The first Christmas narratives remind the enquiring mind that what took place in those days had a context. As a college student in the early 1980′s, I was once challenged by a contemporary who said that the story of the Bible was written by someone under the influence of substances. Coming from one who was especially immersed in Marxian thought, it was logical to interpret the charge as an off- shoot of the Marxian conclusion that religion was the “opium of the masses.”
When Matthew wrote his second chapter, he opened the section with some very important words. The context was being laid out. Had he been covering the section in a classroom talk, he would have pointed to a globe or to a map as he said, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” (Matthew 2:1). In that one statement Matthew conclusively identified the location of God’s activity in relation to the earth. Geography lovers may cheer for that clarity. Matthew then proceeded to make the context even clearer as he approached another realm of study. He entered the worldview of history as he said, “during the time of King Herod” (Matthew 2:1). In Matthew’s understanding, the activity of God during that first Christmas was firmly placed within a context of time, space, and matter. My contemporary, and others holding his Marxian persuasion, would do well to recognize that Matthew’s point is precisely that the story did not happen in the “suspended animation of someone’s imagination.”
Interpreters of biblical texts similarly do well in remembering the principle that “a text without its context can be a pretext.” Think about this. What if Matthew had started his record without his referrals to history and geography in that first Christmas narrative? Imagine he had told us that since it was all about wise men, he was leaving the details to our “wise guesses.” Or what if his narrative began something like, “and it came to pass that wise men came from ‘who knows where’ to some place in the direction of the East…”? Are we not grateful for the unchangeable references of time and space that the narrative affords us?
For over a decade, my wife and I have had the privilege of knowing the pastor of a church in Montoursville Pennsylvania. Over the years, I have heard much of this church in Montoursville. Yet as one who had never actually seen it, I could only rely on pictures and spoken or written words to understand their context. How would it have helped me as I traveled from India to be at this church if the pastor had only told me, “Arun, you are welcome to our church, which is somewhere out there. Just walk about the U.S. and hopefully you’ll get there”? To reach this context I needed clear guidance.
Similarly, when it came to seeking after the King, the wise men had their guidance. While writing the narrative, the writer had his as well. And while reading the text, we modern readers have ours. The context is always important, and to be guided rightly to it is critical. Montoursville is thus no longer a spot on a map to me. It is a place I have entered.
The most wonderful benefit of appreciating the matter of context in relation to God’s activity is that we are given permission to see things from our context as well–the context of our environmental issues, our bills, our aches and pains, our relationships, our ambitions, our challenges, our accomplishments, our sins, and our failures. Isn’t it simply special that the first Christmas means God not only studied our context; God actually entered it. On account of this step, there is one who can make the claim to understand us. Our pains, disappointments, joys, questions, and complaints are understood. All because Jesus chose to trade his context for ours!
Might you have a blessed season of discovering the delights of his love, clarity, and understanding. And as you discover, might you also come to mark the world by his truths, knowing well that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to put it out—despite those who still want to chalk the story up to the imagination of the mind.
Arun Andrews is a member of the speaking team with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bangalore, India.