The Real Santa Claus: The Brawling, Persecuted, Abolitionist Saint

Folklore sometimes skews reality. Many times it keeps us from remembering that a particular “reality” ever even existed.

Saint Nicholas was a compelling church leader and historical figure before legend claimed that he ran an elf sweat shop.  Believe it or not, Saint Nick was not a jolly obese dude with loads of reindeer love and omnipresent abilities on the eve of  Christmas. As we often do with history, the subjects of our contemporary traditions are made too sanitary and domesticated.

Much is lost when this happens; in the case of “Santa Claus” almost everything is lost that is actually noble about the patron saint of children and widows.

James Parker, professor and associate dean of worldview and culture at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, points out some intriguing reasons to get acquainted with the real Saint Nick:

The story goes that Nicholas was born in A.D. 280 to pious and wealthy parents who raised him in the fear and admonition of the Lord and taught him “sacred books” from the age of 5. He was forced to grow up quickly upon the sudden death of his parents.

The first opportunity to do this happened when he heard about a father who, through an unfortunate turn of events, was left destitute with three daughters. Without marriage dowry money, the daughters would be condemned to a life of singleness and prostitution, so Nicholas threw some small bags of gold coins into the window of the home (some traditions say down the chimney), thereby saving the children from a life of misery.

Saint Nicholas was an advocate for human rights and the cultural “least of these.” He wouldn’t necessarily care if posh Western kids had the latest iPhone or game console, but he did care about little girls who would be subject to the demonic underworld of prostitution and human trafficking. Before he was even a notable church bishop Saint Nick practiced the pure and undefiled religion of James 1:27.

This Christmas, would we have a heart for the true religion the Father desires? Give to the forgotten and starving children of the third world here —> Give to those still enslaved by modern human trafficking (even in the United States) here—>

As a young man, Nicholas felt called to become a bishop in the Monastery of Holy Zion near Myra.  His congregation accepted him gladly and admired his boldness to preach against the false gods of paganism and spiritual relativism. Such a radical confession ensured Saint Nick would be a target whipping boy for the religious and political leaders of the Roman Empire.

In A.D. 303, Emperor Diocletian directed the persecution of Christians. Nicholas was the chief Christian priest of his city and an unashamed emissary of the gospel; as a result he was seized by the Roman magistrates, tortured, and then chained and thrown into prison with many other Christians. Parker goes on:

Those who survived Diocletian’s purges were called “confessors” because they wouldn’t renege on their confession of Jesus as Lord. When Bishop Nicholas walked out of the prison (after Constantine’s Edict of Milan), the crowds called to him: “Nicholas! Confessor!” He had been repeatedly beaten until he was raw, and his body was the color of vermilion. Bishop Nicholas was also said to have intervened on behalf of unjustly charged prisoners and actively sought to help his people survive when they had experienced two successive bad harvests.

Saint Nick bore the stripes of his Savior on his own back. The inspired words of the maligned Apostle rang true with him: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12)

Instead of feeding the insatiable beast of consumerism, would we give to our persecuted brethren this Christmas? There are precious lambs being led to the slaughter right now for the sake of the Lamb of God (John 1:29) Go here to ease and share their burden —>

One of the most interesting stories connected with him was his role during the Arian controversy. St. Methodius asserted that “thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison.” (Arius, of course, asserted that Jesus was a created being and had not existed from all eternity.)

One weak tradition has him actually attending the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, when Arian doctrine was rejected. The story goes that he got into a heated debate with Arius himself about whether there was a time when the Word (Jesus) did not exist. Nicholas strongly disagreed.

The debate ended suddenly when Nicholas punched Arius then and there on the floor of the council.

I know the particulars of this story may come from weak “tradition” but I assume such tradition would never have had early legs if one thing were not true: Saint Nick took biblical fidelity very seriously. What would this rendition of Saint Nick do to the contemporary sanitized version?

“No kids. Santa doesn’t want to eat your cookies. But he will give you a knuckle sandwich if you don’t have a biblical Christology.”

Saint Nick was a contender of the true faith and a passionate proponent of Scriptural orthodoxy. I’m not saying we should throw fisticuffs with our theological opponents, I am saying we shouldn’t have a limp wristed wishy-washy approach to biblical truth.

I am suggesting old Nicholas would despise the shrugging, doubting, hem hawing of postmodern Christianity.

Some of the links to the right, particularly under the “Theology” tab, do a stand-up job of contending for the faith once and for all handed down to the saints (Jude 1:3).

