GCI Update

Does it matter when Jesus was born?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Joe preachingIn this season of Advent, most Christian churches are in a “countdown” to the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. It’s common during this time of year to hear discussions concerning whether December 25 is the right day to celebrate Jesus’ birth, or even if it is appropriate to do so at all.

Trying to figure out the exact year, month and day of Jesus’ birth is not new. Theologians have been at it for almost two thousand years. Here are brief samplings of some of their ideas:  

  • Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-220 A.D.) mentioned several possible dates including November 18, January 6 and the day of Passover, which, depending on the year, would have been March 21, April 24 or 25 or May 20.
  • Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160–240) mentioned March 25.
  • Hippolytus of Rome (170–235), a disciple of Irenaeus, mentioned two possible dates in his Commentary on Daniel: “For the first appearance of our Lord in the flesh took place in Bethlehem eight days before the Kalends of January [December 25], on the fourth day [Wednesday], under Emperor Augustus, in the year 5500.” In another document and in an inscription on a statue of Hippolytus, the date given is April 2.
  • Based upon statements from the Jewish historian Josephus, some place Jesus’ birth in the period of March 12-April 11, 4 B.C., since Christ was born before the death of Herod the Great.
  • John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) mentioned December 25.
  • In Computation of the Passion, an early anonymous work, probably of North African origin, the date mentioned is March 28.
  • Augustine (354-430), in De Trinitate, writes that, “He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered…and He was born according to tradition on December 25.”
  • Messianic Jews mention a couple of options—the predominant one based on the schedule of the priests’ service in the temple, specifically the “course of Abijah” (Luke 1:5). This approach leads them to place Jesus’ birth on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles and his circumcision on the eighth day of that festival.

It’s interesting to speculate that Jesus could have been born (or conceived) during Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles. I like the concept of Jesus reversing the work of the death angel if it happened during Passover. And there would be a satisfying symmetry in his coming to “tabernacle” with us if he was conceived or born during Tabernacles. However, there is not enough evidence to be sure, though perhaps we can make intelligent guesses based on the small amount of evidence available to us.

In Luke 2:1-5, we read that Caesar Augustus decreed that the Roman Empire should be taxed and that everyone had to return to their own city to pay the tax. So Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem and there Jesus was born. It is reasonable to assume that such a census would not have been ordered at a time that would interfere with the harvests. It is also reasonable to assume that the census would not have been ordered in the winter when the weather is usually cold and travel is difficult. Since Spring was the time for preparing to plant, perhaps autumn, after the harvest, is the most likely time of the year for the census, and thus for Jesus’ birth. However, it is not clear from Scripture how long Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem. Perhaps Jesus’ birth occurred several weeks after the census was taken.

The fact is, we can’t know the date of Jesus’ birth for sure. Scoffers seize on this vagueness, claiming that the whole idea is a myth, and Jesus never existed. However, even though the date of Jesus’ birth is uncertain, the fact of his birth is founded on verifiable historical evidence. Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce has a nice comment about those who doubt it: “Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories” (The New Testament Documents, p. 123).

The people of Jesus’ time knew from the prophecies about when to expect the Messiah. But those prophecies, or the Gospels, don’t pinpoint the date with the degree of precision that modern historians might desire. But that is not the purpose of the Bible, which is to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).

The main focus of the New Testament writers was not on the date of Jesus’ birth, but that God the Father had sent his Son at just the right time in all of history to accomplish his saving purposes and thus fulfill his promise. The apostle Paul proclaimed, “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Galatians 4:4-5). And we read in the Gospel of Mark: “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'” (1:14-15).

To know the date of Jesus’ birth might be interesting from a historical perspective, but it is theologically irrelevant. We need to know that it happened, and what is more important, why it happened. On that, the Bible is abundantly clear. As we lead our congregations in this season of Advent, let’s keep that big picture in mind and not get bogged down in the details.

Your brother in Christ,

Joseph Tkach

Jonathan Rakestraw

Carolyn and Jonathan Rakestraw

Jonathan Rakestraw is the bivocational pastor of GCI’s Tallahassee, Florida congregation. “I grew up near Tallahassee where my family has lived for over 150 years. I grew up hunting and fishing with family and friends on a Civil War battlefield along the St. Marks River.”

Jonathan left Florida for a few years to attend college and work in Pasadena, California, but he and his wife Carolyn moved back in 1987 after Jonathan accepted a position with the state of Florida. “I am in my 25th year of employment with the state and currently serve as lead over the Contract and Project Management Office for the Division of Telecommunications. My primary responsibility is to oversee 40+ telecommunication service contracts.”

