Every year as winter begins, millions of sincere Christians eagerly celebrate the birth of Jesus with good will and Christmas cheer, scrumptious dinners and endless parties, eggnog and Yule logs, loads of gifts and lot of carols. On Christmas Eve, as on Easter Sunday, the churches are full, and all seems right with the world. For many, the Christmas season is their favorite time of the year.
However, with all the commercialism infusing this particular holiday, the birth of Jesus has slipped far enough from its place of primacy that many concerned Christians make a point of urging their friends and neighbors to return the worship of Jesus to Christmas. “He’s the Reason for the season!” they argue. “Put Christ back in Christmas!”
A fine sentiment, undoubtedly expressed in all fervency, but it is entirely misguided.
Such a statement is probably shocking to many, but it is true nonetheless because Jesus Christ was never in Christmas. The holiday is an entirely manmade celebration, instituted by Catholic Church fathers—Pope Julius officially sanctioned December 25 as the birthday of Christ in AD 350—to encourage the conversion of pagans to Christianity. It is no coincidence that Christmas coincides with the Roman Saturnalia, the Empire’s winter solstice celebration, because Christmas was instituted to replace the Saturnalia’s pagan rites with more wholesome, Christian ones. This covering-over or blending of non-Christian practices with Christian ones (called “syncretism”) accounts for the many pagan elements that have become indelibly fused with Christmas observance.
The Bible itself is silent on the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth. One would think that if God the Father wanted His Beloved Son’s birth to be honored, He would have taken special care to ensure that the Good Book contained a directive to do so. But what do we find? Instead, Jesus Himself instructs us to remember—not His birth—but His death (Luke 22:14-20; I Corinthians 11:23-26)! The coming of the Savior into the world is certainly important, but at that point, Jesus was a helpless baby who had as yet done nothing. It was what He did with His life over the next thirty-three years that makes all the difference!
The Bible contains the true account of Jesus’ begettal and birth in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke. These authors’ aims were 1) to give an accurate account of the circumstances, and 2) to reveal certain elements of spiritual significance to their readers. Matthew, a Jew writing mainly to other Jews, weaves his story around specific Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in these events. He is trying to show that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah and heir of David, and thus the true King of Israel. For this reason, his account is interspersed with quotations from the prophets.
Luke, however, was a Gentile writing primarily to other Gentiles, so he is not as interested in fulfillments of prophecy or Jesus’ Jewish roots. He wants his readers to know that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men and women of every age and condition. In other words, he is intent on revealing Jesus as the universal Christ and Second Adam, through whom came life (see I Corinthians 15:20-22). These two perspectives and objectives go a long way in explaining the differences in their narratives. They are not contradictory but complementary.
This distinction is perhaps best seen in their different genealogies of Jesus. Matthew begins his book with Jesus’ family tree (Matthew 1:1-17) because a person’s heritage was of primary importance to Jews. It is clear that Mattew’s list of Jesus’ forefathers is, in fact, His stepfather Joseph’s line of descent, meaning that Matthew is most interested in establishing Jesus’ legal status as “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (verse 1). In other words, He has a valid, legal claim to the throne of Israel; He meets the qualifications.
Luke has a very different list (Luke 3:23-38). It is evidently Mary’s genealogy, and thus Jesus’ natural genealogy. In addition, Luke takes the record all the way back to Adam and then to God Himself (verse 38), showing that, not only is Jesus the Son of Man, but He is also the Son of God. Jesus, then, has both a natural and a supernatural right to be mankind’s Savior and Sovereign.
The story of Jesus’ birth we all know well. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, announcing that God had chosen her to bear His Son (Luke 1:26-38). At some point soon thereafter, she conceives through a miracle from God. When she is found to be pregnant, her betrothed husband Joseph decides to divorce her quietly, but an angel informs him in a dream that what had happened was from God (Matthew 1:18-20). The Child is to be named Jesus, and He would “save His people from their sins” (verse 21).
About the time that the Baby is due, Joseph and Mary travel down to Bethlehem to comply with a Roman census, and there Jesus was born, most likely in the early autumn (Luke 2:1-7; Matthew 2:1). To shepherds in the fields, an angel in great glory announces “good tidings of great joy which will be to all people,” and the shepherds, after seeing Him for themselves (Luke 2:8-16), spread the good news far and wide (verses 17-18). In accordance with the law, Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day (verse 21) and after forty days presented at the Temple along with an offering (verses 22-24). At that time, Simeon and Anna witness to His being the promised Redeemer (verses 25-38).
Sometime after Jesus’ birth, an unknown number of wise men from the East come and worship Him, presenting Him with rich gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:1-12). These are typically gifts given to royalty, which He was, and signify—among other interpretations—His righteous life, complete sacrifice, and efficacious death. After the wise men leave, His parents are divinely warned to flee to Egypt, which they do (verses 13-15). While they are gone, Herod massacres the children of Bethlehem under two years of age in an attempt to stamp out his rival to the throne (verses 16-18). Returning to Judea after Herod’s death soon thereafter, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus live in Nazareth until He begins His ministry about thirty years later (verses 19-23; Luke 2:39-40; 3:23).
The constant theme that emerges from both accounts of Jesus’ birth is that He was born into this world to save humanity from sin and rule as King of kings. His birth was the inauguration of a life dedicated to the service of God and all mankind.