Friday, December 18, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, December 18, 2020.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why Do Christians Celebrate Christmas? The Greatest Story of All Is True—Jesus Christ, Truly God and Truly Man, Is Born!
On The Briefing, we look at contemporary events, we look at news, we look at issues. We look at controversies, we look at the huge questions. We put them in the context of a biblical understanding, but as we approach Christmas, we need to understand how that Christian worldview comes together, where it starts.
Now, in one sense, we as Christians understand that it starts in eternity before the creation of the heavens and the earth by a Holy God, before the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, and it begins in the eternal purposes of a self-sufficient, sovereign, holy and righteous God, but it enters into history. Yes, the gospel. The promise of the gospel enters into human history in the very beginning of the biblical story in Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and in Genesis 3. First of all, in the gospel of John in the first chapter, we are told that it was none other than Jesus Christ, the Son, the second person of the Trinity, who was the agent of creation, the eternal word through whom the world was made, and without whom, nothing was made, that was made.
You have the reality of the fact that Genesis turns out to be Christological, and the Book of Genesis turns out to be Trinitarian. That's the very beginning of the biblical story. That's the foundation of biblical theology, and it just continues on. We understand that in Genesis chapter 3, even in the account of the fall of humanity and descend through the sin of Adam and Eve, there is the promise of a son who would be born to Eve who would crush the serpent's head. There's the promise of a messiah, the promise of a savior, the promise of one who would defeat the powers of sin and death and evil, but we are also looking at the fact that that was, in Genesis 3, a promise. Because it was God's promise, it's a sure promise, but it was a promise.
We follow through the Old Testament, and of course, we find prophecy and promise. We also find the experience of Israel. We find God making covenant with his people and establishing covenantal love as that which would take its ultimate fulfillment in the New Covenant that will be made in Jesus Christ. The covenant of salvation, the covenant of redemption. We come to understand the flow of biblical history and promise and fulfillment, and that brings us to Christmas because after all, as we arrive at Christmas, as we arrive at the celebration of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are entering into the point at which Jesus Christ enters into human history as human himself, truly God and truly man, who was born that day in Bethlehem's manger.
Now, as you think about the Christian celebration of Christmas, think about this for a moment. You have liturgical churches that follow a Christian calendar. You think of the Orthodox churches. You think of the Roman Catholic church. You think of even some other liturgical churches that have saints' days and festivals and feasts. They recur on the Christian calendar year by year. Every year, they come along, and yet even as evangelicals do not follow that kind of liturgical calendar, the fact is that there are two great moments that we celebrate every single year one way or the other.
Now, the Christian Church, throughout time, has begun to celebrate Christmas, this winter festival, the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Was Jesus Christ born in December? No, there's no evidence for that whatsoever. As a matter of fact, arguably, the biblical evidence would indicate that he was not born in December, but nonetheless, Christians began quite early to seize upon the opportunity of a winter celebration to attach that celebration to the greatest news of all, that Jesus Christ is born. Even as the angel said unto the shepherds, "Behold, this day is born to you in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord."
Of course, the other great Christian festival is the festival of Christ's resurrection from the dead, and even though it's called Easter, I think often misleadingly so, the fact is that it is the church's festival of the resurrection and even evangelicals, we might even say especially evangelicals who don't get complicated in the entire liturgical calendar, and that for theological reasons, do seize upon these two celebrations. In one sense now, they're almost unavoidable. Even a secular culture has to take account of Christmas even more than it takes account of Easter, the festival of the resurrection, but what we are looking at here is the fact that Christians are making an astounding claim. We are claiming that history was actually split into in the birth of a baby there in Judea in the city of Bethlehem, and that that birth becomes the hinge point in all of human history. Of course, that's reflected in the fact that we keep calendar according to B.C., which is before Christ and A.D.
