This has been one of the most unusual “Christmas” seasons in our life times. Many of the traditional social and family activities are being cancelled, curtailed or changed because of the virus hysteria. But life must go on, as they say. So our neighbors and some of our relatives are finding new ways to celebrate – creating new traditions.
Fear not. I am not going to tell you how to celebrate “Christmas” in this confusing year, or in any other year for that matter. I am a preacher of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and “Christmas” is not a part of the gospel. As strange as it sounds – the modern celebration of “Christmas” has very little to do with the birth of Christ. For most people Christmas” is about gifts, parties, food and sentimental movies. I don’t know how many times I have heard in the past week that the primary focus of Christmas is on the family.
For years experts have been scouring the writings of history, looking for references to “Christmas” or “December 25″ as the birthday of Jesus. According to one source, after a hundred years of research, the first known reference to December 25th was in the year 336. In an old list of Roman bishops these words appear – “25 Dec.: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae.” If that source is true, and it probably is, the first reference to the birth of Christ as taking place on December 25th was made more than 3 centuries after the event. That is 50% longer than the entire history of the United States. For dozens of early generations of Christians, December 25th was just another day in the year. And then – the first use of the Roman Catholic term “Christ’s Mass” came even later. There is solid evidence that December 25 was chosen as the birthday of Christ in order to tie in with different pagan festivals scattered across ancient, heathen Europe.
In the light of these things, there are a great many preachers who, on this day, are condemning the celebration of “Christmas.” I am not EXACTLY going to join them, but I’m not going to criticize them either. And I am not going to criticize anyone for either celebrating or not-celebrating Christmas. Because, as I say, I am convinced that 90% of “Christmas” celebrations have very little to do with the birth of Christ. There is, however, a difference between celebrating Jesus’ birth and celebrating “Christmas.”
To celebrate the birth of Christ is not wrong, even if people do get the date wrong. It was absolutely necessary that the Son of God become the Son of Man through natural child birth. The only way that sinners like us could be delivered from God’s wrath was if that wrath was poured out on a perfect substitutionary sacrifice. And there has been only one perfect sacrifice – the God/man, Jesus Christ. In other words, there IS something to celebrate in the birth of Christ – the incarnation of the Son of God. And we can do that on any day of the year – the 1st of September, the 10th of June or the 25th of December.
But if we are going to do it, we ought to do it according to the pattern set down in the Word of God. Let the anti-Christmas people deny it if they like, but the actual birth of Christ was celebrated by several people in God’s Word – even by angels. And I would like to take the opportunity afforded by the date and the hearts of so many, to consider the Biblical celebration of the birth of our Saviour.
Let’s start with this scripture from Luke 2.
During the night of the day in which Jesus was born there were shepherds working in the nearby fields. They were doing what the David had done in his youth, in one of the very fields used by David’s family. They were camping outside in some pasturage, watching for predators which might try to steal away one or two of their sheep. That night those shepherds were visited first by a special angel of before being joined by several others. That leading angel said, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” That Christ was born “this day” probably indicates that He arrived after night fell, but of that I can’t be sure.
What did those angels do to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Master? They immediately got to the point – to the primary purpose for the incarnation of the Son of God. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a SAVIOUR, which is CHRIST the LORD.” After stating that a special baby had been born, they moved on to His divine title and purpose. In saying that He is “Christ the Lord,” did they mean that this was Jehovah in the flesh? I believe so. It would be perfectly scriptural. “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: GOD was manifest in the flesh” – 1 Tim. 3:16. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty GOD, The everlasting FATHER, The Prince of Peace” – Isaiah 9:6. I cannot explain the details of the Trinity, but I believe that Christ Jesus is God as much as God the Father.
The angels said, “Over there in Bethlehem, David’s home town, you’ll find the Messiah, the Lord, the Saviour.” They didn’t start praising Mary, the baby’s mother; they didn’t start singing “Ave Maria.” Amidst all today’s talk about “the reason for the season” and “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas,” I’d like to suggest we put “the Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” into our holiday greetings. Christ was born in order to die on the cross as a ransom for many. Those angels celebrated that fact in the words they used to announce His nativity. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a SAVIOUR, which is CHRIST the LORD.” They showed us the method to use to properly celebrate Jesus’ birth.
“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” The shepherds weren’t told to blindly believe those terrifying visitors; they were told to investigate the facts. “Go and find Him.” They were told what to look for. They were to find a stable, but not to listen for the beat of a little drummer boy for guidance. And they weren’t told to follow three strangers riding on dusty camels. How many stables were there in that small community? This shouldn’t be too hard. They were to find a stable with a baby tightly wrapped up in swaddling clothes, lying in a feeding trough. Christ wasn’t born in the local inn or the fanciest mansion in town – He was born in a place where animals were usually kept. “You won’t have any trouble spotting Him, because He’ll be in unusual circumstances for a new born, and He’ll be wrapped up tight in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.” My wife was tickled to tell me earlier this week – that Jesus’ manger – that feeding trough was the first real “king sized bed.”
