What is Christmas all about? We often say “It’s about Jesus” and “it’s about family, joy, and happiness” and “It’s celebrating Immanuel (God with us)”. This is all very true, but one thing I always try to make us privy to is the danger of traditions becoming nothing but empty traditions. Here is a test for you to see if you have fallen for “the sake of tradition” thinking: What do you contemplate when the question, “What is Christmas about?” is popped? Is your instinctive reaction any of what I just said? In other words, has it just become routine? Ever take time to listen to all those lovely Christmas tunes we hear during this time? I did recently, and I was amazed at the theological depth to them that is severely lacking today.
Today, what are Christmas songs mostly about? Presents, family, joy (whatever that means), magic and love. Now I’m not against any of these things, but as I said already, one of the great dangers that have plagued mankind since the Fall is the lukewarm steadiness of empty tradition. God calls us to uphold good religion, and to be people who observe His will (as we see in the Ten Commandments), but He also calls us to beware of the subtle trap of mundane religious activity.
The Two Errors of Empty Tradition
There are two dangers that follow from this. One, it causes us to perform actions out of rite, or out of ceremonial obligation, rather than out of a deep, heartfelt conviction. This kind of activity is constantly ridiculed throughout Scripture. One such example I will quote here:
“What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?”, says the LORD. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed cattle; and I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. When you appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies–I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.”Isaiah 1:11-15 (ESV)
In the opening chapter of Isaiah, God rebukes His own covenant people for what? Empty religious practices. What we must be careful to recognize here is God is not rebuking religion altogether. Religion is the practice of rites and rituals to the service of God, or a god. We all participate in this to some degree. Every human being has a god, and they pay their respects to that god in some way, found in their lively activities. Christians who participate in the Lord’s Supper, baptism, church, and service are in religious practice towards their God, Christ Jesus. So what’s the issue, then? I detail this dilemma more in this article here, but for now, what we have to be careful for is not to fall into the errors of legalism and antinomianism.
What’s being rebuked here is ceremonies that are empty of the thing that makes them meaningful, which is God and His gracious covenant with His people. God’s people believed they didn’t need to turn from their sinful ways, so long as they had His sacrificial laws whereby they can simply kill a few clean animals to absolve them of those sins. God’s ritual laws became not something that we participate in so as to reflect upon what He has done for us, but rather an exploit to simply get out of jail. This is the first danger, and yes, it carries with it eternal damnation if we are not careful for it.
The other danger follows from the first, and that is the tendency to add to what has been given. Church history is filled with additional traditions and rituals that Christians are to continuously go through; rituals that often even replace or completely overshadow the ones prescribed by Scripture. Jesus addresses this issue directly:
“But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”Mark 7:7 (ESV)
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for the Corban rule, which absolved one the responsibility to support or assist his parents for the sake of piety to God towards the Jewish institution (such as service to the temple, for example). How the Corban rule came into practice, I’m not entirely certain, but with our own western history, we can guess that most likely this human tradition came into existence from human leaders of the religion attempting to solve issues, not by turning to the will of God found in Scripture, but by practical solutions through philosophical argument. This kind of solving of problems has gotten the church into all sorts of trouble, creating the debacle of the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox issues, all of which stem at the pinnacle rise of political dominance of Christianity in the world during the fourth century, to the eleventh. Tradition upon tradition added and added because the leaders of the institutions founded by the Apostles did not look directly to Scripture for truth, but to their own abilities to solve problems.
These two errors have allowed us in our modern Christmas context to firstly become mundane in the meaning of Christmas, and then to add more and more and more traditions that so cloud the original, and simple meaning, that we don’t even know up from down anymore. For example, how did the great Saint Nick–a real patron and godly man, who punched an Arian at Nicaea, become this fat, jolly old man with a white beard and, quite frankly, a ridiculous red suit with flying deer, one of which has a glowing nose? Where did we go wrong? There’s really no one single point; there was just empty tradition becoming mundane, and needing to be spiced up more and more.
As a result, we’ve forgotten the true purpose of Christmas, even when we give the right answer to the question about its meaning. We say one thing, and that’s where the tradition carries us, but in our hearts, what’s really driving our love? Before I answer that question, I want to dive into the true purpose of this day.
Peace on Earth; The Savior Cometh
It was no coincidence that my personal studies of Scripture have just recently taken me across Isaiah 9, which I spent a few days in, and it was a wonderful time of enlightenment that helped me reflect on the whole reason for Christmas. But before we do, let’s go to the point of Scripture where everything went wrong, and which required the need for the hope we find in Isaiah 9.
