The Myths of “Christmas” Music

carols

The Myths of “Christmas” Music!

 The Myths of “Christmas” Music!

The Birth of Christ in Light of the Word of God

Richard Hollerman

Popular religion has often been infused with religious myth. As people allow their imaginations and superstitions free reign, these myths or fables arise and become part of common misconceptions. The only remedy for this is a close examination of Scripture—along with a deep respect for the truth of God.

This is where most people fall short. Few are willing to study Scripture carefully, especially in the finer details and especially when such a study would destroy firmly held and precious fallacies. Unless we confine our beliefs to the inspired text of Holy Scripture, we are sure to have a belief system filled with minor and even major errors.

carols

The Myths of “Christmas” Music

These errors sometimes are revealed in the songs and hymns we sing. On many occasions, the songs themselves are the means of promoting error. On other occasions, the songs probably simply reveal the error that already exists in the minds of most people You will remember that Paul wrote, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hears  to God” (Colossians 3:16).

From this we can see that songs and hymns have a twofold direction. We are to teach and admonish “one another” and we are also to “sing . . . to God.” All of this arises from hearts that are filled with “the word of Christ.” Therefore, if we would sing rightfully, we must sing truthfully and Scripturally. We must be sure that what we sing conforms to the truth of God conveyed by means of His revealed Word.

One area where popular religious myth can be observed is in the matter of Christ’s birth and the events surrounding this miraculous event. As I have examined various songs and hymns, new and old, pertaining to this wondrous appearance of Christ on earth, I have been edified by the lofty and worshipful words some of these songs convey. They indeed are filled with a spirit of joy, praise, and thanksgiving for a God who was willing to send His beloved Son to this earth for our redemption! On the other hand, I have also been struck with the extensive errors pertaining to Christ’s birth found in some of the hymns.

carols

The Myths of “Christmas” Music!

Let’s examine what many people erroneously believe about the birth of Jesus. In the case of some of these faulty beliefs, we’ll examine what various songs and hymns (often called “Christmas Carols”) reveal about these misconceptions. It would be wise and helpful for you to read through Matthew 1:18-25; 2:1-23; and Luke 2:1-40 before you continue reading so that you have the Scriptural facts clearly in mind. We shall examine this interesting topic by asking pertinent questions and seeking answers in Scripture, then by noticing what various songs and hymns suggest about the answers.

Probably most of our readers will consider the points we find in the songs and hymns to be minor. They may consider the details we discover in Scripture also to be minor. They will wonder why these “finer details” are even mentioned in this study. Granted there will be details mentioned, but this should not be a cause for reaction.

Why? First, even details in Scripture should be a matter of concern to those who believe in the inspiration of the very words of the Bible (cf. 1 Cor. 2:13). Second, some points in Scripture depend on the meaning of single words (cf. Galatians 3:16; Matthew 22:31-32, 43-45; John 10:34-36). Third, it should be interesting to see how a failure to examine the details may result in a faulty belief or understanding. Fourth, if faulty beliefs can arise by overlooking minor details, it should be a warning to us as we read through the remainder of Scripture. There are many points in the Word of God that people consider being relatively minor but these very points may have many serious implications attached to them! Perhaps this present study will bring this awareness to us and stimulate us to greater care when we study the Scriptures as a whole. With this rationale before us, let us proceed to ask pertinent questions on the birth of Christ!

When was Christ born?

It is generally thought that Jesus was born in the year “0.” There are at least two problems with this. First, there was no year “0”—for the year 1 BC was followed by the year AD 1. Second, our dating system is off by several years. According to Josephus, Herod the Great died late in March or early in April, in the year 4 BC. Jesus was born shortly before the King’s death (see Matthew 2:19). His birth may have been as much as two (2) years before the death of Herod, since Herod decreed that babies two years old and younger from Bethlehem were to be killed (Matthew 2:16). We may infer, therefore, that Jesus was born about 5 or 6 BC—some years earlier than commonly thought (see Hendriksen, Matthew, p. 150; Luke, pp. 139-141).

