What is the Meaning of Christmas?

MangerCaveEvery year, millions of people around the world celebrate Christmas. But what does it all mean? What difference does it really make in our lives? Why should we care? Why do we need Christmas? What is the meaning of it all? 

Over the years, I’ve heard countless explanations for the meaning of Christmas and the reason for the season. “Christmas is about spending time with family and friends,” some say, and others “Christmas is about giving back to others.”  It’s been said that Christmas is about, “love for others” and “peace on earth.” It’s been sung that Christmas is about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” The meaning of Christmas has been explained many times and many ways. While these are certainly some good things about Christmas, they fall well short of the true meaning of Christmas.

Our world has incredibly complex problems: wars, terrorism, famines, racism, loss, and catastrophes. People have complex problems: physical, emotional, and family problems. Sometimes we despair as we try to help others or to deal with our own problems. We fill our hearts with all kinds of choices, behaviors, stuff, or people only to find our lives empty of meaning.

Where do we go to find the meaning of Christmas? We go to the source of truth – God’s Word, the Bible. Listen to the angels as they announced Jesus’ birth:

“The angel said to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.” Luke 2:10–11

StoneMangerChristmas is about a Savior who was born for you! The meaning of Christmas begins and ends with a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. In Jesus Christ, God provided the simplest solution for all of the complex problems we make and face in this world. In Jesus Christ, God sent a Savior whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.

Some might scoff about the salvation of Jesus as a simplistic solution – one that really doesn’t work. Others might say that His incarnate birth a nice story, an interesting legend, harmless enough; but they would never consider it as a serious solution to any significant problems. But, God knows that the basic problem with the world is the sin of the human race. Sin, missing God’s standard for holiness and goodness in character and action, is what separates mankind from God and from each other. Any solutions that leave out dealing with our sin problem are the simplistic solutions. The only solution that offers true hope and real help to humanity’s complex problems is that which takes into account the sinful hearts of people and offers a practical solution to that universal, and yet, personal problem of sin.

The angels from heaven announced God’s provision of this Savior. The birth of Jesus is a fact of history: “Today…was born.” The birth of Jesus is a foundation for eternity: “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” And, His birth is a fulfillment of prophecy: “in the city of David.”

The angels from heaven announced God’s purpose of a Savior (Luke 2:11)  The name, Savior, defines both His life and His death. If you’re simply looking for moral reformation or behavior modification, you might need a life coach, a cheerleading section, or a really good friend, but not a Savior. But if your life requires mortal resurrection (and it does because we are all sinners who sin), you’re going to need something beyond yourself. If your life of captivity to sin has resulted in spiritual death (which it has), you need someone who will raise dead people to life. If your sin has separated you from a Holy, Perfect God, then you need a Savior who died in your place to reconcile you to Him.

In Jesus, God provided what we needed the most, when we deserved it least, at the greatest personal cost to Him (see Isaiah 53). Jesus came to live as the perfect God-man who could die in our place for the forgiveness of our sin.

Jesus_candlesThe angels from heaven also introduced God’s promise of this Savior. The birth of Jesus was “good news of great joy for all the people.” Later, Jesus Himself clearly communicated the promise of His advent: “The Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) He had come to seek us out. Jesus came to earth as a rescue mission. When we think of someone being lost we think of helicopters hovering in the night sky, overboard sailors clinging to the wreckage of a ship, coal miners trapped beneath the earth, or children who cannot be found. But these temporal situations are transcended by the eternal tragedy of people who are lost in the rubble of their own sin, buried in the darkness of self-sufficiency, suffocating by loneliness, and crushed by personal pain.

Sometimes the solutions to life’s problems are simpler than we think. With the birth of Jesus which we celebrate at Christmas, God sought us out, rescued us, and saved us by His grace, mercy, and love (Titus 3:4-7).

There was a man who traveled a great distance for an interview with a distinguished scholar. He was ushered into the man’s study, where he said, “Doctor, I notice that the walls of your study are lined with books from the ceiling to the floor. No doubt you have read them all. I know you have written many yourself. You have traveled extensively, and doubtless you’ve had the privilege of conversing with some of the world’s most intelligent and wisest men. I’ve come a long way to ask you just one question. Tell, me, of all you’ve learned, what is the one thing most worth knowing?” Putting his hand on his guest’s shoulder, the scholar replied with emotion in his voice, “My dear sir, of all the things I have learned, only two are really worth knowing. The first is, I am a great sinner, and the second, Jesus Christ is a great Savior!” If you know those two things personally, you know the meaning of Christmas – that a Savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord!

That’s what Christmas is all about. A Savior, Christ the Lord, who was born for you. It really is that simple.

Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas!

