February 21, 2015

Spices, Gnats and Camels

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their hypocrisy of strictly obeying the minor aspects of the law, while completing ignoring the more significant parts, and failing to understand its true purpose. Jesus states, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24 ESV).

The Law of Moses commanded that a tithe, or ten percent of all goods, produce, flocks and cattle, be given to the Lord to sustain the Priests, Levites and the poor (see Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18:21-28) [1]. The Pharisees, however, in their desire to be overly zealous in their obedience, seemed to take this law to an extreme by paying a tithe on even the smallest of personal belongings, that of spices.

The spices mint, dill, and cumin as mentioned by Jesus
The tithe was designed to help Israel look outwards by giving back to God, and giving to those who were in need. However, when you are more concerned about counting every grain, seed and spice, you will be wasting your time and efforts on something that really does not bless the lives of others. Jesus did not condemn them for paying tithing, he condemned them instead for focusing their efforts on pointless aspects, and then forgetting about more important things like 'justice and mercy and faithfulness.'

To further teach his point of focusing on the minute level of obedience, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for their act of straining out gnats and other insects from their wine before drinking, while symbolically eating a camel instead [2]. The Law of Moses prescribed that most insects (besides locust, grasshoppers and crickets) were considered unclean, along with many other animals including pigs, lizards, frogs, and camels, to only name a few [3].

The Pharisees strained out gnats and other insects from wine before drinking
Jesus, in comparing these two unclean animals, gnats and camels, names the smallest and the largest of the unclean animals. In essence, Jesus was teaching that they were so worried about the small things, that they missed the bigger, more important things. It is also possible that Jesus was criticizing them for only obeying those parts of the law that would most likely be noticed, as straining the insects from your drink would be seen by others every time they ate, making their level of obedience very visible to others.

How do we obey the Laws of God? Do we see them just a long list of checkboxes and dos and don’ts? Do we only obey the commandments that others will see? Or do we seek to understand the true purpose of the law by looking to better understand how the law draws us towards God, and towards serving, helping, and loving others.

[1] What Does the Bible Say About the Tithe or Tithing? - Christian Bible Reference
[2] See Pulpit Commentary for Matthew 23:23
[3] Unclean animal - Wikipedia

February 17, 2015

Ash Wednesday - A Time of Preparation

Tomorrow is what most Christians celebrate as Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of Lent, which is a time of reflection, repentance, self-denial, fasting, and preparation for the coming Easter. Many Christians will mark the season of Lent by giving up something in their life that draws them away from the Savior. To commemorate the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday each member of the congregation will come before the priest to have a small cross marked upon their forehead. The ashes are from the burned palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday, and are mixed with a small amount of oil or water. The ashes symbolize the ancient custom of repenting in sackcloth and ashes (see Daniel 9:3), and the sign of the cross foreshadows the crucifixion. These 40 days before Easter (46 days minus the six Sundays) are to call our minds to the 40 days when Jesus fasted in preparation for his own ministry, and our own preparation for the most sacred time of the year.

As I have been preparing for Holy Week this year, I thought of how the Savior prepared his own disciples for his final week of life. In the weeks and months leading up to the crucifixion Jesus prophesied of his impending death on three separate occasions. Each of these prophecies were used to help the disciples prepare for the tragic, yet glorious coming events.

The first prophesy took place six days before the Transfiguration (generally dated from about six months to only a few weeks before Jesus' final week). Just before Jesus uttered the prophecy, he asked his disciples "Whom do men say that I am?" (Mark 8:27). The disciples each told the Savior of whom others said that he was, and Jesus then asked them "But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ” (8:29). Immediately following this confession of faith, Jesus then gave the first of three prophecies: "And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (8:31). One of the powerful lessons of these prophecies is the responses given by the apostles to the Savior. On this first occasion, Peter takes Jesus and rebukes him, after which Jesus censures Peter by calling him Satan and says unto him that he "savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men" (8:33). One can only image the sting that Peter must have felt. Only moments before he had expressed his devotion and belief, only to be given the most harsh rebuke that he had most likely ever received.

A short time after this first prophecy (perhaps only a few weeks later), as they began the trek towards Jerusalem, while still in the Galilee, Jesus spoke the next prophecy. “For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day” (Mark 9:31). The response of the disciples is in stark contrast to the first, in that they “understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him” (9:32). After the stinging rebuke of Peter, it is understandable that none of the disciples would want to respond in any way.