Were Joseph and Mary married at the time of their travels to Bethlehem?

According to Matthew 1:24, Joseph took Mary as his “wife’ (v. 20) after the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.  Luke 2:5, however, informs us that Joseph went to Bethlehem with Mary, “who was engaged to him.” Are these contradictory statements?

It is difficult for us to imagine that these two traveled together and lived together if they were not officially married. It may be that Luke has special reference to the fact that during this time of their travels and being together, Joseph and Mary had no sexual union until after the birth of Jesus (cf. Matthew 1:25). This is what Geldenhuys suggests. “[Luke] does this [says that Mary was ‘engaged to him’] to show that although they were already married they were still all the time living merely as espoused persons . . . and that she was pregnant not through him but through the overshadowing of the Holy [Spirit]” (Luke, p. 101; cf. Hendriksen, Luke, p. 142). This seems like a reasonable way of reconciling two statements from Matthew and Luke, when they seem contradictory.

Did Mary give birth as soon as the pair arrived in Bethlehem?

This is the popular conception, yet Scripture simply informs us that “while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth” (Luke 2:6). From this we may infer that there was some time—perhaps a short time—between their arrival at the city of David and the birth of Jesus. We do know that Mary was at least three months pregnant (cf. Luke 1:39, 56)—and probably well beyond this. If she was in the very last period of her pregnancy, the 80-mile journey to Bethlehem may have been quite distressful.

Liefeld suggests, “It is possible that they went down during her last trimester of pregnancy, when the social relationships in Nazareth would have grown more difficult (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Matthew-Luke, p. 844). This is reasonable since the people in the community may have wondered about Mary’s pregnancy and questioned why Joseph had not divorced his fiancée/wife (cf. Matthew 1:18-19).

We simply do not have information to answer this definitely. Since the pair dwelt in a place for animals, we would suggest that the birth of Jesus occurred shortly after their arrival. The important point for us to recognize is that the couple arrived in Bethlehem, the City of David, in time for the Son to be born. The fact that the Messiah would be born in this city was foretold by Micah (5:2; cf. Matthew 2:4-6).

Was Jesus the only child that Joseph and Mary had?

Because of the influence of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology, built upon the theology of certain writers and theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries, some people believe that Mary had only one child, namely, Jesus. Luke, however, writes in this way: “And she [Mary] gave birth to her first-born son” (2:7a). The term “first-born” (ton prototokon) suggests that Mary bore other children after she gave birth to Jesus. Geldenhuys notes, “The Roman Catholic opinion that Mary bore no further children cannot be maintained, for then we should have expected here monogene (only-begotten) and not prototokon (first-born)” (Luke, p. 103, n. 8).

While the term “first-born” can simply mean that Jesus was the first (and only) child that she bore (Summers, Luke, p. 37), we know from other passages of Scripture that Joseph and Mary had a family of their own. Matthew adds that Joseph “did not know” Mary “until she gave birth to a Son” (1:25). The translations point out that this means Joseph did not “know” his wife sexually until after Jesus was born: “kept her a virgin” (NASB); “he had no union with her” (NIV); “he had no intercourse with her” (Translator’s NT). After Christ’s birth, they did have sexual union—with the result that they had other children. Jesus had both “brothers” (James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas) and “sisters” (Matthew 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; cf. Matthew 12:46-47; Mark 3:31-32; Luke 8:19-20; John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14). Jesus, therefore, was born first with other children following.

Did Joseph and Mary stay in a stable?

According to Luke 2:7, “there was no room for them in the inn.” The term “inn” (katalyma) has more than one meaning—a guest room (the same term is found at Luke 22:11), “a billet for soldiers, or any place for lodging, which would include inns” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Matthew-Luke, p. 844). Summers suggests an enclosure near the inn: “These animal shelters were usually an uncovered enclosure adjoining the inn. Around the enclosure there were porch-like shelters formed either by natural rock overhang or by man-made structure. In these humble surroundings, Jesus was born” (Luke, p. 38).

