Once upon a time on Mount Olympus
Many of our best loved fairy tales begin with: “Once upon a time…” and when the ancient Greeks told stories about their gods and such but they never gave a historical context. The Bible’s nothing like that! Jeremiah 1:1 tells us that the word of the Lord came to a young man called Jeremiah and it even tells us when it came: “in the days of King Josiah.” Just so we know who he’s talking about the writer tells us which King Josiah he has in mind—he’s the son of Amon of Judah! And to be even more specific he says it came to Jeremiah in the “13th year” of Josiah’s reign. And that’s not all! The writer goes on to give us names and dates of other kings and other events.
The word of the Lord in texts like these and in times like these is no vague or generalised moral “truth” or “body of timeless principles” that envelop humanity like a cloud. Prophets like Jeremiah said that God, at a specific time on the calendar ripped open the curtain of history and spoke to them about specific issues in a concrete fashion, claiming current sovereignty over the earth and all the nations. Maybe the Bible’s wrong in making claims like that but right or wrong it makes them and it doesn’t hide behind “once upon a time” or “in the days of” and then give the name of some mythical character or imaginary place! No, it names names and links it all to specific events!
“Yes, yes, but this was so long ago and so many of these names can’t be documented,” some critics tell us. There’s some truth in this but the concrete claims are not to be denied simply because we lack objective confirmation of some historical figures.
Luke loads the opening chapters of his first book with specific names and dates. Listen to this from Luke 3:1-2: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanius ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas the word of God came to John son of Zachariah in the wilderness.” We have no trouble documenting these names and places and times but we know that the problem in our believing the astonishing claim of a text like that is not simply about its historical setting. The sad truth is that, in the main, there’s no will to believe; but whether we commit in faith to God or not he has spoken a redemptive word to the human family that has come to its fullness in and as Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, born in the days of Augustus, crucified by Pontius Pilate at the instigation of Caiaphas and resurrected to life and glory during the reign of Tiberius and was seen by men and women who gave their lives in service to “Jesus” as the risen and coming Lord.
Christmas isn’t just a time when humans engage in lovely and sentimental wishing. It’s the astonishing claim that God has taken note of our awful sinfulness and instead of obliterating us in a fit of divine revenge he came in and as Jesus and offers us his life in exchange for our death.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, the abidingword.com