As they continued their travels to Jerusalem, and just before they had reached Jericho (only a short distance from Jerusalem), Jesus uttered the third prophecy saying, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles: And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again” (Mark 10:33-34). The response to this last prophecy by the disciples is marked by utter silence. Not even their inner-most feelings are recorded in the Gospels. Only days later, Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem with shouts of acclimation on what now is called Palm Sunday.

Why then would Jesus make these three prophecies to his disciples in the weeks before his crucifixion? It seems to me that he wanted to prepare them not only for the tragic events of Holy Week, but to teach them of who he truly was. To teach them that he would not be the Messiah that they thought he was, a political leader who would free them from the chains of Roman control, but instead a suffering Messiah who would free them from the greater chains of sin and death. Each of these three responses of the disciples teaches us of how the disciples truly saw Jesus. Likewise, we too should ask ourselves the same question: “But whom say ye that I am?”

During this Lenten season, perhaps the most important thing we can give up is the misconceptions we hold of who we think Jesus is. Let us see him as he is, and fully accept his sacrifice on our behalf. When faced with the awful cross, let us accept his death, and not work to impede the power of the atonement in our lives. Instead let us meekly, and humbly accept the Savior for who he is, the true Messiah who came to suffer, die and rise again for our sakes!

February 14, 2015

Phylacteries and Tassels

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their desire to obey the law only to be seen of men, rather than truly obeying God’s law for the purpose of serving others and becoming better people. Jesus says, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (Matthew 23:5 ESV).

The phylacteries refer to the command of the Lord given to Moses when he said, “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 11:18 ESV).

Modern-day tefillin (black) compared with ancient tefillin from Qumran
A phylactery, or tefillin in Hebrew, “is one of two leather boxes bound by a leather strap to the left hand and to the forehead during prayer and containing four scriptural passages (Exodus 13:1-10; 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21).” [1]  Each of these four passages commands Israel to bind the law to their heart and mind, symbolizing that the law should not just be route actions, but instead part of our very soul.

The head tefillin has four small compartments, each containing a scroll with one of the four passages of scripture mentioned, and is bound to the head to symbolize that the law of God is always on the forefront of our minds. “In the scriptures ... the forehead represents what a person’s thoughts dwell on and therefore what he loves or desires. ... For the same reason, the Mosaic high priest wore an engraved gold signet on his forehead that read ‘Holiness to the Lord’ (see Exodus 28:36-38). This was a reminder that his thoughts should always be holy, with the result that his actions would follow suit.” [2]

Modern-day tefillin showing the scroll compartments (head-left, arm-right)
The arm tefillin contains only one long scroll, with the four scriptural passages written one after another, and is bound so as to be near, or pointed towards, the heart, symbolizing that we do not just know the words of the law, but that the law has been revealed to our spirits through our heart. [3]   Modern arm tefillin are bound around the arm seven times, and also around the hand and middle finger, representing that the law is to proceed from our hearts, to our arms, down to our hands, becoming our actions in all that we do.

The fringes or ‘borders of their garments’ or tzitzit in Hebrew, refers to blue tassels tied to the four corners of their garments and were meant to be a constant reminder of God’s commandments. The Lord said unto Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, ... that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord” (Numbers 15:38-39).

It is significant to note that in condemning the Pharisees for their tefillin and tzitzit, the Lord does NOT condemn them for wearing them, or for even having larger tefillin or longer tzitzit than others! The reason he condemns the Pharisees is because they wear these “to be seen of men” (see Matthew 23:5)

Replica of a Dead Sea Scrolls tefillin compared to an ancient coin
I think this teaches us several valuable lessons. First, be slow to judge on things of outward appearance. If someone seems to be a certain way because of their clothing, the circumstances of their birth, upbringing, size of home, status of life, or whatever it may be, remember that even Jesus only judged men for what was in their hearts, not for their outer appearances.

Second, on a more personal level, we must be careful about the reasons we obey the laws of God, especially the more outward and noticeable laws, such as church attendance, honoring the Sabbath, or dress and grooming standards. Do we obey the laws of the Lord only so that others can see how good we are, or do we obey them because we truly have God’s law bound to our heart and mind?

I can’t help but wonder if God specifically gave us some of these more “outward” laws so that we can prove to Him that the law is actually more inward. To prove that the law is deeply rooted into our souls, and that we show our religion not just by what we wear or by how we look, but by how we love, serve and care about others. For this is the true purpose behind the law.

