The Spirit of Christmas
For twenty years John F. Kennedy has been honored on the day of his death. Now, at the request of his family, he will be remembered on his birthday. And, when you stop to think of it, there is precedent for this request. Holidays which honor former presidents fall on their birthday, not the day of their death. It is not really hard to understand the preference of the Kennedy family for we would all prefer to think of happier occasions than that of the death of a loved one.
The recent request of the Kennedy family helps explain why the world would rather celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ than His death. The only two times some people go to church are Christmas and Easter, a fact which should not be difficult to explain. Each of these holidays draws our attention to pleasant thoughts. The birth of Christ, as the birth of any baby, is a happy occasion. The crucifixion of Christ is an unpleasant thing to remember, and so we fix our attention of the event of His resurrection. The hope of life after death is a pleasant one to ponder, whether we fully believe it or not. And yet the Lord specifically commanded his church to regularly remember Him in His death (cf. Luke 22:19).16
My purpose in pointing out our preference toward Christmas (and Easter) is not to protest the celebration of Christmas but to point out why we may find it difficult to worship our Lord as we should at Christmas. In the first place we do it so seldom. Once a year is simply not often enough to ponder a mystery as profound as the incarnation.17 Secondly, we do not have any specific instructions in the New Testament as to how it should be done, as we do of remembering the Lord’s death at communion (e.g. Matt. 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; Acts 20; I Cor. 11). Third, while the meaning of the death of Christ is frequently and thoroughly expounded in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 5, 6), the meaning of the incarnation is not as frequently or as thoroughly expounded. Finally, the death of Christ is, of necessity, included as a vital part of the gospel which men and women must believe in order to be saved, while the doctrine of the incarnation (though important) is not.18
All of this results in the fact that the events of the nativity are difficult for us to relate to. We therefore struggle to be able to relate to the accounts of our Lord’s birth. The most relevant thing we have found is to reenact them. This is not a bad thing to do. But even in reliving the birth of our Lord, we may not find a great deal to relate to.
We are not far from the meaning of Christmas in seeking to discover the so-called “spirit of Christmas.” This is a very illusive expression, but it is one which can be sharpened by focusing our attention on those few godly people to whom the coming of the Christ was announced, and who rejoiced in receiving this revelation. The “spirit of Christmas” can also be seen in the spirit of our Lord in coming as the Christ. In this message we shall seek to find the Christmas spirit in the attitudes and actions of men toward Christ, and in the next message we shall consider the attitudes and actions of Christ toward men.
The Response of the Righteous
Very little time is spent on the response of the wicked to the coming of the Christ. Herod’s paranoia is reflected in His attempt to put the Savior to death (Matt. 2:1-18). The apathy of all the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem is evidenced by their failure to travel the few miles required to see the babe sought by the magi, in the place indicated in the Scriptures (Matt. 2:1-12). While these people are mentioned the attention of Matthew and Luke is focused on those who receive a revelation from God regarding the Savior who is born in Bethlehem, and who rejoice in Him as the Savior.
The response of the righteous in the birth narratives can be summed up in a word: faith. In short, those who were informed that the Messiah had come as a babe in a manger believed. By faith Mary believed that God would cause Her to conceive and to bear a child while still a virgin. Joseph was called upon to believe in faith that the child which Mary bore in her womb was not the product of infidelity. By faith the shepherds and the magi believed that a child born in such humble circumstances could be the King of Israel. By faith Simeon and Anna believed that the child they held in their hands would become the Savior of the world and the ruler of Israel.
The faith of the godly who were privileged to behold the Messiah as a babe was not groundless. Neither was it passive. Their faith had its reasons and it’s results. Let us pause to consider both the basis of their faith and the behavior which it produced.
(1) The faith of the godly was based upon divine revelation.
Divine revelation came in various ways. First and foremost was the revelation of the Old Testament. Over and over again, the words, “that it might be fulfilled . . . ” (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; Luke 1:20) occur. Some might say that the story was written so as to fabricate fulfillment. It is amazing to observe, however, that some prophecies were fulfilled which were never viewed as such by the Jewish people. For example, there is no evidence that Isaiah 7:14 was ever viewed as a messianic prophecy. Thus, the virgin birth, while an essential part of God’s purpose, was described in the gospels as a fulfillment of prophecy pertaining to Messiah. The same could be said of the reference to Hosea 12:1 (cf. Matt. 2:15).
