Author Archives: Bob Rogers
Most Christians who are interested in missions are aware that Christianity has grown dramatically in modern China, despite persecution by the Communist government. But the story of how Christianity grew and what it looks like today in China remains a mystery to most Western Christians. Lian Xi, a native of China who is now professor of history at Hanover College, lifted that mystery for Western readers in 2010 with his carefully researched book published by Yale University Press, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China.
Xi briefly surveys the presence of Christianity in China in ancient times, and then focuses most of the book on Christianity in China in the 19th and 20th centuries. China was forced to sign treaties with Western nations that included official toleration of Christianity after 1858. For the next century, over 23,000 missionaries poured into China from the West, half of them Americans. While this mission effort did contribute to over 623,000 members in mission churches by 1949, it also led to a deep resentment against Christians by most Chinese, who saw it as a religion of foreigners that was forced upon them. This resentment erupted into violence at times, such as the Boxer Rebellion. Xi stresses that Protestant Christianity was able to become truly indigenous under Communist rule, and no longer was seen as a foreign religion. The Communist government unwittingly allowed this to happen, by settting up the officially recognized and state-controlled Three-Self Church. Most Christians rejected the Three-Self Church as guilty of ungodly compromise with the state, and turned instead to a variety of underground church movements.
Xi then follows the stories of several influential indigenous movements among Protestant Christians, including the True Jesus Church, the Bethel Band, the Jesus Family, and the Little Flock, with charismatic leaders like John Sung, Wang Mingdao, and Watchman Nee. Most of these churches held to a fundamentalist faith, a charismatic leader, pre-millennial hope, and a revivalistic, if not Pentecostal, fervor. Some half million Christians died under Communist persecution, but by 2000 there were 15 million Protestants and 5 million Catholics in the official registered churches, and an additional 30 million Protestants and several million Catholics in underground churches.
Westerners tend to idealize the faith of Chinese Christians, but Xi points out that the lack of theological training and isolation from any accountability in underground churches occasionally led to doctrinal heresies and mixtures of Chinese folk religion with Christianity, as well as opening the door to leaders who were dictatorial and sometimes immoral. Despite these shortcomings among the underground churches, Xi credits them with having a powerful appeal by offering hope to the powerless under Communist oppression. Despite the phenomenal growth of Christianity in China, it is still a minority faith in China, and expected to remain a religion of the common people, not a majority faith or a faith of those in influence or power in China.
I found Xi’s research to be thorough and highly informative, but it came across as somewhat aloof and skeptical of genuine faith. He tends to explain away the faith of Chinese Christians in terms of sociological factors. He includes stories of the moral failings of Chinese Christian leaders, but he reports very few of the stories of commitment, martyrdom and persecution suffered by Chinese Christians. Nevertheless, Xi’s research is likely to become a standard resource for any historian or missiologist wishing to understand Christianity in modern China.
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Good review of the movie “Noah” by my friend, Pastor Gregg Potts..
Originally posted on Greggpotts's Weblog:
Last night, Holli and I went to see the movie “Noah.” I had heard a lot about it… even had people recommend me not seeing it cause it was so bad.. but, I wanted to see for myself so, we went.
As Holli and I were buying our ticket, I asked the girl at the ticket counter about the movie. I said something like “I’ve heard it’s kind of off.” The girl replied, “It’s not necessarily based on the Biblical account of Noah and the ark.” Then she added, “there is an ark and there are animals.. beyond that.. it’s not based on the Bible.” I chuckled but, she was absolutely right.
(Now, disclaimer here.. I’m not a movie critic and I don’t remember everything about the movie. This post is based on what I do remember. And, I’m not a right-winger always looking for something wrong with the world…
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A lot of Christian films have poor acting and predictable scripts, so I was quite surprised at how good this movie was. Of course, it was predictable in defending the belief in God, but it presented that message in a way that was creative and hip. The film introduced a variety of characters but did not show how they all connect until later in the film, giving the subplots an unpredictability, even as the main plot was fairly much what the viewer expected. It targeted a young audience, as the protagonist and most of the primary actors were young adults who constantly used smart phones, computers, and visual media to communicate, and it all came to a conclusion during a Christian rock concert.
