On behalf of our entire church family, I hope you had a Merry Christmas. What a joy it is to celebrate the first coming of Christ as the virgin-born Child in a manger and to know that He will soon come again as a conquering and victorious King! I also want to wish you a very Happy New Year and pray that God will do great things in your life during 2020. I am currently enjoying a little down time this holiday season, resting and preparing for the months ahead, and will resume my regular blog postings on January 12. Until then, enjoy the break and God bless you!
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” - Luke 2:10-11
It’s Christmas time again! This is the season when we remember and celebrate the miraculous birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But some Christians wonder, should we? Although the exact origin of Christmas and many of its traditions remain obscure and somewhat unknown, it likely began as the replacement of or substitute for a pagan holiday. Yikes!!! That doesn’t sound good...
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival held in mid-December to honor the god Saturn. It was originally characterized by all sorts of sinful and disgraceful customs. Sadly, these immoralities made the celebration wildly popular among the people. When the Roman Empire later adopted Christianity as its official religion during the 4th century AD, many of its citizens wanted to continue the annual observance of Saturnalia. In order to appease them to some degree, the church consented to their wishes but changed the celebration’s name into “The Feast of the Nativity”. The church also designated the final day of the feast, December 25th, as the birthday of Jesus Christ (though this date is probably inaccurate). It hoped to Christianize the holiday and make it more wholesome and virtuous.
Over time, the observance of Christmas has evolved from its early pagan roots. Most people who celebrate Christmas today have never heard of Saturnalia or even know what it is. The once close association between the raucous Roman festival and the Christian holiday has long since faded away. Unfortunately, there are millions of nonbelievers today who still celebrate Christmas without recognizing and joyously memorializing the birth of Jesus. To them, it is seen as merely another secular holiday. Even they, however, are not paying homage to or worshiping the mythical god Saturn. Thus, the modern celebration of Christmas - even among non-Christians - has nothing to do with ancient practice of Saturnalia.
That said, should we as Christians celebrate Christmas knowing its background and likely emergence from a pagan holiday? By doing so are we giving credence to heathen practices or endorsing false worship? This is the central issue of today’s sermon titled, “Should Christians Observe Christmas?”
I. GOD COMMANDS HIS PEOPLE TO CELEBRATE & MEMORIALIZE IMPORTANT EVENTS
In the Mosaic Law, God commands the people of Israel to observe certain annual feasts and festivals for historic, agricultural, and/or religious reasons (Lev. 23). Passover is an annual reminder of how God delivered the Hebrew children from bondage in Egypt. It is followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of First Fruits. Pentecost celebrates the end of the grain harvest, and is also called The Feast of Weeks. The Day of Atonement is when the High Priest makes sacrifices on behalf of the nation. It is preceded by the Feast of Trumpets and followed by the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths). All of these observances are prescribed by God in the Old Testament.
On the night of His arrest, Jesus instituted an ordinance for the Christian church to follow called the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:22-25, etc). He blessed the bread and wine, comparing it to His body and blood, and the disciples partook of it. Jesus commanded them to observe this supper regularly, as a memorial to His sacrificial death on the cross and a proclamation of His imminent return. Though He did not name a specific date on which to observe it, clearly Jesus was not opposed to marking special occasions with ceremonies and celebrations.
God is not opposed to observing holidays. In fact, He actually endorses the practice of celebrating and memorializing important events. That said, the birth of Jesus Christ is one of the most momentous occasions in human history. It is certainly worthy to be remembered and celebrated by people everywhere!
II. GOD IS ABLE TO REDEEM THAT WHICH IS SINFUL AND MAKE IT GOOD
Since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, mankind and all of creation has been placed under a curse. This curse is the just result of sin. The earth itself and all of nature has become corrupted. This is evidenced in numerous ways by hurricanes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and numerous other natural disasters. This world is plagued with famine, pestilence, and disease. Creation is fallen and longs for redemption (Rom. 8:22). One day, God will restore it with a new heavens and new earth.
Because of Adam and Eve’s sin, all people are born with a sinful nature. As a result, every person sins and falls short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Everyone has gone astray and is deserving of God’s judgment. People are, in and of themselves, wicked and detestable in the LORD’s sight. But still He loves them, and His Son sent Jesus to die in their place for the remission of their sins. Those who accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior receive forgiveness for their sins and are made righteous in God’s sight. This is the primary reason Jesus came to earth - to redeem sinful men and reconcile them to God.
God is in the restoration business. He masterfully takes that which has been tainted and defiled by sin and redeems it. The LORD delights in making broken and shattered things whole again. He changes the worthless into the priceless. Jesus brings the dead to life. He makes old things new. He illuminates the darkness of this world with glorious and brilliant light. Surely God is able to transform a holiday from its immoral origins into something beautiful, holy, and good. Perhaps by doing so, He gives it an even greater meaning...
