Why is the birth of Jesus Christ celebrated on 25th December? According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, December 25 was first identified as the date of Jesus’ birth by Sextus Julius Africanus (AD 160-240) in AD 221. Africanus wrote Chronographiai, a history of the world in five volumes.
As “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Lk. 2:8NIV) when Christ was born, it’s usually assumed that it wasn’t winter because it would be too cold to be living in the fields overnight. So people often assume that the date of Christmas is not connected to the date of Christ’s birth. (more…)
Racing car drivers and procrastinators want the same drug. It comes from that contradictory cocktail of excitement and terror. Whilst drivers push the physics envelope, procrastinators push the limits of time. As fear of the impending deadline looms, finally adrenaline seeps sweetly into the system.
Let me illustrate. The greatest rush in the world is not the French 24 Hours of Le Mans Endurance Race… it’s the Westfield Christmas Pressie Dash: 27 presents in 8 shopping hours. Every year, on Christmas Eve, men who should never have been licensed as fathers, take part. And I’m here to tell you it can be done because I’ve done it more than once. But there’s absolutely no room for failure. (more…)
Both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus feature in many Christmas celebrations. Everyone likes Santa because he is jolly man who brings gifts to children around the world. But why is Jesus better than Santa?
Fact or myth?
Four separate eyewitness biographies are given of Jesus in the Bible by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Three of these were written about 30 years after most of the events they describe. And the first-century Jewish historian Josephus called James “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”. These historical records confirm that Jesus was a man who lived in Israel between about 5 BC and AD 30. He was an historical character and not a mythical figure.
Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Christian bishop, who was known for his generosity and kindness. Saint Nicholas lived in Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). There are many legends about him, but we don’t know if any of them are true! He is said to have used his inheritance to help the poor and sick, giving secret gifts to people who needed them. In particular there are stories about helping three poor sisters and saving three men from death. Because of his kindness Nicholas was made a saint and he was a popular saint in Europe until the Reformation in the 1550s. After this time, the Dutch continued to celebrate the feast day of St Nicholas on 6th December when children put out their shoes the night before and the next morning they would discover gifts left by St Nicholas. In the 19th century this story was transformed to Santa Claus leaving gifts at Christmas time. He was now described as a jolly, heavy man wearing a red suit with white fur trim who comes down the chimney to leave presents for deserving children and drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Santa is only a mythical figure.
So, Jesus Christ is an historical character while Santa Claus is only a legendary character.
The best gift
In the song “Santa Claus is coming to town”, Santa makes a list of those who are naughty and bad (who miss out on presents) and a list of those who are nice and good (who get presents). So Santa only comes for good people. He asks, “Have you been good?”.
On the other hand, Jesus came for sinners, and not for those who thought they were good – He said “I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Mt. 9:13; Mk. 2:17; Lk. 5:32NLT). After the conversion of Zacchaeus, a well know sinner, Jesus said that He “came to seek and to save those who are lost” (Lk. 19:10). As the Bible says we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23), this means He came for everyone!
Recently when cleaning out a family home that had been occupied for three generations, we found some things that had been Christmas presents. However, as many of these were no longer useful or significant, they were thrown out as rubbish. Christmas presents eventually finish up in the garbage (trash) dump. Santa’s gifts only have a finite lifetime.
By comparison, Jesus offered the gift of forgiveness and of eternal life, which goes on forever! He asks, “Do you want to be forgiven?”. Also, the gift was Himself, not something that had been made by a person or a machine. Jesus is the best gift! He is God’s greatest gift. Paul called it “indescribable” (2 Cor. 9:15). “This is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Let’s remember this as we give gifts to each other this Christmas.
Jesus gave the best gift – it lasts longer and is for everyone.
Written, December 2014
Jesus as ambassador, lifesaver and gift
At this time of the year we remember the incarnation when Jesus Christ was born into the world. Scripture teaches that He was sent into the world by God the Father. Let’s look at why Jesus was sent. What was His mission and purpose?
God sent His Son
In the Old Testament times God spoke to mankind through people such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, the judges and the prophets. They were divinely inspired spokesmen for God. We read in Hebrews, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2NIV).
It reminds me of the parable of the wicked tenants where a landowner rented his vineyard to some farmers. When he sent his servants to collect the harvest, they were killed. Then he sent his son to them, but they killed him as well (Mt. 21:33-46). In this parable, the landowner is like God, the servants are like the prophets and the son is like Jesus. First God sent the prophets and then He sent His Son.
Paul wrote, “When the set time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal. 4:4). Who set the time? God the Father. He is the one who did the sending. It was His idea. At Christmas we remember how, “God sent His son”. Although Mary was His earthly mother, God was His Father. This means that Jesus is the Son of God, which shows that He is divine; a part of the trinity. Jesus is unique in this aspect. Jesus was “born of a woman”, which is the usual way that people enter the world. It shows that Jesus was also a man. What an amazing way for God’s Son to enter the world!
The New Testament gives three reasons why Jesus was sent: to be an ambassador, a lifesaver, and a gift from God.