Those special angelic ambassadors celebrated the birth of Christ by announcing His arrival, and by inviting people to find Him who is the Saviour. That is one way to celebrate Jesus’ birth – perhaps it is the best way. Let’s celebrate the “noel” by preaching the gospel.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Preachers throughout history, me included, have said that angels have no commission to preach the gospel. Then we go on to say, it is up to you and me to spread the glad tidings of God’s gracious salvation. But I have to admit that the angels of God in the Bible often came close to being evangelical. There is only one way in which sinners like us can deliberately bring glory to God… And there is only one way for true peace on this earth… God’s good will can be enjoyed by sinful men – only by way of the salvation which comes through the death of Christ on the cross. These angels were looking forward to witnessing the completed purpose of the incarnation – they were looking beyond this birth to Christ’s death. That baby over there in Bethlehem’s stable is the Saviour, Christ the Lord.
Oh, and by the way, the Bible doesn’t say that the angels broke out in Heavenly singing. They weren’t flitting across the sky with harps in their hands. I’m not going to flatly say that they didn’t sing, but it is presumption to declare what God’s word does not declare. Nevertheless, with or without music, we should join them in words of praise to God for the coming of His Son. I can hear the music of Handel, as he handles this statement – “Glory to God; Glory to God in the highest.”
How can we celebrate the birth of Christ in a godly or Biblical fashion? We need to be like the shepherds who said, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” “Let us investigate this revelation which God has graciously given to us.” “They received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched (the outskirts of Bethlehem), whether those things were so.”
I admit there will be a lot of seasonal religion expressed this week – lots of baby worship and mother worship. But sadly, there will be relatively little investigation into the scriptures and almost no conversation about Calvary. What is particularly shameful about this is that we have so much more revelation about Christ than those shepherds did. We have the gospels which give to us the life and earthly ministry of Christ. And as saw on Wednesday from Galatians 4, even the epistles tie the coming of Christ – the incarnation of the Creator – and His death on the cross. We have no excuse to be stuck in the mud around of Bethlehem’s stable door when we could be standing on the mountain top watching Him ascend into Heaven.
Verse 17 tells us that the shepherds celebrated the birth of Christ by becoming evangelists themselves. “When they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” They didn’t need a commission from God; they didn’t have to have a seminary education. They simply retold what they heard, described what they saw, and relived what they experienced. They saw a newborn baby, but they heard a reference to the anointed Messiah and the coming of the Saviour. As the sun came up, and as they ran from the stable into the market place, they told everyone they saw. Then they ran home and told their wives and children. Or if they were boys like David, they told their parents about angels and revelations. They might have been censured for leaving their few sheep in the wilderness, but the truth had to be told. Their excitement and exuberance was uncontrollable. Their tongues couldn’t be kept silent. They were properly celebrating the birth of their Messiah. They weren’t giving gifts to the relatives; they weren’t partying per se. They were testifying to the truth of the incarnation and perhaps to its ultimate purpose as well. I would like to think that one of these days we’ll be able to sit down with these people and rejoice in what they remember about that night.
Verse 20 might suggest – I say might suggest – that they couldn’t stay away from their Lord. “And the shepherds RETURNED, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” I know that most commentaries say that the shepherds returned to their sheep, but is that a certainty? As the angel instructed, they visited the stable, and then they went into the little town of Bethlehem. After that – to what did they return? The Bible doesn’t say whether it was to the sheep or to the Shepherd. But for the sake of a lesson, let’s say they returned to the stable. Let’s say that they couldn’t get enough of this child.
One of the most sad… one of the most wicked aspects of “Christmas…” is its fleeting, temporary nature. In recent years “the Christmas season” begins the day after Halloween – as stores take down their orange and black decorations and put up the red and white. “Thanksgiving Day” is just a dot on the calendar and the signal to intensify the Christmas advertising. But then – immediately following Boxing Day, Christmas is over and preparations are being made to party on New Year’s Eve and to watch sports on New Year’s Day through the haze of a hangover. Unlike most of the world, but like the demoniac of Gadara, the shepherds couldn’t stay away from the Saviour. They wanted more and more of this Christ. This is the way to celebrate the birth of the Son of God.
How did Mary celebrate that birth? I am sure that there were the usual after birth effects that most mothers experience, and she didn’t have Jesus’ grandmother, or nurses or midwives to help her. But then when the shepherds arrived, excitedly chattering about angels and Heavenly glory, she was distracted and her thoughts returned to those that had filled her mind for the past 9 months. But she was not the sort of person to start babbling about these things to strangers, or even to Joseph for that matter. “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” As that baby lay in her arms nursing, she couldn’t help but think about the first visit she had from God’s angel. And she recalled her visit with cousin Elizabeth. “And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” Mary celebrated the birth of HER son by mulling over what she had been told about the birth of the SON OF GOD – the incarnation of the Creator of the universe. I can’t imagine the sort of thoughts flowing through her heart and mind. No wonder, “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
There is more about the celebration of the birth of Christ in Matthew 2.
