It's just after ten o'clock on Christmas Eve, which means there are a handful of questions floating around this room: Did I remember to put the gift receipt in Aunt Milly's present? Will Jeff like his gift? Will Sarah's fit her? Do I have enough AAA batteries at home? Exactly how much weight have I gained this month?
I'd like to suggest that these are the wrong questions to ask. The questions you should be asking are, Why am I here? What is this celebration about? Exactly what set the chain of events in motion that led to me being here tonight? Is there any reason to think that whatever "it" is, really happened? And if "it" did happen, does "it" matter? Is there any transcendent significance to it? Is there anything I should actually be paying attention to tonight? Or is my life fine as is?
What's behind Christmas celebrations?
Let's take these questions one at a time. First of all, what's behind all of this? What is the catalyst for this global celebration called Christmas? Earlier this month I was at a Christmas party for international students. At this party we asked each student to tell us about their Christmas traditions. We heard about fake snow in Brazil, coin showers in the Philippines, sweet, dried pork in China, and we were told of large groups of carolers that travel around in Puerto Rico late at night—sometimes 100 people or more. These groups bring their own sound system and lots of percussion and quietly surround your house around 2:00 a.m., set up their instruments, and then treat you—and all of your neighbors—to a 30 minute concert, before expecting to be fed. In other words, it could be worse than having your kids wake you up at 5:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. You could have 150 people you didn't invite waking you at 3:00 a.m. and then expecting that you host them for a no-holds bared breakfast!
When you ask people why they do these things—why the fake snow, coin showers, and 3:00 am. concerts—no one seems to know the specifics. No one seems to know how these things get started, which is not that surprising. After all, few of us know why we move a tree into our living room, drink eggnog, or hang mistletoe.
But everyone somehow links what they do back to the birth of Christ. No one can draw a straight line from Mary and Joseph to the coin showers and bands of rouge carolers, but they believe that somehow it's all tied to a person named Jesus—to the birth of a first century Jewish prophet who lived in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. The suggestion is that what is going on is, at least in part, a birthday party.
Did the birth of Jesus really happen?
Did this event really happen? Is this real history? Well, that depends on the specifics of what we're asking. Was there a man named Jesus who was born around 0 AD? Yes. There's little doubt about that; it's one of the best attested facts in ancient history. Was he born on December 25th? Do we have the date right? Maybe, but it would be dumb luck. The odds are about 1 in 365. The birthday party we call Christmas didn't begin until the fourth century when Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, wanted a Christian holiday to replace the pagan celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice. He sort of declared—as Emperors can do—that December 25th was the right time to celebrate Christ's birth. Let's just say he wasn't looking at Christ's birth certificate when he picked the date.
But that's not really the issue. That's not even the claim. The claim isn't that Jesus was born on December 25th; the claim is that Jesus is God.
What is the significance of Jesus' birth?
The claim is that Christ's birth was not an ordinary birth, but the incarnation of God—that Jesus had existed from eternity past but in what Paul calls "the fullness of time," and in response to the promises God the Father had made much earlier, he became a man. That is, while remaining fully God, he became fully man.
The claim is that he did this—entered time and space—in order to rescue us.
The claim is that we—you and I—are in deep trouble because we've fallen short of God's holiness and are, therefore, disqualified from being in the very relationship for which we were created. This is the relationship we most want and need, whether we know it or not.
The claim is that we cannot fix this problem. We cannot save ourselves; rather, we need to be saved from ourselves, because we are sinners. We are broken and rebellious at the deepest level.
The claim is that if we die in this state, we are cut off forever from God, so God the Father sent God the Son to rescue us.
The claim is that God entered time and space through a virgin's womb so that he could by-pass the infection of sin and be a perfect sacrifice—one that was not required to pay his own debt, but was free to pay ours.
The claim is that Christ not only modeled what life is supposed to look like, and not only taught with wisdom and clarity and power, giving us the greatest ethical code we have, but that Christ was born to die. He was born to make what theologians call a "substitutionary atonement," taking our own place on the cross in order to atone for our sins.
The claim is that Christ added humanity to deity, becoming the God-Man, so that he could represent us on the cross and die for us, and so that, as God, his death would have infinite value. He would be able to pay the moral debt of all who would look to him for help.
And these claims go on: the claim that the Father sent the Son on this rescue mission, knowing that it would cost him his life, because of his great love; the claim that Christmas is not about Santa and presents and being nice, but about celebrating the arrival of the Jewish Messiah; the claim that history is going somewhere—that we are living between the first and second Advents—between the arrival of Christ as Savior and the arrival of Christ as King; the claim that you need to embrace Christ as your Savior or you will get stuck with your moral debt; the claim that if you embrace Christ, you will find a level of meaning and peace that will otherwise allude you.
