Let’s start with the context. A small, globally insignificant, middle-eastern Semitic tribe, that became a small nation, claimed to have a unique understanding of the one true God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, whom they (not unsurprisingly) spoke of as ‘the God of Israel.’ Their relationship with their God was founded on his covenantal promises — the strongest commitment and bond known in the ancient world — and reciprocated in their covenantal responses. These included a variety of behavioural expectations at a personal and corporate level, both civil and religious in nature (as we would now classify them; they would not have differentiated in that way). Some of these covenantal expectations seem obvious to us — such as those addressing justice, fairness, care for the poor and welcoming the stranger and those in need — while others seem obscure — such as some of the dietary laws. In any event, this nation seemed to be in love with its God and its God with them.
However, … for some reason this God who had described Israel as “his son” and who had said he would love them “with an everlasting love” had, at this time, for some reason, ‘allowed’ Israel to become a satellite of the Roman Empire. Occupied by the Roman legions. A vassal state. Rather than being the light to the nations that had been prophesied, they were (as Tom Wright likes to put it) living in de facto “exile” in their own land. Pagan overlords meant servitude and national humiliation both for Israel and (they felt) for its God.
The ray of light in this gloom was the prophesied coming of a “messiah” figure. And the more the gloom, the more his coming was hoped for — not unnaturally.
Described in somewhat different terms within different places in their sacred religious writings, this figure’s characteristics ranged from a “conquering hero” type of messiah through to a rather curious “suffering servant” type of messiah. Little doubt which version would have been most popular, under the circumstances. The majority of the population wanted a messiah to deliver them, not come and suffer with them. True, popular (quasi-scriptural) folk stories, such as the Maccabean Martyrs, had pointed to a redemptive role for vicarious suffering on behalf of a nation, building on that same notion in Isaiah, but the most popular slogan of the day would have been Make Israel Great Again. It’s only human nature to think like that. It’s no criticism whatsoever of Israel or the Jewish people that they should have thought like that. If it had been any other nation, it would have been the same.
The question was whether and to what extant those natural human tendencies should be exposed to reflection and critique from a divine perspective. In other words — that may be what people are saying and feeling, but what is God saying and feeling in the midst of that? Different rabbinical schools, professions and movements had come to different conclusions.
The Pharisees, for example — the conservative religious right of their day — blamed it on the lawlessness and the moral corruption of the ordinary people. God, they felt, was ‘blaming’ Israel for the general population’s unrighteousness; Roman occupation was the ‘judgment’ for that. Start living right (the ways we say you should) and God will be merciful and rescue us. Hence their passion for meticulous keeping of the 613 commandments, including as well some of their own variations and interpretations (there’s always a tendency amongst religious people, to add to what God has said, filling-in where they think he’s left gaps; where he ought to have been more specific about things).
The Zealots, meanwhile, thought in terms of God helping those who help themselves. We need to do something. Defend ourselves, protect ourselves. Armed uprising was their preferred model — no doubt, in those pre- rifle-owning days, a National Sword Association would have been a powerful lobbying voice.
With this background, it’s little wonder that Jesus — as a suggested messiah figure — was for the vast majority of the people not simply a disappointment but almost an impossibility to believe in. Again, it’s human nature to form our preferred religious narrative around a set of facts that most suits us, in our present situation.
I would not have been in the least surprised if the Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests and other religious leaders — including the activist Zealots — would have chosen a Trump-like messiah figure over a Jesus-like messiah figure, had one been available. I could see them turning the proverbial blind-eye to all manner of moral and religious shortcomings (after all, “no-one’s perfect”) if a tough, rich, powerful and even, ruthless, leader would come along and get the job done — deliver them from “the enemy,” the Romans, and their liberal, left-wing, morally-bankrupt pagan beliefs. This “must be” what God is saying. After all, isn’t Israel God’s favoured nation? Isn’t Israel supposed to be successful and even, to dominate the world, according to various prophecies? That being so, then it’s easy to work backwards and see how such a messiah “must be” God’s chosen.
But of course — a narrative like that would not be the Christmas story. Not remotely like the Christmas story. Jesus could not have been less like that kind of leader; that kind of ‘messiah figure.’ He was completely ordinary. He even came from ‘up North.’ He and the disciples would have spoken like Galileans — people that the metropolitan elite in and around Jerusalem would have looked down on, stereotyping them as unsophisticated, uneducated oafs. No doubt, hearing the stories of his birth, they would even have questioned his parentage.
As I’m finishing this article, I’ve just seen a tweet from The Gospel Coalition pop-up on my phone, which is worth quoting (I don’t often have cause to say that): “God’s incarnate Son was both a downwardly mobile migrant — he left the realms of heaven and pitched his tent among men (John 1:14) — and a refugee fleeing a genocidal edict (Matthew 2:13). He knows what it feels like to be a stranger in a foreign land.” There are implications in that not just for the Christmas Story but for our stories founded on that Story.
When we are defining “a Christian” we do Christianity a disservice if we stop at “someone who believes in Jesus.” Jesus himself would say that. For example, read Matthew 7:21-23 — which should be especially poignant reading for charismatic Christians — and Matthew 25:31-46 — ditto, for those with disdain for a so-called “social” Gospel.
A Christian is not just someone who believes in Jesus but someone who also believes in Jesus’ kind of messiahship. A Christian is someone who also wants to join in with “doing (all) the stuff that Jesus did” (as John Wimber famously put it) — for the exact same reasons that Jesus did. A Christian is someone who also wants to be like Jesus — who values being like Jesus — and who values doing the things that Jesus would do, in the ways that Jesus would do them.
It’s interesting that the meaning of the word “Antichrist” does not just carry the obvious meaning of “against” Christ — it equally means “instead of” Christ. Whenever we choose alternative ways, alternative agendas, and alternative moral frameworks to those of Jesus — in order to “get the job done” — whether that is in Church matters or state matters — we are falling short of the one in whose name we are looking to do it. It’s the spirit of antichrist, not the Spirit of Jesus.
Our destiny — both as the people whom we are called to be and in the work that we are called to do — is "to be conformed to the image of his Son" (Romans 8:29).