Every December 25th, a great number of people celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Some remember the occasion by setting up a manger scene in the front yard, depicting the characters and events of that first night of our Lord’s life in this world. Others celebrate by attending annual Christmas services at a nearby church. Still others commemorate Jesus’ birth by practicing the prevalent customs of our society, such as spending time with family, gift-giving, decorating the home with lights and seasonally-themed figurines. With all of the stereotypes surrounding Christmas, though, has mainstream society lost track of what it really means? Do people even know who Jesus is, what He taught, what He practiced? Do people understand His nature, and consider the weightier matters of eternal importance at this time of year, or does Christmas only represent a time of “Good will to men and peace on earth?” To be sure, there is nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of our Savior, but is Christmas the best way to do it?
There are some things about Christmas that all people ought to understand, but our society is so permeated with misconceptions about Jesus Christ that many people have fallen into the trap of apathy. Does it matter that most people who celebrate Christmas cannot even find the events in the Bible? Or that when they do, their assumptions about certain details have been wrong and they simply glaze over them for the sake of human tradition? Let us consider Jesus Christ, for in the events of His birth there are some amazing lessons – lessons, to be sure, most people have never even considered due to their “Christmisconceptions.”
After Mary’s miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, an edict was proclaimed by Caesar Augustus that a census would be undertaken in the Roman Empire. In the text we care given some precise information: that it was Augustus ruling at this time in Rome (from 27 B.C. to 13 A.D.) and that the current governor of Syria was a man named Quirinius. Details like this should make us see that the Bible was written as a historical document, not merely as a good story or as a myth.
With the census underway, Joseph and Mary proceed to Bethlehem, which is located in the vicinity of Jerusalem in Judea. “He went up from Galilee…” While Bethlehem was geographically south of Galilee, there was a hefty elevation gain, so the commonly accepted phrase would have been indicating an upward climb to the city and its enclaves. As it turned out, Mary gave birth to Jesus while the two of them were in Bethlehem. This fulfilled the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that Bethlehem would not be considered the lowest of the cities of Judea because it would be the birth place of the Savior.
Unfortunately, in the town there were no rooms available at the inn, so it was necessary for Joseph and Mary to seek shelter in an outbuilding. It is interesting to consider the fact that Jesus’ entrance into the world was rather precarious for the Son of God. There was no fanfare or glory, no assurance of safety. He was born without proper housing around him, at a time when political tensions were high, with the evil dictator Herod in control of the region. What is amazing, though, is that God’s plans never fail, no matter what the odds are – the infant Jesus could have died at any moment, vulnerable as He was, yet God never needs ideal conditions to succeed!
The shepherds appear in Luke 2:8-20, described as simply watching over their flocks at night. As a side note, there has been some consideration that Christmas could not possibly have occurred on December 25th because the shepherds would not have left their sheep outside at night in the middle of winter. The average low temperature at this time of year around Jerusalem was between 40 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit.
“For Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city if David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord…” (Luke 2:10-11). In response to the abuse of Christmas by the influence of the world, many Christians completely reject the occasion as anything worth celebrating. We must remember, though, that there is much to celebrate when it comes to Jesus Christ’s birth. There is nothing wrong with remembering that day in some form. In fact, the shepherd’s leave the baby glorifying and praising God for the opportunity to witness the Lord’s first night in this world as a human (Luke 2:20). What we must be wary of, though, is the temptation to celebrate the birth of Jesus only on Christmas, or to neglect the celebration of the more significant events of His life. People celebrate His birth, but why is there not a holiday celebrating His baptism? Or the day He brought Lazarus back from the dead? Or the day He gave the Sermon on the Mount? Or the day He instituted the Lord’s supper? Or the day He cast out the moneychangers from the temple? Instead of celebrating Jesus’ birth once a year, why not celebrate His life every single day?
“And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased’” (Luke 2:13-14). This is the most abused phrase in the story of Jesus’ birth. How often do we hear people say, “Peace on earth and good will to all men,” this time of year? It is interesting, though, that the last phrase in the verse is relatively ignored: “… with whom He is pleased.” God does not promise good will to men and peace on earth to everybody – He does not promise that the coming of Christ would bring joy for all people, but for those who are pleasing to Him. To the righteous of the world, the coming of Christ represented salvation. But to the evil of the world, and the stubborn-hearted unbelievers, Christ brought judgment. There is no peace and good will for evil men – perhaps in this life there is, but not in the life to come.