We should always be diligent to keep “Christ” in Christmas. But while we’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to resurrect and demythologize the real “Santa.” The real Santa teaches us that real men protect the marginalized, prepare for persecution, and preach an uncompromising biblical gospel.

Maybe that’s a Santa worth inviting into your household this Christmas season.

Bryan Daniels

Divine Moral Monster: Slavery In The Bible

Some people have little capacity for nuance (historical-contextual-grammatical) when reading Scripture.

This is detrimental especially when studying the hyper-sensitive and complex issue of slavery within the Bible. The word “slavery” in America has strong brutal race specific connotations attached to it. The whole ungodly “industry” of that regrettable time revolved around greed and abuse. If the Bible condones slavery like that, then we have good reason to do a double take with Scripture’s veracity.

But let’s be clear:

The Bible doesn’t condone slavery in that form at all.

Professor Paul Copan (excellent thinker on the subject) says:

We should compare Hebrew debt-servanthood (many translations render this “slavery”) more fairly to apprentice-like positions to pay off debts — much like the indentured servitude during America’s founding when people worked for approximately 7 years to pay off the debt for their passage to the New World. Then they became free.

The forced lifelong subjection of American slavery had little resemblance of Hebrew (OT)  servant hood in the bible. Masters could hire servants “from year to year” and were not to “rule over … [them] ruthlessly” (Leviticus 25:46,53). The Old Testament prohibited unavoidable lifelong servanthood — unless someone loved his master and wanted to attach himself to him (in many cases this happened!)  (Exodus 21:5).

Most servants in the Hebrew biblical context were to be treated as part of the family and were practically live in servants until their debt was paid. Even if they didn’t pay all their debts, Old Testament Law commanded the servants be released after every seventh year with all debts forgiven (Leviticus 25:35-43) This was wholly unlike (and radically progressive) the other Ancient Near Eastern slave laws of the day. J.A. Motyer says:

“Hebrew has no vocabulary of slavery, only of servanthood.”

The Old Testament also instituted anti-kidnapping laws that were absent in other ANE laws. One unique feature of the Mosaic Law is its condemnation of kidnapping a person to sell as a slave — an act which is punishable by death (Exodus 21:16; cp. Deuteronomy 24:7). Kidnapping is how slavery in the old South was nurtured; African kidnappers and traffickers got the ball rolling for the American plantation owners.

Other Old Testament provisions that were an improvement on other Ancient Near Eastern practices was release the of injured servants (Exodus 21:26,27). Also, Israel was to offer safe harbor to foreign runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15,16) — a marked contrast to the Southern states’ Fugitive Slave Law.

Some may claim the Old Testament allows for lifelong servitude of “foreign slaves” in Leviticus 25:42-46. But some things to consider:

God was giving foreign runaway slaves protection within Israel’s borders so they would not have to be returned to their harsh masters. They would be house servants with rights in Israel and not mere property like in other lands (Deuteronomy 23:15,16)

Foreigners had no ability to own land in Israel (for obvious nation-preserving reasons). The safest most logical way for them to survive would be to attach themselves to a family as a household servant. Servants in Israel were considered part of the family.

Verse 47 shows these same foreign servants could purchase their own freedom if they had the means. The point: All servants in Israel, even foreign ones, had the potential to be released freemen.

Slavery in The New Testament

The New Testament era unfolded in a time when 85% of Roman population consisted of slaves in varying positions. The type practiced in Rome was of the more contemporary assumed “property” form of slavery. Roman slaves had decidedly less citizen rights than Hebrew servants (I wonder why that was?)

But the NT still has some important commentary on slavery in Roman context.

In Old South slavery (and in some ways Roman slavery), slaves were deemed less than human. On the other hand, Paul states slaves were morally responsible full fledged persons capable of living to the glory of God. (Colossians 3:22-25)

Slaves also were fellow image bearers of God, and granted equal human/spiritual status with all peoples (Galatians 3:28) Galatians 3:28 may have been the most radical human rights statement to ever fall on ancient Roman ears.

In Old South slavery, slave traders were greedy ruthless traffickers who treated humans as mere cargo. On the other hand, Paul condemns such slave traders and proclaims their practices as a violation of inherent human dignity (1 Tim 1:9,10).

If the slave owners of the South actually practiced the parameters of servanthood expounded in the Old and New Testament, that would have been the practical abolition of slavery as they knew it.

But they didn’t, greed ruled the day for them, and the blood of countless thousands of slaves and soldiers bear witness to this.

Some may lament that the Bible seems to only regulate the scope and type of servanthood allowed, and not overtly condemn it.

Well, God reserved the clearest condemnation of slavery for the lips of His own dear Son.

