Ask Pastor Roger Barrier - Church Leadership

What Gives Christmas Its Meaning?

What Gives Christmas Its Meaning?

Dear Roger,
From your perspective, what is the real meaning of Christmas? Can you help me dig deeper and really understand?
Sincerely, Esther

Dear Esther,

When I think of the real meaning of Christmas, I always think of John MacArthur’s introduction to a Christmas sermon from almost 40 years ago. He declared several things that Christmas is not. I paraphrased a little bit of it here for you and added a few thoughts.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/jchizhe 

What Christmas Is Not

Maybe it’s the date, December 25, that gives Christmas meaning …

However, if there is anything that we know for sure, it’s that Christ wasn’t born on December 25. Shepherds were abiding in the field keeping watch over the flocks by night (see Luke 2). Shepherds didn’t do that in December. They came out in the springtime. So, Jesus was probably born in March or April.

The celebration of Christmas on December 25 comes from an old Roman holiday that celebrated the pagan observance of the birthday of the “sun.” Christians wanted to “Christianize” the date, so in 336 AD, Constantine declared December 25 to be an official Roman-Christian holiday.

Maybe it’s the name that gives Christmas meaning …

“Christmas” is the shortened form of “Christ-Mass.” This specific Roman Catholic mass was established in 1038 AD. It has nothing to do with Scripture.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1224 AD that St. Francis of Assisi began to popularize the worship of baby Jesus in a manger as a way to counter a new cult centered on the worship of Mary.

If it isn’t the date or the name, maybe Santa Claus gives Christmas meaning …

No, that’s not the real meaning of Christmas! The concept of Santa Claus came into existence through a fourth-century bishop named St. Nicholas who was credited with bringing two children back to life after they’d been cut to pieces. It was natural for people to look at St. Nicholas as a giver of gifts who is particularly important to children.

St. Nicholas is very popular in Holland. In fact, celebrating St. Nicholas, or “Santa,” came to the United States by way of Holland. Dutch children expected Santa to visit on December fifth. It was customary to place wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Santa would fill the shoes with goodies. Of course, we quick-thinking and very capable Americans realized that you can get a lot more in a stocking than in a wooden shoe!

Christmas isn’t Santa Claus or the date or the name.

Maybe it’s the spirit of giving which gives meaning to Christmas …

However, in American culture, Christmas is no longer all about the spirit of giving. It’s the spirit of indulgence.

This year, over $40 billion dollars will be spent on six billion presents in the United States alone. Incidentally, the presents will be wrapped in $8 million worth of wrapping paper!

One Christmas day, seven-year-old Laura was given the honor of distributing the family gifts from around the tree. After all the gifts were delivered, Laura kept looking all around the branches under the tree.

Her father asked, “What are you looking for?”

Laura replied, “I thought Christmas was Jesus’s birthday, and I was just wondering where His presents were. I guess everyone forgot Him this year.”

Now, let’s talk about what Christmas DOES mean.

My wife, Julie, decided to spend the holidays this year on a Christmas-movie binge. She is now approaching her 30th movie. I had no idea there were so many! She asked me, “Do you realize what’s missing in most all of these movies?”

“No,” I responded.

“There are princes and princesses, elves and Christmas trees, Christmas lights and fruitcakes, reindeer and Santa Claus. But there is scarcely a manger in sight.”

The meaning of Christmas is found in two verses from Matthew chapter one. Both verses were instructions for Joseph from the angel Gabriel about what to name the son of God:

Take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name “Jesus”, because he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21)

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1:22-23)

In these two names, we find the real meaning of Christmas.

Cross with white fabric at sunset

First, Jesus Is Our Savior

He died a substitutionary death on the cross to save us from our sins. We are the ones who should have hung on the cross! We deserve punishment. But Jesus saved us by dying in our place.

The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

I love this old Christian legend about how Jesus became our Savior.

God the Father called together the hosts of Heaven to listen as he described man’s lost condition. Someone had to go to earth in order to save lost humanity and redeem mankind.

Abraham, the friend of God and father of the faithful said, “I’ll go. I’ll give myself for them.” God said, “No, you sinned when you lived on earth. You may not go.”

Moses the greatest man in the Old Testament and the leader during Exodus said, “I’ll go and shed my blood for the sin of the world.”

God said, “No, Moses, your sin kept you out of the promised land. You can’t go.”

David, the sweet singer of Israel and the man after God’s own heart said, “I’ll go.”

“No,” said God. “You sinned with Bathsheba. You can’t go.”

Then, Jesus came before the throne and said, “Father, I love them. I’ll take the punishment that they deserve for the wickedness of their sins and die in their places on the cross.”

The legend says that all heaven burst out in protest, “No” they cried, “You can’t go!’”

