THE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Luke 2: 22-35
12-23-62 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. I have several preliminary comments I would like to make. First of all, from listening to people I thought everybody had left town, and I am overwhelmed by the audience here at this eight-fifteen o’clock service. The audience has hardly diminished, and to see you here on this cold Christmas morning to worship God and to honor the Son, in whose memory and out of gratitude for whose coming this nativity season is celebrated, is a gladness unspeakable. The Lord bless His faithful people.
Now my other word, preliminary, regards our service tonight. By the way, we are on television today at eleven o’clock. When I’m preaching through the Revelation, I preach the same sermon at this hour as I do the eleven o’clock hour because so many people were transferring to the eleven o’clock hour preparing to listen to the messages on the Revelation. Our auditorium couldn’t begin to hold them, so I preached the same sermon—tried to both the early and the eleven o’clock hours. Well, when I’m not preaching through the Revelation, I don’t do that. I don’t like to preach the same sermon twice. So there will be a different message delivered at the eleven o’clock hour, and you are happily invited to be here present in the auditorium, or to listen on the radio, or to watch and listen to the program on television.
Now the service tonight; twenty-five years ago in the midst of the Depression, having been graduated from the seminary, I began my ministry in a county seat town in Oklahoma. Those were dark and heavy days in unemployment, need, poverty bankruptcy everywhere. And I conceived the idea of having a service on the Sunday night before Christmas in which our people were invited to bring staple groceries and used clothing wrapped in white to be distributed out to the poor during the following weeks and months of the cold wintertime.
The service on Sunday night before Christmas was the most impossible service I ever struggled with in my life. No matter what I did, I could not succeed with it. People were not interested. They didn’t come. Their hearts were everywhere else except in the work of the Lord and the church.
I want you to know, from the first time that that was announced, I have never seen a service so used and so blessed of God and so largely attended as those white Christmas services have been for these twenty-five years since. While I was there in that first pastorate, we had a white Christmas service every Sunday night before Christmas. When I went to Muskogee, we did the same thing. When I came to Dallas, we did the same thing. It is marvelously beautiful. It is wonderfully interesting. And the program tonight will be one of those great climactic hours. I only wish our auditorium were five times as big in order that five times as many people might come and look upon it.
This year the program will center around our great, evangelistic appeal in Japan, and the dramatic presentation will concern the heart cry of Japan. I wish all the people listening on the radio could look at the decorations in the auditorium today. They are all Japanese, these beautiful, lighted Japanese lanterns, and this is just a few of the preparations made for the unusual program tonight.
Then as Brother Carter said, we’re to bring these gifts—lay them here at the feet of the Christ Child, and our monetary offering for this day will be dedicated to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions; it’ll be a great evening. They have prepared one of the most beautiful dramatic presentations that is humanly possible. And we’ll be here with a prayer in our hearts to enjoy it and to praise the Lord together.
Now if you would like to turn in your Bible to follow the message this hour, it’s in this second chapter of the Book of Luke, little further along in the passage than we read together. We shall begin at verse 22 in the second chapter of Luke:
And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought Him to Jerusalem, to present Him to the Lord;
(As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)
So they came to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord
—and this is the writ for poor people—
A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.
And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Spirit, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him after the custom of the law,
Then took he Him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,
Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word:
For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,
Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.
And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him.
And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary His mother, Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;
(Yea, and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also,)
[Luke 2: 22-35]
Isn’t that an astonishing and amazing thing? A gospel that is never mentioned at Christmas time nor ever referred to, and I can understand why. We are so enthralled with the glory, and the light, and the blessing of the celestial visitation from heaven in the nativity, in the incarnation of the Son of God, that we, I suppose unconsciously, psychologically, unwittingly, unthoughtedly, leave out of our remembrance all of the great, holy purposes that brought Him into the world—for that purpose was to die, to make of His soul a sacrifice for our sins, to offer the body God had prepared for Him upon the altar of atonement. I suppose unconsciously, not maliciously or willfully but unconsciously, we shut out of our minds that great atoning purpose that brought our Lord into the world, as we seek to fill this season of the year with the light of the glory, of the joy and gladness of the coming of the Savior into the world.
I never spoke of this in my life. I never particularly thought about it until I began to prepare the sermon for this early morning hour. Do you see what Simeon does? “And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary His mother.” Well, I would have thought, wouldn’t you, when Simeon blessed them and there held in his arms this Child of God, that he would have said some glorious, heavenly thing like the angels said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, this child, good will among men” [Luke 2:14].
No, Simeon blessed them and under the power and the revelation of the Holy Spirit of God said, “Behold, behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign” [Luke 2:34]—what sign? We’ve come to know the sign is the sign of the cross. “And for a sign which shall be spoken against. Yea, and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also,” describing here in the day of the birth of our Lord, describing the atoning death of this Son. “And speaking to His mother Mary, Yea, yea, and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also” [Luke 2:35].
