other place), presents under a tree (that’s inside our house?) decorated with lights and ornaments, or a story about some magical guy in a sled with elves and reindeer delivering presents to children all over the world in one night have anything to do with the real reason for celebrating Christmas?
But on the other hand, it’s hard not to participate to some degree in these things; because once you’re categorized as a scrooge, the world really won’t listen to you anymore this time of year(1). There are many perspectives on this, and I’m certainly not going to try to state (or even claim to state) the Biblical perspective.
But I wonder if at least one Biblical perspective is that it’s not all that bad, in part, to embrace the cultural concept of receiving gifts this time of year. And I say receiving rather than giving for a specific purpose.
And I get it; a clarification is in order:
Yes, I think it’s very important to give gifts to others and to give generously to those less fortunate than ourselves (Ps. 112:5, 9; Prv. 19:17, 28:27; 1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 8:8-15, 9:6-15; Gal. 2:10). Even Christ Himself said “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). And I also think it’s clear that that’s a universal truth, applicable to both believer and unbeliever. All people are generally happier (more blessed) in giving someone a gift rather than in receiving one.
But we also must consider: if left up to ourselves, would we even be generous in giving at all? If left up to ourselves, would we benefit from the participation in giving gifts to one another and being generous to others less fortunate than ourselves?
I think the Bible is clear that we wouldn't (Jas. 4:2-3; cf. Rom. 3:10-18).
And so in order for us to give (and give well), I think one Biblical perspective is to realize the importance of receiving. For what would it be like if Christ had not come and we did not receive Him as the greatest gift to the entire world?
One song writer captured it very well:
Long lay the world, in sin and error pining
The world without Christ is just that – steeped in sin; suffering and longing for a remedy. Who can be generous in such a state? Who can think of others when sin has so grabbed you that you’re a slave to only thinking of yourself? And what kind of gift could you give to someone in that same state, even if you could somehow think of someone else?
What a dreadful position we were in: no thought of giving and charity would have ever encroached upon our minds or hearts. You may think it would have, but I’m telling you that’s only the flesh talking. Apart from Christ, and left to yourself, generosity does and will elude you.
But Christ did come! And as a giver, He truly was very blessed in giving Himself to us as the most wonderful gift ever to be received. Indeed, the Bible says that it was “for the joy set before Him” that He came to the world, put on flesh, and endured the cross for the benefit of all who trust in Him (Heb. 12:2). He was truly blessed in His giving.
Yet what of us? We are the recipients of that gift (Gal. 4:4-5)! And it does us well to reflect on what that means. While I know this isn't an exhaustive list, below are at least a few things that I know I would benefit to keep in mind during this time of year about the nature of Christmas and the receiving nature of the season. And I hope they can be a blessing to others as well.
1. Christmas is not a gift exchange.
While there are certainly varieties of economic quality and quantity under the tree, by and large there tends to be at least some sort of equity in the giving and receiving of gifts. What I mean is, usually when you give someone a Christmas gift you're getting one in return.
Yet the gift Christ gave us in His Incarnation was not meant to be part of an exchange. It cannot be returned in any like value. He doesn't give His life for us in exchange for something we can give to Him(2). We can give him nothing (Isa. 66:1 cf. Ps. 50:10-12)! And even if we tried to offer up our best, in and of ourselves, it would be wholly dissatisfying to Him; for our sin is so deep it would only pollute our "good" works (Isa. 64:6; Rom. 7:15, 8:7-8).
And though all we are, in and of ourselves, are enemies to His Holy Name (Rom. 5:10) and by nature children of His just wrath (Eph. 2:3), yet He loved us still, and chose us - even us - to believe in Him and receive His good grace (1 Cor. 1:26-31; cf. Jn. 6:37).
Thank God Christmas is not a gift exchange! For who could give a gift to God that he might be repaid? (Rom. 11:35). But all we can do is wonder at the marvelous mercy of being recipients of this unmerited favor that God has bestowed on those whom He calls His own!
But that brings me to the second point...
2. Christmas is indispensable.
Obviously as far as the culture goes, if you took away a season of giving gifts to one another and receiving gifts from one another, we could still have the gospel (I mean, this tradition of material gifts certainly wasn't integral to the early church).