The acting was outstanding, both by the lead characters and the supporting roles. It was some of the best acting that I’ve seen in a Christian film. The dramatic tension made a very intellectual argument interesting, bringing it to a climax that was so strong that the theater audience where I was broke out into loud applause. Atheists will hate this film, but they cannot dismiss it as simple-minded or shallow. But what might infuriate atheists the most was that the movie showed that it is not only reasonable to be a believer, but it can even be cool to be a believer.
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Copyright 2014 by Bob Rogers
Lillie Mae Lanier leaned on her wall
In her shotgun house on Desire Street.
Missing her husband, afraid of it all
In her shotgun house on Desire Street.
Her heart hurt, her head broke
Open the truth that she spoke
To her wall– as it wondered if it could stay still
When such painful emotions were written on the wall
In the shotgun house on Desire Street.
Katrina had come, Katrina had gone
To the shotgun house on Desire Street.
Waters had risen, families washed away
But Lillie Mae Lanier never wandered away
From the faith she had on Desire Street
Why? You may ask. Why lean on that wall
In your shotgun house on Desire Street?
Lillie Mae still leans day after day
In her shotgun house on Desire Street
For she knows the wall will never give way
And one day will take her heart far away
From her shotgun house on Desire Street.
When all that you have has melted away
And Monday’s food must last till Friday
You need a wall to lean on
You need a foundation to stand on
Lillie read the words written on her wall
That keeps her faith strong
That moves her along
She knows that one day He will take her away
And she’ll never again live on Desire Street.
For she’s a princess in hiding
And she’s waiting for her King
To smile on her heart on the day she departs
From her shotgun house on Desire Street.
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A hymnal in my left hand, a Bible in my right
Tossing a communion cup on a one-foot hop.
Cascading with a committee on Sunday night
Spinning a budget, now what will I drop?
A juice-stained Bible by my foot on the floor
Heart cut on the cup, fingers shut in the door
I thought diabolo was a juggler’s trick
But I ended up falling on the devil’s stick.
When it comes to studying the Bible, not only are there many choices of translations, but also many choices of study Bibles. Here is an overview of some that I have found helpful.
There are several general study Bibles that are connected directly to a certain translation of the Bible. If a person cannot afford an entire set of commentaries, or wishes to have commentary on the whole Bible in one volume, these study Bibles are the best option. The NASB Study Bible (also available with the same notes as the NIV Study Bible), the HCSB Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible and the Jeremiah Study Bible (NKJV) are examples of this. Each of these study Bibles have extensive introductions to the books of the Bible, maps, and notes at the bottom of the page to explain the text in the particular translation used. The ESV Study Bible is the most scholarly and exhaustive of these study Bibles. The HCSB Study Bible is in a more popular style, and makes the best use of color, making it the easiest to read. The Jeremiah Study Bible has notes by popular Bible teacher, Dr. David Jeremiah.
Some study Bibles focus on a special purpose. The Archaeological Study Bible (NIV) includes notes and articles that explain the cultural and historical background of the Bible. The Life Essentials Study Bible (HCSB) and Life Application Bible (available in NLT, NIV, NKJV, NASB) focus on applying the truths of scripture to our lifestyle. The Life Essentials Study Bible makes use of QR code. Readers can scan the code with their mobile phone and watch a video of a Bible teacher explaining the passage in greater depth. The Discover God Study Bible (NLT) focuses on devotional and doctrinal truth. This is an excellent study Bible for a new believer. The Apologetics Study Bible (HCSB) includes notes and articles that defend the Christian faith against non-Christian religions and skeptics.
