by Rick Shrader
“The liturgical celebration of Christmas Day on December 25 was instituted at least by 336.”
Paul A. Hartog, ed., The Contemporary Church and the Early Church, p. 59.
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by Rick Shrader
“The liturgical celebration of Christmas Day on December 25 was instituted at least by 336.”
Paul A. Hartog, ed., The Contemporary Church and the Early Church, p. 59.
by Rick Shrader
The passage from Thanksgiving to Christmas is a wonderful time of the year. The leaves fall and the air grows cooler. The sky is clear and the days grow shorter. Our thoughts change from hearts thankful for bounty and blessing to hearts adoring of incarnation and salvation. We are witnessing growing unbelief and secularization of this most Christian season but, to believing hearts, this is the time to remember and say, “thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15).
The Christmas story is found for us in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. Mark and John had different purposes when they wrote their inspired accounts. Matthew’s account is the natural conclusion to his long genealogy and primarily contains the confrontation between King Herod and the wise men and Herod’s terrible result. Luke gives the most detailed account of the birth of Jesus in the eighty verses of chapter one followed by the beautiful “Christmas” account of chapter two. Who hasn’t heard it read on Christmas eve, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed?”
As a pastor I’ve had to bring messages about Christmas every year for a lot of years! Personally, I would be satisfied with reading Luke’s account every Christmas and making as few comments about it as possible. But since we usually care for a little more variety, we search for a different way to look at the story from year to year. This year, as our folks know by now, I will follow Luke’s account by emphasizing the godly characters he weaves into the Christmas story, as well as Luke’s inspired record of their messages. Here are a few of the highlights.
Luke’s words (1:1-4)
How important and striking are the first four verses of Luke’s gospel! No other New Testament book begins in such a way. Charles Erdman wrote, “This preface is a perfect gem of Greek art; even in the English version it loses little, if anything, of its literary charm.”1 Here Luke not only explains why he is writing to his acquaintance, Theophilus (“that thou mightest know the certainty of those things”), but gives in a forthright manner how he was writing under inspiration of God (“It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first”).
Luke explains that many people who lived in the time of Jesus attempted to write or preserve the accounts of Jesus’ life but were not inspired as the very apostles. While Matthew and John were apostles, Mark and Luke were also “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” Bishop J.C. Ryle of Liverpool, England, wrote a hundred years ago,
It is enough for us to know that Luke wrote by inspiration of God. Unquestionably he did not neglect the ordinary means of getting knowledge. But the Holy Ghost guided him, no less than all other writers of the Bible, in his choice of matter. The Holy Ghost supplied him with thoughts, arrangement, sentences, and even words. And the result is, that what St. Luke wrote is not to be read as the word of man, but the Word of God (1 Thes. 2:13). Let us carefully hold fast the great doctrine of plenary inspiration of every word of the Bible. Let us never allow that any writer of the Old or New Testaments could make even the slightest verbal mistake or error, when writing as he was ‘moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21)2
How different is Luke’s approach than much of what the world says today! I was given a 2017 edition of National Geographic whose cover story is “The Search for the Real Jesus.” This tired old approach has been around for a hundred years or more. It tries to separate the man, “Jesus of Nazareth,” who really existed, from the Jesus Whom the Bible depicts, or, the “Jesus of faith.” Why is it that people would rather have an ordinary man who lied about his identity, died as a Roman criminal, and is still dead, than have the Jesus that the Bible describes? Can anyone explain the history of Christianity from a mere mortal? If Jesus is not the person the Bible depicts, then He was a liar or delusional and so were His followers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, and all the rest.
There is more manuscript evidence for the Jesus of the Bible, more archaeological evidence, more historical evidence, and even more reasonable evidence, than for any other person or event in history. It is no accident that God allowed Luke to write the longest chapter in the Bible concerning the birth of His Son. The virgin birth of Christ (Christmas), and the bodily resurrection of Christ (Easter) are the most attested facts of history.
Of the innumerable angels God created, Gabriel is one of only a few names we know (yet God knows them all by name as He also does the stars, Psa. 147:4). Gabriel, “who stands in the presence of God” (vs. 19), makes his New Testament appearance in Luke’s long chapter to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist and to Mary the mother of Jesus.
To Zechariah Gabriel announces that Elizabeth will have a son in her old age (vss. 11-20). Though this is not a virgin birth, it is a miracle in the order of Abraham and Sarah when Isaac was born in their old age. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, however, is a miracle of a different sort because as a virgin she will have a Child Who is very God of God. Elizabeth’s son (John the Baptist) will be a product of human reproduction speeded up by God. Human birth happens all the time but not when people are well beyond child bearing years. Fish and bread are multiplied constantly in God’s world, but not the way Jesus speeded up the process at the feeding of the 5000 and 4000. But no one is born of a virgin in this world. This is a kind of miracle that has no parallel in our natural process. When Jesus walked on water, there was no natural parallel to that kind of miracle either.
When Zechariah and Elizabeth were young they had prayed for a child but God did not grant their request at that probable time. No doubt, Zachariah had forgotten all about it. On this day he is chosen by lot to burn incense in the holy place, something that happens only once in a priest’s life-time. As he is performing this sacred privilege, Gabriel appears next to the altar of incense (where prayers are offered) and announces that Zechariah’s prayer has been heard! Zechariah, though realizing he is in the presence of a heavenly being, still doubts that such a thing can happen and is rewarded with muteness for his unbelief. Nevertheless, John is born of Elizabeth in her old age.
Gabriel’s appearance and prophecy to Mary is quite different. When she is told of this extraordinary event that will happen, though she is allowed a question, hers is not in doubt but only in wonder and awe at God’s choice of such a lowly woman. In the end Mary only says, “be it unto me according to your word.” But here is something unique in Luke’s account also, the most detailed description of the virgin birth in the Bible. This is how Gabriel describes it, “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” (vs. 35).
This statement of the facts can be distorted by pagan thought, denied by unbelieving thought, or misunderstood by uncareful thought. The Holy Spirit gives Gabriel three words that describe the actions of the three persons of the God-head. The Holy Spirit will “come upon” her; the Highest shall “overshadow” her; and the Son shall be “born” of her. I believe that a close look at those three words will yield nothing unusual. They are words for children to understand because there is no way for mortals to understand how God will enter the world through a virgin and take upon Himself full humanity (any more than how Jesus left the world by ascending into the heavens). I don’t understand a natural human birth, that is, how an eternal soul is produced who will live somewhere forever because of the union of a mother and father. How, then, could I ever understand this virgin birth of the eternal Son of God? God tells me in simple language and expects me to trust that it is so. And so I do.
Gabriel had informed Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was already six months pregnant (vs. 36). Mary visited Elizabeth near that time and we may assume that Mary had already conceived Jesus in her womb. When Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, we are told that the “babe” inside Elizabeth “leaped in her womb” (vs. 41) at the presence of Mary. Elizabeth then said to Mary, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vss. 42-43).
A side note here is interesting concerning the word “babe” or brephos. Under inspiration, Luke is describing the embryo inside Elizabeth with this word (in vs. 41 and also vs. 44). Elsewhere in the New Testament this word always refers to a living child. Luke uses it twice in chapter two (vss. 12 and 16) to describe Jesus, once in swaddling clothes and once lying in a manger. Luke also uses it in Acts 7:19 as “young children.” Paul uses it once in 2 Tim. 3:15 when he says of Timothy that “from a child” he had known the Scriptures. Peter uses it once in 1 Pet. 2:2 to describe believers as “newborn babes” who desire milk. How else can we take this than the Holy Spirit designates an embryo as a living human being? It would also be unbelieving of us not to realize that in Mary’s womb was the Life from all eternity!
Mary’s praise to God receives this title from the Latin equivalent of “magnify.” Lenski says, “Mary herself furnishes no cause for Mariolatry. She merely glorifies and praises God for all that he has done and takes a broad view of his saving work. Her hymn is called the Magnificat from the first word of the Latin translation.”3
Elizabeth had called Mary “the mother of my Lord” (vs. 43) signifying her coming faith in Jesus as Messiah. She also says of Mary, “blessed is she that believed” (vs. 45) as Mary says of herself, “And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior” (vs. 47). As Lenski says, there is nothing here to create a worship of Mary. She is a simple but spiritual Jewish girl through whom God would enter the world, that is all.
How different is the text itself from what the Roman church has made of her. Its catechism records,
From among the descendents of Eve, God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. “Full of grace,” Mary is “the most excellent fruit of redemption” (SC 103): from the first instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.
Mary is truly “Mother of God” since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God himself. Mary remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin (St. Augustine, Serm. 186, 1:PL 38, 999): with her whole being she is “the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk. 1:38).
The Virgin Mary “cooperated through free faith and obedience in human salvation” (LG 56). She uttered her yes “in the name of all human nature” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Sth III, 30, 1). By her obedience she became the new Eve, mother of the living.4
William MacDonald says it well as a response to such heresy,
The Bible never speaks of Mary as “the mother of God.” While it is true that she was the mother of Jesus, and that Jesus is God, it is nevertheless a doctrinal absurdity to speak of God as having a mother. Jesus existed from all eternity whereas Mary was a finite creature with a definite date when she began to exist. She was the mother of Jesus only in His incarnation.5
We are told that Mary and Joseph had other children. Matthew records, when Jesus was teaching in Galilee, that His critics said, “Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?” (Matt. 13:54-56). Mary was not immaculately conceived herself, neither was she perpetually a virgin, and neither did she experience an assumption into heaven. She was a virgin Jewish girl through whom Jesus came.
Zechariah comes back into the story late in Luke’s long chapter after John has been delivered. He has been mute and, it seems deaf, since his lack of belief in Gabriel’s prophecy. However, once his mouth is opened again he gives a magnificent testimony to the work of Jesus and also of his son John. Of Jesus he says,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us, that we, being delivered out of the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. (Lk. 1:68-75)
Luke, a later New Testament believer, has no problem quoting this Old Testament saint who gives an Old Testament perspective of the coming of Messiah. Zechariah could not have seen the eventual split between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. To him all the prophecies of Messiah were compacted together, as the prophet Isaiah wrote it,
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish is with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” (Isa. 6:9-10).