Now, in our secular age, have you noted the fact that there is a resistance to using B.C. and A.D. or Anno Domini, the year of our Lord? Yes, that pushback ... It's rather ironic after all. That pushback from the secularists is that that is an imposition of Christianity and thus, it must be replaced with some other kind of nomenclature. Now, notice what happens. They declared that history is indeed split, but it's split between B.C.E. and C.E. They say by that, before common era and common era, but guess what? They start with the same calendar. They keep the same numbers, and so ironically enough, they have no explanation for why history should be split at that point other than the fact that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem.
If you're actually going to try to follow through with removing Jesus Christ from the calendar, then you can't just change B.C. To B.C.E. or A.D. to C.E. You got to change the numbers, and it's rather foolish to think that you could do otherwise. Nevertheless, what we as Christians must recognize is that in our celebration of Christmas, we are actually celebrating history divided into two parts, everything that was meaningful before Christ and how everything has changed after Christ has come. That's the entire point of having an Old Testament and a New Testament. It's not that there's not continuity between the two. It is to say that the old promises the new, and the new fulfills the promise, and that's exactly what we celebrate at Christmas.
What Do the Accounts of Christ’s Birth in Matthew and Luke Tell Us about Our Savior? Understanding the Necessity of the Virgin Birth
But I want you to think secondly about something else. As you think about understanding the story of Christ's birth, do you recognize that what we have in the Scripture is not a scarcity of data and information? It is a super abundance of information. As you look through virtually any character in world history before Christ himself, and for that matter, afterwards, it is hard to find anything that is similar or parallel. In the time, there is absolutely nothing that is similar or parallel. What we have in the New Testament are four Holy Spirit-inspired gospels, and two of those gospels go into intricate detail about the nature, the circumstances, the sequence, the story, the events concerning the birth of Christ.
Matthew, the first gospel, tells us about the genealogy, the background of Jesus, placing the birth of Jesus, indeed the line of Jesus, the identity of Jesus within that context of promise and fulfillment even as seen in the genealogy that Matthew presents to us. Then, in verse 18, there's that crucial shift. Now, the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. Now, what does that tell us? Well, it tells us that we actually do need to know how exactly the birth of Christ came about. It turns out that understanding who Christ is does drive us to asking, where was he born? How was he born? Why does it matter? What were the circumstances? And we should be extremely thankful as we approach Christmas that the Holy Spirit has given us in Scripture two very specific accounts of how Jesus was born, and we need both of them. We need both Matthew and Luke.
Matthew almost immediately introduces us to Mary and the fact that she has betrothed to Joseph, and before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Then, we hear of the angelic appearance to Joseph, explaining to him the nature of this child who would be born and of the fact that he should continue to marry Mary, and you have the fact that you have Mary who had been told of the identity of the child within her also by the angel.
Matthew almost immediately introduces us to Mary and to Joseph. Luke does similarly, but first of all, he tells us about the angelic appearance to Mary, telling her about the fact that God, the Father, has appointed her to be the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, the mother of the Savior. Then, Matthew tells us about the angelic appearance to Joseph. He had told us that Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, and before they came together, she was found to be with child, and it is Matthew who then, by the Holy Spirit, tells us of the fact that it was an angelic appearance to Joseph that confirmed to him the fact that he should marry Mary. It was information given to Joseph about the identity of the child to whom Mary would give birth. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins."
Now, also, you have similar language used in the gospel of Luke as the angel speaks to Mary, but here's something we need to note. We need to note that from the very beginning, the saving purpose of Christ, the identity of Christ as Savior, the fact that he had come to make atonement for sins to save his people from their sins, that was made clear from the very beginning. So, it's not just the announcement of the supernatural birth. It's the announcement of the fact that it is a Savior who is born as the angels did say, "Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord."
Luke, who tells us right up front that he intends to write in historically specific account of the things concerning Jesus, he tells us that it all begins when a decree was sent out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. Now, here's what's interesting. In the gospel of Matthew, you have Matthew repeatedly saying these things happened in order that the Scriptures may be fulfilled right down to details, so the fulfillment of specific prophecy. Of course, one of those prophecies is that this Savior, the Savior, would be born in lowly Bethlehem. Luke tells us how it is that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem at the time it came for Mary to be delivered of Jesus.
