By Daniel Downs
Christmas is a multifaceted story about real events wrapped in two narratives. The two narratives are found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Like a new train and its track, these two narratives are part of one colorfully packaged gift given to humanity by God. Together they show the meaning of Christmas.
Some scholars and teachers rightly say the reason for the season is God’s love, peace, and forgiveness of sin.
The first gospel begins with teen pregnancy. Yes, it’s true the Hebrew word translated virgin actually means young woman or teen girl. It’s equally true that in ancient Jewish culture teenage girls were expected to marry and then bear children. Out-of-wedlock pregnancies were as unlawful as immoral. The social stigmatism would have been as illiberal as Scarlet Letter puritanism. Just as a barren wife, a young unwed mother would have experienced the discriminating scorn of a religious society. Therefore, it is reasonable to interpret the transliterated Hebrew word almah as virgin (Mt. 1:23; Isa. 7:14).
Rabbinical literature originating in Babylonia portrays young Mary as mistress of a Roman soldier. Whether because of sinful consent, seduction or rape, Mary’s pregnancy was conceived by rabbis opposed to the gospel message as adulterated sin. The Palestinian view, as scholars call it, is considerably different. It lacked any negative diatribes against Mary or her son. Just as the Palestinian Talmud reflects its local context, the two gospel narratives were rooted in local events and daily life in Judea and Samaria.
We also will find the meaning of Christmas grounded in the same geographical, cultural, ideological, and historical situation of then current events.
While reading our two narrative gifts, two bright themes twinkle like lights reflecting off shinny wrappings. Those themes are promise and purpose. As if sitting prominently under a Christmas tree, the two themes are wrapped with bright colorful interpretations of unfolding events. Those events appear to be fulfillment of promises made by God through even more ancient prophets. As such, they reveal as well as affirm the purpose of God.
For example, the gospel of Matthew begins the story of Jesus’ birth with marriage. Mary has been betrothed to Joseph…her husband (1:18, 19). In ancient Jewish culture, engagement was regarded as the beginning of a marriage. While Joseph was thinking about divorcing her, an angel told him to keep his wife because her pregnancy was God’s doing (1:19-20). Why would God do such a thing? The angel continued telling Joseph that Mary’s son would save his people. At that time, most Israelis were expecting a Messiah that would deliver them from the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire and puppet kings like Herod. That was not God’s purpose. Jesus was adopted and formed in the womb of Joseph’s virgin wife to save his people from their sins (1:20-21). This was seen by ancient writers like Matthew as fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah (1:20-21; Isa. 7:14). As evident in writings like Psalms of Solomon 17-18, 1 Enoch, and Dead Sea Scrolls1 the Messiah of David would represent the holy presence of God and lead all Jews into sinless living. In fact some believed the law would pass away when the true Messiah began to reign. For the law not to be needed meant all had to live holy lives at all times. Being capable of doing so meant the Messiah had to be as holy and sinless as those he would make holy or sinless. That is what the name “Immanuel” or “God with us” meant to those same ancient people.
If we trace the biblical history of God’s redemption, God chooses marriage and family as part of the means to its end.
The purpose of marriage is narrated in Genesis (2:18-25). After their moral crime, Adam and Eve were given a promised future in which God’s purpose would continue. Adam and Eve would create a society of families who would make God’s creation productive and who would overcome temptation and immorality (Gen. 3). It was for married society that God offered the first animal sacrifice in order to cover the naked guilt and shame of the first traditionally married couple. The clothing also served to minimize temptation (Gen. 3:21-23). Nevertheless, sibling rivalry and sexual perversion motivated by jealousy and lust followed (Gen. 4:1-24). One result was the rise of the first walled urban city, according to archaeology. Beginning with Adam’s grandson, the descendants of Adam began seeking God’s redemption (Gen. 4:25-26). Why? Because human decadence also continued until it dominated society. This was followed with the family of Noah being saved from the flood as well as the continuation the covenant of redemption that began with Adam (Gen. 6-8 & 9-10). The fulfillment of God’s redemptive purpose was given greater specificity with the family of Abraham. Through this family, God promised to bless the entire world (Gen. 12-17). At the same time, the sterile couple, Abraham and Sarah, was promised a son, Isaac, through whom the promise would be fulfilled in history (Gen. 15, 18). The same could be said about the family of David and the promised Messiah (2 Sa. 7:12-16; Rom. 1:1-4). Not only through a specific descendant of David would Israel’s redemption be realized but all people across the globe would have access to it as well. With the virgin birth of Jesus, the promised redemption began to be fulfilled.
As we have seen, God chose a young married couple to bring His adopted son into the world. The fact that an angel visibly announced God’s adoptive purpose for Jesus’ life before his conception gave them a solemn mission of parenting. Their purpose was to raise God’s son to fulfill his life purpose—the salvation of Israel as well as rule of the kingdom (Lk. 1: 32-33). All of this was affirmed first by the priestly shepherds who were told by a host of angels that the salvation this new born King would bring was for all people (Lk. 2:10-14). Further affirmation came at Jesus’ dedication by the temple priest Simeon (Lk. 2:21-32). Simeon again affirmed that Jesus was salvation for both Jews and gentiles according to Isaiah 49:5-6. Finally, the ambassadors of Parthia, the Magi, came escorted by a military regiment to pay homage to the newly born Messiah (Mt. 2:1-6). Consequently, Mary and Joseph were parents charged with a holy mission to deliver God’s gift of salvation holy and sinless for both Israel and the world. Fortunately, they had godly relatives and friends as well as a culture defined by God’s word (however tainted by sin and the influence of Rome’s presence) to assist them.
This is God’s Christmas gift to all people for all times. Jesus’ parents wrapped him in a Hanukkah candle wick because God wanted all people to see that His son is the true light of the world (Lk. 2:12-14). While his destiny was to suffer the shame and judgment for all sins of all people on the cross and in hell, God saw the fulfillment of his redemptive purpose advance toward final fulfillment (Isa. 53). Having fully satisfied divine justice, God raised His son from hell, from death’s tomb, and from the rejection of ignorant men. And, by lifting His son up to His side in heaven, the light of His peace, grace, and holy life forever shines for all to behold and embrace. God’s just forgiveness, His presence and empowerment, and His acceptance are continually held out by our gentle risen Shepherd and Lord Jesus. The gift only has to be received and lived. When all parents and their children do, society will finally realize the common good of God’s will. Then peace will reign on earth.
* This is from the Isaiah Scroll (53).