Jesus or Santa: Who gives the Better Christmas Story?

Christmas has traditionally been about celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Gospel accounts of a virgin birth, angels appearing to shepherds, and wise men traveling from afar to see the baby Jesus in a manger provided a story that was convincing for our great-grandparents. That generation added symbols such as manger scenes, Christmas trees, lights, music and drama (ex. Dickens’ Christmas Carol) to give Christmas the festive foundation so it would become the juggernaut of celebrations that it is today.

But since then, perhaps because of our increasing secularization and modern doubt over the Christmas story (C’mon – a virgin birth – Really?!), we have culturally swapped that story for Santa and his mission to give gifts to boys and girls who have managed to stay off the naughty list. It is a great story for kids, and it can safely be discarded when we get older since it never claims to be true – just safely fun. It seems a better story in our modern world when we can take a needed break from the harsh realities of real life and experience, with our kids, a fun story. So Santa dominates our radio and television and ‘Happy Holidays’ is becoming the Christmas greeting of choice. It is safer for a modern world steeped in doubt, anxious to avoid offending, and happy to have a season to pretend.

I have always loved good stories. Whether mythical (like The Lord of the Rings), sci-fi (like Star Wars), or historical (like Braveheart), a story with an insurmountable challenge or threat, an authentic hero, and a plot that sees the hero vanquish the villain, but in an astonishing way.  Through a drama with a large scope, good stories have always absorbed my attention.

It was when I looked again at the Biblical Christmas story, to before the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth that I started to see that it also was a great story, with a plot and a depth that rival all classics. Even taken purely as story, the Biblical Christmas story beats the Santa replacement story just about any way you look at it. But to see this, you need to grasp the Biblical Christmas story as it was meant to be understood – as one chapter in a long epic, spanning the entire universe and enveloping the entire human race.

The Bible Christmas Story from its Beginning

This Christmas story really begins with a Creator. He makes everything that exists, including a Being of immense power, intelligence and beauty whom the Creator refers to as Day Star or Lucifer. Lucifer sets himself up as the Adversary of the Creator – and a universal showdown is on the table. The Creator has also made mankind in His Image so that they are emotional, intellectual and have the power to make choice. The Adversary scores first in their head-to-head by setting in motion a chain of events that results in the corruption of humans, so that they no longer function emotionally, mentally and volitionally as they did originally. Like a computer virus wreaking havoc in your computer, there is now a virus loose in mankind which causes sin – a missing of the target – creating the havoc we see in the world today.

So what would the Creator do? Use his infinite power to annihilate humans, or to imprison the Adversary? Here the plot takes an astonishing twist. Instead of responding with force and power like some cosmic Superman, the Creator makes a promise that He sets out in the form of a Riddle. The Creator’s riddle speaks mysteriously of ‘the woman’ and ‘an offspring’ which is described as a ‘he’. This ‘he’ would crush the ‘head’ of the Adversary. And that was it!  Who the ‘he’ was, or the ‘woman’, exactly how this would unfold – and when – was not clearly stated. The Adversary was now left pondering his next move and the first humans wondering how, and if, this Riddle would develop.

The unfolding Story – through a man and a nation

The drama continues when centuries later another riddle is given, this time to a traveler. This riddle was unique in that it promised a blessing to ‘all nations’.  Like Santa on Christmas Eve this promise was to travel to all the nations of the world – of which you and I are a part. Then, departing from the verbal format, a bizarre drama was acted out on a remote mountain top. Like a play, this drama looked forward to something that ‘will’ happen on the then remote mountain. But the what, when, how and with whom, was not directly stated. Those details remained a mystery. About 500 years later an equally bizarre drama with this same man’s descendants, now in another country, inaugurated a calendar that is still in effect today which contained pregnant markers in its yearly cycle.

Royalty enters the Story

After a further 500 years another chapter in this epic opens up. A certain title – from which we derive the world Christmas today – was inaugurated to a Royal Dynasty. Though spanning generations like today’s British monarchy, the title in this dynasty pointed to a coming specific person who would have worldwide significance.

Unfortunately, this Royal Dynasty, though it began with such promise, was destroyed. Like a tree that is severed from its root, this dynasty was smashed so that only a dead stump remained. Well, the stump was only mostly dead. In fact, through another riddle, it was promised that a Branch would one day shoot up from this seemingly dead stump.

