Re-Post: Watching their flocks by night

December 25 has long been the recognized date for western Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Please take note of the wording of the previous sentence: “…recognized date…to celebrate…” I didn’t suggest that it is the actual date of his incarnation, though I’m not opposed to the possible accuracy of such a date. The distinction is important because there seems to be annual discussions surrounding the inaccuracy of the December date, and these discussions typically include two points of proof: The alleged pagan origins of Christmas and the details about the shepherds in Luke’s birth narrative.

So common is the assertion that Christians simply co-opted the date of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice, even among many pastors, that it is almost unthinkable to consider another possibility. As evidence of the pagan origins of the holiday, the date and the use of trees in the traditional celebration of Christmas are generally the main offerings.

The use and decoration of trees in the celebration of Christmas, may, in fact, be evidence of an effort of Christians to redeem some elements of a pagan holiday. However, William J. Tighe suggests that we are only getting part of the story by focusing on the presence of the tree. His research indicates that rather than Christians co-opting a pagan holiday, it was pagans who appropriated a date thought significant by early Christians. He stops short of claiming there was a formal Christian celebration of Christmas on December 25, but he does suggest that it was recognized as a possible date of the birth of Jesus prior to Roman Emperor Aurelian instituting the pagan festival “Birth of the Unconquered Son” on December 25, 274. (You can see Tighe’s article here.)

Clearly, this isn’t incontrovertible evidence that Jesus was born on December 25, but it should cause one to pause before accepting as fact that celebrating Christmas on December 25 is simply following a pagan custom. The second issue is more interesting to me for the symbolism that it offers.

According to the Gospel of Luke (2:8), on the night of Jesus Christ’s birth, in the region of Bethlehem, there were shepherds out in the fields watching over their flocks. In the annual discussions about the actual date of Jesus’ birthday, Luke’s account is frequently offered as proof that clearly eliminates the possibility of a December 25th date for the birth of Jesus. Those who use Luke in this manner typically point to two facts: Location and time. The shepherds were in the fields at night.

It is interesting to me that people offer this as “proof” that Jesus couldn’t have been born in December, as though the weather patterns in and around Bethlehem are as definite as, for example, those in the Arctic Circle. The fact is that the weather in this area is not so definite. No doubt, sometimes December nights might be too cold and wet for shepherds to be in the fields. This year, interestingly enough, might be one of those since snow is in the weather forecast. However, while December is clearly within the period correctly designated as the “rainy, winter season,” it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the weather conditions around Bethlehem will be either rainy or cold. On this ground alone, this is a weak argument against the possibility of a December 25th birth of Jesus.

More interesting to me, though, is what I discovered some years ago as I considered this topic. According to Alfred Edersheim [1], his reading of the Mishnah [2] led him to conclude that the sheep kept around Bethlehem were, in fact, kept in the fields through the winter because they were sheep designated for slaughter at the Temple during Passover.

Consider the symbolic significance of Edersheim’s suggestion: The shepherds standing watch over sheep destined for the Passover sacrifice were suddenly visited by the angel of the Lord who was announcing the birth of the Savior, who John later identified as the lamb of God. Yes, Jesus, the Lamb of God, destined to be sacrificed for the sins of the world at Passover, was born in Bethlehem, where the Passover lambs were traditionally raised.

So, next time someone tells you, “We know that December 25 isn’t the actual date that Jesus was born” you might offer that the evidence may not be so clear. In any case, wish them a merry Christmas and make sure they clearly understand the significance of the fact that God became flesh – that the Lamb of God was born in Bethlehem.

Merry Christmas!

[1] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA. n.d. Book I, pp. 186-187.
[2] The Mishnah is the Jewish oral law, and is now collected in written form.

Since writing this post, I have found some others who have integrated Tighe’s assertions in a good way. See the New Covenant blogspot here.

AC/DC on Father’s Day, A Beautiful Reminder of Grace

On Father’s day we went to Branson for dinner. The restaurant was overwhelmingly loud with the combination of diners talking, dishes clanging, and the multitude of televisions broadcasting sports and music and cooking shows. One thing that stood out above all the others was the music channel. 

The music was a variety, to most of which I said, “I don’t know that one” or “That’s not familiar to me.” At one point, AC/DC’s video Highway to Hell came on the screens. My wife looked at me and said, “You know that one.” Since I had previously shared with my kids my pre-Christ devotion to AC/DC, and how I’m still challenged not to get sucked into their music if I hear it in public, I wasn’t embarrassed by her comment. In fact, it provoked my interest, perhaps in a weird way. As I pulled out my phone, I said, “I saw them at Reunion Arena in the early 80’s.” Then I proceeded to Google “AC/DC Reunion Arena” to see more precisely when I had seen them. Google instantly reminded me that it was February 2, 1982 that I saw AC/DC in concert. I sat on the mezzanine level, stage right, and thought it was the greatest thing ever when Angus Young dropped his shorts and mooned the crowd. What can I say? I was lost.

