Posted in theology

Jesus was not born in a stable; more on ‘The Nativity’, art by Gari Melchers

By Elizabeth Prata

I love biblical art, and I’m entranced with a few particular pieces. One I come back to a lot happens at Christmas time, and I love to look at it. I’ve written about it before, here, in December 2015, and here, in December 2017. It is called The Nativity, by Gari Melchers.

 

When preaching about this moment in history, Pastor S. Lewis Johnson emphasized the virgin conception rather than the virgin birth. He preached that the birth was typical, human, bloody, and messy. It was the conception that was immaculate. The art by American painter Gari Melchers depicts a scene more reflective of a birth than most nativity scenes usually do.

Here, we see a deeply concentrating Joseph gazing at his newborn son, perhaps pondering the spiritual implications of this new life that promised to bring new life to one and all. Note his furrowed brow. Mary, exhausted, drooping, leans against her husband sleepily, a recently used washbowl and cloth by her side. Is the glow from the Babe’s head, or the lantern that has been set by Him? The scene depicts exhaustion, wonder, light, and hope.

Julius Garibaldi Melchers (1860-1932) was an American artist. He was one of the leading American proponents of naturalism. He won a 1932 Gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, according to Wikipedia.

As for the setting itself, it is unusual in that it does not show the usual display of a barn or stable, with animals around. Certainly the Wise Men from the East were not present. Historically we know that appeared up to two years later, when Mary and Joseph were living in a house and the babe was a toddler. This is another reason I’ve always liked this painting, above all others. It is more closely historical and accurate than many people know in setting the scene in a house.

It was highly likely, almost certain, that Mary gave birth in a house. Perhaps the house was crowded with other relatives who’d arrived for the census prior to their arrival, so the only spot left was the downstairs entry where the animals were usually kept. Here is information about the likelihood that Jesus was not born in a barn or stable, but in a home, and probably a relative’s domicile. The essay also discusses what is meant by “inn”, and more.

Once More, Jesus was Not Born in a Stable

The mention of a ‘manger’ in Luke’s nativity story, suggesting animals, led mediaeval illustrators to depict the ox and the ass recognising the baby Jesus, so the natural setting was a stable—after all, isn’t that where animals are kept? (Answer: not necessarily!)

The third issue relates to our understanding of (you guessed it) the historical and social context of the story. In the first place, it would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives.

Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15)

Posted in prophecy, Uncategorized

The Nativity

Isaiah 7:10-16
“The Life of Christ: The Virgin Birth”
S. Lewis Johnson

I liked how Pastor S. Lewis Johnson emphasized the virgin conception rather than the virgin birth. He preached, as you will read below in part, that the birth was typical, human, bloody, and messy. It was the conception that was immaculate. The art by American painter Gari Melchers depicts a scene more reflective of a birth than most nativity scenes usually do. Here, we see a deeply concentrating Joseph gazing at his newborn son, perhaps pondering the spiritual implications of this new life that promised to bring new life. Mary, exhausted, drooping, leans against her husband sleepily, recently used washbowl and cloth by her side. Is the glow from the Babe’s head, or the lantern that has been set by Him?  The scene depicts exhaustion, wonder, light, and hope.

Gari Melchers “The Nativity” 1891. Click to enlarge

Here is Pastor Johnson on The Virgin Birth. from is series on the Life of Christ-

Now out of this marriage there was to come the man who was really God, the God-man, our Lord Jesus. But I think you can see the kind of arrangements that would be made between Jacob and Eli concerning the young carpenter and the pious maiden whose name was Mary. Now, of course, the moment that this marriage was arranged by the parents, it was legal. That is, they were married. So Matthew says,  

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, (That is, when the arrangements had been made) before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband…”

Now apparently from the account, this is not stated directly, but apparently from the account, Joseph had learned of the pregnancy of Mary, whether he had been told this by Mary herself, whether he had discovered it and she had kept quiet about it the text does not say. I am inclined to think because of the statement that is made in just a moment, that Joseph was very much in love with Mary and that as a result of his love for her, the fact that she was pregnant caused a great deal of consternation to him. And I think, if I judge these characters correctly, that Mary had told him of the experience. 

But Joseph, like so many of us, when confronted with such a miracle and after all, there never had been anything like this before; the closest thing to it was the supernatural birth of Isaac in the Old Testament, but that was by natural means, and yet supernatural, I’m quite sure I can understand something of the wrestling that took place in the heart of Joseph. I can imagine that after he was told this that he spent many a sleepless night. He wondered perhaps, “Should I really marry this young girl?” That is, “Should our marriage be consummated and should be begin to live together?” If it’s not true, perhaps I should put her away according to the Old Testament law. If it is true, I hesitate to take her to be my wife for the simple reason that if this is of God and the Messiah is to be born of her, it seems almost unholy to begin to live with her. 

Now Joseph apparently was about to reach a decision, which meant that he was going to put her away. I gather that is the force of the text when he says, “And not willing to make her a public example was minded to put her away privily.” That is, he wasn’t going to do it publicly, but he was just going to take the minimum of two witnesses and carry out the divorce according to the Old Testament. So Joseph apparently had made up his mind. 

Now I would say that this is true because in the 20th verse, the tense of the word “while he thought on these things” is a tense that suggests that the action had been reached. That is, that the conclusion had been reached. And so having made up his mind and about ready to carry out something that was contrary to the will of God, the angel spoke to Joseph and said to him in a dream, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” 

Now this, of course, is something that we can never really fathom. We can only adore. Who could ever understand what it means to be born of the Holy Ghost? G. Campbell Morgan used to say, “This is the holy mystery, the touch of God upon the simple life that made it forever sublime.” She was found with child of the Holy Ghost. That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. So in a restless night amid fitful sleep, Joseph had a visitor and the visitor told him in supernatural terms and direct language that this in Mary was of the Holy Ghost. Now what he meant by this was that the Spirit was the source of the vitalizing energy which gave to the embryo in her womb. 

Now I want to say something about the doctrine of the virgin birth at this point that I hope will help to clarify your mind some of the theology of it. Who would ever expect a simple New Testament professor and preacher of the word to transform the doctrine of the virgin birth so that everybody now understands it in a new light? So I’m not having any kind of sense of transforming all of theological thought concerning the virgin birth.

But I do want to say this that the New Testament does not teach the doctrine of a virgin birth, the New Testament teaches the doctrine of a virgin conception, a virgin conception. In other words, our Lord Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost, but he was born naturally, born naturally. 

Now I want you to notice that I’m not denying the so called doctrine of the virgin birth. That would make nonsense of everything that I’ve said up to this point. I just want you to think clearly that it was the operation of the Holy Spirit in the conception that is referred to here, not in the birth. Jesus was born as an ordinary person was born.

Praise the Lord Jesus was conceived directly of the Holy Spirit, absent the sin-nature that taints all of us. What mysteries the LORD had prepared in His mind since eternity began! What tremendous love He has for His people! O, Mary, what favor you had and what strength you showed in submitting to the will of God so graciously-

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”
(Luke 1:46-48).

Praise the LORD for all His ways.

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Further Reading

Challies: How well Do You Know the Nativity Story? A quiz

A Creator in the Manger

Gari Melchers The Nativity