Life that is Real

Aslan and Lucy“This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” — Aslan in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” Chapter 16

The Bible explains that the reason humans were created in the image of God is to know Him and live with Him forever (Genesis 1:26-27; 3:8; 17:7; Exodus 6:7; 29:45; Leviticus 26:11–12; Numbers 15:41; Deuteronomy 29:13; 2 Samuel 7:24; Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezekiel 11:20; 34:24; 36:28; 37:23, 27; Zechariah 2:10; 8:8; John 14:1-6; John 17:3; 2 Corinthians 6:16, Revelation 21:3-4). As a Holy God, He alone knows what is good and not good for man, so He established boundaries for mankind’s good (Genesis 2:17), but Adam and Eve disobeyed Him. Their sin, repeated by every one of their descendants, resulted in both physical and spiritual death. Sin separated us from knowing God and living with Him forever (Genesis 3:5; Deuteronomy 30:15, 19–20; Romans 6:23; 1 Timothy 5:6; James 1:15). But since that first bite of forbidden fruit, God took the initiative in seeking out the sinners to restore a relationship with them (Genesis 3:8-9).

Lucy and Aslan IIIn order to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself as a Holy God, the Father sent His eternal Son, Jesus, to take on human flesh and live among us so that we would know God (John 1:14, 14:7-11). In fact, Jesus said clearly that knowing God is what eternity is all about: This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the One You have sent —Jesus Christ (John 17:3). Not only did Jesus live among us; He died for us as our death substitute so that we could live with Him and for Him forever (Romans 5:8; 2 Corinthians 5:15-21).

One day, the apostle John tells us, the relationship between God and humankind that He has always wanted people to enjoy will be a reality in Heaven for those who believe in His Son: “Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21:3).

We long to see God. We want to experience His presence. At times, we wonder where He is. We question what He’s doing. Or why He doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all…

One of my favorite descriptions of life with God is tucked away in one of Paul’s letters to his younger friends, Timothy:

Aslan and Lucy III“Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good reserve for the age to come, so that they may take hold of the life that is real.” — 1 Timothy 6:17-19

I love that description of eternity: the life that is real. Life that is really living. The very reason we live on earth is that by knowing God here for a little while on earth, we will know Him better in eternity. Seek Him now so that one day you may see Him face to face (1 Corinthians 13:2).

Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.


Aslan“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” Chapter 16

“Please, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon.”

“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”

“Oh, Aslan!!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

The Nativity

The Nativity

“The Nativity” by Gari Melchers is one of my favorite artistic portrayals of the birth of Jesus because it seems to capture the harsh realities of the night that changed the world.

Before the shepherds appear to tell about the angelic announcement, before the wise men arrive to worship Him and present their gifts, there’s just Mary, exhausted from child birth, and Joseph, overwhelmed by the task in front of him, and the baby in a feeding trough, an unplanned pregnancy and inconvenient birth that saved us all.

“I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.  This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.” Luke 2:10-12

MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.

Unplanned Pregnancy

Unplanned birth“The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant…” (Matthew 1:18).

There it is in the Bible: the birth of Jesus was an unplanned pregnancy. Certainly it wasn’t the first in the history of the world nor would it be the last.

Joseph, being a godly, righteous man, had options. He could hardly let his fiancé’s pregnancy pass without action since it implied that she had been unfaithful and had violated the Mosaic Law. So, he had three options concerning how to proceed. First, he could expose Mary publicly as unfaithful whereby she would have suffered the shame of a public divorce (Deut. 22:23–24). A second option was to grant her a private divorce in which case Joseph needed only to hand her a written certificate in the presence of two witnesses (cf. Num. 5:11–31). His third option was to remain engaged and not divorce Mary, but this alternative appeared to Joseph to require him to break the Mosaic Law (Lev. 20:10). So, he decided to divorce her privately (Matthew 1:19). This preserved his righteousness, that is, his conformity to the Law, and allowed him to demonstrate compassion for his young fiancé, Mary.

But there was another option that Joseph had not considered, let alone imagined: Mary was indeed pregnant, but it was not a pregnancy born of promiscuity. Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. It was a miracle by the power of God’s Holy Spirit to fulfill His long-awaited promise of a Savior (Isaiah 7:14).

“An angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

unplanned pregnancyThe virgin birth of Jesus is technically the virgin conception. Mary was not just a virgin when she bore Jesus in Bethlehem, but she was one when she conceived Him in Nazareth. Who was prepared among their peers to understand such a biological anomaly? And yet, this real option of Jesus’ miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit was crucial if Jesus was to be our sinless sacrifice.

The virgin conception was necessary to preserve the baby from the stain of sin. The angel explained the appropriateness of this name (cf. Ps. 130:8). The name “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” Jesus, the sinless Savior, is God’s gift to us to accomplish what no other child could ever do.

“Joseph did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named Him, Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25)

My earthly life and eternal future were changed forever by one unplanned pregnancy that saved us all. “O come, let us adore Him.”

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.

Trials

Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem ICould there have been anything more tedious, anything more ill-timed for Mary and Joseph than following political orders to travel for a census when she was 9 months pregnant?  I imagine the tiresome commute to Bethlehem and their disappointing search for lodging was not immediately recognized by Mary and Joseph as something “good” from the Lord.

