Christmas: Our Response to Prophecy
Many people are familiar with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which features three fictional spirits taking the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, through various scenes of his life. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes him back in time to the days of his youth, the Ghost of Christmas Present showed him shortcomings happening around the time of his visit, and the Ghost of Christmas Future showed him what would happen if he did not change his ways.
While not biblical, this past-present-future paradigm offers us an interesting way to think of Christmas. As believers, we operate at a convergence of these three timelines. When we look into the past, we see prophecies and foreshadowing. Some of them were fulfilled when Jesus came to earth. That is our present reality. Biblically, we describe that as sight, those things which we have seen come to pass. However, some of those ancient prophecies remain unfulfilled. We look expectantly into the future, hoping for their fulfillment. Biblically, this is called faith, the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1).
Christmas, and the associated season of Advent is a time of year when we respond to these prophecies. We respond with gratitude and celebration for seeing Christ’s coming and the prophecies it fulfilled. At the same time, we respond with faith by anticipating Christ’s second coming and the prophecies it will fulfill. Three prophecies in particular deserve special consideration around Christmas: those featuring Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Kinsman Redeemer, and Shiloh.
The Lamb of God
Christians commonly refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God, but have you ever stopped to think about the term? Its origins date back to when Abraham was preparing to sacrifice Isaac, the heir God had miraculously provided for him. Genesis 22:13 says that “Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son.”
There is a great deal of symbolism in this event. First, we should note that the ram, a male sheep, was a substitute sacrifice. Isaac was the one who God commanded to be sacrificed, but God was merciful and provided a sheep to take his place. Similarly, we are the ones who need to die for our sins. Romans 6:23 says “the wages of sin is death.” However, just like He did with Isaac, God provides a substitute sacrifice for us through Jesus.
Crown of Thorns
Just in case you missed it, that ram was caught in a thicket by its horns. It likely had thorns around its head just like Jesus did when He died in our place. But this is not the end of the parallel between this ram and Jesus.
Rachel and Benjamin
Under the law, sheep were regularly sacrificed as sin and guilt offerings. Bethlehem is where the sacrificial lambs were bred and raised. Jacob’s wife Rachel (whose name means “ewe,” a female sheep) gave birth in Bethlehem to a son she named “Son of Sorrow.” Jesus, the Lamb of God, was also born in Bethlehem and known as the Man of Sorrows. Jacob renamed this son Benjamin, which means “Son of My Right Hand.” Jesus now sits as the Son of God at the right hand of His Father.
After giving birth to Benjamin, Rachel died and was buried outside of Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19). Bethlehem became the place where the lambs were raised to be the sacrificial offerings for the temple. David, who was both Rachel’s descendent and Jesus’ ancestor, was a shepherd in Bethlehem raising these sheep to be sacrificed.
When a sheep went into labor, the shepherds would move it to a special cave called Migdal Eder. It was a man-made cave built of stones, but we would likely call it a stable. Migdal Eder is mentioned as the “Tower of the Flock” in Micah 4:8. Once the lamb was born, if it was without blemish or spot, the shepherds would wrap it and lay it in the manger to keep it safe.
In light of this tradition, it is not surprising that when the angel appeared to shepherds to tell them a Savior was born to them, they knew exactly where to go to find Him. If anything was born to a shepherd, it would be at Migdal Eder. But this Lamb was different. While most of the lambs were only sacrificed for Jews, the angel said this birth brought great joy to “all people.” This lamb would not only pay for Jewish sin, but would cover all sins. Thus, we see the fulfillment of Abraham and Isaac’s foreshadowing in John the Baptist’s declaration about Jesus, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” in John 1:29.
Our Kinsman Redeemer
A second important instance of foreshadowing was during the marriage of Boaz and Ruth. Ruth 4:13 says “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife.” There’s a lot of information behind this verse which helps us better understand its relationship to the birth of Jesus.
Role of Kinsman Redeemer
Ruth needed a close relative to take care of her because she was a widow. That kind of marriage may sound inappropriate today, but she was following the laws and customs of her time. These dictated that a widow must marry a close relative of her late husband, known as a kinsman redeemer. In Ruth’s case, she married Boaz, who as a close relative of her deceased husband could fulfill the role of the kinsman redeemer, and they became King David’s great-grandparents.
You may be asking what the familial relationship between Boaz and Ruth has to do with us today. Just like Ruth required someone related to her late husband to redeem her, you and I require someone related to us to redeem us. Galatians 4:4-5 says that “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those of us who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” In other words, Jesus subjected Himself to the law so that through this relationship to us, He could redeem us. Because of this redemption, we are now in His family as sons or daughters of God.
Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
Second, Boaz was a man with great status. He was a leader in his village, Bethlehem. Historians and theologians note that he may also possibly have been one of Gideon’s mighty men. Regardless, he was designated as a Prince of Israel, a high distinction during the time of the judges, and was very prosperous. Because of Boaz’s status, he would have worn a crown of gold at the wedding. He would also have been anointed with expensive perfumes, such as frankincense and myrrh. So Boaz entered Bethlehem with gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the purpose of being Ruth’s kinsman redeemer.
Of course, Matthew 2:11 tells us that wise men from the East came to worship Jesus and gave Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Thus, we see great foreshadowing in the wedding of Boaz and Ruth. This was fulfilled when Jesus entered Bethlehem with gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the purpose of being our Kinsman Redeemer.
The third instance of Christmas foreshadowing comes in the form of prophecy. Jacob’s blessing to his son Judah contains a prophecy which has only been partially fulfilled. Interestingly, Jacob’s blessing of his sons just before his death is the first recorded prophecy spoken by a man. In Genesis 49:10, Jacob is telling Judah what will become of him and his offspring and says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people.”
This section of Jacob’s prophecy concerning Judah contains four component phrases. The first is the word “scepter,” which denotes royal leadership. The second is “shall not depart” which means that something will not permanently cease. The third is “until Shiloh comes.” Shiloh means “to whom it belongs” and in this case refers to the One to whom the scepter belongs. The final component phrase says “and to Him shall be the obedience of the people.”
While Judah likely received this blessing with joyful anticipation, it did not come to pass right away. Nor was it fulfilled at any point in his lifetime. In fact, his closest descendants probably thought it seemed absolutely impossible.
Exodus 1 tells of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt. Jacob had said royalty, but here they were in chains and being beaten in a foreign land. This was not the scepter they expected.
When the Lord delivered them from Egypt, the line of Judah probably expected someone from their tribe to be appointed as king over the rest of Israel. After all, that’s what Jacob had prophesied. But that’s not how it happened. Instead, Judges 21:25 says “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This was not the royal line they expected.
When Israel finally did get a king, hundreds of years after Jacob’s prophecy, it was not from the line of Judah. The Bible says in 1 Samuel 10:20-21, “When Samuel had caused all the tribes of Israel to come near, the tribe of Benjamin was chosen... ...and Saul the son of Kish was chosen.”
I can picture the great gathering of all Israel that day, with Judah eagerly awaiting their vindication after centuries of not having a king. They were probably perplexed and furious when the tribe of Benjamin was chosen. This was certainly not what they expected. And so once again, Jacob’s prophecy of a king through Judah was unfulfilled.
Finally, God appointed David to be king. This was the scepter from Judah which they had expected for 835 years. Furthermore, God says in 2 Samuel 7:16 that David’s house, kingdom, and throne “shall be established forever.” This was more like it. God gave them the king they had long expected and confirmed Jacob’s prophecy that the scepter “shall not depart from Judah.”
Division and Exile
Of course, the Davidic honeymoon didn’t last long. After the reign of David’s son Solomon, the kingdom split in half and remained divided until the Babylonian exile. Once again, Judah’s descendants, along with the rest of Israel, found themselves outside of the Promised Land as captives of a foreign empire. They were back to square one. The were not being ruled by the everlasting dynasty which both Jacob and God had promised. It seemed as if the scepter had departed from Judah.
It probably seemed to the Israelites as if all hope was lost. But the story doesn’t end there. It picks up in the New Testament. If the Jews were looking for a scepter from Judah, one who was part of David’s house, lineage, and throne, then they would see it in Jesus. Luke 2:4 tells us that Joseph “was of the house and lineage of David.” Thus, Jesus was part of the Davidic line. Luke 2:11 calls Jesus “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Literally, the angel is saying that Jesus is the anointed Ruler. Pilate further confirmed Jesus’ kingship in John 18:37, asking Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king.”
These passages make it clear that Jesus is from the lines of Judah and David. He is a King in the Davidic line. He holds Judah’s scepter and sits on David’s throne. But there’s more. At the end of every other king’s reign, the scepter had to be passed on to his successor. But Jesus doesn’t have that problem. His resurrection guarantees Jacob’s promise that the scepter shall not depart, because He will never stop being King. The scepter is safe, because Shiloh has come.
