December 23, 2018 What Is Christmas?


Scripture reading: John 1:14-18.


What is Christmas? Most Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th and, even among those who do not believe, many enjoy the festivities at this time of year.


First, we should be aware that Jesus was not actually born on December 25th. Since Christmas is such a big holiday, certainly the biggest and most celebrated holiday in the Western world, we should try to understand it. I am of the persuasion that we should celebrate it and we should enjoy ourselves at this time of year. I am aware that there are some Christians who do not celebrate it and I respect their reasons. However, after all is said and done, I think they are more like Scrooge than like Bob Cratchit or, for that matter, Jesus!


The Bible does not reveal the exact date of Jesus’ birth. Moreover, there is no evidence of any kind that the birth of Jesus was celebrated by the church for at least 300 years. Irenaeus and Tertullian, writing in the second and third centuries respectively, provide lists of all the feasts that the church celebrated and Christmas is not one of them. The first time it is known to have been celebrated is in 336 AD. and then it was celebrated on January 8th. The best that can be discerned from historical documents is that it began to be celebrated between 311 and 379 AD. Historical records indicate that the celebration of Christ’s birth lost popularity in the late 300’s until, in 400 AD, when John Chrysostom reintroduced it.


Christmas continued as a Catholic holiday but, after the Reformation, many Protestant groups ceased celebrating it, including the Puritans in the 1600’s and Baptists in the 1700’s and 1800’s.


Seeing that it was not celebrated by the early church and that we do not know the exact date of Christ’s birth, how did December 25th get chosen as Jesus’ birthday? The answer is that December 25th was both the winter solstice on the Roman calendar (We use the Gregorian calendar now and the winter solstice falls on December 21st.) and the date of celebration for the Roman god, Sol. The holiday that was celebrated on December 25th was called Sol Invictus. What seems to have happened is that large numbers of people began coming into the church when Constantine declared the Christian faith to be protected in the Edict of Milan in the year 313. Then in 321 he passed an Empire-wide law making Sunday a day of rest for all people. It became well known that Constantine himself embraced the Christian faith. These factors drew many to the Christian faith. Leaders of the church noted, however, that many people who professed faith continued to attend Sol Invictus celebrations where drunkenness and immorality prevailed. This is the primary reason that some historians assert that December 25th was chosen as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth by the post-apostolic church.


Can we know when Christ was born? We cannot know the exact date but we can know when he was born within a month or so.


 26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. [1]


See that it was in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that Gabriel spoke to Mary. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth just a short time after and Mary is already with child. Hence, if we can know when Elizabeth conceives then we can know when John the Baptist was born. In turn, Jesus’ birth would be approximately six months afterwards.


Luke 1:5 –

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. [2]


Luke tells us that Zechariah was of the division of Abijah. The priests under the former covenant were divided up into divisions and each division served a half-month in the temple during the course of the year. According to the Talmud, an ancient, Jewish rabbinical book that comments upon their law and practices, the division of Abijah served in the second half of the fourth month. That would be the fourth month of the Jewish calendar, which would be late June or early July in our calendar. This means that John would have been born in late March or early April. Jesus, then, would have been born in late September or early October.


That also means that he would have been conceived in late December.


Although there is no evidence that early church (before 336 AD) celebrated the birth of Jesus, we all know the Christmas story – people did celebrate his birth when it happened. The angels celebrated it. The shepherds celebrated it. The wise men celebrated it and gave gifts to Jesus. Therefore, it cannot be wrong to celebrate the birth of Jesus!


The only objection that can be raised against Christmas is that it has pagan origins. But it is not the origins of a practice that is important but its current significance. And so, the apostle Paul writes,


4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”[3]


And goes on to say that, if one understands this, they have a right to eat food sacrificed to idols (verse 9). Hence, we see that it is not the origin of something (this food was offered to an idol) but current significance (in the Corinthian case, either for nourishment or for participation in a social gathering) that counts.


What is the meaning of Christmas? Or, more to the point, what is the significance of Jesus’ birth? In order to answer that question we must see God’s eternal purpose.


