When Did Christmas Begin? (John 1:1-14)
Christmas Questions
When Did Christmas Begin?
John 1:1–14
It hardly seems possible that Christmastime is once again here, but we are now about six weeks away from the big day, and I want to spend our Sundays together trying to answer some Christmas Questions.
There are some things regarding the Christmas story that are really quite intriguing, even to those of us who study the Bible and are familiar with the details of the birth of Christ, and they really beg for some answers. So we'll be considering some questions like:
- Was Mary Really a Virgin?
- Was Jesus Really Born in a Stable?
- For what sign were the Shepherds told to look?
- How did the Wise Men Know to look for a star?
But before we look at those questions, there is another question that really needs to be answered and it's the one I want us to consider today.
When did Christmas begin?
Now the answer to that question depends upon what we mean by "Christmas".
For instance, we could answer that question
1. Historically
About the middle of the fourth century, right at the time of the establishing of the great world empire of Rome under Constantine, the bishop of Jerusalem wrote to the bishop of Rome and he asked him to determine the actual date of Christ's birth.
Well, no one knows the actual date of Christ's birth. The fact of the matter is we don't even know for sure the actual year of His birth. But the bishop of Rome sent word back to the Bishop of Jerusalem that it occurred on December 25, and by the end of the fourth century that date became the accepted day to celebrate the birth of Christ, and has remained so ever since.
Now most scholars will tell you that the bishop didn't know the day of Christ's birth because it is possible to know the date of Christ's birth. So December 25 is purely arbitrary.
But he didn't choose that date arbitrarily. In fact, he was a pretty shrewd guy and he had good reason for putting the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25.
For centuries before Christ was born, the month of December had long been recognized as a significant time of year by pagans. Many of their celebrations were held in December, in the dead of winter, as they anticipated the coming of Spring. Everything around was dark and dreary and trees were without leaves and things didn't grow. So in the midst of the deadness of winter, the pagans would conduct these celebrations to appeal to their pagan gods.
They were hoping for the return of the Sun to bring back the spring and make things grow and warm up the cold. Feasting was part of it. Parties were part of it. And a part of that was adorning houses with evergreens, again anticipating that the trees and plants would soon bloom.
They even adorned their houses with mistletoe. They exchanged gifts. There was a general merry making held at that time of the year held by the pagans, and it was all a part of their traditional annual celebrations.
So the bishop's idea was to introduce into this carnival-like atmosphere a Christian influence and to do it by celebrating the birth of Christ. After all, if we put the birth of Christ on the same day as these festivals and revelries, then we will move people away from pagan celebrations and instead cause them to think about the fact that God came into the world in a human form.
Obviously, that didn't work out to well. The pagans never missed a beat, and instead, over time the church assumed many of their practices so that today Christmas is this conglomeration of all that is distinctively Christian and biblical and all that is distinctively pagan.
For instance, the Romans had a winter festival in December celebrating Saturnalia, their god of agriculture. It was he, they said, who presided over the planting of crops. And during the time of the celebration of Saturnalia, gift giving was the most popular custom. That's where gift-giving at Christmas originated.
They used candles in their celebrations. Evergreen branches were given to friends to hang on their houses and sometimes trinkets were placed hanging on those evergreen branches, forerunners to what we know today as Christmas decorations and trees.
In the barbaric northlands of the Norsemen, a similar winter festival was held and it was called Yule, or Yuletide as we refer to it. It was in honor of the gods Odin and Thor. It involved feasting and music and drinking to drunkenness.
In Persia, fires were kindled to the god Mithra, who was believed to be the god of light. And so at this time of year, when the daylight was briefer than at other times and winter was on them, they would pray and celebrate the god of light in anticipation of the sun and the spring and summer.
In England it was the Druids who gathered sacred mistletoe during their December celebrations and they made sacrifices to their gods. To them, mistletoe was a symbol of peace and good fortune and the tradition of the Druids was, whenever an enemy passed under the mistletoe you had to embrace the enemy and seek reconciliation, hence we now have kissing under the mistletoe as a derivative of that original embrace.
We also commonly decorate with nativity and manger scenes which was popularized by St. Francis in the thirteenth century. Three hundred years after that, Martin Luther, of all people, brought a tree into his house at this season of Christmas and decorated it with candles. He said he put the candles on it to simulate the starry sky glittering over the stable where Christ was born.
