Christmas. Such a special time for so many! A time of celebrating Jesus’ humble birth. Nativity scenes with people and animals crowded around a trough and the three wise men that followed the star; looking for Him. There was Herod too looking for Him; looking for the One born King of the Jews.
Growing up, Christmas wasn’t “our” holiday but belonged to Gentiles. As kids we didn’t feel left out as many think and didn’t miss getting gifts. It was a day like any other statutory holiday without observance – in fact, New Year’s Day was similar, because “New Year’s” as well wasn’t “our” New Year’s. “Ours” was in September (different dates each year on the Western calendar) and since it always fell just after the start of the school year when most extracurricular activities started up, it felt as though the start of everything coincided with Rosh Hashanah. Even for Gentiles, everything begins in September. January 1st to us seemed like a time where people went to eat too much and drink too much just after they ate too much and drank too much at Christmas. We would hear neighbours shouting “happy New Year’s” at midnight and banging pots and it seemed as relevant to our family as Christmas. For us, a new day begins at sundown the night before, not at midnight — so the whole idea of people making all sorts of noise and shouting to welcome in the New Year in the middle of the night, long after the sun went down, seemed so weird. It was like a delayed celebration. Our New Year, like other times and dates set for Jewish observances,is set out by God in Scripture and reckoned according to the Jewish calendar.
[This brings up the whole “December 25th” thing. If the time of Jesus’ birth would have been mentioned in Scripture, it would have been in reference to the Jewish calendar, and not the Roman one. As we covered in an earlier post, the dates for observing holidays are established by God and always in reference to the Jewish (lunar) months. In the New Testament, the observance of Passover and the Feast of Booths and even the coming of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, was based on the date in the Jewish calendar, not the Roman one.]
Even after coming to faith in Messiah in 1982, Christmas was still not “our” holiday and I think I am beginning to understand why that was.
As Jews, the “coming of Messiah” had a specific frame of reference; a Jewish frame of reference. While liberal Jews rarely spoke about a Messiah, living in an area of Montreal with a significant and visible Orthodox Jewish population, “We want Moshiach [Messiah] now!” was something we saw on billboards, signs and in local stores. The sect of Orthodox Jews that coined this phrase owned many of the stores in our area – stores we shopped at. They spoke of the day “when Messiah would come” longingly – of what the world would be like. They believed He would be a direct descendant of King David, and that the third Temple would be build when He came. He would gather the exiles from the four corners of the world and they would return to Israel where the worship of God would once again center in Jerusalem. They believed that it would not only be the Jews that would recognize Him as Messiah, but all the nations of the world. He would be thoroughly knowledgeable of all the commands of God in Torah and observant of them and He would call Jews back to a proper observance of the Law of God. He would be heralded as the true King of the Jews. Most striking, was their conviction that the coming of Messiah was imminent; that Messiah would come soon and redeem His people. His coming would be associated with miracles and He would usher in the Messianic Age – a time where war would cease, and there would be no more hatred between people and nations. First and foremost for all people would be the pursuit of the knowledge of God. However, before the coming of Messiah, would be a time of great turmoil and a great war, called the war of God and Magog. Just before Messiah appeared, Elijah the prophet would come and announce His imminent arrival. There was also the belief that after His arrival, all the dead would be raised to life and live again in the Land of Israel, and worship God with Messiah from the Temple in Jerusalem. The main concept of Messiah that I had before coming to faith was this one.
There was one other…
“A Charlie Brown Christmas”.
Seriously! I’m not kidding. I watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” every year around Christmastime since it came out in the mid-1960’s. I could relate to Charlie Brown’s dismay about the over-commercialization of Christmas and his reaction seeing all that was going on in his neighbourhood before Christmas. Even his dog Snoopy was decorating his doghouse! I think I related to it because that’s what is was like for us as Jews, with people around us preparing for Christmas.
The part of A Charlie Brown Christmas that always got my attention was where Charlie Brown asks if anyone really knows what Christmas is all about? Linus, all alone on stage tells Charlie Brown that he can tell him what Christmas is all about and proceeds to recite what seemed like a poem to me. I realize now that it was from Luke 2:8-14 from the old King James version;
“And there were in the same country
shepherds abiding in the field,
keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not:
for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
“What a nice story”, I would think each year! So this is the “real” meaning of Christmas! But it was the “real” meaning of a Gentile holiday. Linus’ words had no connection to me. They sounded like a narration describing the “nativity scenes” I would see displayed all around at Christmas, so I would imagine people and animals and a baby in a trough.
I know now that Luke was writing to a largely Gentile audience in the format of an Epic: a story of a hero which was common in the Roman era and the Greek era so not surprising, I didn’t relate to it at all.
Many years later I first read the account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:1-6;
“Jesus, son of David, son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob,
and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…
…and Jesse fathered King David.
Wow!! Jesus was a Jew! He was a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a direct descendant of King David. He was like “super Jew”!
Matthew 2 begins:
“Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea
in the days of Herod the king
behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem
saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?
For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;
and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem Ephratah, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
I could not get over how Jewish this was!
Jesus was born in Judea, which was where the tribe of Judah came from!
The wise men came from the East to Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel. Jerusalem is the centre of Judaism!