Jonathan was 10 years old when his family was visited for the first time by a WCG pastor. “Being from a small community with a large extended family, having traveling visitors was unheard of—much less ministers from another state!” Jonathan credits his grandmother for his family’s interest in the church. “My dad started listening to The World Tomorrow radio program in the ’60s but was skeptical about the offer of free literature from a church in California. By chance he mentioned to my grandmother Dosia that he had been listening to the program but that he thought the free offers too good to be true. To my dad’s amazement, my grandmother said that Mr. Armstrong was good to his word because she had requested and received free literature herself in the ’40s. Because of my grandmother’s endorsement, my dad and the rest of my family started the journey of becoming part of WCG/GCI.”

Jonathan and Carolyn (Tatham) met in 1980 as Ambassador College students, and married after graduating. They have been married for 28 years and have three children: Matthew (24), Charlotte (21) and Andrew (13). “All three are GCI members who enjoy participating and serving at our youth camps.” Of Carolyn, Jonathan says, “She is my best and most helpful evaluator in ministry. She does the weekly church bulletin, leads youth church, manages our congregational Facebook page and keeps in touch with our church family and friends around the world.”

Jonathan served as an elder in both the Tallahassee, Florida and Moultrie, Georgia congregations and also served briefly as interim pastor during a change in leadership. “I was installed as pastor of our Tallahassee congregation in November 2004 when the current pastor retired.”

Jonathan’s favorite part of pastoring is “serving my brothers and sisters in Christ and being part of what Jesus is doing in GCI.” What he enjoys most about being part of GCI is “the close relationships and the shared experiences together with such a diverse group locally and internationally.” He credits his District Pastor, Larry Hinkle, as his mentor. “He has helped me grow in my relationship with God by mentoring me in spiritual formation and providing the Odyssey in Christ retreats.” Jonathan mentions his three most memorable moments as pastor: “baptizing each of my three children.”

When asked about his passion, Jonathan said, “Freshwater fly-fishing is my hobby and passion. It’s my way of enjoying God’s wonderful creation and recharging my soul. Thankfully, I have fishing buddies in Florida and also in New Hampshire when we visit my mother-in-law there.”

When does he feel closest to God? “During quiet time at sunrise on the weekend while my family is asleep. I enjoy the time with God to listen and reflect so I can be more balanced and centered for the day.”

New Guinea mission trip

GCI SE Asia mission developer Rod Matthews along with Mark Latham, GCI’s pastoral coordinator for PNG (Papua, New Guinea) recently visited PNG. Here is Rod’s report.

Mt WilhelmGetting to Papua, New Guinea (PNG) is not easy. Yet for years, GCI pastors from Australia have made the trip to PNG at least once a year to visit, encourage and help our congregation there develop. Now, it is mature, well led and a shining light in the high valley below Mt. Wilhelm (pictured at right).

Mark and I traveled to PNG in October. On arrival in the capital of Port Moresby, we met with two member families—15 people total, including a widow whose husband and daughter had drowned in a boating accident there last year. In comforting the family we were reminded of just how widely God has scattered his Holy Spirit-led people as the “salt of the earth” in distant places.

The next day we flew to Goroka in the Eastern Highlands, where a group from our Mt. Wilhelm congregation had traveled six hours to welcome us. That afternoon we had a warm meeting with Peter Onga, an independent pastor from the city of Lae on the northern coast, who has started a church and is interested in pursuing a working relationship with us.

Road to WilhelmThe next day we bumped along the Highlands Highway to Kundiawa. The road (pictured at right) soon deteriorated into stretches of mud, gravel and rocks enshrouded by misty rain. Two and half hours later, we pulled into Kundiawa. Many people lingered in groups along the main street. Flat-bed utility and 4-wheel drive vehicles cruised up and down, small buses came and went and we noted the presence of many armed police.

church facilityHere we purchased equipment to continue construction on the church’s community activity building at our Mt. Wilhelm facility (pictured at left). Now, with much more to take in addition to our luggage, we piled into a 4-wheel drive pickup for the final 2½ hour drive up into the mountains. Mark and I were squashed into the cab with the driver. Mark and I declared that even as friends we had never been closer. As we climbed upwards, we hugged the sides of steep valleys and crossed cascading rivers on bridges with deck timbers missing. Late that afternoon we arrived at Keglsugl. At over 8,000 feet altitude, it was cold, but the warm welcome from our members there made up for it in every way.

