Book Review: “God in the Manger” by John MacArthur (2001)

As I continue through this Christmas season, I have enjoyed reading through a number of Yuletide-related books, mainly because I likely wouldn’t want to open them any other time of the year. I’ve gone through some fiction (O, Little Town), non-Fiction (The Purpose of Christmas), and even a few movies (Saving Christmas). But, wanting to maintain a proper balance of Jesus-focused works over simple entertainment, I felt inclined to reach for MacArthur’s God in the Manger next.

I’ve owned this book for years and have always thought it to be yet another “biography of Jesus” which wouldn’t shed much more light on the Savior I think I already know so well. Obviously, this highlights a major misconception I—and many Christians like me—naturally have about Jesus, that having read the Gospels dozens of times, we figure we know Him so well. But “This is eternal life, that [we] should know you, the only true God, and Him You sent, Jesus Christ.” As MacArthur states in the closing pages of this very book, we’ll spend all eternity getting to know Him, so it’s mere arrogance to think that we’ve got Him somehow summed up here and now on earth.

Macarthur wrote this book “to provide you with a fresh perspective and, I trust, new insights into the greatest of all births.” (3) The “new insights” MacArthur shares in this book vary, but it’s supremely helpful for a hopeful reader to know that this book is basically a collection of MacArthur’s sermons in prose, as he covers the all-important passages in Matthew and Luke which detail the miraculous birth of Jesus the Christ. His final chapter also covers Hebrews 1:1-14, which he says gets “God’s perspective” on God-in-the-flesh, for Hebrews and the other epistles emphasize Jesus’ finished work and eternal ministry more than the Gospels can, which emphasize more His earthly ministry.

Having the sermonic-feel in mind, readers will be less likely to approach the book hoping to be enraptured as they might by a more narrative-type book. In fact, I was hoping for the narrative, and I think MacArthur had some opportunity to go that route but didn’t. He rarely muses, and the closest he ever came to sparking my imagination was when he came to this passage, “she brought forth her firstborn Son” (Luke 2:7). He writes, “Because the Gospel text gives us no descriptive details, I think it’s safe to engage in a little sanctified imagination concerning what happened that night,” (58) though sadly his imagination isn’t very vivid. His book is historical and accurate in an exegetical way, like all his sermons, just not very dramatic.

The greatest insight I got from this book is his explanation of that special Christmas star. I’ve always been troubled by that star which guided the Magi and then, in some supernatural way, stood over where the young child lay. Many have felt awkward with this part of the Christmas account as well, I’m sure, and while I will most certainly believe everything in the Bible even before I understand it fully, I still want to understand it fully! I don’t want to be some blind-faith Christian who can’t argue his way out of the proverbial wet paper bag. Too many Christians are happy idiots, I fear, and they are simply unable to “give an answer of the hope that lies within” them, and that shall never be me. For this reason, I love John MacArthur, whose understanding of the Word and ability to explain possible interpretations is virtually unmatched. So when it comes to his possible interpretation of the Christmas star, he writes the following:

Because Scripture does not explain or identify the star, we can’t be dogmatic about its character. It may simply have been the glory of the Lord—the same as the shepherds saw earlier when the angels appeared to them (Luke 2:9). The Bible often equates the manifestation of God’s glory with some form of light (Exod. 13:21; 24:17; 34:30; Matt. 17:2; Acts 9:3; 26:13; Rev. 1:16; 21:23). When Moses wrote the Pentateuch, he referred to Messiah as “‘a Star [that] shall come out of Jacob’” (Num. 24:17). At the end of the New Testament, Christ called Himself “‘the Bright and Morning Star’” (Rev. 22:16). Therefore it’s plausible to say that the extremely bright star, visible only to those for whom God intended it—such as the Magi—was most likely the glory of God. Just as the cloudy pillar of His Shekhinah glory gave light to Israel but darkness to Egypt (Exod. 14:20), God allowed only the wise men to see His glory, depicted in the star’s brilliant light over Bethlehem. It’s also quite likely that the Magi were not following the star their entire journey because they had to ask where Jesus was born. It was not until the Jews told them of the prophesied place of Christ’s birth that the star reappeared and guided them on to Bethlehem and the exact spot where the baby lay (Matt. 2:9). (88)

While never guaranteeing that this is the answer, MacArthur makes a pretty solid case for how the star could behave so impossibly and yet still be everything that the Magi imagined it was. This gives me greater confidence in the Word and in the power of our God Who created and stands above nature. And it makes that short story by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Star”, all the more godless and silly.

Another great thing about MacArthur’s book is the wonderful, theoretical background he gives to such portions as Simeon and his prophecy (see Chapter 10). One would never guess who this Simeon was or where he got his information, simply from a casual dozen readings of the Gospel passage, but MacArthur superbly establishes how Simeon’s understanding of the prophets, especially Isaiah, could have prepared him to state these words so profoundly. Such backstory is essential to establish the proper context of a passage, which in turn allows for better understanding, interpretation, and application. Again, MacArthur is a master at this sort of thing.

One concern did arise as I read, and this came in that same Chapter 10 about Simeon. MacArthur writes:

That the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon, therefore, was not an indicator of a brand-new phenomenon. The Spirit was always present in believers’ lives. Luke was simply saying that God had anointed Simeon for a special responsibility, much as He had done for certain Old Testament saints (108)

What concerns me is that phrase about Old Testament saints, that “the Spirit was always present in believers’ lives.” I question this simply because of Pentecost and Jesus’ statement that until He goes to the Father, the Spirit couldn’t come. Clearly the Spirit had always been at work, but it doesn’t seem true that he was always so with the OT believers. It seems pretty foundational to recognize the change that Christ’s resurrection and ascension brought with regards to the working and indwelling of the Spirit. Granted, he says “in believers’ lives” and not simply “in believers,” but I wish he would have clarified exactly what he meant by this assertion.

I’m glad I read this book for the holidays as it has helped resolve one key discomfort I’ve always had about the Christmas story. It’s a great resource for those looking to teach through the Christmas passages, and as I would with most any MacArthur book, I recommend it highly.

©2016 E.T.

Gallery | This entry was posted in Bible, Bible Study, Biblical History, Book Review, Character Studies, Non-Fiction, The Gospel. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: “God in the Manger” by John MacArthur (2001)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham (2001) | Elliot's Blog

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “The Jesus You Can’t Ignore” by John MacArthur (2009) | Elliot's Blog

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