The Real Meaning of Christmas
The purpose of this article is to answer such questions as "What is the real meaning of Christmas?" and "Is Christmas still relevant in our times?".
Table of Contents
- A Brief Origin of Christmas
- The Real Meaning of Christmas
- The Incarnation
- Timing and Tribe of the Birth
- Place of the Birth
- Nature of the Birth
- Purpose & Significance of the Birth
- Christmas in our Modern Culture
A Brief Origin of Christmas
The word "Christmas" comes from the Latin words Cristes maesse, or "Christ's Mass." Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. The earliest generally accepted calculation of December 25 as the birthday of Jesus is credited to the church father Tertullian of Carthage about 200 AD. Hippolytus of Rome (~205-210 AD) placed the birth of Jesus on December 25 in his commentary on the Book of Daniel, but some critics claim this is a later redaction. Other sources credit the historian Julius Africanus (~220 AD) with a proposal of the date. There is no evidence as to whether or not a celebration was immediately instituted as a result of these proposals. Most historians attribute the first official celebration of Christmas to Rome in 336 A.D, but many believe that celebrations actually went back further than that.
In the year 274 AD, solstice fell on 25th December. The Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed the date as the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) as a tribute to the Roman sun god Sol. If the Roman celebration preceded Christmas, Christian leaders may have set the date for Christmas to December 25 in an attempt to eclipse the popular pagan holiday.
In 325 AD, Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, finally changed the ancient solstice celebrations into Christmas, announcing that it would be an immovable feast, officially celebrated as the birth of Christ. Some churches were celebrating Christmas on different days, so in 350 AD, Pope Julius I designated December 25th as the official date for observance by the Church.
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The Real Meaning of Christmas
Our culture is losing the true meaning of Christmas because the education system and the media continue to indoctrinate people to reject the Bible as absolute truth. Instead, the Christian faith and the Bible is attacked, ridiculed and condemned as a "book of myths" because so-called science has supposedly proved it cannot be true. The modern Santa Claus, a far cry from the fourth century St Nicholas, has become the primary icon of our contemporary commercial culture.
The "success" of Christmas is no longer measured by thankfulness, joy, happiness, peace on earth, good will, celebrating with family and friends, and hope for the future; but by the latest retail sales figures. As I updated this article for publication, a Wal-mart employee was trampled to death by shoppers rushing in to get a bargain on the latest hot toy. Elsewhere, one shopper shot another over another toy. On the positive side, we must commend Wal-mart for using the word "Christmas" since many retailers have banned Christmas, substituting "holidays" instead. Some go as far as prohibiting their employees from wishing their customers a "Merry Christmas". We're besieged by commercial after commercial prompting us to "celebrate the holidays" by buying gifts from a certain store. I believe in exchanging gifts for Christmas, but we should do it in the spirit of the season, acknowledging the greatest gift that God gave to us, His only Son.
We are also bombarded each season by hundreds of Christmas movies and specials on the various television networks, less than ten percent of which mention God, and less than one percent actually mentions the real meaning for the celebration. Most movies contain the central theme that Christmas can be "saved" and all things can be set right in the world if we’ll only believe and have faith… in Santa Claus. I saw one this past weekend in which, by believing in Santa, a woman’s husband was returned to her from the dead. According to Hollywood, Christmas must be cancelled if Santa can't find a wife, but Christmas without the Christ doesn't appear to be a problem.
There are two cartoon specials that I try to watch each year that illustrate or allude to the true meaning for the season. The first is Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Grinch, envious of the Whos' happiness, steals all of their presents and decorations on Christmas Eve in order to "prevent Christmas from coming". However, on Christmas morning, as he's hauling away the goods, he stops on the side of the mountain to listen and gloat over their anticipated sadness and says:
"They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming. They're just waking up, and I know just what they'll do. Their mouths will hang open a minute or two, then the Whos down in Whoville will all cry, "Boo Hoo.'"
Then as the sound of singing starts low and continues to rise, we hear the narrator say: "But... but this sound wasn't sad. Why, this sound sounded glad. Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing without any presents at all. He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming, it came. Somehow or other, it came just the same."