III. GOD IS CONCERNED ABOUT WHY WE DO THINGS, NOT JUST WHAT WE DO
There are many activities specifically named in the Bible as sin. These are actions that violate God’s holy standards and commands. There is no rightful or justifiable excuse to engage in these types of behaviors. They are always wrong. They include such things as idolatry, murder, stealing, and adultery. However, many of the things people do are not specifically categorized as either right or wrong. Often times, the determining factor is not the act itself, but rather the reason for doing it.
Most behavior begins in the heart and mind. A person’s deeds are merely an external expression of inward motivations. God knows and judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12). He is often less concerned about what a person does and more concerned about why they do it. For example, the practice of one’s spiritual gifts becomes meaningless if not motivated by love (1 Cor. 1:13). Obedience should always be accompanied by a proper attitude. God isn’t necessarily pleased solely by one’s actions, but rather the condition of their heart.
With this in mind, why do most Christians celebrate Christmas? What compels them to do so? Why do they spend countless hours decorating and preparing for this special day? Is it to worship a pagan god or revel in sinful behavior? Absolutely not! Rather, they wish to pay tribute to and memorialize Jesus’ miraculous birth. The Christian traditions and customs of Christmas are all meant to express, in some form a fashion, praise and worship to the Newborn King. This seems to be a pretty noble motivation.
In the end, the Bible neither commands Christians to observe Christmas nor forbids them from doing so. Therefore, they are free to celebrate it or not celebrate it in keeping with their own conscious (Rom. 14:5). In either case, they should not condemn or disparage others who choose differently than they do.
Here are 3 truths or principles that lend support to those who wish to celebrate Christmas:
“At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon.” (John 10:22-23)
I believe it is important for Christians to have a general knowledge of and appreciation for Jewish history. We can learn much about God and His character by carefully examining His relationship with the Jews. This is why we should study and be familiar with the Old Testament. Christianity was birthed out of Judaism, and almost all of the saints we read about in the Bible were Jewish - including our Savior Jesus Christ! Many of our Christian doctrines take on a richer, fuller meaning when understood from a Jewish perspective.
This time of year, during the holiday season, many Christians falsely assume that Hanukkah is simply the Jewish rendition of Christmas. However, the Jews as a whole do not believe that Jesus was and is the Messiah. Why then would they memorialize His birth? That doesn’t make much sense. If it isn’t a variation or alternative of Christmas, then what exactly is Hanukkah?
In this morning’s message, we are going to discover the origins of Hanukkah. How did it begin and why is it recognized? We will also briefly consider a passage in the New Testament in which Jesus teaches in the temple during the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.
I. THE INTERTESTAMENTAL PERIOD
There is a gap of approximately 400 years between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. We call this the Intertestamental Period. The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah originated during this era. This explains why there is no mention of it in the Old Testament, yet we see it being observed by the Jews in Jerusalem during the earthly ministry of Christ. The festival known as Hanukkah was only a few hundred years old when the Gospels were written.
At the end of the Old Testament, somewhere around 400 BC, the Persian Empire ruled over the remnants of Israel. It was the Persians who had defeated the Babylonians, and subsequently allowed several groups of Jewish exiles to return to their homeland under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah respectively. In 332 BC, the Persians were toppled by Alexander the Great and the land of Israel became subject to Greece. Alexander allowed the Jews to continue their religious practices, but forced them to adopt the Greek language, laws, dress, and other customs. This assimilation was called hellenization and it persisted in the centuries that followed.
Following Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BC, the Greek Empire split between its 4 leading generals who dueled fiercely with one another for a piece of the pie. Ptolemy took control of Egypt and annexed the disputed area of Judea/Israel. Meanwhile Seleucus reigned over Syria and the surrounding regions. The Ptolemies maintained dominion over Israel for about 120 years despite ongoing attempts by the Seleucids to take it. Finally, in approximately 200 BC, King Antiochus III of Syria conquered the region and the Seleucids took control.
Up until this point, the Persians, Greeks, and Ptolemies had all allowed the Jews to continue exercising their religious customs and traditions pretty much as they saw fit. This religious freedom came to a sudden end when the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes ascended to the throne. He began severely persecuting the Jews. He outlawed their religious practices and laws, ousted their priests, installed his own priests, and desecrated the temple with pagan worship and unclean animals. In 168 BC, under the king’s order, a pig was sacrificed in the Jewish temple to Greek god Zeus.
