Luke 2:1-3 Christmas Redemption

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Luke 2 Christmas Tree

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Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of Christ.

There is usually lots of controversy surrounding Christmas, whether or not it is a pagan holiday, whether or not Jesus was born on December 25, and whether or not Christians should celebrate Christmas, and if so, how.

I believe that Christmas is a pagan holiday, and that Jesus was not born on December 25, but that Christians should celebrate Christmas.

In this sermon, we will try to look at why I believe this.

We’re going to try to answer that for you this morning from Luke 2 and some other passages, but let’s begin with some background about the Pagan origins of Christmas. [1]

The Pagan Holiday of Christmas

You should know that long before Christ was ever born, December 25th was traditionally a Pagan holiday. It was when many cultures celebrated the winter solstice – the longest night of the year. Today, winter solstice is on December 21, but their calendars were a bit different from ours, which explains the difference. Let me tell you how they would celebrate it. The name they gave to their holiday was Saturnalia, named after the pagan deity, Saturn. And because it was the longest night of the year, they spent all night partying and celebrating.

Different cultures would do different things, but the Roman culture was very similar to American culture – kind of a melting pot, hodge-podge, mish-mash of several different cultures. The Roman culture borrowed from many cultures and came up with a Saturnalia holiday very similar to what our Christmas holiday is. They would go around from house to house and sing Saturnalia songs. That sounds like Christmas caroling, doesn’t it? They would buy and make and wrap presents to pass out to family members and friends. That sounds familiar also. It is also from the Saturnalia festival that we get…are you ready for this?…Christmas trees, yule logs, advent wreaths, poinsettias, decorative lights, gold ornaments, glitter, candle light services and pretty much everything else we use to celebrate Christmas. So, how did Saturnalia, this pagan celebration of the longest night of the year get turned into Christmas? Of course, some would argue that it has turned back into Saturnalia, but we’ll talk about that.

The question before us is, how did December the 25th become the traditional birthday of Jesus Christ? Well, around 320 A.D., that’s about 320 years after the birth of Christ, the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. One of the first things he did as a Christian was declare Christianity as the state religion. Everybody in the empire was supposed to become a Christian.

Of course, one of the things he struggled with was what to do with all of these pagan holidays. He wasn’t stupid. He knew that if he took away all the holidays and festivals, he would not be emperor for very long. So he did what some of us do. For example, some people don’t like to observe Halloween by dressing up their kids as ghosts and goblins, and so rather than cancel it altogether, they have Harvest Festival’s or Hallelujah parties for their kids where they dress up as Bible characters and talk about the Lord, but still get candy. Easter also. Did you know that Easter was a pagan holiday celebrating the Babylonian fertility goddess, Ishtar? She was called the morning star. The first star of the morning. But now, we celebrate it for the resurrection of Jesus Christ on that morning. The true light rising from the grave early in the morning.

So that is what Constantine did with Saturnalia. He turned it into a time to remember Christ’s birth. He called it “Christ’s Mass”, Christmas. He had all the symbols of Saturnalia “baptized” with Christian meaning. He took the tree and made it stand for the fact that Christ never dies, and is the Light of the world. The holly, with the little thorns speak of the thorns on his brow, and the red beads symbolic of the blood of Jesus, and so on with all of the symbols and traditions.

So what are you saying, Jeremy? Are you saying that we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter because they used to be pagan holidays and sometimes are still celebrated that way today? That is exactly what I am…NOT saying. Here me now. I think that all of us should continue to celebrate Christmas and Easter. And do it all out if you want to – with the Christmas tree, the yule log, the presents, the caroling and the lights for Christmas.

To see this, let’s step back a bit and talk about when Jesus was actually born. If December 25 actually originated as a Pagan holiday, then what do we know — if anything — about the day when Jesus was actually born?

We do have some clues about this in Scripture, and the first one is found in Luke 2.