Signs of the Unique Christmas Person

With that severing of the dynasty, the flow of promises, each equally mysterious, began to flow more rapidly through a group of diverse men living in different social strata, countries and cultures. The timing of the budding of the Branch was given, even a name was announced, though somewhat shrouded in imagery. What was not mysterious however was the peculiar ‘sign’ which would accompany it. The crystal clear sign was:

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 ca. 750 B.C.)

Though that promise seemed understandable (and seemingly impossible), what was not immediately clear was why such a sign was needed. Why was it necessary to circumvent a human father? Was the Creator against sex? In explaining the effect of this birth the riddle pointed back to the virus of sin running amok in our human race. A re-boot of the human species was going to be attempted to stamp out the virus.

But this only deepened the mystery because right after the Virgin birth announcement, the same seer continued with further bizarre predictions by stating that the arrival of this son would:

…In the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light …
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 1-2, 6)

How could it be that this ‘son’ would be called and identified with the Creator, the One who was utterly remote from mankind? Would God really become one of us? Before that perplexing question could even be entertained a gruesome ending to this whole saga was given in a funeral song. Or was it an ending?

The drama, riddles and puzzles were all inked and set down thousands of years ago. If you can read Hebrew you can read them all in the most ancient preserved writings of the ancient world – the Dead Sea Scrolls – only unearthed from their storage from deep antiquity a few decades ago. With the last message written there was then a long and expectant wait. Would the drama unfold as it had been written? In fact, was it even possible that all these strands of riddles could ever be simultaneously fulfilled?  Both the learned and unlearned pondered over these riddles as the centuries moved on.

If you skip all this and only start the Biblical Christmas story with Jesus, shepherds and wise men, then you miss the drama, the suspense and development of plot. You do not see the cosmic story. You probably will only see it as an antiquated tradition of your great-grandmother.  But really, the birth of Jesus was the start of a fulfillment of riddles that had spanned centuries.  The riddles kept the Adversary guessing and people living in hopeful expectation.

A Free & Verified Christmas Gift

But if you understand everything from the beginning you get a great story. Better yet, you and I get the opportunity to become characters written into this unfolding and continuing story. As Christmas is just as much about receiving gifts from loved ones as giving them, this story culminates in the offer of a gift to you and me. Receiving this gift does require trust in the Giver, the same kind of trust that Abraham had when he was offered a gift.

Better still, there is plenty of evidence that this is a facts-on-the-ground true story. Unlike Santa Claus, for whom we do not even try to seek verification in the North Pole, or on his sleigh in the sky, or find witnesses who have seen him stuck in a chimney, there is historical corroboration for Jesus – even the virgin birth part of the story. Roman and Jewish historians outside of the Bible refer to him. The places where all the riddles were spelled out and where Jesus walked are terra firma real. There is a Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Mount Moriah. Since we have the story written out for us before it happened we have evidence that there is one Author in this story. The fact that Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel and the others could specify hundreds of years beforehand the events of Jesus’ birth, life and death is evidence that the Creator – who alone knows the future – has authored this Story, as an invitation for you and me to join Him in it.

If you make no effort you will probably only see and hear variant Santa stories this Christmas.  But, even for just the sake of a good story, I recommend the Biblical Christmas story.  It is much better.  Here is the story from the gospels of Matthew and Luke arranged chronologically.  It is less than 1300 words and will take 5 minutes to read.  You can follow the links therein to see how the account is built upon a deeper drama.  It is worth knowing better.

May it give you a Merry Christmas.

The Feast of Tabernacles: layered like an onion … with meaning

… (and pointing to a future climax?)

Every autumn a somewhat obscure 8-day festival, with a 3500 year history, is celebrated around the world by a rather extraordinary people.  The festival I am referring to is the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, also known as Sukkot or Feast of Booths.  Since it follows the Jewish lunar calendar it moves from year to year in our calendar (like Easter does), but it is  always celebrated sometime in September-October.  In 2015 it will be celebrated from Sept 27 – Oct 4.

This festival was instituted by Moses to commemorate the years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after their Exodus departure from Egypt.  Therefore, Jews today celebrate the festival by living outdoors in booths or tents through the festive period.  It is thus a festival of cultural and historical meaning.

But the Jews have had a long history, and for much of the Bible period they had a Temple in Jerusalem.  During this period they celebrated the Festival by going on a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Therefore it also has great ritualistic meaning.

