I have been invited to share my perspective on Christmas from a Jewish background. I hope it will both encourage and inspire all those who take the time to read and consider these thoughts.
No other birth has stirred as much controversy nor has evoked as much praise. No other birth has been surrounded with so much mystery and majesty as this little Jewish baby boy born to this poor young Jewish couple. One must wonder, if he is not the Messiah, then how can one explain the impact that this little child born in an obscure village has had on the course of human history?
Unfortunately, most Jews do not see Jesus as the Jewish Messiah in Christmas - and its not surprising. The Jewishness of the story gets lost in church pageants and myths about reindeer and snowmen. Greeting cards have dressed up the manger scene with animals and three wise man while contemporary holiday music has come up with a drummer boy and even a talking donkey. Can you imagine Mary’s attitude toward the little drummer boy?. After having given birth to Jesus I don’t think she would have been so thrilled to hear someone beating on a drum.
Beyond the legends and holiday illusions, there exists a reality much more incredible and relevant to our lives. The miracle of his birth is actually divine intervention towards the fulfillment of the eternal plan of redemption. Unfortunately, people have been missing the significance of his birth for the past two thousand years. The miracle of our Creator taking on human form gets lost in the secular "holiday" imagery of Frosty, Rudolph and Santa. When the pagan celebration of the coming of winter gets blended in with the celebration of Messiah’s birth, the real meaning of Christmas gets obscured. Add the materialistic focus and the giant retail maze. The blend of the secular with the sacred only results in watering down the wonder of the event.
An illustration of what has happened to Christmas:
In his book , "The Miracle of Christmas “, author John McArthur gave the following illustration: Years ago there was a wealthy Boston family who had a christening party for their new baby. They invited all their friends and relatives to their magnificent home to celebrate the birth of their precious infant. A half hour into the party when it was time to bring the baby out for everyone to see, the mother made a tragic discovery. The large bed where she had left the baby asleep was piled high with the coats of the guests. The baby was lying dead underneath the mound, suffocated by the carelessly discarded wraps. That pathetic scene graphically illustrates what the world has done to Christmas. Lost in the realization that Christmas is first of all a celebration of the birth of the Savior. He is all but forgotten, cruelly and thoughtlessly smothered in the haste and commotion
The early church did not set aside a day to celebrate Messiah’s birth because they celebrated it each Lord’s Day. "Christmas" or "Christ’s Mass" grew out of a celebration invented by the Catholic church to compete with the pagan winter festivals. It has evolved into an incredible holiday that is here to stay. It is my belief that Christmas is an excellent opportunity to be reminded of the amazing connection of Jesus to the Old Testament prophecies. In this article I will use several well-known Christmas carol titles to focus on some Messianic prophecies that can be highlighted during Christmas. .
Carols that tell the story
Much of the sacred music sung during the holiday season depicts the significance of the event. These beautiful carols and hymns help preserve the true meaning of Christmas perhaps more than any other activity during the holidays. The following songs are especially good in telling the story behind the wonder and majesty surrounding His coming:
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
The revelation in the Old and New Testament regarding God is unique from any other religion in its distinct message about God desiring a personal relationship with us. Many world religions tend to present a harsh and distant image of God. Like the Greek and Roman gods, He is portrayed as a glorified human or portrayed as a part of Nature. Either way, God is presented in a very unrelatable and unapproachable way. Historically, religion has man trying to reach God, appease him or become one with Him by religious acts. Some religions portray God becoming one with the creation (Eastern religions) and that everything just becomes a part of God. The revelation of God in Scripture is radically different. God is revealed with a character of perfect love who actually humbles himself – to put himself in our place. This is the root difference between Islam (and most religions)
The Jewish prophets shattered all impersonal images of God in their prophecies of God’s promise to visit. In one instance, Isaiah predicted an event to illustrate both a future hope and one that would serve to show the short amount of time that Israel had before it would be invaded by the Assyrians. He spoke about the coming of a child that would be called "Immanuel" or "Emmanuel" which is means "God With Us." If we could condense all the truths of Christmas into only three words, these would be the words "God With Us." We tend to focus our attention at Christmas on the infancy of Christ. The greater truth of the holiday is His deity. More astonishing than a baby in the manger is the truth that this promised baby is the omnipotent Creator of heaven and earth. Isaiah chapter 7:13-14 was one of several such an astounding predictions by the prophet Isaiah. It echoes what the apostle John later wrote about Jesus in John 1:1, and verse 14, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."