The couple stayed in a location where animals were kept since it had a “manger” or feeding trough (Luke 2:7). Justin Martyr (ca. AD 150) thought it was a cave (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, Vol. 2, p. 23; Geldenhuys, Luke, p. 101). We find this reflected occasionally in hymns:

          In a CAVE, a lowly stable,

          Christ our Lord was born

(In a Cave, verse 1).

Beyond the fact that the location was a place for sheltering animals, we have no information. It may have been part of a house (sometimes animals were kept in the same building where people lived), a section of the inn, or even a stable-cave (cf. Hendriksen, Luke, pp. 143-145).

Did Christ’’s Birth occur in the winter?

Popular conception has it that Christ was born on December 25—in the winter. This date, however, can be traced to the time of Constantine (d. 337) who chose a day for “Christians” (Catholics) to celebrate Christ’s birth at the very time that pagans were celebrating the pagan Saturnalia, the birthday of Sol Invictus—the Unconquerable Sun (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Matthew-Luke, p. 845).

The many hymns suggesting that Jesus was born in the winter assumes that He was born on the traditional date of December 25:

The first Noel the angel did say,

Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;

In fields where they lay keeping their sheep,

On A COLD WINTER’S NIGHT that was so deep.

(The First Noel, verse 1).

 

Long years ago on A DEEP WINTER NIGHT,

High in the heavens a star shone bright

While in a manger a wee Baby lay. . . .

(The Star Carol, Verse 1)

 

When the crimson sun is set,

Low behind the WINTRY sea,

On the bright and cold midnight

Bursts a sound of heav’nly glee. . . .

(When the Crimson Sun is Set, verse 1)

While shepherds may have been “staying out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night” during the winter (Luke 2:8), it is more reasonable to assume that Jesus was born in a warmer period of the year when the shepherds were more likely to spend the night in the open field. Whedon concludes his discussion on the question by saying, “The fixing the birth of Christ in December is unsustained by tradition and invalidated from Scripture” (Whedon’’s Commentary, Luke-John, Revised, p. 39).

What appeared to the shepherds in the field?

Luke informs us that “an angel of the Lord” stood before them (Luke 2:9). This has served to arouse the fertile imaginations of people. There is no indication that the angel spoke from the sky. Later, a multitude of angels appeared, praising God (vv. 13-15). Scripture, generally, represents the appearance of angels as young men (see Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4; Acts 1:10), with bright garments (Matthew 28:3; Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4; John 20:12; Acts 1:10). In contrast, artists often picture angels as women, with short hair, and halos around their heads! Hendriksen states:

Take, as an example, Plockhorst’s painting, “Tidings of Great Joy.” The sheep are huddled together in some kind of pen. Right near them are a few shepherds. Leaning against one of these sturdy men is the faithful shepherd’s dog. One of the shepherds is peering into the sky. His eyes are focused upon a descending angel. That heavenly visitor resembles a kindly looking and very pretty young lady. Her hairdo is neat, fairly short, and with bangs! She is dressed in a lengthy white gown. Clutching her robe is a baby angel, and in the background one sees a few additional curly-headed angelets. (Hendriksen, Luke, p. 154).

Although this writer’s description may be humorous, no doubt it does represent what many people think of when they imagine angels! Notice this example from a popular hymn:

Still thro’ the cloven skies they come,

With peaceful WINGS UNFURLED. . . .

And still their heavenly music floats

O’er all the weary world:

Above its sad and lowly plains

They bend ON HOVERING WINGS. . . .

(It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, verse 2).

Scripture gives no indication that angels actually had wings. This may be a shocking statement to some but we believe it is accurate. While it is true that the “living creatures” did have wings (cf. Revelation 4:8)—as well as the seraphim (Isaiah 6:2) and cherubim (Ezekiel 10:20-21; cf. 1:5-6)—we know of no scripture that says regular angels who appeared to men and women had such appendages. Yet popular hymns (and art work) do depict these heavenly messengers as having wings (apparently with the thought that they must have wings to fly!).

