If Not Christmas, What?

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Jesus was not born on December 25. On the evening of Jesus’ birth, there were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Shepherds, they tell us, would not have been in the fields as late as December. It would have been too cold near Bethlehem. According to most Bible commentaries, Jesus was born in the autumn.

Why then does nearly all of the Christian world observe Christmas on December 25? And why do they do it with all the wrong symbols? There are no Christmas trees connected with the nativity of Jesus—no snow, ice, colored balls, or tinsel. Nor is there anything at all like Santa Claus.

The December 25th date for Christmas originated in Rome (see Samuele Bacchiocchi’s From Sabbath to Sunday) early in the second century and picked up the symbolism of Sol Invictus (the invincible sun) who was, in Roman mythology, born on December 25. In Northern Europe, Christmas picked up the symbolism of the Nordic gods. Santa Claus is supposed to live at the North Pole, not Bethlehem. This hybrid Christmas, powered by the commercialism of the Western world, dominates all thought about the nativity of Jesus Christ.

Christmas is of mostly pagan origin, but the nativity of Jesus is not. Nor is there anything pagan about giving gifts, especially gifts of food to the poor. There is nothing pagan about turkey and dressing and family gatherings. The Christmas tree is pagan along with all the sun symbols, yule logs, Santa Claus, and December 25.

Well, if Jesus was not born on December 25, when was He born? Although it may prove impossible to determine the date, the commentaries are right that He was born in the autumn. There is no date given in the Bible nor any commandment to observe Jesus’ birth. Nevertheless, Jesus was born, and there is something very important connected with His birth that few ever consider.

In the Bible, there are seven holidays (or holy days), and the symbolism of these days touches nearly everything of significance in God’s plan for man—and in the ministry of Jesus. Most assume that these are merely Jewish holidays and are of no significance for Christians. Imagine their surprise when they find every one of these days point directly to Christ and His work. The mystery is that the greater part of the Christian world ignores these days while observing holidays that have no connection whatever with the Bible.

Four of these holy days occur in the autumn of the year. The first is the Feast of Trumpets, also called Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year. The trumpets in question turn out to be the seven trumpets of Revelation (Revelation 8:2), the last of which signals the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead (1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15). The second holy day in the autumn is the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. This is the day when the High Priest went into the holy of holies to make an atonement for the people (Leviticus 16). Since Jesus is the high priest for Christians, the connection is plain.

The third and fourth autumn holy days (the Feast of Tabernacles and the Last Great Day) compose an eight-day festival of great importance. Superficially, the festival season is nationalistic and of narrow significance. Here is the way Israel was to keep the feast and what it meant:

Speak to the children of Israel, saying, The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days to the Lord […] on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath. And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days […] Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 23:34–43

Note the distinction that it was only those who were Israelite born who were to build the booths (tabernacles). For the Israelites, this festival had to do with the period of time when they camped in the wilderness on the way to the promised land.

None of this seems to have much to do with Jesus Christ, but that is not all there is to the Feast of Tabernacles. The narrow, nationalistic application is transcended by a higher, more permanent meaning of the festival. For example, this festival will become a festival for all men.

And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. And it shall be, that whoever will not come up of all the families of the earth to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, even upon them shall be no rain. And if the family of Egypt shall not go up, and shall not come, that have no rain; there shall be the plague, with which the Lord will smite the nations that come not up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. This shall be the punishment of Egypt, and the punishment of all nations that come not up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.

Zechariah 14:16–19

Not only will the Feast of Tabernacles be for all men, God will impose discipline upon those who do not observe it. Now plainly the feast will not have the same significance to Egyptians that it had to Israel. There must be a broader meaning for this festival. What is that broader meaning, and what does this festival have to do with Jesus Christ?

The idea behind the Feast of Tabernacles is much older than Israel and the Exodus. Form the time Israel left Egypt, they were not at home. They were strangers and pilgrims who were bound for the promised land. This land was originally promised to Abraham, who spent his entire life as a stranger and a pilgrim even when he had arrived in the land.

For Abraham, it was an act of faith. When God called him to leave his home, he left without knowing where he was going. He spent the remainder of his life living in tabernacles (tents, or temporary dwellings, Hebrews 11:8,9).

In doing this, Abraham and his family made a confession:

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.

And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from which they came, they might have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for He hath prepared for them a city.

Hebrews 11:13–16

So for all men in all generations, to keep the Feast of Tabernacles is to confess that they are strangers and pilgrims in the earth. That they seek a better country—the Kingdom of God. Even the apostle Paul picks up the theme:

For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our house which is from heaven.

2 Corinthians 5:1,2

Paul’s wording falls strangely on the ear. What does he mean by our earthly house of this tabernacle? And what sort of house not made with hands could he be talking about? Looking back into chapter 4, it becomes clear that the earthly house of this tabernacle is the physical body of man:

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man is wasted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16–18

Physical man is temporal. His body is like a tabernacle. We and all the things around us are perishing day by day. The Feast of Tabernacles is a confession of the temporal nature of man.

But what does the Feast of Tabernacles have to do with Jesus Christ? This is where the story gets interesting.