This is testimony but precursor to the bona fide offer of Messiah’s kingdom, its rejection by the Jewish nation, and its postponement until a second coming of Jesus in glory. We need not think that the promised “peace on earth, good will toward men” can only be fulfilled in an immaterial, spiritual way in the hearts of believers. No, there will be real peace on earth when Jesus returns and sets up His millennial kingdom. Zechariah said it out of true belief and Luke wrote it out of true inspiration.
And So . . .
Christmas is the believer’s holiday. For those who cannot believe in the incarnation of God in the flesh, it is profane to celebrate the season by talking of miracles, gifts, love, and “the real meaning of Christmas” without any mention of Jesus Christ. It would be better not to celebrate it than to change the truth of God into a lie.
But for those of us who have placed our faith and trust in Him, let us continue to speak of God’s great love though the gift of His Son and look for the blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
by Rick Shrader
It is a strange time in which to be living—in these last days. The Christian has known that such a time would come, but talking about it or predicting it and living it are different things. I know the coming of the Lord may be years away (or it may be momentary) but the Scripture teaches that the world will get worse and not better as we get closer to His coming. 2 Timothy 3:1-2 is enough as it describes “perilous times” and the fact that men will be “lovers of themselves” and therefore are “unthankful” and “unholy.” And there are many more passages that describe the days in which we live in such terms.
Still, it has been our great privilege as believers to live in this blessed country. Since Thanksgiving is an American tradition, as a believer I can join with all its citizens and be thankful for God’s blessings. I only wish that all citizens truly were thankful to their Creator for what He has done in this land of ours. King David, centuries ago, left us a universal principle that has been applied many times in various circumstances,
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the LORD shall have them in derision. (Psalm 2:1-4) This principle, that has been repeated through the ages, will ultimately be fulfilled when the Lord returns and sets up His millennial reign, as the following verses reveal, Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure. Yet have I set my King upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou are my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost part of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Psalm 2:5-9)
The kings of the earth are working hard at casting away God’s hold on them. Yet in the midst of such anarchy toward the Creator, believers in the Lord have both reason to be saddened and to rejoice. The throwing away of our heritage is sad, but the blessings of God in the past, in the present, and certainly in the future, all cause us to enter into his gates with thanksgiving and into his courts with praise. (Psalm 100:4)
Thankful for a safe country
I was born in 1950. I doubt there has ever been 67 years with more change than this generation has seen. Though I grew up in the country in Ohio, I visited my grandparents in Springfield, MO every summer along with my brothers and sister. Can you imagine today doing what we as kids did all alone in those days? My older brother rode the bus from Ohio to Springfield all by himself when he was about 12 years old. In the city we would take the bus downtown, walk around, and then come home on the same bus. We weren’t delinquent; our parents knew where we were going and what we were doing. Sometimes we were with neighborhood kids yet there was no smoking, drinking, drugs, or even foul language. We were just having fun. Policemen were our friends and we would stop and talk to them every chance we got. I really don’t think anyone I knew ever considered vandalizing someone’s property or even being disrespectful.
I’m not just walking down memory lane, I’m describing a country with security. We went to church on Sunday and Christian camp every summer. We would go to the county fair grounds for the summer tent revival and sit on wooden chairs set up over sawdust on the ground. Some of the older kids would sing in the volunteer choir. Because there wasn’t a lot else for kids to do, these things were our activities, along with kick-the-can, hide-and-seek, and various other evening neighborhood games.
Our country today is less safe. I have traveled to a number of unsafe countries around the world mostly while working with missionaries. Coming and going in those countries was a struggle for an American who is so used to common, everyday freedoms. I remember being stuck in the Moscow airport in 1992 and having to wait hours and hours for a flight out. Finally, as the plane was going down the runway and the tires lifted off the tarmac, the entire plane broke out into cheering! America has to guard its borders because of those who would come in; most other countries guard their borders because of those who would go out.
Thankful for a Christian country
Some would think me an alarmist if I said that we are seeing the Christian part of our country disappearing, but I am sure I am right. I can’t understand how anyone can read just a few books of America’s beginning, or read speeches by the first American presidents, or walk the halls and monuments of Washington, and not understand our Christian founding. I am not saying that all of those early patriots and politicians were born again, but only that they realized that our country has a uniquely Christian foundation. Sure, there has been freedom for anyone of another religion who can abide by our laws and love our religious freedom, but America was born a Christian nation.
Religious freedom has its price. The first is the price of those who suffered to give us true religious freedom and not some nationalistic religion. The government cannot intrude upon my or your freedom to worship by our own conscience. The second price has been paid by sons and daughters of our citizens who have defended this country both home and abroad, from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. I mean both military personnel and law enforcement agents. As I write, a terrorist has just driven a truck over innocent citizens in New York City. Though the mayor and governor of that state have often criticized their own law enforcement officers, I now see them surrounded by those very officers in such a time of danger and alarm.
A third price is paid by Christian Americans who have faithfully spread the gospel of Jesus Christ here and around the world. There is no better citizen of any country than a born again citizen. You’ll never see them driving trucks over people, or shooting them from a hotel window, or disrespecting the “higher powers” that God has ordained. America has spent her money, sent her children, and offered her prayers to send the gospel around the world. This has to be the biggest reason God is still patient with us.
However, we will all pay a price if we lose our Christian basis for being a country. Freedom for true religion also means freedom for false religion. Freedom for law-abiding citizens also means freedom for would-be terrorists. Freedom for good also means freedom for bad. Christianity understands and teaches the fallen nature of mankind and therefore the need for rule of law, for moral education, for religious instruction. We cannot continue to outlaw the very thing that gave us our freedom, while allowing false religions and anti-religious types to have carte blanche in our schools, governments, and entertainments. Our uncivil society is witness to its results.
Thankful for a free country
A free country is a place where families can live. I married a girl, Ann, whose father grew up in Ukraine under the Soviet Union. He was not free to do these things I took for granted as a boy. In fact, his family had to flee to S. America as WWII began. When they all finally arrived in the U.S., they loved this country and never criticized its founding, its freedoms, or its flag. I remember “dad” one time stopping at a rest area along the interstate highway and as he returned to the car saying, “what a great country!” We are so guilty of taking our freedoms for granted that we don’t even think of such things.
At 67 years old, I’m not so worried about my own freedom in the years to come. I’m worried for my kids and grandkids, and their children. What a shame it would be if my own grandkids never knew an America like I knew growing up. Already they cannot do many of the things I took for granted as a boy. They cannot walk alone in the city, they cannot wait for their grandfather at the flight gate at the airport, they cannot attend public school without warning of multiple dangers. Now, they cannot use amazing electronic devices without warnings that no child should have to be exposed to.
America has been sheltered from world wars and most terrorism by God and the ocean borders He gave us. But now we see terrorism coming to our own shores. The event of 9-11-01 changed our country. We don’t have the freedom or the security we once had. Now individual terrorist attacks, the great majority of which come from a political movement claiming to be a religion, have made us all live with a fear our forefathers did not need to know. And in the midst of it, a free country must allow ungrateful citizens to protest against the very things that brought about their freedom to protest.
We have a Korean Marine veteran in our church who has a purple heart and who led over 40 combat missions during that war. When the “conflict” ended, he stood with other fellow marines and soldiers, watching the trucks go by loaded with the bodies of dead Americans. The man next to him turned and said, “Freedom isn’t free, is it?” No, and we must always be thankful for those who paid such a price.
Thankful for a failing country
How can I be thankful for a country that is faltering and failing in such ways? I can for the best of reasons. True, I am not thankful for ungrateful people who disdain our country and who work tirelessly to fundamentally change it. I am not thankful for those who exploit freedom with pornography, drug addiction, nakedness, and atheism. But I know why they do it. The reason is called sin. And when I think of a country that is failing because of sin, I rejoice that there is a cure called the righteousness of Christ in salvation.
Individual freedom. I do not know if God will grant America a revival of its lost faith. But I know that any individual can find peace and rest in this life through Jesus Christ, and then eternally as well. Christians have lived in every situation imaginable for the last 2000 years. The reason is that faith in Christ is offered to you individually, not to a country wholesale. Those believers could endure anything because of their faith. Jesus Christ came first to His own people the Jews. John records, He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. 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 (John 1:10-12).
National freedom. A country can enjoy God’s blessings if it will honor Him. It may not be the millennial kingdom or the new Jerusalem, but America once knew the blessing of giving such honor and reverence to God. Daniel the prophet prepared his heart to speak before king Nebuchadnezzar in behalf of his captive people. He said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: and he changeth the times and seasons: he removeth kings and he setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom to the wise and knowledge to them that hath understanding: he revealeth the deep and secret things: he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him (Daniel 2:20-22). America is not a chosen people as Israel was and is, but king Solomon said, righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people (Prov. 14:34).
God has worked out His will in every nation, sometimes to blessing and sometimes to judgment. God used the ungodly nations of Assyria and Babylon to punish Israel that they might turn back to Him. He even called Babylon the “sword of the Lord” (Isa. 34:6, Jer. 12:12) because He can use a nation in any way He wishes. Yet He eventually blessed Israel and punished Babylon for their sins. In the last days, in which we seem to be living, God will also use unbelieving nations to punish other sinful nations. The nations aligned with Antichrist will be used of God to bring judgment on end-time Babyon, For God hath put in their hearts to fulfill his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled (Rev. 17:17).
Eternal freedom. I can be thankful for whatever comes my way in this life because I know that eternal life with Jesus Christ in the presence of God the Father will last for eternity. Christianity is only partly for this life, though it makes our joy full. Christianity is for eternity because there is a heaven and a hell just as sure as there is a devil and a true God. Heaven is the home of the saint. His life may be one of toil and persecution, but his reward awaits in heaven. Paul confessed, If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable (1 Cor. 15:19). Though he was the greatest missionary and Christian in history, his was a life of trouble, yet he looked for a different country.
