Connections: Jeff Peterson
Dec. 21, 2014
Christmas Means Changed Lives
Jeff Peterson is senior pastor of Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Mo., a legacy church with a history extending beyond the 100 years of the Fellowship. Peterson is an alumnus of Central Bible College in Springfield and is pursuing graduate studies at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. He spoke recently with Scott Harrup, Pentecostal Evangel managing editor, about the transforming reality of Christmas.
evangel: Is there a particular Christmas that stands out as formative in your life?
JEFF PETERSON: I was in high school when the real meaning of Christmas took hold for me. I had a deep hunger to grow in my relationship with God. I’d even moved from sitting with my friends at the back of our small AG church in Illinois to the front. I’d finally come to the place where I could lift my hands when worshipping God.
I distinctly remember that Christmas. It was almost as if a convergence of my own personal growth in worship and the marvel of the Incarnation took place. The reality of Jesus’ Incarnation just gripped me.
evangel: What keeps the Christmas experience fresh for you this many years later?
PETERSON: As a pastor, I identify with the challenge every Christian faces when dealing with the tension between the sacred and the secular at Christmas. But we don’t need to write off the joy of personal traditions.
When our daughters were growing up, our home was always filled with Christmas music, and it included a lot of popular songs — “White Christmas,” for example. There’s a sense of celebration that fills our homes and communities, and that’s great.
But it all goes back to the Incarnation. I appreciate this quote from J.I. Packer: “The Incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else that the New Testament contains.” When we look at Christmas, the truth of Incarnation must be our focus. Whether as churches, or families and parents, if we’ve lost the Incarnation, we’ve lost Christmas.
The Book of Hebrews speaks of the body created for Christ to inhabit, a body that would not only come into this Earth through the birth we commemorate each Christmas, but a body that would be offered on the cross as redemption for humanity’s sin.
evangel: Was there a Christmas when your family faced a crisis and rediscovered Christ’s saving mission touches all of life?
PETERSON: One crisis I remember is one I’ve never learned the details about. My parents pastored a number of churches. One Christmas in North Texas, Dad had to go out and visit a family facing an emergency on Christmas Eve. He never shared confidential details of that night’s ministry.
But a heavy snowstorm, rare for Texas, hit our community, and Dad had to go out in that storm. I remember sitting on the couch waiting to open our presents with my brother and my mom. I could see the concern on Mom’s face. Dad was gone for hours.
Dad’s commitment to ministry speaks to what Christmas is all about. He had a pastor’s heart for whatever that family was going through, and he knew that the gospel would prove to be the needed answer.
evangel: As a parent, and now a grandparent, what strategies do you recommend to carry forward the meaning of Christmas to the next generations?
PETERSON: It’s neat to watch your kids grow up and begin their own families. Two of our daughters are married, and are beginning Christmas traditions of their own.
My dad would always read the Christmas account from Luke 2 to our family when I was growing up, and Carla and I passed that on to our daughters. We would read that narrative and pray together every Christmas morning.
As well, around Christmas dinner, just like Thanksgiving, we have made time for each one to share what blessings the past year has brought to them.
evangel: Many of us are familiar with the “standard” details of the Christmas story in the Gospels. But Jesus’ promised coming is a major theme throughout the Old Testament. Is there an Old Testament passage that especially captures the meaning of Christmas for you?
PETERSON: Micah 5:2 is my favorite prophetic passage foretelling the arrival of Jesus: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (ESV).
“Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” and Jesus is the Bread of life. We have the beauty of prophecy pointing to this small town and connecting it with the Savior. And there is also the timeless sense of the One to come as promised in prophecy.
Hebrews, a New Testament book, refers to so much of the Old Testament in its treatment of Jesus. I love its opening summary: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:1-3).
evangel: Why is it important for followers of Christ to live out the meaning of Christmas throughout the year?
PETERSON: Christmas reminds us of the greatest Gift ever given — God’s own Son. When we keep that truth in view, we give to others because God has given to us. That’s what drives our church to reach into our community. At Christmas we gather the names of well over 1,000 children from nearby schools, and those nametags are practically vacuumed up as our people commit to buying a gift for each child.
Throughout the year, whether it’s our oil change ministry or our food pantry, we’re finding ways to meet the needs of families and individuals around us.
evangel: Any concluding thoughts?
PETERSON: American culture is changing and becoming more secular, and fewer people are even familiar with the true meaning of Christmas. But that just makes the opportunities at Christmas and Easter that much more critical to introducing people to Jesus who might never come to know Him otherwise. You never know at what point in life the gospel will make an impact on a life.
In our family, perhaps the most powerful example of that life-change was seen in my father-in-law, Carmen Balsamo. He was 50 years old and had never made a commitment to Christ, even though he had grown up among long-held church traditions.
Carmen worked for a moving business in Phoenix. When he went to assess a move one day, that customer shared Christ with Carmen. Carmen gave his life to the Lord and became passionate about prayer and Bible memorization, was baptized in the Holy Spirit, and began reaching others for Christ. All of this at age 50.
Eventually, Carmen’s wife and all six of their children came to Christ. Four years later, my first Christmas in Arizona was spent with this wonderful family. I had asked for the hand of Carmen’s daughter Carla in marriage. It was incredible to see the transformational power of Christ in Carmen’s life.
Soon after, in the summer of 1984, Carmen birthed the discipleship program that today is Master’s Commission International. Untold thousands of young people have prepared for ministry and lifelong discipleship through Master’s Commission.
Carmen died of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 57, but he had already demonstrated for so many young people just how transformative a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, is.
That's the real meaning of Christmas.