When King Solomon had finished a magnificent temple for God, He dedicated it with a prayer. In that prayer, he pondered an enigma. Here was a house Solomon had built for God, but would God dwell in it?

But will God indeed dwell with men on the earth? Solomon wondered. Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built! (2 Chronicles 6:18).

That is true enough, but the answer to Solomon’s question is not what he seems to have thought. It is this: Yes, God will indeed dwell with men on the earth. That has been His intent from the beginning.

Consider, for example, the time of Israel’s camping in the wilderness. Israel was dwelling in tents. Was God with them or was He someplace else? A great leader does not leave his people living in hardship while he goes off and lives in a palace.

God decided to camp out with Israel. He told Moses to have them bring together all the materials for building Him a magnificent tent, including gold, silver, brass, and precious stones for the instruments of worship. And let them made me a sanctuary, He said, that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8). So, during all the forty years that Israel lived in tents, God had His own tent among them.

Even after Israel had entered the promised land, they erected the Tabernacle in Shiloh. God continued to tabernacle among them. When King David decided to build a temple, God had this to say:

Go and tell David my servant, Thus saith the Lord, Thou shalt not build me an house to dwell in: For I have not dwelt in an house since the day that I brought up Israel to this day; but have gone from tent to tent, and from one tabernacle to another. Wherever I have walked with all Israel, have I spoken a word to any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to feed my people, saying Why have ye not built me an house of cedars?

1 Chronicles 17:4–6

He finally allowed David’s son, Solomon, to build a temple, which moved Solomon to ponder whether God would indeed dwell with men on the earth. The world still needed a definitive answer to that question—an answer that came in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Those shepherds we mentioned earlier are an important piece of this puzzle. They were keeping watch over their flocks by night when, with no warning, they were bathed in a brilliant light and an angel stood before them and proclaimed a message of hope:

And the angel said to them: Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you ; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Luke 2:10–12

If you listen to some preachers, you might think that Jesus fell from heaven at age 30 and began His ministry full grown. They are not interested in the infant Jesus—only in the message of the Christ. But when the shepherds came to Joseph and Mary, what did they find? They found a one-day-old baby—tiny, wrinkled, with wee little fingers and tiny fingernails, no teeth, and a button nose. When He cried to be fed, He had to be placed at his mother’s breast. No doubt He was a beautiful baby, and a sweet one at that.

Why is all this important? Because of all the things we need to know about Jesus, one of the most important is that He came in the flesh. Acknowledging that there are many false prophets to be found in the world, the apostle John urged believers to try the spirits. He gave them a simple test:

By this ye know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ hath come in the flesh is from God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not from God: and this is that spirit of anitchrist, of which ye have heard that it should come; and even now already it is in the world.

1 John 4:2,3

Jesus did not come to us as a spirit being who could not be touched. John introduced Jesus as:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.

1 John 1:1

To John, it is critical that we understand that Jesus was a Person, that He was flesh, just as we are. Having established that the Word was God, and was from the very beginning with God, John goes on to explain:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt [Greek: tabernacled] among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

Jesus came down from the Father to camp out with us just as God camped out with Israel in the wilderness. So all the time that Jesus walked the roads of Palestine, He was tabernacling with His disciples. God was dwelling, temporarily, with men on the earth.

The connection of the nativity of Jesus with the meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles is easy enough to make, but it doesn’t end there. Jesus Himself told his disciples:

If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.

John 14:23

God was pleased to dwell with Israel in a tabernacle and later a temple (itself temporary). Jesus was pleased to tabernacle among us in the flesh. And God will come and dwell with us even now. If there is one thing clear in all this, it is the answer to Solomon’s question. Not only will God dwell with men on the earth, it has been His intent from the beginning and will be to the end:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.

Revelation 21:1–3

It has been God’s intent to dwell with us, but not to dwell with us indefinitely as we are. He intends to dwell with us as He is.

Beloved, wrote John, now are we the sons of god, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).

Up to now, God has dwelt with us, among us, and in us. But it is all temporary. We are flesh, we cannot see God while we are in the flesh—we cannot come into His presence until we are like Him. The Feast of Tabernacles is a confession of the temporary nature of man, and that we hope to dwell with God in a permanent form.

As for the pagan Christmas, we must say no to that. But we dare not say no to the nativity of Jesus. To do so is tantamount to denying that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. It is even nigh to denying the Person of Jesus. He said:

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.

Matthew 10:32,33

In a way, it is odd that we do not know the date of Jesus’ birth. Can there be any date in human history more important? As great as the death and resurrection of Christ are, they could not have happened unless He had been born in the flesh.

If we do not observe Christmas, when do we preach from the second chapter of Luke? When do we share the awe of a few simple shepherds as they gaze upon a one-day-old baby boy who will one day rule the world? We only corrupt the meaning of the birth of Christ with the pagan-commercial Christmas. But if not at Christmas, when? For us, the time to preach the nativity of Jesus is at that festival which reminds us that we are all pilgrims in the flesh. It is at this season that we remind ourselves that Jesus came in the flesh to tabernacle with men. If not Christmas, what? The Feast of Tabernacles, that’s what.


Author
Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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Image Credits: George Dolgikh