All of these study Bibles are excellent resources in shedding light on God’s word. I refer to many of them on a regular basis, depending on how I am studying a particular passage. But none of these aids can substitute for simply reading the text first yourself. I would recommend you read and read again the text and make your own notes on what you observe before you turn to these or any other study aids. After your own study, check your observations with those of the experts. That way, you will allow the Holy Spirit to speak directly to you through scripture, and to speak to you through those who have studied it before you.
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A message from Dr. Don Hattaway, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention
The Georgia Baptist Convention has been greatly blessed by God. We have some of the most dedicated pastors and leaders in the history of our convention, excellent educational opportunities and resources, and the technological ability to deliver our message to the masses. In addition, we live in a state with over 7 million lost people desperately in need of the Gospel. Considering these factors, you would think we would be making great strides in reaching our state for Christ. Sadly, the opposite is true. Baptisms are down. Giving is down. Church attendance is down. Despite all of our efforts, we continue to lose ground in the battle for the souls of men, women, boys and girls across our state. If this downward trend is to be reversed, the problem causing it must first be determined.
I have come to believe that the greatest problem facing our convention is of a spiritual nature. We are in desperate need of revival. As the president of the Georgia Baptist Convention, my vision is to see spiritual renewal experienced in the churches throughout our state. This can only happen when we humble ourselves and seek the face of God. The time has come for all Georgia Baptists to cry out to the Father in confession and repentance of sins. When we are right with God and each other, God will be able to use us to impact our state with the Gospel.
If revival is going to be experienced throughout Georgia, prayer is where it will begin. Since there is no such thing as a prayerless revival, I want to call upon all Georgia Baptist pastors and leaders to begin to pray fervently for revival in our state.
Throughout this year, I will travel across Georgia encouraging the formation of prayer groups that will regularly meet to seek God’s face for spiritual renewal. I hope to see the momentum of prayer and spiritual expectancy build throughout the year leading up to our annual convention at Ingleside Baptist in Macon, Georgia. Our theme will be “Revive Us Again!” The Scriptural basis for this focus is Psalm 85:6, “Will You not revive us again so that Your people may rejoice in You?” This emphasis is so important I have chosen to refer to this year’s convention as “Revive 2014.”
When messengers leave “Revive 2014” in November, I want them to be able to say they have experienced God’s power and presence in their lives. My ultimate desire is for Georgia Baptists to come away with a renewed cleansing from God, a unified fellowship among God’s people and a restored passion to worship God and reach our state with the Gospel message.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He instructed His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit descended to empower the Church. After ministering alongside Jesus for three years, the disciples were not ready to do ministry because they lacked the power of the Holy Spirit. Once the Holy Spirit descended on the Church at Pentecost, Peter preached the Gospel and 3,000 souls were saved. The Church, ministering in the power of God, turned the world upside-down for Christ. We, as believers, have the Holy Spirit living within us. However, sin grieves the Holy Spirit and limits His power in our lives. God wants to demonstrate His power in and through us. For this to happen, we must humble ourselves and pray for a fresh encounter with God. Only then will we be able to minister in the power of God and impact our state for Christ.
Will you join me in consistently praying for a spiritual renewal throughout Georgia in 2014? We must not delay. God wants to do a new work in us and in our convention. Let us join Him in His work.
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I’m re-posting a blog I wrote on finding good devotionals to read in the New Year. I hope you find it helpful!