To those men who dislike preaching about the birth of Christ at this time of year, I point to these wise men. It is highly unlikely that they preceded the shepherds to the stable or arrived on their heels. They certainly aren’t described in the same paragraph or even in the same book of the Bible. I don’t think they were there in the afternoon after those shepherds.
First, Matthew says that they visited a “young child,” rather than a newborn. This is certainly not linguistic proof of my thought, but it leans in that direction. Christ was undoubtedly still very young, but he was probably not still wrapped in swaddling clothes. And then verse 16 tells us that in an effort to eliminate a rival king, wicked Herod killed all the babies in Bethlehem which were under the age of two. Again, that is not proof, but perhaps there is a bit of evidence that these magi may have arrived 6, 12 or 18 months after the birth. In other words, they were celebrating the birth of Christ on a day other than His birthday.
Why was the little family still in Bethlehem? I can’t say for sure. Was Joseph kind enough to permit his wife to recover her strength before leaving his family home to return to his current home in Nazareth? The Magi were looking for Christ in Bethlehem, and Herod attacked the children in Bethlehem. Joseph seems to have left from Bethlehem to go to Egypt. Joseph, Mary and Jesus were apparently still in the city of David. “The angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” I don’t believe that the Magi visited the family while they were still in the stable, but they were in Jerusalem. And they celebrated the birth of Christ on a day other than His actual birthday.
With qualifications, I have great respect for these men. How did they learn of Christ, and how did they know any of the prophecies about Him? I think it started centuries earlier with people like Daniel when Judah was taken captive by the Babylonians. There were men among the Chaldeans, and later among the Persians, who were taught to worship Jehovah, the God of Israel. These wise men – these “magos” or “magi,” had been exposed to some of the primitive elements of the theology of Jehovah. I can’t say they were converts, but they might have been. They may have initially been polytheists like so many back in their day. But I hope they became true believers at some point. Either way, they can be used to illustrate us and to teach us some lessons.
They celebrated Christ’s birth by worshiping Him. “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”
I said that with qualification I have respect for these men – their example isn’t perfect. I remind you that “worship” doesn’t always mean what we expect it to mean. It refers to “doing homage,” and Webster defines “homage” three ways with three different words – submission, obeisance and reverence – and the context determines which definition applies. Notice verse 2 again, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” What did they mean by “king?” Did they speak of “king” as in “King David” or “King Herod?” Or did they mean “Messiah” – the anointed of God – the divine King of the Millennium to come? I cannot tell you.
But I will suggest that they remind us that Christ is worthy of our worship – our adoration. Verse 10 – “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” There will be a day when every human knee will bow before the judge – the One whom this baby became. There will be a day when billions of human faces will be drenched in fearful tears as they give homage to Christ. The Apostle John will later foresee “the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” Some day everyone will bow in the worship of this Christ – a few willingly, but most will do so by necessity.
These eastern visitors did it properly. “They rejoiced with exceeding great joy… and fell down, and worshipped him.” They emptied their saddle bags; they emptied their pockets; they gave what they had prepared to give. And I would like to hope they also emptied their hearts.
Whether it was complete or not, these men illustrate the proper way to celebrate the birth of Christ. They didn’t stand before Christ in some show of equality with Him; they bowed and knelt. In fact the Bible says they “fell down” as men in the process of death – as sinners before an angry God. But this was not God’s Judgment Hall, and despite being the King of kings, this was not yet the Judge of judges. This was the right time, the proper time, to worship the Lord Jesus, and this was the right approach. Those men were in need of grace, just as we are today. There will be no grace given to obstinate rebels like Herod and the priests back in Jerusalem. These Magi may have left Persia as important diplomats and religious leaders. But now they are humble supplicants and beggars before the King of kings.
That is the way to celebrate Christ – the birth of the Son of God as well as the death of the Saviour. Not only at this season of the year, but at every season it is appropriate to fall down and worship Him. Acknowledge that you have no gifts sufficient to purchase His blessings – or His salvation. Acknowledge that you are sinner and therefore worthy of eternal judgment. Repent before God and put your trust in Christ to pardon you – then begin to love Him.
“O come let us adore Him. O come let us adore Him. O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.” We can do that only after we have been quickened by His grace. We can do that, properly speaking, only after we have been made children of God. That is why we must humble ourselves before Him. We must repent before God, and we must put our faith in the Christ who not only came to die, but who did die on the cross to save us from our sins. Even on the 25th of December or, the 20th of December, these words are appropriate – “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”