Yet, even the cultural festivities can be used as reminders to the necessity of Christmas (and by that I mean the necessity of Christ's Incarnation and ultimate Atonement). And this comes most into play when speaking of receiving gifts. (Yes, again, giving gifts is good - as is evidenced in the comments above; but also again, we would not have that good in us to give good gifts had it not been for the gift of Christ Himself.)
The Bible says we were unable and unwilling to please God (Rom. 3:11, 8:7-8), spiritually blind (2 Cor. 4:3-4), dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), alienated from God (Eph. 2:12), darkened in our understanding (Eph. 4:18), callous in our hearts (Eph. 4:19), hostile in our minds (Col. 1:21), led astray, being slaves to passions and pleasures while hating and being hated (Tit. 3:3).
Friends, that gift of the Incarnation is indispensable to our lives. Had Christ not come to save us, we would be left in the bondage described above!
And so...to me it seems to be a pretty decent thing to do, to allow each present we receive during the Christmas season to remind of us of just that.
We need gifts! We need presents given to us by others; because ultimately we cannot get everything we need from our own hands. And I pray that the presents we receive at Christmas - each and every one of them - will remind us with each new opening that we, out of necessity, must be recipients of God's good gifts!
But there is more, which brings me to the third and final point...
3. Christmas really is all year long.
While there is a huge difference between the Christian understanding of the Incarnation of Christ and whatever is meant by Christmas in the movie Elf, that movie does have it right when one of the things to live by is that we should treat every day like Christmas!
But I mean that in two regards:
(1) Reflecting on the Incarnation regularly is certainly worth the time of every believer. It's not just in the gospel accounts that it's recorded merely as an historical event. Paul teaches in several places the theological importance of it and the need to reflect on it (even in song form).
For he says of Christ,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
These are great and powerful reflections on the Incarnation of Christ and His subsequent ministries of sacrifice and victory. And they are intended to be reflected on regularly throughout the Christian life.
Yet there is even more to the wonderful gift of the Incarnation of Christ, and that is what He did when He ascended in bodily form to heaven: He gave more gifts to man (Eph. 4:7-12)! Which is to say...
(2) His giving continues every day! Indeed, because of the ascension, we are now so blessed in the body of Christ that we are not lacking in any gift at all (1 Cor. 1:7)! He has blessed us by giving us the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:7, 13-14), and empowering us with our own individual spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:4-7; Heb. 2:4) so that every day we can have an impact on building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:15-16), reaching out to the lost (Lk. 10:37), and transforming our societies for God's glory (Eph. 5:11, 15-17)!
What a marvel, truly, that the Incarnation of our Lord has such wonderful effects as to transform us day by day, conforming us more to His image, using us for His good works, and allowing us to be the recipients, daily, of His transforming power (2 Cor. 3:18)!
It is no wonder then that Christmas is the season of receiving. We, who by God's grace have put our faith in Christ (1 Cor. 1:30-31), are truly the most blessed recipients in the world! And so I can think of no better way to conclude these remarks than to celebrate this joyous occasion with such a marvelous line from such a beloved advent song:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come
May your Christmas be one of reception, receiving the gift of Christ, and letting every gift you receive be a reminder to you that Jesus Christ is a gift that cannot and must not be repaid, that He is a necessary gift, and that He continues to give good gifts every day for your benefit, the benefit of others, and to the glory of God!
(1) I’m certainly not advocating being friends with the world (Jas 4:4); but at the same time it’s important to some degree to eat what they eat, drink what they drink, and be where they are…so as to save as many as the Lord calls to Himself (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
(2) Of course I'm not here advocating that once you believe in Jesus you're then free to live your life however you want (i.e. in a continued lifestyle of sin). Paul argues the very opposite of that (Rom. 6:1-2, 15ff). The Scriptures are clear that Christ saves us for a lifestyle that is befitting to His glory (Tit. 2:11-14). But that does not mean we live for His glory, by our own power, in exchange for what He's done for us.
Our living for His glory is by Him working in us, and is a natural outworking of the new nature He has given us (Eph. 6:10; Phil. 2:13; Col. 1:29; 1 Thess. 5:23-24)! He has saved us not only from the penalty of our sins but also from the power of our sinful nature (Rom. 5:1, 6:10-11)!