Without a doubt, the biblical revelation of the Old Testament was the principle means by which God revealed the coming of His Messiah. The inspired utterances of Zacharias and Elizabeth, of Mary, Simeon, and Anna all made reference to the hope of Israel (and the Gentiles, cf. Luke 2:32), based upon God’s covenant promises and the words of the Old Testament prophets. The inspired utterances of Mary, Zacharias, Elizabeth, and Simeon all reveal a familiarity with the Old Testament Scriptures, for they borrow freely from its language and expressions.19
There were other forms of divine revelation which served as a basis for faith as well. There were the angelic announcements to Zacharias (Luke 1:11-20), to Mary (Luke 1:26-37), and to the shepherds (Luke 2:9-14). There was also the revelation of God given to Joseph and the magi in dreams (Matt. 1:20-21; 2:12-13, 19-20). There was the revelation of God which was given through the Spirit-inspired utterances of Elizabeth (Luke 1:41-45), Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Zacharias (Luke 1:67-79), Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:27-38). There are also the more mysterious revelations of God to the magi through “His star in the east” (Matt. 2:2) and to Simeon and Anna, which enabled them to recognize this baby as the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26-28, 38).
The faith of those who were privileged to participate in the worship of our Lord at His birth was a faith based upon divine revelation. First and foremost, it was a biblical faith, a faith in the revelation of the Old Testament Scriptures. But secondarily, it was a faith based upon other divine revelations which conformed to, confirmed, and further clarified the revelation of the Scriptures.
(2) The faith of the godly was rooted in divine revelation and it was focused on the future.
It was not as a baby that the Messiah would be the Savior of the world, but as a man. The birth of Jesus in the manger was the first step in the outworking of God’s promise for Messiah. Remember that there was to be a delay of some thirty years before the Lord would begin His public ministry. And, even after His death, burial, and resurrection, we still await the final outworkings of the Messiah’s ministry. Faith is always focused on the future. It is not so much compelled by what is presently apparent, but by what God’s word assures us will be (cf. Heb. 11:1-3).
(3) The faith can be seen at the first Christmas was one that resulted in works.
We know from a number of passages of Scripture that a genuine faith is one which is active and productive, rather than one which is only passive (cf. Eph. 2:10; Phil. 2:12-13; James 1:22-27; 2:14-26). The faith of that first Christmas was evidenced by obedience, worship, and proclamation.
The faith which we find manifested in the original Christmas resulted in obedience. Mary, upon learning that she was to become the mother of the Messiah, expressed her obedient spirit by saying, “I am the Lord’s servant . . . May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38, NIV). Joseph, when he been instructed in his dream, did as he was commanded (Matt. 1:24). Later, when he was told to take Mary and the holy child to Egypt, did so, in the middle of that same night (Matt. 2:14). The shepherds and the magi were not specifically commanded to go to where the Lord Jesus was, but they responded to the revelation they had received and immediately sought to find Him (Matt. 2:1-2; Luke 2:15-16).
When those privileged few found the Messiah of whom they had received divine revelation, they worshipped Him. Only the wise men from afar had gifts to give, for the rest were apparently people of humble means. But what was most important was the spirit of worship which characterized the response of all, rich or poor.
Finally, there was proclamation. A Messiah worthy to be sought after, obeyed, and worshipped, was also worthy of the faith of others. The magi were in no way hesitant to ask Herod where the “king of the Jews” could be found (Matt. 2:1-2), for they expected all in Jerusalem to know of His birth. They would have reported back to Herod had they not been instructed in a dream to do otherwise (Matt. 2:12). Elizabeth and Zacharias had shared their joy and blessings with their neighbors (Luke 1:57-58). Word of the events surrounding the naming of John (the Baptist) quickly spread around the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:64-66). From what we read about the shepherds, it is hard to believe that they did not publicly proclaim what they saw and heard (cf. Luke 2:20). The actions of Simeon and Anna were also done publicly in the temple courts (Luke 2:25-38).
The faith of those who participated in the first Christmas was a faith that was based upon divine revelation, and which was evidenced by obedience to what was commanded or implied, which resulted in worship and proclamation.
One of the dangers we face in considering the faith of men and women at the first Christmas is that we convince ourselves that they had better basis for their faith than we. After all, we can rationalize, Mary was spoken to by the angel of the Lord, Joseph had divinely revealed dreams, and the magi had a revelation in the stars. Let us beware of thinking that this somehow excuses our lack of faith. Our Lord said to Thomas,
Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29).
It is not without significance that John wrote these words just two verses later:
But these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:31).