Then, of course, we have Luke also telling us about Joseph and the background there and the fact that he was at the house and lineage of David, therefore, it was Bethlehem to which he must go in order to register. Then, we have the simple declaration beginning in Luke 2:6, "And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth, and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn."
So, as you put Matthew and Luke together, we have so much specificity about the birth of Jesus. We have witnesses too. Witnesses are very important. The witnesses in Luke are primarily shepherds, those shepherds who were absolutely astounded, indeed frightened nearly to death by the appearance of an angelic host. In the gospel of Matthew, you have the visit of the magi, the so-called wise men who see evidence of the birth of this promised savior, a supernatural birth in the sky. They see it in the stars, and they followed this one star, which was over the manger until they had found Jesus. Then, they worshiped him. That's something else that's important. You have the fact those who came even from a far, they may have been Zoroastrians of some sort. They may have been from Persia. They were astrologers. They certainly were pagans, but they came nonetheless following the star, and when they found Jesus, they worshiped him.
Now, as we think about Christmas, one of the things we need to keep in mind is that every detail of the account concerning the birth of Jesus is absolutely essential for us. We believe not only in Sola Scriptura, that Scripture is sufficient. We believe in verbal inspiration, which means that every word of Scripture is inspired of the Holy Spirit, and every word is fully inspired. That means there are no extra words. It means there is no extra information. There is no unnecessary data in the biblical text anywhere in the prophets, in the law, in the gospels, in the epistles. No, there is no extra data. We don't have any unnecessary data concerning the birth of Jesus. We need every one of these details.
Again, what's astounding is that in this birth that took place more than two millennia ago, this is a singular event in human history that details concerning this birth of Jesus because after all, this was a singular birth of a singular Savior, but as we're looking at this data, consider some of what the modern world resists the most. Here's where we come to the scandal of the virgin birth or the fact that Mary was a virgin. This was a virgin who gave birth. Now, theologically, it's right to refer to this as the virgin birth or the doctrine of the virgin birth. It's actually the virgin conception of Jesus, but nonetheless, it's right to call it the virgin birth, but the point is that Jesus was conceived in Mary by the Holy Ghost as the King James tells us, by the Holy Spirit. This was a supernatural conception of a supernatural child, and yet at the same time, even as he is truly divine, he is truly human.
The entire point of the New Testament hinges upon the fact that Jesus took on human flesh legitimately, authentically, fully. He didn't just enter into some kind of human experience. He entered into humanity. He, as the apostle Paul tells us in Philippians chapter 2, humbled himself so far as to take on authentic humanity. That means he was born as a genuine baby with everything it means to be a baby. The point is that the virgin birth, the virgin conception, the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus, these are where the modern world and its unbelief began first to press back against the truthfulness of Christianity. This is where you have the theological liberals assign their first bombing raid against Christianity, and it's very instructive that we remind ourselves how this happened.
Well, for one thing, you had the claim that we really can't know history. You can't go back in history. This was Georg Lessing famous ugly ditch of history, reminding us that many of these ideas actually erupted in Germany in the birth of the modern university. As Georg Lessing argued, you can't reconstruct history, you can't really know the past. You can make no absolute truth claims about the past.
Now, just notice, that is absolutely indisputably antithetical to Christianity. If we cannot know legitimately, authentically, truly what happened in the past, then brothers and sisters, we're doomed, but you also note something else. No one actually makes these claims comprehensively. They don't claim that we don't know that we had grandparents and great-grandparents. No. This is specifically addressed to the claims that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, and of course if it is accepted that he was born on the terms and according to what is revealed in Scripture, then the only response is that which was the response of the magi. That is to worship him. That's the one thing the modern secular world does not want to do, but in order not to worship Christ, they have to reduce him. They have to redefine him. You have to do that at the beginning of the story, and that has to do with who he is and how he came.
