The principles involved in this question apply to many other holidays as well, and even to birthday parties in general.
According to our text, there are two, unbiblical extremes that we, as Christians, should try to avoid regarding the celebration of Christmas and many other holidays:
One group of Christians says that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. They say that Christians, therefore, are obligated to set aside one day a year as holy, or as a holiday. These people sometimes speak almost as if it’s a sin for a person not to celebrate Christmas in some way. In this view, those who don’t celebrate Christmas are seen as “Scrooges,” and as unappreciative of the coming of Jesus to be made flesh.
The late Dr. Robert Rayburn, an OPC minister and a seminary professor at both Covenant Theological Seminary, and Knox Theological Seminary, preached a sermon on December 3, 1995, entitled, “Is Christmas Christian?” [www.faithtacoma.org/sermons/Seasonal/advent95.htm]
based on Esther 9:18-28. In that sermon he said
As I said, I have been thinking about this and have come to feel increasingly – more definitely than I did two years ago – that the celebration of Christmas is not just proper and important, but eminently biblical and necessary.
…I will say it plainly: I believe that Christmas is a biblical obligation. Its manner of celebration is not a matter of commandment, but that it should be celebrated is, in my judgment, the teaching of the Bible.
It would be utterly untrue, unfaithful to the pattern of Holy Scripture not to celebrate annually the incarnation of the Son of God! For what is perfectly clear is that the Bible never tells us to stop doing what God’s people did with God’s approval, namely, to remember his greatest works with holidays. The commandment enshrined in all of this biblical teaching is that God’s people should remember the history of salvation with great feasts and holidays [underlining original].
I believe that Dr. Rayburn, a fine exegete and Biblical scholar, has failed to take into account our text for today.
On the other extreme, we have those who say that Christmas originated as a pagan holiday that was later brought into the Roman Catholic Church. So they argue that it’s a sin, therefore, to participate in these “pagan festivities.” For example, I quote from the November, 1997 issue of Outside the Camp, in which the editor writes,
Then we come to the second most sacred day on the Roman Catholic calendar – Christmas. The following should make the point as plain as the nose on your face: The…sun-god (Mithra), who “rose again” on the vernal equinox, was born on December 25! December 25 was the day of the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar, and the Mithra worshipers designated it as dies natalis Solis Invicti (birthday of the invincible sun).... The pagan winter equinox festival of Saturnalia, characterized by merriment, evergreen trees, and exchanges of gifts, became part of Christmas, as did the occultic practices of the Nordic and Druid pagans that included Yule, ivy, mistletoe, and elves. [Marc D. Carpenter, Editor, Outside the Camp (Volume 1, No. 4, November, 1997), p. 3.]
Now I’m not disagreeing with any of those facts. I think much of what he’s saying is true. But, does the fact that pagans may have done these things in the past mean that it’s a sin for Christians today to celebrate Christmas in remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ, or to have a Christmas tree, or to give Christmas gifts?
Our Scripture text for today cautions us against “judging” one another with regard to the special remembrance of certain days. If the Bible doesn’t command us to set aside one day a year for a celebration of Christ’s birth, then who are we to make laws in addition to the Bible? And if the Bible doesn’t forbid us from celebrating the birth of our Savior on one particular day a year, who are we to call it a sin to do so?
We must never require things the Scriptures, themselves, don’t require. It’s for that reason that many churches don’t hold special worship services on Christmas Day (unless Christmas falls on a Sunday, of course). You see, since church members are required to attend all worship services of the church if they’re able, these churches don’t want to bind the consciences of those who prefer not to celebrate Christmas as a special day.
We do, however, find several passages in the Bible commanding us to celebrate and to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the Lord’s Day. And we do that every Lord’s Day as we gather for worship and every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
But there are no Bible passages that command us to celebrate Christ’s birthday, so we shouldn’t command it either!
Romans 14:10 says, “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”
So he who abstains from Christmas celebrations does so to honor the Lord. He shouldn’t be judged or called a “Scrooge” by those who do wish to celebrate Christmas.
By the same token, the “ban Christmas” group must also recognize that there are no Bible passages forbidding the celebration of Christ’s birth either. Just because Christmas isn’t commanded in the Bible, that doesn’t make it wrong!