The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) was one of several annual festivals established by Moses which were interspersed through the Jewish year.  Though interesting on their own account, the meaning of these festivals becomes positively intriguing when viewed through the person and career of Jesus.  Because he was a Jew, and since he lived in the Temple period, he celebrated these festivals along with his countrymen.  But on top of that, his person and life seemed to fulfill them.  From that perspective the meaning of these Festivals goes deeper still, like another layer in an onion.  For example, Jesus was crucified and died on Passover, one of these festivals.  The very day instituted by Moses to remember how lamb’s blood saved the early Israelites from death was the day his blood was shed.  This is why today Easter and Passover occur together every year.  I explored the significance of this remarkable timing here.  The coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of what would become church occurred 50 days after Easter Sunday – exactly on the same day of another Festival started by Moses – the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost).  I explored the significance of that here, but even without delving into the details, the fact that pivotal historical events landed on multiple festival days that were started over one thousand years beforehand is exclusive to Jewish history.  In fact, all three springtime Jewish Festivals have an exact day-to-day match to a major event in later history.

Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles

Sukkot, being part of the Jewish autumn festivals does not have a day-to-day match with a New Testament event.  Nonetheless the parallels are striking in a different, perhaps deeper, manner still.  The Gospel of John records Jesus participating in this same Feast of Tabernacles.  But the account records Jesus doing something curious.  It says

37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37-39)

Jewish Feast of Tabernacles festivities in the Temple period

To appreciate the full significance of what he said we need to know how the Jews in Bible times celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles.  Jewish history and their sacred rituals are well documented in the Old Testament and in other sources like the Talmud and Mishna.  The Jewish website explains from these sources:

At the foothills of Mount Moriah, down below in the City of David, flows a natural spring called Shiloach. This spring is ancient, and as it is located literally in the shadow of the Holy Temple, it has always had spiritual significance for Israel. It is the original source of Jerusalem’s water.

Every day of the festival [i.e. of Taberncales], the priests descended down to the Shiloach, accompanied by all the congregation assembled in the Temple. There, they filled a golden flask … of the pure water. Ascending back up, carrying the flask with song … the gathering entered back into the Temple through the Water Gate, one of the gates on the southern side of the court (it received its name on account of this event (Shekalim 6, 3). As they entered the gate, their steps were greeted by the sound of trumpets and shofar-blasts, …

Once in the Temple, the priest who had the honor of performing this service now carries the golden flask up the altar ramp. … which took place on exculsively on Sukkot.

“With joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).

Based on this verse, the drawing of water from the Shiloach spring and its libation upon the altar of G-d was accompanied by great rejoicing and celebration in the Holy Temple. In fact, this joy was so immense, and the celebrations so uplifting, that the sages of Israel emphatically stated:

“Whoever has never seen the celebrations of the Festival of the Water Libation-has never experienced true joy in his life” (ibid. 5, 1).

But what was the cause of such great happiness, to the extent that this statement was recorded for all posterity? Indeed, what could be so moving about the simple act of gathering up some water, and pouring it onto the altar? …

museum model of Water Gate for Feast of Tabernacles to carry water to the Temple

museum model of Jerusalem Water Gate used in Feast of Tabernacles to carry water to the Temple

So Jesus used the context of the joyful ceremonial gathering of pure water poured on the altar in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles to point to himself as likewise giving ‘living water’ to anyone who is ‘thirsty’.  His self-portrait was made vivid in that context to his hearers.

The curious response of Jesus’ hearers

steps leading to Water Gate for Festival of Tabernacles

Photo of the steps leading to Jerusalem Water Gate for Festival of Tabernacles. Jesus would have walked them along with other pilgrims in his day

But still, the response of his hearers seems perhaps a bit excessive.  When they heard his declaration their response was:

40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”

41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.”


How did Jesus’ hearers go from Jesus’ statement of ‘living water’ to think ‘Messiah’?  At first glance there seems to be no natural connection.

Ancient Jerusalem Water Gate outline can be seen, but it is now sealed

Ancient Jerusalem Water Gate outline can be seen, but it is now sealed

However, there is one key Old Testament passage describing the Feast of Tabernacles and ‘living water’.  But I have to warn you now – it is so apocalyptic that it may not be pleasant to unpack.

Zechariah, Living Water & the Feast of Tabernacles

Zechariah in timeline

Zechariah in Historical timeline

Zechariah wrote of a coming day when:

A day of the Lord is coming, Jerusalem, when … I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it … Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south…

On that day there will be neither sunlight nor cold, frosty darkness. It will be a unique day—a day known only to the Lord—with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light.

