Christmas: A Jewish Holiday?

Every year as December unfolds our world gets caught up in all that it believes makes the celebration of Christmas special.  Gifts are purchased, cards are written, decorations are hung, and parties are attended.  Yet these things are not what the holiday is about.

As a Jew growing up, I thought Christmas (like Jesus) was “a Gentile thing.”  It was not until years later that I came to understand the birth of Christ was the fulfillment of a promise God had given to the Jewish people through the Hebrew prophets centuries earlier.  In fact, as we follow the progressive revelation of Scripture, we discover that the primary point of the New Testament is that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah of the Old Testament.

THE PATRIARCHAL PROMISE

Christmas is about the culmination of God’s love, first promised centuries ago to a faithful man named Abraham, who at God’s instruction departed a city called Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan (Gen 11:31).  This is about the equivalent of God asking you to take a hike from Philadelphia to Minneapolis.  God promised Abraham many wonderful things, including:

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you … and in you shall all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2, 3)

Through Abraham, God promised to manifest His love to all humanity.  Although there is not much detail about the promise given at this early stage of the story, the promise revealed a hint of what would ultimately become the great Incarnation: God himself becoming man in the person of the Messiah.

The Lord established a covenant with Abraham, making him the progenitor of the Jewish people:

“The Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, I am God Almighty.  Walk before me and be blameless and I will establish my covenant between me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly.” (Gen 17:1-2)

The Scriptures make it clear that both Abraham and his wife Sarah were beyond the point of being able to bear children.  Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah 89, when God promised that Sarah would have a son within a year (Gen 18:10).  This would be the “sign” that God would keep his covenant with Abraham and make a great nation from him.  God also promised that Abraham’s descendants would become as numerous as the sand of the sea and the stars of the sky.  So great in number, said God, that they could not be counted.  (Gen 22:17; 32:12)

A year later this “sign” took place in the birth of Isaac, through whom the Jewish people came.  It was the sign needed to authenticate the covenant.  This was a miraculous birth.

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.  Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.  Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. (Gen 21:1-3)

As God had established his covenant with Abraham, He then confirmed his covenant with Isaac. 

“I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant and with his descendants after him.” (Gen 17:19)

The blessing of Abraham became the inheritance of Isaac.  God then gave the promise to Isaac’s son, Jacob (Gen 28:13-14) and so the great promise continued to unfold: In tracing his ancestry, we discover the Messiah would come through the seed of Abraham (Gen 12:3), the son of Isaac (Gen 26:4) and the son of Jacob (Gen 28:14).

THE COVENANT WITH DAVID

Later God revealed that of Jacob’s twelve sons, the Messiah would come from Jacob’s son, Judah (Gen 49:10) and ultimately, from Judah’s descendant, King David (1 Sam 13:14).  To David, God said:

“Your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Sam 7:16)

Long after David was dead, that promise lived on and took on greater specificity.  The Hebrew prophet Isaiah declared:

A shoot [or descendant] will come up from the stump of Jesse [David’s father]; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Isa 11:1)

The picture given is of tree that has been cut down, leaving only a dead stump.  A single shoot remains growing low, near to the ground, but will eventually bear fruit.

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us. (Isa 9:6a) 

This verse, set to music by George Frideric Handel, now a fixture of every Christmas season and one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music, was penned by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah 600 years before the birth of Christ.  The verse emphasizes the humanity of the Messiah who would one day set foot onto the stage of human history.  Isaiah sees a son given by God and being born into the human world.  The phrase “unto us a son is given” in the Hebrew Old Testament emphasizes a unique gift of God.  Then in the second half of the verse, the deity of the Messiah is emphasized as this Son is given four names, two of which can only be applicable to God:

And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isa 9:6b)

The next verse further identifies him as the descendant of David, confirms that his house, kingdom and throne will be maintained eternally by the everlasting Son, and gives a description of his reign, which will be characterized by peace and justice:

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.  He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.  The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.  (Isa 9:7)

The Lord created an entirely new nation, the nation of Israel, to bring to the world the reality of the one true God, His word and His love.  That love appeared on the first Christmas night in the form of a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger (Luke 2:7).  Divine love is the message the angels shared with the shepherds who were “keeping watch over their flock by night.”  “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 the Lord.” (Luke 2:8, 10-11).

Though gradual in its unfolding, yet clear and bold are the main outlines of the description given us through Moses and the Hebrew prophets of the Jewish Redeemer that God promised to send.

The great hope of the Hebrew Scriptures was not that a Messiah would come.  The great hope of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God would come. “Oh God, that you would tear the heavens and come down!” (Isa 64:1)  “Get up into a high mountain and say, Behold your God!” (Isa 40:9)

Nearly 2,000 years ago a Jewish child was born contrary to the laws of nature.  His was an obscure birth in an obscure village of Palestine.  With little fanfare or formality, Jesus Christ was born that first Christmas.  It was hardly an event to capture the headlines.  After all, what greatness might you expect from a child whose delivery room was the stable, whose first bassinet was a feeding trough, and whose first visitors were field hands and foreigners.  And yet that birth carries such profound significance, it would henceforth mark the dividing point of human history, forever separating B.C. from A.D.

If Christmas isn’t a Jewish holiday, then it ought to be.  If Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, as promised by God and the fulfillment of the prophecies of our Hebrew Bible, then Jews should be able to join in with others in celebrating the birth of the greatest Jew that ever lived.

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About Alex Haiken

Born to a Jewish family in New York City, I came to faith in Christ in 1982 after trying to disprove the Bible. I found so much evidence in support of the claims of Jesus and the Bible that it required more faith to reject it than to believe it. I hold a Master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and among other things am a lecturer, teacher, blogger and conference speaker. I came out as gay at a young age but was taught when I came to faith that I could not be both Christian and gay. I served for a time as a leader of an ex-gay ministry but shifted my views after recognizing that when the few passages generally appealed to in this debate are examined more closely and in context, the traditional anti-gay interpretations do not hold up to scrutiny. I learned that the ex-gay route is a scripturally unsound mirage, a specious illusion that deceitfully draws people not to a life-giving oasis but to a deeper and deeper spiritual desert. Seeing the immense need for education in this area, I began to speak and write about my experience and new-found convictions. I am also passionate about helping the Church better understand her rich Jewish roots; helping other Jewish people understand Jesus as their Jewish Messiah; and helping other gay people integrate a theologically sound, committed Christian faith with their sexuality. It is my hope that the reflections in this blog will prompt you to explore the paths they suggest, leading to your own more eloquent thinking, exploration and action. If you want, visit the “Contact” page and let me know what you think.
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