DancersThe next day we were officially welcomed by a group of dancers (pictured at left) who led us onto the church property through a corridor of children, then women, then men. Everyone then assembled in front of the buildings for formal speeches of welcome. Our pastor, John Banda hosted the ceremony and co-pastors Ben Galwa and Richard Kindi also spoke. The children sang and the women’s choir presented a song composed for this occasion. I felt like I had always known these wonderful people.

The special church service two days later was a celebration of unity in Christ. It lasted over 3½ hours with special music and dancing, a blessing of 23 (!) children and my sermon. This was followed by a wonderful banquet.

The day before our departure, the church again assembled for a special service where the Lord’s Supper was celebrated prior to a traditional meal called a mumu. There was plenty of food for everyone including anyone from the local community who wished to come. Special cakes made by members were presented to Mark and me and shared with everyone. Presentations were made of bilums (locally woven and beautifully adorned bags) for us to take home as mementos of our trip. How could we forget? The farewells were long and emotional.

On the way back I marveled at how the Holy Spirit connects us all and works in the lives of people in remote areas in special ways. I also thought of how privileged we are to have become so attached so quickly to one another in the Body of Christ within our fellowship; of the priceless experience of the difficult trip to get there; and the simplicity of their lifestyle with its clean air and fresh vegetables. They’ve only been connected by cell phone to the rest of the world in the last couple of years.

The work of the Holy Spirit is not seen by just looking nearby. Nor is the significance and nature of our international fellowship measured by what we see locally. We are indeed a communion brought together by the remarkable grace of God that girdles the globe. We can’t all visit these remote areas, but perhaps you now feel a little closer to your brothers and sisters in Christ in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea by having “traveled” with Mark and me.

ThereseBy the way, and to reinforce the point concerning how the Holy Spirit often works out of sight, on our return to Goroka we were surprised by the visit of a member with a van-load of relatives who live in the Ramu Valley, three hours drive out of the town of Madang on the north coast. It had taken them six hours to get to us. Therese (second from left in the picture at left) told us that she has a group of 30 people meeting in her home each weekend for a worship service of hymn singing, prayer and Bible reading. “Amazing,” we said. “Wonderful!” “Oh,” she replied, “that’s only the adults. There are lots of children as well—some of the families attending have five or six.”

Thus, we “discovered” that we have a congregation that we didn’t know about that probably numbers about 100 people. Only a few of them speak English, so the challenge is to provide their leaders with simple sermon and Bible study material that can be translated into their language. While they were with us, we had another impromptu service asking God to bless three more children. It was an exceptional trip!

Mission outreach in Colorado

In October, nine representatives of GCI’s Generations Ministries M25:40 Missions gathered at a Boy Scout camp in Northern Colorado to cut, load and haul beetle-kill pine to provide winter heat for an elderly couple in the area.

wood cutting 2

Despite the cold and the fact that it was a Denver Broncos football game day, these followers of Jesus dedicated their morning to helping others (though the game schedule sped things up a bit!). Three trucks were loaded and everyone packed up in just under two hours. This is the second outreach for M25:40 Missions in the last few months.

Richmond, VA church 50th anniversary

GCI president Joseph Tkach recently visited GCI’s Richmond, Virginia church to join in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the congregation. During the visit, Dr. Tkach and others visited the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church where Patrick Henry gave his famous speech where he said, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

L to R: Joseph Tkach, Richmond pastor Bill Winn, actor playing Patrick Henry, Richmond elder Chip Brockmeier, ORM director Curtis May

New GenMin motto

This update is from Anthony Mullins, GCI’s Generations Ministries director.

GenMin Full logo Small -RGBGenMin’s advisory team met recently in Denver to discuss key initiatives and to re-examine the purpose of the ministry, which continues to have at its core an emphasis on supporting and strengthening GCI congregations. Several good ideas emerged from the meeting, including a new GenMin motto (tag-line):

Loving Kids. Developing Leaders. Sending a Generation.

This motto speaks to three primary GenMin commitments:

  • Loving the young people that GenMin is privileged to serve through its camps, mission trips and other events.
  • Creating “space” for these youth to develop as leaders within camps, mission events, GenMin’s “dream team,” at Converge events and as participants in GenMin’s Journey With the Master mentoring program.
  • Helping this younger generation live “sent”—joining God in his mission by being disciples of Jesus who live out the gospel in their families, churches and communities. Through Jesus’ work, the Holy Spirit is drawing all people into relationship with the Triune God and GenMin seeks to help its participants catch that vision and live it out within whatever context they find themselves.