Jesus, Himself, in John 10:23, is seen attending the Feast of Dedication in the temple in Jerusalem. That wasn’t a celebration that was commanded anywhere in the Bible. It was the feast of Hanukkah, which means, “Dedication.” This festival was only a custom of the Jews. It was purely optional, just like Christmas is optional for us today.
Hanukkah celebrated the cleansing of the temple by the Maccabees after the desolation of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. Back in 167 BC Antiochus Epiphanes marched into Jerusalem, entered the Temple, and defiled it. He set up an idol of his pagan god, Zeus, in the Temple, and he built an altar there to Zeus. On the altar, he sacrificed a pig, which the OT says was an unclean animal that the Jews were forbidden to eat. And it was certainly forbidden to bring a pig into the temple and sacrifice it!
After he sacrificed this pig on the altar, the pig’s blood was brought into the Most Holy Place where no human being was ever allowed to enter except the High Priest alone.
And the High Priest could only enter one day a year on the Day of Atonement.
So to bring a pig’s blood into the Holy of Holies was an abomination that was unheard of ever before! It was Antiochus Epiphanes’ attempt to spit in the face of the Jews and their God!
Well, after three years of Jewish guerilla warfare, the Jews finally achieved victory over their enemies. On the 25th day of the month, Kislev, 165 BC, the Maccabees triumphantly entered that defiled and half-demolished temple. They then began the process of repairing it and rededicating it to the service of God.
After this, the Jews established a holiday in commemoration of all these events. Hence the term, “Hanukkah,” meaning, “Dedication.”
Since Hanukkah celebrated the cleansing of the temple, Jesus used this celebration to call attention to Himself as the Messiah. Jesus was the true temple of God. Jesus also came to cleanse us, His church in which God dwells. So Jesus attended the celebration of Hanukkah, a holiday that was nowhere commanded in the Bible.
The Apostle Paul did something similar, in Acts 17:22-23, only there, he took not just an innocent tradition, but he took a pagan tradition, a wicked idolatry, and he transformed it for Christian use. We read, “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and observed your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”
John F. MacArthur, Jr., writes:
What was this altar to an unknown god? Actually there were many of these in Athens. Six hundred years before Paul’s time, Athens had been stricken with a terrible plague. Hundreds were ill and dying, and the city grew desperate. A famous poet from Crete named Epimenides devised a plan to pacify whatever gods were causing the plague. He went to the Areopagus and turned loose a flock of sheep. The plan was to let the sheep roam the city freely. When the sheep lay down, they were to be sacrificed to the god of the nearest temple. The assumption was that the angry gods would draw the sheep to themselves. When the sheep were turned loose, however, many of them lay down in places with no temples nearby. Epimenides decided to sacrifice the sheep anyway and erect altars wherever they lay down, just to make sure no unfamiliar deities were overlooked. Since these were nameless gods, the people simply erected altars and shrines “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” It was undoubtedly one of these altars Paul spotted. [John F. MacArthur, Jr., Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World, p. 145-146.]
So all of these altars “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” were pagan symbols of idolatry!
Paul then proceeded to pour Christian religious significance into those pagan symbols. In other words, he used their own pagan symbols to point to Christ! He said, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”
In a sense, we do the same thing at Christmas. The only difference is that most of the symbols attached to Christmas by the world were not originally pagan symbols at all. They were Biblical symbols.
Pagans hijacked these Biblical symbols for their own idolatrous use. But I want to make it abundantly clear: We had ‘em first! Most of the symbols of Christmas we see today pointed to Jesus Christ long before they were stolen and used to point to Mithra or Saturnalia!
Just because pagans steal symbols from the Bible to try to add power to their religions, that doesn’t mean that we, as Christians, are no longer allowed to use those symbols.
It’s true that the celebration of the birth of Christ is nowhere commanded in the Bible. But Christ’s birth is certainly an appropriate thing to celebrate, since the Bible, several times, calls special attention to Christ’s birth as a great blessing from God. God became man to save men from their sins! What more reason to celebrate do we need than that? So the birth of Jesus Christ certainly gives us all cause for rejoicing and for celebrating!