The kingdoms of this world will continue to fail until Jesus returns and sets up His own kingdom for a thousand years on the earth, ruling from Jerusalem with Israel restored around Him in their own land. This thousand year reign (Rev. 20:1-7) of Christ will be partly populated by the ransomed church of God, the Lamb’s wife, resurrected, married, and ascended to the earth with Him. As John says, and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful (Rev. 17:14). Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready (Rev. 19:7). And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean (Rev. 19:14). And they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years (Rev. 20:4).
I can be thankful for that! I would also like to see my own beloved U.S.A. turn again to God and be ready for His coming, and I pray that it will. But until then I will be thankful, even in a failing country, because I know a sovereign God is in control of the past, the present, and the future.
And so . . .
Thankful? Yes! Paul said, In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thes. 5:18). I have often said that Christmas and Easter are the church’s holidays though the world has left them alone or changed them into something they never were. But I think that Thanksgiving should be the church’s holiday as well. It is right of us to thank God for the free and safe country in which we live. It is right to remember the price that was paid for us to have these blessings. But in the end it is God Who has given us all things and Jesus Christ Who upholds all things by the Word of His power.
My children and grandchildren are scattered all over the country, but they are all serving God. There is no safer and freer place to be than in God’s will. That transcends terrorist attacks, immoral leaders, apostate religions, and pain and suffering.
For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself (Phil. 4:20-21).
by Rick Shrader
Have you wondered why Christ has been banned from the holiday which bears His name, Christmas? Or why Christianity alone is banned in a country which bears the insignia, “In God we trust?” Never mind the fatal inconsistency that in America everything is tolerated except what can’t be tolerated. And what can’t be tolerated? Anything that disagrees with what is tolerated.
How did we get here? A generation ago we were talking about a post-modern, post-Christian culture that was creeping into our society. Well, as Jude says, it has crept in unawares. We are now experiencing what a few years ago we were merely speculating about, and it is impacting our society with a vengeance. My hard files and electronic files are packed with evaluations which were made in the 1990s and beyond. At the time it was interesting, even intriguing, to think that America could lose its Christian identity in our own life time. It was In 1984 that Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Finally, we must not forget that the world is on fire. We are not only losing the church, but our entire culture as well. We live in the post-Christian world which is under the judgment of God.”1
Soon afterward books began to appear that linked Schaeffer’s expression with the term “postmodern” derived especially from the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). By1990 other Christian writers were flooding the book stores with warnings about this coming phenomenon. One specific factor of which Christians warned was that there would be no absolute truth in a postmodern culture (a view they insisted was absolute). To insist on one’s belief being true would make another’s false, and this would be bigoted and even hateful.
While living and pastoring in Ft. Collins, CO, the local paper printed an article by a liberal Rabbi which read, “‘It is not sinful to be a gay and lesbian,’ said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, ‘It is sinful to have these prejudices and act out on them.’”2 About the same time Dan Story had written,
This post-Christian and postmodern world holds to the premise that there are no absolute truths that apply to everyone equally. Christianity and Christian ethics are no longer relevant. In fact, orthodox Christians are seen as bigoted, narrow-minded, and anti-intellectual because we refuse to accept other religions as ‘paths to God’ or to consider homosexuality, pornography, or abortion as permissible in a moral society.3
Consider just a few other warnings sounded by prominent Christian writers at the time. John MacArthur wrote:
Think about it: pronouncing anything ‘true’ and calling its antithesis ‘error’ is a breach of postmodernism’s one last impregnable dogma. That is why to a postmodernist nothing is more uncouth than voicing strong opinions on spiritual, moral, or ethical matters.4
Alister McGrath wrote:
In a postmodern context, questions are likely to be raised about the New Testament’s emphasis on Jesus Christ being the only way to salvation (which is held to be inconsistent with postmodernism’s positive appraisal of diversity).5
Alan Wolfe, writing in the Atlantic Monthly wrote:
Postmodernism exercises such a fascination over the evangelical mind, I believe, because of the never-ending legacy of fundamentalism. In one sense evangelical scholars have moved away from Billy Sunday and in the direction of French poststructuralism: they cast their lot with those who question any truths rather than those who insist on the literal truth of God’s word.6
The result of all of this has been a new century where Christianity is feared because of its grand narrative of redemption exclusively through Jesus Christ and its commitment to the absolute truth of a written document, the Bible. Because of these, Christianity must not be allowed to speak in the public arena because these views are hateful by proclaiming other views false (that is, they came to wrong conclusions which is to say they were less intelligent, and that is a hateful thing to say). The Christmas holiday must only be allowed to display folk tales and seasonal things, in an effort to bring it down to the level of all other religious days. To speak of the unique Son of God becoming incarnate to provide the only way to God is, in a postmodern world, bigoted and hateful.
The postmodern view of the world, however, is unrealistic and false. In fact, it is itself unloving and uncaring. It substitutes obvious reality with destructive word games like deconstructionism, finding an evil intent behind all history; semiology, changing the usage of simple words into unintended meaning; and social constructivism, turning each person’s version of reality into their own reality.7 This is seen so clearly in today’s view of gender identity which dreams up a false identity for oneself, when, in fact, nothing could be more clear than that God made us male and female and in His own image.
The Reality of Christmas
First, a few facts need to be faced. The word “hate” is an easy tool to use against someone with whom you disagree. We like to attach “phobic” to anything opposed to cultural mores. If you disagree with homosexuality you are homophobic. If you disagree with another culture you are xenophobic. Postmodernism extends this supposed “fear” to “hatred” and then to “racism” (because everything from gender identity to sexual preference is now a “race”). These have become the worst crimes for humans to commit. Christians (and Christmas) are accused of these simply because they disagree.
But disagreement is not fear, hatred, nor racist. Disagreement is one’s assessment of right and wrong, something all of us do throughout each day of our lives. I disagree with eating dirt and I disagree with murder and for correct reasons. Historically, it can be shown, disagreement more often becomes a catalyst to discovery of the truth, not to hatred or fear. But when the truth is not allowed because it limits, forbids, or labels something as wrong, that is social totalitarianism, not freedom.
God labels many things wrong and, of course, He is right and has every right to say so. God made us in His image and that is our true identity regardless of how we may want to identify ourselves. It is for this reason that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). God doesn’t tell us what is right and wrong because He hates us but because, loving us, He explains to us what is good and bad for us.
A difficult reality
God has told us something that is very difficult to accept but is absolutely necessary for us to know for our own good. That is that all human beings, though each one is made in God’s image, have sinned in Adam and are themselves sinners. The reality of our sinful nature is so obvious that it takes the sleight of postmodernism to deny. Why do we have to teach children to do right? Why do we have a rule of law in every society? Why does every person have a conscience? All of these things exist, and must exist, because of the reality of our fallen nature.
It does no good at this point to blame God for our sinfulness. As they say, “it is what it is.” God made us with a choice and holds us accountable for it. Sin is real and God is still holy.
An even more difficult reality
There is an everlasting punishment for sins called hell, and for two very good reasons. The first reason is that God Himself is absolutely holy and good and will deal with anything contrary to Himself. This doesn’t mean that He deals with it immediately. In fact, God is very longsuffering with us so that we have time to respond to Him (2 Peter 3:9). The second reason is that unrepentant sin will be dealt with in a very harsh way, a way that equals God’s goodness and holiness. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). It’s not that the holy God knew this and did not care, for even that would be uncharacteristic of holiness. Rather, the holy and good God has not only revealed the truth about this, but has done something magnificent to remedy the situation.
A divine moral dilemma
That may not sound right since whatever is truly divine is never caught in any moral compromise, but the apostle Paul, in the third chapter of Romans (verses 21-31), presents it as if it were. There is no way for fallen human beings to become right with God again on their own. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (3:10); “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). God cannot simply place a waiver on sin. For to ignore sin and leave it unaddressed would make Him guilty, less than holy. Something must be done that does not impugn God’s holiness in this way.
You may have noticed that Christmas carols are also avoided in public. One reason is that they also display this difficult reality and moral dilemma. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.” “No more let sins and sorrows grow,” the Christmas carols record. Yet right here is the postmodern dilemma also. The reason for the Christian’s Christmas message is because we have found ourselves helpless and sinful and in need of divine deliverance. God has said that we are wrong! He has said that He disagrees with us! By postmodern creed He would be hateful to say such a thing to us. You may try to find your way out of the dilemma by going that way, or you may, in humility, see God’s way out.
Joy to the World
The righteousness which we all need has come from God Himself, and from Him alone. If just one man could live righteously before God, God could be satisfied in him, but none can. So God, being Himself Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sent His only Son into the world to be that perfect man. But will He save only Himself, and let all the world perish? No, rather He will give Himself to die in their place and then let whosoever will accept Him as their substitute. Then salvation is by grace, that is, we are not saved by our works, but by the righteousness of the One Who lived without sin and died in our place. “To declare,” Paul says, “I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Dilemma solved!
No more let sins and sorrows grow;
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings known
Far as the curse is found, far as the course is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
O Holy Night
Now we see why Christmas is so loved by the humble and so hated by the proud. That miracle, that divine moment, God became a man to do for man what man could not do for himself. The condemnation of eternal hell was upon all of us. We were without hope and without God in a sinful world. But at that moment of incarnation, when the angels sang and the heavens rang, the only possible hope for all mankind was born. “When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4).
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth,
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn,
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices,
O night divine, of night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
O Come All Ye Faithful
The Christian’s Christmas message is both narrow and broad. It is narrow in that God declares loudly that it is the only way to Him. “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). “There is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In this day of multi-everything, this road is too narrow, too exclusive. In the world’s terms it is “bigoted” to exclaim that one has the only truth. But God’s Word (and therefore the Christian’s Christmas) says it!