But long before that, pagans had used bows of evergreens decorated with trinkets to celebrate their own pagan holidays.
In Holland there was a favorite saint by the name of St. Nicholas. This white-bearded bishop of Asia Minor was believed to have appeared around December 6 riding a white horse, leaving gifts for good children and leaving switches for the parents of bad children on the porch. The Dutch called St. Nicholas Sinterclaus, from which we get the derivative Santa Claus.
Caroling started in the fourteenth century along with jesters and musicians and mummers, which is people wearing all kinds of masks and garb, singing and celebrating. There is an annual mummers parade held in Philadelphia every year. All of that comes from fourteenth century partying.
In Holland, it was believed in that St. Nicholas, when he was dropping his switches and his good stuff on the porch, on some occasions would throw coins down the chimney, and they just happened to land in some stockings hanging there to dry. Out of that came the whole idea that Santa Claus comes down the chimney and fills your stocking.
So if we're asking "Where did Christmas begin" historically, that will give you a little bit of the road it has traveled through time.
But that's really not the question I'm asking this morning. More to the point, when did Christmas begin
2. Scripturally
To discover the origins of Christmas scripturally, our first inclination would be to go the gospel accounts and see the details of the birth of Christ.
For instance, we could turn to Luke 2, and in the first few verses of that chapter there we would find what is perhaps the most widely-known chapter in the Bible because it tells the story of Christmas.
It has been the source of songs and carols and cards and celebrations and gifts and books and dramas and pageants and sermons ever since it was recorded. It is the story of the birth of Jesus Christ when the Lord of heaven came to live on earth.
On a night like every other night in Israel, with no fanfare, no celebration by anybody, a child was born. It was a night like any other night but it wasn't a child like any other child. This child was the Lord Jesus Christ, God in the flesh come to live among men.
This birth was so monumental that it became the high point of history. All history before this birth is B.C., Before Christ. All history since is A.D., Anno Domini, Latin for "the year of our Lord."
The birth of God in human form then is the most important moment in all of history, and those first seven verses of Luke, chapter 2, in plain, simple, and clear language, describe this great event. And many would submit that this is where Christmas began.
In fact, you might even wonder if the Christmas story could even be told without those very familiar elements. What would the Christmas story be with no manger, no Joseph, no Mary, no Bethlehem, no shepherds, no angels, no star, no wise men and no baby? What would the Christmas story be?
Well, it would be John’s account of the Christmas story and it's recorded for us in the first chapter of John 1. Listen as I read the first fourteen verses.
John 1:1-14
As I read, you probably noticed that none of the traditional nativity scene is found there. There is none of what we would expect to find at the beginning of Christmas, but this is not any less the story.
In fact, this is the real beginning of Christmas. And if you think you can’t tell the story without those features, you’re wrong because that’s exactly what John does here. One line from the text that I read stands out in particular and I want us to look at that line.
It’s in the last verse, verse 14, and here is the story in four words:
“The Word Became Flesh.” That is the most profound truth of all truth. That’s why we celebrate Christmas. Not because of the physical features of a manger and a star and a young couple and shepherds and wise men. They all participate, and deserve to be mentioned.
But the real story of Christmas is that the Word became Flesh. I understand the familiar accounts of Matthew and Luke which give us all the elements and personalities and features that kind of make up the telling of the story, and all of that has its place, and over the next few weeks, we're going to look at some of that.
But far more important than understanding all of that, is understanding what was really going on from the supernatural side because there we discover where Christmas originated.
And to be honest, apart from the way Jesus was conceived and the appearance of the angels, there was absolutely nothing supernatural that took place when Jesus was born. It was all very common and ordinary and natural.
The manger wasn’t supernatural, neither was the stable, neither were Joseph and Mary, neither were the shepherds or the wise men or the manner of His birth.
But what John tells us is that there is a supernatural reality going on there, and that is the real message of Christmas. The essential truth is that God is with us. And that desire that God had to save lost humanity by coming to live among us and give His life for us was in His heart in eternity.
And all of that is contained in this little phrase: "The Word became flesh." God became a man. The infinite became finite. The eternal one entered time. The invisible became visible.
And just to underscore that reality, notice
verse 14
“And dwelt among us.” God took on human form and lived among us. In fact, for 33 years, He lived among us. He was not a dream or a Spirit or a vision. He was a human being who lived on earth.
