Have you heard the 12 crazy-days of Christmas? The final verse goes like this.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Twelve dozen cookies
Eleven shoppers fighting
Ten cars a-honking
Nine broken presents Eight bags a-missing
Seven Christmas parties
Six crazy in-laws
Five extra pounds
Four credit cards
Three crying babies
Two missing parts
and a dried brown Christmas tree
We’ve all been there, right? It’s easy for us to get so distracted with the busyness of the season that we forget the real meaning of the season. Thanks for taking this time to focus on the real, real, real, real meaning of Christmas.
The Christmas Story comes down to us from antiquity from two main sources. I’m not counting the Armenian Infancy Gospels or the more modern Saint Nicholas folklore.
The Story of Jesus coming to earth as a baby are delivered to us by primarily two of the gospel writers – Matthew and Luke. They give the details. They highlight the fulfilled prophecy. They place the event in world and Jewish history.
But the other two Gospels tell us a lot more about His arrival and purpose than we might otherwise pick up on in either of the main historical accounts.
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The beauty of historical accounts show us the authors main focus and main purpose and taking a few posts to look at how each Gospel writer handles the coming of Jesus as a baby reveals their message to their first readers and to us today.
Let’s take a look at how Jesus’ birth is handled in each gospel and find the real, real, real, real meaning of Christmas.
Each Gospel handles the birth of Jesus a little differently. These differences are meaningful. They are written by different people and for different people, but each give us another reason to fall in love with Jesus all over again.
Luke has carefully researched the events around Christ’s birth – and he starts with the events around Jesus’ cousin’s birth – the miraculous birth of John.
The book of Luke was written to “Theophilus”. Literally, that means “God-lover”. He could have been a wealthy patron, or it might have been a group of people. What if Greek Christians, before they were called Christians called themselves Theophilians?
Luke places Jesus in World History. He writes about Caesar Augustus and Quirinus being the governor of Syria. His genealogy goes from Joseph all the way back to Adam.
Luke gives fuller accounts of angels. The Greeks he was writing to were more accustomed to stories of the gods interacting with humans and so would be interested in angelic encounters. He writes about the angel coming to Zachariah who didn’t believe He could become a father and so had his mouth shut until the prophecy was fulfilled. Luke talks about everything Mary hid in her heart about Gabriel’s visit. He reveals the story of the shepherd in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night and lo, the angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified and the angel said to them – “Fear Not, for behold I bring you news of great joy that shall be for all people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you ‘you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly hosts singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to all men on whom his favour rests”…
Luke includes unlikely people. He includes women – Elizabeth, Mary. He includes the outcasts like the Shepherds. He includes the elderly – Simeon, Zechariah, Anna.
Luke was writing to Greek speaking believers who needed to know the Jewish Messiah was for them. You don’t have to be born into the right family. You don’t need to be the top of society. You don’t need to be a man to be loved by God.
Luke reminds us that Jesus came for everyone. Not just the Jews. Not just the righteous. Not just the important. Not just those you would expect.
So what does that mean for us today? It means that everything you’ve done…before you became a Christian or even after you named the name of Christ, is covered by His blood. His grace is sufficient for you. You can’t mess up too much for God. Your sin did not surprise Him or disgust Him.
And yet He calls you out. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10 “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” Don’t let His grace be without effect in you. Paul says in Philippians 3:16 “Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” By the grace of God you can.
The real meaning of Christmas that Luke tells us it that Jesus came for all.
Matthew was written to Jewish believers, possibly Jewish people as an apologetic.. His genealogy places Jesus in Jewish history. He continually points out how Jesus fulfills the prophecy for the Messiah – including, but not limited to the fact that the Messiah:
- Would come from a descendant of Shem named Abraham ( Genesis 22:18; 12; 17; 22). Fulfilled: See Christ’s genealogy in Matthew 1.
- Would be a descendant of Abraham’s son, Isaac, not Ishmael (Gen. 17; 21). Fulfilled: See Christ’s genealogy in Matthew 1.
- Would be a descendant of Isaac’s son, Jacob, not Esau (Gen. 28; 35:10-12; Num. 24:17). Fulfilled: See Christ’s genealogy in Matthew 1.
- Would be a descendant of Judah, not of the other eleven brothers of Jacob. Fulfilled: See Christ’s genealogy in Matthew 1.
- Would be a descendant of the family of Jesse in the tribe of Benjamin (Isaiah 11:1-5). Fulfilled: See Christ’s genealogy in Matthew 1 and Luke 3:23-38.
- Would be of the house of David (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Jeremiah 23:5; Psalm 89:3-4). Fulfilled: See Christ’s genealogy in Matthew 1; Luke 1:27, 32, 69. Note: Since the the Jewish genealogical records were destroyed in 70 A.D., along with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, it would not be possible for a Messiah impostor who was born later to prove his lineage back to David and thus fulfill this prophecy.
- Would be born in a small city called Bethlehem, specifically the one formerly known as Ephratah (Micah 5:2). Fulfilled: Matthew 2:4-6
- Would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14). Fulfilled: Matthew 1; Luke 1.