Originally posted on Bob Rogers:
Daily prayer and Bible reading is critical to grow in the Christian life, and a helpful tool is a daily devotional. There are many excellent monthly and quarterly magazines, including the non-denominational publications, Our Daily Bread,The Word for You Today, and Seeds from the Sower. Our Daily Bread usually has an interesting illustration for a Biblical truth, and each daily devotion is written by a different author. The Word for You Today, written by Bob Gass of Northern Ireland, makes a practical application to a Biblical truth, often using humor. Seeds from the Sower, written by Michael and Lawrence Guido from Metter, Georgia, often uses humor to share an uplifting thought. Southern Baptists publish Stand Firm (for men), Journey (for women), and Open Windows (written for all adults, it includes a middle section to pray by name for missionaries on their birthday). United Methodists publish The…
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At Christmas, people all over the world exchange gifts. The Gallup Poll estimates that each American will personally spend about $740 this Christmas on Christmas gifts. (Source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/166226/consumers-holiday-spending-intentions-remain-modest.aspx). American Research Group estimates that each American spends $801. (Source: http://americanresearchgroup.com/holiday/)
Research says that on Black Friday 2013, Americans spent $12.3 billion in stores and nearly $2 billion online. Source: http://www.slideshare.net/WishpondTechnologiesLtd/black-friday-2013-results-1). Hundreds of billions of dollars more will be spent during the entire Christmas season.
Children look for Santa Claus to bring them gifts. According to a survey on Today.com, 67% of American families will give each of their children at four gifts or more for Christmas. So most American children get more gifts for Christmas than Jesus got on His own birthday! Many children are so excited about getting gifts that they forget that the holiday is to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
In America, exchanging gifts at Christmas has become gluttonous, excessive and wasteful. How did get so far away from the original idea? Let’s work our way backwards to where this all came from, and see if we can’t also get back to where we should be.
I. The tradition of gifts from Santa Claus
Santa Claus as we know him today originated here in America, particularly in New York.
The tradition of Santa Claus comes primarily from the poem by Clement C. Moore, a seminary professor in New York City. The poem was originally called, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but most of us know it by the first line, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It was published in 1823 and had a great impact on the tradition of Santa Claus. It is from this poem that people get the idea of a jolly elf with a big belly coming on Christmas Eve with reindeer and bringing gifts for children. Yet even this poem never calls him Santa Claus, but instead it calls him St. Nicholas. New York, where Clement C. Moore lived, was first settled by the Dutch, who used the term Sinterklaas, to refer to St. Nicholas, and Sinterklaas came to be pronounced Santa Claus in English. But who was St. Nicholas?
Nicholas was a real person who was a Christian bishop in the 4th century. He was born in A.D. 270, and died on December 6, A.D. 343. Nicholas grew up in a wealthy home in Myra, part of modern-day Turkey. He became bishop of Myra and was known as a conservative, Bible-believing bishop, with a reputation for secret gift-giving and caring for children. One legend said that he often put coins in the shoes of people in need. The most famous legend about Nicholas was that a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for their wedding. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house.
One version of the legend has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throwing the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes of age. Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man’s plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking. (Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas#Gift_giving, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas)
You can quickly see how these legends developed over the centuries into the legend of a character who brings gifts in secret, sometimes in stockings or down a chimney. He is known by many names in many countries, including Father Christmas, Père Noël in French, and Sinterklaas in Dutch.
Because the real St. Nicholas died on December 6, in many nations he is remembered on that day with the giving of gifts. But during the Protestant Reformation, many Protestants changed the gift-giver to the Christ child, which is Christkindl in German, and changed the date from December 6 to Christmas Eve. The German Christkindl got corrupted to Kris Kringle in English, and the Dutch Sinterklaas got corrupted to Santa Claus in English.
But we need to go further back than St. Nicolas to understand gift-giving at Christmas. Nicholas was a Christian bishop, and we need to go back to the Bible to see where he learned to give gifts.
II. The tradition of gifts from the wise men
Many traditions have grown up about the wise men who came to bring gifts to Jesus. The popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” has led people to believe that there were three wise men, and that they were kings. Tradition has even given the three kings names: Melchior from Persia, Caspar from India, Balthasar from Arabia. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi)
How much of this is really in the Bible?
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that wise men came from the East, following a star to find the newborn Messiah, the king of the Jews. It does not say there were three of them, it only says they brought three gifts. There could have been twelve of them, for all we know.