Do you really think that the sight of a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger was, in and of itself, that compelling? It was only because the angel had revealed that this would be the sign which would demonstrate that this was the One that this was so convincing (Luke 2:12). Apart from the revelation which God had given in the Old Testament and the corroborating revelation He gave at the time of the birth of our Lord, one would hardly have looked for the Christ in a cattle trough!
More than this, the revelation which we have in the two birth narratives of the gospels is much more complete than that which any of the godly who received the baby as the Lord’s Christ ever received. The gospels were written after the ministry, death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. Only at this time, guided by the Holy Spirit, were all the events of His birth seen as a whole. To the shepherds, or the magi, Simeon or Anna, Joseph or Mary, only pieces of the prophetic picture were revealed. That is why we are twice told that Mary pondered the things which were revealed to her (Luke 2:19, 51). The had but pieces of the prophetic picture, but we have it all, at least so far as the first coming of Christ is concerned.20
Peter was a witness of the majesty and glory of God which belonged to the Son and was briefly revealed at the transfiguration and thus could claim . . .
. . . we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”--and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain (II Peter 1:16-18).
Because of this manifestation of glory which he personally witnessed, Peter could assure his reader that the written revelation of God was all the more trustworthy. The revelations which God gave to Peter at the transfiguration and those who were participants in the first Christmas not only was intended to be a basis for their faith, but for ours as well.
Furthermore, the faith which we find in those to whom the birth of Messiah was revealed was not perfect either. We need remember only Zacharias, who found it so hard to believe that God would give he and his wife a child in their old age (albeit God had done so for Abram and Sarai) that he requested a sign from God. God honored his request and made silence the sign. Even after seeing and hearing an angel of God, the faith of Zacharias was not without human frailty.
The principle of faith is required in much the same way as it was in the days of our Lord’s incarnation. As a rule, the Jewish community had come to expect Messiah to be revealed in a blaze of glory and splendor. They did not expect Him to be born in a manger into a poor family. This is no doubt why so little (if any) effort was made by the people of Jerusalem, including the chief priests and scribes, made any effort to travel the relatively small distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to search for the Messiah. Even though they knew of the prophecy of Micah 5:2 and were informed by the magi, surely Messiah would come to them, and surely His coming would be one of splendor and majesty. They did not expect to find the Creator in a cattle shed. The had become accustomed to look for God in the glorious.
We, too, have this same mistaken predisposition and preference. We equate God with glamour, glitter, and glory. We feel that worship is better experienced in settings which have great outward splendor, magnificent buildings, gigantic organs, symphonies and massive choirs. While God does manifest Himself occasionally in glory in the New Testament, this is the exception, not the rule. It is in His incarnation that His outward glory is veiled for a time. When our Lord comes again, that glory will be awesomely visible, but for now the majesty of God is veiled and the Lord of Glory is to be found in a manger, not a majestic temple.
I am saying that we cannot determine God’s presence among us by the splendor of the setting. That is precisely why faith is required. For Abram, faith required him to believe that God was with him in a land that was not yet his possession. It was in God’s promise that Abram must trust. For Joseph, faith was believing that God was with him in an Egyptian prison, suffering for a crime he did not commit. As the 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrews instructs, faith is trusting in God’s word regarding those things which are not yet visible.
Do you believe that God is just as present in your life when you are laid off work as when you receive a promotion? Do you believe that God may be just as much present in your ministry when few turn to Him in faith (as in the case of Isaiah’s ministry, cf. chap. 6) as when many do? Do you believe that God is just as present in the simple acts of devotion and obedience as He is in the sensational? I would insist that we do not naturally think this way. That is why eyes of faith enable us to see what is contrary to outward appearances. Man looks on the outward appearance, but faith looks beyond, based upon the promises of the Word of God.