In this account, Herod asks the chief priests of the Jewish Temple and Jewish scribes where the Messiah was to be born, because surely they would know, right? And they did! Of course they did!! They were the priests in the Jewish Temple!! And the Messiah is the hope of Judaism!!
They told him that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judea because the prophet Micah spoke of it…and then it quotes the Jewish Scriptures – Micah Chapter 5, verse 2;
וְאַתָּה בֵּית-לֶחֶם אֶפְרָתָה, צָעִיר לִהְיוֹת בְּאַלְפֵי יְהוּדָה–מִמְּךָ לִי יֵצֵא, לִהְיוֹת מוֹשֵׁל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל
But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah,
out of thee shall one come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel”
Everything about THIS Jesus is Jewish!
…which led me to wonder, “If this is the Messiah we have been waiting for, why do the Gentiles keep calling Him “Jesus Christ” (as if “Jesus” was His first name and “Christ” is His second). “Christ” isn’t a Jewish family name, but a title. It is like saying “Messiah Jesus”.
When Jews hear “Jesus Christ” they think “that is a Gentile diety“. We were commanded by God not to pay attention or follow after the “gods of the Nations” and the way He is portrayed to a Jew, He is just another deity. This is heartbreaking, He has been made unrecognizable to His own people according to the flesh.
Blond-hair blue eyed Jesus?
When Gentile Christians speak with Jews, the reaction should be “these Gentiles are following our Messiah!“. There is nothing about the “nativity scene” or Jesus Himself as conventionally portrayed that invokes this at all.
…but the Jesus Matthew writes about is a Jew! In fact, the Jewishness of Jesus is evident throughout Scripture.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea (Matthew 2:1) to Jewish parents named “Mary” and Joseph [I later found out His mother’s real name was Miriam, just like the sister of Moses and that Mary was a Greek version of her name. Why didn’t they just call her by her real name?].
Miriam and Joseph came from the city of Nazareth (Luke 2:39), also in Judea.
While Scripture says nothing about the day Jesus was born (what Gentiles call “Christmas Day”) it does say that in accordance with Jewish Law, He was circumcised on the 8th day (Luke 2:21) and as the first born son of His mother, was presented to the Jewish Temple by His parents according to the Mosaic law (Luke 2:21-40). This is as Jewish as you can get!!
Miriam and Joseph, Jesus’ parents were obviously Torah-observant Jews who kept the Law of Moses as evidence by them having Him circumcised the 8th day and them going up to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (Luke 2:41). They commemorated Passover every year just like we did! In fact, Scripture says they went up to Jerusalem for the Passover every year right up until the time Jesus was 12 years old (Luke 2:42). When Jesus reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, He began to sit with the teachers in the Temple, listening and asking them questions (Luke 2:46).
As an adult, Jesus affirmed the authority of the Law and the Prophets and upheld the teachings of the Law of Moses in all He taught and all He did. That is what the Jewish Messiah is supposed to do!!
In Matthew 4 Jesus said that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them!! That is what Jews expect the Messiah to do!!
He said that until heaven and earth pass away, not even the tiniest part of the smallest letter will pass from the Law until all things are accomplished. That is what the Jewish Messiah was supposed to come to do. He was to bring us back to proper observance of the Law and even the Orthodox Jews said that the Gentiles would be brought back to the Noahic laws. That is the basis for the 4 commands the Gentiles were to follow (Acts 15). Entirely as the Jews have anticipated!! He is the goal (telios) of the Law, not the “end” of it, as commonly understood.
Jesus said to Jews that the Law was something they should practice and teach to other Jews and if they did they would be called “great in the kingdom” and if they did not, they would be called “least in the kingdom”.
To the Jews that followed Him from the surrounding area He said:
“anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
The Jesus of Scripture was a Jew from Judea, He died a Jew just outside the Jewish capital of Jerusalem — and shocking as it may be to some, He is returning to the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14)… as a Jew. His feet will touch the Mount of Olives and He will return in the same manner, to the same place from where He ascended.
Christmas is a time many celebrate the coming of Jesus and where Christians sing about “born is the King of Israel”. So why is He portrayed in such a foreign way? In fact, why is He portrayed at all? Jews do not make graven images of God because it violates the second Commandment.
May you come to understand, in all its fullness how the One whose birth you celebrate at Christmas is the long awaited Messiah of Israel.
Why did the “three Wise Men” come to Bethlehem to find the Messiah?
First of all, the Scripture doesn’t say their were three wise men but Magi bearing 3 gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh. It also says nothing about them riding camels.
The Magi were astrologers that would have known about the coming of the Messiah from the time that the Jews were captive in Babylon. Daniel 2 says that he became the “master of the magicians, astrologers [i.e. Magi], Chaldeans, and soothsayers.” because of his ability to understand and interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Since the Magi [astrologers] had contact with Daniel when he was captive in Babylon but was elevated to the position of overseeing them by Nebuchadnezzar, they came when they did when they saw the star of Bethlehem because they knew of Daniel’s prophesy about the coming of the Messiah. Daniel prophesied (as recorded in Daniel 9) about the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonians destroyed it in the 6th century BCE which said 490 years [70 weeks of years] would pass from the command to rebuild Jerusalem until the coming of Messiah the Prince (Daniel 9:24-25). While the rest of this passage is understood by many to have yet-future fulfillment, it explains why the Magi came Bethlehem at the time that they did, when they saw the star.