Yea, Lord, Help Thou My Unbelief
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
There are three parts to this post about the people who surrounded Jesus Christ at the time of His Birth. Believers and Unbelievers. Doubters. Angry Mobs. The faithful in the face of persecution and hardship.
Part One. Unbelievers. Matthew 1 and Luke 1, describe the climate into which Jesus was born. He, of course, was born into Judaism. Vast reformations had already taken place in that the Jews no longer believed the Doctrine of Christ-that is that the Son of God would be born into mortality to a woman-incarnate.
There was (and is) a messianic expectation among the Jews but it varied from group to group. Some considered the Messiah to be a purely natural in-history political leader (albeit more powerful than the Romans), some considered the Messiah to be super-natural/super-angelic, some considered him to be an after-history universal King/Son of God, etc.--and some did not expect one at all. (Wikipedia)
The popular belief of Jewish Leaders was of a political King who would deliver them from bondage from Rome. “The Messiah will be a great political leader descended by a pure male line from King David (Jeremiah 23,5). The mashiach (Messiah) is often referred to as "mashiach ben David" (The Mashiach, son of David). He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11,2-5). He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military figure who will win battles for Israel, freeing the Jews of foreign domination and establishing a Torah-based kingdom in Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions (Jeremiah 33,15). But above all, he will be a fully normal human being, not a god, demi-god, or other supernatural being.”
"First-century Jews believed that “before the time of the Messiah there will be war and great suffering (Ezekiel 38,16). Then the Messiah will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing all Jews outside Israel back to Israel, and restoring Jerusalem (Isaiah 11,11-12; Jeremiah 23,8; 30,3; Hosea 3,4-5). He will establish a Torah government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and Gentiles (Isaiah 2,2-4; 11,10; 42,1). He will rebuild the Temple and re-establish its worship (Jeremiah 33,18). He will restore the religious court system of Israel, if it had not already been reestablished before him, and establish the Torah as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33,15).” In this view of the Messiah (the Anointed One), Jesus Christ did not fulfill the criteria.
Jews still pray that the Messiah will come. “Belief in the eventual coming of the Messiah is a basic and fundamental part of traditional Judaism today. It is part of Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith, the minimum requirements of Jewish belief, commonly recited daily. In the Shemoneh Esrei prayer (perhaps the most important prayer recited in the Synagogue--recited three times daily,) we pray for all of the elements of the coming of the mashiach: 1) ingathering of the exiles, 2) restoration of the Torah-based system of justice, 3) an end to the apostates and heretics, reward for the righteous, rebuilding of Jerusalem, restoration of the kingdom of the descendants of King David, and restoration of Temple service.” found at Mashiach: The Messiah
Although this idea of militant Messiah was widespread at the time of Christ’s birth, there were sects of Jews who still believed in a Messiah Incarnate. The people--Zacharias, Elizabeth, Joseph, Mary, John the Baptist, for example-- surrounding Jesus obviously believed.
Part 2. Unbelievers and Doubters. It has been written that “the Jews were looking for a redeemer quite different from the Christ. It was a temporal salvation that they desired. It was an earthly kingdom for which they longed. It was not faith, repentance, and baptism for which they sought, but national vindication, the destruction of gentile oppressors, and the establishment of a kingdom of peace and justice.” (Joseph McConkie, “Messianic Expectations among the Jews,” A Symposium on the New Testament, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980, p. 128.)
“Confusion about how the word messiah applied to Jesus stems from the fact that the term is derived from Mashiyach, a Hebrew word meaning “anointed.” Those consecrated to God in ancient Israel—high priests (see Lev. 4:3), kings (see 1 Sam. 2:4), and prophets (see 1 Kgs. 19:16)—were anointed by having olive oil poured over them. They were thus considered 'messiahs.'“
“The mission of these anointed servants was clear, but during the six centuries preceding the birth of Jesus, there was a general confusion about the mission of a Savior Messiah. Other specially anointed servants had been mortal men anointed to serve God. Many assumed the Savior Messiah would be the same. In fact, at times, different groups of Jews expected many different Messiahs: a Messiah ben Joseph, a descendant of Ephraim; a Messiah ben Levi, a descendant of Aaron; and a Messiah ben David, a descendant of Judah. Thus, when Christ was born, the Jews weren’t necessarily expecting a single Messiah with the specific mission of spiritual redemption.” 2 Ensign, April 1991 Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Irvine (California) LDS Institute Director.