To be an ambassador
Jesus was sent to be an ambassador. What does an ambassador do? They represent whoever sent them. They are authorised representatives that are usually sent to a foreign country. The prophets were God’s ambassadors, although they represented Him in their own countries. However, their message came from a different country; it was from heaven.
Jesus was God’s ambassador. But He was a different kind of ambassador. How was Jesus’ ambassadorship different? He was sent to be born in a foreign country (earth) as a baby and not as a mature adult. This means that He wasn’t a foreigner. He grew up on earth and didn’t just arrive as an adult. So God sent an ambassador who wasn’t a foreigner. To all appearances He was a normal person like you or I. He lived in Palestine and was not seen as a foreigner. He spoke the same language, wore the same clothes, and had a similar appearance to his fellow countrymen. In this regard, He was like the prophets.
What does the Bible say about Jesus as an ambassador?
Jesus spoke for God
We have already seen in Hebrews that God “has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:2). John wrote, “the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God” (Jn. 3:34). Jesus said, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me” (Jn. 7:16; 8:26) and “For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken … So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (Jn. 12:49-50).
So Jesus was an ambassador whose message came from God the Father. He spoke on God’s behalf.
Jesus acted for God
But Jesus not only spoke for God, He lived for God. Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of Him who sent me” (Jn. 6:38-39). Also, “my food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work” (Jn. 4:34) and “I seek not to please myself but Him who sent me” (Jn. 5:30).
The Lord Jesus is the most complete revelation of God to humanity. He has made God known and said “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 1:18; 14:9). Jesus reveals God’s character. He said, “the one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me” (Jn. 12:45). After all, one of His names was Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Mt. 1:23).
So Jesus was an ambassador who acted in accordance with God’s will.
Jesus showed God’s kindness and love
In living for God, Jesus showed God’s kindness and love in a new way. After describing one’s sinfulness before salvation, Paul wrote “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Ti. 3:4-7). When did “the kindness and love of God our Savior” appear? It was when Christ arrived on earth. At Christmas we remember this event.
John wrote, “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world” (1 Jn. 4:9). And the well known verse, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
So Jesus was an ambassador who showed God’s kindness and love. We learn more about this in the next illustration.
To be a lifesaver
Jesus was also sent to be a lifesaver. What does a lifesaver do? They rescue those who are drowning. At the beach they watch the surfers and give warnings when there is danger such as sharks, rips or rough waves.
Jesus was God’s lifesaver. God sent Jesus on a rescue mission to save us from the lake of fire. Like a lifesaver rescues those who are drowning, Jesus can rescue us from God’s eternal judgment. His name reflects the fact that He is the most important part of God’s rescue plan. The name “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua” which means “God saves”. Joseph was told that Mary “will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).
But He was a different kind of lifesaver. How was Jesus’ lifesaving different? First, His was a rescue of our spirit, soul and body; not just a physical one. Second, He took the place of the victim and died in the process. Third, when it is accepted, Christ’s lifesaving is effective forever. We have heard of people who died when saving someone else, but the person who was rescued could drown later. In fact they will eventually die later unless the Lord comes in the meantime and they are believers.
What does the Bible say about Jesus as a lifesaver?
Jesus paid the penalty for our sin
All the world’s problems come from the sinful nature we inherited from Adam and Eve. Humanity’s sinfulness was the target of God’s rescue plan. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 Jn. 3:8). What is the devil’s work? Sin, because “the devil has been sinning from the beginning”. Satan specialises in sinning.
The Bible says that Jesus “appeared so that He might take away our sins” (1 Jn. 3:5). “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). “The Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 Jn. 4:14). “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him” (Jn. 3:17; 12:47).
God did this by sending Jesus to the earth to die on the cross (Jn. 12:27). God “loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10). Then He was buried and rose from the grave and ascended back to heaven. So the baby born in Bethlehem died at Calvary for our sins.
By confessing our sinfulness and accepting that Jesus died as our substitute there is liberation from sin and its consequences: Jesus was sent to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free (Lk. 4:18-21). Jesus is the answer to the world’s problems. He is the greatest lifesaver.
Jesus enables eternal life in heaven
Not only can we be rescued from eternal punishment, but we can be eternally in God’s presence. “God sent His Son … that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal. 4:4). The change described in this passage is from being slaves to being sons. The Jews were under the bondage of the law and the Gentiles were under the bondage of idolatry. Through Christ’s sacrifice, both can be changed from slaves to heirs as sons of God.
To be a gift
Jesus was also sent to be a gift. God’s salvation is like a gift: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Besides being God’s ambassador and lifesaver, Jesus is God’s gift to us: “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Jn. 4:10; Rom. 6:23; 2 Cor. 9:15). Paul wrote, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” 2 Cor. 9:15). So God is the greatest giver and Jesus is the greatest gift.
Have you accepted His gift of salvation or has it been discarded or forgotten? This is important because the next time Jesus is sent to earth it will not be as an ambassador or a lifesaver or a gift but as a judge.
Here’s how to accept God’s gift. We can’t escape hell and get to heaven by good works. When people asked Jesus “What must we do to do the works God requires?” He answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.”’ (Jn. 6:28-29). Instead of good works we need to confess our sins and trust in Christ’s work of salvation on our behalf.
