Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Greatest Gift of All

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. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. "And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us." And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Luke 2:1-16 NKJV
As the world will celebrate Christmas this coming week, I thought I would share with you a question I have been asked many times, especially at this time of year and that is; "was Jesus really born in December"?  To answer that question we need only to look closely at the story of His birth told to us in the gospel of Luke and carefully consider what is said there.

First we should look at the description given as to what the shepherds were doing when Jesus was born. In Luke 2:8 we find that the shepherds were in the fields tending their flock at night. Not an uncommon occurrence when in season, but certainly not around December 25 when it's winter in Israel and the lows at night are in the 30-40 degree range. Shepherds in Israel would usually stop taking their flocks out in mid-October and not resume until the spring, so that could be our first clue that a December date is inaccurate.

The second thing we can look at is related to the winter as well. In Luke 2:1-3 we see that a decree was given by Caesar that the whole world should be taxed. As a result, everyone was to return to their "own city" for the purpose of registering their payment. How logical would it be for Rome to ask everyone they wanted to tax to travel in the winter when not only was it cold, but snow was possible at any time? Somehow it just doesn't seem likely this would happen. After all, remember Rome was after money, so why make it hard to collect?

The best indication, however, of just when Jesus was born can be found in the first chapter of Luke when we are told of the conception and birth of Jesus' cousin John the Baptist. When we are introduced to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, we are told in verse 5 of chapter 1 that he was a priest "of the course of Abia", or Abijah. It says also that he was beginning his service in the temple when he was told by the angel Gabriel that he was about to become a father. We know from  1 Chronicles 24:10 that the course of Abijah was the eighth course to serve in the temple. This would mean his service would have ended around the month of July. Assuming a normal term of pregnancy, John would have likely been born around April of the next year.

Why is this important to our question of when Jesus was born? If we look at Luke 1:36 we see that when Gabriel visited Mary to tell her about what was about to happen to her, he also said that Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and Mary’s' cousin, was in her 6th month of pregnancy. This means that Jesus was to be born approximately 6 months after John the Baptist. Look at John being born around April, and you end up with Jesus being born around September. Is it possible that Jesus was actually born in September rather than in December as we celebrate it?

I think if we accept what the Bible tells us as being accurate; it would seem to be exactly what the Word is telling us. But if we assume this to be correct, I want to throw out one more fact to consider. By now most should realize the importance of events in Israel’s' history occurring on their Holy Feast days. If you have read some of my teachings, I know you are familiar with this subject. After the Israelites were delivered out of the bondage in Egypt, while in the desert, God told Moses that there were to be seven feasts celebrated throughout the year. Three occur in the spring, one in the summer, and three more in the fall. If we assume a normal 280 day pregnancy, and then place Johns' birth in April and Jesus' birth in September we find it is not only possible, but probable that John was born on the Feast of Passover, and Jesus was born on the Feast of Tabernacles, also known as Sukkot.  You might want to also think about this. Why was the city of Bethlehem so crowded that Joseph and Mary could not find any room? How about the fact it was The Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three feast days that all Jewish men were required to attend in Jerusalem, and everyone who could possibly make the trip was there to celebrate?

If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, why do we celebrate it at that particular time? There are no records of the early church even celebrating Jesus' birth, so a logical question would be why and when did the world begin to do so? The first mention of December 25 was in the Calendar of Philocalus in 354 A.D. In it Jesus' birthday was assumed to be December 25, 1 A.D. This calendar was compiled sometime after Emperor Constantine's "Edict of Milan" in A.D. 313. This edict in essence ended the persecution of Christians which had previously been the hallmark of the previous governments in Rome, and allowed Christians to practice their faith publicly without fear of persecution. But why choose the date of December 25th to celebrate Christ's birth when there was sufficient evidence to support a September birth?

The answer to that question may be found in an understanding of the times in which the edict of Constantine was made. Up until this time, the world, with the exception of believers of Christianity, could best be described as pagan. As such, it should not be a surprise to find that the pagan world had its celebrations and holidays as well. When the emperor Constantine published his edict, the church was faced with the problem of a calendar which would include holidays from both Christianity and paganism. It would appear then that their answer in resolving that dilemma was to substitute the Christian holiday for the pagan celebration. If that answer seems strange to you let's take a moment to look at the origins of what we celebrate during this season of the year.

The date of December 25 was officially set by the church in 440 A.D. in an apparent attempt to replace the existing Roman holiday called Saturnalia. Most pagan religions throughout history have worshipped the sun in one form or another as the provider of warmth and light. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs at this time of the year in the northern hemisphere. It was at this time in the month of December that pagan celebrations were created in an attempt to please the sun gods so the days would again become long and the sun would begin to stay in the sky longer.

Genesis 10:8-10 introduces us to Nimrod, founder of Babylon, a city which has become synonymous with rebellion against God. Isaiah 47 clearly tells us that the occultist traditions and practices we know about had their origins in Babylon. Nimrod and his queen Semiramis had a son called Tammuz who was thought to have died during the winter solstice. The tradition arose that his death would be memorialized by burning a log in the fire. The Chaldean word for infant is Yule, and this seems to be the origin of the tradition of burning the "Yule Log". The next day, after the Yule log had burned, it was replaced by a decorated tree.

The Romans also worshipped the god Saturn. His celebration occurred on December 17, at which time the people would decorate their homes with evergreen boughs and give presents to one another. The roman emperor Aurelian, 270-275 A.D., combined the solstice celebrations of the pagan gods Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, and Thseus into one celebration called the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" on December 25 as well.

So is it hard to understand why the church fathers would choose to proclaim December 25 as the official date of Jesus' birth? By doing so, it would appear that they tried to replace the pagan celebrations with what they considered to be one of the most important reasons the world has to celebrate, the birth of our Savior and Lord. As such, the obvious question that comes to mind is what can we do as believers to see that Christmas remains a celebration of the birth of Christ, and not the commercial event it has become?

Possibly one way would be to truly study the story of Jesus' birth to find the things that make it unique, and obviously divine in nature. One of my favorites is found in the presents brought to the child Jesus by the wise men. I'm sure most, if not all of you can tell me the names of those three gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But my question to you is what is the significance of those particular gifts? You see, at that time the gift of gold would signify His deity; it was a gift given to a king. The frankincense would by symbolic of His purity; in Jesus' case obviously His sinlessness. However, what was the meaning of the gift of myrrh? The truth is, myrrh was a spice used in embalming bodies after death, and so what sort of gift is that to give to a child? Well in hindsight, we can argue these gifts were prophetic in that they celebrated not only Jesus' deity and purity, but His coming death as a sacrifice for all men. How so? Look at Isaiah 60:6 where we are told of the gifts brought to Jesus after He comes again the second time. Notice they bring gold and frankincense, but no myrrh? The reason for that is that He only had to die once, and that has already been accomplished for us as the greatest gift we could ever receive.
If you have never taken the step of accepting this gift of eternal life, I urge you to do it right now.  Simply pray a prayer like this one and confess to God your need for salvation, and accept the gift He provided for you by the death and resurrection of His own Son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus I know I am a sinner. I have sinned against you, but I know you loved me enough to send your Son, Jesus Christ to die for my sins and then rise from the dead so that I may live forever with You. Lord forgive me of my sins and come into my life and help me to begin to live for You. In Jesus' name, Amen.
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