Obviously, Scripture does not suggest that there is such a creature as a “baby” angel! Angels do not have sexual relationships and do not beget children or infant angels (cf. Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25). Angels are fully mature personalities, created directly by God to be His servants and messengers. The little “Cupids” we see depicted on Christmas cards actually represent the ancient Roman god of love. Not only do angels not have “baby angels,” a human being who dies does not become an angel in heaven! Some dear parents who grieve over a lost baby through death vainly assume that their little one has become an angel with God. (This is often mentioned in newspaper obituaries.) All of this comes from the imagination of religious people who are woefully ignorant of Scripture (cf. Matthew 22:29).

Do the angels sing?

It is generally thought that the angels (the heavenly host) sang praises to God when they appeared to the shepherds. This idea is found again and again in numerous hymns and “carols”:

Angels we have heard on high

Sweetly SINGING o’er the plains. . . .

(Angels We Have Heard on High, verse 1).

 

Come Bethlehem, and see Him

Whose birth THE ANGELS SING. . . .

(verse 3)

 

Hark, the herald ANGELS SING,

“Glory to the new-born King. . . .”

(Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, verse 1)

 

It came upon the midnight clear,

That glorious song of old,

From angels bending near the earth

To touch their harps of gold. . . .

 

The world in solemn stillness lay

To hear THE ANGELS SING.

(It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, verse 1)

 

In a cave, a lowly stable, Christ our Lord was born;

From the heavens while-robed angels

SANG that holy morn.

(In a Cave, Verse 1)

We can probably imagine that singing may have been involved in the angels’ praise of God, but there is no direct statement that this occurred. As Summers mentions, “The word translated praising carries no indication either of singing nor not singing” (Luke, p. 39). This is a prime example of popular assumption surrounding the birth of Christ. Luke simply says that the angels were “praising God” (Luke 2:13).

Is it possible to praise God without singing? Hendriksen points out that the text does not mention a song. Yet he does admit, “If the word song is used in its broadest meaning, not necessarily being a description of words set to music from the very start, but rather of words which because of their parallestic structure can be adapted to music, then we may speak of ‘The Angels’ Song of Adoration’” (Luke, p. 155. Probably beyond this we cannot go.

Did Jesus Come to Bring Peace on Earth?

The view that Jesus came to this earth to bring peace is an exceedingly common one. It is repeated over and over during the “Christmas” season. We find it on “Christmas” cards and on Christmas banners. No doubt it has been the rallying cry of those who seek disarmament among the nations and cooperation among people on earth. This idea of “peace on earth” has been propagated from an inferior reading found in the King James Version of the Bible. According to this translation, the angels say, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). Notice its frequency in popular songs:

Hark! The herald angels sing,

‘Glory to the new-born King;

PEACE ON EARTH, and mercy mild;

God and sinners reconciled. . . .’

(Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, verse 1)

 

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the word repeat

Of PEACE ON EARTH, good-will to men.

(I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, verse 1)

 

It came upon the midnight clear,

That glorious song of old,

From angels bending near the earth

To touch their harps of gold:

‘PEACE ON THE EARTH, good-will to men,

From heaven’s all gracious King’. . . .

(It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, verse 1)

 

. . . .And praises sing to God the King,

And PEACE TO MEN ON EARTH.

(O Little Town of Bethlehem, verse 2)

A more accurate reading of the text (Luke 2:14) would be found in the NASB: “And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” Another rendering might be noticed: “And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (NIV). The truth conveyed by these renditions would be that God’s peace can only be found among true believers—those with whom God is pleased.

Jesus, for example, said to His followers on the night of His betrayal: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27). That same night He also said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (16:33). Trouble and tribulation would be found in the world—not true peace. Genuine peace can be found only within the believing community and only as a gift of the Prince of peace. Further, peace between God and men comes only through Christ who “made peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:20; see also Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2: 14, 17).