Here’s the result of accepting God’s gift: those who accept God’s rescue plan have a new life in Christ which is a spiritual life. “He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him” (1 Jn. 4:9). Without Jesus in our life we are spiritually dead, with Him in our lives we are spiritually alive. He said, “whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” and “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 5:24; 10:10). Anyone alive has physical life, But Jesus is talking about spiritual life here. Believers have been born into a spiritual life; they have changed from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. Paul calls it a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
The disciples were an example of those who accepted God’s gift. Jesus prayed, “I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them (they accepted that He was God’s ambassador). They knew with certainty that I came from You, and they believed that You sent me (they accepted that He was God’s lifesaver)” (v.8, 25). He also prayed for unity between Christians so “that the world may believe that You have sent me” (Jn. 17:21, 23). Let’s display the character of God and Christ so that others will see Christ in us as the Father is seen in Christ.
God sends us
Jesus continued to pray for the disciples “As You sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” and “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn. 17:18; 20:21). As God sent His Son to earth, Jesus sent His disciples to proclaim the gospel message. Those of us who trust in Christ are also His disciples and are also sent to be God’s ambassadors to proclaim the gospel message in our part of the world. As Paul wrote, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). In this case the message was to be reconciled to God.
As we give gifts to each other at Christmas let’s remember that God the Father sent His Son as an ambassador so we can learn more about God, as a lifesaver who we can trust in for eternal life and as a gift for us to accept and share with others.
Written, December 2011
A special Christmas message
Every December 25, Christians all over the world celebrate an event that occurred about 2,000 years ago – the birth of Jesus Christ. Unlike most boys of that time, Jesus was not named after a human father or given a family name (Lk. 1:59-60). Instead, He was given special names to signify His special mission.
Although born in a Jewish community in a town near Jerusalem, Jesus was to affect the lives of all humanity – past, present and future. This is evident from the names associated with the birth of this unique child.
God with us
It was prophesied centuries before that He would be called “Immanuel”, which means “God with us” (Is. 7:14; Mt. 1:22-23NIV). This shows that Jesus was God living on earth as a human being and is consistent with Joseph being told that Jesus was conceived “from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). How remarkable that the Creator of the universe should be born on earth as a baby boy.
The Bible states that Jesus “shared in our humanity” (Heb. 2:14) and “became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14). As a result, He is the clearest revelation of God to mankind. The fact that Jesus was both human and divine is fundamental to the Christian faith (1 Jn. 4:2; 2 Jn. 7). His followers recognised that He was “the man from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49).
It seems as though God was also physically present on earth at the beginning of history as Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the LORD God as He was walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). So why did the Divine return to earth as Jesus?
Joseph was told to give Mary’s son the name Jesus, “because He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21NIV). This was His mission.
The name “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua”, which means “the Lord saves”. Joshua helped to spy out the promised land of Canaan (Num. 13). Most of the spies were afraid of the fortified cities, and the people who were strong and powerful and seemed like giants. Despite this Joshua and Caleb believed they could take possession of the land (Num. 13:30).
God used Joshua to destroy the walled city of Jericho and many other kingdoms and cities in Canaan. Under his leadership the Israelites had many victories and were saved from their enemies.
Today we live in a world of sin, suffering and death. As Joshua was used by God to save Israel, Jesus was used by God to save humanity. He came to have victory over sin, death and Satan and to rescue us from eternal judgement (Heb. 2:14-15; Rom. 5:18-21). In fact, “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Christ the Lord
The shepherds were told that the baby was “Christ the Lord” (Lk. 2:11). The name “Christ” is the Greek form of “Messiah”, which means “the Anointed One”. In the Old Testament, prophets, priests and kings were typically anointed with oil. When this name is applied to Jesus it means that He was divinely appointed – appointed by God.
Peter testified “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him” (Acts 10:38).
John said of the Scriptures “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (Jn. 20:31).
The word “Lord” signifies power and authority and is frequently used of God and Jesus in the Bible. Jesus taught “as one who had authority” (Mk. 1:22) and He demonstrated great power by His miracles, such as healing the sick, driving out demons and multiplying the loaves and fishes.
The wise men used a title of power and authority when they called the baby “the king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). Although king Herod was disturbed about this, Jesus was not recognised as such (Jn. 1:11), and this characteristic was not evident during His life on earth. Although this was the charge at His crucifixion, He said that His kingdom was not of this world (Jn. 18:36).
Jesus is supreme, His name “is above every name”. In the future His awesome power will be evident to everyone and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord (Phil. 2:9-11).
At Christmas we celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ, whose birth was to be “good news of great joy … for all the people” (Lk. 2:10). Responses to His birth included: obedience to God (Mt. 1:25), gifts and worship (Mt. 2:11), amazement (Lk. 2:18), meditation (Lk. 2:19), praise and thanks to God (Lk. 2:20,38) and worry (Mt. 2:3).
