Summary: Christmas begins in the OT with the promise of the Messiah.
Christmas really begins in the Old Testament. The promise of a coming Messiah filled the pages of the Hebrew Bible, and the Jews were watching for his coming. It is interesting that the Jews use a different arrangement of the Old Testament books than we do. After the first five books there is a mixture of history and prophesy, and then it ends with a number of books where God never speaks — his voice is never heard, and in two books, Esther and Song of Songs, he is not mentioned at all. There are long years of silence where God seems to be absent as you read through the Jewish arrangement of the Old Testament books. But all this is for a purpose. It is designed to create a holy longing for God’s return to his people. The promise of the restoration of Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah grew as the Jewish people agonized over their condition of exile and the occupation of their homeland. By the time the New Testament opens with the arrival of Jesus, Messianic hopes were at a fevered pitch.
In his excellent book on the Old Testament, entitled The Bible Jesus Read, Phil Yancey tells of a Jewish friend of his who leads tour groups in Israel. As he was growing up his parents had forbidden even the mention of the name of Jesus. But in order to accommodate the Christian groups he was leading, he was forced to read the New Testament and study the life of Christ. He was struck by how the Jewish and Christian faiths intertwined. Yancey writes, “He learned that the conservative Christian groups believed world history was moving toward a culmination in which Israel would play a crucial role. They kept talking about the ‘second coming’ of Jesus, quoting the prophecies he had learned in Hebrew school. As he listened to them, he realized that he and they were waiting for the same thing: a Messiah, a Prince of Peace, to restore justice and peace to a badly fractured planet. The Christians anticipated Messiah’s second coming; as a Jew, he was still looking for the first coming. ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing,’ he once told me, ‘if we found out we were all waiting for the same person?’”
And, of course, we are. We worship the Jewish Messiah, prophesied about in the Old Testament who came to the world 2000 years ago, and will return to the world to establish his righteous kingdom on earth. In the Old Testament, he was anticipated; In the New Testament, he is realized. He is the One for whom the world was waiting. The world was waiting in response to a promise. As we celebrate an Old Testament Christmas, we do so because first of all: It is a Christmas of Promise. What was the promise? It was this: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus, and he understood that he was the fulfillment of its prophesies. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). When he came, he quoted the Old Testament to describe his ministry and its fulfillment of the promise. He said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:46). Paul spoke of, “the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:1_4).
Why was a promise needed? Because these were the people who were living in gloom and walking in darkness. The great covenant of God and the promises of his blessings seemed to be derailed. They had not experienced the blessings of the covenant, and they were currently living under its curse. Because of Israel’s sin, their land had been overrun by her enemies. Jerusalem had been destroyed and the temple had been looted and burned. They had been taken by their captors and deported into a strange land with abhorrent customs. Psalm 137 describes the emotional condition of Israel during her captivity: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth . . .” (Psalm 137:1_6). The Jews in exile clung to the promise of Messiah and the restoration of Jerusalem like a dying man clutches at each breath.