The fact that Christ did not come to bring peace on earth is quite clear. Jesus dispels this myth in Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus came that as people come to Him and believe in Him, families would be divided. Some of His followers would even face death (see Luke 12:51-53; 21:16; Matthew 10:34-38; Mark 13:12-13). Tribulation and persecution would be the common experience of His people on earth (Acts 14:22; 2 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Timothy 3:12). Therefore, instead of Christ bringing “peace on earth,” He brought conditions that would result in strife, discord, division, and great sufferings.

Did the Shepherds see a star?

Some of the popular songs today state that the shepherds actually saw a special star on the night of Jesus’ birth:

They looked up and SAW A STAR

Shining in the east, beyond them far,

And to the earth it gave great light,

And so it continued both day and night.

(The First Noel, verse 2).

 

When Mary birthed Jesus,

‘Twas in a cow’s stall,

With wise-men and farmers and shepherds and all.

But high from God’s heaven A STAR LIGHT DID FALL.

(I Wonder as I Wonder, verse 2)

 

Long years ago on a deep winter night,

High in the heavens a star shone bright,

While in a manger a wee Baby lay. . . .

Jesus, the Lord, was that Baby so small,

Laid down to sleep in a humble stall;

Then came THE STAR and it stood over-head,

Shedding its light ‘round His little bed.

(The Star Carol, verse 1)

As popular as this idea may be, it is surely a myth. There is no indication in Scripture that the shepherds saw a special star the night of Christ’s birth or anytime thereafter. Rather, the star was seen by men in the East (Persia?)—a fact that we shall soon notice (see Matthew 2:2, 7, 9, 10). As far as Scripture records, they are the only ones to see a star.

Did the infant Jesus cry?

Evidently there are some who assume that Jesus did not cry as a baby. Notice this verse from “Away in a Manger”:

The cattle are lowing,

The baby awakes,

But little Lord Jesus,

NO CRYING HE MAKES. . . .”

(verse 2)

Perhaps people assume that crying is always a sinful reaction, and since Jesus was sinless (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22), He must not have cried as a baby. Actually, Jesus was just as human as we are (cf. Hebrews 2:14-17; 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). Crying can simply indicate that a baby is hungry or cold or wet or in danger! God has seen fit to not give infants a fully-developed vocabulary—thus crying is the baby’s way of getting our attention!

Did the animals recognize the Savior?

Some people naively think that the animals themselves recognized that Jesus was the Savior of the world! Perhaps the following verse suggests this:

Good Christian men, rejoice

With heart and soul and voice!

Give ye heed to what we say:

Jesus Christ is born today.

Man and BEAST before Him bow,

And He is in the manger now. . . .

(Good Christian Men, Rejoice, verse 1)

This idea is completely mythical with no Scriptural basis, yet popular conception sometimes suggests that the animals miraculously recognized that something “divine” was in their presence. Probably stories of Jesus’ birth or dramas of the stable scene convey this idea. Actually, the Biblical text does not even mention sheep, donkeys, cows, or any other animal!

What men saw the star in the East and how many where there?

Popular assumption says that “wise men” from the East came to Jerusalem in search of the King of the Jews. The King James Version of the Bible employs this very term, “wise men” (Matthew 2:1, 7, 16). Hymns also convey this thought:

And by the light of that same star

Three WISE MEN came from country far. . . .

Then entered in those WISE MEN three. . . .

(The First Noel, verses 3 and 5)

 

WISE MEN, leave your contemplation,

Brighter visions beam afar. . . .

(Angels from the Realms of Glory, verse 3)

Actually, the Greek term here is magoi, from magos, of which W. E. Vine comments, “A Magian, one of a sacred caste, originally Median, who apparently conformed to the Persian religion while retaining their old beliefs” ( The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 1234). It is difficult to identify these men from the East. Perhaps they were Medes or Persians or men from Babylon. The term is applied to Simon of Samaria (Acts 8:9) and Elymas of Cyprus (Acts 13:8). In the former instance the word is translated “magic” while in the latter case it is rendered “magician” (in the NASB). One reference says that magi is “a proper noun with no recognized intrinsic meaning,” but in Hellenistic and Roman times, “it was corrupted into a common noun meaning ‘magician’ or ‘sorcerer’” (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v., “Magi”).