And John wants us to know that’s what Christmas is all about. Christmas originated when in eternity, God decided to become man and live among us.
In this text, John uses three phrases that are going to help us grab hold of the fact that God has come in Jesus to live among us. Now if this sounds a little academic of philosophical, it should! After all, we are discussing the greatest theological truth of the Bible.
And frankly, I get a little frustrated by those who don't want to have to work at understanding the Bible. This is deep stuff. It will require that we keep our mind alert and our attention high. It's much deeper than a baby in a manger and shepherds coming to worship. We are now moving into the supernatural sphere of eternal God taking on human flesh and appearing as a man among humanity.
And even though the language is relatively simple and straightforward, the truth that it presents is deep and profound.
Notice, first of all, John shows us that the Word became flesh by virtue of the
- pre-existence of Christ
verse 1
“In the beginning was the Word.” Let's stop there. In the beginning was the Word. What beginning? The beginning of what? In the beginning of the beginning.
John takes his cue from Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning of everything that exists. In the beginning, when everything that exists didn't and started coming into existence…listen…the Word was.
In other words, Jesus was already in existence when nothing else was. Before everything that exists now was created, Jesus was already there. That’s what John is saying.
That means Jesus is not a created being. By the way, that's why Christmas didn't begin in Bethlehem because the baby born in Bethlehem existed before anything that now exists existed.
The word "was" describes continuous reality, which means Jesus was in continuous existence before the beginning of everything. That's important to note. John doesn’t say, “In the beginning the Word came into existence.” He says, “In the beginning the Word already existed.” There never was a point when He came into existence. And that is why the testimony of Scripture is that He is before all things. That is why He says in John 8, “Before Abraham was, I am.” He was in the beginning already existing.
Secondly, not only does he tell us of the pre-existence of Christ, but he also describe the
- co-existence of Christ
verse 1
The Word was God. He is both with God and is God. Not only is He distinct from the Father, having face-to-face communion with the Father, He is fully God as is the Father.
Paul said it this way in Colossians 2:9, “In Him, all the fullness of deity dwells.”
In eternal pre-existence, He is with God and He is God in eternal co-existence. As the Son, He is as much God as God the Father is God. The Word is not an attribute of God. The Word is not a message from God. The Word is not an revelation about God. The Word is not a creation by God. The Word is God. He is a person with God and a person who is God.
  1. again, this great truth is captured in four words in both the Greek and English languages. "The Word was God". It is the clearest and most direct revelation of the deity of Jesus Christ on the pages of Scripture.
Again, this is the heart of the Christmas story. The Eternal Word Who is God as a separate person and very God by nature and essence came to earth as a baby. The One who came into the world is God Himself, preexistent and coexistent with God.
Then there's a third very important reality that John wants us to understand. And that is not only do we see the Word's preexistence and coexistence with God, but we also see the
- self-existence of Christ
verse 4
So what do I mean when I mention the self-existence of God? Think about it like this:
Pre-existence refers to the eternal nature Jesus shares with God. Co-existence refers to His equality with God. Self-existence is talking about the essence of His nature.
Theologians have a word for this idea of self-existence and it is "aesity" and it refers to the self-existence of God. The idea is that God contains within himself the cause of Himself, the nature of Himself."
So what does it mean to say that God is self-existent? Again, John gives us the meaning in very simple words here in the text. Notice,
verse 4
“In Him was Life.”
Again, it's just four simple words, but what a powerful statement they make! In Him was life, and life in its broadest terms. Not just physical life, but all life.
So what does it mean to say that life is in Him? That is to say He didn’t receive life from any other source. He didn’t develop life from some other power. His life is self-existent life. He wasn’t given life, He didn’t receive life, He possesses it as an essential of His nature. In Him was life.
That’s why Jesus could say things like, “I’m the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” This is the truth of the self-existence of God. And I tell you, this reality concerning Jesus Christ is foundational to the Christian faith. The life that He gives is His very life!
That differentiates His life from every other expression of life. Everything that was created had to be given life or received life. When God created the world, He put life into it. In particular, with man He breathed into Him the very life of God. That means we don't have life as a part of our nature.
If you want testimony to that, look around. Everything that is created is constantly changing.
It moves and shifts and alters and changes. The best proof is to just look in the mirror or look at a picture of yourself from a few years ago.
But that's not true with God. God still looks the same as He did a million years ago! He never changes! Why? Because He is self-existent! He will never be anything other than what He already is!