The Date of Jesus’ Birth

The clues to the birthday of Jesus Christ are all over in the Gospels, but some of the best are in these first few chapters of the book of Luke. Remember, Luke was a historian, and so he has some of the details which help us nail down the birthday of Jesus Christ. One of these clues is found in Luke 2:1-3.

Luke 2:1-3. And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

It is in verse 2 that we get a clue for the date of this census. Luke tells us that this census or registration first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. It is really hard to know when this census was. Such registrations were actually made every 14 years or so.

We know that one was made in 6 A.D., but King Herod was dead by then, and we know from the Gospel of Matthew that King Herod was alive when Jesus was born. Remember? He wanted to kill Jesus and tried to trick the wisemen into telling him where Jesus could be found. We also know from Matthew 2:19 that Herod died soon after this. And history tells us he died in 4 B.C. So I believe Jesus Christ was born sometime between 5 and 4 B.C.

Now, with more study, we could probably get more specific about the actual year Jesus was born, but for our purposes this morning, we are more interested in the day of the year on which Jesus was born. I’ve told you already that December 25th is definitely NOT the day Jesus was born, so now I want to show you when He was born.

We can narrow it down somewhat by looking at a clue in verse 8. We learn in Luke 2:8 that at the time of Christ’s birth there were shepherds in the fields watching their flocks at night. Now, people who are familiar with shepherds in that part of the world know that shepherds never have, and still today, never watch their flocks at night in the fields in wintertime. The shepherds take their sheep into the fields for only about six months, in late spring, summer and early autumn, from about May to October.

When winter comes, the temperatures drop quickly, and so it is far too cold for sheep to be out. Thus, during the wintertime, the sheep are always led back down into the lowlands, into town, into caves and sheep shelters. Many of us have lost this understanding, because we don’t know much about sheep anymore. But I have talked to people who own sheep, and they say that they doesn’t let his sheep out of the barn during the winter, because the baby sheep will freeze to death. And they verify that probably, the shepherds in Luke 2 were not out in the fields with their sheep during the dead of winter either.

Therefore, Luke 2:8 has to be during some other part of the year. The shepherds were out in the fields during the spring, summer and fall, but not in the winter. So that right away tells us that Jesus could not have been born in the winter. He could not have been born on December 25th. He had to have been born during a different time of the year.

Clue number 2 regarding the time of his birth is found back in Luke 1:5. We’ve already looked at the events leading up to the birth of John the Baptist, who will be a forerunner of the Messiah. We saw in Luke 1:5 that Zacharias was a priest, of the division of Abijah, and it was his turn to serve in the temple. Now remember, I told you that there were too many priests at that time, and so they came up with divisions or groups of priests. Each division would serve in the temple for two weeks out of the year.

The division of Abijah, which Zacharias was a part of, was of the eighth cycle, and we know from history that they served during the month of June. So, Zacharias is in Jerusalem, in June, serving in the temple. And during this two week period in June, he learns that his wife is going to conceive and they are going to have a son, who will be named John. And we learn in verses 23 and 24 that soon after this, Elizabeth conceived. So she probably conceived in late June.

Nine months later, John the Baptist in born. This would mean that John the Baptist was born in late March. The date of John’s birth is important also, but I will get to that in just a moment. For now, remember that six months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary also was visited by the angel Gabriel and she, as a virgin, miraculously conceived. So this means that John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus. So think about it. If John was born in late March, then six months later, Jesus would have been born of Mary, this makes His birthday sometime in late September.

Also, here is where it gets exciting. Knowing such a fact does not make us better Christians unless we can apply it. Right? So here is where it gets spiritually profitable to know such a fact. You probably know that the Jews had many holidays and feasts throughout the year, just like we do. But as many of you know, these feasts were not only ways to remember what God had done in the past, kind of like our Thanksgiving, but were also prophetic for what God was going to do in the future.

The Jewish feasts both looked backward to what God had done in the past, and looked forward to what he had promised to do in the future. It is very similar to our Lord’s Supper, or Communion. When we observe communion, it both looks back to what Jesus Christ did on the cross for us, and it looks forward to when He will come again.