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so? It came with out ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!" He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!
So, what is this "little bit more"? The other special, Charles Schultz’s A Charlie Brown Christmas provides the answer. While Charlie Brown and his friends are getting ready for Christmas, Charlie is becoming increasingly frustrated with the day to day activities and realizes there must be more to this holiday. His younger sister, Sally is no help, as she writes her letter to Santa, telling Charlie "All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share." Then we see her letter: "Dear Santa Claus, How have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want. Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself; just send money. How about tens and twenties?"
Then there’s Lucy Van Pelt: "I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that." Charlie then asks her what she wants and Lucy replies "Real Estate". She also says "Look, Charlie, let's face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know."
Finally as the cast is arguing and fighting among themselves while rehearsing for the Christmas play, Charlie Brown shouts out in desperation "Isn't there anyone out there who can tell me what Christmas is all about?" Everyone goes silent for a moment, then Lucy’s brother Linus quietly answers, "Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you. Lights, please."
Then, as the spotlight shines on Linus, he speaks
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the lord shone round about them, and they were afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you this day is born in the City of Bethlehem, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. 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’. That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown".
So, from the mouth of the great Bible scholar and theologian, Linus Van Pelt, quoting from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, comes the declaration that the real meaning of Christmas is not about shopping malls or the many other human traditions, but is all about a person (Jesus Christ) and an event (the Incarnation). For some folks, this statement may bring up two questions – "Who is Jesus?" and "What is the incarnation?"
The Person of Jesus Christ
Jesus is the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God (or God the Son), the Christ or Messiah, Savior of the world (Titus 2:13-14). He was fully human and fully God (Col 2:9). He was born of a virgin, lived a perfectly sinless life, died in our place to pay the penalty of sin, was physically resurrected from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father making intercession for us.
Regarding the Trinity, I thinks it's helpful to understand that, for clarity, the writers of Scripture ascribe the titles of "Father", "Son" or "Holy Spirit" to the three persons of the Triune God in a relational sense. For example, when we speak of Jesus in relationship to the other two members of the Godhead, we refer to him as the "Son of God", or "God the Son", but when speaking to Him in and of Himself, it is proper to simply call Him "God". See the article on the Person of the Holy Spirit for a brief introduction to the Trinity.
We’ll talk much more about the Person of Christ throughout this article, so let’s move on to the Incarnation.
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The Incarnation is the doctrine that Jesus, God the Son, became a human being (Latin literally "in flesh") while still maintaining His divine and sinless nature. After His Incarnation, Jesus is sometimes referred to as the God-Man, who emptied Himself of His functional equality with God the Father (Php 2:6-8) and "became man… and continues to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever" (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q21). He is fully human and fully God.
No one totally understands the union of Christ’s divine and human nature, but we can make a few observances. His dual nature was prophesized in the OT. For to us a child is born [human], to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God [divine], Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Is 9:6).
The two natures are distinctive, but in absolute harmony, remaining the same in essence as they were prior to being joined. Therefore, the deity of Christ is in no way changed or diminished (Col 2:9). He was limited in certain functions due to the circumstances of taking on a human body, such as being constrained in space and time. Once again, this was strictly voluntary and circumstantial. He always had the capability and power to ditch the human body at any time, yet He chose to confine Himself to His mission.
I think one of the major roadblocks to understanding that Jesus was fully human is that, in our current state, we ourselves are not fully human. Jesus was only the third true human to walk the earth, the first two being Adam and Eve before the fall. Our humanity (and our being created in the image of God) has been corrupted by sin. We tend to judge the humanity of Jesus by our own tainted humanity, rather than judging our humanity by the perfect humanity of Jesus. The good news is that one day, at our glorification, we will be truly human.
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2). The new-agers interpret this verse to mean that we’ll all eventually be gods, but I believe when we see Him face to face (1Cor 13:12) at His second coming, we will finally be fully human, with the image of God restored to us in our resurrected bodies.
We can obtain an additional understanding of Jesus and the Incarnation by exploring a few aspects of His birth, which fulfilled many of the over 300 messianic prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament).