- Would come while the Temple of Jerusalem is standing ( Malachi 3:1; Psalm 118:26; Daniel 9:26; Zechariah 11:13; Haggai 2:7-9). Fulfilled: Matthew 21:12, etc.
- Will perform many miracles (Isaiah 35:5-6). Fulfillment: See the Gospels
- Will open the eyes of the blind (Isa. 29:18). Fulfillment: Matt 9:27-31; 12:22; 20:29;
- Will speak in parables (Psalm 78:2). Fulfillment: Matthew 13:34, etc.
- Will have his way prepared by a messenger (a man of the wilderness) (Isa. 40:3; Malachi 3:1). See John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-3; 11:10; John 1:23; Luke 1:17).
- Will be betrayed (Psalm 41:9). Fulfillment: Matt. 27:3-10.
- Will be betrayed by a friend (Psalm 41:9). Fulfillment: Matt. 27:3-10; 26:47-48.
- Will be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver (Zech. 11:12). Fulfillment: Matt. 27:3-10.
- The betrayal money will be cast onto the floor of the Temple (Zech. 11:13). Fulfillment: Matt. 27:3-10.
- The betrayal money will be used to buy a potter’s field (Zech. 11:13). Fulfillment: Matt. 27:6-10.
- Will not open his mouth to defend himself (Isaiah 53:7). Fulfillment: Matthew 27:12.
- Will be beaten and spit upon (Isaiah 50:6). Fulfillment: Matthew 26:67; 27:26-30.
- Will be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). Fulfillment: Jesus was crucified as a criminal in between two thieves (Mat 27:38).
- Will be given vinegar and gall to drink (Psalm 69:21). Fulfillment: Matthew 27:34, 48.
- Will be buried with the rich (Isaiah 53:9). Fulfillment: Matthew 27.
- Will be the Son of God (Psa. 2:7). Fulfilled: Matthew 3:17, etc.
Jewish people around the time of Jesus were looking for a Messiah who would be King. Their recent history proved that a dedicated resistance – with the help of God – could overthrow a world power and set up an earthly Kingdom. This is exactly what happened during the inter-testmental period when Judas Maccabeus revolted against the Seleucid Empire. The Greeks had forbidden the practicing Jewish religion since 175 BC. Maccabeus was ultimately victorious, saw the miracle that is remembered in Hanukkah and forged an alliance with the emerging state of Rome to keep the theocracy free.
It happened once – not that long ago in the memory of an ancient people – and Lord willing it could happen again.
Matthew’s genealogy ends with Joseph. He wrote about Joseph and the dreams God gave him. The father’s role of the Messiah was important to the early Jewish believers.
And Angels in dreams were more common to Jewish literature at the time. All the angels in Matthew appear in dreams.
Matthew places Jesus in Jewish History. The genealogy is Abraham to Jesus. He uses a hermeneutic lost on us today that made sense to the first century Jewish thinking. His genealogy is 14-14-14. We know it wasn’t that clean, but it made sense to first readers. His prophecy on the Messiah being a Nazarene can’t be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Our best guess is he’s using the term for ‘branch’ in Isaiah 11:1 because it’s very similar in sound. Again, this is a perfectly legitimated understanding for first century listeners. Please don’t let it make you uncomfortable.
Matthew includes royalty. The gifts the Magi brought were royal gifts. A start guided them – stars are symbols of royal action in our ancient past. By the way, they came to a house not the manger. We don’t know if they came later that night or later in time. We know King Herod killed all babies two years old and younger, so it might have taken them two years to arrive. If that was the case we don’t know if the star they followed reappeared or if it was always there to lead them to the baby.
Matthew reminds us that Jesus came as King.
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What does this means to us? In our modern world, we don’t understand what a king was. We live in a recent concept of nation-states with various degrees of democracy or political influence.
Do you know there hardly a time in world history that there was a singular people gathered under rule? Even King David had Hittites and Ammonites as part of his mighty men. For most of world history, people gathered around men, not nationality.
It was the King who was responsible for provision, protection, identity, justice.
Jesus is King whether you acknowledge it or not. Will you follow Him as your king and trust Him for provision, protection, identity, justice?
The real real meaning of Christmas that Matthew tells us is Jesus came as King.
I wonder how many people came to this section with no idea that Mark says nothing about Christmas. I’m sure I snagged a few theologians who think I’m either unschooled or a heretic and are reading to find which it is.
If Luke places Jesus in world history and Matthew places Jesus in Jewish history, we can say Mark places God in Soteriological History. Don’t worry that’s just a big word for “salvation”.
Mark’s conspicuous absence of a nativity account speaks volumes to us and that’s what I want us to consider.
Why would Mark – that in many ways is so close to its synoptic brothers (Matthew and Luke) – leave out any mention of the coming of Jesus as a baby?
Mark starts with a quick mention of John the Baptist and then right into Jesus’ baptism and ministry. He doesn’t seem to care about the prophecies Jesus fulfilled like Matthew. He certainly doesn’t care to put Jesus into Jewish or World history. Some describe Mark a a passion with a longer introduction. Before I explain that, let’s take a look at a few things about the book of Mark.