But it is also very broad. “Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The real blessing of Christmas, the real joy to the whole world is that salvation is made possible for every man, woman, boy and girl. This is God’s Christmas gift to the world. The only condition, as with any gift, is to receive it. So it is good news that we can’t earn it or pay for it. The whole world is in the same lost condition so God solved the universal problem with a gift. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Only the giver of a gift had to pay the price and Jesus did when He died for us. The receiver is only the recipient.
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come and behold Him, born the King of Angels!
O come, let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!
And So . . .
Is Christmas hateful? Is God hateful? To many this seems to be the case. They cannot find it within themselves to admit their need of a Savior. They will not accept a gift (and the love of God!) that is given because of the incapacity of the receiver. Such would make a person humble, it would make him necessarily thankful, and this the prideful human heart is averse to admitting.
But you may this very moment. “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13). It is a promise from the Giver. When you do, the light of heaven will open to you and Christmas will be Christmas again.
by Rick Shrader
“Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people” Proverbs 16:34
America has been the greatest nation in the age of grace. We share our Christian values with our mother England, but she has fallen from her graceful place generations ago and her favorite son may not be far behind. As we approach our “Independence Day” celebrations, I doubt that many in our great land will think of the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Almost all holidays, religious or national, have become mere opportunities to play and party. We don’t take time to reflect on what brought us this freedom or how we came to be so blessed.
The true believer in Jesus Christ lives in a nationalistic conundrum. Can we rejoice in present-day America with its rejection of God and its blatant sins? Or can we be thankful for what we have had in the past even though we are living off the spiritual capital of our forefathers? Or can we be positive about our future, hoping that there will be some reprieve or revival or relief? Or can we be assured that these are the last days and that Jesus Christ Himself will rescue His Church before the dark and terrible days of tribulation to come? John’s tribulation riddle was, “He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints” (Rev. 13:10).
I have been in several countries of the world and have mostly enjoyed every place I’ve gone. Of course, this is largely because I’ve gone there to fellowship with believers and share the things of God with like-minded brothers and sisters. I am always reminded that most believers in this world do not enjoy the privileges and blessings that we have in America. In many ways, non-American believers deserve more of God’s grace than we do, and most pay a much dearer price for their faith than we. Do we not bear a much greater responsibility for the stewardship of God’s blessings, and deserve greater judgment if we squander them?
Anthony Daniels, speaking at Hillsdale College last month said of his native England,
“Certainly the notions of dependence and independence have changed. I remember a population that was terrified of falling into dependence on the state, because such dependence, apart from being unpleasant in itself, signified personal failure and humiliation. But there has been an astonishing gestalt switch in my lifetime. Independence has now come to mean independence of the people to whom one is related and dependence on the state.”1
Likewise in America, rather than dependence upon our Creator for the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of (true) happiness, we have turned to our own ways and that usually means making government our god who will always supply our need. In fact, the “liberation” theology of preachers such as Jeremiah Wright and others is actually a “dependence” theology making citizens dependents of the state which is, in this interpretation, the only god there is.
What is a Christian to do? As I have thought on these things as a patriotic American Christian, I believe there are Biblical truths that we must honor and follow regardless of what happens in our country. At the same time, we must ask that “for a little space grace might be shown from the Lord our God . . . to give us a nail in his holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage” (Ezra 9:8).
Principles of a Christian Nation
God instituted human government after the flood of Noah. From that time to this it has been God’s will that men collectively govern themselves for good while punishing the evil. Romans 13 makes it clear that such power is seen as the minister of God for good. Here are some things that we must be aware of in America.
First, Satan hates Israel and America is Israel’s only friend in the world. Any nation should fear to read that God has said He would bless them that bless Israel and curse him that curses Israel (Gen. 12:3). Satan knows what the future has in store and still believes that he must destroy Israel if his plan to control the world can succeed. To do this he must first destroy the biggest obstacle to that objective, and that is the United States. Anyone who knows Biblical prophecy knows how the scenario works out. In history, Germany, the land of Reformation, could not stand when it became anti-semitic. Russia fell when it persecuted its Jewish citizens. For the first time in our nation’s history we have a cold relationship to Israel and in the grand scheme of things, that is a precarious place to be.
Second, America is founded on God’s providence. Yes, every nation is to some extent, but in God’s providential working America has been especially blessed. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance” (Psa. 33:12). This verse speaks specifically of Israel, but the next verse reads, “The Lord looketh from heaven; he beholdeth all the sons of men. From the place of his habitation he looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth” (vss. 13-14). To whom much is given much is required, and God has certainly given America much of which we are His stewards. To this point we have used our wealth to bless other nations and promote Biblical faith. That’s why we have been “blessed.”
Third, America was founded upon a Protestant ethic.2 It is only in a euphemistic sense that we say “Judeo-Christian” ethic. Our forefathers fled the Church of England in the way that England and all of Europe fled Roman Catholicism even though our tent is large and excludes no “Christian” interpretation. Henry Morris wrote,
“It is significant that all [of the signers of the Declaration] were at least nominal believers in the God of the Bible and in His supernatural creation of all things in the beginning, and in Jesus Christ as the chief Founder of our nation’s religion. None were atheists or Muslims or Buddhists or from any other non-Christian religion, and the same was true of the body of distinguished men who several years later formulation our national Constitution. It is understandable why God has signally blessed our nation. Indeed, ‘happy are the people whose God is the LORD.’”3
Fourth, there have always been just wars and America has always been on the right side. When immigrants to this land were truly seeking freedom to worship the true God according to their conscience and the Word of God, we fought for the dissolution of our ties with a tyrannical England. When slavery had engulfed us, we sacrificed a half-million citizens to right that wrong. When Germany would have destroyed the free countries of Europe we came to their rescue in WWI. When Hitler would have conquered the world we led the bloody charge clear to Berlin in WWII. In all the messy wars since then we were the protectors and the liberators. Gog and Magog is on the horizon, but America’s future moral compass will only be measured by her Biblical faith.
Fifth, America is not in Biblical prophecy, except, of course, in the most general sense as all nations of the earth that will exist at that time. What that means is that she may or may not be around when the Tribulation begins, depending on how far away that inevitable event is. Our most frequent prayer ought to be that America will still be promoting the preaching of the gospel until Jesus comes.
Sixth, Democracy is the best form of government for the age of grace. God dictated Israel’s law, and Jesus will rule the kingdom of God with a rod of iron, but in this interim the American experiment has proved to be the best sinful men can achieve. A monarchy rests on the good nature of one man and there is no such man until Jesus comes. An oligarchy rests on the goodness of a few but the chances of those few being in the best interest of the people are slim. A democracy depends on the goodness of the majority and their representatives. The chances of that happening have lasted longer than the other forms. But it is only a matter of time until the first believing generations fail to pass on the faith to the next generations. Then the majority will rule according to their own lusts.
What has been called “American Exceptionalism” really rests on America’s lapsarian understanding of man’s sins. We are a rule of law precisely because “the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners” (1 Tim. 1:9), and Christians understand that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The casting off of the rule of law is to promote sinful man above the law and to lose our humility before a righteous God.
Principles for Christians in a Christian Nation
First, Christian people who are blessed enough to live in America ought to live godly lives as members of a local church. We understand that this is the age of the local church. That is the entity God has chosen to work through to carry out His plans. It is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). A baptized believer without a local church family walks alone in the world and is being unbiblical. If God’s people would do what God has commissioned Christians to do through the church, the nation of their residence would be greatly blessed and strengthened. Our troubles have not come because Christians have not been involved enough in politics, but because they have not been involved enough in their own local churches, and those churches have not been involved enough in doing what the church is supposed to do.
Second, Christians in America should be model citizens. Paul taught us to pray “for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Tim. 2:2-3). “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18). If we practice the fruit of the Spirit rather than the lusts of the flesh, “against such,” we find, “there is no law” (Gal. 5:23).
Third, Christians in America should be productive citizens. “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you” (1 Thes. 4:11). God made us to work and work is fulfilling and blesses our family and others. It was God who “gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17), not the government’s welfare programs.
Fourth, Christians in America should defend their own country in law enforcement and military service. Since God has established government as His ordained means to control sinful men, it is not wrong for a Christian to make that his/her profession. After all, they are “ministers of God for good” (Rom. 13:4) also. No doubt, corruption in high places will frustrate the Christian civil servant, but as long as the agreed upon law of the land is still good in principle, the Christian may enforce it with all good conscience. From time to time, believers have had a tendency to almost worship patriotism because of a country’s blessing to them, but that has generally been better in history than having to flee for one’s life because of the evil nature of one’s country, as in communist or radical countries.
Fifth, Christians in America and everywhere else should remember that God is in control of it all. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it withersoever he will” (Prov. 21:1). “Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: and he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom to the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding” (Dan. 2:20-21). We don’t know the mind of the Lord, nor why we live in this land and not another, nor why we were born at this time and not another. Mordecai calmed the nervous Esther by reminding her, “and who knoweth whether thou are come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). After all, “our citizenship is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 4:20). We are stewards of the time and place in which we live.
And So . . .
It may seem right now that we have two Americas existing within the same geographical boundary. We have never been so split over values, morals, religion, and politics. There is no more land to begin a new nation. We will live through the present crisis and serve God either way. History does not teach us that men get better but worse. Prophecy teaches us that the darkest days are still ahead but there is a blessed hope for the church of Jesus Christ. As with the death of the body, we don’t know how or when, we just know it will happen, so also with the nations that exist before the Day of Jesus Christ.
As a citizen of this great country, my emotions can swing from joy to sadness. As a pastor of a local congregation, I have a responsibility to prepare God’s people, especially the next generation, for whatever is coming. In most things in life we prepare for the worst case scenario and then thank God when it turns out better. A blithely positive attitude is great if that negative scenario doesn’t come. But if it does come, will God’s people stand in the evil day, and having done all, stand? Some generation will see the dark days and be translated out, will it be us?
