Christmas on Patmos – Bob Lowery

Note: This post was written by Dr. Robert Lowery, former professor of New Testament at Lincoln Christian Seminary, and first published on his website, 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 Lowery’s death in 2006, that domain (which I used to administrate) is no longer active.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.]

Farewell, Karyn Purvis


Suzanne and I just learned that Karyn Purvis from TCU Institute of Child Development died today. She devoted her life to helping college students, mental health professionals, and parents learn how to connect with, love, and bring healing to children from “hard places.”

After our third adoption, Suzanne and I became trainers in the Empowered To Connect material that was developed from Karyn’s research in child development. It’s been a huge help to us and the families we’ve worked with.

I met and spoke briefly with Karen at two adoption conferences over the past few years. She was the kind of person you’d meet and, instantly, wish she were your grandmother. The world was a far better place for Karyn’s having been here, and generations of families will reap the benefits of her work.

If you parent or work with kids from hard places, please read her book The Connected Child and seek out Empowered to Connect training in your area.

One last thing: here’s a wonderful tribute from Jedd Medefind from the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO). The post includes the video below.

The Fight for the Fatherless


We recently watched the newest remake of the film Annie.

You know the classic story: the plucky red-haired orphan finds herself a father in the wealthy industrialist, Daddy Warbucks. In return, Daddy Warbucks learns to love the little girl and fills a hole in his heart that, previously, he didn’t know existed.

This latest version of the film foregoes the Depression-era setting for present day New York. Annie trades her scarlet locks and fair complexion for a curly brown Afro, and the Daddy Warbucks character is now Will Stacks, a cell phone service tycoon.

Despite the changes, the plot follows a similar arc with a few new songs added. Of course, the new Annie sings “Tomorrow.”

Eva has been singing that song quite a bit, too, although she’s changed the lyrics a little. She wandered into the kitchen the other day, singing:

When I’m stuck with a day that’s gray and lonely
I just stick up my chin, and win, and say–

So I joined in and we sang together:

The sun will come out tomorrow
So you got to hang on ’til tomorrow, come what may!
Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you tomorrow
You’re only a day away

And as we sang, I felt an awful lot like Daddy Warbucks. Or Will Stacks.

I’m so grateful for everything this little girl and all our children have brought into our family. But that’s the thing: adoption and orphan care is frequently portrayed as giggles and smiles, love and hugs, happily-ever-after. Like a fairy tale movie.

The families walking this path know that’s not the story.

Suzanne and I are at the CAFO Orphan Summit in Nashville now, and I attended one of Russell Moore’s workshops yesterday. It was cheerily titled, “How the Orphan Care Movement Could Wreck Itself… and What’s Needed to Avoid It.”

He cautioned that the worst thing we can do is sentimentalize orphan care. Adopting a child is not the same thing as “adopting” a dog or a cat or a highway.

Instead, we understand that adoption is at the heart of the Gospel: we adopt because we–all of us who are followers of Jesus–were adopted into God’s family. We love because we were loved first. We share a new spiritual reality: we are truly brothers and sisters.

And because adoption is at the heart of the Gospel, it is opposed by God’s enemies. The enemy hates children, Dr. Moore explained, because they represent newness of life, the promise of the future, and–ultimately–the hope of Christ. The enemy wants to destroy anything that bears God’s fingerprint, so we shouldn’t be surprised that caring for orphans will involve risk and cost and sacrifice.

Children in adoptive families and foster care families don’t want to be there. They want to be in their birth families but sin, loss, and circumstance have intervened.

It’s not an easily resolved fairy tale.

So what does caring for the fatherless really look like?

It’s expensive and it’s paperwork and it’s waiting. A lot of waiting.

It’s loss of culture, home, food, friends, and family–pretty much everything the children have known.

It’s a lot of visits to the doctor and dentist.

It’s late nights and early mornings. It’s uncertainty and frustration. It’s loving kids who have suffered trauma and rejection and loss. It’s loving them when they reject you.

Honestly, it looks like a lot of hard work. Jesus enters into our human experience the same way–why should it be different for us?

Anyone who steps into this journey knows this–or will learn it along the way.

But in the hard work and the sacrifice, in this fight for the fatherless, God meets us, often in ways we could not have expected. And there’s a surprising joy there, too.

Not everyone is called to adopt or take in foster children but we are all called to the fight. How? Bless a family who is fundraising with a financial gift. Words of encouragement go a long way. Or bring a meal. Or childcare for an evening or a weekend. We’ve had folks drop off toilet paper, milk, and paper towels at the house.