Add to this the fact that birthday celebrations, in general, are never frowned upon in Scripture.
In Genesis 40:20 we read, “Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials.”
In Mark 6:21 we read, “On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.”
These passages show that celebrating birthdays is nothing new to our day and age. Granted, Pharaoh and Herod were unbelievers, but I believe that Christians also celebrated birthdays.
Many Bible scholars tell us that Job 1:4 is referring to birthday celebrations. The KJV reads, “And his [Job’s] sons went and feasted in their houses, every one his day; and sent and called for their three sisters to eat and to drink with them.”
That phrase, “every one his day,” is most likely a reference to their respective birthdays. We see similar language used a little later, in Job 3:1-3 where we read, also in the KJV, “After this opened Job his mouth, and cursed his day.” The NIV even translates it, “cursed the day of his birth,” because the very next verse continues, “He said: ‘May the day of my birth perish, and the night it was said, “A boy is born!”’”
So righteous Job’s sons were celebrating, “every one his day,” implying that they were probably celebrating their birthdays. So, again, the point is, celebrating birthdays, in general, is not seen as sinful in the Bible.
Given that birthday celebrations, in general, are OK, and given that most of us celebrate our own birthdays as well as those of our family and friends, what more important birthday could we choose to celebrate than that of Jesus Christ? What birthday could possibly give us more joy or more cause for celebration?
Of course, we don’t know, for sure, the exact date of Christ’s birth. We do know that our calendar today is not based on the same one that was used when Jesus was born. There is some evidence, which I won’t get into today, that has led certain Bible scholars to speculate that Jesus may have actually been born on Rosh Hashanah, September 11, 3 BC And there’s other evidence that leads some to speculate that the wise men from the East may have arrived at Jesus’ home a year and a half later, on December 25, 2 BC, bringing Him gifts. But we don’t know any of that for sure.
But so what if we don’t know the exact day of Christ’s birth?
There’s no law that says you may only celebrate something exactly on the same day that it occurred.
In our church, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day, not simply once a year at Passover on the exact day it was originally celebrated.
The fact, then, that December 25 happens to be the same day as a pagan rite is no more of a problem than the fact that October 31 happens to be the same day as a pagan rite. The ancient festival of Lemures was a pagan custom where people walked barefoot and threw black beans over their shoulders at night to exorcise the evil ghosts of the dead from their homes. Then they’d bang on bronze pots while chanting nine times, “Ghosts of my fathers and ancestors, be gone!”
The Roman Catholic Church later transformed this celebration to All Saints Day and Hallowed Evening, or Halloween. Martin Luther chose to nail his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg on that very day. And ever since, the Reformed churches have celebrated Reformation Day on that day!
The same is true of Easter. We now celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord on the same day that some pagans used to celebrate the pagan rite of Easter.
And we now celebrate Christmas on a day that pagans centuries ago used to celebrate other pagan rites.
Again I say, “So what?”
The only problem arises when people begin to get judgmental about such voluntary celebrations and remembrances.
Romans 14:5-8 says, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat [that is, meat sacrificed to pagan idols, knowing that pagan idols aren’t real gods], eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
So to command the celebration of Christmas and to prohibit the celebration of Christmas are both wrong. The celebration of Christ’s birth, just like the celebration of your own or someone else’s birth, is a “thing indifferent.”
In the evening service we’re going to examine some common Christmas customs and symbols in light of the Bible. We’ll see that many of these customs and symbols actually came directly from the Bible! Again, we had ‘em first! It was only later that Satan twisted and reshaped these customs and symbols for pagan use.
You see, holidays are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Bible. They’re “things indifferent.”
So if Christians wish to take these opportunities to rejoice in Jesus Christ and to celebrate His birth, or to celebrate His resurrection, or His ascension, or to set a day apart to thank Him for His blessings, be careful not to judge them. They’re celebrating those days unto the Lord, and they’re seeking to glorify and enjoy the Lord on those days.
And if Christians wish not to participate in any holidays because they want to put more focus on that one, special day that is commanded in the Bible, the Lord’s Day, be careful not to look down on them either. They, too, are seeking to glorify and honor Christ by their actions.