Now, notice what happens, and here's where conservative Orthodox, biblical Christians had better keep our theological wits about ourselves. You can't talk about a doctrine, any doctrine as just that doctrine. It's all interconnected. So, understand that those liberals who denied the virgin birth, they denied the very possibility of a supernatural birth. They argued that even as you look to the gospel of Matthew and you look to the gospel of Luke, those are unnecessary truth claims that are invalidated by modern science. We know how babies come about, and they don't come about this way, they would argue. You can't argue for the historical veracity of any miracle. That category is out, so you simply have to face the fact that the early church invented the idea of the virgin birth just as a part of the cult of Jesus.
Here's where we need to be rescued, first of all, by our confidence in the authority of God's word and the truthfulness of God's word, but we're also rescued by biblical theology because as you understand the flow of biblical theology, an essential part of Jesus's person and work is the fact that he was sinless. He was sinless in every way that was necessary for his substitutionary sacrifice. At least, part of what was necessary is that Jesus would enter into authentic humanity without taking on Adam's guilt and sin and sinning himself.
So, the first problem in the abandonment or even the marginalization or suspicion of the virgin birth is that if Jesus Christ was not born of a virgin, then it's essentially the same thing as what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, about the resurrection. "If Christ is not raised from the dead, then we are, of all people, most to be pitied for we are still dead in our sins and trespasses." The same is true, let's recognize, if it is not true that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary. If that's not true, then Jesus was not the sinless savior. He was not the savior who could stand in our place as our substitute and bear the full penalty for our sins. He is not the righteous Son whose righteousness is imputed to us by faith even as our sin was imputed to him.
This is exactly what the writer of the Book of Hebrews points out when speaking of Jesus as the perfect high priest, pointing out that every human high priest has to go into the holy of holies and make atonement for his own sin, but Jesus Christ as the sinless Son of God went into the Holy of Holies, but he went in, in such a way that he fully accomplished our salvation. He accomplished the perfect sacrifice because he was the perfect sacrifice. That's the essence of substitutionary atonement. No virgin birth, no atonement. No virgin birth, no gospel, no salvation. No virgin birth, no Christianity. Christianity without the virgin birth is not just a liberal Christianity. It's not Christianity at all.
Furthermore, we also have to recognize something else, and this is one of the brutal facts of history. It's just a very, very clear problem of reality. It comes down to this. If Jesus Christ was not conceived by the Holy Ghost, then Jesus Christ was conceived in some other way. Just to state the matter bluntly, if Jesus was conceived by any other manner, then once again, we lose the gospel. We are still dead in our trespasses and sins. We do not have the perfect sinless savior to stand as our substitute, but it's also very interesting for us to recognize that as we look at the denials of the Christmas story, eventually, the denial comes to every single point.
The denial comes not only to the parts but to the whole, but there's something else we really need to consider even as we come to the Christmas season and even as we understand it's right for the church to celebrate the incarnation, even as we remind ourselves in the festival of the resurrection that every Lord's day is a celebration of the resurrection, actually, every day of our lives is a celebration of Christmas, a celebration of the truth of the incarnation. Our lives only make sense. We are only saved. We only have peace with God if indeed Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem exactly as is revealed in the New Testament, particularly exactly as is revealed in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Don’t Miss the Sweetness and Tenderness of Christmas This Year: Martin Luther on the Sentimentality of Christmas
As we draw this to a conclusion, we need to recognize something else that Christians often miss, and that is the sweetness of Christmas. It is absolutely necessary that we make clear that we defend, that we proclaim, that we project just as the angels did, just as Matthew, and just as Luke do, the facts concerning the birth of Jesus. Just as we declare the truth claims concerning Jesus, the facts concerning his birth, the precious baby in wrapped clothes in a manger, even as we declare the magi and the shepherds and tell their places in the story, as we speak of the angel speaking to the shepherds, as we speak of the angels speaking to both Mary and Joseph, as we speak of all of this including, yes, the dark side of Christmas, which is Herod, as we speak of all of this, let us never miss the sweetness of Christmas.