“Messianism "denotes a movement, or a system of beliefs and ideas, centered on the expectation of the advent of a messiah. Orthodox views held that the Messiah will be descended from his father through the line of King David, and will gather the Jews back into the Land of Israel, usher in an era of peace, build the Third Temple, and so on.” 1 R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (1987), Messianism: Jewish Messianism, Encyclopedia of Religion
Jesus’s failure to establish an independent Israel and his death at the hands of the Romans caused many Jews to reject Him as the Messiah. But reasons for rejection went much deeper than that.
Also, the Jews didn’t believe in a Jesus incarnate. To them, this was blasphemy and idolatry. This was the reason the Jewish leaders gave to justify His crucifixion. Man couldn’t be God. A belief in the divinity of Jesus is incompatible with Judaism: "The point is this: that the whole Christology of the Church - the whole complex of doctrines about the Son of God who died on the Cross to save humanity from sin and death - is incompatible with Judaism, and indeed in discontinuity with the Hebraism that preceded it." 3 Rayner, John D. A Jewish Understanding of the World, Berghahn Books, 1998, p. 187. ISBN 1-57181-974-6
“Crucial teachings that could have cleared up this confusion appear to have been lost to the Jews of Christ’s time. Even today—among Christians themselves—there are differences of opinion as to Christ’s true parentage and mission. Although these teachings are discussed somewhat in the New Testament, only through reading the Book of Mormon and Latter-day scripture can we fully comprehend the nature and mission of the Messiah.”
“The Book of Mormon clarifies Jesus’ Messiahship in several ways. It gives inspired commentary, restores important Messianic scriptures, and provides a context for other Old Testament Messianic prophecies.” An example is Lehi: “It may have been that Lehi, like his contemporaries, understood the mission of the Savior Messiah only in the context of traditional Jewish teachings. But after reading an unknown book shown to him by an angel, he learned the true nature of the Savior Messiah and his mission, since the book 'manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah.' (1 Ne. 1:19.)...Perhaps the Jews sought Lehi’s life for the same reason as the Savior's when he taught them “plainly of the coming of a Messiah” ibid2
Finally, the Law of Moses itself became a stumbling block to acceptance of Jesus Christ as Messiah. “Among the Jews of Jesus’ day, esteem for the Law was so great that some even refused to accept anything but the five books of Moses as scripture.... Thus, the Law of Moses was no longer perceived in Jesus’ day as an expression of God’s will; rather, for Jews, the Law of Moses had gradually become identified as the divine will itself—perfect, absolute, forever unchanging and unchangeable. The Law was thought of as the will of God exactly, precisely expressed; therefore, any deviation at all from the letter of the Law of Moses was also deviation from God. There was no room for flexibility or “extenuating circumstances.” 5 The Law After Christ, Stephen E. Robinson
Jesus himself was an observant Jew: he loved and honored the law of Moses and sought to keep the statutes and ordinances associated with it. He taught that he was “not come to destroy, but to fulfill” the law. (Matt. 5:17.) Joseph Smith said that “Christ Himself fulfilled all righteousness in becoming obedient to the law which he had given to Moses on the mount, and thereby magnified it and made it honorable, instead of destroying it.” (History of the Church, 5:261.) “Then certain of them came to him, saying, Good Master, we have Moses and the prophets, and whosoever shall live by them, shall he not have life . “And Jesus answered, saying, Ye know not Moses, neither the prophets; for if ye had known them, ye would have believed on me; for to this intent they were written. For I am sent that ye might have life. Therefore I will liken it unto salt which is good; But if the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill; men cast it out.” (JST, Luke 14:35–38.)
Jesus taught that the Jews had rejected the law and the prophets. JST Luke 16:20 And why teach ye the law, and deny that which is written; and condemn him whom the Father hath sent to fulfill the law, that ye might all be redeemed? 21 O fools! for you have said in your hearts, There is no God. And you pervert the right way; and the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence of you; and you persecute the meek; and in your violence you seek to destroy the kingdom; and ye take the children of the kingdom by force. Woe unto you, ye adulterers!
The Jews of the New Testament time denied their salvation when they denied both established and continuing scripture: “Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away the key of knowledge, the fulness of the scriptures; ye enter not in yourselves into the kingdom; and those who were entering in, ye hindered.” (JST, Luke 11:53.)
