The word “Christmas” elicits many sensory responses: the vanilla, buttery smell of spritz cookies baking, the sounds of excited children whispering with giggling anticipation about gifts and Christmas songs at church, in the car, on iTunes, and at the mall and Home Depot, the sights of houses lit up in various kinds of splendor every night, the Salvation Army kettle outside every major box store, and Santa being used not to give gifts but to sell products, and of course the arrival of cold(er) weather (snow for Christmas???).
There were a variety of sensory experiences at the first Christmas, too. Fear seemed to dominate the emotional responses at each of the various angelic appearances. And certainly Joseph and Mary had some kind of anxiety or fear as the Christ arrived. And certainly their physical senses were overwhelmed with the birth of Jesus among the innkeeper’s cattle — sounds and smells surely abounding making it unlikely to be a “silent night.” What about the shepherds’ who were dazzled by the bright light and resounding chorus of the angels?
But there are at least two responses to Christ’s advent that are not typically affiliated with Christmas that dominated Christ’s coming. The first unobserved response is evangelism. We don’t typically relate Christmas to evangelism, but observe those who were at that first Christmas and see how many went to tell others about what they had seen and heard:
- An angel announced the pending arrival of Jesus to Mary, and then Joseph
- Mary sang of God as her Savior and the great things He had done in making His salvation available to generation after generation
- Once his vocal chords were again made to work, Zecharias sang a song of worship and proclamation of God’s grace
- The immediate response of the shepherds to viewing the baby was to tell others what they had seen
- At the temple when Jesus was presented a week after his birth, both Simeon and Anna spontaneously erupted in joyful song and declaration
- And the magi had to be warned not to tell Herod of the good news of Jesus’ birth, which indicates that their first impulse was to tell him (and others) about Jesus
All these proclamations of the appearance of the Messiah who would be the Savior of the world are easily explainable. It is not that people were so excited about another baby. While babies are a joy to the parents and cute to others, these declarations were not because another mother and child had survived childbirth. The joy was about the identity and purpose of this particular baby. He came as no other child had ever arrived on this earth — through a virgin birth. And He came with a singularly unique task — to fulfill the Law of God and redeem sinners from their sin by dying in their place. And that made His arrival uniquely worth declaring.
The second unobserved response to Christ’s advent is His reception among the nations. While it is true that He was rejected by His people, Israel (Jn. 1:11), yet there were some individuals who did receive Him, and following His ascension, many in the world believed on Him. In fact Paul notes an early hymn that said of Christ, “[He was] proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world” (1 Tim. 3:16). As a result of His coming, His work, His death and resurrection, and His ascension, the message of salvation went out from Jerusalem throughout the world, fulfilling His admonition in Acts 1:8.
And not only was the message of Christ disseminated, but it was believed! This is particularly clear in the book of Acts. In the first years of the church there is a pronounced evangelistic emphasis as the 12 disciples, who had initially been fearful at Christ’s death, were emboldened to declare the message of salvation regardless of the implications (see for instance 4:29-22; 5:29). And with that bold preaching God also produced amazing numbers of conversions. At the first preaching of Christ, there were 3000 conversions (2:41). And shortly after that there were another 5000 conversions (4:4). Actually, in virtually every chapter in Acts 1-19 there are accounts of the salvation of unbelievers (see 2:41, 47; 4:4; 6:1; 8:6-8, 35-36; 9:31; 10:44ff; 11:1, 19-21; 12:24; 13:48-49; 16:5, 30-33; 17:4, 34; 18:8; 19:17-20; 28:30-31). Individuals are saved, families are saved, and large groups of people are saved. “Religious” people are saved, and “pagans” are saved.
The unmistakable message is that the gospel does the very thing it was promised to do: it saves sinners. It convicts them of sin, it directs them to the Savior, and then it produces repentance and conversion. And we should take hope and encouragement that the same gospel that produced such astounding evidences of conversion then can (and will) similarly produce conversion today.
That diverse numbers and kinds of people were converted then is an encouragement about the power of the gospel to do the same today. If it was powerful to do that then, it is still powerful to do that today. And while these conversions don’t serve as a promise that every time the gospel is presented that there will be conversions, yet it does offer hope that sometimes when the gospel is given, some will respond in faith and be saved.
Sunday morning someone told me of a family member for whom their family had been praying for years for salvation, and whom they had asked me also to pray, had been recently convicted of her sin and turned to Christ for salvation. And without even talking about it to her husband, he also had in that same time frame trusted Christ for salvation! What a joy to remove those names from my “need salvation” prayer list!
Like the two thieves on the cross, not everyone will believe the gospel message when we tell it, but we can thank the Lord and confidently share the message, knowing that some will believe. And that, like evangelism, is one of the typically unobserved responses to Christmas. And it is a gentle reminder to every believer of our privilege of proclaiming Christ always (and particularly at this season), and a reminder that we can anticipate belief in the message of Christ among some.