Another Christmas Season is upon us. They come so quickly for us sexagenarians, septuagenarians, and a couple octogenarians I know. For young families with children, the anticipation creates high energy and expectations. Older families look forward to reconnecting, especially with those members away at college or who have relocated from their home town. Despite its over-commercialization, it remains a time of celebration with family and friends, a time of generosity, kindness, and charity towards everyone. It can be a time of reconciliation for those whose relationships are strained for one reason or another. For some, it is a time to reflect upon the events of the past year and look forward to a “clean slate” offered by the new year. But underneath it all, the core of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is true that our nation appears to be moving away from its Christian roots, which has caused the holiday to feel more secular as its focus shifted to the giving and getting of gifts. But the underlying truth remains, Christmas is about the most amazing event ever recorded in history: the birth of Jesus the Christ.
Why do I believe it was the most amazing event in history? Because Jesus claimed to be God. God incarnate. No less than six times in the book of Matthew, Jesus corrected misunderstandings of the Jewish law or overruled Jewish custom by his own authority, saying, “You have heard that it was said . . . But I tell you…” (read Matthew 5:21-48). In Matthew 10:40, Jesus directly equated himself with God. He claimed that God the Father sent Him with certain powers and authorities (John 5:24–29; 10:17–18; 17:2-3). Jesus claimed He was the Messiah (John 4:25-26), and that God the Father sent Him (John 5:36-38; 7:28-29). He even claimed the Father and He are one (John 10:27-30). And if the miracles Jesus performed in front of many witnesses were not enough (like healing the lame, raising the dead, etc.), certainly his own resurrection from the grave became the example of what His followers can hope to experience. Jesus was speaking the absolute truth when He claimed to be God. So, today’s post will be a little different; think of it as a special Christmas message.
Like most people my age, I have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In today’s public education system they might be considered ancient history. However, although the first Scroll fragments were identified in 1947, others continued to be found. Most recently in a 2019 expedition, a section of the Book of Zechariah was identified, written in Greek, that dated back about 2000 years. These Scrolls were usually written on parchment or papyrus, but the arid environment of the Jordan Desert allowed these pieces of scroll to survive. Absent printing presses, hand written scrolls were used to pass along knowledge, history, or news. They reveal the life and activities of the people who lived in and passed through these regions as well as portions of books or other writings. The fragments were found in multiple languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Arabic.
The early Scroll remnants included portions of the Hebrew Bible (essentially the Christian Bible’s Old Testament). Perhaps the most biblically significant Scroll piece from the 1947 discovery is the Great Isaiah Scroll.
Portions of the Scrolls illuminate the Bible’s historical significance. Prior to their discovery, the earliest surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible dated to around 1000 A.D (pardon me while I continue to use B.C and A.D. rather than the newer B.C.E and C.E. designations). The Scrolls were dated a millennium earlier than the Hebrew Bible copies. Scholars have seen continuity between the Scrolls and later biblical manuscripts. To be transparent, they have also found some variation. For example, some Scrolls of Exodus and Samuel from the Qumran archeological site preserve passages that were absent from later biblical manuscripts. These could represent different traditions passed through the centuries, or actual scribal errors that crept into some manuscripts. So, in some ways the Dead Sea Scrolls are instrumental in reconstructing biblical texts.
The Scrolls also provide a window into the world of their authors. The Scrolls did not just record the history of the Hebrew Bible’s development; they recorded the history of Judea in the late Second Temple period (the Second Temple was built to replace Solomon’s Temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians around 600 B.C.). It was a time when the Pharisees and Sadducees argued about the correct interpretation of the law in the Hebrew Bible. It was a time when the Greeks, Hasmoneans, and then Romans ruled over the region.
History aside, the Book of Isaiah includes one of the more remarkable Old Testament prophecies. Isaiah wrote his original prophecy about 700 years before the birth of Jesus, according to Biblical scholars. The discovered Great Isaiah Scroll was dated circa 125 B.C., which means it also was written before the birth of Jesus the Christ. Isaiah prophesied that God would provide a messiah to redeem all who believed in Him, a prophecy also known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant. How could Isaiah predict such a messiah, particularly one that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time completely misidentified and crucified, if not by divine revelation from God the Father?
Isaiah’s Prophecy of Jesus
The following text quotes from the Book of Isaiah reveal what Christian scholars believe to be the prophetic revelation of Jesus, the “God-Man” who came to save humankind from its inability to save itself by obeying God’s law. He saved us by accepting the punishment that we all deserve, so that we could be made acceptable to God the Father (as clearly stated in Ephesians 1:3-10 below). These quotes are not all-inclusive of Isaiah’s prophecy, but I pray they reveal Jesus’ purpose on earth. That is, exactly why did God send himself into the human realm on earth? The answer explains why we believers celebrate Christmas and Easter.
