The Real Meaning of Christmas

One of the most remarkable stories of Christmas comes from one of the darkest moments of modern history. World War I ravaged a continent, leaving destruction and debris in its wake. The human cost, well in the millions, staggers us. But from the midst of this dark conflict comes the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914. The Western Front, only a few months into the war, was a deplorable scene of devastation. Perhaps as if to give the combatants one day to breathe again, a truce was called from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.

As darkness settled over the front like a blanket, the sound of exploding shells and the rat-tat-tat of gunfire faded. Faint carols, in French or English voices on one side and in German voices on the other, rose to fill the silence of the night.

By morning, soldiers, at first hesitantly, began filing out of the maze of trenches into the dreaded and parched soil of No Man’s Land. There was more singing. Gifts of rations and cigarettes were exchanged. Family photos were passed around. Soccer balls appeared. Up and down the Western Front, soldiers, who only hours before had been locked in deathly combat, now faced off in soccer games.

For one brief but entirely remarkable day, there was peace on earth. Some have called the Christmas Truce of 1914 “the Miracle on the Western Front.”

Anxious to print some good news, The Times of London reported on the events of the Christmas Truce. Soldiers recorded the day in letters home and in diaries. Some of those lines made it to newspapers, while others remained unknown until later brought to light. Here’s one such line from the diary of a German infantryman:

The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.

Friends for a time,” “the celebration of love,” “peace on earth”—this is the meaning of Christmas. But these celebrations, these truces, don’t last. After Christmas Day, the soccer balls and the soldiers went back into the trenches. The Christmas carols subsided and the war carried on. And even though World War I eventually ended, a few decades later, Europe’s countryside and cities became the field of battle once again, as did Africa and the Pacific, during World War II.

Events like the Christmas Truce are worth celebrating. But they lack something. They lack permanence. Such impermanent peace is what we often find in our quest for the real meaning of Christmas. If we are looking for permanent and ultimate goodwill, love, and peace, we must look beyond our gift-giving, get-togethers, and office parties. We must look to no other place than to a manger.

We must look to a baby born not with fanfare, pomp, and circumstance, but to poor parents in desperate times. Joseph and Mary, and the Baby Jesus for that matter, were real historical figures. But in a way, Joseph and Mary extend beyond themselves, beyond their particular place and time. They represent all of us. We are all poor and living in desperate times. Some of us are better than others at camouflaging it. Nevertheless, we are all poor and desperate, so we all need the promise bound up in that baby.

We are in need of a way out of our poverty of soul and the desperate state of our human condition. We find it in this child lying in a manger, who was and is Jesus Christ, the long-promised Messiah, Seed, Redeemer, and King.

The birth of Jesus so many centuries ago might have been a slightly-out-of-the-ordinary birth. Even in ancient times, stalls didn’t typically double as birthing rooms and mangers didn’t typically double as cribs for new-born babies. And that newborn baby was very much out of the ordinary. Of course, in some respects, He was perfectly ordinary. He was a human being, a baby. He got hungry. He got thirsty. He got tired. When He was born, He was wrapped in swaddling clothes—the ancient equivalent of Pampers.

An infant. Helpless, hungry, cold, and tired.

Yet, this child was the Son of God incarnate. He was Immanuel, which translated means “God with us.” According to the Apostle Paul’s account, this infant created all things. This infant created His own manger. And this infant, this King, brings peace on earth, ultimate and permanent peace.

An excerpt from Peace: Classic Readings for Christmas by Stephen Nichols.

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Character

Character is the product of daily, hourly actions, words and thoughts:
daily forgiveness,
daily unselfishness,
daily kindnesses,
daily sympathies,
daily charities,
daily sacrifices for the good of others,
daily struggles against temptation,
daily submissiveness under trial.
It is these, like the blending of colors in a picture–which constitute a person’s character.

John MacDuff  1818-1895

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True Christianity is a Fight!

“Fight the good fight of faith!” 1 Timothy 6:12

True Christianity! Let us mind that word “true.” There is a vast quantity of religion current in the world which is not true, genuine Christianity. There are thousands of men and women who go to churches and chapels every Sunday and call themselves Christians. They make a “profession” of faith in Christ. Their names are on the baptismal register. They are reckoned Christians while they live. They are married with a Christian marriage service. They mean to be buried as Christians when they die.  But you never see any “fight” about their religion! Of spiritual strife and exertion and conflict and self-denial and watching and warring–they know literally nothing at all. Such Christianity may satisfy man, and those who say anything against it may be thought very hard and uncharitable–but it certainly is not the Christianity of the Bible. It is not the religion which the Lord Jesus founded, and His apostles preached. It is not the religion which produces real holiness. True Christianity is “a fight.”

