Category: Pastor’s Word

December 25th?

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Just how did we end up celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on 25th December? Is it a good guess at the actual date? Did the church compromise with the pagan Roman culture? The answer is not straightforward.

At the outset, we are not given a specific date for Jesus’ birth in the Gospels. The only thing which comes close is the mention of shepherds keeping sheep when they hear of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:8. Perhaps that means it was lambing season (sometime in the spring, rather than the depths of winter, as December is in the northern hemisphere).

The writers of the early church don’t mention any celebration of Jesus’ birth, and several of them dismiss the celebration of the birthdays as a pagan practice. In 200 A.D., their best guesses at the date of Jesus’ birth didn’t include 25th December. Two centuries later, the favoured dates were either 25th December (in the western part of the Roman Empire and in North Africa) or 6th January (in the eastern part of the Empire).

In contrast to the uncertainty about the date of Jesus’ birth, there is one date in Jesus’ life that we can know with reasonable precision. His death was just after the Passover, which always fell on the 14th day of Nisan. However, the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar as ours is, so the date of the Passover (and consequently Easter) keep moving according to the timing of the full moon.

Early Christians marked Jesus’ death and resurrection every week as they met with him to worship him (John 20:1, 19, 26; Acts 1:3, 2:1-4). Australian historian Andrew McGowan notes that a distinctive annual celebration was being held by the mid-second century (How December 25 Became Christmas, Bible History Daily, 12/02/2015). It is true that the Roman Emperor Aurelian established a feast called Sol Invictus on 25th December in 274 A.D. and some have alleged that the church adopted this date for reasons of convenience or compromise.

However, as McGowan explains, there is no mention of this in Christian writings; the idea isn’t suggested until the study of comparative religions took hold in the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead the early church saw the date in December as a divine proof of Jesus’ importance. December 25th is 9 months before March 25th, the date of the crucifixion in the West calculated by Christians in the West. In the East, Easter was celebrated on 6th April and Christmas on 6th January, again 9 months apart.

The early church thought Jesus’ conception and his death were on the same date. Therefore, his birth would have been 9 months after the date of the crucifixion. For Christians from the earliest days, the fact that Jesus came into the world was always held tightly together with the reason for his coming: his death for sinners.

Reflecting on the significance of the Passover in the Gospels (and in John especially), one may note that the Jews had this idea: At Passover, God’s deliverance could well be expected again (John 6:4-15f). If anything, it is a Jewish idea (not a pagan one) that God’s redemptive actions can be expected at the same time of the year.

At this point, the church had not compromised its celebration of the Lord’s Day even though Sunday was a working day. Christians often met close to sunrise and sunset. If they had resisted the pressure to just meet on Saturday, why would they be so keen to accommodate paganism by picking one of many pagan holidays to celebrate Jesus’ birth?

They might have chosen any date, but their choice was a day which acknowledges God’s sovereign direction of all events and ties together his incarnation and his resurrection. Marking Jesus’ birth on 25th December is not based on a clear statement in the Scriptures. But for the believer who considers Jesus’ death and resurrection to be central events of history, recognising that his birth is part of the same unbroken plan is a God-honouring thing to do. It shows what we believe about who Jesus is, where he came from, and why. As C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.’ So, like the early Christians, when we celebrate the beginning of His work, we should celebrate the end of it too (Revelation 12:5).

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

The Purpose of Suffering

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Is it wrong for Christians to be sad? After all, we are the recipients of ‘every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.’ Meeting some Christians, you might get the impression that a Christian is never troubled, or that they shouldn’t be (and if they are, they definitely shouldn’t let on). Is this right?

Even the greatest of Christians, full of faith and mightily used by God, have been subject to great sorrow.

As he considered the privilege of being entrusted with the Gospel, Paul openly confessed that he held ‘this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us,’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). Part of that weakness is being ‘perplexed, but not in despair’ (2 Corinthians 4:8). So a Christian may be unsure what is happening to us or what we should do, but we should never be completely without hope.

Indeed, the confirmation comes as we look at the life of Jesus. We find that He experienced every sort of emotion, yet without sin as we are reminded in Hebrews 4:15.