In the meantime, let us take William Carey’s admonition, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” A wise man said if he knew the Lord was coming tomorrow, he would still plant a tree today. This indeed should be the Christian’s finest hour. “To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints” (1 Thes. 3:13).
1. Anthony Daniels, “The Worldview that Makes the Underclass,” Imprimis, May/June 2014.
2. See D.G. Hart, That Old Time Religion in Modern America, chapter 3, “Evangelicals and the Politics of Morality. Also see, John M. Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, part VI, “Soul Liberty.”
3. Dr. Henry M. Morris, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” originally written in 2005 and adapted for Acts & Facts, July 2014.
by Rick Shrader
Now that it is January and Christmas is over until next year, I can risk sounding like Scrooge or maybe even the Grinch. I have to confess that I labored through the Christmas season moaning and groaning at Christmas store commercials, Christmas television movies (the new ones anyway), Christmas network specials, Christmas online ads, Christmas news, Christmas concerts, Christmas decorations, and even Christmas church specials. And when it was finally December 26, I asked myself in amazement, whatever happened to Christmas?
The one bright spot of the whole season was brought to us by a left-over, sorry-looking, crudely spoken but evidently born-again hippie named Phil Robertson. When America, the greatest country in the age of grace, was brought so morally low and bankrupt to the point of cowering to the shameful sin of our day, Robertson was interviewed by liberal hate-baiters at GQ magazine and old Phil said it plainly and truthfully: homosexuality is a sin and an unnatural perversion for any of God’s creatures. He even made an attempt at quoting 1 Cor. 6:9-10, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” What Phil didn’t have a chance to explain is why these verses so plainly show that no human being is born a homosexual. God does not exclude any person from His kingdom because of how they were born, but only for how they practice, which this list of sins makes abundantly clear.
However, I want to go back to my grinching. Doesn’t anyone any longer know what Christmas is all about? Is it really all this complicated? Sure, there has been a war on Christmas in this free country. Any public figure, politician, businessman, athlete, news pundit, talk show host, et al, is scared to death to mention anything concretely having to do with Christianity for fear of repercussion. Akin to this phobia is the fear of speaking morally, as Phil Robertson did. No doubt the bottom line is fear. You will be hurt in one way or another if you dare cross these lines in our society. If we continue to let Islam take over America as it has done in our motherland, England, the repercussion will indeed be physical. But for now the penalty for speaking plainly is loss of job or position, defamed character, name-calling, ridicule, and slander.
But I don’t think that even these fears are the problem with Christmas. The problem with Christmas is humanism. That’s right, that old liberal nemesis that used to be so bold as to have its own manifesto and creed, has now morphed into Christianity through the convenient season we call Christmas. In the public square, humanism has won the old battle over sin and redemption. We are no longer sinners. We no longer need a Savior to save us from anything but a bad attitude. All that stuff about a pre-existent Christ Child, a virgin birth, a natal star, etc., (and especially a sinless life, a substitutionary death, and a bodily resurrection) are not only old-fashioned but entirely unnecessary. The Grinch offers you three proofs.
Proof #1. I will start with the easiest and most obvious loss of the Christmas message as seen in television programs and made-for-television movies. I will call these Nick-flicks. The real person of the new-meaning Christmas is St. Nick. And before I lose all my cool on this re-made, historical, yet make-believe elf, let me confess my own sin of watching too much of all of this anyway. These “shows” offer the viewer predictable plots, typical characters, and annoying emotions which is all easily figured out in the first ten minutes. The only worthwhile lesson to be learned is the answer to the question, “why did I ever watch this?” The real meaning of Christmas, according to these sage productions, is the existence of Santa Claus.
The plot will fall somewhere in the realm of some poor slob who is mad at the world or tied up in his job and needs a real emotional adjustment. Then there is the typical Tiny-Tim character who has everything against him/her and is about to lose hope in the goodness of humanity, friendship, the joy of giving, or some-such humanistic attribute. You might add a picturesque setting like a fir tree farm or a mountain lodge, and then mix in a conflict between the fair but despondent maiden and the grumpy but handsome unbeliever. Now all you need for this story to be a Christmas story is the recovered belief in St. Nick so that the positive feelings of the season can be brought out of the infidel and he can show all kinds of human kindness and good works at the end. But this is all too easy. I only offer it as proof because of the ubiquitous nature of television in everyone’s life. If you must watch movies, never watch anything made later than, say, 1979, when John Wayne died.
Proof #2. The Fox News Christmas Special. I must also first confess that I am a Fox News junkie. In fact, if it weren’t for Fox News I’d have to settle for fix-ups, food, or pickers. Good Grief! I can’t stand reality shows and I’m about done with the antics of professional athletes (right after the Super Bowl and March Madness). So I know the good guys and the bad guys on Fox and which hours are worthwhile. We’re all glad when Fox News champions equal time for Christmas and answers the attacks on religion and morality.
Yet according to Fox News the real meaning of Christmas is patriotism, conservatism, morality, and the bravado it takes to say Merry Christmas on the air. I enjoy hearing carols sung but I must confess I am really tired of the interpretive style of singing that makes me watch the vocal cords of the singer (even a nice looking serviceman) to wonder how in the world he could fluctuate between all those notes in a single stanza. The wise men never traveled so far in such a short amount of time. But then the wise men and their Objective were never really the point. There were the stories of our war heroes for which I am a great sympathizer, the little children with presents, even Cardinal Dolan giving the evening devotional thought. Yet I don’t think the name “Jesus” was even heard. The real meaning of Christmas to a television station seemed to be the guts it took to put on a production with the name “Christmas” in it. I guess that’s a real victory in our PC culture, but it left me still searching for a message of salvation and hope.
Proof #3. The three wise men. I think that these men may all have been on the Fox News special but I can’t remember, I was so enthralled by it all. But in this season I have seen interviews from each of them. Let me say first of all, that I do not doubt the born again nature of these men (with the definite exception of the second). I also can sympathize with the difficult task of talking specific Biblical doctrine on the air on any program. (But I remember that old prophet Adrian Rogers scolding the young Bill Hybels after the latter schmoozed his way through a Presidential Prayer Breakfast without confronting a sinning president. “Perhaps thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this,” said the older preacher. So we cannot excuse the lack of clarity in a preacher at such a critical time as this Christmas).
From the west came Rick Warren. And what is he offering the waiting public at this needy time of year? A book on dieting. This may actually be a great benefit now that the time of Christmas partying is over, but I missed any straightforward message of incarnation and redemption from “America’s pastor.” From the Mid-West came Joel Osteen. And what is he offering us at this Christmas season? I can confidently say I have no idea except a lesson on how to smile or do your hair. Frankly, I have never heard this man give an explanation of the gospel. No Christmas message here. From the east came Andy Stanley, an unusual appearance for him (now that his father is lesser known to this generation). A born-again man I am sure, yet what was his new book about? How to use your money as a Christian. Good enough I suppose for a pastor to his people, but I was listening for the real meaning of Christmas and didn’t hear it from this preacher either.
The wiser man I usually appreciate when he is interviewed is Franklin Graham. He at least tries to interject the gospel. But he is busy with his gifts to the needy and no chance was given him for the gospel on the air either. So much for my last hope of hearing the real meaning of Christmas from the men who are supposed to be wise and speak God’s truth. Where have all of us been in this regard? I may have fared no better in a public setting either. Would you? Have we as God’s people lost our boldness when it comes to the message of the most important time in the world’s history? Maybe.
There is a final irony to my quest for the historical Christmas. I mean, the real meaning of Christmas. On the Sunday before Christmas day, half the nation was kept from coming to church due to the worst ice storm in years. Many of us had to stay home like pagans and search in vain for a message somewhere else. But maybe this is a good reminder of something good and precious at the Christmas season—the local church of Jesus Christ is still proclaiming the real meaning of Christmas. Outside of God’s born again people there is no hope of hearing that message.
The churches, having the Word of God in our hands and the Spirit of God in our hearts, rightfully proclaim our Savior’s birth. He is the divine Son of God Who existed from all eternity, Who took upon Himself humanity at the very conception of the virgin Mary, Who lived a sinless life satisfying all the law which none of us could ever do, Who then gave His life on the cross for the sins of the whole world and was resurrected by the power of God, Who will accept anyone who will willingly put his/her faith and trust in Him as Savior. There was no other hope for this sinful world. God loved us and gave His Son for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity. That is the meaning of Christmas.
Our local church resumed services on the Sunday after Christmas with hymn-singing, carols, and a nice presentation by our music people. It was simple and nice. Real. No false humanism. Just the truth of our Savior’s incarnation. Praise God for His unspeakable Gift!
by Rick Shrader
There is no more precious doctrine in the Scripture than the virgin birth of Christ. The truth that the God of all creation, the Holy One of all eternity, the One Who loved us and became a man in order to redeem us from our sin, is the greatest thought of the human mind. The fact that the world will not receive it and shuts out all testimony to it, especially at this time of the year, is a testimony to its truth. If we were not sinners there would be no need for such an incarnation, and the lost world knows this and would prefer it to be that way. But fact is fact, and there is no ignoring it—Jesus Christ came from heaven to redeem us. “And thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
Christ’s incarnation is testimony to the fact that life in the womb is precious. Human life begins at conception and is a living, eternal soul from that moment on. Christ, however, existing from all eternity, entered the womb as the eternal Son of God without ceasing or beginning to be. Gabriel said to Mary, “thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest . . . . Therefore also, that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:31, 35). Son of God, of course, is a term for deity, the second Person of the Godhead. One of the attributes of God is eternality, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending. For Jesus to be our Savior, He had to be divine, and to be divine He had to be eternal, and to be eternal, He had to exist before, during, and after the birth in Bethlehem’s manger. The life in Mary’s womb was the Eternal Life that would light the world!
