Christmas will be here before we know it and another year will soon be gone. Christmas means different things to different people. For children, Christmas is typically a time of great joy and excitement related to opening presents and getting a break from school. For families, Christmas is typically a time to get together with relatives to visit and overeat. For retail businesses, Christmas is typically a time to have their highest sales for the year. For those who have recently lost loved ones, Christmas is often a time where good memories of the past lead to discouragement (tragically, suicide rates are generally higher during the holidays because of feelings of loneliness). For most religious groups in America, Christmas is a time where a special service is held to honor the birth of Jesus Christ. For some who claim to be Christians, Christmas is one of the few times each year they meet with others for worship.
Every year there are several who ask me: "When is your special Christmas service going to be?" Most who proclaim to be followers of Jesus hold December 25th in high esteem as a special day. But, as those who are endeavoring to be guided by the Scriptures in all things, we must ask the question: What does the Bible teach about Christmas?
Let's start with the explicit teaching. What does the Bible teach about Christmas explicitly? The answer: absolutely nothing! Did you hear that? The Bible doesn't say anything directly about Christmas. But, we can still address the subject and see what the Bible says about it implicitly. Just because the term Christmas isn't in the Bible doesn't mean God's word doesn't have principles that are relevant to the subject. Let us begin with...
THE ORIGIN OF CHRISTMAS
The word "Christmas" is derived from the proper name "Christ," and the addition, "mass," a rite or commemorative ceremony. Thus, the word "Christmas" originally signified a ceremony regarding Christ; and, in the minds of many, the celebration of His birth date, thought by such to be on December 25th. It is of significance that this word was not coined until the 11th century--a thousand years after our Lord came to the earth.
However, the observance or celebration of the birth of Christ dates to the 2nd century of the Christian era, the first traces of such being noted in the reign of the Roman emperor Commodus (c. 180 AD). A tragic event occurred in connection with its observance when the pagan emperor Diocletian (born in 284 AD), learned there was a congregation of Christians assembled in the city of Nicomedia to celebrate the birthday of the Lord. He ordered the church doors closed and fire set to the building. Everyone inside perished in the flames. In the centuries immediately following the close of the apostolic age, it appears that the birthday of Jesus was celebrated in the Spring of the year, often as late as April or May; and, it was not until the 4th century that an agreement was reached by various religious parties and their leaders to observe December 25th as the day of our Lord's birth.
Do you know why the date December 25th was chosen? Julius Africanus popularized the idea that Jesus was born on December 25th in his reference book written in 221 AD based on the assumption that Jesus died on March 25th. It was a traditional Jewish belief that prophets died on the same date as their conception. Thus, if Jesus was conceived on March 25th, then He was born nine months later (assuming a gestation period lasting exactly nine months). Obviously, this "evidence" is not convincing at all to the modern mind.
The observance of Christmas, as a religious holiday, did not originate in the apostolic age and is thus without divine sanction. As a matter of fact, it is not possible to determine in what month or on what day the Savior was born. God tells us through the Bible that His Scriptures will thoroughly equip us for every good work (cf. II Tim. 3:16,17). If God wanted Christians to celebrate the birth of His Son in a special fashion, He would have equipped us for that task through the Bible. In other words, He would have given us an example or precept to follow. But, the Bible does not do that. Thus, we do not keep it as a religious holiday.
As a side note, the Bible does give us example and instruction pertaining to remembering Jesus' death (i.e., the Lord's Supper memorial). Had the Lord wanted His birth celebrated in a special way, the Holy Spirit would have included some instructions in the New Testament for us. The silence of the New Testament on the matter is significant. So, ultimately, the origin of Christmas as a religious holiday is man-made and without divine authority. It is important to keep this truth in mind as we consider...
THE DANGER OF RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS
Let's broaden our scope a bit and consider religious holidays in general. I do not want to exclusively focus on Christmas.
One danger of religious holidays is that they can endanger our liberty in Christ. We can become enslaved to them. Consider Galatians 4:8-11:
"But, then indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain."
Paul here alludes to rites and ceremonies that were found in Judaism and paganism. The apostle had in mind those who had come out of paganism and were being encouraged to observe elements of Judaism. Specifically, "days and months and seasons and years" (e.g., the Sabbath, the new moons, festivals like the Passover, Feast of Tabernacles, and Pentecost, Sabbatical years, Jubilees, etc.). These are examples of weak and beggarly elements. They are weak in that they are powerless to save the soul or justify the sinner. They are beggarly in that they are unable to impart true spiritual riches. These things were designed to be replaced. Consider Colossians 2:16,17 - "So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ." Also, Hebrews 9:9,10 - "It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience--concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation." Religious days, like other elements of the Law of Moses, were carnal ordinances designed to be replaced with a more spiritual form of worship (cf. John 4:20-24).
Why would we want to implement new religious days or ceremonies when the divinely ordained Old Testament ones have been done away? Again, isn't God smart enough to tell us what He wants? If He wanted a Christmas holy day, how hard would it have been for Him to inspire Paul to mention it in one of his many New Testament epistles?