Two of the feasts that are important here are the Feast of the Passover, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The Passover feast was celebrated in March. March! Remember who was born in March? Every year at the Passover Feast in March, the Jewish families set an extra place setting at the table which no one sits at. They would set the place setting for the prophet Elijah. It is prophesied in the Old Testament that the prophet Elijah, or one like Elijah, would come to prepare the way for the Messiah. He would be the forerunner for the Messiah.

Do you remember the last chapter of the last book of the Old Testament we have been referring to throughout Luke 1? In Malachi 4:5, it is prophesied that the prophet Elijah would come before the Messiah. He would prepare the way for the Messiah. And so you see, every year at Passover, in March, every Jewish family would set a place at their table for Elijah. And as part of the Passover meal, they would go and open the door to see if Elijah was standing outside ready to come in.

Now, they probably never expected to see him, because it was just a reminder of the promise that Elijah must come first, and then the Messiah. If they saw Elijah, then they knew the Messiah would not be far behind. That year, in March, during the Passover feast, Elijah had come. Oh, he came with a different name – but the Bible is very clear that the prophecy about Elijah coming and preparing the way for the Messiah, was fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist.

Well, six months later, in late September, the Jews celebrate another feast. This one is the feast of Tabernacles. And in John 1:14, we read this: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” The word for “dwelt” in the Greek is skenao, and it means…tabernacled. To tabernacle with someone is to dwell in the midst of them. To live with them. And so John 1:14 reads, “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”

So here it is. It is late September. It is the feast of Tabernacles. Jews had come from all over the nation of Israel to Jerusalem. That year, there was maybe 2 or 3 million of them in and around Jerusalem. They came with their families to Jerusalem and they came to camp. To dwell in tents. To live in little tabernacles. During this festival, the fathers would teach their children about what happened in the wilderness 1500 years earlier. That as they wandered through the desert, and lived in tents, God was with them wherever they went. Father’s told their children how there was a pillar of fire by night, and a pillar of cloud by day. Children learned about the manna that fell from heaven to feed them. And they would teach their children, “God was with us. God took care of us.” And just as fathers were telling their children about God being with them, during this feast of tabernacles, during late September, five miles away, in the little town of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ was born. Emmanuel, God with us.

You might also be interested to know that in many parts of the world, Christians celebrate a holiday called “Michaelmas” day. It means Michael Sent day, just as Christmas means Christ sent. Michaelmas day is observed on September 29th. Scholars believe that it was Michael who was sent with the heavenly host to proclaim Christ’s birth to the shepherds in the field.

And that year, September 29th was the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles. The feast lasts for eight days, and on the last day of the feast, also known as the greatest day of the feast, Jesus would have been circumcised (2:21). Isn’t all of that amazing? Now, what is even more amazing is that this is just two of the feasts. There are five more of them, and all of them either have been, or will be, fulfilled just as literally.

Paul says in Colossians 2 that the feasts are just shadows of things to come. Silhouettes. But there has to be something real to cast the shadow, to form the silhouette. And Paul tells us in Colossians 2 that the substance, the real thing, the person all the feasts point to, is Jesus Christ. We’ve seen that already with the feast of tabernacles. And maybe you say, “But it was John who fulfilled the Passover, not Jesus.”

No, it was not John who fulfilled the Passover. He was only a small part of it. Jump ahead in time with me about 33 years after John was born. We are in Jerusalem again. It is the time for the Passover Feast again. And that year, just as the lamb without blemish was being slain in Jerusalem, as his blood was pouring out upon the altar in the temple, there was another Lamb – with a capital “L” – the Lamb of God, being nailed to a cross outside of Jerusalem, on a hill called Calvary. Jesus Christ himself fulfilled the Passover.

Three days later, the Feast of Firstfruits began, and three days after Jesus died, He rose from the dead, to be the firstfruits or the firstborn from among the dead. 50 days later came the feast of Pentecost. Now, this feast reminded Israel of when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the law, and the Israelites were dancing around a golden calf. They had grown tired of waiting for Moses, and had given up on God, and so had made their own god to worship.

