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Why should Christians celebrate Christmas? We know historically that some of the symbols of Christmas (e.g. the Christmas tree) have nothing to do with the birth of Christ. The holiday in America is more about consumerism than about atonement and salvation. The mythical figure of Santa Claus is portrayed as a white man, and many of the classic Christmas movies feature and prioritize a mono-ethnic culture.

The reason we should celebrate Christmas is that Jesus is the Jewish Christ, who has come to save all people without distinction from their sins. Christmas reminds us of the day when God’s eternal Son took on flesh and became Jesus, the brown skin Jewish man. God the Son became part of the family of David and Abraham in fulfillment of God’s multi-ethnic promises to save Jews and Gentiles throughout the world.

Christmas in Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew wrote his gospel to Jewish Christians in the 1st century AD. These Jewish Christians were likely experiencing verbal attacks and social ostracism due to their faith in Jesus. The verbal attacks most likely accused Jewish Christians of forsaking Israel’s God and the covenants he made with the Jewish people. These criticisms could have come against Jewish Christians because of their involvement with a Christian movement that associated with Gentiles, understood the Law of Moses in light of Jesus, and worshipped Jesus, a publicly condemned criminal, as the Messiah and Son of God. Several examples throughout the gospel support this. The Sermon on the Mount is one example.

Throughout Jesus’ sermon on the Mount, Matthew depicts Jesus correcting a misunderstanding of the Law of Moses. Leading up to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew presents Jesus as God’s true Son and as an Israel-like figure in Matt. 2:15-4:10 (Israel was called God’s son in the OT—Hos. 11:1). Matthew identifies Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and descendant of both David and Abraham. He also suggests that Jesus came to fulfill all of God’s promises of salvation by means of his life, cross, resurrection, and exaltation as the new Davidic King (Matt. 1:1, 21; 28:16-20).

Jesus is the Jewish Messiah!

The basic message of Matt. 1:1-17 is that Jesus is the Christ, the Jewish Messiah. Matthew affirms this in at least four ways. First, he calls Jesus the Messiah. Second, he calls Jesus the son of David. Third, he calls Jesus the son of Abraham. Fourth, he lists a genealogy to highlight Jesus’ genealogical connections with both Abraham and David.

The background behind Matthew’s concept of Messiah is the OT. The OT speaks often about Israel’s promised Christ. The term “Christ/Messiah” means “anointed one.” In Ps. 2:2, David is referred to as God’s anointed/Christ. God anointed David as king over his people (1 Sam. 16:13).

Throughout the OT, the authors discuss the various successes and failures of Israel’s earthly kings/Messiahs and the destruction of their earthly kingdoms as a result of the kings’ sins. From the first king to the last, the story of 1 Samuel-2 Chronicles is complex. Many of Israel’s earthly kings failed to obey God’s law and failed to lead the nation to obey God’s law inscribed in the books of Moses. As a result, Israel’s earthly dynasty was ruined. This is seen especially in the books of Kings and Chronicles when the sins of the kings divide the kingdom into a northern and a southern territory, when the sins of the different kings in the divided kingdoms forced both kingdoms into exile, and when their sins resulted in the temple’s destruction (cf. 1 Kings-2 Chronicles). God promised through the prophets that he would send the Jewish Messiah (the perfect king) who would save his people, Israel, and whose kingdom would be eternal (cf. 2 Sam. 7:12-13; Psalm 110; Isaiah 40-66).

Israel’s kings and their kingdoms anticipate a greater king and an eternal kingdom (e.g. 2 Sam 7:12-13). So, when Matthew states in Matt. 1:1 that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah, he’s telling us that his gospel is about the fulfillment of God’s promises of salvation through Jesus, the promised Jewish Christ/Messiah.

The Christ in Matthew 1

The title Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but it is a title of identity. This title occurs approximately 16x in Matthew (4 times in chapter 1 [1:1, 16, 17, 18]), 7x in Mark, 12x in Luke, and 18x in John. In comparison with Mark and Luke, the title Christ is more important for Matthew. The term Christ/Messiah is a divine title in Matthew. By identifying Jesus as the Christ, Matthew likewise identifies him as uniquely sharing in YHWH’s divine identity as his son.

For example, in Matt. 16:13, Jesus asks his disciples who did people say that he was? Some responded by saying John the Baptist (a prophet), Elijah (another prophet), or one of the other prophets. The word on the street was that Jesus was merely a prophet along the lines of those mentioned in v. 14. But Jesus directly asks his disciples what they thought about his identity. In 16:16, Peter answers by saying: “you are the Christ/Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

Peter defines what he means by Christ when he identifies Jesus as God’s Son. Peter’s proclamation fits with God’s very own declaration about Jesus at his baptism in Matt. 3:17 and at Jesus’ transfiguration in Matt. 17:5. In the OT, Psalm 2 suggests the Messiah is both LORD and the LORD’s Son. Psalm 110 suggests that the LORD’s Son sits at the LORD’s right hand and shares in his exalted glory as the Lord. Thus, to be the Christ is to share in God’s divine identity (e.g. Daniel 7). This is why Jesus is able to heal the sick and raise the dead in Matthew because Jesus is YHWH who saves (cf. Rom. 10:8-9).

Jesus is not the Father, but he is the Son. YHWH is Father, Son, and Spirit: one God in three persons (cf. Matt. 28:16-20). Therefore, in Matt. 1:1, Matthew wants his Jewish Christian audience to recognize that their faith in Christ is in continuity with trust in what God has always promised to do for his people: to send the Jewish Messiah to save the Jewish people from their sins and to extend that salvation to Gentiles who trust in Jesus by faith (Matt. 1-2; 28:16-20). Faith in Jesus is faith in Israel’s one and true living God. This Jewish Messiah would also bring salvation to Gentiles (Matt. 28:16-20; cf. Isa 49:6). He accomplished salvation for both groups by means of his victorious and atoning death and triumphant resurrection from the dead.

Conclusion

Christmas reminds us that the Jewish Jesus is the Christ, who wants the worship of all people scattered throughout the world. We worship a Jewish God-man as Messiah and Lord. Whatever Jesus looked like, he looked Jewish; he acted Jewish, he spoke with a Jewish accent. He celebrated Jewish holidays and festivals.

He also forgave Jews and Gentiles of their sins, cared for the poor, healed the sick, suffered injustice, preached against injustice, died on the cross, and resurrected from the dead for all people without distinction. Christmas reminds us that God’s eternal Son and the Messiah has come into the world in the form of a poor brown skin Jewish (NOT European!) baby boy who grew up to be a poor Jewish man on earth and later exalted to his previous position of exaltation at the right hand of God after his death and resurrection (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). Christmas reminds us that Jesus has already begun to reign as the crucified and exalted Lord and Christ now over all things in heaven and on the earth (Eph. 1).

May God help us this Christmas to fix our eyes and hearts firmly on the Jewish Jesus so that we will have a firmer grasp on the real Jewish Jesus and the true meaning of Christmas. May we worship this Jesus with our lives. May we as black and brown Christians proclaim this Jesus to all colors of people with ears to hear with the same type of clarity and multi-ethnic love that our Messiah shows for all people without distinction, and may we especially proclaim and show the love of Jesus to those who are marginalized during this holiday season, because the Jewish Jesus is the Christ.

Dr. Jarvis J. Williams (PhD) is an associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He is the author of numerous books and articles, Christ Died For Our Sins (Pickwick, 2015).
He regularly preaches and lectures throughout the country.

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