When I taught in Siberia, I returned home with a box full of Russian dolls to give as Christmas presents. These famous nesting dolls come in various sizes and colors; they depict everyone from politicians to biblical figures. My favorite was the Virgin Mary. Inside her was another smaller Mary, and inside her another, and still many more.
I liked the combination of elaborate colors on this particular doll, but even more I liked the symbolism inherent in the nesting design.
The doll was like the biblical story in which this mother plays a prominent role. Nesting inside the story of the nativity of our Lord is another story, and yet another, and still many more. What we Christians tend to forget is that each of these stories contained with the Christmas story are as Jewish as they come.
Jesus says “salvation is from the Jews,” (John 4:22). They are the ones to whom God gave “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever,” (Rom 9:4-5). Jesus was born a Jew, of a Jewish family, in a Jewish town, as the climactic story in the long line of Jewish stories that we call the Old Testament.
To understand the Nativity we need to grasp the Jewish nature of Christmas.
The Holy Jewish Family
The divine plan did not call for the Messiah to be born as a blond-haired, blue-eyed American. Or African. Or Australian. His family tree was a Jewish tree, planted in the soil of Israel, rooted in the promises God made to Abraham. And the branch on that Jewish tree mattered as well, for he was born the King of kings, of the “house and lineage of [King] David,” (Luke 2:4). As Paul says, "“From their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ" (Rom. 9:5).
For this reason, both Matthew and Luke include those seemingly dull and tedious genealogies in their Gospels. These genealogies, however, are theological gold, for they testify that Jesus is God’s YES to all the promises. All history comes to fulfillment in him—Mary’s son, David’s son, Abraham’s son, God’s Son.
This Jewish baby, born of a Jewish family, is himself all people’s adoption into God’s holy family.
O Little Jewish Town of Bethlehem
Jesus did not enter this world in a renowned, opulent metropolis like Rome or Alexandria. He was born in a small Jewish village. He chose a birthplace amongst the no-names and the powerless, for he himself came poor and lowly. Indeed, as his mother sang, he came “to bring down the mighty from their thrones and to exalt those of humble estate,” (Luke 1:52).
Centuries before, through the prophet Micah, God had pinpointed Bethlehem for the Messiah’s nativity (5:2), for this was King David’s hometown (1 Sam 16), and thus the fitting place for the one born King of the Jews.
In Hebrew, Bethlehem means "house of lechem." Lechem means "bread" but is also the general word for "food" or "nourishment." The first mention of lechem in the Bible is when Adam sinned, when God told him that thenceforth “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread [lechem]” (Gen. 3:19).
How graciously fitting, therefore, that the Last Adam was born in the House of Bread. He came to redo what Adam had undone—and to do it even better. By the sweat of Jesus’ face, by his effort and sacrifice and his bearing of the curse for us, we now eat of him, the Bread of Life, and live forever.
In this Jewish village of Bethlehem, the Jewish Jesus was born to be King of Kings and Bread of Breads, by which we all are ruled and fed.
Angels Appear to Jewish Shepherds
Of all the people to whom the angels could have announced the birth of the Savior, why shepherds?
As far back as the time of Joseph, the sons of Abraham were shepherds (Gen. 46:31-34). The Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush while he was caring for flocks (Exodus 3:1), then sent him to shepherd Israel out of Egypt (Isa 63:11). David guarded his father's flocks in these same pastures before being called to shepherd the tribes of Jacob (Ps. 78:71). And, as the Jews had long sung, “the LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want,” (Ps. 23:1).
How fitting, therefore, that when God came down to be our good Shepherd, to rule over Israel, and to shepherd us out of slavery to sin and death, he made his birth known to Jewish shepherds, and through them, to others (Luke 3:17-18).
The Jewish Exodus of Jesus
Again and again in the history of the Jewish people, there are exodus stories. In these narratives, God’s people live outside the holy land for a time, but eventually the Lord mercifully brings them home. It happened to Abraham in Egypt (Gen. 12:10-20); Jacob in Haran (Gen. 28); and the nation of Israel first in Egypt and later in Babylon.
All of these exoduses, however, were but prototypes for the exodus that Jesus accomplished, beginning already in his infancy. For soon after his birth, when Herod sought to kill the Christ child, Jesus was forced into exile in Egypt, where he remained until his Father mercifully brought him home (Matt 2:13-15).
Just like the Jewish people, this Jewish Savior followed in the footsteps of Abraham, Joseph, Jacob, and the twelve tribes of Israel.
However, he was not simply reenacting the exoduses of old; he was ushering in the final, climactic exodus. He brought this to fulfillment in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31), when he endured total exile upon the cross and grave in order that he might bring us all out of darkness and into the promised land of light and life in his resurrection.
King of the Jews
"Salvation is from the Jews” for Jesus the Jew is our salvation. In his body both Jews and Gentiles are washed into unity by the Spirit’s baptismal work (1 Cor. 12:13). The family tree of Jesus is Jewish, and we who are Gentiles are grafted into that tree by the gracious work of God (Rom. 11:17-18).
For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son into the womb of a Jewish virgin, to be born in a Jewish town, and to be crucified with a sign over his head that reads, “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews,” in order that salvation might go forth to all people from him.
All this saving work begins at Christmas, the Christian holiday that is thoroughly Jewish. On that day the angels announce the “good news of a great joy that will be for ALL the people,” (Luke 2:10).