Christmas has never been a time of rejoicing for Jewish people. The hubbub and festivities that effervesce around the holiday seem to many Jews more like a big ball of excitement that rolls through the lives of the heathen once a year as they celebrate the advent of the pagan deity whom they worship.
The Christmas tree rarely offends anyone, but the manger scene is a different story. To a Jewish person who has grown up in the synagogue, there is just something that screams out “Goyishe, Goyishe” (Gentile, Gentile) about figurines of people bowing down to a baby.
Consequently, Jewish people have so completely distanced themselves from Mary and Joseph that most know nothing about them, not even what tribe they were from. What a shame, because the story of Mary and Joseph is a beautiful testimony of faith in Israel. It is the historical record of a young Jewish maiden and her betrothed, who were handpicked by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to participate in fulfilling the most important promise He ever made to His chosen people—the promise of a redeemer.
From the time that God used Moses to deliver His people from slavery in Egypt, the theme of redemption has played prominently in Jewish history. The days of Israel’s glory under Kings David and Solomon lasted only 80 years. Then Israel plunged headlong into idolatry and sin. Their refusal to return to the God who loved them cost Israel its preeminence, its land, and its kingdom. In 586 B.C., God sent Nebuchadnezzar to wipe away the last vestiges of the Davidic monarchy and carry the southern kingdom of Judah into captivity in Babylon.
By the time of Mary and Joseph, the Jewish nation was under Roman control. A barely perceptible ember was all that still smoldered of the promise that God had made to King David about a thousand years earlier—that David’s seed “shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before me. It shall be established forever” (Ps. 89:36–37).
This promise of a Messiah and a kingdom for David that would have no end is what the remnant of ancient, righteous Jews clung to as they awaited their redemption from centuries of Gentile domination. It is the promise that Mary and Joseph were clinging to when Caesar Augustus ruled the known world from Rome and his puppet king, Herod the Great, sat on the throne in the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Joseph and Mary, whose true biblical name in Hebrew was Miriam (Victor Buksbazen, Miriam, The Virgin of Nazareth, p. 13), lived 70 miles north of Jerusalem in the picturesque town of Nazareth, nestled among the surrounding slopes of beautiful lower Galilee. Both were descendants of David from the tribe of Judah. Joseph, although a mere carpenter, was a direct heir to a Jewish throne and a Jewish kingdom that had lain in ashes for 580 years. God had not even communicated with His people for four centuries. It was a time of severe spiritual drought in Israel, as prophesied by Isaiah (Isa. 53:2).
Finally, in 5 or 6 B.C., God broke His 400 years of silence. First He dispatched His angel, Gabriel, to an elderly Jewish priest named Zacharias. Previously Gabriel had appeared twice to the Prophet Daniel (Dan. 8:16; 9:21) in the days of the captivity. Gabriel told Zacharias that his aged, barren wife, Elisabeth, would bear a son who was to be named John. John would be a prophet like Elijah, said Gabriel, and would fulfill Malachi’s prophecy that a special messenger would come “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk. 1:17; cp. Mal. 3:1). This Levite became known as John the Baptist.
Then, in Elisabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy, God again dispatched Gabriel—this time to Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph. According to the Jewish custom of the day, Mary was at most 14 or 15 years old and Joseph 17 or 18. She was a maiden of profound humility and faith, as evidenced by her immediate submission to the will of God and her magnificent praise and knowledge of Him, recorded in Luke 1:46–55.
Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive a son, whom she was told to name Yeshua, which in Hebrew means salvation. In English this name is Jesus. “He shall be great,” said Gabriel, “and shall be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father, David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Lk. 1:32–33). Thus, Gabriel told Mary that her son was to be the “anointed one,” the Messiah of Israel.
Although the doctrine of a virgin-born Messiah seems absurd to modern Jews, and to some Gentiles as well, that was not the case in ancient Israel. “The supernatural character and virgin birth of the Messiah was, for many centuries a well-established Messianic belief among the Jews” (Victor Buksbazen, Miriam, The Virgin of Nazareth, p. 82).
This news came to Mary at some time during her betrothal period. According to the Jewish marriage customs at that time, Mary and Joseph’s parents probably had arranged the match, with Joseph giving a sum of money called a mohar to Mary’s father to secure her hand in marriage. Then the engaged couple entered a formal 12-month betrothal.
This time was considered as sacred as the marriage itself. Only a formal divorce could dissolve it. A written contract usually sealed the arrangement, and a moral breach constituted adultery and was punishable by death. Traditionally, the bridegroom then went home to prepare a place for his wife and returned at some undetermined time after the twelfth month to claim his bride, consummate the marriage, and bring her home.