E. R. Goodenough, a scholar in the history of religion, spoke of...Judaism and identified what he called the “horizontal” and “vertical” paths to holiness. The Pharisees had trod a horizontal path, but others had looked to a vertical path: “Man walked through this life along the road God had put before him, a road which was itself the light and law of God, and God above rewarded him for doing so. Man was concerned with proper observances to show respect to God, and with proper attitudes and acts toward his fellow men. … This seems … [to be the essence of] rabbinic or Talmudic or Pharisaic Judaism (horizontal)…Goodenough proposed that Judaism experienced a “tension between the two basic types of religious experience everywhere, the religion of the vertical path by which man climbs to God and even to a share in divine nature, as over against the legal religion where man walks a horizontal path through this world according to God’s instructions.” (Jewish Symbols, 1:19–20.) In the end, rabbinic or Pharisaic Judaism won out, and the vertical path to God within Judaism was suppressed and forgotten."
(6 Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, New York: Pantheon Books, 1953, 1:18–19.)
Part 3. Believers and a doubter. Jesus's birth was heralded by angelic testimony to the shepherds; and the wise men, Simeon and Anna, Elizabeth and Zacharias, and Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men. knew who he was from his infancy. So why did Elisabeth and Zacharias, Mary and Joseph, Simeon, and Anna and John the Baptist (and ultimately, thousands of converts) believe? why do we believe?
Elisabeth and Zacharias. They're descended from Aaron, the priestly caste. "When Zacharias goes into the temple to offer incense, he is entering the Sanctuary. According to the Mishnah, which is a compilation of Jewish laws dating from the era before A.D. 200, a priest is allowed only once during his lifetime to light the incense. This lighting takes place twice a day at the temple, once in the morning and once about three o’clock in the afternoon in connection with the offering of the morning and evening sacrifices and the times of prayer (1 Chronicles 16:40; Acts 3:1). Because of the large number of priests, a person is selected by the casting of lots. Hence, This occasion is the most important in Zacharias’s long years of service at the temple." (7 Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series)
An angel appears to Zacharias. He is told three things. 1) "Thy prayer is heard". Many say that he was praying for a child, but because of the ages of Elisabeth and Zacharias, they probably weren't currently praying for a child. (Maybe it's referring to an old prayer to have a child?) "Rather, the prayer is one for the redemption of Israel that Zacharias offers in his priestly role as a matter of private but set worship. Hence, the angel is promising the fulfillment of his prayer for Israel’s redemption". 2) The promise that Elisabeth is going to have a son. We know what happened to Zacharias because of his disbelief of this particular promise! 3) He learns that this child “shall be great in the sight of the Lord.” Further, “many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.” And, amazingly, “he shall go before [the promised Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children . . . to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:15–17).
We don't know how Zacharias may have transmitted what the angel's message was to Elisabeth since he was struck dumb, and later deaf but we know that he did. Elisabeth is aware that the name of her newborn son would be John (see Luke 1:59-60). About Elisabeth we read Luke 1: 24 "And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, 25 Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men." She is filled with faith despite her long reproach (of not having a child). She sees His hand in her life.
What we do know is that the promises of God are fulfilled in the life of Elisabeth and Zacharias. And thus, he knows that his son, John, will prepare the way of Jesus Christ.
"That efforts to intensify spirituality have been ongoing becomes evident when the youthful Mary arrives at the home of her older cousin Elisabeth. The eye of God, of course, has been watching over both women for some time. More than this, Elisabeth’s endeavors to make herself worthy of the coming miraculous birth, coupled with Zacharias’s activities, have turned their home into a spiritual powerhouse. At the moment Mary, now carrying the Son of God, “entered into the house of Zacharias, and . . . Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, [Elisabeth’s] babe leaped in her womb,” filling Elisabeth “with the Holy Ghost” (Luke 1:40–41). It was like a spiritual thunderclap in that home. In that instant, Elisabeth “spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou [Mary] among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” No human has told Elisabeth that her youthful cousin is pregnant. But she knows. She thereby becomes the first witness of the Virgin Birth. To Mary she says prophetically, “There shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord” (Luke 1:42, 45)." (8 ibid 7) Angel, Obedience, Faithfulness, Holy Ghost.
