[This post was first published in December of 2009]
I have a European friend I met back in High School when he was an exchange student. When we first became friends, we would sometimes attend church together and we had more than a few discussions about the Lord and religion in general. He considered himself a Christian. Over the years we fell out of touch but, through the wonders of Social Networking, we now correspond via E-mail. Upon first getting back in contact, he informed me that he is no longer a “believer”, but that he feels that his life “lines up” with the teachings of Jesus Christ nonetheless. As he went into detail, I must admit that it would be hard to argue that his lifestyle is in sharp contrast to what Jesus taught at the Sermon on the Mount. He even seems to follow the “Golden Rule”; treating others the way that he would want to be treated. He hasn’t killed anyone, he doesn’t normally take things that don’t belong to him, he’s faithful to his wife. Although he no longer calls himself a Christian, his opinion is that, for all intents and purposes, his behavior could be categorically labeled as Christian.
I was reminded of what my friend had told me a few nights ago as I watched a T.V. special about “The Meaning of Christmas.” The host of the program talked to various people engaged in charity work; family members of military personnel serving abroad; and others who gave of themselves, often at great sacrifice, in order to help those less fortunate. During these interviews, the host commented repeatedly how these people were demonstrating the true meaning of Christmas.
Now, please don’t think that I am in any way criticizing those who give to others or those who bravely defend our freedom, on the contrary. These selfless acts of compassion are highly commendable. But it seems that the phrase The True Meaning of Christmas gets tossed around a lot and has become a tired, old cliché. People might give a different answer to what the true meaning really is, but it usually involves some sort of act of kindness, or giving to others, or even just “spreading Christmas cheer.” Some consider the true significance of Christmas is spending time with friends and family. All of these things can be good, but is this what Christmas is really all about?
The “correct” answer to what the True Meaning of Christmas is all about is that it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. But why is the birth of Jesus Christ significant at all? Well, if you were to ask my European friend or the host of the program I watched about the Meaning of Christmas, they would probably tell you about how He grew up to become a great Teacher of morality, or a wise religious/spiritual Leader. They would point to His teachings about how we all ought to get along with one another and look out for the poor and helpless. As the lyrics to the Christmas carol “O Holy Night” say: Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. My friend and the T.V. host seem to summarize the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ as spreading peace, love, joy, and a spirit of giving among all the people of the world. In fact, they might even agree that the notions of peace, love, joy, and the spirit of giving ARE The True Meaning of Christmas.
But the True Meaning of Christmas would not be fully realized in the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, but in His death and resurrection. What Jesus taught is of great importance, and certainly no man has ever taught as He did. But the purpose for which Jesus came and the reason that He was born was not simply to teach us all a better way to live. He came that He might give us life (John 10:10). The teachings of Jesus Christ are important, but we cannot separate His teachings from His actions. Nor can we pick and choose which of His sayings we like and accept and which ones we do not. The same One Who said “Therefore all things ye would men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12, the “Golden Rule”), also said “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). He Who said, “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16), said in the very next breath “But he that believeth not [on Jesus] is condemned already” (John 3:18).
The teachings of Jesus Christ are only as noble as the One Who spoke them. He did not leave us with the prerogative to lift out the “feel good” sayings from His Message and ignore everything else. He did not give us the option to declare that we are following His teachings or behaving in a Christian way and yet disregard His clear call to repent and put our faith in Him. He did not allow us the choice of lauding His teachings as morally admirable while rejecting His claims of Who He is. As C.S. Lewis observed,
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (From “Mere Christianity”)
Neither can we continue the “patronizing nonsense” of defining the True Meaning of Christmas as whatever subjective notion that we personally feel defines what the Message of Jesus Christ was all about. Jesus did teach that we should be giving, that we should express love to one another, and even that family is important. But He came to give His life for you and me (Matthew 20:28). The cup that His Father gave Him to drink was to take upon Himself the sins of the world (John 18:11). He was born to bear witness to the Truth of God to those who would put their faith and trust in Him (John 18:37). The purpose of the life of Jesus Christ, and thus His birth, was to pay a debt that we all owe, yet none of us can pay. He came not to teach us how to be nice to one another, but that we might be forgiven of our sins by the laying down of His life on our behalf. Quite plainly, Jesus came to this Earth that He might die for our offenses and be raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). This is the True Meaning of Christmas. Merry Christmas.
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,