Simply stated, God desires and plans to dispense his very Self into his chosen people. God chose us, predestinated us, redeemed us, saved us, and regenerated us for the purpose of dispensing and working Himself into us.[4]


God’s plan has always been for man to partake of God as life. When man was in the Garden of Eden, God had placed the tree of life in the midst of the garden. You place something in the middle of a place in order to show its prominence and importance. The tree of life was simply the life of God made available for man. (We see this in Revelation where the New Jerusalem has both the river of life and the tree of life coming from and connected to the throne of God – thus representing the life of God.)


It was God’s purpose and intention from the beginning to dispense himself into man.[5] But something happened to prevent this. That something was sin. Because man sinned, God could not fill man with his divine life. God hates sin and is separate from sin.


Sin separates people from God. This is the testimony of Scripture. Sin is more serious than people either realize or admit. It prevents God from fulfilling his purpose because God is holy and can have nothing to do with sin.


This is why Christmas is so important. It tells the story, the true story, of God coming to earth to remedy sin. To take away sin so that God’s eternal purpose could be fulfilled and we could enter into the enjoyment of God’s life!


The Son of God, who is God (God is Triune), condescended to come to the earth. He emptied Himself of his glory, even of his memories (for a time, until he grew), and came to earth in the womb of Mary. His birth was the birth of hope for mankind. Not only hope, but the only hope; for there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved (Acts 4:12).


It is a true statement that Jesus was born to die. It is only through his death that our sins can be forgiven.


Having our sins forgiven is not the end. It is the beginning. Our sins can be forgiven so that Christ’s life can be imparted and we can become the children of God, thus fulfilling God’s eternal purpose.


We read John 1:14-18. Christ was made flesh. He was full of grace – that is the favor of God – and truth – that is the reality of all good things. But you see, grace and truth come from the life of God. And God’s life brings light to us. In a world of darkness we need the light of Christ!


So, Christ came that he might declare God, that is, make him known. However, he didn’t just make him known through words (He did do that!). He made him known through his life!


In John chapter one we see five things related to God’s incarnation: the Word, life, light, grace, and reality.


  • The Word is God expressed
  • Life is God imparted
  • Light is God shining
  • Grace is God enjoyed
  • Reality is God realized.


Once Christ’s life comes to you, you receive light, grace, and reality because all these marvelous things are found in Christ.


How should we celebrate Christmas? I think we can learn from the wise men. They sought after Christ. Wise men still seek him.


If you are wise, go on a journey, like the wise men did. I do not mean a physical journey. Today, to seek him you may need to go on a spiritual journey. The wise men left their homes and families and went to find Christ. You may need to leave your homes and families, as far as their dispositions and habits go, and you ought to seek Christ.


The wise men brought gifts. Gifts are a sign of love and honor. Giving gifts as we do on Christmas is a wonderful tradition.


Do you know who else was wise besides the Magi from the East bearing gifts? Mary’s husband, Joseph, was wise. He was wise because when an angel visited him he gave heed to all that the angel said. Among other things, the angel told him this:


She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”[6]


Jesus saves from sin! If you are wise, you will come to Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins. Without the forgiveness of your sins you cannot receive the life of God. Without the life of God:


  • you cannot receive light to see.
  • You cannot receive grace – the enjoyment of God.
  •  You cannot receive truth – God and all good things realized!


Finally, the wise men worshipped Christ (Matthew 2:11). Do you know who can worship Christ? Only those who have received his life! If you have not been born of God then you may worship Him for a short time, maybe because your parents, your spouse, or a friend attend church and you tag along. But, if you have not been born again, then you will grow bored with worship and other things will appeal to you more. Soon, you will be gone, back to your worldly ways.


Once you receive the life of God within you worship becomes a joy and you sense a deep fulfillment in it. You enjoy worship and you enjoy God!


Once you receive the life of God you fulfill his purpose for human life itself. Reality is opened up for you!


This Christmas, receive the two gifts that God has for you: the forgiveness of your sins and a new life!




[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Lk 1:26–38). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Lk 1:5–7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Co 8:4). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[4] This marvelous sentence is taken from the book, God’s New Testament Economy, by Witness Lee, page 9 (Living Stream Ministry, Anaheim, CA).

[5] See also Ephesians 3:11-19 and Colossians 1:24-27 for a fuller revelation of this purpose.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 1:21). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.