What Christmas Is All About — By Ajith Fernando
I have just returned from a year-end programme at one of our centres. Though a majority of those at the programme were youth, there were also parents, children, neighbours and friends of the ministry. This is the time when gifts of school supplies for the New Year are given to the students in our education programmes. It was in the open air and, for the first time in several days, there was no rain. Over 250 people were there. My job was to give a Christmas message towards the end of the four-hour programme. I was extremely nervous!
During the programme, I talked to many people. I had a nice chat with the father of one of our volunteers. He had been a gang member and had first come to us for protection after an incident about 30 years ago when there were people wanting to kill him. He hid in our farm, and I will never forget my terror as I drove him to the courts fearing that someone would shoot at us. He told me how he had recently visited his old gang friends to tell them about Jesus and urge them to turn to him. He was one of the honoured guests who distributed gifts to the children. His three older children had grown up in YFC and now the youngest was a volunteer in the work.
Then I talked to a young person who came from a family ruined by alcohol. She had met Christ in our ministry, and she is now active in her church, and so is her mother who was also at the programme (Recently it has been a joy to see several parents of our youth following their children in making commitments to Christ). They had come to see the younger sister perform in our dance troupe. Then I talked to a young man who had met Christ and had been very active in our work but had fallen into a trap of Satan and moved away. I have been praying for him for several weeks and now I was delighted to see that he was making a comeback.
My nervousness did not leave me. I like it that way because then I am pushed to trust in God alone. But I was so very encouraged by what the gospel had done in the lives of people. This is what Christmas is all about. Paul said, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." (1 Tim 1:15). The great achievement of Christmas is that hell-bound sinners are "called… out of darkness into his marvellous light" (1 Pet. 2:9).
This experience coincided with a study of 1 Corinthians 9 that I am doing these days to teach at the planning camps of two groups of YFC leaders. This is the well-known passage in which Paul describes how he gave up his rights for the sake of the gospel. This is where he exclaims, "For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16). What struck me as I studied this passage afresh was the appearance of the word "win" (or "gain") five times in four verses. Paul says that he makes himself a servant of all in order to win more of them (9:19). Then he talks of four lifestyle adjustments he makes in order to win four different groups of people (the Jews, those under the law, those outside the law and the weak¬9:20-22a). Next he uses the word "save" in place of "win" and says, "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some" (9:22b).
Our work, then, is to win, or gain, or save people. Individuals need to come to Jesus and receive his salvation. We must strive to bring people into the kingdom of God for unless they are born again they cannot enter the kingdom (John 3:3, 5). This is why Luke mentions the word "number" seven times in Acts when describing those who were saved, starting with Acts 2:47: "…the Lord added to their number…those who were being saved" (also 4:4; 6:1, 7; 11:21; 14:1; 19:19). Twice he gives the total number of believers in the church (2000¬2:41; 5000¬4:4). These numbers are important because they represent individuals who have received salvation. Each one is precious in God’s sight, and each individual has experienced the most wonderful thing that can happen to a person: they have received eternal salvation.
True, today some people use numbers as a badge of honour, and even exaggerate figures to appear successful. This is not a matter of success. Those called upon to plough the hard ground of a people who are resistant to the gospel may be extremely successful even though no one may receive salvation through their ministries. This is a matter of people needing salvation. People without Christ are lost and going to perish (John 3:16).
Today people are reluctant to use the word "lost" when referring to those outside of Christ. But Jesus used that word six times in this way (Matt. 10:6; 15:24; Luke 15:24, 32; 19:10; 17:12). I have heard people say that it is arrogant for Christians to refer to people as "lost" and "in need of salvation." I submit that the real arrogance is for us mere mortals to reject the terms Christ used when referring to the masses of humanity in need of salvation. Such attitudes could result in Christians not proactively going out to share the gospel to people to open the way of salvation to them. I fear that this is happening today with many Christians and Christian groups who refer to themselves as biblical or evangelical. The temptation to lose our evangelistic momentum is greater now because opposition to evangelism is growing all over the world.
I have heard Christians speak negatively about people who talk of strategies and plans to reach different groups of people. "Who are we," they say, "to think that we are the saviours upon whom responsibility for the eternal destiny of people lies?" It is true that there have been unwise and unhelpful strategising and publishing of plans that leave little room for the Holy Spirit to break through. These plans are often not implemented effectively even though business people may find them very attractive and invest heavily in them. This problem should not cause us to stop strategising to reach the lost. Paul was a strategist. The Epistle to the Romans was a tactical step in his strategy to use Rome as the base for his evangelistic activity in unreached western regions. Great missionaries like Hudson Taylor had strategies to reach the people they were called to serve though they were always willing to change their plans if God so ordered.
The stark reality of many people groups without a solid Christian witness should make us urgent in our search for ways to take the gospel to these peoples. Often in the history of the church that was done by people who dreamed about this need and fleshed out those dreams in the form of strategies and plans.
Let us return to celebrating Christmas as if we really believed that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Let us commit ourselves to doing all we can to take the gospel to as many people as we can during our lifetime. Let us have the joy over sinners repenting, over lost people being found (Luke 15:7, 10, 32) as one of our chief joys this Christmas.
Ajith Fernando, ThM, DD, is national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka and a Bible expositor with a worldwide ministry. He studied at Asbury Theological Seminary and Fuller Seminary, and presently leads the English language minatory in Colombo. He is the author of Acts in the NIV Application Commentary series.
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