Christmas–to celebrate or not

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A young brother from EBA, the independent church that my father GB pastors, was taken aback when he realised that John Piper celebrates Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas. I wish to answer him in such a way that he is encouraged and God is glorified.

I have so much to say on this matter, and my mind is jammed up like a typewriter when you press several keys all at once. Let me start by stating the bad news and the good news.

christmas tree

The bad news is that:

  • the devil, let’s give him his due, has succeeded in bringing in the most convolutely interwoven confusions into the kingdom of God on earth, and
  • over the ages, we Christians have messed up every single doctrine that was ours to preach or practice, every single one.

The good news is that

  • God has done everything right to save those whom He has set apart for Himself, and
  • Satan cannot thwart the purposes of God; the gates of Hades will not prevail over the true church of God.

So we can approach any subject of difficulty with boldness and joy.

The world celebrates Christmas as a holiday to spend with family. It is a time of much commercial activity. Christmas balls, alcohol, gifts, family, Santa clause, Christmas trees, decorations, snow, carols, music, laughter, feasts, mistletoe, heartache, nostalgia, excitement, and Christmas cards; some of these things are good. In south India, the list must include late-night carol singing, achu-muruku, Kanchipuram silk, kal-kals, plum cake, lighted cardboard stars hanging outside houses and on trees, and biriyani. From what I remember of Christmas in Delhi, Chrysanthemums play a big part. In Auckland, Christmas in The Park is a big event, and Christmas parades on the streets are not uncommon. Somewhere in all this commotion, some remember that Jesus, the God of the Christians, was born in Bethlehem in a stable and laid in a manger.

Christians deal with Christmas in one of the following ways:

a. Participating in worldly x-mas celebrations in every way like their non Christian counterparts, attending balls and enjoying drinks with their mates and so on.

b. Very devoutly, for the most part, remembering the nativity part of the redemption story– how God came to live among us and died to redeem us.

c. Celebrating it as a cultural occasion to spend with family. Christmas brings with it many family traditions, memories, feelings of nostalgia, etc.

d. Lamenting the terrible affront the celebration of Christmas has become to the name of Christ. Sometimes using this as an occasion to shake traditional people to take a look at their commitment to the Lord.

e. Realising the great potential this season affords for evangelisation and sharing the gospel with non Christian friends.

Godly people have taken positions b, c, d, or e or a combination of these.

Below are the views of my father GB, John MacArthur, and John Piper. All these men think differently and they all want to do what brings glory to the Lord.

My father GB’s views:

Some reasons why Christmas should not be celebrated are:

  • Nowhere in the Bible is there any instruction that His birth should be commemorated or celebrated. Instead there is specific instruction that His death should be proclaimed in a very special way: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes”, 1 Cor 11: 26.
  • God in His wisdom may not have wanted people to picture Him as a baby.
  • Loving Him means that we keep His commandments (and not adore Him or the Xmas baby sentimentally).
  • Christmas allows for idolatry; pictures of Baby Jesus on cards, and little dolls in crib scenes are not uncommon.
  • In the puritanic England the observation of Christmas was forbidden by an act of Parliament in 1664; (However) Charles II revived the feast (the celebration) (in order to please the influential non Puritanic liberal Christians in the Parliament). Ref: Encyclopedia Britannica
  • It was a festival introduced by the Roman Catholic church, the church that introduced many extra-biblical practices
  • Christmas was a blending in of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice because of the liberal ruling of Pope Gregory I
  • The practice of sending Christmas cards was frowned upon by Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Amish, and Lutherans until 1900. Roman Catholics and Protestant Episcopalians were the first to adopt the custom.” Ref: Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Christ never encouraged sentimental adoration but desired inward spirituality
  • An ad of Santa flanked by two beautiful women and other ads like that are more normal in the media than anything remotely spiritual. Santa Clause has a more central place in the celebrations than the Lord.

View of John MacArthur (From Tony Capoccia’s Bible Bulletin Board)

John MacArthur, I believe, would agree with everything that GB says, but would prefer to “capitalize on people’s sensitivity toward Christ at that season.”