The true Christian is called to be a soldier, and must behave as such from the day of his conversion to the day of his death. He is not meant to live a life of pious ease, indolence and security. He must never imagine for a moment, that he can sleep and doze along the way to Heaven, like one traveling in an easy carriage. If he takes his standard of Christianity from the people of this world, he may be content with such vain notions–but he will find no countenance for them in the Word of God. If the Bible is the rule of his faith and practice, he will find his course laid down very plainly in this matter. He must “fight.”

jc-ryleThe principal fight of the Christian is with the world, the flesh, and the devil.  These are his never-dying foes! These are the three chief enemies against whom he must wage war. Unless he gets the victory over these three, all other victories are useless and vain. If he had a nature like an angel, and were not a fallen creature–the warfare would not be so essential. But with a corrupt heart, a busy devil and an ensnaring world, he must either “fight”or be lost.

He must fight the world. The subtle influence of that mighty enemy must be daily resisted–and without a daily battle, it can never be overcome. The love of the world’s good things, the fear of the world’s laughter or blame, the secret desire to keep in with the world, the secret wish to do as others in the world do, and not to run into extremes —
all these are spiritual foes which beset the Christian continually on his way to Heaven, and must be conquered.                                                                                                                                     “The friendship of the world is enmity with God: Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is an enemy of God.” James 4:4                                                                                                 “If any man loves the world–the love of the Father is not in him.” 1 John 2:15
“The world is crucified to me–and I unto the world.” Galatians6:14
“Whoever is born of God, overcomes the world.” 1 John 5:4
“Do not be conformed to this world.” Romans 12:2
“Friendship with the world is enmity with God. Whoever therefore will be a friend of the world, is the enemy of God.” James 4:4

He must fight the flesh. Even after conversion, he carries within him a nature prone to evil and a heart as weak and unstable as water! That heart will never be free from imperfection in this world, and it is a miserable delusion to expect it.

He must fight the Devil. That old enemy of mankind is not dead. Ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve, he has been “going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it,” and striving to compass one great end–the ruin of man’s soul. Never slumbering and never sleeping–he is always going about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. An unseen enemy, he is always near us, about our path and about our bed, and spying out all our ways! A murderer and a liar from the beginning–he labors night and day to cast us down to Hell. Sometimes by leading into superstition, sometimes by suggesting infidelity, sometimes by one kind of tactics and sometimes by another–he is always carrying on a campaign against our souls. This mighty adversary must be daily resisted if we wish to be saved.

Some may think these statements too strong. You imagine that I am going too far, and laying on the colors too thickly. But the Christian warfare is no light matter! What do the Scriptures say?
“Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life.”
“Endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”
“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes!”
“Strive to enter in at the strait gate.”
“Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong!”

Words such as these appear to me as clear, plain and unmistakable. They all teach one and the same great lesson, if we are willing to receive it. That lesson is, that true Christianity is a struggle, a fight and a warfare!

J.C. Ryle, “Holiness”

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What Is Reformation Day?

FROM Oct 31, 2016

A single event on a single day changed the world. It was October 31, 1517. Brother Martin, a monk and a scholar, had struggled for years with his church, the church in Rome. He had been greatly disturbed by an unprecedented indulgence sale. The story has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster. Let’s meet the cast.

First, there is the young bishop—too young by church laws—Albert of Mainz. Not only was he bishop over two bishoprics, he desired an additional archbishopric over Mainz. This too was against church laws. So Albert appealed to the Pope in Rome, Leo X. From the De Medici family, Leo X greedily allowed his tastes to exceed his financial resources. Enter the artists and sculptors, Raphael and Michelangelo.

When Albert of Mainz appealed for a papal dispensation, Leo X was ready to deal. Albert, with the papal blessing, would sell indulgences for past, present, and future sins. All of this sickened the monk, Martin Luther. Can we buy our way into heaven? Luther had to speak out.

But why October 31? November 1 held a special place in the church calendar as All Soul’s Day. On November 1, 1517, a massive exhibit of newly acquired relics would be on display at Wittenberg, Luther’s home city. Pilgrims would come from all over, genuflect before the relics, and take hundreds, if not thousands, of years off time in purgatory. Luther’s soul grew even more vexed. None of this seemed right.

Martin Luther, a scholar, took quill in hand, dipped it in his inkwell and penned his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. These were intended to spark a debate, to stir some soul-searching among his fellow brothers in the church. The 95 Theses sparked far more than a debate. The 95 Theses also revealed the church was far beyond rehabilitation. It needed a reformation. The church, and the world, would never be the same.

One of Luther’s 95 Theses simply declares, “The Church’s true treasure is the gospel of Jesus Christ.” That alone is the meaning of Reformation Day. The church had lost sight of the gospel because it had long ago papered over the pages of God’s Word with layer upon layer of tradition. Tradition always brings about systems of works, of earning your way back to God. It was true of the Pharisees, and it was true of medieval Roman Catholicism. Didn’t Christ Himself say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light?” Reformation Day celebrates the joyful beauty of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ.