[1] Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament, page 48
[2] The Lost Language of Symbolism, page 39 (see Forehead)
[3] The Lost Language of Symbolism, page 45-47 (see Head and Heart)

February 7, 2015

Tzitzit and the Healed Woman

In the synoptic gospels, we read of the story of Jesus healing the woman who had an issue of blood. The woman had tried unsuccessfully for 12 long years to be healed by numerous physicians (see Luke 8:43). According to the Law of Moses, because she constantly was bleeding, she was considered unclean, and thus should not touch anyone else, as they would also become unclean.

Matthew records that the woman, upon finding Jesus in a crowd of people “came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well.” (Matthew 9:20-22 ESV).

We also learn of other similar accounts when the sick and afflicted were healed by touching Jesus’ garments. In Mark we read, “And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.” (Mark 6:56 ESV).

Blue tzitzit attached to the tallit katan
Most scholars agree that the “hem” or “fringe” of his garment refers to the tzitzit or tassels worn by observant Jews. The tzitzit are “specially knotted ritual fringes ... attached to the four corners of the tallit ([or] prayer shawl) and tallit katan ([or] everyday undergarment)”[1].  The four fringes were designed to help Israel remember their covenants with God.

In the book of Numbers, the Lord said unto Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue: And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them” (Numbers 15:38-41).

Blue and white tzitzit (or fringes) attached to the tallit katan 
This specific color of blue is mentioned 49 times in the Old Testament [2]  and was associated with the same blue colored thread and cloth of the high priest garments, the tabernacle, and of nobility (see Esther 8:15). Most Jews at the time of Jesus only had enough money to buy clothing of simple colors, such as grey, brown, or off-white, so these blue threads would stand out in contrast with the rest of their clothing. A modern Jew commented on the significance of this color blue by saying that the ancient Jew would remember, “’I am not a peasant farmer,’ and no matter what his station in life, he would realize, and he would hold his head up high and remember, ‘I am a priest, I am a king, I am a prince’” [3].

Because the Bible is not clear on how to make the specific color of blue, many modern Jews will only wear white tzitzit attached to their clothing and prayer shawl. In addition, the modern tzitzit is tied in a specific way to create 613 knots, symbolizing the 613 commandments in the Torah, a constant reminder to always remember the commandments of God [4].

Why the woman decided to touch this specific part of Jesus’ garments is unknown. Was it simply because it was easily accessible to her touch, being low on his robe, or was it because she possibly knew that there is power in remembrance, power in the commandments, and power in obeying them. Perhaps she thought that of all places to touch on his clothing, these tassels, with their priestly blue threads, would be the closest thing to touching heaven.

[1] Tallit - Wikipedia
[2] Tekhelet - Wikipedia
[3] The Mystery Of Tekhelet - Part I of III - YouTube
[4] Tzitzit - Wikipedia

January 31, 2015

Living Waters and the Woman at the Well

In ancient times, living water played a significant role in Jewish religion and culture. As modern westerns, we often oversimplify “living water” to merely mean that water is life sustaining. Yet, if you were to ask an ancient or even modern Jew to define “living water” they all would say the same thing, it is water from a natural source, such as from a spring, rainwater, or a moving stream [1].  In other words, “living water” is not stagnant it must be moving.

They also would have known that “living water” is specifically used for purification purposes in a mikvah for someone that has become defiled (such as from touching a dead body). A mikvah was also used for all new converts to Judaism, and used prior to entering the Temple in Jerusalem. Many mikvahs have been discovered around the perimeter of the temple mount, and would have been used by Jesus and all Jews prior to entering the temple.

Mikvah diagram showing "living water" being added to normal water
A mikvah was created by filling a reservoir with water, and then adding “living water” from rainwater, a spring, or a river, to the other water, making all of the water “living.” The person desiring to become clean would then enter the mikvah, completely immersing themselves under the water, and then exit from the font becoming clean. “Often there was a wall separating the clean side from the unclean side” [2].

In Jeremiah, we find a reference to this “living water” and how Israel had rejected the true source of its purify power. “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Thus, the Lord himself declares in the Old Testament that he is the “fountain” of these living waters that purify and bring life to all.

Woman at the well by Anton Dorph 
It is significant then that during his mortal ministry the Lord proclaimed to the Samaritan woman at the well that he can give living water, for only Jehovah could do this. “Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water” (John 4:10).

Assuming this woman understood what living waters were (as the Samaritans still had many of the truths of the Law of Moses and were practicing them during the time of Christ); she must have understood this to be a messianic declaration. It does seem that the woman upon hearing this statement is confused and asks the Savior “Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?” (4:11). The Lord then teaches how those who drink of this well dug by Jacob, the great patriarch, will thirst again, but he (Jesus Christ) will give water that will provide a “well of water springing up into everlasting life” (4:14).

