“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isa. 9:2 NIV)
This post is about the central meaning of Christmas. Next year I’ll devote a few posts to the background and interpretation of Luke 1–2, but this time around I will discuss John 1:1–9 in its New Testament context.
One of the perennial “fun” debates about Christmas is the correct birthday of Jesus. Some people second-guess December 25, often moving it to the Spring or some other warmer time of year. But there are two very good reasons to think that the birth of Jesus really did happen near the end of December.
First, Luke 2 tells us that Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem because the Roman Empire ordered a special census to effect some sort of tax. Since we have no other record of this event, we might ask: when is the best time of year to order large numbers of people to temporarily relocate?
Keeping in mind that most people living in the Roman Empire were farmers or people who worked on farms, the best choice is the winter, when there is not a lot of work to be done. Weather was not much of a problem, as it rarely snows in Israel. So if we assume that the Romans did not want to hurt their economy, it is very likely that Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem between Fall harvest and Spring plowing.
The second reason is even more important. December 25 is very close to the winter solstice, December 21, which is the day of the year with the least amount of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere. (Yes, like the USA, Israel is also in the Northern Hemisphere!) This is crucial for the Christmas story, because the story itself is about light shining in the darkness. Jesus comes at a dark time in history, so it is natural that he would be born at the darkest part of the year.
This is why John 1 is an important Christmas passage despite making no reference to the birth of Jesus. Since Matthew and Luke already tell of the nativity, John presumes that his readers are familiar with the general stories (if not Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2 directly). So John advances the theological discussion regarding the significance of the birth of Jesus.
John presumes that his readers know Genesis 1 as well. It is not just that John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” is closely related to Gen 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Even more, both Genesis 1 and John 1 stress that God’s most powerful action is to bring light to the universe.
Recall that Gen 1:2 teaches that before God’s first act of creation, “darkness was over the face of the deep.” Until God enters the picture, there is no light. And according to Gen 1:3, the first source of light is not the sun or some other luminous body. The first light comes from God himself.
John 1 picks up this idea by explaining that this first light, the “light of all mankind” (John 1:3), is Jesus. Jesus comes into the world to bring light. Darkness is strong, of course, yet John tells us that as dark as the world may appear it has not and will not overcome the light that is Jesus (1:5).
When I preach about Christmas, I like to tell an old camping story. My wife and I drove to an unfamiliar campground in Pennsylvania, arriving after dark, in a light rain. We had a map of the grounds, and our car’s high beams helped us to navigate the road from campsite to bathroom area. It took a good ten minutes, but our powerful car lights made it possible.
The next morning was sunny and beautiful. And as we exited our tent, we saw, through the trees – the bathroom! It did not require a ten-minute drive, but merely a two-minute stroll!
How did we learn about the “true nature” of our campground? We learned reality when we had access to the sun, the strength to which “powerful” car high beams can never compare.
The bathroom was always nearby, of course, but this reality was hidden by the darkness. Light reveals truth, and the strongest light reveals the deepest truth.
Truth is what the gospel is all about. There is a reality that exists beyond what we can see and feel, and that reality is revealed by Jesus Christ. Just as God introduces light to darkness at the start of the Old Testament, he introduces Jesus to a dark world at the beginning of the New.
As we reflect on Christmas, let’s always keep in mind that the central message of the Christmas season is that God has brought the light of Christ into the world, so that we may know truth.