You’ve probably seen artistic renderings of Jesus with flowing golden or bronze hair. Maybe you’ve watched a movie or two with an Anglo-Saxon cast as the Son of God—complete with a perfectly posh British accent.
Sorry to break it to you, but this isn’t the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, it’s a Jesus straight out of Norway!
While this might seem obvious on reflection, we often seem to forget that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t of European descent. Perhaps that’s because many people associate Christianity with Europe and the West. But when we forget that the Jesus of the Bible was a Jew, living in first-century Palestine in what we now call the Middle East, we miss something crucial about the story of God’s Messiah.
As a Jew, Jesus would have worshipped in the synagogue. He would have read and memorized the Torah. And he would have regularly recited the Shema:
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” — Deuteronomy 6:4-5
Understanding Jesus’ ethnicity provides critical context for understanding the Christian faith itself. Because it’s only when we grasp the true nature of the founder of Christianity that we grasp the true nature of God’s love.
The Story of God and the Jewishness of Jesus
To understand the significance of Jesus’ story, you have to see the big picture of God’s story, which begins with the history of God’s people in the Bible’s earliest pages. After our ancient ancestors Adam and Eve vandalized the shalom (peace) of God’s good world with a legacy of ever-increasing wickedness, God responded with a new legacy of His own. He launched a plan to rescue humanity by recruiting a man—Abraham&,dash;and making a remarkable promise to Abraham and his descendents:
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.” — Genesis 12:1-3
By forming a covenant with them—He would be their God, and they His people—God’s ultimate plan was to bless all nations and peoples through Abraham and his offspring. But the road to that blessing would be a long and painful one, because God’s own people continually failed to keep up their end of the covenant. Instead of demonstrating for others how to live as God intended, instead of pointing the way to reconciliation with God, Israel spiraled downward into wickedness. Their moral failure eventually became so great that God judged the nation of Israel with a painful period of exile.
But God wasn’t through with them. His promises of blessing still stood—for them and for the nations of the world. God raised up prophets to remind his people of their covenant with him. And ultimately, God offered a new promise: God would send a Chosen One, a Messiah, to rescue mankind and put the world back together again.
What’s interesting about this Jewish story is how consistently forward-pointing it is. It always looks forward to the day when the Messiah would come to make things right again—not only for Israel, but for the world. This Messiah would be a “new Moses.” He would descend from the famed Israelite king David, but would be infinitely greater than David—David was the king of Israel, but the Messiah would be the King of kings. And this Messiah would suffer abuse and even death, slaughtered as the sacrifical Lamb of God.
That Chosen One was Jesus, born in the line of the great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the descendent of David, the son of Joseph and Mary—a thoroughly Jewish genealogy.
The Jewishness of Jesus and the Story of Christianity
Shortly after Jesus was born, his parents, Joseph and Mary, did what any good Jewish parent would have done in first-century Palestine(and still do to this day): they circumcised him. The young Jesus was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem to be consecrated to the Lord—a traditional ceremony for every firstborn Jewish boy. His parents also took him to Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover, a Jewish holiday that commemorated the Lord’s rescue of His people from the land of Egypt (a hugely important event in Jewish and biblical history known as the Exodus). In short, Jesus was raised faithfully in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Early in Jesus’ ministry, an interesting episode took place that highlighted his Jewish identity. When he went to worship in the local synagogue on the Sabbath, he was handed a scroll for the day’s reading. Locating a particular passage, this is what he read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the synagogue attendant, sat down, and said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The passage he read was a classic Messianic passage, one that vividly expressed Jewish hopes and expectations for their promised Chosen One. And Jesus claimed that he was that One—the long-awaited Messiah who had come to finally rescue his people, all people, and set things right again in the world! This was the new Exodus that Israel had been waiting for!
Why the Jewishness of Jesus is Important
Reclaiming the Jewishness of Jesus is crucial. Because understanding his social and cultural context is crucial to understanding the love of God.
From the beginning, God’s mission to rescue and restore humanity, driven by a passionate love for the world. He chose Abraham and his Jewish decedents—the nation of Israel—to serve as vessels of his blessing to the nations of the world. The Israelites also served as carriers of the “seed”—the “offspring” of the woman, the long-awaited Messiah that God promised would defeat the Serpent who first tempted mankind into sin and tainted God’s good creation.
And yet God also promised the Serpent would strike the heel of that offspring—a symbolic foreshadowing of the suffering that would be experienced by Jesus, “who bore our suffering” and was “punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.”
Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was the fulfillment of God’s original plan to rescue and restore the world through the Jewish people. He was the fulfillment of all Israel’s hopes and expectations for peace and salvation. And through his sacrifice, God “has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14)…. for both Jews and non-Jews alike.
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