Who Are You at Christmas?

By Joe Holland    |    December 25, 2023

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The Christmas season, if we can call it that, marks an annual pilgrimage for all kinds of folks who call themselves Christians. For legitimate Christians, it usually marks a thematic shift in every Sunday worship, a time to consider one of the great doctrines of Christianity—the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus. For others who have some familial or cordial acquaintance with the Christian church, this is a pilgrimage back to traditions that marked some portion of their life, a time to rekindle warm memories. These Christmas pilgrims are sometimes called CE Christians—Christmas and Easter Christians.1 For others who have never had a personal connection to anything having to do with Christianity may still enjoy the cultural Christianity that is revived and commercialized between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. For others, this past year (or this past many years) has been very difficult. If you’re not at rock bottom yet, you have a shovel, a deep pit, and you’re still digging. But you also have another aching feeling that there has to be a way out, a hope-against-hope that this isn’t the way it has to be. These down-and-outers are an always present minority in the Christmas pilgrim throng. Then there are those who are hostile to Christianity and forced to endure the societal death rattle of the reticent cultural Christianity that still hangs on. These folks are very concerned about saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” and have a few snide arguments about the silliness of a single human being from history being both God and man.2 In this way, Christmas marks an annual pilgrimage of a mixed multitude, all forced (some happily so) to consider the claims of the Nazarene carpenter born in Bethlehem.

Matthew notes the same diverse group coming to grips with the birth of Jesus. In punctuated form, we see three of these groups in Matthew 2:1–6. There are the magi, the Jewish leaders, the tyrant-puppet-king Herod, and even Micah, the prophet. All of them come at the call of Christmas with varied responses, but all of them come.

The Magi

When we bring up the wise men (or the magi), we should dispel a few popular myths that have crept into tradition from outside of the Bible, usually from Christmas carol writers with authorial speculation. The wise men who came from the east weren’t kings, weren’t there at the manger, and there were likely more than three of them.

These men were pagan priests who incorporated astrology into their religious practices. It is easy to see why someone might assume that they were kings. It wasn’t uncommon for priests to serve a collegial position alongside kings in that day, unlike how the pastoral office has fallen into disrepute in our day. They were obviously wealthy by the gifts they gave, and they were able to make a journey as far as they did for as long as they did (Amtrak didn’t have a direct route; this was camel travel).

There are some unanswered questions about how these pagan priests knew to follow a particular star to find the young king of the Jews. There are three potential theories that don’t mutually exclude one another. First of all, the Jews had a long history of being exiled all over the Ancient Near East. It is possible that some Jewish traditions found their way into pagan cultures with an expectation of a coming Jewish messiah. These pagans may have rubbed shoulders with Jews and the Old Testament and, in a syncretistic way, incorporated messianic predictions into their own religious lore. In a more specific way, there was another pagan prophet who predicted a star coming out of Jacob and the annunciation of a great Jewish leader. That pagan prophet was Balaam, and you can read his prophecy in Numbers 24:17. It is also possible that Balaam contributed to the pagan religious canon and included the prophecy about an astrological sign and a triumphant Jewish king. Lastly, God could have provided direct revelation to these pagan priests (like he did with Balaam) that sent them on their journey to Bethlehem with a star to guide them, a mode of GPS navigation that they were familiar with.

No matter how they came to find their way to Jerusalem and eventually Bethlehem, it is essential to note that God had ordained that these pagan Gentiles, religious professionals no less, would come and praise the incarnate Jesus. In fact, as we see later in Matthew 2, we see these men worshiping Christ. This was no cursory diplomatic visit for future ambassadorial relations. These men worshiped the young Jesus as God (or, at the least, a god3). This is clearly an outpouring of God’s grace. These men had nothing to commend themselves to God. In fact, in their false worship, they had plenty that condemned them before God. And yet God, in his grace, sovereignty, and unconditionality, called them to worship his newborn Son.

Christmas will always draw a crowd. The error would be in thinking every member of the crowd is exactly the same. Curious pagans, unwitting enemies, and earnest believers will always be mixed together.”

—Joe Holland

And so I wonder whether or not you resonate with these Christmas pilgrims. It may be you are anything but a Christian, intentionally so. And yet, in all your spirituality, you keep bumping up against true Christianity. Maybe you’ve realized that to make any faith claim of any kind, you must consider Jesus Christ and deal with him on his own terms, as he is presented in the Bible. And maybe that has brought you to engage with a Christian or a church this Christmas. Make no mistake: God is king and sovereign. What brought you to consider Christianity is the Christ of Christianity. And now you must respond. Respond like the pagan priests of Matthew 2 and become a worshipper of Jesus. Repent of your sins and place your faith in Jesus.

Herod and the Jews

There were other pilgrims in that Christmas throng 2,000 years ago. As the magi arrive at Jerusalem, seeking answers to where they can find the king of Jews, they meet the shock of Herod. Herod had a lengthy and mostly successful political career that ended in paranoia, tyranny, and a miserable death. His loyalty to Rome gave him room to expand his power and gain the position of king of Judea. It was a tenuous position that required him to keep both the Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire happy. Josephus, the Jewish historian, records that towards the end of his life, he became paranoid that he would lose his kingdom, which led him to kill many supposed conspirators, including members of his own family. You can see that paranoia on display in Matthew 2 and the bloody decree he makes later in the chapter to slaughter all the infants and toddlers in Bethlehem.