The word translated “wise men” in Matthew 2:1 is magi. It is a Persian word that described priests of the Zoroastrian religion who foretold the future by studying the stars. The word magi was first used by Darius the Mede, who is considered from the people group known today as the Kurds. Kurds today still celebrate certain Zoroastrian practices, especially the Zoroastrian New Year that they call Newroz. Thus instead of kings from India, Persia and Arabia, the wise men were very likely Zoroastrian priests and astrologers from the Medes, or modern-day Kurds.
Now let’s look at Matthew 2:11. It says, “Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and falling on their knees, they worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
This happened many months after Jesus’ birth, so they now live in a house, not in a stable, and Jesus is a child, not a baby. Joseph is not mentioned, probably because he was away at work. But what is most important for us is to notice what the wise men did. If we will pay close attention to what they did, we will get our Christmas gift-giving back in balance. They did two things. First, they fell on their knees and worshiped Jesus. Second, they presented Him with treasures.
Notice that their first gift was their worship. There is no greater gift that you or I can give Jesus than to give him our worship. The poet Christina Rosetti wrote,
“What can I give Him? Poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part. Yet what can I give Him, Give Him my heart.”
This was the first gift of the wise men, the gift of their hearts. The apostle Paul writes about the Christians in Macedonia in 2 Corinthians 8, who gave offerings even though they were poor. Yet Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:5 that they first gave themselves to the Lord, even before they gave their financial gifts.
Notice that their second gift was their treasures: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There are many traditional symbols associated with these three gifts. Gold was considered one of the most precious medals in ancient times just as it is today. Job 28:15 talks about wisdom being so valuable that not even gold could be exchanged for it. King Solomon’s court was full of gold. Gold is often associated with Jesus as king. Frankincense is an incense that was used to burn before the Lord in the altar, according to Exodus 30:35-36. Thus frankincense is associated with prayer and worship. Myrrh is a valuable perfume. Myrrh was used as a beauty treatment, but John 19:39 says that the women used myrrh to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, and thus myrrh was associated with Jesus coming to die on the cross for our sins.
III. How to find Christ in our giving
So how do we find Christ in our Christmas gifts? Our journey backwards to the root of our traditions should give us some answers.
First, we should give ourselves to Christ in worship.
The wise men first gave of themselves in worship, and then gave their treasures to Christ. This should remind us that Christmas is about giving, not getting gifts. It is not about us receiving gifts, but about us giving to celebrate Christ. The most important gift of all is our worship to Christ. A Christian who is too busy exchanging presents at Christmas to give Jesus his presence in worship is guilty of idolatry! The wise men came to Jesus, and fell on their knees before Him. So should we.
Second, we should give Christ our treasures.
This should also remind us that our gifts should have a purpose. While there are many legends about the purpose of the gold, frankincense and myrrh, the reality is that soon after this, Joseph and Mary had to flee from the murderous intentions of King Herod, and the rich gifts from the wise men must have been very practical and useful to them in financing their trip. Genesis 37:25 mentions traders on a caravan of camels who were carrying perfumes and incense. The fact is that all three gifts were easy to transport, valuable and easy to sell on the open market. The gifts were not wasteful; they had a useful purpose.
If we truly treasure Jesus Christ, if we are truly grateful for Him coming to safe us, then we will want to give gifts to glorify Jesus Christ. This can include gifts to people in need, and gifts to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What would happen if just half of our church members would just give 10% of their spending to missions to share the gospel?
Last year, Southern Baptists gave $149.3 million to the international missions offering.
If just half of Southern Baptists gave just 10% of the average Christmas spending to missions, we would give $592 million dollars to missions. Instead, Southern Baptists only gave 25% of that amount.