You asked about Christmas; I’ll tell you about Christmas.

In the early Greek periods, December was the month of orgies and feasts and festivals to the gods. It was the time of the feast of Saturnalia. The winter was coming, and they wanted to appease the gods, that they would survive the winter and they would see the spring and all of this. So these tremendous pagan festivals to Saturnalia and to many other deities were held in December. Now, the Constantine Roman Empire that came about in about 300 or so, after that they wanted to sort of Christianize everything, and so in approximately 450 AD the bishop of Rome decided that it would be really good if they could Christianize the festivals of December. So he determined in some kind of conjunction with the Bishop of Jerusalem that they would spot December 25 as the birth of Christ. And if they could pick December 25th as the birth of Christ, that might sanctify all of this, even though it’s highly unlikely that He was born then. They were really trying to overpower the paganism. But instead, they got a mishmash.

Mistletoe—that’s from paganism; Christmas trees—paganism; holly—basically is a rather pagan thing; Christmas cards—1864 and they were first invented by a business man who thought of a way to make money, and they had drinking scenes on them. So you can go right down the line. Saint Nicholas from Scandinavia was a saint in the Roman system who was supposed to leave things stuffed in little wooden shoes of kids who were good. This is not uncommon in Christianity.

Another illustration—just before Easter, traditionally the Christian church celebrates what season? Lent—you know where Lent came from? There’s no Lent in the Bible—none. It never appears in the Bible. It has nothing to do with the resurrection of Christ, but in ancient paganism, in the instructions of Baal and Ashteroth, and the deities of the ancients, it was believed that Tamuz or Baal—he goes by a lot of different names, Cupid, many names—but that Tamuz or Baal was killed by a wild boar, and when he was killed by a wild boar, his mother Semiramis, the high priestess of Babylonian paganism, mourned for him and cried for him for forty days, and at the end of those forty days, he was risen from the dead. So the whole concept of the forty-day mourning and going without and fasting has absolutely nothing to do with the resurrection of Christ but was an imposition on Christianity from pagan mystery religions of Babylon.

The mother-child perspective, where you see in the Roman churches, you know, the virgin or you see the pieta, the carving, this whole mother-child thing, does not come, basically, from Christianity. There’s no sentimentalization of that in the Bible, but it comes again from paganism. Semiramis, it was by the pagans, conceived her son Tamuz because she was implanted by a sunbeam. That would falsify what? The virgin birth. And after that she gave birth to her son without a human father. So that the mother-child cult really came through mystery religions of Babylon and in its pagan origin was superimposed on Christianity. And ultimately the confusion came out in the Roman Catholic system where you have Lent, which has no Biblical basis at all. In fact, that’s only one part of it.

But you know the term “queen of heaven”? I was reading a Catholic book the other day: Queen of Heaven—queen of heaven you can find in the book of Ezekiel. And the first queen of heaven was Semiramis the high priestess of Babylonian cults, the mother-child cult. Many of these features have come out of paganism and been superimposed across Christianity.

Now, that is not say we have to abandon all meaningful things. I mean, just because the world wants to mess up and confuse the issue, doesn’t mean I have to be confused about it. I could celebrate Christmas today if I wanted to, and I could celebrate it any day I want. And I can be grateful the Lord was born, or the Lord was risen from the dead, or whatever. That’s my prerogative as long as I understand the distinction. The part that I don’t think is necessary is for us to sort of just say, well, we will not do all of that. I think you miss something there. I think that if you want to honor the Lord Jesus Christ, that’s great, and if you are really good about it, you will capitalize on people’s sensitivity toward Christ at that season. I know that every Christmas season, I gear up to preach an evangelistic message, and people come to Christ because there’s a sensitivity. Plus psychologists tell us that the most depressing time of the year is the Christmas time. That’s when people are most depressed, because they’re supposed to be happy and they’re not. They look forward to all the family getting together. And the family gets together, and nobody likes each other. So there are some problems there.

