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What is Christmas?

Written by Mitch DePoy on

The fireplace is burning bright, shining all on me
I see the presents underneath the good old Christmas tree
And I wait all night ’til Santa comes to wake me from my dreams
Oh, why? ‘Cause that’s Christmas to me

These are the lines of a popular Christmas song by the acapella group Pentatonix. The song celebrates the traditions we enjoy during the holiday season such as giving presents, decorating a Christmas tree, and dreaming of jolly Ole Saint Nick. “That’s Christmas to Me” is a wonderful song celebrating fun traditions, but it’s worth considering the song’s fundamental proposition. What is the meaning of Christmas? Is it our traditions? Do we define the holiday for ourselves? Or does Christmas have a deeper meaning with true cause for celebration?

If we read the Christmas story in Matthew 1:18-25, the Gospel writer answers these questions. Matthew wants his readers to know this central truth about Christmas: Jesus came from God to save sinners who believe. This is the hope of the holiday, so let’s consider each part of that statement: (1) Jesus came from God, (2) Jesus came to save sinners, and (3) we should believe God’s word about Jesus.

Jesus Came from God

Matthew wrote his Gospel in order to proclaim who Jesus was and what he came to do. In the opening verses (vv. 1-17), Matthew establishes Jesus’s human lineage. He came from the family line of Abraham, fulfilling God’s promise to bless all the nations through him (Gen. 22:17-18). He was also the son of David, who was promised an eternal dynasty (2 Sam. 7:13). But Matthew isn’t solely concerned with Jesus’s human lineage; he also wants to establish his divine lineage. Twice in three verses at the opening the Christmas story, Matthew tells us that Jesus came from God. Mary was found to be pregnant “through the Holy Spirit” (v. 18) and Joseph was told clearly by the angel of God that what was conceived in Mary was “from the Holy Spirit” (v. 20).

Matthew asserts that Jesus’s origin was divine. He was the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, who took on human flesh. The doctrine of the incarnation is the reason for the season, the glorious miracle we celebrate at Christmas. This is why Charles Wesley encouraged believers to sing: “veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail th’incarnate Deity!” 2 If we’re going to comprehend the true meaning of Christmas, we first need to know that Jesus came from God.

Jesus Came to Save Sinners

The meaning of Christmas starts with the incarnation but doesn’t end there. We need to understand the man Jesus, but we also need to understand his mission. Matthew’s narrative goes on to explain this in verses 21-23 by highlighting two names of Christ: Jesus and Immanuel.

As the angel of the Lord reassures Joseph of his role in God’s redemptive plan, he instructs him to name the child Jesus. “Jesus” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning “Yahweh saves.” Jesus came from God to save us, but from what? Thankfully, the angel tells Joseph: “…for he will save his people from their sins.” The incarnation of Jesus is a miracle worth celebrating, but it’s only good news if it ends with the cross and resurrection. Thanks be to God that Jesus “…was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Christmas is good news because it points us to Easter!

The second name of Jesus that Matthew highlights is Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” Matthew clearly shows that Jesus fulfilled God’s Word through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7-9). In this text, the King of Judah, Ahaz, is facing perilous circumstances. Judah’s neighbors, Israel and Syria, have allied themselves militarily against Ahaz; and he is tempted to turn to the superpower of his day, Assyria, for protection. But God sends the prophet Isaiah to encourage the king, even offering to perform a miracle as a sign of his favor. Tragically, Ahaz declines God’s help. In response, God promises a sign of judgment rather than a sign of favor: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa.7:14). The near-term fulfillment of this prophecy was the birth of Isaiah’s son (Isa. 8:3) and the judgment on God’s people through the nation in which Ahaz trusted, Assyria (Isa. 8:7-8).

These events teach us a principle. When God offers to help, you take it! God offered to help Ahaz, but the king declined and faced judgment as a result. By picking up the prophecy of Immanuel and dropping it into the Christmas narrative, Matthew is telling his readers: “God is offering to help you. Take it!” Jesus came from God to save sinners. He is the greatest Christmas present we could ever receive. But how do we take it?

We Should Believe God’s Word About Jesus

In the final verses of the Christmas story (vv. 24-25), Matthew describes Joseph’s response to God’s revelation about Jesus. Joseph “…did what the angel of the Lord had commanded” by taking Mary as his wife and naming the child Jesus. Joseph responded to God’s word by believing it was true and acting on it, regardless of the cost. Joseph’s actions should serve as an example to readers of Matthew’s Gospel. Unbelievers should take God’s offer of salvation by believing the truth of the gospel and trusting in Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins. Believers should follow Joseph’s example, demonstrating the validity of our faith by our works (James 2:14).

In this holiday season, let’s enjoy our Christmas traditions. By all means, light the fires, shop for presents, decorate the tree, and even sing along to Pentatonix. But above all, let’s remember the true meaning of Christmas: Jesus came from God to save sinners who believe. That’s Christmas!

[1] Pentatonix, That’s Christmas to Me, 2014
[2] Charles Wesley Hark the Herald Angels Sing, 1739

Mitch DePoy

Mitch DePoy is currently the Pastor of Congregational Care & Connection at College Park Church, after working as a financial analyst for 20 years. He is married to Sarah, father of four, and enjoys coaching youth sports in his spare time.

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