What else could you do?

Woven Together, our county’s orphan ministry, has organized volunteers to remodel family waiting rooms at the local DCFS agency and Center for Youth and Family Solutions. They also organized a drive among several churches to collect over 80 journey bags for foster children who might be suddenly uprooted from a home with nothing but the clothes they’d be wearing. The journey bags are backpacks that include a change of clothes, pjs, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a toy or book–essentials and a few special things so the kids would have something to call their own. These are great examples that involve all kinds of people in the work of orphan care.

Caring for orphans will not make your life better or easier or move you to Easy Street. The call to follow Jesus is a call to cross-bearing, an invitation to come and die. But those who are called often find themselves richer for having taken this journey.

In the Summit opening session this morning, Aixa Lopez, an adoptive mom in Guatemala (where adoption is very counter-cultural), commented about her own family’s journey, “Normal Christians do hard things; this shouldn’t be extraordinary.”


VIDEO: Our Lifesong Story

Adoption is an expensive undertaking, especially international adoption. Expenses often run upwards of $30,000. But Lifesong for Orphans is doing a fantastic job of easing the burden for adoptive families.

We received Lifesong grants for all three of our adoptions, and the good people at Lifesong asked if they could share how God has worked in our family through caring for orphans. You can watch the video below (which was shown for the first time in public at the CAFO Orphan Summit in Nashville, TN, this week).

Besides their help with adoption funding, Lifesong (which is based in tiny Gridley, Illinois) is doing good work around the world. Please take a moment to visit their site and see how you can help them care for the children that Jesus loves.

Gowin Family Adoption from Lifesong for Orphans on Vimeo.


Directed & Filmed by June Bae
Music: “The Father’s Heart” by Tony Anderson & “Coming Home” by Zachary David


This is what 19 years looks like


Suzanne and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary a couple Sundays ago.

How, you ask?

It started with taking the family to church in the morning followed by lunch at home together (pictured above).

Then Suz took five kids to Winter Jam in Peoria for the night while I took four kids to choir at the church.

Happy anniversary, everybody!

(Suz says next year I’m taking her away. To an island. By ourselves. I hope she’s right.)

Our Adoption Story Featured on Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace Site

While we were in Ethiopia this summer, we happened to cross paths with Dave Ramsey’s video producer, Jason Crossman. Turns out Jason was staying at the same guest house while he was doing some work in the area. He and Suzanne chatted over breakfast one morning and then he asked if he could interview us. We started using Dave’s Financial Peace principles several years ago and that approach has been instrumental to our ability to afford the expenses for three adoptions.

The video was released last fall (not sure how we haven’t posted it sooner–oh, I know: we have nine kids).

You can also see the video on Dave Ramsey’s site.

A Grant, a Cruise, and a Video

As many of you know, adoption can be an expensive undertaking: international adoptions can cost $30,000 or more. That’s a lot of money, and most adoptive families don’t have that kind of cash sitting around. We didn’t and don’t.

Fortunately, we’ve come across many generous family, friends, and organizations that have helped us with the financial burden of adoption. One of those is Gift of Adoption.

With our most recent adoption, Suzanne applied for a grant from GOA. They notified us a few months ago that we’d been chosen to receive a grant, and then followed up to invite us to a fundraiser event in Chicago. So this weekend, Suz and I spent an overnight in Chicago, spoke at the fundraiser (a dinner cruise on Lake Michigan), and got to hang out with some really fine people who are helping families like ours bring children home. We had a delightful time sharing our story and were warmly welcomed by everyone we met.

GOA asked us to put together a video to introduce our family at the event. It’s shown above (also here).

We are genuinely grateful to Gift of Adoption Fund as well as Brian Knight, Lauren Monkiewicz, and the members of  the Illinois Chapter Junior Board who organized the fundraiser and invited us out for a special night–not to mention the numerous donors and event attendees. Families like ours have come together because of your vision and generosity. Thank you, thank you for what you’re doing.

By the Numbers: Quick Trip to Ethiopia


After 4 airports, nearly 36 hours of travel, and 14,000 miles in the air, Suzanne and I are home. Thanks for all the prayers, encouragement, and support along the way–many of you walk this journey with us and we couldn’t do it without you. Seriously.

Even as tired as we are, though, we’d turn around and do it again tomorrow to get those kids here. Here’s to hoping the wait for our embassy appointment is short.

(UPDATE: For the record, the numbers above are for the one-way trip from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Springfield, IL. Double them for the round trip.)