This was a lesson which Charles Colson learned in a visit to Delaware State Prison. Chuck had been there on an initial visit, at which time he had met Sam Casalvera, a hardened lifer who was in the “hole” at the time. A number of months later, after a team from Prison Fellowship had conducted a seminar, they met again. Sam had come to Christ and had written a poem in honor of Chuck Colson. He tried to read it publicly, but broke down. Chuck finished reading it for Sam. It was this experience which gave Chuck the opportunity to reevaluate what was really significant in his life. Chuck writes,
As I sat on the platform, waiting my turn at the pulpit, my mind began to drift back in time . . . to scholarships and honors earned, cases argued and won, great decisions made from lofty government offices. My life had been the perfect success story, the great American dream fulfilled. But all at once I realized that it was not my success God had used to enable me to help those in this prison, or in hundreds of others just like it. My life of success was not what made this morning so glorious--all my achievements meant nothing in God’s economy. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure--that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation--being sent to prison--was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one experience in which I could not glory for His glory.21
The error of evangelicalism in this area is betrayed in our approach to evangelism. How was it that God chose to reveal Himself to men, and to whom was the message given and through whom communicated? The answer is simple--to the simple. He revealed the birth of the Messiah to humble shepherds, the magi who were not even Jewish, and to Simeon and Anna, who would hardly have been thought of as significant people. This is consistent with those to whom our Lord spent most of His time, which was offensive to those of “standing” (cf. Mark 2:16-17). This is consistent as well with Paul’s methods and message (cf. I Cor. 1:26-39; 2:1-5).
Why is it the we are so eager to recruit “significant” people to represent Christ and to share their testimonies? Why is it that we are often compelled to reach the “significant” and influential people with the gospel? I would suggest it is because we have lost the “spirit of Christmas,” which is the spirit of faith which is able to see God in the unspectacular, on the basis of His revelation.
If we would have the “spirit of Christmas” than we must demonstrate a spirit of faith, which sees God in instances where His glory is veiled, but where His word tells us He is present nonetheless. My unsaved friend, have you come to trust in the babe in the manger as the Son of God and as the One who became the Savior of the world? That is the claim which the gospel writers make. This is the basis of the faith for which the apostles gave their lives. And this has been the basis of the Christian faith ever since. The Christ in the cattle trough is the Christ of the cross. It is faith in His person (as testified to at His birth) and in His work (as seen at the cross and preached by the apostles) that saves you and me from sin.
My Christian friend, have you come to see God in those events and areas of your life which seem unlikely or unworthy of God’s intervention? The faith of those who participated in the first Christmas was the ability to see the mighty hand of God where the religious leaders of the day could not and would not. The God who was willing to intervene into human history by being born in a cattle shed is the God who is concerned with the seemingly insignificant and inglorious areas of your life. It is here where the Christmas spirit and the Christian faith are most required and most evident.
16 The verb in Luke 22:19 is a present tense imperative (in form it could also be indicative, but that seems unlikely here). The imperative conveys obligation or duty on our part; the present tense, the persistent practice of this celebration. The practice of the early church conforms to this command (cf. Acts 2:42,46; 20:7; I Cor. 11:17-34). This is the reason we, as a church, celebrate communion every week.
17 In explaining his reason for choosing to give his book the title, The Mystery of the Incarnation, Norman Anderson writes in his introduction: “So I use the word ‘mystery’ not because I wish to ‘don the mantle of the mystery devotee’ but simply because I believe it expresses, better than any other term, the fact that we are here face to face with a subject which, by its very nature, the human mind can never fully fathom. But this does not mean that we are in any way exempt from wrestling with it, . . . ” Norman Anderson, The Mystery of the Incarnation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), p. viii.
18 “The absence of any mention of the Virgin Birth by any other New Testament writer, moreover, proves no more than the fact to which I have already referred, that it did not form part of the apostolic kergyma. It was something that those who already believed in Jesus were taught, not a ground on which they called others to faith.” Ibid, p. 16.
In no way do I wish the reader to think that the incarnation is not important. To reject this truth, inseparably intertwined with vital doctrines such as the virgin birth of our Lord and His impeccability, is a serious heresy. Nevertheless, we must also be willing to observe that the New Testament writers assumed the truths of the incarnation and did not attempt to explain them as fully as they did others, such as the death and resurrection of Christ.
19 Vos writes of the events of the incarnation, “There is in them a close adjustment to the O.T. as to mode of expression used. This feature brings out the continuity between the two revelations. The young dispensation begins with the speech of the fathers. This was inherently fit, but it likewise served the purpose of rendering the revelations easily understandable by those to whom they were proximately addressed, people whose piety had been nurtured on the O.T. Thus the Magnificat is full of reminiscences from the Psalms, and from its O. T. prototype, the prayer-song of Hannah, 1 Sam. 2:1-10.” Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966 [photolithoprinted]), p. 329.
20 There is a lesson to be learned here with regard to the second coming of Christ as well. We should not expect to be given the whole picture, any more than any of the participants in the nativity scene were. And furthermore, we should have faith and act in accord in the light of what revelation we are given (a revelation which is sufficient for our needs), just as the godly of the birth narratives.