In the incarnation God took on human form to reveal Himself to people in a way they could grasp (Jn. 1:18), to become their Savior by ransoming their sins (Mk. 10:45), and to deal sympathetically with their needs (Heb. 2:17-18). But many rejected this offer of help: “though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognise Him” (Jn. 1:10).
As the birth of Jesus Christ divides history into B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, meaning, in the year of our Lord), so people are divided into those who accept and those who reject Christ’s offer to rescue them from eternal judgement.
I trust that you can say “Jesus, what a beautiful name” and that His name is well known to you as Savior, Christ and Lord (Mk. 6:14).
Published, December 1998
Preparing for the holiday
Christmas is coming! It’s a great time of festivity, celebration, exchanging gifts and expressing love and goodwill toward one another. It’s when Christians remember the birth of Jesus Christ. Everyone is friendly at this time of year.
The Christmas story is in the context of a bigger story. We learn about it from the Bible, which is God’s historical message to humanity. Some would ask, “Why bring God into Christmas?” Because He was behind the special Babe born in Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago.
But hasn’t science explained everything without the need to bring God into it? No! It can’t explain the complexity of life. We live in a world of many living things, so complex that science is unable to create it from non-living matter. Scientists can’t even manufacture a single living cell, like an amoeba. Furthermore, living organisms have the unique ability to continually repair and maintain and reproduce themselves – an ability that cannot be replicated by science and technology. Also, the origin of the “software” of the DNA molecule can’t be explained by science. The origin of life is beyond the realm of science, as is the origin of matter, energy and time. Why is there anything at all? These “why” and “origin” questions are beyond the realm of science.
The Big Picture
In the beginning of time God created life on earth. The first people, Adam and Eve, lived in the Garden of Eden. It was utopia, but it didn’t last long. God tested their obedience by telling them not to eat from one of the trees in the garden. But they were tempted to eat from this tree and when they did, they disobeyed God. This brought evil and rebellion into the world, and we have all inherited this sinful nature. The world changed completely when God cursed it; He introduced death and put a barrier between people and God. That’s why we live in a tough, disappointing and decaying world – a world of disease, suffering and injustice. That’s why life is a struggle and our relationships are fractured – with each other, with the physical environment and with God. No one can have utopia today. If that was the end of the story, then there would be nothing lasting to live for and we would be disillusioned, depressed and pessimistic.
Fortunately that’s not the end of the story. God had a rescue plan for mankind; it’s recorded in the Bible by eyewitnesses. Here’s a summary of that plan. God would send His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to fix the relationship between us and God. He entered our world in a personal way. He’s on our side and did everything possible to rescue us. Jesus lived like a human being, except without being sinful since He was the divine Son of God. He lived a perfect, sinless life in obedience to God; something that Adam and Eve didn’t do. Then He was killed to rescue us – to take the punishment for sin that we deserve. Only a perfect person could do that. This plan took about 33 years – from Jesus’ birth until His death. We remember His birth at Christmas and His death at Easter.
These occasions remind us that Jesus had a unique birth and a unique death. To show that He was not an ordinary person, after He was buried He came back to life and then went back to be with God. Only the God who created life has such power. People are given the opportunity to accept or reject God’s rescue plan. This has been happening for almost 2,000 years. Finally, God will return to judge the world and restore it to be like paradise. All who accept the rescue plan will enjoy God’s new creation. When God personally steps into His creation, big things happen. He has done this once and will do it again. The rescue plan gives us Someone and something to live for with purpose, confidence and optimism.
The big picture is visualized in the diagram. God created a perfect world. This world was changed and spoiled when humanity sinned. God sent His Son to take the punishment by dying for us so that those who accept the rescue plan can enter into God’s new creation. That’s the background to the Christmas story.
The First Christmas
All these things are real historical events; we acknowledge Christ’s existence whenever we write the date. The current year is 2008 AD, which means 2008 years since His birth. The word “Jesus” is not just a swear word, but the name given to this baby before He was born. “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua” which means “God saves” – because “He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21 NIV). God sent Him to be the Savior of the world (1 Jn. 4:14). Like a lifesaver rescues those who are drowning, Jesus can rescue us from God’s eternal judgment. His name reflects the fact that He is the most important part of God’s rescue plan.
After His birth, an angel told the shepherds, “I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody. The Savior, who is Messiah and Master has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David” (Lk. 2:10-11 MSG). Christ’s birth was announced as good news of great joy for everyone because this baby was the Savior and the promised Messiah. He was God in human form – “God with us” – the Messiah that the Jews were looking for (Mt. 1:23). That’s why His birth, life and death were unique. He’s also called Master and King because He is the leader of God’s new creation.
Angels sang the first Christmas carol: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (Lk. 2:14). They praised God for this Baby who would enable people to have peace with God and be rescued from the coming judgment (Jn. 3:17; Eph. 2:14-17). The most important thing we can do is make peace with God by admitting that we’re less than perfect, deciding to turn away from our sins, asking God to forgive our sins and control our life. When we accept His gift of pardon, forgiveness and reconciliation with God, we gain inner peace and can look forward to the paradise of God’s new creation (Rom. 5:1). It’s like being reborn into a new life. Then we have a real reason to celebrate Christ’s coming to the world.
