Christmas is the season of great contrasts in our culture. Materialism and poverty, familial joy and solitary suicide, homes decorated with lights and homelessness--these contrasts to name a few walk hand in hand through the season. One thing I believe is a constant for all classes of people. The need of the up and out and of the down and out is real hope. The irony is that the source of all hope--the One who put on flesh nearly two thousand years ago-- is often forgotten in the ring of cash registers, the honk of car horns, and the sound of unwrapping gifts that cannot satisfy the needs of the heart.
Let's put aside for a moment the dizzying rush of a our present day--when Christmas is so out of focus--and look away from the North Pole and strip away the tinsel and glitter, and look back two thousand years to the time of the first Christmas at a little town near Jerusalem known as Bethlehem.
When was the First Christmas?
When in grade school, a student learns to date their paper. Though the Ten Commandments have been removed from public classrooms and other religious liberties curtailed, every student still writes the date (usually at the top right). It is 2007. Literally, A.D. "In the year of our Lord, Two thousand and seven." Jesus' birth was used by chroniclers as the event that divides history.
Though the intention long ago (a few centuries after Jesus was born) was to divide time, it appears that He was actually born in about 5 B.C. The death of Herod occurred in 4 B.C. and Jesus was born while Herod was living (Matt. 2:1-6). John the Baptist's ministry began during the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar at the age of thirty. This means that John's birth occured in the Spring of 5 B.C. and Jesus' birth followed in the Fall of the same year (perhaps at or near the time of the feast of "booths").
December 25th was originally the date of the Roman pagan feast of Saturnalia when friends gave gifts and slaves enjoyed a day of some freedom. While pagans praised idols and practiced immorality, early Christians chose to celebrate the birth of Christ as a holy festival.
The Place: Bethlehem
Bethlehem was the place of King David's birth. The Gospel of Matthew begins by linking Jesus to David: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1). Though Jesus' Father was God Himself, His mother was Mary who was in the line of David--the line of Israel's kings. For this reason, Luke's Gospel records, that because Caesar's census summoned all to the city of their ancestors, Joseph and Mary were to travel to Bethlehem.
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). Bethlehem is still a place of shepherds. One thousand years earlier (three thousand years ago), King David as a boy had watched his flock in the same hills surrounding Bethlehem.
"And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid . . . And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God . . ." (Luke 2:9 & 13a).
The Wise Men
The wise men come from a great distance following the star. Although many suggestions have been made as to astronomical events that might explain this "star," I believe the best understanding is that it was simply supernatural. If you believe that God made all of the stars, this was a simple matter for Him.
The wise men were not there on the first night as is often supposed. Matthew tells us that they came to a "house" (Matt. 1:11). They probably arrived two or three months after Jesus' birth and found Joseph and Mary in a house (the crowds having left after the census). Herod's command to kill all of the infants at Bethlehem "two years old and under" was probably just an attempt to make sure that he slew the child (Matt. 2:16). Some have supposed due to Herod's command that the wise men came as late a year or two after Jesus' birth. However, age was often counted from conception not birth.
There is a tradition that there were three wise men--probably stemming from the three gifts mentioned (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). We do not know how many wise men there were for certain. It must have been a large caravan, for we read that "all Jerusalem" was aware of their presence and inquiry (Matt. 2:3). They had come to "worship" the newly born King.
Who was Born?
Over six hundred years before Jesus was born at Bethlehem, the prophet Micah had written:
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephratah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity" (Micah 5:2, NAS).
The context of Micah's prophecy contrasted the "tower" city of Jerusalem that would be without a king with the tiny town of Bethlehem where the future king would be born. In the shadow of the tower a king would be born. This king would enter time at Bethlehem--but He existed before it!
The One who was born at Bethlehem was the Lord Jesus Christ. The angel said to call Him Jesus because "He will save His people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). His name means Savior. His disciples called Him Lord. This was the word used in the Greek Old Testament for the name of God. Thus, when they said, "Jesus is Lord" they were declaring "Jesus is God!" Lord means "owner/ruler." He owns and rules everything.
They called Him Christ, which means "Anointed One/Promised One." The Gospel, as it is given in the Bible is that Christ "died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3-4). The Christ (Greek) or Messiah (Hebrew) was the One who would fulfill the promises of God.
Gospel still means "Good News." The Good News this Christmas has not changed. Those who are willing to turn from their sins and trust in the Lord Jesus this Christmas season will find that the greatest gift ever given was given by God long ago. In Him is hope, meaning, and real life.
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).