, God filled in the name, J-E-S-U-S. Jesus took my place and paid for my offence in full. Not just dollars and demerit points, but death. Yes, Jesus died for me in my place for my sins that I might be forgiven and free. Did I deserve such an act of sacrifice and substitution by Jesus. Not at all. That’s grace!

Wages of Sin
Romans 6:23

Indeed, I am thankful that I didn’t have to pay any penalty for my speeding offence. Being mindful of this will help me drive more responsibly. But I’m even more thankful and appreciative of Jesus settling every debt of transgression for me that I might be in right relationship with God through Him! Being ever mindful of this will enable me to live and walk circumspectly to the glory and honour of Jesus, my Lord and Saviour!

As the campaign slogan goes, “Speed thrills but kills!” May we be reminded also that “Sin thrills but kills!” Only faith in Jesus Christ and His completed work on the cross can bring us the salvation we all need.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Rom 6:23

Even Great Men Die

Yesterday, 5 Oct 2011, the world mourned the loss of a creative genius in Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple. Without doubt, Jobs had made a tremendous impact in the technological world. From the very first Apple computer to the present iPhones and iPads, there was always something different, something revolutionary, something special.

Understandably, the Internet was abuzz with Steve Jobs articles and reports. Facebook could be renamed SteveBook for a while, with posts from Apple fans recounting anything and everything about Jobs and Apple; from old commercials, to commencement speeches, to inspirational quotations.

As I read these updates, I had one question upon my heart … was Steve Jobs saved? Googling this question, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who wondered. Sadly, I found that Jobs was not a Christian when he died. This article from Christian Post reports, “Jobs became a Buddhist after a trip to India in 1974. Two years later, Jobs co-founded Apple and marketed the world’s first personal computer, the Apple II.”

Although I’ve enjoyed Apple products (and still enjoying them), I don’t consider myself an Apple fan. Similarly, whilst I admire Jobs’ foresight and insight, I am not a Jobs fan. As such, you won’t find me posting anything about Jobs or Apple. I am only writing this personal reflection because Jobs’ demise has made it even clearer to me that we will all die one day. Even great men like Jobs cannot prevent their own death. It is indeed admirable that Jobs continued to lead Apple as he battled cancer and sickness. But no technological discovery nor app could have kept him from dying.

Yes, even great men die. That is a certainty, I’m afraid. But are they all saved? No, not if they do not believe in Jesus. Jobs may have made great advances in making technology accessible and attractive to us all. He may have saved his own company and turned it around. He may have made many great decisions; but the most important decision of all, to believe in Jesus, he missed.

I am sure this post might be viewed as offensive to some, especially if you are an Apple fan in this time of your bereavement. Please do not read this wrongly. I love Apple products and I too mourn the loss of a great man, one whom God created in His image, who expressed the gift of God’s creativity beautifully. Yet, more than the loss of would-be Apple offerings without Jobs’ creative imprint, I mourn the loss of Jobs in eternity.

So for now, sure, let’s remember Jobs and what he has given to the world. That’s all we have left of him. And yes, learn from this great man … how to persevere, to be bold, to push the limits and break new ground, to use your God-given talents to the fullest. But also learn from his mistakes, especially the one which caused him an eternal resting place with God through faith in Jesus Christ. For, like all great men, we too will one day die.

Out With The Ten Commandments?

I can understand when a preacher cautions against an over zealousness in the keeping of the Law.  That tantamounts to an attainment of righteousness through works which can eventually end up either in self-righteousness or condemnation.  We are, after all, no longer under the law, but are now under grace (Rom 6:14 – a favourite verse of extreme gracers).  As such, “we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not the oldness of the letter (Rom 7:6)”, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6)”.  I have no problems with this and would readily say a loud “amen”.

BUT for the same preacher to openly declare that when churches teach the Ten Commandments as a pulpit series, they are in effect, killing their congregations across the weeks ……. now, that I’ve got a huge problem with?!?!  It just doesn’t sit well with me at all.  Let me add that in support of his stand that the Law must now be done away with, he convincingly paints a picture that the Law is bad and ugly.  That’s not what the Bible says!  On the contrary, we are told that the Law  is holy, just and good (Rom 7:12).

Yes, the Law does bring death, but that’s because it brings an awareness of sin; and the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23).  Read in context, and with proper understanding, it is not the Law that kills, but sin.  Paul emphasises so clearly in Rom 7:7, “Is the law sin? Certainly not!”.  It is sin, taking advantage of the Law, that deceives me and by it kills me! (Rom 7:11)  Let’s get it straight once and for all … it is sin that is bad and ugly, and sin that kills.  Not the Law!

When Paul says that we have been delivered from the Law, what he means is that we have been delivered from the penalty of the Law.  This penalty or curse is operative when the righteous requirements of the Law are not completely and satisfactorily fulfilled.  Jesus came and died for that very purpose … to redeem us from the curse of the Law (Gal 3:13).

Does it mean I no longer need to keep the Law?  Well, yes, not in the Mosaic sense, on the outward according to the flesh.  But, no, for now, I need to keep another law – the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, according to the Spirit, one that is inward but manifests itself outward through love, for the law is fulfilled in and through love (Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10).

Sounds nice.  But how do I know if my understanding of love is biblically-defined and not Hollywood-influenced or societally-driven?

Simple.  I read the Bible and see God’s righteousness requirements in and through His commandments given to His chosen people … the Law*.  The key difference is that I now have the illumination and guidance of the Holy Spirit to teach and guide me into all this truth.  I don’t strive to keep the Law according to the flesh for I will fail time and time again.  Instead, I strive to live it according to the Spirit allowing Him to change me from the inside out, with the full assurance that when I do mess up (and that happens quite a lot), there is no condemnation in Christ for He has already paid the price for me at Calvary!  Not that I deserve it one bit, but because He has already made that provision … not just for me, but for everyone who would believe in His precious name.  That’s grace!

Let us recognise that the problem is not found in our contentions between law and grace.  Instead, it is found in our constant struggle between walking according to the Spirit and walking according to the flesh (that’s another topic for another article another time).

So, before anyone throws out the Ten Commandments and proceeds to rip out the entire Law from the Bible (since it’s no longer needed and makes for easier carrying to church and back), pause and think for a while.  Be a noble Berean (Acts 17:11); not just receiving the word (any word!) with all readiness, but to also check out the Scriptures for a consistent and an accurate understanding, allowing the Holy Spirit to bring revelation and conviction.

*Think about this … the essence of the Law of Moses and the Law of the Spirit are one and same … they are both from God … holy, just and good!