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Timing and Tribe of the Birth
The timing and tribe of the Messiah's birth had been indicated in the blessing spoken by Jacob (Israel) on his deathbed (~1850BC) to his son Judah: "The scepter shall not depart from Judah . . . until Shiloh comes, and to Him shall be the obedience of the peoples" (Gen 49:10).
The term "Shiloh" was recognized by the Jewish rabbis as a Messianic title. The "scepter" refers to the judicial power of the nation of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel), which included the right of administering capital punishment. Thus, this prophecy states that the Messiah will come at a time before the nation's judicial power would be removed. We can paraphrase the prophecy as: "The nation of Israel (Judah) shall not lose the sovereign right to enforce judicial (Mosaic) law upon the Jewish people, until the Messiah (Shiloh) comes…" Although Judah was deprived of its national sovereignty during the 70 year period of Babylonian captivity (6th century BC), it never lost its scepter, for the Jews were allowed to retain their own judges and priests even while in captivity (Ezra 1:5,8).
According to the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 17:13), around the year 6-7 AD, the Jewish ruler, Herod Archelaus (son and successor of King Herod), was dethroned and replaced not by another Jewish king, but by a Roman procurator named Caponius. Along with this action, the Romans removed the power of the Sanhedrin Council in Judah to pronounce the death penalty (except in certain religious cases) and limited other judicial powers.
Thus the scepter (the supreme judicial power) passed from
Judah. Josephus recorded this transfer of power in
Book 2, Chapter 8 of Wars of the Jews: "And
now Archelaus part of Judea was reduced into a province, and
Caponius, one of the equestrian order of the Romans, was
sent as procurator, having the power of life and death
put into his hands by Caesar!"
For the Jewish religious leader’s reaction to this occasion, we turn to the Talmud Bavli (the "Babylonian Talmud"), a record of rabbinic writings and discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, traditions, and history. Chapter 4 states that they were overtaken by "a general consternation", and that they "covered their heads with ashes and their bodies with sackcloth, exclaiming, 'Woe unto us, for the scepter has departed from Judah, and the Messiah has not come!'"
What they did not realize was that the Messiah had come. In fact, He was probably about to become or had recently become a Bar Mitzvah (one to whom the commandments apply), that is a Jewish Boy of 13 now responsible for His own actions regarding the Jewish law. The Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, had been born around 5-6 BC during the last years of Herod, so "Shiloh" had arrived shortly before the scepter departed... just as prophesied by Jacob almost two millennia before!
Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians that God sent Jesus "in the fullness of time" (Gal 4:4-5), but why did God select this particular time period in history? I think we can identify three major factors in His decision (factors that He, of course, orchestrated). First, the Romans ruled most of the known world, creating a time of relative peace. The Romans allowed conquered nations to continue practicing their own religion as long as they added a new god, the Roman emperor. All you had to do was proclaim Caesar as "a god", then you could carry on worship of your own god as usual. Since the Jews would not acknowledge the Roman Emperor to be divine, there was often conflicts, but for the most part, the Romans treated the Jews fairly, and let them practice their own religion.
The next factor was that of a unified language, namely Greek. This was a holdover from the Greek empire and, although the Romans used Latin for official documents, they left the existing common language alone. Even in Palestine, most residents spoke Greek more fluently than their own Hebrew or Arabic languages, and Greek became the language of the New Testament.
The last factor was the roadway system. These were built by the Romans, using the best materials and engineers, and because they were closely monitored by the Romans army, travel throughout the empire was extremely safe. These three factors, no doubt, contributed greatly to the fast spread of Christianity.
I used to say that, if it had been up to me to select the time of Jesus' birth, I probably would have picked a more contemporary era with modern technology for communicating the message. Fortunately, God didn't bother to consult with me on this issue. If the Incarnation had happened in our politically correct time of relativism, in which absolute truth is denied and the worst offense you can perpetrate is to claim to actually be right about something, our modern media would characterize Jesus as an intolerant, exclusive, arrogant, bigoted, hate-monger (and this would just be the major networks, I can't print what would be on cable). As always, God's timing is perfect.