Well, it’s a part of Christmas, I repeat, I’ve never heard referred to or discussed or mentioned. Yet it is the purpose of His coming into the world, and it is here in the very heart of the Christmas story. Now the sermon this morning is going to concern that redemptive purpose that brought our Lord into the world: first, the meaning of Christmas, the meaning of the birth of the Son of God to God our Father; then the meaning of that birth to Jesus the Son; then, the meaning of that birth to a lost world; and finally, the meaning of that birth to us, to you.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” [John 3:16]: the meaning of Christmas, of the redemptive coming of Christ into the world, the meaning of the incarnation to God our Father, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.”
There are endless theological discussions about whether or not God could suffer. And I suppose that most of the theologians possibly, rightfully conclude that it would be impossible for God to suffer. God is all light, and holiness, and joy, and perfection. And if God is all peace, and light, and joy, and perfection, then the corollary, then it would be impossible for God to suffer. I suppose theologians have been discussing that since the time there was a word from God for a theologian to discuss.
And I have no quarrel with the conclusion. It would be impossible for a perfect God who lives in light, and joy, and peace to suffer. But just somehow, I have always felt that if God had a heart, and if God were somebody, and if God were a person, I’ve just always felt in spite of all of the theological reasons against it, I’ve just always felt that God could suffer, that God could feel, and that God could hurt in His heart.
And I suppose, from the time that the Gospels were written, theologians have been discussing that scene on the cross when our Lord bowed His head, and the sun was darkened, and He cried in the agony of His death, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani; My God, My God, why, O why, hast Thou forsaken Me?” [Matthew 27:46]. And again I have always felt that this was an understandable and explicable human characteristic of God.
When the Son was made sin, and heaped upon Him all of the iniquity of the earth, and He died for our sins, it was more than even God could look upon without hurting, and grief, and sorrow. And the Lord in heaven turned His face away, and the light of this universe was blotted out. And in His loneliness, as a dying sacrifice bearing our sins, our Lord cried, “My God, why?” This is what Christmas meant to the Father: the offering of His Son as a sacrifice and as an atonement for our sins.
It is like this. There was a service one night in the church in which, at the close of the Second World War, they honored with a gold star the mothers who had lost a son in that battle. And after the service was over and a family was walking home, the bright and evening star shone so beautifully in the sky, and a little boy in that family, noticing it and remembering the impressiveness of that service, said to his daddy and to his mother, he said, “Look, look, there is a star shining in the sky. God also lost a Son.” This is the meaning of the incarnation to God: “For God so loved the world.”
Second: the meaning of Christmas to Jesus;
Our Lord, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery, thought it not a thing to be held onto, to be equal with God;
But made Himself of no reputation, emptied Himself, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
The incarnation, Christmas, meant to the Son of God the emptying of all of the prerogatives of deity and the bowing down before the mandates of the law. “The soul that sins shall die” [Ezekiel 18:4, 20]. And when He took our sins, He bowed Himself in the form and in the fashion of a man to die for our sins. Why as a man? Why not as God? Because God does not have a body; God is spirit. And in order for this sacrifice to be made for our sins, God must become flesh. God must become incarnate in order to be offered as a sacrifice on the atoning altar for our sins.
And that scene in heaven, when the Son of God offered Himself to come to die for our sins, is described in the tenth chapter of the Book of Hebrews: “Wherefore when He cometh into the world,” in that first Christmas, “when He cometh into the world, He saith, Sacrifice and offering Thou wouldest not, but a body hast Thou prepared for Me: In burnt offerings and sacrifice for sin Thou hast no pleasure. Then said I,” quoting the Son, “Lo, I come (in the volume of the Book it is written of Me) to do Thy will, O God” [Hebrews 10:5-7].
The sacrifice; the blood of bulls and of goats could not suffice to purge our sins away says this eloquent author in the tenth chapter of the Book of Hebrews. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away our sins [Hebrews 10:4]. Wherefore,” this eloquent author says, “wherefore God said, A body I have prepared for My Son.” And how did He prepare that body? In the womb of a virgin girl. And God fashioned it; “Wherefore the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: wherefore also that holy thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” [Luke 1:35]. Deep in the dark of this body, hidden away in the secret parts of this virgin, God fashioned in the power of the Holy Spirit a body for the Son of God. “Wherefore that holy thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” A body God prepared for Him—for what end, for what purpose? That He might be made a sacrifice for our sins.
Every animal, every victim, every sacrifice that was ever made on an altar unto God, beginning with the first sacrifice of Abel, all were types and harbingers and pictures of the sacrifice of the body of the Son of God. He was given a form. He was fashioned in the womb. He possessed an incarnation. He became flesh that He might be offered up as an atoning sacrifice to wash our sins away.
And when the believer in Jehovah God, conscious of sin, came to the sacred enclosure, leading an animal, carrying a lamb in his arms, leading a bullock or a sheep, he tied the sacrificial victim to one of the horns of the altar. He knelt down before it. He put his hands on the head of the animal. He confessed on the head of the animal the sins of his life, identifying himself with the victim. Then he slew it, and the blood was poured out, and the sacrifice was offered unto God.
