Ah, Christmas! What can be said that hasn’t already been said a million times? Well, I’m one of those guys who gets the holiday blues. My personal response to Christmas is ambivalent. Yes, there are “warm” memories about Christmas, probably because it was cold outside, and the good things happened indoors. I do remember caroling outside. But that was different. The warmth was in our hearts because the message of the carols was about Jesus. I wasn’t a real believer back then, but I knew there was something special about Jesus — peace and joy — something special that made people love and adore him.
When I call my response to Christmas ambivalent, I mean I feel two equally different things. I feel happy but sad; filled but empty; inspired but let down. This year I’ve decided when anyone asks me, “Are you ready for Christmas?” to just say no. I’m sure what they really mean is, “Are all your Christmas preparations done?” But the Christmas that is prepared for is everything involving the secular celebration: buying a tree, buying gifts, mailing cards, putting up decorations, preparing traditional meals and special sweet treats, planning parties and family get-togethers. Sure, one may imbue these activities with spiritual meaning, but they don’t have to be, and often aren’t. All of these preparations can be done and enjoyed by anyone, without a single reference to Jesus. All that is required is the ability to enjoy family and friends. Matthew 5:46-47 says that even pagans do that.
“Getting ready” for Christmas is an important aspect for many people because it reflects the energy, anticipation and attitudes associated with the dinners, parties and get-togethers. Though these Christmas activities are ostensibly planned as a “celebration”, the focal point of who is being celebrated often is lost in the maze of natural gregariousness. I participate minimally in these types of preparations, because I’m not particularly gregarious. I’ll roast a turkey because we enjoy eating a turkey, but that’s not Christmas to me. When I was a kid I liked the food and the candy and the presents, but the ever-present bickering and resentment between my parents gave Christmas a kind of phony pall, as if it allowed them to continue being hurtful and nasty the rest of the year as long as they were nice on Christmas. It was never something I wanted to get ready for.
Another aspect of getting ready for Christmas are the concerts and stage productions done by communities, civic organizations, churches and schools. Anyone who’s been in one of these productions knows it takes a lot of work to prepare for. But these productions are usually done with a message in mind. Sometimes it’s only a silly, secular message. But most of the time, a reference to the birth of Christ is included. Similarly, church leaders do many things to prepare for Christmas services. It is that type of preparation — preparing to worship – that seems important to me. But when someone asks, “Are you ready for Christmas?” that’s not what they’re talking about.
For me, Christmas is all about Jesus. All the rest is fluff, meaning you don’t need Jesus to decorate or give gifts or enjoy family and friends. If you’re human, you can do that all on your own… and lots of people do. I don’t need most of the Christmas traditions. First off, the date is all wrong. We all know that, yet continue without change because it’s tradition. The fact that we took the date December 25 from a pagan celebration of the birthday of a Roman god doesn’t seem to matter to most people because “It’s tradition”. But a Christmas that’s only about Jesus doesn’t need that kind of tradition.
What is the significance of baby Jesus? What is so important about Christmas being his birthday? It’s very traditional, very common to celebrate the birthday of baby Jesus, but why? What’s the point? It isn’t just a religious tradition. It’s the fact that the birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of Bible prophecies. That simple but powerful fact too often gets lost in the shuffle of everything else Christmas. The fulfillment of Biblical prophecy isn’t just an excuse for a religious celebration. It’s proof of who Jesus is: the Jewish Messiah. Of course, we call him the Christ, which is from the word the Greeks use, which means Messiah.
And why is Biblical prophecy important? Why does it matter what the Old Testament says? I’ve heard a lot of Christians say they don’t bother reading the Old Testament because Jesus fulfilled the old and now all we need is the new. If that were true, then why did the writers of the New Testament constantly refer to OT passages, and even quote some? (There are well over 500 citations listed in The Jewish New Testament, by David Stern.) And why did Jesus himself quote from the OT? And why were the Bereans called noble because they examined the teachings of Paul against the Jewish (OT) Scriptures? If the Jewish Scripture (Torah & Tanakh) can be so easily set aside, then the prophecies they contain should just as easily be set aside, and Christians should not care whether the birth of Jesus fulfilled prophecies or not. But it does matter because God doesn’t change. The God of the Jews is the God of Christians.