The Pre-incarnate Christ
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). Jesus is the Word because He speaks God’s thoughts to mankind. ”Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2). “In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). The “Word” of verse one is the “Him” of verse four. Three things are said in this magnificent introduction to John’s gospel.
The Word was eternal. This Word “was.” The imperfect tense means an ongoing action, what L.S. Chafer called “the eternal present.”1 Luther said, “Something was before the world and the creation of all things. That must be God.”2 In that familiar Christmas verse from Micah it is said, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Mic. 5:2).
The Word was preexistent. This Word was “with God.” Eternality goes hand in hand with preexistence but they are not the same. The Son and the Father (and the Spirit) dwelt together in perfect unity, three persons but one God. The Word was “with” God. This little word, pros, means to be face to face with someone. The word for “face” is pros?pon. F.B. Meyer wrote, “The face of the everlasting Word was ever directed towards the face of the everlasting Father.”3 This was the Angel of the Lord of the Old Testament, the One Who met Moses at the burning bush and Who conversed with Abraham on the plains of Mamre. The Angel never appears again after He became flesh in Mary’s womb.
The Word was deity. This Word “was God.” It cannot be translated any other way, as unbelievers attempt to do. The article goes with the subject in the nominative case, and for emphasis the Greek puts the predicate noun first, “and God was the Word.” That is like saying, “the boy was a good student, and David was the boy!” But the proper meaning is, “the boy was David.” This is what caused Charles Wesley to write,
Christ by highest heav’n adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord:
Late in time, behold Him come,
Off-spring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the God-head see,
Hail th’incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sin,
“Glory to the new-born King.”
The Old Testament prophecies of Christ leave no doubt that the baby in Mary’s womb was the eternal Son of God. The angel quoted Isa. 7:14 to Mary that a virgin would “conceive.” Whereas humans pass on their seed through a woman and a man so that it is impossible for a virgin woman to conceive, the eternal Son of God came into Mary’s womb through “the power of the Highest” overshadowing her (Luke 1:35). She was just the channel for the Word to take on human form from a preincarnate state to an incarnate state. The Son that the virgin would conceive is Immanuel, which, Matthew interpreted, means “God with us.” He had no beginning and will have no ending. He is Alpha and Omega. He did not begin life at conception, much less at birth!
Isaiah’s prophecy in 9:6 includes the wonderful news that this baby is the “Mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Again we read that the eternal God simply took up residence in the womb of a human girl for a period of time.
He is the Mighty God of creation as John had also said of the Word, “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Paul said to the Corinthians, “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him” (1 Cor. 8:6). He upholds all things that He made by the word of His divine and almighty power (Heb. 1:3). He is also the “everlasting Father,” not that there is any mixture of the persons of the Father and the Son, but, as the older writers term it, “the Father of eternity, as if even everlasting duration owed itself to his paternity.”4 The prophet is clear, the eternal Being was in the womb of the virgin and would soon be born into the world.
The Psalmist revealed that God had called Jesus “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Psa. 110:4). Whereas the Old Testament priesthood was served by priests humanly born of parents and therefore serving only a life-time, this Priest has no such limitations. The writer of Hebrews uses this powerful argument for the ending of the law, and describes Melchisedek, king of Salem, as “without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life” (Heb. 7:1-3). This of course is applied to Christ literally when he writes, “And it is far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedek there ariseth another priest, Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life” (7:14-15).
In the last and great prophecy of the book of Revelation, Jesus appeared to John on the Isle of Patmos in His eternal splendor and said, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, said the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). It is not enough to say that He is the Omega without saying that He is also the Alpha. These terms mean that He has neither beginning nor ending. And if He has no beginning, He was existing eternally at His conception in Mary’s womb waiting to be born nine months later, taking upon Himself the garment of human limitation.
“But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a gospel of example from one human to another. Jesus was not a good man who showed us how to live and die. If that is the case, we need not bother ourselves with sin and hell, or with a divine Savior and redemption by His blood. But if we are sinners by birth and face an eternal punishment in hell, then we need a Savior Who is more than we, a Savior Who is human but divine, a Savior Who knows our humanity but rises above it in sinless perfection. We need an eternal Savior.
Lenski writes, “The Son’s going out from God on his mission is seen in his becoming man. He did not cease to be the Son of God when he became man. He did not drop his deity, which is an impossible thought. He remained what he was and added what he had not had, namely a human nature, derived out of a woman, a human mother. He became the God-man.”5 Paul’s description is that of Isaiah’s, a virgin born Son, “made of a woman” and not of a man. And note that this all happened “in the fullness of time.” “Late in time behold Him come,” not early in time, not the beginning of His existence, but late, when time was at its fullest, when this eternal One took up residence in Mary’s womb.
Why do we have no gospel without a virgin birth? Because we do not need a human-only savior who is but a good example. We need a Savior Who can be the sacrifice for our sins, accepted by a holy God as our Substitute. When the Pharisees were accusing Jesus of having an earthly father He replied, “I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). He meant that they must believe that He is the I AM, the eternal Jehovah, the Angel of the Lord, Who met Moses at the burning bush. John uses this expression again in 18:5 at His arrest in the garden. At the mere mention of this title, the soldiers fell backward to the ground. He had said before, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). This Jesus can be your Savior. This Jesus is God in the flesh. This Jesus died, was buried, and rose again for you, coming out of the grave with the same eternity with which He came into this world.
Jesus said “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
Notes: 1. L.S. Chafer, “The Preexistence of Christ,” Vital Christological Issues, R. Zuck, Gen. Ed.(Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997) 13. 2. By Hengstenberg, The Gospel of John (Minn.: Klock & Klock, 1980) 16. 3. F.B. Meyer, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, nd.) 14. 4. Albert Barnes, Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980) 193. 5. R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of Galatians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961) 199. 6. Sir Robert Anderson, The Lord From Heaven (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980) 51.
If words like these came from the greatest, holiest, best of men, we should fling them back with indignation. But they are the words of Him by whom and for whom we were created; of Him who spoke from Sinai, and knows the guilt and penalty of sin; of Him to whom all judgment has been committed, and who can anticipate the decrees of the Great Day; of Him-let us not forget-who ‘took part of flesh and blood,’ and knows our burdens and our toils. And when spiritual men dwell upon His words, with thoughts like these filling their hearts, they do not sit down to frame a Christology; they cast themselves at His feet and worship Him.6
by Rick Shrader
It was Christmas time in 1992 when I first visited Russia and Ukraine. In America battles were raging over nativity scenes on government property. It was a startling realization to find that in Russia, the former Soviet Union, nativity scenes were going up all over the place and government schools were inviting Christian ministers to speak to the classes about the birth of Jesus. Churches that were underground for years were now meeting openly and even building church buildings. As an American who grew up fearing the “We will bury you” rhetoric of Soviet leaders, it seemed like the world was backwards. In America we couldn’t mention God or religion on government property, but in Russia there was freedom to do that and more.
Sadly, such freedom in Russia and Ukraine is being challenged and no one knows where Russia (especially) will end up with regard to freedom of religion. Ukraine seems to be fairing better. I have spent time in Ukraine in 2011 and 2012, teaching in a conservative Baptist seminary and speaking in local churches. Things hardly seem any different than in our country for doing these ministries. In fact, the school that was started by BIEM under Peter and Sam Slobodian in the mid-90s in Kiev is going strong and students are starting churches all over the former Soviet Union. Some of the greatest Christian workers I have met are there faithfully serving the Lord and standing for the faith.
To be truthful, nativity scenes have never been my favorite thing, but we all understand the truth behind the images. I prefer a church scene with carolers singing Christmas songs. But I certainly sympathize with the battles for nativity scenes because those are battles for religious liberty. What I don’t like is the display of nativity scenes, or any other decoration, for personal merit or display. A Christmas decoration can be a witness for Christ if done in the right way, and many carry specific messages about Christ, but none should be done selfishly.
In our politically correct society, everyone is afraid to mention anything that might offend someone, and aren’t we all tired of people trying to make something spiritual out of everything from Santa Claus to giving gifts! “After all,” they say, “isn’t the real meaning of Christmas to give?” Forget speaking of Christ or incarnation, doing the good work of giving is what is important, and if we give in some way we are finding the real meaning of Christmas. So we are flooded with commercials and programs that never mention what God did in Bethlehem but make a saint out of anyone (of any lifestyle) who works in a soup kitchen. One wonders why human beings are so willing to make personal redemption a task rather than a gift from God. But I guess if they can reduce that task to a simple deed at Christmas time, it soothes the conscience!
My thoughts go back to that Christmas in the former Soviet Union. Does it take seventy years of oppressive atheism and communism to make a people long for the REAL meaning of Christmas? Does a nation have to give up freedom, allow perversion within, and persecution without, and perhaps even wait for a generation to die off, just to learn what is really true and important? Russia did. I hope and pray America will not. But at this time it seems we have no tolerance for belief in God, or revelation from His Word, or a message that says we need a Savior who is God incarnate. I’m not remembering only church life. What happened to a whole nation, conservative and liberal, cults and societies, religious and nonreligious, who allowed for God and His Word, respected church, honored public prayer, and fought for everyone’s right to have it that way?
It is an interesting fact that we do not find a lot of “holiday traditions” in the New Testament. We do not see the believers keeping a special day for the birth of Christ, much less reconstructing a little artifact of what that scene in Bethlehem looked like—and there may have been some there who would have known! It seems that Easter (as we and all the pagans call it) was celebrated every Sunday morning and not just once a year. There is a real silence in the New Testament about such things. Even Jewish feasts are only mentioned incidentally as the disciples (especially Paul) happened to be going to Jerusalem during that time. The churches, it seems, were busy going about their business in another way.
Now I have never objected to using religious or secular artifacts that remind us of good things. We have a Christmas tree at our house. We bake birthday cakes and blow out candles. We do not, however, keep Halloween in any form because these kinds of things have gone way beyond any worthwhile function. I certainly have no objection to being deeply patriotic or celebrating other national memorials such as Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, or the fourth of July. To the believer, however, these things are symbolisms that may have little or no real substance, including Christmas and Easter paraphernalia.