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.Isaiah 7:10-14 (Isaiah is speaking to King Ahaz of Judah, descendent of King David, about his prophecy from the Lord that Israel will be punished for its sins, delivered into the hands of Assyria. After Ahaz rejects Isaiah’s prophecy, Isaiah reveals to Ahaz that the Lord will punish Judah and eventually send a Messiah, the Suffering Servant Jesus. By the way, the word “Immanuel” is a Hebrew word meaning “God with us,” and it appears three times in Isaiah and once in Matthew.)
Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” And now the LORD says— he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength— he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” This is what the LORD says— the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel— to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: “Kings will see you and stand up, princes will see and bow down, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”Isaiah 49:1-7 (This reveals that Jesus, whom God formed in Mary’s womb, will be His Special Earthly Servant, a savior to both Jew and Gentile.)
This is what the LORD says: “In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you; I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances, to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’ They will feed beside the roads and find pasture on every barren hill.”Isaiah 49:8-9 (This reveals that Jesus will provide for our salvation from the darkness of the prison of sin.)
“Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: Instruction will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail. “Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have taken my instruction to heart: Do not fear the reproach of mere mortals or be terrified by their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool. But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.”Isaiah 51:4-8 (Jesus’ salvation shall be eternal for all generations.)
See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—Isaiah 52:13-14 (This indicates that although Jesus the “suffering servant” will be exalted, he will be tortured beyond recognition, which the Gospel scriptures indicate was the punishment He bore for our sins.)
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.Isaiah 53:3-7 (This reveals that Jesus will be rejected by the Jewish leaders who see him as a threat, so they will plot to have Him crucified, which God intends to be the atoning sacrifice for all our sins; again, according to Gospel scripture written about seven centuries after the book of Isaiah.)
Paul’s Letters to the Churches in Ephesus and Rome
Paul was originally known as Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee descended from the Jewish tribe of Benjamin. The leadership of the Jews was comprised of High Priest, lessor Priests, Pharisees (scholars), and Sadducees (wealthy ruling class). These leaders believed that Jesus was usurping their positions and power over the Jews, and that the miracles He performed over his three-year ministry were some sort of evil trickery from a Jewish heretic. So, they had Jesus crucified by the Roman government. But hundreds of His followers witnessed Him, post-crucifixion. With the help of the apostles, Jesus’s close circle of disciples, these early believers formed what you might call the New Testament Church (described in the Book of Acts). Having already gone as far as killing Jesus, the Jewish leaders began persecuting those believers, the members of the early Church.
As a Pharisee, Saul was sent out to persecute the early believers in Jesus the Christ (Acts 7:54-8:3). Persecution included stoning them to death. However, while on his way to Damascus to arrest and extradite Christians back to Jerusalem, Saul was confronted by the risen Jesus, the very One whom he was persecuting (Acts 9:3–9; 22:6–11; 26:12–18). Saul underwent a dramatic conversion after his encounter with the risen Jesus, who changed Saul’s name to Paul. Flash forward about 700 years after Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus and we have the apostle Paul writing letters to the new Christian churches testifying that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.Ephesians 1:3-10 (Paul describes God the Father’s plan to gather his chosen and unify us with Him through Christ.)
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.Ephesians 1:13-14 (Paul says God’s special mark of the Holy Spirit will identify both Gentile and Jew who believes in Jesus as being saved from the eternal punishment for our sins.)
Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.Ephesians 2:12-13 (Paul says the blood of Jesus will save all, Jew and Gentile, who are unified to God through Jesus.)
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.Romans 3:10-19 (Paul says no one can be made right with God by following the law; the purpose of the law – or the Ten Commandments if you wish – is to demonstrate that we cannot keep the law; we are sinners by our selfish, prideful nature.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—Romans 3:21-25 (Paul says we can achieve righteousness, i.e., forgiveness, only through our belief in Jesus and his sacrifice of atonement.)
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.Romans 3:28 (Paul writes we are justified in our faith, not in our works, so that we cannot boast of our good deeds.)
I recognize this seems like a great amount of scripture to be throwing at my readers, especially young believers and non-believers. While it may seem like a lot, these are but a few small extracts that demonstrate the consistent theme of the Bible. From the beginning of God’s creation, He knew the free will He gave us, so necessary for our conscious decision to choose to believe, or not believe in Him, would cause all of us to stumble into sin. Because sin separates us from a perfect God, and because all sin needs to be punished by a just God, it was the divine plan, from Genesis through Revelation, that God would send a part of Himself to become a perfect, sinless human. A Suffering Servant Savior, Christ the Messiah, who accepted the punishment for all sin of mankind, past, present and future. If we accept and believe in Jesus, confessing and repenting from our sins, we will be baptized in the Holy Spirit, and we will receive not only His forgiveness, but His grace. It is one thing to be forgiven of our sins, but quite another to receive eternal blessings as adopted children of God (“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” John 1:12).
I pray these Holy Scriptures give all of us hope, comfort and peace. We do not have to live under the penalty of sin any longer, our heart-felt possession of faith does set us free from sin. Our salvation cannot be earned through any act of our own, it is a gift of grace, free for the taking once we come to know and believe in Jesus the Christ.
The apostle John said it rather simply: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world guilty, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).
Merry Christmas to everyone!