The secularization of our society over the last twenty five years is nothing short of amazing. I remember vividly traveling to Russia during Christmas of 1991 with my father-in-law and brother-in-law. The old Soviet Union had fallen and that country was trying to pull itself out of a communist economy that had failed miserably. The biggest change was the legalization of religion back into government, schools, and the public place. We were invited to come into the government schools and present the Christmas message. The churches could again worship openly with freedom. To them it was truly a merry Christmas.
At the same time America was outlawing nativity scenes on public or government property. Schools were banning anything having to do with religion, at least the Christian religion. The display of the ten commandments was beginning to be an issue though no one was yet pulling down statues or monuments. It was the first gulf war that infused some patriotism back into America and with it a little reprieve from atheistic activism.
In those days traveling back and forth between Russia and America showed an ironic contrast between freedom and oppression. Perhaps it takes seventy years of oppression for a people to realize how precious religious freedom is. Yet now, in America, we take for granted the secularization of Christmas. We hear Christmas songs but they are not religious songs or songs about the birth of God’s Son. We see decorations but they are Santa Clauses and reindeer and Christmas trees. The biggest moment in the season becomes the lighting of the tree and drinking eggnog.
Christians don’t mind the “extra-curricular” things. We could have or not have the trees, the lights, the presents, or even the silliness of Santa Claus. What Christians can’t do without is the truth of what happened two thousand years ago in Mary’s womb and in Bethlehem’s manger. We also enjoy other holidays related to our country: its independence, its presidents, its war heroes, or Labor Day or Thanksgiving. But what history has labeled “Christmas” and “Easter” represent two religious facts that Christians will never give up regardless of how their particular country allows them to be remembered.
The fall of the former Soviet Union showed that a nation cannot survive without a recognition of God. When secularization of a nation devolves into chaos and selfishness, only a belief in man’s Creator will pull it back up. But in this area of truth, Christianity alone puts all the pieces of the puzzle together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). This is why all human societies must have some rule of law. But it is not just that humans have some flaws that need correcting, humans have sinned before a holy God and stand in jeopardy of eternal punishment unless that sin is forgiven by God. Why do we say that and how do we know it? God has graciously told us so in His Word, the Bible. It has proven itself to be the one infallible book from God.
So what did God do about this situation? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This is the most well-beloved verse in the Bible because it tells us that God loved us enough to let His Son die for us and to invite us to believe in Christ for eternal life. But that same chapter in John also tells us, “And this is the condemnation that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (vs. 19). Yet John 1:12 has said, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” The greatest Christmas gift was the gift of His own Son so that we might escape eternal judgment for our sins.
We must dig a little deeper into our understanding of the Bible in order to set the Christmas message straight. Jesus wasn’t merely a good man who set a good example of giving and sacrifice so that we would be able to go out and do the same. The secularists call a “Christmas miracle” something that takes place because people do good things or give nice gifts or help helpless people. These are right things for people to do for each other but they are not the miracle of Christmas. No, a substitution had to take place. Someone would have to do what mankind could not.
The Bible teaches that man does not have the ability within him to do anything good enough to merit God’s forgiving grace. “For by grace are ye saved though faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any many should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Since this is true, there is not a person born of human parents who can save himself much less save others. There was only one way left for humans to have forgiveness of their sin, that is, for God to become a man Himself and take the sinner’s place. This is what happened at that first Christmas.
It is often in the later verses of Christmas carols where the real truth of Christmas is explained. Charles Wesley penned this miracle so well when he wrote,
It was by becoming a man, or incarnation, that God could Himself take our place as a worthy Substitute and live and die for us. The reason the angels sang and the heavens rang was because this miracle took place. But the irony is that the miracle had to be done in a natural manner. That is, Jesus had to really become a man yet remain really God. Sin had to be atoned for by a perfect man, but the only perfect man would also have to be God in flesh. “Hail the incarnate Deity!” This was the only hope for humans left, the only way for us to be rescued from a sinner’s hell. No celebration of any religious fervor can equal the joy brought to the world at that glorious moment.
Consider carefully how God accomplished this miracle. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” (Isa. 7:14). “But when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). Gabriel said to Mary, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 2:35). God became a man at the moment of Mary’s virginal conception. That was divine incarnation, something that had never happened before and will never happen again. The birth which happened nine months later in Bethlehem was part of the natural process that humans go through. The conception in Mary’s womb was the miracle, not the birth in Bethlehem’s manger.
The Christmas story is the most simple, plain, touching drama in all of literature. From this point on the God-man Jesus would live every natural experience that humans live and He would do it without sin. “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22). Joseph and Mary would suffer through one of the most difficult birth circumstances, escape the wrath of a jealous king, travel back home to take up a simple carpenter’s trade, and raise a unique son as well as give birth to other natural born sons and daughters (Matt. 13:55).
This natural life that Jesus the God-man lived would be both natural and miraculous. He suffered, cried, hungered, felt sorrow and joy, popularity and opposition, love and hatred. He showed that He was completely human and yet displayed miraculous power showing that He was completely divine. These miracles proved to the Jews that He was their Messiah and that their time of refreshing had come. But they did not believe Him.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Jesus’ life was the claim that He often made that He was God’s Son, the Messiah, the Incarnation of God in the flesh. “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9). “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). As many have noted, no one talks like this unless one of two things is true. Either He was delusional or He was truly God. You can’t have it both ways. This is what all humans have had to decide. Is He the One Who came from heaven to take my place and carry my sins to the cross, to die for me and resurrect so that I may also live forever, or is He a fraud and a deceiver.
C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”1 Alister McGrath added, “In the [Apostle’s] creed, stating that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ amounts to saying that Jesus is God. . . . If Jesus were just another human being, a creature like the rest of us, the New Testament writers would be guilty of worshiping a creature!”2
Then came the death. “He came unto his own and his own received him not” (John 1:12). “Crucify him . . . We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). How sad was the Jewish unbelief when their own Scriptures declare, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Yes, Jesus bore the sins of the whole world upon Himself. “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). Faith is accepting Him as your substitute in His death.
Jesus died but He rose again, bodily from the grave, and ascended back into heaven and is seated at the Father’s right hand. Death had no power over a righteous Man, and His resurrection showed that God had accepted His sacrifice on the cross for our sins. What is the gospel, the “good news”? “How that Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Because of Christmas, the way is opened for us to escape eternal judgment and to live forever in heaven with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Oh, here is the greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s Son. “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15). You may receive Him now as your Savior if you believe Who He is and what He has done for you. Christmas, in its most basic truth, is not a time of giving but a time of receiving. It all started two thousand years ago when God broke into our natural world by miraculous birth and became one of us. So it is true, “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12).
O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today!
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1960) 56.
- Alister McGrath, I Believe: Exploring the Apostle’s Creed (Downer’s Grove, IVP, 1997) 41.