We are approaching Christmas. It’s the time of each year which provides us with some of our greatest opportunities to talk about our faith with our friends who do not yet share it.
A Christmas carol service is not a difficult ask. Indeed, it can be a very popular one, for all sorts of reasons. But what about after that? It is worth underlining how important it is to get an interested friend into reading one of the Gospels and, if at all possible, to do it together on a regular basis, so as to deal with all the questions they may have. The New Year provides a natural point at which to start doing that, but to get there you may need to be prepared to deal with some current misconceptions about the Bible.
I was preaching evangelistically on Isaiah 53 recently, when a thoughtful, professional man came up afterwards to ask: ‘Where do you get all this Isaiah stuff from?’ As I explained the historical provenance of Isaiah’s life and prophecy, he was obviously surprised, since he had the impression that the Bible had been written by the church, centuries later, perhaps in the Middle Ages. That would explain why Isaiah 53 could provide such an amazing portrait of Christ crucified.
It set me thinking about how widespread such misunderstandings may be. Apparently, over 50% of several hundred teenagers surveyed a couple of years ago, thought that Jesus was a figure of fiction, that he had never lived. But then they thought the same was true of Winston Churchill as well! So, there is quite a quantity of brushwood to be cleared away before the Bible door can be opened.
The historical foundations of our faith are particularly under threat at Christmas, with the fantasising, Disneyfication of the story. The appearance of Santa Claus is often contributory to a childish, mental image of God, the old man with the long, white beard, which mitigates any serious consideration of his nature. But even ‘jolly old St. Nicholas’ peddles a works theology, of rewards for those who have been good and no goodies for bad children, which is the polar opposite of the gospel of God’s free grace which broke into our world at Bethlehem. What a confusion and muddle it has all become; but what an opportunity to challenge the nostalgic sentimentality with the hard facts of history!
For the Christian faith is nothing if it is not historic. It was Rousseau who said that if Jesus Christ had not existed, then the mind that made him up must have been just as great as his mind was, and whose mind was it? The detailed historical documentation of Jesus’s birth, in terms of time, place and genealogy, by Matthew and Luke, are not incidental, or of minor importance. Yet we may need to help our friends to understand why these ancient documents are worth their consideration. They can be assured that in reading a quality modern translation they are being put in touch with an authentic first-century document.
They need to know that the best extant manuscripts of the classical literature of the Greco-Roman world are several centuries later than those of the New Testament and that the many biblical manuscripts, both in Greek and in translations, from the early centuries of the Christian era mean that, by cross-checking and comparison, scholars have been able to establish an accurate and highly reliable text. Of course, this does not automatically make the Gospels true, but it validates both their authenticity as original witnesses and the worthwhileness of reading them, for a critical, modern mind.
More detail than other faiths
They describe historical events in more detail and quantity than the founding documents of other faiths, because they are rooted in the great event which makes Christmas such a powerful witness.
In John Betjeman’s words:
The Maker of the stars and sea
became a child on earth for me.
That is the heart of the message. Christmas celebrates the great intervention, which, in God’s time, culminates in the great exchange, as, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5.21). We must never allow the critics and sceptics to erode the historical foundations of biblical faith. It matters that the Christmas story is told in its factual historical simplicity, for these are immutable facts, which are not open to some sort of ‘development’ or distortion, like a TV soap opera. So, whatever people around us may like or dislike about the additions to Christmas, let’s bring them back to the reality of a real birth, a real child, a real human identity with its haunting question, ‘What child is this?’ and the glorious angelic response, ‘A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’. Wouldn’t it be good to pray that this Christmas we shall each have an opportunity or two for a natural but meaningful explanation of the gospel? For, ‘where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in’.
David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust and writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.
This article was first published in the December 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057