The journey south from Nazareth was not an easy one through the rugged, Judean hill country, especially for a an expectant, first-time mom. Nor was the occasion a happy one since the census decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1) was undoubtedly a prelude to a burdensome financial tax liability for their growing family. Furthermore, Mary and her husband would be far removed from the comforts and conveniences of home. And when they finally arrived in Bethlehem, there was no room for them there (Luke 2:7). No one had reserved a Bed & Breakfast. No one was looking out for them. No one seemed to care. They were alone.

Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem IIThe tedious trials of life are often tools in the hand of God which only time or eternity will make clear to us. For Mary and Joseph, the decree of Caesar Augustus was divinely intended to cause Jesus’ parents to make a long difficult journey from their home town of Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because Joseph was in the royal bloodline of King David (Isaiah 9:6-7). The political orders of a pagan ruler were used to fulfill God’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born in rural Bethlehem rather than royal Jerusalem (Micah 5:2-5). The humble manger would be the perfect place for humble shepherds to find the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-15) so that they might worship Him.

Mary and Joseph in BethlehemThe birth account of Jesus in Luke 2:7 ends with almost a note of human tragedy: “there was no room for them…” Think about that for a moment — the Son of God, covered with rags and placed in a cattle feeding trough! How could that be? How tragic! And yet, for Jesus, a feeding trough became His first throne on earth (Philippians 2:9-11).

God’s purposes are often achieved through difficulties, even when they are not immediately apparent to us (James 1:2-4). Whether it’s simply too much rain or heart-wrenching, unbearable pain, the trials of life are often tools in the hand of God. Wait on Him. Believe His Word. Trust Him.

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.

In Those Days

TheophilusFaith in Jesus’ incarnation certainly requires belief in the supernatural work of God, but it’s not a leap beyond reason.

In the Gospel of Luke, the author carefully investigated and provided specific details about the political rulers and setting surrounding Jesus’ birth that were important to Theophilus (Luke 1:3-4), perhaps a political leader himself, whose faith needed historical validity and intellectual credibility.

The coming of Jesus, the Christ, is not a fairy tale that begins with, “Once upon a time…” Instead, it’s a promise fulfilled, “In those days…” The human birth of God’s Eternal Son was a real event in real time among real people so that we might have real hope and not just wishful thinking.

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.

The Power of the Cross

Cross hammer“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved.” 1 Corinthians 1:18

After sixteen centuries and more during which the cross has been a sacred symbol, it’s difficult to realize the unspeakable horror and loathing which the very mention or thought of the cross provoked during the tyranny of the Roman Empire. In the first century, the word for cross, σταυρός (latin crux), was unmentionable in polite Roman society.

When the early disciples talked about the crucified Christ, every listener from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Romans 15:19) knew that Jesus had suffered a particularly cruel and shameful death, which as a rule was reserved for the most hardened criminals, incorrigible slaves, and egregious rebels against the Roman state. Cicero (Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo 5.16) decries the crucifixion of a Roman citizen, exclaiming, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.”

The story behind Jesus’ death on the cross discloses that He was rejected by the very people He came to save (Matthew 26:1-5), was deserted by His own friends (Matthew 26:47-4869-75), was strung up by the proper authorities (Matthew 27:22-26), and, apparently, was powerless to save His own skin (Matthew 27:38-44).

Following Christ’s resurrection, Peter served as faithful follower of the Lord proclaiming,

“You know the events that took place throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were under the tyranny of the Devil, because God was with Him. We ourselves are witnesses of everything He did in both the Judean country and in Jerusalem, yet they killed Him by hanging Him on a tree. God raised up this man on the third day and permitted Him to be seen.” Acts 10:37–40

the crossThe beginning of Christianity was cradled in what looks like disastrous defeat, and the unspeakable stigma of the cross exposed “Christians” to woeful contempt.  In fact, the word, “Christian” is found only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16) and when it is used, it’s a label formed by people who were not followers of Jesus to designate those who were. It’s a manufactured term with a derogatory slant, meant to be a dig.

Similar to Peter, Paul did not refer to Jesus’ death on the cross with embarrassment or skip over the awkward facts:

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)
“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.” (Galatians 3:13)

The cross of Jesus was central to Paul’s preaching because the resurrection disclosed Christ’s suffering and death as the way of life for His believing followers in the world. Paul taught the early church that followers of the crucified Lord must also share the suffering of the cross:

“The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs—heirs of God and coheirs with Christ—seeing that we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” (Romans 8:16-17)
“My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead.” (Philippians 3:10)

Cross of VictoryAs followers of Jesus today, we want to share in the celebration of the cross, we would just rather avoid it’s suffering and shame. The message of the cross, however, is about trusting God’s will in submission and sacrifice (Matthew 27:36-46) rather than fighting for control or positioning for comfort. The message of the cross is an antidote to our self-glorification and self-satisfaction. The message of the cross is hope for the tired and weary, rest for the rejected refugee, grace for the humbled, and mercy for the broken sinner.

The Gospel of Christ crucified transforms the cross as a symbol of Roman terror and political domination into a symbol of God’s love and power. The cross shows that the power of God’s love is greater than human love of power. The cross reveals the love of God at its best and the sin of man at its worst. Isaac Watts said it well, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” 

Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.