John the Baptist. "Isaiah spoke of John’s mission hundreds of years before the time, as also did Malachi. John’s activities were made known to Lehi and Nephi by vision centuries before his birth, and they spoke of it and said that he would prepare the way before and even baptize the Messiah. Jesus eulogized John, calling him “a burning and a shining light,” and said that among those born of woman, there was not a greater prophet." (Robert J. Matthews, Ensign, Sept. 1972) He was born to Elisabeth and Zacharias who undoubtedly told and retold the story and the prophecies surrounding his birth.
John 1:19 ¶ "And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? 20 And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. 21 And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No. 22 Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? 23 He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias." John knew who exactly he was and that Jesus Christ was the prophesied Messiah. Obedience, Holy Ghost
Mary and Joseph. "Because the angel says “Fear not” to Mary, an expression also spoken to Zacharias and the shepherds (Luke 1:13, 30; 2:10), thus tying these experiences together, it is apparent that she does not expect to see a stranger where she sees him...she hears the surprising words adorned with respect, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28). It is important to establish that God does not choose Mary at random, letting his choice fall on her in some incidental gracious act. No. She is known to the heavenly world centuries before this moment as Nephi’s vision of her attests (1 Nephi 11:13–23)." (4 Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series.)
Mary's reception of the angel's visit tells us who she was. She is so young and yet she has a great presence of mind. First she asks, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). Then her final words to the angel, are “be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38) are highly indicative and expressive of her character.
Mary visits Elisabeth, most likely in response to the angel's words telling her that Elisabeth is pregnant. Elisabeth testifies to Mary of the identity of the child in her womb. "The trip back to Nazareth must have been emotionally taxing for Mary. After all, we have no indication that she shares the news about the angel with her family before she visits Elisabeth. On the basis of Matthew’s note, “she was found with child” (Matthew 1:18), it appears that only when she becomes visibly pregnant does she confide in Joseph. His reaction? Obviously, he does not believe her story about the angel which she must have told him to explain her condition. His parents’ reaction? We do not know. Nor do we learn the response of Mary’s parents. Joseph’s family, naturally, has every right to demand that the betrothal be undone. This is the direction Joseph goes. Fortunately, as an honorable person, he is “not willing to make her a publick example” (Matthew 1:19). He steers Mary away from severe punishment. Then God reaches out to this good young man through His angel.." (Ibid 2) Matthew 1: 20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. 21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
We don't know what their life looked like from that point but Mary and Joseph wed and are on their way to Bethlehem. She is his espoused wife. They know who they are and who Jesus is. Angels and obedience.
The Shepherds. Luke 2: 8 "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth bpeace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.16 And they came with ahaste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child." Angels and obedience.
Simeon: Luke 2:25 "And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. 26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, 28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,
29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: 30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, 31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. 33 And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. 34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; 35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." Holy Ghost, Obedience
Anna. Luke 2:36 "And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; 37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. 38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem."
"Anna faithfully stood in holy places. She had lived a long life of service to God, and as she searched for the face of the promised Messiah, she beheld the infant Jesus in the temple. Faith carried Anna through her hardships in life, just as it can carry us and inspire us to seek the Lord....Luke calls Anna a “prophetess,” a title reserved for only a few women in the scriptures. A prophetess is a woman who possesses the spiritual gift of prophecy and bears testimony of Jesus Christ. Anna exemplifies this title because after seeing the baby Jesus in the temple, she “spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). She could not keep the joy of her discovery or her knowledge of Jesus Christ to herself; she prophesied of Him to anyone who would listen. (6 Heather Farrell, Ensign Feb 2019). Faithfulness, Service, Holy Ghost.
You and Me. Compiling the methods through which the people surrounding Jesus, especially at the time of His birth we see:
Angels. Seminal events always seem to include angels. The birth of the Savior, comforting Jesus in Gethsemane, the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Priesthood, the Book of Mormon to name a few. Personally, my only angels are the people in my life!
Holy Ghost. The testimony of Jesus Christ, by the Holy Ghost was key to these people. It's foundational for each of us, as well.
Obedience. In every case here, these people were obedient and faithful to God. To liken them to us, obedience seems to be key to knowing that Jesus is the Messiah, Savior of our souls. They were willing to go through affliction and continue faithful. Are we?
They helped each other. Think of Zacharias and Elisabeth. Elisabeth and Mary. Mary and Joseph. The shepherds certainly were in the habit of backing each other up in the fields. The scriptures indicate that they ALL worshipped God when they went to visit the Newborn King.
May we all be faithful in our journeys to live in Christ!