My proposition is this. The incarnation of God in the flesh (Emmanuel, God with us) must be believed and accepted (along with Christ’s death and resurrection) by simple faith in the heart. That faith, will create the real nativity scene. I am not saying that such faith takes the place of the original nativity. That fact cannot be changed. God became a man (actually at His divine conception nine months before His birth) and that is an undisputed fact of history. Whether anyone believes it or not cannot change what happened. A whole country may decide to outlaw its public mention and discard every memory of the fact. It is fact nonetheless. But even a scientific interest in Bethlehem’s manger or the arrangement of the stable will not fulfill the purpose for that event. Only a reception of the truth of it will truly represent the first nativity scene.
I think the apostle John was highly sensitive to this when he wrote his three epistles. Repeatedly he underscores the need to believe that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. “Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist that denieth the Father and the Son” (1 Jn. 2:22). “”Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist” (4:3). “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist” (2 Jn. 7). John had no patience for a hypocrite who went through the motions of Christianity while denying truth of Christianity. We would really be politically incorrect today if we called a non-Christian who puts up Christmas decorations an antichrist!
Let me go back again to that Christmas in the former Soviet Union. That nation had rejected the truth of God’s incarnation for seventy years. It had robbed its people of the gospel and hope of eternal life for generations. But the reconstruction of nativity scenes after the fall of the iron curtain was not the meaning of Christmas again in that dark land. The reception of the truth of the incarnation was the real nativity scene. That image that I carry with me of my father-in-law preaching again to his own people; the hungry soul that, when he had received a New Testament, said, “Ah, bread!” that was the real Christmas. So now, the thriving churches that gather each Lord’s Day to worship the true God, this is the real nativity scene that is reconstructed anywhere and anytime the truth of the incarnation is received.
There was a time in America when not even nativity scenes were necessary to display the real meaning of Christmas. Believers gathered together, preached the gospel to friends and visitors, baptized their converts in a watery grave, solemnly memorialized the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and lifted their voices to God in praise and worship. For me, that is all the nativity scene I need. That is the real representation of the incarnation of Christ.
There was a time in America when nonbelievers allowed such nativity scenes without fear and animas. They too realized the great benefit that was gained living in a country with that kind of a foundation. No one was forced to believe it, but all benefited from it. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that America is great because America is good. When America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great. That is the spiritual cliff we are on. Americans have lived on the capital of a spiritual and good nation. But that capital is about gone. Contrary to atheistic dreamers, the true nativity scenes cannot be expunged here anymore than they can in countries like the Soviet Union. They will thrive in every corner where the gospel is preached. And it will be preached because that will always be given unto God and not to Caesar.
May we all create a real nativity scene in our hearts by true belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior. And may that scene be displayed throughout our needy land where ever true Christianity is found.
Our father’s God, to Thee, Author of liberty, to Thee we sing:
Long may our land be bright, with freedom’s holy light;
protect us by Thy might, Great God our King!
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!
by Rick Shrader
And the angel answered and said unto her, 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 1:35).
There are no more powerful words than these for Christmas. This is as close as we come to a description of how “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). We can all identify with Mary’s question, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). We may even beg the question here, or actually two questions: how did God become fully human and remain fully God; and how, if that happened, did He remain sinless? I say beg the question because we know He did both of those! He did become fully man and He did remain the sinless Son of God. Without both of those things being true, the substitution of Jesus Christ for our sins could not have taken place. If He did not fully become a man He could not identify with the fallen race of Adam and become its Redeemer. If He did not remain sinless He would have to die for His own sins, not ours. “How shall this be?”
We know before we approach this verse that Jesus Christ was sinless. Charles Ryrie writes,
Our Lord was announced as a holy child (Luke 1:35). He challenged His enemies to show that He was a sinner which they could not do (John 8:46). They failed in their attempts to trap Him by using something He said (Matt. 22:15). During the trials and Crucifixion He was acknowledged as innocent eleven times (by Judas, Matt. 27:4; by Pilate six times, 27:24; Luke 23:14; John 18:38; 19:4, 6; by Herod Antipas, Luke 23:15; by Pilate’s wife, Matt. 27:19; by the repentant thief, Luke 23:41; and by the Roman centurion, Matt 27:54). Furthermore, there is no record of our Lord ever offering a single sacrifice, though He frequented the temple. This silence speaks of the fact that He did not need to since He was without sin.1
We know also that Jesus Christ was fully human. Rolland McCune writes,
For instance, Jesus refers to himself as a man (John 8:40). Peter announces that Jesus of Nazareth was ‘a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs’ (Acts 2:22). Paul similarly asserts, ‘The free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many’ (Rom. 5:15). In another place, Paul says, ‘By a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead’ (1 Cor. 15:21; cf. Heb 2:14). Later he says that ‘there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 2:5-6). Additionally, references to Jesus’ Davidic descent further point to Jesus’ humanity (cf. Matt. 1:1; Acts 2:30; Rom. 1:3), as does reference to His Jewish lineage (Rom. 9:5).2
And so, again, letting Scripture speak for itself, before we approach Gabriel’s explanation in order to answer Mary’s (and our) question, we know that the divine method of virgin birth will produce a God-man, the theanthropic person, a hypostatic union between God and man. One person, Jesus Christ, with two natures divine and human. We also know the virgin birth will produce the sinless Son of God, “that holy thing” called “the Son of God.” But, “How shall this thing be?”
Two extremes must be discarded before any sense can be made of it. One, we must not exalt Mary beyond what she was, a sinner saved by grace. And, two, we must not make the miracle less than it was, a divine intervention into the natural birth process.
“Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this thing be, seeing I know not a man” (Luke 1:34). G. Campbell Morgan beautifully responds,
I have seen that question translated differently in the interest of softness, and what is falsely called delicacy: ‘How can this be, seeing that I am an unmarried woman?’ I hate this kind of false delicacy. Leave the question as it is. It is the cold, scientific, biological difficulty, bluntly stated. It is the question being debated hotly today. It is at least interesting, then, to observe that according to the historic record, the first person to raise the difficulty was Mary herself.3
That Mary was sinful is left without question in the text. “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). Some have tried to get around this difficulty by posing that Mary’s sinful nature was enough to make Jesus sinful even with a virgin birth and therefore Jesus was a separate creation within but apart from Mary’s humanity. But this would detach Jesus from any real humanity.
The Catholic Church tries to solve this problem by claiming that Jesus was sinless because Mary was sinless. This doctrine is called the immaculate conception, not of Jesus but of Mary! Of course this only puts the problem back a generation: How, then, did Mary remain sinless? They are not claiming a virgin birth for Mary, only a sinless human conception (Give me the problem of a virgin birth over that). The Catholic Catechism quotes Pope Pius IX from 1854, “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”4
They claim that Gabriel said, “Hail, Mary, full of grace” (Luke 1:28) by which they claim Mary was, “redeemed from the moment of her conception.”5 Actually, of course, he said nothing of the kind. “Highly favored” is a beautiful translation of the greeting. Many margins have simply, “much graced,” or “having been graced.” The Catholic doctrine goes on to make Mary the mother of all and who, through the Church, brings “virginal” grace to all through baptism.
We know both that Mary was sinful and that Jesus was sinless. Gabriel said, “Therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” John wrote, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Word (Logos) is the eternal second person of the God-Head, eternal, fully God, perfect, and sinless. He never was tainted with sin and never could be whether in eternity past, in His incarnation, or in eternity future. This Word “became” flesh, that is, His fleshly humanity started at this miraculous conception and will continue for all eternity as the God-man, Jesus the Christ.
Charles Wesley said it most famously when he wrote,
Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the Everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
Veiled in flesh the God-head see;
Hail the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King.”
The problem of a miraculous, supernatural birth is solved by the fact that “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.” Those who doubt the validity of Biblical miracles simply doubt God. “Anyone who affirms that a virgin birth is impossible, is just confessing his or her own unbelief in the God of the Bible.”6 “Overshadow” (episkiazo) means to envelop in darkness. It is the same word used of the cloud that overshadowed the disciples on the mount of Transfiguration when they were made privy to Christ’s essential deity. This is not unlike the Shekinah Glory that overshadowed the tabernacle in the wilderness when God’s glory appeared in the holy of holies. The Word “dwelt” (tabernacle) among us.
Who can really explain how this miracle took place? Or any miracle? If we knew it would not be a miracle. We can only know what resulted. “Therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” William Kelly added,
and not merely Son of man. This is exceedingly important. ‘Son of God’ is a title that belongs to our Lord both in His Divine glory before He became a man and here; for, in this place when He became a man, he did not cease to be Son of God. As incarnate He was still the Son of God. So, again, when he rose from the dead, the same thing was true; He was the Son of God as risen again. . . He was the Son of God when He was purely and simply a Divine Person; Son of God when He became a man; Son of God when risen from the dead and gone out of this world to heaven.7
Though a man-woman conception did not take place (a thing necessary for all normal births, and necessary for sin to be brought forward from Adam and Eve), a conception did in fact take place; a conception somehow blending the divine and the human; a conception that kept in place the full humanity of the man, and the full deity of the divine; one person—two natures; Son of God, who can also now be called Son of man.
When the first man Adam sinned, the whole human race fell into sin and was taken captive by Satan at his will. What was rightfully God’s was stolen by the usurper. But on that eventful day of the virgin’s conception, God landed on our shores and began taking back what is rightfully His. One day He will return Himself, bodily, and in great glory, to bring about “the restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21). The usurper will be bound and kept in the bottomless pit while the whole earth enjoys its long-awaited millennial Jubilee.
Most people who have lived on this earth, however, have already died or will die before that event takes place. Their only hope is to participate in the one-on-one recovery that is now taking place: the gospel preaching offer of personal faith in Jesus the Christ. Their salvation is dependent, at least in part, on this miraculous virgin birth. The only way for human beings to be redeemed by God is to accept the salvation provided for by the substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection of the sinless God-Man.
