The Meaning of “Christmas” in the Bible

My title is calculated to raise a quizzical brow or two.  I should explain straight away what I mean by placing “Christmas” in inverted commas.  I know it is unnecessary to say that the term is not of biblical origin.  Then again, one could say the same about the whole idea of Christmas.  Scripture knows nothing of it.

However, we do refer to the Bible when we explain what Christmas is supposed to be about.  We tell about the annunciation to Mary.  We may even speak a word of explanation about the Virgin Birth.  Then we relate the story of the shepherds on the hills outside of Bethlehem.  If we are being anachronistic we may commit the fallacy of bringing the Magi to the occasion too.  And after we’re done relating these phenomena, the message comes out: “Jesus was born to save us from our sins.”

Let me say at once that I do not disagree with that statement.  Nor do I deny it is an earth-shaking announcement.  My issue is that it does not state the whole truth.  And it falters because is a statement divorced from its context.  Let’s look at that context:

Matthew’s Account:

 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matt 1:1)

Immediately before the birth story the Evangelist provides a genealogy expressly linking Christ to Abraham and David.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 “And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.22 Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” (Matt. 1:18-23)

In this context the angel’s deliberate referencing of Joseph’s Davidic roots would have evoked recollections and hopes of fulfillment of the Davidic covenant.  Reference to the salvation from sins and possibly the Holy Spirit would have encouraged hopes of the New covenant.  Putting yourself into Joseph’s shoes, imagine the level of expectation in his mind.  Finally the God of Abraham and David would reveal the Messiah: the king who would restore Israel and bring peace.

It would have taken an angelic announcement for Joseph to believe that the once proud line of David, represented by him as a lowly carpenter, would again be exalted.  The thematic connection with the Old Testament is natural.  In fact, one could easily see that had Matthew 1-10 been an OT Book there would scarcely be a blip on the screen.  What was promised had come and the kingdom was being proclaimed.  The dials seemed set for the Golden Age.

What about Luke?

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 “And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end.” (Lk. 1:30-33)

I cannot imagine that these words did not recall the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6-7 to Mary’s mind:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. 7 There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore.

Here again “Christmas” is about the throne of David and the kingdom.  It is about the Messianic reign over Israel in perpetuity.  It is about peace and rest for God’s people.

Then the scene shifts to Bethlehem and the shepherds:

8 And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”  (Lk. 2:10-14)

Enter the shepherds, who were not marking their calendars awaiting anything special.  The hills were quiet, the night drew on, and out of the blue there is the angel of the Lord!  No wonder they were scared.  The word “Christ” would not connote exactly the same notions in the shepherds as it does for Christians.  To them this was an announcement of the coming King Messiah; the Shepherd of God’s choosing who would establish Israel in glory (cf. Ezek. 34:23f.).

The “song” of the heavenly choir (Lk.2:14) is not an ill-timed attempt at angelic wishful-thinking.  In the context of the early chapters of the Gospel Story it represents a real expectation.  That expectation, we now know, did not dawn.  Christ was rejected.  He still is!  But He will return and He will be accepted by repentant hearts.  The Evangelists look beyond our time.  They look to a better world.  “Peace on earth” is true!  But it is ahead of us.  The One who was despised and rejected and who died and rose will usher it in when He descends to claim what the “Infancy Narratives” proclaim clearly is rightfully His.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end.

So when we wish each other a “Merry Christmas,” let us not only look back to a manger in a stable, or to an empty cross.  Let us join with the angels in joyous anticipation of the coming Kingdom of Peace!  Because that is the message of “Christmas.

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3 comments

  1. Nice post! My theme for preaching this December is “Behold Your King”. I am tying in Zech 9 and John 12 and John 19 for this coming Sunday.

    The incarnation is an overwhelmingly important event in history, for our salvation, and for the future. I never get tired talking about it.

  2. Thanx for this biblical account of the message of Christmas Paul.
    Blessed anticipation of the peace that is to come, to you and your family, Merry Christmas!

  3. I agree, thanks Dr. Henebury for the reminder of the Biblical meaning of “Christmas”, which is not the usual meaning of which even Evangelicals usually try to remind us. So why is the coming Kingdom of God (on earth), which is such a central theme of both the Old and New Testaments, virtually ignored by Christians today?

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