Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Meaning of Christmas

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins." Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel," which translated means, "God with us." And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.
~Matthew 1:18-25

A common and important question that is often asked around this time of year is "what is the meaning of Christmas?" After taking the time to step away from all of the hustle and bustle the holiday season brings, have you ever pondered the significance of the day? Just why is it so important? What is special about it? Depending on the person, it appears that Christmas has carried several different meanings.

Much of the rituals and things we associate with Christmas actually have a pagan origin. For the ancient Romans, this time of December meant a celebration of their harvest god, Saturn. This "Festival of Saturnalia," as they called it, was accompanied by the exchanging of gifts and decorating homes with greenery.

For many, the "most wonderful time of the year" has become the "most stressful" as Christmas means baking enough food to feed the army of family that are only seen once or twice a year and finding the perfect gift for everyone. It signifies long lines and crowded stores. It means emptying one's wallet or purse and purging the credit card into more debt that will take half of the upcoming year to pay off. It means tales of a man named Santa Claus or St. Nicholas who travels in a sleigh with eight special reindeer (nine if you count Rudolph) from the North Pole and delivers gifts down people's chimneys. It's a marathon of either a story of a young boy who defends his house from crooks after being left home alone, a boy whose one sole desire and wish is a Red Ryder BB gun who winds up shooting his eye out, a Scrooge who gains the spirit of Christmas, or a man who learns that he has a wonderful life after all. It's bright, twinkling lights, evergreen trees, and far too many decorations. It's songs about Grandma getting run over by a reindeer and chestnuts roasting over an open fire.

The Real Meaning of Christmas

But for the Christian, Christmas has an even deeper meaning. It is the time that has been set aside to celebrate Jesus' birth. No one really knows for sure His exact birth date. In fact, He possibly was born in the Spring since the shepherds are described as being outside watching their flocks. Though this has been debated as certain scholars argue for cases of shepherds being in the fields also in the wintertime. All that Scripture tells us concerning the date is that it occurred around the time under Caesar Augustus' reign when Quirinius served as governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2). While this may be helpful in determining the year, the specific month and date remain a mystery. However, the precise date itself is of little importance compared to the significance of the event.

No Ordinary Man

Matthew opens up his gospel showing us how extraordinary this event was. This is not the birth of any ordinary man. He identifies Jesus as christos, the Greek parallel to the Hebrew mashiack, meaning anointed one. Through the lineage of his legal father Joseph, Jesus was the son of David, the son of Abraham. This is significant as this indicates that He is the divine king promised to David that would rule eternally (2 Samuel 7:16) as well as meeting the requirement that a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, / And a branch from his roots will bear fruit (Isaiah 11:1). By beginning the record of Jesus' genealogy at Abraham, Matthew demonstrates how Jesus was connected to God's covenant to the Patriarch. He came out of the great nation God promised He would make of Abraham and through Him, provided the means for the salvation for both Jew and Gentile so that all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8). Thus, Jesus was not an ordinary man but the long awaited Messiah that the Old Testament prophets have foretold would come. At Christmas, we are celebrating the Messiah.

No Ordinary Birth

Matthew highlights Jesus' miraculous birth as well. At the end of the genealogy, the apostle points out that Jesus was the son of Mary but not Joseph. The whom in Greek is feminine and singular, indicating that he is referring to Mary specifically and solely (v 16). A common rule in Greek grammar is that the pronoun will always match the antecedent it replaces in gender and number. Had Matthew intended to describe Jesus as being the son of both Mary and Joseph, the pronoun would have been plural in number and possibly male in gender. If Joseph served as the reference, it would be male and singular. However, Matthew wants to be clear that Jesus is the product of Mary through the Holy Spirit. He emphasizes this further by mentioning that Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit before they [Joseph and herself] came together (v 18, emphasis added). In order to stop Joseph from breaking off the betrothal as he was planning, an angel of the Lord informs him that no foul play had been involved from Mary but the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit (v 19-20). Those who insist on denying Jesus' virgin birth have torn out the entire first chapter of Matthew's gospel! Matthew connects this virgin birth to the prophecy Isaiah gave to King Ahaz that described this distinct miraculous event. (For a further exposition of this prophecy, see last year's post entitled: The Hope of Immanuel) This was no ordinary child but the Immanuel promised from long ago. He was "God with us." He was the "Son of God." He was fully God and fully man. He was God incarnate. God becoming flesh. John elegantly words this so well in his gospel account of Jesus' birth: And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). At Christmas, we are celebrating God coming to earth in the form of man.

No Ordinary Purpose

Actually, Christmas is not about Jesus' birth at all. It really is a celebration of our salvation. This extraordinary man Who had an extraordinary birth had an extraordinary mission. As part of the instructions given to Joseph in his dream, the angel tells him to name the child Jesus. In the Hebrew culture, names meant something. You would not just name your son Jim and your daughter Jill because of fondness for the way the names sounded. Names in Hebrew carried great significance. The names of Jacob's sons and daughters came from the feelings of his wives in their ongoing war with each other (Genesis 30). Upon the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, Phinehas's wife names her new born child, Ichabod (No glory), to signify God's glory leaving Israel (1 Samuel 4:21). Elijah's name literally means My God is Yahweh, which is a fitting name for the one whose ministry can be characterized by his steadfast stand for Yahweh, the one true God, in the midst of all the idolatry prevalent at the time (recall his challenge to the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18:20-40). In Hebrew, Jesus' name is yehshua, meaning Yahweh is salvation or Yahweh saves. The angel explains the significance for such a name. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (v 21). Jesus' purpose is to save His people from their sins. His people refers to the Jews in this context but due to their rejection of Christ, God providentially opened up salvation to all mankind (Romans 11:11). All men are born by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) and have sinned (Romans 3:23; 5:12) and thus under God's wrath (Romans 1:18). We are due to experience spiritual death, which is eternal separation from the grace of God (Romans 6:23). Man was in terrible need of saving and could in no way save Himself. Thus, God provided a substitute through His Son. As Paul puts it, He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus took man's sins upon Himself and suffered God's wrath as punishment for them. Those who then place their trust in Christ, God views as righteous as if they had lived Christ's righteous life since He had viewed Him as if He had committed their sins. So Jesus was actually born to die. There is a reason that all four gospels spend more time recounting the last week of Jesus' life leading up to the cross than they do any other part of His life. This was His purpose. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). The reason that God became flesh, Immanuel, was so that He could then die in the sinners place to save those who are moved to come to Him through faith.

The meaning of Christmas is not simply a little manger scene on a certain starry night but so much more. This is just a small event in the grand plan of God's redemption. The meaning of Christmas is God's salvation given through His coming to earth in the form of man and dying to give man life. John Piper made a good point in a recent sermon that Christmas is "mainly preparation for Good Friday." I pray that through all the different meanings of this holiday that fight to distract us, that we would not lose sight of this important truth. May this Christmas be a celebration of God's salvation. May we who once were spiritually blind and now can see and who once were spiritually dead and now have been given life glorify God for His work not only on this one day out of the year but the 364 remaining! For those who are yet blind to this profound and significant meaning of this holiday, may God open your eyes to see the truth and cherish Christ for Who He is and what He has done!

In Christ,
Soli Deo Gloria!!!

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