Notice first of all that the events of this chapter occur after the birth of Jesus, so placing the visitation of the wise men anywhere near the night in the manger is incorrect. Unfortunately, in the retelling of the Christmas story, most people prefer human tradition over actual Biblical fact! “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). The Magi are an interesting group of people, known primarily for their knowledge astrology, medicine, and natural science. Having observed a peculiar star in the east, these wise men proceed to Jerusalem to inquire about the birth of the Messiah. Take note of the fact that they did not deny the deity of Jesus, but wholly accepted the prophecies about His coming and eagerly anticipated an opportunity to worship Jesus, even as an infant. Their attitude, of course, lies in stark contrast to the evil in the heart of Herod, who, upon hearing about Jesus’ arrival, sought only an opportunity to destroy the Son of God. Motivated by jealousy, greed, and an underlying desire for power, Herod was troubled when the Magi came to him, telling of the good news of the Messiah. “…And all Jerusalem with him.” Notice that Herod’s unrighteous heart affected the great majority of the city’s population. The people were complicit to the will of their worthless king and were disturbed by news that should have been uplifting.
How dark does the human heart have to be to acknowledge prophecies about Jesus and still deny Him? In Matthew 2:4-8, Herod and the chief priests and scribes consider the prophecy of Micah 5:2 and use this information to deceive the Magi into revealing the time of Jesus’ birth. To openly admit the validity of a scripture yet seek to defeat it is hypocrisy. Little did Herod know, but in his hardness of heart he was only proving the power of God. Even with kings waging war against Him in His most delicate stage of life, Jesus could not be beaten.
Matthew 2:9-12 includes a description of the joy experienced by the Magi upon encountering the baby. Notice that no place in the text indicates how many wise men there were – or even what their names were – and, most significantly, they did not come to Jesus on the day of His birth. It is conceivable that it took them months of traveling to find Jesus – including the time they spent traveling to meet Herod, deliberate with him, and finally travel to Mary and Joseph’s abode in Bethlehem.
The Reason for the Season?
What does Christmas really mean to our society? As a matter of religious duty, it has become customary for most churches to spend a great deal of energy diverting time and resources to the celebration of this holiday. Mainstream Christians become outraged when others do not share their views on Christmas, or when city-sponsored activities remove any reference to Christ. Special worship assemblies are devoted to Christmas – either traditional Christmas eve mass, or some kind of pageant performed by the children, or a special night of singing Christmas carols and reciting Jesus’ birth story.
While there is nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of our Lord, we must consider whether Jesus Christ even wants such activities to be made a part of the work of the church. Should we have a special celebratory service every Christmas? Is celebrating Christmas even “worship” at all in the eyes of God? First, we know what Jesus thinks about human tradition (Matthew 15:8-9), and most aspects of Christmas are made up of more custom than biblical legislation. Christmas trees, gift-giving, decorations, traditional meals, time spent with friends and family – while these are all enjoyable activities that make a holiday worth celebrating, they are not biblical ordinances. Furthermore, most Christmas plays and pageants retell the story incorrectly anyway, so it is, quite simply, false teaching to participate in such. Beyond all of that, we must consider carefully what the Lord has said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me…” How many of the millions of people who celebrate Christmas actually have their lives right with God? How many of the denominations who put on special Christmas eve services teach and practice the truth of the Gospel? How many households with a manger scene in the front yard actually attend church every Sunday and celebrate Jesus through their actions?
Interestingly, celebrating Christmas as an act of worship loses its luster when it becomes inconvenient for people. Consider an article written in The Oregonian on December 22, 2005 (“When Churches Take A Holiday”), in which several large congregations are described as “canceling” worship on Sunday because Christmas fell on it that year. The argument made by pastors is that Christmas is a time that needs to be spent with families. Randy Remington, the senior pastor at the Beaverton Foursquare Church, said, “What is the church? It’s not a location, not a building. It is people whose hearts are invoked by the spirit of God… Our church will be worshipping in about 4,000 locations all over the city [this Sunday].” But if this is true, and God truly believes that we can worship Him just as effectively in our individual homes as in a congregational setting, then why command group worship? It is unfortunate that people like this have unwittingly fallen into the trap of the Pharisees, vainly worshipping God, “teaching as commands the traditions of men.” In their minds, the tradition of Christmas overrides the command to worship on the first day of the week – and how does this glorify God? “Their pastors argue that, traditionally, attendance on Christmas Day – whether it falls on a Sunday or not – is lower and may not justify the staff hours a Christmas service entails.” Further, one pastor argues that what one does with his family on Sunday morning is equally as important as whether or not they come to church service. Is it? At least according to Matthew 10:37, our families should never be as important as our service to God!
The reason for the season, according to many mainstream Christians, is to celebrate Christ’s birth. But does that glorify God? A more appropriate way of glorifying God would be celebrating our Lord’s entire life, including His death on a cross – this is commanded in the Bible every Sunday (Acts 20:7), not just once a year. Consider the fact that there is only one holiday instituted in the Gospel – Sunday (1 Corinthians 11:23). And what we celebrate on Sunday is not Christ’s birth, but His death (1 Corinthians 11:26). And the emblems of that holiday are not gifts and decorations, but solemn acts of worship in the form of Christ’s body and blood, in remembrance of Him.
There is a much bigger reason for the season than celebrating Christ’s birth. Why not celebrate Christ every day, commemorating His entire life by realizing that His purpose was to “save His people from their sins?” (Matthew 1:21)