Many Christians acknowledge that no one knows the exact day Jesus was born. The precise date of Jesus’ birth is not critical, and speculation and controversy about this topic can cause Christians to lose focus.
It is important that we rejoice and celebrate the central events in the life of Jesus Christ, because he is the core and foundation of our faith. When we think about his birth, there are many issues that are mysterious and profound. God came to us, taking human flesh, dwelling with us, so that we might be saved. He never stopped being God, but he also became human. He was born of a virgin, and began his human life as a helpless and dependent baby, just as we all do.
How he did all of that for us is beyond our comprehension, but it is a subject that repeatedly causes us to marvel and to worship. Every December Christians (and many others who are not Christians but hear the gospel message nonetheless) center their lives in the miracle and mystery of the birth of our Lord.
No one knows the actual day that Jesus was born. Attempts to calculate an exact date often fall into two schools of thought. Both methods depend on counting from the “course of Abijah.” A course was a time when priests served in the temple.
The first method begins with Luke 1:5, 8, where we read that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was serving in the course of Abijah in the temple. 1 Chronicles 24:7-19 indicates that there were 24 courses. The assumption is that the eighth course was the course of Abijah and that this period of service started in early June. Based on this, some believe that we can count forward to discover the dates of birth for John the Baptist, and then by deduction, Jesus (born about six months after John, see Luke 1:24-36).
Therefore, assuming that Elizabeth became pregnant right away, and that the pregnancies of both Mary and Elizabeth were of normal length, John the Baptist would have been born in March, nine months after his conception in June. According to this calculation, Jesus might have been born in the month of September. For some, the fact that the autumn festivals of the Old Testament begin at this time adds credibility to these calculations.
If all these assumptions are correct, the conception of Jesus, when the miracle of incarnation really began, when Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), would have happened in December.
The second method of trying to fix a date for Jesus’ birth counts backward rather than forward. When the temple was destroyed in a.d. 70, the priestly course of Jehoiarib was serving. If the priestly service was unbroken from the time of Zechariah to the destruction of the temple, this calculation has the course of Abijah in the first week of October. Some early Christian writers (John Chrysostom, 347-407) taught that Zechariah received the message about John’s birth on the Day of Atonement, which falls in September or October. This would place John the Baptist’s birth in June or July, and the birth of Jesus six months later, in late December or early January. Some advocates of this second method view believe that December 25 is the correct day of Jesus’ birth, while others believe that January 6 is the correct day.
Luke 2:1-7 mentions a tax census ordered by Augustus Caesar. The census records were eventually taken to Rome. Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386) requested that the true date of Jesus’ birth be taken from the census documents. He reported that the date he was given from these documents was December 25. Unfortunately, these records are no longer available.
Meaning for us
What does all this mean to you and me? It means that no one knows for sure when Jesus was born. The exact date of the first coming of our Lord is much like the date of his return. No one knows the exact day or hour of the Second Coming (Matthew 24: 36, 42, 44, 50; 25:13). Despite this, many Christians have become enthralled with predicting the date of his return, often losing sight of Jesus Christ and the gospel in the process.
Even though we do not know the exact date when Jesus will return, we may celebrate and look forward to the Second Coming. We may celebrate his return on any date we choose, and it is possible to do so without becoming sidetracked with predictions and speculations about an exact date!
The Bible does not command us to celebrate either the first coming or the return of Jesus Christ. However, believers and followers of the Lord are permitted to rejoice because of the significance and meaning of these two events. There can be no Second Coming without the first. We may celebrate his birth on any date we choose, and it is possible to do so without becoming sidetracked with irrelevant debate about whether the date is “correct.”
Jesus is the reason for the season. We do not celebrate a day, but rather we celebrate the fact that God, in the person of Jesus (“Immanuel—which means ‘God with us’”—Matthew 1:23) came to save us from our sins. It was in Jesus that God gave us the greatest gift. He came to save us, to give us salvation, and eternal life. He gives us that gift freely, by the riches of his grace. We celebrate the extravagant and lavish love of God that is demonstrated by the birth of Jesus Christ.
Regardless of when Jesus was actually born, we overflow with thanksgiving and joy that God chose to send his Son into the world for our redemption and salvation. The gospel does not require the celebration of Christmas, nor for that matter, any other festival. On the other hand, there is no time that is “off limits” for us to meet together to celebrate the good things God has done for us through his Son. In other words, the gospel does not forbid the observance of Christmas, either.
It is fitting that we come together as Christian brothers and sisters to celebrate God’s love whenever we meet. Whether it is on Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter, or some other annual occasions, we are free to joyfully give praise and honor to God as his beloved children. Every celebration is an expression of our love and devotion to God. Let each of us learn how to worship our Lord without condemning those who do so in a different way.