Tribe of Judah, House of David
The first book of the New Testament, Matthew, which was written primarily to the Jews, begins with a record of the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Messiah’s coming from the house of David (tribe of Judah). The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham (Mt 1:1), then proceeds to list the ancestry. The Messiah is revealed in the Old Testament as descending from Abraham (Gen 12:3, 18:18, 22:18), Isaac (Gen 17:19, 26:4), Jacob (Gen 28:14), Judah (Gen 49:10, 1Ch 5:2), Jesse (Is 11:1,10), and David (2Sam 7:12-13,16, Ps 89, Jer 23:5-6). Many of these prophecies had partial fulfillments in a human descendant, with its ultimate consummation in Jesus Christ.
The angel Gabriel affirmed the lineage when he appeared to Mary to announce the impending birth of Jesus. "You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David" (Lk 1:31-32).
The people of Israel took great pains to keep a strict record of their tribal ancestry. This was an act of faith based on God’s promise that one day they, or their children would ultimately lay claim to their ancestral inheritance. Tribal ancestry was also very important in certain institutions such as marriage and religious service. Upon returning to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile (5th century BC), many Levites were excluded from temple worship because they could not produce their genealogical records (Ezra 2:61-62).
When the Temple was sacked and burned in 70AD by the Roman general Titus (a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24), all of the Jewish genealogical records were destroyed. Since then, no Jew could accurately know or prove for certain from which tribe he descended. So, within a generation after the death of Jesus, a Jew could no longer say with certainty, "I am from the tribe of Judah", and thus could not claim to be the Messiah.
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Place of the Birth
The place of the Messiah's birth had also been precisely prophesied five hundred years earlier by the prophet Micah: "But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel" (Micah 5:2).
We see the fulfillment in the Gospel of Luke. "Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David [Bethlehem] there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ [Messiah] the Lord" (Lk 2:10-11).
The first mention that we have of Bethlehem in the bible is the death of Rachel. In the 35th chapter of Genesis (v16-20) we read "Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, "Don't be afraid, for you have another son." As she breathed her last (for she was dying) she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb."
This incident is almost prophetic. Might not Mary have called her own son Jesus, her Ben-oni (meaning "Son of my trouble"), for he was to be the child of Sorrow. Simeon (the man in the temple who was promised that he would see the Messiah before he died) said to her, "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too" (Lk 2:34-35). This prediction was fulfilled at the cross as Mary watched her son die. But while Mary might have called him Ben-oni, his Father (God) could have called him Benjamin, which means the "son of my right hand".
It’s also notable that a couple of other women also hail from Bethlehem. These were Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabitess, whose Gentile blood would unite with the Jewish blood of Boaz, to sustain the lineage which would bring forth the Lord our Savior, to be the great King of both Jews and Gentiles. Boaz became the father of Obed, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
The word Bethlehem itself has a double meaning. It signifies both "the house of bread," and "the house of war." Christ to each of us is either "the house of bread," or else "the house of war." While he is the food of life to the righteous, he brings war to the wicked according to his own word, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Mt 10:34). If you don’t know Bethlehem (Jesus) as "the house of bread," it shall be to you a "house of war." Ephratah means "fruitfulness," or "abundance." Jesus says "If a man abides in me, and my words abide in him, he shall bear much fruit" (Jn 15:5), and "I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly" (Jn 10:10)
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Nature of the Birth
In this section, we’ll look at a few related attributes of the Messiah’s birth.
The Deity of Christ
In the "Incarnation" segment, we discussed the two natures of Christ, and elaborated somewhat on His humanity, including how He is the perfect representation of humanity. We must also note that Jesus is also the perfect representation of deity.
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for [our] sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Heb 1:1-3)
Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:8-9).
Jesus was not just the perfect representation of God, He was God. Jesus responded to the Jews when asked if he was the Messiah, "I and My Father are one." Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him (Jn 10:30-31). The Jewish leaders attempted to stone Him because they clearly understood His claims to be God.
Paul writes of the Incarnation, that Jesus "being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (Php 2:6-7. The Greek word normally translated "form" is "schema", having the sense of shape or superficial appearance rather than substance, but this was not the word that is used here. Paul used the word "morphe", which means "the characteristics that make a thing what it is, or denoting the genuine nature of a thing." Paul was saying that Jesus is by his very nature, God. He also writes in his letter to the church at Colosse: For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (Col 2:9).