The word for "dwelling" is the word from which we get "tabernacle" or "tent." From the times of the Exodus, God revealed himself as a God who desired to be among his people. This was unique to anything in any religion at the time. Although holy and set apart from man, He would dwell among them in the midst of their camp as they traveled through the wilderness. Thousands of years later the prophets spoke of God making his dwelling once again miraculously – in a little child and in a very obscure town known as Bethlehem.
“O Little Town Of Bethlehem”
The song reminds us of the geographical characteristic that Bethlehem was known for – its size. There is an irony that from this dinky town about six miles outside of Jerusalem would come such a great ruler. Not from Jerusalem or the capital of another great city but from a town with no significance other than that it was also the birthplace of King David.
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times (or ‘from days of eternity’)." (Micah 5:2)
His birthplace connected him with the Messianic prophecies:
"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Maji from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’
"When King Herod heard this he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priest and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah (Christ) was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:
‘"But you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among
the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd
of my people Israel."’"
(Matthew 2:4-6 / Micah 5:2)
In the first century, the Jewish teachers and chief priests made the connection of the birth place of the King of the Jews (the promised Messiah) to an Old Testament prophecy found in the book of Micah. Matthew writes his gospel reporting simply what historically occurred. The rumor of another "King" being born was taken as a threat to Herod and he did what he believed was necessary to prevent this newborn child from ever having a chance of becoming a rival to Herod. Herod lied, misled/deceived the wise men. He ultimately murdered infants in order to squash this from happening. But as the prophecy of Psalm 2 pointed, the rulers plotted in vain to prevent the Messiah from reigning. Their efforts failed to keep God from fulfilling his mission.
"Why do the nations conspire and peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together
against the Lord and against his Anointed One,
‘Let us break their chains,’ they say, ‘and throw off their fetters.’
"The One enthroned in heaven laughs. The Lord scoffs at them. Then he
rebukes them in his anger and terrifies then in wrath saying, ‘I have installed
my King on
Zion, my holy hill.’
"I will proclaim the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’" (Psalm 2:1-4)
In spite of all attempts to exterminate this child, he was born and grew up in relative obscurity until the time was ready for him to begin his ministry – a ministry that would last, amazingly, only three years. Yet in three years time he accomplished what no man has done since. He literally changed the course of history. He began a Kingdom that calls men from darkness to light –His kingdom does what governments and politicians have never been able to do – change people’s hearts. Change men of all backgrounds and effect change from the deepest part – from within.
“What Child is This?”
After Isaiah paints the dark gloomy images of a conquered Northern Israel that came from the cruel Assyrian invasion (Isaiah 8) of 722 B.C., he begins in chapter 9 to present a picture of hope. A future hope for the people of the Galilean region would come in a way that meant that war and oppression would cease. The imagery that Isaiah uses conveys an end to battle and yokes being lifted. But the reason for this wonderful future is bound up in the coming of a special child.
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6)
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and the government will be on his shoulders."
Wow that’s a lot of responsibility to be placed upon a child. How can he handle it? Who is this special child? The answer is in the next verse. This is not merely your normal human child.
"And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6-7).
The Hebrew word for "Wonderful" is "Peleh" which means "Awesome." This child would be awesome. The idea of God residing in a child is just too awesome. That the Creator of the Universe would become a little baby is just too much. God humbling himself to come down to our level is too awesome!
What Child is This? It is a child who is our Creator! The prophet Micah foretold the coming of a Messiah who would be a Shepherd King and it makes reference to his deity when it says, "He is of old from the days of eternity."
Although wise men, shepherds, and politicians recognized him, many of his very own people, the Jews, chose not to recognize Him as their King.. The Apostle John opens up his gospel addressing that subject.
"He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the
world did not recognize him." "He came to that which was his own,
but his own did not receive him."
With simple yet profound statements, John presents Jesus as the WORD of God. In other words, Jesus was not simply another prophet (as taught by Islam). He was more than a great rabbi and teacher as taught by orthodox Jews. No. He was beyond all that. He was Emmanuel – "God With Us." He existed prior to coming to earth (Micah 5:2). The Incarnation (God becoming human/flesh) remains the greatest of mysteries. He came with the right credentials to be the long awaited Jewish Messiah as proven in the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. John points out that the failure to recognize Him as the Messiah, refusal to believe, was not due to lack of evidence but to the condition of people’s hearts. (John 3:17-19). Even today people tend to secularize or mythologize the Christmas story.