God doesn’t force any of this on us. It’s like a gift that can be accepted or rejected – Jesus is God’s gift to us (Jn. 4:10-14). We have a choice. God lets us manage our own lives, but we receive the consequences of our choices. We will all face God one day. Will you face a lifesaver, or a judge?
Published, November 2008
Why do Christians celebrate Christmas, when everybody knows it is pagan in origin, tradition and most of its practices?
Christmas is a time when Christians remember the birth of Jesus Christ. Most historians agree that the celebration of Christmas did not begin until the fourth century, although they are not certain exactly how or why it began as a Christian festival. The most accepted explanation is that it began in Roman culture that held a pagan celebration for the winter solstice on December 25. As Christians were reluctant to take part, they replaced it with Christmas.
Local customs, culture, traditions and history influence Christmas practices around the world. Some, such as giving gifts or using a star, were derived from the biblical nativity stories. Some, such as the legend of Saint Nicholas, have their origin in Church history. Others, such as the use of evergreens and a yule log, have pagan origins. Still others, such as reindeer, elves, and the North Pole, are secular in origin and used as commercial marketing techniques.
The word “pagan” means one who worships a false god – an idolater, an unbeliever. Many things have a pagan origin. For example, the names of the days of the week in English were named after Anglo-Saxon gods and goddesses (except for Saturday, which was named after the Roman god Saturn). These in turn were based on Roman gods. However, the meaning of these names has changed from that of a deity to that of a particular day. Previously they had a pagan connection, but now they do not. So, it’s not the source long ago that’s important, but whether there is a connection today to idolatry (1 Cor. 10:20). The same applies to tradition: it’s the situation today that counts.
Many customs cannot be linked directly to Scripture. For example, families remember birthdays and weddings, but in the Bible the former are only mentioned with respect to Pharaoh and Herod (Gen. 40:20; Mt. 14:6). This custom is not wrong. We have freedom in many areas of life. New Testament passages that apply to the Church are much less prescriptive than those applied to the Jews in the Old Testament. Customs can be morally good (Lk. 4:16), evil or neutral. Two tests that can be applied to customs and practices are: Will God be glorified, and will anyone be stumbled (1 Cor. 10:31-32)?
There is no mention in Scripture of celebrating Christ’s birth, although believers are to remember His death. On the other hand, there is no prohibition against it. The incarnation is part of the gospel message: Christ was born and lived as a human before He was crucified. The celebration of Christmas could be considered a debatable matter (Rom. 14:1). Christians shouldn’t quarrel over debatable matters, but follow their conscience and honor God in whatever they do (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8:4-13; 10:14-33). They shouldn’t impose their convictions on others but respect each other’s conscience on these matters.
In a secular society, Christmas provides a great opportunity for evangelism. The birth of Christ is the theme of many Christmas carols. Believers can use this time to explain that Christ came into the world to address the problem of our separation from God and enable us to be reconciled with God and to have the promise of eternal life with Him in heaven.
The main dangers at Christmas are the idols of selfishness, materialism and the gospel of good works. Are we focused on what we receive or on what we give? Do we get caught up in the frenzy of shopping and celebrating? Do we tell children that if they are good enough they will receive presents from Santa Claus?
Beware of the false gods of Christmas. Remember that, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), and that the gospel teaches that we are not saved by what we do, but by God’s grace (Eph. 2:8).
Published, December 2007
A Christmas Message
At Christmas we give gifts to one another. When selecting a gift we consider what the person would like. Of course, we expect the receiver to open the gift we’ve given them. At this time of the year we also enjoy receiving gifts.
When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, He referred to Himself as “the gift of God” which leads to eternal life (Jn. 4:10-14 NIV). This reminds us that Jesus was God’s gift to humanity. Through Jesus’ birth, God became man. This gift satisfied our greatest need – being separated from God by our sins. Paul said, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 3:23). What a contrast! Our sin leads to death, but God offers us eternal life – to be with Him forever (2 Cor. 5:1-4).
Here’s how God offers His gift to us: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). It depends on faith; confessing our sinful condition and recognizing that Jesus paid our penalty when He died, enabling us to be reconciled with God (1 Jn. 1:9). This faith comes from God.
After Paul exhorted believers to be generous givers, he said, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15). No words can express the extent of God’s love. The best description was: “God loved the people of this world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who has faith in Him will have eternal life and never really die” (Jn. 3:16 cev).
The Greek word for “gift” conveys the loving-kindness of the giver and the lack of cost to the receiver. Surely, God is the greatest giver and Jesus Christ is His greatest gift. Have you accepted His gift? How sad to give and receive gifts at Christmas and never to receive Christ, the greatest gift of all.
The incarnation leads to God’s presence
On December 25 we remember the birth of Jesus Christ. This central event in history divided the calendar into BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, Latin for “in the year of our Lord”). He was born to die, His name meaning “He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21 NIV). In this article we will look at four similarities between Christ’s birth and His death.
Approximately 700 BC Isaiah wrote, “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.” And “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” (Isa. 9:6; 7:14). In the same time period, Micah predicted, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Mic. 5:2).