In Daniel the term magi referred to a cast of Babylonian advisers and interpreters of dreams favored by the King (cf. Daniel 2:2, 10, 27; 4:7, 9; 5:11). Apparently they studied the stars and were involved in astrology. The magi are especially associated with Zoroastrianism, a religion that emerged in the sixth century, B.C.,  and was made the state religion of Persia by Darius the Great. Through their history over the following centuries, they had contact with the Jews from the East and were influenced by them (see the rather complete article in the foregoing reference).

Hendriksen well asks, “Is it not probable . . . that these Jewish monotheists propagandized their Messianic expectation among their equally monotheistic neighbors?” (Matthew, p. 151). At the time of Christ’’s birth, a number of these magi traveled a great distance looking for the King of the Jews in Judea. Perhaps this indicates that they were aware of Numbers 24:17 and the Messianic hope of the Jewish nation.

Were these men actually “Kings”?

Some people think that these men were “Kings.” This idea is reflected in popular hymns too:

We three KINGS of Orient are,

Bearing gifts we traverse a far.

(We Three Kings of Orient Are, verse 1)

 

There came three KINGS at break of day to the Nativity;

Their gifts they fare, both rich and rare,

All, all, O Christ, for Thee.

(There Came Three Kings, verse 1).

Actually, this idea arose at the time of Tertullian (ca. AD 200). It may have come from an interpretation of Isaiah 60:3 and Revelation 21:24. This view, however, is obviously incorrect regardless of the popularity. The magi were not “Kings.”

We might notice that Scripture does not mention the number of magi. We simply read of “magi from the east” (Matthew 21:1). People usually think there were three of them because they offered Jesus three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). However, there may well have been many people in their entourage since traveling such a distance would have been dangerous without a large group of people.

“In Jerusalem the sudden appearance of the Magi, probably traveling in force with all imaginable oriental pomp, and accompanied by adequate calvary escort to insure their safe penetration of Roman territory, certainly alarmed Herod and the populace of Jerusalem, as is recorded in Matthew. It would seem as if these Magi were attempting to penetrate a border incident which could bring swift reprisal from Parthian armies” (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. “Magi”). Yet the idea persists that there were merely three from the East and this is reflected in the songs:

And by the light of that same star

THREE Wise Men came from country a-far.

(The First Noel, verse 3)

 

We THREE kings of Orient are,

Bearing gifts we traverse afar.

(We Three Kings of Orient Are, verse 1)

 

There came THREE kings at break of day

To the Nativity.

(There Came Three Kings, verse 1)

By the sixth century A.D., the three “wise men” or “kings” were given names: Melkon (later Melchior), Balthasar, and Casper (one from India, one from Egypt, and one from Greece) (The Expositor’s Bible Dictionary, Matthew, p. 85; Hendriksen, Matthew, p. 152). The conception that there were only three “kings” or “wise men” is reflected in the little manger scenes that people enjoy as well as the drama that some churches promote during the “Christmas” season.  Neighbors here may even have “manger” scenes in their lawn that reflect these misconceptions. Once again popular opinion is unsupported by Biblical facts.

Did the Magi visit the baby Jesus in the stable?

Little manger scenes in homes and dramas on the birth of Christ (as mentioned above) depict the magi coming to the stable (?) and worshiping Jesus along with the shepherds. Notice how this is promoted by the carols:

As with joyful steps they sped

To that lowly manger bed. . . .

(As with Gladness Men of Old, verse 2)

 

And there it [the star] did both stop and stay,

Right over the place where Jesus lay.

(The First Noel, verse 4)

 

When Mary birthed Jesus

‘Twas in a cow’s stall,

With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.

(I Wonder as I Wonder, verse 2)

 

As with joyful steps they sped

To that lowly manger bed,

There to bend the knee before

Him whom heaven and earth adore. . . .

As they offered gifts most rare

At that manger rude and bare.