So I think we can state that, to see what perfect humanity is like, look to Jesus. Likewise, to see what perfect divinity (God) is like, look to Jesus.
The Eternality of Christ
Before we were born, we did not exist, but the origin of the Messiah, who appears in Bethlehem, is from eternity (Jn 1:1). Let's listen in to a conversation He had with the Jewish leaders.
"Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." So the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am" (Jn 8:56-58 NASB). So, once again, they took up stones to throw at Him, clearly understanding His claim to be God.
Before He was incarnated, Jesus made several appearances in the Old Testament. We call these a Theophany, that is a visible manifestation of God. In Genesis 18, He appeared to Abraham to announce that he would have a son (Isaac), and in Genesis 32, He wrestled with Jacob. In Joshua 5, He appeared with drawn sword as "Captain of the Host of the Lord" to Joshua. He accepted worship (a big no-no if this was just an angel) and asked Joshua to "Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy." (Jsh 5:15 NASB). Later, He appeared in the fiery furnish at Babylon with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3).
The Virgin Birth
About 700 years before the "birth" of Jesus, the Jewish prophet Isaiah predicted that a virgin would bear a child and this would be a sign.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel [God with us] (Is 7:13-14). For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Is 9:6).
We then move forward about 700 years where we hear the angel Gabriel speaking to Mary: "You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Lk 1:31-35).
The virgin birth has been one of the most attacked doctrines of the Bible. Many liberal pastors today even deny it, saying it's really not important. The word "liberal" comes from a Latin term meaning "to cut loose" or "to not be bound by something". In politics, it is the "cutting loose" from the historical interpretation of the constitution. In religion or theology, it means to be cut loose and not be bound by the authority of Scripture or the Creeds of the Church.
Regarding the denial of the virgin birth, there are many good apologetics books available which refute this position, but I’ll mention a couple of facts. First, the Bible clearly states it (which should be sufficient). In the genealogy listing in the first chapter of Matthew, he records "...and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ" (Mt 1:16). The pronoun "of whom" is feminine singular in the Greek, clearly indicating that Jesus was born of Mary only, not of Mary and Joseph. There is also something particularly interesting in the ancestry of Joseph in that he was a descendant of Jeconiah (variation of Jehoiachin) (Mt 1:11). Why is this significant? If we look back about 600 years, we find a curse relayed to Jehoiachin by the prophet Jeremiah: Thus says the LORD " ... For no man of his [Jehoiachin’s] descendants will prosper sitting on the throne of David or ruling again in Judah." (Jer 22:30). Therefore, due to the curse, the Messiah could not have come from the natural line of Joseph.
Even secular writers of the first century attested to the truth of the birth. Many referred to Jesus as "that bastard son of the adulteress". While they denied the virgin birth, they clearly attest to Him not being the natural son of Joseph. I personally believe the best evidence came at the cross. Mary was the only person with first-hand knowledge of the conception. I can’t imagine any mother watching her son experience what Jesus endured, watching Him being nailed to the cross without crying out "Stop, I’ll tell you who the father is". But she remained silent because she knew He was the Son of God.
Regarding the importance of the doctrine, we must ask "What is the theological significance of the Virgin Birth?" The traditional position of the church is that the virgin birth is required for the union of God and man, and for the sinlessness of Jesus, two doctrines absolutely critical for our salvation. The interpretation that the sin nature passed through the human father is based on Romans 5:12, where Paul, referring to Adam, states that "sin entered the world through one man", but he also writes elsewhere, referring to Eve, that "Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner" (1Tim 2:14). I personally think God could have circumvented the virgin birth if He had originally desired, but since we are told in the authoritative Holy Scriptures that the virgin birth would occur, and that it did occur, we know that it was absolutely critical whether or not we can fully understand the necessity. If we deny the truth of the virgin birth, we must also deny the inerrancy of the scriptures. On a related matter, some suggest the virgin birth was required because, based upon Psalms 51:5 (in sin did my mother conceive me), the act of conception is sinful, but this clearly conflicts with statements about sexual relations within marriage being a gift from God (Gen 1:28, 1Cor 7:2-5, Song of Solomon).