You may remember that on that day, 3000 Israelites were killed because of their idolatry (Exod 32:28). But, about 1500 years later, on another Pentecost, when again, the Jewish people had grown tired of waiting for the Messiah, and had given up on God, something else came down to the Jewish people. But this time, rather than Moses coming down from the Mountain with the law, this time, it was the Holy Spirit coming down with grace and power. And we know from Paul’s writings that now, as Christians, we do not live by the law, but by grace and in the Spirit. And after Peter’s sermon that day, 3000 people were saved. The exact same number! And all of the feasts are this way. And some of them have yet to be fulfilled.

But back to the birth of Jesus. We know now that he was born in late September, very likely on September 29, as a partial fulfillment of the feast of tabernacles. And if that is not exciting enough, it gets better.

Christmas Redemption

I believe that despite the fact that Jesus was not born on December 25, and despite the fact that Christmas originated as a pagan holiday, Christians should still celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25.

Why?

Because that is what Christ is all about. He redeems things. He is a redeemer. That’s what He does. He takes things that are full of evil and wickedness and transforms them into things that give glory and honor to God. That’s what He is doing with you, isn’t it? The two polar opposites of what we once were are recorded in Ephesians 2:1-7. We are told there how dead in sin we once were, walking according to the flesh and our own sinful desires. But God, out of his mercy and love and grace, has redeemed us, and is making us into new creatures, to bring glory and honor to Himself.

So should you stop celebrating Christmas and Easter because they once used to be pagan holidays? No. Just the contrary, I think we should celebrate them. Only now that we know what they used to be, we need to strive to celebrate them with Christ as the focus even more. Through redeeming Christmas and Easter for Jesus Christ, we can show people the redemptive power of Jesus Christ in our own lives as well. Christmas is the redemption of Saturnalia like a Christian is the redemption of the man of sin we used to be.

So now you are all thoroughly confused about Christmas on December 25th, right? First, I told you that Jesus was not born on December 25th, but on September 29th. But then I turn around and tell you to go ahead and celebrate Christmas on December 25th.

“So what is going on?” you ask. “You’re not helping my holiday cheer. Why do you take with one hand, what you give with the next?” Because of this. There’s one last thing I didn’t tell you about the birth date of Jesus Christ. Some of you mathematicians have already figured it out.

If Christ was born during the Feast of Tabernacles, in order to fulfill the picture and the type, if Christ was born in late September during this Feast of Tabernacles, then that means that nine months earlier is when Mary conceived. You say, “Well, yeah, Jeremy. A mother carries a baby for nine months.” Right. But do you realize when it was that Mary conceived if she gave birth in late September? If September 29th is His Birthdate, and the human gestation period is 278 days, then going back 278 days, or roughly nine months brings us to a conception date of December 25th. The date of conception was very likely, very possibly, December 25th, nine months before the Feast of Tabernacles.

Now, you say, well, couldn’t it have been December 20th, or December 30th? Well, I wouldn’t go to the wall on this, but I tend to think that the day Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit was December 25th. And there are so many reasons for this. Think about it. December 25th is the darkest, gloomiest, longest night of the year. It was a time when pagans celebrated the length of the night. What better time could there have been for God to plant a seed in a virgin’s womb, which would bring forth light to the world? Which would cause the sun to rise on the long night of sin? I think that is something God would do.

Furthermore, December 25th just happened to be, by the sovereignty of God, the first day of Hanukkah. Hanukah is like the Jewish Christmas. They celebrate Hanukah for eight days and give gifts for eight days. And there is another whole story there of how Hanukah came to be, of how God miraculously brought light into a very bad situation.[3]

So although we have seen that December 25th is not the birthday of Christ, it is quite likely the conception day of Christ, or very near to it. And even still, though it used to be a pagan holiday, by celebrating it as Christians should, we can testify to the redemptive plan of Jesus Christ—to Him bringing light into a dark and gloomy world.