God was revealing himself to the Jews in the Torah and Tanakh. That is why the genealogies of Jesus appear in the New Testament. It was important to show to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. Remember, Jesus came first for the Jews (Romans 1:16; Jeremiah 2:3). Even though the first “Christians” were Jews, and the earliest church was predominantly Jewish, Jesus as Messiah was rejected by Judaism, the well-established, tradition-laden religion. Eventually the church evinced less and less Jewishness and became increasingly influenced by Greek thought. Hence, we call him Jesus Christ, forgetting who he really is.
Here are the basic prophecies fulfilled by the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas:
The Messiah will be a descendent of David and heir to his throne.
(2 Samuel 7:12-13; Isaiah 9:6, 11:1-5; Jeremiah 23:5)
The Messiah will be the Son of God.
(Psalm 2:7; Proverbs 30:4)
The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem in Judah.
The Messiah will be born of a virgin.
The Hebrew word ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 means “young woman”, and in the Tanakh always “a young woman of unsullied reputation”, which is why the Jewish translators of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Tanakh prepared 200 years before Yeshua’s [Jesus’] birth, rendered this word into Greek as parthenos, “virgin”; this is the word used at Mattityahu [Matthew] 1:23. — (note 56 from page xxvii of the Jewish New Testament)
There is another prophecy, not specifically about Christ’s birth, but intimately involved with the proclamation of Christ: the Messiah would be preceded by someone who would announce him (Isaiah 40:3-5; Malachi 3:1). He is commonly called John the Baptist because he baptized people. But he was really a Jew. The first chapter of Luke tells the story of the angel Gabriel announcing the forthcoming birth of John to Zechariah. That in itself was a miracle because Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were both old. When John was born, Zechariah worshipped God and praised him (Luke 1:67-79).
We also read in the first chapter of Luke how the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her she would give birth to the Son of God (verses 26-38). Then, beginning in verse 39 we are told that Mary visited the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby (John) leaped in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she confirmed Gabriel’s announcement, saying, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored that the mother of my LORD should come to me?” Elizabeth was referring to the just-conceived Jesus as her LORD! And in verses 46-55 Mary also worshiped and praised God for her part in his miracle.
It is important to consider that Mary’s friends and neighbors may not have believed any part of the story about Gabriel. Many of them likely considered Mary’s pregnancy to be morally offensive. She became pregnant during their betrothal period, which was considered a sin. Joseph had every right to break off their engagement, due to the negative social stigma of her pregnancy. But God’s grace covered this potential difficulty, too. We read about it in Matthew 1:18-25. Again, an angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream and said, “…do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit… he will save his people from their sins.” As far as we know from Scripture, Joseph didn’t say much. He was a quiet man, whose obedience glorified the LORD, as nothing else could.
As these examples show, angels announced many of the prophecies about the birth of Christ as they were about to be fulfilled. And these announcements always produced worship and praise for God. Following this pattern, in Luke 2:11 it was to poor shepherds — not to religious or political leaders, but to simple, common people — that the Angel of the LORD said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Then in verses 13 and 14, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'”
The birth of Christ is the ultimate story of humble beginnings. Throughout the story, two factors are constant: The presence of Holy God and the “commonness” of the people involved — an extraordinary combination. When Jesus was probably 2 years old King Herod heard about his miraculous birth from wise men from the east. There were no “three kings”. Later, the number three rose to popular use because of the three types of gifts that these wise men gave the Christ child: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The men who came to Jerusalem were looking for the “king of the Jews”, so they went to where the temple was. But they were unaware of how much the religious leaders and Herod felt their own power threatened by the emergence of the Messiah. The “wise men” were sincere and pious but also naive.
These men (We do not know how many they were.) were Magi, a name used by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to describe wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc. (taken from www.blueletterbible.org). This particular group had been following a star. Matthew 2:2 b says, “We saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.” Verse 7 says the star appeared at an exact time. It is unlikely that these men were Jews, nevertheless, something about this star was a sign to them of the birth of the Messiah. And that was important to them.
Apparently, the star they saw was associated with the fulfillment of some prophecy of their own. Scripture does not explain this, but since these men were among the most educated of their people, they may have come across some copy of a Hebrew prophecy. Matthew 2:11 tells us these men found the house (not a stable) where Jesus was with his mother and “they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and incense and myrrh.” Why these three kinds of gifts? Some have said the gold represents his kingship, the incense represents his divinity and the myrrh represents his sacrificial death. But to a poor family living in a dirt poor town, these gifts were God’s provision for his Son’s family.
In any case, the story of the Magi also fits the pattern of prophecy, announcement, praise and worship. That is what Christmas is all about. Good news of great joy. Thank you, LORD. May God be praised!