It is hard to imagine the extent of Joseph’s grief when this righteous young man returned for his bride. Contrary to popular belief, Mary’s condition probably was not visible or publicly known when Joseph arrived. The Bible does not indicate when, during the betrothal period, Gabriel came or how soon afterward Mary conceived. It does say that after Gabriel told her about Elisabeth’s pregnancy, Mary immediately traveled to the home of Elisabeth, her cousin, and spent three months there. The fact that Elisabeth hailed her as “the mother of my Lord” (Lk. 1:43) indicates that the birth of the Messiah was an accomplished fact in God’s sight. Furthermore, Jesus’ parentage was never questioned. He frequently read the Scriptures in the synagogues (Lk. 4:16), a privilege strictly forbidden to illegitimate children (Dt. 23:2), and was widely known in his hometown as “the carpenter’s son” (Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3).
Most likely Joseph came for Mary soon after she returned from Elisabeth’s. By then she knew that she had conceived. Being merciful, just, and probably in love, Joseph was not about to have her stoned to death, nor was he willing to have her publicly humiliated. Consequently, he was contemplating divorcing her quietly when an angel came to him in a dream. Addressing him with the royal salutation “thou son of David,” the angel told Joseph to proceed with the marriage because “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:20). He instructed Joseph, as Gabriel had instructed Mary, to name the child “Jesus”—salvation. Then he told Joseph something not told to Mary: “he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).
For some reason, God revealed one facet of His design of redemption to Mary and another facet to Joseph. Mary was told about the Messiah’s Second Coming, when He would redeem the Jewish people from Gentile domination and reign on the throne of David forever. Joseph was told about the Messiah’s First Coming to redeem mankind from sin by His atoning death. Joseph must have wondered what lay in store for this child. As a man who followed the Jewish law, he understood well that remission of sin was obtained only through a blood sacrifice (Lev. 17:11). In order to “save his people from their sins,” this child was destined to bring a sacrifice—or to become one.
In obedience to the God whom he trusted, Joseph married Mary (Mt. 1:24). He lived with her, cared for her, and provided for her—possibly for as long as six to eight months—yet refrained from having marital relations with her until she brought forth her firstborn son. What a testimony of moral rectitude and faith.
In Mary’s ninth month, when she was “great with child” (Lk. 2:5), “there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be registered” (Lk. 2:1). Since he was from the house and lineage of David, Joseph and his espoused wife (espoused because the marriage still was not consummated) made the three- to four-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David, where they were to be listed for taxation with the Roman Empire. There, in the privacy of a humble stable, with Joseph by her side, Mary gave birth to the Savior. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Lk. 2:8). Then an angel announced to them the fulfillment of an ancient promise that God had made to the Jewish people: “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ [Heb., Messiah] the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Lk. 2:11–12; Mic. 5:2).
Biblical signs were always supernatural occurrences from the hand of God that could not be duplicated by human effort. Although most scholars maintain that the “sign” given to the shepherds consisted of the swaddling clothes and the manger, they were not supernatural. At that time, babies were routinely bound in strips of cloth, and although it may have been unusual to lay a child in a feeding trough, there was nothing supernatural about it. That information merely identified the proper location.
The sign was the baby. He was the supernatural birth that Isaiah had told the house of David to look for 700 years earlier (Isa. 7:14). He was a sign to people of faith that God had not forsaken His chosen people but had remembered the covenant that He had made with David. He was a sign that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
Rather than announcing this important news to the priest or rulers of Israel, God instead chose to reveal this great truth to humble shepherds who occupied one of the lowest rungs on the ladder of Jewish society. Since they spent a lot of time alone with the animals, they were considered such dreamers that their testimony was not even accepted in a court of law. Yet these shepherds were men of faith. They hurried to the stable in Bethlehem to see this great miracle, “which the Lord hath made known unto us” (Lk. 2:15). Their testimony must have been a welcomed reassurance to Mary and Joseph that their obedience and faith had not been in vain. As she did frequently, Mary, in her quiet, submissive way, “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19).
Probably neither she nor Joseph ever fully understood God’s ultimate plan and their role in it. The kingdom of heaven was indeed at hand, but the Jewish people were not willing to repent and turn to God in order to receive it. Joseph never lived to see Jesus go to the cross and save His people from their sins by becoming the final atoning sacrifice that satisfied the Jewish law. Perhaps Jesus’ victory cry, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), resounded in heaven above, where the carpenter from Nazareth heard it and rejoiced.
Mary never lived to see Jesus reign in glory because that prophecy is yet to be fulfilled. Some day, when the Lord Jesus returns, the word of the Old Testament Prophet Zechariah will come to pass, and the Jewish people will “look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son” (Zech. 12:10). Then all Israel will repent and understand that God provided for their redemption through Jesus Christ—the Messiah of Israel, the legal son of Joseph, the natural son of Mary, the eternal Son of God (Ezek. 36:31; Zech. 12:12–13:1; Rom. 11:26; Isa. 9:6). Then God will restore to Israel its preeminence, its land, and its kingdom (Isa. 60; Zech. 8:23). Jesus will sit on the throne of David, and of His kingdom there will be no end.
Nothing about the Christmas manger scene will seem Goyishe then because “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…And…every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God, the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).