Why Christmas Matters
By Tim Keller
December 10, 2011
Tim Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Va. In 1989, he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. He is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Reason for God, and most recently, Jesus the King.
We sing it every year in our Christmas carols, especially in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” when we cry out: “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity.” The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t use it, but it teaches the doctrine of it when we read, “Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”
Incarnation. If you understand the word, you’ll understand what Christmas is about.
Christmas is, frankly, doctrinal.
Here’s why the doctrine of Christmas is unique. On one hand, you’ve got religions that say God is so immanent in all things that incarnation is normal. If you’re a Buddhist or Hindu, God is immanent in everything. On the other hand, religions like Islam and Judaism say God is so transcendent over all things that incarnation is impossible.
But Christianity is unique. It doesn’t say incarnation is normal, but it doesn’t say it’s impossible. It says God is so immanent that it is possible, but He is so transcendent that the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is a history-altering, life-transforming, paradigm-shattering event.
Christmas is not just frankly doctrinal; it’s also boldly historical. The manger, the resurrection, the story of Jesus is not just a story. It’s true.
Christmas is not just frankly doctrinal; it’s also boldly historical.
You may think, What’s the big deal? You’re being doctrinaire here. No. People say, “I like the teachings of Jesus. I like the meaning of these stories—to love one another, serve one another. I like that. But it doesn’t matter if these things really happened. Doctrine doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re a good person.”
The great irony is, that is a doctrine. It’s called the doctrine of justification by works. What they’re saying is that it doesn’t matter that Jesus actually lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died; all that matters is that we follow His teaching. That is a doctrine that says, “I’m not so bad I need someone to come and be good for me. I can be good. I’m not so cut off from God, and God is not so holy that there has to be punishment for sin.”
The Gospel is not that Jesus Christ comes to earth, tells us how to live, we live a good life and then God owes us blessing. The Gospel is that Jesus Christ came to earth, lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died—so when we believe in Him, we live a life of grateful joy for Him. If these things didn’t happen, if they’re just parables, what you are saying is that if you try hard enough, God will accept you.
If Jesus didn’t come, the story of Christmas is one more moral paradigm to crush you.
First John 1:3 says, “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son.” “Fellowship” means that if Jesus Christ has come, if Christmas is true, then we’ve got a basis for a personal relationship with God. God is no longer a remote idea or a force we cower before, but we can know Him personally. He’s become graspable.
If Jesus Christ is actually God come in the flesh, you’re going to know much more about God. You’re seeing Him weep. You’re seeing Him upset. You’re seeing Him cast down. You’re seeing Him exalted. If Jesus is who He says He is, we have a 500-page autobiography from God, in a sense. And our understanding will be vastly more personal and specific than any philosophy or religion could give us.
Look at what God has done to get you to know Him personally. If the Son would come all this way to become a real person to you, don’t you think the Holy Spirit will do anything in His power to make Jesus a real person to you in your heart? Christmas is an invitation to know Christ personally. Christmas is an invitation by God to say: Look what I’ve done to come near to you. Now draw near to Me. I don’t want to be a concept; I want to be a friend.