This brazen act of defilement was too much. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his 5 sons mounted a rebellion. For several years they engaged in guerilla-warfare against the Seleucids and any sympathetic Jews who were complicit with their pagan practices. When Mattahias died, his son Judas Maccabeus took charge of the resistance. He became known as “the hammer” and is regarded by the Jews as one of the greatest military heroes of all time. When he too died a few years later, his other brothers continued the fight.
In the winter of 165 BC the Maccabees successfully regained control of Jerusalem. They cleansed the temple and held a joyful ceremony to rededicate it. In the years that followed, they gradually drove the Seleucids (Syrians) back until they finally relented and agreed to a peace treaty. In approximately 153 BC the nation of Israel became semi-independent once again under the rule of the Maccabees. This independence continued until 63 BC when Pompey of Rome conquered the entire area. The Romans were still in control of Israel (consisting of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee) when the New Testament began.
II. THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS
The Hebrew word hanukkah means “dedication”. The celebration of Hanukkah commemorates the liberation and rededication of the Jewish temple during the Maccabean Revolt. It begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The exact date changes each year on the Gregorian calendar, but always falls some time in either late November or December. For this reason Hanukkah is often associated with the Christian holiday Christmas.
According to tradition, after the Jews regained control of Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt they decided to rededicate the temple to the LORD. For about 3 years, while the Seleucids dominated the city, the daily sacrifices and other procedures had been halted. This included the continuous burning of lamps in the Holy Place. Under normal circumstances the Jewish priests would tend to these lamps in the morning and evening of each day, trimming the wicks and adding oil as needed to keep them burning.
After they had cleansed the temple by removing all pagan relics and elements that had been placed there, they began this rededication ceremony. They reinstituted the daily sacrifices, the burning of incense, and so forth. When the time came to relight the lampstand, the Jews ran into a problem. All of the temple oil had been polluted or defiled except for 1 small jar. It was only enough to last a day or so, and it would take about a week to prepare more oil suitable for temple use. Nevertheless, the Jews relit the lamps. Miraculously, the lamps continued burning despite the small amount of oil for 8 days until a new supply was prepared.
In recognition of this miracle, the celebration of Hanukkah lasts 8 days. On this holiday the Jews use a special menorah that has 9 branches, 4 on each side and 1 in the middle. The middle branch is typically offset (either higher or lower than the others) and burns continuously. It is used to light the other branches, adding one each day until the observance is over. Jewish families place these menorahs in their windows to be seen. For this reason, Hanukkah is also referred to as “The Festival of Lights”.
III. HANUKKAH IN THE BIBLE
The apostle John describes an instance during Jesus’ earthly ministry that took place during the Hanukkah season. It was winter time and the Jews were holding “The Feast of the Dedication”, which is another name for Hanukkah. Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time, and was walking in Solomon’s Portico just outside of the main temple area. His presence there seems to suggest that Jesus recognized and observed the Jewish holiday, just as He did several others including Passover, Pentecost, and the Day of Atonement.
While Jesus was there, some Jews approached Him and demanded to know if He was the Christ. Jesus asserted His deity and chastised them for their continued disbelief. He taught that His sheep know His voice and follow Him, and that they cannot be snatched from His Father’s hand. However, these doubting Jews were not of His sheep and wouldn’t believe Him despite the convincing testimony of His good works. The infuriated Jews sought to seize Him and stone Him, but Jesus escaped their grasp and retreated to the countryside near the Jordan River. Many people came to Him there and believed.
Although Hanukkah is not commanded in the Mosaic Law and is not considered a major Jewish holiday, it is still one of their most well-known celebrations because of its association with Christmas. As we have seen in today’s message, Hanukkah has nothing to do with the baby Jesus, the manger, the angels, or the shepherds. Rather, it commemorates a great military victory and highlights an amazing miracle that took place.
During the intertestamental period God sent no new revelation to the world through the prophets. He was disgusted with His people and their religious behaviors. Yet, even during this time of silence the LORD lovingly watched over His children and delivered them from the oppression of the Seleucids. To me, Hanukkah represents God’s faithfulness to us even during those times when we can’t hear His voice.
“So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” - Luke 15:20
Over the past several months, we have systematically worked our way through the book of Hebrews. We have read many insightful passages and learned many important truths. As we have seen, the recurring and overarching theme of this letter is the superiority of Christ and His work. This morning will we finish our study of Hebrews with the 28th and final message of the series. It is titled, “A Better Greeting”.
I. PRAY FOR US (v18-19)
Before saying his goodbyes, the writer made a serious request. He asked the Hebrews to, “Pray for us.” Though he and his colleagues felt generally good about their conduct and morality, still he sought prayer that they might continue to act righteously. Good behavior today doesn’t guarantee that one won’t slip tomorrow... Living above reproach and resisting temptation is a constant and never-ending struggle. Those who think they can avoid the snares of sin without the Lord’s help and without the prayers of others are destined to fall.