In John 11:33, we read that Jesus about Jesus coming to the tomb of Lazarus and seeing the mourners wailing. He was ‘deeply moved in His Spirit and greatly troubled’. The first phrase ‘deeply moved’ should be more strongly translated as ‘indignant’, but what about the second phrase ‘greatly troubled’? When He came face to face with death, He was strongly affected by pain and sorrow. So much so, that He wept (John 11:35). Yet, Jesus did not despair because He knew that it was the will of His Father for Him to raise Lazarus and to conquer death for us all (John 11:11, 23, 25-26).

Christians suffer. It may be caused by ourselves, other people, God or indeed Satan. There may be more than one cause. Some causes are internal, as we either respond to our circumstances by worshipping God or by serving something else. Other causes are external, as we respond to our fallen world, the influences of our world, or the work of the Devil. In some cases, we may never know the reason for suffering.

Even if we never find the cause, we can know the purpose of suffering: It is to answer the questions ‘Whom will I trust?’ and ‘Whom will I worship?’ Christian counsellor, Ed Welch points sufferers to God: ‘Somehow, turning to God and trusting him with the mysteries of suffering is the answer to the problem of suffering.’ (Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness, pages 30-31).

If we seek answers in the Bible, we find that Jesus has experienced and is moved by our suffering, and that God has generously given us Jesus (Romans 8:32). This should prompt us to cry out to the Lord in dependence and worship; to believe that we are engaged in warfare for Christ against our own desires; to remember that God forgives sinners such as us; to recognize that our reason for living is not about us but about fearing God; and to hope in God (who Himself perseveres) even when suffering and depression say, ‘Surrender!’. That’s how we reveal the life of Jesus even though we live in mortal bodies, with weak minds and bodies (2 Corinthians 4:11).

It is not wrong for Christians to mourn but we should always remember that God is God, that He is good and that He is working everything together for our good, if we are His (Romans 8:28).

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

Improving Your Baptism

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I don’t remember my baptism. I’m told that it happened at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Gore on the South Island of New Zealand sometime a few decades ago, but I don’t remember a moment of it. So what good does it do me?

The very fact that children don’t remember their own baptisms is one reason why some Christian people object to baptising infants at all. What good does it do to go through this ritual if you have no possibility of looking back on it?

But many events I don’t remember have changed the world in which I live. I have no memory at all of the Berlin Wall coming down or ‘the recession we had to have’, and yet they profoundly influenced the world in which I grew up.

As for my baptism, it has influenced me in ways I cannot imagine. The act of being baptized doesn’t change anyone (1 Peter 3:21) but God’s promises always have their effect.

And more crucially, the very fact that God commands that infants be baptized shows that it isn’t about what you or I can do or remember anyway (Genesis 17:7-9; Galatians 3:9, 14; Colossians 2:11-12; Acts 2:38-39; Romans 4:11-12; 1 Corinthians 7:14; Matthew 28:19; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15). Before God saves us, we are all dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-7). And despite that (in fact, because of that) He makes a promise to us that if we repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we will be saved (Acts 2:38-39).

That’s why we should take the opportunity to remember our baptism whenever we can. Paul repeatedly reminded believers of their baptism (Romans 6:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:11-13; 12:13, 25; Galatians 3:26-27). He tells us about the righteousness we receive from Jesus Christ by being counted a part of Him; that we should no longer live as we once did, because we have been baptized; that our allegiance must be to Jesus Christ, not to any other significant Christian in our lives or in history; that we are called to live as a single body, having been made part of it by Jesus; and that we are empowered to live as God’s children, growing up into the likeness of Christ. Baptism illustrates many of the intensely practical parts of the Christian life.

Witnessing a baptism should make us think of so much more than how cute the baby is. It should remind us of our own baptism, what it means and the reason God has given it to us The fact that you or I were baptized once is something to remember when we are tempted: God has promised to save sinners like us and to make us His children, so we need not give in to sin because Jesus has conquered it in His death and He gives us His new life because of His resurrection. Baptism pictures for us the reason we need to be saved and the effect of the salvation God gives. Seeing someone baptized should spur us on to live the life Christ has promised to us and to encourage one another to live lives of holiness and righteousness because we belong to Christ and to one another (Westminster Larger Catechism Q167).

Baptism isn’t about experiencing a life-changing ritual. It isn’t even about the promises which we make (whether as new believers or as the parents of covenant children). It’s about the promise God holds out, that if we repent and believe, He will wash away our sins, and that just as Christ has gone down to the dead and been raised again, so those who are united to Him share in His death to sin and His resurrection to new life. And if we know the reality that God promises to those who believe, then it changes how we live (whether we remember receiving the promise or not). That’s something we should want to be reminded about!

