Advent In Space And Time
“After all, nitpicking the timeline of Xena: Warrior Princess is the surest way to madness.”
Chris Sims on the Xena Christmas Special (2015)
“Chronological Bible teaching presents a foundation for understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection”
New Tribes Mission (2016)
Bible Stories, Bible People, Bible Lands
Remember the TV series Xena, Princess Warrior? Frankly, there’s no reason you should. My daughters caught some of this show in the 90s. But this crazy sword-and-sorcery series did serve up a good lesson on how not to think about the Bible. In one episode Xena meets Ulysses, the shepherd boy David, and Julius Caesar. That same season featured a Christmas episode. Officially, it’s a Winter Solstice episode, I guess, but in the last few minutes Xena meets a young Jewish couple and their newborn Child. Xena and her young partner provide them with a donkey. Why not?
Xena apparently lives in “ancient times” or “the mythic ages.” These seem to include at least the whole 1,200 years that preceded the birth of Jesus Christ. Every character … historical or mythical … lives in these “mythic ages” and thus could show up on Xena as the needs of each week’s script required.
Now, what has this to do with teaching the Bible? Just this: An awful lot of Bible teachers … especially those who teach children … treat the historical accounts contained in the Old and New Testaments as “Bible stories” about “Bible people” who lived in “Bible times.” These teachers apparently have, for the most part, a lot in common with the script writers of Xena. No sense of chronological history and no sense of cultural and sociological change in history are required. No attention whatsoever is paid to the “cause-and-effect” flow that moved ancient history toward the coming of Christ. Particularly, no attention is paid to the progression and development in God’s covenant dealings with His people over the first 4,000 years of Earth’s history.
And so, children come to Sunday school or Bible class week after week and hear stories about David and Goliath, Jonah and the whale, Noah and the Flood, and Jesus walking on the water. Children hear stories out of historical sequence and with all the important “connective tissue” missing. Children are then left with the lasting impression that these characters lived in “Bible times,” an upper-story, otherworldly existence, a lot like Xena’s mythic ages. For such children, biblical history has become mythology and real only in the sense that myths are “real.” The result borders on the tragic: Teachers tell the Bible story, tag a moralistic lesson to it and call it a day.
The Gospel In Space And Time
This problem isn’t limited to Sunday school. Many foreign mission programs seem to suffer from a similar malady. Missionaries come to previously unreached people and master their language. They then hurry to tell them of the Savior Jesus who was born long ago in a land far, far away. While this approach is better than leaving these folks in total darkness, it does carry with it very real and long-term liabilities.
At least one missionary organization has taken on this potential pitfall head on. New Tribes Mission sends their people into the mission field with a timeline in one hand and an inflatable globe in the other. NTM missionaries don’t begin with an in-depth study of the gospels. Rather, they teach the Bible in historical order and then place these “histories” within the context of Earth’s actual geography.
Unreached people groups have no concept of the God of the Bible. So, Bible teaching begins at the same place God began with His chosen people: at the beginning. Chronological Bible teaching presents a foundation for understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection (https://usa.ntm.org/about/).
NTM has found that this approach to evangelism leaves fewer holes in their hearers’ understanding and provides a better foundation for discipleship than the more traditional approach.
The Historicity Of The Gospels
The gospels stand firmly in chronological sequence with the writings of Moses and the prophets. Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy that reaches from Abraham to Jesus. This is Jesus’ legal genealogy through his foster-father Joseph and the kings of Judah. Luke gives us a balancing genealogy. This is Jesus’ genealogy through His mother Mary, and it reaches all the way back to Adam. Together, these genealogies tie the biblical account of Jesus’ birth to all the rest of human history and help fill in the gap between the close of the Old Testament and the opening of the New.
Not just that, but both Matthew and Luke set Jesus’ birth during the reign of Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea. Matthew also names Herod’s son and successor, Archelaus. Secular history tells us a great deal about Herod the Great, and it all dovetails exactly with how the Bible describes him.
But the gospels’ historical context and accuracy doesn’t end there. For example, when Luke begins his account of Jesus’ ministry, he sets up the political situation in and around Judea with precision:
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-2).
Luke also tells us that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus (Luke 1:36) and that some six months into John’s ministry, Jesus came to him for baptism. At that time “Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age” (v. 23). Jesus was old enough to begin a priestly ministry lawfully (Num. 4:47 and Matt. 21:23-27). Jesus’ submission to the Mosaic law at this point was key to the priestly dimension of His redemptive work. Historical chronology matters to God and it should matter to us.
The Christmas Story
Of all “Bible stories,” the history of Jesus’ birth has probably suffered more than any other from an abstracted and Gnosticized disregard for history. Nativity scenes and carols regularly ignore the historical facts of Christ’s birth and blur the harsh, down-to-earth realities described or implied in the gospel accounts. The manger was a feeding trough for animals, not a sanitized cradle. The Baby most certainly cried a lot and the night was most likely not particularly silent. And unless the light from the Christmas star somehow poured through a hole in the stable roof … “round yon Mother and Child” wasn’t all that bright. The Magi didn’t come to the manger that night, and the angels didn’t hover around the stable. Not one participant wore a halo. And let’s not forget the slaughter of the innocents by Herod’s soldiers in this story. Yep, this is one huge epic drama full of terror, uncertainty and flight.
The truth of the Christmas story is this: The Son of God came down into our history, in God’s perfect chronology and geography … for our salvation. He came as a real man and lived among real men. He was born a real baby with all that that means. He humbled Himself for our salvation. He carried our curse, all the way to the cross. And then He rose from the dead victorious.
When we teach the “chronology of Christmas,” the gospel makes a lot more sense.