Therefore, when Jesus says to the woman at the well that he can produce “living water,” he in essence is saying that he can produce clean natural water used for purification purposes. Simply stated, it is he, Jesus Christ, who is the source for true purification. Jesus, seeking to be clearly understood, and sensing that she may not fully understand that he is the Messiah, simply states “I that speak unto thee am he” (4:26). In other words, he says I AM he, the great I AM. [3]

[1] The Old Testament Ritual Immersion
[2] Mikvah, Ritual Baths
[3] See footnote 26a in LDS Scriptures which reads: "The term I Am used here in the Greek is identical with the Septuagint usage in Ex. 3:14 which identifies Jehovah."

January 30, 2015

Engraving the Breastplate Stones

Here is another update of my progress on the clothing of the high priest. I now have engraved all of the stones for breastplate, and have engraved one of the shoulder stones. One left, and then I need to mount them to the fabric and I will be done!

Some of the engraved stones of the high priest breastplate
More of the unattached engraved stones
The stones are first engraved, then embossed with gold paint
Me engraving one of the shoulder stones for the high priest clothing
Adding the gold paint to the engraved names six tribes of Israel
The finished right shoulder stone with six of the twelve tribes

December 19, 2014

The True Nativity Story: Swaddling Clothes

When we think of swaddling clothes, as mentioned in the story of Luke 2, we generally think of white blankets wrapped around the infant baby Jesus. We see these simple bands of cloth as a sign of humility and poverty. However, it is probable that our image of these strips of cloth is actually very wrong.

First, it will be helpful to understand what we do know from the scriptures about swaddling. In Ezekiel 16:4 we learn of the practice of swaddling when the Lord compares Israel to an illegitimate child who has not been properly cared for or swaddled because they had rejected the Lord. It reads, “And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all.” From this we learn that washing, salting and swaddling was actually a sign of being properly cared for.

We can safely assume that Jesus at his birth would also have been washed and salted. In ancient Jewish culture, salt was a sign of a covenant and was used during sacrifices at the temple. Being salted at birth was a sign or symbol that Jesus was not only part of the covenant, but was literally the reason for the covenant.

From other ancient traditions about swaddling we also learn that swaddling was done with specific bands that were embroidered by the bride during the year between betrothal and the marriage feast. The cloth would have been around five to six yards long and four to five inches wide and would be embroidered with signs of the family tribe. Because Joseph was of the tribe of David through Judah, the swaddling bands of Jesus may have included depictions of the lion of Judah or of the stem of Jesse.

Swaddling bands with a lion of Judah
According to some scholars these bands were then used during the marriage feast, being wrapped around the hands of the bride and groom symbolizing the tying together, or unification of the two through the swaddling bands. These same bands would then be used to wrap their child at birth, perhaps symbolizing that the child is wrapped and in essence protected by the very same covenants that wrapped the newlywed couple on their wedding night.

Swaddling bands wrapped around the hands for the marriage ceremony
The fact that Jesus was wrapped, more than anything, was a sign that he was not an illegitimate child of God, but instead had not only been claimed by God the Father, but by Joseph, who in essence was adopting Jesus into his royal lineage of David.

How profound is the fact that Jesus, the very creator and giver of the Gospel covenant, was washed, salted, and wrapped to symbolize the very covenant He, as Jehovah, had given to the ancient prophets of old.

Other resources:
Swaddling Bands from Savior of the World Production notes
Why did Mary swaddle her baby by Hearken Institute
Little Lamb painting by Jenedy Page

December 13, 2014

The Birth of John the Baptist

The story of the birth of John the Baptist begins with the visit of Marry to Elizabeth while they are both pregnant (see Luke 1:39-80). Elizabeth immediately recognizes that Mary will be the mother of the Savior, of the Messiah.