Third, we should not teach our children to be greedy and materialistic. Many children think that Santa Claus has an unlimited supply to give them anything they want, which encourages greed and selfishness. Parents need to resist the culture’s materialism in the way they give gifts to their kids. As a mentioned in the beginning of this sermon, most American children get four or more gifts at Christmas, yet Jesus only received three. Many parents are saying that it’s time that they take a lesson from the wise men, and in honor of Jesus, they give their children three gifts. By giving your children three gifts, you remind them of Jesus’ three gifts. Some families do it this way: something they want, something they need and something to read. Others choose something they want, something they need, and something to wear. Other families give a “gold” present, and “frankincense” present, and a “myrrh” present. The “gold” present is something a child would want and treasure. The “frankincense” present is used in worship and spiritual life, such as a Bible, and the “myrrh” present is something for the body, like clothing or shoes. Many families allow a fourth present, as the child gets to pick a gift to give away to somebody else in need.(Source:http://t.co/ckwo8WQcvZ)
Fourth, we should exchange gifts to express our love.
As long as we honor Christ at Christmas, there is nothing wrong with exchanging gifts with our family and friends, as well. After all, giving and receiving gifts are an expression of love. Gary Chapman, in his bestseller, The Five Love Languages, says that people feel love in five major ways: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Although people have a primary love language, most people feel loved when they receive all five of those. Chapman points out that a gift does not have to be expensive to express love. It’s more important that the gift is thoughtful.
My sister, Nancy, is the best gift-giver I know. I have always noticed how thoughtful she is in selecting gifts for others. So I called her up and asked for her advice, and here is what she told me:
Nancy said, “I think about what that person would enjoy. It depends on who the person is. I ask, would it appeal to that person, not to me. So I ask myself, how would they react when they open this gift? Like a person who loves cats, I might think they would like a cat figurine, but then I think about how this person does not collect items and so even though they like cats, they don’t collect figurines. So I don’t just think about it just a minute. I give it some time and thought.
“When it comes to gift giving, the magic thing is not the dollar value. It’s showing the other person that you care about them and value them by thinking about what they would like. It’s about the receiver, the care and thought. One year when I had no money, I baked cookies and put them in plastic bags and put handwritten notes with the cookies, and it went over fine, because I tried to personalize it. A lot of times, a card you make yourself or a blank card that you write a note in, means even more.”
“What you will discover when you start putting time and thought into your gift-giving, is that gift-giving will become more enjoyable for you. You will look forward to seeing how the other person reacts and how they know that you showed that you care by selecting something just for them. After all, giving gifts is an expression of our love, and if we love someone, we will put some thought into what we give them.”
A young man wanted to get a special Christmas gift for his father, who lived far away. He looked for something unique that would show how much he valued his father. So he got an exotic parakeet. It could speak five different languages and it could sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” standing on one leg.
He spent $10,000 on the bird and had it shipped this unusual bird to his father. On Christmas Day, he called his father. He couldn’t wait to hear what his Dad thought of his gift. He said, “Dad, did you get my gift?” His father said, “I certainly did, son.” The man said, “Well, Dad how did you like it?” His dad replied, “Oh, it was delicious!”
He said, “But Dad, that was a special bird that could speak five different languages and even sing while standing on one leg! I can’t believe you ate him!” His father replied, “If he could speak five different languages, I can’t believe he didn’t say something before I ate him!” (Adapted from Tony Evans’ Book of Illustrations, p. 117-118.)
God sent the greatest gift at all at Christmas when He sent His Son to save us. But many of us have missed the point, like the man who ate the parakeet. But before we criticize those who miss the point, let’s ask ourselves a question: “Why don’t we say something?” After all, how are they going to know about the real gift of Christmas if we don’t tell them?
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What is the most popular Christmas song in America? Billboard magazine’s list of the top ten Christmas songs of 2012 is probably our best source. This is not based on opinion, but is based on airplay on the radio, sales, and online streaming. Here is the list (Source: http://wgna.com/the-most-popular-christmas-songs-of-2012/):
10. Last Christmas- Wham!
9. Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)- Trans-Siberian Orchestra
8. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year- Andy Williams
7. White Christmas- Bing Crosby
6. Jingle Bell Rock- Bobby Helms
5. A Holly Jolly Christmas- Burl Ives
4. Feliz Navidad- Jose Feliciano
3. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)- Nat King Cole
2. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree- Brenda Lee
1. All I Want For Christmas Is You- Mariah Carey
Did you notice who is completely missing from the top ten? Jesus! Christ is not only not in the top 10 songs, he’s not even mentioned in the rest of the top 20.