But, yes, there’s no question about the fact that the systems of Babylon have been superimposed upon Christianity; there’s no question about that.

View of John Piper

John Piper has no qualms about treating Christmas as a regular church festival and preaching deep sermons about the coming of Jesus to the earth.

I could not find any material on the Net regarding what he thinks about the pagan origins of the festival.

My view about Christmas and about forbearance

Christmas holds no special memories or cultural significance for me. I am quite clear that this festival is purely traditional and not something that God has commanded the church to celebrate. However, I have found that it is a time when people in the East and in the West are open to listening to the gospel. It is also a time when the media includes the nativity story in some program or other. Rightly or wrongly, the world expects Christians to celebrate this festival; and it is easy to start a conversation with, “Do you know the real meaning of Christmas?” I believe this is what John MacArthur means when he speaks about capitalising on people’s sensitivity toward Christ at that season. Over the years, even at EBA, we have tried to respond to this season appropriately. About a decade ago, we all met together to sing our favourite carols. GB’s favourite one was ‘Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!’ Coming from a Lutheran family, and a musical one, he is painfully aware of how the distractions of the season, even the good ones, can hinder the inner man from focusing on the majesty and wonder of the Incarnation and the cross. I agree with him and I feel the same way.

In our church here in Auckland, hitherto, they had not celebrated Christmas as a Christian festival but only as a cultural one that involved giving gifts to family and friends. But people here are wondering if it would be a better witness to have a service on that day. If they should decide to have a service on that day, we will not let our personal view about Christmas come in the way. As we mature, we weigh matters better and know when to let go and when to hold on.

If you were from a Brethren assembly looking for an assembly in a new city, you have a good chance of finding one that is much like the church you just left behind. So also a reformed baptist or a reformed presbyterian. If you were from some other churches, you would not even be particular about such things. But if you are from a small independent church like EBA, it is very unlikely that there is even such a church on the face of this earth that preaches and practices everything in the way we are used to.

My father GB taught many of us all that we know in spiritual matters. His greatest gift to everyone of us is his example of boldly correcting his position on the basis of the scriptures whenever he was convinced of an error. He taught us how important it was for God’s servants to be financially independent. He has been fearless before men while being humble before his God and trembling at the word of God. What we followed in our church are good practices that he picked up from the various churches among whom he sojourned in earlier years. The Tamil hymnal that he has compiled must also be the only one of its kind for its spritual depth and good music. Rare must be the preacher who preaches an additional sermon before the partaking at the Lord’s Table week after week.

We will never find quite this combination of practices in any church. What are we going to do about it, especially when our work takes us away from the church to other cities and towns and even across the sea, as it happened in our case? Spiritual reinforcement can be sent by way of email and audio CDs, no doubt. But how long can one exist without physically being part of a local church. Until we find a good local church, we must hold fast to the umbillical cord of EBA and EBA’s GB, but side by side, we must look at other churches and learn to discern between practices and doctrines that are immutably vital and those that are not so vital. Only God can help us in this process. Those of us with an EBA background must help one another in this. We are a small number, and no one else can understand our background and the grounding that we have had in spiritual things.

To my dear EBA brethren, I introduce John Piper and John MacArthur as preachers who preach sound doctrine and who have made much of their material available on the Net. GB is familiar with John MacArthur’s books and regards him very highly. I have also sent some of John Piper’s articles to him. But just like you found the difference in the Christmas issue, you may find differences in other issues as well. Please do not let these differences discourage you, but feel free to ask Philip or myself and we would be happy to analyse the matter with you.

It is alright to have differences on several issues, but not on the main ones. Some doctrines can never be compromised; the celebration of Christmas is not one of those. Although we are not able to agree on many issues and have so many doubts, remember that for His part, the Lord saves His people perfectly and surely. Thankfully, we are saved on the basis of what He has done and not on the basis of our imperfect understanding and works, although we must take every effort to do our part well.

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