Who is this Jesus, this baby born in Bethlehem? He is none other than the preexistent, coexistent, self-existent God, the Word Who became flesh and dwelt among us.”
And by the way, with life came light. Look at
verse 4
What does it mean to say that Life was the Light of men? Life is the principle, light is the picture.
The life, the preexistent, coexistence, self-existent life of God in human form in Jesus became the light of men. In other words, when He showed up, the light came on. The light overcame the darkness of ignorance; the light overpowered the darkness of sin.
By the way, when John says "The life was the light", he follows the same pattern that he used when he said, "The Word was God."
Just as God and the Word are the same, light and life are the same. The light combines with life and manifests itself.
As an illustration think of God's appearances in the Old Testament when He appeared as light. We see it with Moses and the burning bush. We see it when He showed up at the tabernacle, when He showed up at the temple, when He led them by a pillar of light during the day, and cloudy light and fire by night.
In other words, the reality of God’s life shining through His Son is just like light to a dark world. Jesus is the eternal life of God in human flesh, manifesting like light shining in the darkness of a sinful world. In fact, that's exactly what He says in
verse 5
“The light shines in the darkness, and the world had never seen anything like this". That's a literally interpretation of verse 5. The world had never seen anything like this! The light of God in the Old Testament was wonderful when it came. But it came and it went, and came and it went. But Jesus came and stayed. The light shines in the darkness. There was nothing like it and the darkness did not comprehend it.
To say that the darkness did not "comprehend" the light is better said, “It did not overcome it". In other words, the darkness was not as strong as the light. It could not overpower the light.
The light of the life of God in Jesus drives the darkness away. Even one small candle will overwhelm the darkness of a room. Darkness can’t overcome light.
So the preexistent, coexistent, self-existent God, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and all of a sudden, the light of the glory of God was shining in the midst of a dark world.
Want proof? John offers two. The first one is found in
verse 3
First, creation proves Jesus is eternal. He is God because He existed before anything existed, before time existed. And all things that came into existence, came into existence through Him and apart from Him nothing, not even one thing came into existence that has come into existence.”
He repeats it again in
verse 9-10a
He comes into the world as a light and the world was created. That’s how we know He’s God. The world was made through Him.
The second proof is a testimony of creation as well, but this time it is not material creation, but spiritual creation.
verses 12 - 13
Not only is the Word, the Lord Jesus, the Creator of the material universe, but He is the Creator of His own family through spiritual creation. He is the one who creates the material world and He is the one who creates His own spiritual family and He does it one birth at a time.
And notice how they were born: “They were born of God,” not by any human means, not by blood, that means humanity, the will of the flesh, the will of man, it can’t happen. This is a spiritual creation. That's what it means to be born from above.
And that is really when Christmas begins. It has a historical beginning, it has a spiritual beginning, but Christmas can also begin
3. Personally
When did Christmas begin? It begins every time a miraculous birth takes place! It was in the heart of God before eternity began to bring a people unto Himself.
  1. been twisted and perverted and misused down through history, but the real essence of Christmas is found every time a lost person is saved and birthed into the family.
And that is made possible only because He chose to come to this earth and take on human flesh. Through a miraculous intervention in the life of a young maiden named Mary, the Holy Spirit conceived the Son of God.
And when He was born in Bethlehem, the light came on! That light is still shining, and today, just as God took up residence in Mary, God can take up residence in you.
That means Christmas didn't begin in the manger and it doesn't depend upon shepherds and angels. It began in the heart of God and extends all the way to you. And when you give your heart to Him, just as surely as Jesus was born in Bethlehem, another miraculous birth takes place as God places His eternal life inside of you.
Lots of people believe in the manger. Lots of people believe in the shepherds and the wise men and the start and the angel. Bu the real question of Christmas is "Do you believe in the Son of God?"
In fact, in John 20 as John closes his gospel, he says, “These things that I’ve written to you, I’ve written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in His name.
John says you have to believe. He says it in chapter 20 verse 31, I just read it. But he says it right here in our text in chapter 1 verse 12, “To those who believe in His name.”
Through a new birth experience, you can be saved, and when you are, Christmas begins all over again!
And you can leave this place today singing, "Joy to the world, the Lord has come, and this little piece of earth has received Him as King and Savior!
Let's pray.
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  June 2020  
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