Herod had a cordial relationship with the Jewish leaders—the chief priests and scribes—in Jerusalem. Upon hearing from the magis that a new king had been born, he set to work, trying to figure out where this new king could be found. And Herod’s intentions weren’t to worship this child-king. When asked where this messiah would be born, the Jewish priests and scribes answer unequivocally with a passage from the minor prophet Micah (Mic. 5:2). Though the priests and scribes were (and would be) the adversaries of Jesus, they had an accurate biblical knowledge of messianic theology. The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

And here we find another group called to Christmas, even the enemies of God. Yet these enemies were from the ethnic line of God’s chosen people; they were Jews. And they weren’t just culturally Jewish. They knew theology, and they knew the Bible.4 They thought that they were the true people of God. And they were not. In about thirty years from the time of this narrative, Jesus would begin his public ministry and make everything plain. He was the true fulfillment of the Old Testament; he was the Messiah. Theological knowledge could not earn or be counted as spiritual health or maturity. Salvation was by grace alone through Christ alone.

And so I wonder if you see some part of yourself in Herod or the Jews. It would take a certain level of humility even to answer this question honestly. Herod and the Jewish leaders are clearly the enemies of God in the narrative. And we aren’t naturally disposed to seeing ourselves in a narrative’s enemies. But all are God’s enemies before they are made his people (Rom. 5:6–11). Nothing would make this Christmas more significant to you than if you finally came to terms with the fact that though you may claim to be a Christian, you are indeed not, that you have paraded some supposed righteousness of your own as acceptable before God rather than confessing yourself to be a woeful sinner in the sight of God and laying claim solely to the righteousness of God in Christ as what makes you acceptable in his sight. Christmas attracts its fair share of Heroes, chief priests, and scribes. But God’s arm is not too short to save, and today is the day of the Lord’s salvation. Don’t waste another moment; repent and believe.

The Earnest Believer

We’ve mentioned him already in passing. Micah is also brought in by quotation in this Christmas portrayal in Matthew. Micah was a prophet of God ministering for twenty years during the reigns of Jotham (750–735 BC), Ahaz (735–715 BC), and Hezekiah (715–686 BC). Though mainly a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah, Micah also prophesied the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by Assyria in 722 BC. Micah’s work is quoted by Jeremiah (Mic. 3:12), Jesus (Mic. 7:6), and, as we see here in Matthew 2, the scribes and priests consulting Herod (Mic. 5:2). Micah’s prophecy centered around two themes—God’s impending judgment on Israel and Judah for their unfaithfulness and a future time of restoration. With the birth of Jesus, that ultimate restoration had finally come.

Matthew’s main point in quoting Micah in Matthew 2:6 is to show the location of Christ’s birth, but there is more to it than that. We not only discover the location of the Messiah but also the vocation of the messiah. The Messiah, born in Jerusalem, would be both shepherd and ruler. It would be pointing out the obvious to note that these two vocations typically did not go together. Shepherds, though economically valuable, did not usually sit on the king’s throne. The king, busy with warring and governing, did not usually spend much time in the fields and plains with farm animals. And yet, we see in the Messiah King both of these vocations coming together. Jesus is our faithful shepherd. He calls us by name, protects us, provides for us, cares for us, and defends us. In short, we completely depend on him for everything, and he is the shepherd of our souls. But he is more than that; he is the King. He is triumphant and reigning. He defends us against all his and our enemies. He governs us with his good commands and creates a spiritual society where the priorities of his kingdom are the unique law of the land. He is both shepherd and ruler.

And so I wonder if you see yourself in Micah. Are you an earnest follower of Jesus? Do you read the whole Bible and say, “It is all about the exalted Jesus”? Do you believe everything the Bible says as the very Word of God, rather than picking the parts you like? Do you obey Jesus, repenting of sin when you do not? Do you worship him as the one true God, the one who beat sin, death, and the devil at the cross and in his triumphant resurrection? Earnest Christians, seeking to grow in grace and in their knowledge of Christ, are part of those who are drawn to Christmas as well.

Christmas will always draw a crowd. The error would be in thinking every member of the crowd is exactly the same. Curious pagans, unwitting enemies, and earnest believers will always be mixed together. It’s incumbent on us all to take some time to assess where we stand before the incarnate Lord. And though the crowd is diverse, the proper response is singular—repent and believe in Christ of Christmas.

  1. If this is you, let me as kindly and forcefully say that attending church during two seasons of the year does not in any way make you a Christian. You would be better to admit that you are not a follower of Christ, but are interested in considering the claims of Christianity twice a year. Honesty is better than faux faith.
  2. These folks usually end up in church because their grandmother asked them to attend. And though they have no love for Jesus, they still love granny enough to sit on a pew for an hour a year.
  3. I like to believe that these men were true followers of Christ as God, not just a god. But also, recognizing that pagan religions were pantheistic, their worship could be less than Christian worship. Nevertheless, their response was far better than Herod’s or the Jewish leaders’.
  4. It isn’t a stretch at all to say that they were demonic in their actions. James makes this same point in James 2:19, that the demons have solid theological knowledge and yet oppose and fear God rather than love him.
Joe Holland

Joe Holland is professor of Christian ministry and academic dean for Grimké College. He also serves as managing editor for Grimké Seminary and College.

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