Mary then praises the Lord for this wonderful blessing that she will have. This prayer is known today by the title of the Magnificat (the first word in the Latin). It is interesting that the blessing or praise that Mary recites is very similar to the praise that Hannah recites after her son Samuel is born. If you will remember, Hannah was barren and unable to have children. When she came to the Tabernacle to pray unto the Lord, she was promised that she would be able to have a child. Once her son Samuel was born, she came again to the Tabernacle and praised God. The prayer that she offers is very similar to that of Mary's. Notice that she begins with almost the exact same phrasing as does Mary. “And Hannah prayed and said, My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation” (1 Samuel 2:1) Mary proclaims, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:46-47)

Mary stays with Elizabeth for about three months. However, for some reason she leaves before the birth of John the Baptist (see Luke 2:55-56). John is then born, circumcised, and on the eighth day is named. The family all gathers around and rejoices, which interestingly enough is unlike the story of Mary who will have no family or friends around her. In fact, the only people that will gather around her are complete strangers. As the family declares that the name should be Zacharias, the name of his father, Zacharias immediately asks for writing tablet. This tablet most likely was a wax tablet that you would impress or engrave with a stylist. The first thing that comes out of his mouth is a pronouncing of a blessing; a blessing not only on his own child but a blessing on all of Israel.

Recreated wax tablet, similar to what Zacharias may have used
It is interesting that Zacharias now has the chance to pronounce the blessing that he never was able to pronounce on the day he saw the angel Gabriel. A blessing that truly will bless all people because through his son, John the Baptist, the era of the Messiah will be ushered in. And as Jesus proclaimed, John truly was the greatest prophet ever to live.

December 11, 2014

The Story of Joseph

Joseph is one of my favorite characters of the nativity story. I think it's because he not only shows an incredible amount of obedience to the Lord, but more importantly, he shows a great level of kindness and forgiveness to those around him.

Joseph was a carpenter or craftsman most likely of stone, not of wood as is often depicted in art work. According to Matthew, Joseph actually lived in Bethlehem, not in Nazareth as the Lukan account records. According to Jewish custom we also know that Joseph was most likely quite young. In fact, he was probably only about seventeen to twenty years old when he was engaged to Mary. We also know that Joseph knew the law and the scriptures, and more importantly, he not only knew how to obey them, but he knew how to use the law to bless the lives of those around him.

To better understand the story of Joseph it will help to have a historical setting for the marriage process during the time of Christ. There were three parts of the Jewish marriage: first, there was the betrothal, then there was a waiting period, and then there was the actual wedding feast.

During the betrothal, the groom and the bride would actually exchanged wedding vows, very similar to what we would have in a modern day wedding. During this time, they were literally considered man and wife. During the next phase, the waiting period, the groom would prepare a home, and the family would prepare for the enormous wedding feast that would occur. The third phase was the actual wedding feast. On this night, the groom would go to the bride's home, followed by a huge procession of lights and torches and lamps. There he would take his bride back to his home, or to his parent’s home, and the feast would begin! The feast would be huge and could last up to seven days long, which would help you understand why they needed a year to prepare. At the end of the night, the bride and the groom would consummate their marriage. However, up to this point they were still were considered husband and wife. So if the wife at any point during the betrothal process was found to be pregnant, according to the law, the husband had to divorce her.

Now naturally there are two ways for a woman to become pregnant. First, she would break her vows that she had made by committing adultery, and second she would be raped, which would mean she would still be innocent.

If the husband found out that his bride was pregnant he had two options. He first could bring her to court, where there would be witnesses and a judge who would try to determine whether she was guilty or not of committing adultery, and second the groom could divorce his bride privately. Now this does not mean that it would be private in the fact that nobody would know about it, everybody would still know about it! Nazareth was a very small town and everybody would know about what was going on. By divorcing Mary privately, Joseph not only saved Mary from humiliation (by not having to be brought before a public court), but more importantly he saved her life because of the fact that accusations were never brought against her, meaning that nobody could accuse her of being guilty of committing adultery (the penalty being death).

As we study the life of Joseph, we learn several valuable things about who he was and about his character. First, we learn that even though it was an arranged marriage, Joseph really loved Mary. The fact the he decided to divorce her privately shows that he cared more about Mary then about being vindicated for something that had been done wrong to him.

Second, everybody knew the story Joseph and Mary. Everybody knew what had happened, or at least what the townspeople would accuse them of. By taking Mary as his wife, Joseph shows that he was willing to do whatever it took and to deal with whatever would come in the future because he knew what the Lord had commanded and he loved Mary.

Third, it shows how much he cared for Jesus Christ. The fact that he actually names Jesus as the Matthew account records (see Matthew 2:25), shows that he not only was willing to take Mary in, but he was actually taking Jesus in as his own adopted son (in essence he was taking in an illegitimate child). By naming Jesus, Joseph literally is legally adopting him into his own line, which is the reason that Jesus Christ can be called the son of David, just as Joseph was the son of David.