(As with Gladness Men of Old, verses 2 and 3)

This view, of course, is entirely false. Scripture says that the magi “came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother” (Matthew 2:11). At the time of this visit the family had abandoned the place of Jesus’ birth and were living in a house or dwelling place (the Greek is oikia). (Thomas and Gundry even suggest that the family may have returned to Nazareth to get their possessions, then moved back to Bethlehem to live—although this is speculative [see Luke 2:19 and Matthew 2:21-22; A Harmony of the Gospels, p. 30]).

Further, if the magi had arrived soon after the birth of our Lord, and given a gift of gold, probably Mary would not have offered a sacrifice of two birds on the fortieth day after the birth—the offering of one in poverty in Israel (Luke 2:22-24; Leviticus 12:2-8). We do have evidence of the magi’s visit later. Since it took some length of time to make the long journey to Judea, and since Herod chose to kill babies two years old and under (Matthew 2:1, 7, 16), the arrival of the magi may have been a year or more after Jesus’ birth—far later than the shepherds’ visit on the very day of the birth.

Did the Magi follow the star to Judea?

Popular ideas suggest that the magi noticed a special and unusual star in their homeland and followed the star westward to Judea. The traditional “Christmas” card, with “wise men” on their camels in the desert, following a prominent star, reveals this. So do hymns:

We three kings of Orient are,

Bearing gifts we traverse afar

Field and fountain, moor and mountain,

FOLLOWING YONDER STAR.

 

O star of wonder, star of night,

Star with royal beauty bright,

EASTWARD LEADING, STILL PROCEEDING,

Guide us to the perfect light.

(We Three Kings of Orient Are, verse 1).

What does Scripture say? When the magi arrived in Jerusalem, they said, “We saw His star in the east” (Matthew 2:2). The text, however, gives no indication that they “followed” the star the entire way to Judea. When these Eastern visitors departed from their audience with Herod the King, “lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was” (v. 9). This seems to imply that they saw the same star at Jerusalem that they had seen long before in “the east.” This idea is strengthened as we read verse 10: “And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

This statement gives the impression that the star reappeared only after a lengthy interval of not appearing to them. Hendriksen agrees: “Where had the star been between then (verse 2) and now (verse 9)? We are not told. We indulge in imaginative speculation when we say that by its reappearance every night the star had led these men all the way from the east to Jerusalem. . . . If any conclusion is valid at all, it would rather seem that the star seen in its rising now reappears for the first time” (Matthew, p. 168).

Regarding the “star” itself, various ideas have been proposed. Some say it was a genuine star. Others say that it was the planet Jupiter or a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Still others suggest that it was a comet. Yet others say that it was simply a light in the sky or perhaps the “glory” of the Lord that gave a great light. Ignatius (ca. AD 110-115) gives this imaginative idea: “A star shone forth in the heavens above all the stars; its light was unutterable, and its strangeness caused amazement; and all the rest of the stars, together with the sun and moon, formed themselves into a chorus about the star, but the star itself far outshone them all. From that time forward every sorcery and every spell was dissolved” (quoted by Tasker, Matthew, pp. 40-41).

Surely this shows the unreliability of the early  church writers! We suggest that this heavenly body was an actual star—even though how it led the magi to Jesus in Bethlehem must remain a mystery (Matthew 2:9). Whatever this unique “star” was, we can rejoice in God’s wonderful provision of guidance to these earnest and devout travelers who came to “worship” the King!

Did the early Christians celebrate “Christmas”?

Judging from the popularity of this holiday we would suppose the celebration of “Christmas” is a prominent command in Scripture and a leading “holiday” in Christianity. The hymns suggest the same:

O thou joyful, O thou wonderful

Grace-revealing CHRISTMAS-tide. . . .

(O Thou Joyful, O Thou Wonderful, verse 1)

 

Down in a lowly manger

The humble Christ was born,

And brought us God’s salvation

That blessed CHRISTMAS morn.