Have you felt recently like you are stuck in darkness? Have you felt fearful of the future, depressed about life’s circumstances? Worried about a loved one? Does it seem like the long night will never end? Well, as we close out the Christmas season this week, remember that God loves to bring light into the darkest of nights. He did it with Saturnalia and He can do it with you.

—————————–

Notes:

[1] Some of this I got from Jon Courson, Christmas sermon on John 1: T361.
[2] Jon Courson, T361.
[3] Antiochus Epiphanes, a terrible man, killed a pig on the altar in the temple in Jerusalem. 9 years of ruling, the Maccabean sons fought a war against him. They won in 164 B.C. They go into the temple, and clean it up. One of the brother’s lights a Manorah inside the temple. Now it’s light. But then they realize that there’s not enough oil to burn for more than one day. They needed eight days to make the sacred oil. If the lamp goes out, it’s going to be a bad sign. God miraculously extended the oil to last for eight days. Then Hanukah, eight days of gift giving. The first day of the first Hanukah was December 25, 164 B.C. The light was lit that first day of Hanukah. Oil is a symbol of Holy Spirit. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit on December 25th.


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Comments

  1. Terry Zeyen says

    Very interesting calculation relating the birth of John the Baptist to the timing of Jesus birth and then correlating this prophetically with the Feast of Tabernacles. Sounds very plausible. I have never heard this before. Thanks for the insight Jeremy.

  2. Terry Zeyen says

    Jeremy, what do you think about this analysis/calculation of the timing of Jesus birth?…

    In Jewish tradition, all great Prophets are believed to have been conceived on the same day that they died. This is a tradition only. But if we follow this tradition, and Jesus died on Passover, it would be an assumption also that Jesus was conceived on Passover, 9 months later would be December. By Jewish tradition, it would be correct to that Jesus birthday would be on or around Dec. 25th.

    Is this possible?

    According to Luke 1:5THERE was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia:

    The course of Abia is the 8th weekly course, starting on Nissan 1 as the first course and repeated roughly 24 weeks later. But, all of the Priests serve for the week of Passover and Nissan, so rather then being the 8th week, Abia would serve on the 10th week and the 34th week.

    The 34th week would land on Yom Kippur. Elizabeth became pregnant shortly after Zacharias return.

    Luke 1:26And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,
    27To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

    Six months into Elisabeth pregnancy, Mary became pregnant. That would mean Mary became pregnant around Passover. If Mary was pregnant around Passover, Jesus would have been born in December.

    Now, the Jewish calendar compared to the Gregorian calendar does not match up. But can vary as much as a month. For example, in the year of 2013, Passover will start on March 26th, but 2005 Passover was on April 24th. That is a 1 month difference.

    The other variable is Elizabeth conceived shortly after Zacharias return from serving his course. What is shortly after. A day, a week, 2 weeks, or 3 weeks.

    With at least a 6-8 week variation, we can have Jesus birth anywhere from Succot to December 25th, but there is also the possibility the the Abia course is the first of the year which would mean Jesus would have been born anywhere from Passover to July.

    Church history, prior to Constantine (who is said to have fixed the Dec. 25th date), does show a debate as to when Jesus was born. Hippolytus of the second century does argue for Jesus birth in December, so the belief in a December birth predates Constantine.

    Finally, we can look at Succoth as the possible birth day, but strangely, what we find is the argument tries to make Jesus birth on a scripturally significant date. This is invalid since birthdays are not scripturally significant. Plus, the NT is very specific about High Holy Days and what Jesus did which is prophetically significant compared to the Holy Days. No mention is made of Succoth and Jesus birth having any significance. It is highly unlikely Jesus was born during Succoth.

    • says

      Terry,

      Well, I suppose it is possible. Really, when it comes to dating certain events in Scripture, almost anything is possible. There isn’t a whole lot of certainty. I am not adamant about the dating in my scheme above.

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