What is Reformation Day? It is the day the light of the gospel broke forth out of darkness. It was the day that began the Protestant Reformation. It was a day that led to Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and may other Reformers helping the church find its way back to God’s Word as the only authority for faith and life and leading the church back to the glorious doctrines of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It kindled the fires of missionary endeavors, it led to hymn writing and congregational singing, and it led to the centrality of the sermon and preaching for the people of God. It is the celebration of a theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural transformation.

So we celebrate Reformation Day. This day reminds us to be thankful for our past and to the Monk turned Reformer. What’s more, this day reminds us of our duty, our obligation, to keep the light of the gospel at the center of all we do.

Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and teaches on the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.

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The Gospel

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Jesus Made in America

This message by Steve Nichols is from the Ligonier Conference 2015, After Darkness, Light

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Tent-Making Is Not Second-Class

reprinted from The Gospel Coalition

In many ways the local church in Thessalonica was the apple of the apostle Paul’s eye. In no other letter does he exuberantly declare, “For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:20). So what was it about this local church that set it apart from others?

I’m sure we could garner many plausible answers to this question, but I see two primary motivations bubbling to the surface. First, the Thessalonian church was distinguished for its flourishing gospel mission. And second, the church manifested vibrant spiritual formation in Christlikeness. A closer look at 1 Thessalonians reveals that one connecting thread flowing from Paul’s inspired pen is a robust understanding and affirmation of Christian vocation. Indeed, vocational diligence is one of the letter’s main literary themes. Paul’s robust doctrine of vocation inextricably links the church’s vibrant spiritual formation with its flourishing gospel mission (1 Thess. 4:11–12; 5:12–15; see also 2 Thess. 3:6–15).

Extraordinary, Ordinary Lives

Paul’s opening words to the Thessalonians strike a vocational tone: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:2–3). He affirms three Christian virtues of new-creation life: faith, love, and hope. And these virtues are ensconced in the language of work and labor. The rest of the letter reveals that the work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope Paul has in mind isn’t confined to otherworldly contemplative spirituality, but to real-world vocational life.

Paul uses these same “work words” to describe his own hands-on vocational work as a tentmaker: “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:9). Paul doesn’t view his tent-making efforts as an unwelcome distraction to his apostolic mission, but as a primary conduit for gospel incarnation and proclamation.

The apostle points to his own vocational diligence and commends the Thessalonian believers’ extraordinary, ordinary lives—expressed through the work of their hands in the vocations and providential places God has put them, lives that were used mightily by the Holy Spirit to spread Christ’s gospel in the world. He writes, “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything” (1 Thess. 1:8).

Through the Thessalonians, the transforming gospel message of faith in Christ had greatly spread. And this came about through their daily work. The Thessalonian believers didn’t become a monastic community, nor did they pull up stakes and head out en masse as overseas missionaries. These first-century believers saw their gospel stewardship through the lens of their vocations and stations in life. Having embraced the gospel, they were honoring their King in the various stations of life they were in when they were called.

As these believers were faithful to their callings in these arenas, the gospel was spreading like wildfire through an increasingly mobile Roman world brimming with economic activity, imposing military presence, and wide-ranging commerce. In The Rise of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark raises this question: “How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?” His answer points, in part, to the early church and its normal, day-to-day living in vocational marketplace networks. The early church didn’t just gather for fellowship and teaching on the first day of the week, but scattered the rest of the week in various vocational workplaces. In these workplaces the gospel dynamically spread.

Vocation and Gospel Mission

Sometimes we wrongly buy into the idea that our gospel mission advances most when we become a pastor or missionary or parachurch worker, or when we recruit others to do the same. But Paul commends gospel incarnation and proclamation in the primary context of Christian vocation and vocational networks. Our gospel mission advances when we faithfully embrace our vocations, whatever and wherever they may be. If we are called to be a pastor or missionary, that is a high calling and should be applauded. If we are called to be a business leader, a teacher, a homemaker, or an assembly-line worker, that is also a high calling deserving of equal applause. As God’s redeemed people, we are called to live ordinary lives in ordinary places as bold witnesses of an extraordinary gospel.

I believe much of our foggy thinking about work will clear once we begin to see our gospel mission through a vocational lens. As gospel-centered Christian leaders, we have been entrusted with the stewardship of equipping others to live lives of growing Christian maturity. Our equipping stewardship goes beyond merely assisting others to do church well. We are called to encourage, equip, and assist others in being the church in the world. Former missionary Lesslie Newbigin brings into sharper focus the depth and breadth of our gospel-centered mission:

If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noon-time of “modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. . . . It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel.

God designed the local church to be a transformed people scattered in various vocational callings throughout the week. One of the highest stewardships for church leaders is to encourage and equip apprentices of Jesus for their work. Sadly, this stewardship rarely gets the attention and commitment it requires.

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