What did that mean? What did that mean? That was a type. That was a picture of the body of our Lord in whose atoning death and by whose poured out blood our sins are washed away. “A body hast Thou prepared for Me. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the Book it is written of Me, in God’s Bible it is written of Me) Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God” [Hebrews 10:5, 7]. And that will was He came to die for our sins. That is the meaning of Christmas to the Son of God: He came to die for our sins.
The meaning of Christmas to the world: oh, what a change, what a new note, what a new song, what an incomparable gospel, what a marvelous celestial announcement, “And the angels said unto them, Fear not, fear not: behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people,” not just to Israel, not just to Judah, not just to those in Palestine but to the ends of the earth, to the isles of the sea. Wherever a man will turn and listen, “Behold, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, families and nations and tongues, all people. For, for, unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2:10-11].
This is the good news of the announcement of the incarnation of the Son of God to us in the world. To God the Father, suffering and hurt; to the Son of God, a body of death, of atonement; but to us, the announcement of the remission of our sins in Him, the saving of our souls in Him. “Fear not: behold, these great tidings of wonderful joy; for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, a Savior, who is Christ our Lord.” For us it is gladness, and joy, and thanksgiving, and gratitude, and glory to God for His unspeakable gift, for the love of God in Christ Jesus, for the washing of our sins away in Christ Jesus, for the saving of our souls in the Lord Jesus; for Him suffering and agony, for us glory and salvation.
Like this friend of mine who went to the hospital to see a teenage boy who couldn’t be well. And he asked the nurse if he might put his head underneath the oxygen tent and talk to the boy, for the lad wasn’t a Christian. And the nurse gave permission. And the preacher put his head underneath the oxygen tent, and he said, “Son, I’ve been told that you are aware of the fact that you will not be well. You cannot live.”
And the teenage boy said, “Yes, yes, I know.” And the preacher said, “I want to read to you out of the Book how a boy can be saved.” And he read to the boy those little simple words, “What must I do to be saved?” And the answer of God, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” [Acts 16:30-31], and as he made appeal to the boy, the boy said to my friend, he said, “Sir, is it that easy?” And the preacher replied, “Easy for you but not for Him, not for Him. It was hard for Him. It meant death. It meant the cross. Easy for us because He bore our sins away. He carried them in His own body on the tree. He paid the penalty for our wrongs. He bore the cruel judgment of God that should have fallen upon us; easy for you son, hard for Him.”
And that’s Christmas. It meant the death of the Son of God, but it means life, and glory, and joy, and salvation for us; the grand glorious good tidings which shall be to all people, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord”; joy and gladness for us.
I read this week in preparing this sermon, I read of a minister, a godly minister, who went to sleep over his Bible, preparing his Christmas message. Well, I thought, “Now that’s unusual. Preacher, get so tired preparing his sermon, he goes to sleep.” As I thought about that I thought, “Well, maybe that’s not so unusual after all. Most of them are asleep apparently, when they prepare their sermons, it sounds like.” This godly man, studying at night, went to sleep over his Bible, preparing his Christmas sermon, and he dreamed.
And in his dream, he dreamed that Jesus hadn’t come. There was no Lord. There was no Christmas. There was no Savior. Jesus hadn’t come. And in his dream, he walked through the house. There was no Christmas tree. There were no Christmas lights. There were no presents. There was no joy and no gladness. And he looked outside, and he walked out in the street, and there was no church with its spire pointing to God. He came back, walked into his library where he would study. There was no, there were no books about Jesus. He hadn’t come! And while he was looking, the doorbell rang. There stood a young fellow coming for the pastor. The mother in the home had died. And the pastor said, “Son, come in and sit down, for I have something here that will comfort our hearts before we go visit in the home.” And he picked up his Bible to turn to the blessed comforting words of Jesus. It stopped at Malachi. He held the funeral service. There was no hope. There was no resurrection. There was no promise. There was nothing but just dust to dust and ashes to ashes. And he began to weep uncontrollably and woke himself up weeping. And what had awakened him was the choir. He lived next door to the church. The choir was singing:
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem
Come and adore Him, born the King of angels
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
And the preacher began to shout and to sing. What it means to us: “And the angel said, Fear not: behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2:10-11]. It means glory, and salvation, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins to us.
Oh, I, we don’t have anything to do today, do we, but just stay down here all day. I forgot to look at the time. Let me say just a little simple word and read a Scripture about the last: what it can mean to you, what Christmas can mean to you.
He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.
But as many as received Him, to them gave He the right to become the children of God, even to them that believe on His name:
Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
When the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
[John 1: 11- 14]
When the Word was made flesh that first Christmas, when the Word was made flesh, He came to His own, and they said, “No.” But as many as will say yes; to them gives He the right to become the children of God, even to them that trust in His name. And that’s what Christmas can mean to us. We can say, “Yes, O blessed Jesus, yes, my Lord and my Savior.” Would you do that today? Is there one somebody you, today, this Christmas season day, “I’ll give my heart in trust to Jesus, and here I come. Here I am.” Or somebody you to put your life with us in the church, on the first note of this first stanza, would you come and stand by me? Would you? Would you do it now? Make it now, while we stand and while we sing.