The “bad news” of the book of Romans is that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). But the “good news” is that we can be “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24). This isn’t done by God declaring sinners excused as if God could “look the other way” (which is what I think many people believe grace is). He could not do that and remain a just and holy God. No. There has to be a way for God to declare sinners justified and to remain just Himself.
This is why God became flesh and dwelt among us as the God-Man. “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (3:25-26).
A sinless, just, divine, man, would be the only hope of the world. A God-Man, Who could remain just Himself and bring the unjust to justification. “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). That began at that special moment of conception in Galilee, continued in that still and lonely night in Bethlehem, and was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead,” (Rom. 1:4) that morning outside Jerusalem. “Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift.”
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep,
the angels keep,
Their watch of won-d’ing love.
O morning stars,
together proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.
by Rick Shrader
I think we have finally gotten over any love of Halloween in our churches. That pagan holiday with its ghosts and goblins, witches and broomsticks, can thankfully be gone from our church calendars. I don’t know of any Christian church that celebrated it this year. When the origins of customs remain unknown and harmless (such as birthday cakes or where the days of the week got their names) we may use and enjoy without offense. But when the pagan and anti-Christian meanings reappear we must set them aside.
But in this holiday season, indeed in the end of this present age, I fear a deeper and far more deceptive danger lurks within our churches. From my periodic reading of the book of Jude as well as 2 Peter 2, I was struck by the reality that in the last times there will be false prophets among the people (2 Pet. 2:1) and certain men crept in unawares (Jude 4) who will do irreparable harm to the churches. We usually call such people apostates, people who are pretenders and not real believers yet who stay among the believers and lead them astray into much unchristian belief and activity. We have known these prophecies of Jude and Peter but it had not struck me in such a way that if we are indeed in the end times we must be seeing the very fulfillment of these predictions. We could call this the great apostasy that will come at the end of the age. We might call this the signs of the times. But by whatever description, Scripture often says that such times will come when the end of the age of grace is near. Paul tells Timothy, “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils (1 Tim. 4:1). In the second epistle he says again, “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come” (2 Tim. 3:1). And again, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” or who tickle the ears (2 Tim. 4:3). In both the book of Jude and Second Peter, these apostates come into the churches, among God’s people, therefore before the rapture of the church, and draw away the disciples after them.
I’m certainly not a date-setter nor do I believe that anything yet has to happen before the rapture may occur, but I can still believe that these verses speak of a phenomenon that is happening in our day and age. Or I might say it this way, that even if this isn’t THE end of the age, the same things are happening now in our churches that will happen when THE end of the age comes. Either way it is not very pleasant to see the effects of apostasy on the Lord’s churches.
The Lord had very stern words for the churches at Pergamos and Thyatira for allowing teachers to come in and destroy the flock like Balaam allowed Balak to “cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols and to commit fornication” (Rev. 2:14), or like Jezebel who seduced Israel to do the same (2:20). If our shoe fits the description of Jude and Peter we will have to wear it also. Jude wanted to write of the common salvation (Jude 3) but this danger is so destructive that he was led by the Holy Spirit to change his subject matter and deal with this error. He urged the believers to “earnestly contend for the faith” and not just sit by and let this cancer progress. But I wonder, at the end of the age, if we will let the disease go or if we will purge it from our bodies. Will the true believers be removed and the apostate church be left to the antichrist? Will the true church remain faithful to the end? Time will tell.
I find at least twelve damaging characteristics of end-time apostates in Jude and Second Peter. One doesn’t have to look far to find parallels in the churches today. In fact, they are so common I don’t even need to find examples to prove my point. The reader, no doubt, will know of many himself.
The most profound characteristic is that these apostates are not even born again. Jude says they deny “the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). Peter says they are “false” prophets (1), reserved for the day of judgment (9), will “perish in their own corruption” (12), and for whom “the mist of darkness is reserved forever” (17). A hypocrite in the Bible (contrary to popular belief) is usually a lost person. He is not a true believer living poorly but is a poor unbeliever pretending to live truly, and can’t.
Jude says they “crept in unawares” (4) and feast among the believers “without fear” of reprisal (12). Peter says they are “among the people” (1) and “feast with you” (13). Imagine! Like Judas, they have given some testimony of salvation and received baptism. Paul told the Galatians they were “false brethren unawares brought in” (Gal. 2:4). All of these descriptions come from words that mean to come in stealthily, falsely.
We don’t have an “easy believeism” problem today, we have a “no believeism” problem! We may have made our mistakes in the past by promoting too many quick salvation decisions but even that was better than requiring no specific decision or experience. Today a person is received in the church with a personal angel-sighting story! And they feast among us without fear of conviction.
Jude uses the word “ungodly” six times in this short one-chapter book, four of those times in verse 15. In verse four he simply says of these men that they are “ungodly men.” Peter compares them to the ungodly in Noah’s day and those in Sodom and Gomorrah (5-6). “Ungodly” (a-sebes) is the opposite of “pious” (eu-sebes). The ancient name Eusebius comes from the latter. The root (sebos) means to venerate, to reverence, to worship, to stand in awe. With an “eu” prefix it means that such people do these things well and are “pious.” With an “a” prefix it means they do not do them at all.
Is it possible to have people in our churches who do not truly worship God; who do not stand in awe of Him; and who do not show reverence to Him? Jude says that the apostles “told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts” (18). Jude’s readers evidently knew these kinds of apostates were there and had done nothing about it. Maybe like the Corinthians (and many today), they boasted in their broad-mindedness (1 Cor. 5:6).
“Likewise also these filthy dreamers defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities” (Jude 8). Peter adds that they are “presumptuous” and “self-willed” (10). Disrespect has fallen into disrepair today. In those days, however, it was a matter of utmost importance. A man could not hold church office if his children were disrespectful or disobedient (Tit. 1:6). Both Jude and Peter use Michael the archangel as the example of showing respect to authorities, even to Satan, the former Lucifer himself! (Jude 9, 2 Pet. 2:11). But, says Peter, these disrespectful church members are acting like brute beasts (12) who have no conscience of right and wrong and are destroyed without a second thought. These apostates will truly act like “animals” even in the churches.
In both chapters under consideration, more space is given to this vice than any others. Believers who have the Restrainer living within them struggle enough with this sin, but unbelievers who have only the common graces of the world to restrain them, will fall to this sin overtly. These hypocritical apostates turn “the grace of our God into lasciviousness” (Jude 4), “defile the flesh” (8), “walk after their own ungodly lusts” (18), and are “sensual” (19). Peter says they have “pernicious ways” (2), have “eyes full of adultery” (14), and “allure through the lusts of the flesh” (18). And all of this within the local church! Peter’s statement about adultery may be translated “having eyes for an adulteress” or someone who is always looking for his next victim.
Our churches have to take extra precautions because of liabilities as it is. But I wonder if the performance mentality coupled with self-centered immodesty doesn’t also feed this sin of lust. Most modesty is seen as old-fashioned prudishness and even in-house directives for modest dress on the church platform is seen as some kind of legalism. Then we wonder why so many of our own Christian kids have fewer moral standards than the world’s kids. This apostate characteristic will grow worse and worse as the age draws to a close. There will be more “lovers of pleasures” than “lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4).
Apostates are in it for what they can get out of it. Jude says they have “men’s persons in admiration because of advantage” (16). This literally means they “admire faces for advantage.” Peter says, “through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you” (3). The words “shall make merchandise” come from emporeuomai from which we get our word “emporium.” They made God’s house into an emporium, a house of business, or a market place. Jesus used this same word when He aggressively drove such moneychangers from the temple because they had made God’s house of prayer into a house of “merchandise” (Jn. 2:16). Paul told Timothy that some perverse men think that “gain is godliness” (1 Tim. 6:5) or, literally, “that godliness is a means of gain.”
Surely we have many today that are using the church to make a lot of money. Like lust, this has always been a problem in ministry, but the avenues for revenues are broader than ever. Dan Lucarini, in his new book (see my review above), says of the contemporary Christian music business,
Now you know the truth about the images you are ‘allowed’ to see. There are powerful and prideful creative forces at work behind the scenes, spending enormous sums of money, time and talent and using all the tricks of the trade. The sole purpose is to manipulate the images of the same artists and worship leaders who are supposed to lead us in authentic praise and worship. No matter what compromised excuse they may give for this, it is no less than ‘Christianized’ idol worship and the marketing of worship for a profit.1
Whether it is the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel or the snake-oil healer, we should say with Peter, “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God” (Acts 8:20-21).
Peter says that, “while they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage” (19). Jude refers to the same when he says that these apostates turn “the grace of God into lasciviousness” (4). Paul said that in the last days these will have “a form of godliness” but will deny “the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5). Peter ended his chapter with the sad words about many being led down a false path to liberty but finding servitude to the world and the flesh to which they return like a dog to his vomit (20-22). Many years ago J. C. Ryle wrote, “I should like to know what doctrine of the Gospel has not been abused. Salvation by grace has been made a pretext for licentiousness.”2 The abuse is abundantly apparent in our day.
I could add many more to the list from these two chapters. Without a doubt our day fits the end time scenario described by Jude and Peter. We cannot know if this is THE end time or whether our time is just amazingly similar to that time. In either case, the situation for the church is dire. Yet for every Pergamos and Thyatira there is a Smyrna and a Philadelphia. For every Balaam and Jezebel there is a Daniel and an Esther. Even if we have left our first love we can remember, repent, and redo so we won’t be removed. May God give us grace to that end.
Notes: 1. Dan Lucarini, It’s Not About The Music (England & USA: Evangelical Press, 2010) 129. 2. J.C. Ryle, “Watch”, Our Blessed Hope, Joseph Seiss, ed. (Philadelphia: Garner, 1884) 47.