The real meaning of Christmas is often lost on us because of our lack of attention to the details of the original Christmas story.

The story as we find it in the Gospels actually begins many years before Jesus became famous.  It begins with some relatives of Jesus who had been childless until their old age.  Zacharias and Elizabeth had prayed for a child for decades, only to continue to wonder why they had not been so blessed until a day when it was Zacharias’s turn to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

While there, Zacharias encounters an angel who announces to him that he and his wife’s prayers will finally be answered.  They will conceive a son in their old age who will not be just any son, but one whom Jesus Himself will later declare to be the greatest mortal man who ever lived. “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.”  Why?  

“… he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:14, 16). 

This may have seemed strange to them, and to us, because most of us think of the people of Israel as a very religious community.  Certainly, with the rich religious background of Moses, the Ten Commandments and the Law, they were all religious.  They had all believed in God and were following Him sincerely, right?

Apparently not.  “Many”, not a few, according to the Scripture, despite the general belief in God evident in Israel, had to be brought back to Him, “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17c).

Hence, things are not always as they appear.  People who, almost to a man, believe in God, who have a substantial religious background, often stray from the Lord.  A lot of these people probably at one time made some sort of spiritual commitment; they participated in “church” and the rituals common in their time.  But they strayed far from Him; they had no real, right relationship with the God who was so vital to their ultimate blessing and eternal life.

Things aren’t a lot different in our culture today.  Many of us have had moments when we’ve prayed a prayer to ask Jesus to save us, or we’ve attended church here or there, or we’ve participated in a religious ritual at one time or another.  However, when it comes to any kind of sincere lasting commitment to following the Lord . . . well, that just isn’t happening. 

So what does the first story of Christmas tell us?  It tells us that shallow prayers, one-time commitments to God or Christ that don’t last, and a few days in church aren’t what counts.  As John, the baby born to Zacharias and Elizabeth, would later proclaim, what matters is something called repentance.  John preached, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).  Repentance is a change of mind; turning from doing our thing to doing God’s thing.  And according to the Lord Jesus, whom John pointed us to, it is this attitude that ultimately results in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. 

In fact, on the day He was resurrected, Jesus told His disciples that repentance always precedes forgiveness of our sins and our personal resurrection: “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from  Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).

It’s something to think about—a missing meaning of Christmas.  Yes, the ultimate gift Jesus provides for us at Christmas is eternal life, but it only comes as part of a package deal that includes our repentance.

This Christmas, have you received God’s ultimate gift, eternal life?  Or are you still doing your own thing?