What does Christmas mean to you? Times with family and friends? Perhaps carols, cards, television specials. Maybe hectic shopping, parties, and eating too much.
All these and more are part of a North American Christmas. But what about the first Christmas? Why is the original story — the baby in a manger, shepherds, wise men, and angels — important, if at all?
May I invite you to consider eight reasons why the original Christmas story matters, even to you? You may not agree with all of them, but perhaps they will stimulate your thinking and maybe even kindle some feelings that resonate with that famous story.
1. A Story that Has Endured
For two millennia, people have told of the child in a Bethlehem manger; of angels who announced his birth to shepherds; of learned men who traveled a great distance to view him.(1)
The fact that a story persists for many years does not prove its truthfulness. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the tooth fairy survive in the popular imagination. But a tenure of 21 centuries at least merits our consideration. What deep human longings does the Christmas story portray? Why has it connected so profoundly with millions of people? Is the story factual? Curiosity prompts further investigation.
2. A Story of Hope and Survival
Jesus’ society knew great pain and oppression. Rome ruled. Corrupt tax collectors burdened the people. Some religious leaders even sanctioned physical beating of Jewish citizens participating in compulsory religious duties.(2)
Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary traveled a long distance to Bethlehem to register for a census but could not obtain proper lodging. Mary bore her baby and laid him in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Eventually, King Herod sought to kill the baby. Warned of impending risk, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, then returned home after Herod’s death.
Imagine how Mary felt. Traveling while pregnant would have been challenging. Fleeing to another nation lest some king slay your son would not have been pleasant. Yet she, Joseph, and Jesus survived the ordeal.
In the midst of social and cultural challenges, the Christmas story offers hope and encouragement toward survival, hope of new life linked to something — someone — greater than oneself. One of Jesus’ followers said Jesus’ “name... [would] be the hope of all the world.” (3)
So, the Christmas story is important because it has endured and because it speaks of hope and survival.
3. A Story of Peace and Goodwill
Christmas carolers sing of “peace on earth.” Greeting cards extol peace, families desire it, and the news reminds us of its fleeting nature.
I encountered 10-year-old Matt from Nebraska in a southern California restaurant men’s room one afternoon. Alone and forlorn looking, he stood outside the lone stall.
“Could I ask a favor?” inquired the sandy-haired youth. “The door to this stall has no lock. Would you watch and be sure that no one comes in on me?” “Sure,” I replied, happy to guard his privacy. Matt noted, “In a lot of nice restaurants the stall doors don’t have locks.” “I know,” I agreed. “You’d think they would.”
After a pause, his high-pitched voice said, “You know what I wish? I wish there could be peace in all the earth and no more arguments or fighting so no one would have to die except by heart attacks.” “That would be great,” I agreed. “How do you think that could happen?” Matt didn’t know.
“It seems that the Prince of Peace could help,” I suggested. “Do you know who that is?” He didn’t. “Well, at Christmas, we talk a lot about Jesus as the Prince of Peace,” I explained.
“Oh, I see,” conceded Matt. “I don’t know about those things because I don’t go to church. Do you know what it’s like to be the only boy in your town who doesn’t go to church? I do.”
“Well, I’m a church member,” I replied, “but really the most important thing is knowing Jesus Christ as your personal friend. When I was 18, some friends explained to me that he died and rose again for me and that I could begin a relationship with him. It made a big difference and gave me a real peace inside. He can also bring peace between people.”
By now, Matt was out washing his hands as his father stuck his head in the door to hurry him along. I gave him a small booklet that explained more. “Thanks,” smiled Matt as he walked out to join his family for lunch.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman, in his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, tells of boarding a New York City bus to find a driver whose friendly greeting and positive disposition spread contagious warmth among the initially cold and indifferent passengers. Goleman envisioned a “virus of good feeling” spreading through the city from this “urban peacemaker” whose good will had softened hearts.(4)
The Christmas angel announced to some shepherds, “‘Don’t be afraid! ... I bring you good news of great joy for everyone! The Savior — yes, the Messiah, the Lord — has been born tonight in Bethlehem, the city of David!”(5) A crowd of angels then appeared praising God and proclaiming peace among people of good will.(6)
The Christmas story brings a message of peace that can soothe anxious hearts and calm interpersonal strife.
4. A Story of Family
Christmas is a time for family gatherings. This interaction can bring great joy or great stress. Estrangement or ill will from past conflicts can explode.
Joseph and Mary had their share of family challenges. Consider their circumstances. The historical accounts indicate that Joseph’s fiancée became pregnant though she was a virgin. Mary believed an angel told her she was pregnant by God. Now, how would you feel if your fiancé/fiancée exhibited apparent evidence of sexual activity with someone else during your engagement? Suppose your intended said that God had sanctioned the whole thing. Would your trust and self-esteem take a nosedive? Would you cancel the wedding?