In about 530 BC Daniel wrote, “After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing” (Dan. 9:26). This is a reference to the sudden death of the Messiah. Christ’s suffering was described beforehand by Isaiah: “His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and His form marred beyond human likeness … He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteem Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed … He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open his mouth; He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so He did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away. And who can speak of His descendants? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people He was stricken” (Isa. 52:13-53:12). So the Old Testament prophets foretold the circumstances of the Messiah’s birth and death.
Where No One Had Ever Been Laid
When Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census, the only accommodation they could find was in the stable of an inn: “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk. 2:6-7). So the cattle trough became the cradle for the Messiah! What an unusual place for a baby – the manger would not have been used for this purpose before! This was God’s plan as it was announced to the shepherds. It also shows that He was born a pauper (2 Cor. 8:9).
After the Lord’s death, Joseph of Arimathea placed the body “in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock” (Mt. 27:60). It was a place where “no one had ever been laid” (Lk. 23:53; Jn. 19:41). This was the fulfillment of the prediction that “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death” (Isa. 53:9). Although the Lord was crucified as a criminal, He was buried in a rich man’s tomb, Joseph being a prominent member of the Jewish Council (Mk. 15:43). As H. A. Berg’s hymn says:
None had been laid in that manger
And none had been laid in that grave
But Jesus the heavenly stranger
Who came wayward sinners to save
After King Herod heard about the birth of the King of the Jews “he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt. 2:3). So he asked the wise men to search for the child and report back to him. When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the astrologers, “he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Mt. 2:8,16). What a drastic measure to take against a potential rival! In the meantime, Jesus and His family escaped to Egypt until Herod died.
The authorities felt threatened and responded with hatred and opposition that continued during the Lord’s ministry until He was condemned to death by the Chief Priests, the Jewish elders, Pilate and Herod. They even persuaded the crowd to ask for the release of the murderer Barabbas and Christ’s crucifixion even though He was innocent (Mt. 27:16-23; Mk. 15:6-14). The title on His cross was “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” but the Chief Priests protested that the sign should read, “this man claimed to be king of the Jews” (Jn. 19:21).
Signs In The Sky
The astrologers (or Magi, a sacred caste of the religion of the Medes and Persians) traveled to Jerusalem in search of the Christ-child, because they “saw His star in the East.” When they saw the star, they were overjoyed because it stopped over the place where the child was (Mt. 2:2,10). God used a special star to guide these men to a particular house.
We can learn much from their behavior recorded in Matthew 2:2-12. They came to worship Him. This was a genuine desire, not a selfish one like Herod’s. They came with joy and “bowed down and worshiped Him.” They brought gifts of gold (symbolic of a king), incense (a perfume symbolizing the Lord’s sinless life) and myrrh (a bitter herb symbolizing the Lord’s suffering). Do we bring gifts to the Lord for Him to use for His purposes?
When the Lord was on the cross there was darkness “over all the land” for three hours after noon (Mt. 27:45). This would have been incredible – like an extended total solar eclipse1. During this time He bore God’s judgment of the sins of mankind. After this, He chose to die by dismissing His spirit. “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split” (Mt. 27:50-51). So there was an earthquake, and the heavy curtain inside the temple – the door to the Holiest place where God dwelt – was torn in two. This would have been a catastrophe for the Jewish religious leaders because it exposed the most sacred place where only the High Priest was allowed to enter once each year on the Day of Atonement. This was God’s doing, as it was torn from top to bottom, not bottom to top.
The symbolism of this event is explained in Hebrews 10:19-22 this way: “Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” The curtain represented Christ’s body and through His death all believers can enter God’s presence in prayer and praise at any time. It was God’s way of opening the door to a relationship with Him (Rev. 3:20).
Hymn writer Gerrit Gustafson put it this way:
Only by grace can we enter
Only by grace can we stand
Not by our human endeavor
But by the blood of the Lamb
Into Your presence You call us
You call us to come
Into Your presence You draw us
And now by Your grace we come
Now by Your grace we come.
May we avail ourselves of this privilege of entering the open door of God’s presence as we celebrate His birth during this Christmas season.
See the other article in this series:
– From the Cross to the Crown
An illustration of the incarnation
At Christmas, we remember the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Although He was born into an ordinary family in an ordinary town in Israel, He was not an ordinary person – His life and death were unique. It has been said that the opening verses of John’s gospel are the words of an early Christian hymn. Let’s look at the final verse of this so-called hymn as written by the apostle John: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14 NIV).
John was a disciple who spent much time with Jesus Christ; they may have been cousins (Mt. 27:56; Mk. 15:40; Jn. 19:25). He was one of the three apostles closest to Jesus, the other two being Peter and James.
God lived among us
The first sentence of John 1:14 says that God chose to come into the world in a human body and for a while lived among us. John said that He “tabernacled” among us. John witnessed that Jesus was a real human being and not a myth or an illusion, because he saw, touched and listened to Him (1 Jn. 1:1-3).
