Is Christmas Day Somebody’s Birthday?
– by Jon Quinn
(preacher and elder at the Bradley, IL Church of Christ; Ed’s brother-in-law and our website guru)
Of course, the answer is “YES!” Lots of people were born on December 25th and Christmas day is their birthday. But you know who I am talking about.
The following is “The Christmas Story.” The underlined parts are sections of the story about the birth of Jesus that people have simply made up or guessed at. Then we’ll look at what the Bible actually says concerning Jesus’ birth. We will see how people came to celebrate it through the centuries. Finally, we will discuss the realm of personal liberty when it comes to “esteeming one day above another.”
THE CHRISTMAS STORY
“This saying therefore went out among the brethren that the disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?’” (John 21:23). This verse is not about Jesus’ birth, but rather about something He said concerning John after He was resurrected. But notice what happened with what Jesus said. Well meaning people did not carefully consider what Jesus actually said and some confusion and misunderstanding resulted. Many people today have been equally careless about what the Bible says concerning the birth of Jesus. Because of this, many people misunderstand the event and the effect it ought to have on us. The following is a summary of what the world calls “The Christmas Story.” I have underlined the parts that the Bible either does not teach or teaches something entirely different.
“Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem from their home in Nazareth because of the emperor’s decree. Mary was about to give birth, and December is a cold month in which to travel. When they arrived at Bethlehem there was no room at the inn so the baby was born in a stable and His first crib was a manger. Shepherds visited him on that evening, as well as three kings from the Orient who brought gifts to Jesus. They worshiped Jesus lying in the manger, having been led to the manger by a star. A poor little boy was also there at the manger scene also, but had no gift, so he played a drum for Jesus.”
THE REAL ACCOUNT OF JESUS’ BIRTH
“Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken . . . and Joseph also went up from Galilee to Bethlehem . . . in order to register, along with Mary . . . And she gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn. And in the same region, there were shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their sheep by night . . . and the angel said to them, . . . today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior . . . and they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem . . . behold, Magi (wise men) from the east arrived at Jerusalem . . . and Herod sent them to Bethlehem . . . and they went on their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over where the child was . . . and they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary, His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented unto Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” (Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 2:1-11)
The above are rather extensive excerpts from the Biblical account. When we compare the Biblical account with the popular view we find at least four discrepancies:
1) The time of year was probably other than winter. Shepherds were known to spend the night with their sheep out in open pasture during the summer months, and would occasionally take them out during the day in the winter. But winter nights were typically spent at home with sheep secure in their folds. At any rate, we simply do not know the date of Jesus’ birth.
2) There were not three kings of the Orient that visited Him; the only king mentioned was Herod. The Bible does not even say that there were three Magi (wise men). It merely states that there were some wise men who came and worshiped Jesus. We know that there was more than one, but we do not know that there were three.
3) The wise men left their homes in the east when Jesus was born, traveling a long journey. It was much, much later following Jesus’ birth that they finally arrived in Bethlehem, guided by a star, not to a manger or stable, but to a house where Jesus’ family had taken up residence.
4) Sorry, there was no drummer boy either.
HOW DID CHRISTMAS BEGIN?
“Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls . . .” (Acts 15:24). It has always been the case that religious people would take it upon themselves to invent new practices and customs with regard to religious things. There is nothing wrong with customs or traditions, as long as the Law of Christ is respected. But when we begin to bind our own customs on others, or make changes in what God has commanded the church to do, then we have erred.
God has simply not charged the church to observe the birth of Jesus in any special way. God has declared no holiday here, so any religious observance is strictly of human origin.
Christmas was observed by no Christian in the New Testament nor for about two centuries to follow. It was early in the third century that people began to assign various dates to the events of Jesus’ birth, but even then there is no record of it being a holiday. About this time the church began to observe “Easter” and also “Epiphany” (supposed date of Jesus’ baptism). It was in the fourth century that the church at Rome began having a special mass on December 25th to celebrate Jesus’ birth (Christ + mass). Many customs and traditions grew up around the celebration of Christmas, quite a few of them seem to be borrowed from the European pagan religions which were being replaced
by the religion of the Roman church. These customs have lost their pagan connotations over the years.
PERSONAL LIBERTIES AND HOLIDAYS
“One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord . . . “ (Romans 14:5,6). With regard to custom, the Bible leaves it all up to us, within the bounds of the law of Christ, whether the custom itself is of Jewish origin or Gentile (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Of course, some customs associated with Christmas today are in violation of Christ’s law: To spread false ideas about the birth of Christ; to make goodwill towards others a seasonal thing rather than a daily thing; to partake in religious rituals of human origin; to get drunk at a Christmas office party are all examples of customs of the holiday that the Christian cannot take part in.
But if the disciple wants to individually esteem any day and set it aside to observe some spiritual truth, be it Thanksgiving, Christ’s birth, baptism or His promise to return, that is up to him. God has given individuals more leeway in making such decisions than He has to the church as a body, and it is not wrong, as an individual, to esteem or not to esteem a particular day.