On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.

The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

16 Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. 17 If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain.19 This will be … the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. (Zechariah 14: 1 – 19)

Here we have a convergence of ‘living water’, the ‘Feast of Tabernacles’ and ‘all the nations’ along with Someone who is ‘King’ and ‘Lord’.  If we understand where the term ‘Messiah’ (= Christ) comes from we will see that this Someone was the Messiah.  This is an Old Testament messianic prophecy.  Hearing Jesus talking about ‘Living Water’ at the Feast of Tabernacles would have reminded his Jewish audience of this very passage and so they would have thought ‘Messiah’.  Hence their response to his Feast of Tabernacles cry.  It is just that Zechariah does not seem to describe Jesus to our modern-day minds.

Zechariah and the ‘one they have pierced’

But that is because I started the quote of Zechariah partway through his prophecy.  It actually begins two chapters earlier.  If we start at that beginning the meaning goes deeper still;

A prophecy: The word of the Lord concerning Israel.

The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person, declares: “I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem. On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. On that day the Lord will shield those who live in Jerusalem…. On that day I will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem.

Mourning for the One They Pierced

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son… 

On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.  (Zechariah 12:1 – 13:1)

Whether one believes in the Biblical prophets or not, it is clear that in this passage the speaker (the ‘I’) is God, since he “stretches out the heavens … who forms the human spirit within a person” (v. 1).  He is warning of a future day, a terrible day when nations will be destroyed.  But paradoxically the mourning and grief will not center in those nations facing destruction, but rather in Jerusalem, being rescued from destruction by a ‘one they have pierced’.  Who would that be?  Let the descriptions by Isaiah and the Psalmist of one being ‘pierced’ help you answer that question.  Zechariah himself predicted his name.  Yet the pierced one is still, by using the pronoun ‘me’, the same ‘I’ who stretched the heavens and forms the human spirit in a person.  Pretty heady stuff.

Feast of Tabernacles, Hallel prayer & Jesus

This takes us full circle back to the Feast of Tabernacles.  The website describing the Sukkot celebration in Bible times details the prayers that were sung by the pilgrims back then.  It explains

The hallel prayer, a collection of songs of thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty, is one of the oldest and most original examples of traditional Jewish liturgy. It consists of the following chapters from the book of Psalms: 113-118

Therefore, the ending of the hallel prayer which pilgrims (including Jesus) sang on that Feast of Tabernacles when Jesus cried out about ‘Living Water’ was the following from Psalm 118

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; (Psalm 118: 22)

The Feast of Tabernacles hallel prayer uncannily predicted the career and legacy of Jesus.  Jesus used this very phrase to describe himself when challenged by the Jewish leaders just before his ‘piercing’.  He saw himself as the stone rejected that would become the cornerstone.  And it was sung every Feast of Tabernacles by devout Jewish pilgrims.  Zechariah predicted that complete recognition of this would be accompanied by cataclysmic, even apocalyptic, events.

The ancient 3500 year old Feast of Tabernacles opens many layers of meaning, spanning history and theology, when considered through the person of Jesus Christ.


How it was foretold that the “Christ” is coming … and why

The dialogue at the trial of Jesus shows that the leaders of his day were expecting a ‘Christ’ to come.  So where did these Jewish leaders get this idea from?  And delving a little bit deeper, what was the connection with the ‘virgin birth’ as it was explained long before Jesus ever lived?

Join me as I continue on in a series to help us better consider Christmas.


Christmas is Coming! But not in the way you are thinking…

Think beyond the annual cycle of Christmas preparations and associated hoopla.  This event was foreshadowed in history, even at the dawn of human history – but in ways you will miss if you dial in only on the frequency emitted by society.

You can see this fore-telling by looking in the (seemingly) most unlikely of places – the dialogue between Jesus and the devil in his wilderness temptation.  See how this starts us on a trail leading to the dawn of history, taking your Christmas to a whole new level.


How does a Prostitute reveal the Good News of the Gospel?

Here is the account of how a prostitute – a person with a background such that we would dismiss her – clearly illustrates the Gospel for us, and demonstrates why it is Good news.

This is a video of a presentation where I explore the person of Rahab.  And then we use the Biblical image of grafting dead branches unto live ones to flesh out what Jesus in the Gospel is offering to us.