This illustration reminds us of how God dwelt among His people during the Old Testament period in the tabernacle and the temple. As the tabernacle was a tent, this is the equivalent of saying that Christ “pitched His tent” among us. Of course a tent is the temporary dwelling of a traveller or nomad, which is used in Scripture to illustrate the mortal human body (2 Cor. 5:1,4; 2 Pet. 1:13). Jesus lived in the tent of His body for 33 years, so it was not a short appearance of God on earth.
Pitching a tent in a wilderness can be an adventure, as you may face danger and all types of weather. Some years ago I went on a four-day hike in a National Park and we carried our tent with us. This was easy compared to Christ’s 33 year journey through a sinful world.
Jesus was unique
In the second sentence of John 1:14, John summarizes the key attributes of Jesus Christ. He is described as the “One and Only” or the “only begotten” – which means that He was the sole representative of God. As God’s unique Son, Christ is equal to God. In fact John wrote his account so that we would realize that Jesus is truly God (Jn. 20:30-31).
His glory was evident. During the three years that John followed the Lord he witnessed the perfect life and character of Jesus, the sinless one. Jesus Christ was the only person to have lived on earth who did not sin. Because of His miraculous conception, Jesus did not inherit a sinful nature from Adam (Mt. 1:18-21). His is the only instance of a birth without a father – the pregnancy was a miracle of the Holy Spirit. To sin is to fall short of the glory of God. As everyone else has sinned, no other person has shown this glory (Rom. 3:23).
John also saw the bright shining light, which was seen when God was present, as he watched when Christ’s “face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light” (Mt. 17:1-9; 2 Pet. 1:16-18). This was a visible demonstration of His deity, similar to the glory cloud in the Old Testament which symbolized the presence of God.
He was divine. John wrote that Christ “came from the Father” and he heard God say, “This is my Son, whom I love” – indicating that Christ was the divine Son of God.
The name Jesus Christ indicates His humanity and His deity: “Jesus” was the name given at His birth, and “Christ” means God’s anointed one, the Messiah. He was indeed “God with us” – not only as a baby, but throughout His time on earth (Mt. 1:23).
He was “full of grace and truth.” John also testified of Christ’s kindness to others, His honesty and the absence of any sin or evil in His life. Christ’s greatest act of kindness was His unjust death for our sinfulness. Furthermore, all who believe on the Lord Jesus receive abundant blessings (Jn. 1:16).
Although He loved sinners, He did not love their sin. He realized that the wages of sin is death and so He died to pay the penalty of death that we deserved in order to save our souls and give us a home in heaven.
Why God lived on earth
Jesus was sent to save, for eternal life, all those who believe in Him – He was “the Savior of the world” (Jn. 3:16; 4:42; 6:40). Do you agree with John’s assessment of Jesus Christ? Do you realize that God lived among us for a while so that we in turn can live with Him in future (Jn. 14:3)? But His coming to earth can also help us today.
Many people long for God’s presence at Christmas. They should remember that the God who pitched His tent with us on the very first Christmas promises to take up permanent residence with all those who turn and put their trust in Him (Jn. 14:15-26). This means that if you have already put your trust in God, you need look no further for God’s powerful presence. He lives in you in the person of His Spirit and will remain with you. Nothing can separate you from His love and care.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10NIV)
Don’t worry, He’s returning
News stories on the internet, radio, TV and newspapers often arouse our fears of impending danger, trouble and evil. They seem to feed on the fact that we all experience anxiety and worry. For example, we can be worried or alarmed about: unemployment, money, relationships, loneliness, security, crime, terrorism, illness, aging, climate change, technological change, cultural change, moral change, our circumstances, our choices, the future, or the unknown.
About 2,000 years ago, Mary lived in Nazareth, a village about 115 km north of Jerusalem, which was more than two days of travel. She was far from the capital city of Israel. One day God sent an angel to visit her: “The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! God is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Lk. 1:28-29TNIV).
Mary would have been surprised by the angel Gabriel, because she had never seen an angel before. Six months earlier the priest Zechariah was “startled and gripped with fear” when the same angel appeared in the temple in Jerusalem (Lk. 1:11-13). If an old Jewish priest was terrified by the angel, then it is understandable that a young woman would also be terrified by the appearance of the same angel. Being alone with an angel could be scary.
Mary was worried about what the angel’s message meant. She would have known that God used angels to proclaim important messages. Was it bad news? She would have also known that angels can be God’s agents of judgement. Was she feeling guilty? As this was a circumstance that she had no control over, she may have felt helpless.
Then she was told, “Don’t be afraid”. Why? Because she had found favor with God and would have a son named Jesus. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Lk. 1:30-33). God had chosen her to be the mother of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, who would establish the kingdom of God on earth. This was a radical change in her life, because a baby changes everything, particularly the first-born. Nevertheless, her fears and anxieties were allayed and replaced with joy which she expressed in a song of praise for all that God had done (Lk. 1:46-55).
The Shepherd’s Anxiety
Nine months later the shepherds at Bethlehem had a similar experience: “they were terrified” when an angel appeared to them and God’s glory blazed around them like a supernatural search light (Lk. 2:9)! An angel appearing in the countryside during the night with a bright light would be scary. This was totally outside their experience. What was going to happen next? Were their lives in danger?