Furthermore, the writer urged his Hebrew readers to pray that he might be restored to them sooner. This suggests that he knew them personally, as he deeply longed to see them again. Obviously, certain unknown circumstances were hindering and delaying him (and those with him) from returning to see these beloved Hebrews. Though he had written and sent them this instructive and encouraging letter, his true desire was come and visit personally.
I have good intentions, but a bad memory. If I don’t write something down within a few minutes, there is a good chance that I will forget it. That said, I have learned that if someone asks you to pray for them it’s best to do it right then. When somebody opens their heart, shares the difficulties that they are facing, and then urges you to keep them in your prayers take a moment and pray with them immediately. Don’t just say, “I’ll pray for you” and walk away - actually take a minute and pray right there.
II. BE BLESSED (v20-21)
As he concludes this letter, the author pronounces a blessing on his Hebrew audience. This is also referred to as a benediction. It begins with an appeal to “the God of peace”. Remember that this letter was written during a time of great persecution and suffering among Christians. Still, even in the midst of such strife, He remains the God of peace - a safe, strong refuge in time of trouble.
This great God of peace raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is described here as the “great Shepherd of the sheep”. He leads His father’s sheep, lovingly protecting them and providing for their every need (Psalm 23). Jesus called Himself “the Good Shepherd… who lays His life down for His sheep” (John 10:11).
May the God of peace who raised Jesus from the dead “equip you in every good thing to do His will”. The writer asked God to bless the Hebrews by providing for and also enabling them to accomplish His will in every way. He further requested the LORD to continue working in them to do “that which is pleasing in His sight.” This equipping and working is done through Jesus Christ, to whom all the glory is given now and forever.
Benedictions are commonly found at the end of the epistles. Such texts are often read or recited at or near the end of worship services. They are typically comforting and assuring passages of Scripture that lift the soul. Perhaps the most well known benediction in the Bible is Numbers 6:24-26 which says, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
III. HEED THIS WORD (v22-25)
The book of Hebrews is rich with theological teaching and practical instruction. The writer closes this letter by urging his readers to heed what’s been written. He stresses that they should take this message seriously, reread it as necessary, and apply it to their lives. He didn’t just write it for fun, or as an academic exercise, or even for their entertainment - No! The truths contained in this letter were to be followed closely and incorporated into their daily living.
In these final statements, the author mentions that Timothy has been recently released (likely from prison). He also states his intention to come see them in person sometime soon, and that possibly Timothy will be with him at that point. It is clear that Timothy did not write Hebrews - but he was well known by whoever did. He then sends final greetings to the leaders and saints of those to whom he is writing, and sends the greetings of those “from Italy” (this doesn’t necessarily mean they were in Italy at the time). Again, this does not conclusively reveal who either party was.
The last line of the letter says, “Grace be with you all.” This was a common expression of farewell during New Testament times. Others include, “The Lord be with you”, “Peace be with you”, or simply “Amen”. These can be seen in various forms at the end of the epistles by Paul, Peter, and John.
In the closing paragraphs of his letter to the Hebrews, the writer did 3 things. He asked for their prayers, he pronounced a blessing over them, and he urged them to heed his message. He also informed them of his plans to come visit shortly.
When I think about this, I can’t help but remember that Jesus is returning for us soon as well. We would be wise to read His words, which are contained on the pages of the Bible, and to take them seriously. By carefully applying them to our lives, we can be found faithful and obedient at His coming. Then we will receive “A Better Greeting”.
I want to conclude this study by sharing a brief and creative summary of the book Hebrews. I crafted it by using the unique titles of all 26 messages preached in this series (a few sermons had 2 parts). It seeks to emphasize the main point of the book - the greatness of our Lord Jesus Christ! I hope it is a blessing to you...
Jesus came to earth as a better messenger to proclaim a better promise of a better rest. As the divine Son of God He was and is exceedingly better than angels. As the Word made flesh He was and is far better than men - even better than Moses the prophet and better than Aaron the priest. Jesus set a better example for those seeking a better understanding of the truth. He taught that faith is better than works - that it is a better way unto salvation. Jesus ultimately offered Himself as a better sacrifice for sin, thereby establishing a better covenant in His blood. Jesus now performs a better ministry, mediating between God and man as a better High Priest. He represents a better priesthood and serves in a better sanctuary at the right hand of God. Those who accept Him as Lord and Savior will one day receive a better greeting as they enter into a better city to dwell with Christ on a better mountain for all of eternity. Therefore don’t drift away from Him, don’t doubt His teachings, don’t disobey His commands, don’t depart from His presence, don’t disregard His warnings, and don’t deny this unchanging and irrefutable truth - JESUS IS BETTER!