In a world that sings about Christmas without Christ, God is calling the church of Jesus Christ back to the tradition of Christmas carols.
I. The history of Christmas carols
While many Americans sing about Santa, chestnuts and a white Christmas, Christians all over the world have sung about the birth of Jesus Christ for centuries. As early as the fourth century, Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, wrote a hymn for Christmas to teach that God truly became a man, in response to heretics who denied Jesus’ incarnation.
Singing Christmas carols was popularized by St. Francis of Assisi during the Middle Ages in Europe, and was also encouraged by the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther. As early as the 15th century, groups of singers would go from house to house in England and sing Christmas carols. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, chaplain from Shropshire, who lists twenty five “caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of “wassailers,” who went from house to house and enjoyed “wassail,” ale, or apple cider, and other desserts given to them at each home. Thus we get the line, “here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green,” and since the homes often fed the carolers, we also get the line, “bring out the figgy pudding, we won’t go until we get some.” It was only later that carols begun to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas.
Two of the oldest Christmas carols still sung today are “O Come, all ye faithful,” which was originally written in the 13th century, and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” which was first composed in the 14th century.
Perhaps the three most popular Christmas carols in English are “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.” The first two were sung in the American colonies even before the United States was a nation, but the third one came from Austria.
“Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. It is based on Psalm 98, and its tune comes from one of the songs in Handel’s Messiah. Originally this song was intended to refer to Jesus’ Second Coming, but it has come to be associated mostly with His first coming at Christmas.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was written by the great Methodist founder Charles Wesley in 1739, and the words were revised by the great evangelist of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield. A hundred years later, the classical composer Felix Mendelssohn composed the tune that is popular today when people sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
“Silent Night” was originally written in German and first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818, at St. Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, Austria. The organist, Franz Gruber, discovered that the organ wasn’t working at the church. The priest, Joseph Mohr, had composed the words in German to “Silent Night” two years before. So he shared it with Gruber, who composed the tune to be sung by guitar. When Karl Mauracher came to repair the organ, he heard the story of how the song was composed in an emergency and sung without the organ, and Mauracher spread the song everywhere that he went. The song came to America by German-speaking congregations. Originally the words were “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” The English words we sing today were translated by John Freeman Young. “Silent Night” has been translated into 140 languages. (Sources: Wikipedia and Companion to Baptist Hymnal by William Reynolds.)
I wish we had time to talk about many other popular Christmas carols like “O Holy Night,” including some newer songs like “Mary Did You Know?” Many families bake a birthday cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus on Christmas morning, which is a wonderful way to teach the true meaning of Christmas to children. Which brings us back to the original story itself, because the first Christmas carols are found in the Bible itself.
II. The songs of the first Christmas
Really, singing Christmas carols goes all the way back to the first Christmas, because Luke’s Gospel records four different songs as he gives the Christmas story. Let’s look at the lessons we get from these original Christmas carols.
A Mary’s song says that Christ came to love the forgotten (Luke 1:46-55)
When Mary was told that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she broke out into a song of praise, found in Luke 1:46-55. It is often called “The Magnificat” because she began, “My soul magnifies the Lord…”
The song emphasizes how God has remembered the forgotten and lifts up the lowly. In verse 48-49 she sings with amazement that God chose her, a simple girl from Nazareth: “He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” And notice what she sings in verse 52: “He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.”
Mary’s song reminds us that in Christ, God remembers the forgotten. Mary was a poor girl, and Jesus was born in a feeding trough. The song should remind us to stop and give a donation to the Salvation Army when we go shopping, to help Toys for Tots, and share with Operation Christmas Child and Backpacks for Appalachia. The Christmas child shoe boxes and backpacks are a wonderful way to share Jesus with the poor at Christmas.