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

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Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that I was baptized at Knox Presbyterian Church in Gore. Obviously my recollections are pretty fuzzy!

Confidence in God

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The Scouts motto is ‘Be Prepared’. I was never a Scout, but their advice is worth taking. But there are some situations in life which no amount of knot tying or fire starting can prepare you for.

How can we be ready for the unexpected?

On Friday 29th July, I was stilling at home pondering Psalm 16 when Sarah told me something wasn’t right with our baby. Within the hour, we were in the car heading for the hospital in Wangaratta. Another hour later, I was sitting outside the operating theatre and Sarah was inside. A few people said hello to me as I sat there in surgical scrubs and a funny hat, obviously waiting to go in. But most of the time I was the only one sitting there.

But I wasn’t alone.

In Psalm 16:8, David tells us how we can be prepared for anything. He says, ‘I have set the LORD always before me; Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved.’ As I sat there, I chewed over those words. Two truths stood out:

  1. Meditating on God builds my confidence in Him. I must practice thinking about God in every situation all the time.
  2. Nothing I do is the reason for my confidence. The assurance that He is close by me is a better reason to be at peace than my own ability to deal with problems.

That was a comfort to me. God was with me and my family, and we would not be moved, whatever happened.

David knew this reality. He knew that things don’t always go well. Even when he was being hunted down by his father-in-law, King Saul, when he was betrayed by his own people, and when he was usurped by his son Absalom, God never abandoned him.

Because of this, David was confident that God would be with him even in death (Psalm 16:9-10). Even though he may die, yet he would live forever at God’s right hand enjoying the pleasures He gives (Psalm 16:11). We may die, but we can be confident about the future of our bodies and souls, because God raised Jesus from the dead (Psalm 16:11, Acts 2:22-33, 1 Corinthians 15:17-20).

Jesus promises to be with us (Matthew 28:18-20, see also Joshua 1:8-9), so this confidence can be ours too: the eternal LORD is with His people and will not allow us to be shaken, even if we die (John 11:25-26). Do you believe this?

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

Adopted as God’s Sons

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Nothing is the same as the excitement of seeing someone come to believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. But if anything comes close, it is seeing believers grasping the truth about their salvation in a deeper way. For that reason, it’s been a delight to fill in at the Thursday evening study through Knowing God by J.I. Packer these last few weeks (If, like me, you haven’t read Knowing God through, I highly recommend doing so as soon as you can).

We’ve been studying what it means to be adopted by God. We often think of salvation in terms of justification, the legal declaration that our sins are forgiven because Jesus has perfectly obeyed God’s law on our behalf. This is absolutely right and true. But there is more to salvation than justification alone. Adoption puts salvation into relationship terms, with clear implications for our experience of the Christian life.

Imagine this: You are arrested and brought to court for a crime you have committed. When the trial begins, you find that the judge is the person you have offended against. He takes no time at all to find you guilty and sentence you. But once he has sentenced you, he declares that his son will suffer the punishment you deserve, so your record will say that you are innocent (This describes the legal action of justification). Then, instead of turning you out into the street to figure out what to do next, the judge publically declares that you are his son, has you transferred from the cells to his home, gives you a place at his table, begins to train you for your new life, and assures you that you will receive the inheritance as his heir. This is adoption. And all these privileges are ours if we are in Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 3:14-15 tells us that we get our name from ‘the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Nowhere in the Scriptures do we find God declaring Himself to be the Father of all mankind. He does speak of Himself as the Father of His people, specifically those people whom His Son has saved (2 Corinthians 6:18).

This is not a natural condition, but is the result of adoption. Originally, we were slaves and enemies of God, but He chooses us to be His sons (Galatians 4:3-7). This specifically masculine language is used for a reason: In the first century, it was the male descendants who received an inheritance. As Romans 8:17 and John 1:12 say, Christian men and women are sons of God, equally entitled to the inheritance of eternal life (which is a radical departure from the expectations of the society of the time).

This Father/son relationship is based on God’s predestination of those who will believe in Jesus (Ephesians 1:4-5, Romans 8:29). We know that adoption is the choice of the parent, not the child. God’s choice of whom He would save and make His children happened before the world was made. Therefore, we can be confident that our acceptance as part of God’s family doesn’t depend on what we have done or didn’t do or could do; it depends entirely on God’s decision.