Since the earliest times it’s been held that Mark, while a witness to the events of Jesus’ life, was the scribe for Peter. Remember Peter was the one to jump onto the waves. He was the one to run into the tomb when John stopped at the entrance. He was the one to speak up when the rest of the disciples were quite. He was the impetuous one.
Look at how Young’s Literal Translation renders three verses in Mark 1:
And the fame of him went forth immediately to all the region, round about, of Galilee. And immediately, having come forth out of the synagogue, they went to the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John, and the mother-in-law of Simon was lying fevered, and immediately they tell him about her, and having come near, he raised her up, having laid hold of her hand, and the fever left her immediately, and she was ministering to them. Mark 1:28-31 Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)
42 times in 16 chapter (and these are just the ones that make it into English) the word “immediately” is used in the book of Mark. Everything in Mark is focussed on the one event. Everything in Mark rushes towards the reason Jesus came. Mark is so focussed on the passion of Christ – His death on the cross – that he doesn’t have time to waste on Jesus‘ birth.
And that’s something we can never forget in the Christmas season. Yes, Jesus came as a baby and we celebrate his birthday on the only day early Christians could celebrate together as slave and free – the pagan holiday of Saturnalius – but we should never forget Jesus came to this world to die.
Christmas without the cross is no better than a pagan holiday.
And everything changed at the cross.
Guilt was removed (Justification). Romans 3:23-24
The price of sin was paid (Redemption). Romans 3:25
Our sins were washed (Propitiation). 1 Corinthians 6:11
We were made friends again with God (Reconciliation). 2 Corinthians 5:19
We are no longer fallen (Identification). Ephesians 2:4-6
Satan’s Rule Was Ended (Reclamation). Colossians 2:15
The curse of the law was canceled (Expiation). Galatians 3:13
Everything changed at the cross.
The real, real, real meaning of Christmas that Mark tells us is that Jesus came to die.
Can you guess what my favourite Christmas account is?
Is it Matthew that tells us Jesus came as our King? I love Matthew’s interest in how prophecy is fulfilled – I don’t understand it all, but I enjoy seeing how he saw prophecy fulfilled. But it’s not my favourite narrative.
Is it the lack of a story in Mark? When I was a kid, Dad started a tradition of reading a Christmas narrative before we opened our presents. When we read from Luke it seemed like forever. Matthew was quicker, but lacked the angels in the field. I never could get Dad to read the Mark account, even though I’d ask him for it every year… I mean really, those gifts just don’t open themselves. I love remembering Jesus came with a purpose – He came to die, but the lack of an account in Mark is not my favourite account. Besides now I take some pleasure in making my kids wait to open their presents.
Is it the detail of Luke I love? Luke is the classic account. It has so much detail and is so well written, it rolls of the tongue. I so appreciate knowing Jesus came for all, but it’s not my favourite account of the nativity.
So you guessed it. Christmas According to John is my favourite account. It puts the awe of the advent into me every year. I love reading it, reciting it, meditating on it. It’s powerful.
Where is it you ask? Well, here it is. I’m doing this from memory – I can’t remember how far it goes, but it starts with John 1:1:
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God – He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made, without him nothing has been made. In him was life and his life is the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it. There was one sent from God his name was John, he came a witness to the light to testify so that all men might believe. He himself was not the light, he came as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came into his own and his own did not receive him. Yet to all who receive him, to those who believed in his name he gave the right to become children of God. Children not born of natural descent or human wisdom or a husband’s will… but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling with us…
There it is: “The Word became flesh and (literally) camped out for a while.” Remember I said Matthew puts the birth of Jesus in Jewish history and Luke puts the birth of Jesus in World history and Mark puts Jesus in Soteriological History?
John puts the birth of Jesus in Cosmic history.
The One who spoke and the 400 million stars of this galaxy were formed and 400 million galaxies of this Universe came into being – the one who sustains the spin of an electron around a proton and makes the dark matter we’re only speculating about keep the universe together… took on flesh and camped out for a while.
Yes, Jesus came as our King. He came to die in our place. He came for all. But the thing that continually puts me in awe of Christmas is HE CAME. Immanual – “God With Us” stripped himself of his omnipresence and omniscience and came as a helpless baby in a manger.
I don’t understand. I can only see the edges of this picture. But I appreciate it and I’m in awe of it.
Christmas According to John is GOD came.
And shouldn’t we always have that sense of awe when we consider the greatness and love of our great and loving God?
The real, real, real, real meaning of Christmas that Matthew tell us is the GOD CAME.
Take time in the busyness of this season to reflect on that. May you have the spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know the hope to which you’ve been called and have the incomparably great power for all who believe.
Why not use this season to start to live LIGHT? We have a proven, simple tool you can use to be 10% happier in the next 28 days. That might not seem like a lot, but if your income doubled in that time you’d feel the 10% happier than you do today as well. What are you wanting for?