In asking the question "What Child is This?"John MacArthur wrote in
his book "the Miracle of Christmas:
Some say He was just a good teacher
but good teachers don't claim to be God
Some say He was merely a good example
but good examples don't mingle with prostitutes and sinners.
Some say He was a madman,
but madmen don't speak the way He spoke.
Some say He was a crazed fanatic,
but crazed fanatics don't draw children to themselves or attract men of intellect
like Paul or Luke to be their followers.
Some say He was a religious phony,
but phonies don't rise from the dead.
Some say He was only a myth,
but myths don't set the calendar for history.
Jesus has been called the ideal man, an example of love, the highest model of religion, the foremost pattern of virtue in a human being, the greatest of all men, and the finest teacher who ever lived. All those descriptions capture elements of His character, but they all fall short of the full truth. The apostle Thomas expressed it perfectly when he saw Jesus after the resurrection, and exclaimed, "My Lord and My God! (John 20:28)
We Three Kings
Maji came from the East. It seems reasonable that wise men ( very likely astrologers) from the East could have remembered Jewish prophecies regarding the coming One that were given when the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. Most notably – from the prophet Daniel who lived and prophesied while living in captivity during the Babylonian and Persian captivity. Some have speculated that they were astrologers following a star. Some believe they may have been influenced by the mention of a star in a prophecy from Numbers 24:17: “A star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel, and crush through the forehead of Moab, and tear down all the sons of Sheth.” The record simply says:
"When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house they saw the child with his mother Mary (in Hebrew "Miriam") and they bowed down and worshiped him.
(Here is a hint of the future – Gentiles worshiping a Jewish baby). In spite of all the Hallmark cards and paintings portraying the wise men coming to the manger scene, that imagery is not based on Scripture. At the time of the wise men’s visit the child and mother were no longer in the temporary shelter of a manger scene.
The emphasis of Matthew’s account is on the worship by the Maji:
"Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold
and of incense and of myrrh."
While he was born in humble surroundings, he was recognized as royalty by the gifts the wise men brought him, which also hinted his future – gold (for a King), frankincense (Priest), and Myrrh (suffering and burial).
It’s amazing that these wise men knew the future destiny of this special child. Their gifts foreshadowed the future of this child. He would be both a King and Priest. His death would not indicate the end of his rule but rather the beginning. How the Messiah could be a priest may have posed a dilemma or conflict to Jewish mind since the Kings would be descended from David who was of the tribe of Judah and the priest only came from the tribe of Levi. The answer to this dilemma is found in another prophecy in Psalms 110. The answer is that the Messiah would be a priest after the order of Melchizedek. (This was a man who is mentioned in Genesis 14 who was both Priest and King.)
It Came upon a Midnight Clear
This carol was composed in 1849 at a time when our country was on the brink of Civil War. "Peace on the Earth Good will to men from Heaven’s all Gracious King’" was the chorus given by angels at the birth of Jesus. It was the first Xmas concert given and the audience was the shepherds in their fields. God chose to make known Messiah’s birth, not to the religious elite but to the blue-collar workers of the day, the simple hard working class on the graveyard shift. They got the announcement: "Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ (Messiah) the Lord." (Luke 2:8-20)
Unlike the legends of Frosty, Rudolph, Kris Kringle, and the drummer boy, Jesus’ birth is not a legend but rather a historical event – an event that was prophesied hundreds of years before it was fulfilled. This event proves that the God of this universe loves all men. That love was manifested when he came to be like us. It was manifested ultimately when that child who grew up into a man allowed himself to die on a Roman cross. He died not for any crimes he committed, but as a sacrifice for sinners. That’s you and me. God became like us in every way except sin. It was the most remarkable life ever lived and it was offered up on our behalf in order to pay for the crimes we committed (Isaiah 53).
It is not surprising that the birth of this Jewish baby has inspired
such great melodies. No other religions have such great songs because they
have no Savior who has inspired such devotion and gratitude.
The Generosity of God
It is also not surprising that Christmas is about giving gifts? Because its rooted in celebrating God’s gift to the world in the person of His Son. It is truly a celebration of the God who gives. How incredibly fortunate we are to have a God who is so generous.....
"For God so loved the world that he gave... John 3:16
"He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all -- how will he not, along with him, graciously give us all things."....Romans 8:32
"In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins,
in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us....Ephesians 1:7
Only when we understand who He is and what He has given will we worship him. Only when we understand who He is and what He has done will there be peace on the earth.