The doctrine of the virgin birth also reinforces truths found in other doctrines. For instance, the virgin birth remind us that our salvation is supernatural, and that we are helpless to take even the first step toward initiating our own salvation (Mt 19:26). As humans, we could not produce the Savior through our own efforts. Our salvation comes only by grace (Eph 2:8).
In exploring these aspects of the Incarnation, we see that all were prophesized centuries before they were fulfilled literally and exactly. The timing, ancestry, location and nature of Jesus’ birth were ordained by God the Father before the foundation of the world, revealed to man by His Spirit through the Jewish prophets, and finally accomplished in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4,5).
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Purpose & Significance of the Birth
We've now discussed the Person and the event that provides us with the basis of Christmas, but we must now ask "Why did Jesus have to be born?", and "What does this all mean to us today?".
The foundation of Christmas goes back much further that the first Christmas described in the 2nd chapter of Luke. The initial reference to the birth of Jesus immediately follows the first sin of man.
And I will put enmity between thee [Satan] and the woman [Mary], and between thy seed [Satan & those not in Christ] and her seed [Jesus]; it shall bruise thy head [result of the Cross], and thou shalt bruise his heel [at the Cross] (Gen 3:15). If man had not sinned, there would be no need of Christmas.
In today’s culture, people continually preach the good news of Jesus but fail to teach the bad news (original sin). The reason many don’t respond to the good news because they failed to understand the bad news and don’t realize that we all need a Savior. We need to teach people to understand why they need Jesus before they’ll understand their need to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior. They need to be taught first of all that modern science has not disproved the historical accounts of the Bible, but actually confirms them. Then they need to be taught the foundational truths that enable one to understand what the babe in a manger is all about.
The bad news of Adam’s sin was that it was punishable by death (Genesis 2:17). Romans 6:23 confirms that the wages of sin is death. Adam and Eve sinned, so something had to die to cover that sin. This is why God first displayed his grace by killing animals to cover Adam and Eve’s sin (Genesis 3:21). Hebrews 9:22 states that, without shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin. Although we don’t know what animals were sacrificed, we have often pictured a lamb as a foreshadowing of the Gospel. The Israelites followed this pattern by presenting sin offerings to cover their sins by sacrificing an animal life for their disobedience to God. But an animal can’t take away the sin of a man, as humans are not related to any other creature.
Man was made in the image of God. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was the final sacrifice to take away the penalty of peoples’ sins on the cross. Jesus, the God-Man, came into the world to seek and save lost sinners (Lk 19:10, 1Tim 1:15). His human nature allowed Him to be our substitute on the cross, and His divine nature provided the infinite value required to atone for all our sins - past, present and future.
Before Jesus' baptism, John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (Jn 1:29).
Why Jesus had to be "Born"
We've established why Jesus came to earth, but why did he have to be "born". Could He not have just taken on a human nature, come to earth for a few years, performed a few miracles, taught some people, trained His disciples, started His church, died to pay for our sins, then arise and return to Heaven? After all, He only ministered for three years out of His life. As always, we look to the Bible for the answers.
I think we must start with the His main purpose for coming, so we look at His substitutionary work in doctrine of salvation. Paul gives us a great summary in his second letter to the Church at Corinth: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Cor 5:21). There are two necessary parts to our salvation. The first is the forgiveness of our sins which, is a great gift but, by itself, would only return us to the state of Adam and Eve before the fall. The second part to our salvation is that God imputes (credits) to us the righteousness of Christ, that is, we are credited with living the life that Christ lived (see also Rom 3:22, 4:24, 5:17, 8:4, 1Cor 1:30, Php 1:11, 2Pe 1:1). God can now treat us as if we've lived the perfect life. This is why Christ was born and lived the perfect sinless life, so that it could be credited to us. Jesus said at His baptism that he must "fulfill all righteousness" (Mt 3:15).