Not only has Shiloh come, but He’s coming a second time, for “the obedience of the people.” This may come as quite a surprise to you, but everyone doesn’t obey Jesus right now. One day, He will come back and they will no longer have a choice about whether they obey. This may frighten you a little and you may wonder what it all means for you. I want to offer some insight on the purpose of prophecy to help you better understand how you should relate to Jesus’ return.
Purpose of Prophecy
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:3 that “he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men.” These aren’t words we often use, but they aren’t hard to understand. Edification means strength and refers to building up or reinforcing a structure, removing sluggishness, and increasing commitment. Exhortation means encouragement and improves your outlook by giving you God’s perspective about what will or should happen in a particular situation. Finally, comfort means to console tenderly, remove sadness, and give you peace.
Prophecy should build you up, get you excited, increase your resolve, help you see things God’s way, and replace any sadness you may have with joy and peace. When you hear this prophecy about Jesus’ coming, it should strengthen your faith, encourage your spirit, and give you peace in these troubled times.
Not only do we have this prophecy to strengthen, encourage, and comfort us, but we also have Jesus’ personal promise that He would return. He said in John 14:3, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” Jesus is not only coming back for the obedience of the people, He’s coming back to take us home! This is good news!
If you’ve been around for a while, you’ve probably heard “Jesus is coming soon” more times than you can count. While every day that passes is one day closer to His return, it also makes it seem just a little more unlikely. It’s no secret that some people just roll their eyes at the promise of Jesus’ return, but their doubt is nothing new. Peter talks about scoffers who will come in the last days to question Jesus’ promise to return. He says in 2 Peter 2:4 that they will ask, “Where is the promise of His coming?”. But Peter has an answer for them in 2 Peter 3:8-9: “Beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” Jesus has not forgotten His promise, but He’s patiently waiting for as many people as possible to accept Him before it’s too late. He’s waiting because of His kindness and love.
Jesus will most definitely return, but it is fair to wonder how intensely we should await Jesus’ coming. The urgent anticipation reminds me of a flight I took on a CH-53E Super Stallion. This is a large military helicopter with a rear hatch that opens downward like a large tailgate. It also has a rear propeller, the bottom of which rotates towards the cabin.
The flight was quite turbulent and a fellow passenger ejected the evidence of his motion sickness into a sandwich bag. With nowhere else to dispose of it, he threw it out the open back door. However, instead of falling to the ground beneath us, the rear propeller caught the bag and threatened everyone aboard with an imminent splattering of fresh, warm vomit.
Instinctively, we all flinched, but the propeller rotated the bag around again, at which time everyone again flinched. This happened about three times a second for a few seconds. Then, everyone gradually stopped flinching and cautiously watched the bag so we could quickly respond when it flew inside. But that never happened.
After about two minutes (around 360 rotations), we got tired of waiting and went back to whatever we were doing prior to the incident. Since you’re wondering, the bag was thrust onto the runway when the helicopter landed, and the passengers collectively sighed with relief as the plastic bag slapped the asphalt.
What does this disgusting story have to do with waiting for Jesus to come back? We knew with certainty that the bag would eventually leave the propeller. However, we became too focused on the bag and exhausted ourselves with anticipation. It was good to be prepared, but bad to be paralyzed by an indeterminable timeline.
Similarly, we know with certainty that Jesus will eventually return. It may be in our lifetimes, but it may be tens of thousands of years from now. Jesus has given us work to do in the meantime. We should work with an awareness that His return could happen at any moment, but should not exhaust or paralyze ourselves with concern about an event that may not take place during our lifetimes.
Response to Prophecy
How should we respond to these foreshadowings and prophecies? First, we should celebrate with thanksgiving for what has been fulfilled. Jesus is the Lamb of God and He is our Kinsman Redeemer!
Second, we should anticipate with great faith that which has not yet been fulfilled. Jesus is Shiloh--the One to whom the Kingdom belongs. His leadership will never cease. He is coming again to take us with Him. And to Him shall be the obedience of the people. Remember, God is not slack and Jesus is coming back!
Christmas and Advent are ultimately about our responses to these prophecies. During Christmas and the greater Advent season, take some time to reflect on the Bible’s many instances of foreshadowing and prophecy concerning Jesus’ first and second comings. Rejoice and celebrate those which have been fulfilled. Also, eagerly expect fulfillment of the other prophecies. God has been faithful to His word throughout history and will continue to faithfully accomplish all that He has promised. We should respond to this faithfulness with thanksgiving for what we have seen and faith for what we will see. This is our appropriate response to prophecy. This is why we celebrate Christmas. Merry Christmas!