Because we are God’s enemies, we could not come to God without coming under His judgement and condemnation. Instead, ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,’ (Romans 5:8). Since Christ has died for us, we receive the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, by whom we can cry out to God in trouble (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6). Therefore, we are welcomed into the presence of our Father the King, where we are assured of receiving mercy in our time of need (Romans 5:2, Ephesians 3:12, Hebrews 4:16).

The Spirit is the guarantee that we will receive the inheritance promised to us (Ephesians 1:13-14). And because we have the Spirit, we are commanded to live lives which are fitting for the children of God (Ephesians 4:30). That is the reason that God adopts sinners like us: So that we will become like Jesus Christ, our older brother (Romans 8:29).

If we grasp what being adopted by God means, then we will rejoice in the great blessings God has given and we will see that our great purpose and responsibility is to be like Jesus:

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.’ Ephesians 1:3-6.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

Congregational Meeting

At the Session meeting held on the 21st of June the Session resolved to hold a congregational meeting on the 31st of July, for the purpose of considering a call to Stephen McDonald. The meeting will be conducted by the Interim Moderator, Kevin Maxwell and take place after the communion service at Benalla. Please make sure you can attend and prayerfully consider this matter.

Voting Wisely

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

We’re told that it is impolite to discuss religion and politics. I hope we can demonstrate that this is not correct.

We’re told that the church should have nothing to do with politics, otherwise it would be a breach of the separation of church and state. This too is wrong. The separation of church and state is an idea from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It reads, ‘“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, there is not an equivalent statement in British or Australian law.

In Great Britain, the church and the state are intertwined, with the monarch being the head of the Church of England. Bishops are appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister and receive seats in the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords.

In Australia, the situation is quite different to the US and the UK. There are no formal, structural links between the church and the state. We are (mostly) free from the state dictating our doctrine and internal systems of governance (a blessing which many of our fellow Christians do not presently enjoy).

That is what the separation of church and state was meant to achieve. It was never the intention that the church and the state would never influence each other. The very suggestion that religious convictions should be excluded from public debate is completely contrary to the idea that all citizens are meant to participate in our democracy.

So, how are Christians supposed to vote and to engage in the wider political process?

First, we are meant to act like the Old Testament prophets, reminding those in power of their obligations as they rule under God. That means we need to ask how the comments made by politicians, candidates, experts and commentators measure up to what God tells us in the Scriptures about who He is, who we are, and what He expects of us. Are the people and policies we are being asked to support motivated by what God says is right or by what is presently popular?

Second, we must vote wisely. Some issues are questions of wisdom: e.g. Should we spend more on health or education? Should we do more to encourage business and to support people who need assistance?

But some issues about clear choices between loving our neighbour and hating them. Supporting abortion and euthanasia are clear examples. How we respond to refugees who flee from persecution because of their religion, race or political views is another.

This election, there are clear moral issues: What is marriage? What is the ideal environment for raising children? What should be taught to children about gender and sexuality? These are not issues we get to decide for ourselves; God speaks quite clearly in the Bible and our responsibility is to obey. We cannot ignore what God tells us even when we are acting as citizens of a secular state.

So, we need to know what the Bible says and how to apply it to our society, not just to our lives as individuals. Then, we must do all we can to be informed about the positions held by those who seek our votes. We should be particularly concerned about how they will make their decisions and how open they will be to hearing our views. One helpful resource is the Christian Values Checklist, which will soon be published by the Australian Christian Values Institute at http://www.christianvalues.org.au/index.php/checklists/current-elections.

Spend your vote wisely. The candidate who receives your first preference vote will receive about $2 in electoral funding at the next election (provided they receive a minimum number of votes). If you decide not to vote ‘1’ for your preferred candidate because you don’t think they’ll get elected, you’re making it harder for them to succeed next time.

Finally, as we pursue what is good, we need also to pray for those who rule over us. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 says:

“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

The ruler at the time Paul wrote was the notorious Roman emperor Nero (AD 54–68). So, whether we agree with the policies or morals of our rulers, we are commanded to pray for them. This is beneficial for us, but may also lead to their salvation.

This election time, let us speak prophetically, vote wisely, and pray constantly.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

P.S. Since publishing this note, my attention has been drawn to Section 116 of the Australia Constitution, which states:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

So, there is an equivalent to the First Amendment in Australian law.