Paul writes in Galatians 4 that he was born under the law so that he could redeem those under the law (we are under the law until we receive salvation, then we are under grace). Jesus is also called "the last Adam" (1 Cor 15). He, in effect, became a new (and perfect) Adam, so He could die for the descendants of Adam and offer us a free gift of salvation (Rom 5:12-19).
Many folks question the fairness of charging all mankind with Adam's original sin. Is God being just in imputing to us the consequences of Adam’s sin? The short answer is "yes", but we’ll address that issue in detail in another article. For now, we’ll just comment that if you object to this action, then you must also object to God canceling our sins and imputing to us the righteousness of Christ due to His work on the cross.
Another reason for Jesus living an earthly life was to prepare Him experientially for His role as our Intercessor. The writer of Hebrews records: Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Heb 4:14-16).
We've now seen that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and that he was born that we might have salvation; however, Jesus could have been born hundreds of times in Bethlehem with no benefit to us unless He is born "in us". Jesus said "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (Jn 3:3 NRSV). We must repent and receive the gift of salvation for it to be effective. If you have not done so, or even if you're not sure, we encourage you to read How to Be Sure You're Going to Heaven.
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Christmas in our Modern Culture
The current battle over Christmas is just one battle within the larger "culture war" to remove any mention of God from our public life. Even some Christians have bought into the trend today to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" because that might violate what is currently perceived to be one of the most important rights supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution, the right of every individual to not be offended. These individuals, of course, do not worry about offending Christians. Well, as a believer in Jesus Christ, I say it is time that we started offending them! I don't mean that we should be mean-spirited since the Scriptures command us to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15) and not to be a stumbling block (1Cor 10:32), but the Truth in itself is offensive to non-believers (1Cor 1:23).
Jesus said He came not to bring peace, but a sword (Mt 10:34). Jesus said that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The only approach to the Father, to the Lord God Almighty, is through Him (Jn 14:6). The Apostle John wrote that all who receive Him (Jesus) have eternal life, and all who deny Him are condemned to eternal punishment (Jn 3:18).
If Jesus and John are correct (and as Christians we stake our eternal destiny on these truths) we need to start offending people. Jesus said to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Mt 28:19-20).
Since not only ours, but the eternal destiny of all others are riding on the acceptance of these truths, we need to let people know, speaking the truth in love. Many modern churches have a tendency to water down the message to make it "less offensive" to seekers. We need to get back to giving people the entire gospel and rely on the Holy Spirit for the results. There’s a passage of Scripture that was constantly taught when I was younger that I rarely hear mentioned anymore. God told Ezekiel: "When I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you will surely die,' and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself" (Ez 33:8-9).
Before we close, I’d like to mention an objection to the Christmas celebration that I’ve heard from a few folks, the feeble excuse that we don’t know the exact day Jesus was born. These same folks, of course, would not celebrate the birth on any other day either, but we should ask the question "Even if Jesus was not born on December 25, should we still celebrate Christmas?" As Christians, we should celebrate the birth of our Savior every day, but we set aside this time of year for a special celebration. The important point is not the exact day he was born, but the fact that he was born. We do not celebrate the date, but the Person and the Event.
In 1739, theologian and hymnist Charles Wesley wrote a song called "Hark, How all the Welkin Rings" which captured the essence of the Incarnated Christ-child. In 1753, George Whitefield, the famous evangelist of the Great Awakening, altered the first line and began using it in his revivals. In 1856, organist William Cummings adapted a Felix Mendelssohn tune (written in 1840 to commemorate the invention of the printing press) to use with the hymn. This brings us to the version we still sing today:
Hark the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled".
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With the angelic host proclaim,
"Christ is born in Bethlehem".
Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King."
Christ by highest heav'n adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord.
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin's womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King."
Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace.
Hail the Son of Righteousness.
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris'n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King."
Come Desire of nations come,
Fix in us thy humble home.
Rise the woman's conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent's head.
Now display thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore,
Now in mystic union join,
Thine to ours and ours to thine.
Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King."
One last thing to consider… If this is merely just another "Holiday Season", a time for office parties, a time to count our sales receipts and watch football games, if this is not "Christmas", then we do not have a Savior! "Merry CHRISTmas"!
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