Are these the claims the Bible makes about Jesus?
So, the more interesting question is not about whether or not the date of Christmas is accurate, but whether these claims are valid. This actually makes two questions. First, are these really the claims the Bible makes? In other words, are these really the claims behind Christmas? And second, assuming they are, are they valid?
As far as the first question, I really have to say, trust me on this. These are truly the claims of the Bible. If we had all night, we could start in the beginning and watch this play out. Most people do not read the Bible, and those who do seldom read it as a book. Instead, they pick and choose a few lines here and there to emphasize, and as a result the flow of the story is lost.
But there is a flow to the Bible. Like any good drama, the Bible has four main parts: a prologue, in which the stage is set and the main characters are introduced; a crisis, in which everything is disrupted; a resolution, where you find out who wins; and some sort of conclusion. The prologue is found in the first few chapters of Genesis, where we meet a holy Creator and watch him create a man and a woman in his image and put them in charge. We read about the world at a time when all was as it should be. Then we read about the rebellion that brings it all down, that sets up pain and brokenness—the sin that separates man from God.
And we also read—all in the first few pages by the way—that God made a promise to send someone to rescue us, someone to defeat evil and build a bridge back to God. The prologue explains that the problems man has created are problems he cannot fix, but one day God will send One who can fix them. And this One, this Rescuer, will right the wrongs and defeat evil even at the cost of his life.
What follows next is the story of one family. In Genesis 12—right after the Prologue ends—we read as God chooses Abram, a shepherd wandering about the Fertile Crescent, and promises him that if he'll leave his country and go where he's sent, God will make him a great nation. God promises to bless Abram by giving him land and descendents and making his name great, in order that he and his descendents will be a blessing to the world. Abraham takes God up on his offer, and the story begins.
The rest of the Old Testament—from Genesis 12 on—is the unfolding account of Abraham's descendents, which is filled with lots of ups and downs. We read that Abraham has a son, who in turn has twin sons, one of whom has 12 sons who become the 12 tribes of Israel. This era in the Old Testament is called the Patriarchal period. We follow these 12 sons as they move to Egypt to avoid a famine and then become slaves there for 400 years. The second era revolves around the Exodus of these Jewish slaves from Egypt. God calls Moses and supernaturally leads the Jews out of slavery to Mount Zion, where God reveals himself to them. This is also where the Jews, in a pattern that will be repeated, choose to disobey God. This disobedience leaves them wandering in the desert for 40 years.
The third era covers the conquest of the Promise Land God had given to Abraham. Era four focuses on the Judges—leaders, not lawyers—who occasionally unite the 12 tribes to fight a common enemy. The fifth era covers the United Kingdom. Here God grants the Jews request for an earthly king. In fact, he gives them one right out of central casting—a man named Saul who does a horrible job. God then taps the least likely candidate, a shepherd named David, who—though deeply flawed—unites the 12 tribes of Israel into one nation, expands her borders, and fills her treasury.
David's son Solomon rules after David's death. These are the glory days of Israel. But at Solomon's death his sons fight amongst themselves and the kingdom splits in two. This is the sixth era, called the Divided Kingdom. The northern half walk away from God and are soon overrun by the Assyrians. The southern half vacillates between obedience and rebellion before being overrun by the Babylonians and hauled into captivity. They remain there for 70 years; this is the seventh era, called the Exile.
The eighth and final era covers the return of Israel to Jerusalem—around 536 BC—and efforts to rebuild the wall and the temple.
If we were going to take our time, we could stop at a few key places and times when God revealed important truths to his people, such as at Mount Sinai, where he, after leading his people out of Egypt, revealed himself to them more fully by giving them the Law. The Law helps them understand both that God is perfectly holy, and that they are not. They learn that they cannot approach God unless they are forgiven.
This idea gets developed at great length through the introduction of the sacrificial system that weaves throughout the Old Testament God's people learn that sin is a capital offense. When we sin we deserve to die, but an innocent third party can die in someone's place. They are instructed in great detail about taking animals, which are innocent because they are not moral beings, and killing them and pouring their blood on the altar. It's an act that is gruesome by design, but which is set up to help the Jewish people realize how offensive their sin is, and to help them eventually understand the substitutionary death of Christ.