Christmas provides a brief glimpse of messianic peace
In a very real way there is a level of peace upon the earth that is only here because of Jesus. Even unbelievers get a taste of Jesus' influence during Christmas ( if we strip away the commercialism) There is a spirit of wonder, of giving, a remembrance of the poor and needy, greater effort at absence of war, and focus on peace on earth good will towards man - and why? Because there is attention given to that Jewish child born in Bethlehem. Imagine what would happen if we could celebrate Christmas everyday. Imagine if we could extend that spirit through out the year. Guess what - that's exactly God's plan - its called following Him and spreading the gospel (good news - of His coming) which brings about a changed life which brings about good cheer. Joy, giving, and peace, are words that describe realities based on gratitude and the gift of God to this world.
“ I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ (Messiah) the Lord." (Luke 2:8-20)
This is a Jewish story. This is a love story between God and His creation. There is nothing in any other religion that comes close to its tenderness and revolutionary nature. God caught the world off guard, in a tiny obscure village through a humble pregnant Jewish couple about hundred miles away from home. Its the way of God not of man.
"For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength ".... I Corinthians 1:25
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things --- and the things that are not -- to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him." - I Corinthians 1:27-29
His coming was as well as his death were purposely lowly, unimpressive and contrary to human expectations for any one claiming royalty.
As Isaiah predicted , the Messiah would be
"like a root out of dry ground - He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected of men. Isaiah 53:2-3
The Significance of His Birth foretold by the Prophets:
The Jewish prophets, Isaiah and Micah, both make references to Deity coming to us in a special person. Historically, there is no mention of the actual birth date of Jesus, nor did the early church make a big deal about his birth date. But what is so amazing is that everything about those two roles of the Messiah was foreshadowed in his birth.
His Birthplace foreshadowed His mission:
He was born in Bethlehem which means "House of Bread". Interestingly, He was born in a place that means to feed. This hints toward his mission to spiritually feed the world. Later on he referred to himself as the "Bread of Life." As bread satisfies man’s hunger, so He would meet our deepest hungers and needs: to bring truth, to bring peace, to bring salvation from sin. His name Yeshua / Joshua means "to save His people from their sins."
Celebrating the most famous birth of all time
As we approach Christmas let us avoid getting trapped into the secularizing and cultural commercialism. Celebrating Messiah’s birth is indeed the main idea of Christmas. We need to be brought back to that Jewish baby who fulfilled all Messianic hopes and dreams. Today Wise Men still seek Him. He is the answer to the deepest questions. He is the answer to addiction, to guilt, to forgiveness, to having compassion and mercy on others. He is the motivation for more charitable activity and more universal giving than any one human influence.
We need Messiahmas (celebrating Messiah’s coming) today more than ever
The prophets gave Messianic hope during times of great gloom (Isaiah 9, Daniel 9). Today as we face economic and political uncertainty, the message of His coming is as relevant now than ever before. We need the real Messianic meaning that can be found in Christmas. There is a tremendous need to bring back the Jewish baby of Christmas. Let’s not miss Him by being so distracted by the secular emphasis. Hopefully the day will come when Jewish and Gentile believers will join together in celebrating "Joy to the World" that the Messiah has come. Hallelujah!
Here are the lyrics of a song that I believe truly captures the essence of the Christmas story. This was composed and performed by Bruce Cockburn on a CD titled Nothing But a Burning Light released in 1991.
Cry Of A Tiny Babe
Mary grows a child without the help of a man
Joseph get upset because he doesn't understand
Angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream
Says "God did this and you're part of his scheme"
Joseph comes to Mary with his hat in his hand
Says "forgive me I thought you'd been with some other man"
She says "what if I had been -- but I wasn't anyway and guess what
I felt the baby kick today"
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
The child is born in the fullness of time
Three wise astrologers take note of the signs
Come to pay their respects to the fragile little king
Get pretty close to wrecking everything
'Cause the governing body of the whole land
Is that of Herod, a paranoid man
Who when he hears there's a baby born King of the Jews
Sends death squads to kill all male children under two
But that same bright angels warns the parents in a dream
And they head out for the border and get away clean
There are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn't to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
And the message is clear if you've got ears to hear
That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear
It's a Christmas gift you don't have to buy
There's a future shining in a baby's eyes
I hope your Christmas will be a great reminder of the greatest gift that has ever been given.
For further reading I would highly recommended a book titled "The Miracle of Christmas " by John MacArthur, Jr published by Zondervan.
These notes are also included in an abbreviated form in a CD titled
“Carols of the Nativity” by the author. For more information go to www.cdbaby.com/lestermusic2