Celebrating Christmas in the land of the Nativity was certainly different from any Christmas I had experienced at home. In the U.S., the spirit of commercialism has catapulted Christmas into a multi-month celebration during which you can hear Christmas music in every store, enjoy deals for Christmas presents, chop down your own Christmas tree, drive around neighborhoods looking at Christmas light displays and decorations, watch Christmas movies every day leading up to Christmas, and more.
Meanwhile, in Israel, as most Jewish citizens were putting away Hanukkah decorations and recovering from fried food overload, the Christian Arab and Messianic Jewish communities were preparing to celebrate Christmas somewhat privately in their homes and assemblies. No Christmas music playing at the mall. It’s illegal to chop down trees in Israel. You might see a few decorations if you drive through Nazareth or Bethlehem but not very many other places. Going from a culture in which the majority celebrates Christmas to a culture in which most do not celebrate or even understand it was a huge culture shock, an eye-opener for me—for which I am grateful.
The other student interns and I brought our artificial Christmas tree up from the bomb shelter and excitedly began decorating our student house on the kibbutz. Some of our Jewish friends and neighbors came over to see our decorations, eat cookies, and play games. They asked all kinds of questions about Christmas. The more I tried to explain, the more confusing it all began to sound, even to me. The question that really stumped me was, “But what about Rudolph? When does he come into the story?”
One of the first Bible stories I remember hearing as a child was the Christmas story (Matthew 1—2; Luke 1—2), the First Advent of Messiah. Maybe it was so memorable because of the traditions and the celebration, but how quickly the reason for the season can be buried and lost within all of the cultural Christmas chaos. Just last year, I was surprised to read how Christmas commercialism is actually growing in Israel with Black Friday sales. Yet, in the land of the Nativity, Messiah’s First Coming to Earth doesn’t get much recognition at Christmastime. All three monotheistic religious systems (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) have added to this confusion and chaos in their own way through centuries of exalting manmade traditions, writings, and rules above the inerrant, authoritative Word of God.
Let’s cut through all this Christmas confusion to the true, biblical, historical, and very Jewish account of the Jewish Messiah’s First Advent.
Let’s cut through all this Christmas confusion to the true, biblical, historical, and very Jewish account of the Jewish Messiah’s First Advent. In reality, it’s so simple, we can sum it up in one Hebrew word: עמנואל (Emmanuel—“God with us”).
Within the bustling modern city of Nazareth, filled mostly with Arab Christian residents, lies a tiny village caught in a sort of time warp. Nazareth Village is a must-see attraction for any visitor who is curious about life in 1st-century Galilee. In December, the actors who worked there put on a live Nativity where we could follow the young Jewish virgin, Miriam, and her betrothed, Joseph, through the Luke 2 narrative. It was amazing! Not because of smoke machines, lighting, or music—just a simple yet powerful reenactment of God’s Anointed One coming to Earth as the prophets foretold throughout the Jewish Scriptures: born as a baby (Isaiah 9:6), born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), at just the right time (Daniel 9:25–26), accompanied by just the right sign (Numbers 24:17), the Savior (יֵשׁוּעַ , Isaiah 53), God with us (Matthew 1:18–25)!
From what we read in the Jewish Scriptures, we cannot solve our own sin problem by just doing our best to obey the Torah (the God-given Law) and hoping our good outweighs our bad in the end. Humanity needs a sinless Savior who both gave and kept Torah perfectly. Only One is fit for that job—Messiah Yeshua. And because God promised the Messiah must belong to the kingly line of David, Matthew (the first book of the Brit Hadasha, the New Testament, which broke the 400 years of prophetic silence) begins with the genealogy of Messiah Yeshua (Jesus), proving He descended through David’s kingly line.
When you read the Jewish historical context of Scripture, don’t you feel with greater intensity the long-awaited, highly-anticipated, God-promised, sinless Savior’s arrival to save humanity from its sin problem? Don’t you just want to jump out of your skin and shout, “Hallelujah!”? No longer would our sins separate us from our God. His redemptive plan hinges on this advantageous advent. The Son of God came to dwell with us and save us from our sins! Now that is a Christmas story worth celebrating! No Rudolph needed.