Note: This post was written by Dr. Robert Lowery, former professor of New Testament at Lincoln Christian Seminary, and first published on his website, rlowery.com. Since Dr. Lowery’s death in 2006, that domain (which I used to administrate) is no longer active.
The Christmas story occupies approximately thirty-one verses in Matthew whereas Luke’s devotes seventy-four verses. Because of these verses people have constructed pageants and plays and have composed carols and cards. Poets and preachers along with artists and authors, ancient and modern, continue to stir our hearts.
Many of us have heard the stories of Matthew and Luke so often that perhaps we have become numb to their beauty. On the one hand, perhaps the story needs to be rescued from either the contempt of so-called biblical experts who deny the reliability of Scripture. And on the other hand, perhaps the story needs to be rescued from the sentimentality of people who either follow Jesus or barely know of him.
Year after year, decade after decade, and century after century, the same cast members have been assembled each December: sleepy shepherds and wandering sheep; a wandering star and exotic (three!) wise men; blaring trumpets and singing angels; an expectant mother and waiting husband. This year children of all ages will march across the stage and act out their parts. The same cast members are found in our carols and are beautifully portrayed on cards.
But one little word unites these images and individuals. It is often over-looked and omitted from the newer translations. And yet it appears six times each in Matthew’s and Luke’s renditions: Behold!
It serves as either a word of comfort or challenge, exhorting us to lift up our eyes and see the world from a different perspective or encouraging us in hard times.
Consider the following:
When Mary is told that she is to give birth to God’s Son, she responds: “Behold! the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38).*
A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in order to share the good news. And we are told that Elizabeth’s baby leaped within her and she shared with Mary: “Behold! when you came in and greeted me, my baby jumped for joy the instant I heard your voice!” (Luke 1:44). And Mary responded by singing: “Behold! . . . now generation after generation will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48)
When Joseph found out about Mary’s condition, he was ready to divorce her. But before he could do so “Behold! an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, telling him not to be afraid” but that the baby had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 1:20). And in that same dream he is told: “Behold! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel (meaning, God is with us)” (Matt. 1:23).
And on the night of that great birth, the angel of the Lord reassured the frightened shepherds: “Behold! I bring you good news of great joy for everyone!” (Luke 2:10)
Eight days later, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus journeyed to the temple and Luke catches our attention: “Behold! There was a man named Simeon who lived in Jerusalem. He was a righteous man and very devout. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he eagerly expected the Messiah to come and rescue Israel” (Luke 2:25). And upon taking the baby in his arms he begins to praise God, thanking him for the Savior of the world and near the end he turns to Mary and says: “Behold! This child will be rejected by many in Israel, and it will be their undoing. But he will be the greatest joy to many others” (Luke 2:34).
In Matthew 2:1 there is the dramatic appearance: “Behold!” some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, inquiring about the newborn king. How did they know where to go? “Behold! the star appeared to them, guiding them to Bethlehem” (Matt. 2:9).
One more time, the word is used with the angel of the Lord, when we read: “Behold! an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph” in still another dream, this time he was instructed to flee with Mary and the baby to Egypt because of the danger faced by the family. And the same angel appeared once again: “Behold!” this time with the command to return to Israel because Herod was now dead (Matt. 2:19).
Behold! It is one of the most important words in the Christmas story. In reading through the above verses do you catch the sense of challenge or comfort? The word beckons us to sit up and take notice, to cease looking down and around and instead cast our eyes to the heavens, to the God who reigns and the Lamb who redeems.
John the apostle does not refer to the Christmas story in the opening pages of his gospel. But it is in another book that John celebrates Christmas, albeit in a most peculiar setting, as a prisoner on the desolate island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9), just off the coast of Asia Minor, nearly a hundred years after the first Christmas. John’s nativity is described in a mere five verses.
Consider John’s unique telling of the Christmas story as recorded in Revelation 12:1-5:
Then I witnessed in heaven an event of great significance.
I saw a woman clothed with the sun, with moon beneath her feet,
and a crown of twelve starts on her head. She was pregnant, and
she cried out in the pain of labor as she awaited her delivery.
Suddenly, I witnessed in heaven another significant event. Behold!
I saw a large red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, with seven
crowns on his heads. His tail dragged down one-third of the stars,
which he threw to the earth. He stood before the woman as she
was about to give birth to her child, ready to devour the baby
as soon as it was born. She gave birth to a boy who was to
rule all nations with an iron rod. And the child was snatched
away from the dragon and was caught up to God and to his throne.
Contrary to many who believe that Revelation should be interpreted literally, John himself calls this brief story a portent or sign, not a literal account. On the basis of the Old Testament symbols for the tribes of Israel (12:1-2), we can identify the woman as Israel, God’s people. The child who is to rule all the nations is obviously Christ. And the dragon, we know, is Satan (cf. 12:9), who was unable to destroy Christ during his earthly life.
In essence, what we have here is Christmas on Patmos, a Christmas with no shepherds or sheep, no carols or wise men. Not even Joseph is present. John’s nativity set, if it were to be sold in stores, would have only three pieces: a woman, a child, and a dragon. Not much money to be made off of it.
“Behold! . . . a red dragon . . . ” Leave it to John to confuse us once again! He does it so well throughout Revelation, at least according to many. He just can’t get the story right, can he? Ever the realistic prophet, the one who is always truthful but often tactless, John’s rendition offers conflict not carols, war not worship. It is a PG-13, if not R-rated, rendering of the story. Some scenes are too intense for young audiences, indeed for audiences of all ages.
There is no sentimental Christmas story here: no cozy fireplace, only a fire-breathing dragon; no cookie-eating Santa dressed in red, only a red dragon ready to devour the baby Jesus; no cuddly animals lowing, only a cunning dragon sweeping his tail across the heavens.
Can you imagine a dragon becoming a regular in a Christmas story performed by little children? Who would want the role? Can you picture a well-known company printing Christmas cards with a red dragon lurking behind the manger scene? Of course not! Someone else already lays claim to the color red this time of year, we would be told. Let’s not confuse the public.
Of all the Christmas gifts I received as a child, there is one that disappointed me most: a set of encyclopedias. “What place do these books have being under a Christmas tree?!” I asked after I had stripped off the wrapping paper on a Christmas more than forty-five years ago. I wanted my Roy Rogers sixshooter and cowboy hat. At the age of eight, I believed that no book weighing more than two ounces was to be considered a gift.
But then one winter night, a year or two later, our family was listening to a family radio quiz show and we were challenged to crack open the volumes. We were told that the first family to answer the question correctly would win free tickets to some now-forgotten movie. The question? What was the first song ever recorded on a record to be played on the phonograph? We scurried through the pages and we found the answer.
The song? “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Now that is a Christmas carol?
Only once is Jesus referred to as a child by John. But twenty-eight times the child looks like a Lamb.
At our house we have a nativity set up year round. It is a beautiful set, carved out of wood from Israel. I have added a plastic piece which appears out of place. Right behind the manger, I have placed a red dragon. On Christmas day John of Patmos proclaims: “Behold! The Lamb went forth to slay the Dragon. Blessed be the name of the Lamb!”
[*The New Living Translation is used throughout. The word “Behold!” is in italics because it was omitted by the translators.]