Little Known Christmas Fun Facts / Spiritual Meditations

We’ve heard the Christmas story so many times that we can’t imagine there’s anything new to be added.  But my friend, Dr. Frank Leeds, has spent a lifetime doing Bible research and he has come up with some great facts and points of interest with which you can amaze your friends and relatives during the holidays. If they have heard of Jesus, they have probably heard of the “Manger Scene” and may have some ideas about who was there and what the events were that surrounded this cosmic event for Christians.

Setting the Scene

Since the beginning of time, ‘birth’ has taken place in fields, in tents, at home and in probably every conceivable location. The story of Jesus’ birth is reported to be in a humble place;  a lowly stable. In attendance were various characters. In addition to Mary the mother, there was Joseph the father and some unnamed persons. There were shepherds, and some wise men, referred to as “Magi” from the East. Who were they and why were they there?

Dr. Leeds writes:

What I often thought was obvious, turns out to be merely a ‘mind-set’ that I somehow either assumed, or perhaps was taught, or perhaps my mind just connected dots that should never have been connected. The Reformer John Calvin wrote about “total depravity”, explaining that none of us have minds that will ever understand it all, interpret all clearly, and have emotions that are in tune to the workings of the universe. So, I want to take a fresh look at Shepherds, at Magi, and the gifts [or gift] that they brought to the manger.

The Back Story about the Shepherds

What do you know about them? OK, they take care of sheep. But I assumed that being a shepherd was a dirty smelly job that was given to the youngest son in the family because sheep are a stupid animal and it does not take too much brain power to take care of them. Maybe I thought the youngest son filled this role because David was both the youngest son and the family shepherd before he was chosen to become King.

But imagine for a moment that you have sheep. The more sheep you have, the richer you are. Your wealth is in your sheep. Who would you choose to protect your family resources? If you operated a small business, I bet your shepherd would be a family member rather than a hired employee. Why? You would want someone who is as interested in the business as you are—for your family. Many times, families did not have a son to take care of the sheep and so they would hire ‘professional shepherds’.

Professionals are usually good at what they do, but if a bear is attacking a sheep, the shepherding owner, or family member would go after the bear. The professional would be more apt to say “I am not going to risk my life for $10.00 an hour. Let the bear have that one.” There is an understandable difference between a family owner and the professional. One is doing the job for the money, the other is doing it because the sheep are his.

The good shepherd is in ‘harmony’ with the job he is doing. He wants what is the very best for the sheep, because they are his sheep. That is why Jesus is described as “The Good Shepherd”.

Like all professionals, shepherds had varying skill levels. The very best worked for The Temple in Jerusalem which owned all the sheep given to them at Passover.  Their sheep were the first-born, spotless and without blemish; show dog quality sheep. These sheep were Holy-Sheep meaning they were set apart for a particular purpose in the temple.

The shepherds not only watched these sheep so that the large animals would not eat them but protected them from the smallest of animals that could get into their wool. No flies were allowed on these sheep. They were even wrapped in blanket material to protect them. Was it a ‘wool’ blanket?—I do not know.

The shepherds that took care of these sheep worked around the clock in teams. They even had a tall tower from which to watch over the large surroundings. The tower was called Migdal Eder. In non-Temple pastures the shepherd would corral the sheep at night and sleep at the gate of the coral to protect them. Not so with these sheep. There were different shepherds at different times of the day, so the shepherds of these sheep were never asleep at night. There were always shepherds on guard.

If you were asked to guess, just make a guess. Where do you think the Temple Sheep were kept? They could not do their grazing on the stone roads of Jerusalem. They went to the nearby grazing fields just south of Jerusalem. They were kept in the fields of Bethlehem!

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  (Luke 2:8)

As a side-note: Bethlehem is a combination of Hebrew words. “Beth” means “house”. “Le” means “of”. “Hem” means “bread”. Bethlehem means “The House of Bread”. The Messiah is The Bread of Life. It’s worth noting the connection.

The Back Story about the Wise Men and Their Gift(s)

Now, who were these unnamed fellows and where are they from? And, more importantly, why did they come? In truth, we do not know who they were nor where they were from. We do know, they came from the East, literally “from the direction of the rising sun”. They are referred to as Magi. For this reason, some scholars believe they were from Persia, which is present day Iran, where the term “Magi” is used.