As I looked over the setlist for that concert and saw “Highway to Hell” (number 11 on the setlist), it suddenly occurred to me that the very next month, Jesus rescued me from the highway to damnation. I’m so thankful for God’s grace and those who patiently shared that with me. I’m thankful for a classmate who had been inviting me to church for a year; for a church youth pastor who didn’t run this lost kid away because of his concert choices; and a preacher who clearly connected the gospel to my heart.  

It’s been 40 years of God’s grace, and it’s only the beginning. “He is no fool who gives up what he can’t keep, to gain what he can’t lose.” 

Proverbs 28:3

A poor man who oppresses the poor

    is a beating rain that leaves no food.

Proverbs 28:3 ESV

The visual language of “a beating rain that leaves no food” is intended to convey to the reader a sense of destruction or harm and uncertainty. It is used to arrest the senses of the reader. To get a reaction. But what is it that is this beating rain? Answer: “A poor person who oppresses the poor.”

How can a poor person oppress another poor person? This question is worthy of consideration. The most obvious answer is by stealing from a poor person. But, there are other ways within human interactions or relationships that any of us can oppress another. One of the challenges we have in wrapping our minds and hearts around this verse is the perception that oppression is always a big and obvious action on the level of slavery and human trafficking. Among the homeless there can certainly be a hierarchy of power, through which one poor person abuses another. That struggle may be for resources or over a profitable corner in the city. One does not have to be wealthy or a government official or an employer to abuse the poor. Poor people can abuse each other.

An Eternal Perspective

Let not your heart envy sinners,
    but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.
Surely there is a future,
    and your hope will not be cut off.

Proverbs 23:17-18

Here, the writer encourages his reader to take the long, eternal perspective. The natural tendency is to desire that which we can see. And in this case, the implication is to chase whatever it is that sinners have or are doing. Maybe it’s wealth. Prestige, perhaps. Whatever it is, the writer says, Don’t long for that! It’s here today, gone tomorrow. It’s temporal (see Ecclesiastes 1:3-4, Hebrews 11:24-25).

In contrast, we are encouraged to continue trusting, by faith, in the Lord.

The New Testament shares this same theme:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

Hebrews 11 continues, “By faith …

  • we understand that the universe was created by the word of God
  • Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Can
  • Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death
  • Noah built an ark
  • Sarah received power to conceive
  • Abraham offered Isaac on the altar
  • Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau
  • Jacob, while dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph
  • Moses left Egypt
  • the people crossed the Red Sea
  • the walls of Jericho fell …”

What is to be gained for those who fear the Lord rather than envy the sinner? A hope and future that will not be cut off (Proverbs 23:18).


What do you envy about sinners, in general, or a specific sinner?

Why is that, whatever it is, more inviting than a future that will not be cut off?

The Fourth Man (Dispatches from the Front Episode 10)

The announcement of the latest release in the Dispatches from the Front series, Episode 10: The Fourth Man is welcome news! (Available from Westminister Bookstore by clicking the title link above.)

Among the very best missions video series available is  Dispatches from the Front by Frontline Missions International (follow FMI@Twitter). The intention of the video series is to bring “viewers up-close with sights and sounds from distant corners of the Kingdom.” Why? Because believers “everywhere desperately need a renewed vision of Christ and the unstoppable advance of His saving work in all the earth.”1 To this end, Dispatches from the Front succeeds in every way.

The sights, sounds, and reflective narration are informative, encouraging and challenging because they provide an inside look at real ministry done by real people in real places around the globe.

In this 10th installment in the series, Tim Keesee takes the viewer into new territory: The Middle East.

“He is risen!”—three words that change everything. This wonderfully good news that was first announced to the women at the Empty Tomb is still being declared boldly in the Middle East by the Risen King’s messengers! Dispatches from the Front goes into this region of centuries-old darkness and division that is now overshadowed by the fierce violence of ISIS terror. Yet, the Gospel is powerfully at work in the Middle East, and Christ is building His Church there just as He said He would. Neither the gates of hell nor the gates of Islam can withstand the work of our Risen King! From mega-cities in Arabia to refugee camps left in the wake of ISIS terror, The Fourth Man goes beyond the headlines to showcase the Gospel’s power to save, the mercy and love of believers, and their abiding joy as Christ walks through the fires of persecution with them.2

I have personally watched all of the previous episodes multiple times and have included them in the curricula of my college and seminary missions courses. So, add my name to the long list of enthusiastic endorsements, which include, among others, Tim Challies, Mark Dever, John Piper, Carl Trueman, David J. Hesselgrave, and Justin Taylor.

It matters not whether you are a seminary or Bible college student, a missions pastor, or a lay member of your church that knows nothing about missions, you can benefit from this series.

Dr. Craig A. Dunning, PhD
Lead Professor of Intercultural Studies/Missions
Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary
#GoBBCLife Change U!

The video clip below will give you an idea of what’s inside episode 10.


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