B. Zechariah’s song says that Christ came to save us (Luke 1:67-79)
Not only was Jesus’ birth a miracle, but the birth of John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, was also a miracle, because his parents were way too old to be having children. Yet an angel appeared to Zechariah to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would have a child in her old age. When John the Baptist was born to them, Zechariah broke out into a song of praise. It is found in Luke 1:67-79.
Zechariah’s song emphasizes that Christ came to save us. Luke 1:68-69 says, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David.” In the Bible, a horn was a symbol of strength. The Messiah was to come from the family line of King David. So Zechariah was singing about the same thing his son would prophesy when John the Baptist saw Jesus, and John proclaimed, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Zechariah’s song reminds us that Christ came to save us from sin.
C. The angel’s song says that Christ came to give us peace (Luke 2:13-14)
When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, he was suddenly surrounded by a great angel choir that sang the best-known of the songs that first Christmas. We read it in Luke 2:13-14. It is called “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” because it begins with the words, “Glory to God in the highest.”
The angel’s song spoke about Christ, the Prince of Peace, coming to bring us peace. Most of us know this song from the King James Version, which says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, Good will towards men.” Many of us react to that like the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during the Civil War. He wrote,
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
The good news is that the most reliable ancient manuscripts do not say what the KJV says. That is why the HCSB translates it, “peace on earth to people He favors!” You see, Jesus’ coming is not a general guarantee that everybody will have peace. The more accurate translation does not say peace to all men, but peace to people He favors. That is, peace is available to those who receive God’s grace, or favor, through faith in Christ. As Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” On Christmas Eve, 1914, during World War I, the British, French and German armies laid down their arms and visited with one another in peace, and they all sang “Silent Night” in their own languages, as they all knew the song. The message about the Prince of Peace made all the difference, even in the midst of war.
Have you found the peace of Christ? The angel’s song reminds us that Christ came to give us peace, a peace we receive by faith in Him.
D. Simeon’s song says that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it (Luke 2:29-32)
There is one more Christmas song in Luke’s Gospel. Officially, it was after Christmas, since it happened a few days later. A lot of people get the post-Christmas blues after Christmas is over. They get kind of sad, taking down the Christmas tree and putting away the decorations. And we rarely sing Christmas carols after Christmas Day. But Simeon did.
A few days after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to dedicate Him to the Lord in the temple. There they met a prophet named Simeon, who had been waiting all of his life for the Messiah to come and save His people. Luke 2:26 says it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the Messiah. When he saw Jesus with Mary and Joseph, Simeon took Him in his arms and sang the fourth Christmas carol. In that song, Simeon reminded us that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it. We read the song in Luke 2:29-32.
Simeon sang, “For my eyes have seen Your salvation. You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples—a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Your people Israel.”
Simeon knew that the salvation that is offered in Jesus Christ was prepared for “all peoples,” both Gentiles and Jews, and he wanted everybody to know that the baby Jesus that he was holding in his arms was the Savior.
Simeon’s song reminds us, to keep Christmas all year long, keep on sharing the good news.
Christmas carols that celebrate Jesus may not be in the top 20, but people still recognize the songs and enjoy hearing them this season of the year, which is all the more reason for us to play carols in our homes and cars and places we work. It’s a simple way to share the good news.
And how we need to renew the tradition of going Christmas caroling! I have a suspicion that if Zechariah and Simeon and Mary were with us today, they would be going door-to-door caroling, with some shepherds right behind them and angels overhead.
Years ago, a small group of carolers went door-to-door in a wealthy neighborhood of Beverly Hills, California. They rang a doorbell, and the man of the house answered, all in a hurry. He said, “Look, I appreciate the sentiment, but I really don’t have time for this. The house is a mess and we’re trying to get out the door to go shopping. Come by some other day.” As he shut the door, Bing Crosby and his family said, “Okay,” and left.
God sent His Son at Christmas. Don’t be so busy you miss the song.
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