This leads us to a third point we'd need to track. God had made an initial promise back in the prologue. There he said he was going to send a rescuer. As time passes, he repeats the promise and reveals more and more about the One he is going to send—about what he will be like, where he will be born, and what he will do. These are called prophecies, and by some counts there are about 450 of them about the Messiah in the Old Testament. God gave predictions hundreds of years in advance about certain aspects of Christ's life.
If we had more time, we could look at how astronomically improbable it is that any one person could fulfill five or ten of these prophecies, let alone all 400 plus. This is a remarkably compelling piece of evidence for both the Bible and for Christ.
We could also start to unpack the New Testament. There is a 400 year gap between the Old and New Testaments, during which time a number of things happen and the fortune of the Jews goes up and down, but mostly down. They enjoy a bit of freedom after their exile in Babylon, but then Alexander the Great conquers the world and they live under Greek rule. Then the Romans take over and the Jews become a small, backwater part of the Roman Empire.
Suffice it to say that when the New Testament begins—when the curtain rises on what is essentially Act II—we soon realize that the Jews are insignificant players in the first century world; that they have a non-Jewish king and a heavy tax burden; that there is a major split between their own religious leaders; and that they are still waiting for the Messiah.
But then it all starts to change. The New Testament ostensibly begins when an angel appears to Zechariah, a priest, and tells him that his wife Elizabeth is going to give birth to a son, John the Baptist, who is going to announce the arrival of the King. That same angel visits Mary to tell her that though she is a virgin, she will give birth to the Son of God.
Then we read the accounts of Christ's birth. We read all of this with the understanding that the One who is being born is the second member of the Trinity. Jesus is God's own Son—the long awaited Rescuer. We understand that he has existed from eternity past, but is at this moment entering time and space through a virgin's womb in order to do for us what we can't do for ourselves—to pay our moral debt.
And we get to watch as the rest of the story plays out. Not much happens for a while; Christ's early years are quiet. There are a few clues and confirmations about how special he is. At age 30 his public ministry begins. We look on as he is tempted by the devil, as he calls his disciples, as he begins to travel, teach, care for the poor, and heal the sick. We watch as the crowds begin to gather and rumors start to circulate as to who he really is. We see he is initially quite coy, because the Jews had political and military expectations for the Messiah that Jesus has no intention of fulfilling.
But over time this Christ begins to make bolder and bolder statements about his true identity. The disciples begin to clue in more and more and to finally understand him. Then we watch as Jesus enters Jerusalem at the time of the Passover to die on the cross as the true and ultimate sacrifice for sin.
What you'd really get if we took the time to develop this is that the main event to focus on is not Christmas (it's not about a manger); rather, it's Good Friday (it's about a cross). It would be very clear to us that Jesus was born to die. If we had time, we could develop this in remarkable detail. Most people have no idea what they hold in their hands when they pick up this Book.
Of course the story goes on. I haven't even touched on the Resurrection or Pentecost or the commissioning of the church. If we had more time, we could develop these events more fully. Let me simply suggest that there really isn't any serious doubt that this is the story or that Christ claimed to be God. No one who studies the Bible is confused about what it is we are supposedly celebrating at Christmas: we are celebrating the anniversary of the arrival of the Rescuer.
Is the Christmas story true?
The question is this: Is the story true? Can the claims be believed? After all, anyone can claim anything. Do we have good reason to believe that Jesus Christ is God—the promised Messiah? The Savior of the world? And do we have reason to believe that those who embrace him can be forgiven and gain eternal life? Is that true?
I believe that these assertions are true, and I believe so for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Jesus Christ has changed my life. He met me. It took a while for me to move from practicing religion to being in a relationship with God. I grew up going to church but didn't get anything out of it. When I heard the story about Christ and first found those who had embraced Christ, I was skeptical. It took many months for me to finally take the step of faith and decide it was all true.
While there are more than a few people who have claimed to be God, as Christ did, and while there are more than a few people who have substantially changed the world, as Christ did, the subset of those who have both claimed to be God and changed the world is very, very, small. In fact, no one who claimed to be God has had close to the influence that Christ has had. He is not easily written off. You owe it to yourself to decide whether or not these claims are true. The stakes are so high that you should not walk away from Christ until you either decide that he is God or you write him off as a fake.
Believing that Christ is God, I rejoice at the promise that although we live in a broken world where there is much pain and heartache, even at Christmas, God has made a way forward for us. He has made a way back into the relationship for which we were made.
Mike Woodruff is senior pastor of Christ Church Lake Forest in Lake Forest, Illinois.