To learn more about GenMin’s commitments, watch this interview with GenMin camp leaders:

On YouTube at http://youtu.be/gaEYa1TOHPU

Experiencing the Trinity retreat

GCI’s Odyssey in Christ ministry recently conducted an Experiencing the Trinity spiritual renewal retreat near Orlando, Florida. Participants enjoyed three days of spiritual refreshment focusing on their relationship with God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This time of focused encounter included moments of solitude, prayer, meditation, communion, fellowship, and other spiritually formative activities. The tranquil environment along with good food added to the enjoyment and to the process of spiritual formation.


Here are comments from some of the retreat participants: “I came away with an overwhelming sense of Shalom.” “I’ve experienced the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ through community like never before, it has been a life-change for me.” “This was the first time in my life that I felt the removal of the anger that was within me. I cried with joy that God loved me in spite of myself. I became a participant rather than an obstacle. I began to enjoy the rest of the retreat.”

Plans are underway for an Experiencing the Trinity retreat in the Cincinnati, Ohio area on April 24-27, 2014. This retreat may also be experienced for academic credit through Grace Communion Seminary (the CM07 course titled Experiencing the Trinity begins in January).

Odyssey in Christ helps Christians come to know God better and experience him more fully in their lives. Other spiritually formative retreats/seminars scheduled for next year are listed on the Odyssey in Christ registration web page.

Philippine relief efforts

We have requested prayer and donations to assist the people suffering the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Here is an update from GCI’s Manila office.

GCI Philippines pastoral leaders met recently in Cebu to coordinate relief efforts in Tacloban and other affected areas. Please pray for these efforts, which will involve several GCI congregations in the Visayas and Southern Luzon. The need for relief from the devastation caused by the typhoon as well as an earlier earthquake in the same area is still great.

Pilippine relief effort

There is a possibility that GCI will host a medical team from the US early next year to assist in relief efforts. The US military has decreased the number of ships and personnel it is providing, and thus the need for other sources of help is growing. A psychologist has been training GCI pastoral leaders in ways to assist affected residents through trauma counseling.

GCI Philippines wishes to thank all those who have helped out. Your love and generosity is much appreciated and is making a difference in the lives of our affected members and their families. Bags and boxes of relief goods—groceries, used clothing and cooking utensils have been sent to them in the past few weeks and more is on the way. GCI Philippines director Eugene Guzon and a team of architects and contractors are in Tacloban to look at the extent of the damage to properties and to see how the church can help in rebuilding our members’ damaged homes.

Ruth Miller

Bob and Ruth Miller
Bob and Ruth Miller

GCI Birmingham, Alabama pastor Bob Miller requests prayer for his wife Ruth who broke her arm in a fall while on vacation in the Smoky Mountains over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Bob reports that it was a “freak accident.” He went on to say that, “Our daughter and family drove down from Maryland and we were so looking forward to spending the week with the grands. We left on Tuesday and saw a sports doctor here on Wednesday and they put her in a partial cast—the break is in her upper right arm; the humerus bone. It is a difficult break to immobilize and treat. She is feeling pretty miserable—can’t get comfortable. I am helpless to do anything. Ruth’s cast is heavy and I think it’s putting a lot of stress on her back and ribs. She couldn’t sleep at all last night. Thanks for your prayers.”

Cards may be sent to:

Ruth Miller
538 River Crest Way
Helena, AL  35080-8300

GenMin Converge conferences in 2014

Converge LogoAnthony Mullins, director of GCI Generations Ministries, spoke recently about the GenMin Converge conferences coming up in 2014: “I have a strong sense, as does the entire GenMin team, that the next round of Converge conferences will be a significant bridge between GCnow and GCnext. We will invite participants to step up in helping build the next generation of GCI and step out into missional living in their communities.”

GenMin invites people of all ages and ministry roles to attend, including pastors, youth workers, camp volunteers, missionaries and other mission-minded people; and bring young, ministry-minded emerging leaders with you.  It will be an inspiring time for all!

  • Converge West will be held in the Los Angeles, California area on Friday through Sunday, February 28-March 2.
  • Converge East will be held in the Columbus, Ohio area on Friday through Sunday, March 21-23 [Note: this is a change from what was previously posted here]

Stay tuned to GCI Weekly Update—additional information and registration materials will be available here soon. For articles about the Converge conferences held in 2013, click here (West) and here (East).