JERUSALEM—Shortly after our family became Israeli citizens in 2014, we uprooted our lives from the U.S., moved to the Jewish state and settled in the city of Netanya, along the shores of the Mediterranean.
About 18 months later, we found a lovely home to rent in a quiet community further inland called Kfar Yonah (“Jonah’s Village”).
As Christmas approached, we were unsure what to do.
We knew, of course, that the vast majority of the world’s 15.3 million Jews – including the 7 million Jews who live here in Israel – don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose Hebrew name is “Yeshua,” which means “salvation.”
We knew, too, that most Messianic Jews – that is, Jewish people who believe that Yeshua is the Messiah – don’t celebrate Christmas either.
Most see Christmas as a “Gentile” holiday and they don’t want to be accused of converting to becoming Gentiles.
After all, they know that Yeshua was Jewish.
His disciples were Jewish.
All of His early followers, in fact, were Jewish.
And while the New Testament tells us the miraculous and wondrous account of Yeshua’s virgin birth, nowhere does the New Testament command believers to establish and celebrate a holiday to mark that birth.
Still, as Evangelicals who were born and raised in the United States, we have come to love the traditions and meaning of Christmas.
A CHRISTMAS CONUNDRUM
So, Lynn and I asked some Israeli friends who were devout followers of Yeshua to go out with us on a double date and help us navigate this holiday dilemma.
“We really do love celebrating Christmas – putting up a tree, decorating it, putting up twinkling lights, even hosting a Christmas party,” we explained. “But we really don’t want to offend anyone, believers or unbelievers. What do you recommend?”
To our surprise, even though they don’t celebrate Christmas themselves, they recommended that we stick to our traditions.
“With the exception of the most religious Jews, Israelis are actually becoming fascinated by Christmas,” they told us. “They’ve seen Home Alone. They’ve seen lots of other Christmas movies and TV shows. They’ve heard Christmas music. And we all see many Israeli Arabs celebrating Christmas. The traditions and the whole spirit of the seasons is inviting, intriguing.”
They explained that thousands of Israelis stream through the Anglican Christ Church near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem every Christmas Eve to see the lights and decorations, hear the carols being sung, and sometimes even to listen to the sermons.
When they asked us what are annual Christmas parties consisted of, we explained that we put up our tree and decorate the house, we have lots of traditional food and drinks, we hold a cookie decorating contest – with prizes for the best designs by the kids and by the adults – and even have an annual hilarious and rousing ‘White Elephant’ gift exchange. We also love to sing the most famous and beloved Christmas carols and read the Biblical account of Yeshua’s birth.
“You guys should definitely keep to your traditions and have your party and let’s invite our Israeli friends and neighbors and see what happens,” they said.
So, we did.
OUR FIRST ISRAELI CHRISTMAS PARTY
It was so much fun – and the house was packed.
So many people came.
I could barely believe it.
But it got really interesting when we asked various guests to read – in Hebrew – the Messianic prophecies from the Tanakh, what Christians call the “Old Testament.”
The prophet Isaiah, for example, in chapter nine tells us that when the Messiah comes He will minister mostly in northern Israel, “by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.” (Isaiah 9:1)
Isaiah prophesies that when the Messiah comes, “the people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.” (Isaiah 9:2)
Then the prophet writes, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” and the Messiah will sit “on the throne of David.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Then we asked an Israeli friend to read from the Hebrew prophet Micah, who explained exactly where the Messiah would be born.
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2)
“And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God,” the prophet continued. “And they will remain because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth. This One will be our peace.”
This baffled our guests.
“Are you saying that the Messiah absolutely has to be born in Bethlehem?” one older Israeli gentlemen asked me, somewhat irate.
“No, I’m not saying that,” I replied. “The Hebrew prophet Micah, sent by God, is telling us that.”
At this, he became even more upset.
“I was born and raised in this land,” he said. “I went to Israeli schools. I studied the Hebrew Bible in class year after year. And no one ever pointed out this prophecy. No one ever told us that the Messiah has to be born in Bethlehem.”
Then he pointed his finger in my chest.
“Joel, you need to go to the Education minister and yell at him and tell him, ‘Why have you kept this from us? Why aren’t you telling us what our own Bible teaches about the Messiah?’”
“Well, I’m pretty new to this country,” I replied. “I’m not sure that’s the right job for me. Perhaps it would be better for you to go have that conversation.”
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE ACTUALLY SAY?
Then we read the account of the birth of Yeshua from the New Testament.
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi [wise men] from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet [Micah]: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’” (Matthew 2:1-6)
“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ [Messiah] the Lord.” (Luke 2:1-11)
It was a wonderful party and we’ve done more since then.
But it really shocked me that none of the Israelis who came – except for the Messianic Jews – knew the prophecies of Isaiah or Micah.
They were particularly unaware that the Hebrew Bible states emphatically that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah in Judea, the very hometown of David the shepherd boy, David who slew Goliath, David who was anointed by the prophet Samuel to rise up as king of Israel and thus king of the Jews.
In the years that have followed, this insight has been confirmed to me again and again.
While even the youngest of Christian children knew the Biblical significance of Bethlehem, most Israelis – indeed, most Jews worldwide – really don’t know that one of the most important Messianic prophecies is found in the little Book of Micah.
They really don’t know that God sovereignly decided and announced through His servant exactly where the Messiah would one day be born.
It’s a vitally important piece of information.
Yet most Jewish schools and synagogues aren’t teaching it.
It’s an important question to chew on, especially this week.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.