(Go, Tell it on the Mountains, verse 3)

Although Christmas is the most prominent “festival” of the “church year,” the early believers did not remember the birth of Jesus in any way. God, who provided us with “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), and who inspired Holy Scripture that we might be “adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), did not make provision for a remembrance of Jesus’ birth of the virgin Mary. (In contrast to this, He did provide for a continuing reminder of His sacrificial death as we “break bread” and drink of the “cup” in the Lord’s supper each week—Matthew 26:26-29; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Acts 20:7).

Christmas was a special day on which a “mass” was celebrated in the apostate Catholic Church of the fourth century. The date had been chosen during Constantine’s reign (d. AD 337) (Hendriksen, Luke, p. 150). The commemoration of Christ’s birth was first observed in Rome in 354, in Constantinople in 379, and in Antioch in 388 (Geldenhuys, Luke, p. 102). Of course, this was three centuries after the time of the apostles or our Lord who were led “into all truth” that God intended for us (John 16:13; cf. 14:26). Although most of modern Christendom emphasizes this holiday, the apostles and early Christians knew nothing of it.

carols

The Myths of “Christmas” Music!

Lessons We Should Learn

Hopefully, we have not simply discussed some interesting and frequently-overlooked facts about the account of our Lord’s birth. If this is all we have done, we have not accomplished much at all. Consider the following lessons we should learn from this study.

First, we should recognize the need for careful study of Scripture. Too frequently we simply read through the Bible because we think that God expects this of us. Not only should we read the Bible, but we should read it very carefully. We should examine the words, the phrases, the sentences, the paragraphs, the immediate and broader context, and parallel passages. Let us “look intently” into Scripture (cf. James 1:25) that we might truly understand God’s revelation to us (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:13).

We trust that we have seen how important it is to examine even the “minor details” in order to understand the inspired text of Scripture. Although many of these details may not have great implications for us, there are many points in Scripture that people consider to be “minor” but these may have serious consequences in our lives. Further, God may consider these “little” matters to be major matters in His perfect will.

Second, we should see the value of examining our own beliefs, convictions, and practices in light of God’s Word. Surely we must admit that we have been influenced by books, tracts, trenchers, songs, and hymns—and some of these may have conveyed misconceptions of various kinds. When we listen to a lesson, sermon, or teaching, do we really listen to understand and to compare what we hear with Scripture?

The wise person is willing to take an honest look at his beliefs, comparing them with the truth of Scripture. The humble person who “trembles” at God’s Word (cf. Isaiah 66:2) is willing to change his beliefs and practices as he sees any discrepancies, even if these changes involve major adjustments in life. In all things our goal should be the bringing of our life into harmony with God’s authoritative Word.

Third, we should see that we cannot simply accept what everyone else believes. People around us sometimes believe error. Some beliefs may be relatively minor—but others may be major. Many people combine both truth and error in their belief system, thus we cannot simply accept everything that people say as being in harmony with God’s Word. Be willing to examine Scripture earnestly and diligently so that you might be able to distinguish the true from the false (cf. Acts 17:11).

Fourth, we should be careful about what we sing and the songs we listen to. Simply because a hymn writer has put something into print and religious people have accepted it does not mean that the hymn or song is entirely accurate and truthful. Let us remember that publishers of hymnals and song-books are not totally trustworthy in what they admit into their volumes. Paul says that we must “let the word of Christ richly dwell within” us, and thus teach and admonish one another “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16; cf. Ephesians 5:19). We must be so filled with the truth of God’s Word that this truth is revealed in what we sing.

Let these thoughts remain with you in the future. As you walk through a store and hear a “Christmas carol” or as you turn to a selection in your hymn book that deals with the birth of Christ, remind yourself of this little study. (I’ve often found words or lines or even entire songs that I can’t sing!) Remember that you must be discerning in your singing, perceptive in your study of Scripture, careful in your belief system, and wise in your appreciation of it in life.

Let’s heed Christ’s words about “true worshipers” in John 4:23-24. He says that those “who worship [God] must worship in spirit and truth” (v. 24). Let’s worship—sing—with His truth in our mind and heart!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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