However, some of the early Church Fathers, Chrysotom [circa 349-407, Archbishop of Constantinople] in particular, maintained they were from Yemen. What most people do not realize about Yemen, is that in years past, they had several Jewish Kings. It is believed that the Magi came from Yemen because they knew that the coming Messiah would be revealed via a different star in the sky. Aware of Jewish tradition, they were also aware that the gifts or gift that they brought was a part of Hebrew Temple worship….gold, frankincense and myrrh.

If I were to ask you how many wise men were there, you might say three because of the Christmas Hymn “We Three Kings”.  But scriptures never say how many.   It could have been two or it could have been 10 or more. The “Three Kings” assumption is based on their being “Three Gifts”.

Before getting into the three gifts, let me give you an illustration. I would often take Holy Communion to people who were home-bound or in nursing homes who could not get out to go to church. I have a kit for such a purpose. If I were to come to your home to give you Holy Communion, I would be bringing Bread, Wine, and Glasses. If you said I came with three gifts, you would be correct. If you said I came with one gift, a communion kit, you would be correct.

The wise men, or Magi, or Jewish Kings, came with Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. These are all very highly expensive items. Now I do not know anyone who believes that Baby Jesus was one of the richest babies in the middle east because of the extreme wealth that He was given by the Magi. What is translated as gift/gifts, ‘gorbana’ is translated as ‘gifts’ in most English Bibles but as a singular ‘gift’ or ‘offering’ in the Aramaic Bible. (Aramaic was the common language of Jesus and the people in his region.) 

This is what I believe. The wise men or Magi brought one gift. It was a gift of what was used only in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem. It was totally prohibited to ever be used elsewhere.

Here is how it worked. In the Holy of Holies, the High Priest would use a small gold plate and a small gold cup. Into the cup, the priest would pour a little Frankincense oil, and a little Myrrh. They would have included a small amount of spices. Flame was added to the little cup and the frankincense and myrrh would smoke. The rising smoke would let the high priest know that the Holy One was present. Those outside of the Holy of Holies would then smell the sweet fragrance of the burning spice. The sweet smell would also let them know that the Holy One of Israel was present within the Holy of Holies.

Without getting too sidetracked, what is this about ‘smoke’ and ‘fragrance’? Consider yourself for a moment. I could weigh you. I could take your measurements. I could test you mentally. I could test you physically. I could take your vital signs. But I could never objectify your personhood. Why? Your essence is spiritual. Throughout the centuries, the church has called this your ‘mind’, ‘spirit,’ ‘heart’, or ‘soul’. The you that is essentially you and you alone, is spirit. I could never hold it in the palm of my hand.

We are made in God’s image, and the idea behind the smoke is that it could be seen, to the extent that one could see smoke. As with the fragrance, one could know that it was present, but one could not grab hold of it. It was to let the high priest know that the Holy One of Israel was present and invite the high priest to “move his spirit closer” in order to experience the Presence of the Holy One.

The purpose of this in the temple was not to conjure up the presence of the Holy One in order to present your ‘wish list’ but rather to draw yourself closer to the Holy One in worship. Please keep in mind the difference between ‘magic’ and ‘worship’. Magic is the intent to get the Holy One to do what you want. Worship is to get yourself closer to the Holy One to do what the Lord wants. The Pharisees are frequently rebuked for confusing the two. Quoting from Isaiah, Jesus says “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” (Matt 15:8)

So that was the gift, the supreme offering that the Magi gave to the baby Jesus. But wait a second. You thought I said it could only be done in the Holy of Holies, in the presence of God with the smoke and the fragrance of God’s presence.

Exactly !!! That is the whole point!

The Magi knew they were in the presence of the Holy One and did what they did because of that. They did not come to make baby Jesus rich. They came for one reason and one reason only— “We saw his star in the east and we have come to worship him.” {Matt 2:2} Once they had worshipped the LAMB OF GOD, which was going to take away the sin of the world, they picked up their kit with the little gold plate and left. The frankincense and myrrh had been burnt. Their ‘offering’ had been made.

Note: The big trading center for frankincense and myrrh was located in Yemen.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed Dr. Leed’s research results found that as interesting as I did.  Temple sheep, the only flock that would have had shepherds awake at night, were kept around Bethlehem. These are likely the shepherds to whom the angels appeared, who went to see the baby Jesus and who spread the news of what they saw.

Contrary to the common belief created by the song ‘We Three Kings’, the number of Magi is unknown. They brought a gold cup, frankincense and myrrh to make an offering which was only used in the worship of God.  They knew who Jesus was.

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Relevant Scripture

Luke 2 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told

Matthew 2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

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