No one knows the exact day Jesus was born, but the precise date of Jesus’ birth is not critical, and senseless speculation and controversy about this topic can cause Christians to lose focus.
The reason for the season
It is important that we rejoice and celebrate the central events in the life of Jesus Christ because He is the foundation of our Faith. When we think about and ponder His birth, there are many issues that are mysterious and profound for us. 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 baby, just as we all do. How and why He did all of that for us is beyond our comprehension, but it is a subject that never ceases to cause us to marvel and to worship. Every December believers (and many others who are not Christians but hear the Gospel message nonetheless) centre their lives in the miracle of the birth of our Lord.
Calculating the month
Though 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 specific 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. Presuming this conclusion to be accurate, 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 normal in terms of 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 Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), would have happened in December.
How scholars reached a date
The second method of trying to fix a date for Jesus’ birth counts backward rather than forward. When the temple was destroyed in AD 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 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.
The date is not the point…
So 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 (Matt 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 can 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.
Why we celebrate
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; Matt 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, and offer 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, our hearts overflow with thanksgiving and joy that God chose to send His Son into the world for our redemption. The Gospel does not require the celebration of Christmas, nor for that matter, that any particular festival occasion be observed.
Let us not condemn
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 honour 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 celebrate ‘unto the Lord’ without condemning those who do so in a different way.