Jesus was essentially Jewish

Tue, 17/12/2013 - 10:38 -- James Oakley

It's the time of year for Christmas carol services.

On Sunday night, at ours, we sang Wesley's final verse of "Hark! The herald-angels sing". It's an absolute cracker, rich in biblical theology, that praises Christ for his work in a full way, and prays that he would accomplish his work in us and in the world.

Come, Desire of nations, come;
make in us your humble home!
Rise, the woman’s conquering Seed,
bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness now efface;
stamp your image in its place;
second Adam from above,
give us life; impart your love.

But this verse is not often sung. Most people appreciated it at our service, although a few expressed surprise, and one person said they disliked it.

The question is why it has dropped from much modern use of the carol. I find it so hard to see anything objectionable in it that it's hard to think of good reasons to exclude it. Arguably, some of the allusions may be foreign to the modern mind that is not steeped in Scripture and in the church. Related, it may be that some folk are uncomfortable with descriptions of the birth of Christ in such Old Testament terms.

Whether we come at it from the need to use familiar imagery, or a wish to keep Jesus' birth to the New Testament, we hit upon the same basic snag. Jesus was Jewish.

It is true that the church is now a fully mixed Jew - Gentile gathering, as Ephesians 2 makes clear. But, as Romans 11 explains, we have been grafted in to the vine of God's church, and the root of that stock is his dealings with the (racially and religiously converted) Jewish people of Old Testament times.

This is very simple when we consider a more common word. Words like "Adam", "serpent" and "seed" may not mean much to some people today. But we're used to the title "Jesus Christ". "Christ" is, of course, just a Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah", which means "anointed one". When we ask who the child in the manger was, the consistent answer is that he was (and is) the long-awaited Messiah or Christ. And who is that? Well, it's impossible to answer that without telling some of the story of King David and his dynasty, and of the promises God made to him. And it's impossible to tell that story without some reference to Abraham and God's promises and purposes there. In short, what we celebrate at Christmas is the arrival of the one promised throughout the Old Testament.

Which means that, unless we understand his arrival in the language, colour, terms and expectations of the Old Testament, we won't have understood it at all. Indeed, the more popular first three verses of Wesley's carol are equally steeped in Old Testament hope - they just more familiar terms as they do so.

So this Christmas, it's time to get into the Old Testament a little more. For if we want to understand who and what we celebrate, we need to find out what the labels, titles and promises given to the Christ-child mean. As we do that, we'll appreciate more deeply what his arrival means. That will in turn lead us to a richer worship, a deeper joy, and a more heart-felt response.

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