To create new religious days or ceremonies that the Lord hasn't authorized seems to me to be a step backward toward the physical or carnal elements of Old Testament worship. It will often lead to the binding of one's opinion upon another (which is contrary to the liberty Christians are to enjoy). Can followers of Christ be satisfied with simple, pure worship that is in spirit and truth? Although many believe observing holy days enhances their faith, the fact is it can be a step backward from true spirituality!
Another danger of religious holidays is that they can endanger our salvation in Christ. Apostasy is possible--otherwise, there would be no reason for Paul to be fearful and in doubt over their condition (cf. Gal. 4:11,20).
How could observing a religious holiday endanger one's soul? For example, if we observe an Old Testament religious holiday (or practice) based on the notion that we must do so to be saved, then we have fallen from grace! Galatians 5:1-4 is critical to understand here:
"Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace."
If one thinks his salvation is dependent upon keeping an Old Testament requirement (like circumcision), then he has put his trust in the wrong place. Likewise, if one believes his salvation is conditioned upon observing a Christmas or Easter ceremony, he has put his trust in the wrong place! When men freely follow their own ideas, opinions, and traditions (like Christmas as a religious day), they soon elevate such to the level of Scripture. Then, they are quick to condemn or think less of those who don't follow their man-made notions!
We must understand that worship can be vain. Jesus warned against this in Matthew 15:7-9 - "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth. And honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'" There were plenty of people in Jesus' day who made their own religious laws and condemned those who didn't keep them. Jesus said that their worship was worthless. They hypocritically obeyed their traditions and regularly disregarded God's word! Tragically, people do the same today. They attempt to serve and worship God in any way they choose, just assuming that He will accept such. There are many today who come near to God with their mouths via the words they utter in a Christmas worship assembly. They will honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him! They keep their self-created "holy day" for Jesus' birth and essentially ignore the bulk of the New Testament doctrine for their life and worship!
I hope that the prior points have made an impression upon you. However, I'd be negligent Biblically if I didn't share a final point with you...
CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH RELIGIOUS DAYS MIGHT BE OBSERVED
I believe Romans 14:5,6 gives authority to a Christian on an individual basis to observe religious days under certain conditions.
First, let's read Romans 14:5,6 and comment upon it - "One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks." This chapter is clearly about matters of indifference (i.e., matters that are right if done and right if left undone--like eating meat, for example).
Consider the case of a life-long Jew who has converted to Christianity. He has never worked a Saturday in his life. Even after learning that the Sabbath law is no longer binding, he may very well have difficulty doing any work on Saturday and not having a guilty conscience (similarly, he might also have trouble eating certain meats that were formerly prohibited).
What should a man do in this situation? Is there anything wrong with him deciding to personally continue to rest on Saturdays and meditate on the greatness of God and spend time with his family? Of course there is nothing wrong with this. If he chooses to elevate this day in importance in his own mind and life, he has the right to do that--as long as he understands that doing such is not necessary to his soul's salvation. He has no right to bind that view upon another or hold it as a matter of salvation. It's simply his own personal preference. He cannot rightly tell others they are sinning if they work on Saturday.
I believe the wording in Romans 14:5,6 is general enough to apply to a Christian who decides to personally honor the Lord's birth on December 25th. Someone who comes out of a denominational background will likely naturally think of Jesus' birth on that day anyway. Is there anything wrong with him meditating upon Jesus' birth or praising God privately for Jesus' birth on December 25th? Of course not. Let us read Romans 14:5,6 again - "One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it..." However, if an individual looks at me and thinks less of me for not celebrating Jesus' birth, he has gone too far! On matters of indifference, we must be sensitive to the convictions of others and give up our liberties to avoid offense.
In Romans 14 we must understand that Paul was talking about things done on an individual basis, not as a work or worship of the church. In other words, these matters of indifference cannot be imposed on others. If we had a Christmas service on a Sunday, we would inherently be imposing it upon anyone who attended our assembly (their only option would be to forsake the assembly, and that's not really an option for a faithful Christian!). Also, such would certainly leave the impression that the Christmas service was necessary.
Christians need to be careful about their liberty in Christ (cf. Gal. 5:1). We must be careful not to impose our liberty in ways that cause division and we must progress to a higher plane of spirituality, not regress to carnal forms of religion.
To publicly observe religious holidays that the New Testament doesn't authorize is unnecessary and dangerous. Those who choose to personally elevate a particular day for a religious reason may do so, but they must not impose it on others and they must understand it has no direct role in their justification. It should also be noted that these conclusions are consistent with the way Paul viewed the subject of circumcision under the New Testament.
My personal view of Christmas is similar to how I view Thanksgiving. I know the idea of an annual observance is foreign to the Scriptures. As Christians we should give thanks for our numerous blessings and praise God for Christ's birth continually. If He had not been born, He could not have died to atone for the sins of the world!
If we are seeking to "continue steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine" (Acts 2:42), we will refrain from adding human traditions to the work and worship of the church. Even so, I am grateful that at least once a year people think about Jesus' birth. My prayer is that people will do more than just think about His birth once a year. May they submit to His rule and be citizens of His kingdom!
Unless we submit to the authority of Jesus Christ, His birth means nothing to us. Have you been born again of water and Spirit that you might enter the wonderful kingdom of God (cf. John 3:3-5)?
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.