Jesus continued, “Yes, I must go. I am the only one without sin and worthy to die for the past, present, and future sins of the entire world.”

And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll and its seven seals?” And I wept and I wept; but, no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside of it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the lion of the tribe of Judah has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Revelation 5:1-5)

Second, Jesus Is Emmanuel, “God with Us”

Jesus is with us all the time. Wherever we might be, He is standing beside us.

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . . And surely I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

While the name “Jesus” gives us grace for our future in heaven, the name “Emmanuel” gives us the grace that we need for living now, in our present time on earth.

One of my favorite Christmas passages is found in the opening verses of the book of John. You may never have considered this as a Christmas story; however, it is all about the coming of Christ at Christmas!

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

The term “Word” was a Greek philosophical term describing the unrevealed wisdom of God.” In verse fourteen, John tells us that Jesus, the unrevealed wisdom of God, has put on a body so that He might save us from our sins and that we might be with Him forever.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only son, who came from the father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/mbolina 

The Virgin Birth of Jesus Is the Cornerstone of Christmas

“Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14)

If Jesus wasn’t virgin-born, then he is not the Son of God who is able to be with us all the time, and He certainly did nothing for our sin when He died on the cross.

If He is not the son of God, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, then Jesus may well be the greatest conman of all times. We’ve been seduced by a fraud and ought to pick up our bags and go home.

However, the Bible takes great pains to verify that the virgin birth is true.

Joseph was shocked when Mary turned up pregnant before their marriage. He was in the process of canceling everything when an angel assured him that all was well. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20).

In his record of the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew points out that Joseph was the “husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus.” Matthew is careful to point out that the word “whom” does not refer to Joseph. It is clearly feminine in Greek (Matthew 1:16).

Luke recognized that there were those who doubted the idea that Jesus was virgin-born. Nevertheless, Joseph never wavered in his testimony that he was not the father of Jesus. Jesus was the son of God (Luke 3:23).

I was once asked this question by a man struggling to receive Christ as his Savior. He asked, “Do you have to believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian?”

“Yes,” I responded. I don’t see how anyone who really understands the issues involved could ever refuse to believe the Virgin Birth and still claim to be a Christian.

Nevertheless, there are some situations when an individual can become a Christian without believing in the virgin birth. I came to Christ when I was seven years old. I didn’t even know what a virgin was!

Those Who Make Room

Those Who Make Room

Finally, as we consider the real meaning of Christmas, we understand that He only comes to those who will receive Him as their personal Savior and commit their lives to Him. He only comes to those who make room for Him in their lives.

From that perspective, one of the saddest verses in the Bible is Luke 2:7: “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”

What a tragedy! The Son of God came into the world, and they couldn’t even find Him a room.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to those who were his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet, to all who received him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:10-12)

Here’s something more tragic. Jesus comes knocking on the door of our hearts, and some today tell Him that they have no room for Him in their lives!

Once upon a time, I came across a penetrating illustration of this tragedy in action from Guideposts magazine.

Nine-year-old Wallace Purling was in the second grade. He should have been in fourth grade; but, he’d been held back twice. He was large for his age and a little slow and clumsy. He simply had trouble keeping up. He was very good-natured, and everyone enjoyed it when Wallace was around.

He wanted to be a shepherd in the Christmas pageant, but the director decided to make him the Innkeeper. His large size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph more forceful.

A large audience gathered the night of the pageant. No one was more excited than Wallace Purling! He was enraptured by the story as he watched and waited in the wings for his part.

Finally, Joseph arrived, gently guiding Mary. Joseph knocked on the wooden door. Wally was there, waiting.

With a loud, brash voice, Wally demanded, “What do you want?”

“We seek lodging.”

“Seek it elsewhere. The inn is filled.”

“Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary.”

“There is no room in this inn for you!” Wally looked properly stern.

“Please, good innkeeper. This is my wife. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.”

Suddenly, Wally relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. (Long pause). The audience tensed with embarrassment as they thought that Wally had forgotten his lines.

The prompter whispered Wally’s line; “No, begone!”

Wally spoke automatically, “No, Begone!”

Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary and began to move slowly away. Wally stood in the doorway watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open, and his brow creased with concern, eyes filling with tears.

Suddenly the pageant became different from all others.

“Don’t go, Joseph. Bring Mary back!” Wallace Purling’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room!”

Dear Esther, that’s what Christmas is all about.

Love, Roger

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/lukbar 

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Ask RogerDr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his 35-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.

Editor's Note: This Ask Roger article features insights from Roger's daughter, Brie Barrier Wetherbee, a sought-after Bible teacher and conference speaker, author, analyst, and Christian theologian. 

Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at