“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine!”
-Blessed Assurance- Fanny Crosby, 1873
The classic hymn declares a mystery that Christians of every country hold dear: JESUS CHRIST IS MINE! Indeed, this past Christmas season was all about the Son of God coming to us. The Holy One, whom cherubim hid their faces from in the sanctum of radiant wings, made the voyage across the vast ocean of divinity to settle in a home among His creations. The Lord looked past even the glorious bodies of angels on His search for intimacy: preternatural forms that would have spared Him pain, hunger and thirst, instead taking up residence in a vessel of clay, sharing our earthly language, feeling our beating heart.
“Yeah, yeah, but why a Jewish one?” my impatient listener asks. I honestly cannot put one particular face on this inquisitive person, rather imagining now an amalgamation of them, as the question has been brought to me so, so many times in my young life. Yet, what can begin as a jarring inquiry for an unprepared Christian actually becomes a valid one, even justified, because it isn’t a racist question, but rather a question of race: If Jesus is God’s progeny given to fallen humanity, the most beautiful and vital Christmas present to outshine all others, why did this shoot have to spring out of the root of the Israeli people? Doesn’t ‘my God’ care about me and my people? Wouldn’t an omniscient being like Yahweh have foreseen the gigantic cultural and geo-political problems this–choosing one ethnicity in which to reveal Himself–would cause in the earth? As a Christian, it would be easy for me to succumb to feelings of awkwardness and attempt to sidestep the issue, but it is important to the international expansion of the gospel, especially for those in the mission fields.
Even in places like Japan, where Christianity struggled to find its footing, Japanese believers would paint pictures of baby Jesus and Mary with their own East Asian features. Why does this happen? Most human beings want to feel some connection with a creator, some divine being that gives them reason for existence. Whether outward or in the depths of our subconscious, mankind has been calling out to our lost maker ever since that fateful day: when the gates of Eden, the garden and abode of God, were closed by our sin. Afterwards, in sadness and anger, the human family splintered and we went off to stake our claim in the earth, steadily ingrained in the cultures of a fallen world with the distant memory of divine origins– a memory that became increasingly distorted with each passing generation (Gen. 11:1-9). Still, the faintest traces of something beyond remained in our stories and tales, with people making gods out of stone and wood. These figures bore the distinguishing traits of their human makers and have reflected their respective ethnic cultures til this day. So, when God did actually come down, parting the seas of space and time to enter our reality as a newborn human child, He arrived to a world populated by a humanity whom had already marked off battle lines, territories of race, ethnicity and religion. Religion, that is, our own badly blurred image of God. This, of course, was a consequence of God respecting the human being’s gift of free will. Yet, the Lord’s own sacred will– to save us from a Godless eternity in the pit–propels His hand nevertheless to build roads of salvation in a world that we broke. So, I will discuss two main reasons why the Bible shows us that God chose this way, and why ultimately, none of us should be offended by the Christ emerging from one particular stream in the bloodlines of mankind.
A HOLY PEOPLE
The first reason, which will concern the remainder of this post, flows from one word rarely used today: covenant. A covenant, in the biblical sense, is an agreement between two equal parties or between one greater and one lesser. In the ancient near middle-east, like Sumeria and Babylon, this was a common occurrence, and so God made His covenants in a like fashion in order to communicate clearly his motives within the cultures of that day. The covenant was a promise, more serious than anything spoken halfheartedly or on a whim. It was binding, like a contract, and promised to bestow not only blessing on the lesser party but an inheritance to all that the gracious giver enjoyed themselves in royalty and reputation. This is what God promised Noah when he exited the ark (Gen 9:1-17), a covenant, but this one to all of mankind: to be fruitful and increase their numbers, to have dominion over the earth and enjoy its fruits, and to never again destroy all of it by water. However, a covenant has conditions, and God required man to live upright, that they not drink the lifeblood of other creatures, that the human blood taken by another in murder would be taken in turn by God as well. This, of course, was repeatedly broken by humanity as they continued to spread evil like a dark cloud over the earth, some beginning to worship idols that “required” infant sacrifice–like the Canaanite deity Molech mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 23:10), and its Carthaginian relation Cronos, spoken of by Greek historian Plutarch in his De Superstitione 171.
As man’s curse of sin continued to pollute every endeavor he set out to do, God remained faithful. Remembering His covenant, he stayed His hand from another mass genocide in favor of creating a new agreement with one particular tribe, that of the patriarch Abraham. Abraham was from the town of Ur in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, and the spirit of God spoke to the bewildered man, telling him to leave the home he knew and go out to a land that the Lord promised. There, the King of the universe tested Abraham, and in the most intense way: God required the life of His Son Isaac as proof that the man did actually love the Lord. Many find this controversial, cruel, and quite understandably, but it was vital. Abraham proved His total faith in the great Creator of all there is, the One who exists outside of time and space, who sees every thread of possibility to its end, while God revealed two very crucial things about Himself. One, He is compassionate, as He stopped Abraham at the last moment before He could kill his own son. Second, that He was not like the other so-called “gods” of the land, the idols of gold that drank the blood of innocents, the metal arms of some being super-heated to burn infants to death (Diodorus Siculus 20:14). God was drawing an indefinite line in the sand between Himself and these lifeless, soulless, blocks of wood that the peoples of the world were calling ‘creator’.
It was after this test that the King of the Universe blessed Abraham, that His seed would outnumber the stars in the sky. The son that was spared, Isaac, himself had a boy he named Jacob. A trickster, who after stealing his older brother Esau’s birthright through deception spent a large portion of his life on the run, in fear of his brother’s retribution and the judgement of God. That is, until He got tired of running from the growing swell of life’s problems, as many of us do, and chose to face His Creator. The bible says that while camped in the wilderness at dawn, Jacob found himself wrestling with a mysterious man. The man was strong, injuring Jacob’s thigh, but he remained undaunted, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”, he said. There, the man did just that and gave him the name Israel, which means “He who wrestles with God” (Genesis 32:22-30). Israel named the spot Penuel (“the face of God”), and from that point on, humbled and in awe at the realization of what he had just graciously survived, went on to live out a new covenant with God. His twelve sons fathered the twelve tribes of Israel and the next chapter of the Lord’s story of redemption for the human race was set in motion.
What we can see so far is that God, in His infinite wisdom, chooses to use the flow of time, the struggles that we human beings let loose into the world, and unearthly grace to refine the human experience while still respecting our free will, entering precious covenants with willing parties. Check back here soon for the next part of this Apologetics series as we go a bit further: exploring this nation Israel’s nature of “struggle” with God and how the Lord uses rebellious tribes to pen the final strokes of wondrous mercy in the grand story of all of humanity’s salvation.