In Genesis 3:6, Eve begins the chain reaction that plunges the whole creation into the agony of death when she takes the fruit she was not to take. Then she hands it to her husband, Adam, who is the Steward head of the covenant with God. When Adam sins, the damage has been complete, and from that moment on, he passes all his shame, all his corruption, his broken covenant onto his seed through Eve: the terrible moment that shattered this perfect and beautiful relationship with God, causing death enter the world. All suffering, all pain, all evil is traced back to this one event. From here on, men would covet, hate one another, and tear each other to pieces. Wars, disease, famine and tragedy strike upon all, and such tragedies drive sinful men into greater degrees of sin towards one another in an endless cycle of misery thrust upon us. It is, as the Psalmist says, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” that we now live in.
But in Genesis 3, just as the clouds came over the clear skies, God gives a glimpse of hope:
The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life; And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”Genesis 3:14-15 (ESV)
In this strange, cryptic text, it’s easy to become confused, but what we see here is a prophecy of hope. Firstly, what we see is that God’s curse includes a description of “seed”. Scripture throughout uses the description of vineyards, vines, trees, and seed to illustrate life, and the source of it. In this case, the “seed” of the Serpent is death and curse, and the “seed” of the woman is a seed of hope, given in the second-to-last clause of verse 15. The “He” will bruise the Serpent on the head, while the Serpent shall bruise “His” heel. Who is the “He”? Is this the people of God in the New Covenant made in Christ’s blood? Or is it Christ Himself? I think both are true, but the ladder truth gives rise to the former.
This is a curse that God has placed on man as punishment for this transgression. The seed of the Serpent reigns over the world, creating death and sin at every turn. But what we see here is God’s promise that while we will be bruised by the seed of the Serpent, man will ultimately defeat him, or shall we say, one man will? That man of course is Christ who “shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil),” (Hebrews 2:14, NET). When we are then baptized into this death (Romans 6:1-4) we are given the victory through Him.
Hence, the Old Testament from Genesis 3:15 is looking forward to this one Messiah who would fulfill this promise, this great hope. For thousands of years, this hope is what God’s people had, when God would put an end to death. Until then, would remain great suffering and great misery, with wars, and blood spilled over the pride of cruel mankind. This is what Isaiah prophesies in chapter 9, beginning with verse 1:
But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.Isaiah 9:1 (ESV)
In its historic context, Isaiah is speaking of the coming Assyrian invasion. The Assyrians were a pagan, barbaric nation, coming to plunder Israel, and by the will of God, due to Israel’s sinfulness, Assyria would have her way; she came down from the northeast, and inflicted some of the most severe devastation on these areas in Galilee. Is this the end? Not so:
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.Isaiah 9:2 (ESV)
Isaiah prophesies that this humiliation that the land of Galilee will endure is only temporary, and in fact, just as they were the first to be torn apart by Assyria, so to would they be the first to see a light of hope, and over 700-years later, Matthew says this prophecy was finally fulfilled in the person of Jesus:
Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth He came to settle in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “The land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–the people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a Light had dawned.”Matthew 4:12-15 (ESV)
Matthew sees Jesus as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and therefore in him a greater thing had come than what even Israel had imagined. The original belief that Messiah had come simply to free Israel from her surrounding enemies (pagan nations) was miniscule in comparison to what God had in store in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It was the freedom from the misery of the enemy of death and sin, surrounding us at every turn, and holding us in its cruel bondage. This is the true gospel, the good news from God, which is only found in that Light, the Light of the World (John 1:4-5).
In Isaiah’s day, before the Incarnation, no one could truly understand what he was talking about, and perhaps even the prophet himself couldn’t fully understand. All he and they had was the promise of God that somehow, one day this evil would be no more. Our toiling and suffering would cease, and death and war between men and brothers would end. It is in the man of Jesus that this hope is found when Isaiah further says in chapter 9:
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forever more. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.Isaiah 9:6-7 (ESV)
This is the famous messianic passage describing the Christ, who is given these extremely important titles. Let’s go through the passage and speak more specifically about the meaning. Firstly, we see that “the government will rest on His shoulders”. How often do you hear your Christian minister speak of Jesus as being a great Leader, not simply of your little or big church, but of the institutional government of the world? We call Him King, but what do we mean? Over our hearts? Not according to Isaiah. This Messiah is King over the world; the world is His dominion, not simply my heart. And this King rules and reigns over every single inch of it.
Now we come to a list of titles given to Him. Let’s go through each one:
- Wonderful Counselor: “Extraordinary Strategist” or “One with great, miraculous plans”. Ever heard Jesus described as a Master Strategist? If He’s God over the universe, and sovereign over all time and space, and He accomplishes all His desires through and despite the desires of men, He has to be! That’s who our King is, a brilliant Strategist, and most Excellent Counselor–wise in all that He does.
- Might God: Likely what Isaiah means here is akin to a representative of God, given he lived in a pre-Incarnation/trinitarian context. This does not diminish the deity of Christ by any means. On the contrary, it points us even more so to him, since the NT does identify Jesus as God; what we have here is the hypostatic union–truly God, truly man, and our King therefore being a man, is nevertheless “Immanuel” (God with us).