Joseph, described as “a just man, decided to break the engagement quietly, so as not to disgrace [Mary] publicly.”(7) But an angel appeared to him in a dream, explaining that the child was conceived in her by God, and told him to “name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”(8) Joseph followed instructions and cared for his family. His continuing commitment to Mary and Jesus played a significant part in the boy’s birth and early childhood. With God’s help, the family overcame major obstacles. And so can your family.
5. A Story of Humility
When kings, presidents, and other rulers appear in public, great pomp often ensues. From a biblical perspective, God came first not as a ruling king but as a servant, a baby born in humble circumstances. His becoming human helps humans identify with him.
Imagine that you and your child are walking in a field and encounter an ant pile with hundreds of ants scurrying about. In the distance, you see a construction bulldozer approaching. Suppose your child asks how to warn the ants of impending danger. You discuss various possibilities: shouting, holding up signs, etc. But the best solution would be if somehow your child could become an ant and warn them personally. Some ants might not believe the danger. But some might believe and take steps to ensure their safety.
Paul, an early follower of Jesus, wrote of the humility Jesus displayed by becoming human: Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross. Because of this, God raised him up to the heights of heaven. (9)
The Christmas story speaks of family and humility. But is it true?(10)
6. A Story that Was Foretold
Jesus’ followers noted numerous clues to his identity, prophecies written many years before his birth.(11)
The Hebrew writer Micah told around 700 BC of deliverance through a coming Messiah or “Anointed One” from Bethlehem.(12) We know that “...Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea....”(13)
Isaiah, writing around 700 BC, foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. He wrote, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”(14) The name “Immanuel” means “God is with us.” Biblical accounts claim Jesus’ mother was a virgin when she bore him.(15)
Additional prophecies concern the Messiah’s lineage, betrayal, suffering, execution, and resurrection. Peter Stoner, a California mathematician, once calculated the probability of just eight of the 300 prophecies Jesus fulfilled coming true in one person due to chance alone. Using estimates that both he and classes of college students considered reasonable and conservative, Stoner concluded there was one chance in 100,000,000,000,000,000 that those eight were fulfilled by fluke.
He says 100,000,000,000,000,000 silver dollars would cover the state of Texas two feet deep. Mark one coin with red fingernail polish. Stir the whole batch thoroughly. What chance would a blindfolded person have of picking the marked coin on the first try? One in 100,000,000,000,000,000 — the same chance that just eight of the 300 prophecies “just happened” to come true in this man, Jesus.(16)
7. A Story that Has Substantial Support
Can we trust the biblical accounts of the Christmas story? Three important points:
Eyewitness Testimony. The Gospels — presentations of Jesus’ life — claim to be, or bear evidence of containing, eyewitness accounts. In a courtroom, eyewitness testimony is among the most reliable evidence.
Early Date. Dr. William F. Albright, one of the world’s leading archaeologists, dated every book of the New Testament (NT) before about AD 80.(17) There is no known record of NT factual authenticity ever being successfully challenged by a contemporary.
Manuscript Evidence. Over 24,000 early manuscript copies of portions of the NT exist today. Concerning manuscript attestation, Sir Frederic Kenyon, director and principle librarian of the British Museum, concluded, “Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”(18)
The Christmas story is notable for its enduring messages of hope, peace, goodwill, family and humility. It was foretold by prophets and has substantial manuscript support. But there is another reason for considering the story of Jesus’ birth, perhaps the most important.
8. A Story of Love
Jesus’ followers taught that his conception and birth were part of a divine plan to bring us genuine peace, inner freedom, and self-respect. They believed the biblical God wants us to enjoy friendship with him, and meaning and purpose. Alas, our own self-centeredness separates us from him. Left to our own, we would spend both time and eternity in this spiritually unplugged state.
Jesus came to help plug us into God. Mary’s baby was born to die, paying the penalty for our self-centeredness, which the biblical documents call “sin.” If I had a traffic fine I could not pay, you could offer to pay it for me. When the adult Jesus died on the cross, he carried the penalty due all our sins then rose from the dead to give new life.
Jesus explained, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (19) God can become your friend if you believe in him, that is, if you trust him to forgive you and transform you. He will never let you down.
Perhaps you are becoming aware of the importance of the Christmas story in your own life. Might you like to receive Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness and place your faith in him? You can celebrate this Christmas knowing that you are a member of his family. Perhaps you’d like to talk to him right now. You might want to tell him something like this:
Jesus Christ, thanks for loving me, for dying for my sins and rising again. Please apply your death as the means of my forgiveness. I accept your pardon. Come and live in me and help me to become your close friend.
If you made that decision to place your trust in Jesus, He has entered your life, forgiven you and given you eternal life. I encourage you to tell another of his followers about your decision and ask them to help you grow in faith. Talk to a mentor to learn more. Read the Bible to discover more about God. Begin with the Gospel of John, the fourth book in the New Testament, which is one of the easier ones to understand. Tell God what is on your heart, and tell others about the discovery you’ve made so they can know him too.
Christmas is meant to celebrate peace and joy. Amidst the busyness of shopping, parties, presents, and fun, remember that the Prince of Peace came to spread peace and joy to all who believe in Him.