Now, as we think about the history of the Christian Church, the sweetness of Christmas is something that can easily be diminished and all the temptations that come around Christmas, the busy-ness of Christmas, yes, the commercialization of Christmas, the marginalization of Christmas, a secular society. There are all kinds of reasons why the sweetness of Christmas can be easily eclipsed. It can be very quickly lost, but this is where Christians have to understand the tenderness of Christmas. Today's Christians need to remind ourselves that even as there is a false kind of sentimentality that can substitute itself can masquerade as true Christianity, the fact is that there is a sentimentality to the Christian faith, to the Christian gospel. There's a sentimentality that is essential to our understanding of God's love for us. There is a sentimentality that is necessary for Christmas.
In the history of the Christian Church, one of the towering figures who was always ready to defend the Christian faith even if it cost him his life, we're talking about Martin Luther. He also pointed to the sweetness of Christmas. He was not afraid of sentimentality. This Teutonic German theologian, who so defended the Christian faith, he also defended the sentiment of Christmas. Now, maybe part of this was because Martin Luther was a husband, and he was a father. He loved celebrating Christmas with his young children and his wife. He loves celebrating Christmas as a family. Of course, many of the Christian traditions we know right now were born in Germany and German culture, especially in the aftermath of the reformation.
We come to understand that Luther helps to remind us that sentiment is necessary, and this is where, as we read the biblical text, we have to see the sentiment that is actually revealed in the text in Matthew and in Luke, in all the Scripture, but particularly about the birth of Jesus in those two gospel, there is sweetness. There is the tenderness of Joseph for Mary. There's the tenderness of heart of Mary as she is addressed by the angel Gabriel, and she responds with submission and obedience. There's the tenderness most especially of the birth of this baby, the lowly nature of this birth. This is the very second person of the Trinity, the very Son of God. This is the eternal logos who created the world.
Yes, it is this very Son who became the baby in Bethlehem's manger, who condescended, was so humble as to become the son of Mary and of course, who came into the world not with the grandeur of the birth of a king the world would immediately recognize, but rather with the humility of the one who would be the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the same yesterday, today and forever and yet, that tiny infant in his mother's arms and, yes, in the manger lay, that tiny infant is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the savior who is Christ the Lord.
Yet, as we close, a final remembrance of the sweetness of Christmas and this comes in the very hand of Martin Luther, a song we believe was written for his own children at Christmas. It still exists in his handwriting. He concludes this song, "From heaven high, I come to you with these words. This King is but a little child. His mother blessed, Mary mild. His cradle is but now a stall, yet he brings joy and peace to all. Now, let us all, with songs of cheer, follow the shepherds and draw near to find this wondrous gift of heaven, the blessed Christ whom God have given."
So, to each of you, merry Christmas to every home, to every family, to every listener, yes, to every ear. Celebrate Christmas in all of its wonder, in all of its glory, in all of its grandeur. May you know a Christmas that is filled with the glory of Christ. May you affirm and embrace, and may you proclaim in every way every truth claim concerning Jesus that is revealed in Scripture. Tell the wholeness of the story of Christ. Teach it to your children and your grandchildren. Sing Christmas carols, and sing them with gusto, and never be too big, too old or too cold to miss the sentiment of Christmas. True Christians see the sentiment, more than sentiment but never less than the sentiment. Don't miss the glory of Christmas. Merry Christmas to you all.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
As you know, today's edition of The Briefing brings to an end the daily release of this program for the calendar year 2020. I hope in the days ahead, all of us will have a most glorious Christmas celebration. We'll be back right after the first of the year, and there will be plenty for us to talk about. The next edition of The Briefing will be on Monday, January 4, 2021, Lord willing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to Twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again, Monday, January 4, 2021 for The Briefing. It'll be here faster than you know it.