We hear it all the time, “don’t forget the meaning of Christmas.” Yet how many people know the real meaning of Christmas? According to a survey released this week by the American Bible Society, 94% of Americans celebrate Christmas but only 15% of Americans read the Bible’s account of the birth of Christ as part of their Christmas traditions.
“There is nothing wrong with enjoying some of the great Christmas films that have been made over the decades,” says American Bible Society’s Geoffrey Morin. “It is just important that Christians don’t make holiday celebrations more about Scrooge and Ralphie than about Jesus.”
The survey also found that knowledge of the biblical account of Christmas was lacking. Fewer than half of Americans (42 percent) were able to correctly identify what the Bible says brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth–reporting for a census.
The Christmas story is found in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke in the Bible (Matthew 1:18-25; Matthew 2:1-12; Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:1-20).
To fully understand the meaning of Christmas, let’s begin by looking at the Christmas story in the gospel of Luke, and how both the shepherds and the angels understood the meaning of Christmas.
The Shepherds Understood The Meaning Of Christmas
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. – Luke 2:8-12 NIV
After Jesus was born, while he was still in the manger, an angel appeared to a group of shepherds. At that time, shepherds were not looked upon in a positive manner. They were considered unclean, and they were not considered viable witnesses in a court of law. Because of this, it’s important to note that the news of Jesus’ birth was given first to the lowliest of people. This is a great truth, but there is a more important point that must be made. These shepherds were special. They were the keepers of sacrificial lambs. This is the reason that they were “in the fields nearby.” It is important to know this because Jesus, the Lamb of God, was born. Catch the significance of this statement: The keepers of the sacrificial lambs were the first ones to hear of the birth of Christ.
The Angels Understood The Meaning Of Christmas
With the announcement of the birth, the angels burst into song, and the heavens opened to reveal their joy. The text gives the impression that the words were spoken with the words “saying”. Even if they were, the cadence of this message had to have been melodious. The birth of Christ was unprecedented and heaven being visible from earth was amazingly rare. However the message was vocalized, the news was the most significant news in history.
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” – Luke 2:13-14 NIV
The meaning of Christmas was explained through the heavenly hosts who praised God. The angels might have been appointed to be in the choir, but they likely would have joined on their own. To proclaim the coming of the Lamb of God was huge, and the size of the choir reflected the importance of the proclamation. The exact wording of verse Luke 2:14 varies by translation. It is a challenging phrase, but when the words are understood, the message is powerful.
Give glory to God, because the Lamb of God has been born, and to those who give him the highest place in their lives, peace will be given. This peace will be experienced on earth and in heaven because everlasting life will be the result. Nowhere in this phrase does God offer a blanket statement of peace on earth. Peace only comes to those who yield their lives to Christ and the sacrifice he made for them. This is not to say that the entire world could not experience peace. They can. But, only when they gain God’s favor through the blood of Christ.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” – Luke 2:14 NIV
The shepherds could have sat back and thought, “Cool, we just saw angels.” They could have debated over the meaning of the words, or felt pride in being the ones who got to see the heavens opened up. They could have decided that their own sacrificial sheep were more important than the Lamb of God. But for them the news was a call to action. “Let’s go to town, because we have to see what the angels have proclaimed.” Their response gives us a clue as to how we can receive God’s good will. We must take action by personally responding to the Prince of Peace.
Understanding the words of the Bible and being able to argue theology is no substitute for the yielded life of one who takes action as God’s servant.
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. – Luke 2:15-20 NIV
When the shepherds witnessed the Lamb of God, who came to save people from sin, they were dramatically changed. Very soon they would be out of a job, but that did not matter. The prophecy was fulfilled of the child born of a virgin, laying in a manger.
As they left, they no longer acted like outcast shepherds. They were changed, excited, and bold. They wanted everybody to know about the Lamb of God. It was not just the people they knew but everybody who would listen. So powerful was their testimony that people were amazed. Even after the shepherds left Bethlehem, they were praising God, and glorifying his name.
We can understand the real meaning of Christmas in this one story. Christmas is about the birth of the Lamb of God. He came by the will of God, with the backing and joy of heaven. He came to be the once and for all sacrifice. He was approved by the keepers of the sacrificial lambs as being worthy of a perfect sacrifice. You see, Christmas is the beginning of the story, which is completed at Easter. The angels proclaimed it, and the shepherds understood the message.
The angel’s visitation to the shepherds was no minor story. God, in his wisdom, did not bypass the those whose job it was to raise sheep for sacrifice, but willingly worked within the system. They were given the first viewing, and what they saw changed their lives. They knew what a perfect lamb was, and this child, born in a manger, was indeed the perfect lamb.
Do You Know The Real Meaning Of Christmas?
Give God the highest place in your life this Christmas. Understand, first hand, what the real meaning of Christmas is. Just “thinking about it,” or going through the motions of the holiday do not make one a Christian. It requires that we take action, yielding the highest place in our life to Christ. Accept that this baby, born in a manger, came to earth to pay your debt. Receive the peace, “which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), and enter the new year a changed person.