Last, we learn that Joseph immediately acted. In the scriptures, it reads “Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife” (Matthew 1:24). In other words, Joseph was quick to act and did exactly as the angel told him the very next day. From this, it would seem that there was no wedding feast that actually occurred, dashing all the hopes and dreams that Mary and Joseph may have had. The huge feast, the lights, the torches, the music all would have been cancelled and forgone because of the fact that Jesus would be born to Mary. And yet this does not discourage Joseph to the least degree. He knows what is right and he acts.

It is often said that Mary was chosen by the Lord because of her faithfulness and her devotion to the Lord, which is absolutely true, and I would say it is just as true that the Lord chose Joseph to be the adopted father of the Savior because he knew and understood the character of Joseph.

December 7, 2014

The Annunciations

Luke begins his Nativity narrative with the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary and Zacharias. It seems to be very clear that Luke was purposefully trying to place these two stories next to each other so you could see a difference between not only these two individuals, Mary and Zacharias, but also between these stories, both the birth of John the Baptist, and the birth of Jesus Christ. Though John's birth is miraculous, he is born of natural means, while Jesus’ birth is unnatural and impossible (though with God, nothing is impossible).

The story begins by telling of the angel who comes to both Mary and Zacharias and telling of the foretold child (see Luke 1:11 and 1:28). Both accounts mention the circumcising and naming of the child (see Luke 1:59 and 2:21). Both accounts tell of family, friends, and others who are amazed at the events of the birth of these two individuals (see Luke 1:58 and 2:18). It also speaks that both children "grew and waxed strong in the spirit" (see Luke 1:80 and 2:40). However, there is one difference here, it mentions that Jesus was "filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him." Now this is not to mean that John the Baptist did not have the grace of God or wisdom, but it again shows that Luke is trying to contrast a prophet, who is great, with the Messiah, the Son of God.

Interestingly enough, the story that Luke begins with, begins in the temple. Of the six stories in Luke 1 and 2, half of them happen in the temple, showing the emphasis that Luke puts upon the temple within his writings (both the gospel of Luke and Acts).

The first annunciation by Gabriel comes to Zacharias. Zacharias was a descendant of Aaron, and of the course of Abia. During the reign of King David there were so many priests, so many descendants of Aaron that King David decided to divide them up into twenty-four courses, so Abia was one of these twenty-four courses. Each of these courses throughout the year would serve one week twice throughout the year, meaning that Zacharias would only have the chance to be in the temple and actually serve for two weeks during the entire year.

Again, because there were so many priests, each of the specific assignments were drawn by lot. The greatest assignment was to burn the incense before the veil of the temple. This incense was significant because it represented the prayers of the righteous ascending to heaven before the veil of the temple, and it was the closest place that Zacharias would ever come to the Holy of Holies. It is significant that one of the spices that was used within the incense is actually frankincense, thus tying the gift given to Christ from the wise men to the temple ritual.

Priests burning incense on the altar (image from Temple Institute)
Once the priest had entered in the temple on that morning and had burned the incense, he then would exit the temple and pronounce a blessing on the people. Of course, Zacharias would never be able to pronounce this blessing because he had been made unable to speak by the angel Gabriel.

Again, it seems that one of the things that Luke is trying to do is put these two stories right next to each other, purposefully trying to show us and teach us how we should act when we receive inspiration or a revelation from God. The angel Gabriel appears to both Mary and Zacharias (see Luke 1:11 and 1:28). Both are told to fear not, and that they would be blessed with a child (see Luke 1:13 and 1:30-31). Both Zacharias and Mary ask for a sign or for understanding (see Luke 1:18 and 1:34). The angel then gives both of them a sign; in the case of Zacharias he is made dumb and possibly even deaf (see Luke 1:20), and Mary is given the sign that she will see Elizabeth with child even though Elizabeth had been claimed to be barren (see Luke 1:36).

So what is the difference? How is it that one is cursed and one is blessed? One of the differences seems to be in one simple word. In Zacharias’s account, it reads, “and Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years” (Luke 1:18). Yet, Mary says, “then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). Zacharias is seeking for a sign to know if the angel is really speaking of the truth, while Mary believes, yet is only asking how it will actually happen.

One of the other things that differentiate this story is how Mary also responds: “and Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). Mary not only believed, and was only asking for clarification of how it would happen, but she immediately said “I will do as you would have me do.” You have to realize the consequences of this decision. She would be mocked and scorned for years possibly her whole life; people thinking that she had committed adultery when she really was innocent. And yet she humbly and quickly accepted the will of God. This is a powerful testimony up who Mary was. It is no wonder of why God choose Mary to be the mother of His own Son!