- Everlasting Father: This isn’t calling Jesus the Father, and sadly, this has led to so many well-minded Christians getting caught up in modalistic concepts (the idea that Jesus is the Father). Once again, Isaiah lived in pre-trinitarian days, and therefore had no categories to distinguish between Father and Son in any sense. Father here is speaking of a great, divine protector, which the Messiah is. He is the eternal protector of His people, and hence is often called “Father” of us, in this sense.
- Prince of Peace: With all the previous titles described, it is natural for Isaiah (though perhaps not deliberate) that he concludes that this Messiah is the Prince of Peace. That is, his duty and goal is peace, not destruction, and he will achieve this through his counsel, his wisdom, and his paternal duty. He will not start wars, but end them, and with his people and subjects looking to him as their great hope, peace is achieved at last. They no longer war with each other, no longer thirst for power, because power has been placed in its rightful position, with the Messiah. There is therefore no more need for bloodshed, but now for the great feast. Peace at last!
This it the great future Isaiah prophesied, and the New Testament identifies is found in Jesus. This is the peace of the gospel, and the message that we are to bring to the world. The Incarnate Son coming into the world is therefore the great hope of man, the one hope to cling to in the midst of the chaos. You may say that we have by no means found this, even after Jesus came. That’s because the Kingdom, while it is real and present in this world, has not been fully consumated. When the disciples ask when Jesus will restore the throne of David, Jesus responds:
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”Acts 1:7-8 (ESV)
If you read the last chapters of all four gospels, the consistent message Jesus is sending his disciples is that God has indeed fixed a day for the full consummation of the kingdom, but we are not to know this. What he commands of us is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). We bring good tidings to the world, that we have peace with God, through Jesus Christ. If we would turn and recognize him as the true king of the world, then we would see no more need for wars and hatred. It would all cease. This is why the gospel is the message that everyone needs to hear, not simply drug addicts, or adulterers, or the sick. All men need to hear this message, repent, and believe, before it’s too late, either by death, or by His untimely coming.
The Light of the World; The Heart of Christmas
This is the great Son whom Saint Nick defended, albeit with less than civil manner when he struck an Arian at Nicaea. If, as the Arians were saying, Jesus was simply a lesser god, created by God, how can he be all these things Isaiah said he was to be? It was impossible, and that Jesus was going to bring no peace, no salvation to anyone, since that Jesus was not the everlasting God to bring everlasting peace. This is the Christ to whom we look to and hope for. This is why the search for the Northern Star was so vital for the Wise Men. They were looking for that one hope that Isaiah spoke of, hundreds of years before their time. And there he was, in a manger. What joy shall fill our hearts! God has kept His promise! To bring peace to us, in the life, death and resurrection of the King, who died, bringing death to the eternal grave for all His people, and rising to bring eternal life to them.
And God did this sheerly out of grace. You may ask why God inflicted such cruel punishment on us in the Garden of Eden with the curse that led to billions of deaths that continue to mount. But my friends, that was immeasurable grace. God ought to have wiped Adam and Eve off the face of the earth, sent them and their seed into eternal death forever, but He didn’t! Instead, He showed His grace–grace which is entirely de-merited favor; nothing you nor I do or have done invokes God to love us more or less. It is all by the sheer goodness of His grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is this grace that led Saint Nick to be the man he was, giving gifts to children in need, and doing so in secret so that his deeds would not make him famous. Because Saint Nick saw this as his way of showing God’s love to them, and he wanted them to see God working in him, not simply Nick’s being a good guy.
But what has gift-giving become? We’ve taken this dear saint, and this wonderful thing he did for needy children, and spoiled ourselves with it. Gift-giving has become compulsory, obligatory; if you don’t give anyone a gift, you’re heartless, mean, selfish and Grinchy. We’ve fallen for legalism, instead of fallen into the arms of grace. I’m not saying don’t give gifts, just like God’s rebuke of Israel is not Him saying they cease the law. It’s calling us to remember what lies at the heart of the tradition. This is what lies at the heart. It’s not a beautiful Christmas tree, though that’s great. It’s not stockings, it’s not a big fat man in a red suit; it’s not the gifts, nor is it the jingle bells. It is the Light of the World, and what He has done for us, who came not because we were worthy of His grace, but by the sheer power of His will, and His love for us that begins and ends with Him, and it is found only in that little child in the manger.
So please remember, my friends, what this whole thing is truly about. Never let the tradition of Christmas in 2020 overcome the simple gospel message that lies beneath all the decorating, the gift-wrapping and music. Open your Bibles and see Who it is we celebrate, and why, letting that one true gift, the gift of the gospel of redemption and peace with God through Christ sink into your heart of hearts, and move outward to show to others, just like Saint Nick did. Merry Christmas!