The Abolitionist Statement of Jesus

When God in the flesh initially came onto scene in His public ministry, He clearly opposed all forms of human oppression in His all-consuming mission statement (which was lifted from the Old Testament!):


You see

Apart from Christ

We are all slaves to something.

Slaves to sin in need of a Perfect Master to grant us true freedom by His own precious blood.

As newly purchased and redeemed we are slaves to Christ, and much more than that, sons and daughters of the Most High King.

Bryan Daniels

The God Who Makes A Whore His Wife

It may be the greatest love story in the Old Testament. It is certainly the most scandalous one. The implications this short book brings to us are heart rending and intensely personal.

The book of the prophet Hosea has intrigued me for years.

Hosea has some of the most provocative language of any book of the Bible. It begins with God telling Hosea to do the very last thing any respectable prophet would be expected to do. It begins with God’s command for Hosea to go and marry a prostitute (Hosea 1:2). This prostitute, Gomer, bore Hosea a son which God told him to name “Jezreel.” The prophetic name of “Jezreel” means “scattered”, “judgment”, or “exile.” This son was a sign God would soon punish Israel and scatter the prosperous proud nation in judgment.

After that, Gomer had two more children who were apparently not even Hosea’s. God commanded these two illegitimate children to be named  “Not Loved” and “Not My People.” And you thought the boy named “Sue” had it bad. These names signify the way Israel would be treated by God for a time because of its covenant unfaithfulness.

Then the prostitute leaves the prophet.

Not just to marry another man.

To be a slave to another man.

Let’s be honest. If Hosea were our brother we would try to slap him back to his senses. “Dump the slut!” would be our biblical plea. “Divorce her, you could do so much better!”

This love story is so ridiculous and far-fetched it is too good to not be true. No man in his right mind would subject himself to such treatment. We feel outrage rising within us over Gomer’s sinful disregard for Hosea. It is supremely unjust for a wife to treat her good and faithful husband in such a disgraceful way.

But our outrage is misplaced.

Hosea is just a man.

The real plot line is this:

God is the scorned lover here.

He is a good and faithful husband to His people. He has provided all His bride needs. He has done nothing but lavish grace and mercy on her. Yet His love has gone unrequited. Remember how God’s affections burn for us. How incredibly humiliating for the King of the Universe. His bride has played the whore to lesser lovers and despised the romantic overtures of divine royalty where eternal pleasures are found (Psalms 16:11).

I hope God would not follow my own advice.

For I am Gomer. I’ve played the harlot. My wandering heart has led me to bondage time and time again. Gomer is guilty of forsaking a man. I am guilty of forsaking the eternal King. Gomer’s not the outrage, I’m the outrage.

But thankfully, God is not done with Gomer and I. As if Hosea’s heart is not rent open enough already, God says go to your wife again. Abase yourself even more, Hosea. Buy her back from her slavery and willful rebellion. (Hosea 3:1)

So Hosea scraps together all of his resources and pays with cash and cattle to get back his wife.

Hosea is a living concrete illustration of our own relationship with God.

I’ve wandered away from Him so many times, without a second glance over my shoulder. I’ve chosen what is cheap and false over an eternally faithful Husband. My hasty indictment against Gomer is an indictment against myself.

Yet His love will not let me go. He buys me back. Not with shekels. With the precious blood of His dear Son. He washes me with the crimson overflow, and woos me with tenderness I don’t deserve (Hosea 2:14). He brings me to the foot of the cross again and again where He made His proposal. Where He offered not a ring, but His life. Where He stooped not down on one knee, but to the lowest of hells. No wonder the theologians speak so somberly of the “humiliation of Christ” (Phill 2:1-9).

Even the thorn bushes I get myself tangled in testify to His love for me (Hosea 2:6-7). Even the pain. Whether it is physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. I may turn to the right or to the left from His path, but He refuses to let me stray long. He’s relentless. His relentless pursuit of me will overcome my rebellious propensities.

We can take heart, for wandering worthless people are set free in Christ. Not just for a day, but for eternity. He will betroth us to Him forever (Hosea 2:19).

A glorious wedding banquet awaits us (Revelation 19:9).

There He will present us as a spotless bride (Ephesians 5:25-27).

No more sin.

No more shame.

No more doubt.

No more distraction.

No more sorrow.

No more straying.

For that, we wait in hope. For even a Gomer, in the midst of a self-induced captivity, can utter with assurance from a dungeon floor:

“Come, Lord Jesus, Come!” (Revelation 22:17).

Bryan Daniels

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