Like most kids, Christmas was my favorite holiday. One reason was because of the long school vacation but the most important reason was the gifts. Christmas Eve was the longest night of the year. My brothers and I usually started about four in the morning asking mom and dad, “Can we get up now.” Only to hear dad yell, “Get back to bed.” Through my elementary years I had some of the greatest memories of that time of year. However, as great as that time was I never really understood the real meaning of Christmas.
The Christmas story is told primarily in Matthew Chapters 1 and 2 along with Luke Chapter 2. By the time I started my own family my wife and I had become believers. So we decided to start a family tradition of teaching our children the real meaning of Christmas. One thing we would do is gather around the Christmas tree on Christmas morning and read the Christmas story from Luke 2 before opening any gifts. When the kids were little this could be rather torturous for them. Their minds, like mine in my youth, were on the presents. However, now I watch them do the same thing with their children.
It is sad today to see so few people understand the true meaning of Christmas. We have become such a secular society that we are scared to death of using the word “Christmas” during this season – but, Christmas is about Jesus Christ. For this reason I want to explain the real meaning of Christmas in this article. Some of what we think about in regards to the Christmas story is more tradition that fact. However, the goal is to understand the true spiritual significance of the coming of Christ.
Many of our Christmas traditions are rooted in pagan customs such as the date of December 25 and Christmas trees. Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25. Some scholars think it may have been in the spring around March. Why then December 25? The church would often take a pagan holiday and try to Christianize it in an attempt to reach the pagan masses. December 25 was the ending day of the holiday Saturnalia. It was associated with some pretty wild behavior, think Mardi Gras. Because of this, the Puritans would not celebrate Christmas and it was illegal in Massachusetts from 1669-1681.
As you build your own family traditions that bring enjoyment to your celebration of Christmas, I would encourage you to understand and keep the true spiritual meaning of this day. To help you do that let us look at the real meaning of Christmas.
Christ was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus who ruled from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. He was also born before Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. which means Jesus was born in 5 or 6 B.C. History truly is His story. It is the story of divine providence working out God’s plan of redemption for humanity within the context of time. This story began long before the first Christmas. It was conceived in the mind of God before creation (1Peter 1:20). This event was not an accident but something well thought out in the mind of God. In Genesis 3:15 God told Adam and Eve that the Savior would come from the seed of the woman. Later we learn that He will be from the Jewish nation (Genesis 12:1-3), from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10), the house of David (2 Samuel 7:1-17), and be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).
Only two of the gospels give us the genealogy of Christ as well as tell us the details of the Christmas story, Matthew and Luke. Matthew gives us the genealogy of Christ through Joseph, His stepfather. Joseph is a descendent from David’s son, Solomon. Luke traces the genealogy through Mary who was a descendent of David through his son Nathan. God covers the bases of both sides concerning this prophecy. Through Joseph we see Jesus is the legal heir to the throne of David, the rightful King of the Jews. In Luke we see Jesus as the Son of Man, God who became flesh to dwell among us (John 1:14). His virgin birth was necessary to keep Jesus from inheriting a sin nature. This would disqualify Him from being our Savior for then He would have His own sin to pay. However, not only did he not possess a sin nature but in coming as the second Adam he was in all points tempted as we are, yet he was without sin (Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Corinthians 15:45).
The whole idea of a virgin giving birth is impossible. Mary knew this and asked the angel how can this be? His answer was God would do this. Then he reminded her that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:34-37). Joseph also considered it impossible and thought Mary had been unfaithful to him until God told him otherwise (Matthew 1:18-21). So Joseph took Mary as his wife but did not consummate the marriage until after Jesus was born. Mary and Joseph are living in Nazareth when Caesar gives the decree for everyone to return to the city of family origin to register for taxation. Since they are both descendants of David, that city would be Bethlehem.
This decree was probably some hardship on them but God was using it to fulfill His Word and work out His plan. The prophet had said Jesus would be born in the city of David (Micah 5:2), Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Bethlehem meant “house of bread.” This is a fitting place for Jesus to be born, the One who is the “Bread of Life” (John 6:35). There was no room for them in the inn so Jesus was born in some kind of stable; often this would be a cave where the animals would be sheltered rather than a wooden shed. Mary wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, which were strips of cloth and laid Him in a manager; this was usually a stone feeding trough (Luke 2:4-7).
Everything about Jesus’ birth was also symbolic about the purpose of His life and death. Notice that He begins his life in a cave wrapped in cloth and laid on a stone. That is also how He ends it after His crucifixion. He is wrapped in cloth, laid on a piece of stone in a cave (John 19:38-42). The angels appear to some lowly shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. They announce the good News that a Savior is born and sing praises to God. The shepherds go to the manger and worship the Christ child who will grow up to be the Good Shepherd (John 10) with the good News of forgiveness to those who will believe in Him. The wise men come from the east to worship Him and brought their treasures as gifts. Notice the three gifts mentioned – gold (speaks of kingship), incense (speaks of intercession), and myrrh (speaks of His death).
One common misconception in the Christmas story is that the shepherds and wise men came at the same time. The magi or wise men were scholars, astrologers and were wealthy. They came from east of Babylon, perhaps Persia.
Remember Daniel and his friends were wise men during their captivity in Babylon. These men were Gentiles but had probably come in touch with the scriptures from Jews who had migrated from Babylon. A star had guided them to Jerusalem, much like Israel had been guided by the cloud and pillar of fire, to find the new king of the Jews. There were probably more than three of them for they made quite a spectacle upon entering Jerusalem. The tradition of three probably comes from the three gifts. They inquired of the priests as to the location of the Christ. According to Micah they said it would be in Bethlehem. This little city was only about five miles south of Jerusalem. It is interesting to note that none of the priests went to worship Christ, only the Gentiles did.
Herod was extremely jealous and told the wise men to come back and tell him the location of the new king so he also could go and worship. The reality was he only wanted to eliminate his rival. Herod was an Idumean, a descendant of Esau.
In these two kings we see the battle between the flesh and the spirit played out. The wise men find Jesus in a house, not a stable, and by now He is somewhere between 6-20 months old. God warns the wise men not to return to Herod.
When Herod finds out he has been tricked he gives a command to kill every male child in the area who is two years old or younger. This fulfills Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jeremiah 31:15). Joseph is then warned by God to flee to Egypt with his family until Herod dies.
The real meaning of Christmas is the story of God’s gift of redemption to us. People like Mary and Joseph surrendered their lives to be a part of God’s grand narrative (Luke 1:38). This is what each of our lives is designed for, to live our story in the context of God’s story. To miss the real meaning of Christmas is to miss the real meaning of our life.
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