They were given the same reassurance as Mary, when the angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Lk. 2:10NIV). Mary’s promised baby had been born and they were told how to find Him. After seeing the baby Jesus for themselves, they also praised God “for all they had heard and seen” (Lk. 2:20).
The Disciples’ Anxiety
According to the Bible, the baby Jesus grew up to be a man who was the unique Son of God who came to take our judgement. After Jesus told His disciples that He was about to die and return to heaven, they were “filled with grief” and wept and mourned and felt abandoned (Jn. 16:6, 20TNIV). After all, they would be without the leader that they had followed for at least three years. But like Mary and the shepherds, they were told, “Do not be afraid” (Jn. 14:1, 27bNIV).
Three reasons were given for not being afraid of their new circumstances. First, they were assured of a home in heaven if they trusted Christ – because Jesus was the only way there. Jesus said, “Trust in God, trust also in Me” and “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to God the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:1b, 6). That’s why the shepherds were told that the baby was a Savior; one who could rescue them. Faith in Christ is necessary for eternal life which is the ultimate cure for our anxieties and worries.Second, Jesus would return and take them to be with Him; He said “I will come back and take you to be with Me” (Jn. 14:3, 28). Although He was going away, they could look forward to a reunion with Him. Third, in the meantime the Holy Spirit would always be within them – the Holy Spirit “will be with you forever” (Jn. 14:16). They would not be like orphans (Jn. 14:15-21, 25-27). This was like having Jesus with them all the time, not just sometime!
So, they had a Savior who was going to take them to heaven and God the Holy Spirit was always going to be with them. Like Mary and the shepherds, Jesus said that their grief would be turned into lasting joy (Jn. 16:20-23). The illustration He used was how a mother’s pain turns to joy after the birth of her baby.
The First Advent
At Christmas we remember the unique birth of the Lord Jesus Christ who was both divine and human. This was His first advent. He was sent to earth by God to die for us in order to enable us to be reconciled with God. The Bible says that God so loved the people of the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16). After His death, Jesus was buried and He rose back to life three days later.
Those who accept His free gift have peace with God and an inheritance of eternal life. We must receive what Christ has done for us before God will give us eternal life. However, those who don’t accept the gift face God’s judgment of eternal punishment; that’s what the word “perish” means in John 3:16 above.
The Second Advent
Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus ascended back to heaven by disappearing in a cloud. Then the eleven apostles were told, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11NIV). So, Jesus is going to return to the earth. This will be His second advent.
At Christmas we look back to the first coming of Christ and look ahead to the second coming of Christ. In His first coming He suffered and died; in His second coming He will conquer and reign. In His first coming He came as a baby and a suffering servant ((Isa. 52:13-53:12); in His second coming He will be a conquering king ( Rev. 19:16). That’s when He will be the king of the Jews. In His first coming He came to be a Savior; in His second coming He will be a Judge. The first is characterised by a cross and the second by a crown.
Did you know that all of God’s creation looks forward to the Lord’s coming reign over the earth? When the Lord returns to set up His kingdom, the creation will be released from the affects of humanity’s rebellion and re-created to be “very good” like it was in the beginning. The Garden of Eden will be restored (Acts 3:21). There will be harmony between all of God’s creatures. This is when, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat” (Isa. 11:6-9TNIV).
All the wrongs will be made right. All evil will be judged. Satan will be bound and unable to deceive people (Rev. 20:1-3) . All environmental problems will be solved. There will be justice and no wars. That’s when believers will be blessed materially as they rule with the Lord. In the meantime, they are already spiritually part of this new creation. Those who believe that the Savior died for them don’t have to worry, because Jesus is returning.
Between the advents
What can we learn from this as we live between the two advents of Jesus Christ? Mary and the shepherds faced supernatural circumstances and the disciples faced the loss of their Master and closest companion. We may not face supernatural circumstances, but at times we all face difficult circumstances and the loss of those who are near and dear to us. Like them, there are circumstances that we have no control over. Like them, we can experience anxiety, fear and worry, which can lead to panic and depression. But in their case, God’s solution led to joy.
Do not be afraid!
Remember the message, “Do not be afraid”. The reasons given to the disciples also apply to us. If we have trusted Jesus as our Savior our fears can be changed to joy and we can look forward to eternal life instead of eternal judgement. If we have not , then we will face Him as our judge. If we are true believers, the Holy Spirit is in us all the time. This transforms our lives. As believers we can look ahead to the second advent when the Lord Jesus will come and rule over a restored creation.
Another way to remove anxiety and fear is to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those that mourn” (Rom. 12:15). This involves sharing the feelings and the emotions of the good times and the bad times. This means listening to what life is like for others and validating their feelings. This means helping them realise that they are not alone. This means praying with them. This means talking about God and what He has done and what He has promised. These encouraging activities can help us get through all circumstances. He’s always with us and He’s always on our side, no matter how bad it gets. Believers are never alone; they have both spiritual and human resources to draw on.
So, don’t worry, Christ has been here once and He’s coming again to fulfill all of God’s promises.
Published, December 2011